December 3, 2008

Relievers and Blake

Two weeks ago the Giants signed Jeremy Affeldt to a reasonable two-year, $8 million contract after he topped my list of free-agent relievers the Twins should target this offseason. Bob Howry wasn't on that list of targets because at the time he was a "Type A" free agent and would have required giving up a first-round pick to sign, but his exclusion did come with the disclaimer that Howry "would definitely move near the top of my preferred targets list" if the Cubs didn't offer him salary arbitration.

Sure enough that's exactly what happened earlier this week when the Cubs turned down any draft-pick compensation by declining to offer Howry arbitration. Unfortunately he's still not an option for the Twins, because the Giants moved quickly Wednesday to sign Howry to a one-year deal worth $2.8 million plus incentives. Affeldt and Howry certainly weren't the only free agents who can help the Twins' bullpen, but as two of the best options it's frustrating to see them both snatched up with reasonable, short deals.

Between not dealing for Chad Bradford or LaTroy Hawkins at the trading deadline and not beating the Giants' offers for Affeldt or Howry the Twins have missed multiple opportunities to address their weak bullpen without having to break the bank. There are still some good reliever targets available--Brandon Lyon, Eric Gagne, and Will Ohman from my original list, plus Russ Springer after the Cardinals chose not to offer him arbitration--but signing either Affeldt or Howry would have put me at ease.

While the Twins have yet to do anything on the reliever front, Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that they've offered Casey Blake a two-year, $12 million contract with a third-year team option. Handing a multi-year contract to Blake doesn't strike me as a great move because he's already 35 years old and is unlikely to be a significant upgrade over the Brian Buscher-Brendan Harris platoon that the Twins could trot out at third base for $700,000.

Blake is a solid enough player, but investing relatively big money in mediocre veterans when there are younger players capable of filling the job has hurt the Twins on an annual basis and they don't seem to have learned anything from those mistakes. Blake is sub par defensively at third base and has been almost exactly average offensively for the position, so any age-related declines would leave him below average as a regular and that type of 35-year-old rarely proves to be a sound investment.

Much has been made of the Twins' need for a right-handed bat and over the past three seasons Blake has posted a solid .270/.368/.486 line against left-handed pitching, but during that same time Harris hit .304/.370/.443 against lefties. Toss in Harris being seven years younger than Blake and it's safe to say that they'll essentially be equally effective versus southpaws. Blake has also hit .276/.338/.447 against right-handers over the past three years, but Buscher is capable of approaching that production.

Buscher has batted .297/.354/.411 through his first 279 plate appearances against righties after hitting .327/.421/.540 against them at Triple-A. Harris is capable of matching Blake's production versus lefties and Buscher is capable of matching Blake's production versus righties, and platooned correctly they'd provide 90 percent of the hitting and similar defense for 10 percent of the cost. Filling the spot with one player has value, but so does trusting cheap 28-year-olds instead of an expensive 35-year-old.

If the Twins can indeed get Blake for $12 million over two seasons you won't hear much objection from me, because he's a quality player and the risk would be minimal. However, given that they're reportedly bidding against the Dodgers landing Blake seems unlikely without raising the salary or committing to a third year, both of which would be mistakes given that he's a mediocre 35-year-old who doesn't provide a big upgrade. Trusting Buscher and Harris while signing Affeldt or Howry would've made more sense.

Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.

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