November 12, 2011

Twins sign middle infielder Jamey Carroll to two-year, $7 million contract

Terry Ryan's first significant move in his second go-around as general manager was to fill the Twins' gaping middle infield hole by signing Jamey Carroll to a two-year, $7 million contract. In assessing inexpensive shortstop options last week in this space I endorsed offering Carroll a one-year deal. Handing out multi-year contracts to 38-year-old middle infielders generally isn't a smart idea, but the money is reasonable enough and for 2012 at least Carroll is a good fit.

Carroll was stuck in the minors until age 28 and began his big-league career as a utility man, but he's gotten better and expanded his role with age. He's coming off the two best seasons of his career at ages 36 and 37, batting .290 with a .368 on-base percentage in 279 games for the Dodgers while posting a strong 122-to-98 strikeout-to-walk ratio, going 22-for-26 stealing bases, and splitting time between shortstop and second base.

Carroll's power is non-existent, with 12 homers in 1,065 games and an Isolated Power of .070 that ranks third-lowest among all active players with at least 2,000 plate appearances ahead of only Cesar Izturis and Juan Pierre. Obviously a middle infielder with power would be ideal, but the Twins botched that with J.J. Hardy and Carroll's on-base skills stand out. In fact, his .356 OBP ranks seventh among all active middle infielders with 2,000 plate appearances:

Derek Jeter         .383
Hanley Ramirez      .380
Chase Utley         .377
Dustin Pedroia      .373
Yunel Escobar       .366
Troy Tulowitzki     .364
JAMEY CARROLL       .356
Ian Kinsler         .355
Carlos Guillen      .355
Rickie Weeks        .354

That's some pretty great company for Carroll and his OBP during the past four seasons is even higher at .362, including yearly marks of .359, .379, .355, and .355. And he doesn't just get on base, he grinds out long at-bats too. Carroll saw 4.28 pitches per plate appearance this year, which tied Jose Bautista for sixth in all of baseball, and he also ranked fifth in 2010 and ninth in 2009. That's remarkable patience considering pitchers aren't afraid to throw him strikes.

Ron Gardenhire goes out of his way to bat a middle infielder No. 2 in the lineup whether they have a decent OBP or not, so the fact that Carroll actually gets on base, takes tons of pitches, and makes tons of contact is a nice bonus. He's also a right-handed batter who's hit .292 with a .371 OBP versus left-handed pitching during the past three seasons, making Carroll a nice fit breaking up the left-handed bats of Denard Span, Joe Mauer, and Justin Morneau.

Signing a middle infielder whose primary strengths are working counts and getting on base is a big step in the right direction for the Twins and Carroll's on-base skills are legitimately good, not just good compared to other middle infielders. For instance, he's posted a higher on-base percentage than Michael Cuddyer in each of the past four years. With that said, Carroll's lack of power is certainly an issue and both his age and defense are concerns on a two-year deal.

Apparently the Twins plan to use Carroll as their everyday shortstop and he's never done that before, although he did make 105 starts and log 1,078 innings at shortstop over the past two seasons. He also graded out as exactly average during that time according to Ultimate Zone Rating. Of course, for a 38-year-old average can quickly turn into below average and very few shortstops throughout baseball history have remained strong defenders at Carroll's age.

Age also puts him at risk for a rapid decline at the plate, particularly since speed and hand-eye coordination are major factors in Carroll's offensive game. Zero power is easy to live with in a solid defensive shortstop with a .350 on-base percentage, but if Carroll's range and OBP slip he'll either have to shift to second base with Alexi Casilla sliding back to shortstop or move to a bench role for which he'd be overpaid.

This isn't a signing that will excite an already frustrated fan base and if father time catches up to Carroll the Twins will regret giving him a two-year contract, but he's been worth significantly more than $3.5 million per season in each of the past four years, has shown no sign of decline so far and is better at 38 than he was at 28, has been on the disabled list once in 10 seasons, and kills two birds with one stone as a middle infielder and No. 2 hitter.

December 16, 2010

Matt Guerrier and Jesse Crain leave Twins for three-year deals

After seven seasons in Minnesota apiece Matt Guerrier and Jesse Crain both officially left the Twins yesterday. Guerrier is heading to the National League on a three-year, $12 million deal with the Dodgers, while Crain will be remaining in the division and relieving for the enemy after agreeing to a three-year, $13 million contract with the White Sox. Neither departure comes as a surprise, although Crain going to Chicago adds a little extra sting to the bullpen losses.

