Winter Meetings: Time For Terry Ryan to Step Up.

Baseball’s Winter Meetings get in to gear down at the Gaylord Opryland hotel in Nashville on Monday and that’s got me a bit nervous. The Twins, at least at the Major League level, are in a sorry state, having come off a 96-loss season which followed a 99-loss season. It just doesn’t get much worse than this, folks.

A year ago, just ahead of the Winter Meetings in Dallas, I wrote a post here headlined “M&M: Time to Step Up or Shut Up.” The point was that, following a season in which the Twins stars had spent more time not playing baseball than playing baseball, perhaps it wasn’t totally unrealistic for the front office to play a little “wait and see” before spending a bunch of money trying to rebuild the roster to a level capable of contending. Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, among others, needed to play better in 2012 or it really wouldn’t matter whether the Twins spent money to buy them some help.

To their credit, I believe Mauer and Morneau did exactly what I asked. They both had much-improved seasons, managing to stay on the field and hit baseballs with some regularity. Whatever the reasons were for the Twins dropping 96 games in 2012, those reasons had little, if anything, to do with Mauer and Morneau. The failure can arguably be laid almost entirely at the feet of the pitching staff. And that’s not entirely surprising. We at Knuckleballs posted multiple articles last offseason expressing our disappointment about the Twins failure to add significant pitching help and we certainly weren’t the only people making that point.

So here we are, a year later, on the eve of yet another week of Winter Meetings, and guess what… the Twins need to significantly improve their pitching staff. Terry Ryan made what certainly appears to have been a reasonable trade this week when he sent popular and productive outfielder/leadoff hitter Denard Span to the Nationals for potential future top-of-the-rotation pitcher Alex Meyer. But that deal won’t do anything to make the product at Target Field any more watchable in 2013.

The reports we are reading leading up to these meetings indicate the Twins are expected to be very active and that Terry Ryan is looking to significantly improve the 2013 rotation largely through the free agent market. That’s encouraging to hear, but folks, we’ve heard that before.

Let’s hop in to our time machine and go back just one year ago, shall we? Here’s a summary of what we were reading about the Twins activities during the Winter Meetings last December:

  • On Day One last year, there was conjecture that the Twins remained interested in Edwin Jackson, but that Jackson was going to wait until CJ Wilson and/or Mark Buehrle set the market. The Twins were said to be interested in Jackson only if they did not spend the money to re-sign Michael Cuddyer. Of course, they signed Josh Willingham for considerably less money than Cuddyer was demanding, but we certainly did not see Jackson in a Twins uniform.
  • Speaking of Mark Buehrle, reports also came out of Dallas on Day One that the Twins were one of four teams (along with the Nationals, Marlins and Rangers) that were “still in on” Buehrle. He eventually signed with the Marlins and is now a Blue Jay.
  • So what DID the Twins do on Day One? They re-signed Matt Capps and claimed SS Pedro Florimon off waivers from the Orioles.
  • On Day Two, we read that Buehrle had narrowed his list to five teams and that the Twins had an offer in. Word also came out that the Twins would be meeting with Jeff Francis’ agent during the Winter Meetings.
  • On the other hand, the Strib’s LaVelle E. Neal III was reporting that the Twins had had no conversations with the agents of Francis and Jackson.
  • They didn’t add a pitcher on Day Two, but the Twins did part with one. They traded Kevin Slowey to the Rockies for a “player to be named later.”
  • And on Day Three, apparently worn out by all the activity the first two days, the Twins front office rested.

Of course, later in the month, Terry Ryan inked Jason Marquis to a one year contract, so it’s not like he didn’t add any starting pitching, right?

So what’s my point?

My point is that, while Terry Ryan and Dave St. Peter are saying all the right things right now about improving the Twins in 2013 by adding legitimate starting pitchers, I’ll believe it when I see it. I’ve heard it before. Just a year ago, the media was being fed reports about how the Twins were in on Mark Buehrle and interested in talking to Edwin Jackson’s agent. But when it came to actually spending money, they signed Jason Marquis.

And make no mistake, it would have been pretty easy to make a case to a top pitcher that their 2011 failures were fluke-ish… that injuries to Mauer, Morneau, Span, and others were responsible for the lousy record… and that with some pitching help and a return to health by their stars, the Twins could contend again in 2012. It won’t be nearly as easy to convince a top free agent that they’d be signing on to a contender in Minnesota this year. Last year, all Ryan had to so was spend money. This year he has to do a helluva sales job AND spend money.

It’s perfectly fine for fans to be hopeful that Ryan will do exactly that. As fans, hope is what we live on in December and January.

It’s also perfectly understandable for us to be skeptical that the Twins are really serious about being willing to spend the money that would be necessary to bring legitimate starting pitching help on board.

As I’ve written this past week, Terry Ryan has been saying all the right things. I’m sure the Twins would like fans to take them at their word when they talk about being willing to spend money to make real and immediate improvements.

