If the Pohlads decide not to spend big this season, they will have logic on their side.
A new wave of analytical general managers has determined that playing the free-agent market is as foolish as playing roulette while drunk. Analysts can prove to owners that free agency is overrated, and if you are an owner and your most important employees tell you to save your money, you’re probably going to save your money.
Usually, spending money on expensive free agents is like giving your wife flowers. They make an immediate impression, and after a short time you’re left with the equivalent of dead weeds.
A quick trip through Twins or Major League Baseball history teaches a recurring lesson: Most big contracts don’t produce desired results, either because the player fails, the player is injured or the player doesn’t elevate the franchise.
Just as most mega-contracts wind up becoming unhelpful or downright injurious to the franchise, most teams that “win” the hot stove season by signing free agents usually face-plant during the actual season. There are many reasons for this.
The teams eager to spend the most usually are trying to mask flaws on their major-league roster and in their farm system. In baseball, one or two players can’t make up for a bad roster.
Most years, the free agents themselves are trying to get rewarded for what they have done without any guarantee that they will continue to produce.
So there are two fatal flaws in free agency: Only the highest bidder gets the player, meaning the player is by definition paid much more than his median perceived value; and the team paying that price is rewarding what the player did for his previous team.
In the Twins’ case, fans complaining about payroll size are ignoring the ways the Pohlads have spent wisely. They have dramatically upgraded their Latin American academies, and have established a state-of-the-art player dorms in Fort Myers. They have pumped money into Target Field improvements without asking for more money from the public, and they have funded the front office’s expansion of staff and technology.
So the Pohlads can find reason not to spend, or to spend in places other than player payroll, but this is the winter they should sneak-attack the baseball world.
They should sign Bryce Harper and Craig Kimbrel.
This would be expensive, but the two could change the Twins’ fortunes, and fan perception of the Pohlads’ stewardship.
Most expensive free agents hit the market midway through or late in their prime, making them risky. Harper is different. Because he made it to the big leagues at 19, he is entering free agency at 26.
How often do the Twins have the opportunity to sign the best free agent in baseball, perhaps at a lesser price than anyone would have anticipated and without fierce competition from the Yankees and Dodgers?
Sign Harper, a likely Hall of Famer, and here’s your opening day lineup: Byron Buxton, Eddie Rosario, Nelson Cruz, Harper, Miguel Sano, Jorge Polanco, Tyler Austin, Jonathan Schoop, Jason Castro/Mitch Garver.
Every slot in that lineup might produce 20 or more homers, with the three in the meat of the order capable of hitting 40. Max Kepler would become quality depth or a tradable asset.
The Twins have been waiting for Buxton and Sano (and Kepler) to produce for years. With Harper, Cruz and Schoop added to the lineup, this team would produce runs even if Buxton and Sano falter again.
That lineup would wear out opposing pitchers.
That lineup might win the division.
Kimbrel is 30 and his best days could be behind him. He has also saved 30 or more games in eight straight seasons, and saved 42 last year for the Red Sox. His presence would transform the Twins bullpen from questionable to impressive.
The Twins haven’t won a playoff game since 2004. They have played two playoff games at Target Field since the park opened.
Patience has become lethargy. It’s time for the Pohlads to get aggressive.