Last week the Minnesota Twins signed starting pitcher Pablo López to a four-year, $73.5MM contract extension. Marlins beat writer Craig Mish had the first scoop last Monday, and the Twins made an official announcement Friday.
Minnesota clearly believes in López enough to trade away Luis Arráez, their beloved All-Star, then three months later make López the highest-paid pitcher in team history. With an AAV under $18.5MM, López could be a massive bargain for a potential ace in his prime years.
Ace Up Their Sleeve
When the Twins decided to pull the trigger on the trade, their front office understood the return had to be worthwhile. Pablo López—the headliner in the package shipped north—seems to be the savior the franchise needed.
So far in 2023, López boasts a 3.00 ERA (2.46 xERA, 2.82 FIP, 3.05 SIERA), 1.033 WHIP, and 39 strikeouts and only eight walks through 30.0 innings.
Through five starts, López has looked better than advertised. Flashing ace potential early on, the results suggest he’s steadily improving. Perhaps more importantly, the Twins have a top-three rotation in baseball, which would’ve been impossible to believe just a year ago.
The New and Improved Pablo
Pablo López is no stranger to hot starts, but he hasn’t been able to maintain that same success into the second half. In the first half of 2021, he had a 3.03 ERA and 111 strikeouts in 101.0 innings. Limited to just 1.2 innings, his second half was all but lost. Then in the first half of 2022, he improved to a 2.86 ERA and 101 strikeouts in 104.0 innings. Conversely, in his unremarkable second half, he had a 4.97 ERA with 73 strikeouts in 76.0 innings.
While this could simply be another superb start for López, he’s made changes this season that suggest otherwise. First of all, his velocity is up about a tick and a half from last year. Next, he essentially replaced the cutter with the sweeper. And last, he’s striking out a third of the batters he faces.
Through 164 fastballs thrown so far this season, López has averaged 95.0 mph, in contrast to the 93.6 he averaged last year. His four-seamer isn’t an exceptional pitch necessarily, but the added velocity has made his changeup nastier. Last season hitters slugged .423 on the fastball, but slug .471 so far this year. On the flip side, last year, hitters slugged .374 on the changeup, but so far slug just .080 this year. The changeup is being thrown less (21.4% vs. 35.3% in 2022), but it’s never been more dangerous (41.4% strikeout rate). And it may not even be his most dangerous pitch anymore.
The single most impactful change López made this year might just be the addition of the sweeper, instead of his cutter. He throws the new pitch 20.8% of the time, yielding great results by getting 44.4% whiffs. Last year’s cutter was by far his worst pitch, as hitters whiffed at a 24.4% clip, but slugged .696 against him. Swapping the cutter for a legitimate weapon obviously helps López’ strikeout rate, too, as the sweeper outperforms the cutter 42.9% to 8.2%.
Trading a fan favorite—not to mention All-Star and batting champion—can’t be an easy decision, but it’s paying off. The Twins’ calculated pursuit could be a major turning point for this franchise, desperate to win again in October.
Lower Risk, Higher Reward
Minneapolis has seldom, if ever, been a preferred destination for free agents looking to sign somewhere. So Minnesota’s execution of the trade-to-extend might be the closest the team gets to signing a star pitcher. It’s also generally savvy.
Combined with his $5.5MM salary this season, the Twins will pay Pablo López roughly $79.0MM over the course of five years. This past offseason, there were a few comparable free agent contracts, but Chris Bassitt‘s and Carlos Rodón‘s are the most notable. Both players would have been ideal fits for the Twins prior to the trade with the Marlins, so let’s compare.
One of the main advantages to extending a player is that a team has them under contract while they’re younger. Both of these pitchers are older than 27-year-old López, as Rodón is 30, and Bassitt is 34. Additionally, Bassitt and Rodón signed three-year, $21.0MM and six-year, $27.0MM deals, respectively. Combining López’ $5.5MM salary in 2023 with his extension, the Twins managed to sign him for five years, $79.0MM, and an overall AAV of $15.8MM.
Only time will tell which of these contracts works out best for their respective team, but the Twins positioned themselves well. It’ll look even smarter if López becomes the bona fide ace Minnesota has been searching for, at half the price they’d half to pay on the open market.
Just Getting Started
Pablo López’ Baseball Savant page certainly looks like one you’d expect for an ace. The overall strikeout numbers are up, from 23.6% a season ago to 32.2% now. The increased velocity and improved pitch arsenal are exactly what you’d want from a pitcher in his prime, taking the next step. At a reasonable rate, The Twins may have found their cornerstones in the rotation and up the middle. All the while, they’ll maintain spending flexibility, ideally for a few deep October runs.
Though starters have yet to be announced, Pablo López’ next start will likely be this weekend against the Kansas City Royals at Target Field.