Jim Souhan: The Wild takes a big risk, but it likely beats alternative

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 8, 2012 - 1:04 AM

The Wild had to do something to raise its profile and improve its chances to win.

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During the 1997-98 season, the Timberwolves signed Kevin Garnett to a six-year, $126 million contract. He was worth the money, even though it hindered the team’s ability to spend elsewhere.

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By the time Zach Parise and Ryan Suter finish their concurrent 13-year contracts with the Minnesota Wild, we will have witnessed four presidential elections and seven Olympiads, and the Vikings will be hinting they will move to Buenos Aires if the Legislature doesn't fund a new stadium to replace decrepit WilfyWorld.

The NFL will penalize all physical contact, as well as harsh glances, and baseball fans will have learned to speak in source code so they can insult the home-plate robot.

Parise and Suter are going to be around longer than some species. The rational question, following a week of irrational exuberance, is whether that's a good thing.

There is no clear precedent by which to judge two 13-year, $98 million contracts given by a struggling franchise to players who have never won a championship. There are only precedents that hint at the risk of signing even great players to long-term deals.

Before the 1993 season, the Twins signed Kirby Puckett to a five-year, $30 million deal that set a short-lived record as the most lucrative contract in baseball history.

He would make three more All-Star teams before his career ended, prematurely, before the beginning of the 1996 season. The Twins never regretted the contract, as they celebrated Puckett becoming a one-franchise player who entered the Hall of Fame wearing their cap.

During the 1997-98 season, the Timberwolves signed Kevin Garnett to a six-year, $126 million contract.

While the amount seemed outrageous at the time, Garnett made the Wolves a perennial playoff team and took them to one conference final, and his departure, via trade, led to years of abject failure. Garnett was worth the money, even if his contract prevented the team from acquiring other high-priced players.

In 1996, the Twins signed Chuck Knoblauch to a five-year, $30 million deal. The next year, he would request a trade, and after the '97 season he was sent to the Yankees for a group of players including Cristian Guzman and Eric Milton, who would help the Twins become competitive and build support for a new ballpark in the early 2000s.

Knoblauch was an excellent player and a valuable trading chip. The contract did not hurt the Twins.

In 2005, the Twins signed Johan Santana to a four-year, $39.5 million contract. He made himself a bargain with dominant pitching, and should have brought a great value on the trade market.

In 2006, the Vikings signed Steve Hutchinson to a seven-year, $49 million contract, the largest ever given to a guard. He played for six of the seven years, continuing to be one of the best offensive linemen in the NFL for much of the contract.

In 2008, the Vikings signed Jared Allen to a six-year, $72 million contract. It was the largest contract to date ever given to a defensive player. He has become one of the best pass rushers in the NFL.

Also in 2008, the Twins signed Justin Morneau to a six-year deal worth $80 million. He made three All-Star teams before a concussion in 2010 led to diminished production.

In 2010, the Twins signed Joe Mauer to an eight-year, $184 million contract, the richest in Twin Cities history. He made the 2010 and 2012 All-Star teams and played in only 82 games in 2011.

If there is anything to be gleaned from this list, it might be that, if an outstanding player stays healthy, and the team signing him isn't limited in player acquisition by the enormousness of his salary, long-term contracts offer two advantages:

1. Salaries trend sharply upward, meaning prices that seem exorbitant today can seem affordable down the road. This could well turn out to be true for Suter and Parise and their front-loaded deals.

2. Star players are a scarce commodity, and allowing them to leave in free agency, or trading them for younger players whose value can be unpredictable, can damage a franchise more than a star's hefty pricetag.

Giving anyone a 13-year contract is a risk. For the Wild, an idling franchise desperate for attention and proven talent, forgoing risk might have been the riskiest move of all.

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

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