It took five days last October for reality to once again set in for the Twins. For a while, anything had seemed possible. Minnesota, which trailed the Tigers by seven games on Sept. 6, won 19 of its final 27 games, a furious rally that crescendoed when Carlos Gomez belly-flopped across home plate with the winning run in the 12th inning of an Oct. 6 postseason play-in game against Detroit. The Twins danced into the American League Division Series against the Yankees, their first playoff appearance in three years. Five days later, though, it was the Yankees who were jumping around on the Metrodome's squishy infield turf, celebrating a series sweep that sent Twins fans filing quietly out of the quirky stadium for the final time as workers prepared to take down banners and dig up home plate for transfer to Target Field, the gleaming new palace the team will move into this season. In the hushed quiet of the home clubhouse, the Twins, red-eyed, again assumed the role to which they and the rest of baseball's mid- and small-market franchises have become accustomed. They were boats, beating on against the current, their thoughts borne back ceaselessly into a past in which one of them could win a World Series.
It's a cliché to say, with pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training this week, that this is the most optimistic time on the baseball calendar. It's a moment when hope springs eternal for all 30 major league franchises, when the low-revenue have-nots dream of those long-ago days when championships didn't seem directly tied to franchise financial statements. Most of the time it's also a delusion—it has been six seasons now since a club with a payroll ranked in the majors' bottom half has won the World Series. But this year, after an off-season in which a handful of small-market teams went to unusual lengths to improve themselves, the little guys may actually have reason to believe: They might not win the Series, but at least they tried this winter.
Nowhere does that hope run as deep as it does in Minnesota, where, despite the sour finish to 2009, the Twins are brimming with optimism. This winter the normally free-agent-phobic Twins signed two former All-Stars—slugger Jim Thome (one year, $1.5 million) and second baseman Orlando Hudson (one year, $5 million)—and traded for another: shortstop J.J. Hardy, who was acquired from the Brewers for Gomez, a spare outfielder. (Minnesota's payroll will jump from $65 million, 24th highest in the majors in '09, to around $96 million, most likely in the top 15.) The Twins also anticipate having their second-best offensive player, first baseman and 2006 AL MVP Justin Morneau, back in the lineup; he went down in September with a stress fracture in his back and missed the final 3½ weeks of the season. Righthander Kevin Slowey, who was 10--3 before undergoing season-ending wrist surgery in July, is healthy again, and another starter also appears to be on the mend. Lefty Francisco Liriano was all but unhittable as a rookie in 2006 (he went 12--3 with a 2.16 ERA) but struggled to regain his form after Tommy John surgery that November. But highlights of Liriano's dominant performance in the Dominican Winter League playoffs this year (he went 3--1 with a 0.49 ERA in seven starts) suggest he may be ready to return to the top of the Twins rotation.
Add in reports that catcher Joe Mauer, the reigning American League MVP and batting champion, is close to signing a contract extension that could keep him in Minnesota for the next decade, and there's plenty to make a Twins fans wonder what outdoor Target Field will feel like in October. "There's just a sense that our front office is like, Making the playoffs is good, but we want to get to that next level," says Slowey. "The way our front office is acting would encourage us to think that this year could be a very big year. They wouldn't sign veteran players to one-year deals if they didn't think we could do great things, and do them now."
It's not just the Twins. This week potential star lefthander Aroldis Chapman will begin firing 100-mph fastballs for the Reds (2009 payroll rank: 19th), who shocked the baseball world by landing the Cuban free agent with a six-year, $30.3 million deal in January. The A's (2009 payroll rank: 26th) will welcome All-Star righthander Ben Sheets, who last month signed a one-year contract for $10 million; he's only the second player that Oakland has ever signed to an eight-figure annual salary. Why were small-market teams able to make big splashes this winter? One reason, suggests the general manager of a club whose payroll remains in the league's lower half, is that the free-agent market functioned differently from the way it has in recent years. Fewer big-market teams than usual seemed obsessed with spending on free agents, which in general kept salary offers down. "If there is one dynamic benefiting the lower-revenue clubs," the G.M. says, "it appears to be the more rational approach to free agency. Supply and demand, a bad economy and discipline have affected market prices."
