Every Twins offseason comes with uncertainty about how to reshape the team for the following spring, but this year, the most important questions facing Derek Falvey, Thad Levine and the team’s front office have little to do with baseball.
Will the coronavirus be under control enough by next April to open the 2021 season as scheduled? And will paying customers be allowed in the stadiums to watch?
Budgets dictate decisions, and it’s almost impossible, given the ongoing pandemic, to reliably forecast what the finances of the sport’s 30 franchises will look like by next spring, or how that uncertainty will affect the value of players and the mechanisms for teams to acquire them. The Twins had planned to pay their players around $145 million in 2020 but wound up spending roughly $90 million less than that, a savings — the difference between playing 162 games with fans in the seats and 60 games without them — that nobody at 1 Twins Way is happy about. They definitely would have preferred a normal season with normal payrolls and income.
Those huge numbers, however, illustrate the wide gap of possibilities that Falvey, the Twins’ president of baseball operations, and Levine, the general manager, must navigate this winter. It seems inevitable, for instance, that payrolls will shrink after teams incurred losses by selling no tickets, but will salaries merely slip or crash? And what will that do to free-agent prices, and to the value of cheaper young players?
Falvey said it’s too early to know what parameters Twins owner Jim Pohlad will put on spending next year, but he’s optimistic, given that Pohlad did not lay off any scouts, analysts or other employees during the season, as several other teams did.
“Jim Pohlad and the Pohlad family have always been supportive of decisions we make and that we feel are best for the competitiveness of this team,” said Falvey, who just completed his fourth season in charge of the Twins. He said he doesn’t “have a strong gut feeling” on next year’s budget, but “I’m hopeful we’ll have a better sense of that as we approach free agency” next month.
Given that dubiety about the 2021 season — even the size of next year’s rosters remains unclear — predicting how the Twins might change over the winter is problematic. Even seemingly easy decisions like Nelson Cruz’s future are clouded by present circumstances. The Twins have been in touch with the pending free agent, and Cruz said he was hopeful of returning.
But after two brilliant seasons in Minnesota, under a contract that was supposed to pay him $26 million, it’s likely that his price will be higher, and that Cruz, who turned 40 in July, may prefer a contract longer than one year. And if the National League permanently adopts the designated hitter rule — go figure, yet another circumstance still unresolved — the competition for Cruz could multiply.
Besides Cruz, there are eight other free agents who can leave the Twins this winter: Ehire Adrianza, Alex Avila, Tyler Clippard, Marwin Gonzalez, Rich Hill, Trevor May, Jake Odorizzi and Sergio Romo, though they can keep Romo if they exercise a $5 million option rather than pay him a $250,000 buyout. Only May and perhaps Odorizzi figure to have better seasons in their future than their past, so don’t expect many of those players back, especially after yet another postseason failure.
“We have to really do some soul-searching around [the Twins’ quick elimination], try and understand where our team really is, going forward,” Falvey said. “You always feel the loss and it’s always abrupt when it ends, but we had real expectations going into that and we know we fell short.”
Those nine players free up $57.6 million in payroll space, money that can be used to re-sign a couple of them, shop for replacements, pay for likely raises in arbitration due to players like Byron Buxton and Jose Berrios, or simply cover some of their 2020 losses, surely the least popular option.
Contract extensions for Buxton, Berrios or Eddie Rosario, and perhaps even Taylor Rogers or Tyler Duffey, like those already in effect for Miguel Sano, Jorge Polanco and Max Kepler, would normally be a logical option for the Twins, too, though the uncertainty about salary levels figures to complicate those negotiations considerably.
If the Twins make a big acquisition, it will likely be a pitcher. That’s because their farm system will soon graduate a strong class of hitting prospects, one that will create roster logjams — or trade opportunities.
“I’m excited about the next wave, guys that didn’t make it here yet but could be a part of this,” Falvey said. “We have to be open-minded to making some changes and finding some spots.”
Brent Rooker, Ryan Jeffers and, for three short hours on Wednesday, Alex Kirilloff provided a preview of what’s to come, and top prospects Trevor Larnach and Royce Lewis could make their debuts next year. All have been projected to be solid major leaguers eventually, and perhaps even stars. And players like Travis Blankenhorn or Nick Gordon could fill utility jobs at minimum-salary prices.
Then again, who knows what a summer with no minor league baseball has done to their progress toward the majors?
“A lot of our minor league players have lost a full year’s worth of games, a full year’s worth of development. We have to think about how that impacts their readiness going into next year,” Falvey said. “None of us have had to deal with that before. We need to think about whether or not they need some time in a more formal minor league season, or what risk you are willing to take to just have guys try to finish their development at the big-league level.”