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Counting (and Comparing) Cards: The Mid-Tier Minnesota Twins

Happy Super Bowl Sunday, everyone! If you’re anything like me, another year with no real “dog in the fight” so to speak, I’ll be mostly meandering around the kitchen and living room – eating too much junk, maybe having a drink or two, passively watching the game whilst waiting for a decent commercial to come on. Then, of course, judge them harshly against all of my favorite Super Bowl commercials from the past. My wife asked me who was playing in the Super Bowl last week, I literally had to take a moment and think, thankfully my 10-year-old son chimed in with the correct answer pretty quickly so I was able to save some face. Needless to say, I’m not exactly the world’s biggest football fan (Skol Vikings, though).
Baseball is only 11 days away. Time to get excited.
Image courtesy of © Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
A Cardinal Comparison
Alright. Credit where credit is due, the inspiration for this comes from an article Brandon Warne wrote at Zone Coverage, where he basically broke down three distinct categories of teams through his lens. Broken down into tiers, he had the Yankees tier – of which we have never ( or should never ) expected the Twins to live up to – the Cardinals tier, and the Rays tier. The article was tailored around roster construction and payroll behaviors, and I think it’s a pretty cogent place to start.

On the surface, there is no reason the Twins shouldn’t be operating like the St. Louis Cardinals. According to Sports Media Watch, Minneapolis-St. Paul is the 15th largest sports team media market in the country, outpacing St. Louis with 1.713 million Nielsen homes vs. 1.164 million. The Cardinals “new” one billion ($1B dollar), 15 year television deal with Fox Sports Midwest, signed in 2015, kicked in during the 2018 season and paid the team a cool $50 million dollars. The Twins current television deal with Fox Sports North that runs through 2023, pays an average of $40 million annually. Considering the term, the Twins could feasibly expect their next deal to reach (or exceed) similar numbers.

To be fair, being a well-run organization over several decades has some salient advantages also. If we look at simple Forbes valuations of the Cardinals, they rank seventh in all of major league baseball, vs. 22nd for the Twins. If we look at the attendance figures for the 2018 season, the Cardinals had the third highest attendance vs. 19th for the Twins. Without getting into the weeds too much, there is a pretty stark discrepancy in direction the franchises have taken when one brand is worth $110 million and the others is worth $245 million. The amount of revenue per fan coming into the Cardinals organization is $87, the same revenue per fan coming to the Twins is $45.

The Cardinals, perennial contenders in one of (if not THE) toughest divisions in baseball, manage to win – and win consistently – despite having some of the “disadvantages” the Twins seem to encumber themselves with every season. The dreaded small market stigma. The last season with a losing record, you might ask? 2007.
The Twins, on the other hand, are neck deep in the worst decade (winning percentage-wise) in franchise history, post 1961.

Farming
Winning is probably a big factor. Everything seems better when you’re winning. Even just winning enough to be competitive every year, it just feels different. Attendance figures, generally, rise during winning seasons – or stretches of winning seasons. Fan investment in the team also tends to go full bore fevered pitch. The city buzzes. Everyone wants to be part of a winner. Fans, players – free agents – all like to be part of a winner.

If we really boil it down, though, it's front office management, player development and scouting. When we are talking this tier, the margins between success and failure are razor thin. If you didn’t notice, and I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t, the Yankees went through a recent rebuilding phase (The urge to laugh hysterically is palpable) – but when you have the kind of resources that could feasibly build a real Death Star (read: buy a team of all-stars, if need be), if you fail to draft and develop well – that team can still field a competent team. For teams like the Twins, and the Cardinals, drafting and developing talent poorly for any stretch of time is a death knell. The Cardinals, however, are the gold standard.

Let’s make a quick comparison. In the last decade, just first round draft picks (again, the Cardinals haven’t had a losing season since 2007, so, not exactly low first round picks) the names drafted include Shelby Miller, Kolton Wong, Michael Wacha, Luke Weaver and Dakota Hudson. They account for a 32.7 fWAR, and some pretty competent MLB players. Dakota Hudson was the 93rd ranked MLB prospect in 2018. Mind you, this isn’t even including the Randall Grichuk’s or Oscar Tavares’s (who unfortunately left us too soon), these are just the first rounders.

Over that same time frame, the Twins have drafted Kyle Gibson and Byron Buxton who have spent any significant time in the MLB, for a combined 14.6 fWAR. Alex Wimmer threw 7 1/3 IP for the Twins in 2017. Levi Michael has famously (infamously) never figured it out. Kohl Stewart has 36 2/3 IP, all in this last 2018 season, and may be a late bloomer, but has yet to contribute anything meaningful. Nick Gordon, Alex Kirilloff and Royce Lewis might each develop into something special, there is reason to be hopeful.

Building a winner from within is key, and that’s all player development, scouting, drafting and a savvy front office. We’ve seen this recently from the Astros and Indians, and to a lesser extent (because of available resources) the Chicago Cubs. Winning brings money, winning brings the desire to play in a specific market – and winning builds trust with the fan base.

