WARNE: The Twins Payroll Situation is Complex, Frustrating & Bewildering -- but Also Worth Examining

Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

For the sake of this exercise, let’s assume we can take people at their word. Lavelle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune has recently intimated that he felt the Minnesota Twins were more or less done making additions this offseason.

On Thursday night during the Diamond Awards prior to the opening of TwinsFest this weekend, Thad Levine said as much, suggesting the team’s core is more or less in place.

As expected, that won’t sit well in light of recent happenings in the Twins community online — most notably on Twitter — as the comments about the payroll discrepancy from last year to this year have grown more pointed.

Let’s take a look into some of the dichotomies that are being presented and try to understand just why the Twins might be proceeding the way they are at this point.

Before getting too far down the road, let’s first clear up a few things:

First of all, I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone suggest the Twins roster is ready to take off the way it is constructed. One of the straw men theories floating around on Twitter is that team apologists think the team, as constructed, is ready to compete and thus has no further holes to address this offseason.

Again, I don’t think I’ve seen anyone whose opinion is worth the paper it’d be printed on saying something like this. Everyone is aware of the issues the Twins have — most notably, the team could probably use one more starter and another reliever if we’re being totally honest — and all of this is coming in a perfect storm.

  • No other teams are really stepping up to spend.
  • Cleveland continues to weaken, both of its own volition and by sheer talent departure due to free agency.
  • Two iconic, franchise-level players are there for the taking at positions every team should be looking at — not the least of which, a Twins team so centrally focused on what happens with the development path of their young players.

A large part of the uproar is centered around the current payroll — with a figure of $96 million widely circulated.

And for the record, I don’t think anyone on the surface looks at that figure — or the one I’m about to share — and says “You know what? Good enough.”

As former team reporter and friend of the program Mike Berardino noted on a recent episode of Midwest Swing, this number is being floated by people who — for one reason or another — are not factoring in most likely the $5.95 million the team owes the Padres from the Phil Hughes trade or the $2 million in buyouts to Ervin Santana and Logan Morrison.

It’s not that the difference of $8 million completely vanquishes the argument of either side, but it’s important to determine a logical — and more importantly, intellectually honest — jumping-off point for the debate. It also shoots a hole in the whole narrative started when Patrick Reusse said he “heard the team was aiming to keep the payroll under $100 million” — a figure Roster Resource has them already past at this hour.

Forbes recently posted team valuations and revenues, with the Twins ranking 22nd in team value at $1.15 billion and 21st in revenue at $261 million — before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization.

For whatever reason, $300 million has been floated as what the Twins could possibly do in revenue next year — I don’t know if this is someone wishcasting to justify their point, or if there is an actual projection of this, but I’d dispute it on the grounds of fewer season ticket sales after a tough season — and the widely held promise fans fall back on was that the team would invest roughly half of it into player payroll on a yearly basis.

The Twins more or less met that standard last year, with an Opening Day payroll of $128.7 million and a 40-man year-end payroll of $143.8 million, according to Cot’s Contracts.

Here’s how the Twins have done payroll-wise, with Opening Day first, end-of-year second and the MLB-wide ranking in parentheses in the Target Field era (2010-present):

  • 2018: $128.7 million | $143.8 million (18)
  • 2017: $108.1 million | $123.6 million (21)
  • 2016: $105.3 million | $122.6 million (20)
  • 2015: $108.3 million | $108.3 million (20)
  • 2014: $85.5 million | $91.1 million (24)
  • 2013: $82.0 million | $76.1 million (24)
  • 2012: $100.4 million | $101.2 million (13)
  • 2011: $113.2 million | $115.4 million (9)
  • 2010: $97.7 million | $103.0 million (10)

There are a few interesting things to point out there. First of all, the Twins really did have a top-10 payroll for back-to-back years — which may seem hard to believe considering how many people say the team is “cheap” on message boards and comment sections.

But that’s many years ago — back to the opening of Target Field — and isn’t really all that compelling to bring up one way or another. Still, the “broken promise of spending after WE built you a stadium” theory falls a bit flat.

From 2000 until the Metrodome closed, the Twins were only once in the top 20 in spending — in 2003 when they ranked 18th. Instead, they spent somewhere between $55-$70 million on payroll on average, developed stars just to see them leave and created an entirely different narrative that fans clung to.

And beyond that, arguments tend to go one of two ways:

  • People call the Twins cheap, you tell them the team literally just set a team record for payroll, and they tell you ‘So what, it still isn’t enough’ or ‘Yeah, well, every other team keeps going up too.’
  • People want to cite that revenues just keep going up, and that the Twins aren’t growing in line with the rest of teams.

