Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Definition of ‘Can’t Afford’

Last week the Blue Jays put AJ Burnett on the disabled list with a strained shoulder. This was Burnett’s second trip to the DL since he’s joined the Jays, and they’ve limited him to just 35 starts over his first year-and-a-half with them. He joins closer BJ Ryan, who was put on the DL on 4/15, underwent Tommy John surgery a month later, and will be out until next year.

This isn’t the first time that the ace starter and elite closer have been linked, of course. They were both signed as part of the Blue Jays big splash following the 2005 season, and they both received two of the largest contracts that offseason dished out. The Blue Jays signed the talented and young (he was 28 years old) Burnett for 5 years and $55 million. The same rationale was used to justify the five-year, $47 million contract to Ryan, despite a grand total of 42 saves at the time.

This year, those two players represent $21 million of the Blue Jays (approximate) $81 million payroll, but really, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. After all, the Jays have a similar commitment to each of them through the next three years. Given the state of the Blue Jays current minor league system, and the age of some of their better players, it’s also increasingly unlikely that either will be part of a post season run, even if they do stay healthy.

So why are you reading about this on Twins blog?

Because at the end of next year, the Twins will have their own difficult decision to make about an ace starter and elite closer. Joe Nathan’s $6 million option year will conclude, and if he stay’s healthy, he’ll be the most successful closer to hit the free agent market since Billy Wagner signed his 4 year, $43 million deal. And Johan Santana, whose deal with the Twins ends at the same time, could be the most highly anticipated free agent to hit the market since Alex Rodriguez in 2000. You might recall that he signed a ten-year deal for a quarter of a billion dollars.

You might think that the italics in that last sentence were poorly placed. Indeed, what stands out to most people is the word ‘billion’, but it’s the duration of the contract that is more critical for pitchers. Because pitchers are far larger injury risks, which Blue Jays fans are finding out.

Twins fans will find that out soon, too. It’s popular right now for Twins fans or sports commentators to say that the Twins need to be willing to sign Santana to a $20 million deal, but the amount of money isn’t really the question. Terry Ryan hasn’t been afraid to commit money to a player for a single year, even if that player was Kyle Lohse, let alone a real talent like Santana.

No, the tough question is “For how long?”. Would you sign Santana to a seven-year deal through 2015? When he turns 36? Or Nathan to a four-year deal through his 38th birthday? Do you trust those elbows to say healthy that long? How about those labrums?

(And don’t look for an “insurance loophole”. First, because an injury that takes away five miles per hour from ace’s fastball isn’t significant enough to collect insurance. Second, the insurance for this kind of contract can jack it up a couple of million dollars more per year. And finally, insurance companies have become wise enough to not offer insurance for that length of a pitcher’s contract. That might tell you something all by itself.)

The other cliché you’ll hear right now concerning a long-term deal with Santana is that while he might be expensive, the Twins can’t afford to NOT sign him. That’s at least partially true. The Twins may have some other young talent to replace those innings, such as Francisco Liriano or Pat Neshek, but it would be devastating to watch Santana or Nathan find their way to the Yankees or Red Sox and block the Twins road to a third world championship.

But if you really want to see what a team can’t afford, imagine losing that talent AND 30% of the Twins mini-payroll because those arms are on the DL. The impact - and inevitability - of that devastating scenario is currently being illustrated by the wounded wings of some prized Blue Jays.

Twins Takes

Over on the GameDay Writers' Blog, we're playing around a little, and this week's challenge is to write a "Bloggers Minute", which is a rheotical piece that can hold an audience's interest, but still be around 200 words or less. I'm kicking it off (click the link) with a take on why Minnesotan sports fans are so down on the Twins. If you're interested in joining the fun, post a comment with your own 200 word take. I'd love to see what you got.


JimCrikket said...

Great (and timely) thoughts, John.

I'm among the people that feel Nathan is probably gone. I won't blame him for cashing in on a great run and at the same time, I just don't think the Twins can afford to pay a closer what the market dictates for a top guy. They've had success grooming the "next" top guy and Neshek seems to have that potential.

Santana is a much tougher call. It will be interesting to see what sort of deal he and his agent ask for (and hopefully they'll start the process this offseason). Signing a pitcher... ANY pitcher... for 6-7 years is simply a bad idea. I'd probably be willing to pay a few bucks more per year if you can get a year knocked off the length. Four years and I sign him, no problem... Six years, I wouldn't. It's that 5 year deal that makes me hesitate and I'm guessing that's going to be the magic number.

pogofan said...

I don't know if this is "out of the box" thinking, or just plain crazy...but if I were Terry Ryan, I'd be tempted to try something like this:

Get the agents for Hunter, Cuddyer, Morneau, and Santana (or better yet, the agents and the players themselves) in the room at the same time. Tell them, "Your clients, plus Joe Mauer who's already under contract for years to come, are the core of the Twins. We want to keep this group together as long as we can. What we can't afford to do is pay big salaries to players who aren't healthy enough to play.

"So here's our idea. First, we'll tell you how much money we think we have to spend on your four clients over the next five years, and we'll give you a summary of the revenue projections and cost projections that got us to that number. That way, when we discuss offers with you individually, you'll have a sense for how much of the total we're talking about.

"Second, the offers won't be Yankee-level or Red Sox-level, by any means, but they'll be good offers--probably better than you were expecting from us. But to allow us to make offers that good, we'll need to include a catch: a clause that lets us buy out the contract for 10% of the remaining value if the player plays in fewer than X games the year before (or in Johan's case, makes fewer than Y starts).

"On the plus side, there will also be a clause that adds 10% to the salaries if attendance exceeded XX,000 the year before, or 20% if it exceded YY,000. So if we end up having more money than we expected, we'll share that with you.

"The point of all this is that we're trying to put as much money on the table as we can to keep this core group together. If your clients are looking for the most security they can get, they'll need to go elsewhere. But if it's worth it to them to accept some more risk to stay together on a winning Twins team, we want to make it as attractive as possible to do that."

So...out of the box, or just crazy?

pogofan said...

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, the reason I didn't include Nathan in the above scenario is because I agree with you, John, that the closer market is out of whack and that Nathan is not someone the Twins should try to squeeze into their budget. Sorry for not mentioning that the first time.

John said...

I think that's a totally reasonable suggestion, but there is no way the players (and possibly their union) accept it. It's essentially asking a small group of players to give up their collectively bargained benefit of a guaranteed contract, and there is no way any individual or group of players loses that.


RegularJoe said...

Well pogofan, I second what John said. That's a great idea, unless you're one of those players, in which case it's completely insane. Think of it this way: If your employer told you they were willing to offer you a below-market contract, if only you'd be willing to risk millions of dollars in salary that they wouldn't pay you in the event you were injured doing your job, what do you think you'd tell them?