Tipping Pitches: Twins Ink Joe Mauer to Death Sentence


Monday, March 22, 2010

Twins Ink Joe Mauer to Death Sentence

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The Minnesota Twins had a total payroll of about $67 Million in 2009, giving them the 24th highest payroll in baseball according to USAToday.com. From the year 2000 on, the Twins have never been in the top half of the league in payroll, topping out at 18th with $71.4 Million in salaries in 2007.

Today, the Twins locked up local star Joe Mauer to an eight year extension paying him $184 Million.

This is a move motivated by emotion. It's a feel good story. The local boy with the pristine image and sweet swing had to stay. The Twins simply could not let him leave for the big market Yankees or Red Sox. They had to lock him up now.

Or so it seemed.

It's a dangerous, dangerous move for a team like the Twins. And as a small market baseball fan, I hate the precedent that it sets. It tells small market fans that they can and should sign their stars. It tells the small market teams that they, too, can throw their money around.

But I just don't think this move is going to end well for the Twins and their fans. This doesn't mean Mauer isn't a great player. He is. He's won three batting titles and an MVP award. He's the best catcher in the game. He combines power and average from the left side of the plate.

And he is also going to make $23 Million per season for a team that has only twice spent three times that on an entire payroll. Mauer is also a catcher playing in a new cold climate, open air stadium. In other words, there will be plenty of postponed games leading to numerous double headers. For a catcher, this means Mauer cannot be expected to play 140 games (as it is, he barely hit that total twice in five full seasons).

We also don't know how the new stadium will impact Mauer's production. We know he'll be very good. But playing outdoors, unprotected from the elements he will face this season and in the future during April could significantly curtail his numbers.

But even if he maintains this level of production, it's an incredible risk for a team like the Twins. As it is, Minnesota is a very good team that is regularly a playoff candidate. Quite remarkable for a small market team.

However, the reason they are so good is that Mauer is such a bargain that the Twins can surround him and star Justin Morneau with decent (even if inexpensive) players. However, Morneau's salary increases to $14 Million this season and will remain at that level through 2013. Very soon, the Twins will be spending $37 Million on two players.

Target Field will bring some more revenue. But can the Twins afford to spend $16 Million more while maintaining the rest of their roster? Does it make sense to spend $23 Million a year (and tie up close to $200 Million in all) on a catcher who will not play every day and is likely to see his skills diminish early if he doesn't change positions?

Mauer may be worth this kind of money. He may be worth more. But he's worth that much money to the Yankees, Red Sox, and other teams who can afford to shell out that type of coin on one player. They can also surround such a player with several other high dollar athletes. Such a move will not hinder the Yankees' ability to build a competitive team around him.

If the Yankees signed Mauer and he gets hurt, the Yankees would just go get someone else. Swallow the loss and move on.

If Mauer gets hurt under the Twins' control, the franchise is crippled through the end of his contract. It's a death sentence.

The question for me is whether the Twins can actually get better by signing Mauer. I see this along the same lines of the talk of the Brewers inking Prince Fielder to a long term contract. The Brewers' best chance to win is with Prince Fielder, but at his current salary (and prior salary). In reality, their best chance to win was in 2008. Every time his salary goes up, the Brewers' chance to win diminishes.

Same with the Twins and Mauer. If they didn't win a World Series before with Mauer, their chances are no better now with him under a long-term contract. In fact, unless the Twins start shelling out big dollars and up their payroll to the $90-$100 Million range in the near future, the likelihood of the Twins winning has suddenly decreased by making the signing. Surrounding Mauer and Morneau with quality players is much more difficult. Pressure is on the farm system.

Maybe the new stadium will be the difference maker. Maybe the Twins will become a mid to large market team. But a stadium is only "new" for a couple of years. If the Twins, for whatever reason, do not compete with Mauer, will the fans continue to pay his salary?

Is this a nice story for the Twins and their fans on the surface? Sure it is. All teams need to have the ability to keep their prized players. But beyond the joy felt today, I see little upside in the move. If the signing succeeds and Mauer lives up to the contract, it tells small market teams and their fans that they need to make this type of risk to compete. If it fails, the Twins implode.

