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Offseason Questions: Should the Twins Re-Sign Sonny Gray?

Coming off of a career season, the Twins will have to spend more than they ever have on a pitcher if they want to retain Sonny Gray.

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Division Series - Houston Astros v Minnesota Twins - Game Three Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

Welcome to my semi-regular offseason series about the questions the Twins have to answer. Coming off of an AL Central title, a dominant second-half run, and their first playoff game and series wins in almost two decades, the Twins are set up for a sustained run of success. Provided they make the right moves this offseason, of course. I’ll be checking in with a few questions each month revolving around the MLB offseason calendar and the decisions the Twins have to make along the way. First up, Sonny Gray.

The Qualifying Offer

Minnesota Twins Summer Camp Workout Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

The first decision on Sonny is a no-brainer: the qualifying offer.

For a quick refresher, the qualifying offer is a one-year contract worth the average salary of the top 125 paid players in the league, $20.325 million for 2023. Players are only eligible to receive the QO if they were with the same team for the entire previous season and haven’t received one in the past. For example, Jordan Montgomery of the Rangers would normally be a shoo-in for this, but since he was acquired mid-season from the Cardinals, he is ineligible. Players are given 10 days from when they receive the QO to assess their market and decide whether to accept or decline it.

If declined, the team signing a QO player will have to surrender a draft pick, while the team he leaves will receive one. The actual picks depend on the two teams and the size of the contract. In the Twins’ case, they would receive a draft pick between the first round and Competitive Balance Round A if Sonny signs elsewhere for $50 million or more. If the Twins sign a player who received the QO from another team, they would surrender their third-highest pick in the upcoming draft.

This makes the initial Sonny trade a nifty bit of business by Derek Falvey. The Twins gave up Chase Petty, the 26th pick in the 2021 Draft, got two great years of Sonny Gray, and will receive a pick in the 31-35 range if he goes to another team, essentially recouping the value used to acquire Gray in the first place.

The players are not fans of the qualifying offer as it tends to suppress certain markets, particularly players coming off of career years without a longer track record of success, like when Jake Odorizzi came back to the Twins on the QO in 2020. All-Star level players like Carlos Correa or Sonny Gray typically don’t see their markets impacted, but with several teams facing financial issues and Gray’s age, you never know.

Plan on the Twins extended Gray the qualifying offer and him rejecting it. When he does, that doesn’t mean he won’t re-sign with the Twins, just that he correctly feels he can get a bigger contract.

What a Sonny Gray Contract Could Look Like

Wild Card Series - Toronto Blue Jays v. Minnesota Twins - Game One Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images

In his final press availability, Sonny hinted that he would be willing to return on a team-friendly deal. That doesn’t mean he’ll accept less than market value, but if all other things are equal, I think Sonny would choose Minnesota over an external option. Here is the full quote, courtesy of Dan Hayes of The Athletic:

“We want to go to a place where you feel wanted,” said Gray. “I don’t know if this is the right thing to say before going to become a free agent, but I’ll say it because it’s honest. Money is not the ultimate factor for me. Never has been. Having said that, you want to be valued appropriately. … There are a lot of factors that go into those decisions. It’s not only me making it. As anyone who’s known me throughout the course of this year and last year, there are a lot of other things that go into it, my wife and my kids a big part of it. But I do love it here.”

The contract comparison often brought up is Chris Bassitt, which makes sense on the surface. Bassitt was coming off of a good age-33 season, throwing 181 innings with a 3.42 ERA/3.66 FIP, 8.3 K/9, and 2.4 BB/9. Similar to Sonny, he was not exactly a paragon of health prior to that season, surpassing 150 innings only one other time in his career. Sonny Gray’s numbers last year: 184 IP, 2.79 ERA/2.83 FIP, 9.0 K/9, 2.7 BB/9, going over 150 innings for just the second time since his early years in Oakland.

Bassitt received a 3 years, $63 million contract from the Blue Jays. Gray has a much longer track record of success and will be coming off a (likely) top 3 Cy Young finish. Combining that with big spenders like the Yankees, Cardinals, and Braves needing starting pitching, I would set the bare minimum at 3 years, $70 million with it potentially being pushed to 4 years, $80-$90 million by a team that needs him and wants to spread out the AAV for luxury tax purposes.

The Case For Sonny

MLB: ALDS-Houston Astros at Minnesota Twins Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The case for Sonny Gray is simple. The Twins won the division and their first playoff series win in 20 years on the backs of their starting pitching, led statistically and emotionally by Sonny Gray. Players raved about Sonny’s presence and work ethic, from Pablo Lopez and Sonny learning from each other to Sonny taking Joe Ryan under his wing. He wasn’t perfect, but as a player who has been an effective Big League pitcher for a long time, Sonny brought veteran leadership that the Twins desperately needed.

While he still struggled later into games, Gray was a modicum of consistency for the Twins, allowing more than three earned runs in only three of his 32 starts in 2023. He played well by both traditional and advanced metrics, leading one of the league’s best starting staffs in ERA, FIP, and home run rate, while finishing second in WHIP, barrel rate, and innings pitched. By nearly every single value-based metric, he was also the Twins’ best player in 2023. He finished first in bWAR, fWAR, WPA, and pitching run value, providing the Twins with $42.3 million of value on a dollar-per-WAR basis.

