March 14, 2010

Twins Sign Span To Long-Term Deal

All is quiet on the Joe Mauer front since false reports from Mark Rosen and Dan Cole claiming that an extension had been agreed upon, but that hasn't stopped the Twins from handing out other long-term deals. Last week Nick Blackburn inked a four-year, $14 million contract with an $8 million team option for 2014 and over the weekend Denard Span agreed to a five-year, $16.5 million deal with a $9 million team option or $500,000 buyout for 2015.

For both Blackburn and Span the Twins basically pre-paid for their remaining team-controlled seasons while securing a team option for their first season of free agency, with the only real difference being that Blackburn has accumulated one more year of big-league service time than Span and thus would have been eligible to hit the open market one year sooner. In other words, only the addition of a 2014 option for Blackburn and a 2015 option for Span alter how long the Twins would have been able to keep them.

Blackburn's contract struck me as an unnecessary risk without much upside, as they already controlled him through 2014 anyway and his skill set makes decline more likely than a breakout during the life of the deal. Because of that, committing $14 million up front when the Twins could have just taken things year-to-year with him is a questionable tradeoff in exchange for a bit of cost certainty and an $8 million team option on a 32-year-old Blackburn for 2014.

Span is a different story even through the contracts are nearly identical, because he's currently a clearly more valuable player than Blackburn despite being two years younger and also projects as more likely to maintain his performance long term. Not only is Span at $16.5 million for 2010-2014 more likely to be a bargain than Blackburn at $14 million for 2010-2013, there's a much higher chance that the Twins will actually want to retain Span for $9 million in 2015 compared to Blackburn for $8 million in 2014.

Here are the contract breakdowns, with "MIN" standing for minimum-salaried, pre-arbitration seasons, "ARB" representing arbitration-eligible seasons, and "FA" equaling free agency (numbers in millions):

             MIN2    MIN3    ARB1    ARB2    ARB3    FA1
Blackburn            0.75    3.00    4.75    5.50    8.00    option
Span         0.75    1.00    3.00    4.75    6.50    9.00    option/0.50 buyout

All of which isn't to say that Span's contract is a no-brainer for the Twins, because as someone whose big-league career consists of just 238 games in less than two full seasons and has been dramatically superior to his underwhelming minor-league track record there's some risk there too. He's gone from hitting .287/.357/.358 in the minors to .305/.390/.422 in the majors, upping his walks by 25 percent and showing 60 percent more power with 10 percent fewer strikeouts to emerge as an ideal leadoff man.

However, he's better and younger than Blackburn with less likelihood of a decline and far more upside, making him a much more viable and impactful long-term building block. And even my once-prominent (and warranted) skepticism of Span being the real deal has all but vanished during the past two years, so while the risk of up-front money outweighed the reward of cost certainty and delayed free agency for Blackburn taking the same plunge with Span was a lot more worthwhile. Now, about this Mauer guy ...

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