There’s a lot in common with each of those arguments — which I see on a regular basis — but where the rest of the league spends is so fluid. We really have no idea where payrolls will end the 2019 season at, yet what’s happening right now is the basis for how teams will be graded.

And beyond that, the Twins have been pretty consistently in that 18-20 region in recent years, much higher than that early in the Target Field era — when the team truly expected to be good — and lower when no amount of free-agent spending was going to change how the season went.

A phrase I like to say about that is “you can spend a good team into a great one, but you can’t spend a bad one into a good one.” What I mean is that I think you can spend an 80-win team to say…88 wins and the cusp of the playoffs, but I don’t think you can spend a 60-win team to 80.

Teams with those kinds of budgets never win 60 games, anyway. Look at the Yankees during their recent “down” period. They were never even under .500, let alone where the Twins were from 2011-on.

Oh, and by the way — if you want a non-weighted payroll ranking for the Twins in the Target Field era, it’s 17.7th. I’m not smart enough to weight it, but if you add up all the team’s payroll rankings and divide it by nine — yes, we’re headed into year 10 of Target Field somehow — you get 17.7.

That would suggest the Twins have actually outspent their team value (22nd) and revenue (21st), wouldn’t it?

It’s just something to think about.

And that brings me to my financial theory about where the Twins are right now.

Target Field, as it was constructed, was never going to make the Twins a team who’d spend like the Yankees. And that’s a straw man used by the other side of the payroll argument — “did you really expect them to spend like the Yankees?”

And that’s a big part of what the argument stems from right now — each side totally misrepresenting what the other is trying to say.

My theory is that there are three types of teams in baseball today:

  • The Yankees tier (top) — those who basically do whatever they want financially (pre-2017-18, anyhow)
  • The Rays (bottom) — teams riding the six-year wave of young kids, maybe extending one every now and then (Evan Longoria) but mostly serving as a feeder system to the rest of the league
  • The Cardinals (middle) — those who are financially savvy, make trades and free agent moves to help the team but largely build and develop and keep from within

Building Target Field pushed the Twins from the Rays tier — when players like Torii Hunter, Corey Koskie and others left, but they were able to extend some guys pre-free agency like Johan Santana, Joe Nathan and Brad Radke — into the Cardinals tier.

But wait, one key factor is missing — keeping their stars at home, right?

That’s what has been the missing ingredient for basically the entire Target Field era. The Twins signed Joe Mauer to a massive contract extension knowing they’d have no problem footing that bill with new revenue streams created by the stadium.

In the meantime, they’ve developed exactly zero superstars. Aaron Hicks became one elsewhere. Carlos Gomez did too. Jose Berrios is on his way, and internally, hopes are still high for Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton, and if you squint, also Alex Kirilloff and Royce Lewis.

But now is where the idea of spending comes into play — the Twins really should be spending to surround these players with talent so that their volatility doesn’t wax and wane from 59 wins, to 85 and back to 78, right?

Well, yes. That is true, and it comes at a time when the Twins just so happen to be the team with the most payroll flexibility in the entire game.

Based on Berardino’s calculations from his podcast appearance, the Twins have the least amount of hard committed payroll dollars after 2019 — a meager $300k, which is the buyout on Nelson Cruz’s 2020 team option.

The next fewest dollars committed is the Toronto Blue Jays at $37 million — more than 100-times as much as the Twins.

This payroll flexibility has a lot of value — in a way people like us on the outside probably can’t even quantify — but what people are rightly noticing is that it doesn’t have to reset to zero before the team taps into it.

In fact, signing players now and frontloading deals could help keep some of that flexibility into the future, even now as guys like Buxton and Sano are very early in their service time situations.

So why isn’t the team a key player for Bryce Harper or Manny Machado?

Sep 28, 2018; Denver, CO, USA; Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper (34) bats in the fourth inning against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field. Mandatory Credit: Russell Lansford-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s take a look at why this might be. Now these theories are going to range all over the map — and perhaps even be potentially absurd. But since we aren’t in the Target Field situation room, we have to consider all the potential scenarios, right?

1. The Twins don’t want to spend to add to their core until Sano and Buxton have stabilized in the big leagues.

I think what bothers me most about being called a Pohlad payroll apologist this offseason is that my literal offseason opus was “Hey Twins! It’s Time to Spend Some Money!” Five days later, word broke that the team was signing Cruz to a one-year deal.

