August 31, 2004

The Big Trade

There was a time when a contending team trading for Pat Borders as they geared up for the playoffs would have been relatively big news. I was going to say it would have been "big news" without the "relatively" in front, but then I looked at Borders' numbers and realized that wasn't really true.

At his best, Borders was a catcher with a little pop in his bat and very little else. In his best season, he hit .286/.319/.497 with 15 homers, 24 doubles and 18 walks in 368 plate appearances. That was 15 years ago.

Borders is now 41 years old and his 16th season as a major leaguer, though just barely. Over the past six years, he has a grand total of 116 plate appearances in the major leagues, including 55 with the Seattle Mariners this season. In those 116 plate appearances -- about what an everyday player gets in a month -- Borders has hit .234 with a .254 on-base percentage and a .342 slugging percentage.

His lone remaining skill -- the thing I'm sure caused the Twins to value him enough to trade for him and use a roster spot on him -- is his age and whatever other qualities you want to attach to that. He's a veteran, he's good in the clubhouse, he's good at handling a pitching staff, he's been there before, and on and on and on.

I'm not particularly big on those things being of significant value, but in this case it doesn't much matter. Joe Mauer's knee is not going to allow him to catch again this season and his future behind the plate is in doubt as well. Because of that, and the fact that the Twins planned to have Mauer as their catcher for nearly every game this season, they have been left very thin at the position.

They have been relying on Henry Blanco as their starter, with Rob Bowen as his backup. Blanco's defense has been fantastic and he has done a very nice job with the pitching staff, but the offensive contributions of those two have been so bad that ... well, they've been so bad that adding Borders to the mix doesn't make things any worse.

The real issue here comes down to whether or not Borders is an upgrade over Bowen, and the smaller issue is whether or not upgrading your backup catcher really even matters. The problem with trying to make the comparison is that neither of them have played any sort of significant amount in the major leagues during the past several seasons. As I said, Borders has just 116 plate appearances going back as far as six seasons, while Bowen has a total of 43 plate appearances in his entire career.

Those types of sample sizes are so small that literally anything could happen in them. However, I think the value from Borders is that he is probably a better defensive catcher than Bowen (44.4% stolen base percentage against over the past two years, compared to 93.3% for Bowen) and less likely to "give away" at-bats in key situations.

In other words, both catchers have hit very poorly, but Bowen has looked completely lost at the plate while doing so. In 37 at-bats, he has struck out 14 times (37.8%) and has just four hits. And he was no better at Double-A, hitting .198 with a strikeout in 30.6% of his at-bats.

Basically what this entire deal comes down to is the fact that the Twins were apparently not comfortable with Bowen getting about three at-bats a week during the final month of the season and perhaps another at-bat every other game in the postseason.

I can't say that I blame them, but when you look at it that way, it's probably not even worth the amount of words I've already devoted it. However, I'd like to take it one step further. In order to acquire Borders and make the ever-so-slight upgrade at backup catcher, the Twins had to send the Mariners a minor league outfielder named B.J. Garbe.

Why is that notable? For one reason: Garbe was the Twins' first-round draft pick back in 1999. With the fifth overall pick that year -- three picks after the Marlins took Josh Beckett, four picks before the A's took Barry Zito, and five picks before the Brewers took Ben Sheets -- the Twins selected Garbe, a toolsy high school outfielder from Washington. Five years later, they've traded Garbe for a 41-year-old catcher who figures to get about 30 at-bats for the rest of the season.

And you wanna know the really sad thing? It wasn't a bad trade.

Garbe has been such an awful player throughout his minor league career that I see very little chance of him becoming anything more than a role player in the majors, if that. There have, of course, been players who have performed as poorly as Garbe has early in their career and gone on to big things, such as the Twins' own Torii Hunter, but you can't hold onto every struggling former prospect in the hopes of that happening.

In order to keep Garbe and not risk losing him in the next Rule 5 draft, the Twins would have had to again use up a spot on their 40-man roster on Garbe, which just doesn't make sense for a guy hitting .201 at Double-A in an organization flooded with outfielders who can actually hit. So, rather than lose a #5 overall pick who got a signing bonus of nearly $3 million for nothing, the Twins have "cashed him in" for Borders.

Baseball sure is a funny game sometimes.

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