Baseball's offseason officially began Sunday, and it was a former Twins player who made it so. Ryan Pressly threw the final pitch of the World Series on Saturday night in Houston, earning a championship for the Astros and launching the other 29 major league teams' quest for a similar finish to 2023.
Pressly's champagne-soaked celebration might be painful for Twins fans who watched him blossom into one of the game's best closers after being dealt away in 2018. But another aspect of his success is more relevant to the team-shaping challenge that confronts Derek Falvey and Thad Levine as the winter begins.
Pressly, a high-leverage specialist who pitched only 48⅓ of the Astros' 1,445 innings this season, will earn $14 million next year — which, by the end of this week, will be more than any Twins player except Byron Buxton is owed for 2023.
For the second year in a row, in other words, the Twins have only a handful of salary commitments on their books already, and substantial payroll space to devote to securing more talent over the winter. That is, if they intend to keep their payroll at the same level as 2022's Opening Day total of $134.5 million.
That was franchise-record spending, but it ranked only 15th, almost precisely average, among major league teams. By the end of the season, after adding veterans at the trade deadline and by placing more than two dozen players on the injured list, where they continued to be paid, the Twins had paid out roughly $160 million.
Will they keep up their admittedly middle-class spending level? Both Falvey, the Twins president of baseball operations for the past six years, and Dave St. Peter, the team's chief executive, said as the season ended that owner Jim Pohlad had issued no instructions to spend less in 2023, though St. Peter suggested that three consecutive seasons of lower-than-expected ticket sales due to the pandemic and disappointing results on the field had left "our payroll well north of where revenues suggest it should be."
Still, St. Peter added, "I have every reason to believe the Pohlads are going to continue to support this team" and not slash payroll.
The Twins' current payroll was automatically cut Sunday when catchers Gary Sanchez and Sandy Leon, outfielder Billy Hamilton, and pitchers Aaron Sanchez and Michael Fulmer became free agents. The team also has five days to determine whether it will trigger 2023 options on four players: Sonny Gray for $12.7 million, Chris Archer for $10 million, Dylan Bundy for $11 million and Miguel Sano for $14 million.
Gray, whose 3.08 ERA 24 starts was the lowest by a Twins starter since Johan Santana's 2.77 in 2006, is an easy call for Falvey and Levine; he will be back. But the others are just as obvious. Expect the Twins to decline the other three options, paying Archer a buyout of $750,000, Bundy $1 million and Sano $2.75 million to terminate their contracts and send them into free agency as well.
Then there's the biggest reason the Twins will have money to spend — and a big hole in their lineup to fill, too: Carlos Correa. The shortstop's agent will formally inform the Twins this week that Correa has chosen to forgo the remaining two seasons and $70.2 million left on his contract, and become a free agent again.
"We know Carlos is a really good player, and we know he's going to have options," Falvey said. "Ultimately, we're going to hopefully be in the middle of that conversation. Where it takes us, I can't say."
Most observers expect it to take Correa to a bigger market, and to a team with a willingness to make a market-setting, long-term commitment, something the Twins have never done under Falvey's stewardship.
Correa's departure, though, will leave the Twins with only six players under contract for 2023 — Buxton, whose salary jumps to $15 million next year, where it will stay for the final six seasons of his seven-year contract; Max Kepler, owed $8.5 million in the final guaranteed year of the contract he signed in 2019; Jorge Polanco, set to earn $7.5 million in the final guaranteed year of the deal he signed the same day as Kepler; Kenta Maeda, owed $3.15 million in the final season of his eight-year deal, with the ability to trigger as much as $10 million more bonuses based on games started and innings pitched; Randy Dobnak, due $1.5 million even though he's not actually on the 40-man roster; and Gray.
Another 10 players are eligible to have their salaries set by an arbitrator, a process that mlbtraderumors.com, which has a strong track record of accurately projecting arbitration outcomes, estimates could cost the Twins about $37 million — if they choose to keep all 10. That's unlikely, though the Twins have until Nov. 18 to decide whether to release or retain each player.
Gio Urshela, for instance, could ask an arbitrator to increase his pay from $6.5 million to close to $10 million, prompting the team to weigh that expense, though reasonable, against the prospect of giving the third baseman's playing time to minimum-salary Jose Miranda. Similarly, Emilio Pagan is projected to earn more than $3 million next season; would the Twins pay it despite Pagan's disappointing six-loss, seven-blown-save season?
"He finished a little better than what we saw during some of the beginning and middle of the year. He [eventually] fit into a role that helped us," Falvey said of Pagan. "But we have some decisions to make there, with where he's at."
If all 10 are offered arbitration and the 26-man roster is filled out with players earning the $720,000 minimum salary, the Twins wind up obligated to pay around $92 million for their current 26-man roster, about $45 million short of their Opening Day payroll level in 2022. That's a reasonable amount of room to maneuver during an offseason of trades and free-agent signings, especially given that they hope for bounce-back seasons from injured players such as Maeda, Alex Kirilloff, Trevor Larnach, Bailey Ober and Josh Winder, too.
It's even enough to splurge on an expensive star player — as Correa proved for one season in 2022, and as many Twins fans would like him to prove again, perhaps for the next decade. Atlanta's Dansby Swanson, the Los Angeles Dodgers' Trea Turner and Boston's Xander Bogaerts are free-agent shortstops as well, though they will be shopping in the same $200-300 million neighborhood as Correa.
And the Twins have other pressing needs this winter as well, such as acquiring a top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher, more reliable depth in the bullpen and a catcher to pair with Ryan Jeffers. Will they pay to fill those holes, or rely on the development of cheaper, homegrown players?
"Every time I've brought a creative [payroll] conversation to ownership, we've been supported in trying to figure out how to pursue it," Falvey said, speaking specifically of a contract for Correa. "At the end of the day, we're going to have to make a call on whether or not we're going to get to those levels."
The Twins' current 2023 payroll obligations
CF Byron Buxton $15 million
RHP Sonny Gray $12.7 million
RF Max Kepler $8.5 million
2B Jorge Polanco $7.5 million
RHP Kenta Maeda $3.15 million
RHP Randy Dobnak $1.5 million
3B Gio Urshela $9.2 million
RHP Tyler Mahle $7.2 million
1B Luis Arraez $5 million
RHP Emilio Pagan $3.7 million
RHP Jorge Lopez $3.7 million
LHP Caleb Thielbar $2.4 million
RHP Chris Paddack $2.4 million
OF Kyle Garlick $1.2 million
RHP Jorge Alcala $1.1 million
RHP Cody Stashak $800,000
10 players at major league minimum: $720,000 each, $7,200,000 total
Total payroll: $92,250,000
*-Assumes Sonny Gray's option is picked up and options for Chris Archer, Dylan Bundy and Miguel Sano are declined, and Carlos Correa chooses to declare free agency.
**-Arbitration estimates courtesy of mlbtraderumors.com, which uses algorithm of past salaries to determine potential range of arbitration awards.