WARNE: How Can the Twins Find Their Brewers-like Path to October?

Mandatory Credit: Jon Durr-USA TODAY Sports

By the looks of it, it was going to be a battle reminiscent of David and Goliath. Well, that is, the way Vegas might have seen that battle before it happened.

In one corner was the team everyone expected to be there. The Los Angeles Dodgers opened the year with a payroll of a touch over $187 million, and that was on the heels of spending $200-plus million in each of the previous five seasons.

In the other corner was a team that hadn’t spent that much in the previous two years combined. According to Cot’s Contracts, the Milwaukee Brewers ended the 2016 and ’17 seasons 30th in MLB in payroll, and opened this season with a total of just under $91 million on the books.

Over the past two years, the Brewers had Opening Day payrolls of just a touch under $164 million — combined.

And the Brewers didn’t just roll over, but push the NL’s answer to the New York Yankees to the brink of elimination — a decisive Game 7 at their own home park.

Even if you didn’t read the title to this piece, it isn’t hard to see where we’re going here.

By comparison, the Minnesota Twins opened the season with a payroll of $128 million and change. They haven’t had a payroll finish a season in the top half of MLB since 2012, and only once since the turn of the decade have they been among the game’s top-10 spenders.

That was in 2011 — the year they lost 99 games. The 2012 team wasn’t much better.

People will label you a “Pohlad Pocket Protector” if you say it publicly, but ultimately it comes down to how a team spends rather than what it spends.

Last season’s AL Wild Card qualifier finished the year 21st in payroll. The team the year before that lost 103 games? They finished 20th.

Money really won’t be an issue this offseason no matter how someone slices it. The team only has about $30ish million hard committed for next year — guaranteed money to Addison Reed, Jason Castro and Michael Pineda as well as dead money to Phil Hughes and buyouts of Ervin Santana and Logan Morrison’s deals — and the payroll estimator over on Cot’s projects the Opening Day payroll at just a touch under $69 million as things currently stand.

That includes the following arbitration figures, in case you want to do some back-of-the-napkin math about who you might non-tender if you were magically granted a seat at the table with Derek Falvey and Thad Levine.

For comparison’s sake, we’ll put the estimates from MLB Trade Rumors in parentheses:

  • Jake Odorizzi – $7.75 million ($9.4 million)
  • Kyle Gibson – $6.75 million ($7.9 million)
  • Robbie Grossman – $3.25 million ($4 million)
  • Eddie Rosario – $3.25 million ($5 million)
  • Miguel Sano – $2.75 million ($3.1 million)
  • Max Kepler – $2.5 million ($3.2 million)
  • Byron Buxton – $2.25 million ($1.2 million)
  • Ehire Adrianza – $1.5 million ($1.8 million)
  • Taylor Rogers – $1.5 million ($1.6 million)
  • Trevor May – $1.25 million ($1.1 million)

Add and subtract as you see fit — for instance, Grossman could be a fairly easy non-tender with Johnny Field, Zack Granite and Jake Cave in the mix — but this still doesn’t put the Twins in any sort of payroll trouble.

If the Pohlad family green-lighted an identical payroll from 2018 to 2019, the team has as much as $60 million to spend this offseason in a market that has depth and quality at a wide variety of positions.

After a virtually identical team went from in the playoffs to stumbling for 95 percent of the season, how can the team get back on the path to frigid October baseball at Target Field?

How about taking a page out of the Brewers’ book? It’s not exactly a copycat league and each team has different strengths and weaknesses, but here are a handful of ideas the Twins can embrace to push them in the right direction.

1. Don’t be afraid to aggressively target improvements — even in places of strength

The Twins obviously like where their future lies in the outfield with Rosario-Buxton-Kepler, and Cave’s emergence last season gave them a nice contingency plan as well.

The same was true for the Brewers a year ago, when they gave the most playing time in their outfield to Ryan Braun in left, Keon Broxton in center and Domingo Santana in right. Brett Phillips made a cameo and acquitted himself fairly well. Lewis Brinson struggled but was one of the top prospects in the game.

