It was less than eight months ago that the Minnesota Twins shocked the baseball world by parachuting in to sign All-Star shortstop Carlos Correa on March 22.
But just like that, the shortstop role is vacant once again for the Twins. With former No. 1 overall pick Royce Lewis on the mend from another ACL tear — not to mention lingering questions about what his primary position will be at the big-league level — and Correa on the open market once again, the Twins are searching for a shortstop.
Of course, that’s not the only role the Twins have open. Gary Sanchez was a massive disappointment and is also a free agent, and it remains to be seen whether or not Ryan Jeffers can truly be the top catcher on the depth chart of a winning team. There is also not a single catcher on the Twins’ top-30 prospects list over at MLB Pipeline.
The team is always in search of starting pitching depth, and while there is a fair amount of it in the farm system, it certainly feels much more like quality, mid-rotation depth than true topline starters. And there’s always the bullpen, which was the Twins’ primary downfall during last year’s collapse.
How much money do the Twins have to spend?
This is the (tens of) million-dollar(s) question. How high are the Twins willing to go when it comes to their Opening Day payroll?
Well, let’s start here: the Twins had a $163 million payroll last year and $134 million in 2021. In both seasons, Minnesota sat just below the league average mark, according to Spotrac.
Heading into the winter, the Twins only have about $47 million committed in non-arbitration-eligible contracts to the 2023 books: Byron Buxton ($15.1 million), Sonny Gray ($12.7 million), Max Kepler ($8.5 million), Jorge Polanco ($7.5 million), and Kenta Maeda ($3.125 million). Buxton, Gray, and Maeda are not going anywhere. That leaves Kepler and Polanco as the lone trade possibilities among non-arbitration players.
Polanco seems unlikely to be traded; his contract was fantastic value in each of the last couple of years, and there’s reason to believe that a healthy Polanco could turn in solid value again in 2023.
Kepler, on the other hand, is an oft-rumored trade candidate who very well could use a change of scenery. The expected breakout has simply never happened for Kepler in Minnesota, and another team may be willing to take a shot at drawing more out of Maximillian.
The Twins are likely to spend in the range of $20-25 million to keep their arbitration-eligible players (let’s call it $23 million for the sake of argument), and probably around another $10 million for major-league minimum salaries.
That brings their current projected payroll to approximately $80 million, or $83 million below where it finished in 2022. The Twins’ payroll increased by about 18% from 2021 to 2022; another similar increase would add nearly $30 million.
Let’s work with an (optimistic) Opening Day projection of $190 million.
Which top-50 free agents make the most sense for the Twins?
For the purposes of this article, we’ll be using the MLB Trade Rumors Top 50 Free Agents list.
Carlos Correa is No. 2 on the list behind Aaron Judge, and clearly, he is the free agent that makes the most sense to sign with the Twins. Both parties apparently feel the same way (subscription required), and it’s just a matter of whether or not the Twins are able to pull together the cash (and years) that Correa is seeking. The Twins need a shortstop, and Correa is the total package. He’s an above-average hitter overall, not just for his position, but overall. He’s an above-average fielder at one of the most demanding spots on the field. And he’s considered one of the best clubhouse leaders and culture-steering players league-wide.
If the Twins don’t get Correa, there are plenty of other options. And while they’ll all be expensive, they may be slightly more affordable than keeping Carlos.
Trea Turner could end up getting a similar deal to Correa, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see him stick in Los Angeles. But the thought here is that Correa is likely the only player the Twins would seriously consider ponying up for given the mutual respect and familiarity.
If Correa heads elsewhere, the Twins could pick from a pair of other star shortstops in Xander Bogaerts and Dansby Swanson, who are each projected to earn nearly $100 million less than what Correa and Turner may get.
Bogarerts is the better all-around player, but his defensive performance this season could end up being an outlier compared to previous seasons. Swanson is better in the field, but the offense is much closer to average for the position.
Carlos Rodon would be a bit of a dice roll due to durability, but it would give the Twins a true ace to top the rotation, slotting Gray and Joe Ryan to their rightful spots as No. 2 and No. 3 starters, respectively. The back of the rotation is likely to be a combination of Kenta Maeda (returning from Tommy John’s surgery in fall of 2021), top pitching prospect Josh Winder, and Bailey Ober, who was impressive when healthy in 2022.
Still, Rodon will only be 30 years old at the start of next season and now has two consecutive All-Star seasons under his belt. Perhaps a large average annual value (AAV) over a shorter-term contract could be a possibility.
The other top-line starting pitchers on the market feel like they could be difficult to draw to Minnesota for a variety of reasons.
The Twins' other major hole on the roster is at catcher, and one of the best catchers in the league is on the market in Willson Contreras. He’s been remarkably consistent from an offensive perspective throughout his career, and the Twins have gotten virtually nothing from the catcher spot on that side of the ball for years, save for Mitch Garver’s 2019 season as part of the Bomba Squad. Given his age and position, Conteras may not be too pricey.
It’s hard to see the Twins spending too much on corner infielders/DH-types such as Josh Bell, Jose Abreu, or Anthony Rizzo. The contract status of Gio Urshela is still up in the air, but the presence of Jose Miranda and Luis Arraez lessens the need for another player in that position group, especially if Urshela comes back. Then again, the Nelson Cruz signing and the addition of Josh Donaldson were both surprises at the time due to the creativity of the Twins’ front office.
Perhaps if Kepler is traded, Mitch Haniger could be an option as a corner outfield bat with some pop, but he’s the only outfielder on the list that stands out as an option.
In theory, the Twins should be in on any and all of the mid-to-lower-level starting pitchers on the list, although Sean Manaea and Chris Bassitt stand out as some of the better, yet more attainable options. But the Twins’ past suggests that they may be more likely to dip further on the list toward names similar to the Dylan Bundy and Chris Archer additions from a year ago.
What’s the right combination of free-agency additions for the Twins?
The dream is to sign Correa, Contreras, and Rodon, but it feels pretty unlikely that the Twins will shell out that kind of money. If we’re using MLBTR’s numbers, that’s $32 million for Correa, $21 million for Contreras, and $28 million for Rodon — or, $81 million of the $110 million that we’ve projected the payroll to increase. That leaves little wiggle room to finish out the roster, or perhaps for any contract extensions.
If the Twins came out of the winter with either Bogaerts or Swanson, Contreras, and either Manaea or Bassitt, it would be a massively successful offseason. That’s $22-27 million for the shortstop, $21 million for Contreras, and $18-20 million for the starting pitcher. The total there is probably closer to $65-70 million, and could even leave some room for another start to add to the mix, or perhaps to take on salary in a trade.
Of course, the Twins aren’t attempting to sign these players in a vacuum. They’ll be competing against 29 other teams, and if we’re being honest, the Twins are likely a less attractive destination than they were even a year ago. Then again, signing a Correa, Bogaerts, or Swanson would immediately make Target Field an appealing place to play for any remaining free agents.
The perception of the Twins is that they can’t/won’t/don’t spend money. But they’re currently in a spot where they actually have plenty to spend just to get to where they were a year ago with a modest increase.
The bottom line is, the Twins have given themselves the payroll flexibility to spend freely this offseason. They’ll no doubt try to sign their biggest fish first and build around him. If that domino falls, perhaps Derek Falvey, Thad Levine, and the Twins’ front office can put together an A+ offseason and vault their club right back into contention in the A.L. Central.