As the offseason gave way to spring training last year, rumors began to spring up regarding the Twins' interest in free agent third baseman Joe Crede. From pretty much the moment this speculation began, I took a stance against signing Crede, pointing out that with his troubling injury history and Tony Batista-esque career hitting line, his potential for plus power and defense were unworthy of a large financial investment.
The Twins ended up signing him, though they waited out agent Scott Boras until the price dropped to a reasonable $2.5 million guarantee plus incentives. At that type of minimal monetary commitment, even I couldn't take major issue with the signing. Still, I warned fans to keep their expectations for Crede in check, noting that when healthy enough to be on the field, "Crede should be able to provide strong defense from the hot corner while popping a few big home runs, but he is also likely to make a lot of outs."
When I did a preseason position analysis for third base, I projected that Crede would post a .255/.300/.425 hitting line with 12 homers and 50 RBI, anticipating that he'd hit around his career line while missing a sizable portion of the season due to injury. As it turned out, the prediction was accurate and the earlier Batista comparison was apt, as Crede hit .225/.289/.414 (Batista hit .236/.303/.388 with the Twins in 2006) with 15 homers and 48 RBI before having his season ended after 90 games due to yet another back injury. Of course, Crede was much better defensively than Batista, making this a much less disastrous experiment, but I nevertheless felt vindicated to see my warnings about Crede come to fruition almost precisely.
And so, when it came to light last week that the Twins may have interest in bringing Crede back on another incentive-laden one-year deal next season, I was somewhat appalled to see that the reaction from Twins bloggers and fans was overwhelmingly supportive. Are you kidding me?!
It seems to me as though the perception that Crede was a quality player for the Twins this season and would be a palatable option going forward into 2010 is predicated on a number of myths. Let's take a shot at dissolving these right now.
Myth No. 1: When accounting for defense, Crede was an overall positive contributor to the 2009 Twins.
This is a favorite argument amongst my fellow bloggers and stat-heads, and the go-to statistic when trying to support this one is WAR (or Wins Above Replacement), a metric featured on FanGraphs that attempts to quantify a player's contributions to a team while accounting for both offense and defense. According to this stat, Crede was worth 1.9 wins to the Twins in the '09 season.
Now, it's not in my nature to try and dismantle progressive baseball statistics, and I certainly don't think WAR is without it's value, but in the case of Crede I don't think it provides an accurate assessment of what can be expected going forward.
FanGraphs acknowledges that Crede was a liability at the plate, but according to UZR he was worth 12.5 runs over a replacement-level player in the field. Since UZR makes up the defensive side of the WAR equation, that big defensive boost completely accounts for his positive rating. Now, I like UZR as a defensive metric, but even its most avid supporters acknowledge that one year's data in isolation cannot provide a particularly accurate picture of a player's fielding acumen. Extrapolated over 150 games (UZR/150), the stat suggests that Crede's defensive performance would have been worth 23.4 runs this past year. He's a good fielder, but he's not that good. Crede's career UZR/150 is 10.2, so unless you believe that he magically took an enormous step defensively last year at the age of 31, it seems clear that the numbers over that 84-game sample are exaggerated and that expectations going forward should be adjusted accordingly.
My other problem with WAR's calculation is that it gives the same positional adjustment to a third baseman as it does to a center fielder. I don't really buy that the two positions carry the same defensive importance under normal circumstances, and I certainly don't believe that's the case on a Twins team that allows a higher percentage of fly balls than any other big-league club.
Regardless of what WAR and Crede's overstated UZR tell us, his quality defense at third simply doesn't outweigh his poor performance at the plate.
Myth No. 2: While not great, Crede's offensive output was significantly better than the rest of the players who filled in at third base in 2009.
On the surface, this statement seems obviously true, but it's really not. Crede hit .225/.289/.414 (703 OPS) this year, while all other Twins' third basemen hit .273/.339/.349 (688 OPS). That gives Crede a very modest offensive edge over the rest of the misfits who were trotted out to third in his absence this year and, depending on how you weigh AVG/OBP vs. SLG, perhaps not much of an edge at all.
There's a perception that hitting some home runs can completely make up for a dreadful on-base percentage, but that just isn't true. Which brings us to our next myth.
Myth No. 3: Crede did his job, which was delivering big hits and driving in the core hitters from the middle of the Twins' lineup.
There's no denying that Crede had some big, memorable hits this year. That fact probably feeds the perception that he wasn't a major offensive liability. But, by making outs more than 70 percent of the time behind the team's best hitters, Crede killed A LOT of rallies. He batted .198 with runners in scoring position.
Overall, Crede hit .225 with a .289 on-base percentage. Despite his ability to hit the ball out of the park on occasion, his slugging percentage fell below the league average for a third baseman. He was a bad hitter in 2009, and next year he'll be another year older and coming off another back surgery, while the Twins will be moving into a new park that doesn't figure to be a whole lot kinder to right-handed power hitters than the Metrodome was. I don't think the smart money is on his improving significantly.
Myth No. 4: Signing Crede again is a low-risk move and doesn't really carry any downside.
This is the biggest misperception, for me. Nick Punto is set to make $4 million next year and it has been made fairly clear by the Twins brass that he'll be starting somewhere in the infield in 2010. If Crede is re-signed, then Punto will be your starter at second base and it's unlikely that another infielder will be added to the club. So, if Danny Valencia isn't ready when Crede goes down (you'll excuse me for not using the word "if" at this point), we're looking at Tolbert or Harris at third base with Punto at second. Isn't that precisely the situation we'd like to avoid?
If the Twins are willing to sign Crede to a deal that can reach $5-7 million or so in attainable incentives, that means they must be prepared to spend that money. It has to be accounted for in the budget. If they're willing to spend that money, why not just go ahead and guarantee it to one of the many second basemen on the market who are better than Crede and far more likely to remain healthy? This would potentially provide the team with the legitimate No. 2 hitter it has been looking for while sticking Punto at third until Valencia hopefully overtakes him at some point.
There's something about Crede that enamors fans. But once you look past the myths and dig deeper into the numbers, you'll find that he's far from an ideal solution and that there are much better options available if the Twins want to field a quality infield group.
If several months pass without Bill Smith taking action on the infield situation and things stand the same in late January as they do now, then fine, sign Crede to another one-year incentive-laden deal. But I would consider that scenario a failure on the part of Smith and the Twins front office. There are too many opportunities on the market right now to settle for Joe Crede.