The Prestige of Small Payroll Baseball – Minnesota Twins 2008-09
Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called “The Pledge”. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course… it probably isn’t. The second act is called “The Turn”. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call “The Prestige”.” – Cutter (Michael Caine) from “The Prestige”
Every year some team does it. There’s always at least one team that contends for a division title, or makes the playoffs, or even advances to the World Series on a payroll that dwells in the umbra of the Yankees’ world. And then every fan and talking head wonders why their favorite team can’t do the same thing. But if it were that easy, there wouldn’t be a need for the gargantuan payrolls that exist in the game.
This series will examine certain teams in recent years that have been successful on small payrolls. To qualify, a team had to have an opening day payroll that occupied the lower 1/3 of the MLB payroll scale. Our first team to dissect will be the Minnesota Twins of 2008 and 2009.
The Minnesota Twins have been the template of stability and consistency for the past decade. They are the model of how a small-payroll team has to develop its own players internally, make the right decisions on extending young players, and decide when to trade players as they approach free agency.
In the new millennium, the Minnesota Twins started out 69-93 and finished 5th of 5 in AL Central. Starting in 2001, the Twins have had only one losing season (79-83 in 2007) and finished no lower than 3rd place.
That 2007 offseason brought about a series of changes for the Twins. First, longtime GM Terry Ryan retired and his longtime assistant Bill Smith was promoted to GM. Smith did not have much time to breathe, as he was forced to retool the Twins after that 2007 season out of financial necessity. Two of their key players, Johan Santana and Torii Hunter, were either free agents (Hunter) or a player with one year left on his contract (Santana). At the time, Santana was easily one of the 5 best pitchers in all of baseball and was known to be on the cusp of commanding a contract that the Twins could not afford. Hunter was coming off of a .287/.334/.505 season with his typical stellar defense in CF. He was one of the most sought-after commodities on the market and also thought to be out of the Twins price range.
It was thought that losing both Hunter and Santana in the same offseason would cause the Twins to go into a downturn, at least in the short term. Instead, that offseason catapulted them back to their winning ways.
So how did they do it?
Torii Hunter left as a free agent, going to the LA Angels of Anaheim. The Twins couldn’t afford to keep Santana, as they decided to commit to Morneau in January 2008 (6 yr – $80M) and had recently signed Joe Mauer to a deal that covered the 2007 to 2010 seasons (4 yr – $33M).
Santana was traded to Mets in February 2008 for Deolis Guerra, Carlos Gomez, Philip Humber, and Kevin Mulvey. It was widely seen as too little of a return for a pitcher of Santana’s caliber, but the Twins’ hands were tied. Santana only had 1 year on his contract and was known to be in line for a large contract. That limited the teams that would be willing to trade players and be able to sign Santana for a long-term deal.
Additionally, in a move that widely viewed as a surprise by most of baseball, the Twins also traded Matt Garza to the Rays in the 2007 offseason. Garza was traded along with middle infielder Jason Bartlett and prospect Eduardo Morlan to the Rays for malcontent and under-achieving Delmon Young, utility infielder Brendan Harris, and prospect Jason Pridie.
Minnesota’s 2008 season
In 2008, the Twins finished 87-75 and in a tie with the Chicago White Sox. The Twins lost a one game playoff to the Sox and finished in 2nd place in the AL Central. They scored 829 runs and allowed 745 runs (+84 run differential). Their team payroll was $56.9M, good for 24th out of 30 teams in Major League Baseball.
The key contributors on offense were (ages for the 2008 season in parentheses along with method obtained):
Joe Mauer (25, draft 1st round 2001) .328/.413/.451 (864 OPS, 134 OPS+)
Justin Morneau (27, draft 3rd round 1999) .300/.374/.499 (873 OPS, 134 OPS+)
Denard Span (24, draft 1st round 2002) .294/.387/.432 (819 OPS, 122 OPS+)
Jason Kubel (26, draft 12th round 2000) .272/.335/.471 (805 OPS, 115 OPS+)
The interesting thing is that everyone else considered by Baseball Reference to be a starter was at least hovering around league-average, as per their OPS+ ratings. Alexi Casilla (2B, 91 OPS+), Nick Punto (SS, 96 OPS+), Brian Buscher (3B, 97 OPS+), and Delmon Young (LF, 100 OPS+) were all respectable. The only weak link was the key component of the Santana deal, Carlos Gomez (CF, 71 OPS+).
The starting pitchers for the Twins in 2008 were a more head-scratching lot, in terms of figuring out how they were so successful as a team. Again, the players’ 2008 season ages are in parentheses:
Scott Baker (26, draft 2nd round 2003) 11-4, 3.45 ERA in 172 IP with a 7.4 K/9 and 2.2 BB/9 rate
Kevin Slowey (24, draft 2nd round 2005) 12-11, 3.99 ERA in 160 IP with a 6.9 K/9 and 1.3 BB/9 rate
Nick Blackburn (26, draft 29th round 2001) 11-11, 4.05 ERA in 193 IP with a 4.5 K/9 and 1.8 BB/9 rate
Glen Perkins (25, draft 1st round 2004) 12-4, 4.41 ERA in 151 IP with a 4.4 K/9 and 2.3 BB/9 rate
Old Man Of the Sea Livan Hernandez (33, FA) 10-8, 5.48 ERA in 135 IP with a 3.5 K/9 and 1.9 BB/9 rate
Before he got injured, Francisco Liriano (24, trade 2003) contributed a 6-4, 3.91 ERA effort in 76 IP with a 7.9 K/rate and 3.8 BB/9 rate. So aside from Liriano, the Twins’ starter struck out few batters, but walked few batters too, and weren’t particularly eating a lot of innings as no one threw 200 IP among the staff. Apparently, they were pitching to contact and hoping their defense would take care of the rest.
Joe Nathan (trade 2003), as usual, was great in his age-33 season with a 1.33 ERA in 67 IP as the closer. He had a 9.8 K/9 and 2.4 BB/9 rate on way to locking the door in the 9th inning for the Twins in 2008.
The Twins’ key players were mostly homegrown. Not only did they hit on their early 1st and 2nd round selections, but they also got some key contributions from late-round pitchers and hitters. Essentially, that’s like getting a free player and is total gravy from a farm system.
So here’s the trade calculus for the 2008 season from the Johan Santana trade, using Wins Above Replacement (WAR) from Fangraphs:
Santana (with Mets in 2008) = 4.8 WAR
Gomez (with Twins in 2008) = 2.4 WAR, due to his defense mostly
Humber (with Twins in 2008) = -0.3 WAR
Twins net loss of 2.7 wins in 2008 from the Santana trade. The Twins were successful in 2008 despite the trade.
In the same vein, here’s the breakdown for the 2008 season from the Garza-Young trade, again using WAR from Fangraphs:
Matt Garza (with Rays in 2008) = 2.9 WAR
Jason Bartlett (with Rays in 2008) = 1.8 WAR
Delmon Young (with Twins in 2008) = -0.7 WAR
Brendan Harris (with Twins in 2008) = 1.2 WAR
Jason Pridie (with Twins in 2008) = -0.3 WAR
As you can see, the Twins came out on the short end of this deal, too. The Rays received 4.7 WAR and the Twins only got 0.2 WAR, resulting in a net loss of 4.5 wins. Coupled with the Santana deal and the Twins are down 7.2 wins from these trades in 2008.
Minnesota’s 2009 season
Something happened in the offseason of 2008, heading into 2009, that on the surface is a tragic event, but actually was the best thing to happen to this franchise’s long-term future. Long-time owner Carl Pohlad shed his mortal coil in January 2009 at age 93 and control of the franchise went to his two sons. Carl Pohlad was one of the richest men in America, but ran the Twins as if he were a miser. It was mostly his doing, and not a function of the St. Paul/Minneapolis market, that the Twins had such low payrolls year after year.