Like the Twins, the Brewers were flush with talent and youth in their outfield. So what did they do?

They went out and signed Lorenzo Cain and traded for Christian Yelich. They locked down Cain — once traded with Odorizzi, by the way — for five years and still have the rights to the likely NL MVP through the 2021 season.

Oct 20, 2018; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich (22) celebrates with teammates after hitting a solo home run against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the first inning in game seven of the 2018 NLCS playoff baseball series at Miller Park. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

If the Brewers exercise Yelich’s 2022 option — which right now seems likely based on the year he had and that he’ll be finishing just his age-30 season — they’ll have five years of him for a tidy sum of $58.25 million.

That won’t even buy you two seasons of Bryce Harper.

That’s not to say that identifying the next Cain in free agency will be easy, or that his deal is guaranteed to pay dividends over the next four years. He’s signed through his age-36 season, so while the early returns are good, it isn’t without risk.

But who might be a player like this in free agency? Michael Brantley (32) comes to mind, though perhaps the best fit would be A.J. Pollock. He’s heading into his age-31 season, and his price tag will be kept down — at least a little — by the fact that he’s played more than 130 games just twice in his seven-year MLB career. He’s a terrific player and a great defender in center, and a nice fall-back plan to Byron Buxton’s development — and beyond that, would theoretically be an incredible corner outfielder defensively.

Andrew McCutchen (32) could be a good fit in that respect as well. The days of him being a superstar may be gone, but even the last two years he’s been a really nice player while finally seeing his way out of Pittsburgh.

This dynamic isn’t strictly limited to outfielders, either.

Between Jason Castro, Mitch Garver and Willians Astudillo, the Twins have a combination that would amount to one heck of a catching clone. But each has question marks.

Castro’s coming off meniscus surgery, and it isn’t the first time he’s dealt with the issue. He’s a great defender but the bat leaves a bit to be desired. Garver dealt with a concussion down the stretch, and has been more of an offense-first guy — though that’s not to say he hasn’t worked hard at improving his defense.

And Astudillo is a total wild card in more ways than one.

Despite his second iffy October in a row, expect Yasmani Grandal to be a hotly contested commodity this offseason. He’s a career .240/.341/.441 hitter, bats from both sides and the defensive metrics love him for his career.

He also won’t be 30 for a couple more weeks, either.

Don’t be surprised if he commands a four or five-year deal in the neighborhood of $18-20 million per season, but that’s a small price to pay for a transformational catcher behind the plate and at it. The Twins should absolutely be in the discussion as a spot for him to land this offseason.

2. Understand that prospects are nice, but parades are even nicer

To get Yelich, the Brewers had to go to a well-stocked cupboard and part with some nice pieces.

Brinson was a consensus top-30 prospect prior to last season, and while his early-career MLB numbers are eerily reminiscent to Buxton’s, it’s way too early to give up on him. He won’t turn 25 until a month into next year.

Sep 16, 2018; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Miami Marlins center fielder Lewis Brinson (9) scores on a wild pitch during the sixth inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Isan Diaz is a middle-infield prospect who has appeared in top-100 lists each of the last two seasons, and at 22 got a look at Triple-A last season — albeit a bit of an ugly one (.639 OPS). Still, he was four-plus years younger than the average PCL player, so that’s not too shabby.

Monte Harrison was a top-75 prospect across all platforms and in his age-22 season took a bit of a step back this year in Double-A, hitting .240/.316/.399. Most concerning is that he fanned 215 times in 136 games (583 PA), but he was still nearly a 20-20 guy (19 homers, 28 steals) along the way. The physical tools are tremendous.

The final piece was starter Jordan Yamamoto, a 22-year-old righty who doesn’t project as a top-of-the-rotation guy despite eye-popping numbers in the minors this season. Across three levels, Yamamoto posted a 1.83 ERA, 11.1 K/9, a 0.83 WHIP and just 1.8 BB/9. He’ll be 23 in May and could be pitching in the big leagues by then.