But if the Twins really want us to take their words seriously, they need to do more than talk about signing good pitchers. They need to do it.

You’re on deck Mr. Ryan. It’s time for you to step up.

- JC

Years Don’t Matter… Much

I’ve never been in favor of giving long-term contracts to pitchers. I thought the Mets would regret giving Johan Santana five years at the salary levels they paid him. I have never advocated that the Twins should get involved in a bidding war for a Cliff Lee or a Roy Halladay or any other pitcher that was obviously going to get 5+ years at a bazillion dollars per year from one of the mega-market teams.

It just doesn’t make sense, does it? Pitchers are so fragile. It just seems like there’s a better than 50-50 chance that any given Major League starting pitcher is going to blow out an elbow, shoulder, knee or other appendage that is pretty important for a pitcher to be effective. With that being the case, it seems like any team signing a pitcher to a four or five year contract should almost assume that they’re going to be paying that pitcher NOT to pitch for them for at least one of those seasons.

Not a lot a lot of teams can afford to pay 10, 15 or 20 million dollars in any given season for a pitcher that never takes the mound. Sure the Yankees can absorb that kind of nonproductive payroll and the Dodgers are certainly headed in to the same category. Even the Red Sox and Phillies can probably deal with that kind of hit from time to time. But a team run on a tight budget like the Twins just can’t afford to take that kind of risk. Right?

No, they can’t… usually.

But these are not usual times in Twinsville and, as hard to believe as it may seem on the surface, right now the Twins actually can afford to take that kind of risk. In fact, I’d argue they almost can’t afford not to do so.

While it may be counter-intuitive for Twins fans who have been programmed by the Twins front office to believe spending any kind of serious money over a period of more than a couple of years, especially for a pitcher, would lead to the financial collapse of the entire Pohlad family, there’s an argument to be made that now is the time to throw caution to the wind and dive in to that free agent pitching market. And I’m just the person to make that argument.

So am I arguing that the Twins should go all out to outbid the Dodgers and Angels for Zack Greinke’s services? No. I haven’t gone quite that mad (though I might argue that it’s not… quite… as absurd an idea as most would claim). I’m also not sure I’d roll the dice on Dan Haren’s iffy back for more than a two year guaranteed contract.

But let’s talk seriously about Anibal Sanchez and Edwin Jackson (and maybe even Joe Saunders) for a moment.

Anibal Sanchez (Photo: Leon Halip, Getty Images)

The Twins Daily guys, in their “2013 Offseason Handbook,” estimate that Sanchez and Jackson should command multi-year deals of about $11 million per year. They project Sanchez to get four years and Jackson to get three. They project Saunders to get three years at $8 million per year.

I’ll say right up front that I don’t believe the Twins can sign any of those three pitchers for those figures. It will take more. First, because with the early deals we’re seeing for Baker, Guthrie, Kuroda (and perhaps others I’m forgetting) it’s apparent that pitchers are getting bigger bucks than the authors of the Handbook (and most of the rest of us) expected teams to shell out. But more importantly, each of these pitchers are going to get offers from teams who did not lose 95 games in 2012 and, all things being equal, they’ll sign with a team that’s been having some level success recently. So if the Twins want any of these guys, they’ll need to make sure all things are not equal.

The way they can do that is to offer a longer term contract than other teams are willing to offer. If other teams will offer three years, the Twins need to offer four. If others will offer four guaranteed years, the Twins need to offer five.

And there are two big reasons why Terry Ryan should do exactly that.

Edwin Jackson (Photo: Jeff Curry, US PRESSWIRE)

The first is that the Twins really… really… need good starting pitching. They need it now. They’re also going to need it in 2014 and they’re still going to need it in 2015 and 2016. Maybe Kyle Gibson will develop in to a solid #3 starter… or even better. Maybe Scott Diamond will do likewise. Heck, maybe even BJ Hermsen will become a reliable member of the rotation during that timeframe. But who else in the Twins organization projects as a reliable member of the rotation by 2016? Maybe JO Berrios. Maybe.

Even if you believe any attempt to try to compete for a postseason spot in 2013 and 2014 is fantasy, you have to admit that there is precious little evidence that the Twins will have even an average rotation in place by the time Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton and Eddie Rosario are roaming Target Field on a daily basis. If you believe that, by 2015, these young studs are going to be ready to usher in the next era of winning Twins baseball, don’t you think they’re going to need some pitching just as badly as Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Josh Willingham do?

Signing 29 year-olds Jackson and/or Sanchez to long term contracts means they should still be well within their primes in 2015 and 2016.

I know what you’re thinking, though. What if they get hurt? What if one (or both) of them can’t pitch in 2015 or 2016? How can the Twins afford to shell out $11-$22 million for pitchers that can’t pitch? They can’t afford that risk…. can they?

