Gray made it clear at the end of the 2023 season that money wasn’t the only factor in his decision and that he would be open to a reunion with the Twins, but there’s some question as to whether that’s realistic, given the club’s other needs and the stated expectation that the club’s payroll will likely decrease in ‘24.
If Gray ends up signing elsewhere, the qualifying offer process has ensured that the Twins will receive Draft pick compensation for his departure.
“That process needs to play out to some degree,” Twins president of baseball operations Derek Falvey said last month. “I’m really proud of what he accomplished over the last couple of years for us. We’ll continue to have dialogue with Sonny, but that process is going to take some time to work through the part of the free agent process that he’s earned. I’m sure he’s going to be respected through this process by a whole host of clubs.”
That could prove a significant farewell, given Gray pitched to a 2.79 ERA with 183 strikeouts in 184 innings and finished in second place for the American League Cy Young Award. He was the Twins’ leader in WAR, per both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference, and finished second in WAR among all AL pitchers, according to both.
As things stand, the Twins will be anchored in ‘24 by staff ace Pablo López, with Joe Ryan, Bailey Ober and Chris Paddack also locked into spots. The next group behind that is headlined by Louie Varland, though the Twins haven’t committed to keeping him as a starter, with other prospects like Simeon Woods Richardson and David Festa also looking to take the next step.
Will that be enough for the Twins? Probably not, if their ‘23 experience is any indication.
This past season, the Twins loaded up on enough pitching depth that Ober -- at that point, a proven MLB starter -- didn’t even have the chance to start the year in the Majors. And even while most of the rotation core stayed healthy and productive, there was enough attrition that the Twins took a chance on Dallas Keuchel to fill some innings toward the end of the year.
The Twins’ brief look at a newly healthy Paddack in the postseason gives them reason to be hopeful, and they’ll hope that Ryan and Ober will continue taking steps forward. But that still leaves a question mark in the fifth rotation spot -- and that’s not to mention the built-in breaks and load management Paddack will almost certainly require in his first full season since his recovery from a second Tommy John surgery.
Finding that help in free agency might be a tough ask for the Twins, given their expected financial constraints and the scope of the free-agent landscape, with deep-pocketed, pitching-needy teams likely to be in the bidding for Gray, Blake Snell and the other top pitchers that will almost certainly get significant multiyear deals.
The Twins have not historically been active in that market. The largest free agent commitment they’ve ever given to a pitcher is the four years, $55 million they gave to Ervin Santana ahead of the ‘15 season -- and the most they’ve given a free agent pitcher under the current front office regime is the two-year, $20 million deal they gave Michael Pineda before the ‘20 campaign.
It will likely make more sense, then, to keep an eye on the trade market, where the Falvey-Thad Levine regime has made it their M.O. to trade for cost-controlled starting pitchers when needed, with López, Gray, Tyler Mahle and Kenta Maeda all having arrived in trades before hitting free agency over the last several years.
Given that Jorge Polanco and Max Kepler are likely to draw trade interest, and the Twins' organizational depth at both corner outfield and second base, it’s worth keeping an eye on those two or perhaps younger pieces if the Twins are to make a significant splash for a pitcher that could look to fill some of Gray’s lost front-end production.