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Twins Grab Jamey Carroll, Stun Nation

The Twins have landed one of the absolute prizes of free agency in Jamey Carroll, who will be one of the keys to their rebuilding effort under new/old GM Terry Ryan and… What, you’re not buying Carroll as a major difference maker, the first real catch of the free agent period? Ok, I can’t say I blame you.

Free agency hasn’t always been the Twins’ strength, no matter who the GM was. Mike Lamb, Rondell White, Tony Batista, Nick Punto at $4 million a year, everyone has their favorite foible, but to be frank, I don’t see Carroll falling into that category. A lot of the dislike for this deal I saw on Twitter today centers around two things: First, that he was given a multiyear deal and second, that he’ll be the team’s starting shortstop.

The multiyear deal is almost a misnomer here. We tend to use that term to describe players who are on the cusp of signing 3-4 year deals, or if the deal is multiple years but there are options still to be hammered out; it’s intentionally a little vague, but it typically signifies more than a rental deal or a short-term commitment. Yes, 2 years, $7 million technically qualifies as multiyear, but the Twins aren’t locked into Carroll at all at this point. If he hits well this year and plays 150 games for them, great, they have him in place for 2013 to split time with Brian Dozier.

If he really shows his age, they have less invested in him than they have invested in Nick Blackburn. They can release him without taking a huge loss; they’re as committed to him as most people are to their printer: As long as it works, great, but if I need to go get another one, it’s not the kind of expenditure that means I’m a de facto vegan until payday.

I get the consternation about Carroll, who will turn 38 before the 2012 season starts, being handed the starting shortstop job. Offensively, he’s been better the last two years — 104 wRC+ both years — than he has been for most of his career. Still, his career line of .278/.356/.348 isn’t going to send anyone into fits of ecstasy. Additionally, Carroll isn’t a great defender at shortstop, only playing there consistently for the last two seasons and posting a combined UZR of 0 and -6 DRS during that time.

But to understand the move, it’s imperative to look at what the Twins need, what they have in-house, and what they could afford to add. They were never going to sign Jose Reyes or Jimmy Rollins, and after those two the pickings get slim for free agents who can play SS. In-house, the Twins have Tsuyoshi Nishioka, whose -1.4 WAR would have been lower but for the month he missed with a broken leg; Trevor Plouffe, who managed to save -17 runs on defense despite making just 89 plays at short; and Dozier, whose prospect stock rose quite a bit this year, but who is probably at least another year in the minors. Alexi Casilla is already penciled in as the team’s second baseman, though he theoretically could be in the mix at short if needed.

All told, the team’s shortstops produced -1.1 WAR last season and that’s only if you include Casilla as a shortstop instead of a 2B; removing him from the mix drops their overall production to -2.5 WAR, a .238/.292/.320 batting line, and -26 DRS. Maybe Carroll is a below average option, but he’s moving into a position where replacement level would have been an improvement. Carroll will likely bat second, a slot the Twins got a .232/.289/.339 line out of in 2011.

One factor that can’t be overstated is Carroll’s ability to stay healthy. He broke his hand in 2009, which cost him just under 40 games, but other than that, Carroll has been able to stay off the disabled list. The Twins had 27 injuries last season that required a DL move, ranking very near the bottom of baseball. Whatever Carroll will give them, he’ll give it to them everyday, and for a team that needs to get healthy in the worst way, durability is a big plus.

Carroll isn’t an objectively cheap option, but neither was he very costly. There are so many holes on this team, and precious little money available to fix them at the moment, that being able to look at shortstop and not shudder for less than $4 million a year is acceptable for the Twins. They got a player who will make them better and left themselves more or less as much payroll flexibility as they had before in doing it. Is it likely that there is a bargain or two out there whole will outproduce Carroll for less money, 2012’s answer to 2011’s Nick Punto, if you will? Almost certainly, and it would have behooved the Twins to find that player, but it’s a craps shoot as to who that player is and the Twins needed to stop the bleeding at shortstop as badly or worse than they need to stop it anywhere else; they couldn’t really afford to sit back and hope the market dropped a great option in their laps.

All in all, I like the deal for the Twins, but it’s hard to get excited about. Carroll is old, he’s not going to save a ton of runs on defense or produce a ton with the bat, but he has been a solid major league regular for the last two seasons and he makes the team better before 2012 even starts. The fact that this is a good signing for the Twins says as much about the state of the team as it does about Carroll’s likely productivity.

From a fantasy standpoint, I don’t see Carroll as a real player unless you’re in deep AL-Only. He’ll get playing time and if the middle of the Twins’ order is healthy this year — a huge if and one you would be foolish to count on — he’ll score you some runs the way Orlando Hudson did in 2010. His OBP is better than his batting average, so there’s some value if you’re in an OBP league, and maybe he’s worth keeping an eye on if Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau look like they’re capable of turning his singles and walks into runs. He’s interesting as a possible waiver claim, but if you draft him, you’re only setting yourself up for tears.