This morning, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune's Joe Christensen noted that, given that the Twins' payroll has swelled to about $113 million -- reportedly beyond their 2011 budget already -- the seven-year Twins career of free agent Nick Punto has likely seen its end (note: while I was writing this, "likely" became "definitely"; it was announced just moments ago that Punto has signed with the Cards). Christensen paints it as something of a day of celebration for the blogging community and many Twins fans, even mentioning (though sadly not by the creator's name) the Andrew Keeland-created Nick Punto Day last February. The idea of Christensen's column, basically, is that it looks like we won't have poor Nicky Punto to kick around anymore.
Craig Calcaterra's take is shorter and of a more analytical, on-the-field bent:
Punto was useful the couple of times his average was high, but he is a career .247/.321/.322 hitting utility infielder — albeit an overused one — who has made $4 million a year recently. That’s a guy you cut bait on a long time ago in favor of a veteran who will take a minor league deal and maybe make a million bucks, max. It took the Twins a couple of years to figure that out, but now they have.
Nothing against either Christensen, who is one of the best media guys covering the Twins, or Craig, who is a friend of TPA and is just excellent all around, but I think both these assessments miss the mark rather badly.
First, Christensen correctly notes that a lot of fans were down on Punto and Gardy's reliance on him. I don't think he's correct to conflate that with the blogging community, though. Kneeland's post, linked above, was titled "Nick Punto: Undervalued and Unappreciated," and mine was "Nick Punto, the Underappreciated, Tiny Superhero." The Common Man's was pretty tangential, an ode to the person I consider the greatest Twins blogger ever. Google "Nick Punto Day," and you'll see a lot of different and interesting things, but what you won't see is one big excuse to rag on Little Nicky.
And the reason for that gets to why I think Craig's take is wrong. Punto looks (and hits) a lot like one of those guys the stat-nerd community loves to rag on; little, white, gets praised for being "scrappy" as apparent code for "doesn't do anything very well at all." But Punto does do several things well, and does one important thing very well -- infield defense. UZR is just one tool and these samples aren't big enough to be taken as anything like gospel, but in around 2000 innings each at second, third and short, Punto rates at +5.8, +18.9, and +18.3 runs, respectively, per 150 games played at each position. If he can just provide replacement-level offense, that's about an average full-time player.
And while nobody will confuse Punto with Hanley Ramirez (or even Marco Scutaro) at the plate, his shortcomings there have been terribly exaggerated. The most important thing a hitter can do is get on base, and in three of the last five seasons, Punto has posted an OBP that is at or above his park-adjusted league average. He will give you no power and often a pretty ugly batting average, but he's drawn walks in 10% of his plate appearances, and (despite an infuriating tendency to slide into first base and one or two excruciatingly memorable gaffes) is an excellent baserunner when he does get there. He's a poor hitter, but one who sees a lot of pitches and can get on base at at least a stomachable clip. Thanks to his patience and baserunning ability, he's not nearly the zero he's usually portrayed as.
The "utility infielder" label Craig placed on him, while probably technically correct, usually means "replaceable infielder," but Punto's is not the kind of total performance that's easy to replace. The two guys Christensen mentions as his replacements, Matt Tolbert and Trevor Plouffe, certainly won't do it. Tolbert has a career .306 big league OBP, silghtly more power, and far less footspeed and (most importantly) a tiny fraction of the defensive ability. Plouffe will be turning 25 and, despite his reputation among Twins fans as something of a power-hitting shortstop prospect, has a career .254/.316/.391 line in the minor leagues, and hasn't even put up an OBP that high since a short stint in 2008 in AA, and appears to be an average defensive shortstop at best. Especially considering that this is a team that's going with a relative unknown from Japan at second and a terrible-fielding second baseman at short, they really could use better fallback options than these two guys. Punto was that option.
I don't think Punto ever should have been paid $4 million a season (though it's worth noting that his FanGraphs free agency values the past five seasons have been $12.0, $1.6, $11.3, $5.9 and $5.6 million, so it's hard to argue they got totally ripped off), and while I argued in that Tiny Superhero post linked above that he deserved a starting role, I now believe his skills have fallen off just a bit and his best use is as a kind of supersub.
But if you're a Twins fan, this is not a day for celebration, especially if (as I suspect) we find out soon that Punto signed with the Cardinals for something between $1 and $3 million. To me (assuming again that he was available for that price), it's just the latest episode in the offseason-long "What the Hell?" miniseries produced by the team's front office. This team could still really use a guy like Punto, and there's a very good chance that, come May or June, you're going to be missing those obnoxious head-first slides.
UPDATE: The St. Louis Post-Dispatch and MLB.com report that Punto's one-year contract will pay him $700,000. I'm flabbergasted that the Twins couldn't match that figure. This isn't the worst Twins offseason I can remember -- that would be 2006, the year of Batista, White and Sierra -- but given the team's vastly increased payroll and the smashing success of the 2010 offseason, it's definitely the most disappointing.