Saturday, February 21, 2009

An Upgrade at Third Base?

The Twins will hold a press conference Sunday morning to announce the signing of All-Star 3rd baseman Joe Crede. I've always been fine with the Buscher/Harris platoon at 3rd, figuring that they'd combine for an .800 or better OPS if allowed to face opposite-handed pitchers, but playing obviously subpar defense. I certainly didn't feel that any of the available players this offseason were worth trading good players or signing to big, multi-year contracts. While surveying that field back in November, I had this to say:

As for the free agents, Crede is the best choice. He's been hampered by injuries the last 2 seasons, and is therefore likely to take a 1-2 year deal for reasonable money in order to try and raise his value for his next contract while he's still in his low 30s. If he could repeat his 2006 numbers (.283/.323/.506, 30 HR), the Twins would have the bat they're looking for, while also improving themselves defensively. If he performs closer to his career average, they're still getting good pop from their #8 hitter. But I'd definitely keep Buscher around in case Crede gets hurt again.

Despite demonic agent Scott Boras' best efforts to get Crede a $7 million guaranteed contract, the scenario I foresaw has played out. As this winter's glacial free agent market unfolded, it became clear that the teams that jumped in early ended up spending vastly more than they needed to (see: Raul Ibanez). Bill Smith is to be commended for sticking to his guns throughout the Twins' lengthy negotiations with Boras. By wisely assessing that the Buscher/Harris option was as good a temporary solution as anything else out there, the Twins kept themselves in a position to walk away from unreasonable demands.

The rough details of the contract illustrate a deal that is perfect for the Twins. Crede is guaranteed only $2.5 million, less than the Twins paid to Mike Lamb last year (and this year, for that matter). If Crede stays in the lineup for 525 PA, he'll receive $7 million - still a bargain for a veteran slugger who plays good defense. Crede has every incentive to produce, not only to earn as much money as he can this year, but to prove that he's durable enough and productive enough to merit an inflated contract next offseason. The Twins can wish him the best as they make room for the likely arrival of Danny Valencia some time in 2010, with some combination of Buscher/Harris/Luke Hughes briefly holding down the fort until then.

This move will ripple down the Twins' depth chart. Harris will surely become the Twins' primary bench IF, though his fielding isn't quite as good as that of Matt Tolbert. With 3 RHB on the bench in most games (Harris, Mike Redmond and either Delmon Young or Carlos Gomez), Buscher stands a pretty good chance of earning the final bench spot. He'll be the one to spell Morneau at 1B on the rare days Justin comes in from the field, and there's already talk of trying Buscher out at some other IF/OF positions this spring to increase his versatility. The odd man out will likely be Tolbert, although Gardy has signaled that the Twins might be inclined to come north with only 11 pitchers. That's always been the best idea, but they were handcuffing themselves by wanting to keep both Philip Humber and Boof Bonser in the bullpen. With Bonser now potentially facing some DL time with his shoulder soreness, that dilemma could be clearing itself up.

Fans should temper their expectations for what Crede will bring to the lineup, and not just because he was only able to play 144 games over the last 2 seasons. Despite the devastation he wrought on the Twins last year (.400/.429/1.050 with 7 HR and 17 RBI), Crede is just a .257/.306/.447 career hitter. That OBP is not much better than that of Carlos Gomez. It isn't that Crede strikes out too much (about once every 7 AB), he just gets under the ball a lot. That helps him hit a HR every 20 AB or so, but it also results in a lot of popups. His power numbers may not translate perfectly in the spacious LF at the Metrodome. Though his K/BB rate is much better vs. LHP (31/30 over the last 3 years, as compared to 96/38 vs. RHP), he's actually hit RHP much better recently (.276/.314/.495 compared to .224/.299/.375 vs. LHP, again from 2006-2008). In light of that, it might make more sense to give Crede days off against southpaws in favor of Harris, who is at .295/.360/.440 vs. LHP for his career, rather than subbing Buscher vs. RHP.

Because of his limitations as a hitter, it still makes sense to use Michael Cuddyer (.268/.344/.441) in between Morneau and Jason Kubel. The difference in career SLG% is minimal, and Cuddyer's significant edge in OBP will help sustain more rallies. Crede should still get plenty of chances to cap big innings from the 7th spot, where he typically hit in Chicago. If Delmon Young proves to be a regular and can consistently perform at the level he did from June through the end of the 2008 season, I'd even slot him ahead of Crede at #7 (although Crede isn't likely to hit into as many DP).

The one thing the Twins should be able to count on from a healthy Crede is above-average defense. Even if he doesn't hit as well as we'd all like, that piece of his game should give him some consistent value, especially from the bottom of the order. He and Punto, while not necessarily getting on base a whole lot, should make for a very strong left side of the infield. In fact, the Twins infield defense as a whole should be much better than last year, when shaky fielding was as big a reason as any that the team narrowly failed to make the postseason.

He's not a savior, but Crede does add value to the 2009 Twins, especially at the price they were able to acquire him for. Though it took them nearly a week into spring training to do it, the Twins have finally fulfilled their offseason objectives, and are as well-positioned as any other team to compete for the AL Central title.

No comments: