WARNE: In an Offseason Game of Poker, Falvey and Levine Make out Like Bandits

Twins CEO Jim Pohlad, New Executive VP/CBO Derek Falvey, Senior VP/GM Thad Levine and President Dave St. Peter

Impatience is a natural tendency. That’s especially true for fans of a team that, despite making the postseason last year, had obvious flaws.

So in a sense, it was understandable when Minnesota Twins fans were annoyed that the team came home from the winter meetings just before Christmas with a 40-year-old closer and a broken down starter who gives up too many homers.

Little did they know what would lie ahead for the winter. In fact, it was another month before the Twins did anything substantive.

For Twins fans though, it was worth the wait.

From that point on, the Twins have made the following moves:

  • Jan. 13 – Signed Addison Reed (two years, $16.75 million)
  • Feb. 16 – Signed Anibal Sanchez (one year, $2.5 million*)
  • Feb. 17 – Traded for Jake Odorizzi
  • Feb. 25 – Signed Logan Morrison (one year, $5.5 million)
  • March 10 – Signed Lance Lynn (one year, $12 million)

*since released with a payment of under $500k

In the span of just under two months, the regime of Derek Falvey and Thad Levine added four significant players as well as a taken a flyer on a has-been. That’s not meant to be a slight on Sanchez, either; it’s certainly better to be a has-been rather than a never-was. Those types have been all too familiar on the roster in recent seasons.

It’s hard to know how early the Twins brass saw that this would be a slow-developing market, but they stayed away from two key tenets that we see a lot of fans cling to:

  • Address your biggest weaknesses first
  • Address your weaknesses quickly

By waiting out the early wave of free agency, the Twins managed to beef up their roster impressively while remaining on a strict budget. That’s not to say that these players couldn’t have provided value at much higher contract prices, but when given the choice between paying sticker price or waiting for a markdown, executives — and especially owners — are going to pick the latter.

As a brief aside, we don’t want this to sound like we support the system depression of contract values in an effort to maximize profits for ownership. We aren’t here to bang the drum for owners — directly or indirectly — but rather are hoping this is a market correction that exchanges long deals that frequently become albatrosses for perhaps shorter deals with higher average annual values.

For instance, if Bryce Harper signed next offseason for five years and $200 million ($40m per, but only through his age-30 season), as opposed to 15 years and say…..$450 million ($30m per, but through his age-40 season). That could theoretically be the happy medium between the bottom falling completely out of the market — Let’s be honest, Neil Walker for $5 million and one year? That’s ridiculous — and the contracts that feature extremely player-friendly opt-outs like those in the deals of Jason Heyward (not great!) and Giancarlo Stanton (probably fine, but the Yankees get all the downside risk).

With that said, the Twins are slated to — assuming they’re finished shopping — head into the regular season with a payroll of $126.576 million according to Cot’s Contracts on Baseball Prospectus. That’s a new club record.

But like always, it’s now about what you spend, but how you spend it. The previous club record for a season-opening payroll $113.237 million in 2011, and we all remember how that ended. Before 2016 happened, that was in the mix for the worst season in franchise history.

But the approach by Falvey and Levine has been measured from day one, and that goes all the way back to adding just Jason Castro and Matt Belisle to a 103-loss team that became a contender. Now, with the team so close to Cleveland that they can hear footsteps, they still took a cautious, yet somehow aggressive approach in the 2017-18 offseason.

So let’s dial back to the Winter Meetings, when fans were upset the Twins hadn’t really addressed their rotation, and had really only added a closer to a bullpen that was certainly not a strength last year. At that time in the offseason, teams were also addressing needs, but also paying sticker price — and then some.

The Cubs signed starter Tyler Chatwood — career 4.31 ERA, 4.58 FIP in 647.2 innings — for three years and $38 million. The Angels made a super defensive infield by handing out an identical deal to Zack Cozart to play third base. The Cardinals brought Miles Mikolas — he of the career 5.32 ERA in 91.1 MLB innings from 2012-13 — back from a successful three-year stint in Japan (2.18 ERA in 424.2 innings) for two years and $15.5 million.

Relievers Pat Neshek, Brandon Morrow, Jake McGee, Tommy Hunter, Juan Nicasio, Joe Smith, Anthony Swarzak and Bryan Shaw all signed in the vicinity of $7-11 million per year. In a deal that might seem a bit steep now that more of the dust has settled, the Philadelphia Phillies locked up Carlos Santana — weakening a Twins rival in the process — to a three-year deal worth $20 million per season.

To make a long story just a little bit shorter, teams paid market rate to make improvements in December.

What did the Twins gain by waiting until January and even February?
Every offseason at Fangraphs, the crew puts together a top-50 free agent list with Dave Cameron’s contract estimate as well as the median and average crowdsource estimates.

The Twins landed four of the site’s top-50 free agents — already a strong deviation from the days of yore — but did so with tremendous thrift.

Here’s a look at what each player was tabbed to get, and were they wound up:

No. 15 – Lance Lynn

  • Actual – $1/12m total
  • Cameron – 3/$16m ($48m total)
  • Median Crowdsource – 4/$15 ($60m total)
  • Average Crowdsource – 3.6/$14.7 ($53.2m total)

Cameron called Lynn a free-agent landmine, but that was when Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch was speculating the right-hander would command a deal around $100 million. Cameron also said he “wouldn’t mind (Lynn) at back-end starter prices, something like 3/$36m.”

