By signing Carlos Correa to a creative 3-year, $105.3 million contract, the Minnesota Twins have inched closer to changing how we view them as a franchise. In the Metrodome, the Twins were in a class with the Oakland A’s or the Tampa Bay Rays. A winning team in a decrepit building that operates on a B-movie budget. Minnesota won by outsmarting their competition, not outspending them.
Once the Twins moved into Target Field, they should have used the St. Louis Cardinals as their blueprint. Minnesota was never going to spend like the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, or the Los Angeles Dodgers. But the Cardinals don’t, and they’re in a smaller market. But St. Louis is one of baseball’s premier franchises because they draft and develop players well, keep many of their homegrown stars in town, and occasionally take a big gamble on an impact player.
The Cardinals kept Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina in St. Louis but passed on Albert Pujols. They traded for Paul Goldschmidt knowing he only had one year left on his deal and had the conviction that they’d get him to stay. They traded for Nolan Arenado after he became disgruntled two years into an 8-year, $260 million extension. Their savvy and willingness to spend allows them to compete with baseball’s premier big-market teams.
Unfortunately, the Twins got lost in no-man’s land after moving outside. They were no longer the A’s or the Rays. But they weren’t the Cardinals either. Joe Mauer was in the middle of his 8-year, $184 million extension, but they failed to retain the stars around him. Once players like Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer, and Joe Nathan were playing elsewhere, they were unable to replace them with prospects or through trades and free agency.
Derek Falvey and Thad Levine took over an organization that had endured four consecutive 90 loss seasons, then a “total system failure” in 2016. Part of the problem was trading for Matt Capps and Delmon Young. Some of it was prospects like Chris Parmelee, Joe Bensen, and Kohl Stewart didn’t pan out. A mid-sized budget was also an issue, especially after moving into a new ballpark.
Falvey and Levine started to turn things around by improving in all three areas. However, they’ve had mixed results. Byron Buxton became a superstar under their watch, and they’ve filled out the roster with homegrown players like Jorge Polanco and Max Kepler. Alex Kirilloff and Trevor Larnach showed some promise last year. Ryan Jeffers may be the starting catcher this year.
But while the Nelson Cruz signing panned out, almost all of their other free agent signings have not. Josh Donaldson’s 4-year, $94 million contract is the most notable misfire. Getting Joe Ryan in the Cruz trade looks savvy. Trading José Berríos reeks of an old Twins move, though. Minnesota didn’t want to pay him, but the Cardinals would have kept a reliable No. 2 starter around, right?
The Correa contract hardly turns the Twins into a premier franchise. He can opt-out after the first and second years of his deal, but it’s a great stopgap solution. Minnesota gets an elite shortstop in his prime this year, and they haven’t blocked Royce Lewis. If the Twins show Correa they can win, and he wants to stay around, they can trade Lewis or move him to the outfield. If Lewis looks like he’s on the verge of becoming a star next year, Correa can sign a lucrative deal with someone else.
Pair the Correa signing with Byron Buxton’s 7-year, $100 million extension, and the Twins have the first and second pick in the 2012 draft on their roster. They’ve retained a homegrown star and supplemented him with a star free agent in his prime.
Any baseball team is only as good as the players they have up the middle. Now they have Buxton at center, Correa and Polanco at short and second, and Jeffers and Gary Sanchez behind the plate. For those keeping score at home, that’s three homegrown players, a player they traded for, and a free agent.
The final element is pitching. Trading for Sonny Gray (32) and Joe Ryan (25) is a start. Enticing Oakland with a package for Frankie Montas would be a good second step. But ultimately, they need to develop their own pitchers. Once they’ve done that, the Twins will not only have a competitive roster, but they will have built it using trades, player development, and free agency. They will have inched closer to replicating the St. Louis blueprint.