What Will Twins Do About Sonny Gray and His Impending Free Agency?
The Minnesota Twins have a lot of pieces from their 2023 American League Division Series roster returning for the upcoming 2024 season. But there are plenty of questions they need to answer this offseason, too, the most pressing of which, is what they are going to do about impending unrestricted free agent, Sonny Gray.
There were some really tough goodbyes happening in the clubhouse after the game, especially with Sonny Gray. This clubhouse and organization clearly meant a lot to him. From him to Buxton to Kepler, everyone raved about how uniquely tight this clubhouse was all year.— Do-Hyoung Park (@dohyoungpark) October 12, 2023
Sonny Gray was the Minnesota Twins’ best player in 2023
Sonny wasn’t just good during the regular season. He was the team’s best player. You can argue semantics and what type of player matters more to a Major League Baseball team, but it’s not worth it. Because, there’s a statistic for that now.
It’s called WAR (see below) and Gray had the Twins’ best 2023 WAR, by far. That’s by both Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs. His 5.3 rWAR was a full two points higher than the two Twins tied for 2nd most, behind him (Pablo Lopez and Ryan Jeffers – 3.3 WAR). At FG, where they measure WAR a bit differently, his 5.3 fWAR came in 0.5 points higher than Lopez’ 4.8 WAR.
WAR or “Wins Above Replacement”: “A single number that presents the number of wins the player added to the team above what a replacement player (think AAA or AAAA) would add. This value includes defensive support and includes additional value for high leverage situations.” – Baseball-Reference.com
- 8+ | MVP Quality
- 5+ | All-Star Quality
- 2+ | Starter
- 0-2 | Reserve
- < 0 | Replacement Level
“WAR offers an estimate to answer the question, “If this player got injured and their team had to replace them with a freely available minor leaguer or a AAAA player from their bench, how much value would the team be losing?” This value is expressed in a wins format, so we could say that Player X is worth +6.3 wins to their team while Player Y is only worth +3.5 wins, which means it is highly likely that Player X has been more valuable than Player Y.” – Fangraphs.com
- 0-1 | Scrub
- 1-2 | Role Player
- 2-3 | Solid Starter
- 3-4 | Good Player
- 4-5 | All-Star
- 5-6 | Superstar
- 6+ | MVP
Oh, you’re more of an old-school baseball fan, when it comes to statistics. That’s fine. Sonny Gray led the Minnesota Twins starting pitchers in most statistical categories fans care about/know most, including ERA (2.79), ERA+ (154), FIP (2.83), H/9 (7.6) and HR/9 (0.4). Any categories that he didn’t finish 1st on the team, he probably came in 2nd behind ace, Pablo Lopez.
On paper, signing Sonny Gray to a new contract seems like a no-brainer for the Minnesota Twins. But, as usual, the situation is far more complicated than that.
The biggest complicator is Gray’s age. At 33, he’s by far the oldest of the Twins 2023 starters and at an age where regression could be right around the corner. At the same time, there are plenty of the league’s best pitchers who are over the age of 35 and have even gotten better as they’ve climbed their 30’s.
Sonny isn’t going to take a discount to stay with the Twins and he doesn’t have arbitration years left on his current deal, like Pablo Lopez had, before he signed a team-friendly long-term extension earlier this year. That means, the medium-market Twins are going to have to compete with the big market players, to keep him.
No matter what, you can expect the Minnesota front office to make Sonny Gray a “Qualifying Offer”, which is an official way of saying, ‘we’d like to have you back, for one more season, at the bottom of market value’, AKA: $20 million.
Gray, because he can more money and a longer term elsewhere, is expected to decline the Twins’ QO, which would send him to free agency. Should that happen and Sonny lands somewhere other than Minnesota, the Twins would get a 2nd-round compensatory draft pick, in return for him rejecting the qualifying offer and going elsewhere.
So… what ends up happening?
Sonny Gray is going to be paid like a top pitcher, this offseason. Not an elite, proven postseason 1-year contract killer like Max Scherzer or Justin Verlander ($45 million) and maybe not even Gerrit Cole status, is working on a $36M/YR deal with the Yankees.
But certainly, Gray is worthy of $25-$30 million per year on 3-4 year contract, which will put him in the same category as Marcus Stroman, Yu Darvish and Zack Wheeler; a multi-year top-pitcher tier.
The Minnesota Twins’ 2023 payroll was $159.6 million. That’s good for 16th in the MLB. Most of their roster will return for 2024, under the same or higher salaries. So, even without Sonny Gray, their 2024 payroll will start at around $150 million next season.
Of course, bringing Gray back would impact other roster decisions during the offseason. But, should they find a way to do so, I can’t see competitive roster that comes in under $165 million. Are the Twins willing to make that type of investment in a 33-year-old starting pitcher, coming off of his best season?
The answer to that could come down to TV money. Their contract with Bally Sports North does not run into 2024. Should they renew it, for a comparable amount to what they got from Diamond Sports (Bally’s parent company) in 2023, then maybe they are willing to run their payroll up that high.
But should they venture into the unknown and try operating their own TV contracts, the way the MLB is doing with select other markets, running a payroll that high would be a business risk I’m not sure the Pohlads would be willing to take, even in an age where they’ve spent way more than ever before.
Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan