Thursday, October 28, 2010

Bill Smith's Greatest Weakness

Overall, Bill Smith's body of work as Twins general manager has been impressive. He took over at an extremely unenviable time, facing the task of letting two of the most popular and talented players in franchise history -- Torii Hunter and Johan Santana -- depart while keeping the team competitive. While that first winter was not a particularly strong one, Smith's Twins did surprisingly come within a game of the playoffs in 2008 and they won the division in each of the next two years.

The Twins front office under Smith has shown clear competency in a number of areas. These include targeting quality players in trades when their value is at a low point (JJ Hardy and Carl Pavano come to mind), acquiring valuable pieces through free agency (an area where Terry Ryan consistently struggled), drafting and being aggressive on the international market.

One area where Smith and Co. have not been particularly adept, however, is extending the contracts of their own players.

I'm not talking about the big fish. The heaping salaries of Justin Morneau and Joe Nathan are hard to stomach now, obviously, but no one could have predicted they'd suffer the type of major injuries they did. One can question the wisdom of paying Joe Mauer $23 million annually for the better part of the next decade, but it was a fair contract and the Twins would have been ravaged if they hadn't locked the MVP up after '09.

What I take issue with is some of the extensions Smith has given lesser players on the roster, and specifically the timing of those extensions. While he's shown an ability to bring in external players at bargain prices because their value is down, he tends to negotiate contracts with his own players when their value is superficially high.

Denard Span and Nick Blackburn, both of whom signed long-term deals buying out all their arbitration years prior to this season, are good examples. Each of these players performed in '08 and '09 at a level that far exceeded their minor-league track record. Blackburn's numbers seemed particularly difficult to sustain, as it doesn't take a hardcore sabermetrician to understand that when you constantly pitch to contact and don't draw ground balls at a particularly dazzling rate, you're liable to get blown up.

Both those players took major steps backwards this season, which shouldn't have come as an enormous surprise based on their histories and tendencies. Yet, the team is now locked into paying them both over the next 3-4 years at a rate based on their performance in the first two seasons. If Span and Blackburn continue to decline, they'll keep being paid as strong producers due to contract extensions that were totally unnecessary given that both were under team control for several more years.

Nick Punto represents another example of badly timed extension. If the team wanted to keep him around (which you'd have to guess they always did), they could have handed him a low-money extension after his historically dismal 2007 season. Instead, they waited until he put together a solid effort in '08 -- his last year under contract -- and had to pay him $8.5 million over two years to keep him from exiting via free agency. As a result they've had to pay him $4 million in each of the past two years to put up a sub-.630 OPS while characteristically battling injuries.

And then there's the Michael Cuddyer contract. This stands out to me as Smith's most egregious and baffling move yet. It's not so much the contract itself -- a three-year deal worth $24 million -- I have a problem with, although one could certainly question handing him such a sizable deal after a very pedestrian 2007 campaign. It's the stipulation regarding the club option. It had to be exercised five days after the end of the 2009 World Series, meaning the Twins had to decide whether or not they would pay Cuddyer $10.5 million in 2011 before seeing what he did in 2010.

I can't recall ever seeing a contract structured like this before. I can see why Cuddyer's agent would push for it, knowing that Cuddyer would be moving past the age of 30 in 2009 and understanding that the team might be more likely to activate the lucrative option after that season than after his 2010 season where age could start taking a greater toll on the right fielder's performance. What I don't understand is why in the world Smith would agree to it.

Was it really a deal-breaker? Was Cuddyer going to turn down an extension that paid him an average of $8 million annually after a relatively mediocre season because the club option was to be exercised after the final guaranteed year of the deal, as with any normal contract? By structuring the deal like this, Smith opened himself to the possibility that Cuddyer would have a great '09 campaign, making the option look like a no-brainer and prompting the team to activate it, then follow up with a poor 2010 season that cast doubt on his future productivity. Sure enough, that's exactly what happened and now the Twins are forced to pay Cuddyer's hefty salary next year when under normal circumstances they'd have the option of letting him walk or negotiating a new deal.

I like most of what Smith has done, but the burdensome long-term contracts of players like Span, Blackburn, Punto and Cuddyer stand as glaring examples of a pervasive weakness. This winter, he'll once again have the opportunity to extend the contracts of several players. I mentioned Francisco Liriano as a top priority on Wednesday, and players like JJ Hardy, Alexi Casilla and Kevin Slowey are also candidates for extensions.

I can only hope that the front office shows better judgment in handing out such extensions this winter, because unlike the Yankees, this team simply isn't equipped financially to deal with a multitude of poorly concieved contracts.


Matt said...

I can see making players feel rewarded to a certain degree, but I agree that lots of those weren't the best ideas. Brendan Harris, too, who ended the season in the minors, is signed on for a couple million next year, too.
We'll see how shrewd the organization is by what they do with all the FAs in the bullpen this winter.
And let's hope and pray Morneau is really ready for Spring Training next year!

Nick N. said...

Harris would have been another good one to list, for sure.

Ed Bast said...

For how admired the Twins are as an organization, they've really made some poor contract decisions, their minor league system is weak, and of course they are a league wide joke in the postseason. The window is closing fast on this club.

I guess I can't complain too much since they did spend quite a bit more this year, like we've been asking them to do for years. I'm curious to see where the payroll ends up this year.

Drew said...

I don't understand why they wouldn't have allowed themselves to go year-to-year with arbitration eligible players. Even if they did have outstanding years which would produce big pay increases, they wouldn't be such large raises that it would handicap the organization. It's not like we had Evan Longoria or Ryan Braun sitting there looking at hefty increases. As much as I like Denard Span, outfielders is an area where we do actually have some depth, so even had he put up strong numbers and we felt that he was going to get such a bump through arbitration that we'd have to trade (or reversely non-tender him) we would have guys in the system who could replace him.

Dave said...

I personally can understand where the twins front office was coming from. It seemed by all accounts that arbitration was going more and more towards the players. Baseball contracts looked to be going higher and higher and before the bust, 10 mil for an outfielder may have been right in the inflation wheelhouse. To imagine that clubs would be pinching pennies today a few years ago was pretty far out there.

But now here we are. Arbitration hearings are not going towards the players like it was predicted. Clubs aren't looking at an aging guy and thinking 10 mil is a good price. In a very different world without a burst bubble, we may have been talking about a savvy move instead of a bad gamble. In the end it was a gamble, and just like thousands of property speculators the bubble killed it dead.

Anonymous said...

Smith has actually made several bad moves. If you're willing to pony up $23 million over 8 years for Mauer, at least let 2010 play out before signing him. It's not like he had a bad year, but I'm guessing 9 HR wouldn't have fetched $23 million. Signing an aging Nathan for that kind of money is crazy...closers are overrated and pretty replaceable. The Cuddy option clause timing is seriously grounds for removal. The Twins will have pushing $60 million tied up in a good contact hitter (Mauer), two serious question marks (Morneau/Nathan), and a mediocre right fielder (Cuddy). Harris, Punto, wow...actually, all I've seen that worked was Thome for $1.5 million, and Smith will probably pay him $5 million to come back next year and suck. Bottom line: Smith's pricey contracts mean the Twins have to expand their payroll to about $130-$140 million or so over the next few years to be competitive until Cuddy, Nathan and Morneau are off the books. Trying to basically go around $100 million with a clone of last year's team minus Liriano to pay for Mauer will probably not win the AL Central, as the Tigers should be the team to beat.

Ed Bast said...

Oh come on, if they hadn't resigned Mauer you'd be absolutely roasting the Twins. And if he'd had another MVP season, the price tag would have risen. Yeah, he's probably overpaid, but so is every "face of the franchise" type player.

What will infuriate me, though, is if the Twins use that contract to tighten up the purse strings. "Well, we can't afford to be active..." That will basically doom this team to irrelevance for years.

Billy has really backed himself into a corner here.

Anonymous said...

they like to keep the "nice" guys around. i am sure gardy feels that those 4 guys are worth the money just because they are good clubhouse guys. that seems to be a more important factor than performance.

Anonymous said...

Don't forget Smith's worst move as GM...the "non-move". Spending money on useless closers like Capps and Fuentes instead of directing the $$$ towards Cliff Lee. Lee is a huge difference-maker that could've taught this team how to beat the Yankees. Instead, we get like 6 1/3 meaningless innings out of Fuentes and avoid one or two blown saves with Rauch. This team's payroll situation is one of the worst in the league. If Morneau and Cuddy can't be effective, this team is screwed. They have no choice but to get rid of Punto, Kubel, Hudson, Hardy and most of the bullpen to cobble some savings together and replace them with Harris, Tolbert, Revere, etc. and cross your fingers. They will likely stick with the same starters, except only keep Liriano or Pavano, but not both. They'll have to find a way to afford Delmon Young, as he, Mauer, maybe Morneau and Valencia are the only guys you can count on at the plate. I would not pay Thome more than $2 million because of his age. And no, I don't think even the Yanks or Sox would've paid more than $18-$20 million for Mauer. He's a risk. Contact hitter, little power, no speed, playing the wrong position, with risky knees. I predict he's our catcher for 2 more years, and then replaces Morneau at first for a few years, and ends up DHing the last half of his contract. Carl Crawford and Paul Konerko are more valuable IMO, so we'll see what they fetch. Don't get me wrong...I like Mauer, but the Twins paying Yankee-like money will have repercussions for years. It seems like Smith panics a little out of fear and then overpays. I believe in the theory of looking to lure big names to your team in July and having the liability for a half-season or maybe 1 1/2 seasons, as opposed to multi-year contracts that often times don't work out. As I said, the only way out of this mess is to significantly boost payroll for the next 2 years. If they don't, they run the risk of becoming a dying franchise and you don't want to kill the stadium momentum.

