Twins payroll: Why in Gardy's name is it being slashed?

Categories: Sports, Twins
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Twins: Selling lots of tickets while pinching pennies.
A year ago at this time, the Twins were coming off a rousingly successful inaugural year at Target Field, and the future looked bright.

As the old saying goes, what a difference a last-place season makes. After 99 losses and more injuries than you can shake a Punto at, it appears the young-talent-bereft Twins may be Central Division bottomfeeders for some time.

Despite the disastrous on-field results and bleak prognosis for the future, Twins fans kept showing up at the ballpark and probably will continue to do so next year. For 2011 as a whole, 99 percent of seats were filled, the fourth-highest rate in baseball.

Yet Twins brass has decided to significantly cut the team's payroll -- from about $115 million last year to around $100 for 2012. What in the name of Gardenhire gives?

First, some context -- in 2009, the Twins' last season in the Metrodome, the team's payroll was $65 million and the team won a division title (before getting swept in the playoffs). In 2010, no doubt partly because of the Target Field cash infusion, the Twins' payroll shot up to $96 million and the team won a division title (before getting swept in the playoffs). Last year, to keep the band together after an impressive 2010 campaign, ownership allowed the payroll to balloon to about $115 million -- and the team came just one loss shy of becoming the second team in baseball history to spend more than $100 million on players while losing 100 games.
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A year after Target Field opened, the Twins payroll "exceeded where [ownership] wanted it."

In an interview with the Star Tribune, Twins owner Jim Pohlad said 2011's payroll "exceeded where we wanted it," despite near-constant Target Field sellouts. So, just as the team's long-term on-field prognosis is looking as bleak as it has since Ron Coomer donned a Twins uniform, management is cutting player costs this offseason.

To get the payroll down, the Twins traded starting pitcher Kevin Slowey, dumped disappointing and overweight reliever Jose Mijares, and let longtime Twins Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer leave as free agents.

Cuddyer signed a three-year, $31.5 million deal with Colorado, while Kubel got two years and $15 million from Arizona.

To fill some of the holes those departures created while saving money, the team turned to cheaper alternatives. Shortshop Jamey Carroll was brought in from the Dodgers on a two-year, $6.75 million deal, outfielder Josh Willingham replaced Cuddyer with a contract worth $10 million less than what Cuddyer got from the Rockies, and both slugger Ryan Doumit and starting pitcher Jason Marquis signed one-year, $3 million deals.

The Twins may have received good value with some of those deals. But two big questions remain. First, if the Twins sucked when ownership was spending $115 million on players, how can they be expected to improve when the payroll is slashed? And second, how can ownership justify pinching pennies when fans are still coming to Target Field in droves?

With regard to the first question, the fact of the matter is 2012 couldn't be much worse than 2011 even if the team's payroll was cut in half. Last year's starting rotation, which was almost exactly the same as the mostly effective unit from 2010, struggled for much of the year. In particular, Francisco Liriano suffered a surprising decline after a 2010 season where he showed flashes of being an ace pitcher. No doubt, a Pavano-Baker-Liriano-Blackburn-Marquis rotation is weak compared to what the AL contenders will be trotting out in 2012, but if Liriano can bounce back, Baker can stay healthy, and Marquis can give them 150+ solid innings (big ifs!), you don't have to squint hard to see the rotation bouncing back a bit from last season.

Furthermore, the 2011 Twins got next to nothing from a post-concussion-plagued Justin Morneau and a bilaterally-weak Joe Mauer. Assuming those two key cogs can stay relatively healthy and provide even half the production they did during their peak years (big assumptions!), it's hard to envision the Twins approaching 100 losses again.

But Twins fans surely want playoff contention, not just a better-than-last-year's-awfulness 70-92 finish. And that observation, perhaps, gets at the core of why the team is slashing payroll. Namely, with all the money the team has tied up in question-marks Morneau and Mauer, it's hard to envision the squad contending unless those two have huge bounce-back seasons.

This point was made nicely in a recent column by 1500ESPN's Phil Mackey. He writes:
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For the Twins to bounce back next year, the team needs the M&M boys to be healthy and productive.
Again, as a business owner, the question should be this: What will $115 million guarantee that $100 million won't? It all comes down to Mauer and Morneau, who could conceivably lead the Twins' offense to a massive resurgence if healthy and productive. But without Mauer and Morneau -- or even one or the other -- the offense simply isn't likely to score enough runs, and the extra $15 million can't buy enough pitching to help a staff (and defense) that gave up 800+ runs in 2011.
Mackey also makes the astute point that some of the best teams in 2011 had payrolls right around $100 million (The Yankees payroll was highest in baseball at $197 million). For instance, last year's two World Series teams, the champion St. Louis Cardinals and Texas Rangers, had payrolls of $99 and $92 million respectively. So while spending on players might correlate with winning during the regular season, spending more than $100 million on players doesn't correlate with winning championships.