My preference would be that Mauer go to free agency and be awarded to the highest bidder. We need more examples of why the current system is terrible for small market teams. But when small market teams foolishly attempt to act like big market teams, it's counter productive. It sets the league back and lowers the likelihood of any type of financial reform in the near future.


trosy29 said...

This is a horrible analysis..."Pressure is on the farm system." Are you serious with this statement? 25 of the players on the 40 man roster have spent their entire professional baseball career under the Twins organization. I think they will be just fine.

They have signed extensions for many players over the last couple years. Baker, Blackburn, Span, Cuddyer, Morneau, Kubel, Mauer. That is a pretty damn good core to build around and contend. With one of the best farm systems in baseball, they will be just fine filling holes, or using prospects to acquire free agents where needed.

Twins competed with payrolls of less then $60 million dollars. They will hover around $100-$110 million now with Target Field. $100 Million - Mauers $23 Million is $77 Million. They will still put a competitive team on the field for the duration of Joe Mauer's contract. Oh yeah, JOE MAUER will be on the team too...

There is only 1 thing that will turn this into a so called death sentence...Career ending injury...that is the only risk...but a risk very much worth taking...

Jon Loomer on March 22, 2010 said...

I appreciate the comment, trosy29, even if you disagree. What I don't understand is why the Twins feel the need to change strategies. As you've said, they've been very successful the past several years building from within and not spending money. This move seems to be motivated entirely by emotion. The third biggest contract in baseball? Incredibly risky.

Maybe it will work out for them, but it's a bit crazy resting the success and future of your franchise on a single player. The Twins have been successful lately by doing the complete opposite of that.

Charlie Zegers on March 23, 2010 said...

Seems to me they're changing strategies because their situation is changing. Target Field - in theory - gives them the leeway to spend more on the payroll.

Maybe it's a questionable baseball decision -- and I'm not totally sold on that -- but from a business perspective, it's something they sort of had to do, isn't it? After spending all that money -- some of it from the taxpayers -- on a new building, how could they turn around and tell their fan base Mauer is too expensive? That'd be ticket-sale suicide.

At some point in the future, Mauer moves to first base, and they either let Morneau walk or trade him.

Seems to me you wanted Mauer to walk because you wanted the resulting protests to touch off a major change in baseball's revenue-sharing system or strengthen calls for a salary cap -- not because it would make more sense for the Twins long term.

Jon Loomer on March 23, 2010 said...

You know me too well, Charlie! It's true, I don't always see clearly as a Brewers fan. It's my handicap, just as I don't believe large market fans can ever see the game clearly. Ultimately, we favor what benefits us.

I will say this about the Twins: Because they've been so savvy with the way they spent money in the past, they are probably the only team that could pull this off. That doesn't mean the move isn't risky. It doesn't mean that it ceases to simultaneously set a good and bad example for how small markets should behave.

Relying on the profits from a yet-to-be-played-in stadium to pay for the third largest contract in baseball is risky. Toronto once built a new stadium and regularly sold out immediately after the shiny, space-aged retractable dome was opened. They haven't been in the top half of attendance in the past decade.

Eventually, the shine will wear off on Target Field. For the Twins' sake, I hope it's more than eight years from now. But a new stadium only temporarily covers up the truth that the Twins are a small market team. And even a new, revenue-generating stadium won't help the Twins recover if Mauer suffers a serious injury. While it may be true that most teams would not recover from such an injury, it's exactly my point. Only the Yankees (and rarely, a handful of other teams) commit such money because they can actually recover if it doesn't work out.

Really appreciate the comment, Charlie! You always challenge me.

Ghostwriterx on March 23, 2010 said...

Looms what's all this talk about injury? I'm sure his contract is insured. And he's not a pitcher so the risk of long-term injury is minimal. If he suffers a career-ending injury insurance picks it up and they spend the money elsewhere. If he keeps getting beat up at catcher they move him to 1st and trade Morneau for more talent.

And this isn't basketball where because of the cap a large contract can cripple teams for years. We've seen countless horrible contracts get moved in baseball.

Really as far as risk go this is minimal. The worst case scenario is Mauer does what he has done the past few years and they still fail to contend in which case they can trade him to the Yankes/Sox/Mets in three years and reload.

