Each year, our top ranking of the top 50 free agents and their projected contracts/destinations prompts many to raise an eyebrow. In the now five years that I’ve spent contributing to that behemoth of a post, though, I’m not sure I can recall a more unpopular pick with readers than the notion that Jake Arrieta could sign with the Brewers for what would be the largest free-agent signing in Milwaukee’s franchise history. The notion that the Brewers would win a bidding war isn’t one to which most are accustomed. Milwaukee signed Matt Garza to a four-year, $50MM contract prior to the 2014 season and has, at times, played in the second tier of free agency. But the Brewers are among baseball’s smallest markets, and placing Arrieta there admittedly felt odd even for us.
The question we kept asking, however, is: Why should it? The Brewers are one of two teams we kept coming back to that are in a position to act in a manner in which we’ve never really seen them act before. The other is just a five-hour drive to the west, in Minneapolis. I’m not suggesting that it’s a slam dunk that we’ll see the Brewers and Twins shatter their longstanding small-market perception; however, there’s an argument to be made for both teams to give serious consideration to spending far more aggressively this winter than they have in years past.
The 2017 season was a similar tale for both the Brewers and the Twins. Each club was largely written off heading into the 2017 season as they sought to continue rebuilding with an eye more toward 2018 and beyond than toward 2017. Last winter, the Twins’ biggest expenditure was a $24.5MM contract for veteran catcher Jason Castro. The Brewers spent $16MM on KBO reclamation project Eric Thames. The moves were not met with excessive fanfare.
But both the Brewers and Twins saw the majority of their young, potential core pieces take a step forward. Travis Shaw and Domingo Santana broke out with three-win seasons in Milwaukee, while Thames made good on his investment. Jimmy Nelson, Chase Anderson and Zach Davies led a surprisingly strong rotation, and Corey Knebel announced his presence as one of the best relievers on the planet.
Over in Minnesota, Byron Buxton rebounded from a terrible start and batted .274/.333/.452 over his final 459 PAs with elite defense. Miguel Sano hit 28 homers in 114 games before a stress reaction from a foul ball to the shin cut his season short. Eddie Rosario belted 26 homers, Jorge Polanco posted a 128 wRC+ in the second half, and Jose Berrios established himself as a useful big league starter. Joe Mauer even quietly rebounding to hit .305/.384/.417 (116 wRC+).
Suddenly, both teams look like potential contenders not just in 2018 but for the foreseeable future. The Twins share a division with the rebuilding White Sox and Tigers. The Royals are set to lose Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas to free agency after already having bid adieu to Wade Davis and Greg Holland in recent years. In 2018, at least, the AL Central outlook is promising for the Twins and the Indians.
Milwaukee will have to deal with the Cubs, Cardinals and Pirates in 2018, but the Bucs had a tough season and will soon have to seriously entertain trade offers for both Andrew McCutchen (a free agent next winter) and Gerrit Cole (a free agent the following offseason). The Cardinals are expected to radically alter their roster after a pair of disappointing seasons. The Cubs have work to do on the pitching front. Any of those teams could contend next year.
One advantage that both the Brewers and Twins have over their division rivals, though, is a largely blank payroll slate moving forward. Even after arbitration projections, the Twins have just $85.5MM on the books for the 2018 season. After the coming year, that commitment drops to $24MM. Minnesota doesn’t have a single dollar committed to the books in 2020.
It’s an even more favorable situation in Milwaukee (at least as far as 2018 is concerned). The Brewers have just $55MM committed payroll (including arbitration projections) and $31.5MM of guaranteed cash on the 2019 books. The recent extension of Chase Anderson gives them club options over the right-hander for the 2019-20 seasons, and Milwaukee also holds a 2020 option on Thames. Ryan Braun is the only guaranteed contract on the 2020 ledger, and his front-loaded deal will call for just a $16MM salary that season. That wide-open payroll was a large reason that the Brewers were connected to Justin Verlander on the summer trade market; the injury to Jimmy Nelson perhaps only adds impetus to the pursuit of a significant hurler.
