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.

 

8 thoughts on “The Twins Are Taking a Huge Risk

  1. Good points JC. I agree with most of them. The real problem is the Twins have committed about 40% of the payroll to Mauer and Morneau. That is a recipe for disaster when it comes to winning. But like I have said over and over, “This ownership and management ONLY care about making money.” The Twin’s “pencil pushers” have figured out that the Twins can make millions and millions of dollars by selling 30,000 tickets per game. Anything over that only adds to the Pohlad pot of gold. Jim Pohlad learned at the foot of the master. The Pohlad’s got a free stadium and now they are milking the free cow. Get used to it.

  2. “The result would be a payroll roughly at the same level as last season,”

    And for the next three to five years would have to be guaranteed. Its simply unrealistic to look at payroll as an annual event. They may well have stretched the payroll last year and the year before. That made sense, they had teams they expected to compete for the division.

    Its not realistic to expect that next season. The Twins are still putting themselves in a position to compete, but using payroll to add aging pitchers to long term contracts is not the way to stay competitive in the future.

    As for the PR, I doubt it will matter at all. The only real PR that matters is what is done by the players on the field. If Mauer and Morneau aren’t healthy, another pitcher won’t make any difference.

  3. You forgot about Orlando Hudson who was signed in Feb. 2010.

    Some bloggers are completely over reacting to the cut in payroll. They lost 99 games last year, and it was not because they failed to spend. It was because they had bad contracts (nishi, nathan, ), bad injuries (too many to list, bad defence (delmon, nishi, danny v, Kubel), and a bad bench (tolbert, drew, and so many more).

    They lost 99 games last year, they have improved their bench (Ryan Doumit), middle infield (Carrel), OF (Josh Willingham), and added depth to the SP core (Marquis) and improved both the starting staff and bulpen by moving Dunsing. If they can get a few people healthy, they will be a much better team. With a lower and more flexable payroll.

    If they would have signed Mark Buehrle or Edwin Jackson there is a great chance they would have ended up with a very bad contract. That would have had long reaching effects.

    I would much rather have a team that can add payroll when it is/gets good than has a payroll like last year and is really bad.

  4. JC, I think you prettymuch hit the nail on the head.
    I’m baffled at the $100 million payroll cap, and think it was a mistake. Like you, I’d like to see at least an equal payroll to 2011, if not a modest increase. And I think fans deserve it.
    Alternatively, I guess the front office could have traded away all large contracts (except for Mauer and Morneau probably), and officially called this a rebuilding year. We could have received a ton of prospects (imagine the minor league talent we could get for Denard Span, for instance — if he’s healthy), and could have reloaded for 2014 or something like that.
    I don’t like the idea of rebuilding, but I feel like Terry Ryan and company are treading water in a middle ground that isn’t tenable. Either spend the extra money on a good starting pitcher (take a free agent risk for once!!!) to make this team competitive, not just for the AL Central, but for October, or just reload and tell the fans that it’s going to be a down year. This $100 million team has a pitching rotation that makes me nervous and a bullpen that could be scary.

  5. Howard wrote a column last summer about being “just good enough”. Since then, I have come to the conclusion that is the Twins mantra — being just good enough to compete in the A.L. Central and put bodies in the seats because the only thing that matters is the bottom line on the ledger sheets.

    In one sense I hope that they do fall flat on their faces — I’m afraid another 99 loss season may be the only thing that will jolt them out of their complacency. If they can make a reasonable argument that they are in the race through most of August, I doubt that they will ever change their tactics.

    In one sense, their moves this winter don’t bother me. I honestly think they need to see the status of Mauer, Morneau and Span before they invest too many more resources. The problem is that I can’t convince myself that they would do much differently even if they knew Mauer, Morneau and Span would be healthy.

  6. I think that the ‘budget cuts’ and the ‘total budget’ is not as important as HOW you spend it…

    cases in point (and I am not going to talk about the Tampas of the world) :

    -2011: Both WS teams had smaller budget than the Twins’ will have in 2012. The Brewers who won the NLC in 2011 had cut their budget (by $7M from 2010 when finished 3rd)
    -in 2008 the Cardinals finished 4th with a $99M budget, In 2009, they cut it to $88M (similar % cut with the Twins for 2012; and smallest since 2005) and won the division.
    – Closer to home (and this is painful.) In 2010 the Tigers had a $133M budget; when they dominated the Central last season, their budget was $107M (wonder how many Occupy Target Field initiatives would have started if the Twins did a similar cut (like down to $90M) for 2012 :)

    It not about the money is how to spend it, which means you don’t sign mediocre players in $3-5M contracts and average players to $9-10M contracts (Blackburn, Marquis, Pavano, Capps, Nishioka, and maybe Carroll are parts of the problem here). Add 2-3 kids and 2-3 top player and you got something with the same $.

  7. There is a bright side to all of this. You will be able to buy a ticket to any game at Target Field this year for $10. Yes, and that includes the Crankee’s, the Bloody Red Sux, the Albert Angels, or any of the sappy and crappy NL teams that fly into The Twin Farms of Minneapolis and St. Small to play in the stadium that everyone (but the Twins) paid for. Look up into one of the private suites and you will be able to see Jim Pohlad counting his money.

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