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If you’re the Twins, would you rather have Jake Arrieta or Chris Archer?

Jon Morosi wrote a Winter Meetings preview that published this weekend, and it tied the Twins to two interesting big-name starting pitchers: Jake Arrieta and Chris Archer.

They both would improve the starting rotation. Each one represents a group of top-shelf pitchers and a way in which the Twins could acquire more pitching this winter. Arrieta is a free agent; Archer is a trade candidate. In that way, this column isn’t just about Morosi’s suggestion that the Twins could be in on each pitcher. This is about a broader topic. Should a team like the Twins prefer to trade for an ace or buy one? Let’s use the comparison to dig into that question.

Age

An average aging curve suggests baseball players are in their athletic prime in their 20s, but great athletes can and often do continue to perform into their 30s. The older you get, the more surprising a great season becomes. Ervin Santana just had one of the best years of his career, and it surprised a lot of people in part because Erv will turn 35 in December. Paying a guy to pitch for you in his age 32 season isn’t so scary. But at the same time, signing that 30-year-old to a 6-year contract could – and should – give teams some other things to consider.

Arrieta will be 32 on Opening Day.

Archer will be 29.

All else being equal, you’d rather have Archer.

Contract demands

This is where we have to just make an educated guess. Now that Shohei Ohtani has agreed to join the Angels, Arrieta is either the most coveted or second-most coveted starting pitcher available in free agency. That depends on what teams think of Yu Darvish and, perhaps, his World Series meltdown. MLB Trade Rumors predicted that Arrieta would land a 4-year contract worth $100 million. FanGraphs editor Dave Cameron is projecting a 4-year, $96 million contract.

I don’t know exactly what Arrieta will sign for. I think some team will convince themselves that he’s an important piece to a championship bid, and he’ll easily top $20 million per season.

Archer has a significant advantage in this area, too. He’s under contract for four more seasons, if you include the $9 million team option for 2020 and the $11 million team option for the 2021 season. I do, because things would really have to go wrong for Archer for those numbers to not be a good value for his club. Add it up and it’s four years and $33.75 million for Archer.

Let’s say Arrieta will get that 4-year deal worth exactly $100 million. That’s an average of about $16.5 million more per season compared with Archer’s contract.

The clear winner is Archer in that regard.

Signing Alex Cobb — or several other choice free agents — would cost Twins a high draft pick

Which one is a better pitcher?

Each one is an ace. For some people, this question will be the most important arm of the debate. For others, it’s the least. (The latter group would much rather spend time considering whether the excess contract value and age discrepancy is worth the trade-off in prospects forfeited.)

Arrieta had a storybook 2015 season in which he won the N.L. Cy Young award with his sparkly 1.77 ERA. Archer has run better strikeout rates while pitching in the more difficult league.

Here’s a look at the past 3 seasons combined. Which pitcher would you prefer to have?

ERA Innings K% BB%
Pitcher A 3.77 614 1/3 28.6% 7.5%
Pitcher B 2.71 594 2/3 24.8% 7.3%

Source: Baseball-Reference.com.

If we really had to choose between these two pitchers I’d want to go much deeper than this. We could adjust for strength of opponent, and adjust for league and ballpark and all sorts of other things. We’d assess injury risk and on and on. But this is just an exercise to get us thinking about the choices the Twins will have this week.

Pitcher B is Arrieta. Pitcher A is Archer. Arrieta has a Cy Young award and a World Series title. Archer has pitched in the American League East for his whole career.

Paying cash vs. prospects

For me, this is the most important question to pose in this theoretical debate. Top-shelf starting pitchers don’t come free. Would you rather pay in cash or pay in prospects?

