On the drive home, the radio announced the news that all Twins fans had hopelessly been waiting for: the side-burned face of the franchise, our Joe, was going to be a Twin for life. Sure, the numbers were staggering (8 years and $184 million – the fourth-largest contract in baseball history?! The TWINS?!); but the primary feeling was one of relief, and that the Twins did what they “had to” do.
Let Joe hit free agency and take our chances against the Red Sox and Yankees? Uh, no thank you – we’re waaay too insecure for that. A season of contract uncertainty would have robbed a lot of the momentum the Twins had going, and made for an uneasy summer when it should have been a time of celebration. Now the focus could shift to indoctrinating our beautiful new Target Field with another run at the A.L. Central flag and maybe more, as it should be.
Everybody wins, right? End of story, Joe rides off on the white horse into the sunset while chugging a milk? I wish it was that simple, but there is one issue that I just can’t let go of, that I don’t feel has received near its proper due.
The Twins received immediate and countless praise for “stepping up” and getting the job done, and heaven knows they proudly accepted all the adulation cast their way. However, I kept waiting for one of the local columnists or radio personalities, anyone, to call a spade a spade and call the Twins out for putting themselves in such a corner: allowing a guy they knew they would sign at all costs to have a career (MVP!) year while being on the cusp of opening a brand new ballpark.
If ever a player had leverage, this was it. The Twins had to be aware of the massive risk they were taking in waiting on addressing Mauer’s next contract, but the question is, why? Why would they wait? What possible benefit could be extracted? Honestly, I even wonder why they didn’t pursue him after the 2008 season, in the midst of his 4-year, $33 million dollar deal he signed in February 2007.
Can you say the Twins were simply the victim of bad luck, in the sense that Mauer went off to levels that even the most optimistic Twins fan (picture: Dark Star) couldn’t have envisioned? Yes; somewhat, I think. Still, in his age 26-season, was this more likely to happen than a regression or even stagnation from his established norms? I also think the answer is yes.
The 2009 MVP award itself probably wasn’t the difference maker in the Twins having to break the bank, but his season-as-a-whole sure was. There’s no answer to this question, but what’s your best guess: did Mauer’s 2009 campaign cost the Twins an extra $20 million? $30 million? $50 million?? I lean more towards the latter, personally.
And again – what benefit waited for the Twins by waiting out Mauer? It’s common knowledge that every year closer to free agency, a player’s price tag goes up dramatically. The most valuable thing a front office can do to set themselves up for long-term success is to identify and project its best players as early as possible, and to lock them into team-friendly contracts at the most opportune time. It’s no different than buying a blue chip stock – sure, there’s risk; but you know you’re going to buy and therefore want to get in at the lowest price possible.
The Cleveland Indians of the mid-90’s were a model franchise in doing this with players such as Kenny Lofton and Manny Ramirez, and they reaped the benefits for years. An extreme modern-day example is how the Tampa Bay Rays handled Evan Longoria. Just a few weeks into his big league career in 2008, the Rays signed Longoria to a six year, $17.5 million contract – a deal which could be worth up to $44.5 million over nine years. It’s currently considered the most team-friendly contact in baseball, by far.
While Mauer is not a great comparison to Longoria dollars-wise because he already had five seasons under his belt before 2009, it does contrast how an aggressive approach can play out versus a passive one.
Let’s keep it local and look at Justin Morneau: with an MVP already under his belt in 2006, the Twins signed him in January ’08 to a 6-year, $80 million deal ($13M/per). Over his three previous seasons, he averaged .279 – 29 – 107 – a vast edge on Mauer’s .318 – 10 – 71 average from his previous four years.
This was the time to “pay that man his money,” as the line from Rounders goes. Sure, extra value is assigned to Mauer because of what he brings defensively as a catcher, but $10 million a year more for eight total years (two extra)? I don’t think so, homey.
The point is that even with what’s amazingly now the 9th-highest payroll in MLB, the Twins can’t afford to waste any money. Another 50 million bucks in their pocket could have gone a long way towards a better ballclub on the field this year, and for the next couple years. Even if they’d have wasted it, it’s another couple bullets in the holster that they currently don’t have.
Maybe I’m still slightly bitter about how the Johan Santana situation played out (ok – I am bitter) – the Twins waited until Johan had one year to go on his contract, said they were “forced” to trade him because he became too expensive and shipped him to the Mets for a bucket of balls and a used pine tar rag. Johan only “became” too costly because the Twins allowed it to play out that way; if they’d have pursued their ace lefty a year or two earlier, we might be making way for a Johan statue on Target Plaza one of these years.
If you want to point to the fact that Johan has had injury issues since signing with the Mets and that the Twins were wise to ship him off, having locked him into a far team-friendlier contact a year or two earlier would have made Johan a much greater asset – whether the Twins wanted to keep him or trade him.
My point with Mauer remains that the Twins knew – wistfully from the day they first drafted him in June 2001, and officially when the ballpark bill was passed in April 2006 – that they would do everything in their power to keep him a Minnesota Twin. Why they decided to let it play out as they did will continue to baffle this Twins fan, and now we can watch the big club pay for their mistake each year through 2018.