Jon Loomer on March 23, 2010 said...

I think the real question is, what's up with the pink blog?


I always enjoy the perspective of big market fans. "Spend the money. He gets hurt, so what?" I guess I don't see how a large contract can't cripple a team just because there's no cap. The Twins have an imaginary cap. I don't know what that number is with the new stadium, but the amount of money they can spend on surrounding players just took a big hit. And if Mauer somehow bombs, it absolutely cripples the franchise.

What you described is not the worst case scenario. It's one of the more likely best case scenarios. The worst case scenario is that he becomes injury prone and his salary turns into an albatross, making him untradable.

Not every team is the Yankees!

Ghostwriterx on March 23, 2010 said...

Hey, that's purple!

I think you're really overemphasizing the worst case scenario. How many in there great young hitters suddenly "lost it" in their prime? That is not a regular occurrence. Mauer is one of the best hitters of all time there is no reason to think he's going to bomb. And he's not a pitcher so it's less likely that injuries will greatly hamper his performance. Besides, even Barry Zito and Mike Hampton got traded. I wouldn't worry about the injury aspect. Making decisions based on the worst possible scenario is crippling. Yes, it's a risk, but that doesn't mean you don't make the decision to keep your best player and perhaps the greatest hitting catcher of all time, simply because it's possible it might not work out.

And really what's your alternative? They traded Santana and got back a bunch of hot garbage. I would rather roll the dice with Mauer than some prospects especially considering the success the Twins have had with their own farm system.

Jon Loomer on March 23, 2010 said...

It's pink! And until you update it again, it will always be pink.

Good points, for the most part. Wait, Barry Zito got traded? Not under his current, horrendous contract, he didn't. You may also want to check the history on Hampton, how hard it was to trade him, etc. And while players CAN get traded, look at the circumstances. The Brewers traded Bill Hall last year, but they are still paying almost all of his horrendous $8 Million contract this season so that he can play for the Red Sox. And they will never find a way to trade Jeff Suppan and his $12.5 Million contract.

Granted, they aren't Joe Mauer, but I think you underestimate what bad contracts can do to a team. And given the enormity of Mauer's contract, he doesn't need to regress to Bill Hall territory for his contract to end up being one that no one wants to touch. Zito, Carlos Lee, Magglio Ordonez and Alfonso Soriano are virtually untradable. Not because they are horrendous players, but because they didn't play up to their huge contracts.

Mauer is a catcher. He does have an injury history already (even if it's not significant), and the nature of his position can only exacerbate injury risk. If he does stay behind the plate (which is what makes him most valuable anyway), his decline starts sooner.

While it may be thinking worst case scenario, you can't sign contracts without a back-up plan. There is no back-up plan if Mauer bombs. All that money spent on the new stadium is wasted, money available to field a competitive team is lost, fans stop attending the games, and the franchise crumbles.

Again, the Yankees can make that move because they have a back-up plan if the contract becomes the Barry Zito equivalent. Most teams don't have that luxury. It's easy to say it's a great contract now, but a lot can change in eight years -- which may be the biggest problem with the deal.

rachel said...

If they twins have the chance to sign someone to stay competitive, can't he defer part of his contract? I'm not sure how that works, but I think Griffey did something like that when he was with the Reds.

My guess would be that Twins fans would rather fail with the signing of Joe Mauer than fail because the team didn't sign him.

Jon Loomer on March 23, 2010 said...

It's definitely a tough position in as a franchise, Rachel. The Twins do have the advantage of moving into a new stadium, otherwise this move would be 10X worse. The Brewers are going through something similar with Prince Fielder. Fans expect the team to sign him, claiming the team has a better chance to win with him than without him. Of course, if they keep their current budget, this isn't true. It would leave less money for other players.

Mauer can defer money, but I don't see that making sense until we're close to the end of the contract. You start deferring early in a deal and it sets the Twins up for a complete mess at the back end of the deal when it's most likely they are overpaying for his services. You've gotta pay the money eventually, so deferring just compounds your problems for later. In reality, I'd hope his deal is front loaded given that his surrounding roster is currently under priced.

Thanks for the comments!

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