November 14, 2011
The Twins Go Carolling
Signed SS-S Jamey Carroll to a two-year deal worth near $7 million with a vesting $2 million option for 2014. [11/11]
It reads like a joke. A week that brought Terry Ryan back into the Twins’ general manager role ended with the signing of a diminutive middle infielder to a multi-year deal. Under Ryan in 2006, the Twins had a quartet of similar players batting in the leadoff, second, eighth, and ninth slots in the lineup. After they nipped at the White Sox’ heels for a series, Chicago manager Ozzie Guillen deemed them a bunch of “Little Piranhas.” The Twins, being the Twins, embraced the nickname. After all, the Little Piranhas embodied the team’s style: fundamentalism without flash, and rosters greater than the sums of their parts.
On looks alone, Carroll passes for a charter member of the Little Piranhas. If Scrappy Doo were a baseball player, he would be Carroll. Listed at 5-foot-9 or 5-foot-10, depending in the source, Carroll parlays his size into an advantage at the plate. Selective to the point of passiveness, Carroll has offered at seven percent of the first pitches he has seen since 2009. When Carroll swings, he makes contact. As is the case with other players Carroll’s size, he will not shoot rockets into the gaps or over the fences.
The only percentage challenging Carroll’s first-pitch swing rate is how often his plate appearances end with an extra-base hit (3.9 percent since 2009). Carroll has two home runs since the last presidential election, and none since August 2009. That slash-and-dash hitting style has produced a .286 average over the last three seasons, while his eagerness to walk has juiced his on-base percentage into the .360s. Players without power need to be able to sustain high averages or high walk rates, and Carroll does a little of both.
Carroll does the stereotypical little guy thing at the plate, too, in grinding out at-bats and bleeding pitch counts. Averaging more than four pitches per plate appearance in nine straight seasons is testament to his grind, as is a career on-base percentage in two-strike counts more than 60 points higher than the 2011 league-average. In fact, throughout Carroll’s career, he has reached base more often in two-strike counts than when swinging on the first-pitch. He would be the king of the Little Piranhas.
In February, Carroll will turn 38. If he records 100-plus appearances at shortstop next season, he will become just the third shortstop aged 38 to do so since the 1998 expansion. The idea that Carroll will be linked to Barry Larkin, Omar Vizquel, and (likely) Derek Jeter might be unsettling, but there are questions about his viability at the position—questions that extend beyond ageism.
In the field, Carroll’s best attributes tend to be his versatility, sure hands, and instincts. The Twins are discarding the flexibility by making him into an everyday shortstop. Minnesota is also countering the vision Carroll’s other teams had of his defensive skills. Teams have different criteria for how much arm, range, and offense they will accept from their shortstops, but implicitly calling multiple teams incompetent at evaluating Carroll’s defensive tools seems like a stretch. Carroll’s defensive palette includes decent range and a so-so arm. Therefore, a Carroll masterpiece with the glove would be an average defensive showing at shortstop.
It would be even more notable if Carroll managed a league-average offensive season. Should Carroll post an OPS+ of at least 100, he would become the first Twins shortstop to do so since Cristian Guzman in 2001. Prior to Guzman, Minnesota’s history with anemic offensive shortstops dates back to 1984, when Ron Washington—yes, that Ron Washington—was the most recent shortstop to put up an above-average season at the dish.
In a perfect world, Carroll would act as a transition between the ineffective shortstops of 2011—Alexi Casilla, Trevor Plouffe, Matt Tolbert, and Tsuyoshi Nishioka—and the Twins’ future shortstop. The one problem with that plan is that the Twins’ system lacks shortstop talent. Three finished in Kevin Goldstein’s top-20, including 2011 first-rounder Levi Michael. Niko Goodrum, the team’s 2010 second-rounder, will not be ready for a few years. That leaves Brian Dozier as the team’s best shortstop prospect at the top of the organization, and scouts feel he is overmatched defensively at the position.
There is risk in giving any 38-year-old a multi-year deal with a vesting option, but from the Twins’ point of view, it is an understandable gambit. Ryan should just hope that signing Carroll does not turn into the first punch line of his second stint as the team’s GM.