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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A quick take on Casey Blake

Should the Twins sign Casey Blake this offseason? It's been discussed, supported, and belittled on numerous Twins blogs so why haven't the Werner Brothers (at least one of them) weighed in on this issue? I guess our take is a little mixed. Here are three things fans and bloggers should keep in mind when it comes to signing a free agent like Blake:

1. Options at 3B and Meanings for other positions
2. Defense and Offense
3. Strategies of Resilience: First Choices and Back-Up Plans

Options at 3B

Third Base is a great place for the Twins to upgrade this offseason, whether it is short term (waiting for Hughes or Valencia in 2010 or so) or long term (if the player is good). The Twins also need a shortstop (or 2B if Casilla moves). I'm on record from the start of the Twins' offseason saying that I'd enjoy the Twins trying to pick up both a middle infielder and a 3B, even at the expense of Perkins/Blackburn, Boof, and a corner OF/DH option like Cuddyer, Young, or Kubel (though only if the trading options were excellent).

Other options include trading for an experienced 3B--Garrett Atkins of the Rockies, Kevin Kouzmanoff of the Padres, or Adrian Beltre of the Mariners--a less experienced 3B like Chris Davis of the Rangers, or an MLB-ready player with only minor league experience. Unfortunately, there isn't much else available for Free Agent 3B's--maybe Joe Crede, though he is coming off multiple injuries and will remain an injury risk. There are more Free Agent options at SS: they include Orlando Cabrera (whom I don't like), Rafael Furcal (whom I like a little more, but think will be too expensive), Edgar Renteria (whom I don't want), and former/recent Twins like Nick Punto and Adam Everett (both of whom are good defenders, but have little to offer the offense). Trading for a shortstop who can hit and play defense is difficult, being that SS is a premium position, and the Twins have few if any SS options in the high minors. But it is rumored that JJ Hardy or Yunel Escobar might be available for trade with a sweet enough deal for the Brewers or the Braves.

In any case, the Twins would like to improve their offense at both these positions (SS / 3B), but they don't want to give up their first round draft picks without a very special signing, and they likely don't want to trade away too many quality players to bring in a new 3B and SS. So the Twins front office is likely looking for a signing like Blake at 3B to go with a trade to bring in a SS (and maybe a RP). But in improving their offense through free agents and trades, can they keep a solid defense for 2009?

Defense and Offense

The Twins are not the best slugging team, and few Twins excel at taking walks. What they excelled at in 2008 was hitting for average, and somehow improving their average dramatically with runners in scoring position (RISP). Counting on a high team batting average with RISP is a tenuous and unlikely bet, so the Twins need to improve either their slugging with who they have already for 2009, or bring in new hitters to bolster the power side of their batting. But it is important to note that the Twins have developed a team style dependent on good defense, which is one reason why Everett and Punto were good options for the middle infield (though Everett didn't live up to his potential on either side this year, and however well Punto did this year doesn't help erase a horrid 2007 from the minds of fans).

How do you balance defense and offense? Even though I think that many Twins project to slug more in 2009 than they did in 2008 (Young, Mauer, Cuddyer, Kubel, Gomez), I doubt that the Twins average with RISP can match the numbers from 2008. And while the Twins outfield could very easily remain a top defensive outfield in 2009, I'm not sure the same is true of the infield, and that means that our pitchers will have less support and confidence, and Gardenhire will be more frustrated and erratic, which may have cascading effects on the field. I think that the defensive play at SS is key more than it is at 3B. In other words, I think that a healthy Everett would be a perfect fit for the Twins, though a less skilled SS may do fine with fly-ball-heavy pitchers like Perkins, Slowey, and Baker. But this is not to downplay the value of having someone like Beltre at 3B, with Gold Glove defense and solid batting from the right side.

Other bloggers (linked above) have looked at the particular strengths and weaknesses of 3B options, both offensively and defensively, so I'll leave it to you to check that out rather than recapping it. But the question I want to focus on is how the Twins might improve their first choices without losing the resilience that has kept the team a consistent threat year after year (you could say that the Twins have had a dynasty of remaining competitive--even if they aren't winning--for the entire Gardenhire era).

