Monday, March 29, 2010

Small Market, Big Ball(s)

By now everybody except the people on the OJ jury have heard that Joe Mauer signed the richest catcher deal in baseball history at eight years 184 million dollars. This is great for the Twins but more importantly for baseball.

This year the Twins went out and proved that the way baseball has been presented to us the last 15 years didn't have to be the rich getting richer. The small market team from the Midwest decided in the 90's just a few years removed from winning their second world championship in five years, that retraction or a move to Charlotte, North Carolina wasn't an option. Once they decided that they didn't have to be the victims of circumstance, the Twins figured they could at least build from within. They started by putting a premium on amateur scouting and their ability to draft players that they could sign.

The apex of that theory was put to the test during the 2001 amateur draft. When the consensus #1 overall pick out of USC, All-American Mark Prior was making demands that Jerry Jones would have looked awkwardly at sat waiting as the "Can't miss kid". The Twins decided to keep Prior waiting, with the theory that not only was Joe Mauer signable (for what the Twins perceived they could afford) but that he was truly the best player in the draft. While Prior got his doubloons in an unprecedented rookie deal of five years at 10.5 million dollars that also included his 4 million dollar bonus, the Twins waited for Mauer to develop.

As Joe Mauer was hitting his way through the minors and Mark Prior was erasing batters leading the Cubs towards the World Series with a mark of 18-6, something funny happened to the Twins on their way to last place. They started to win. And in 2002 they won the AL Central with their roster made of home grown talent, reasonably priced free agents, and trade thefts, such as Johan Santana that they traded the Florida Marlins for by way of the Houston Astros for Josh Camp (Who?) in the 1999 Rule 5 Draft. Santana won the Cy Young in 2006. Since 2000 the Twins have not had a losing season and have won five division titles. This decade only four teams have been to the post season more than the Twins (Yankees, Braves, Angels, and Cardinals).

While they rolled through this past decade as a challenger but not champion they were building a team of character and longevity but as important, for that window of opportunity to become World Series Champions. They continued to draft accordingly by getting guys like Justin Morneau (3rd round), Michael Cuddyer (1st) Jason Kubel (12th) Denard Span (1st) Nick Blackburn (29th round) Scott Baker (2nd round) and Kevin Slowey (2nd round). They traded home grown talent A.J. Pierzynski for Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano, and Boof Bonser. The wins continued to pile up but their playoff exits became short, especially when they ran into the Mecca of high dollar teams like the Yankees and Angels.

Last season team management started to wonder if this team could contend as they slid further back of the Detroit Tigers. They traded for Carl Pavano instead of going after the higher buck Jake Peavy, they signed Jon Rauch and Ron Mahay, while trading for Orlando Cabrera and soon had another division title before falling to the New York Yankees in three games in the ALDS.

This season the Yankees were licking their chops at the sight of the Twins. This time because they felt possibly they could walk over to the money tree growing on Yankee Stadium grounds and pick plenty of green to throw the way of the reigning AL MVP so he could take them into the next decade. Twins management saw their opportunity, and while Brian Cashman thought about how he wished he could have gotten more out of Pavano, the Twins made the reborn Pavano their brand new Target Field starter. While the Cubs had wished they had gotten more out of the now retired Prior, the Twins signed All Stars Orlando Hudson, Jim Thome, and traded for JJ Hardy. They also used some of their extra dough they saved from not paying high price free agents to lock up Blackburn and Span for the next four and five years respectively. With Morneau, in an 80 million dollar deal through 2013, and Scott Baker inked, the Twins wondered if they could have gotten more for Johan Santana? Maybe, but then they remembered he didn't pitch well last year, and then sat out injured while they dealt the centerpiece of the Santana deal, Carlos Gomez to Milwaukee for Hardy. No ill will toward Santana but maybe his best years were behind him. Even if they aren’t they need a shortstop much more than a starting pitcher.

Like the Mets did a couple years ago with Santana, and the Cubs did with Mark Prior, the money wasn't an object when they saw the one player they thought that could win them a championship when they had their window. Especially when you haven't been to the playoffs for awhile, you would think that one big move could get you closer. Unfortunately, they spent too much on an individual and had forgot about building the team.

In 2010 some teams like Texas, Colorado, Oakland, Tampa Bay and Milwaukee are starting to find success from building within. Teams like the Mets and Boston who missed the playoffs last year may start to see their money trees looking a little bare. In Minneapolis the tree is flourishing. With a new stadium, a team that contends on a yearly basis, and has its key contributors locked into long term deals the Twins thought, only if they could get a big free agent to put them over the top?

But how could they contend with the Yankees and Red Sox in the free agent market? The Twins pondered what they what would do and while Cashman waited for the Twins to give in to the dark side so did the others. The Evil Empire waited for the rebellion to falter but the Twins stuck to their roots by deciding they didn't need free agency; they had all they needed in their own back yard, that guy Joe Mauer. The hometown kid whom many years ago they felt was the best player in the draft but most importantly the guy who they could build their franchise around for years to come.

In the spring of 2011, Joe Mauer never will become another free agent that signs in New York or Boston and has to say it wasn’t about the money. Mauer earned his contract and he became the one potential free agent New York or Boston could never get. 184 million dollars later the Twins not only signed the future Hall of Famer, they kept New York from getting him. Just like when they kept him from the Cubs. With the money tree in full bloom, a minor league system thats ripe and one of the most successful teams of the last decade the Twins just became World Series contender for the next 8 years. I am not certain the Yankees or Red Sox can say that. And that’s a win for Baseball!

1 comment:

P1 Steven said...

Great work Bob. Mauer is a solid all-round guy. His value is especially good because of his obvious ability to be the best hitter in the league & the best catcher. Twins show their is a time to build and a time to spend money. I hope Chuck Greenberg is paying attention.