The Twins’ most-discussed offseason move this season was the addition of designated hitter Nelson Cruz, and rightfully so.
Cruz provided an imposing threat in the heart of the Twins’ order and was a leader in the clubhouse, spreading his knowledge and experience around a team that won 101 games, second-most since the Twins moved to Minnesota in 1961.
But many of the moves the front office made last winter paid dividends in 2019, perhaps none more than the decisions to lock shortstop Jorge Polanco and outfielder Max Kepler into team-friendly deals. The Twins bought out arbitration years to do so, doling out five-year deals with options.
They were rewarded as both players had career years in 2019.
Those deals could provide a template for what the Twins do with other young players — Jose Berrios, for example — as they seek to cement pieces of their core into place.
“That’s going to be probably a lot of our process. … Just thinking about how we can continue to extend the length of time we have control over our young talent,” chief baseball officer Derek Falvey said.
“We did that with other young players on our team in the past, too; didn’t always work out, in terms of getting the right agreement. We presented something, talked to guys, didn’t get to the final stage of that. That doesn’t preclude us from doing that again.”
Berrios appears to be the most obvious candidate; only 25, he had his best major league season this year, going 14-8 with a 3.68 earned-run average over 200⅓ innings. But what about all-world center fielder Byron Buxton, power-hitting third baseman Miguel Sano or Eddie Rosario, who led the Twins this season with 109 RBIs?
Before his season ended with shoulder surgery, Buxton, 25, was having his best offensive season. Despite missing some time with an injury of his own, Sano, 26, bounced back from a tough 2018 with 34 homers and 79 RBIs in just 105 games. Both were 3.1-win players, per Baseball-Reference.
Rosario, 28, was streaky at the plate late but was 4 for 13 with a homer and a double in the postseason and hit 32 regular-season home runs.
As they did with Kepler and Polanco, the Twins might believe the best is yet to come. In the case of the first two, they were right.
A year after being suspended for half the year for performance-enhancing drugs in 2018, Polanco had a career year. An all-star for the first time, he hit .295 with a career-high 22 homers and led the team with 186 hits. Kepler, mostly from the leadoff spot, hit .252 with a .336 on-base percentage and added 36 home runs while manning right field, then replacing Buxton in center.
Each played an integral role in the Twins’ success.
“There’s a psychological part of signing some of those contracts,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “I’ve been around guys who’ve signed them before, and they responded. These two guys responded exceptionally well to this newfound financial security and career security, and they took it, I think, as a challenge to go out there and to lead and to probably work.”
With a free-agent market that has proven tough for players over the past two years, more and more seem to be signing similar extensions to secure financial security when they can.
While Kepler and Polanco responded well to their paydays, the Twins are aware that isn’t always the case. Complacency, or perhaps succumbing to the weight of the commitment, are possible outcomes, general manager Thad Levine pointed out.
But in the case of Polanco and Kepler, there was a reward for both the player and team, and that very well could be the case with players in the future, too.
“Thad and I have been around a lot of those conversations over the years — may not have happened the first time, may happen the next time,” Falvey said. “That’s something we’ll continue to explore for our players. More likely later in the offseason, typically, but that’s something we’ll think about.”