Souhan: Struggles show Twins were wiser as misers

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 10, 2011 - 12:34 AM

Flush with all that Target Field cash, the team has spent it poorly.

As they stumble toward the finish line in their second season in Target Field, the Twins look like the middle-class family that splurges on a nice, used BMW, then quickly finds it can't afford the maintenance costs.

The Twins spent a franchise-record $115 million on a team that will be lucky to avoid last place in a weak division. After decades of overachieving despite financial constraints, the 2011 edition is proving that neither a new ballpark nor inflated spending ensures success.

"It's deceptive, because we haven't had our payroll on the field,'' manager Ron Gardenhire said.

That is true, and incomplete. Injuries remain the primary reason this team has imploded.

There is another reason, though: The Twins, like novice investors or the uninitiated in Las Vegas, found themselves with just enough cash to get themselves into trouble.

With a lower payroll, they never would have invested $14.5 million in a skinny Japanese shortstop.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka is Twins property for two more years. If they had kept J.J. Hardy, they would have been dramatically better at shortstop, and would have been able to spend more money on their remarkably shallow bullpen.

Without a new stadium and the promise of record payrolls, the Twins never would have spent $184 million on one player, not even a reigning MVP from St. Paul.

The Twins front office discussed the high risk of signing Joe Mauer to a gargantuan deal without any assurances that he would remain at catcher long term, and yet felt compelled, more because of public relations than sabermetrics, to get the deal done before the first game in Target Field.

Since signing the deal, Mauer has played in 195 of his team's 278 games. He has been the starting catcher in 145 of those. Entering Tuesday's game, he had hit .315 with 10 home runs and 97 RBI in 717 at-bats since signing the extension.

He is performing like a banged-up $10 million-a-year player but is costing the Twins $23 million a year. Mauer's contract kept the Twins from bolstering their bullpen this winter, and it might keep them from re-signing Michael Cuddyer, who has vastly outperformed Mauer over the past two years.

There is another hidden cost related to the new ballpark and high payroll: With ticket demand high and so much invested, the Twins were reluctant at the July trading deadline to deal away popular players and admit defeat. That could be a costly decision for a franchise that relies heavily on its farm system but lacks major league-ready, blue-chip prospects.

The Twins' mathematical probability of making the playoffs hovered around 1 percent in late July. Instead of trading Cuddyer or any of their valuable pending free agents, the Twins played to the crowd.

Cuddyer is likely to leave in free agency, and the Twins will have lost their current most valuable player while receiving only a draft choice.

"As we left spring training, I wrote down a lineup and I thought it was pretty fun to write down all those names,'' Gardenhire said. "So to see us sitting at whatever, 12, 13 games under .500 now, yeah, that's not what I expected, let's put it that way.''

Mauer and Justin Morneau will make a combined $37 million each of the next two years. If they can't stay healthy and perform to their former standards, the Twins once again will find themselves living in a mansion but eating off paper plates.

"I thought we were going to have a pretty good year,'' Gardenhire said. "Not saying we can't go on a run here, but I didn't expect to be where we're at. But I didn't expect the injuries, either. Those go hand in hand.''

One hand is bandaged. The other holds a maxed-out credit card.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2:40 p.m. on 1500ESPN. His Twitter name is Souhanstrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com

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