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Twins “All In” for 2012?

The Minnesota Twins have had a brutal 2011 season, to say the least. After winning the American League Central in both 2009 and 2010, they have plummeted into a tie for last with the Royals at the moment. There have been number of factors in the Twins’ collapse this season, from Joe Nathan‘s injury to Tsuyoshi Nishioka‘s injury followed by awful performance to Francisco Liriano‘s control problems and more, but none loom larger than the injuries to Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. Many observers have understandably concluded that it might be time for the Twins to “blow it up.” However, in his Friday column for ESPN Insider (summarized for non-subscribers here), Buster Olney reports that the Twins aren’t necessarily going to hit the reset button. While that does not necessarily back up the “All In” in the title of Olney’s column, that the Twins are even considering doing such a thing is intriguing.

A full diagnosis of the 2011 Twins and a prognosis for 2012 will have to wait until after the season. At the moment, I simply want to offer a few reflections in light of Olney’s report. Why might the Twins think they can go for it in 2012?

One reasons the Twins might want to go all-in in 2012 is that the American League Central just isn’t all that tough. The White Sox also had plenty of things go wrong this season, and they are heavily burdened by the big contracts of Alex Rios, Adam Dunn, and Jake Peavy, and don’t have much youth to fill those gaps. While Cleveland had a nice run this season, injury concerns going forward and rotation depth after Ubaldo Jimenez and Justin Masterson is questionable. The Royals have a nice group of young position players, but their minor league pitching hasn’t developed as the same pace. The Tigers also have some holes to fill.

However, while every team does have considerable problems, that probably won’t be enough by itself for the Twins to work themselves back into a contention. After all, all of the mentioned issues were present for the other teams this season and the Twins are still tied for last. The Tigers, in particular, are shedding some big contracts which might allow them to fill some more holes, and Jacob Turner should bolster their rotation from the minors. The other teams aren’t necessarily going to sit still in the off-season either, and Kansas City and (to a lesser extent) Cleveland have a number of younger players who can be expected to play better in 2012. The Twins are clearly going to have to make improvements on their end if they want to make a run of it next eason.

But that is the problem: where to start? The Twins have a good bit of money coming off of the books in the off-season, but it isn’t clear that it will be enough to fill all the holes they will have, especially in a thin free-agent market. Moreover, regression back toward the mean can only take a bad team so far. To skim the surface: Minnesota has some decent pitching, but only Scott Baker is both under contract and looks like a potential above-average pitcher for 2012, and he’s dealt with injury problems each of the last two seasons. They have a club option for Joe Nathan, but after a disaster 2011, do they really want to bring him back at $12.5 million in 2012?

The position player stable is just as troubling. While Alexi Casilla might now be a credible middle infielder, Nishioka may not be, and there doesn’t seem to be immediate help in the minors. Danny Valencia has regressed back to something fairly close to his (low) true talent level. If they don’t re-sign the likely-to-be-overpaid-in-free-agency Michael Cuddyer, the outfield of Denard Span (coming off of an injury), Jason Kubel (gives away his decent offensive production with the glove) and Ben Revere (can’t hit) is hardly imposing. And so it goes with everyone except the “special cases”: Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau.

Mauer and Morneau are, of course, the crux of the biscuit. Their injuries were the biggest factor (or factors) in the Twins’ 2011 collapse. But their salaries relative to expected performance are probably the biggest reason why the Twins can’t just hit the reset button. Leaving aside fan perception, no trade clauses, and the like for the sake of simplicity, Morneau and Mauer are the only veterans (aside from perhaps Scott Baker, but for reasons stated below, the Morneau and Mauer issue is bigger) the Twins possess that could potentially bring back substantial value for a team looking to the future, at least in the abstract. The problem is that at this point, it isn’t clear that they would even bring back much value if the Twins could bring themselves to trade them. Morneau’s six-year, $80 million contract was questioned at the time it was signed, but through his monster (and foreshortened) 2010 season, it looked like it was working out well. However, the concussion that ended his 2010 season also means he only played in 69 games in 2011, and was brutally ineffective when he did play. He is owed $24 million over the next two seasons, which wouldn’t necessarily be that bad apart from the injury situation. But would anyone want to give up anything substantial for the risk Morneau would present at this point? It’s a concussion, and no amount of off-season working out and good intentions on the part of Morneau are going to have the final word on his return and future performance. He might be fine, he might not. Concussions are scary.

After his incredible 2009 performance, Joe Mauer gave the Twins a hometown discount premium with an eight-year, $184 million contract starting in 2011. In 2010, the season before the new contract actually began (2010), he put up an excellent 5.6 WAR. With the new contract commencing in 2012, Mauer has been hurt, missed about half the season, and has also been relatively ineffective when he has played. He wasn’t as bad as Morneau in 2012, so despite the disturbing lack of power (even by Mauer’s non-2009 levels), it is still likely that he’s a good hitter. However, even with his reported commitment to a new off-season workout regimen (which sounds more like “hey, I’m not going to have off-season surgery this year, so I’ll be able to work out more”), what team is going to want to give up something substantial to take a chance on the remaining seven years at $23 million per year at this point? At the time the deal was signed, it looked pretty fair: that is, not really favoring the team or the player from the perspective of expected performance relative to salary. Another way of looking at it would be that at the time there seemed to be about an equal chance that the Twins would do well or do badly in the end. At this point, it is looking more like the latter. Even leaving Mauer’s no-trade clause aside, the contract means that he wouldn’t have brought back that much straight up by itself, and after the injury, he’d be unlikely to bring back much in the way of building blocks for the future. Not until he proves he’s healthy, can hit at something like his old rate, and can play catcher full-time, at least. The Twins took what might have seemed like a reasonable gamble. There’s still time left to play, but at this point, with the happy “hometown boy sticks around” aura worn off, the Mauer contract isn’t looking so great.

To sum it all up, if the Twins really are going to try to go “all in” for 2012, it is less because of the potential of their team to contend, and more because that the two biggest contracts on their team aren’t going anywhere, at least not in a way that would speed up a rebuilding program. Stranger things have happened (just ask Tony Reagins and Alex Anthopolous), but things look like they might get get a fair bit worse before they get better in Minnesota.