Twins Non-Tender Cron and Hildenberger -- What Does it Mean?

Please Credit: David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

The non-tender deadline came and went at 7 p.m. Monday evening with a fair amount of movement across the MLB landscape. Locally, the Minnesota Twins announced earlier in the day that they’d agreed upon a one-year guaranteed deal worth $1.6 million with utility man Ehire Adrianza, and later in the evening came the news that newly-acquired pitcher Matt Wisler had also secured a guaranteed deal for 2020.

Neither of those moves generated any massive headlines, though the moves that came just before the deadline carried a bit more weight, as the team non-tendered first baseman C.J. Cron and relief pitcher Trevor Hildenberger.

So what does it all mean, exactly?

Let’s start with Hildenberger, since that isn’t as complicated. Most of the time, non-tenders occur when a player is eligible for arbitration and the team simply doesn’t want to pay what the player is projected to make. While that was the case with Cron — who was projected near $8 million by MLB Trade Rumors — it wasn’t at all with Hildenberger, who wasn’t even eligible for arbitration until after next season.

It was simply to cut bait.

Hildenberger was due maybe a slight bump from last season’s $572,500 salary, but the Twins decided they weren’t even willing to do that. After posting a 3.21 ERA in 42 innings as a rookie in 2017, Hildenberger has fallen on some hard times in the last two seasons. Over the 89.1 innings he threw, Hildenberger had posted an ERA of 6.35 (4.58 FIP) with a WHIP of 1.55. Everything came to a head in 2019, when he posted a 10.47 ERA in 16.1 innings.

It really came down to a stark month-by-month contrast for Hildenberger, who was solid in April but was hit hard afterward:

  • April – 1.93 ERA, 10.6 K/9, 1.39 WHIP (9.1 IP)
  • May – 21.21 ERA, 5.8 K/9, 3.21 WHIP (4.2 IP)
  • Sept. – 23.14 ERA, 3.9 K/9, 3.86 WHIP (2.1 IP)

Now keep in mind that there are impossibly small sample sizes — and Hildenberger battled a flexor mass issue that cost him a large chunk of time at Triple-A Rochester — but the indicators of a bounce-back just weren’t there. So the Twins moved on.

With Cron, it’s slightly more complicated.

Cron was a pretty solid contributor offensively before his thumb issue cropped up, but the path to offensive success this year was much murkier with the juiced baseball. Cron was hitting .266/.326/.495 when he was first placed on the injured list on July 6, and his OPS was threatening .900 as late as June 22 when he went 3-for-5 in Kansas City to push his slash line to .285/.349/.547.

From that day in late June on, Cron hit just .213/.260/.371 with just 16 extra-base hits in 57 games (48 starts) and 215 plate appearances. The thumb injury clearly plays into that, but it dropped his season line to .253/.311/.469 — a 101 wRC+ that ranked 22nd among 30 MLB first basemen who totaled at least 400 plate appearances this season.

So where does that leave Cron? Where does that leave the Twins?

Well it’s uncertain if Cron would consider returning to the Twins at a lower figure, but it really depends on what his market looks like. At the same time, it’s unclear if the Twins are looking at going down that road, or if the wheels are in motion for another move or moves to bolster the team’s infield depth.

Here’s where it gets interesting — the Twins could easily move Miguel Sano over to first base and sign a third baseman if they don’t care for the players available to play first base.

The first base market isn’t riddled with stars by any means, but there are some possibly interesting names. Eric Thames, who hit .247/.346/.505 for the Milwaukee Brewers this year (116 wRC+), might be at or near the top of that list, as might someone like Justin Smoak, who hit just .208/.342/.406 for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2019 but is just two years removed from hitting 38 homers with a 133 wRC+ and just one year removed from hitting 25 bombs with a 121 wRC+.

Sep 27, 2019; Denver, CO, USA; Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Eric Thames (7) reacts following a go-ahead run scored by center fielder Lorenzo Cain (6) (not pictured) in the fourth inning against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field. Please Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Both could be interesting bridges to whatever is next at first base for the Twins, whether it’s eventually Sano or someone like Brent Rooker, the 25-year-old slugger who obliterated the baseball at Rochester last season to the tune of a .281/.398/.535 line with 14 homers in 274 plate appearances. Even when accounting for the insane offensive environment in the International League last year, that was still a 139 wRC+. Signing someone like Smoak, Thames or even Mitch Moreland might make some sense as a first baseman who could be pushed aside by Rooker at some point in 2020, but it’s fair to wonder if the Twins are thinking….bigger.

Their fans certainly are, when one surveys the scene on social media and the like.

Moving Sano over from third base opens up some very, very intriguing options for the Twins. With Marwin Gonzalez on the roster, the Twins could take a look at someone like Jake Lamb (injuries) or Travis Shaw (brutal 2019) as a bounce-back candidate. Even if that player doesn’t rebound from 2019’s struggles, Gonzalez is a more than capable fallback option. A little higher on the list would be Todd Frazier, who turns 34 later this winter and is by no means sexy, but a steady performer who would make for an adequate bridge to whomever the future is at third base for the Twins.

Might that be Royce Lewis? Luis Arraez? Sano? Travis Blankenhorn? It’s hard to say right now.

But if the Twins want to go big, they can certainly take a run at Josh Donaldson or Anthony Rendon, as well.

Nov 2, 2019; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon (6) at the World Series Championship Parade. Please Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Rendon is everything one could want in a third baseman. He doesn’t strike out, walks a ton, hits for power, hits for average and plays a very good defensive third base. He won’t be 30 until next June — and as a result, will cost a pretty penny to sign. Like….in the $200 million range to be sure. Nolan Arenado signed an eight-year, $260 million extension with the Rockies prior to the 2019 season and he’s only about a year younger than Rendon. Both were slated to hit free agency this offseason.

And maybe using the payroll flexibility the Twins have banked to blow it on a third baseman — albeit a legitimate superstar — isn’t the road Derek Falvey and Thad Levine want to go down. If so, Josh Donaldson is a perfectly acceptable alternative. He also walks a ton, strikes out less than league average, hits for power and plays a very good defensive third base. After playing just 165 games over 2017-18, Donaldson played in 155 for the Atlanta Braves last year and was nearly a five-win player according to Fangraphs. 

The only wrinkle is that Donaldson turns 34 next week, but that might mean a contract for him looks something like two or three years at $25 million or so per year.

Oct 9, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Braves third baseman Josh Donaldson (20) runs the bases after hitting a home run against the St. Louis Cardinals in the fourth inning of game five of the 2019 NLDS playoff baseball series at SunTrust Park. Please Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

That seems far more likely to be something that Falvey and Levine would do, as it doesn’t sacrifice long-term flexibility nor does it compromise the team’s ability to also sign a big-time pitcher this offseason — like Zack Wheeler. Now to be fair, signing Rendon for $30 million per year wouldn’t necessarily do that either, but giving him eight years at that rate does again sacrifice some of the flexibility that this group has seemed to value through three seasons at the helm of the Twins.

It’s strange to think that non-tendering a first baseman who was an adequate performer for the team in 2019 might open up all these possibilities, but it’s the truth. The Twins haven’t done much yet, but if their moves so far — dumping Cron, moving on from Kyle Gibson and Hildenberger — are any indication, they’re aiming higher than they have in previous seasons.

And to be fair, after you win 101 games, you almost have to, right?

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