Eddie Rosario picked the wrong year — and wrong era — to get paid

In his last full season with the Twins in 2019, Eddie Rosario hit 32 home runs and drove in 109 runs. He batted cleanup a whopping 127 times that season for a team that broke the Major League Baseball record for home runs, became affectionately known as The Bomba Squad and won 101 games.

On a pro-rated basis, his 2020 pandemic-shortened season was quite similar. If he would have had 590 plate appearances — Rosario had 592, 589 and 590 the previous three seasons, so that’s a reasonable benchmark — Rosario’s 13 homers and 42 RBI over 231 plate appearances, more than half of them batting cleanup, would have translated into 33 homers and 107 RBI.

A generation ago, those numbers would have almost automatically qualified Rosario, a 29-year-old power hitter in his prime, as a franchise player in line for a big contract — particularly as a success story who has spent a decade with the organization after being drafted as a teenager in 2010.

Perhaps even a few years ago, before the Twins changed leadership, Rosario would have been in line for a big-money deal.

It’s possible that even a season ago, if faced with the dilemma of either paying him roughly $10 million for the upcoming season or letting him walk for nothing, the Twins would have ponied up the money.

But this era in particular and this year specifically are combining forces to lead the Twins to one of two decisions: either work out a below-market deal to keep Rosario or non-tender him and let him become a free agent when a deadline for such a move arrives Wednesday night.

If you’re wondering: What the heck? Isn’t Rosario one of the Twins’ best players? Why would they just let him go?

Here is a brief explanation:

Baseball has moved in two directions, both of which devalue a player like Rosario: away from traditional counting stats like home runs and RBI in favor of advanced metrics that paint him as more of an average corner outfielder; and away from paying productive non-star players once they start to get older and more expensive.

The second of those directions — the love of cost-controlled young players as cheap replacements for productive veterans — is particularly damaging to Rosario in 2020, as MLB owners stare down an estimated $3 billion in lost revenue from the pandemic with more losses likely to come in 2021.

So while 30 home runs and 100 RBI used to be benchmarks for major success, we now know that Rosario surely benefitted from his spot in the batting order and other factors to achieve those numbers in 2019 (and the pace for those numbers in 2020).

We can compare his OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) from the past few years (right around .800) and determine that it’s nothing special. Not bad — but replaceable for a corner outfielder.

We can evolve beyond just knowing that he led AL outfielders in assists as a rookie to find that in many years he’s been a below-average fielder despite having adequate speed and a strong arm.

And perhaps most importantly, we can look at the Twins minor league system and see Alex Kirilloff (and to a degree Brent Rooker) ready to replace Rosario’s production for a tiny fraction of the cost.

Add it up, and leveraging Rosario’s place in the baseball economy to either get him cheap or give him up — despite his popularity and his seeming place as an emotional leader on the Twins — becomes the sort of shrewd business decision an analytics-minded front office would make, particularly in 2020.

It just happens to be terrible for Rosario, a fun player who is productive despite his flaws and who still qualifies as one of the players in the Twins lineup I’d most want to see up with the game on the line.

If you’re in favor of good players getting paid, I’m afraid 2020 isn’t your year — and the 2020s aren’t your decade.

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