Minnesota Twins announce they have come to an agreement with RHP Nick Blackburn on a 4-year, $14 million contract with an option for 2014.
Sometimes you need to make a move for more than just financial reasons. Sometimes you do it to avoid risk, or to put your team in a position to compete. Sometimes you do it to go that extra mile, or to signal to the league or your fan base that things have changed. And sometimes you do it because you just plain like a player and what he's done.
This should NOT have been one of those times.
I think it's fair to say, among the sabremetric set, I'm one of Blackburn's biggest believers. His critics throw the word "lucky" around a lot. They point to his low strikeout ratio, his high hit rate, and his mediocre groundball percentage. They look at his 4ish ERA and claim it will almost undoubtedly move the wrong way. They emphatically state that his luck is going to end.
And to that I say: so what? All of our luck is going to end. If he was lucky last year, and he was lucky the year before, who is to say that he won't be lucky again next year, and the next year, and the next?
The game is a game. There are infinite ways to play and win. We get so caught up in our own ability to identify the prototypical high upside power pitcher that we don't appreciate a guy who gets it done any other way. And Blackburn has unquestionably gotten the job done over the last two years, legitimately being the Twins best starting pitcher over that stretch. We should be celebrating this, not dreading the end of it.
So, to recap - I'm a Blackburn bobo. And I still don't like this deal.
To understand why, we need to understand the other option the Twins had. Blackburn is under their control for the next four years, regardless of whether they signed this deal or not. This year they could pay him whatever they wished. For each of the next three years, the Twins could have decided whether to offer arbitration to Blackburn, and then he would have been paid fair market value for a pitcher with his tenure and performance.
So one could take a look at what other pitchers with Blackburn's tenure and performance are making and have a pretty good idea, right now, what the Twins would have to pay Blackburn if they continued to retain him. The future would look something like this:
And while we don't have a year-by-year breakdown of Blackburn's contract, a pretty good guess is that is looks like this:
Which gets us back to why you do a deal like this. It has nothing to do with the guy, or the position your team is in, or sending signals to anyone. It only has to do with one thing: money.
Assuming the Twins were going to pay Blackburn for at least the next two years, they are risking about $10 million to potentially save about $4 million. I just don't think you can do that with a low strikeout pitcher. There's too much evidence that they aren't effective for a very long time.
And the Twins should KNOW this. They've done it twice recently. The first time was disastrous and the second time worked out better because the contract was shorter.
The shorter contract was with Carlos Silva, who agreed to a two-year deal with a third year option. Silva was great the first year and terrible the second year. The third-year option for $4 million was cheap enough that the Twins picked it up, Silva ate 200 innings with a 4.19 ERA and then signed his current deal with the Mariners. That worked out because the option year was just three years out.
But Blackburn's option year is five years out, which brings us to our second example: Joe Mays. Mays also had a low strikeout rate, a high hit rate, but had an incredible year in 2001, posting a 3.16 ERA over 232(!) innings. The Twins also signed him to a four-year deal with a fifth-year option for $20 million. (It was more than Blackburn's because Mays was already arbitration-eligible.)
Over the next four years, Mays pitched less than 400 innings, and posted a 5.81 ERA .
Mays' problems weren't necessarily related to his strikeout rate, as he struggled with injuries which included a reconstructive elbow surgery. But that's the point - there are already plenty of risks with young arms to worry about.
Given all those risks, there needs to be a compelling reason to sign a contract like this. And there just isn't one, just like there wasn't back on January 17th, 2002. I can practically copy and paste the conclusion:
I’m a Twins fan, and I hope I’m wrong about this. I hope Nick has a long and prosperous career. I hope executives in baseball circles laud Bill Smith for years to come. I even hope Jim Pohlad saves millions of dollars over the life of this contract. But from an impartial observer this looks like a $14M gamble on a somewhat questionable commodity that the Twins didn’t need to do.