February 21, 2009

Twins Sign Joe Crede

Selected out of a Missouri high school by the White Sox in the fifth round of the 1996 draft, Joe Crede made his major-league debut in September of 2000, got another cup of coffee in 2001, and then took over for Jose Valentin and Tony Graffanino as Chicago's starting third baseman in mid-2002. He'd hit .291/.346/.462 in the minors, including .289/.345/.504 at Triple-A, so when Crede batted .285/.311/.515 with 12 homers in 51 games as a 24-year-old he officially became the White Sox's starter at third base.

He held that job for the next six seasons, hitting .257/.306/.447 in 3,010 plate appearances spread over 798 games, and came up big during the White Sox's run to the World Series in 2005, going 13-for-45 (.289) with four homers and 11 RBIs in 12 games. In the 108-year history of the White Sox only Robin Ventura, Willie Kamm, and Bill Melton have played more third base than Crede and there's a decent chance that he's heard more anti-Twins pregame speeches than any player in baseball history.

After playing 102 games against the Twins during the past nine seasons Crede has decided to join the enemy, signing an incentive-laden one-year contract Saturday. Over the past couple months there have been countless reports about Crede asking for more than $7 million in guaranteed money for this year, which should have sounded absurd to everyone but agent Scott Boras after significant back problems caused him to miss 180 games over the past two seasons.

Instead he ended up with just $2.5 million in guaranteed money, plus another $4.5 million in potential incentives based on playing time. There's a huge distinction between paying $7 million and potentially paying $7 million if Crede stays healthy and productive all season, and that difference is what makes the signing a smart one for the Twins despite the point I've tried to make throughout the offseason that platooning Brian Buscher and Brendan Harris is a perfectly acceptable fallback plan at third base.

Neither player is anything special, but Buscher is a .297/.354/.411 hitter against righties and Harris is a .295/.360/.440 hitter against lefties, so if platooned properly they're capable of matching and perhaps topping the .266/.336/.436 line that MLB third basemen as a whole produced in 2008 or Crede's career .257/.306/.447 line. They'd give back some runs on defense compared to the average third baseman and more runs compared to Crede, but at a cost of $750,000 the Buscher-Harris combo is underrated.

In particular paying under $1 million for a mediocre platoon was a better option than rumored targets like Casey Blake, Garrett Atkins, Kevin Kouzmanoff, and Ty Wigginton who wouldn't provide enough of an upgrade over Buscher and Harris to warrant the cost to acquire them. However, signing Crede is a slightly different story. Crede isn't the huge boost over a Buscher-Harris platoon that most Twins fans seem to think, but if healthy he does represent an upgrade and the price is definitely right.

Crede is hardly a great player and even a mediocre .257/.306/.447 career line overstates his bat thanks to calling Chicago's power-boosting ballpark home, as he's hit .258/.302/.431 on the road. He's good at playing defense and hitting for power, but very bad at hitting for average, getting on base, and staying healthy. When he's not hobbled by back problems Crede is more or less an average all-around third baseman, which is certainly something that the Twins have lacked since Corey Koskie's departure.

They were in position to get solid, cheap production at third base by platooning Buscher and Harris, but there are still several ways for the Crede signing to work out well for the Twins. The best-case scenario is that he hits .260/.320/.450 with 20 homers and strong defense while staying healthy for 140 games, at which point the Twins will have spent $7 million of otherwise unused payroll space to upgrade the position a decent but unspectacular amount.

However, even if more back problems strike Crede the contract will still work out reasonably well if he remains healthy and productive for a while before heading to the disabled list. In other words, as long as his back problems occur suddenly and sideline him immediately rather than lingering and hurting his performance the Twins will simply have dropped a couple million dollars for a temporary upgrade before turning back to the Buscher-Harris platoon.

Unfortunately there's also a worst-case scenario, which is that more back problems lead to a repeat of 2007 when he hit .216/.258/.317 before undergoing surgery. Because of the incentive-heavy deal that may only cost the team $2.5 million, but the playing-time incentives will also motivate Crede to continue playing at far less than full strength and the games lost before ditching him could be much more costly. In that scenario the Twins spend millions on a hobbled downgrade from the Buscher-Harris platoon.

Given the excess payroll room, incentive-driven nature of the deal, and continued presence of Buscher and Harris as fallback options the only way for the Crede signing to really hurt the Twins is if his back problems reoccur without sending him to the DL and the plug isn't pulled quickly. After missing 112 games in 2007 and 65 games last year there's a good chance that Crede's back will act up again, but at least signing all of those washed-up veterans has given the Twins plenty of plug-pulling practice.

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