MINNEAPOLIS — The Twins had just arrived in Fort Myers for the beginning of spring training last February when it was announced right fielder Max Kepler and shortstop Jorge Polanco had signed contract extensions that would pay them $35 million and $25.75 million, respectively, over the next five years.
The hope among the Twins and their fan base had to be that this would be only the beginning when it came to doling out contract extensions to the core group of younger players who had come up through the system. This included starter Jose Berrios, center fielder Byron Buxton, left fielder Eddie Rosario and third baseman Miguel Sano.
In an ideal world, all four would have forced the team’s hand by having good enough seasons that the Twins would have wanted to buy out their arbitration years, not to mention the beginning of free agency, and the deals would have made the Kepler and Polanco contracts looked small by comparison. The fact the Twins entered Tuesday’s game against Washington atop the AL Central by five games with an 88-55 record would have led you to believe that had happened.
Unfortunately, that hasn’t be the case.
Seven months after Kepler and Polanco signed, the Twins brass likely will be hesitant to approach Berrios, Buxton, Rosario or Sano with any type of contract that could be agreed upon. If any of the four wants to sign a long-term, team-friendly deal, chief baseball officer Derek Falvey is certain to jump at the chance. But as far as the break-the-bank contract offers that might have come with a breakout season from Berrios, Buxton, Rosario or Sano that hasn’t come close to happening.
The two most important are Buxton and Berrios.
Buxton is one of the most dynamic players in the major leagues when he’s on the field. He’s one of the best center fielders in the game and his speed on the bases is a nightmare for opponents. The problem is that Buxton can’t stay healthy. He made three trips to the injured list this season and on Tuesday the Twins announced he had been placed on the 60-day injured list because of a left shoulder subluxation suffered on Aug. 1 in Miami when he crashed into yet another wall.
The surgery that was performed on Buxton’s non-throwing shoulder Tuesday reportedly will result in a recovery process that takes five to six months.
Buxton, 25, has played in parts of five big-league seasons and has appeared in more than 100 games once. That came in 2017, when he played in 140 games. Last season, Buxton appeared in only 28 games as he battled injuries, including a broken toe and wrist injury, and struggled at the plate. This year was supposed to be different.
Buxton showed up at spring training a far more confident and cocky player — partially driven by the anger he felt when the Twins did not call him up on Sept. 1 last year when rosters expanded to 40 players — and felt that adding weight during the offseason would help him stay healthy. After Buxton injured himself early in the season when he crashed into the wall in Kansas City, the Twins had him player deeper so his collisions weren’t as violent.
But he made a trip to the IL in June after being hit by a pitch in the right wrist against Kansas City and then he was injured when he suffered concussion-like symptoms after diving for a ball in July in Cleveland. Buxton will finish the season with a slash line of .262/.314/.513 with 10 home runs, 46 RBIs and 14 stolen bases in 87 games.
The Twins will now have to wait to see if 2020 is the year that Buxton can stay on the field, but until that happens he remains a player who has yet to fulfill his potential.
Berrios, who like Buxton won’t be eligible for free agency until 2023, is a different case because his issues have nothing to do with injury and everything to do with being unable to put together a complete season. The feeling here has been that the 25-year-old is the Twins’ ace and has the ability to be a big-league ace, putting him in an elite group of pitchers.
There have been times he has looked like one — he has made back-to-back appearances in the All-Star Game — but the last two years the righthander has taken major steps backward in August. A year ago, Berrios had a 3.56 ERA and opponents hit .218 against him in his first 22 games, but he then posted a 4.74 ERA and had a .289 batting average against in five starts. This season, Berrios had a 2.80 ERA and opponents had a .233 batting average against him in 22 games, but those numbers bloated to 7.57 and .333 in five August starts.
Berrios rebounded on Tuesday night with a fantastic outing against the Nationals — he gave up no runs, two hits with a walk and four strikeouts in seven innings — after surrendering six runs in five innings on Sept. 4 at Boston in his previous outing.
As far as Rosario and Sano (both free agents in 2022), there is likely a better chance Rosario is traded than he signs long term in Minnesota and Sano is someone in whom it remains difficult to trust long term.
Rosario spent part of this season making a bid for the American League All-Star team, but has fallen into a funk and is consistently swinging at pitches outside the strike zone. Entering Tuesday’s game against Washington, Rosario was hitting .226/243/.377 with four home runs and 18 RBIs in the past month. Rosario’s season-long stats are very respectable — .275/.297/.490 with 28 home runs and 94 RBIs in 120 games — so he might get the Twins a decent pitcher in return. The team will need help in that area with starters Jake Odorizzi, Kyle Gibson and Michael Pineda set to become free agents.
Sano, who did not play until the middle of May this season because of an injury, was hitting .238/.339/.546 with 27 home runs and 61 RBIs in 91 games entering Tuesday. The 26-year-old is who he is at this point.
The 6-foot-4, 272-pound Sano isn’t a good third baseman — he needs to be moved to first or, ideally, designated hitter — but he is going to have stretches where he hits tape-measure home runs. Sano is also going to go through stretches where he goes 1-for-23 and looks as undisciplined at the plate as any big-league hitter. The Twins’ greatest concern with Sano, however, has to be that he will show up in Fort Myers out of shape.
Until the Twins know they can count on Sano, they can’t reward him. Until Buxton remains healthy, they can’t reward him. Until Berrios becomes consistent, they can’t reward him. Until Rosario rebounds and starts swinging at strikes, they can’t reward him.
This all means the Twins figure to save plenty of money this offseason and that’s too bad.