Matt said...

I think it's hilarious to read people bashing the Mauer contract now, at the end of the season. At the beginning, people were clamoring to just give the guy what he wanted so he would stay in MN as a Twin.
Same with Morneau, people whining about his contract.
You all would be LIVID if Smith had let those two go!
There are bad deals, but the precious baby Jesus "M&M" boys simply had to stay or selling out Target Field would have been a hard proposition.
Next year we're going to have the same team again, which was a good team that just wore out and faded down the stretch. We're all complaining about losing in the playoffs, but they'll be there again next year, contending in September, so let's just relax and enjoy the season!

Anonymous said...

they'll be back next year for another pathetic showing! great to know!

Matt said...

Don't get me wrong, Anon, I'm as pissed as anyone at the way they played in the last several ALDS's.
But, I'd rather at the very least be contending; it's better than what the poor KC fans go through year after year after year...

While I agree that they need a few pieces to be a playoff force, it's not looking like any impact guys will be wearing a "TC" hat next year, so let's enjoy what we've got and maybe, just maybe, we'll find ourselves further in the playoffs next year... (BIG maybe)

Paul said...

My beef isn't so much the timing of the extensions (although that has turned out to be pretty bad, but that seems like it's been at least a little bit of bad luck). My biggest complaint is the actual contracts. It seems like other teams, when they sign players who are pre-FA-eligibility, get either a steeper discount on the arbitration years, or actually buy out a couple years of FA. The contract that goes up to the brink of FA with a single option year, seems like pretty poor return on the risk that they're taking by guaranteeing the intervening years. It would be lovely if they would get in the habit of either just going year-by-year or actually buying out a couple FA years...

SethSpeaks said...

The timing of Cuddyer's extension is something I've never seen either... that said, had the option been after the 2010 season, they still would pick it up. No question about it, so it really didn't matter unless he would have been hurt long term.

As for the Mauer contract, we all knew from the start that giving him that much money made little sense from a Twins Baseball perspective. But the repurcusions of not signing him would have been far, far worse. The purpose of getting Target Field was to keep the team's stars. Mauer was at the top of that list. Morneau, Cuddyer.

I also think it's funny when people assume Cliff Lee was so easily attainable. If anyone questions the efforts the Twins made to get him, it's kind of ridiculous.

tborg said...

Anon is quite the negative Nelly. Konerko and Crawford are more valuable? Really? I think a good way to judge contracts is whether a team would give up arguably equal assets in a trade for them (i.e. not a salary dump trade). I think a lot of (big market) teams would gladly give up something valuable for Mauer. We need someone to do a Bill Simmons-like ranking that takes into account salaries, age, etc. Even with his contract, I'm pretty sure that Mauer would still rank in the top 10, way above Konerko and probably above Crawford. I think that Span probably has some value, even with his contract (as Twins-Centric points out, center fielders aren't easily found). Seth, not sure I agree that the Twins would pick up Cuddyer's option if they had the choice after this year. They might keep him around by signing him as a free agent after declining the option, but they could probably get him for half the price and would take the risk of losing him to do so.

Dr. Truth said...

Oh i dont doubt the twins "tried" for CLiff Lee. They did. The mariners said, we want ramos and hicks. The twins said, well you can have ramos for that there candy bar you're about to eat, but hicks might have the potential to possibly be maybe an above-average outfielder in perhaps 4 years give or take, so no way.

Theres a difference between "trying" and actually going all in. For about the 1849th time, the twins once again settled for just trying.

thats okay though, guys as good as lee are pretty much constantly availalbe. im sure the twins will try real hard when the next one comes up. yeah in 2014 or so.

Dr, Truth said...

Tborg,the Twins organization is in love with the theory of cuddy. Gardy called him the team MVP this year, how is that not preposterous statement winner this year? theyd probably pay him twice as much as they are. You think gardy would let 2 of his favoritest lil' guys walk this year? if you listen real hard you can hear gardy sobbing over the loss of nicky baseball.

rghrbek said...


Great post. I am not quite as high on B.S. as you are, but he has done ok.

You are totally right in the one area he should be savaged is these mind boggling contracts.

Seth is wrong, if Cuddy was up this year for 10.5, based on their pay roll, they would really struggle knowing they were over paying a guy 5 million dollars.

