This being Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes and the pervasive insecurity that caused us to count our lakes, we love it when our teams spend money on players. At first.
Spending copiously leads to praise for the competitiveness of ownership and the aggressiveness of management. At first. Later, we often realize that money would have been better spent on pulltabs.
While Twins fans gnash what’s left of their teeth over the Pohlads’ perceived penuriousness, what they sometimes overlook is that most big-money contracts, here and elsewhere, turn into albatross-shaped millstones.
Look at the current landscape of major sports in the Twin Cities. (For this exercise, the Lynx are excused not because of importance or quality but because WNBA players are underpaid.)
The Twins’ Joe Mauer just completed an eight-year contract worth $184 million. The Twins won zero playoff games during the contract, and injuries transformed Mauer from one of the greatest catchers in history into a light-hitting first baseman. The deal was both necessary at the time and damaging over time.
The Vikings just completed the first season of Kirk Cousins’ temporarily record-setting, fully guaranteed, three-year $84 million contract. He looked small in big games this season and has never won a playoff game.
The Timberwolves have two players signed to max contracts — the highly productive Karl-Anthony Towns and the perpetually frustrating and possibly untraceable Andrew Wiggins. The Timberwolves have won one playoff game since 2004.
The Wild signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to 13-year deals worth $98 million each. The Wild has won two playoff series since the signings, and there are six years remaining on those deals, Parise is 34 and Suter is 33. They dramatically improved the team but likely will conclude their contracts without having sparked a postseason run.
Large contracts are not created equal, nor do they arise from identical circumstances. The Twins had to sign Mauer, a reigning MVP from St. Paul, as they opened their new ballpark. Spread Mauer’s earnings evenly over his 15-year career and he received about $14 million a year, a reasonable amount for a potential Hall of Famer.
But that’s not how contracts work. Players are often paid for past production and fail to maintain it at higher salaries.
Parise and Suter, too, have earned their keep if viewed in the context of their franchise. Without them, the Wild would have become unwatchable, would have stopped selling out games and would have failed to make the playoffs. Without them, the Wild’s only hope would have been playing badly enough to land a transformative superstar in the draft, and that strategy rarely works.
Cousins will have to prove himself over the next two seasons to avoid becoming one of the biggest busts in Minnesota money history. Wiggins is already there.
There have been intelligent big-money signings that turned out well. Kevin Garnett became a national symbol of overspending when the Timberwolves signed him to a six-year deal worth $126 million. As the best player in franchise history and one of the great players in NBA history, as the player who kept an entire franchise relevant, we now know he was a relative bargain.
Despite their reputation, the Twins have handed out big deals before. They made Kirby Puckett, briefly, baseball’s highest-paid player, with a three-year, $9 million deal after the 1989 season, and briefly baseball’s second-richest player with a five-year, $30 million deal after the 1992 season.
Puckett played only three years of the second deal before a loss of eyesight ended his career. But who can argue with the best player on two World Series champions getting paid?
Where teams usually get in trouble is in signing long-term deals. The old saying among general managers is “There is no such thing as a bad one-year deal,’’ and Minnesota history has proved that, whether because Jack Morris delivered a title in his one year with the Twins, or because Logan Morrison was jettisoned after one disappointing season.
Minnesota got to watch Hall of Famers such as Brett Favre and Jim Thome at the end of their careers, and both delivered in their first year.
After the 2013 season, Twins General Manager Terry Ryan, who distrusted large free-agent contracts, signed Ricky Nolasco to a four-year deal worth $49 million. It was a disaster.
Nolasco thanked the “city of Minnesota’’ in his introductory news conference, and then things went downhill. He was signed to lead a young staff but didn’t have the ability or leadership to handle that role.
So as the Twins and Vikings look for free agents, beware the long-term commitment to an unknown commodity, even if such a signing may feel “aggressive’’ in the moment.
Souhan’s podcast can be heard at TalkNorth.com. Twitter: @SouhanStrib E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org