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.
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.