The Open Window
If you’ve hung with me this long, great job, thanks for reading and I appreciate each and every one of you. Really, you don’t know how much it means to me that people actually take an interest in what I have to write. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

I will end this on a hopeful note for the future. The 2019 season is on the horizon and every team is tied for first place. All of the hallmarks that make the Cardinals the Cardinals, the drafting and scouting, analytics and player development, a smart front office and managerial staff – all of these factors that make the Cardinals the gold standard and placeholder of this middle tier of baseball teams - are things the Twins have motioned and positioned themselves toward.

Even as the frustration toward payroll utilization (I feel you, I could’ve written an entire piece on that as well) mounts, let’s not forget the Twins have tangibly moved themselves away from the “old business” – the good ol’ boys club, the antiquated, advanced metric information-phobic era - and sprinted toward embracing new information, coaching methods, erstwhile maintaining payroll flexibility for the next decade.

The Twins seem to be pressing all the right buttons toward being a gold standard of their own, and seating themselves in the middle tier.

Let’s Go Twins.

  • nclahammer, Minny505, MN_ExPat and 3 others like this

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15 Comments

I get a charge out of these posts.I lived through the ten straight Yankees!Nothing compares - then or now.The new standard is to build to near greatness - spend and jump up to greatness and quickly move back and start over.

 

And, by the way, I am always interested in the Superbowl, no matter who is in.I learned from the VIkings not to get too invested in it. 

I think about this comparison quite a bit. We are not a "small market" team... 

    • Twins33 and Minny505 like this
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nicksaviking
Feb 03 2019 08:18 PM
Great contribution, welcome aboard!
    • Sconnie, Minny505 and MN_ExPat like this
Great post and I think your comparison is spot on!
    • Minny505 and MN_ExPat like this
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theBOMisthebomb
Feb 04 2019 06:22 AM
Yeah well... the Twins did beat the Cardinals in the 1987 World Series.
    • MN_ExPat likes this

Development or lack of is huge for the Twins if they are not going to spend money to improve.There was so much excitement over players like Hicks, Vargas, Arcia and a few others.They are all gone with nothing to show for it.Now we have been banking on Buxton and Sano and so far not so good. If they don't pan out what is next?Another 3-4 years of "rebuilding".I think Gibson may be the last high round pick that is consistently playing and it seemed forever for him to develop.Berrios seems to be on his way but we thought that with Buxton and Sano too.It seems too many players go on to another team that seems to know how to do it.

The Cardinals have so many more die hard fans, it isn't even a comparison. Would the Twins ever take over a city, like the Cards do when they play the Cubs? Maybe if we had 35,000 plus at Target Field for every game we could start a comparison. Theoretically we should be able to compare with them, but we are light years away IMO.

Nice write up. Welcome aboard.

The Cardinals went through a pretty dismal stretch in the 90's, it turned out to be a great advantage.The new owner (Bill DeWitt) was able to pivot from their old school ways to utilizing analytics.LaRussa and GM Jocketty weren't totally on-board, so it wasn't real smooth, but it eventually paid off.

Now that every team is using analytics, I don't know how any of them will have as big of an advantage.I guess we'll know in 5 years or so.....  

Go T'ins.
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LA VIkes Fan
Feb 04 2019 12:31 PM

The Cardinals do have a strongerfollowing than the Twins and they really show the way a non-huge market team needs to operate to compete. It's all about player development, drafting and identifying players in other organizations that are undervalued. Develop a good farm system and then you can trade from it to fill holes. You can supplement with free agents when you're close. None of that works unless you have a strong and consistent pipeline to your MLB club. The Cardinals have the last 20 years; the Twins have not. 

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theBOMisthebomb
Feb 04 2019 02:36 PM

The Cardinals have so many more die hard fans, it isn't even a comparison. Would the Twins ever take over a city, like the Cards do when they play the Cubs? Maybe if we had 35,000 plus at Target Field for every game we could start a comparison. Theoretically we should be able to compare with them, but we are light years away IMO.

The Vikings have travelled better the last 10 years or so. Face it though, this is a town of front runners -always has been and always will be. Heck, I get harassed by fellow Minnesotans in town (people that are both citizens and fans) when the Twins/Vikings struggle and I wear their colors. If one of our clubs is winning then look out - there are bandwagon fans everywhere. Otherwise, only the core fans are there and the support from the casual fans in this town is lukewarm unless you win.

I've never understood why being a front running fan is bad. It actually makes a lot more sense to me.

The view never changes unless you are the lead dog.
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Battle ur tail off
Feb 06 2019 02:39 PM

 

The Cardinals have so many more die hard fans, it isn't even a comparison. Would the Twins ever take over a city, like the Cards do when they play the Cubs? Maybe if we had 35,000 plus at Target Field for every game we could start a comparison. Theoretically we should be able to compare with them, but we are light years away IMO.

 

Just win baby and it would happen. 

 

When you suck 9 out of 10 years, you don't build a loyal fan base. Look at the Vikings. Yes, they have disappointed but have always been competitive and have had ownership groups and front office management that brought in the best they could. Their fans reward them for it.