Interesting piece today from our friend and colleague Joe Christensen, spelling out in definitive terms the payroll challenges for the Twins (some self-imposed, some market-driven).

The money sequence (literally and figuratively) is this one:

But much of that money is spoken for in 2010, and there are more payroll challenges coming for 2011 and beyond. The Twins' biggest priority is signing Joe Mauer to a contract extension, since he is 10 months from free agency. Those negotiations should heat up soon, with insiders confident the sides will eventually reach a deal. It needs to happen, and it probably will. But when it does, the team's payroll will become even more top-heavy. It's not just Mauer, who figures to command at least $20 million per year. By 2011, if you combine Mauer's new salary with Justin Morneau ($14 million), Joe Nathan ($11.25 million), Michael Cuddyer ($10.5 million), Scott Baker ($5 million), and Jason Kubel ($5.1 million team option), then add potential arbitration raises for J.J. Hardy (expected salary of about $7 million), Kevin Slowey ($3 million), Nick Blackburn ($3 million) and Delmon Young ($3 million) -- that's about $82 million for 10 players.

Now: could the Twins crank up their payroll to $110 million this year and $120 in 2011? Sure. But they're not going to do that. Let's say they're at $90 million this year and $100 million next year. As you can see, even most of that money is gobbled up immediately by players on the current roster becoming more expensive. That's what happens with good, young teams. Eventually the talent hits arbitration and free agency. From every conceivable angle, the Twins must re-sign Joe Mauer. It's hard to envision success without major contributions from any of the $10-plus million players (unless they could find a cheaper alternative at closer and trade Joe Nathan, which is a gamble but one for which we have previously advocated).

So the question becomes: are the Twins, as currently assembled, good enough to make serious playoff runs in 2010 and beyond? The optimist says, "Of course! The Twins have been in the playoff chase each of the last two years with much of this same core. They should be even better as they move into their career primes." The pessimist says, "Sure, they might have enough talent to contend in the AL Central, but this is not a team built to win playoff games because the Twins have too many 'mistake' hitters who flop against top pitching and no true top-end starting pitchers of their own."

If we had to guess at the Twins' strategy, it is this: go with the minor upgrades to the current core and ink an extension for Joe Mauer before spring training this year, then see what the assembled club can do in 2010. If it stalls or regresses, go with more aggressive retooling next offseason (that $10.5 million for Cuddyer in 2011, by the way, was a team option the club picked up in November instead of buying him out for $1 million). If the team again wins the AL Central and gets the kinds of progress that make it look like a serious postseason threat, there will again be minor retooling prior to 2011. But we don't have a great guess yet on what will happen in 2010, and right now everything hinges on that.

What are your assessments, and what is your recommended course of action?

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