How Bill Smith booted the Target Field advantage

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.

  • Is it REALLY that BLEAK for the Twins? I sense a personal beef from you against them getting the stadium-How are you SO sure playing baseball in the Twin C’s is SO undesirable? I have a hell of alot more faith of the Twin’s mgmt 2 turn this team around than you do obviously- I do agree the bullpen was neglected-but there’s a comeback possible as the past has shown for just as bad or WORSE situations of MLB teams-So hope you are proved as FATALISTIC as you sound-or are you a evil-empire Yankee fan?

  • Bob Collins

    //Is it REALLY that BLEAK for the Twins? I sense a personal beef from you against them getting the stadium-How are you SO sure playing baseball in the Twin C’s is SO undesirable?

    Well, let’s go over it again, then. They’re the worst team in the league. Their former MVP hasn’t been able to play for two years. They don’t have a closer. They don’t have a bullpen. They don’t have a DH. They don’t have a rightfielder. They don’t have a shortstop and if you can name me the last stud free agent they signed, I’ll be happy to reconsider the notion that the Twins haven’t been able to attract quality free agents.

    The good news, of course, is they play in the AL Central.

    Could they turn it around? Of course. They have to overhaul the entire organization. That’s at least a five-year project, but it’s not impossible, although I’m at a loss to think of a franchise that’s been able to do it recently. The Rangers lost 91 games in ’03, and they’re doing OK now.

    I would counsel patience and not expect too much too soon.

  • John P.

    It really is that bleak.

    Besides the stuff Bob mentioned, the Twins went into the season with Alexi Casilla and Nishi at 2nd and shortstop. That was a gamble with no backup plan. We had Delmon young in left, who despite good hitting last year, always looked like he was on ice skates when he went after a ball. Top this with a highly suspect pitching staff, minor league teams that are not very good, and you do not have a formula for success any time soon.

    It’s not entirely a new problem. For some years now, the Twins have won the weakest division in baseball only to get blasted out of the playoffs immediately.

    Is this a horrible place to play? Only if you want to play in a World Series.

  • John P.

    On the bright side, I suspect I will be able to afford more/better Twins tickets for a few years!

  • Mac Wilson

    To tie in with Bob’s point about the Rangers: the Detroit Tigers lost 119 games in 2003 and played in the World Series three years later. It CAN be done.

  • Michael

    Besides, anybody who follows Bob knows that his heart bleeds Cleveland Indians red and blue — not for the Evil Empire Yankees. Sheesh Goldman…

  • Bob Collins

    I’ll also point out that in late May I crafted a post suggesting the Twins would be just fine in 2011. How bleak is it? I was your voice of optimism. That’s how bleak it is. (G)

  • Jim Shapiro

    Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest champion in any sport in modern times, took pay cuts to help build winning teams.

    Any of the Twin’s $10 million + a year boys care that much about winning?

  • Bob Collins

    Michael Jordan made MUCH more money from endorsements than he did playing basketball, so he could afford to “sacrifice” for the good of the team.

    I’m not sure the Twins’ current free agents have that option and, the Twins problem isn’t a payroll problem. They don’t have enough talent. They have to rebuilt a bad farm system first and foremost.

    This is not a good free agent year. Albert Pujols is not coming here. Maybe — maybe — you can get a broken-down Grady Sizemore but what good does that do?

    and it doesn’t cost any more to teach the current team how to play fundamental baseball.

    But the Twins got fat and comfortable with the money machine of Target Field. Now they — and the fans — have to pay the price.