Can the Twins Avoid Repeating the Johan Santana Mistake with Buxton and Berríos?

Photo Credit: Brad Barr (USA TODAY Sports)

Mark Twain famously said that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” Well, it looks like this could be manifesting for the Minnesota Twins. Contract talks with top players Byron Buxton and José Berríos have not gained meaningful traction for both players, who will be free agents after the 2022 season.

A quick Twins history lesson. After the 2007 season, the Twins traded one of the best pitchers in baseball, Johan Santana, to the New York Mets. The lefty had won the Cy Young Award in 2004 and 2006, but extension talks broke down, and Minnesota decided to try to get a haul for their ace.

Santana wanted to be paid like the best pitcher in baseball and was seeking a contract like Bartolo Colon and Andy Pettitte, who were making around $16 million, just signed. The Twins had a payroll of just north of $71 million and weren’t going to be able to give Santana the big payday he was looking for. So he was dealt to the Mets, where he signed a 6-year, $137.5 extension, making him the highest-paid pitcher in the league.

As the Twins saw their window close after the 2010 season, it’s tempting to think about how far they could have gone had Santana been retained. The Twins were only paying him $9.9 million in 2007, and the $6 million gap could be filled with the expected payroll increase when they moved to Target Field.

Maybe the Twins were saving space because they knew they were going to have to re-sign Joe Mauer soon and wanted to make sure they could keep the hometown catcher. Target Field was being constructed, but they still had a rather tight budget. Minnesota’s $71 million payroll in 2007 was the 18th-highest in baseball. Therefore, they had to try and recoup whatever value they could before his deal expired.

The Berríos/Buxton situation and Santana’s are not the same, but they do rhyme. Fast forward to the present day, and it looks like the Twins are sitting in a similar situation — they need to pay their best players. This time it’s not just with one franchise player but two.

The biggest difference between Santana’s situation and the current Berríos/Buxton one is that there aren’t other big-name players the Twins are waiting to extend. Josh Donaldson just signed a big contract, but his four-year, $92 million deal could come off the books as early as 2024. Given that the Twins recently signed every other free agent to short-team deals, it felt like they were saving their payroll flexibility to sign both young stars. So far, both players have rejected all of Minnesota’s extension offers.

Berríos hasn’t won a Cy Young award but has been the closest thing the Twins have had to an ace since 2017. The two-time All-Star said recently told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that he isn’t opposed to staying in Minnesota, but he wants to be paid like a top-tier pitcher. The best comparison would be Zack Wheeler’s five-year, $118 million contract that pays him $23.6 million per season.

And like Santana, Buxton is seen as a star around the league. Buxton may not be a pitcher, but he has received MVP votes in 2017 and 2020 and earned a Gold Glove in 2017. The center fielder is expected to make George Springer-type money, around $20-25 million per year. According to a report from Ken Rosenthal, the Twins offered him a deal in excess of what Aaron Hicks got from the New York Yankees ($70 million), but so far nothing has materialized.

If something doesn’t change fast, Rosenthal’s report adds that Buxton could be traded as soon as this year’s trade deadline. It’s not hard to see the same thing happen to Berrios. Both players would receive multiple players and prospects in return, just like Santana did. However, the Twins can prevent this from becoming another Santana situation.

They may only have the 16th-highest payroll right now, but they have a lot more money to play with than they did in 2007. According to Spotrac, Minnesota has a payroll of over $128 million, and just $55 million of that is committed for 2023 when Buxton and Berríos would become free agents. Money isn’t as big of an issue for the Twins, who no longer play in the Metrodome. The front office signed Donaldson just a couple of years ago, and that same offseason made a bona fide effort to land Wheeler.

Instead, it’s negotiating the right price that’s been the issue. The Twins have been looking to re-sign both players to team-friendly deals for a while, just like they did with Jorge Polanco and Max Kepler. Buxton and Berríos appear willing to test free agency, however, especially after the team manipulated Buxton’s service time in 2018 and took Berríos to arbitration and won last year, limiting the payday he got in 2020.

Maybe a trade would be the best path for the Twins. Either player would net a solid return and give the team a new set of young players as Minnesota looks to retool after this season to return to the postseason. If Buxton and Berríos are set on hitting the open market, that line of thinking isn’t out of bounds and could keep the payroll flexibility open for other extensions or free-agent signings. But trading one of the team’s best players can be a double-edged sword.

But the Twins have to nail the trade. Otherwise, they will end up as they did after the Santana trade. Four players were sent back to Minnesota: Three pitching prospects and Carlos Gómez. The three pitchers barely logged more than 20 big league innings for the Twins, and Gómez was traded after two seasons. The Santana trade easily goes down as one of the worst in franchise history. However, the Twins could have received a better offer from the Boston Red Sox, including a package headlined by either Jon Lester or Jacoby Ellsbury, according to reports at the time.

“It’s like poetry, it rhymes,” is a famous phrase from another great American writer, George Lucas. Whether it’s at the trade deadline, during the offseason or sometime next season, based on how the talks between Buxton and Berríos are going, the two could face a similar story to Santana’s in 2007.

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Photo Credit: Brad Barr (USA TODAY Sports)

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