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Second-Guessing the Hunter Negotiation

Now that the ink is dry on Torii Hunter's contract with Anaheim, it's time to engage in a little good old-fashioned second-guessing.  We have all the facts in the case - what Hunter was looking for, what he eventually signed for, what other teams were offering -  so we can ask: what should the Twins have done differently in the negotiation?

The facts: Several teams offered Hunter far more money than the Twins.  Anaheim eventually topped everyone by offering five years and $90 million, double the cash of the Twins' paltry-looking $45 million over three years.  And it seems clear that Hunter was determined to leave Minnesota; the comments he's made since the signing ("Nobody wants to play in Minnesota") indicate as much.

Perhaps at one time, the only goal of a contract negotiation was to sign the player for the smallest possible amount of money. The advent of free agency, and of a media monster desperate to get a bridge-burning quote from a departing player, has changed that.

The old way has now been replaced with a three-fold aim for a team engaged in salary discussions:

  1. Do not overspend.
  2. Don't end up getting whacked in the P.R. battle because the fans are miffed about your cheapskate ways.
  3. Do everything you can to win the inevitable war of words with the player if he signs somewhere else.
The first is the one the Twins are best at, and tend to focus on.  Their strategy seems pretty straighforward: figure out what the team thinks the player is worth, then offer him that.  If he doesn't want it, then tough darts for everybody.

The second, on the other hand, might be one of the hardest for the Twins.  They are a franchise with a reputation for low-balling, a reputation for being cheap and choosing the inexpensive over the quality.  This might not be a problem, except that the team has just convinced Hennepin County consumers to fund a new ballpark.  If the team goes cheap - and doesn't win that way, like it has in the past - it's hard for the Twins to avoid looking like they're using taxpayer dollars to line the Pohlad pockets.

#3 might be the hardest of all to accomplish.  Every media outlet in the world is going to be looking for the player to rip the team that let him walk, and many of them oblige.  The Twins have a history with this.  Three things can happen in this scenario:

  1. The player has too much class to rip the team after departing.  The model here is Corey Koskie, who signed a lucrative contract the Twins didn't match, then instead of ripping Minnesota, took out full-page ads in the newspaper thanking fans.
  2. The player rips the team early and often, but doesn't do enough after leaving to make the team look foolish.  Todd Walker mouthed off after the Twins traded him to Colorado, talking about how much he hated his time in Minnesota, but nobody paid much attention because he was merely good, not great.
  3. The player becomes great after leaving the team, lays into his former team over and over again, and the franchise ends up looking like idiots.  For examples, see pretty much anything David Ortiz has said since the Twins released him.
Which way is Hunter going?  I'll let you be the judge:
  • "I wouldn't play in Minnesota unless my career was at an end and I had to go to Minnesota to play the game. ... People think that's not true -- that's 100 percent accurate. This is coming from a player, so I'm telling you."

  • "I just wanted to make sure that I was with a team that wants to win, that's going to try to win day in and day out. Whatever pieces to the puzzle that they need, they were going to go out and get it. I just didn't feel the Twins were that ballclub."
Right now, the Twins can only hope they get scenario #2 instead of scenario #3.

As it stands, the Twins fulfilled the goal of not overspending, but that was all they accomplished.  They're losing the war of words with Hunter, and they do - sadly - look like cheapskates for offering Hunter significantly less money.

So here's what I think the Twins should have done. The front office needed to offer Torii more money - without actually offering more money.  The only way a player loses the public relations battle, especially around here, is by coming off as a greedy, money-grubbing jerk who'd walk over his own mother in golf cleats for another million bucks per year.  

If I'm the Twins, I think I'd have offered Torii something vaguely ridiculous.  For example: five years, $80 million, but with club options on each of the last two years.  Put $50 million of the deal in the first three years, and the Twins can say that they made a lucrative, long-term offer, but Hunter eventually chose the money instead of remaining with the franchise that raised him.

Ultimately, you'll note, this is basically a three-year, $50-million deal, which is more or less what the Twins offered (with the added bonus of the psychological effect of $50 million seeming like a lot more than $45 million).  If Hunter did sign it, they'd have basically kept him for what they were willing to pay, and they'd have the option to keep him around a couple more years if he defied the odds and remained excellent.

Here's the thing, though - Hunter never would have signed it.  But the papers would have reported it as 5 years, $80 million, and that's all that counts.  The deal would have put Hunter in the position of grabbing for the last dollar, and the Twins just could have sat back and waited for Torii to use either the word "insulting" or the phrase "feed my family," and the PR battle would have been won.

Will this have applications to Johan Santana or, down the road, to Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau?  Time will tell.  But the Twins need to recognize that it's not just about money - it's about spin.