Startribune.com digital sports editor Howard Sinker used to cover the Twins and now shares season tickets with friends in Section 219 of Target Field. He blogs about baseball from the perspective of a long-time fan who loves the game, doesn’t always believe the hype and likes hearing what others think. Howard sometimes talks about sports with Cathy Wurzer on MPR's Morning Edition.
You're going to read a lot about potential trades in the weeks to come. Some of it will be pretty frivolous, in the sense that even those who generally have keen insights may lose perspective from time to time.
If you look at the Johan Santana situation five years back, people with baseball savvy were writing that the Yankees could perhaps make fans forget some of their struggles by trading Santana for a package that would have included Ian Kennedy, who went 21-4 for Arizona last season, and All-Star Game MVP Melky Cabrera, plus others. Or the suggestion that a Santana deal would yield a star for the Twins. Robinson Cano, maybe, or Jose Reyes.
Instead, there was Carlos Gomez and the others.
And baseball's rules are different now, even from last year, in a way that won't facilitate some of the Twins dealing that's being imagined. Unless a team offers a free agent about $12 million, it won't receive a draft choice as compensation for losing him. So Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel wouldn't have fetched compensation based on the deals they were offered and eventually made with other teams.
What does that mean for the Twins as the trading deadlines approach? For one thing, don't expect much of anything for midlevel players.
Will contenders be very interested in Matt Capps when Kansas City's Jonathon Broxton, San Diego's Huston Street and Milwaukee's Francisco Rodriguez should be available now because their current teams won't make an effort to keep them under the new rules? We're dreaming if we imagine significant help coming this way for anyone other than Josh Willingham, Denard Span and Francisco Liriano. Anything else is strictly a salary dump with a body or two thrown in. (Think Delmon Young deal.)
Owing to his performance and contract, Justin Morneau has pretty much fallen into the salary dump category, and I can't imagine another team taking on his $14 million contract for this year and next. The Twins best hope is to hold on to him, hold out hope for improvement and see where he stands at this time in 2013, and again at the end of next season.
So where does that leave the Twins?
Needing to change the way they do business, at least in the short term.
Twins management talks of team payroll being a percentage of its revenues. That's fine, until the credibility -- or perceived credibility -- of the product is threatened. The Twins can talk about their $100 million payroll until Minnie and Paul turn blue, but the fact remains that 23 percent of that payroll is tied up for the next 6 1/2 years in Joe Mauer -- a move that had to be done by the Pohlads.
I have made the case previously that the Mauer contract needs to be considered as a separate item from the rest of the payroll. Kind of like an endowed chair at a college, supported by funds from outside of the regular budget. Ownership simply could not have moved into Target Field in 2010 with the Mauer situation unsettled. (The Angels and Tigers made first-cousin moves in their signings of Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, paying them for a year or two longer than they are likely to be useful so they can better compete in the present. Better to do this on purpose than by accident -- see Wells, Vernon and Soriano, Alfonso.)
To say that the current and near-future payroll is limited by Mauer's contract is a disservice to anyone who follows the team. (Financial disclosure: I'm in for enough as a season-ticket holder to cover about 2 1/2 innings of Mauer's contract this season. Three innings, I guess, if you count expenditures on beer and the monster yams behind Section 102.) If the Twins need a couple of proven starting pitchers as an anchor for the coming years and a quality middle infielder, then they need to adopt a spend money-to-make money approach as part of becoming a contender.
That's what Wild owner Craig Leopold just did, right?
A total of $27 million comes off the payroll after this season if you assume the departure of Pavano, Liriano, Capps and Scott Baker. (I'll assume the Twins will offer Baker a smaller deal with significant incentives.) After 2013, another $22.5 million comes off the payroll with the Morneau, Nick Blackburn and Tsuyoshi Nishioka contracts expiring.
Should the Twins to commit that total -- $49.5 million, plus some "Mauer money" -- toward the 2013 payroll? Yes, if they want to remain relevant, both in baseball and in the Twin Cities. Ownership can afford it.
The Twins have $43.5 million committed for 2013 to Mauer, Willingham, Span, Ryan Doumit, Glen Perkins and Jamey Carroll. Nobody else on the roster is due for a major salary bump through arbitration.
Terry Ryan has scored well with the Willingham, Doumit and Jared Burton signings and got an infield upgrade with Carroll. The team has done well with its handling of Trevor Plouffe, Scott Diamond and Ben Revere, and is rightly using the remnants of this season to figure out the futures of Brian Dozier and a few others. There are some interesting prospects in the minors and hopes that last month's amateur draft will yield significant pitching help in a few years.
The Twins aren't good right now, but they're interesting -- not like the Twins of the mid- and late-1990s, who were bad and uninteresting.
Despite their record, Ryan's staff is doing pretty well with the mess it was handed -- maybe as well as possible. But to talk about the Twins "improving to .500" next season, or needing a few seasons to become postseason competitive, isn't a discussion that most fans will want to hear. Not when 10 teams make the playoffs.
One more issue: The Twin Cities pro sports landscape has changed markedly and at a lightning pace. The Wild just spent megabucks on Zach Parise and Ryan Suter; the Timberwolves are again interesting and relevant, and the Vikings are getting their new stadium. So continued atrophy, or running in place, could easily land the Twins as No. 4 among the four major pro teams in the Twin Cities -- status as darning as being at the bottom of the weakest division in the American League.
Twins ownership needs to trust Ryan's baseball skills by being willing to go more-in financially.
Otherwise they'll risk people saying: "No, I don't want your Twins tickets. I'm going to see the Lynx."
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