The Twins Are Taking a Huge Risk

After signing starting pitcher Jason Marquis to a $3 million contract for 2012, it would appear that GM Terry Ryan is bumping up against that $100 million payroll limit that he and other Twins brass have been talking about ever since Ryan took over the club. The question tossed about throughout Twinsville since then has revolved around just how hard or soft that limit is.

I think we now have our answer. It’s a pretty darn hard cap.

I’ve heard and read a lot of comments about how there are still several weeks before Spring Training kicks off and that the Twins always seem to be adding more pieces to their roster after we all ring in the new year. In order to determine whether that’s fact or myth, I did a little research (actually, VERY little research) and came up with the following roster additions in January and February over the past three years:

Luis Ayala, as a Twin in March 2009

2009: Joe Crede and Luis Ayala

2010: Jacque Jones, Jim Thome and Clay Condrey (Edit: And Orlando Hudson! Hat tip to reader Gamerscrows for pointing out the omission!)

2011: Jim Thome, Carl Pavano and Dusty Hughes

Obviously, Thome and Pavano last year were re-signings, but they were free agents so they “count” for our purposes. Thome and Hudson in 2010 and Crede in 2009 certainly constituted significant signings.

I spent all of about 20 minutes looking this stuff up, so if I missed any “new year” additions, I apologize, but based on their activity the past three seasons, I’m not optimistic that the Twins will be shocking all of us with big roster changes before pitchers and catchers report to Ft. Myers in February.

I keep going back and forth on this $100 payroll cap thing. At first, I was somewhat livid about it. After a while, I tried to understand where the Twins were forecasting lower revenues and why this might reasonably lead them to lower the payroll.

For a while, I arrived at an uneasy peace with the decision, as long as it comes with plenty of payroll space to add significant help at midseason if the Twins are somewhere approaching contention at that time. After all, isn’t it reasonable for ownership to tell the returning core of the team to put up some numbers to prove they aren’t as bad as those 99 losses in 2011 makes them appear to be?

But in the end, I still think it’s just a terrible decision, both from a competitive standpoint and a public relations perspective. For an organization with a long-time reputation as being one of the better run teams in baseball, I’m afraid they’ve really screwed things up with this decision and they’ll be fortunate if things just happen to fall right and prevent another long-term dark era, similar to the mid-to-late 1990s.

Think for just a moment about how different things would feel (both to fans and to the returning players) if Terry Ryan had made all the same moves he’s already made PLUS signing a Mark Buehrle or Edwin Jackson type of pitcher. The result would be a payroll roughly at the same level as last season, but the message would have been: “We aren’t satisfied with just getting back up to 2010 level of competitiveness, we believe 2011 was a fluke and we’re going to go out and compete with the Tigers in 2012.”

True, if Mauer, Morneau, Span and Baker don’t return to give healthy production, the team would likely be out of the race by July and you could expect dwindling attendance in the final couple of months. But at that point, the Twins could stage their own fire sale and shed payroll to the extent that they still end up spending somewhere near $100 million… maybe less.

Instead, the Twins are recklessly (and needlessly) risking their future financial health. If key players are not healthy (again) and/or underperform (again), an already restless fan base will stay away from Target Field in droves and blame management for perpetrating a fraud on the public in order to get their fancy new publicly funded stadium, only to return to their tight-fisted ways within three seasons. That became the predisposition of much of the fan base as soon as the brass announced the mandate to slash the payroll by more than 10% and nothing short of an unlikely Division Championship is going to turn fans around now.

Why would the Twins take that risk?

I was still contemplating that question as I re-watched Ken Burns’ classic “Baseball” series (or what could have more accurately been titled, “My Love Letter to Baseball in New York with Just a Few Casual References to Baseball Being Played Elsewhere”) over the Christmas weekend. Then I got a chill down my spine as I heard this quote from Connie Mack:

“It is more profitable for me to have a team that is in contention for most of the season but finishes about fourth. A team like that will draw well enough during the first part of the season to show a profit for the year, and you don’t have to give the players raises when they don’t win.”

Seriously… does that sound like anyone we know?

As long as the Twins regain just enough luster to get competitive again, fans are likely to continue filling TF seats. But would getting “too good” provide diminishing returns? Championship teams are often created when almost everyone on the roster has a career year and thus many of those players tend to get expensive more quickly than their true abilities warrant. Would a World Series appearance result in enough additional revenue (from media contracts perhaps?) to pay for the resulting increase in payroll just to maintain the status quo?

I have no idea.

What I know is the same thing everyone knows… the Twins did not enter the season intent on building a championship team. That means someone had to make the conscious business decision NOT to do so. Someone had to essentially say, “We don’t care that our community has paid for a new stadium or that more than three million fans have shown up to watch games each of the past two years, we’re not going to pay for a championship caliber team. We’re going to cut payroll by over 10% because that’s the only way we can be absolutely certain we’ll maintain current profit levels… and we don’t care that we’re going to be so blatant about it that the entire fanbase will know that’s exactly why we’re doing it.”

I’m afraid the front office is either vastly overestimating the fanbase’s willingness to continue filling Target Field seats to watch bad baseball or significantly underestimating the number of years it would take them to win back fans if 2012 turns out to be as bad as 2011. Worse yet, they may be guilty of both.

Of course, just because the Twins are adopting a poorly thought out strategy doesn’t mean it won’t work. The core players may all bounce back to productivity levels we’ve wanted and expected to see previously. Willingham, Carroll, Doumit and Marquis may turn out to be significant improvements over the players they are replacing on the roster. Nishioka may even end up showing us what scouts saw in him in the first place.

The AL Central is entirely up for grabs. Sure the Tigers are favorites to repeat… just like the Twins were a year ago… but that is no dynasty in Detroit. If things fall right for the Twins, they could win enough games to win the Division and make Terry Ryan and the rest of the office look like geniuses.

But to my mind, it won’t make them right. They’re adopting a strategy with much more downside risk than upside potential and this longshot had better come in or I’m afraid we’re all in for a very long stretch of bad baseball.

- JC

P.S. If you haven’t done so yet, make sure you cast your “Hall of Fame” vote(s) over in the right hand column. Just like the BBWAA members, you can vote for up to 10 players. We’ll leave the ballot up until January 9, the date we’ll find out who’s been elected this year.