The Minnesota Twins front office is at it again.
On Monday morning, Randy Dobnak officially became the latest Twins player to agree to a long-term contract that buys out his arbitration years and spills into future free agency.
The Tampa Bay Rays made this practice mainstream over the past decade or so; Kevin Kiermaier is currently reaping the benefits of agreeing to such a deal back in 2017, and the Rays enjoyed his league-best outfield defense — when he’s been able to stay on the field — at a relative bargain over the past few years.
Tampa isn’t the only team doing this now, of course, but they were on the forefront of the strategy. You know, market inefficiencies and all.
The Twins tried this approach with Jorge Polanco and Max Kepler. Just over a year ago, Minnesota executed a mini-version by buying out Miguel Sano’s final two years of arbitration and adding another year, plus an option year.
Now, and this is said respectfully, of course, Randy Dobnak is a bit of a different situation. Kepler, Polanco, and Sano were all prize international signings. Kiermaier and several other players who inked deals structured in a similar way were highly-regarded top prospects. Dobnak is an example of a player who has established a baseline of performance, and the Twins are locking in cost-certainty for a player they think has an extremely high floor, and perhaps something of a ceiling still remaining.
That said, let’s look at the Twins’ most recent forays into Rays-esque contract signings.
On Feb. 14, 2019, Kepler signed a five-year, $35 million extension with a sixth-year option for $10 million/$1 million buyout
At this moment in time, Max Kepler’s extension could be considered the most questionable of this group. There’s recency bias here, of course, with his disappointing performance in a truncated 2020 season and a terrible spring training to date, combined with the likes of Alex Kirilloff, Brent Rooker, and Trevor Larnach all knocking on the proverbial door.
But immediately after signing his new pact, Kepler went out and hit 36 home runs in 2019, slashing .252/.336/.519 in 134 games and filling in admirably in center field for an oft-injured Byron Buxton. That season, Kepler was paid only $6 million.
Last year, he received a prorated $6.25 million, and the deal only goes up to $6.5 million for 2021. It goes up another $250,000 next year before a modest jump to $8.5 million in 2023. Various performance escalators can be added to the 2024 option year, and Kepler can earn $10 million just in base salary with a buyout of only $1 million.
Kepler just turned 28 years old and there is plenty of growth to be had. Additionally, the insurance of Kepler as an adequate fill-in for Buxton in center is valuable, and despite his struggles in 2020, the deal is rock-solid.
On Feb. 14, 2019, Polanco signed a five-year, $25.75 million extension with a sixth-year vesting option ($10.5 million) and a seventh-year team option ($12 million with a $750,000 buyout).
While Polanco’s deal is worth less than Kepler’s in guaranteed dollars, if he stays relatively healthy in the coming years, 550 plate appearances in 2023 will mean that 2024 becomes guaranteed.
Similarly to Kepler, 2019 made this deal feel like an unbelievable bargain. Polanco was the American League’s starting shortstop in the All-Star Game and put up a line of .295/.356/.485 while hitting 22 home runs and playing passable defense. In 2020, however, Polanco struggled on both sides of the ball, which we found out later was largely attributed to a nagging ankle injury.
Heading into 2021, Polanco will move over to second base, where he should be, at worst, average defensively. Assuming his numbers will improve from the left-hand side of the plate, the pop should return to Polanco’s bat, and it’s fair to expect him to improve significantly upon his .658 on-base plus slugging (OPS) mark in 2020.
Polanco will make just $4.33 million this season and $5.5 million next year. As long as his batting numbers land somewhere between his 2019 and 2020 lines, it’ll be a bargain. In 2023, the guaranteed money increases to $7.5 million, and the plate-appearance vesting option would kick in at $10.5 million for 2024. There’s a seventh year on the books for $12 million, but the buyout is only $750,000.
On Jan. 14, 2020, Sano signed a three-year extension with $30 million guaranteed and a fourth-year option that would add $14 million to the deal.
Sano’s contract isn’t exactly apples-to-apples; the hulking corner infielder had already earned $2.65 million in his first year of arbitration. This contract helped the team avoid arbitration for 2020, buy-out 2021, and add a third year, buying out his first year of free agency.
Sano was paid on a prorated $7 million last year and will make $11 million in 2021. The number decreases to $9.25 million in 2022. In 2023, Sano is guaranteed at least $3 million in a buyout, but if the Twins choose to keep him, he’ll make $14 million. There are also plenty of incentives, ranging from Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards to MVP voting.
Following the theme, Sano also struggled in 2020 after something of a breakout campaign in 2019. Sano hit 34 bombs in just 439 plate appearances that year after getting a late start due to foot surgery. But last year, he managed an OPS of just .757 with a whopping 90 strikeouts in 205 plate appearances — a mind-boggling strikeout rate of 43.9 percent.
Still, if Sano can make a bit more contact, he’s a truly destructive offensive force whose contract number will actually decrease next year, when he’ll still only be 28 years old at the start of the campaign.
It’s worth mentioning that all three of these contracts will be quite trade-friendly; if in a year the Twins want to hand first base to Kirilloff, or Josh Donaldson, or 2020 first-round pick Aaron Sabato, they should be able to trade Sano for something of value.
On March 29, 2021, Dobnak signed a five-year, $9.25 million contract, including three team options: $6 million with a $1 million buyout in 2026, $7 million with a $100,000 buyout in 2027, $8.5 million with a $100,000 buyout in 2028.
The financials of Dobnak’s deal are fascinating.
He’ll only make $700,000 this year and $800,000 next year. But the certainty of $1.5 million in 2023, $2.25 million in 2024, and $3 million in 2025 is understandable for an undrafted pitcher who signed for $500 just a couple of years ago.
For the Twins, they know that at worst, they’ll have a league-average type starter and/or long reliever with cost-certainty for the next five years. At best, they’ll have an absolute bargain.
It’ll be difficult for the Twins to lose this one. If Dobnak surprises everyone and develops into a true frontline starter, then even the options aren’t crazy. If not, the buyouts are beyond modest.
Kudos to the Falvine front office for yet another ‘W’.