Twin catcher Joe Mauer won the American League MVP last season.
By Ron Cook Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Somebody asked me Monday if I could imagine the Pirates ever stepping up and giving a star player a $23 million-a-year contract, as one of the other so-called small-market teams -- the Minnesota Twins -- just did with All-Star catcher Joe Mauer.
My answer shocked me.
"I sure as heck hope not."
That from a guy who has spent the past 20 years screaming at the Pirates for not spending more on their product and getting exactly what they deserve -- the demise of a three-time division-winning club, then 17 consecutive seasons of losing with no end to that streak in sight.
The Mauer contract is lunacy.
Not that I don't understand it.
I know the extraordinary pressure on the Twins to do the deal. They are moving into a new, publicly financed stadium this season -- Target Field -- and needed a star player to anchor in it. Mauer, who turns 27 April 19, is a fabulous player -- a three-time batting champion, two-time Gold Glove winner and reigning American League Most Valuable Player. Beyond that, he is a hometown hero from St. Paul. Think of it this way: How would you feel if Sidney Crosby had been born in Bethel Park and the Penguins were about to lose him as a free agent? You would be ticked, right? You would feel cheated.
Well, apparently, that's how they would have felt in the Twin Cities if the Twins hadn't stepped up to keep Mauer. At last check, a fan poll done by the Minneapolis Star Tribune showed that 68.7 percent of the voters described the contract as great news. Only 9.4 percent said they feared the team overpaid.
I also know Mauer's eight-year, $184 million contract is considered a bargain in many baseball circles. There has been speculation he would have started a frightening bidding war between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox if he became a free agent after the 2010 season. There was talk of a $30 million-a-year deal, maybe more.
Those damned Yankees and Red Sox.
But all of that doesn't make this a good contract for the Twins. Even if Mauer continues along a path that is headed to the Hall of Fame, it's hard to imagine the team being able to put enough winning players around him to contend for a championship. The Star Tribune projects the Twins' payroll for this season to be $97 million -- up from $65 million a year ago -- with Mauer due to make $12.5 million in the final year of his current contract. For next season, the paper reports the club already has $70.5 million committed to just eight players. Good luck to 'em trying to fill out the rest of the roster while keeping the payroll from soaring to dangerous numbers.
And that's the best-case scenario.
The Twins aren't the Yankees, who not only can afford to give Alex Rodriguez $275 million and Derek Jeter $189 million, but also can afford to be wrong about those contracts. There's no way the Twins can afford for the Mauer deal to turn out badly, especially because they included a full no-trade clause for him. If it does go wrong -- if he underachieves or gets hurt -- it will set their franchise back at least a decade.
I watched it happen when the Pirates way overpaid to re-sign catcher Jason Kendall.
It was before the 2001 season. The Pirates were moving into publicly financed PNC Park and promised to keep their best players. Kendall was, by far, the most popular guy on the team. He hit .320 and scored 112 runs in 2000. He played all out, all the time. The Pirates offered him a six-year, $60 million contract to keep him from becoming a free agent. "I wasn't going to say no. I might be dumb, but I'm not stupid," Kendall said last summer.
Unfortunately, Kendall never lived up to the money.
Sadly, the Pirates still haven't really recovered.
That's the enormous risk a team takes when it pays one player such a high percentage of its payroll.
That doesn't mean we shouldn't keep hollering at the Pirates to spend more on their major league product. Owner Bob Nutting has said he will do just that when the team becomes a little more competitive, if it ever does. He has promised to keep not only his best players, but to add the necessary pieces to build a contender. We should do our best to hold him to his word.
But we shouldn't expect Nutting to ever give an Andrew McCutchen or a Pedro Alvarez 25 percent of the team's payroll.
We shouldn't want that.
That's not just bad business.
. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.