I’m glad you asked. Yes… yes they can. And I’m not just saying that because the Pohlads can technically afford 10 times that much risk without breaking a sweat. Through a very unique set of circumstances, the Twins can actually afford the risk of having over $20 million sitting on the Disabled List all year long without even threatening to crash through their self-imposed “50% of revenue for payroll” limit.

During 2013 and 2014, the risk is minimal anyway, right? Because it appears nobody thinks the Twins should even be trying to field a real Major League team for the next two seasons. If they’re hurt, so what? But if they’re healthy and effective, maybe… just maybe… the Twins could surprise some folks.

But it’s when 2015 rolls around that things get interesting. Even if Denard Span, Josh Willingham and Justin Morneau aren’t traded before the end of 2014, none of them are likely to be around for Opening Day, 2015. Morneau’s contract expires after 2013 and both Span* and Willingham have deals that end after 2014. Given that information, how many of the Twins’ non-pitchers do you think will even be eligible for arbitration in 2015?

*Technically, the Twins hold a 2015 option on Span for $9 million. If you think he’ll still be with the Twins at that point and that the Twins will exercise that option, that’s fine. I think it’s unlikely, especially given all the outfield talent in the pipeline.

Maybe you think Trevor Plouffe and/or Eduardo Escobar will still be around, but I wouldn’t count on it. Maybe Ben Revere will be in his arbitration years… assuming some combination of Hicks, Benson, Arcia, Rosario, Buxton and Kepler haven’t made Ben’s presence unnecessary. If Revere, Escobar and Plouffe have poofed, it’s conceivable that the nine starting position players in the Twins 2015 lineup will be paid a total of $27 million (that’s $23 million for Joe Mauer and the Major League minimum of $500,000 for the remaining eight starters). It’s not unreasonable to assume that the four bench players will similarly be minimum wage earners.

It’s possible that Glen Perkins will still be with the Twins in 2015. If so, his contract calls for him to make $3.75 million that season and the Twins hold a $4.5 million option for 2016. Every other remaining pitcher on the Twins current 40-man roster is either likely to have departed via free agency by then or will still be under team control (either pre-arbitration or arbitration-eligible) in 2015. In all likelihood, much of the Twins bullpen will have been replaced with rookies by then. But just to err on the side of caution, let’s assume that the six members of the bullpen not named Perkins are averaging $2 million each. That would mean a total of $15.75 million devoted to the pen in 2015.

Scott Diamond will be in his first arbitration year in 2015. Let’s go crazy and assume he’ll make $5 million because he’s been so awesome in 2013-14. If Kyle Gibson and either Liam Hendriks or BJ Hermsen are holding down two other rotation spots, that’s another million dollars for the two of them, combined.

By my count, we now have 23 players that the Twins will be paying a grand total of… wait for it… $50.75 million. And that’s perhaps being quite generous.

If the Twins are fortunate to have both Jackson and Sanchez under contract for $11 million per year, each, their total payroll in 2015 could still be less than $75 million.

If one or both of those pitchers is injured, the Twins would still have $25 million with which to attempt to replace the injured pitcher(s) and still keep their payroll below their Opening Day 2012 level.

And we haven’t even mentioned the roughly $25 million of additional national TV revenue that every team in Major League Baseball is scheduled to begin receiving in 2014.

How realistic is this? I don’ t know. One would think (or at least hope) that the Twins wouldn’t rely 100% on “kids” in 2015, but when you look at Hicks, Arcia, Benson, Rosario, Sano, Buxton, Santana, Gibson, Vargas, Kepler, Berrios, Hermsen, Harrison, Polanco, Salcedo, Herrmann… and more… aren’t we realistically expecting those players to have arrived by sometime in 2015, even if not by Opening Day?

Might the Twins sign a veteran utility infielder for a couple of million dollars? Sure. Maybe they even talk Jared Burton in to staying for 2-3 million a year. Maybe there are others.

But the point is, by 2015 every player on the current roster making more than a million dollars a year except Joe Mauer and Glen Perkins is likely to be gone. Morneau, Willingham, Span, Doumit, Carroll, Blackburn. That’s something like $42 million of payroll coming off the books by 2015.

I’m not sure there’s ever a good time to give expensive, long-term contracts to even one pitcher, much less more than one. But if there is, I would think it would be when (a) you desperately need good starting pitchers and expect that desperation to last several years, (b) you’ve got a number of highly talented position players (yet almost no can’t-miss pitchers) within a couple of years of their planned MLB arrival dates, and (c) nearly half your current payroll will come off the books by the time those pitchers enter the third year of their new contracts.

Coincidentally, those are the exact circumstances the Twins find themselves in today.

- JC

P.S. If you’d like to check my math, Cot’s Baseball Contracts has a nifty chart of the Twins’ contractual obligations. Just click here.