COMMENTARY | On Sept. 30, the Minnesota Twins began a pivotal offseason by signing manager Ron Gardenhire to a two-year contract. Now they need to reward their loyal fans by giving him some actual major league players to manage.
If you haven't been paying attention to the last 27 years, you might have been surprised by the return of Gardenhire after another dismal season. However, the Twins are the most loyal and stable organization in baseball and pretty much all of professional sports. They've had just two managers since September of 1986, which was the last time a manager was fired by the Twins.
It's hard to argue against the results. The Twins have had some very bad seasons in that time, but Gardenhire has won more division titles than any manager in team history, and his predecessor, Tom Kelly, was the manager for the Twins' only two World Series championships.
So, this decision should not be surprising. That it wasn't a foregone conclusion shows just how bad the Twins have been the last three seasons, which was the worst three-year stretch in team history.
Now the Twins have more important decisions, such as the direction of the franchise. Last year, the Twins tried to bring in some veterans on the cheap, but that just did not work.
The Twins have two other options. They could choose one that most teams would do after losing at least 96 games in three consecutive seasons and while having one of the best minor league systems in the game. They could go into rebuild mode by going young.
They could let Miguel Sano, Kyle Gibson, Alex Meyer, Trevor May and Josmil Pinto all start the season in the major leagues, and then hope that Byron Buxton is ready to make his debut by midseason. They also could let Alex Presley and Aaron Hicks battle for the starting center field job in spring training.
A team like that might lose 100 games or more, but it certainly be more fun to watch than watching other teams' castoffs languish through a losing season, such as what happened in 2013.
On the other hand, the Twins are in a great financial position now thanks to the contracts of Justin Morneau, Mike Pelfrey and Nick Blackburn coming off the books. That's a savings of about $19 million coming out of a payroll that was already low at about $82 million in 2013.
The Twins were at about $113 million in 2011, so they already are more than $30 million less than their highest payroll even as salaries continue to slowly trend higher. If the Twins were willing to get back to that payroll, that would give them an unprecedented $50 million to spend. And it's not like the Twins have to worry about 2015, either. The only players under contract that year are Joe Mauer and Glen Perkins, and neither one will get an increase in pay.
The Twins were coming off consecutive division titles in 2011 and had basically sold out Target Field in its first season in 2010, so the Twins had plenty of reasons to keep their highest payroll in team history. That's not the case for 2014, so it wouldn't be reasonable to expect the team to return the payroll to that level.
However, the Twins had a payroll of about $100 million in both 2010 and 2012, so getting back to that level shouldn't be unexpected. In fact, Twins fans have a right to demand that the Twins get the payroll at least close to that level.
This is because of the amazing support by the fans during the team's struggles. The Twins were 23rd out of 30 teams in payroll in the major leagues, but finished 17th in attendance at more than 30,000 fans per game.
The Twins had better attendance than the Pittsburgh Pirates, Oakland Athletics, Cleveland Indians and Tampa Bay Rays, who all made the playoffs. The Twins also had better attendance than large-market teams, such as the New York Mets and the Chicago White Sox.
Prior to Target Field, the Twins hadn't averaged more than 30,000 fans per game since 1992, the year after the Twins last won the World Series.
It seems likely that the Twins were expecting a bigger dip in attendance after consecutive bad seasons and the new-ballpark smell starting to wear off Target Field. Now they have a better idea of what to plan for in 2014, plus they can dangle the carrot of priority for All-Star game tickets to encourage season-ticket sales since the Twins are hosting the 2014 All-Star game.
The Twins are also expected to receive an additional $25 million or so in national TV revenue. It's hard to see the Twins throwing all of that in payroll, but, if they just do half, then they could be back up to the 2011 payroll without much problem.
Owner Jim Pohlad has told local media he's willing to raise the payroll from what it was in 2013 and go after free agents. I hope he's told general manager Terry Ryan the same thing because it's time for this team to put its money where its mouth is.
Darin McGilvra has been a professional sportswriter since 1997 and has been a Twins follower since Kirby Puckett's breakout season of 1986. He has been published in The Californian, a newspaper covering Riverside County, and numerous other websites.
Follow Darin on Twitter at @SoCalTwinsfan.
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