Moneyball and the Minnesota Twins: Payroll Matters


Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Ladies and gentleman, it is getting ugly out there.

Hide your kids, hide your wives and call your congressperson, because despite beating the White Sox 4-3 today, the Twins are imploding down the stretch and have lost 10 of their last 14 games.

Silver linings have gone by the wayside, Joe Mauer is still sidelined by the enigmatic concussion symptoms with which Twins’ fans are all too familiar, the roster is unrecognizable and the starting pitching is, well… The Twins’ starting pitching.

It is safe to say that the vultures were already circling before this latest run of misfortune, and now, the gloves are off. The vitriol of a third straight losing season for the Twins, coupled with the Vikings’ 0-2 start is causing the frustration of the Minnesota fan base to boil over into discontent that has rarely been seen before. Leaving many asking themselves previously unfathomable questions like: “When do the Wolves start?”

How did we get here?

On a beautiful April day in 2010, the Twins opened Target Field. I know this because I have a framed picture of it hanging over the computer upon which I now hopelessly type. There was genuine excitement as the Twins’ payroll was near $100 million (and would well exceed it later in the year). The front office had gone out in the offseason and brought in J.J. Hardy, Orlando Hudson and Jim Thome. With the addition of a perfect new stadium the Twins’ management seemed to make good on all those “If we only had a new ballpark” platitudes, and had put together one of the most talented Twins’ teams in recent memory. All throughout the land there was a residual sense that: “The old days are over, we’re playing with the big boys now.”

That Twins’ team won 94 games, the AL Central, and hosted the Yankees in the first round of the playoffs. You know the rest.

You probably also know what has happened since then.

A combination of disastrous front office moves (Trading J.J. Hardy, Wilson Ramos for Matt Capps, signing Tsuyoshi Nishioka), letting players leave via free agency, injuries, and a dearth of any pitchers who could actually throw the ball by anyone, plunged the Twins into the cellar of the AL Central for what is now the third straight year.

Oh yeah, and also, the payroll has been reduced in each subsequent year since 2010.

Everyone is upset right now, and so the “Pohlad’s are cheap” exhortations and lamentations begin to gain serious traction. This is often met by the classic Twins’ talking point, “Throwing money at the problem doesn’t lead to greater success, look at the Athletics, NO SERIOUSLY, LOOK AT THE A’s!”

Right now there are a lot of opinions out there.

Patrick Reusse went on the record today stating that he just generally “Hates this Twins team.” Which may not be relevant to this, but give it a read.

Jim Souhan thinks that, get this, the Twins need pitching. Also, he suggests that the impression the Pohlad’s are content to pocket money while putting an inferior product on the field is incorrect, and that we should spend money on starting pitching in free agency this offseason.

Phil Mackey thinks that “We should stop talking about the payroll,” and, “GUYS, GUYS, WE SHOULD REALLY LOOK AT THE A’S.”

Apparently, we should look at the A’s, so we should start by taking a long look in the mirror and asking:

1. Has Terry Ryan been portrayed by Brad Pitt in a major motion picture?

2. Have we shown the ability to develop pitchers, platoon players and make shrewd front office moves to facilitate the type of success the A’s have had recently?

3. Do we currently play in an old and outdated stadium like the Coliseum? Is the revenue disparity between us and teams like the Yankees so vast that we are handcuffed to the model of the A’s?

I got all “No’s,” did you?

So, as it turns out, we aren’t the A’s. We are the Twins. I’m glad we got that straight.

Discussions like this have their place, but to use them as a crutch to prop up the argument that money doesn’t matter, and that the Twins don’t need to increase their payroll are at their best, overly simplistic, and at their worst, delusional.

Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of things the A’s do well that the Twins would be right to mimic. However, changes like this don’t happen overnight, especially with a Twins organization that always seems to lack urgency when it comes to adjusting to just about anything.

I believe it was Billy Beane who said, “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

OK, that might not be quite right, but it does apply. The A’s don’t just handle their squad the way they do to game the system, they do so because they play in a smaller market, in an old stadium and are perpetually next-to-last in the league in revenue.

