My podcast co-host and BP Annual contributor John Bonnes is in Fort Myers, Florida covering spring training for Twins Daily, and he got a few quotes from Brian Dozier about the slugging second baseman’s impending free agency:
It is very intriguing. And it’s something to get excited about. I feel like it’s always a goal of anybody at this level to reach free agency. And that’s no disrespect to this organization, because I love this organization. It is all I know. But I do know I’ll be a free agent at the end of the season. I don’t want to elaborate too much on this, but I will say: my focus really is just on this year. All that stuff takes care of itself. But also at the same time, I do know this is it. I mean, this is it. I’ll be a free agent.
Pretty standard stuff and well short of newsworthy, but for whatever reason Dozier’s quotes suddenly have Twins fans debating whether the team should make a significant effort to keep him beyond this season. It’s an interesting question, and one that figures to be asked frequently all season, so I’ll take a crack at coming up with an answer.
First, a little background. Dozier’s rise to stardom was totally unexpected, as he went from 24-year-old marginal prospect stuck at Single-A to being one of the greatest power-hitting middle infielders of all time from 27-30. He’s entering the final season of a four-year, $20 million deal that was simply intended to give the Twins cost certainty over his arbitration seasons rather than extend their team control. And this time last year, with the Twins coming off an MLB-worst 59-103 record and Dozier coming off a 42-homer breakout, many fans were upset that they hadn’t traded him for prospects when his value was high.
Instead the Twins hung onto Dozier, turning down the Dodgers’ offer of top-101 prospect Jose De Leon, and he hit .271/.359/.498 with 34 homers to help carry them to a Wild Card spot. At age 31 and with the Twins looking like contenders for the foreseeable future, Dozier is six good months from his first huge payday. And he has every reason to find free agency “intriguing.” Dozier has produced at least 4.0 WARP in three of the past four seasons, totaling 18.9 WARP in his five-plus seasons as a big leaguer—somewhere between $150 million and $200 million in value—yet his career earnings won’t surpass $20 million until late this year.
But how big will his payday actually be? And should the Twins be the team to give it to him? I think there are three key factors to consider.
1. How good has Dozier been? And how good does he project to be?
As noted above, Dozier has been hugely productive for the Twins. He’s been worth at least 3.7 WARP in four of his five full seasons, including a total of 8.7 WARP in 2016-2017 to rank fourth among all second basemen. PECOTA, which factors in Dozier’s late-bloomer status and the generally poor aging patterns of second basemen as a whole, projects him for “only” 2.5 WARP this year, although even that is still fourth-best among second basemen. His top same-age comp is another right-handed-hitting, low-average, slugging second baseman in Rickie Weeks, whose last productive season came at age 31.
Second basemen often age poorly due to injuries, but Dozier has rarely been hurt and recent rules changes will hopefully reduce collisions around the bag. Any team signing Dozier into his mid-30s must consider where they think he’ll be playing defensively at the end of the deal. He’s a good second baseman now, and actually won his first Gold Glove last season, but Dozier lacks the arm for third base and the relative value of his bat would be lower as a corner outfielder or first baseman. He’ll start the contract as a 32-year-old second baseman, but he might finish it as a 34-year-old left fielder or a 35-year-old designated hitter. There are valid reasons to worry about how Dozier will age.
2. How much do free agent second basemen usually get paid?
For the reasons mentioned above, plus other factors, second basemen have not cashed in big as free agents. Robinson Cano got a massive 10-year, $240 million contract from the Mariners following his age-30 season, but no other free agent second baseman since 2006 has signed a deal for more than $60 million. In fact, according to ESPN.com’s free agency database, Ben Zobrist is the only other free agent second baseman since 2006 to sign for more than $40 million.
Even second basemen who’ve signed long-term extensions to avoid free agency have rarely gotten more than $15 million per season. Perhaps that’s more weird factoid than meaningful tidbit, especially given that Dozier’s slugging skill set is atypical for the position, but any assumption that he’d approach a nine-figure score is at the very least not rooted in history. Neil Walker, a 32-year-old second baseman whose 115 OPS+ and 14.7 WARP since 2013 are just a shade below the 116 OPS+ and 18.5 WARP produced by Dozier, is still looking for work this offseason and may not even crack the $25 million-plus list.
3. What are the Twins’ options to replace Dozier?
Minnesota’s no. 1 (Royce Lewis), no. 2 (Nick Gordon), and no. 5 (Wander Javier) prospects are shortstops, and their current big-league starter, Jorge Polanco, is just 24 years old. All four of them are less than sure things to stick at shortstop long term, so one of them shifting to second base to replace Dozier would be a natural solution for the Twins. Lewis and Javier may not be ready for the majors in 2019, but Polanco is already there and Gordon is slated to begin this season at Triple-A. Of course, replacing Dozier and replacing Dozier are two very different things (it might take Gordon an entire career to hit 42 homers).
While trading Dozier has ceased being a consideration, the Twins would not be left empty-handed if he leaves as a free agent. Assuming that they made him a qualifying offer—and assuming that Dozier rejected it rather than return on a one-year contract worth around $18 million—the Twins would receive a second-round draft pick once he signed elsewhere. Dozier leaving would be a huge blow to the Twins in the short term, but it would free up significant payroll space, net them a valuable draft pick, and clear the position for Gordon or Polanco in 2019 and possibly Lewis or Javier in 2020.
Also of note is that, in addition to Dozier, next year’s crop of free agent second basemen includes Daniel Murphy, Ian Kinsler, DJ LeMahieu, Jed Lowrie, Logan Forsythe, Eduardo Nunez, and Asdrubal Cabrera, among others.
My guess is that the Twins are planning to let Dozier walk and replace him with Gordon, Polanco, or an inexpensive veteran stopgap. If he were open to a three- or four-year extension at around $15 million per season, that might be tempting enough to change those plans, but even then the Twins would need to consider what kind of value he’ll have at age 34 or 35 and which younger, cheaper players he’d be blocking at second base or a spot lower on the defensive spectrum. On a one- or two-year deal retaining Dozier would be close to a no-brainer, but even with the underwhelming history of free agent second basemen there’s seemingly little reason for him to bypass the open market for a short-term contract.
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