Thursday, December 11, 2008

IF

Minnesota Twins sign IF Nick Punto to a 2-year, $8.5 million contract.

Amazing the impact those two little letters before Nick Punto can have, isn’t it? “IF”.

Objectively, it should be “SS”. After all, Ron Gardenhire has already named Punto as the starting shortstop. Punto is coming back to the Twins because he’s going to be the starting shortstop. The Twins are paying him that kind of money and giving him a multi-year deal because he’s going to be the starting shortstop. And for the last year Punto has been the starting shortstop.

And yet, when I saw the transaction on the sports ticker, it said “IF”. It was likely a subconscious choice, but it’s an apt one, and one that reflects most of the controversy about this deal.

We don’t see Punto as a shortstop. To us, and apparently to sportsticker guy, he’s an infielder. A replaceable, fungible, utility infielder. And in that context, this is a stupid contract.

In the context of a shortstop, however, this is a very solid deal. Quit laughing – I mean it. Here are the shortstops available as free agents, and we’ll throw a couple of others in that have been actively shopped by their teams this offseason:



Nick Punto was better than Orlando Cabrera and Edgar Renteria last year. He was an above average shortstop, and he’s been an above average offensive shortstop for two of the last three years. And that’s his offense, which most observers would not consider his greatest gift.

Jack Wilson will make $7.5 million next year. Renteria signed for $17 million over two years. Julio Lugo will make $18 million though 2010. Cabrera will be in that ballpark, too. The Twins got Punto for $8M and got a team option for a 3rd year at $5 million too. Plus, he’s one of the younger guys on that list.

Surprised? Me too, and I’m chalking it up to spending too much time too close to the trees. While we weren’t looking, Punto graduated from IF to SS. Not that there aren’t still a few IFs that could (and should) turn Twins Geeks sour on the whole deal. For instance:

IF Punto has another year similar to 2007, it’s going to be a terrible deal. 2007 scarred us. To be fair, part of what made it so painful was that he was playing third base, a position from which a team needs more offense. And looking at Punto’s plate discipline over the last three years, 2007 looks more and more like a fluke. I understand the concern, but it may be time to move beyond that.

Plus, that was the year I had him on my roto team. I promise, I won’t do that to us all ever again.

IF Punto gets injured a lot, it could be a mediocre deal. Punto has been better at staying healthy these last few years, and with that option year tacked on, he has plenty of incentive to continue that trend. Fortunately, the Twins look like they have some capable backup infielders in the organization between Matt Tolbert, Trevor Plouffe and Alejandro Machado.

IF this is the last move the Twins make this offseason, it’s a terrible deal. This team still has $30 million dollars and a plethora of young, cheap talent to package in the right deal. Signing Punto effectively ends any talk of acquiring JJ Hardy (which was always a long shot) or Rafael Furcal (which makes me sad - I sure hope it was his back that scared them off). Unfortunately it probably also ends any talk of heavy hitters at second base like Dan Uggla.

But the market still has a number of impact players available as free agents or being shopped in trades. The Twins are well situated to accept payroll and swap quantity for quality. It might mean swinging a trade for an upgrade at third base. Or signing Pat Burrel and trading Delmon Young. Or even trading one of their young starting pitchers for an impact bat and then patching some holes.

It will likely take some creativity and some gumption to make those kind of moves, but that’s what separates the good from the great. IF this is followed up by a great move, then this Punto deal was a good move.

12 comments:

John said...

Here's where I am a little confused: what other team wanted him as a starting shortstop?

Clearly there was demand for him as a utility player. But utility players don't get $8.5 million for 2 years, at least none that I'm aware of.

So regardless of whether he is a solid starting option at SS, who were the Twins bidding against that this deal is some kind of bargain?

Anonymous said...

As a follow up to the previous post, he came out saying that he prefered to stay. I understand the Torii said that too, but I when the Tigers grab Adam Everett over Little Nicky and we pay 4 times as much for the guy that a year earlier Everett replaced then I am lost. Sure Adam was Hurt, but has there been a year that Punto hasn't been?

