The Twins got certain answers to 2 of the lingering questions of spring training: Will Joe Nathan need TJS and be lost for the season? Yes. Will Joe Mauer sign a long-term contract extension? Yes.
I don't think the timing of the 2 announcements was a coincidence. We've known for a couple weeks that Nathan would have his desperation catch session with Rick Anderson sometime this weekend. The off day on Monday - the last of the spring - offered the perfect opportunity to hold a press conference and make the Mauer signing the focus of the day. I wouldn't be surprised if Mauer and the Twins have had the contract all but finalized for several days, waiting for the final word on Nathan. Mauer's contract buries what would have been a bummer headline about Nathan, and ensures that the fans and the team keep an upbeat feeling heading into the final week of March.
While the Twins will undoubtedly miss Nathan in what otherwise appears to be the makings of a championship roster, his loss doesn't mean the team is destined for failure. Nathan's career save conversion rate is about 91%; the average closer is around 85%. Without him, the Twins will have an 85% chance of winning any games they're leading by 3 or fewer runs after 8 innings. We're talking about a difference of 2-3 wins if things go as expected. (And it's certainly possible that the substitute closer could have a good/lucky season and match Nathan's efficiency). Though 2-3 wins was significant in the AL Central the last couple of seasons, I think the Twins should have a decent cushion this year - I'll go into that in more depth tomorrow.
The talk of having Francisco Liriano take over as closer hasn't stopped yet, and it really needs to. Pitchers go to the bullpen only after they show that they can't cut it as starters. Despite his troubles last year, Liriano still has the stuff to excel in the rotation. If he struggles over his first 10-12 starts this year, OK, you can try him in the bullpen, a la Boof Bonser in 2008. But the drop off from Liriano's ceiling as a starter to Duensing's or Maroth's ceiling is enormous - far greater than the difference between Nathan and Rauch or Neshek.
June should be a good time to assess how will Nathan's fill-in is doing. By then, everyone should have a good idea of how well Neshek has recovered from his TJS, which Jesse Crain has shown up for 2010, and whether Anthony Slama has the potential to be an Andrew Bailey-type rookie closer. If the internal options don't look good, the Twins can trade for somebody over the summer, when several flailing teams will likely be looking to maximize the value of veteran relievers.
As for Mauer, it's an almost revolutionary moment for baseball. For a mid-market team like the Twins to be able to retain one of the game's biggest stars and offer the 4th richest contract in history shows that it's no longer a foregone conclusion that the best players must eventually trickle down to the Yankees or Red Sox. 8 years, $184M is a ton of money, but it appears to be in keeping with Mauer's present value. I haven't seen the details of the contract yet, but Joe C. says it's going to be a straight up $23M per year. I would have liked to have seen it structured more like this:
2010: $5M signing bonus (making his effective salary $17.5M - they could use some of Nathan's insurance money for this)
2019: $25M option or $5M buyout
That comes out to $184M guaranteed, with the signing bonus and buyout helping to defer $10M outside the guaranteed years of the deal. I like this structure because, if you assume that the revenues from Target Field will enable the Twins to continue to make modest increases in their payroll each year, Mauer's contract, though enormous, doesn't have to take up even 20% of the total. That should enable the Twins to continue to assemble a strong supporting cast around him, particularly if the organization continues its good player development habits.
At $23M/year, the rest of the roster can still be good, but there won't be any Orlando Hudsons or Carl Pavanos or Jim Thomes in 2011. This makes it all the more critical for the Twins to use their prospect surpluses to fill those positional gaps with elite, cheap talent. Wilson Ramos is now officially expendable. Trade him for a four or five star SP prospect who's already in the high minors. Now you've got somebody to take over Pavano's rotation spot for the league minimum. Denard Span's extension makes Ben Revere redundant. Trade him for a 2B to take over for Hudson next year. The Twins will still have to manage the rest of their roster the same way they have in recent years. They've been successful, and they can continue to be.
The downside of this deal is the length. As a catcher, Mauer is likely to experience some significant decline once he hits his 30s, and this contract guarantees him a lot of money through his age 35 season. The lesson to other small franchises across baseball should be not only that they can retain their stars, but that they should be proactive about locking them up well in advance of free agency. Had the Twins approached Mauer last spring, while he was trying to work his way back onto the field, I have no doubt that he would have signed a 4-year extension for about $14M/year, maybe with a signing bonus and an option for 2015. 4 years, $62M with a $16M option or $2M buyout, combined with the 2 years, $23M remaining on his existing contract, would have the potential to result in 7 years and $99M, the longest, richest contract ever offered a catcher. A rehabbing, pre-MVP Mauer would have taken that, and the Twins would have saved themselves 4 years and $120M of risk.