Happy first official day of Free Agency!
Believe it or not, the Twins have been pretty successful in free agency when they’ve actually gone out and made deals. The team has had a long list of failures on the free agent market over the years, but almost all of them have been low-cost, low risk guys like Livan Hernandez, Joe Crede, or Rondell White. Sure, they didn’t produce, but they didn’t cost much money or really hurt the team that either. On those rare occasions where they went out and spent some bucks for a top tier player, it has worked out pretty well. As an added bonus, the Twins have managed to find a few players who became stars despite a miniscule price tag.
Here, in my humble opinion, are the Top 6 Free Agent signings in Twins history:
#6: Jim Thome, DH
This was originally going to be a Top 5 list, but I couldn’t leave Thome off. He was brought partly as a low-cost, late-inning pinch hitting option and partly as a sideshow attraction, in the theory that fans would pay to see a future Hall of Famer chase 600 home runs. Not only did he succeed on both counts, he actually because the team’s most productive hitter in 2010, with a .283/.412/.610 line and 25 homers. After Justin Morneau went down with a concussion, Thome became a major presence in the lineup that helped the team to the playoffs. He earned $1.5 million in 2010, and he was brought back for $3 million in 2011 (though the Indians ended up paying a portion of that money).
#5: Chili Davis, DH
Davis signed a two year deal prior to the 1991 season that paid out $4.5 million. In 1991, that was a lot of money to spend on a hitter (Kirby Puckett had set an MLB record with his $3 million per year contract just two years earlier), but the Twins got their money’s worth right away. His 29 homers led the World Series champions, as did his 93 RBI. He also walked 95 times that year, an underrated skill on a team full of free-swingers. His power stats dropped in 1992, but he still put up a nifty .288/.386/.439 slash line, thanks to his discipline at the plate.
#4: Juan Berenguer, RHP
Pitching was something the Twins lacked in the mid 1980s. Sure, they had Frank Viola and Bert Blyleven fronting their rotation, but the other starters got knocked around – and knocked out of the game – on a regular basis. So it is doubtful that the team would have won the World Series in ’87 without some insurance in the bullpen. Enter Berenguer. The 32 year old signed a 4 year deal worth just over $2 million (total, not $2 million per year) before the 1987 season. Over the life of that deal, “Senor Smoke” threw 418.1 innings, struck out 379 batters (8.2 per 9 innings), and posted a 33-13 record with a 3.70 ERA. While Berenguer was occasionally a little wild, he was a true workhorse out of the ‘pen, throwing at least 100 innings in each of his four years with the team. That kind of bullpen durability is basically unheard of today, especially from a setup man.
#3: Paul Molitor, DH
The Twins sure have hit the jackpot signing aging designated hitters. In 1996, they brought in future Hall of Famer Molitor as their DH on a two year, $5.5 million deal. Like Thome, the Minnesota-born Molitor was brought in as a fan favorite to boost ticket sales. Though he was 39 years old, he still managed to play 161 games that season. In the process, he put up a .341/.390/.468 line and led the AL with 225 hits. One of those hits was number 3,000 for his career on September 16. Molitor didn’t rest on his laurels, though. he came back to hit .305 as a full time player in 1997, and then he signed a $4 million contract to play in 1998. He retired after that season with 3,319 career hits, but he continues to be involved in the Twins organization.
#2: Jack Morris, RHP
Molitor was one example of a brilliant strategy the Twins came up with in the 1990s: go after Minnesota-born stars, because sentimental ties might convince them to play for a team they’d otherwise ignore. Dave Winfield and Terry Steinbach both fit in that strategy. But the first Minnesota-born superstar to come home was Jack Morris.
The Twins signed Morris to an unusual contract. It was a one year, $3 million deal, but it contained two $2 million player options. Each year also contained about $700,000 worth of incentives. After the first year Morris opted out and signed with Toronto, but he sure made a big impression in that one year! Morris pitched to an 18-12 record and a 3.43 ERA. If you ignore his rough April, the numbers were even better: 16-9, 3.15. But it was the postseason that put Morris on this list. It’s pretty hard to ignore the 1.17 ERA against Atlanta or the 10 inning shutout that won him the MVP award.
#1 Brian Harper, C
Morris, Molitor, and Davis were big name free agents that got a lot of media attention. By the time Thome signed with Minnesota, 24 hour sports stations and the internet were around to make sure that everyone knew about even the smallest transaction. But when 28 year old Brian Harper came to the Twins, it’s doubtful that anyone not directly connected to the team took notice. Harper was a career third string catcher who collected a grand total of $90,000 in his first year in Minnesota. Seriously, just $90,000 (I think my boss actually makes more than that, and he couldn’t hit a curveball if his life depended on it). By 1993, Harper was pulling down $2.4 million per year, but for most of his time in Minnesota he was very affordable.
It wasn’t just a low price that puts Harper at the top of this list. Over six seasons with the team, he hit .306/.342/.431. Usually, any offense from a catcher is a bonus. In Harper’s case, he was one of the most dependable hitters on the team. He had a total of 2,691 plate appearances with Minnesota, and he only struck out 128 times. True, he only walked 111 times, but he got enough base hits to make up for it. He hit over .300 in every season with the team except 1990, and in 1990 he made up for it by hitting 42 doubles. Until Joe Mauer came along, Harper was arguably the best catcher in team history.
And like Morris and Davis, Harper was a valuable cog in the 1991 championship machine. Harper didn’t pitch any 10 innings shutouts, but he was the guy calling pitches when Morris did it. And he played solid defense during the series, including a few memorable plays at the plate.
That’s my list. As is usually the case with this type of list, I’m sure there are plenty of people who disagree with me. I almost certainly left off someone’s favorite player, and if that’s the case I apologize. I invite you to agree or disagree with my choices in the comment field below. Tell me who you would have left off, or which players you would have ranked higher.