These are heady times for the Minnesota Twins. It wasn't long ago that the Twins were part of conversations about contracting Major League Baseball. Attendance was poor, Ownership wouldn't spend the money (or contended he didn't have it to spend) and the Twins seemed to be in terrible shape. But the last ten years have shown a rebirth of Minnesota baseball and the team now draws 3.2 million fans, good for third place in the American League. And the payroll, once the joke of baseball, rose to $107.5 million in 2010. The Twins have won their division six of their last nine years. The one dark cloud in this silver lining is their inability to take the team to the next level. Each of those six playoff teams have died before the World Series, five of them in the very first round of the playoffs. To this observer, their glaring weakness is obvious.
The Twins spent $84 million on their on-the-field players last year but only $22 million for their pitching staff. Their highest paid pitcher in 2010 was Carl Pavano at $7 million which took up nearly one third of their pitching budget. Reliever, Matt Guerrier, was second at just over $3 million. In contrast, the Twins had seven position players who made more than $5 million.
The playoffs have shown us the past few years that stud pitching gets the job done. The Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies have all had World Series runs that relied heavily on the likes of Sabathia, Pettitte, Beckett, Schilling and others. The Giants and Rangers this past season parlayed the same formula into the post season and the Giants' stud pitching won the day and the World Series. The Twins, in contrast, do not have a "stopper" type pitcher and haven't in any of their playoff runs. They have good pitchers. Pavano had a great season. Liriano lead the AL in WAR up until the last quarter of the season. But they aren't the kinds of pitchers you can get big performances from when it all comes down to winning or going home.
That's why this writer believes that no team needs to go after Cliff Lee more than the Twins. The Yankees can afford other options and have multiple ways to beat you. The Rangers need him as he deepens their rotation and makes them a viable playoff sizzler. But the Twins are destined to be a good enough team to make it to the playoffs but never good enough to get beyond. Let's face it, their rotation doesn't scare anybody. They win by playing smart and with a well balanced and talented line up. The Twins need Lee because they need someone who has more than a 50% chance of winning a playoff game.
While this is very easy for this Fan to write, the odds of it happening seem to be nil. The Twins simply don't make a splash in free agent waters. They always prefer to go after low valued talent like Jim Thome (and Carl Pavano in 2009) and building from within. The trouble is, they are superb at developing on-field players but not so brilliant at developing pitchers.. Signing Joe Mauer to a long term deal was the biggest splash ever for the Twins. Perhaps that speaks to a different day and a new reality based on burgeoning coffers due to the attendance boom.
If you can't develop your own stud, then signing one like Lee is the next best thing. Yes, he'll be expensive and yes, the Fan still thinks any long-term deal for the 33 year old Lee is future failure. By the end of Lee's big deal (which he is going to get from somebody), Lee will look a lot like Barry Zito looks now for the Giants. But at least the next two years will certainly improve a good team's chances of going deep into the post season.
There might be other options. The Fan still thinks De La Rosa has a big arm and can be that type of dominating pitcher. Perhaps the Twins could pry Greinke away from the Royals for a good package. But Greinke has no playoff experiences and there is no telling if he could be a stud in one.
The Twins are in a playoff rut because its rotation has simply not been up to the task of giving the Twins an advantage over another team's rotation. It is soft and can be had. Lee would change all that. He pushes everyone else that much deeper into the rotation and that's exactly where they need to be. Come on, Twins, pull the trigger!