He’s only been in Minnesota for a year, but Thad Levine knows the history. Levine knows the Twins never have spent enough to land a top-tier free agent, never have given any player other than Joe Mauer coming off an MVP year a contract worth nine figures and never have paid a player other than Mauer more than Ervin Santana’s $13.5 million salary.
The Twins’ general manager isn’t saying any of that will change in 2018. But he’s not saying it won’t, either.
“In our preliminary talks with Jim Pohlad and Dave St. Peter,” Levine said, referring to the franchise’s owner and team president, “they are very open-minded to us bringing proposals to them that are very un-Twins-like.”
Hello, Jake Arrieta? Konnichiwa, Yu Darvish? We’ll see.
But the Twins, even with one year left on both Mauer and Santana’s contracts, have more payroll flexibility than almost any team in baseball. Though they have nearly $70 million committed to six players for 2018, they’re on the hook at the moment for less than $25 million in 2019, and virtually nothing in 2020.
The Twins’ roster, in other words, soon will entirely reflect the judgment of Levine and Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey, unbidden by any commitments made before their hiring.
“It’s a blessed position to have the flexibility we have,” Levine agreed. “It’s such a gift to have that blank slate.”
And what do you do with such a gift? For Levine and Falvey, the answer is obvious: Give it away.
More precisely, they plan to spread their payroll — which figures to rise, if not sharply, from the 2017 season’s $104 million starting figure, depending upon their luck in signing free agents — among some of their current minimum-salary players.
Already, that qualifies as “un-Twins-like”: Under Terry Ryan, the team only infrequently offered a multiyear contract to players before they reached the six-year threshold for free agency. Brian Dozier was an exception, accepting a four-year, $20 million deal before the 2015 season, a deal that will pay Dozier a below-market $9 million in 2018.
Falvey and Levine plan to make such contracts, and ideally even longer ones that buy out free-agency seasons, a habit.
“It’s absolutely going to be a focus for us. As much as we relish the payroll flexibility we have in 2019 and beyond, our aspiration this offseason is to lock in some of our young players with longer-term deals,” Levine said. “Generally speaking, players reach their peak performance sometime between ages 24 and 31, and we’re aspirational of signing those guys for as many of those years as we possibly can.”
That means asking, say, Byron Buxton, who turns 24 in December, what it would take to get him to sign a five-, six- or seven-year contract. Or showing Eddie Rosario a way to earn more than the MLB minimum he’s received during his first two seasons. Or perhaps — though pitchers, with their greater risk of injury, are harder to predict — offering Jose Berrios a deal that would expire in 2023 or 2024.
For the players, an early long-term extension is a way to lock in financial security several years before free agency. Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis, for instance, guaranteed himself $52 million in 2014 after only three big-league seasons, by agreeing to a six-year deal that already has proved to be a windfall for Cleveland.
And Tampa Bay third baseman Even Longoria famously agreed to a six-year deal as soon as he reached the majors, locking in a $17.5 million payoff before the Rays even knew he’d be a productive major leaguer.
Both players have appeared in multiple All-Star Games, and could have earned more, perhaps much more, by going year-to-year. But each chose guaranteed millions over the uncertainty of future earnings.
Mapping a plan
That’s what Falvey and Levine have in mind for their roster, which is crammed with long-term candidates. In addition to Buxton, Rosario and Berrios, they’ll study whether it makes financial sense to sign players such as Max Kepler, Jorge Polanco or Miguel Sano, each 24 years old, to lengthy contracts that are life-changing for the players but ultimately economical for the team.
“With free-agent contracts, while you obviously sign them to receive an expected level of production, to some extent, the salary is a reflection of a players’ past achievements,” Levine said. “In signing a contracts to buy out pre-arbitration players, though, you are paying for future production, as best as you can determine it. It’s a bit of a gamble for both parties, but it’s one that can, and you hope does, pay off for both sides.”
The gamble for the team, of course, is that projected improvement doesn’t happen.
“The risk, of injury or a drop in productivity, that’s something you don’t want to take lightly, especially when you’re not going to be a top-five payroll team,” Levine said. “That’s why you have to be very judicious about who you spend the money on. I’ve learned over my career, no matter how intelligent your forecasters are, your formulas and algorithms you use, there’s no way to predict 100 percent accurately injuries and the general pain threshold of players and intestinal fortitude.”
Still, locking in young players at below-market prices has proved to be an effective strategy, as Falvey and Levine know. John Hart first put the strategy into practice while general manager of the Indians in the 1990s, when he signed young players such as Kenny Lofton and Manny Ramirez to long-term deals that allowed a cash-strapped franchise to keep a pennant-winning team together.
Levine learned from Dan O’Dowd, Hart’s right-hand man, when both worked for the Rockies, and from Rangers General Manager Jon Daniels, another former Hart assistant, in Texas, where the Rangers executed the strategy to lock up Elvis Andrus and Martin Perez early in their careers. Falvey comes from Cleveland, where Hart’s policy remains in place: Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Yan Gomes and Kipnis are playing under such contracts today.
Negotiations have not yet begun, Levine said; the Twins still are discussing which players to approach, and for how much. But his intention is to buy out a year or two of free agency in each deal.
“The reason to extend these players is because you identify them as championship-caliber players. If you truly believe in that, you desire to secure their services beyond just what the arbitration rights would have,” Levine said. “My interest in pursuing those deals would be heightened significantly if we were able to extend the years of control, because that’s what we’re trying to accomplish: Extending the window within that player is contributing to a championship-caliber club.”