The Twins opened the 2018 season with an Opening Day payroll of $128.7 million, the highest in team history. The results were underwhelming as the team, coming off a surprise run to the AL wild card game, finished 78-84 and 13 games back in the American League Central.
In the days after that disappointment, Paul Molitor was fired as manager and Joe Mauer and his $23 million per season salary finally came off the books. The expectation of some was that the Twins would seize the opportunity to replenish their payroll via the free-agent market.
That hasn’t come close to happening.
Three weeks before pitchers and catchers report to spring training in Fort Myers, Fla., the Twins’ payroll sits at $87.7 million and, at this rate, will be pushing $100 million by Opening Day. The notable offseason moves include claiming first baseman C.J. Cron off waivers from Tampa Bay in late November, signing free agent second baseman Jonathan Schoop and utilityman Ronald Torreyes as free agents in early December and righthanded pitcher Blake Parker and designated hitter Nelson Cruz in January.
The realization of where the payroll sits has resulted in recent outrage from the blogosphere about the Twins’ pinching pennies and not giving new manager Rocco Baldelli a competitive roster. Much of this consternation is directed toward owner Jim Pohlad and the perception that he continues to be baseball miser.
Dave St. Peter, the Twins’ longtime team president, said in an interview Tuesday on SKOR North that chief baseball officer Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine, not Pohlad, are making the call on the team’s payroll and that there are no constraints being put on the pair.
“I’d say a couple of things,” St. Peter said. “One, it’s Jan. 22, so ask me on March 22, or maybe even April 15, on where our payroll is. I don’t think we’re at the finish line yet, and we saw this last year in the number of players that signed late. I think you could still see some of that, not just with us but with other clubs.”
The Twins jumped into the free-agent market during spring training last season, signing starting pitcher Lance Lynn and designated hitter Logan Morrison. Both players had miserable seasons as the Twins got little return on their investments.
The Twins’ current strategy is pretty obvious, although it won’t be popular with many fans. After watching third baseman Miguel Sano and center fielder Byron Buxton have miserable seasons, Falvey and Levine clearly want to see if one or both can rebound and live up to the hype that surrounded them a few years back.
If both Buxton and Sano can turn it around, the Twins will find themselves in excellent shape in an American League Central that continues to feature mostly rebuilding or declining teams. But if one of them turns out to be a flop, or both do, it will be a different story and require Falvey and Levine to have a different plan.
It also should come as no surprise that Falvey and Levine — who were hired in November 2016 with the Twins’ coming off a horrendous 59-103 season — appear to be taking a page from other new-school baseball executives who tore things down (the Cubs and Astros are two examples) in order to build them back up. But what makes that more difficult to stomach for many is the fact the Twins had immediate success upon Falvey and Levine’s arrival.
“I would just say this: In 2017, obviously, we probably outperformed all the projections,” St. Peter said. “I think the biggest reason we did that was the young core of players and what we saw out of Sano, particularly the first half of that year, what we saw out of Buxton the second half, (Jorge) Polanco, (Eddie) Rosario, (Max) Kepler. Those guys are still here. I know we underperformed in 2018, but the reality of it is I think we need to see that core and see what they are going to be and what they can be. I think that’s clearly our No. 1 priority.
“We have supplemented the roster, we did it all early. We like the additions of Schoop and Cron and I think those guys are both ripe for big years and then the addition of Cruz. So, I think you can certainly take a look at pitching and everybody would say, and I would agree, ‘You can never have enough.’ We like the arms that are here.
“At the end of the day, I can assure you that ownership does not have a limit on what Derek and Thad can spend. The decisions that are being made are being made by our baseball operations group and what they think is in the best interest of this club. I see what they are doing every single day and how we are making those decisions. I have confidence that not only are we going in with a better team than we had last year, but it’s a team that can ultimately, hopefully hunt down Cleveland in the American League Central in 2019.”
St. Peter also pointed to what is going on behind the scenes at Target Field as the Twins continue to grow in areas where they fell far behind when Terry Ryan was general manager. Team officials realized far too late that “The Twins Way,” for which they became known during their successful run from 2001 through 2010 — the franchise won six division titles in that time — became outdated long before the success ended.
“I see every day what we’re spending and what we’re doing at the major league level, and also how this franchise has been transformed across our front-office infrastructure, all of the systems and technology,” St. Peter said. “What we’ve done around the player development side, we’re in a really, really good spot. I’m thrilled with what has been built out here over the last two years.
“The goal here from the start was to build a championship organization and a huge part of that, maybe the foundation of that, is what you’re building in the front office within your player development system. We’re miles ahead of where we were two years ago, and I’m optimistic that that will pay dividends over the long haul. That’s really what our focus is.”
St. Peter also said the Twins’ current payroll situation gives them “all kinds of flexibility,” to make moves.
“That’s part of the vision here is to go into the year with that type of flexibility and, by the way, the way this team has been constructed we’re going to have that flexibility, no matter what happens, going into 2020,” he said. “We’re hopeful also that 2020 is the year we see that next wave of guys from (outfielder Alex) Kirilloff and (shortstop Royce) Lewis and (righthander Brusdar) Graterol and some of those other guys that they can emerge in Minnesota.
“We’re excited about our future. I can tell you we’re very bullish about it. I have confidence in the guys that are guiding this ship … that we’re in a much better spot than maybe some of our fan base might view it and their only argument is payroll. I’m not sure that that’s necessarily always the answer, but we’ve heard it here in the market for a long time and I suspect that’s something we’re going to have to put up with.”