Twins Woes: Bill Smith and the Art of Counterproductive Negotiation

Will NortonCorrespondent IJanuary 30, 2008

I'm slightly confused here.

Twins GM Bill Smith is generally considered a pretty savvy, clever front office executive...

Johan Santana is a two-time Cy Young winner, the best lefty hurler of the last five years (sorry, Unit), a southpaw who projects out nicely over the latter years of his career given his reliance on a dominant change-up, a 200+ strikeout per year horse...

Simply put, Johan Santana is one of the most enticing, talented assets to hit the free agent market in the last decade, and Bill Smith is supposedly one of the smartest, most efficient general mangers in the game.

So, why, WHY, I ask did the Twins low-ball themselves into accepting a subpar package from the Mets for such an amazing franchise arm?

More importantly, how did the Twins seemingly manage to ratchet down the packages being offered for such a stud, eventually whittling their diamond encrusted gem of a trading piece into a pedestrian piece of synthetic plastic?

Logic would posit the scenario going something like this: Minnesota dangles Johan to the market; Boston, New York (NL and AL), and all the other heavy-hitters throw out offers somewhere in the proximity of market value; Bill Smith chooses between Jacoby Ellsbury and Jon Lester, or Phil Hughes and Melky Cabrera, or other offers of equal upside, slowly drawing his high-rolling competitors into a bidding war and eventually emerging with a franchise outfielder or starter plus some mid-level prospects to boot.

So how, and why, did Bill Smith mess this up?

He started off following the game-plan, ratcheting up the offers by tapping into the divisional and regional paranoia inherent in the Boston-New York dichotomy. He had both juggernauts right there, wavering most of their top-level prospects in his face, asking him to bite.

What Bill Smith didn’t realize, is that those were the best offers he was going to see.

With Santana a soon-to-be free agent, Smith had to deal with the reality that his leverage after the winter meetings was only going down. If he wasn’t going to deal Santana at a slight discount now- which was inherently non-negotiable- then he wasn’t going to be able to deal him at all.

Boston and New York were both content to wait until Johan entered the bidding process after the 2008 season. They could take their chances then, when losing a Jacoby Ellsbury or Phil Hughes was no longer a sacrifice they’d have to make. No loss for them considering the talent they already have.

Furthermore, Boston wasn’t giving up Clay Buchholz or any package that involved Ellsbury plus substantive other developmental talent; the Yankees weren’t giving up Joba Chamberlain or a package involving Hughes AND fellow pitching prospect Ian Kennedy, and that was just the awful truth.

Smith must have been cognizant of the fact that he wasn’t going to get the best prospect plus other mid-range talent from any team’s farm system in return for Santana. He also had to have known the relatively short window of time he had to deal his most prized possession.

And yet, he dealt with these dual realities horribly.

He dilly-dallied. He stalled. He couldn’t get the car started. He didn’t make a move.

Ultimately, we don’t know for sure what Boston or New York definitively put on the table. We heard the speculation, but maybe the package of Ellsbury, Lester, and two minor-leaguers was never a real offer. Maybe Hughes and Cabrera were never a package deal. 

Furthermore, maybe Smith didn’t want to deal Santana within the American League. Maybe seeing Santana go to New York (AL) or Boston was counter-intuitive to the overarching goal of the Minnesota Twins: getting to, and then winning, a World Series. I personally don’t agree with that philosophy (shouldn’t you just worry about getting the best players available in return?), but hey, I’m not a major league GM either.

However, if we assume the offers from Boston and New York were in fact real, tangible proposals, and we continue to understand the fact that Johan Santana should have demanded at least eighty cents on the dollar, then it’s hard not to feel like the Twins ultimately came away from this process- two months after the winter meetings- with far less value in return from the Mets.

So what did they get?

The Mets best prospect is 19 year-old infield prospect Fernando Martinez. Maybe he was off-limits like Buchholz and Chamberlain, but the bottom line is the Twins did not get him.

Deolis Guerra is ranked as the Mets #2 prospect, but at 18 years of age, he is a very raw pitching talent several years away.

The Mets #3 prospect- outfielder Carlos Gomez- is the only guy the Twins got in return who has some big-league play under his belt. Many rave at Gomez’ wheels and some compare him- at best- to a Carl Crawford like talent. He should slot into the Twins leadoff spot and start in center-field next season. He is the one returning asset Twins fans can feel good about.

Hurlers Kevin Mulvey and Phil Humber also come Minnesota’s way.

Humber is a former top-three overall pick but has yet to amount to anything in the majors, and he is almost 25. Humber’s name has been thrown around a lot in recent years, but he couldn’t crack the Mets’ rotation last season despite the unit being banged up and old. Also keep in mind Humber’s move from the NL to the deadly AL central: yea, I am not exactly taken aback with this kid’s promise as a Twin.

Mulvey is a finesse, ground ball pitcher who made some impressive strides in 2007, but someone who still doesn’t rank ahead of Kevin Slowey, Scott Baker, or Boof Bonser- all current Twins pitching prospects with similar styles who stand to see more opportunity and production at the big league level in 2008.

I look at what the Twins could have gotten – either a franchise OF in Ellsbury coupled with a solid No. 3 lefty in Lester and two prospects from Boston, OR a solidified major-league OF only getting better in Melky Cabrera coupled with a future No. 1 in Phil Hughes and two prospects from New York- and I can’t help but feel that Bill Smith actually decreased his potential return for Johan Santana throughout the bargaining process. 

Minnesota didn’t get anyone with extensive major league experience, they didn’t get more than one game-changer, and they didn’t land enough major league-ready talent to  compliment their current composition of players and seriously compete within the division, or the league, during the next two years.

All of that for a the man who has averaged 240 strikeouts over the last three years. That is simply deplorable, especially considering the current state of the Mets: They are coming off the most despicable September collapse in recent baseball memory; they are getting older by the second with tons of high-paid veterans nearing the end of their productivity window (Pedro, Wagner, Beltran, Delgado, Alou etc.); they operate in a city that doesn’t accept failure; and their GM is under intense pressure to deliver something substantial given his payroll costs in recent years.

Advantage, least one would think.

Bill Smith failed Executive Baseball Management 101 in my eyes. The Winter Meetings presented an environment under which Johan Santana’s value would never be higher. He had bidders offering substantially better packages than the way he ended up taking, and he balked.

I wrote a similar article a while back, condemning the Marlins for not getting more in return for 24 year-old stud Miguel Cabrera. Maybe I just expect GMs to land comparable talent in return for all-world players.

When Johan Santana gets dealt, I expect it to be for more than one, maybe two, potential difference makers.

The Cabrera article was more a critique on the Marlins philosophical and financial ineptitude as a franchise. This is a critique on GM Bill Smith’s bargaining and bartering skills throughout the Johan Santana sweepstakes and on the marginal, downgraded return one of the supposed smart guys in Major League Baseball got on the best left-hander in the game. 



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