Twins can't afford to make errors (in contracts)

Joe Mauer #7 of the Minnesota Twins hits

Joe Mauer #7 of the Minnesota Twins hits a first inning double against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium. (April 16, 2012) (Credit: Jim McIsaac)

Mark Herrmann

Newsday columnist Mark Herrmann Mark Herrmann

Herrmann has covered the Mets and Yankees since 1988,

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One of the major differences between the Twins and the Yankees is that when the Twins swing for the fences, they cannot afford to whiff, or even foul one off.

We are not talking about what happens in ballgames, but the art of spending big money in the offseason. The topic was hard to ignore with the Twins' arrival at Yankee Stadium Monday night, coming off a 99-loss season and sending their ace, Carl Pavano, to the mound.

Things probably will not get a whole lot better for the Twins unless Joe Mauer makes a massive recovery from the injuries that have robbed him of his power (only 13 home runs since 2009, when he hit 28) and made it reasonable to ask, "Might $23 million a year through 2018 have been a tad too much?"

Unless Mauer returns to the form that made him a three-time batting champion and a former American League Most Valuable Player, the Twins will be more like the Islanders than the Yankees. Mauer's $184-million deal could turn out to be like Rick DiPietro's: a long-running drain on a team that doesn't have streams of money coming in.

Add the $14 million committed to Justin Morneau for this year and next, and the Twins don't have a whole lot of elbow room in a $100-million payroll.

Don't get the wrong idea. This is not a screed against the unfairness of the poor little markets going up against the big, bad big-city clubs. To the contrary, the Twins' problem is not that smaller markets can't win it all, it is that they can. With a little extra cash from the opening of a new ballpark and some confidence after winning six division titles in nine years, the Twins decided to roll the dice. Uh-oh.

The trouble for a franchise in Minnesota is that it had better be right when it goes to the bank. If the player fails to produce or gets injured, the club is cooked.

This is not something the Yankees (payroll: $209 million) ever have to worry about. Paying Pavano $40 million for nine wins was annoying, but it wasn't devastating. Tired of A.J. Burnett and his $82.5-million deal? No problem. Eat a chunk of the contract and send him on his way. Wasting $46 million on Kei Igawa, a deal that translated to $23 million per victory? Oh, well.

The Twins, meanwhile, have to hold their breath that they get their money's worth from their latter-day M&M Boys.

Some hope peeked through Monday night. Pavano settled down after allowing home runs to the first two batters. Morneau, who has been troubled since 2010 from the effects of a concussion, pronounced himself fit enough to play first base for the first time this year. He proved to be fit enough to blast a home run into the Yankees' bullpen, too.

Mauer, the designated hitter, laced two doubles in his first three at-bats.

"It's a process. He has missed a lot of baseball," said manager Ron Gardenhire, who is both an optimist and a genius at squeezing a lot out of a little. "You don't step right in and hit .350 again. He's still working on some things. He feels good. He has put some nice swings on the ball. He's not as consistent as he normally is yet, but he'll get there."

We'll see. All that this peanut stand saw Monday night was this scene: the Yankees trying to figure out which of their seven starters will form a permanent rotation while the Twins were trying to patch together five from the disabled list and other points on the map. "We've got some moving parts here," general manager Terry Ryan said.

It is going to be a while, though, before they make another big move with their checkbook.