Now that The Big Trade didn’t materialize, and Johan Santana remains a Minnesota Twin — though that could change in the next hour, day, week, or month — what should the Twins do?
Here’s a hint: Pry Carl Pohlad’s bony fingers off the safe and act like the contenders they claim to be.
General manager Bill Smith still has two months to improve his team before spring training — which is fortunate, because the roster he left the winter meetings with has fourth place in the AL Central written all over it.
For the moment, the Twins have no center fielder, no shortstop, no third baseman, no leadoff hitter, no No. 2 hitter, and no DH. Meanwhile, the Tigers left Nashville better, the Indians are still formidable, and even the Royals are better. Even with Santana, the Twins appear one big injury away from finishing last. By August, the loudest sound in the Metrodome might be mice scampering across a barren grandstand, chasing stale Dome Dog rolls.
Twins still have time to pull things together
There’s still plenty of time for Smith and Co. to prevent that, however, and in the process do something that seems impossible — persuading Santana to stay for less than Barry Zito money.
First, Twins executives have to stop their greedy-ballplayer whispering campaign and be truthful with themselves. Santana wants out not because he demands an obscene pile of money, but because the Twins refuse to do what every other team in their division has done to remain competitive. With a new stadium coming in 2010 — a stadium the Twins told us for years they needed to keep pace financially, one largely financed by taxpayers — why the tight-fistedness?
By dumping Luis Castillo, Jeff Cirillo and Ramon Ortiz to save a little more than $3 million in salary, the Twins acted like a small-market team when they really aren’t anymore. Their $71 million payroll, give or take a million, ranked 19th among Major League Baseball’s 30 teams and third in their division, behind Detroit and Chicago. The Twins receive about $20 million in revenue sharing.
Put it this way: If the Twins could offer Santana $80 million for four years, knowing the arbitration commitments due Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer, revenue isn’t the issue.
So, if Santana isn’t dealt right away, what next? First, tighten the defense. Any team relying on pitching, as the Twins appear to be, better have great gloves behind them.
Here’s one way to impress Santana
Aaron Rowand isn’t Torii Hunter, but he’s the best free agent center fielder left, a Gold Glove winner who can lead off. If it takes backloading a five-year contract to coincide with the stadium opening to get him, or deferring money, do it. That will shock everyone in baseball, and get Santana’s attention.
At third base, the Twins have long coveted Hank Blalock, a two-time All-Star who missed most of last season with a nerve problem that required surgeons to remove a rib. He’s due $5.95 million next year. Texas may be reluctant to part with him — he came back in September to hit .313 with five homers and 17 RBI — but the Rangers need pitching.
The DH could be switch-hitting free agent Tony Clark, the ex-Tiger and Yankee who hit eight pinch-homers the last three years for Arizona. He is a career .322 hitter at the Metrodome, and made a little more than $1 million last year. Fill those holes, and the Twins could live with the light-hitting but defensively sound Nick Punto at shortstop.
Then, the Twins must sign Morneau and Cuddyer long-term. If the Indians can lock up their important guys, with a payroll $10 million less than Minnesota’s, the Twins can find a way, too. That’s up to the Pohlad family, which can take a lesson from Zygi Wilf and the Vikings.
Twice now, Wilf and his partners have gone into their pockets to upgrade facilities and put cash into the franchise. Wilf’s net worth has been tough to pinpoint, but we know Carl Pohlad’s — $3.1 billion, making him the second-richest Minnesotan on the most recent Forbes Magazine list of the 400 richest Americans, and 114th nationally.
It’s not certain that the Yankees, Mets, Red Sox or anyone else will give Santana the seven-year, $126 million deal he reportedly seeks, and the Twins shouldn’t either. Anything more than four is insane for a pitcher, especially one with as slight a build as Santana.
If the big market teams back off and Smith strengthens the roster, maybe Santana reconsiders. Even if he doesn’t, the Twins at least will have shown Morneau, Cuddyer and their pitchers the front office truly cares about winning now, as well as three years from now. That’s something you can’t put a price on.