The Twins Will Be Okay Even If They Cut Payroll

Bally Sports North YouTube screenshot

The tension filled the air at Target Field. The Minnesota Twins were making an important decision that would shape the foundation of their season. Fans waited with bated breath before expressing their disappointment in the outcome.

T.C. hid in the corner as the angry fans filed into the concourses. Some screamed “Pocket protector!” in their Nick Punto jersey. Others sent their kids to swing on the bat of the Harmon Killebrew statue until it toppled over. Still others screamed in rage, while more declared they were “never spending money on this team again.”

You may think this was the final inning of the season for the Minnesota Twins. But this wasn’t about their loss to the Houston Astros or a managerial decision by Rocco Baldelli. There wasn’t a Twins player or executive in sight because the genesis of this outrage came from a hotel in Arizona.

The Athletic’s Dan Hayes reported that the Twins plan to reduce their payroll ahead of the 2024 season. With the Twins losing over $50 million in revenue with the expiration of their TV deal, this was always a possibility. But it’s not a death sentence for Minnesota next year because they have enough in their organization to overcome a cheaper roster.

That won’t be any consolation for Twins fans who have been scarred throughout the years. Calvin Griffith was notorious for his cheap practices after moving the team from Washington in 1961. Carl Pohlad threatened to move the team to North Carolina and then contract them all together before their resurgence in the 2000s.

Even then, stars like Torii Hunter and Johan Santana walked out the door while the Twins invested their money in bargain-bin free agents such as Sidney Ponson, Joe Crede, and Jason Marquis.

It’s been a reputation the Twins haven’t been able to shake even after paying Joe Mauer, Josh Donaldson, and Carlos Correa record-setting contracts over the past decade. They also handed out a large financial commitment to Pablo López last offseason.

So why are the Twins reducing payroll? Most of it confirms their fan’s fears.

The Twins’ television contract with Bally Sports North ended after this past season, and the agreement was anything but stable. Diamond Sports, the parent company of BSN, was due to pay the team $54.8 million in television rights this season. However, several missed payments resulted in a lawsuit and the Twins looking into alternative options for 2024 and beyond.

A fan-favorite option is to stream the games online and through an exclusive channel on cable networks. But even if MLB takes over as they did for the San Diego Padres last season, they would still be on the hook for production costs, talent, and other aspects of the broadcast.

MLB would pick up some of that tab, but it would still be less than the Twins would have made with Bally. It would also be significantly less than the nine-figure deals that big-market teams like the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers get annually. MLB doesn’t have a revenue system similar to the NFL’s, which allows a team in Green Bay, Wisc., to remain competitive. Therefore, MLB teams must fend for themselves, leaving a large gap between mid- to large-market teams.

The Twins have overcome this with Target Field opening. Still, they can’t invest as much into payroll as a team in New York or Los Angeles without risking operating at a loss. Even a team like the Padres, who ranked third in payroll last season according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, had to take out a $50 million loan to pay it out. The Twins are a business, so they will enact financial discipline. But that’s no comfort to the fan base that just watched them win their first playoff game since 2003 and their first playoff series since 2002.

So, what does this mean for the product on the field? It means the Twins have to trim the fat.

Hayes’ report estimates the Twins’ 2024 payroll to be between $125 million and $140 million. Therefore, they could make several moves organically to bring the roster into that price range. They probably aren’t going to pay $13 million to bring Joey Gallo back to the team. They’re likely to non-tender Tyler Mahle after he made $7.5 million last season, and Kenta Maeda and his $2 million salary could depart in free agency.

Gallo, Mahle, and Maeda are likely to depart. Therefore, the Twins could already be down to the $125 million listed in Hayes’s report. But that could be just the beginning.

Kyle Farmer made just over $5.5 million for the Twins last season, but they could non-tender or trade him to clear up a log jam in the infield. They could make Jorge Polanco available with Royce Lewis taking over third base and Edouard Julien taking over at second. Polanco hit .256/.361/.456 with nine homers and 32 RBI in the second half. However, he was limited to 30 games in the first half.

They could slot Polanco into Farmer’s role, but that’s a massive leap in payroll after the team picked up his $10.5 million salary for next season. The same goes for Max Kepler. The Twins picked up his $10 million option for next year, but he’s also competing for playing time with Matt Wallner and a center fielder.

The Twins are hoping that Byron Buxton will be able to play in the outfield. However, they’ll need an insurance plan. They used Michael A. Taylor to fill that void, but Taylor could be seeking a raise on the $4.5 million he made last year.

Then there’s the starting rotation where Sonny Gray became a Cy Young candidate last season. While the Twins made a one-year, $20.325 million qualifying offer to Gray, he’s unlikely to accept it. There is an argument to bring him back, but that’s assuming another pitching-needy team doesn’t sign him to a three-year deal in the $75 million neighborhood.

The Twins aren’t going to get rid of everyone in a great purge. They’ll likely keep Kepler after the team refused to dump him following a slow start to the season. However, that could help Minnesota get below their floor while also having room to add to the team because that’s where the Twins have shined over the past several seasons. Many teams have gone to the free-agent market to fill their needs, but Minnesota has made shrewd trades that have added controllable contracts for the future.

For example, the Twins added Gray in an under-the-radar trade for Chase Petty in 2022. They acquired López and a prospect in exchange for Luis Arraez last winter. Minnesota also acquired Farmer and Taylor in similar trades one year ago. They also made efficient signings, like Donovan Solano, to complement the roster.

It’s unreasonable to expect that each of these moves will pan out. However, it’s the type of challenge that most mid-market teams will face as Bally’s and other regional networks struggle to hang onto their media deal rights.

It also should be noted that the highest-paying teams haven’t guaranteed themselves a spot in the World Series recently. While the Texas Rangers had a top-10 payroll last season, the Arizona Diamondbacks were 21st while focusing on young talent and shrewd transactions.

That could mean the end of some familiar faces ending up in a Twins uniform. However, it doesn’t damage their long-term outlook. With Lewis, Julien, and Wallner anchoring the lineup and López and Joe Ryan in the rotation, the Twins could have enough to handle a slight decrease in payroll and give fans a lot less to worry about.

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