For me, it depends how close you think you are to winning a World Series. If you lost 100 games last year, why would you take a bite out of your farm system to get a deal done for a veteran player? But if you won 100 games and got squeezed out in the League Championship Series, are you sure you’re going to earn your way back to that same spot in 5 years – when that prospect gets to the big leagues and becomes a star (maybe)? In that second case, maybe it’s better to capitalize on the perceived value of the prospects or prospects and get the player that’s ready to help you today. We can ask the Astros in 5 years if they regret giving up some good prospects for Justin Verlander and a World Series trophy.

The Twins are kind of smack in the middle of those groups. They lost 100 games two years ago, but it doesn’t look to me like that roster is devoid of talent. Then again, even in amazing turnaround season, they only won 85 games, and if we’re being completely honest, they were aided in making the postseason by several other American League teams that just stopped running before reaching the finish line. Don’t get me wrong: the Twins players deserve a lot of credit for the way the 2017 season unfolded. It’s just that snagging the second Wild Card in the American League doesn’t necessarily lock up a postseason spot next season. It doesn’t necessarily require the front office to send a top prospect like Nick Gordon out of town in a trade for a win-now type of player.

If I was the Twins, I think I’d rather spend cash right now – not prospects. That favors Arrieta. Of course, it depends on the price in contract for one pitcher and the price in prospects for the other. I don’t know those costs as of this writing. So I can only address that philosophical debate by saying that in general I’d prefer to spend a more renewable resource like cash.

What would it cost to trade for four years of Chris Archer? That’s hard to say.

Justin Verlander was worth three good prospects to the Astros. They sent Franklin Perez (at the time ranked No. 3 in Houston’s system by MLB.com), Daz Cameron (No. 9) and Jake Rogers (No. 11).

Sonny Gray cost the Yankees three top prospects as well. Oakland sent Gray to the Bronx and in exchange got back Dustin Fowler (No. 4), Jorge Mateo (No. 8) and James Kaprielian (No. 12).

Those were midseason trades, and the value of return will always depend on how many years remain on a contract and the dollar value of that contract. But it’s just to illustrate the point that starting pitchers that make a difference do not come cheaply.

From my perspective, it’d be near impossible for Twins to play the kind of negotiating game that many fans seem to want. That’s the game where you ask for a great player on a good contract from another team, and then hand that team a list of the 15 players you wouldn’t under any circumstances consider moving in a trade. It won’t work like that.

The Twins have a little bit of prospect ammo, and could get involved in a trade conversation for a guy like Archer if they really wanted to offer up some of their desirable chips – whether that’s a prospect or a guy who’s already surfaced in the Majors.

On the other hand, they also could afford to pay $20+ million per season for a free agent if they wanted to do that.

One other thing worth noting on the cash vs. prospects debate is that Arrieta would, indirectly, cost the Twins a prospect. Since he rejected the Qualifying Offer from the Cubs, the Twins could need to forfeit a draft pick in next summer’s draft for the right to sign Arrieta. (It would be around pick No. 75 overall.) That future draft pick isn’t a prospect yet, but it would turn into one if the Twins do their job correctly.

Twins GM Thad Levine was a guest on The Scoop podcast recently, and he was asked about a specific free agent not named Arrieta. Instead of answering the specific, he spoke more generally. I feel like his answer offers some insight into the way the Twins are thinking about this question.

“One thing that has been made very clear to us through our conversations with ownership and our team president [Dave St. Peter] is that they want to know what it would cost to acquire talent out on the marketplace,” Levine said. “They want to know if we’d recommend going to that great length to acquire players on the marketplace. So the conception that maybe we’re only allowed to pursue certain players at certain dollar amounts – I can attest to [that] is not necessarily the case. … If it’s the right guy and it’s the right time and we recommend it, I think we’ll at least have the ability to have an audience to have that conversation.”

“How that ultimately goes, that’s for down the road. But that’s the part that I’m excited about,” he said.

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Previous Story St. Paul native and Twins great Jack Morris is headed to Cooperstown Next Story Report: Twins among ‘high volume’ of interested clubs regarding trade talks for Rays ace Chris Archer