Twins payroll: Why in Gardy's name is it being slashed?

Twins: Selling lots of tickets while pinching pennies.
Twins: Selling lots of tickets while pinching pennies.

A year ago at this time, the Twins were coming off a rousingly successful inaugural year at Target Field, and the future looked bright.

As the old saying goes, what a difference a last-place season makes. After 99 losses and more injuries than you can shake a Punto at, it appears the young-talent-bereft Twins may be Central Division bottomfeeders for some time.

Despite the disastrous on-field results and bleak prognosis for the future, Twins fans kept showing up at the ballpark and probably will continue to do so next year. For 2011 as a whole, 99 percent of seats were filled, the fourth-highest rate in baseball.

Yet Twins brass has decided to significantly cut the team's payroll -- from about $115 million last year to around $100 for 2012. What in the name of Gardenhire gives?

First, some context -- in 2009, the Twins' last season in the Metrodome, the team's payroll was $65 million and the team won a division title (before getting swept in the playoffs). In 2010, no doubt partly because of the Target Field cash infusion, the Twins' payroll shot up to $96 million and the team won a division title (before getting swept in the playoffs). Last year, to keep the band together after an impressive 2010 campaign, ownership allowed the payroll to balloon to about $115 million -- and the team came just one loss shy of becoming the second team in baseball history to spend more than $100 million on players while losing 100 games.

In an interview with the Star Tribune, Twins owner Jim Pohlad said 2011's payroll "exceeded where we wanted it," despite near-constant Target Field sellouts. So, just as the team's long-term on-field prognosis is looking as bleak as it has since Ron Coomer donned a Twins uniform, management is cutting player costs this offseason.

To get the payroll down, the Twins traded starting pitcher Kevin Slowey, dumped disappointing and overweight reliever Jose Mijares, and let longtime Twins Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer leave as free agents.

Cuddyer signed a three-year, $31.5 million deal with Colorado, while Kubel got two years and $15 million from Arizona.

To fill some of the holes those departures created while saving money, the team turned to cheaper alternatives. Shortshop Jamey Carroll was brought in from the Dodgers on a two-year, $6.75 million deal, outfielder Josh Willingham replaced Cuddyer with a contract worth $10 million less than what Cuddyer got from the Rockies, and both slugger Ryan Doumit and starting pitcher Jason Marquis signed one-year, $3 million deals.

The Twins may have received good value with some of those deals. But two big questions remain. First, if the Twins sucked when ownership was spending $115 million on players, how can they be expected to improve when the payroll is slashed? And second, how can ownership justify pinching pennies when fans are still coming to Target Field in droves?

With regard to the first question, the fact of the matter is 2012 couldn't be much worse than 2011 even if the team's payroll was cut in half. Last year's starting rotation, which was almost exactly the same as the mostly effective unit from 2010, struggled for much of the year. In particular, Francisco Liriano suffered a surprising decline after a 2010 season where he showed flashes of being an ace pitcher. No doubt, a Pavano-Baker-Liriano-Blackburn-Marquis rotation is weak compared to what the AL contenders will be trotting out in 2012, but if Liriano can bounce back, Baker can stay healthy, and Marquis can give them 150+ solid innings (big ifs!), you don't have to squint hard to see the rotation bouncing back a bit from last season.

Furthermore, the 2011 Twins got next to nothing from a post-concussion-plagued Justin Morneau and a bilaterally-weak Joe Mauer. Assuming those two key cogs can stay relatively healthy and provide even half the production they did during their peak years (big assumptions!), it's hard to envision the Twins approaching 100 losses again.

But Twins fans surely want playoff contention, not just a better-than-last-year's-awfulness 70-92 finish. And that observation, perhaps, gets at the core of why the team is slashing payroll. Namely, with all the money the team has tied up in question-marks Morneau and Mauer, it's hard to envision the squad contending unless those two have huge bounce-back seasons.

This point was made nicely in a recent column by 1500ESPN's Phil Mackey. He writes:

Again, as a business owner, the question should be this: What will $115 million guarantee that $100 million won't? It all comes down to Mauer and Morneau, who could conceivably lead the Twins' offense to a massive resurgence if healthy and productive. But without Mauer and Morneau -- or even one or the other -- the offense simply isn't likely to score enough runs, and the extra $15 million can't buy enough pitching to help a staff (and defense) that gave up 800+ runs in 2011.

Mackey also makes the astute point that some of the best teams in 2011 had payrolls right around $100 million (The Yankees payroll was highest in baseball at $197 million). For instance, last year's two World Series teams, the champion St. Louis Cardinals and Texas Rangers, had payrolls of $99 and $92 million respectively. So while spending on players might correlate with winning during the regular season, spending more than $100 million on players doesn't correlate with winning championships.

So perhaps Twins fans are wrong to get too hung up on the shrinking payroll number and should pay more attention to how the team allocates its money. $8 million for Carl Pavano next year? $3 million for uber-bust Tsuyoshi Nishioka? How about $23 million for Mauer? With all the blunders Bill Smith made during his four-year reign, ownership's November decision to bring back Terry Ryan is a big reason for long-term optimism, even if the payroll doesn't approach $115 again anytime soon.

As for the short term? A lot rests on the fragile shoulders of the M&M boys, who together will account for more than one-third of the team's payroll next year.

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