The Twins signed Nick Blackburn to a four year contract worth 14 million dollars on Sunday. The contract covers Blackburn’s final pre-arbitration season, all of his arbitration seasons, and also contains an $8 million option for 2014, Blackburn’s first free agent season.
Blackburn has been a quietly productive pitcher for the Twins over the last two seasons, compiling 5.5 WAR, a big boost to a rotation which had just seen Johan Santana leave via trade and Francisco Liriano struggle with injuries and ineffectiveness. This effectiveness has come despite poor peripheral stats – fewer than 4.5 K/9 and over 1 HR/9 are generally not signs of MLB quality pitchers. However, Blackburn has managed due to his spectacular control – a career walk rate below 2 BB/9, keeping his K/BB ratio to a respectable 2.5 level for his career.
Blackburn is a ground ball heavy pitcher, which may account for his ERA outperforming his FIP by about 0.40 runs each of the last two years. Regardless, his 4.39 career FIP makes him a roughly average starting pitcher, the kind of guy who can expect a two-year, $16MM deal, or even a three-year, nearly $30MM deal.
As this deal is covering 1.8 effective free agent seasons (based on the 40/60/80 scheme of arbitration payouts), this deal values Blackburn similarly to Joel Piniero, a very fair comparison according to CHONE projections. If Blackburn’s performance remains at its current level, this contract will likely have a very similar payout to any arbitration rewards he would have received, and avoids the hassle and emotional turmoil of hearings for three years.
Hopefully, the baseball market (and overall economy) will be on the rise by 2014, the year of Blackburn’s option. By then, the cost per marginal win will likely be closer to $5MM or more, making Blackburn’s $8MM option attractive if he can maintain his production. He will, however, be 32 by that point, meaning his peak will likely have passed. With the team option, the Twins cannot lose – either Blackburn is gone with little cost, or they pick up another cheap year of a productive pitcher.