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Updated: December 3rd, 2013 5:44pm
Richest free agent contract in Twins history about baseball, business

Richest free agent contract in Twins history about baseball, business

by Judd Zulgad

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Twins held a press conference Tuesday afternoon at Target Field to officially introduce righthander Ricky Nolasco and announce he had received a four-year, $48 million deal. There's also a club option that could vest in 2018.

That marked the largest contract the Twins have ever given to a free agent outside the organization.

Later this week, it's expected the team will welcome another free-agent righty, Phil Hughes. He reportedly will get $24 million over three years.

Reports indicate the team also is working on going the free-agent route to sign a catcher. They had looked at bringing back A.J. Pierzynski, but he agreed to a one-year, $8.25 million deal with the Boston Red Sox on Tuesday.

That caused general manager Terry Ryan to turn his attention to Jarrod Saltalamacchia, but he reportedly wound up signing with the Miami Marlins.

All of this pre-Christmas shopping by the Twins would seem to indicate a definite shift in the approach for a team that has lost 99, 96 and 96 games in consecutive seasons, despite generating revenue in a beautiful downtown ballpark that is only 4-years old.

Right, Terry?

"This isn't a change in philosophy," Ryan said, bristling just a tad, as Nolasco and his agent sat nearby during Tuesday's press conference. "We've always said if we need to do something now we have the resources to do it. ... If we were still in the Metrodome this probably wouldn't happen. But we're in Target Field, we've got more revenue and resources certainly. This is a nice opportunity. We need pitching. We went out and got it."

Let's be very clear: This isn't Ryan's first choice for how to build a ballclub. The Twins ended the 1990s with seven consecutive losing seasons and suffered through another sub.-500 finish in 2000 before turning things around the following year.

Ryan was the GM for those teams, and while despair and apathy set in with the fan base, he utilized patience to build a competitive roster through trades and the draft.

The Twins were a low-revenue club stuck in a baseball dungeon and Ryan, a scout and a baseball-lifer, had the trust and patience of ownership to do it his way. The result was a 10-year run that featured nine winning seasons and six playoff appearances.

Considering the prospects the Twins have on the way, a group headed by third baseman Miguel Sano and centerfielder Byron Buxton, there is a chance Ryan could again provide a homegrown team that could rocket to the top of the American League Central.

As far as young pitching, Alex Meyer, acquired from Washington for centerfielder Denard Span last offseason, might be worthy of staff ace status starting in 2015, and Kyle Gibson should be in the rotation in 2014 after a rocky rookie season.

The issue this time around is the Twins and Ryan don't have the luxury of the patience that went along with playing in the Metrodome.

Three losing seasons is three too many for a franchise that generates far more revenue than it did in the Dome, but also is losing money-making opportunities with each defeat.

It's not just a drop in ticket sales, either, when you consider concession and merchandise sales have to be taking a hit.

The Twins spent much of 2013 reminding season-ticket holders that they should remain customers because Target Field will play host to the 2014 All-Star Game. But once that event leaves town, what happens if the Twins are en route to another 90-plus loss season?

Sure, youngsters like Buxton and Sano are selling points, but making promises for future success only goes so far with a public that is again growing accustomed to losing seasons. The Twins know they need to improve the on-field product and fast.

There is another business matter that's important here as well. Fox Sports North and the Twins agreed to a new exclusive television contract shortly after the team moved into Target Field that pays $29 million annually.

The Star Tribune reported last month that since 2010, the Twins' last winning season, FSN North's average per game viewership has gone from 152,000 households to 73,000 households.

This couldn't sit well with Fox Sports executive locally or nationally and when Rupert Murdoch's company writes a big annual check to a team it expects that money to be put back into the product and ratings to be delivered.

There is a decent chance this time around that Jim Pohlad and ownership encouraged Ryan to spend their money in order to make business partners happy.

Ryan stepped down as Twins general manger following the 2007 season and returned in November 2011 to try to stop the franchise's slide. After two more losing seasons, Ryan likely realizes that he can no longer copy the blueprint that worked so well for him starting in 2001.

Thus, no matter how he feels about signing outside free agents, it isn't just an option for immediate improvement, it is the only one. Just don't tell Ryan that's a change in philosophy.

"I don't think it's the greatest path because it is risky, we all know that," Ryan said. "Free agency is not the answer. It's a help and a supplement to the roster, but if you relied on free agency year in and year out it's not going to work. We're in a situation where we need help, we need immediate help and this is the reason that Ricky's sitting here."

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
In this story: Phil Hughes, Denard Span