If I knew I had that kind of power, I’d have wielded it much, much sooner.

No, but really — please go back and read it. I think I laid out all the reasons why it was good for the Twins to be opportunistic this winter, and for the most part they really….haven’t. Is it disappointing? Sure. Enough for me to yell and threaten to never go to a Twins game again if I was still a fan? I mean, I don’t know. I can’t spend your money for you, but that seems kind of extreme.

Ultimately, whether fans like it or not the Twins hold all the chips. They know fans will come streaming back when they start winning again — whether the payroll is $96 million or $196 million.

But if they wait for Sano and Buxton to stabilize in the big leagues, that might be another year down the road — with another year of their (cheap) club control burnt. It’s not exactly a Kansas City Royals-like problem where Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain are all eligible for free agency in the same offseason after struggling in the big leagues for four of their six years of club control, but you can see a faint outline like that.

Especially since the core of the Twins goes further than just Buxton and Sano, and also includes Eddie Rosario, Max Kepler, Jorge Polanco and Berrios as well. That’s six players all eligible for free agency after 2022 or 2023.

And again, free agency most likely won’t again have two guys like Harper and Machado — more or less the second coming of A-Rod, or as close as we’ll get in this current era of manipulating service time — available in the same offseason, let alone possibly with fewer suitors driving their costs down into the type of deal a team like the Twins might be able to stomach handing out.

Oct 27, 2018; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers second baseman Brian Dozier (6) celebrates with shortstop Manny Machado (8) after scoring on a two-run home run by outfielder Enrique Hernandez (14) in the ninth inning against the Boston Red Sox in game four of the 2018 World Series at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

I’m not saying this is a good or a bad reason to sit tight on the wallets, but it certainly makes sense as something they’d say in a forward-facing scenario.

1a. The further the Twins go down the road, the clearer their holes will be and moving toward all that flexibility means they’ll be more likely to be able to fill a hole with a Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander, Madison Bumgarner or Nolan Arenado-type next winter.

This is one I kind of honed in over the last day or two, and you can almost convince yourself it isn’t that bad of an idea. It’s preposterous to say the Twins don’t need a Harper or Machado — though internally, their top-two prospects Kirilloff and Lewis just so happen to play those positions — so maybe as a result, the team would prefer to focus on say…signing Arenado to play third if Sano struggles this year, or moves off third base permanently.

That argument goes two ways, however. Arenado might be a better fit from a positional standpoint and is perhaps a more well-rounded player and teammate than Machado — something the Twins would know, but not us, mind you — but would also turn 29 within just a few games of donning a Minnesota uniform for the first time.

Machado, on the other hand, will be 26 for half of this season, and his next spot down the defensive spectrum just so happens to be the one Arenado already plays.

The same thing could apply at catcher, but we’ll get into that shortly.

Furthermore, the place where this really, really helps is at starting pitcher. This year’s market was respectable for starters, but there was no shortage of risk. Nathan Eovaldi got $64 million based mostly on what he did in the postseason. Patrick Corbin got over $100 million and only once in the last five years has an ERA under 3.50.

Next winter’s market is a bit more top-heavy.

Yasmani Grandal will hit the market again at catcher. He’ll be flanked by a few other capable receivers as well.

Jose Abreu, Paul Goldschmidt and Justin Smoak will be on the market for first basemen.

Xander Bogaerts will potentially hit the market at shortstop, as will Didi Gregorius and possibly Elvis Andrus.

Josh Donaldson, Anthony Rendon and Arenado headline free agents from the hot corner.

Marcell Ozuna, Aaron Hicks, Nicholas Castellanos and Yasiel Puig will be available in the outfield, with J.D. Martinez having the option to get out of his deal with Boston as well.

And the pitching…oh, the pitching. In addition to Cole, Verlander and Bumgarner, others who may hit the market include Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta, Miles Mikolas, Cole Hamels, Chris Sale, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Michael Wacha, Alex Wood and Zack Wheeler.

So are they balancing exercising caution with a deeper market next winter? Maybe, but there’s still plenty of risk there, such as players not developing internally, this current market scaring some of the studs into signing extensions during the season and finally, the Twins not being a preferred destination if they have a subpar season in 2019.

2. They’re waiting for Cleveland to completely implode.

This one probably makes the least sense, because they still have Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez — the two best players in the division — locked up for a while, and it’s very possible Cleveland’s decrescendo will be in lockstep with Chicago’s crescendo.

