Posted by: Larry Smith Jr. | March 14, 2010

Denard Span Signs Extension; Mauer Next?

Yesterday the Twins announced their second blatantly unnecessary contract extension in a week when they revealed that they were handing over a five year, $16.5m extension to Outfielder Denard Span that will run through 2014, with a $9m team option for the 2015 season.

Of course, the phrase “blatantly unnecessary” is only true in a vacuum, and would ignore the implications of what the Twins are doing and the situation that they are in. With regard to the extension itself, I feel similarly about it as I do the Blackburn extension, although I think in general that it was a better deal. Hitters are generally more predictable than pitchers, and Span is a better hitter than Blackburn is a pitcher, and Span’s contract is generally more favorable in the amount of money the Twins will be spending relative to his projected level of talent. For all of these reasons, the Span deal seems like a better one for the Twins than the Blackburn deal. Not that the Blackburn deal was bad, but it was questionable at best. However, I think (in a vacuum) its wholly unnecessary. Span just completed his first pre-arbitration season, and while it was a very effective one (311/392/432, 8 HR, 122 wRC+) that allowed them to feel confident in jettisoning Carlos Gomez in order to fill their need at Shortstop, it just seems that there are so many variables in life and baseball that make it hasty to sign a guy who is two years away from arbitration and five years away from free agency. Of course, that decision is made easier when he’s willing to agree to such lenient terms — He will be paid $3m in 2012, $4.75m in 2013, and $6.5m in 2014, all figures that are probably at least one to two million dollars shy annually of what he could earn by following the arbitration process if he continues his current level of play and especially if he improves. Still, anything from debilitating injury to personal problems to the minimal but existent possibility that 2009 was a fluke season (he played well in limited time in ‘08 as well) makes it all seem questionable. Until you realize that the Twins are not in a vacuum.

The Minnesota Twins have arguably the most valuable player in the entire league in Catcher Joe Mauer. This on its own merit is noteworthy. Yet, there is even more to the story than that. They are just now moving into a new stadium (where it will be very cold during the beginning and end of seasons) and need to make sure they can sell tickets to this new stadium by proving to the fans that they will retain their star and not let this one slip away like the others. In addition, Mauer was the first overall pick of the 2001 draft. Being a top overall pick always adds an extra layer to fan attachment. Finally, Mauer was born in St. Paul and was a local prep star who spurned Florida State University to enter the draft and wound up being selected by the hometown team. All of these factors combine to spell out a painfully obvious fact: The Minnesota Twins cannot let Joe Mauer escape as a free agent. They must re-sign him.

While I have no inside information regarding the matter, it seems like that is what these extensions are about. Signing Nick Blackburn to a four year deal with a fifth year option and Denard Span to a five year deal with a sixth year option, these deals aren’t about making sure they lock up Blackburn and Span per se. It is a management team that is trying to indicate and show long-term stability in player personnel and that it will reward members of the organization that are successful for them. It is Twins GM Bill Smith & Co. saying to Joe Mauer, “Look at that Joe, if you came back to Minnesota, well….we’re doing what we can to make sure we stay competitive well into the decade. See Nick Blackburn who has been such an integral part of our rotation the last two years? He’s gonna be around for four more years! See young Denard Span who held down the fort in our leadoff spot last year? He’s gonna be around for another half decade. Joe, you don’t have to worry about the Twins commitment to winning, because we’re securing the nucleus of players to long-term deals to make sure that they’re gonna be here. All that’s waiting is your name on the dotted line Joe, and you can turn this core into a champion — No, a dynasty.”

And it seems to me, that is what these seemingly unnecessary extensions are all about. Overtures made by the Twins management team — Medium risk bets — To try and make sure that their shining star that they absolutely need to make sure does not leave via free agency can feel comfortable in knowing that he will be surrounded by quality players at least for the first half of the decade, which would probably only be half or three-quarters of the total length of the contract the Twins will attempt to sign him to. For my part, it is purely speculation, but it is the only way to me that these lengthy deals would make sense.

One thing is certain, the Twins organization can’t have the specter of Joe Mauer leaving hang over their entire season — That is, unless the season ends in a championship.

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