The day is January 26th, 2021. The Minnesota Twins had been rumored to be interested in various middle infield free agent options, but Marcus Semien was their top target, according to Darren Wolfson. The fit made some amount of sense, as the right-handed Semien would provide some pop against lefties and defensive flexibility across the infield.
Semien did not sign with the Twins on January 26th. He accepted a one-year contract worth $18M to join the upstart Toronto Blue Jays, as their primary second baseman. The Twins quickly pivoted, signing Andrelton Simmons to a one-year $10.5M contract a few hours later as their fallback option.
Fast forward, and today is May 27th, 2021. It's been over four months since the Twins made that pivot from Semiens to Simmons, over a difference of $7.5M. A lot has changed in that span, as the Twins quickly went from division favorites, to 8.5 games back from first place.
With 30% of the season in the books, I think it's fair to look back and evaluate if the Twins made the right decision by not outbidding Toronto for Semien's services and shifting to Simmons.
Before we dive in, it is important to call out that comparing Simmons and Semien across their career has been a bit like apples and oranges .The two players are both indeed starting middle infielders, but Simmons has been one of the most elite defensive shortstops in a generation, while Semien was a Top-3 MVP finalist due to his offensive performance. Semien has also been playing primarily at second base this year, but has started roughly 9% of his games at shortstop.
With that out of the way, let's see how Semien and Simmons have fared so far in 2021 across overall, offensive, and defensive categories:
|Games Played||PA||fWAR||bWAR||AVG||OBP||SLG||HR||OPS+||wRC+||Hard Hit %||Barrel %||WPA||DRS||Outs Above Average||Runs Prevented||Fielding %|
In one way, the overall result is what you expect. Semien is a better offensive player, and Simmons takes the edge defensively, especially when accounting for time spent at shortstop.
But Semien isn't just outpacing Simmons offensively -- he's among the league leaders in offensive production. Semien not only has a higher slugging percentage and weight runs created plus (wRC+) than his 2019 season where he was a MVP finalist, but he currently leads all qualified MLB second baseman in those two categories. Toronto took a chance Semien would look more like his 2019 self, than his 2020 version. They have been right so far. The move to second base has also worked to this point, where multiple defensive metrics point toward positive contributions. All together, his 2.2 fWAR ranks 7th among all MLB hitters,
On the other hand, Simmons has always been known as a player who gives the team value through his glove. His offensive skillset usually ends up slightly below average across his career, and he's been just that in 2021 (both his OPS+ and wRC+ are below 100, which is the league average). Simmons won't strike out that often, but he won't provide any power at all. Both his Hard Hit % and Barrel % are below the 5th percentile of all MLB players. Weak contact can be dangerous.
The Twins have definitely received value from Simmons and his magic glove. Simmons ranks second in MLB with 8 Outs Above Average, according to Statcast, which has saved the Twins 6 runs over the course of the season. FanGraphs is not as glowing as Statcast, as Simmons ranks 11th among MLB shortstops in Defensive Runs Saved.
The eye test will tell you Simmons has been amazing, but we can all point to a few plays this year where a mental lapse has resulted in a key dropped ball, or a double play that wasn't turned. That lack of clutch ability has also shown up in his -0.6 Win Probability Added (WPA), where as Semien has the reverse positive WPA of 0.6.
Overall, I do think the Twins have received a positive contribution from Andrelton Simmons. He's performed in the baseline of his career, with his elite defense outweighing his offensive downfalls. But when you compare the two contracts, it's hard to justify that signing Simmons to one-year and $10.5M has been more valuable than Marcus Semien at one-year and $18M. FanGraphs claims Semien has already provided $17.7M worth of value for Toronto, while Simmons has provided $1.5M worth of value for the Twins.
There were probably other factors that led Semien to Toronto, rather than Minnesota. It's not 100% up to the team in free agency, it is a dance that involves many other factors for the player aside from the dollar amount. But if the decision for a middle infield acquisition came down to a $7.5M difference between the front office's top target and their fallback option, it's clear Falvey and Levine should have ponied up a bit more. The Twins are missing out on a early dark horse for the 2021 MVP candidate.