One Lesson the Twins Can Learn From Teams That Land Impact Free Agents

Photo Credit: Tommy Gilligan (USA TODAY Sports)

Turn on any podcast or radio show, and you’ll hear a common complaint about the Minnesota Twins. After years of parsimony in the 1990s and 2000s, fans want to see the organization spend more money on free agents.

The Twins have taken steps forward in the past couple of seasons, shelling out big money to Nelson Cruz and Josh Donaldson. But opening the checkbook hasn’t resulted in a playoff win or even a successful season this year.

With the Twins hoping for a quick rebuild next year, the common fan will be screaming for the team to spend wildly until every hole is filled. But Minnesota’s goal this offseason shouldn’t be to spend more than everybody; it should be to spend smarter.

It starts by taking a look at what the Twins have done over the past couple of offseasons. While they got it right with Cruz, the Donaldson acquisition has left something to be desired.

Donaldson was almost a consolation prize after the Twins missed out on several starting pitchers and may have been a panicked move to do something. But adding a Gold Glove third baseman and former American League MVP looked like a wise move. However, he had a more significant injury history at age 34 than Cruz had at age 38.

The problem is that signing a player of Donaldson’s caliber will require investing in a player in the twilight of his prime.

Earlier this week, I looked at the types of impact free agents the Twins could find. Only Carlos Correa (27) and Noah Syndergaard (29) were players under 30 years old, and the rest were players in their early-to-mid 30s is risky but also brings a big reward.

The New York Yankees went all-out in the 2020 offseason by signing Gerrit Cole to a nine-year deal. Although things looked great in the COVID-shortened season, some of the luster has worn off that move thanks to the Spider Tac scandal and a roster that has other flaws.

George Springer and J.T. Realmuto were the big winners in last year’s offseason with matching five-year, $110 million contracts. While one deal looked better than the other, both came with significant long-term risk.

Springer was in and out of the Toronto Blue Jays’ lineup due to injuries and played just 78 games in the first year of a five-year deal. While Springer put up solid numbers, he’ll be 32 next season. Deals like this need to go well in the first couple of years, and with one year burned, the Jays could wind up in a similar situation the Twins are in with Donaldson.

That’s no comparison to what Realmuto experienced in his first season with the Philadelphia Phillies. He made the All-Star team in his first season, but he had a significant drop in his OPS and slugging percentage. Twins fans know that catchers don’t age well, and Realmuto is entering his age 31 season. This could be another deal that a team trying to make a splash in free agency will regret.

But that doesn’t mean the Twins shouldn’t sign a big-money free agent. When they signed Cruz before the 2019 season, they did so with a one-year $18 million contract that had an option for 2020.

While there likely will be drastic changes to free agency in the next collective bargaining agreement, they will not occur until after the 2022 season. That could leave more free agents looking for short-term deals to establish their value and cash in once the new CBA is ratified.

For example, look at what Marcus Semien did last offseason. He signed a one-year deal coming off a down season with the Oakland A’s and wound up smashing 45 homers in Toronto. While the Jays are unlikely to re-sign him, they at least reaped the benefits for one season and almost parlayed that into a postseason appearance.

A short-term deal could work to the Twins advantage in the pitching market that has names like Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, and Syndergaard. But age and questions about their health could limit what type of deal they can get on the market.

This approach could also absolve the Twins of long-term risk. When they courted Donaldson before the 2020 season, he revealed that Minnesota was one of the few teams to offer him a multi-year contract. That may have been necessary to bring Donaldson to Minnesota, but now has them on the hook for an aging player with a lot of money remaining on his contract.

To compete next year, this may be the best route they can take. If the Twins want to return to relevancy, adding several players on shorter-term deals could be the stopgap they need for their younger players to develop.

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Photo Credit: Tommy Gilligan (USA TODAY Sports)

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