It’s not terribly controversial to suggest that the Houston Astros just climbed the summit to reach heights that fans hope are possible in the near future for the Minnesota Twins.
Like, winning the World Series is the ultimate goal, and seeing a team that was — at least for a stretch — going through their rebuild concurrently with the Twins should give fans at least a semblance of hope for the future.
But what it seems to do around these parts is gets fans all up in a frenzy about how the Twins can reach those heights. How can they copy that team’s method to reach the ultimate goal?
That was true in 2015, when the Kansas City Royals used a ridiculous bullpen, tons of contact and an iffy starting rotation to win the World Series. Now maybe it’s more because that Royals team is identifiable to Twins fans — it almost exactly mirrors the Twins from the decade before that — due to roster construction, payroll and that sort of thing, but it also feels like fans get too tied up in what works for the winning teams.
In short, fans become fixated on how their team can be the next World Series team following the last World Series team’s blueprint. That’s sort of foolish, though. Look at the two teams who just faced off in the World Series. One can easily make the case that it was the best team from either side — you can submit the Cleveland Indians, and I won’t beat you up over it — and one can also posit that neither team was necessarily better than the other, one just happened to win four of the seven games played between the two.
It was more or less a dead heat, and it was to very, very differently crafted teams. Not since the George Steinbrenner-era Yankees have teams spent like the Los Angeles Dodgers have. This year’s payroll started at $241 million and change, down from the previous two years but still about $40 million clear of the No. 2 team, the Yankees, who have cut back in recent years to not only lessen their luxury-tax threshold, but also likely amp up for a run at either Bryce Harper or maybe Manny Machado next offseason.
The Dodgers weren’t overwhelmingly good in any one area of the game, but were just flat out solid offensively and both in the rotation and bullpen. Defensive stats can be hard to decipher, but the Dodgers had a defensive efficiency of 70.3 percent. In short, the Dodgers turned that many balls in play against them into outs, and it was the No. 1 mark in MLB — tied with the Yankees.
Where the money comes into play for the Dodgers isn’t just with guys like Clayton Kershaw, but also in terms of assets. When guys like Andre Ethier, Andrew Toles or Adrian Gonzalez go down, the Dodgers don’t fold up shop. They have used their resources to find the next big thing — Chris Taylor or Austin Barnes — or they have the ability to go out and trade for a pitcher like Yu Darvish when the team gets exactly zero starters who pitch 180 innings or make 30 starts.
In a lot of ways, the Dodgers were snakebitten and still won 104 games and came within a game of winning it all.
But the team Twins fans will cling to is the Houston Astros, since that’s the team that’ll likely be in the way of anyone who looks to win the AL pennant in the next half-decade or more. The common refrains from Twins fans as the offseason opens up are that the team needs to shore up their pitching staff on both fronts. It’s worth noting the Astros won the World Series despite posting a bullpen ERA of 4.27 — barely better than the 4.40 mark put up by Twins relievers.
Now that came with a ton of strikeouts and plenty of secondary numbers that show the Astros were greater than the Twins in relief, but it goes to show that having a shutdown pen isn’t a must for postseason success — nor does having one guarantee it.
The Astros, instead, boasted the finest offense in baseball — via Fangraphs wRC+ — since the 1931 Yankees, and a rotation fronted by a Cy Young winner in Dallas Keuchel (2015) and some really fun arms. Charlie Morton is entering his age-34 season, and simply decided to just start throwing harder — and it worked. Brad Peacock put together an absurdly good season as a swingman in his age-29 season — kind of out of nowhere. Lance McCullers Jr. was, for the most part, terrific when he was healthy — and might have the most raw talent on the entire staff — and gave the team some really great innings in October.
Oh, and they went out and traded for this Justin Verlander cat, too.
And that’s a point of contention for a lot of people. “Why couldn’t the Twins go out and make that move?” those fans lament. They’re being specific, too. The return on Verlander wasn’t that great, so why didn’t the Twins make that trade?
