I'm surprised. Are you surprised? We shouldn't be surprised, it's a quintessential Twins move.
The following occurred between 12:45 and 12:46 pm CDT today:
Seth: Ya...just had it confirmed, too.
Jesse: Why am I surprised?
I don't want to set anyone up with the wrong idea here, because there are merits to this signing and I'll get to them later, but honestly: why was I surprised? The Twins organization has done a fantastic job over the years of acquiring veterans in twilight in the hope that they can provide some kind of depth or leadership. I could also add production, but that hasn't always been the case.
These signings have all fallen under one of two categories. Either these veterans were A) washed up and we all knew it (James Baldwin, Jesse Orosco, Juan Castro, Bret Boone, Ruben Sierra, Tony Batista, Phil Nevin, Jeff Cirillo, Ramon Ortiz, Sidney Ponson, Craig Monroe, Livan Hernandez, the return of Eddie Guardado, Luis Ayala, Sean Henn) or B) all things considered weren't a bad gamble (Tom Prince, Rick Reed, Kenny Rogers, Henry Blanco, Jose Offerman, Terry Mulholland, Pat Borders, Mike Redmond, Rondell White, Jason Tyner, Mike Lamb, Adam Everett, R.A. Dickey). Of course, whether or not any of column B actually worked out is another matter altogether. But you're catching my drift, and I didn't even list all of Joe Mauer's third catchers.
Now we can officially add one Mark Grudzielanek to that list. I think the reason this signing surprised me is because Grudz was a free agent. It was almost too easy. Of course if the Twins were in contact with Grudz, you can bet they were probably in contact with Ray Durham, too. Let's get to the actual analysis of this deal.
Minnesota has offered Grudzielanek a minor league deal, and he'll report to a Gulf Coast League squad in Florida. He made $4.5 million with the Kansas City Royals in 2008, but suffice it to say he won't be making anywhere near that much this year. Financial terms haven't been disclosed, but I'd be surprised if it cracks the one million mark. It sounds like he did have offers in the off-season, being a Type B free agent, but he declined those offers.
This is the bit that everyone is going to focus on: Grudz is 39. Most guys are out of the league by this time, whether that's by choice or not, but here's something to keep in mind: even at 38 he was a good player.
Patience & Discipline: Grudz hasn't really been a guy who walks a lot over the course of his career, but he makes up for that by being a great contact hitter. He makes contact on over 90% of his swings, and goes outside of the zone at right around the league average rate. Again, the walk rates (5% of plate appearances) are low, but Alexi Casilla (6%) and Brendan Harris (7%) aren't walk machines, either. He sees roughly 3.5 pitches per plate appearance.
Power: He's a career .395 slugger, .106 isolated power. As a full-time player he's always been good for plenty of doubles, but as far as the long-ball goes he's a middle infielder. This is a secondary concern for anyone playing second base.
Batted Ball: Grudz is a line-drive hitter. A lot of analysts will say that hitting line drives isn't a repeatable skill, and that might be accurate, but when you're hitting them at a rate that's better than league average year after year after year, something is going well.
Arm: This has never been a problem. He spent a lot of time at shortstop for the Expos earlier in his career, but for a guy who would be playing exclusively at second base, the arm is fine.
Range: Oddly enough, for a guy who was 38 last season his range didn't fall off too much. The problem is that he is a bit older, and having lost that first step does mean something. That's reflected in defensive metrics like UZR/150, which came in at 5.3 in 2008. Still above average, which is very much in line with Grudzielanek's history, it's just not what it was.
There are a lot of positives here; just not as many as we'd hoped as fans rooting for someone like Freddy Sanchez. This is a move that has zero risk for the Twins, who are still counting on Casilla to get the job done. If Casilla faulters again, it's not as though Minnesota would be wasting a roster spot by calling on Grudzielanek. The biggest focus as far as positives go though, and it's a big one, is this: it's not going to take much to improve on what the Twins have been given from second base this season. If Grudz is ready by the middle of August, comes up and hits .280/.330/.380, that's an improvement. As far as his defense goes, there would have to be something desperately wrong for him to have suddenly turned into a negative player in the field. For a guy like this, his offensive skills may disappear, but the glove will linger on.
What does leave me slightly disappointed is the fact that this is such a by-the-numbers move for the Twins. There's no risk here, but sometimes that's exactly what a team needs for a boost: a risk. A sign that, yes, dammit, this organization believes in you so much that we went out and put our own asses on the line. Sometimes I get the sense that the front office forgets that everything about baseball is a two-way street, it's all a relationship, from the fans to the players to the front office.
Baseball is a business. By that definition, picking up a guy like Grudzielanek is a good move simply because getting a guy to play league average anything at second base constitutes an upgrade. But I just had my sights on something a bit more substantial.
There's still time.