The Boston Red Sox pulled off the salary dump to end all salary dumps in late August when they traded over $250 million in contracts to the Los Angeles Dodgers. They made themselves a truly awful team in the short-term in choosing to pull the trigger on that deal, but the payroll space they cleared will make their rebuild considerably easier.
You know which team could stand to make a move like the one the Red Sox made in August?
The Minnesota Twins, of course.
Compared to a couple years ago when the Twins were actually, you know, good, there's not a whole lot of national interest in the Twins these days. This is what happens when a team is 59-82 and generally a sorry sight for human eyeballs when it takes the field.
What separates the Twins from other bad teams around Major League Baseball is that they're not a cheap team. Despite the fact they lost both Joe Nathan and Michael Cuddyer over the offseason, the Twins opened the season with a payroll over $100 million for the second year in a row, according to Cot's Baseball Contracts.
To put this in perspective, the Twins opened the 2009 season with a payroll just barely over $65 million, a number more befitting of the market the Twins are in and the kind of television deal they have (Phil Mackey of 1500ESPN.com has all the details you need about such things).
Because things are just as bleak in Minnesota these days as things were in Boston at the time they executed the mega-trade with the Dodgers, the Twins shouldn't be opposed to pulling off a similar mega-trade if they get a chance.
If they do get such a chance, however, they would be wise to follow the guidelines laid down by the Red Sox.
If You Find a Taker, Get Rid of Your Big Contracts Immediately
I'm well aware that I'm lumping the Twins and the Red Sox into the same boat, but the truth of the matter is that we're talking about two clubs that really don't belong in the same boat.
Compared to the dilemma facing the Twins, the Red Sox were in a much tougher spot financially when they decided to trade Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez to the Dodgers. They had a payroll close to $200 million, and the three players they traded represented three of their more problematic monetary commitments.
The Twins really only have one albatross contract on their hands, and you know who it belongs to.
Yup, it belongs to Joe Mauer. He's on the books for $23 million this season, and he'll make $23 million per season every year until 2018.
Presently, his contract takes up about a quarter of the Twins' payroll. If they shed payroll again this winter like they did last winter, his contract will take up even more of the Twins' payroll.
This is a problem. Mauer is still a very good player, but he's a far cry from the player he was when he won the AL MVP award in 2009. His OPS is nearly 200 points lower this year than it was in 2009, and he's at a point in his career when he's simply no longer capable of being an everyday, Gold Glove-caliber catcher.
Mauer's contract looked like a great idea at the time he signed it back in March of 2010. Now it's holding the Twins back, and it will continue to do so for a long time if they let it.
Whether or not they actually wanted to move him was unclear, but the Twins did open the door for Mauer's departure when they placed him on waivers in August, a decision that was reported by Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com.
Obviously, Mauer didn't end up going anywhere. No team was willing to even put in a claim on him.
Rest assured, though, this won't be the last time the Twins dangle Mauer. Between now and the end of his contract in 2018, he's probably going to find his way onto waivers again. The Twins are also likely to listen to what other general managers have to say during the winter and during trade deadline season.
Finding a taker for both Mauer and the rest of his contract won't be easy, especially seeing as how the Dodgers have to run out of money at some point.
But in a day and age when television contracts are paying big-market teams an absurd amount of money, it's not inconceivable to think that the Twins will eventually come across a team that's desperate enough for a good-hitting catcher/first baseman like Mauer to take on the rest of the money that he's owed.
If the Twins do eventually come across a team like that, they must not hesitate to pull the trigger. Any chance they get to jettison Mauer's contract should be seized without second thought.
The Mauer contract is the only contract the Twins have to worry about in the long-term. In the short-term, they should consider jettisoning Justin Morneau and the $14 million salary that is owed to him in the final year of his deal in 2013.
The Twins had a chance to dump Morneau on the Dodgers in August, according to Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times, and Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com reported that the Dodgers and other teams were interested in the former AL MVP before the non-waiver trade deadline in July as well.
The Twins failed to unload Morneau, presumably because they didn't want to give him up for nothing. As Tim Brown of Yahoo! Sports reported in July, the Twins were looking to land a major league player while also jettisoning all the money that was still owed to Morneau.
Given Morneau's injury history, Twins interim GM Terry Ryan was asking for too much.
He did, however, have the right idea.
Don't Just Settle for a Simple Salary Dump
When you have names like Beckett, Crawford, Gonzalez—and to a much lesser extent, Nick Punto— and over $250 million in salaries going out the door, it's hard to focus on names like James Loney and Allen Webster.
They were just two of the five players the Red Sox got from the Dodgers in their August mega-trade. That they got any players at all is pretty astounding.
In choosing to trade away Beckett, Crawford and Gonzalez, it was clear that Boston GM Ben Cherington's primary goal was to cut payroll. The fact that the Dodgers were able and willing to take on Boston's bad contracts is nothing short of a miracle.
Or so it would seem, anyway.
In forcing the Dodgers to give up a halfway decent major league first baseman and a handful of young players, Cherington effectively showed that the Dodgers were a hell of a lot more desperate to get better than the Red Sox were to dump payroll.
It's doubtful that Cherington would have gone through with the trade at all if Dodgers GM Ned Colletti had tried to play hardball and offered the Red Sox zero players in return.
If the Twins are ready to clean house (by which I mean trade Mauer and/or Morneau), they need to draw a similar line in the sand.
Yes, Ryan did this when he demanded nothing less than a major league player for Morneau, but he should have set his sights a little lower. For that matter, he's going to have to set his sights lower even if he finds a legit taker for Mauer.
The problem with asking for a major league player (or more than just one) in a potential salary dump involving Mauer and/or Morneau is that the Twins are going to be dealing only with contending teams.
