Thursday, December 30, 2010

Dangerous Game

Let’s cover a little Major League news, and then we’ll get down to what matters – the Twins. But first, let’s talk about a game show.

The Game Show
Have you seen “Deal or No Deal?” It’s a game show where there are something like 20 locked cases, each containing a dollar amount from $1 to $1,000,000. Those amounts are all listed on a big board. You pick one case, but you can’t open it. Instead you slowly open the other cases to see the amount of money you DIDN’T win.

That’s the "show" part.

The "game" is that a banker is watching you open these other cases and trying to buy away the case you picked. So, say you get down to the last five cases and know that yours holds one of these five remaining amounts: $1, $5, $10, $100,000 and $1,000,000. The banker offers you a deal of $170,000 for your case. Do you take it, or do you open another case? Deal or no deal?

There are always wrong decisions, but it becomes downright painful when they are strung together. For instance, say you turn down the deal above, open a different case – and it’s the $1,000,000 case. Now yours is just one of four cases, and the amounts are either $1, $5, $10 or $100,000. The banker only offers about $20,000 for your case.

Host Howie Mandel tries to put a positive spin on it – “you could still win $100,000” – but that’s a disaster, right? Five minutes ago your case was worth $150,000 more than it is now. You’ll never recoup that money. But it becomes a real car crash if you turn down that deal and the next case you open is $100,000. Now the banker is generously offering you $5 as the camera zooms in on your spouse who is lying on the floor of the studio audience like a wet noodle.

Doesn’t that sound like fun? No? Well, think about that when you gripe about all these MLB free agents and their representatives, because the experience is similar.

Major League News
In the free agency market, sometimes the offer from the banker is generous early. That’s how players like Jayson Werth or Cliff Lee find their deals. But when that doesn’t happen, the agent and Deal contestants often share a trait – they keep rejecting deals, hoping their luck will change.

If you watch “Deal” often, you can see this behavior all the time. As the breaks go against a contestant, they become more and more desperate to turn things around. It’s a natural reaction. They want to get back to where they “were.” They feel like they lost money and make suspect decisions to try and get back there.

There are four free agents who are in similar situations to those contestants. Yesterday it was reported that one of them, third baseman Adrian Beltre, had lost a suitor in the Oakland Athletics. That is one less case with decent money in it. It isn’t the first he lost.

Beltre was reported to have offers from the A’s and Red Sox that he turned down. The A’s are now going to spend money elsewhere. The Red Sox seem to be out of the market now that they have traded for Adrian Gonzalez (moving Kevin Youkilis to third base).

Beltre was also reported to have had an offer from the Angels that they have since withdrawn. The Angels seem like the only really good option for Beltre, but their offer guaranteed about $20 million less than he and agent Scott Boras expected.

Odds are this will play out fine for both Beltre and the Angels. They seem like a natural fit for each other and Beltre’s “no deal” stance is clearly a negotiating ploy. But the Halos have the freedom to look at another option, like trading for an inferior player while they spend their money on something else. Then that case would be gone for Beltre, too.

So then what happens?

Dangerous Game
For what happens next, Beltre just needs to dial up one of Boras’ other clients: Jarrod Washburn.

Washburn said “no deal” last year to the Twins, reportedly turning down a contract offer early in the offseason. He thought he would get a better deal. After all, he had been excellent for most of 2009, posting a 2.73 ERA with Seattle before a knee injury inflated the mark by a run after a trade to Detroit.

But the offers he received never came close enough to his expectations. And eventually, the cases dried up. He didn’t play in the majors or minors in 2010. Last we heard in November, he was interested in a “comeback” in 2011. But his comeback wouldn’t be from injury or poor play, just from turning down deals.

Washburn wasn’t the only cautionary tale. There was also Jermaine Dye, who reportedly received several offers even late into spring training. He also didn’t think they were commensurate with the 27 home runs and 81 RBI he was responsible for in 2009. He also wants to return though he “won’t do a minor league deal.”

There is no guarantee that either player will get another shot, which is remarkable considering the stats they put up in their last years in the majors. Their sin? Waiting too long to make a deal. Trying to get back to where they “were.”

The Twins
That’s an opportunity that a savvy organization might find value. Both players are great fits for the Twins. For pennies on the dollar the Twins could sign their sixth starter - a southpaw whose fly ball tendencies won’t hurt him in Target Field. They could add their power bench bat, who would be right-handed and able hobble around in a tiny right field in a pinch. Combined, the two players would likely cost about what the Twins paid Nick Punto last year.

That isn’t a half bad idea. But it’s not the point of this story. Because that’s not the only way this game show affects the Twins. Before the Twins sign anyone, they seem intent on waiting for Carl Pavano to find his deal.

Pavano is one of the four free agents I mentioned above, and the game has not gone well for him either. Initially expecting to sign a 3-year $30+ million deal, his cases with the big money have been disappearing. First his "Type A" price tag scared away plenty of teams. Then the Brewers pulled out when they signed Zach Greinke. The Rangers have apparently acquired Brandon Webb. The Nationals have less money to spend after their contract for Werth and seem determined to stick with a one-year deal for The ‘Stache.

Suddenly, it isn’t clear that anyone is willing to give Pavano the years or the money that he desires, let alone the draft pick they need to give to the Twins. He seems to have one case left – the Twins.

Or does he? The Twins have spent the last few years trying to infuse talent into their minor leagues with international signings and trades. Do they really want to give up two high draft picks? Not to mention spend $7-10M that could be spent on other needs? How sure are we that what we’re hearing about the Twins interest from the front office instead of the coaching staff? Or Pavano's agent?

And if the Twins do take away their case? Then Pavano really has a problem. Because he’s saddled with something that even Dye and Washburn weren’t – that high draft pick the signing team needs to give up. Is a team that is marginally interested in him – say Pittsburgh is willing to offer 2 years and $14 million – going to be willing to give up their second round pick for the privilege of paying him that? If not, any deal needs to go through the Twins.

There is a lot of concern out there about the Twins inactivity. The concern isn’t about their pace as much as it is a fear that the Twins just won’t do much.

The hard truth is that they probably won't. I can publish the payroll crunching next week, but it looks like the Twins are going to top out around $110-$115 million in payroll. As you’ve seen here several times, that didn’t allow for much offseason maneuvering. And now it would leave them with only $3-$8M left they can spend.

And so they are also pressing the “no deal” button, waiting for the right case full of talent to appear. It’s a strategy that seems to have worked so far. But like Beltre, Pavano, Washburn, Dye and the unemployed plumber from last night’s game show, they need to be careful not to wait too long.