Nine members of the 2020 Twins become eligible to walk away as free agents Sunday. If owner Jim Pohlad decides that drastic payroll reductions are necessary after a season full of red ink, those nine players provide an easy path to providing them.
Keep on walking, in other words.
Nearly $65 million worth of salary commitments, easily the largest total in franchise history, comes off the books in 2021, and while the Twins undoubtedly prefer to retain at least two or three of those free agents, the flexibility provided by so many expiring contracts could prove as valuable as any home run or ninth-inning strikeout as they navigate an offseason full of ambiguity and anxiety.
"I don't know what's going to happen. I don't think anybody does," Jake Odorizzi, a free agent for the second straight season, said after the Twins were eliminated from the playoffs in just two games last month. "[We had] a lot of guys on expiring contracts. It was kind of a good push from leadership and ownership to gain for this year. We made some big moves."
Some big moves already are baked into the 2021 payroll, too, which could limit their ability to acquire other players. Josh Donaldson's salary rises by $3 million next season, to $21 million. Miguel Sanó, in the second season of his new contract, takes a big jump, from a $3 million salary in 2020 to $11 million next year.
In all, the Twins enter the winter with six players under contract for 2021, at a total of $55.83 million.
And then there's arbitration, which is designed to provide relatively large raises for players — allowing them to approach a more fair market value — in the three seasons before free agency. Seven Twins players qualify, including core young players José Berríos, Byron Buxton and Eddie Rosario.
Those seven players were supposed to earn a combined $21.84 million last season, though they actually collected only $8.09 million, a 60-game prorated share of a normal season. It's unclear how arbitrators will treat that shortened season in deciding what salaries are appropriate in 2021, but the salary-tracking website spotrac.com. suggests those seven players are in line for raises to $33.2 million next year, a 47% increase.
If the Twins decide to cut their payroll in response to losing all ticket and concession revenue — and especially facing the possibility of again not having fans fill Target Field — those raises will crowd out the possibility of bringing back many, or any, of their free agents. They enjoyed two seasons of Nelson Cruz for only $26 million, for instance, and have made it clear they would like to sign him for 2021 as well.
By flooding the market with additional free agents, as is already happening this week, players figure to have trouble attracting offers as large as they would have before the pandemic.
"I've just accepted the fact that if [everything] went perfectly, I would have made a lot more money in my life. But [it's] out of my control," reliever Trevor May said of the unfortunate timing of arriving at free agency this winter. "It's a little bit frustrating, but there's no one to really point the frustration at. … Teams are losing money."