They could do it based on Gardy's unconditional love for him though.

Keep up the good work.

Dave said...

Lee would not have come to the Twins for Ramos and Hicks. Texas gave Smoak and some decent prospects. That was a kings ransom for a rental. Let me put it this way; if it was the start of the year, and Morneau was not on the roster, would you pull the trigger on Ramos + Hicks for Smoak + Blake Beavan + Josh Lueke + Matthew Lawson? I would in a heartbeat.

Anonymous said...

I'm not trying to be a downer here, just stating the facts. I would absolutely put Konerko above Mauer because Konerko can end games with one swing of the bat. I'll take .312, 39 HR 111 RBI over .327, 9 HR, 75 RBI. That's just me, though. Oh, and he takes a pitch in the face and gets back up to the plate. His age is the only reason you might put Mauer above him, but I put Mauer at an old 28 because of his knees. Somebody will overpay badly for Carl Crawford this year...just my hunch. But, I think neither gets above $18 million/year...well below Mauer. I would absolutely let Hardy, Hudson, Kubel and Punto go...replace them with Harris, Tolbert, Plouffe and Repko/Revere. That is really close to a wash.

Ben said...

Anon you completely lost me with that last post of pure dribble, well and the post before that that coincidentally was also pure dribble (the long post, not the little snide comment)....and you'd give up 20+ homeruns, 2 gold glove defenders, and a super utility for 3 .200 hitters and a backup, never proven outfielder, all with no pop? Yeah that's quite the wash....thank god you don't run the team.

Anonymous said...

Well, all of the anon posts aren't mine...just the 2 fact-based contract stuff (aka "pure dribble" or drivel?). And yes, I would cut those 4 and move on and try to find another Valencia. On the flip side of your argument, I would cut loose a .249 hitter, and 3 guys that are DL regulars, including a "super utility" that is badly overpaid. Too late on Kubel anyway. At least the Twinks cut Punto loose. And, I'm going to assume by signing Kubel, Thome probably won't be back. Kubes should be moved back to the DH position.

Nate said...

Great post. Here's my take.

Some of the comments mention the Harris deal as another bad contract, which it is. Punto was initially over-paid, Cuddy held the cards to make the move (not the Twins) and Span and Blackburn were calculated - and they're both "Twins guys," which I think is a huge thing that you overlooked. This organization seems to be big on players that fit within their personality mold, as well as their baseball mode - almost to a fault. There is something to be said for a clean and healthy clubhouse, but as we saw AGAIN in the first round of the playoffs, the Twins lack the player with moxy; someone who will step up vocally (both behind closed doors and in the dugout).

I digress...

The Span and Blackburn contracts don't come off as bad deals. They're still both young, and can easily have bounce-back years, where the Twins will look good again because of their current deals. I think that's the risk you take in signing younger players to longer term deals. There's always that risk of the player not putting up numbers that warrant their current deal.

Same can be said for a player like Cuddy, NOT a young guy. His '09 numbers warranted his deal, his '10 number do not. If any deal sticks out as a bad deal, I think it's Cuddy's. I'm not a huge Cuddy fan, but recognize his talent and value that he does bring (both from Gardy's point of view, and from a pure numbers point of view). I also think the Twins were stuck in the position of overpaying for a solid right handed bat with potential power. The organization (especially at the major league level) is very left-handed heavy, and for Smith to have a solid right-handed power threat for 3 years I think played on the side of advantage Camp Cuddy.

I give Smith a "B" for his work thus far. We're competitive, we're making moves to bolster the lineup mid-year, and we're exercising options for players that the organization is gambling on playing off dividends in future years.

Lastly, as much as I value Mauer for all of the reasons he should be a lifelong Twin, there's no way he's worth 23 million a year, for the next eight years. Should he be your top paid player? Probably, but 23 million?

I think we will all see what kind of "shape" this organization is in come next spring when the payroll is being set - will it go up a lot, or stay consistent? Then, I think we'll all get the true picture of how much value Target Field really brings to the current team.


Anonymous said...

Remember that the Nathan, Morneau, and Cuddyer contracts came just after Hunter and Santana left, and with a new stadium on the way. People would have been up in arms had Smith not gotten deals done for them.

As for locking up young players last offseason, it was a pretty good time to be locking in salaries. The past few years saw salaries skyrocketing, but last winter was a good gamble for the low point in prices.

That said, I like being more aggressive drafting international players and spending more on payroll, but I did prefer Ryan's more calculated/conservative approach.

Anonymous said...

Conservative approach regarding trades

Anonymous said...

My only issue with the Mauer deal isn't the number of years or the dollar amount, it's the "no-trade" clause.