Late on Sunday morning, the Twins announced that they had signed right-handed pitcher Nick Blackburn to a four year deal worth $14.5 million with a club option for 2014 at $8 million. I fully expect that there will be plenty of talk surrounding this signing in coming days, and depending upon how things go, in coming years.
The reason for the discussion is really due to just one number, his strikeout rate. In 2009, Blackburn averaged 4.3 strikeouts per nine innings, one of the lowest in baseball. That number was down from 2008 when he struck out just 4.5 per nine innings. The question becomes, how can a pitcher with so few strikeouts, who allows plenty of hits, remain successful over a length of time. Twins fans, Carlos Silva is a great example. In his best years with the Twins, he struck out just 3.4 and 3.5 batters per nine innings for the Twins. To no one’s surprise, he started getting lit up like a proverbial Christmas tree. That is the concern as it relates to Blackburn long-term. Now, some can point to Greg Maddux as a guy with good control who didn’t strike out a lot. For his career, he averaged 6.1 strikeouts per nine innings. However, he managed league-average ERAs while recording Blackburn-like strikeout totals after he turned 41 years old. If you want to say Jamie Moyer, well, he has only had one season in his career in which he posted a K/9 rate of less than 4.5 (And that was when he was 33 years old).
However, I am not one who will bash this transaction. In fact, when I first heard it, I was rather excited. Nick Blackburn has been as advertised. He is a very solid #4 starter on a good baseball roster. He pitches to contact. He eats up innings. He has had a better-than-average ERA (4.03 and 4.01) the last two seasons. He throws 95 at times. He has a cutter/slider that is very difficult to hit squarely. He walks no one.
Now where some of the controversy comes is when I say, “Nick Blackburn has proven over the last two years to be the Twins best big-game pitcher.” That is where the more ‘human’ element of the game comes into play. Many who rely solely on statistics won’t like that argument, and in a way, I can’t blame them. You always want to throw your best pitchers over extended periods of time, and I agree with that. But if you were to pick one Twins pitcher that you want pitching an important game for the Twins, who would it be? “Big Spot” Scott (Baker)? Not really. Kevin Slowey? I would feel very comfortable with that, but he hasn’t really been in that situation much yet. Carl Pavano? He’s a ‘veteran’ and he’s pitched in big games, but I’d still take Blackburn. Francisco Liriano? Well, let’s see. Look back at Game 163 of the 2008 season against the White Sox where Blackburn pitched an incredible game. He made several big starts down the stretch last year. Look at what he did against the Royals last year in the final weekend of the season, beating Zach Greinke. He made a very strong start against the Yankees in the playoffs.
Is there risk for the Twins? Absolutely. Blackburn, with those low strikeout totals, has to overcome historical data which suggests that he cannot sustain what he has done the last two years. But if he is able to pitch close to what he has next year, he would likely command as much as $4 million in 2011, and more in 2012, and more in 2013. So, by signing him now, they are also buying his arbitration years. And if he is good at that point, they get his first year of free agency for just $8 million. Look no further than Carlos Silva’s four year, $48 million contract with the Seattle Mariners two years ago to realize how much #4 starters can make in free agency.
Now I’ve also read comments to the affect that the Twins need to not sign Blackburn because they have guys like Kyle Gibson, David Bromberg, Deolis Guerra and others working up the minor league ladder. In a perfect world, all of those minor leaguers would move up quickly and become big league all-stars. Believe me, there have been enough JD Durbin, Adam Johnson, Ryan Mills examples to warrant not looking too far into the future (and this comes from the ‘minor league guy!’). I mean, a year ago, would it have made sense to sign Jason Kubel for just one year because Erik Lis had a nice offensive season at AA? Imagine how much Kubel would have made this year in arbitration if the Twins had made that decision.
Listen, I understand that there is risk in this contract. But based on two full seasons, there seems to be reason to believe in Nick Blackburn. This gives the Twins more contract certainty for future years, which can be helpful.
I am curious what your thoughts are on this contract, and what it means to and for the Twins.
Here are some weekend links for you to peruse:
- On Saturday night, Seth joined the premiere episode of DW The Great's podcast.
- Seth posted a Q&A with Matt Fox, one of the Twins 1st round picks in 2004. He has overcome Tommy John surgery and slowly worked his way up the Twins farm system. He should begin the 2010 season in AAA Rochester.
- Seth's Minnesota Twins 2010 Prospect Handbook is now available for order. It contains over 150 profiles of Twins prospects as well as stories on the Twins focus on international signings, Danny Valencia and the 2009 draft class which includes an interview with Derek McCallum. There is a Q&A with Jeff Manship, and prospect rankings from several 'experts' and many of your favorite Twins bloggers.
- You could learn more about Juan Portes, the Twins non-roster invitee who hit two home runs and drove in six runs. Is he a prospect, a suspect or something in between?
- In his weekly Twinkie Town Minor League Update, Roger Dehring discussed several things including the Twins signing of Cuban left-handed pitcher Yoslan Herrera.
- Topper Anton (Curve for a Strike) has been in Florida all week. Each day, he gave an update of what he saw in Ft. Myers. He has some great stories that he shared.
- Be sure to check out this week's Twins MVB Live (Sunday night at 7:30 p.m.).