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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

I know you love Nick Punto, but...

A fews years back, the Cardinals tore down their 40-year-old "multi-purpose" stadium, a ballpark which, despite its obvious aesthetic limitations, was quite popular with local fans.  Good seats at the old Busch Stadium came relatively cheap and the product on the field was of consistently high quality.  The Cardinals went to the playoffs eleven times during their tenure in the old ballpark.  Among National League teams, only the Atlanta Braves fared better during those decades.

Protests against the new stadium were plentiful.  Taxpayers resisted replacing a still-functional facility.  Droves of middle-class Cardinals fans worried about the inevitable price hike.  And, many operated under the impression that Cardinals ownership, led by Bill DeWitt, had not shown enough interest in re-investing their abundant profits in the team.  The stadium, after considerable politicking, was eventually pushed through, but a particularly loud conglomerate of season-ticket holders threatened to boycott if the Cardinals didn't "spend to win" in their new stadium.

This group of would-be holdouts was dramatically assuaged when the Cardinals won their first World Series since 1982 during the new Busch Stadium's first year in existence.  As expected, ticket prices went up dramatically, especially at the field level, but the Cardinals have since won a pair of divisions, a pennant, and a World Series, hosted an All-Star Game, and maintained a very competitive payroll (~$95 Million).  The organization now operates with about as much support from the local media and fanbase as any in baseball.

As Busch Stadium I went the way of the Astrodome, Kingdome, Riverfront, Three Rivers, and Veteran's Stadium, there was but one remnant of the "cookie cutter" era remaining: that plastic and polyester monstrosity known as the Metrodome.  Like Cardinals fans, Minnesotans had become peculiarly attached to their 60,000-seat simulacra colosseum, which housed the Twins beginning in 1961.  The concrete turf, the inflatable, oddly baseball-colored roof, the plexiglass outfield wall, the cacophonous, echoey dimensions, and the infamous right-field "baggy" combined to give the Twinks what many considered the best home-field advantage in sports.

Minnesotans were also intensely skeptical of publicly funding a stadium for an organization that had, as recently as 2002, volunteered to be contracted.  The Twins owner, Carl Pohlad, was a controversial figure, with a reputation for cutthroat frugality befitting a man who made his fortune foreclosing homes during the Great Depression, was an army loan shark during the D-Day invasion, and spent much of the 1980s buying up failed S&Ls.  Carl Pohlad was the type of billionaire who still turned his underwear inside-out on Tuesday, ate government cheese, and considered coffee ground reusable.  Frustrated by league-average attendance, Pohlad continually threatened the move the Twins throughout the '90s, than offered to sell them to MLB in 2001.

In recent years, Pohlad's son has taken over the reins (Carl died in early 2009), but Twins fans still had every reason to be skeptical of the family's intentions.  As in St. Louis, ownership, in combination with MLB, eventually pressured the city into construction, and the Twins recently moved into space-age Target Field.  In an effort to persuade Minnesotans that they were committed to more than higher prices, the Pohlad's hiked their payroll up by $30 Million between '09 and '10, one of the largest one-year spikes in MLB history, and they committed a big portion of it to Minnesota poster-child and '09 MVP, Joe Mauer.  Nevertheless, nothing would go further toward justifying the new stadium than a championship.

In the early weeks of the season, the Twins played like a team with something to prove, surging to the front of the AL Central by going 13-5 out of the gate.  Their May schedule has been less kind.  Despite sweeping the second-place Tigers early in the month, Minnesota has been a .500 team over their last 26 games, and were humbled by a 2-5 road trip through the AL East.  The Twins were reminded that if they are going to make a deep run in the playoffs, they will need to prove themselves capable of beating the Red Sox, Yankees, and Rays, even on their own turf.  Minnesota has not advanced past the Division Series in their last four attempts, falling three times to the Yankees.