Further working in the favor of both traditionally low-payroll clubs is the fact that many of the big-market teams that typically dominate free agency are either taking a step back on spending in 2017-18 or figure to focus their spending on areas other than the Twins and Brewers, who both need pitching help. It’s possible to imagine scenarios where the best pitchers don’t generate feverish bidding frenzies — perhaps allowing surprise suitors to participate in the market in a more measured way than the Diamondbacks did with their sudden and massive outlay for Zack Greinke.
The Yankees, for instance, have bluntly stated that they plan to get under the luxury tax barrier in advance of the 2018-19 mega crop of free agents (featuring Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, Charlie Blackmon, Clayton Kershaw, Craig Kimbrel and many others). The Red Sox’ primary focus seems like it’ll be on adding a significant bat to the lineup rather than adding arms. The Giants have often played at the top of the free-agent market, but they’re already on the cusp of the luxury tax threshold before making a single move. The Angels have money to spend but have already committed to Justin Upton and still need to add a pair of infielders. The Tigers won’t spend much this winter as they kick off an aggressive rebuild. The Rangers are attempting to scale back their payroll by $10MM or so. The Nationals surpassed the luxury tax line in 2017 and already have a pair of $25MM+ annual salaries in Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg.
There will still be large-market teams looking to spend, of course. The Cubs need to add at least two arms in the rotation and could conceivably target as many as three bullpen additions. The Dodgers have reportedly been aiming to gradually pare back the payroll but of course still figure to spend some money this offseason, even if this current front-office regime hasn’t made a habit of top-level free-agent expenditures. Even the Phillies, once one of the team’s highest-payroll clubs prior to this rebuild, could begin throwing some dollars around this winter now that several of their own young players (e.g. Rhys Hoskins, Aaron Nola, Aaron Altherr, Odubel Herrera, Nick Williams) are showing promise at the big league level with others on the cusp.
That said, the Twins and Brewers nonetheless find themselves in the unique position of having pristine long-term payroll outlooks with a burgeoning young core carving out its foothold in the Majors. With several big-market teams likely to eschew massive contracts, they’ll have the opportunity to perhaps be unusually competitive when it comes to names for whom they’d traditionally be outbid. None of this is to say that Minnesota or Milwaukee should be considered the odds-on favorites to sign a Yu Darvish or Jake Arrieta, but it stands to reason that both could consider those types of moves far more closely than we’re traditionally accustomed to seeing. In fact, as I was finishing writing this piece, FanRag’s Jon Heyman reported that the Twins are indeed expected to consider a run at top-tier names like Darvish, Arrieta, Alex Cobb and Lance Lynn. And Brewers owner Mark Attanasio told Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel in late September that the team’s financial flexibility may allow it to “punch a little bit above [its] weight.”
Trades will, as ever, factor into the decision-making process for both clubs this winter. Each still has a number of intriguing prospects despite the significant amount of graduations in recent years, and there’s something to be said for pursuing a controllable arm from the Rays, Pirates or Cardinals — organizations that possess multiple intriguing young pitchers that could conceivably be dangled on the trade market this offseason. However, those markets figure to be ultra-competitive, and part of the way in which the Twins and Brewers got to their current standpoint was by stockpiling young prospects and filling out their roster with that talent. Maintaining a quality pipeline of high-upside talent will remain a priority in both markets.
All of which leads back to the idea that the Twins, who haven’t topped $110MM in payroll since 2011, and Brewers, who have never opened the season with even a $105MM payroll, could be more aggressive than any would expect based on history. Some will roll their eyes at the notion, and it may prove in the end that neither lands a top-ranked free agent, but both Milwaukee and Minnesota are in excellent position to alter their image this offseason if they find an opportunity to their liking.