Jim Pohlad: Yes, the Twins can keep Byron Buxton and José Berríos long-term

At what cost? Payroll question should shape the 2021 Trade Deadline for the Twins.

This column first appeared in my 5 Thoughts column sent to members this week. If you’d like to receive the full column every week, please consider supporting the work with a membership, for less than $1 per week. If you’d like a free trial you can reach out to me directly.

#5) Can the Twins extend both Byron Buxton and José Berríos?

To answer my own question, that would be a yes.

To call on someone more qualified, Twins principle owner Jim Pohlad says it’s a “definitive yes.”

The activity this month for the Twins hinges partly on whether the club feels that it can contend next year. GM Thad Levine says that the baseball group believes that is the case. And given that Levine said that the Twins are motivated to not sit idly by as other teams get in on the trading fun and improve for the present or future, we can guess that there are only really two paths they’ll take. To put it more succinctly, the decision for the Twins is not whether to buy or sell — the decision is whether to sell a little or sell it all.

Some cynics might even argue that despite an intention to contend next season, Minnesota still should trade their best players with a year of control left. After all, the thinking goes, if you’re going to lose them to free agency anyway, why not maximize a return by trading another year of control, rather than deal a player as a “rental” next summer – or, gasp, hold onto them, try to contend for another year, and then see them walk to free agency.

But not so fast.

Jim Pohlad was the guest this week on Inside Twins with Kris Atteberry, and the team’s principle owner was asked if the mid-market Twins could keep both around beyond their final year of club control in 2022.

“Yes. The answer is a definitive yes,” Pohlad said. “And I can tell you that Byron, as an example, nobody is more frustrated with how things have gone for him health-wise than he is. He is really bummed out by this kind of stuff and he doesn’t treat it lightly. And he wants to be out there competing and he’s a vital part of our team going forward -- as José would be.”

The question of what it would take to extend them — with a reminder that it takes two parties before a dance can be considered a tango — deserves more exploration. A quick dive suggests that it might be expensive. After all, if either player had been willing to sign for a contract amount that felt like a safe bet for the Twins, don’t you think they would have signed by now? Minnesota clearly should have interest, and I know that those conversations have taken place, so the fact that each player has one year before they could walk is telling.

How much is José Berríos worth?

I used to think a fair comp for a José Berríos contract extension would be Luis Severino. The Yankees starter got an average of $10 million per year over 4 years back in the spring of 2019. That same year, the Twins were discussing the framework of a Berríos extension, so I always sort of connected the two. Aaron Nola is another star pitcher who signed that year; his deal was an average of $11.25 million over 4 years. So the 4 years & $40-45 million range seemed about right for Berríos.

No matter how you think those two contracts have panned out more than halfway through the guaranteed years, the price for the Twins’ homegrown starter undoubtedly has gone up. Simply, he’s put more proof on paper and he’s that much closer to free agency, meaning that to forego that open-market opportunity, you’d expect the financial incentive would need to be greater.

A handful of other starting pitcher extensions handed out by the pitcher’s current club include Lance McCullers Jr. (5 years / $85 million), Danny Duffy (5/$65M), and Stephen Strasburg (7/$175M originally).

Free-agent deals for pitchers in their prime can be far greater. Trevor Bauer signed for $34 million per year over 3 years this winter; Strasburg has re-upped in Washington for $35 million per season spread over 7 years; Zack Wheeler cashed in $23.6 million per year over 5 seasons after the Twins showed big-time interest in signing him last year; Hyun-jin Ryu for $20 million per over 4 years; Madison Bumgarner will average $17 million each over 5 years; and of course the Yankees plopped $36 million per year on Gerrit Cole over 9 years, a record contract for pitchers.

I don’t think the two sides would argue whether he’s Cole or Strasburg, and it’s fair to point out that he’s younger than Ryu or MadBum.


How much is Byron Buxton worth?