Strike while the iron is hot.

3. They’ve tried this offseason, but players won’t take their money.

Robert Murray of The Athletic reported that the Twins were one of four teams to offer a deal to Grandal, who ultimately signed a one-year deal with an option with the Brewers. That’ll amount to about $18 million, while Darren Wolfson of KSTP dug in and found that the Twins offered multiple years around $13 million and things never really went from there.

This spurred the “Twins leaked this just to use the ‘we tried’” narrative, but that doesn’t add up here for a few reasons.

First, we have no way of knowing where this offer was in the whole pattern of starting low and working up to where a player is in his comfort zone. It doesn’t really sound like the conversations got that far, and maybe that’s because he had a four-year, $60 million offer from the New York Mets (reportedly) in-hand.

There’s no doubt Wolfson could have gotten his info from a well-placed source in the Twins organization, but there’s no chance Murray did, and Wolfson’s inquiry was a direct response to Murray’s reporting.

In other words, the Twins didn’t leak anything here.

Rather, it looks like they’ll ride out the final year of Jason Castro’s deal, figure out what Mitch Garver and/or Willians Astudillo are capable of, and possibly be in the mix for Grandal a year from now — with that seed firmly planted that they’ve at least been interested in the past.

Oh, and a year from now, Grandal won’t have any draft-pick implications tied to him — another added bonus in favor of the Twins.

4. They’re just being cheap.

This all comes back to the team not reinvesting the “Mauer money” right away, but that’s only part of what’s at play here.

This is the money that came off the books from this past season:

  • Santana – $13.5 million (-0.5)
  • Mauer – $23 million (1.0)
  • Morrison – $5.5 million (-0.7)
  • Hughes – $13.2 million (-0.3)
  • Lynn – $12 million (0.8)
  • Dozier – $9 million (1.0)
  • Escobar – $4.85 million (2.4)
  • Rodney – $4.25 million (0.5)
  • Duke – $2.15 million (0.8)
  • Grossman – $2 million (0.7)
  • Pressly – $1.6 million (0.8)

That’s a grand total of $91.05 million — subtract Hughes and whoever else you see fit however else you see fit — paid out to players who gave the Twins a total fWAR of 6.5 to the team.

Or about four wins shy of what Mookie Betts (10.4) gave the Red Sox last year, or identical to Matt Chapman of the A’s (6.5).

None of those guys from that long list will be Twins in 2019.

Clearing this hideous — and largely self-inflicted, mind you — logjam while continuing to affirm a commitment to the youth still on the team was always going to result in a net negative, payroll-wise.

Dec 12, 2018; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Minnesota Twins manager Rocco Baldelli talks to the media during the MLB Winter Meetings at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Clark-USA TODAY Sports

Now, this may not calm the nerves of people who are still mad the team didn’t sign Cody Allen — he of the declining velocity and who signed a reasonable deal not with the team he was just with (Indians) or an executive who knows him best (Falvey), but an unrelated entity altogether (Angels) — David Robertson, Kelvin Herrera or any other host of relievers this side of Craig Kimbrel.

And it’s still true the bullpen might not be great. Still, Blake Parker at $1.8 million and change has very similar stats over the last three years as Herrera — $9 million per over the next three years with Chicago — with another year of team control besides if he figures things out the way he had it in 2017.

Sep 11, 2018; Anaheim, CA, USA; Los Angeles Angels relief pitcher Blake Parker (53) throws a pitch against the Texas Rangers during the eighth inning at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Mandatory Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

And if not, back on the burn pile with those innings going to Andrew Vasquez, Kohl Stewart or any one of a handful of moderately intriguing prospects the Twins still have in that Double-A/Triple-A/Quad-A pipeline right now.

Levine says the Twins are more or less done working with their core — that also doesn’t mean they couldn’t sign Nick Vincent (look at his numbers quick, he’s better than you think) or someone else who is still out there and reasonably interesting, like Justin Wilson.

Relievers — fickle as they are — aren’t part of your core.

It’s also possible he’s just playing poker. They were pronounced “done” last year — later than this — and still added Morrison and Lynn (both good moves on paper) and depending on when you saw the diagnosis, also may have added Jake Odorizzi after that as well.

Time will tell if they’re lying, lying in the weeds or just biding their time. But if they’ve shown nothing through these two years, it’s at least that they have a plan and they’re sticking to it, regardless of how it looks on the outside.

You don’t really think Martin Perez is their plan in the rotation, do you?

More on that later, friends…

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