Torii Hunter is gone and Johan Santana’s bags, while they aren’t packed, have been brought up from the basement. As a Twins fan I should be sad but, while I’ll miss the lads, I think the Twins are doing the right thing. The market is speaking and you don’t have to be clairvoyant to get the message. The Twins have no business paying the kind of money these players can command – not now, and not even three years from now when the new stadium opens.
This is not a case of large market vs. small market. At least, not in any way that implies there’s a kind of balance between the number of teams on each side of that equation. This is huge market vs. everyone else and there are only a couple of teams that can handle the kind of dollars we’re talking about. Without going to Forbes magazine, or looking up TV contracts, I’d hazard that less than a handful of teams have the revenue to pay top dollar and beyond that has been established for the elite players.
Think of it, before last season the Red Sox paid some $52 million to Dice-K’s Japanese League team just to get the young man out of his contract; after that they still had to pay him another $50 mil or so. There were teams last year who’s entire payroll didn’t approach $50 million. I’d like to think someone in Massachusetts rubbed his neck pretty hard before writing those checks, but the Red Sox did win the World Series. Ask their accountants, not me, if it was worth it.
And ask the Yankees front office now if they’d wished they’d gone a little higher in the bidding.
Again, the answer is that there are only a few teams that can handle that kind of an equation without flinching — and I don’t have a problem with that. Let certain teams and certain players set the market; some players will inevitably outgrow their ponds and some teams will use even bigger buckets to pour money into their pockets — there’s still value left for the other 25 or 26 teams that know how to play the game. While it’s true that the Twins didn’t get any immediate return by having Hunter leave as a free agent, consider the case of Santana.
Santana is arguably the best pitcher in the game; there has never been a chance that he is going to still be with the Twins by the time his current contract is finished. Even with Johan’s talk during spring training last year about it being cheaper for the Twins to sign him to an extension sooner rather than later, and the implication that he might give the team a home-town discount, once Barry Zito got $18 million a year in a long-term contract (and Roger Clemens got $22 million pro-rated for one year) Johan’s departure became as inevitable as spring. As great as he is, the Twins (and 90% of the other teams) can’t pay $20 to $25 million a year for a player who doesn’t play every day.
Last year the Twins were coming off of a Division title and had the league batting champ, MVP and Cy Young winner and were still trying to get a stadium; they had to keep Hunter and try to win it. Even with Hunter and Santana, though, the team’s offensive ineptitude clearly indicated that they could not compete with their current roster — especially if that roster took on another $40 million in salary a year for two players. This year there are no hopes or illusions about the team’s chances against the Indians, Tigers and even the White Sox (let alone the Red Sox or Yankees) without an offensive infusion and the fastest way to do that is to turn one or two players (or the money you’d have spent on them)into four or five.
The Twins can be proud they developed Santana and benefited from his skills to become an over-achieving contender; in today’s market they can be proud that Santana’s abilities and his reputation can be leveraged into getting the help they need. Even better for their purposes, there isn’t just one team that can afford him, but at least two and the Yankees and Red Sox will do whatever they can to either ensure that they get Santana or that their chief rival gets stuck paying an onerous tariff in both talent and talants. Some experts have speculated that teams won’t be too aggressive in giving up a lot of players for Santana because of the high salary they’ll have to pay in addition to losing prospects. To which I again point to the $52 million Boston paid just to turn Dice-K into a free agent.
When you’re in the heavyweight category of the Sox and the Yanks, the prospect of winning the series this year is always more important than prospects. Furthermore, in my opinion, neither team has come to the plate with its best offer yet. The Boston offer of Crisp, Lester and the Triple-A shortstop prospect is mildly interesting but is more quantity than quality. Same with the Yanks and the Mets; there’s not going to be any progress until one team or the other puts an “untouchable” on the table. It’s a challenging game of brinksmanship to be sure, but a game that’s certainly more compelling than any the Twins played last September.
Personally, I’m excited by the possibilities in front of the Twins thanks to the Santana negotiations and the Matt Garza/Delmon Young trade last week. That was another deal that had to be made and a clear case of giving something to get something. It’s hard to tell how young players will eventually turn out but I see a a large number of fans in both cities think their local club gave up too much in the trade. I’d say that that’s a good sign that the trade was a fair one.
And I think the next few years for the Twins are going to be good ones.