This isn’t a terribly hot take but it’s not tepid, either. It’s maybe 65 and breezy as far as hot takes from the average fan are concerned. The primary sticking point was Verlander’s no-trade clause. He waited until the final second before agreeing to waive it to be traded to the Astros at the waiver deadline in late August. In short, he needed the perfect opportunity to jump ship from the growing dumpster fire in Detroit — seriously, for a stretch there Verlander had more wins in September than the Tigers did, and it was more than just two or three — and the Twins, frankly, would not have provided that.
Here’s where that sort of thing could manifest itself for the Twins, however. The Astros opened the season with a payroll of $124 million and change, according to CBS Sports. That’s a totally manageable payroll for the Twins to someday attain — in fact, they ended 2016 at $122 million according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts — and that only ranked 18th in MLB. By comparison, the Twins on two occasions had top-10 payrolls — 2010 and 2011 — and so adjusting for context and inflation, this seems very doable.
Working in Houston’s favor is that most of its terrific players are still relatively early in their careers, and thus are very cheap.
Carlos Correa earned $535k. Alex Breman was just a few thousand over that. McCullers was at $548k, and Ken Giles was in that neighborhood as well. George Springer earned $3.9 million in his first year of arbitration. Jose Altuve made $4.5 million as part of an early extension he signed back before he broke out as one of the best few players in the game. Even Keuchel, a year away from free agency, made just $9.15 million in his second year of arbitration eligibility.
With that in mind, the Astros had the flexibility to surround their key players with some really terrific talent. Verlander’s $28 million salary will be paid down a bit by the Tigers — $8 million per year over the next two — and the next highest earners are guys like Brian McCann ($17 million), Carlos Beltran ($16 million) and Josh Reddick ($13 million). McCann was certainly a key cog, but the other two were valuable glue guys on a team that could use some veteran know-how in addition to their youth.
What the Astros did, to their credit, was identified great young players and supplemented them while the time was right. That’ll be increasingly harder to do as the salaries of these young superstars increase.
Now how does that apply to the Twins?
Well over at Cot’s there’s a spreadsheet of the future payroll commitments for the Twins — you can find that here if you wish — and it paints a really intriguing picture. The 2018 season is a banner year in terms of expiring deals for the Twins, as the following contracts will come off the books potentially:
- Joe Mauer – $23 million
- Ervin Santana – $13.5 million (option for 2019)
- Brian Dozier – $9 million
In short, the Twins only have $24.2 million hard committed to the 2019 payroll — and most of that is tied up in Phil Hughes ($13.2 million). That’ll go up with potential arbitration raises for guys like Kyle Gibson (Arb3), Robbie Grossman (Arb2), Ryan Pressly (Arb3) and first-year guys Miguel Sano, Eddie Rosario, Max Kepler and Byron Buxton, but it’s still a spot where the Twins can add a significant veteran — or more — to its burgeoning youthful core.
While it might not be a Harper or Machado, it probably could and should be a starting pitcher. Maybe Yu Darvish or Jake Arrieta aren’t coming to Minnesota, but maybe someone from next year’s free-agent list is more intriguing? That list potentially includes Morton, Keuchel, Clayton Kershaw, Gio Gonzalez and Garrett Richards — all of whom would be big upgrades for this current Twins rotation.
Maybe the addition for the rotation comes via a trade, opening up a spot for a position player in free agency next winter? There’s no shortage of great players available outside of Harper and Machado, like Josh Donaldson, Charlie Blackmon, Andrew McCutchen, A.J. Pollock, Marwin Gonzalez and Yasmani Grandal — again, all players who can help and help a lot.
No, the Twins can’t directly copy the Astros’ path to success, but the time is coming soon for the team to put its neck on the line and supplement these youngsters before they get older and more expensive. It might be next winter, but it’s also maybe now.