Could the Twins Have Afforded José Berríos's New Contract?

Photo Credit: Kevin Sousa (USA TODAY Sports)

When the Minnesota Twins traded José Berríos last July, it was an admission that they didn’t want to meet his contract demands. A pitcher set to hit the market at age 28 is rare. With the price of pitching rising, the Twins decided it was best to cash out and get what they could.

On Tuesday, it became clear what Berríos’s demands were. The right-hander agreed to a seven-year, $131 million extension with the Toronto Blue Jays. The deal caught Twins fans off-guard. Why couldn’t Minnesota make that deal work?

Before the final terms were revealed, the Twins supposedly had a baseline for a potential offer. Lance McCullers signed a five-year, $85 million extension before the 2021 season, but Berríos had already established himself as a better pitcher. What about Zack Wheeler? He passed on the Twins, choosing the Philadelphia Phillies’ five-year, $125 million offer in the winter of 2019.

That put Berríos’s likely target between $17 and $25 million per year, which the Blue Jays ultimately agreed upon. After Berríos makes $11 million to buy out his final arbitration year, the extension becomes a six-year, $120 million deal, which likely gave the Twins sticker shock.

Even before the current front office, the Twins have been reluctant to hand out long-term contracts. They bucked the trend before the 2009 season when they gave Joe Mauer an eight-year, $184 extension, but that was a special case to keep the St. Paul native in Minnesota.

Fans got upset when Mauer didn’t live up to their expectations, but his deal should be seen as a two-act play. Mauer put up gaudy numbers at catcher in the first half, which gave him the leverage to earn the extension. He also created incredible value for the Twins. When concussions forced a move to first base, Mauer’s numbers dropped, and he became the most polarizing player in franchise history.

Many fans consider Mauer’s deal a disappointment, but it’s what you want when signing a player to a long-term contract. In deals like this, the player is entering the final years of their prime, which means a team should hope for immediate production, knowing their skills will decline on the back end.

But in Berríos’ case, the Twins may have gotten caught up with what could happen on the back end of the deal.

This could have been a factor in the Twins’ decision to trade Johan Santana in the mid-2000s. When the Twins sat down to negotiate a new contract with Santana, he was a year away from free agency entering his age-29 season. After the two sides couldn’t reach a deal, he was traded to the New York Mets and signed a six-year, $137.5 million contract.

Like Mauer, the beginning of Santana’s deal featured elite production. But after a series of shoulder injuries, he faded down the stretch and was released after the 2012 season.

If Santana had stayed in Minnesota, there was a chance that the fans would have turned on him the same way they chastised Mauer. While there’s a different front office in charge, it’s fair to wonder if the same thought process swayed the Twins against paying Berríos.

The answer may depend on where a team feels they are in the competitive cycle. With Mauer and Santana, the Twins were in the middle of the most successful era in franchise history. That made their financial demands easier to justify, knowing each player’s production could put them over the top. When Berríos’s contract came due, the team was on the verge of a power reset that could eventually turn into a full-blown rebuild in the next few years.

That begs another question: Was it better for the Twins to pay Berríos heading into an all-or-nothing 2022? Or was it better to deal him and acquire cheaper talent that could open a bigger window down the road?

With Santana, the answer was to trade him for several prospects, but none of them established themselves in Minnesota. The jury is still out on the Twins’ current haul of Austin Martin and Simeon Woods Richardson, but there’s a chance both could be key players in a new competitive window.

Then again, they could also turn out to be busts. Plus, the Twins are contending with their recent history. With 18 straight postseason losses and a disastrous 2021 season, the Twins could have signed Berrios, made a run in the first few years of the deal, and taken their losses at the end. That would have shelved the talk about a new wave of prospects and given the fan base some much-needed optimism.

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