Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Locking Up the Johan

At the end of his column today the NY Times' Murray Chass posed the (probably) rhetorical question about whether the Twins don't have the money to extend Johan Santana. They do have the money, of course, and it's very perplexing to those of us following the team. So I decided to give the question my normal thirty second thought to determine if I could convince myself of what has happened, is happening, and will happen.

We in Minnesota understand the general Twins philosophies that (a) the Twins don't sign a pitcher for more than four years and (b) the Twins don't pay a player 25% of their payroll. What those of us never understood about Terry Ryan is why he couldn't see the trap he'd put himself into by not fully appreciating the reasons for locking up your star players, namely that inflation is always going to be ugly and when a star smells free agency, the chance to sign him reasonably is all but done.

The easy example would appear to be Torii Hunter, and to some extent that's true. However, when the Twins signed Hunter after the 2002 season, I was cautious about the money relative to Hunter's ability and actually thought there would be another CF in place after 2006. The Twins, after all, had drafted Denard Span in June, 2002 and all outlets labeled him the heir apparent to Hunter. The Twins were smart enough to include a club option for 2007, just in case Span wasn't quite ready yet. Little did we know that Span wouldn't Pan (out), and that the Twins would probably had been smart to try to get multiple club options in Hunter's contract.

But let's go back to the fall of 2006, the time at which it became clear to the Twins that Span wasn't close to ready and would very possibly never be a starting CF. The Twins exercised their club option on Hunter for 2007 and had the ability to sign him to what can now be called a reasonable extension, in light of Hunter's five year, $90 million contract with the Angels. The Twins in all likelihood could have signed Hunter for four years and $60 million or even slightly less.

The problem, though, and I hope the Twins saw this and weren't just being their cheap selves, was that Hunter was going to be 33 midway through his first season of his contract, five years older than the hitter's prime age of 27-28. Throw in the constant lack of plate discipline and declining fielding skills, and at the very most Hunter's worth to the Twins was somewhat close to $15 million a year for only 2008 and 2009. In other words, this was not about locking up young talent.

No, where I wanted the Twins to lock up young talent was when their best hitter was an overweight 1B/DH. The Twins, in all their wisdom, non-tendered David Ortiz instead. I wish I had blogged back then to prove it to the doubters, but instead you'll have to go to the archives of the Twins Dickie Thon forum and look for someone with "stat" in the name who hated Ryan, Ron Gardenhire, Jacque Jones, and wasn't totally sold on Hunter. Under whatever Statman or Statguy nickname I had, there is an embarrassing amount of screaming and crying about the possibility of Ortiz being released.

Today it seems obvious that a Twins team looking to lock up its young talent would be signing Justin Morneau, not Michael Cuddyer (age/prime again), and looking closely at Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker, Delmon Young, and even Joe Mauer, whose contract will be ending in three years. Hey, Bill Smith, you've got to be looking at it now, not later.

Where the Twins got themselves in trouble with Santana is waiting far too long. After the 2006 season, Santana had shown himself to be the best pitcher in baseball each of the past three years. He had two years left on his contract, and he would be barely 30 by the time his new contract started in 2009. Age 30 for a pitcher is like age 27 for a hitter, so in essence the Twins in dealing with Santana would be locking up a player six years younger than Hunter.

The Twins ended up offering Hunter a three year contract and were willing to pay $15 million a year for ages 33, 34, and 35. Are they not willing to pay a much, much better player--perhaps the best player in baseball--$20 million dollars a year for comparative (think pitchers relative to hitters) age 27 through 33 seasons? Then consider that the value of the $20 million would be affected greatly, baseball inflation-wise, by the fact that the Hunter contract would have run from 2008-2010, while the Santana contract might run from 2009-2015. Add in there that the Twins would be generating new revenue starting with the 2010 season, that Santana has past the injury nexus that most pitchers deal with, and that $20 million would be a much smaller portion of the payroll in 2015 than it would be in 2009, and you see why it's perplexing that the Twins don't make an honest effort to sign Santana long-term.

The very fact that Carlos Silva just got paid $50 million for four years should tell you that the Twins could go at least 7 and 140 for Santana. I mean, what will $20 million mean in 2015? Will it be enough money for some team like the Rangers to sign Boof Bonser? Meanwhile, the Twins likely would be paying a highly possible Hall of Fame pitcher for the last year of his (pitching) prime.

It makes you wonder. Do the Twins see something, or are they afraid of a dropoff in Santana's effectiveness? It's a lot easier to tell yourself a guy's tipping pitches, losing bite, not throwing the slider, or might get injured when you're asked to pony up $140 million.

Oh, and that number is the minimum, folks.

1 comment:

PJS said...

For all the credit Terry Ryan gets for the AJ trade and other moves, he doesn't take nearly enough criticism for trading away an MVP slugger in Ortiz. I covered the Twins briefly for KFAN and Ortiz was always the brightest personality in the locker room. It's always killed me that they gave up on him.