As I was driving to work this morning, I got to thinking about how the Twins likely would fare this year, now that most of the roster appears generally set. The general consensus among most bloggers, as well as myself, is that it is likely that the Twins will probably play about .500 baseball in 2012. The number of wins could increase or decrease significantly based on the health of players like Mauer and Morneau, as well as the health and consistency of the starting rotation. I think most would agree that, on paper at least, the 2012 Twins should win more games than the 2011 Twins, but probably less than the 2010 Twins. I don't think this looks like a playoff team now, not with the starting rotation, anyway.
What are the ramifications if, as I have sort of predicted, the Twins do have (roughly) a .500 season, going 81-81? I think the answer depends on your perspective. If you are simply a fan of the Twins, enjoy going to a couple games each season and watching sometimes after dinner on FSN, 81 wins is much better than 63 wins. It probably means that the team was somewhat competitive, and that certain players had very good years. Most likely, it was probably a fun team for you to watch, even if there were some cringeworthy points during the season. Personally, as a fan of the 2012 Twins -- but most importantly a fan of the organization -- I am worried about what a .500 season could do to the future of the club.
Let's imagine, first, that the Twins outperform expectations and win 90+ games. This likely means a few things have happened: our star players such as Mauer and Morneau remained mostly healthy and were valuable assets to the team; the team was in contention at the trade deadline and maybe made a few significant acquisitions (using that excess payroll money we all think they are holding onto) to put us over the hump; and, finally, that we fans can talk about playoff baseball again. Those are generally very good things, and Twins Territory is probably happy that this team exceeded its expectations. The only perceived negative I can think of is that there's still no way, unless this team is on a crazy hot streak in September, that I can imagine them beating the Yankees/Red Sox/Phillies teams in the playoffs.
Second, let's think about what another sub-80 win season would likely mean: the team wasn't really in contention during the season, even if they had a hot streak or two; our star players were either injured, or did not perform up to expectations; the "Twins' Way" of signing mostly pitch-to-contact arms has not worked for two consecutive years (actually, longer than that). These are negatives, of course. What about the positives? Well, if the team was not in contention for a second year in a row, some of the movable players (Span, Liriano, Baker?) may have been traded for what could be a good set of prospects upon which to build up the farm system, and the eventual Twins roster, for 2014 or 2015. Maybe it also means that fans can again argue about the decreased payroll?
Now, back to a .500 team. Many cities are accustomed to a team that rarely finishes above .500. The fans and the front office are used to it, and they plan accordingly. Tickets are easy to come by, and relatively cheap, but you know that you are watching a team that is not going to compete for a spot in October. You hang onto young players until you can't afford them, and probably trade many away for other young players. That's one way of doing business, and I suppose the model must work in some cities. In Minnesota, where we Twins fans are at least used to the team finishing above .500, we are now accustomed to sellouts, higher ticket prices, and a comparatively high payroll that allows the team to retain some star players. A .500 season scares me because it means that the team probably was in contention for a while and, as a result, opportunities could have been missed to trade away solid players for good prospects. Or, it might mean that the Twins bought at the deadline when they should have sold, perhaps giving up another top prospect to fill a perceived hole. Finally, if this team does win 81 games with a $100 million payroll, the front office can step in and say, "Hey, we lost 99 games last year and spent $115 million. And this year we won almost 20 more games and spent $15 million less. So for those of you that complain about decreasing payroll, it doesn't equate to winning ballgames." Long story short, 81 wins could breed more excuses and the status quo.
My point in this post isn't that I hope that the Twins have another losing season, or even that winning 81 games is necessarily all that bad. My overarching concern is that, based on the way things look now, there is a real chance that the Twins could miss significant opportunities to improve the organization for the future, instead opting to have an "OK" team that will mostly fill Target Field this summer. As one who is going to watch the games either way, I guess I would rather see another year of extremes than a $100 million, 81-win team in a weak division.