February 16, 2004

Three more years! Three more years! Three more years!

The Twins agreed to a two-year contract with an option for a third year with first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz yesterday. The deal breaks down as follows:

2004 - $2.80 million

2005 - $3.75 million

2006 - $3.75 million (or $450,000 buyout)

The first two years of the deal take care of Mientkiewicz's remaining arbitration eligibility, while the third season, if the option is picked up, would take care of his first year of free agency.

This comes as quite a shock to me. To be quite honest, I didn't think signing Mientkiewicz past 2004 was even being considered. The Twins have Justin Morneau, one of the best hitting prospects in all of baseball, and I just assumed this entire time that Mientkiewicz would agree to a one-year deal for 2004 and then leave, allowing Morneau to take over at first base in 2005.

At the same, I have largely been on the fence about whether or not letting Mientkiewicz go after 2004 was a good idea. You see, Mientkiewicz is not a lot things. He is not a prototypical first baseman. He is not a power hitter. He is not a guy who drives in runs in bunches. Despite all that, Mientkiewicz was one of the best first basemen in all of baseball last year when you take into account both offense and defense.

Strictly going by offensive contributions, Mientkiewicz hit .300/.393/.450 in 142 games last year. That was good for ninth among all major league first basemen in Runs Above Replacement Position (RARP), 10th in Value Over Replacement Position (VORP), and eighth in Runs Created Above Position (RCAP)

Defensive contributions are much harder to quantify. Mientkiewicz is, according to just about anyone you could ask and any defensive metric you can find, a phenomenal defensive first baseman. In fact, in my opinion he is the best defensive first baseman I have ever seen.

- Diamond-Mind has given Mientkiewicz their highest possible rating - "Excellent" - for each of the past three seasons.

- Mitchel's Lichtman's Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) system ranks Mientkiewicz #2 among all first basemen since 2000, just slightly behind Todd Helton (another outstanding defender).

- David Pinto's Probabilistic Model of Range (it could use a catchier name, but it's a very good system) ranked Mientkiewicz #3 among everyday first basemen last season.

- Baseball Prospectus shows Mientkiewicz as 58 Fielding Runs Above Replacement (FRAR) over the last three years.

I could go on and on, but I think you get the point. If you have a top-10 offensive first baseman and he is an elite defensive first baseman, doesn't that make him a damn good player?

Bill James' Win Shares is one of the few metrics that attempts to put together both offense and defense. Using Win Shares, Mientkiewicz ranked third among AL first basemen (behind only Carlos Delgado and Jason Giambi) and eighth among all major league first basemen last year.

Using Dave Studemund of BaseballGraphs.com's Wins Shares Above Replacement (which I happen to think is an extremely good stat, much better than raw Win Shares), Mientkiewicz checks in at 11.6 WSAR. That once again ranks him third in the AL and eighth overall.

So, essentially, Mientkiewicz was probably about the eighth-best first baseman in all of baseball last year. Of course, he wasn't nearly as good in 2002, when he hit just .261/.365/.392. He was, however, similarly effective in 2001, hitting .306/.387/.464 while providing his always-outstanding defense.

Basically, Mientkiewicz has been a top-10 first baseman in two of the last three years, with a horrible offensive season sandwiched in-between.

Having watched him play nearly every game of his entire career, I feel confident that Mientkiewicz's true ability is a whole lot closer to his 2001 and 2003 numbers than his 2002 numbers. Which is another way of saying I feel like he's a legit top-10 first baseman.

Is a guy who hits .306/.387/.464 (in 2001) or .300/.393/.450 (in 2003) while playing Gold Glove-caliber defense worth $2.8 million in 2004 and $3.75 million in both 2005 and 2006? Even on a team with a payroll that will likely remain under $60 million for that entire time, I think the answer is yes.

I think $10.3 million over three years (or $7 million for two years, if they buy him out for 2006) for a top-10 first baseman who doesn't turn 30 until June is a damn good deal. At the same time, it means Justin Morneau, if he's going to establish himself as a premier offense player for the Twins, will have to do it as a designated hitter.

I know some people are against making young players full-time DHs, but I don't really have a problem with it. Plus, Morneau can work in practice to improve his defense at first base the entire time, and he'll certainly have plenty of chances to play the position in games, whether he's subbing for an injured Mientkiewicz or just giving him a day off in the field.

The other concern about retaining Mientkiewicz for the next 2-3 years is that it further complicates what is an already messy logjam of corner outfielders and first basemen in Minnesota's system. While I certainly agree that they have an abundance of such players, I don't see it as a huge problem in regard to Mientkiewicz.

If Mientkiewicz is playing first base for the Twins in 2005 and 2006, that means Morneau will likely be DHing. The guys that would impact are Matthew LeCroy, Michael Cuddyer and Michael Restovich.

I remain unconvinced that Restovich can become an impact player in the major leagues. He has huge power potential, but has hit .281/.350/.506 (with a 268/100 K/BB ratio) in 257 career games at Triple-A, which, while good, is nothing particularly impressive. Perhaps he can be a good DH or a decent corner outfielder, but I don't think the Twins should be clearing out starting spots for him at this point.

Cuddyer is a different story, because I think he can be a clear step up from Restovich as a player. The Twins could very easily make room for Cuddyer, either by trading (or not offering arbitration to) Jacque Jones at some point and sticking him in right field, or by letting Corey Koskie leave as a free agent after this season and plugging him in at third base.

Hell, if I were running things, I would give Cuddyer a serious look at second base. Of course, I'm not a big fan of their current second baseman and perhaps my Jeff Kent fantasies are wildly optimistic. Still, I don't think having Mientkiewicz around through 2006 means it's not possible to get Cuddyer everyday playing time.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a bigger fan of Matthew LeCroy than me. He is someone whom I think can be a very solid DH, and I think he'll do very well in that role for the Twins in 2004. At the same time, if you told me I could have Morneau and LeCroy as my 1B/DH in 2005/2006 or Mientkiewicz and Morneau, I would take the latter in a heartbeat (even with the differences in salary).

Plus, even without a starting role, LeCroy could get a ton of playing time in 2005 and 2006. He could DH or play first base against tough lefties (both Mientkiewicz and Morneau are left-handed) and he could serve as Joe Mauer's backup behind the plate.

I think the Twins have done well locking Doug Mientkiewicz up for the next three seasons. He has been a very good player for two of the past three years and the contract is very reasonable, even for a small-market team. It does block some of their other hitters, but the only guy I'd be really worried about blocking is Cuddyer, and there are several other places he could play.

Plus, perhaps with Mientkiewicz under contract for the foreseeable future, the Twins could actually go out and try to trade someone like Restovich or LeCroy for a person who could play the middle infield without making me hate them. And, if all else fails and they suddenly feel compelled to give everyday jobs to Cuddyer, Restovich and LeCroy, they could always trade Mientkiewicz. I'm sure there are plenty of teams out there that would be interested and, as I said, his price-tag is very reasonable.

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