And that’s if we’re suddenly lucky. For some major league franchises, the cost of the minor leagues is just the cost of doing business. To the Twins, it’s an investment. The millions of dollars that are spent in salaries, scouting, per diems and signing bonuses are quickly recouped when a high-impact rookie provides millions of dollars worth of production for pennies on the dollar.
For instance, for the numbers that Justinn Morneau and Joe Mauer put up last year, a good chunk of teams would have been happy to pay $10 million. Each. And then they would’ve toasted their good fortune.
The Twins paid them $785,000. Combined. Which means that the Twins previous investments in the minor leagues provided at least a $19 million return for the organization, just for those two players. That’s the kind of return that low-revenue, low-payroll teams need be competitive.
Unfortunately, the Twins ability to leverage those investments has been limited due to a nearly unprecedented string of year-long injuries to high ceiling prospects. The Twins have had four players in the last few years who were considered elite prospects, an impressive number for any organization. But so far only Garza had managed to stay relatively healthy (knock, knock).
Joe Mauer’s knee cost him almost all of 2004. Jason Kubel’s knee cost him almost all of 2005 and ultimately most of 2006. Francisco Liriano’s elbow cost him half of 2006 and all of 2007. And the concussion from a bean-ball, along with a series of offseason plagues, didn’t keep Justin Mornea from playing 2005, but likely cost him a year of development.
Of course, injuries are a part of the game, and it isn’t difficult to find other teams who had players that suffered year-long injuries. You might even be able to find another team with year-long injuries to four high-impact players. But you’ll need to look long and hard to find a team that had worse timing.
That’s because what REALLY hurts a team like the Twins is that they all happened within the first two years of each player’s major league careers. Injuries those two years minimize the return a team receives from their minor league investments. But they hurt just as much years after the player has healed, because it makes it unlikely that a club can sign their high-impact players to a long-term contract that is below market value.
There is no better time for a ballclub to approach a rising star about a long-term deal than after their second complete season as major leaguer. Up to that point, the player has made close to the major league minimum, probably in the neighborhoold of $300-400,000 per year. That’s some nice ching to be sure, but it’s likely not enough to make sure they’ll never need a real job. They still have one more year to play before their first year of arbitration, which is where a star player can suddenly make several million dollars.
If the club offers the player a multi-year guaranteed deal after two years, they’re offering a lifetime of security a year earlier than the player would otherwise receive it. And all they’re asking in return is for the ballplayer to be a little less filthy rich over the next few years. It makes a ton of sense for both the ballplayer and the club to agree to that kind of a deal.
But because of early injuries, the Twins have yet to agree to that kind of deal with any of their young impact players. Everyone talked about locking up Maure and Morneau this year, but the time to negotiate with them was last offseason, before they reached arbitration. Unfrotunately, Morneau had underperformed through an injury-plagued year, and Mauer’s knee was still a question mark. Instead, the Twins didn’t get to talk about long-term deals until each one of them was already guaranteed a lifetime of security with their $4 million arbitration settlements.
This spring, Kubel is in the same boat as Mauer and Morneau were last year. You can bet that two years ago the Twins planned on approaching him with a long-term deal this offseason. They can’t, because they don’t know if his knees will remain healthy, or whether he’ll regain his stroke. If he does this year, he’ll get his $3 million whether or not he signs a long-term deal with the Twins. And we’ll be wondering why he and the Twins can’t get a long-term deal done.
And next offseason? Well, Liriano will be finishing his second year – except that he won’t have pitched in the majors for a year-and-a-half. So the Twins won’t be able to comfortably offer him a long-term deal, and will again see if their highly prized prospect breaks out just before his first big pay day. And you wonder why they weren’t anxious to have Liriano go under the knife?
When a star player’s lack of production is taken into account, the cost of an injury for every team is easily in the millions of dollars. That’s already devastating to most low revenue franchises. But the timing of these injuries is even worse, because it’s likely costing the Twins another $1-2 million worth of salary per year than if they could have negotiated a long-term deal at the best possible time. And it’s happened four times.
Is there any doubt the fifth is coming? So when you see pictures of Terry Ryan standing behind Garza in the Twins dugout, delivering a neck massage, don’t be so sure it’s a Photoshop job. That neck rub could be as valuable an investment as the entirety of the Twins minor league payroll.
All the talk about a backup shortstop made me wonder who exactly played shortstop in Rochester after Jason Bartlett was called up last year. It looks like it was Gil Velasquez, who is at spring training and has had seven at-bats. He hits about as well as you would imagine for a 27-year-old AAA shortstop who you had never heard of before.
Which means that if Machado continues to blow his best chance at a major league job and Gardenhire is serious about not letting Nick Punto back up at shorstop and Terry Ryan is serious about not wanting Alexi Casilla to sit on a bench, we're going to see a deal for a veteran middle infielder this spring. And I can't help wonder if that's what Gardenhire really wanted all along.
The Return of the Screaming Head
I missed you, screaming head. Welcome back.
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