So perhaps Twins fans are wrong to get too hung up on the shrinking payroll number and should pay more attention to how the team allocates its money. $8 million for Carl Pavano next year? $3 million for uber-bust Tsuyoshi Nishioka? How about $23 million for Mauer? With all the blunders Bill Smith made during his four-year reign, ownership's November decision to bring back Terry Ryan is a big reason for long-term optimism, even if the payroll doesn't approach $115 again anytime soon.

As for the short term? A lot rests on the fragile shoulders of the M&M boys, who together will account for more than one-third of the team's payroll next year.
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18 comments
Sarah Palen
Sarah Palen

They needed the new stadium to be competitive. So how's that new stadium working out for ya, Twins?

Ndudi Ebi
Ndudi Ebi

To see what happened to the Twins in just a few short years is really disheartening... To think of all they could've spent with the money tied up into 'superstars' who can't seem to stay on the field... sigh.

Makes me long for the days of Shane Mack, Chili Davis, Scott Erickson, and Brian Harper...

Nice read - Finally some non-buddy buddy writing in the Minny sports scene... Keep it up, Mr. Rupar.

fedup
fedup

Baseball: the least athletic and most overrated sport, players get paid millions to swing a stick at a ball, and if they actually hit the ball they have to run 60 feet to get to first base.Wow

Minnesota is the STATE OF HOCKEY

Conewalker
Conewalker

Marquis is an NL-only starter at this point. The deep lineups in the AL will eat him up. But he's the type of SP the Twins go after; high control, sad K rate, low upside. 

Guy
Guy

I wanted to read more of this article, but there was too much horrendous wordplay going on.

Michelle Bachmann
Michelle Bachmann

The Twins are currently the worst run pro sports team in town.    The front office doesn't understand how competitive the Twins are set to be over the next few years.   Even if Morneau & Mauer are healthy Jason Marquis,  Jamey Carroll, and the other shitty free agents they signed aren't enough to get them to .500.    The Pohlads are the worst type of rich people; cheap, greedy, and stupid.    Terry Ryan should have stayed retired.  

room34
room34

I think the question isn't so much why they're slashing the payroll this year as it is why they let it grow so much last year. While I lament the departure of Cuddyer, I think most of the team's offseason moves have been fairly prudent.

Ultimately, though, it was the injuries last year that did them in. Assuming players stay healthy this year, it's sure to be a much different season in 2012. Do I personally expect them to win the division again? Possibly, but probably not. But I'd be surprised if they don't end up over .500.

David Foureyes
David Foureyes

Could we, sorry, the Pohlads, spend a few of those saved payroll dollars to put the fuckin' trees back in center-field? Stupid crybaby batters can get used to it or go play in Kansas City and look at a pretty fountain...princesses LOVE fountains.

BRING BACK THE TREES!!!!!!

Duh
Duh

Seriously? Have you been to the metrodome lately? It's a piece of crap!! The scoreboards look like Lite Brites. It's the Jankiest stadium in the country. If you haven't been to Target field and enjoyed a lovely afternoon or evening watching the greatest American sport, than do so before you judge. Target field is for the fans as much as it is for the team. You can't even compare the experience between the two venues. One is for baseball, and the other is only suited for monster truck rallies.

Duh
Duh

Yeah, they only play 162 games during regular season. It's so much harder to play 16, like in football.

pizza
pizza

I would argue football to be the lamest sport. It isn't really a game where it takes countless hours to perfect fine nuances, just sheer athletic ability...Plus it makes everybody dumber.

Guy
Guy

yeah, man. you really summed up the game of baseball there. no need to mention that the ball at which they're swinging is small and moving at a fast speed with an unpredictable location and trajectory, or that there are dozens of different variables in each play.

with your reductive logic, I could also say that hockey players get paid millions to swing a stick at a puck, but that would make me an idiot.

Michelle Bachmann
Michelle Bachmann

Ugh, seriously what are these AL lineups going to do to him?   He will get blasted everytime we play the AL East or AL West. 

Nope
Nope

The Vikings are still worse.

Guy
Guy

The trees really tied the whole stadium together. Besides the artery-clogging state fair style food, they were the only thing "Minnesotan" about the place. They could have just found a better spot for them instead of removing them altogether. Or, like you said, players could stop bitching. The Cubs have been playing at Wrigley for almost 100 years with the writhing tentacles of man-eating vines growing out of their wall. And the Cubs have won--oh, wait, bad example. But at least they don't complain about the fence.

Dan Haugen
Dan Haugen

Bring back the trees, and bring back Kevin Dutcher as music director!

Guy
Guy

touche, sir.

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