Guerrier was remarkably reliable and generally very underrated throughout his seven seasons in Minnesota and ranks as one of the best waiver-wire pickups in team history. Claimed from Pittsburgh in November of 2003 after the Pirates acquired him from the White Sox in a March of 2002 trade for Damaso Marte, he went on to throw 472 innings with a 3.38 ERA and allowed opponents to hit just .247/.308/.387 while earning a grand total of just $6.6 million.

He twice led the league in appearances, worked 70-plus games in each of the past four years, is one of just three MLB relievers to log more than 450 innings since 2005, and had a sub-3.50 ERA in five of his six full seasons. Johan Santana, Al Worthington, and Rick Aguilera are the only pitchers in Twins history to throw more innings with a better adjusted ERA+ than Guerrier. And the Twins were right to let him go.

Guerrier has shown some signs of decline, as his strikeouts per nine innings dropped from 7.0 in 2007-2008 to 5.4 in 2009-2010 and he lost a full mile per hour off his peak fastball velocity. And simply by virtue of being a 33-year-old relief pitcher with less than overpowering raw stuff and secondary numbers that never quite matched the sparkling ERAs his performance is likely to crumble before the Dodgers are done paying him like a top-of-the-line setup man.

Similarly, it's difficult to fault the Twins for failing to top the White Sox's bid for Crain when they demoted him to Triple-A less than 18 months ago and never fully trusted him as their primary setup man prior to this year. To his credit Crain returned from Rochester pitching better than ever with a 3.00 ERA and 92 strikeouts in 102 innings following the month-long demotion and was nearly unhittable down the stretch this year by allowing four runs in a 42-inning span.

Crain's second-half dominance can be traced to an increased reliance on his slider, as he used it a career-high 46 percent of the time after previously never topping 26 percent. His mid-90s fastball didn't go anywhere, but by throwing it just 42 percent of the time after never before dipping under 60 percent Crain became a more dangerous, unpredictable pitcher. Whether he can thrive long term throwing nearly 50 percent sliders, however, remains to be seen.

His change in approach and being four years younger than Guerrier made Crain my preferred choice to retain, but committing to three years for either pitcher would have been a misstep by the Twins. Their departures leave a pair of big holes in a bullpen currently in flux, but rarely do three-year deals for setup men work out well for the teams handing them out and if the Twins stay patient there will be capable relievers available at a fraction of the cost soon enough.

Crain is a Type B free agent, so the Twins will receive a compensatory draft pick between the first and second rounds for losing him (Crain was a second rounder himself in 2002). Guerrier is a Type A free agent, but by not offering him arbitration the Twins forfeited his new team's first-round pick, plus the same sandwich pick Crain brings back. Letting both Crain and Guerrier walk was the right call, but the decision not to offer Guerrier arbitration was less clear cut.

Receiving a three-year deal from the Dodgers and reportedly drawing two-year proposals from several other teams makes it seem like offering Guerrier arbitration should have been an easy call, but the situation is much more complicated. Offering him arbitration would've dramatically altered Guerrier's market value, as few teams are willing to forfeit a high pick for a 33-year-old reliever and in the past some lesser Type A free agents have struggled to drum up interest.

If the Twins offered arbitration and Guerrier found the market lacking it's possible he may have re-signed for a much more reasonable price, but it's also possible his agent would've advised him to simply accept, forcing the Twins into a one-year commitment worth around $5 million. I tend to think it was worth that risk, because bringing Guerrier back on a one-year, $5 million deal would hardly be disastrous and two compensatory picks carry millions of dollars in value.

With that said, it's tough to predict whether Guerrier would've accepted arbitration and even tougher to determine how many teams, if any, would've been willing to lose a first rounder to sign him. Offering arbitration to Crain was a no-brainer, because Type B free agents don't cost their new teams a pick, but unfortunately Guerrier was tagged as Type A by a ratings system that drastically overrates relievers and it forced a risk-versus-reward choice upon the Twins.

Guerrier and Crain will be hard to replace, as they combined for an average of 135 innings with a 3.40 ERA in the past six seasons, but out-bidding 29 teams for the right to give three-year deals to middle relievers is the wrong way to build a bullpen. Right now the bullpen's outlook may be grim, but smart teams rely on the fungible nature of relievers and the Twins are better off trying to find the next Guerrier and Crain than paying a premium to retain the originals.