Commentary

Twins perfect the art of spending

Updated: January 11, 2010, 11:43 AM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

Mauer/MorneauTom Dahlin/Getty ImagesAfter years of unrecognizable names, the Twins have a pair of stars in Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau.

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After nearly three decades in the Metrodome, the Twins moved to their new home at Target Field over the holidays. General manager Bill Smith had the choice of an office overlooking the field or one on the opposite side that looks to the northwest. He chose the office without the field view because it had more functional workspace.

That's the typical Twins approach. Function over flash. And it has served them well. The Twins are baseball's real Moneyball team. No one has done more with less.

Since 1991, the Twins have never ranked higher than 16th in team payroll (and only ranked that high in 1991). Yet only five teams (the Yankees, Braves, Red Sox, Cardinals and Indians) have been to the postseason more times in that span than Minnesota (six). The Twins have won a world championship and six division titles despite committing the third-lowest amount of money to free agents in the majors (only the Pirates and the Expos/Nationals have spent less). They have never committed more than $30 million to a free agent, and the only free agent to get $30 million was Kirby Puckett, and he was re-signing with them.

Gardenhire
Mark Cunningham/Getty ImagesRon Gardenhire's style of play, along with smart decision-making by the front office, has helped allow the Twins to play for titles despite a relatively low payroll.

The keys to success under those constraints, Smith said, "are stability and continuity. That starts with ownership. The Pohlad family has always pledged their support; they've never panicked. We've had real good teams and real bad teams. But they never panicked or overreacted to either extreme."

The Pohlad family has a tightwad reputation, but they are sharp enough to leave the baseball to the baseball people. They put good people in place and then leave them alone to do their jobs, with the one caveat that they don't keep asking for more money to sign players.

Since 1987, the Twins have had three general managers (Andy MacPhail, Terry Ryan and Smith), two managers (Tom Kelly and Ron Gardenhire), two club presidents (Jerry Bell and Dave St. Peter) four scouting directors (Ryan, Larry Corrigan, Mike Radcliff and Deron Johnson) and one farm director (Jim Rantz). Bullpen coach Rick Stelmaszek, entering his 30th year with the Twins, will be coaching in his third home ballpark with the team.

How stable are the Twins? Rantz has been with them since 1959, when they were the Washington Senators.

"Apart from ownership, there are four people who are most responsible for our baseball success," said Smith, who began as a minor league assistant with Minnesota in 1986. "Andy changed the way we operate as a baseball organization. Andy changed the way we did business; Terry continued that but also added his skill on the scouting side. Tom Kelly changed the way the Twins played baseball on the field, and Ron Gardenhire has put his imprint on the team and kept that style.

"The continuity we have enjoyed over 24 years is staggering in our industry."

Minnesota has committed $156 million to free agents since the 1990-91 offseason. That's less than New York committed just to CC Sabathia last winter, and less than one-tenth of what the Yankees have committed since 1991 ($1.76 billion). The Twins have signed only 11 free agents to multiyear contracts.

"There was a plan in the late '90s," Smith said. "We were trying to be competitive with some journeymen free agents and it wasn't working. We acknowledged it. Terry and Jim Pohlad sat down, and Jim said, 'This isn't working.' Jim asked about something and said, 'If it isn't working, why are we doing it, and what will make it work?' They talked about developing young players and pushing them through the system and letting them play. Terry warned it would be painful for a little bit, but Pohlad said, 'If it will work, let's do it.'"

Puckett
Mitchell Layton/Getty ImagesThe Twins committed as much as $30 million to a free agent only once -- and that was to keep one of their own, Kirby Puckett.

There are drawbacks to such austerity -- you trade away Johan Santana, for one -- but there is also one significant benefit. Because you never sign a big-name free agent, you never get burned with a big-name free agent's contract when he gets so fat he starts using real donuts on his bat in the on-deck circle. Still, it places a premium on developing your own players.

For a large chunk of the 1990s, the Twins did not -- the names Scott Stahoviak and Rich Becker still produce shudders -- but after being threatened with contraction in 2001, the Twins' system has produced two MVPs (Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau), along with five division titles and public support for a new stadium.

True, the Twins haven't been to the World Series in nearly 20 years. And true, they haven't won a postseason series since 2002 (damn Yankees!). True, the Twins face the same challenges all teams in small markets do, and the way they respond to those challenges doesn't always work. But unlike other small-market clubs that spin their wheels by changing course, they have been successful because they have been so consistent with their personnel. They realize that things don't always work out, but the key is to keep doing things the right way.

The Twins were a terrible team from 1995-2000, and they were a very good team from 2001 to now. The improvement wasn't because ownership brought in a good new staff; they improved precisely because they let the good old staff stay in place.

"Instead of finding new people," Smith said, "you find new solutions."

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com