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Hunter Or Santana?

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Signing one will essentially rule out a signing of the other.

Ten years ago the Minnesota Twins didn't have this problem.  Ten years ago Carl Pohlad wasn't concerned with a starting pitcher who could average $27 million per year on the open market, he was concerned with how to turn a profit on the Twins and their $27 million dollar payroll.  Asking the question Who can we afford to pay is still relevant, it just has taken on a completely different meaning.

There are more than a handful of household names now playing for the Twins.  Instead of those names belonging to aging players like Steinbach, Molitor or Aguilera they belong to Hunter, Mauer, Morneau, Santana, Castillo, Cuddyer and Nathan; players largely in their prime with at least one more good contract ahead of them.  Over the next two years, all seven of those "household" names will be looking for, or be scheduled to make, more money.

Joe Mauer is under contract, but Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer will each be receiving some nice raises through arbitration over the next couple of years.  Luis Castillo and Torii Hunter are free agents following 2007, while Johan Santana and Joe Nathan will be free agents following 2008.  Before we can find out who we could keep, let's find a base for what our yearly salaries could look like over the next three seasons.  We'll use a recent John Bonnes piece as our starting point.

Basically, assuming no re-signings and allowing only assumptions for serfs and arbitration-eligible players, based on John's estimations the concrete Twins payroll in the near future looks like this:

POS        2008          2009          2010
C          Mauer         Mauer         Mauer
1B         Morneau       Morneau       Morneau
2B         Casilla       Casilla       Casilla
SS         Bartlett      Bartlett      Bartlett
3B         Punto
RF         Cuddyer       Cuddyer       Cuddyer
CF        
LF
DH         Kubel         Kubel

BMI
BCI
BIF        Rodriguez
BOF        Tyner
BOF
BC         Redmond       Redmond       Redmond

S1         Santana
S2         Liriano       Liriano       Liriano
S3         Bonser        Bonser        Bonser
S4         Slowey        Slowey        Slowey
S5         Garza         Garza         Garza

CL         Nathan
SU         Rincon
SU         Reyes
MR         Crain         Crain
MR         Neshek        Neshek        Neshek
LR         Guerrier

Payroll    $57.75 MM     $52.65 MM     $57.35 MM

Obviously these figures are just a rough estimate, but they should give you a general idea of Minnesota's situation in the coming years.  I'll refer you once more to John's initial post for status information on each player.

Torii Hunter

Torii Hunter made his debut for the Twins way back in 1997.  He appeared in one game as a pinch-runner for Terry Steinbach.  He was up for 135 games in 1999, and has been the Twins full-time center fielder since 2001.  He turns 32 on Wednesday, and is having his best offensive season to date.

Last week, Ichiro Suzuki (who will turn 34 in October) signed a 5-year, $100 million dollar extension through 2012.  Prior to last year, Johnny Damon signed a 4-year, $52 million dollar deal to sign with the Yankees.  Sadly, signing Hunter will mean putting up something closer to Ichiro money than Damon money.

I don't believe in a "hometown discount".  I do however believe the Twins could offer "enough", which could end up being slightly less than what Torii could get elsewhere.  Attempting to be realistic while straddling the line between optimistic and the entirely possible, let's say the Twins are able to sign Hunter to a 5-year, $90 million dollar contract.  This is an average of $18,000,000 a season, or the equivalent yearly salary for what the Blue Jays paid Vernon Wells this past December.  If Torii Hunter were to sign this deal with the Twins, it would be very fair compared to what he could get elsewhere.

Johan Santana

Johan Santana made his debut with the Twins in 2000, getting five starts and twenty-five appearances out of the bullpen.  He became a starter for good in 2004 and has been the best pitcher in baseball since.  Johan turned 28 in March.

Scott Boras has promised that Alex Rodriguez will become the fist $30 million a year player.  This means that should Johan reach the free agent market in the winter of 2008, he could be baseball's first $35 million a year player.  Baseball's best pitcher over the last five years could be going to the highest bidder, and $250 million for seven years isn't an exaggeration.

If the Twins decide to hammer out an extension this offseason, let's do what I just did with Torii Hunter and attempt a realistic scenario.  Considering recent contracts for Barry Zito, Roger Clemens and A.J. Burnett, if Minnesota is able to sign Johan to a 5-year, $115 million dollar deal, it would be more than fair to the Twins at an average of $23,000,000 per year.

Risk

Pitchers are a higher risk than hitters, especially when comparing large contracts.  Signing a pitcher about to turn 29 to a lucrative, long-term contract contains more risk than signing a hitter about to turn 29 to a similar deal.  In this situation, however, the hitter is 32.  How much does the three-year age differential offset the hitter's risk advantage?

Minnesota will not only need to take into account their financial investment in these players, but how likely they are to be successful and finish the term of the contract.  A 5-year deal for Hunter will mean he'll be 37 at the deal's end in 2012.  Santana on a 5-year extension will be 34 coming out of 2013.

Team Payroll

Next year doesn't look to be causing many issues for team payroll, particularly if Pohlad raises the bar by another $10,000,000 to roughly $80 million.  Hunter could easily fit into 2008's cap, considering the number of open positions to fill.  But the answer can't be found in next year's figures.

Looking at 2009, the Twins have a lot of positions to fill.  This is the year Santana and Nathan would become free agents, and there become more questions in regards to filling out the bullpen and the bench.  Holes at third and left and center fields are also going to require answers.  In 2010 there are even fewer concrete answers, with Michael Cuddyer's free agency looming large.

Raising team payroll by $10 million per year is erring on the optimistic side, but is far from unbelieveable.  But even assuming a $100 million dollar cap in 2010, attempting to fit both Santana and Hunter's new contracts wouldn't be advisable.  This would add $35 million (minimum) to the payroll, leaving less than $10 million to fill out twelve positions...one of which couldn't be Cuddyer.

Looking beyond 2010, Justin Morneau will be needing a contract.  Joe Mauer will be needing another one.  If the Twins want to keep Cuddyer, he'll be making eight digits in the first year of a contract.  Liriano and Bartlett will be in their final year of arbitration and a number of the players who had been able to fill out the roster cheaply will be just beginning arbitration.  Signing both Hunter and Santana would be suicide by self strangulation.

Cashing In On the Return

Losing either Hunter to free agency this year or Santana next year would result in draft pick compensation.  Considering what each player could bring in a trade, this should be the last resort.

No matter which player is chosen to stay, there is always the option that he could be traded at some point into his new contract.  Torii is more likely to bring a fair return than Johan, even though it would still be relative.  But it doesn't matter how you look at it, it's all but impossible to get a fair return when trading one of baseball's best pitchers.  Even if that's three or four years down the road.

Conclusions

One thing I took for granted in this analysis was that the Twins didn't re-sign Joe Nathan or Luis Castillo.  I could see the Twins trying to sign Luis to a 1-year deal for 2008, but if so that would be his last year with Minnesota.  Nathan on the other hand, while one of baseball's best closers, already has his replacement in his bullpen.

So, who to choose?  It's not an easy answer, and it may come down to not just who the Twins can afford or who they or the fans "like" the most, it could come down to how the money will effect the financial contraints of the club over the next half decade.

I've hit a number of points and most of them briefly, because I want to start a discussion and not just give you a monologue.  It will be impossible for the Twins to keep both Hunter and Santana, unless Pohlad gets an itch to pull a Steinbrenner.  Which signing would be better for the Twins now, and five years from now?  Or is there another possibility:  Will neither player be on the roster in 2009?