By January 2009, the Twins’ new field (Target Field) was well under construction and ready for the 2010 season debut. With that would bring new revenue streams and the ability to add to payroll. But 2009 still saw the Twins with a low payroll of $65.3M, again good for 24th out of 30 MLB teams. However, with Carl Pohlad gone, the purse strings would start to loosen.
In 2009, the Twins finished 86-76 and, amazingly, in another tie, this time with the Detroit Tigers. In this one game playoff, the Twins won and finished in 1st place in the AL Central. They scored 817 runs and allowed 765 runs (+42 run differential). This run differential of 32 runs from 2008 shows just how fickle things can be from season to season.
The key contributors on offense were (ages for the 2009 season in parentheses):
Joe Mauer (26) .365/.444/.587 (1031 OPS, 170 OPS+)
Justin Morneau (28) .274/.363/.516 (878 OPS, 129 OPS+)
Denard Span (25) .311/.392/.415 (807 OPS, 114 OPS+)
Jason Kubel (27) .300/.369/.569 (907 OPS, 136 OPS+)
Michael Cuddyer (30) .276/.342/.520 (862 OPS, 124 OPS+)
The difference this time is that the offense did not receive contributions from all the other starters. Aside from these guys listed above, the other players were either atrocious (Casilla, 538 OPS, 44 OPS+ and Gomez, 623 OPS, 64 OPS+) to just so-so (Orlando Cabrera, Delmon Young, Joe Crede, Brendan Harris).
Mauer took his game up about 5 notches in 2009 with one of the greatest offensive seasons by a catcher in modern times. All that offense plus Gold-Glove level defense and the undisputed team leader.
The same main five starting pitchers were back for the Twins in 2009, with Carl Pavano assuming the role of Old Man of The Staff from Livan Hernandez.
Scott Baker (27) 15-9, 4.37 ERA in 200 IP with a 7.3 K/9 and 2.2 BB/9 rate
Kevin Slowey (25) 10-3, 4.86 ERA in 90 IP with a 7.4 K/9 and 1.5 BB/9 rate
Nick Blackburn (27) 11-11, 4.03 ERA in 205 IP with a 4.3 K/9 and 1.8 BB/9 rate
Glen Perkins (26) 6-7, 5.89 ERA in 96 IP with a 4.2 K/9 and 2.1 BB/9 rate
Francisco Liriano (25) 5-13, 5.80 ERA in 136 IP with a 8.0 K/9 and 4.3 BB/9 rate
Carl Pavano (33) 5-4, 4.64 ERA in 73 IP with a 7.2 K/9 and 2.0 BB/9 rate
Blackburn and Baker stepped up to workhorse their way to dual 200 IP seasons, greatly helping out this staff that had its share of injuries. Blackburn had a stunningly consistent season compared to his 2008 season, which was probably the reason the Twins gave him a 4 year-$14M contract in the 2009 offseason, even with his marginal arsenal and so-so rate stats.
And, ho-hum, Joe Nathan was fantastic again in 2009. He had a 11.7 K/9 and 2.7 BB/9 with his 2.10 ERA and 47 saves.
Let’s look at the trade breakdown in 2009 from the Garza-Young swap with the Rays:
Matt Garza (with Rays in 2009) = 3.2 WAR
Jason Bartlett (with Rays in 2009) = 4.9 WAR
Delmon Young (with Twins in 2009) = -1.1 WAR, one of the worst everyday players in MLB
Brendan Harris (with Twins in 2009) = -0.1 WAR
Jason Pridie (with Twins in 2009) = 0.0 WAR
In 2009, the Rays got 8.1 WAR from their end of the deal while the Twins amazingly would have been better off with 3 AAA guys, as they were -1.2 WAR. From the Rays’ perspective, the trade was fantastic as they got 12.8 WAR from Garza and Bartlett over 2008 and 2009, while the Twins’ had a -1.0 combined WAR.