No matter how you look at it, the Twins will be hard-pressed to replace Sonny’s performance in 2024, whether you bring him back or find an outside replacement.

The Case Against Sonny

Minnesota Twins v Boston Red Sox Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

Let’s start with the obvious: regression is coming. Sonny turns 34 tomorrow and just put together either his best or second-best season of his career, depending on which metrics you prefer. He made more than 30 starts for just the second time since 2015. He was still largely ineffective the third time through the order. And, most importantly, his league-leading home run rate is not sustainable. It was less than half of the next qualified pitcher (Justin Steele), and Sonny’s hard-hit rate, barrel rate, and fly-ball rate are all in line with where they were in 2022.

As a result, his expected ERA was 3.69, almost a full run higher than his actual ERA. For context, Joe Ryan’s xERA was 3.53, and that was while giving up the 7th most home runs in baseball. Now don’t get me wrong, that’s still a very, very good pitcher. His xERA was 11th in baseball out of 44 qualified pitchers, but I wouldn’t count on him being a Cy Young contender again. And that’s before getting to the money.

The problem isn’t necessarily in 2024, where the Twins likely have $30-$40 million to spend and could easily create $10 million more by trading out one of Jorge Polanco, Max Kepler, or Christian Vazquez. The problem lies in 2025 or 2026 when the roster starts getting expensive. In 2025, there is already over $107 million committed to Correa, Buxton, López, Vazquez, Paddack, Polanco, and Dobnak, and the current cheap, young players will also start getting expensive.

That season, Royce Lewis, Joe Ryan, Bailey Ober, Jhoan Duran, Griffin Jax, Brock Stewart, and Trevor Larnach will all be in their first years of arbitration. Alex Kirilloff and Ryan Jeffers will be in their second. Willi Castro will be in his third. Even using conservative estimates, you have to count on at least $25 million in additional salary from that group alone, and that’s before addressing other needs that will arise, such as Max Kepler being a free agent.

Some of these players will be traded or non-tendered by 2025 and other prospects will unexpectedly contribute to the big league team like Julien and Wallner this year, but young cores get expensive quickly when they are performing.

Adding in a $25 million salary in 2025/2026 for a pitcher’s age 35 and 36 seasons will create a payroll crunch. The core will be fine, but you’ll see a reduction in useful veterans like Kyle Farmer, Michael A. Taylor, Willi Castro, Donovan Solano, and Kenta Maeda; the solid, if unspectacular, guys making $4 - $8 million per year that give your team a high floor.

My Proposed Solution

Wild Card Series - Toronto Blue Jays v. Minnesota Twins - Game One Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images

So after over 1,500 words breaking it all down, what should the Twins do?

The most likely scenario is that they get priced out of the Sonny sweepstakes. Despite his incredible 2023, from both a health and a home run luck standpoint, he’s unlikely to replicate his performance. That being said, if the qualifying offer does dampen his market a bit and the final number is closer to $60 million than $80 million, I think the Twins could get creative to retain him.

For most free agents, what matters most is the final dollar amount rather than the years, which could work in the Twins’ favor. With the team having a bit more room to spend in 2024, you could offer Gray a contract for two years and $65 million guaranteed, with a third-year option, a large buyout, and the salary weighted toward the first year, breaking down something like this:

  • 2024: $31 million salary
  • 2025: $22 million salary
  • 2026: $20 million option or $12 million buyout

Work in a few performance bonuses based on innings pitched and this deal could strike the perfect balance. It allows Sonny to get the number he wants while staying with a team he knows. On the Twins side, you retain a big part of your success in 2023 on a short-term deal, but you’re still able to spread out the actual cash spent over three separate seasons. A $12 million buyout seems hefty, but keep in mind that the Twins essentially ate $8.5 million in 2019 when they cut Addison Reed and that season turned out alright.

If the Twins need to move off of the salary in 2025, $34 million guaranteed with a team option would be fairly easy to trade for a player with Sonny’s reputation. They moved Josh Donaldson in 2022 with two years and $42 million remaining on his contract.

The contract puts the payroll right around $150 million for 2024, in line with where it was in 2023. With holes remaining in centerfield, the bullpen, and potentially first base, the Twins would likely have to send out some combination of Jorge Polanco, Kyle Farmer, and Christian Vázquez, but they have the infield depth to withstand those departures. Good starting pitching is the hardest thing to find in baseball, so it’s always expensive. If Derek Falvey and Co. can find a way to piece together only a two year guarantee, I would jump at it. Anything beyond that and I would explore other options.

Now I ask you, readers, do you like this structure? Think he will get more or less? Would the Twins be better off using the money on other players? Let me know your thoughts in the comments! And be sure to create your own offseason plan as well. Anyone who creates one will be featured on Twinkie Town’s front page as a contributor with anything you want to promote.