In recent weeks, they've looked too much like the team that was steamrolled last October.  One through five, the Twins lineup is as good as any in baseball, led by the tandem MVPs, Mauer and Justin Morneau.  But, with Jim Thome and J. J. Hardy on the D.L., and Jason Kubel off to another slow start, it seems that the Twins fold as comfortably as a homemade quilt in one out of every three innings.  So far they have surrendered some three hundred plate appearances to Kubel, Brendan Harris, and Nick Punto, who have a combined OPS well under 600 (league average = 736).

One would assume that some combination of Kubel and Thome will eventually provide the Twins with quality at-bats at DH and, hopefully, Hardy will return very soon, provide a substantial boost offensively and defensively.  But their lineup depth will remain the foremost charge against the Twins World Series aspirations.  In this department, Twins GM Bill Smith should take a lesson from the 2006 World Champion Cardinals.

As you may recall, in '06 the Astros took the Cardinals down to the wire, and St. Louis entered October with only 83 wins, the fewest of any postseason team.  They were able to squeak into the playoffs because then GM, Walt Jocketty, took initiative in filling out a lineup that relied too heavily on the trio of Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, and Jim Edmonds.  He began by signing a minimum contract with Scott Spezio, recently released by the Mariners.  Spezio's defensive flexibility and his hot start at the plate - he hit over .300 during the first two months - helped compensate for brief D.L. stints by Pujols and Rolen.

As the trade deadline drew near, Jocketty grew more active, even though he didn't have a ton of money to throw around.  He brought Ron Belliard over from the Indians to replace Aaron Miles.  Belliard improved the Cards defensively and provided a modest amount of power.  He also added Preston Wilson, who played center when Edmonds six weeks down the stretch, and hit 8 HR during Edmonds' absence.

None of the players the Cardinals added were spectacular, but, as such, they were acquired for next to nothing and they were significant upgrades over the automatic outs who were playing everyday.  As the deadline nears, Bill Smith needs to seriously consider any and every player who has the ability to either I.) provide above-average outfield defense, II.) hit left-handed pitching, or III.) play third base.  Here's why...

I.

Last season the Twins employed Carlos Gomez largely because he was among the best centerfielders in the game.  The youngster didn't hit a lick and was often a disaster on the basepaths, but he made up for it by flashing incredible leather.  Even when he wasn't starting, they could insert him in the late innings, moving Denard Span to a corner, and dramatically improve their outfield defense.  Last season, the Twins outfielders (Gomez, Span, Cuddyer, & Young) combined for an Ultimate Zone Rating of -25.2.  That's not very good, but if Gomez had been replaced by a merely average fielder, it would've been much worse (-35.3).  Hence, this season, with Kubel getting more time in the outfield, the Twins UZR is dropping (even though Delmon Young has improved), on pace for around -27, and currently sitting in 28th place among the 30 MLB teams.

Basically, Denard Span plays center like a converted left-fielder (which is what he is).  Michael Cuddyer plays right like a converted third-baseman (which is what he is).  And, Jason Kubel plays left like a converted DH (you get the picture).  This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the Twins pitching staff is geared largely towards the creation of flyball outs.  In 2009, they created a higher percentage of flyballs than any team in the league (41.1%).  This season it's lower (38.1%), but still among the league leaders.  Obviously, with so many balls in the air, it is imperative to have players who can track down as many of them as possible.  The Twins need to seriously consider acquiring a true centerfielder.  Even if he doesn't play everyday, he'll be available to help defend the gaps when a lead is at stake in the late innings.

II.

The good news is that Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer, Denard Span, and Michael Cuddyer absolutely massacre left-handed pitching, to the tune of a combined OPS above 950 so far in 2010.  The bad news is that Jason Kubel, Jim Thome, J. J. Hardy, Nick Punto, and Brendan Harris barely break 500.  And this isn't likely to change.  Over the last three seasons, Kubel's OPS against southpaws is just 668.  Thome's is a borderline respectable 757, but has declined in each season since 2007.  And, of course, Harris and Punto can't hit anything thrown from anyone.