I would have rather gone after a 2B and moved Casilla or even stayed with what we had & let Tolbert "earn it" in spring training. The Dream scenario I had would have been Clint Barmes at either 2B or SS which ever made the most sense with our personel.

Thoughts?
Shannon

Anonymous said...

Sorry I interrupted myself, my comment/confusion is why did we pay so much when he supposedly never wanted to leave?

Shannon

Anonymous said...

I don't think this deal is "so much" in regard to the Twins salary flexibility at the moment. The team can find $4/mil a year to spend on Punto for 2009 and 2010. Now, you might say the team should be saving all its nickels to make an uncharacteristic big free agent splash. But more realistically, there is enough payroll in 09/10 to pay Punto that much without hurting other deals. What is hurting possibility of other deals are a) poor matches between positions of need and free agents, b) Twins-brand risk aversion, and c) unwillingness to give up our ML young starting pitchers. I don't think budget is the primary problem here.

TT said...

"I don't think budget is the primary problem here."

I don't think "budget" is an issue at all if you are just looking at next year's payroll. There is absolutely no one out there where next year's salary is the only issue.

Its possible the Twins will end up having over-paid for Punto. But unless injuries come into play, there is very little likelihood he will be a total bust. His age, defense and versatility almost guarantee he will have some value even if someone else takes the shortstop position. Unlike Lamb, Everett etc.

As for other deals, the Twins are not going to be helped if they trade Kevin Slowey and Denard Span for a third baseman. And its not unlikely that is about what it will take to make a significant upgrade at third for someone with a middle of the order bat.

That kind of deal would leave the Twins with Gomez at the top of the batting order - which might actually be a net loss in offense even with the upgrade at third over a Harris/Buscher platoon. It would make the defense weaker in the outfield which would offset any improvement at third. And when you replace Kevin Slowey with a revolving door of Humber, Bonser and Jones you end up having made the team substantially weaker, not stronger.

Sometimes the best deals are the ones that are not done. If the Twins can upgrade third base at a reasonable price, that is one thing. But making a deal just to satisfy the hot-stove league would be a huge mistake.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with this analysis- Punto is a solid defender and is capable of hitting at a decent level. 2007 killed him, but I'm willing to start 2009 with an open mind and hope for the best. I guarantee that if the Twins didn't sign him, at some point next season we would all be watching Harris at shortstop with Blackburn pitching and think, "Gee, it would have been nice to have LNP right now."

sploorp said...

I like that they signed Punto and have always felt that he got a lot of undue criticism.

Would it have been nice to nab Hardy? No doubt. But really, you would be asking the Brewers to give up one of their most productive bats at a position that is traditionally a defensive position. Is there anybody who really thought Hardy was seriously out there for the taking? And if he was, he would have cost plenty. The team would have filled one hole, but potentially created two or three more.

Furcal, because of his back and the contract he's seeking is just not an option. That is just way too much risk.

Renteria and the other short stop signings just weren't worth the money that was paid.

I also think the Everett comment is unfair. For starters, they picked up Everett when Punto was coming off the worst season of his career. That definitely had to be a factor. Everett was also cheap, so there would have been very little fear of loss involved.

You also have to take a look at the infield as a whole at that time. There were a lot of question marks in that infield. Did anybody expect Casilla to break through the way he did last year - I sure didn't. I was expecting a season of awful defense and dimwitted rookie errors with almost no offense to show for it.

Buscher, Macri and the rest weren't in the picture yet. The Harris/Buscher platoon was still a few months away at that point and definitely not something they could fall back on. Lamb, a career platoon player was the 3rd baseman.

I think Everett was brought in not so much to replace Punto, but to free him up to fill in at 2nd and 3rd.

I think giving Punto the full time gig at short says a lot about the team's confidence at 2nd and 3rd this year. Clearly they feel they have found their 2nd baseman in Casilla. My perception is also that they are confident they will land a third baseman via a trade and may be close to a deal.

Overall, the moves this off season (or lack there of) suggest a front office that is genuinely happy with what they had last year. And, if a significant upgrade can't be had at any position for a reasonable price, they are perfectly content to start 2009 that way as well.

Punto's biggest blessing is also his biggest curse: he plays exceptional defense at three infield positions. Teams and fans see that and think great utility player, but can't see past that. That's all they see him as. They see it as his only value to the team and, as a mere utility player, he is only worth utility money.

After 2008, 2007 is looking to be more and more like a fluke offensively for Punto. 2006 and 2008 look to much more what we can expect to see from him in 2009. Those are respectable numbers for a short stop. That makes Punto a very capable short stop with decent offense for the position. It also doesn't matter if others teams were going to use him as a starting short stop or not, they were offering deals and the Twins were going to have to offer enough to be competitive with those deals.

Punto as a short stop is an asset and at 8.5 million for two years he's a bargain as well.

sploorp said...

It looks like Houston didn't offer Ty Wigginton a contract, so that makes him a free agent. I don't know a whole lot about the guy.

He seems to have a decent amount of pop. He also has had some awful seasons and seems to have trouble finding a permanent home.

Does anybody have more info on the guy? Is his defense suspect?

Houston says the decision was purely financial, but 6 million doesn't sound like a whole lot for his production. He's also still fairly young.

Is this somebody the Twins should make a serious run after? My knee jerk reaction is yes, but I was wondering if there was a reason to say no.

dave m said...

I think other teams were much more interested in Punto than we might think. Take this quote, from the Philadelphia Daily News, about the Phils' signing of Ibanez:

"General manager Ruben Amaro Jr., however, had gone on record as saying that while he would prefer to add a righty he would ultimately go for the best player available. And when two of those options (Mark DeRosa, Nick Punto) evaporated Thursday, Amaro moved quickly to what he apparently considered The Next Best Thing: free agent outfielder Raul Ibanez, a lefthanded hitter."

As a Twins fan, this paragraph is ridiculous. But maybe other teams see something in Punto that we don't?

sploorp said...

I live out of state and get most of my Twins games via MLB.com and the occasional sports bar. Consequently, I hear a lot of the opposing team's commentators calling the games. I can assure you that Punto is very well thought of outside of Minnesota. The general consensus is that he's a solid short stop who can also play 2nd and 3rd just about as well as anybody. Even when he screws up a play, they are usually quick to point out how uncharacteristic the mistake was.

I also hear a lot of raves about the outfield (considered by many to be one of the best in the majors), defense up the middle, Morneau, Mauer and the Twins way of doing things.

And last but not least, if Blyleven is calling the game for the Twins, there is usually a cut to his booth and comments on what a crime it is that he hasn't been elected to the hall of fame yet.

The only bad things I ever hear about Punto are on the Twins blogs.

walter hanson said...

Dave M:

Keep in mind Punto was a perfect for what the Philles might need.

Utely is out for at least a couple of months (2b)

Rollins has injuries in the past (SS)

They don't have a regular 3B. Not to mention with the need to do double switches Punto's flexibility would've helped their manager a great deal.

Walter Hanson
Minneapolis, MN

Kyle Eliason said...

Geek - The free agent market for shortstops, as you mentioned, is weak. There's no real good signing. I like Furcal but he'll be expensive and is more brittle than Punto.

The big cause for concern with Punto is that he's frail and that a good portion of his value is tied up in his legs. He doesn't hit very many line drives and doesn't have the power to get much production out of fly balls. Inuries sap his speed and his offense is going to tank.

But two years, not terrible. Don't know what other offers Punto had but it's hard to sign folks to single-year contracts.

Walter - I'm surprised the Phillies haven't been more active on trying to get in on the Peavy-to-the-Cubs deal, as the Cubs need a third party to help provide San Diego with prospects and Mark DeRosa, while no real pirze, is a nice fit as a placeholder for Utley in that he can still be a utility player or shift to third when Utley returns.