Friday, January 22, 2010

Twins sign Harris for two years.

In the TwinsCentric Offseason GM Handbook, we went through the exercise of reviewing the previous year’s roster and supplying a grade based on their performance. Utility infielder Brendan Harris was labeled a “C”. In the corresponding write-up on Harris, I noted that:

“As bench-fillers go, Harris can play just about everywhere in the infield well, but not well enough to merit starting him. Whereas Punto and Casilla are quick-footed, slick fielders, Harris is downright stoic. But unlike the switch-hitting Punto and Casilla, Harris has been able to hit left-handed pitching (770 OPS) providing value when facing port-siders. Being arbitration eligible makes him in line for a raise over his $400K salary in ’09. Does his positional versatility and one-trick stick provide justification to bump up his allowance?”

Apparently, it does.

On Tuesday, the Twins and Brendan Harris agreed to a two-year, $3.2 contract with a series of performance bonuses that could drive his compensation every hire contingent on reaching 450 plate appearances. For a team that has considered looking at cost-saving measures, re-upping on Harris is a transaction that goes against that philosophy. This is an interesting decision that has positive and negative ramifications. Do the Twins have substantial plans for Harris extending into 2011 or was the additional year simply an impulse buy?

The total dollars itself isn’t in question. The $1.45M in ’10 and $1.75M in ’11 is not an unreasonable amount to dedicate to a bench player. Bench players are often integral parts to a championship team, and having that someone who can contribute just about everywhere when starters go down for extended periods of time helps bridge that gap. Having played in five different positions last year (short, second, third, first and DH), Harris represents just that sort of player – in theory.

For example, in May, Harris filled in at short for the injured Nick Punto and hit a robust .282/.326/.417 with 3 home runs in 178 plate appearances. Enjoying the rare offensive production from the middle infield, Ron Gardenhire slid Harris over to third after they acquired Orlando Cabrera. There, Harris’s defensive shortcomings were amplified at the less demanding of his previous two positions. In just over 300 innings at the hot corner, Harris committed six errors and failed to turn a single double play. On top of that, he hit .280 (14-for-50) in 60 plate appearances and was lifted in favor of the rookie Matt Tolbert in the season’s final stretch. By comparison, Tolbert provided the Twins with very stable defense, turning five double plays in his 190 innings at third and hit .313/.347/.448 in 76 plate appearances. In final 20 games, the manager called on Harris to start just once in the field (rather using him as a DH six times). Clearly, on the manager’s defensive hierarchy, Harris fell to the bottom.

Because of his versatility and the volatility of two of the infield positions, it was apparent that Harris would be retained by the front office that was looking at the larger picture heading into the 2010. I understand the Twins mindset: who’s at second, what’s at third and, holy crap, what if Hardy never resurfaces from his ’09 numbers? But what is so vital about Harris that it a price needs to be fixed for ’11?

Since the Twins acquired him in 2007, Harris has submitted below average offensive seasons. In a Twins uniform he’s hit .263/.319/.379 (86 OPS+) in slightly under 1,000 plate appearances. This has been marginally better than Nick Punto (81 OPS+) and Alexi Casilla (73 OPS+). If the Twins were looking for an offensive infield upgrade, Luke Hughes at Triple A Rochester hit .259/.344/.481 in 157 plate appearances. Giving the 25-year-old another season to mature and some September at-bats would allow for a low-cost infield bench player in 2011. Then again, Hughes is basically a third baseman by trade.

As mentioned above, Harris provides little in terms of a defensive upgrade.  On his career, both of his UZR and Fielding Bible metrics have been the illustration of a below average fielder. At 30 years old in 2011, that isn’t likely to spike either. There are several defensive option internally. Tolbert can play just about everywhere on the infield diamond above average and switch hits. Ditto for Casilla. Either player in a reserve role would give Ron Gardenhire solid options to replace more capable starters in the event of an injury. (That said, it assumes the fact that the Twins will keep Hardy, bring Valencia up midseason and find a higher quality second baseman. Maybe I’m assuming too much.)

Ultimately, signing Harris beyond 2010 could signal the beginning of the end of the Punto Era in Minnesota as Harris can fulfill most of his duties at a reduced price. To many, this is addition by subtraction. The Twins must have asked themselves if they would rather pay $1.75M for a poorer fielder, better hitter in Harris or fork over $5M for a better fielding, poorer hitting Punto. This is a low risk proposition, but it reveals that the Twins have little cohesiveness towards roster building between the field management and the front office. The organization could have look outside and inside for alternatives for several hundred thousand dollars cheaper.