TORONTO -- The Minnesota Twins told teams inquiring about Jose Berrios ahead of the trade deadline that they weren’t committed to trading the ace right-hander. Sure, extension talks hadn’t gone anywhere, their sense was he wanted to test free agency, he had only a season-and-a-half of contractual control left and their competitive window had cracked. But even amid those obvious asset reallocation indicators, they needed their arms twisted.
“If we hadn’t reached a bar, it’s not like we were looking for whatever the best deal was and we were just going to move him,” Derek Falvey, the Twins executive vice-president, chief baseball officer, said during an interview at the GM meetings last week. “Once we got above a certain return, we felt it would be irresponsible of me to not have that conversation with ownership and say, ‘I think this is a deal we should do for the long-term sustainability.’”
That return was Austin Martin, who was atop the Twins’ draft board in 2020 when the Toronto Blue Jays picked him fifth overall, and Simeon Woods Richardson, at 20 pitching in double-A nearly five years below the league’s average age.
In that way, GM Ross Atkins forced the issue at the deadline with a bold strike, especially considering that Berrios could hit the open market after the 2022 season. Then he and the Blue Jays forced the issue again Tuesday, agreeing to a $131-million, seven-year extension with the 27-year-old, according to an industry source.
Part of what the Blue Jays paid for at the time, it turns out, was the chance to familiarize Berrios with Toronto and an extended opportunity to pre-empt his free agency.
They needed only needed three-and-a-half months to get it done.
The deal, which is pending a physical, matches Vernon Wells’ $126-million, seven-year extension for the longest deal in franchise history, and is second in value to the $150 million over six years George Springer landed as a free agent.
Given that Berrios was projected to earn $10.9 million in arbitration next year, his contract essentially averages out to $20 million over six free-agent years, covering his age 29-34 seasons. Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reported that the deal also includes an opt-out after the fifth year, the first given by the Blue Jays to a player since A.J. Burnett in December 2005.
The move is significant on a number of fronts, first and foremost in how it locks down an ace starter through the period of contractual control for Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Bo Bichette, who will be eligible for free agency after 2025. Convincing free-agent pitchers to pitch in the American League East isn’t easy, so keeping Berrios from the market avoids the potential for other clubs to muddy the waters.
By laying down a rotation cornerstone the Blue Jays also have more freedom to operate in the current market, even if they still need to either re-sign or replace free agents Robbie Ray and Steven Matz.
Re-signing Ray would obviously be ideal, but unclear is whether the Blue Jays would be willing to tie up such a significant percentage of their payroll in the rotation. Hyun Jin Ryu is already due to earn $20 million in each of the next two seasons and Ray would certainly look at the Berrios deal as a comparable.
The Blue Jays won’t have much financial wiggle room in 2023, as no major money from ’22 comes off the books while significant raises for Bichette’s first time through arbitration, Guerrero Jr.’s second time through, Hernandez’s final turn before free agency and a bump for Berrios all hit the spreadsheet.
Some flexibility gets restored for 2024 when roughly $36 million in guarantees to Ryu, Randal Grichuk and Lourdes Gurriel Jr., plus whatever Hernandez earns in arbitration get erased, raising the question of whether the Blue Jays can carry another big-ticket pitcher for the next two years.
Complicating the issue is the club’s hope to extend Marcus Semien, or replace him with another impact infielder, while also balancing out a right-handed dominant batting lineup and bolstering a leaky bullpen that, in large measure, cost them a post-season berth.
That’s a lot of needs amid increasing payroll pressure, and one of the reasons another Berrios-esque strike with one of the open-for-business Oakland Athletics, Cincinnati Reds and Miami Marlins may be the likeliest pathway to another top-flight arm.
Such deals hurt as the Twins needed both Martin and Woods Richardson to part with Berrios and the Blue Jays will surely be wary of thinning out their farm system too aggressively.
Falvey described Martin as a “potential premium position player in the middle of the diamond” and Woods Richardson as someone who “has always performed” despite being “super young relative to his levels… who still has upside and growth in front of him.”
But that’s part of the cost in getting not only top talent, but also the financial efficiency needed on their roster to support big-ticket purchases like Springer, Ryu and now, Berrios, an extension the Twins tried to pull off but couldn’t.
“We definitely had some conversations along the way and as is every player's right, there's an opportunity to go explore once you get to free agency,” Falvey said. “And it looked like as we were getting closer to that, that was something he was going to want to see through. Now that doesn’t mean it couldn’t change for him over the course of this past year or this off-season or how he feels about Toronto, but we felt that that was going to be the case where we were.”
The Blue Jays first swayed the Twins to trade Berrios, then they swayed the right-hander to stay. That doesn’t change their needs in the short term, but their foundation is now much stronger for the long term.