As was on display last October, when C. C. Sabathia struck out eight on his way to an easy victory in Game 1 of the NLDS, tough lefthanders will have their way with the Twins.  It's been on display again in recent days, as Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, and Andy Pettitte combined to win three games, throw 23 innings, and compile a 1.16 ERA during the Twins last road trip.

Clearly, Minnesota needs a right-handed bat off the bench who can also serve as DH against lefties.  Such players are not terribly hard to find.  Here are some players who posted OPSs above 900 last season against southpaws: Matt Diaz, Ryan Roberts, Ryan Raburn, Gabe Kapler, Scott Hairston, Jonny Gomes, and Jose Bautista.  Such players are generally in abundant supply as the deadline nears and come at very little cost, in terms of dollars or prospects.  In fact, Jermaine Dye (894 OPS v. LHP last season and 917 the year before) is available right now.  You could ask O-Dog for his number.  There's no excuse for going another month without somebody to fill this role.

III.

The Twins and their fans have had a prolonged love affair with Nick Punto, who, I will gladly admit, is a lovable player.  He's a human highlight reel at all the toughest infield positions, a terrific bunter and baserunner, and a "scrappy" hustler who embodies P.U.S.  The problem is, Punto makes David Eckstein look like Honus Wagner.  In 2009 there were 241 players who got at least 375 AB.  Punto ranked 241 in SLG, 237 in OPS, and 227 in AVG.   This year his numbers have actually declined in each of those categories.  He is, arguably, the worst everyday player in the American League.

Punto would be well worth keeping around as a utilityman and defensive-replacement, but the Twins have to fill that third base vacuum which has been their most consistent Achilles heel since Corey Koskie left in 2004.  The Twins keep waiting for somebody from within the organization to assert himself.  The most recent candidate is Danny Valencia, who is hitting .302 at AAA, but has yet to homer and is striking out at an alarming rate.

At the very least, it's time for a new stopgap measure.  In case you haven't heard, Mike Lowell is abundantly available.  He happens to be right-handed and absolutely murders left-handed pitching.  Jhonny Peralta, Jose Lopez, Jorge Cantu, Pedro Feliz, and Ty Wigginton could probably all be had for a reasonable price in the coming months.  It's time to pull the trigger.

I'm certainly not ready to say that three cheap short-term fixes will guarantee the Twins a World Series berth.  They would still have some question marks in the rotation, as Nick Blackburn, Scott Baker, and Kevin Slowey have been inconsistent through the opening weeks.  However, though it may not be easy or cost-efficient to find frontline starters and power-hitters in June and July, it is quite reasonable to find fourth outfielders, right-handed pinch-hitters, and a wide variety of Nick Punto replacements.  If the Twins really want to christen their new digs with Champagne this fall, it's time for Bill Smith to start patching the hull.

2 comments:

nard-dawg said...

three questions.

arent you selling short the tigers? they are only a game back. you act like the twins only roadblock is the yanks.

wouldn't a relief pitcher be more valuable than a forth outfielder? how often would he play? the bullpen is missing nathan.

aren't there better options at 3b? all the player you mention suck.

Hippeaux said...

I certainly don't think that the Twins' "only roadblock is the Yanks," but I'm not buying the Tigers as a legitimate contender, at least not yet. Insanely good starts from Austin Jackson and Brennan Boesch have kept the offense afloat, but I have a hard time believing those two can maintain. Detroit is offensively terrible at several positions (C, 3B, 2B, SS). If Porcello and Scherzer somehow turn their seasons around while the Tigers are still within striking distance, I might alter my viewpoint, but until then I'm operating under the assumption that the bottom could fall out any moment now.

The Twins bullpen has been among the best in the AL so far (3.24 ERA) and I don't see a whole lot of reasons why that should change. So, yes, I'd rather have the fourth outfielder.

I take your point, none of those players get your blood pumping, but they also don't "suck" as much as Punto. There aren't likely to be any premium cornerman available, but my whole point was to find inexpensive options that would provide at least a modest upgrade.