While everybody in the American League waited around this winter, throwing their arms in the air and conceding the Pennant to the Big Three of New York, Boston, and Houston, the Minnesota Twins boldly said “fuck it” and just casually slipped in through the back door.
Minnesota, fresh off a 78-84 season, decided that they were going to capitalize on two-thirds of Major League Baseball going through rebuilds at the exact same time. While everyone else was obsessing over the advent optimizing the control years of cheap talent and avoiding spending money like it was the goddamn plague, the Twins swooped in and took what the market presented them.
They made multiple under-the-radar additions, signing Marwin Gonzalez, Nelson Cruz, C.J. Cron, Jonathan Schoop, Martin Perez, and Michael Pineda in free agency. None of those guys are huge names, but all of them fell through the cracks as so many teams decided they wanted to avoid spending money in free agency. (Note: Pineda was signed prior to 2018 after undergoing Tommy John surgery).
Here we are in the middle of July and the Twins have a 58-35 record and a 96.3 percent chance of making the playoffs. Those aforementioned free agents account for nearly half of their everyday lineup and the back part of their starting rotation. The six of them have combined to be worth 8.4 wins above replacement, which is basically the difference between Minnesota and second-place Cleveland in the AL Central standings.
All told, those guys cost the Twins like $50 million combined this year and none of them are on the books after the 2020 season. A couple of years ago, it would have cost you $50 million a year to add a slugger like Cruz, a former All-Star like Gonzalez, and a decent starter like Pineda. Now, since nobody wants to sign free agents, you can apparently get six guys for the price of three. I know that’s wildly oversimplifying it, but you get the point.
Welcome to the new Moneyball, where the market inefficiency is, uh, spending a little bit of money.
Before getting into the Jays-related purpose of this article, I want to say that I’m thrilled to see this working out for Minnesota. I’m not going to pretend that I give even the slightest of fucks about the Twins, but it’s great for baseball in its current overly-conservative state that a team is finding success after going all-in on free agency. It’s sad seeing teams not even try to be good and it’s sad seeing names like Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel floating around in free agency until after the draft, so it’s nice that things are working out for the team who bucked the trend this winter.
Anyways, back on topic. Everyone sitting on their hands at the same time created a market in which a team like Minnesota could add six solid Major League Baseball players without breaking the bank and it’s played a key role in them going from mediocre to contender just like that. Can the Blue Jays do something similar this off-season and become the 2020 Twins?
As I said above, Minnesota was pretty bad last year. They went 78-84, which isn’t good, and their record was propped up because they got to play the even-worse Kansas City Royals, Detroit Tigers, and Chicago White Sox 57 times. Their best player by WAR was a 30-year-old Kyle Gibson, they had one full-time player produce an OPS over .800, long-time icon Joe Mauer was set to retire, and their two expected franchise cornerstones, Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, only played in 99 combined games.
To be honest, on the surface, this didn’t really look like a group investing in. But if you squinted hard enough, there was something there. The young core of Jose Berrios, Mitch Garver, Eddie Rosario, Jorge Polanco, and Max Kepler was already solid, and a healthy Sano and Buxton duo were solid bets to rebound. There were also other complementary players like May, Jake Odorizzi, and Taylor Rogers already in place.
There certainly weren’t many sure things, but there was enough talent here to say “let’s go for it” and it’s worked out. I mean, cheap and young players don’t stay cheap and young forever. You can either dive in and do something or you can sell everybody off and keep the wheels spinning in the mud forever.
The Blue Jays have six more years of Vlad after this season. He’s eligible for arbitration prior to the 2022 season. There really isn’t that much time to dick around.
The situations of the two teams aren’t identical, but what the Twins have proved this year, I think, is that you can make some pretty substantial additions to your roster in free agency without having to commit to long-term contracts. You don’t necessarily need to do what the Phillies or Padres did last winter and sign Bryce Harper Manny Machado because you can find a lot of value in quality depth. I can understand the purpose of punting this season in order to see what you have in fringe players like Billy McKinney, Brandon Drury, Toescar Hernandez, and Rowdy Tellez, but you really don’t want to spend another Vlad year doing something similar.
Of course, we don’t know if this winter’s free agent market is going to be the exact same as last year’s market. Maybe more teams are going to be interested in spending than last summer so we don’t see quite so many good-not-great free agents slip through the cracks. But given the trend over the past few off-seasons, I have a feeling that the days of outrageous spending and building through free agency are gone.
If that’s the case, the Jays really need to pony up and try something like the Twins did last winter. With Vlad, Cavan Biggio, Lourdes Gurriel, Danny Jansen, and soon Bo Bichette on the Major League roster, the clock is already ticking. These players aren’t going to stay young and cheap forever. Capitalize on the overly-conservative market and push to make the team competitive as soon as possible.