Star Tribune baseball writer Phil Miller had an interesting story this week in which he broke down the Twins’ future payroll structure while also getting GM Thad Levine on record saying the organization will look to sign some of its young players to long-term contracts this offseason.
There are six such players who stand out. All of them are projected to be arbitration-eligible in either 2019 or 2020 — at which point they would be due raises from their current bargain salaries — and free agents in either 2022 or 2023. The Twins would like to lock some of them in long-term with the idea that it would be win-win — the players get more immediate financial stability while the Twins get cost-certainty and perhaps savings in the later years of deals over what the players could have earned in arbitration or early free agency.
A good question, though, is the pecking order — which players the Twins should really work to lock in long-term and which they should hold off on. Levine notes that “The risk, of injury or a drop in productivity, that’s something you don’t want to take lightly.” With that in mind, let’s prioritize the six players in question (all arbitration and free agency data from Baseball Reference:
Byron Buxton, 23: Arbitration eligible 2019, free agent 2022
Eddie Rosario, 26: Arbitration eligible 2019, free agent 2022
Miguel Sano, 24: Arbitration eligible 2019, free agent 2022
These three players represent what could be the heart of the Twins’ lineup for the next several years. They’re all slated to be arbitration eligible at the same time in 2019 and would be free agents at the same time as well. Each has tremendous potential — but each also carries some risk.
Buxton has yet to fully turn a corner offensively, even if he showed improvement last season. He’s a generational talent on defense, but he also plays with a breathtaking recklessness that leaves him exposed to injury risk.
Rosario runs hot and cold. Even though there was a good sample size last year showing he seems to have refined his approach, he could regress.
Sano missed most of the final six weeks of the season (and the playoff game against the Yankees) with a leg injury that required offseason surgery. And even though he continued to emerge as a dominant slugger when healthy, he also struck out 173 times in 483 plate appearances last season.
Still, all three of these players have already produced at a high level and have even more upside. They could get very expensive in arbitration, throwing payroll out of whack. Having them at a known cost would help the Twins, while a 2018 bump in pay would be a boon to the players.
Jorge Polanco, 24: Arbitration eligible 2020, free agent 2023
Jose Berrios, 23: Arbitration eligible 2020, free agent 2023
Max Kepler, 24: Arbitration eligible 2019, free agent 2023
Polanco helped carry the Twins down the stretch in 2017, but he was also hitting just .213 on Aug. 2. Berrios had a promising season (14-8, 3.89 ERA, 8.6 strikeouts per 9 innings) but he logged just 145.2 innings last season. Pitchers, too, carry a greater risk of injury. Both players could use another year to prove themselves before the Twins commit long-term, and since neither are arbitration-eligible until 2020 it might make sense to wait.
Kepler’s 2017 progress stalled with a season very similar to 2016. Perhaps most troubling was that the left-handed hitter batted just .152 against lefties, raising questions about his everyday credentials.
All that said, the Twins wouldn’t necessarily be wrong to sign any six of these players long-term if the deal made financial sense.