The Star Tribune's Lavelle E. Neal is reporting that the Twins have strong interest in signing Tony Clark and ESPN's Buster Olney just labeled Clark as the number 1 undervalued free agent this offseason.
These rumors, speculations and subsequent signings of supposed "re-treads" has understandably agitated the Twins fan base. After all, we have been bombarded by a plethora of offseason signings of the aging Batistas, Sierras, Cirillos, and Whites (twice!) in the twilight of the Terry Ryan era. These were certainly low-risk signings but also proven to be low-reward ones too. And had the Twins compiled a shred of research on those players, it would have been clear that the percentages of the bargain-bin players to reward the organization with any offensive production was minuscule at best.
Rarely in the past few offseasons had the Twins had the opportunity to sign an offensive player that would have provided runs at a low-price. In hindsight, the Twins should have been the ones who structured a deal with Frank Thomas instead of Oakland who did in 2006. Thomas, of course, was one of the offensive catalysts that lead Oakland into the 2006 playoffs where he destroyed Twins pitching, hammering 2 home runs in 10 at-bats in 3 games. In the ALCS Thomas was shut down by the steamrolling Detriot Tigers pitching staff who rendered him hitless in 13 at-bats. For $500,000 plus incentives, Oakland obtained the 38-year-old designated hitter who would finish the season with 466 at-bats, mashing 39 home runs with a .270/.381/.545 batting line. Obviously everybody organization would have knocked down their own grandmothers for a deal like that.
At the time there was initial trepidation among baseball insiders as to the kind of season Thomas would produce which was why he could be had for a pittance. In the two previous seasons leading up to his offseason signing with Oakland, Thomas was limited to 345 at-bats. Many believed that Thomas was all but washed up. In 2005, it appeared that his legendary plate discipline had disappeared. Thomas routinely walked more times than he struck out in a season. In 1993 he had a total of 112 walks and only 54 strikeouts. In his appearances in 2005 for the Sox, Thomas struck out 31 in 105 at-bats and walked only 16 times. Injuries and attitude had led to the Chicago White Sox cutting ties with a player that had been with the organization since 1989.
All that for half-a-million.
Which brings me to the Twins interest in Clark. I mentioned Thomas above because over the course of the next week or so, the local media will undoubtedly draw comparisons to Thomas (mainly the age, power and the prospect of a rebound season). Their ability to hit the long ball is what binds these two players together. Thomas has hit a home run in 5.2% of his plate appearances while Clark has deposited home runs in 5.0% of his. While Thomas has hit extra-base hits in 10.3% of his plate appearances, Clark has nearly matched that doing so in 9.8% of his. Realize that Tony Clark and Frank Thomas are not even remotely in the same realm when it comes to discussing plate disciple. As mentioned before, Thomas had a keen batting eye that led to numerous walks and a .421 career on-base percentage. Baseball Propectus described Clark in their book "Mind Game" as a free-swinging out machine and his career obp of .339 reflects that. Over the course of his career, Clark has struck out in 23.2% of his plate appearances. Thomas has struck out in only 13.6% of his. Parish the thought that a signing of Clark could emulate numbers like Thomas provide Oakland in 2006. They are not the same hitter. This is not even apples to oranges. It is apples to something entirely inedible.
The Star Tribune article suggests that Clark is looking for an AL team to designate hit for so that he can achieve 400 plate appearances again. For the record, the last time Clark managed to get to the plate 400 times in a season would be in 2001 where he struck out in 21.7% of them. Admittedly, I do not think the acquisition of Tony Clark would be as disastrous as Tony Batista was provided that the Twins front office comprehend what they have. Clark is a proven pinch-hitter. In 2007, Clark made 36 pinch-hitting appearances for the Diamondbacks and hit .250/.333/.563 and slugged 3 home runs. Meanwhile the Twins were relegated to marching Jason Tyner to the plate as a substitute in the bottom of the ninth to face the dominate closers. For my money, it would behoove the Twins to send Clark to the plate and pinch run Tyner for him once he does drive home the tying run. The problem is, the Twins would not leverage Clark to his potential and give him too many at-bats.
Ultimately, I would speculate that with the rumors that multiple AL teams are looking for a serviceable designated hitter and NL teams who have an opening at 1B or the bench will ultimately raise Tony Clark's potential contract amount. The market will push the value of a 36-year-old free-swinger well beyond a reasonable contract. If the Twins do obtain Clark (and keep Monroe as well), it will be a decent gauge of what flexibility new GM Bill Smith is allotted for payroll.