Unhappy with the league-worst production that they’ve gotten from second base and unwilling as usual to make a significant midseason trade to address the issue, the Twins signed Mark Grudzielanek to a minor-league contract Sunday. Grudzielanek is a 39-year-old veteran with 14 seasons, 1,774 games, 2,010 hits, one All-Star game, and one Gold Glove filling his resume but sat out the first half after going unsigned this offseason and hasn’t played in nearly 12 months, thanks to a late-season ankle injury.
Assuming zero risk while bringing in a potentially washed-up veteran is obviously nothing new for the Twins and has gotten tough for fans to tolerate, but believe it or not, Grudzielanek actually still has a fair amount of upside. It remains to be seen how much sitting out for so long at the age of 39 will hurt him, and certainly it shouldn’t surprise anyone if he proves to be done, but he was a solid all-around player when healthy last season and is unique in that he remained a strong defensive middle infielder at 38.
Grudzielanek hit .299/.345/.399 in 86 games with the Royals last year, giving him a .300/.339/.412 line in 336 games since signing with Kansas City in 2006. For comparison, during that same stretch Nick Punto has batted .252/.326/.324 and Brendan Harris is at .275/.331/.408 while Alexi Casilla and Matt Tolbert have career lines of .246/.297/.315 and .227/.295/.302. In other words, if Grudzielanek can pick up right where he left off at the plate, he’d be the Twins’ best offensive middle infielder.
That probably says more about the motley crew the Twins have been trotting out there, but he’s been, at worst, a league-average second baseman offensively every year since 2003. And his defense has been even better. Ultimate Zone Rating pegged Grudzielanek as 5.3 runs above average per 150 games at second base last season after showing him as 9.9, 16.1, and 10.9 runs above average per 150 games from 2005-2007. He’s been a legitimately outstanding defender based on both reputation and stats.
For comparison, UZR has Punto as 3.4 runs above average per 150 games at second base while with the Twins, and Harris, Tolbert and Casilla are all deep into the negative numbers. Again, it remains to be seen how much Grudzielanek’s skills have eroded since last season, but picking up where he left off would make him either the team’s best or second-best defensive second baseman. Add that to his solid offense and if his skills remain intact he represents a substantial upgrade at the position.
Grudzielanek is only a big name is the sense that he literally has a large name in the tradition of Doug Mientkiewicz and A.J. Pierzynski, and signing him won’t stop fans from clamoring for a guy like Freddy Sanchez after seeing him at the All-Star game. However, as far as low-risk moves to get veterans going, signing Grudzielanek is a rare reasonable one for the Twins, whose second basemen have amazingly been worth 35 runs below replacement level through 92 games and 387 plate appearances.
Last year, Grudzielanek was 17 runs above replacement level in 360 plate appearances and he was 20 runs above replacement level per 400 trips to the plate from 2006-2008. Ten runs is typically worth one win, so replacing the Twins’ second basemen with the Grudzielanek of 2006-2008 would have added about five wins. Sanchez has been slightly better than that over the same period, rating 21 runs above replacement level per 400 PA and, unlike Grudzielanek, there are no questions about his current skills.
Certainly it’s safe to assume that Sanchez would be a bigger upgrade than Grudzielanek at this point, especially given that Grudzielanek is no sure thing to be the player he was last season. On the other hand, their production since 2006 hasn’t been that different and Grudzielanek costs the Twins nothing in terms of salary or prospects. Sanchez makes $6.1 million this season with another $8 million or a $600,000 buyout due in 2010, and the Pirates would’ve required at least one good prospect to deal him.
Considering the cash and players it would take to get Sanchez and the Twins’ long-standing reluctance to part with either, it should surprise no one that they went for the lower-cost, lower-upside option. And for once, it’s not a bad decision. He may be toast after the long layoff, in which case they have 10 days to evaluate him in the minors before deciding whether to pursue another move before the July 31 trade deadline. Or he may be close to the guy from 2006-2008, in which case he’s a nice, cheap upgrade.