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On Twins payroll, upgrades, and frustration

We all want the Twins to put resources into payroll. But their options for 2015 are rather limited.

Hannah Foslien

This morning, Phil Miller of the Star Tribune submitted an article on how the Twins have said that their existing commitments mean their resources for free agency will be limited. Miller's quotes from Dave St. Peter and Terry Ryan include in the following.

DSP: "We haven't finalized a 2015 budget, [but] I can assure you, we won't see it going down significantly."

DSP: "I don't think payroll faces any significant decline."

TR: "Sometimes you make decisions that ultimately are going to benefit you down the line that don't look exactly like what you want right now."

St. Peter's comments seem to indicate that there's a real possibility of payroll going down slightly, instead of up. Miller comes to the same conclusion, believing it's likely that payroll is closer to the $86 million the team ultimately spent this year than the higher totals we've seen in seasons since Target Field opened.

At first blush that's highly disappointing. Not only was Minnesota's payroll the sixth-lowest in baseball in 2014, but even a steady payroll is going to reek of penny pinching to a fan base just five years removed from helping ownership pony up for a brand new ballpark. Taking a deep breath on that thought before we go any further, we can understand the sentiment; essentially, the argument is that spending money is supposed to buy additional wins - good for everybody. So, why wouldn't the team spend?

The "payroll as a function of revenue" answer is true from a business standpoint, but the true answer - the operational answer - to the question is in the Terry Ryan quote above. The 2015 Twins shouldn't spend simply for the sake of spending, because it's likely to cost the Twins wins in the future. Here's an illustration to show where I'm coming from.

Position Projected Opening Day Starter Season End
C Kurt Suzuki Josmil Pinto
1B Joe Mauer Joe Mauer
2B Brian Dozier Brian Dozier
3B Trevor Plouffe Miguel Sano
SS Danny Santana Danny Santana
LF TBD Aaron Hicks
CF Aaron Hicks Byron Buxton
RF Oswaldo Arcia Oswaldo Arcia
DH Kennys Vargas Kennys Vargas

Adding quality free agents is hard when a vast majority of your positions are A) filled by franchise cornerstones like Mauer and Dozier, B) taken by young players with upside who need playing time like Arcia, Santana, and Vargas, or C) spoken for by prospects who will be making their debuts imminently, like Buxton and Sano. Those big, guaranteed free agent contracts will belong to players who want guaranteed playing time, and for the most part that's not something the Twins will be able to provide.

There's a real opportunity to upgrade in left field, where there is no incumbent, no favorite to start the season, and no blue chip prospect waiting to debut later in the season. Perhaps the team could convince someone like Colby Rasmus to come over? Melky Cabrera is a better hitter and a worse defender, but he's also in line for a five-year contract in the range of $65 million; that might make the Twins another two or three wins better in 2015, but after that it's working backwards. That's not worth the trouble for a team still trying to get to .500, and an illustration of what Ryan said regarding the approach to future gains.

A starting pitcher, admittedly a top target for the front office, will add salary, although it won't belong to Max Scherzer, James Shields, or Jon Lester. How much do you think the Twins would pay for a second tier starter, per season - another $9 million, hoping to catch lightning in a bottle as they did with Hughes this year? It would be in the ballpark.

If there's another area where the Twins could add a notable salary outside of left field and a starting pitcher spot, I can't see it. If the team trades Tommy Milone, buys out Jared Burton's option, and non-tenders a few of their arbitration-eligible players (Brian Duensing, Anthony Swarzak, and Eduardo Nunez come to mind), guess where payroll sits?

Position Player Salary
C Kurt Suzuki $6 MM
1B Joe Mauer $23 MM
2B Brian Dozier $0.5 MM
3B Trevor Plouffe $4.3 MM
SS Danny Santana $0.5 MM
CF Aaron Hicks $0.5 MM
RF Oswaldo Arcia $0.5 MM
DH Kennys Vargas $0.5 MM
Bench C Josmil Pinto $0.5 MM
Bench IF Eduardo Escobar $0.5 MM
Bench IF Chris Parmelee $0.5 MM
Bench OF Jordan Schafer $1.5 MM
Starter Ricky Nolasco $12 MM
Starter Phil Hughes $8 MM
Starter FREE AGENT $9 MM
Starter Kyle Gibson $0.5 MM
Starter Alex Meyer $0.5 MM
Long Relief Mike Pelfrey $5.5 MM
Long Relief Trevor May $0.5 MM
Middle Relief Ryan Pressly $0.5 MM
Middle Relief Michael Tonkin $0.5 MM
Middle Relief Caleb Thielbar $0.5 MM
Set Up Casey Fien $1.1 MM
Closer Glen Perkins $4.65 MM
Total $87.25 MM

That total includes Burton's buyout.

We could probably tinker with salaries a bit here or there, but in terms of the spots that the Twins have open and in terms of the types of free agents the team would be able to/be likely to collect, is there something that could be outlined differently?

If we're talking straight up philosophy, of course I'm not a fan of the idea of payroll not increasing after a fourth year of 90+ losses. I'm also an exceptionally strong believer that Ryan's quote on punting the present for the benefit of the future is a mantra that should have been followed from 2011, because it's certainly of less use buying into it now than it would have been three years ago.

I've been banging on about this for at least the last year: the Twins need to be bringing in legitimate Major League talent now so that when the youth movement arrives, they're surrounded by players who can help them win. There are a lot of ways to make that happen, and accessing free agency to grab a starter and a left fielder is just one avenue. I expect the Opening Day roster could look quite different than the table above, especially if the front office has a vision that is markedly different and more aggressive than we might normally believe. But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves.

It's worth remembering that during the annual season ticket holder conference call, Ryan alluded to a payroll that could have flexibility up to $100 million. Ryan's quotes in Miller's article are also a bit more forgiving than St. Peter's, as he notes that ownership has never blinked when confronted with an expenditure that Ryan deems prudent.

Still, this a frustrating time to be a Twins fan. Four 90+ loss seasons; the potential of a payroll near the league's bottom so soon after opening a new stadium; years of waiting for the vaunted farm system to produce results. Hearing the team president say that, essentially, there isn't a great deal of financial support available feels like a kick in the reproductive parts.

The silver lining is that, even if there was $100 million to spend, the Twins couldn't find a way to spend it all this winter. Building a team that can contend over a number of years is a long-term process, and we're only just now starting to see the fruits of that effort. We're going to be seeing a lot more of it over the next two or three years. That's a great thing if you're a fan of "letting the kids play."

Ryan is absolutely correct: winning is about more than the dollars you spend. My only hope is that the front office does a good job in making sure that all these prospects are surrounded by more legitimate talent than just Joe Mauer, Brian Dozier, Glen Perkins, and Phil Hughes. If that's not through free agency then so be it, but we shouldn't put the future success of the team entirely on the kids, either.