While the off-season's undisputed top three free agents—Matt Holliday, Jason Bay and John Lackey—ultimately signed with a trio of the game's top grossers (the Cardinals, Mets and Red Sox, respectively) for a total of $268.5 million, the rest of a free-agent class light on first-tier stars was left open to lower-revenue teams. It was possible to do what the Twins did: add useful pieces with short-term deals to a club that was close to being a contender. Small-market teams such as the Twins, Rockies (the World Series runner-up in 2007) and Rays (who lost in the Series in '08) have followed a four-part model: draft well; trade mature assets (players who are stars but who are likely to be plucked in free agency by a rich team once they become eligible) for top prospects; sign cornerstone young players to long-term deals, thereby buying out some of their arbitration and free-agent years at what might prove to be a below-market salary; and be selectively active in the free agent market, signing players to one- or two-year deals that will not handcuff a team down the road. "In the past, a lot of clubs would look at the quick fix and try to sign big, long-term free agents, thinking that if you sign one or two it would put your club in a better position to win," says Reds G.M. Walt Jocketty. "We've found that we can't afford to do that. We are not in a position where we can afford to make mistakes. The larger-market clubs—they have resources that allow them to overcome their mistakes."
Jocketty acknowledges that signing Chapman was a risk, but it was a calculated one. "We can't afford to sign a free-agent starting pitcher that's going to be in the $80 million range, so we had to try to sign a kid that has the potential to pitch like one," he says. "I credit our ownership with believing in what our scouts saw, believing that this is what's right in the long term." While the Reds tried to shoot the moon with Chapman, they also made a much safer, and cheaper, acquisition on Jan. 30, when they signed shortstop Orlando Cabrera—a proven veteran whose value was depressed by this winter's stagnant market—to a one-year deal worth $3.02 million.
Cabrera joins an improving club with a core of young, low-paid, homegrown players, including 26-year-old first baseman Joey Votto (who last season ranked fourth in the majors in OPS), 22-year-old outfielder Jay Bruce and 23-year-old righthander Homer Bailey. A number of other smaller-market clubs similarly constructed around young and cheap nuclei made similar signings this off-season. The Rangers added aging slugger Vladimir Guerrero and pitchers Rich Harden and Darren Oliver; the A's signed centerfielder Coco Crisp to go with Sheets; the Diamondbacks brought in first baseman Adam LaRoche and second baseman Kelly Johnson.
Unlike those teams, the Twins do not play in a division that features an economic superpower. And unlike most of them, they have a recent track record of success. Minnesota has had a winning record in eight of the past nine seasons and reached the postseason five times. They've advanced past the ALDS just once, though, and may not have many more chances in the near future if they can't sign Mauer to a long-term deal. The beloved son of St. Paul is due to become a free agent after this season. This month reports have swirled that the Twins are close to signing him to a 10-year deal worth close to $200 million. (When asked last week if he had any updates on the negotiation, general manager Bill Smith, in the tone of a man who has fielded one too many inquiries about his troublesome prostate, said, simply, "No.") "If they don't sign him, there will probably be an all-out boycott in Minnesota," says Bert Blyleven, who spent parts of 11 seasons pitching for the Twins and since 1996 has done their color commentary. "I think Joe's going to sign."
"I'd be stunned if he didn't end up with the Twins," says Slowey, "just because of what he means to the city. I think knowing Joe encourages us more than anything else. The hometown fans love him. He's very unassuming. He's a normal guy off the field. On the field he's anything but normal. He appears so comfortable in Minnesota. I'd be surprised if he were to search out the spotlight of a Boston or a New York or an L.A."