Flash back two years, to the winter following the 2007 season.
Just one year removed from capturing the AL pennant, the Detroit Tigers were boldly making their move. During the winter meetings, Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski pulled the trigger on a blockbuster deal with the Marlins that sent Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis to Motown in return for a gaudy package of prospects highlighted by Cameron Maybin and Adam Miller. The move came just shortly after Dombrowski had acquired Edgar Renteria from the Braves for a pair of quality pitching prospects.
The Tigers were moving cheap, promising players for established commodities, and were showing little concern with the financial repercussions. A busy offseason for Dombrowski ballooned his team's payroll from $95 million in 2007 to $138 million 2008, positioning them as the highest-spending club in baseball outside of the Yankees.
Meanwhile, the Twins' 07/08 offseason consisted of trading away the league's best pitcher and letting one of their core hitters and clubhouse anchors walk. In both instances, the players were deemed too expensive for the Twins to retain on their limited budget. Despite a few second-tier free agent signings, the Twins saw their budget shrink from $71 million in '07 to $56 million in '08, dropping them into the bottom third of all MLB teams in terms of payroll.
Flash back to present. The Tigers, who fell just a game short of the playoffs this season, are amidst an epic firesale. They shipped off one of their core offensive players in Curtis Granderson and a key starter in Edwin Jackson, fresh off a breakout year. They were forced to let key contributor Placido Polanco walk and weren't even able to offer theType A free agent arbitration and collect valuable draft picks because they couldn't afford the risk of having to pay him several million dollars in 2010 should he accept. There are rumors that the Tigers still aren't done shedding salary, with names like Cabrera and Justin Verlander continuing to spring up in trade speculation.
The nation's economic downturn has hit Detroit hard, and its formerly free-spending baseball club is feeling the effects.
Things look significantly brighter here in Minnesota.
The Twins have ramped up spending recently at an unprecedented level. I wrote last week about how the organization has displayed a dramatic increase in willingness to open the wallet over the past year, whether on the international market (Miguel Angel Sano), in the draft (Kyle Gibson), on players acquired via trade mid-season (Jon Rauch/Orlando Cabrera/Carl Pavano/etc.) or offseason moves (J.J. Hardy/Pavano). In its most recent display of fiscal freedom, the Twins elected to tender contracts to all of their arbitration-eligible players. That includes Jesse Crain, who is in his final year of arbitration and could make close to $3 million after earning $1.7 million this past season. The Twins would have had every excuse to non-tender Crain, given that he's coming off a rather unexceptional year and spending several million dollars on someone who figures to be -- at best -- the third or fourth right-handed option out of the bullpen is a luxury that in the past they've shied away from. Yet, Crain possesses solid upside for next year considering his strong finish this season (2.20 ERA in August/September) and his being almost two years removed from shoulder surgery. That he's seemingly being brought back bodes well.
The Twins' payroll is already approaching $100 million, a notion that seemed borderline absurd on Opening Day this season when that figure sat at $65 million. Even with the big increase in spending that we've already seen, the Twins still claim to have interest in signing another infielder. They also still have yet to work out a new contract for Joe Mauer, which many (including myself) believe they will do before spring training opens next year.
So, the Twins are taking on salary, spending big on international talent, going over-slot to sign draft picks, and likely are on the verge of doling out one of the biggest contracts in league history to retain their star player? All while the rest of the division is pawning off expensive stars and selling out the present for the future in order to cut costs? Is this some sort of parallel universe?
Longtime fans from around these parts can be excused for reacting with some confusion, but what we're seeing are the benefits associated with the move to a new park. I'd posit that these drastic increases may also be attributable in part to a less frugal philosophy held by ownership now that power has shifted from Carl Pohlad -- who passed away early this year -- to his sons.
Whatever the combination of causes, this new situation is a sweet one for Twins fans, and one we've never really experienced before. The Twins still fall far short of the truly big-market clubs, but they're now beginning to resemble a team that can hold its own when it comes to acquiring and retaining talent. This might not put an enormous dent in the disadvantage the Twins feel when trying to measure up to the Yankees and Red Sox of the world, but it puts them in excellent position in an AL Central division where at least three teams are pretty clearly in rebuilding mode.
Right before our eyes, we're seeing the transformation of a franchise. Long known as the division's "Little Engine That Could," the Twins are beginning to emerge as financial heavyweights in the AL Central. As the holidays approach, now seems as apt a time as any for fans to appreciate this unfamiliar feeling.