FORT MYERS, FLA. – By total value, the richest contracts on the 2019 Twins, after all the paperwork was drawn up, signed and notarized Friday, belong to an outfielder with a career .233 batting average and a shortstop who might not play that position much longer. And if that sounds strange, well, Max Kepler’s agent believes he — and the Twins — know something you don’t.
“Why do you offer a multiyear contract to a guy with a .233 average? Because that’s only 1 percent of the story,” agent Paul Cobbe said after Kepler accepted $35 million to play for the Twins for the next five years. “If you evaluate him based on that, you’re missing the big picture. There are about 10 [areas] of improvement that Max has made, and he’s only 26 years old.”
Similarly, Jorge Polanco might someday be forced to move to second or third base upon the arrival of some of the star shortstop prospects climbing the organization, but that didn’t affect the Twins’ decision to guarantee the incumbent $25.75 million between now and 2023.
“Where will Jorge Polanco be two or three years from now?” Twins General Manager Thad Levine asked rhetorically. “I feel confident he will be somewhere between the No. 2 and 5 spot in our lineup and doing significant damage. And that’s more important.”
The Twins held a news conference to formally announce five-year contracts for a couple of their homegrown starters, and while they might have struck out in their efforts to entice some even more accomplished young players to swap potential for security, vast future sums for still-significant, present-day cash, it was clear players and executives both had reason to celebrate.
For Polanco and Kepler, banking a combined $60.75 million — with the chance to collect another $32.5 million if the Twins trigger option clauses — it was a fabulous anniversary present. A decade ago this summer, shortly after turning 16, they accepted more modest sums — $750,000 for Polanco in the Dominican Republic, $800,000 for Kepler in Germany — to come to the United States and begin the long climb to the major leagues. They became roommates for a time, far from home, trying to communicate though they didn’t speak each other’s language, sharing food cooked by Kepler’s mother, and trying to douse their own skepticism.
“There were plenty of times I thought, ‘This isn’t guaranteed. I probably should go off to college and study something with more of a guaranteed future,’ ” said Kepler, who even attended classes at South Fort Myers High School to earn his diploma while playing professional baseball. “But this is my passion. This is the game I’ve played since an early age, and that drive stuck with me.”
Same for Polanco, who was overshadowed by his better-known countryman Miguel Sano as he climbed the system.
“I was homesick, missing my family and my country,” Polanco said. “But this is what I worked for, every day — to be the best I can be.”
The Twins were convinced of it in 2017, when he moved into the third spot in the lineup and drove in 42 runs over the final two months, leading the team to a wild-card spot. Polanco’s 2018 was short-circuited when he failed a steroids test in the spring and was suspended for 80 games, but the Twins’ faith hasn’t wavered.
“Last year, this time of year was a very difficult time for me and my family,” Polanco said. “But I said this year was going to be different. I didn’t know this was going to happen, if they would make this [offer], but I wanted to do what I could control: Work very hard, finish the year strong, and here I am.”
Both players, who at 26 should be entering their prime, are more important members of the Twins’ core than traditional statistics might suggest, too.
“If you look at [player comparisons] we were using in these negotiations, most had one banner, standout season, a breakout season. In our guys’ cases, there has been more like a steady improvement over time,” Levine said. “When you look past the traditional statistics and more to the underlying components, we see meaningful progress. Whether it’s how they’re performing against lefthanded pitching, how they rate in velocity off the bat, patience at the plate, contact rates — all those things, in our model-makers’ minds, are harbingers of positive things to come.”
The deals make sense for the Twins, too, especially for the way they are structured. With their payroll lagging more than $20 million below last year’s — they are committed to $106 million for 2019, down from about $128 million — the sides settled on the total value of the contracts, “then asked to reconfigure the year-to-year salaries a little unconventionally,” Levine said. The result is a huge raise for both players this year — Kepler’s earnings more than doubled to $6 million, while Polanco’s jumped from less than $600,000 to more than $3.6 million — while the Twins have so much excess salary space, and then relatively small hikes as the contract ages.
“That was a strategic move on our part, to capitalize on our current flexibility. These do look a little different from other deals. Historically, with a few exceptions, most of these escalate meaningfully as you move forward,” Levine said. “These, they escalate but they’re more like small steppingstones.”
For the team, that helps offset other payroll jumps as more players reach arbitration eligibility, and makes the players more valuable in trades, too. For the players, more money now adds inflation-free value.
Not that the money will change him, Kepler said. “Honestly, I’m the type that would play for the minimum,” he said, as Levine pantomimed shock. “I love playing the game. I’m not picky about money. Playing for the minimum is an amazing life.”