Monday, July 9, 2007

The Case for Keeping Torii

I've read a lot in recent weeks about how there's no way the Twins can keep Torii Hunter after this season. ESPN has predicted he'll command at least $75 million over five years on his next contract. While I don't think the Twins should spend that kind of money on him - after all, he'll be 37 years old in 5 years, and almost certainly in physical decline - they should absolute make him at least a four-year offer averaging 8 figures per year. And even though Torii will almost certainly be able to get those extra years and dollars from another team, it's in his long-term best interest to stay in Minnesota.

People are used to the Twins shedding their high-profile players once they reach the vintage at which they can command huge contracts. But the team has found ways to retain productive players, though they take up a huge percentage of the payroll. Brad Radke played his entire career with the Twins, even though his $10.75M salary in 2004 represented almost 25% of the team's total payroll. Radke's final contract (2 years, $9mil/per) was certainly less than he might have commanded on the open market.

The Twins' payroll has been increasing steadily throughout this decade, and, with a new stadium opening in 2010, there's no reason for this trend to stop. The payroll has tripled over the past seven seasons, from about $24M in 2001, to $71.5M this year. Attendance has been increasing as well - this year the Twins are likely to draw well over 2 million fans, possibly one of the five best years of attendance in team history. The new stadium is certain to sell out its first year, and, if the Twins keep a winning team together, many years after that as well. By keeping the same average yearly payroll increase they've sustained for the last 6 years (about 8M per year), the team should arrive at a payroll of about $95M in the stadium's first year.

Some people will say that a small market team can't have mulitple players with 8 figure salaries. But look at it proportionally: what amount of the total payroll is given to the team's top players? I compared the combined salaries of the Twins' 6 highest paid players with the total team payroll for each of the last seven seasons. That top six has always earned well over 50% of the whole, usually 65-70%. With a 95M payroll in 2010, that would allow for, potentially, six 8-figure players. But, because minimum salaries aren't increasing at the same rate as the Twins payroll, they could conceivably fill out the remainder of the roster for a lower percentage than they have in the past. In 2004 and 2005, the balance of the roster was filled for about 16M; in 2006 it was about 20M. The Twins should continue to use their small market ingnuity and deep farm system to keep those sorts of numbers in line, allowing even a little more money for the superstars.

See, even though the Twins were consistent winners from 2001-2005, the attendance figures didn't really take off until 2006. That's when Mauer and Morneau emerged as ligitimate superstars. The team is much more valuable with superstars on the field every night. But the home-grown superstars are even more valuable than free agents, because the fans have grown with those players and developed a pride in knowing them as Twins. Players like that are worth even more than their contributions on the field. Keeping those players in a Twins uniform throughout their careers will pay off in greater fan loyalty, and more dollars spent on the team.

The players the Twins must have in the lineup for the opening day of the stadium in 2010 are Santana, Mauer, Morneau, Cuddyer, and Hunter. The first three have Hall-of-Fame potential, and it's a big boost for the fans to have those types of players on the team, not just for what they do every day, but for the historic numbers they can accumulate over their careers. Cuddyer is a solid, if unspectacular player, and should be reasonably affordable and productive for several more years. And Hunter, though his best years will most likely be behind him, should be there, as a living bridge back to the hard years of the late nineties, to threats to move the team and contraction. He will be the one player long-time fans can recognize as having earned the pleasure and security of that new stadium as much as they have.

And I expect him to be productive between now and then, as well. He's shown a maturity at the plate over the last season and a half that was missing up to that point, despite all his tools. Now, he looks like he can be a 30 homer, 100 RBI guy, with a terrific OPS and gold-glove defense. Plus, he's a catalyst in the clubhouse, and a wonderful representative of the team and baseball.

Also, he's not replaceable at the moment. It was easy to let Jones, Pierzynski and Mientkiewicz go - we had Cuddyer, Mauer, and Morneau to fill their shoes for less money. Frankly, much better players. But there is nobody in the Twins system who can do anything close to what Torii can, no remotely comparable package of power, baserunning, and defense. I can see the Twins choosing not to re-sign Castillo or Silva - after all, they've got minimum wage replacements at Rochester, ready to do just about as well. But Torii is the best available CF in the organization, by far.

So Terry Ryan must make him an offer, something like 4 years, $50M. That would keep Torii's average salary just about where it is now, around $12.5M a year. That figure feels about right for the sort of numbers he's putting up these days. Even as his numbers possibly decline as he reaches his mid-thirties, his experience and stature are deserving of that level of compensation. But, as the team's total payroll would go up, Torii's proportion of it would go down. So it would actually be easier to keep him on the team as the years went by.

Why should Torii accept at least $3M a year less than he could get from another team? Because the Twins are consistent winners, and with the young talent they have on the roster now and throughout the organization, there's no reason to think they won't be competitive in each of the next four years. With the Twins, he'll be even more beloved by the fans than he already is, because he'll have shown them the same loyalty they saw from Puckett and Radke. He'll have the opportunity to be the first CF to play in a brand new ballpark. And, if he continues to put up numbers for four more years at the rate he has the past few years, number 48 will be hanging in that ballpark one day. That's a package no other team can provide him, and I would hope that it's worth at least $3M a year to him.

And for crying out loud, if he wants a No-trade clause, give it to him.

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