Over the next 24-48 hours, you will read countless well-reasoned pieces on the Twins and what went wrong over the last three games – how they were unlucky at times, their own worst enemies at others. You will hear about the Yankees’ postseason grit, savvy, moxie and clutch play.
And you will hear about ways in which the Twins can close that gap, improve their shortcomings and maybe – just maybe – win a playoff game again this century.
All of those things will have merit and elements of truth.
But let’s not kid ourselves. The main reason the Twins lost (again) to the Yankees (again) is that they’re playing in a system tilted against them.
The baseball economy mirrors the U.S. economy. And the chances of achieving playoff dreams when you’re the financial underdog are as lopsided as the chances of achieving the American Dream under the same circumstances.
The Yankees have better players and win more often because they can afford better players. They always will as long as baseball decides not to have a salary cap that levels the playing field in terms of how much teams can spend.
The Twins don’t spend as much as the Yankees because they don’t generate nearly as much revenue as the Yankees.
They don’t spend as much money as the Yankees for the same reason that you don’t live in a house as nice as your wealthier neighbor. (And the chances are greater than ever that your wealthy neighbor’s parents had more money than your parents).
You operate within a budget and within your means. If you didn’t, you would go broke. So would the Twins if they tried to spend like the Yankees.
The Twins’ payroll in 2019, according to Spotrac, is around $124 million – No. 18 in MLB. The Yankees are only the third-highest spenders this year at $218 million.
In terms of the most recent revenue numbers, it’s even more stark. The Yankees had $668 million in yearly revenue per Forbes’ latest calculations. The Twins had nearly $400 million less at $269 million. Everyone gets a piece of the national TV money, which has grown significantly, but local media contracts and other local revenue streams in New York dwarf those in Minnesota.
That doesn’t mean the big-spending teams always win. The top two payrolls in MLB belonged to Boston and the Cubs, who both missed the playoffs. Dead last? Tampa, which did make it.
But in life and baseball, it’s disingenuous to focus on the exceptions rather than the rule. The rule is this: From a fundamental standpoint the Twins will start every game against the Yankees at a disadvantage. Their margins will be thin because the $94 million payroll difference between the teams means the Twins can’t afford to miss when they sign big-ticket players. The Yankees? They can just buy more.
The disparity is perhaps best demonstrated in the bullpen, where the Twins struggled mightily in the playoffs while the Yankees shut the door.
The Yankees were lauded on national playoff broadcasts for building their bullpen, but their two highest-end guys, Zack Britton and Aroldis Chapman, are making a combined $30 million this year.
The eight pitchers who constituted the Twins’ true bullpen in the postseason (not counting demoted starter Kyle Gibson) – Taylor Rogers, Tyler Duffey, Sergio Romo, Trevor May, Zack Littell, Brusdar Graterol, Devin Smeltzer and Cody Stashak – are making a combined $7.7 million this season. All but Rogers, May and Romo make the MLB minimum.
Among what still constitute the four biggest-money pro sports leagues in this country, baseball is alone in this disparity.
The NHL, NFL and NBA all have some versions of salary caps. The NBA’s cap feels like a sham at times because of all the loopholes and taxes, but it’s still a baseline for what every team can spend. The NHL and NFL are hard caps.
At least in terms of spending, every NHL and NFL team has an equal slate and can succeed or fail on the merits of its own decisions. (The NFL system is unfair to players because of non-guaranteed contracts. The NHL is about as fair for labor and management as would seem possible these days).
Market factors impact free agency, but you can only spend so much. The Wild and Vikings haven’t won a championship, either, but it’s not for lack of being able to spend. And they’ve at least advanced in the playoffs lately against teams on relatively equal financial ground.
MLB has a luxury tax, but it doesn’t stop major market teams from routinely cruising past $200 million payrolls while others are well below $100 million.
But didn’t the Twins win two World Series titles, you might ask?
Yes they did. But that was back in a much different era of baseball economics. Their payroll in 1991, the last time they won the World Series, was $22 million. The team they beat, Atlanta, was around $20 million. The Yankees spent $27 million on payroll that season.
And two of the highest-paid players in the game that year were Twins Game 6 hero Kirby Puckett and Game 7 hero Jack Morris.
The wealth gap has accelerated since then, in both baseball and real life.
The Twins’ only playoff series win since then came in 2002 over the low-budget “Moneyball” A’s. Starting in 2003, they’ve been eliminated by the Yankees six different times. Their only single-game playoff victories since 2003 came in two games against the Yankees started by Johan Santana — an ace the Twins picked up for a bargain and later traded to New York (the Mets in this case) when he was due to get paid.
It’s still mind-numbing that the Twins have lost 16 consecutive postseason games, 13 of them to the Yankees (and 11 straight home playoff games dating back to 2002 for good measure).
But it’s not shocking that the series is lopsided when you consider how the financial deck is stacked. The Yankees’ opening day payroll in 2003, the first of those six playoff encounters, was $152 million. The Twins’ was $55 million.
We’re supposed to forget all that and pretend the fight is fair – that in the playoffs, it’s just two great teams and only one can win, and that even if a team had the advantage they earned it.
We try to pretend that things will be different, that this time the Twins and Yankees are true equals because the wins and home run totals are similar.
But the Twins overachieved for their 101 wins. The Yankees had a billion things go wrong this year and still won 103 games.
In the playoffs, the mismatch was as stark as ever. It was exacerbated by a disparity in how each team’s top-level players performed, but make no mistake: it was a mismatch from the start because the Yankees had better players.
It doesn’t mean the Twins didn’t have a chance. And it doesn’t mean they should stop trying to overcome their economic disadvantage with effort, intelligence and more carefully curated talent.
In baseball and life, there’s a fine line between recognizing not everything is your fault and giving up because the system is unfair.
But in baseball and in life, there is this baseline reality: You can work as hard as you can and still not win when the other side was born on third base.