Counting (and Comparing) Cards: The Mid-Tier Minnesota Twins
Image courtesy of © Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY SportsA 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.
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