Strategies of Resilience

What the Twins have had the last couple years--for good and ill at times--is flexibility in the infield, due largely to players like Nick Punto, Matt Tolbert, and Brendan Harris. While Harris is now being talked about as a potential platoon partner with Brian Buscher by many in the Twins blogging community, he came in to play SS or 2B, and played both early this year. At the same time, the Twins have had utility players like Punto and Tolbert around to fill in the holes when players get hurt or can't play defense well enough. But the Twins may not retain Punto's services, they've given up on Everett, and Tolbert's defense and offense may end up below and equal to Punto's defense and offense respectively. In other words, the Twins may start 2009 with far less flexibility than they did in 2006-2008: whatever Punto's problems were offensively in 2007, he made up for it with three good years of defense and two solid years of offense.

A player like Blake may be flexible in terms of his ability to play at all the corners (1B, 3B, LF, RF), but he can't play the middle infield, and someone like JJ Hardy (if the Twins could manage to trade for him) may end up needing a switch to 3B from SS at some point in 2-3 years. Finally, when I think about resilience, I think of the Twins outfield and DH slots, which may actually be overflowing with resilience. The Twins are unlikely to have that in the infield, and planning to use Harris and Buscher as a platoon not only cuts down on roster spots, but also cuts down on infield resilience. With the Lamb and Everett signings of last offseason, the Twins tried to bring in players to improve the team, but when that failed, they had other options (Punto, Casilla, Tolbert, Harris, and Buscher). I don't think we'll have as much flexibility if the platoon isn't working.

I think this is one reason that many Twins bloggers are ignoring when they endorse a 3B platoon rather than signing Blake or Crede, or trading for Beltre. I don't like any of these options, but I think they are wise if the price (contracts/trading requirements) is right. That would give the Twins the option to use a Harris/Buscher platoon as the backup rather than the only plan. And if Blake works out similar to Lamb in 2008, there's another option: if Harris/Buscher regressed somehow (offensively, defensively, or injury), the say wouldn't be true, and the Twins might be looking at Hughes or Valencia a year or two earlier than preferred.

The same would be true at SS: I'd prefer to bring in Hardy (even if he cost us Boof, Delmon, and a pitching prospect) rather than trying out Harris there. And while Tolbert might be a cheaper version of Punto, I wouldn't be opposed to keeping Punto around for flexibility even if we wouldn't have enough spots for some of our other infielders with question marks and limitations.


It seems that few others are as interested as I am in (a) bringing in Chris Davis from the Rangers (even if it means sending them Perkins/Blackburn, Boof, Duensing, and Valencia--perhaps even a little more quality in that quantity) in order to give the Twins a great offensive 3B with solid defense to protect Morneau; or (b) trading Boof, Kubel, and Young while signing Dunn to protect Morneau, thereby allowing for a Harris/Buscher/Punto platoon at 3B/SS while still improving the offense. Given that those options don't seem to be working out, and given that trading very much for one year of Beltre without negotiating an extension would be ill-advised (and acquiring Kouzmanoff, Atkins, Renteria, or Cabrera each seems quite foolish to me), I would recommend one of the following two courses of action.

1. Sign Casey Blake for two years with a vested option, at maybe $7-9 million/year and make a hard push for a Hardy trade that would make keeping the Buscher/Harris platoon around a good thing. This gives us one free agent signing (Type B, so no lost draft pick) and one trade (where we might have to give up Boof, Perkins, and a couple prospects, or maybe Boof, Delmon, and a prospect). Then worry about finding a set-up RHP.

2. If we stick with the Buscher/Harris platoon as the primary 3B option and focus all of our attention on someone like Hardy, then signing Punto becomes a much more desirable act (in order to keep a good SS option in house). If Punto is too expensive, I recommend signing Everett again (for cheap) in order to keep the team's infield resilience and defensive ability.

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