Over the past two years, we've seen the Twins do nothing but spend, spend, spend. During the 2009 season, they added Orlando Cabrera, Jon Rauch and Carl Pavano, taking on salary in each deal. In the ensuing offseason, they traded for J.J. Hardy, retained Pavano at a relatively high price, signed Orlando Hudson and Jim Thome, and handed Joe Mauer one of the largest contracts in baseball history. Last season, they traded for Matt Capps and Brian Fuentes during the summer, again taking on millions in additional salary. Then, at the outset of this offseason, we saw them outbid all other clubs for the negotiation rights to a premier Japanese player, who they intend to sign.
At some point, this ride had to come to a stop. The Twins are obviously enjoying much more financial freedom with the backing of Target Field, but payroll wasn't going to keep escalating forever. Today, we saw it come to a thundering halt with the trade of J.J. Hardy and Brendan Harris to the Orioles for a pair of minor-league pitchers. The move was clearly a flat-out salary dump, and be assured, shaving a few million dollars from the payroll is the only positive thing it accomplishes.
After finding himself demoted not only from the major-league roster but also the 40-man roster during the 2010 season, Brendan Harris was owed $1.75 million next year as a result of a misguided contract handed to him last winter. The team's motives in moving him (while eating only $500,000 of his salary) aren't hard to figure out.
As for Hardy, Bill Smith's claim that "the driving force in trading the shortstop was the desire for a faster lineup" is either intended to mislead or demonstrative of some really poor logic. The Twins ranked fifth in the American League last year in runs scored despite down years from several key players (Michael Cuddyer, Denard Span, Jason Kubel) and costly injuries to two starters (Hardy and Justin Morneau). What the Twins needed to improve their already solid offensive production was better health; there's little evidence that a lack of speed was all that detrimental.
I've come to have a lot of respect for Smith's judgment as a general manager, so I'm going to go ahead and assume his statements were only meant to mask a fact that would not be well received by the public: the Twins have hit a financial wall.
The two pitchers received in the trade, Brett Jacobson and Jim Hoey, should not be viewed as locks to make the big-league roster next year by any means. They're preferable to the brand of pitching prospect the Twins have often targeted in past trades, in that they throw hard and can miss some bats. But Jacobson is a 24-year-old who hasn't pitched above Single-A and Hoey, while capable of racking up tons of strikeouts, has issued a staggering 66 walks in 100 innings over the past two years at Double-A and Triple-A (think Juan Morillo).
At best, these pitchers will be a couple additional question marks to throw into a 2011 bullpen mix that's already full of them. And in giving away a player who -- when healthy -- is a legitimate MLB starting shortstop (anyone who thinks Hardy isn't above average simply hasn't looked at the numbers of his peers), the Twins are apparently committing to a pair of question marks in the middle infield. There's no telling how the numbers of Tsuyoshi Nishioka, slated to start at second, will translate to the States. And we have little reason to believe that Casilla is suited to start at shortstop in the major leagues. He rates terribly at the position defensively, has never played 100 games in a big-league season and holds a .249/.306/.327 career hitting line in the majors.
If the Twins couldn't afford to pay Hardy around $6 million next year, then they couldn't afford it. But it didn't have to be that way. Due to past mistakes, they're locked into paying Cuddyer $10.5 million and Capps $7 million or more. While I like the sentiment behind signing Nishioka, I don't like the idea of replacing an established commodity in Hardy with an unknown for the sake of saving a few million bucks. And if they go out and spend a bunch of money on re-signing Pavano, which they are reportedly making a "strong push" to do, this move looks dramatically worse. It means that the Twins had the money to retain Hardy, and that they're comfortable bringing back a pitch-to-contact, ground ball pitcher while removing two Gold Glove caliber defenders from their infield.
You pay for reliability. It's why the Yankees are in the playoffs every single year. Now, while their payroll is far from embarrassing, the Twins find themselves up against some financial limitations, due to escalating salaries and misallocation of funds. As a result, they're going to head into the 2011 season with several serious question marks that could potentially contribute to the team's demise.
In my opinion, the chances of either Casilla or Nishioka (or both) becoming liabilities as everyday players are much greater than the chances of either pitcher received in this trade making the team's bullpen significantly better next year. Perhaps down the line this deal will look better than it does right now, but as things stand this is probably the most disappointed I've been with any move during Smith's tenure as GM.
The Twins may be a large-market team in name at this point, but their inability to retain Hardy and carry some quality infield depth into the 2011 season is what differentiates them from the true big spenders out east, and it's the exact type of thing that will keep them from ever being able to surpass the Yankees in team talent.