Even though both teams had established offensive cores intact and spent than $40 million in free agency last offseason, the Minnesota Twins and Toronto Blue Jays have had inverse seasons. While their total investments on the open market were somewhat comparable, their return couldn’t be more different.
The Twins now find themselves in audition mode as they evaluate their plans going forward, but the Jays are firmly in the playoff hunt and making a strong push.
Sure, Toronto has gotten its biggest contributions from guys that were already on the roster (Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, among others). But their plan from last winter of tackling their biggest holes with a few notable additions has kept them in the hunt as they approach the home stretch of the season.
If the Twins hope to leave 2021 in the rearview mirror and find themselves back in the playoff race next season, then they need to follow Toronto’s lead in the off-season.
Toronto did something that Twins fans have been clamoring for their team to do for what seems like an eternity: they spent big on a top free agent who could fill their biggest hole. By signing center fielder George Springer to a six-year deal, they found someone still in his prime that could contribute immediately to both sides of the game. His pure hitting ability with power and his strong defense netted him a $150 million commitment, and he’s performed up to expectations when on the field. Springer has missed some time with nagging injuries this year, but the club is surely relieved to have him back in the lineup as they head down the stretch.
In just 56 games this year, the former Houston Astros outfielder has belted 16 home runs and driven in 35 runs.
Though the Twins probably don’t need another premier outfielder heading into next season, they can follow Toronto’s lead by making a sizable commitment to fix their greatest need. In Minnesota’s case, that’s the starting rotation.
Normally, this front office has shown a tendency to spread their financial commitments to several pitchers rather than netting a few higher-quality arms. Last off-season was a clear example of this as the club opted to sign J.A. Happ, Matt Shoemaker to one-year deals while pitchers that would require larger commitments went elsewhere.
This year, it would be prudent for the club to try Toronto’s approach and pay market value for a clear upgrade.
In Stroman’s case, he’s been a reliable mid-rotation starter for most of his career, and his 2021 season has been extremely impressive. He has a 2.93 ERA in 156 innings pitched this year and has given up more than three earned runs in just three of his 29 starts. He rarely gets blown up and has topped 30 starts in four of his last six seasons (he opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns).
At 30 years old, he’s probably looking for this to be his big payday, and the Twins have the financial capacity to be the ones to make it happen for him. Since he was offered and accepted the qualifying offer last year, the Twins wouldn’t have to give up a draft pick to sign him, either.
Gausman is having a career year for the San Francisco Giants and is a major factor in his team’s surprising pole position as they lock in a playoff spot. He has a 2.58 ERA and a solid 1.00 WHIP, showing that he’s done a fantastic job keeping runners off base. Even when he does have runners on, he’s shown that he has the poise to navigate around them, as opposing hitters have just a .435 OPS with runners on (best in MLB, according to Inside Edge).
That type of dominance in a contract year usually leads to big money. While Gausman doesn’t have the track record that Stroman does, he still represents a clear front-line starter upgrade for Minnesota.
Bet on a Rebound
Besides signing Springer as their biggest off-season prize, the Blue Jays went out and made a large, one-year offer to Marcus Semien to fill their hole at second base. He was coming off a decent season with the Oakland A’s but was two years removed from his career year in 2019 when he belted 33 homers and racked up 7.6 fWAR.
They bet that he would rebound to somewhere closer to his 2019 self, and Semien has repaid that investment in spades. He already has 37 bombs and 93 RBI while playing strong second-base defense.
While there’s an argument to be made that Semien himself should be a target for the Twins this winter, it could be wise for them to pursue someone on a one-year deal just as Toronto did last off-season. Semien will certainly be seeking a mega-contract.
Syndergaard has been shelved for most of the past two seasons while he recovers from Tommy John surgery but is one of the most intriguing arms when he’s on the bump. His fastball sat comfortably in the high-90s while touching triple digits, and his slider has shown a penchant for missing bats. If he can get healthy and work with pitching coach Wes Johnson to clean up his delivery, Minnesota could be an excellent spot for him to reestablish value on a one-year deal.
Likewise, Kluber has been out of commission for a large portion of the last two seasons, but he’s just a few years removed from being a staff ace in Cleveland. His career 3.18 ERA and 1.01 WHIP is tantalizing enough for the Twins to see what he has left. A Cleveland connection with Twins’ president of baseball operations Derek Falvey might even help in contract negotiations.
Story had a case as the premier hitter in this year’s free-agent class, but a subpar season has soured that outlook. He has a roughly league-average bat (97 wRC+) but has still managed to play strong defense and swipe enough bags to join the 20-20 club (currently sitting at 19 home runs and 18 stolen bases on the year). A bitter impending breakup with the Colorado Rockies could be playing a factor in his down year, even if that down year is still relatively valuable.
Baez is a polarizing character but would still represent an exciting addition that the Twins could play at either shortstop or second base. His defense has always been fantastic, and his bat has been at least 10% better than average in three of the last four seasons. Stiff market competition in such a shortstop-heavy class could lead him to consider one-year pillow contracts, in which case the Twins could be in position to pounce. And who knows, maybe his awkward relationship with the New York Mets fan base could cause him to give the thumbs up to some Minnesota Niceness.
The Blue Jays’ offseason moves heading into this year certainly helped them, but that’s not to say it was perfect. While guys like Springer and Semien have proven worthwhile and effective, they also whiffed on some of their personnel additions. They inked Kirby Yates to a 1-year, $5.5 million only to have him require season-ending elbow surgery before throwing a single pitch. Tyler Chatwood got a $3 million payday from Toronto but struggled to the tune of a 5.46 ERA before being released in July.
If anything, keeping this in mind should help put things in perspective for the Twins. They don’t need to have a perfect offseason if they want to be contenders. It’s okay to swing and miss on a few as long as some of the bigger plans make some contact.