I spent most of the 1990s covering the Minnesota Twins. That meant chronicling eight consecutive losing seasons.
When the Twins survived the threat of contraction and surged into first place in 2001, everyone who worked for or spent time around the team felt relief. This, I thought, would be a rebirth of baseball enthusiasm in Minnesota.
One day that summer I was about to tee off when a teenager rushed to join me. Before we reached the first fairway, he said, “When are those cheapo Twins going to make a trade?” I realized then that there were two Twins fan bases.
The twin Twin fan bases are neither identical nor fraternal.
Fan Base 1 is enjoying one of the best two-month stretches of baseball in franchise history.
Fan Base 2 wants every baseball conversation this summer to revolve around the Pohlads’ wallet.
The owners are billionaires who could spend more on player salaries without missing any meals or Maybachs. It was Carl Pohlad who volunteered the Twins for contraction, and it is Jim Pohlad who currently controls the purse strings.
The problem with Fan Base 2 isn’t that it is necessarily wrong but that it treats every problem like a nail, and pretends every solution is a Pohlad-shaped hammer. It is a mind-set sure to suck the joy out of a promising summer.
Twins have a bad season? The Pohlads should have spent more. Twins have a good season? Would have won it all if the Pohlads had spent more.
The New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers have spent more money on players than most countries have spent on infrastructure. The two vaunted franchises have combined to win one World Series since 2000 — as many as the Florida Marlins, Chicago White Sox and Kansas City Royals, Philadelphia Phillies, LA Angels and Arizona Diamondbacks.
Money can boost an intelligent franchise, as the Red Sox and Cubs have proved, but it is no substitute for intelligent management and player development.
The Twins reportedly offered star closer Craig Kimbrel a two-year contract. The Cubs offered him three years at $43 million plus an option that could make the deal worth $58 million over four years.
Was this the Cubs being more “aggressive” and the Twins being cheap? Maybe. What is certain is that the Cubs spent big on Kimbrel because they had to.
Unlike the Twins, the Cubs don’t have quality options at the end of their bullpen and are in the midst of a tight race to make the playoffs. Unlike the Twins, they don’t have a wealth of prospects to use as trade fodder. The Cubs went hard after Kimbrel because they didn’t have many other quality options.
The Cubs also took a chance. Kimbrel is a quality closer, but will he pitch like one this season?
As USA Today baseball writer Bob Nightengale noted, last year the Cardinals signed Greg Holland after he missed spring training.
Like Kimbrel, Holland was an All-Star-caliber closer who wanted to land a big deal. The Cardinals signed him, watched him amass a 7.92 ERA and cut him.
As Holland told Nightengale, his layoff kept him from being sharp enough to succeed. The Twins experienced this when they signed Lance Lynn late last spring, and Lynn grumpily helped ruin their season.
If you are a member of Fan Base 2, you believe that the Twins failed to sign Kimbrel because of cheapness. And there may be truth in that — the Pohlads could have volunteered to pay Kimbrel $60 million over four years and to write him off as a business expense if he failed. That’s one way to look at it.
If you are a member of Fan Base 1, you are probably shrugging. You’re analyzing the current roster. You’re seeing an absence of bad contracts and a wealth of young talent, feeling content with a front office that seems capable of setting the Twins up to succeed for the next 10 years, and anticipating a trade for a major league-ready reliever.