Where do you even start for a Byron Buxton contract comp?

Does he get compared with former MVPs Mike Trout and Christian Yelich despite the lack of track record? Or take a step down and look at Charlie Blackmon or Aaron Hicks? The most recent example available might be George Springer, who got $150 million over 6 seasons in Toronto just this winter.

Would you pay Buxton $25 million per year? I would, but I truthfully don’t know the best way to account for the shortened “proven” track record, the higher upside based on talent, or the lower floor based on unpredictable injuries.

To pay the pair of them a combined, say, $50 million per season undoubtedly would have consequences on building a roster. By comparison, they’re earning less than $11.25 million combined this season. And the great unknown at this point is not only how much each player will be valued by the open market, but how much the Twins would be willing to stretch in team payroll coming off two seasons that must be challenging previous revenue projections.


The Twins at the 2021 MLB Trade Deadline

There’s a crop of players that are serving on a 1-year deal in Minnesota, and those have been popular names for trade rumors. Vultures picking the bones of a baseball team once expected to compete for the American League pennant and now counting the days until the trade deadline -- in a bad way.

So trading Nelson Cruz is a popular talkerHansel Robles could add length to a contender’s bullpen. Ditto for Álexander Colomé, if a team is convinced that he’s back to something resembling his former self, and not the guy we saw in Minnesota in April.

Those are by nature intriguing questions because they involve change and when there’s change there is an opportunity to take a step forward or one backward. The uncertainty and fill-in-the-blanks in your mind makes it enticing, and I’m not here to argue that.

But it’s the bigger-picture questions that will make this month of July fascinating to me. Levine told us last week that he is turning his attention to building up the future talent base of the organization, a not-so-cryptic phrasing that lets you know the Twins are sellers this July. And notably, Levine added that the baseball group feels confident in their assessment that the changing roster does not need to be torn down to the studs -- that the group will be tweaked with an eye toward competitiveness in 2022.

That’s an important backdrop for our understanding of the 2021 Trade Deadline.

Because if that wasn’t their goal, can you imagine the field day that Minnesota could have as a motivated seller? How many non-contending teams (read: sellers) have the kind of talent to move that could players as capable as Buxton, Berríos, Nelson Cruz, Taylor Rogers, Josh Donaldson and others? That’s a loaded group, and the Twins could control the trade deadline if they decided this was the time to reset.

The Twins should prioritize 2022 - not ‘beyond’

I’ve contended that this is not the right time for that type of major tear-down, for a number of different reasons. One that I haven’t heard mentioned often is how teams potentially will respond to stated financial incentives amid a global pandemic. Will we see a shift toward clubs keeping their own (cost-controlled) prospects until they make it to the big leagues as contributors? I do wonder the impact it could have on the market for players, both veterans and prospects alike. Truthfully I don’t know the answer. But if purse strings are about to tighten around the game, it would seem like a bad time to be a prospect buyer.

Back to Pohlad for a moment. I’d encourage you to catch the interview in its entirety. For now, though, there are a couple high-level points worth sharing. These quotes come off the back of my column last week, in which I pulled apart Levine’s words to surmise that the Twins will not only be sellers this July, but also that they won’t strip the roster down to the studs. They’ll build for 2022. And yet, a season like this one has a way of shaking faith, and reveals sometimes wobbly fan base support. So, these lines are important context:

“I believe we have a really good team. We’re not playing well, that’s for sure. So we clearly expected different outcomes,” Pohlad said.

And lastly, on the baseball bosses that Pohlad and the Twins hired in 2016:

“The systems and processes that Derek [Falvey] and Thad have put in place, we still totally totally believe in -- and we believe in them. And the ability of those systems and processes to develop competitive winning teams.”

“It’s right that we defer to [Falvey and Levine] almost totally. Because even when things aren’t going good, I don’t think anybody wants somebody like me making specific baseball decisions,” Pohlad said.

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