These contending teams are only going to be dealing with the Twins because they're short enough on big league talent as it is. They won't give up any quality major leaguers, even if it means getting a player like Mauer or Morneau.
They might, however, consider giving up prospects. These contenders will be trying to win now, after all, and prospects are meant to help teams win later. For teams like the Dodgers, prospects are expendable.
The Twins need as many prospects as they can get right now. Only one Twins prospect, third baseman Miguel Sano, showed up in Baseball America's midseason rankings of the top 50 prospects in baseball. At the start of the season, Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus had Minnesota's farm system ranked as the No. 22 system in MLB.
If the Twins do eventually put themselves in a position to acquire prospects while also dumping a massive amount of payroll, there's another page they can take out of Boston's books.
Pitching Prospects and More Pitching Prospects
The young pitchers who the Red Sox got in their trade with the Dodgers are no scrubs.
Webster was the centerpiece of the deal, and he's a pitcher that Baseball America and other publications had ranked as the No. 2 prospect in the Dodgers organization before the start of the season. This, of course, was before he embarked on a season that saw him go 6-8 with a 3.55 ERA for Double-A Chattanooga, a solid season by any measure.
In addition, the Red Sox also got Rubby De La Rosa, who BA once had ranked as the No. 90 prospect in all of baseball, according to Baseball-Reference.com. His stock plummeted when he had to undergo Tommy John surgery, but he's still only 23 years old and he can still throw hard.
The Red Sox needed to acquire young pitching. Their farm system has struggled to produce starting pitchers in recent years, and the one and only pitching stud they had in their minor league system before their trade with the Dodgers was right-hander Matt Barnes.
The Twins have a similar problem. They started the season with very little pitching talent down on the farm, and their decision to go primarily for pitching in this year's draft will probably take a while to pan out. This is assuming, of course, that the pitchers they drafted do eventually pan out, and there are never any guarantees when it comes to young pitchers.
Plus, the Twins are in the same boat as the Red Sox in that both clubs are at a time in their history when they really need to start developing some talented pitching prospects. The Red Sox are 26th in baseball in team ERA. The Twins are 29th, and they've had the worst starting pitching in the American League all season.
The Red Sox are still far from being out of the woods when it comes to their pitching staff, but they're closer to where they want to be than the Twins are.
They're getting there the right way too. They certainly have the assets to go and buy pitching, but the Red Sox have made it clear that they're not about to make it rain this offseason.
Therein lies another lesson for the Twins.
Plan to Be Conservative Even After the Big Salary Dump
Because the Red Sox now have an extra $250 million to play with, conventional wisdom suggests that we can all expect them to be buyers in free agency this winter.
They're apparently not going to go that route.
As reported by the Boston Herald and others, Cherington vowed after the big trade was made that the organization was going to build itself back up for 2013 and beyond in the "most disciplined way possible."
Said Cherington: "When we’ve been at our best, we’ve made good decisions, disciplined decisions. Found value, whether it’s in the free agent market or trade market. And that’s our job to do that."
A good example of great value found on the free agent market would be Cody Ross. The Red Sox signed him for one year at a modest $3 million, and for that they've gotten a player with a .280/.345/.513 triple-slash line and 20 home runs in 109 games.
The Twins made a bargain buy of their own this offseason when they signed Josh Willingham to a three-year, $21 million contract. Willingham has proceeded to hit .261/.368/.534 with 33 home runs and 102 RBI.
If the Twins find a way to dump Mauer's contract, they'll suddenly have a lot of extra money lying around. If, perhaps by some miracle, they dump both Mauer's contract and Morneau's contract this winter, they'll have cleared close to $40 million in salaries that they could put towards their 2013 payroll.
But even if the Twins are this lucky, there will be even more pressure on them to be disciplined with their money than there is on the Red Sox to be disciplined with theirs. Instead of investing a ton of money into one free agent or a couple free agents, the Twins would be better off saving it for later.
After all, Denard Span is going to be in extension territory pretty soon, and the Twins are also going to need money set aside for the talented young players they're surely going to develop over the next few years.
Right now, the Twins have a lot of money invested in two players from an era that's dead and buried. If they can, they need to take that money and re-invest it into players who will form the core for their next great era.
And between now and then, they can't be afraid to take it as it comes.
Don't Be Afraid of Bad Baseball to Come
Nobody from the Red Sox organization came out and admitted that the team was going to be brutal to watch down the stretch after the big trade was made, but Cherington basically admitted that it was going to be a little while before the Red Sox had a shot at being good again.
"We have a core of players here, still, very talented core of players here still, that will be a part of our next great team, and we’ll do whatever we can to put together the best team for 2013," he said, via the Herald.
"The best team for 2013." In other words: We're all well aware that the rest of the 2012 season isn't going to go so well.
Red Sox fans weren't blind to that reality when the trade was made. They knew full well that the only player the Red Sox were getting in return who would be able to contribute right away was Loney, and he came to the Red Sox with a .646 OPS.
Sure enough, the Red Sox have lost 12 of 15 since the big trade. Their first losing season since 1997 is almost in the bag.
The Twins will be in similar trouble if they jettison Mauer and/or Morneau in the middle of the 2013 season. In fact, they'll probably be harder to watch than they are now, which is saying something.
Sinking to rock bottom like this is a much harder pill to swallow for a team like the Twins than it is for the Red Sox to swallow. The Twins are already experiencing a problem with attendance, which is concerning seeing as how Target Field is a beautiful new ballpark that's supposed to be an attraction in and of itself.
But the Twins can't let a reality such as this stand in the way of a house-cleaning effort. The fans will be back when the wins start piling up again, and the wins aren't going to start piling up again unless the Twins do something drastic.
They may not want to do it, but the time is now for the Twins to take a chance.
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