It's in vogue right now to cast a critical look at moves Bill Smith has made, but he made one trade late in 2009 that snowballed into one of the Twins greatest offseasons. I reviewed it in my offseason grades:
But the Hardy [trade] was almost the perfect way to start the offseason. The free agent market was stacked with second basemen and third basemen, but there was almost nothing at shortstop. Acquiring Hardy didn't just boost the lineup. More importantly, it gave the Twins the ability to sit back and let free agent prices come down. They did, and that's what made the Hudson and Thome signings possible.
Perhaps it was because the Hardy trade happened so early, or because it cost Twins fans the lovable Gremlin Carlos Gomez. But it seems like it was almost overlooked. It easily the most difficult of the offseason moves and I'll argue that it provided a solid basis for everything else the Twins did.
As I look at the 2011 offseason, there's a move that seems similar, both in its impact and difficulty: acquiring a decent-hitting catcher. Here's why:
It addresses a significant weakness.
I've defended Drew Butera's value and I love his defense, but 375 major league plate appearances are confirming what 1630 minor league plate appearances should have made clear: he's an offensive millstone. That's not unusual for catchers, but there is a difference between a .240 hitting catcher and a .178 hitting catcher. (Hint: it's 62 points. Also, a major league career.) Butera's bat isn't just bad, it's bad even for a catcher. Of the 40 catchers with the most at-bats this year, Butera’s 439 OPS is dead last. By comparison, the median is 721.
But it’s even worse that that. In the same way your crazy uncle celebrates having watched Ron Davis, you'll be able to celebrate Drew Butera someday. The Twins have only had one player in their history with as many plate appearances and as low a career OPS (475) as Butera. Utility infielder Luis Gomez had 403 plate appearances and a 473 OPS when he played from 1974 to 1977. Before this year is over, Butera has a decent chance of passing both of those marks and laying claim to the title of worst hitting Twin of all time.
So yeah, this team could maybe use a catcher.
Allows Multiple Pieces To Fall Into Place
The other night on the Gleeman and The Geek podcast, Aaron & I debated Joe Mauer. I consider most of the stories about his year to be ugly journalism. It plays to base emotions, relies on trumped up standards, and is perpetuated by a fear of appearing soft to one’s peers.
It also ignores the biggest question: what can the Twins and Mauer expect next year? If the problem is just a knee surgery and rehab gone bad, the Twins should be able to plan on Mauer returning next year at 100% and taking on 2/3 of the catching duties, right? Right?
My bet is that they won't. Acquiring a catcher allows Mauer to slide over to first base (or some other position), where he has a better chance of remaining healthy. It can be coupled with a determination to play Justin Morneau at designated hitter, where he has less chance of throwing his body around and re-injuring his brain. And that allow the Twins to remain covered if they can hang on to either Michael Cuddyer or Jason Kubel this offseason, instead of needing to chase both.
Just like the Hardy trade a couple of years ago, it strengthens the Twins position for the rest of the offseason. It allows them to wait on the market, knowing they have their biggest bats in positions where they are most likely to perform.
Unfortunately, it’s also very hard to do.
The Twins have some money to spend this offseason, but you can’t buy what isn’t sold. Right now, the closest guys to a “regular” catcher on the free agent market will be Ramon Hernandez and Rod Barajas both of whom are 36 years old, and platoon for the Reds and Dodgers, respectively. Their stats are fine, ideally the Twins would find someone who could play at least 2/3 of the time and isn’t on the edge of retirement.
If only there was a younger catcher, more accustomed to everyday play whose team is ready to make a change, maybe because he’s overpaid….
Turns out there is, and you saw him play this week. The White Sox have 25-year-old Tyler Flowers who finally looks like he’s relatively ready to stick in the majors. All that’s blocking him is AJ Pierzynski – and that may be literal.: he may be physically pushing Flowers into lockers and broom closets and such. Pierzynski, signed a 2-year deal with the White Sox for $8M last offseason, but $6M of it is due next year. Trading AJ would allow the White Sox to not overpay for a guy they may not even want any more, spend that money on other needs, or cut their payroll from the $127M they stretched to this year.
Would the Twins have any interest in AJ? I can’t imagine they would. But without knowing his name, he’s damn near exactly what the Twins would be looking for this offseason – a fiery, durable, relatively affordable catcher who can help several other pieces fall into place. It’s too bad history will likely keep them apart.