Friday, January 18, 2008

Don't Deal

Ever since Torii was signed away by the Angels (for absurdly too much money - good luck LAA), I've felt that, for PR reasons, the Twins had no choice but to either get front-line, MLB-ready players for Santana, or re-sign him. Like most in the blogosphere, I've anxiously looked for the bids to increase. But it's become increasingly clear that the best offers are, at least as far as the off-season is concerned, already on the table.

The only three teams in the running, the Mets, Yankees, and Red Sox, are competitive in their current forms. While all could benefit from adding Santana to the rotation, they could also benefit from keeping their MLB-ready youngsters in the fold for the coming years. I don't think it's so much the size of the contract extension that stops them from upping their offers. It's the fact that, if they wait the Twins out, they'll have an opportunity to sign Santana to a mega-contract next season, while still having their Ellsburys/Gomezes/Hugheses contributing to their success this year and beyond. If he were signed for 3+ years, I think they'd up their offers substantially. But, things being as they are, this is probably as good as it gets.

Good enough? Clearly not, or a deal would have happened by now.

Meanwhile, the team has signed a few low-rent veterans, and agreed to 1-year deals with Kubel and Morneau (the organization is apparently in wait-and-see mode with those two, perhaps wondering if either can put together a complete season that reflects their potential). So at this point, there is not only a huge payroll surplus available for 2008, but there is very little money committed for 2009 and beyond. And that means that there is absolutely no short-term financial obstacle to paying Santana $20 million a year for the next couple of years.

Of course, the team has already offered to pay him $93 million over the next 5 seasons. They wouldn't have made that offer if they didn't think they could afford it. They also wouldn't have made it if it was the most they thought they could afford. Nobody who understands markets or negotiation opens with their best offer - what if the player would have accepted less? And no player in a solid bargaining position (as Santana is, considering his worst season so far was still good enough for an ERA a full run below the park-adjusted league average and 5th in Cy Young voting) would accept a team's opening offer - what if they would have paid more?

The Twins can afford to pay more than $93 million over 5 years, and Bill Smith, Santana, and his agent Mr. Greenberg all know it.

So far, the negotiation has progressed like this:

Smith: Hey Johan, you're pretty awesome. We'd like to offer you an extension of $20 million/year for four years.

Santana: Thanks, Bill, that's nice of you. But I'd rather get $20 million/year for 7 years.

Smith: Wow, that's a lot of years Johan! And we have a ton of holes to fill in the lineup, let me see if I can fill them all by trading you...

Many weeks have passed, and the number of holes has been reduced to one: Center field. The Twins have some options in the minors, but none is a slam dunk to start this spring. However, if the Twins trade Santana for a young CF, they will create a different hole that will be much more difficult to fill: #1 starter. Not just on the team. In the whole sport.

Now is when the negotiation should resume:

Smith: Hi again Johan! I know we haven't spoken in a while, but I've been thinking about you a lot! I know you asked for $20 million/year for 7 years. How about 5?

Santana (Using the bargaining skills he learned in the markets of Venezuela): I've never been so insulted in my life! Could you do 6?

Smith: How about 5 and a $6.75 million signing bonus that makes your total salary for 2008 $20 million?

Santana: That would effectively give me a 6-year, $120 million contract. But Zito got $126 million!

Smith: Actually, over the 7 years of Zito's contract (2007-2013), you'd make $133 million. That's a whole million dollars/year more!

Santana: Would that make me the highest paid pitcher ever?

Smith: In terms of total years & dollars, yes!

Santana: Let me sleep on it...

Would he take it? I bet he would. But could the Twins afford it?

Well, if a slightly above-average pitcher like Silva can get $12 million/year now, I wouldn't be surprised if a similar pitcher makes $15-$16 million by 2013. Santana's $20 million wouldn't be outlandishly more than that. And, as revenues increase and the new stadium opens, the payroll the team can sustain should go up accordingly. Meaning that $20 million in 2013 would be less expensive to the Twins than it would be in 2012. Certainly there's a risk that he will decline or get injured, but for a player as special as he is, I think it's worth the risk.

The other important factor to consider is that to trade him now for an underwhelming return would really take the wind out of the team's sails. Part of what made the 2006 season so thrilling was a competitive team that also contained the MVP, batting champ, Cy Young, and almost ROY. Though Hunter is gone, all of those players remain. The marketing department should be able to sell the possibility that the glory of 2006 will return with the new additions Smith has brought in so far. But not without Santana. Not with a payroll that is surpassed by the Royals. Attendance would drop, and the incentive for people to line up seats at the new stadium would diminish. That would cost the Twins a lot of money. Maybe $20 million?

It's been heartening to see others coming around to this line of thinking recently. First it was Buster Olney. Then Howard Sinker, supported by some excellent reasoning from Jim Crikket. And then Dugout Central chimed in.

Hopefully this represents a change in attitude that will also be reflected in the mind of Bill Smith. With Santana at the top of the rotation, improved production from the offense, the bullpen as solid as ever, and a hopefully resilient Fransisco Liriano, the Twins should be able to hold their own in a very tough AL Central.

And, as a fan, that's all I can really ask for.

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