Minnesota Twins: understanding who’s running my team

Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey right, and Senior Vice President, General Manager Thad Levine talked about former Twins manger Paul Molitor who was fired of after a losing season at Target Field Tuesday October 2, 2018 in Minneapolis, MN. ] JERRY HOLT • jerry.holt@startribune.com(Photo By Jerry Holt/Star Tribune via Getty Images)
Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey right, and Senior Vice President, General Manager Thad Levine talked about former Twins manger Paul Molitor who was fired of after a losing season at Target Field Tuesday October 2, 2018 in Minneapolis, MN. ] JERRY HOLT • jerry.holt@startribune.com(Photo By Jerry Holt/Star Tribune via Getty Images) /

One of a series of articles looking at the front office structure of each major league team. Let’s take a closer look at the Minnesota Twins.

Minnesota Twins

  • Owner: Jim Pohlad
  • Executive Vice President, Chief Baseball Officer: Derek Falvey
  • Senior Vice President, General Manager: Thad Levine

If Major League Baseball lasts for a thousand more years, no franchise may ever have more stable ownership than the Minnesota Twins.

Since 1913 – that’s more than a century – the franchise has been sold just one time. Clark Griffith, who purchased a controlling interest in 1913, turned it over to his son, Calvin, who sold it to Carl Pohlad in the mid-1980s. Pohlad’s son, Jim, is the managing partner today.

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Under the Griffiths, the ownership structure was famously — many would say notoriously — close-to-the-vest. Neither Griffith even appointed a general manager, preferring to handle individual personnel decisions on their own.

The Pohlad’s have taken a different, increasingly collegial approach. Carl Pohlad initially turned to tried-and-true baseball men for his baseball advice: first Charlie Fox, then Andy MacPhail, then Terry Ryan.

In recent years the team has followed the broader trend in the sport toward a more SABRmetric approach. Falvey is an economics grad from Trinity College who earned his pedigree in the sport as an assistant GM under Chris Antonetti and Michael Chernoff in Cleveland. Levine earned an MBA from UCLA and became an assistant GM under Jon Daniels for the Texas Rangers.

The Twins are by no stretch an organization flush with cash. Forbes sets their value at $1.20 million, solidly in the game’s lower third. The region’s 3.6 million population base isn’t much more than half the MLB average.

The $269 million in team revenues for 2019 – ninth-lowest  — reflects the natural market constraints.

One saving grace is that the Twins play in the AL Central, a division awash in teams with similar revenue issues. All five divisional competitors – including the large-market Chicago White Sox – ranked among the game’s bottom half in 2019 revenues, none grossing more than Cleveland’s $282 million (which ranked 17th).

At least the Twins are keeping up with the neighborhood. At 66 percent over the decade, the team’s revenue growth since 2010 almost precisely mirrors the change MLB-wide.

Under Pohlad, the team has managed to keep player salaries from swamping revenues, as has been the case with the divisional rivals in Detroit and Cleveland. The $139 million 2019 payroll is only about 34 percent higher than the team’s 2010 payroll, and represented a reasonable 51 percent of team revenues.

That status is likely to be challenged, by the way, in 2020, when the Minnesota Twins project opening day player expenses to top $162 million. Coming off the team’s divisional title, Falvey and Levine recently announced the signing of free agent Josh Donaldson to a four-year, $92 million deal that has been the prime accelerant to that payroll jump.

To deal with that spending level in the context of the present 51 percent formula, the Twins will have to generate another $50 million in revenue in 2020, a little matter of a 19 percent jump.

One can gaze longingly at the attendance column and possibly project something of that sort occurring. In 2010, the last time the Twins repeated as AL Central champs, they drew a franchise-record 3.2 million fans to Target Field.

Off a 2.3 million attendance, the Twins netted $43 in revenue per fan in 2019, so another 900,000 passing through Target’s gates could translate to 38.7 million additional bucks. The Twins could probably make ends meet with that kind of fan interest, especially if it generates additional brand or stadium-related spending.

At the same time, million-fan attendance increases don’t happen every year. In fact, the last time fan interest in the ballclub grew by that much was… never. The Twins came closest in 1988 when, defending their World Series win of the previous fall, they drew 3.03 million fans to the Metrodome, 948,000 more than in 1987.

Last season, en route to the AL Central title, attendance jumped by 335,000.

Whatever Falvey and Levine do, they’ll do it in tandem with one another, and they’ll do it with the franchise’s bottom line in mind. That team approach to front office management has been a consistent hallmark in Minnesota under Pohlad.

Over the most recent decade, pre-tax operating income has never fallen below $10.8 million; it was at $14 million in 2019. The Twins may not be large, but they make money.

In the first three seasons of the Falvey-Levine regency, they’ve also won, with division championships in 2017 and 2019. The overall .543 winning percentage probably says a lot about the relative weakness of the AL Central, as possibly does the team’s consistent failure to make any post-season headway.

With a 3-0 divisional round sweep at the hands of the Yankees last fall, that run of post-season futility has famously now stretched to 16 games since Johan Santana shut out the Yankees 2-0 in the first game of the 2004 ALDS.

Based on Wins Above Average*, the actual player acquisition skills of Falvey and Levine have been mixed.

They somewhat undermined – although not fatally – the budding powerhouse they inherited in 2017, and sucked nearly 7 games of value out of the roster entering 2018.

The 2019 season, however, marked both their rehabilitation and the restoration of their reputation. Signing free agents Nelson Cruz and Jorge Polanco – who combined for 63 home runs and 187 RBIs – they fortified what would become a championship roster by 11.5 games. The Minnesota Twins reached post-season play by a margin of eight games, so the case can easily be made that the Falvey-Levine decisions provided the difference.

Going forward, the immediate challenge will be soliciting the revenues needed to justify this winter’s spending spree. That in turn probably hinges on the team’s success in the standings. The franchise has a loyal core, not having drawn fewer than 1.9 million fans since 2001.

But rounding up the 2.5 million and more required to justify the Donaldson signing can be a larger challenge. The 2.3 million who sat in during the 2019 season – a high-water mark since 2013 – simply won’t be good enough in 2020.

Related Story. Minnesota Twins sign Josh Donaldson to 4-year deal. light

*This calculation is obtained by determining the net impact of all player transactions on team performance for the season(s) in question. Wins Above Average is a zero-based offshoot of Wins Above Replacement; thus, the final figure suggests the degree of positive or negative movement in the standings attributable to front office moves.