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Inside Twins’ clubhouse, fantasy football league takes center stage

The 12-team league, which has been around for 15-plus years and has a rotating cast of participants each season, has provided players and staff members another competitive outlet as well as an

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Minnesota Twins
Minnesota Twins relief pitcher Emilio Pagan throws against the Detroit Tigers in April at Target Field. Pagan is a member of the fantasy football league in the Twins' clubhouse.
Nick Wosika / USA Today Sports
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MINNEAPOLIS -- After watching their fantasy football team lose its matchup last week with Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts sitting on the bench, 7-year-old Gunnar Gray had a commandment for his co-general manager.

“He looked at me crazy and said, ‘You’ve got to play him, dad, every time,’ ” Twins pitcher Sonny Gray said. “And I said, ‘Well then, do you want me to trade Patrick Mahomes this week?’ And he said, ‘Yeah,’ and I was like, ‘Alright, alright.’ ”

Flush with quarterback talent, the Grays found a trade partner in relief pitcher Emilio Pagan, who was willing to part with Saints running back Alvin Kamara, who he himself received in an earlier trade with Michael Fulmer, for Mahomes after watching his own team’s quarterback, Trey Lance, suffer a season-ending ankle injury.

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Sonny Gray

Spend some time in the Twins clubhouse these days and you’re likely to hear people discussing their fantasy football league or lobbing trade proposals back and forth. The 12-team league, which has been around for 15-plus years and has a rotating cast of participants each season, has provided players and staff members another competitive outlet as well as an opportunity to bond and a chance to take their minds briefly off the day-to-day grind of the baseball season. While some players compete in the fantasy league on their own, others partner with staff members who take on more of the day-to-day GM duties.

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Emilio Pagan

“Yeah, it’s fun. Yeah, it’s competition. But it’s also a way for us to bond more over more than just like, ‘Hey, what were you thinking here? What was your approach there?’ ” Pagan said. “It’s a way to kind of keep it light. It’s a lot of fun.”

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It’s fun, but it’s also taken seriously. While players might not be getting into fights over it — then-Reds outfielder Tommy Pham slapped Giants outfielder Joc Pederson over a fantasy football dispute earlier this season, earning himself a suspension — there’s plenty of trash talk being flung around.

An active league

After all, there was a hefty buy-in and a prize each week for the highest scorer, which keeps general managers engaged. Many participants said they had never been in a league as active as this one.

First-base coach Hank Conger is among those always on the lookout for a trade — though his proposals aren’t always met favorably.

Nobody took him up on his offer to swap his third overall pick for a second- and third-rounder, and after Conger tried to empty his bench in a trade, offering five players for a pair of back-up running backs, Gray called him out on the group text for his weak trade offers.

Reliever Griffin Jax’s issue with Conger’s proposals isn’t so much what’s being offered as much as when, though he did also say most of Conger’s offers are “really bad trades.”

“What he tries to do is he tries to send a trade at 5:15 in the morning,” Jax said. “He tries to get you to wake up really groggy and then accidentally click accept rather than decline, so he tries to weasel his way into a trade that way.”

What’s he even doing up at 5:15 a.m. anyways?

“Sometimes when feeding the breast milk (to newborn daughter Kenna), things just happen to pop in my head at 5:15 in the morning. Yes, I did that one time,” Conger admitted. “Being a GM, you never get sleep.”

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His current mission is to try to pry away Christian McCaffrey, who was the second overall pick, from “Duck Bustin,” a team composed of center fielder Byron Buxton and vice president of communications and content Dustin Morse.

The duo, who are in their seventh season as fantasy football partners, haven’t budged, though Morse estimated the persistent Conger has offered up half a dozen offers for McCaffrey.

Over the last road trip, Morse turned down 11 trade proposals, most for McCaffrey or Saquon Barkley. Upon returning home, teammates trekked over to Buxton’s locker, hoping to find a more interested trade partner.

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“Duck Bustin” hasn’t swung a trade yet, riding the team it drafted to a perfect 3-0 start this season. That remains one of the only undefeated teams, along with Pagan’s squad.

Shortstop Carlos Correa’s team, which is run by advance scouting analyst Holden Bridge, slipped to 0-3, and at one point last week before their latest loss, Correa joked in the clubhouse that his general manager was on the hot seat.

Running analytics

Competitors point to Pagan and Bailey Ober’s teams as two of the strongest. In their PPR league, which has two flex spots, both stocked up on wide receivers in early rounds. With the fourth overall pick, Ober nabbed Vikings star Justin Jefferson, the first receiver off the board.

Ober, who was on the injured list at the time, drafted from his phone in the car on the way back to Fort Myers, Fla., from a rehab start in Bradenton. It was his fourth fantasy draft of the year. In preparation for the draft, which was held on an off day at the team hotel in Chicago, Pagan ran mocks from each draft position to make sure he had his strategy down pat.

But if that sounds intense, consider this: Some of the more analytically-minded staff members used spreadsheets to inform their selections, and Conger enlisted the help of vice president of baseball operations strategy and innovation Josh Kalk to help create a projected points above replacement method — think WAR (wins above replacement) but for fantasy football.

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“I’m sure all those guys have an algorithm or something,” Ober said. “I’m sure they’re around the computer before the draft — like probably still are, trying to throw an algorithm together to see who to start.”

But for all the barbs back and forth, the participants appreciate the league for what it is: a chance to strengthen ties within the clubhouse.

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Griffin Jax

“It’s a good way to stay in touch with the guys, even after the season,” Jax said. “A lot of the guys in the clubhouse won’t be around here next year, trades, that kind of thing, so it’s a good way to keep a pretty good friendship going on, and it’s just fun to talk about for the next couple of months.”

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