Twins critics who grumbled for years about Joe Mauer’s $23 million annual salary aren’t going to be happy about who will cash those big checks in 2019, either: Jim Pohlad.
The profit margins for the Twins’ owner have widened considerably over last year due to the expiration of Mauer’s (and Ervin Santana’s) contracts, and the decision by the team’s roster-builders to adopt a prove-it-first approach to the 2019 Twins. Derek Falvey and Thad Levine, who have signed a half-dozen free agents this winter but none for more than one guaranteed year, insisted Friday that they are willing to spend more of Pohlad’s cash flow to transform the postseason-starved team into a championship contender — but not until they have evidence that a major investment would deliver a significant payoff.
“I would say we’re laying in wait right now,” said Levine, who is entering his third season as the Twins’ general manager. “The best moves are made not when you’re trying to open the window to contend, but when the window is wide open. We’re very eagerly waiting for this window to be opened, and when it is, we plan on striking.”
While they wait for the team to take a step forward, though, the Twins’ payroll will apparently take a step back. The Twins have committed only $94.4 million in salaries for 2019 — and that includes nearly $6 million the team still owes traded starter Phil Hughes. Only by adding lefthanded starter Martin Perez, who has agreed to a $3.5 million contract, and seven or eight minimum-salary players to fill out their roster, will the Twins’ payroll eclipse $100 million, which still figures to be their lowest outlay in five years.
That’s well below the MLB average payroll of roughly $118 million, and more than $25 million less than the Twins intended to spend one year ago. They will rank in the bottom third of baseball, with a budget less than half of the World Series champion Red Sox’s $220 million.
Cutting costs isn’t exactly a brilliant ticket-selling strategy, but Falvey, the Twins’ chief baseball officer, said it’s a temporary condition, the result of empowering cheap young players rather than being cheap about acquiring players.
“I understand the focus and attention paid to payroll, because that’s true in all 30 markets. I’m not naive to that. But growth and development of a team comes in a lot of different forms,” Falvey said. “For teams that are outside the top few teams in payroll, when you look at it year to year, there’s a lot of variation in those clubs, in terms of performance. A lot of it has to come from your young players. Buying wins just through free agency is a little bit of fool’s gold. You need to invest in the group that you have, and I feel really good about ours.”
The Twins have signed six free agents to major-league contracts, but all received one-year guarantees. Nelson Cruz, the 38-year-old designated hitter who signed for $14 million, will be the only Twin to earn more than $10 million; last year, the Twins entered the season with four such players in Mauer ($23 million), Santana ($13.5 million), Hughes ($13.2 million) and Lance Lynn ($12 million).
A year ago, the Twins spent a franchise record $128.7 million on a roster they hoped would contend for a AL Central title, though they wound up saving more than $10 million of that by jettisoning six veteran players in July and August when it became clear the season was a disappointment.
At the same time, MLB revenues have reached record levels, with Forbes magazine estimating that the Twins took in $261 million in 2018. Between Fox, Turner and ESPN, plus income from the sport’s digital arm, MLB Advanced Media, the Twins collect more than $60 million before selling a ticket or a beer. Only last season and in 2011, though, has the Twins’ payroll exceeded $110 million, and not since 2012 have the Twins’ ranked in the top half of the league in player salaries.
The Twins were active in free agency, but not at the top of the market. Cruz was guaranteed $14 million, while the Twins’ other five free-agent pickups this offseason — Perez, C.J. Cron, Jonathan Schoop, Blake Parker and Ronnie Torreyes — will earn a total of $18,400,000 combined.
Couldn’t the Twins bid on former Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel? Wouldn’t All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel beef up a bullpen that’s long on potential but short on experience?
Minnesota likely could afford either one, but the Twins’ decision-makers said they are leery of using such expensive means to make marginal gains before they know if their young core can improve enough to be worth it. Each player is over 30 years old and delivered about 2.5 wins above replacement level (WAR) last season.
“We want to invest appropriately for the right years. We want to make sure we are getting the best years,” Falvey said, speaking generally and not about those pitchers specifically. “Free agency, historically, is sometimes more focused on the past, and we want to invest in the future. That’s part of our calculation. I want to pay for what’s coming in the future, not what’s happened in the past.”
Paychecks aside, Levine said, the improvement that could come via free agency is dwarfed by the potential for growth on the Twins’ own roster.
“We see a chance for massive improvement on this team if some combination of Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Jonathan Schoop and Michael Pineda return to their previous performance levels,” Levine said. “We really have perhaps an unusual abundance of variance and volatility on this team. But if those guys are contending for the comeback player of the year award as a quartet, or three of the four, we have a chance to vault significantly forward. And if that happens, we have the prospect capital and the [financial] support from ownership to make adjustments to this team pretty quickly.”