March 7, 2010

Nathan Gets An MRI, Blackburn Gets A New Contract

There were two prominent bits of Twins news over the weekend, as Joe Nathan left Saturday's game with soreness in his surgically repaired right elbow and Nick Blackburn signed a four-year, $14 million contract with an option for 2014. I'm hesitant to comment much on Nathan's status until further details are known, but he flew from Fort Myers to Minneapolis yesterday to undergo an MRI exam and the hope is that the pain was from scar tissue breaking up following October 20 surgery to remove bone spurs.

As the 35-year-old closer put it: "We're going to get some pictures just for some peace of mind." Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that doctors will compare his current MRI results to his pre-surgery exam and proceed from there, with a couple days of rest to deal with the scar tissue qualifying as the best-case scenario and going under the knife again to fix a separate injury looming as the worst-case scenario. And no reason to panic in the meantime.

While the Twins hold their breath waiting for word on Nathan's elbow, they signed Blackburn to a deal that could keep him in Minnesota through 2014. However, he was already under team control through 2013 via arbitration eligibility. Rather than being a true "extension" the contract pays him $750,000 this season, pre-pays $13.25 million for Blackburn's three arbitration-eligible years in 2011-2013, and then gives the Twins an $8 million option for his first season of free agency in 2014.

Cost certainty during the arbitration process is important for the Twins and the deal ensures Blackburn won't file for a big salary following a particularly strong season, but because they're paying for what he will do rather than what he has done the downside is that cutting bait is no longer a choice if injuries or poor performances strike. The ability to delay free agency for another season also has value, although there's certainly no guarantee that they'll want to pay $8 million for a 32-year-old Blackburn.

When he was coming up through the minor leagues I pegged Blackburn as little more than a potential fifth starter or long reliever, criticizing Baseball America for ranking him as the Twins' best prospect as a 26-year-old in 2008. Since then he's significantly outperformed my expectations, beginning his career with back-to-back solid and (nearly identical) seasons as a durable middle-of-the-rotation starter who led the team in innings both years:

YEAR     GS      W      L     ERA      IP        SO     BB     HR     OAVG
2008     33     11     11     4.05     193.1     96     39     23     .292
2009     33     11     11     4.03     205.2     98     41     25     .290

You'd be hard-pressed to find many starters who began their career with more similar seasons and it's easy to see why the Twins think Blackburn is a big part of their future. However, his minuscule strikeout rates and high opponents' batting averages put him at risk to age poorly and the underlying numbers in his performance are closer to a 4.50 ERA than a 4.00 ERA. Toss in the fact that they could've controlled him through age 31 with no upfront commitment and the deal has some risk without much upside.

Blackburn has been a solid, dependable mid-rotation starter and is now entering just his third season, so the tendency is to assume that he'll naturally either maintain his performance or get better. He may do exactly that, in which case locking him up through 2014 at a total cost of $22 million would look like a steal, but many people felt the same way about Joe Mays and Carlos Silva once upon a time before the often sobering reality of low-strikeout pitchers without heavy ground-ball tendencies set in.

I'm generally in favor of locking up young players to long-term contracts, but logically not every instance of doing so is by definition a smart decision even if a certain segment of the fan base will automatically default to that assumption. In this case cost certainty comes with the risk of Blackburn tripping on the fine line he's walked thus far and there isn't a ton of value in having the right to pay him $8 million as a 32-year-old, so I would've gone year-to-year with him and let things play out from there.

That the Twins feel differently certainly isn't surprising because they're likely focused much more on his 4.04 ERA through 66 career starts than what his lack of missed bats and modest number of ground balls say about his chances of keeping that up for another 125 starts. I've been wrong about Blackburn through two seasons and hopefully I'll also be wrong about his next four or five seasons, but to me this is an unnecessary commitment with less upside and more downside than perhaps meets the eye.

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