The Minnesota Twins fired general manager Bill Smith today, and it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. It takes a lot of work to make a new ballpark fail at its primary mission, but that’s what happened with Smith.
The new ballpark was supposed to allow the Twins to get every dime possible out of the stadium, from naming rights, to higher ticket prices, to luxury box revenue (they didn’t get any at the Metrodome), and at least in theory, having all of this money to spend — and the Twins had a lot of money to spend — would allow the team to be competitive.
In fact, that was the buzzword in the years-long battle to get public funding. It was so common that it was considered a given that new stadiums equal on-field excellence. It always had, anyway, with the possible exception of Pittsburgh, which should never be discussed in any conversation about major league baseball..
The formula worked for one season. In 2010, the Twins, playing before a full house every game, boosted the team payroll by $32 million, and won a division title.
But even a new stadium couldn’t save GM Bill Smith from the team’s fortune. Smith had little choice but to give Joe Mauer a $23 million-a-year-contract, guaranteed through 2018, after handing $14 million to Justin Morneau and $11 million to Joe Nathan. If Mauer had walked after the team got its publicly financed stadium, Smith would’ve been roasted on a spit.
Smith couldn’t possibly have foreseen getting virtually no production from almost half of his team’s payroll in 2011, but he could have foreseen the collapse of the Twins bullpen after the 2010 season, when he let most of its components leave and elected not to make significant acquisitions in the off-season.
This year’s injuries exposed the team’s poor minor league system, the best player of which, catcher Wilson Ramos, was traded last season to the Washington Nationals for Matt Capps.
But Smith’s biggest failing has been an inability to convince free agents that Minnesota should be where they want to play baseball. He not only lost the free agents the team wanted to keep (Torii Hunter and Johan Santana, for example), the Twins were unable to convince productive ones to come here. Target Field was supposed to help accomplish that. It didn’t.
Two of the team’s best players — Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer — are about to leave via free agency, but there’s no indication the team is capable of doing anything significant with the $41 million dollars it’s freed up in payroll. The minor league system is weak, Justin Morneau may never return to form and Joe Mauer has gone from hometown hero to the poster boy for a franchise that at one point seemed just one really nice stadium away from the upper class of the league, but is instead, again, at the bottom of the heap.
It was a mirage. No baseball stadium can counter the effects of poor baseball judgment.