The Twins entered 2019 very much in wait-and-see mode after spending $48.6 million in free agency (eighth-most in MLB) but also avoiding long-term deals and steering clear of the biggest names on the market. Bosses Derek Falvey and Thad Levine offered several variations of that theme in interviews, but perhaps none as definitive as this Levine quote from a late January interview:
“I would say we’re laying in wait right now. The best moves are made not when you’re trying to open the window to contend but when the window is wide open. We’re very eagerly waiting for this window to be opened, and when it is, we plan on striking.”
Pretty much every move the Twins made this past offseason has worked out. Nelson Cruz, Marwin Gonzalez, Jonathan Schoop, Martin Perez and Blake Parker have all produced (and C.J. Cron, technically a waiver pickup instead of a free agent, has been just as valuable as any other newcomer). They’ve played key roles that have complemented the further development of the Twins’ young core.
The sum total to date is a 40-18 record — best in the major leagues — and an 11.5 game division lead.
One could argue that the window Levine hypothetically spoke of just a few months ago has been blasted wide open.
And thanks to a combination of the Twins’ patience, the reticence of 29 other teams and one of the dumbest salary-crushing rules in all of organized sports, Falvey and Levine are now in a position to strike at two big names: Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel.
The two pitchers, both 31, were seeking mega-deals last offseason. Instead, a combination of legitimate factors (Kimbrel’s shaky second half and Keuchel’s diminishing dominance/strikeout total last year) and market forces — implied collusion or big data that says the rate of return on players on the wrong side of 30 is poor, depending on your preference — kept them from signing anywhere.
Another factor, perhaps a tipping point for some savvy teams, was that signing either pitcher was going to cost a high draft pick and international bonus money.
That last hurdle, however, is gone as of 12 a.m. Monday. The MLB draft is officially here, and with it the draft pick compensation required to sign Kimbrel and Keuchel has been wiped out per an incredibly dumb rule that — yes, while collectively bargained — creates an incentive to let high-quality players rot on the market for months at a time.
Baseball players already have a long slog to free agency, needing to accrue six years of major league service time to get there. Until then, they are under team control via minimum salaries and eventually arbitration. If they don’t start racking up full seasons until their mid-20s, they won’t be free agents until their early 30s — at which point they are increasingly being deemed as too old or risky for long-term deals. Throw in the extra hurdle of draft pick compensation, and it’s tough out there for a free agent. When exactly is a guy supposed to really cash in on his talent if his peak value years are gobbled up under team control?
Now, nobody is going to cry too hard for Keuchel ($30 million in career earnings), but this is exactly what happened to him. He and Kimbrel might have to take one-year deals — perhaps at lower money with a third of the season already gone — and try free agency again next season when they are a year older.
In the short term, what stinks for those two pitchers and for other similarly squeezed players is great news for the Twins. Welcome to capitalism in 2019!
Minnesota, our La Velle E. Neal III reports, is interested in both pitchers. Concerns aside, Kimbrel would add beef to the back end of the bullpen, while Keuchel could add a frontline starter to a rotation that’s been surprisingly good so far.
Both would be moves aimed as much at October as the present — good news, since both Kimbrel and Keuchel might need extended time to get up to speed after sitting out spring training and more than two months of the season. If any team can wait a month or two for the rust to come off, though, it’s one with a double-digit division lead.
The Twins have done a lot of smart things already in 2019. Maybe they can do one or two more thanks to baseball’s dumb rules.