FORT MYERS, FLA. – The previous two times the Twins negotiated long-term deals for players who were not yet eligible for free agency, they were rewarded with 125 home runs, 66 saves, a Gold Glove and three All-Star appearances, all at bargain prices.
Now the Twins are betting that they have spotted more great values on their own young roster.
Max Kepler and Jorge Polanco have agreed to lengthy contracts with the team, sources with knowledge of the transactions confirmed Thursday, and will sign Friday. In doing so, Kepler, who turned 26 Sunday, and Polanco, who will do the same in July, will lock in life-changing earnings at the cost of delaying their eventual free agency by a year or two.
The Twins, meanwhile, absorb the risk of injury or ineffectiveness but position themselves to reap potentially huge and budget-friendly rewards, just as they did with those contracts to Glen Perkins and Brian Dozier.
Kepler will receive at least $35 million over the next five seasons, and the Twins can choose to tack on 2024 for an additional $10 million. Polanco will earn at least $25.75 million in five seasons, and the Twins will have options to pay him another $10.5 million for 2024 and $12 million for 2025.
It’s a lot of money, but it’s less, perhaps substantially less, than they would earn if they continue to progress as they have to date. That savings, and the certainty that two of their starters will remain under contract at reasonable salaries well into the next decade, is the benefit the Twins calculate they can expect in return.
And there might be another, harder-to-quantify benefit to awarding long-term deals: peace of mind.
New Twins manager Rocco Baldelli experienced it when his own playing career was just beginning. After two brilliant seasons in 2003-04 (and another spent sitting out with knee and elbow injuries), Baldelli accepted Tampa Bay’s offer of a six-year contract that guaranteed him $6 million and offered the possibility of $26 million more.
“Truthfully, it worked out well for me. And I’m just talking about [my] mental state,” Baldelli said. “When you show up to the field every day, different people think about different things, and for me, it allowed me to relax and just show up to the field and concentrate on baseball.”
Baldelli collected only the guaranteed money, because a mitochondrial disorder in his left leg cut ended his career in 2010, but it was more than he would have earned without it. Now he will benefit, he said, by managing players who have that similar stability for years to come.
“If we’re able to do that, it’s not just a good thing for the individual, it’s a good thing for the group,” said Baldelli, who was careful not to confirm prematurely the pending contracts for Kepler and Polanco. “Because any time you can keep good people together, it’s definitely a positive thing for everybody.”
Kepler, who would have been eligible for free agency after the 2022 season, had previously agreed to a $3.125 million salary for 2019. That number will now nearly double to $6 million under his new deal, with $250,000 raises each year from 2020 to 2022. His salary jumps to $8.5 million in 2023, and the Twins can either trigger an option for $10 million for a sixth season, or pay the German outfielder a $1 million buyout.
Polanco’s new contract pays him just over $3.583 million this season, a pay hike of more than $3 million over the MLB minimum. The Dominican shortstop, who also would not have reached free agency until after 2022, will receive a raise of $250,000 next year, $500,000 in 2021, and salaries of $5.5 million in 2022 and $7.5 million in ’23. The Twins can pay him a $10.5 million salary or a $1 million buyout for 2024; if they keep him, they can also add a $12 million salary or a $750,000 buyout for 2025.
In both cases, the option-year salaries increase if the players win Gold Gloves or are named All-Stars, as Perkins and Dozier were. Kepler and Polanco are also the first players to be under contract to the Twins beyond 2019.
It’s a total commitment of $60.75 million to the pair. But if Kepler, who has hit at least 17 home runs in each of his first three major league seasons, and Polanco, who has 98 extra-base hits in 288 games, blossomed into All-Stars, they could conceivably reach free agency and command far higher salaries.
The Twins made no announcement of the agreements but did schedule a Friday morning news conference. Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey said earlier this month he would like to have more such announcements.
“We’re hopeful we get to a place where those conversations with some of those players come to fruition,” Falvey said. He mentioned no names, but outfielder Eddie Rosario and pitchers Taylor Rogers and Jose Berrios are believed to have been approached. “We have talked about this young core. We still believe in it, and we think it is a group that can propel us forward. Having those guys under control for longer than what they presently are would be a good thing, in our minds.”