OK, I admit it, I’ve been worrying and wondering about the Twins. Not because they’re sneaking up on anybody -- potential Superfund sites don’t sneak, and even in the AL Central, they’re in trouble. Whether because of old subjects like the questionable health of Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau or new subjects like Bill Smith’s hastily dug shallow grave or Jamey Carroll, senior citizen and shortstop, a quickly stoked Hot Stove is already being used to cauterize a few wounds. Early activity didn’t necessarily equal a sense of direction.
Happily, a quick-strike addition of Ryan Doumit is exactly what the doctor ordered. While Doumit’s skill as a receiver behind the plate is nothing short of execrable -- read Mike Fast’s outstanding article at BaseballProspectus.com to learn the extent of the damage -- you wouldn’t think he’s been signed to be an everyday receiver. Instead, by signing him to a one-year, $3 million deal, he’s an excellent bit of risk-hedging by resurrected GM Terry Ryan to address a series of overlapping issues on the Twins’ roster.
First, there’s the question of Mauer’s health. Maybe the Twins’ franchise player will be fine to catch 90-100 games, and play DH or first base or maybe even left field the rest of the time. Mauer might want to catch, but the more often he breaks down, the less likely he should be granted a Carlton Fisk-like exemption from moving out from behind the plate while there’s still a few years of potentially prime production to reap. Or, in a worst-case scenario, maybe Mauer needs to just stop catching altogether. Doumit may not be very good at it, but he can catch. Although he’s just as fragile as Mauer, a situation in which they split the chore of starting behind the plate, while exploiting the DH slot to keep them both in the lineup, could be the best thing for both.
Second, there’s the question of Mauer’s backup backstop. Drew Butera just tied Brandon Inge’s horrific 2001 season for the single worst OPS+ (24) for a catcher with more than 200 at-bats in the era when I’d argue the historical stats ought to matter -- since integration. (Sorry to all you Bill Bergen fans.) That’s intolerably awful, especially when you’re relying on Mauer to catch and know that he goes away now and again. If the Twins want to keep Sal Butera’s kid around as some sort of self-spiting bit of nepotism, the least they can do is scrape together the dignity to keep him from being more than the third catcher and having him bat as infrequently as possible. In the meantime, this gets the Twins out of the catcher shopping market at the right time, because with Brian Schneider, Gerald Laird, Rod Barajas, Henry Blanco and Matt Treanor already signed, there’s been an early rush on backstops.
Third, there’s the desperately necessary infusion of power that Doumit might provide. The Twins slugged .360 as a team last year, worse than 15 teams in the National League -- you know, the circuit that has pitchers hitting instead of DHs -- and 12 of their rivals in the AL. With the uncertainty now permanently associated with Morneau’s comeback from his 2010 mid-season concussion, they needed an alternative. Doumit’s not a very adept target for his fellow infielders at first base, but .186 Isolated Power clip versus right-handed pitching is something this team needed. Whether that comes from him as a first baseman, DH or catcher is something they can afford to wait and find out, depending on who’s healthy and what else the market might provide.
It’s that positional flexibility in a lineup which needs all sorts of help which provides Ryan with the final benefit: Time to look at the rest of the market. In the months of offseason action to come, Ryan doesn’t absolutely have to sign one specific type of player -- first baseman or outfielder or power bat or catcher -- because he can pencil in Doumit as needed while negotiating with players at prices he can live with. Having that kind of flexibility now will help Ryan in December and January, when free agency’s middle class tends to start getting desperate and when its ranks will have been long since swollen by non-tendered players. With the amount of money he has to work with being finite, retaining that flexibility for later should help him deliver the best offseason the Pohlads are willing to afford.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.