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Could the Twins have a Phillies-like turnaround?

It’s okay to be jealous of the Phillies’ good fortune.

MLB: World Series-Philadelphia Phillies at Houston Astros
The Twins almost landed Zack Wheeler in free agency prior to the 2020 season.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia Phillies spent the last couple of weeks as America’s favorite baseball club. The threat of taking down the evil empire that is the Houston Astros will do that.

But count yours truly as an admittedly jealous Minnesota Twins fan who is just a bit salty that the Phils pushed all the right buttons and received the good fortune (read: luck) that the Twins haven’t had over the past couple of seasons.

Yes, the Phillies signed Bryce Harper in free agency and had the league’s fourth-highest payroll this season. They play in the fourth-largest media market, after all, and it wouldn’t be realistic to expect the Twins to be in the same realm in terms of spending. But relative to their markets and expectations, the Twins have spent with a similar mindset as the Phillies’ front office, but with vastly different results.

The Phillies’ offseason wasn’t overwhelmingly successful — but it was creative

Remember, there’s nothing about the Phillies that was dominant in the regular season. Several recent acquisitions turned in so-so results. The manager that they started the year with was, in fact, the wrong manager and was fired in early June. They won only 87 games and finished in the second wild card spot in the National League. Yet the Phils ended up in the World Series.

Last offseason, the Phillies spent $100 million on Nick Castellanos, who had just made his first All-Star team in 2021 at the age of 29. Castellanos went out and hit .263/.305/.389, will turn 31 during spring training next year, and still has four years and $80 million remaining on his contract.

At the trade deadline in 2021, the Phillies pulled from their subpar farm system to trade for Old Friend Kyle Gibson, at the time in the midst of his first All-Star campaign with the Texas Rangers. Across 42 starts in a Phillies uniform between 2021 and 2022, Gibson has a 5.06 ERA and peripheral numbers much more in line with the bulk of his career in Minnesota.

The Phillies ace, Zack Wheeler, was pursued heavily in free agency by the Twins prior to the 2020 season. Minnesota reportedly offered him a $100 million deal, which would have made him the highest-paid free agent addition in franchise history at the time, but a slightly more lucrative offer from Philly (he ultimately signed for five years and $118 million) and the draw of playing near family (his wife hails from the Philadelphia area) tipped the scales in the Phillies’ favor.

That same offseason, the Twins pivoted after striking out on frontline starting pitching and gave Josh Donaldson a four-year, $92 million pact — a higher average annual value than what they had offered Wheeler but slightly less money overall.

At the time, the Twins had Miguel Sano at third base coming off slashing .247/.346/.576 and knocking 34 home runs in just 105 games during the 2019 campaign and only a couple of seasons removed from an All-Star appearance. But the creative approach to team building in adding Donaldson and shifting Sano across the diamond to first base wasn’t all that different than the Phillies opting to bring in Kyle Schwarber and Castellanos prior to 2022 — both minus defenders who were expected to split time at designated hitter prior to injuries that forced Bryce Harper into the role.

The Phillies were not a dominant team in the regular season

The Phillies were a mediocre regular-season team by almost any measure. They were No. 16 in the majors in runs allowed per game and No. 17 in team ERA. The Twins were No. 17 and No. 19 in those categories, respectively.

(Incidentally, the Phillies were No. 7 in FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching), which was at least partially a function of playing Schwarber and Castellanos in the outfield. This indicates that the Phillies did, in fact, have a better pitching staff than the Twins, but didn’t have the good fortune of Correa and Byron Buxton/Gilberto Celestino up the middle. Ultimately, the run prevention was basically the same.)

Offensively, the Phillies were a top-10 team in most categories, but again, far from dominant. They were seventh in runs per game, eighth in OPS+, and sixth in home runs. The Twins hovered around league average in most offensive categories, although they did finish ninth in OPS+, just one slot behind Philadelphia.

Why the Twins could make a similar turn-around

To summarize, the Phillies spent huge on Bryce Harper back in 2019 and aggressively on the likes of Castellanos, Schwarber, and catcher J.T. Realmuto. Only Realmuto, who was acquired via trade prior to the 2019 season and subsequently re-signed, has worked out exactly as planned. The Phillies tapped into what little farm system depth they have to add starting pitching (the Gibson trade in 2021, adding Noah Syndergaard in August 2022) but with mixed results. Their minor-league pipeline remains bottom-10 and beneath the Twins.

The only Phillies pitchers making more than $7 million this season are Wheeler and Aaron Nola, who made $16 million and had what was easily his best season since his All-Star campaign back in 2018.

Yes, the Bryce Harper signing in 2019 is the (admittedly massive) exception to what the Twins have done at any point in franchise history. So while we can’t discount Bryce Harper’s second-half tear and MVP award in 2021 and his monster 1.160 OPS in the 2022 postseason, it’s important to note is the primary difference between the Phillies’ team build and the Twins’.

After all, the Phillies only won nine more regular-season games than the Twins, and for all the gnashing of teeth regarding the Twins’ pitching staff, the Phillies’ pitching/fielding combination was only marginally better than Minnesota’s. (Yes, that includes the bullpen. Philly’s regular-season bullpen ERA was 3.97. The Twins’ was 3.98.)

Late-season runs and getting hot in the playoffs is nothing new to baseball. But the current multi-wild card format lends itself to more opportunities for 87-win teams to win the ‘ship. (Although the 1987 Twins and their 85 wins didn’t even need expanded playoffs...)

Put simply, the Twins aren’t far off. As we say seemingly every offseason, they would be best served to spend aggressively on one or two players — in fact, something along the lines of last year’s acquisitions of Correa and Sonny Gray would be fantastic.

The issue in 2022, of course, was that basically everything else went wrong. Better injury luck, combined with a few more resources spent in the bullpen and a pinch of some Phillies-like good fortune and the Twins should, at least in theory, be back in the thick of contention in the A.L. Central in 2023.