No. 19 – Addison Reed

  • Actual – 2/$8.375m ($16.75m)
  • DC – 3/$10m ($30m)
  • Med C – 3/$9m ($27m)
  • Avg C – 3.1/$9.2m ($28.3m)

Per Cameron: “Reed is the definition of a boring good reliever, who just gets outs by throwing strikes. …should make a good addition to someone’s bullpen.”

No. 25 – Logan Morrison

  • Actual – 1/$5.5m ($6.5m with buyout)
  • DC – 2/$12m ($24m)
  • Med C – 2/$10m ($20m)
  • Avg C – 2.4/$10.8m ($25.7m)

Here’s more from the prescient Cameron, who has since gone on to joining the San Diego Padres front office: “I could see all these (first basemen in the Morrison mold) sitting around until February wondering where their contracts are.”

Cameron’s article was published on Nov. 13. Man.

No. 37 Michael Pineda

  • Actual – 2/$5m ($10m)
  • DC – 2/$8m ($16m)
  • Med C – 2/$8m ($16m)
  • Ave C – 2.3/$8.9m ($20.2m)

Cameron says this is the 2018 version of Wilson Ramos; that is, a player likely to sign a two-year deal to get rehab out of the way with the team recouping the value in year two. Again, he’s right on the screws. He also surmises that Pineda could really help a team in the second half — out of the bullpen.


Along with these guys, add in the Odorizzi addition by dealing from a minor-league shortstop surplus, the signings of Zach Duke (1/$2.15m) and Fernando Rodney (1/$4.25m) and again, that sets the Twins up to beat the Opening Day payroll record by a little over $13 million.

How might things have been different if the Twins went out and made these moves right away? First of all, it’s worth considering the Twins didn’t have the 40-man flexibility they have now, since they’ve been able to move Pineda and Trevor May to the 60-day disabled list to open spots. That might have led to losing more interesting fringe players from the 40-man roster than just J.T. Chargois.

But I ran the numbers, and if the Twins would have had to spend to any of the three thresholds as listed above — the projections from Cameron or either of the crowdsource numbers — here’s what the Opening Day payroll would look like:

  • Before adding Lynn, LoMo, Reed, Pineda (via Cot’s): $98.826m
  • Payroll with four players added at Cameron rates: $144.826m
  • Payroll with four players added at Median Crowdsource rates: $140.826 million
  • Payroll with four players added at Average Crowdsource rates: $142.426 million

So clearly, there’s a significant distinction to be made here. Again, we can’t give Falvey and Levine credit for the glacial market which forced guys to take these deals, but we also have no idea what the prices were that the Twins would have gone to earlier in the offseason if things were busier. For the sake of discussion and uniformity, using the aforementioned figures feels fair — or at least as much as possible.

Maybe the more underrated aspect of this shopping spree of sorts is that the Twins still only have $38.95 million committed past this season. That’s not to one player, or to just one offseason — that’s their entire future hard dollars spent. No player on the team has a firm salary beyond 2019, which means the Twins brass has maximized its present winning window without sacrificing its future one.

This is important because assuming this team meets expectations, that’ll mean higher salaries — and perhaps more likely, lucrative extensions — will loom for at least some of the young players, like Byron Buxton, Jorge Polanco, Miguel Sano, Max Kepler and Eddie Rosario, all of whom will be arbitration-eligible for the first time after this season.

That also frees up the Twins to re-sign any of these players who take to Minnesota and decide the mutual fit is a good one. One possibly overlooked part of this offseason is that every player available had at least one visible flaw that could have possibly damaged his market. Yu Darvish had the World Series meltdown — not that big of a deal in our eyes, but who knows how all other teams viewed that — but he’s also had arm issues in the past and hasn’t posted a four-win season (via fWAR) since 2013. Jake Arrieta’s velocity and numbers have been on a steady decline for the past two years.

Even as far as Twins signings, each has their own risk. That’s with the possible exception of Reed, who is still a reliever — perhaps the most volatile asset of all. Rodney is headed into his 40s and has spotty command. Duke is coming back from major arm surgery and didn’t pitch much last year. Morrison popped more home runs last year than he had in the two years beforehand. Pineda won’t even be healthy enough to pitch until late in the season. Odorizzi was basically a zero-win player last year. Lynn had a weird season where he had his strikeouts and gave up a ton of homers in the first half, but appeared to run out of gas after the break in his first season back from Tommy John surgery.

The Twins didn’t reinvent the wheel or devise a better way of evaluating players — they just saw an opportunity and jumped at it. In the process, they maximized their 2018 potential without hurting it beyond that.

Had the Twins signed these players at the dollars suggested by each of the predictions, here’s what that would have looked like on future payroll implications (2019-on):

  • Future payroll added at DC: $54.5m (Lynn $32m, Reed $11.5m, Morrison $11m, Pineda $0)
  • Future payroll added at Med C: $63.5m (Lynn $45m, Reed $9.5m, Morrison $9m, Pineda $0)
  • Future payroll added at Avc C: $50m (Lynn $29.4m, Reed $9.9m, Morrison $9.8m, Pineda $0.9m)

There haven’t been many opportunities for any teams — let alone this team — to do what the Twins did in free agency. Props to Falvey and Levine for seeing this and making it happen, and for the Pohlads to allow the nudging of the budget higher than it has been before.

Don’t get it twisted. The Twins aren’t spending like the Yankees. But for an added $40.45 million — the amount guaranteed to Lynn/Reed/Morrison/Rodney/Duke/Pineda this year — the Twins got a hell of a lot better this year for probably the amount it’ll cost per year to secure the services of Bryce Harper next offseason.

And that’s worth commending.

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