Just in case you were interested, the Twins were right around the middle of baseball when it comes to how much revenue they earned in 2012. In 2010 their payroll was 10th in all of baseball, but in the years since, though our revenue has slightly declined from the height of 2010, our payroll has fallen down to 23rd in the league.

So, what happens when revenue remains high, and payroll decreases? The owners make money hand over fist. This is where the frustrations with the Pohlad’s come in.

Jim Souhan seems to think that the Pohlad’s aren’t content to turn the Twins into the Miami Marlins, and I think that this is probably accurate. However, to a large extent, Target Field was built upon the promise that finally, things would be different. That the increased revenue would allow for more flexibility to field a team that would compete, not just for a ticket to a first round sweep in the playoffs, but for a World Series.

Saying that we are just saving the money from the past several years for when the prospects arrive is simply disingenuous. This is like me telling my girlfriend that I can’t take her out for a year to save up for Valentine’s Day.

The Twins have dug themselves a large hole, and while they can wait for even more fans to flee from Target Field, they shouldn’t.

The Twins have talent in their system, and the situation may not be as dire as we make it out to be. Guys like Arcia, Sano, Buxton, Pinto, Gibson, Meyer, Hicks and company look like they could do very well at the big league level. However, we can’t just throw these guys in the deep end on their own and see if they sink or swim. If we spend the money to put established talent around these guys, we could be a scary team in the coming years.

Unfortunately, we aren’t really hearing that from the organization, nor are we seeing it with their moves (and lack of moves) to this point. I am afraid we will just end up as a team with a couple of really great players, that is mildly competitive.  Which, when you think about it, is an apt description of the Twins during the Gardenhire era (not that I am blaming Gardenhire).

Everybody loves a scrappy underdog story. It is why we enjoy movies like “Rudy” and “Rocky IV”. It makes a lot of sense that we would idolize the A’s, as in many ways we see some of the Twins’ teams of 10 years ago in them. Let’s not forget that it was our upstart squad of youngsters that took down the Athletics’ team portrayed in “Moneyball” in the 2002 League Divisional Series.

But following five straight first round exits from the playoffs since 2002, we know better than anyone, that in reality, there is a reason Rudy only got into one play, and no matter how many logs he lifts or mountains he runs to the top of, most times the “Italian Stallion” would be crushed by the giant, chemically-enhanced Russian (cough, Yankees).

The teams that win don’t always spend a lot of money, but the teams that win it all, generally do.

In 2003 the Florida Marlins beat a Yankees’ squad in the World Series that had a payroll roughly three times the size of their own. We all delighted in the victory of David over Goliath. However, in every year since, the team that has won the World Series has had a payroll in the top half of half of the league, and most times they were in the top 10. Moreover, the team that lost the World Series also had payrolls in the top half of the league, with the exception of the Rays in 2008, who lost to the Phillies.

I am not sure that the Twins could have spent their way out of the tidal wave of awful that has been the last three years. However, they certainly didn’t try.

No one is saying that they need to spend Dodger-money, but the perception that the Pohlad’s don’t want to dole out the cash to put together a deep playoff run isn’t a mere delusion. It is a reaction based upon years of watching our developed players leave, and hundreds of “Coulda’, shoulda’, woulda” guessing games about what might have been the outcome if more money had been invested to bolster the talent of those Twins’ teams that featured Johan Santana, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Torii Hunter, Joe Nathan and Co.

We have seen before how brief the window to winning it all can be, and the Twins can’t just wait for all of the prospects to arrive to start spending. It will cost them, but making the inroads now could speed up the transition, as well as maximize our window to make a run.

The Pohlad’s get a bad rap sometimes. I don’t think that they don’t want to win, but I do think that they are only committed to winning enough games to sell tickets.

I hope they do something in the offseason to disprove this notion.

Other Notes

1. I am currently taking casting suggestions for the screenplay I am pitching: “Piranhas: Nick Punto, the Untold Story.”

2. In the process of finding the “Rocky IV” montage, I stumbled upon a post from Deadspin that researched the distance of Rocky’s training run through Philadelphia, and found that the real distance of the run based upon the neighborhoods visited was over 30 miles. It makes Morneau’s pumping iron with bears stuff seem like child’s play.