Again, here’s the trade calculus for the 2009 season from the Johan Santana trade, using Wins Above Replacement (WAR) from Fangraphs. This time, Santana’s 2009 season is not included under the assumption that he would not have re-signed with the Twins:
Gomez (with Twins in 2009) = 0.6 WAR
Humber (with Twins in 2009) = -0.1 WAR
Mulvey (with Twins in 2009) = 0.0 WAR
When you add the 2009 total of 0.5 WAR to the 2.1 WAR of 2008, you have that the Twins traded Santana’s 4.8 WAR in 2008 for a total of 2.6 wins over the next 2 seasons. All three of these players are out of the Twins organization at this point, but Mulvey was traded for Jon Rauch who contributed 0.3 WAR in 2009 down the stretch for them. That would increase the trade tree total to 2.9 wins. And if you include JJ Hardy’s 2010 2.4 WAR (traded straight up for Carlos Gomez after 2009’s season) and Jon Rauch’s 2010 1.1 WAR (traded for Kevin Mulvey in 2009), you get 6.4 WAR from the Santana Trade Tree. One could say that the Twins actually won the trade by this string of logic, especially considering the financial costs of all of these min-scale players involved (aside from JJ Hardy).
However, with Hardy likely moving on this offseason, it is kind of hard to justify the Santana trade as no long-term core pieces were obtained and it did not help them in 2008 or 2009. To date, Deolis Guerra is toiling in the minors and has lost some of his stuff since arriving in Minnesota. If he ever makes the majors, it will most likely be as a middle reliever and not a starter.
Gomez is a sub-standard CF who it was hoped would be Hunter’s replacement. Unfortunately, Gomez put up a 657 and 623 OPS in his two seasons with the Twins. He was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers straight up for JJ Hardy in 2010.
Philip Humber also only stayed 2 years in Minnesota (2008 and 2009), and gave them a grand total of 20 innings and a 2.03 WHIP in middle relief. Mulvey, somehow, was even worse. He pitched 1-1/3 innings in 2009 and then was traded to Arizona for Jon Rauch.
So essentially Santana was traded for 2 sub-par seasons of Gomez, 1 slightly below-average season of Hardy, nothing from Guerra to this point, and a less than replacement level 21 combined IP from Humber and Mulvey. Rauch gave them help down the stretch in 2009 and was the primary closer when Joe Nathan went down in 2010, prior to Matt Capps’ arrival.
Torii Hunter’s replacement was in-house the whole time in the form of Denard Span. Span was sort of Minnesota’s version of Neil Walker. Span was a player that was feared to have peaked as a prospect and would only be a bench player in the majors. During his debut season in 2008, Span had a .294/.387/.432 (819 OPS) line with 18 steals in 93 games. Considering that Hunter had an 839 OPS during his last season in 2007 with the Twins, it was widely viewed that Span could at least be Hunter-lite, especially at the cost of $400,000 as opposed to Hunter’s $18 million per year that he received from the Angels.
Torii Hunter left as a Type A free agent, meaning the Twins received the Angels’ 2008 1st round pick and a supplemental 1st round pick. Those picks were Carlos Gutierrez and Shooter Hunt, respectively. Gutierrez is borderline prospect and will probably make the majors in 2011 as a reliever. Potentially, he could be a setup man. Hunt has been plagued by control problems in his career (11.2 BB/9 career, not a typo, plus countless HBP’s and Wild Pitches) and will not make the majors.
The Twins won and reloaded in spite of the Santana and Garza trades and, it appears, will not reap much from the Hunter compensatory picks. The Twins won in 2008 and 2009 because they were able to develop their own players internally and achieve a critical mass of success with a group of players at the same time. The contributions were not spread out over different years; they all hit at the same time.
Interestingly, the Twins have entered a new tier of payroll in 2010 and beyond. In 2010, the Twins had a $97.6M payroll, good for 11th out of 30 teams. The Mauer mega-extension of $23M/year starting in 2011 will only reinforce that the Twins are no longer a “small market” or “small payroll” team. But it will keep the pressure on them to keep replenishing the team with help from the farm.