Taking a break from the endless Johan Santana negotiations, the Twins reached agreements with two members of their lineup core, two homegrown hitters, this week. Right fielder Michael Cuddyer signed a three-year deal worth $24 million, while 2006 AL MVP Justin Morneau inked a six-year $80-million contract.

The merits of the deals aside, the signings were welcome good news for Twins fans, who have seen almost nothing but bad news since approving…er, having approved for them…a sales-tax increase to fund a new ballpark for the team. Brad Radke retired, Francisco Liriano missed the 2007 season, Torii Hunter left as a free agent and the team finished under .500 for the first time since 2000. Most of this winter has been spent mourning the future loss of the best pitcher in baseball, Santana, a free agent after 2008 who has been offered in trade to the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, Timberwolves, Wild, Purdue Boilermakers, Manchester United and the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama, Mike Huckabee and Lyndon Larouche.

These signings are the first evidence in some time that the Twins plan to use some of their share of the growing central-fund revenues, or the greenbacks generated by the new taxpayer-funded park, on their baseball team. They provide a necessary PR boost to a franchise that, while making the correct decision in allowing Hunter to depart, has had a hard time selling that call to its base. The constant drumbeat of rumors about Santana’s departure, set against a backdrop of construction noise and the ding of MLB cash registers, set the Twins up as a cliché, the team willing to collect money with both hands and pay it out with neither. These two signings, for the moment, stem that criticism.

Do they help the team, though? Cuddyer, who was jerked around for the first four years of his MLB career, has become a serviceable right fielder, with a career-high EqA in 2006 and comparable productivity in ’07. He’s improved his walk rate and K/BB in each of the last two seasons, pushing his OBP above .350. The power spike he showed in 2006-a .504 SLG and .220 ISO, both career highs by a wide margin-is probably not going to be repeated. Cuddyer’s seasonal slugging averages have been .429, .431, .440, .422 and .433 outside of 2006; it’s pretty clear what he is. The Twins appear to have overreacted to his RBI counts-109 and 81 the last two years-which have as much to do with playing time and the guys in front of him than his performance.

As long as Cuddyer continues to hit .270 with 60 walks and play average defense, he’ll be worth the money he’s owed. The problem is that he’s done all of those things in one season exactly once, last year. It’s not clear at all that he’ll sustain that as he falls away from his peak-he’s 29 this year-and even through the money he’s making is minimal in today’s market, the Twins aren’t the kind of franchise that walks away from $8.5 million, Cuddyer’s 2010 salary, easily.

Put it this way: would the Twins have been better served by going to arbitration with Cuddyer in 2008, and adding the rest of the money in his contract to an offer to keep Santana? It’s not necessarily a zero-sum situation, of course, but overpaying the best pitcher in baseball, rather than a league-average corner outfielder, is a better strategy.

The Morneau deal is more significant, although just as influenced by RBIs. Coming off an MVP award, if not MVP performance, in 2006, Morneau had essentially the same season in ’07, dropping about a single a week on his way to a .271/.343/.493 line that is at the lower end of his range. If you average his 2006 and 2007 rates, you get .296/.359/.525 or so, which is pretty much what you can expect from him over the next few seasons. Unlike Cuddyer, Morneau has established himself as both an excellent hitter and a plus defender at first base. Set aside the undeserved MVP award; Morneau is one of the best first basemen in the AL.

His deal is a bit backloaded, paying him just $7.4 million in 2008 and $10.6 million in ’09 before jumping to $14 million a season from 2010 through 2013. The last three of those years would be free-agent years for Morneau, so this deal locks him up through age 32 without committing the Twins to the danger seasons beyond that point, and it gets those years at what will almost certainly be below-market rates, three seasons at $14 million per. Jose Guillen got three years at $12 million per this winter; Jorge Posada, 37 years old, got $52 million over four years. Look back a year at Alfonso Soriano‘s contract, or J.D. Drew‘s, or Juan Pierre‘s. This contract is a good buy for the Twins, and should their fortunes not turn in a tough division, will give them a tradeable asset down the road.

The Twins still have a long way to go to build a team that can challenge the Indians and Tigers for supremacy in the game’s deepest division. While they’ve locked up the three best hitters their system has produced (Joe Mauer being the third) and have Delmon Young and Jason Kubel on hand to fill out a lineup core, the rest of the order is a mess. As good a job as the Twins have done of producing pitchers-they have an embarrassment of riches in the upper levels of their farm system-they have done that poor a job of developing position players. They need to fill holes up the middle and at third base to support that lineup core and what should be a good young rotation for the next few seasons. Giving 500 plate appearances to Nick Punto, or 300 to Jason Tyner, detracts from the good things this organization does.

No article about the Twins would be complete without a discussion of Santana, who remains Twins property today. It’s been argued that the 2008 Twins, with Santana, could compete in the AL Central, but I don’t see that being the case. I’m as bullish on Kubel, on Kevin Slowey, on Nick Blackburn, as anyone, but the lack of a functioning double-play combination, or a center fielder, means the Twins can’t win 90 games this year. You can win, in baseball, if you have a donut-hole construction-lots of middle, nothing on the outside. You cannot win as a donut.

With that said, I remain convinced that the Twins, who seem unable to get the kind of package they need in the market, should retain Santana beyond 2008 unless trading him brings in two players who fill their needs at third base, shortstop, second base and center field. Even with the commitments to Cuddyer and Morneau, there is more than enough of a gap between what the Twins are paying out and what they can to afford to pay out to fit a contract for Santana. They owe $33 million to five players in 2009, $35 million to three players in 2010 (when the new park opens) and Morneau’s $14 million is their only 2011 commitment. Looking around, you can see Mauer, Young, Kubel and Liriano as current Twins who will require significant commitments, but even paying those players an average of $10 million a season-an absurd figure-leaves the Twins $25 million shy of a $100 million payroll in 2010 and $46 million shy in 2011 and 2012.

You might consider it ridiculous to talk about the Twins and a $100 million payroll. Consider again, though, the growth of central-fund revenues. Now remember that the Twins, exiting one of the game’s worst leases at the Metrodome, should expect a greater-than-usual bump in locally-generated revenues when they open Monty Burns Park in ’10. I don’t see any reason to believe that they can’t support that kind of number. They’re going to be getting a lot of production from pre-arbitration pitchers by then, and perhaps even a hitter such as Ben Revere at the top of the lineup. They can afford to make commitments to superstars.

There’s a persistent notion that Santana won’t sign with the Twins. That may be the case, but what we haven’t heard much about is the Twins’ efforts to keep him. If the baseline is, for the sake of argument, six years and $150 million, why can’t the Twins pay that? Does signing Morneau and Cuddyer change the conversation at all? If they don’t want to commit to six years for a pitcher-an understandable position-why not be imaginative? Try and sign Santana to a four-year deal for $112 million, or a three-year deal for $80 million. This isn’t 2001; the Twins can afford to keep Santana and to put a good team around him because of the changed superstructure of baseball economics and their imminent escape from a usurious lease, as well as a flood of young pitchers that will, in effect, subsidize a Santana contract. That’s before discussion the team’s deep pockets ownership.

Perhaps the Twins can’t reach an agreement with Johan Santana. It’s entirely plausible that he doesn’t want to work in Minneapolis any longer, for whatever reason. However, we have yet to hear about an tradwe offer for Santana that makes sense for the Twins. Most of the deals have been poor fits by structure, offering the Twins plenty of what they have and not enough of what they need. Instead of making a bad trade, they should do everything in their power to keep a player who has the potential to be what Kirby Puckett was to the previous generation: the Hall of Fame face of a championship team.

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