On The Twins' Cheapness And Showing Your Work
Image courtesy of Brad Rempel, USA TodayAnd I get it. Having taken the public for said ride and secured a stadium that is maybe the most appealing in baseball, the Twins (per Cot’s Contracts) ended their first two seasons in Target Field with top-ten payrolls, but then fell back to 13th in 2012, and haven’t been out of the 20s since. While attendance predictably declined from 2011 to 2015, it seems a safe bet that they could generally have spent more money than they did in those years and still turned a nice profit.
The problem I’ve always had, though, is that this (at the most) is generally where the fan’s analysis stops. They could have spent more money, but they didn’t, and they should have. The obvious next questions that gets left on the table, though, are “on what?” and “why?”: what could that money have gotten them, and what makes it a good idea? The 2011 Twins had a $115 million payroll and were coming off a 94-win, first-place year, but with injuries to almost literally everyone -- only Danny Valencia and Michael Cuddyer would play as many as 120 games for the Twins in 2011 -- they lost 99, finishing a whopping 28 games out of a wildcard spot, and it was pretty clear their window had slammed shut. They lost 96 in both 2012 and 2013 (22 and 26 games out of the playoffs, respectively), and 92 (18 out) in 2014. Their season-ending payroll declined, meanwhile, from 9th in 2011, to 13th, to 24th.
But, again, what could and should they have spent more money on, and what could we have expected it to bring them? In a league in which the very best player might be worth about nine wins and four is a typical All-Star, the Twins would’ve had to add the equivalent of four or five All-Stars, two Mike Trouts, or some combination thereof (assuming each of them takes the place of true replacement-level players, to boot) in order to have had any chance at a postseason berth in any of those years. That’s not the kind of thing that’s ever happened via free agency--teams have tried, typically with disastrous consequences (check out the turn-of-the-century Devil Rays sometime).
But what if the postseason isn’t the goal? What about just putting a marginally more entertaining product on the field? I question whether that’s a thing, personally--it’s the competing that draws the crowds, the Timberwolves are as entertaining as a bad basketball team can get right now and not drawing substantially more than their terribly depressing squads of the last couple years did--but I get that, too. It’s not as though a team puts those savings in an interest-bearing account and adds them to the pot for next year. They would, in a perfect world, but they don’t; those savings go to the owners, and the next year’s budget is its own thing. So to the extent you’re concerned only about this season, yes, you as a fan should want the team to spend as much money as they can possibly get away with, because that money’s gone for your purposes after the season either way.
The problem with that is that the one-year deal for a good (or even just “entertaining”) player exists in baseball only when that player comes with huge risks. Most free agents worth signing as anything more than filler in this game demand commitments of three years, or four or five or more. Most free agents are also in their 30s, which means almost without exception that they’re likely to get worse over those three to five years, not better. What that means is that most of the free agents the Twins could’ve signed to make them marginally better or more fun in 2013 or 2014 would still be getting paid as Twins in 2016, and would be less good or fun now than they were then (but probably making at least as much money). When you don’t expect to win, you probably shouldn’t (and can’t, to field a team that avoids challenging the ‘62 Mets) stop spending entirely. But your focus in spending, way ahead of getting better for the now, has to be to avoid hamstringing the team in future seasons, when -- if your prospects pan out and you’re not too bogged down by aging players’ contracts -- you might be positioned to spend to fill more immediate needs and make a run at it.
In that light, I tended to think the Twins’ spending from 2012 through 2014 was just about perfect--a weird thing for me to say, as I’ve never been one to go easy on the front office (Tony Batista and Ruben Sierra? Seriously?). In 2012, there was just a long, black-dark road ahead, and nothing to do but fill a couple of the gaps to try to be interesting and wait it out. And that’s exactly what they did, bringing in Josh Willingham (who worked) and Ryan Doumit (who didn’t) to fill in for the departing Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel, and otherwise just stayed put and take their lumps. Heading into 2014, with Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano and others now on their way, it made sense to take a look at some relatively low-risk, 30-or-younger free agents who could reasonably be expected to be contributing at about the same level a couple years down the line, and they did that, bringing in Phil Hughes (who I’d argue worked) and Ricky Nolasco (who thus far clearly hasn’t), along with more stopgaps like Mike Pelfrey and Kurt Suzuki. For whatever else the Twins have done right or wrong, this is exactly how a non-contending team should spend its money. Should they have spent more of it? Perhaps--but it’s on the one arguing they should to identify where they should’ve spent it and why. Whining that they’re cheap and run by billionaires just doesn’t cut it; they’re losing ninety-plus either way. Show your work.
I’ve left out 2015 so far, of course, and that’s a tough one because we know how it ends: the Twins win 83 games, surprising everyone, and miss the wildcard play-in game by just three wins. They entered the last week with a real shot, and as it turns out, even one modest upgrade in the offseason could have gotten them there. That’s cheating, though: the Twins didn’t know how it would end, and I really think they were looking at 2016 or 2017 as their next legitimate chance, and so they stayed the course, bringing in 32-year-old Ervin Santana to add to their stable of average starters who seem likely to still be about average by the next time they thought they’d be competitive. Were there moves that not only could have put them over the top as things turned out, but that they should have made in December or January 2014-15, knowing and believing what they reasonably did then? Maybe! But I’d like to know what those specifically were. (Note also that a first half from Santana might itself ultimately have put them in the playoffs.)
So that gets us to today. I’ve been as frustrated as anyone with the lack of activity: Byung-Ho Park is certainly interesting, but hardly fills a glaring need, and there’s not much else that’s even worth mentioning. It feels much like a team with two third basemen and three or four 1B/DH types, which seems to suggest moves to be made, and I would’ve loved to see them land, say, Darren O’Day, an elite reliever who signed a four-year deal to stay with the Orioles similar to the ones the Twins gave Santana and Nolasco. But: O’Day is 32 years old, and at his very best -- at any modern reliever’s best -- is worth about three wins. The Twins had a lot of luck last year, and while I’m looking forward to seeing what they can do in 2016, there’s good reason to believe they’re not quite there yet, with or without the upgraded bullpen. If, as Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA expects, they go 79-83 and miss the playoffs by seven games, O’Day probably wouldn’t have made a difference, and neither would most anyone else. And then what about in 2018, when Buxton and Sano are MVP candidates, but O’Day is 35 and ineffective, while his $9 million salary helps prevent you from signing that year’s Darren O’Day, who could be the difference between an LDS loss and a world championship?
I have no answers. I thought they should have done more this offseason, and I sure hope that they do well enough that there’s a worry it might come back to bite them. But too often, we collectively seem to want the team to spend more money without considering a.) the limits of what that spending can actually do, or b.) the risks down the road of imprudently committing money now. Fans can complain that the team is cheap all they want -- and why not, it’s just baseball, it’s all in fun, you do you -- but without an idea of how they should spend that extra money, why they should and what might happen if it goes bad, all it is is whining for whining’s sake. Seems to me it’s more fun, more instructive, and, at least in this case, harder to argue with the plan, if you show your work.
- James, Mike Frasier Law, ThejacKmp and 4 others like this