None of this is to say the Twins should make Royce Lewis and Alex Kirilloff available or that another Yelich will be on the market this winter — though Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto will almost certainly be dealt with two years of control left at reasonable rates — but the overarching theme here is that creativity will rule the day.

3. Spend a little money in free agency

Nobody would say the Brewers went crazy when they handed Jhoulys Chacin a two-year deal worth $15.5 million or even giving Cain five years and $80 million, but the latter would easily be the most money the Twins had ever given a free agent.

Milwaukee’s other moves were adding lefty specialist Boone Logan and righty Matt Albers while picking up Wade Miley on a minor-league deal, and oddly enough, Miley posted a 2.57 ERA in 16 starts after a few bouts with injuries while Logan and Albers flamed out completely.

The Twins have a young team with a potential answer at just about every position, or one fairly close in the pipeline. Now is the time to supplement that young core with a couple of stable veterans who can show them the way.

4. Realize that some struggles at the big-league level are OK

Orlando Arcia hit a meager .236/.268/.307 in 119 games this year with the Brewers, and even found himself back in Colorado Springs for a spell after failing to take advantage of last year’s breakout season.

He turned 24 in August, and already has more than 300 games and 1,000 plate appearances in at the big-league level. He was absolutely dreadful all season, but was able to answer the call with a .333/.353/.606 line this postseason.

I guess what I’m saying here is that Nick Gordon — almost exactly a year younger than Arcia — should have been given that chance this year. Sure, he hit .333/.381/.525 in Chattanooga, forced his way to Rochester and had an OPS (.544) almost as low as his slugging percentage at the lower of the two levels, but it might have been a good idea to get a look at him in the big leagues this year, especially with Jorge Polanco suspended for almost half the season and Sano struggling to stay on the roster all year long.

It’s never a bad story to see someone like Gregorio Petit get a shot. But letting him get into 26 games and combine with Taylor Motter and Adrianza to play almost a full season worth of games when none of them is the answer anywhere in the infield seems inexplicable, even if it is fully hindsight bias to look at it that way.

5. Don’t get wrapped up in the idea that only an elite rotation can win in October

Look at it this way:

  • Team A: 4.32 FIP, 7.7 K/9, 1.13 HR/9, 40.2 percent GB rate
  • Team B: 4.48 FIP, 8.2 K/9, 1.18 HR/9, 41.2 percent GB rate

Team A is the Brewers; team B is the Twins.

Let’s get this out of the way — the Brewers won because of an elite pitching staff and a willingness to creatively explore pitching in October like nothing we’ve ever seen before.

But there’s no reason the Twins can’t put together a total staff that can rival the Brewers, who had a 4.01 FIP this season.

Creativity is a must, but it won’t come down to spending as much money as one might think.

6. Establish bullpen stalwarts — then let it fly with youngsters around them

It may, however, come down to putting together a solid bullpen. Fortunately for the Twins, this offseason features plenty of relievers who can be cornerstone types for a bullpen, such as:

  • Andrew Miller (health-willing)
  • Jeurys Familia
  • Zach Britton
  • Joakim Soria
  • David Robertson
  • Craig Kimbrel
  • Brad Brach (coming off down year, but long track record)
  • Cody Allen (see Brach)

Adding one — or hey, even two! — of these guys while pushing back others like Trevor Hildenberger, Trevor May and even Reed makes for a strong competition. Beyond that, the Twins may not have the next Josh Hader, but easing guys in with less pressure allows them to see just how good relievers like Andrew Vasquez, Tyler Jay, Nick Anderson, John Curtiss, Jake Reed, Gabriel Moya and others might actually be.

Make no mistake about it — this is going to be a pivotal offseason for myriad reasons.

But if the boys upstairs get creative enough, October baseball is in the near future. Bank on it.

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