January 4, 2007

ZiPS Projects the Twins: Hitters

The recent moves to bring in Jeff Cirillo and re-sign Rondell White give the Twins a full compliment of position players for 2007, meaning they're probably finished acquiring hitters barring an unexpected trade. This offseason has been amazingly uneventful, even for the Twins' standards, which leaves the lineup looking an awful lot like the one that ranked eighth in the league with 801 runs last year. Here's how Baseball Think Factory's ZiPS projection system pegs the Twins' hitters for 2007:
C    Joe Mauer           .313 AVG     .398 OBP     .465 SLG
1B Justin Morneau .287 AVG .355 OBP .538 SLG
2B Luis Castillo .294 AVG .361 OBP .359 SLG
SS Jason Bartlett .290 AVG .346 OBP .391 SLG
3B Nick Punto .265 AVG .330 OBP .345 SLG
LF Rondell White .262 AVG .306 OBP .397 SLG
CF Torii Hunter .270 AVG .329 OBP .445 SLG
RF Michael Cuddyer .265 AVG .348 OBP .463 SLG
DH Jason Kubel .284 AVG .342 OBP .477 SLG

C Mike Redmond .287 AVG .335 OBP .374 SLG
IF Jeff Cirillo .287 AVG .344 OBP .379 SLG
IF Alejandro Machado .240 AVG .310 OBP .306 SLG
OF Lew Ford .267 AVG .349 OBP .395 SLG
OF Jason Tyner .269 AVG .317 OBP .321 SLG

Like most projection systems, ZiPS is based largely on a player's performance track record and age--with adjustments for ballparks and various other things thrown into the mix--so it paints the numbers above with some pretty wide strokes. For instance, ZiPS sees that White hit a pathetic .246/.276/.365 last season, not that he was a complete disaster with a .182 first-half batting average before emerging as one of the team's best hitters with a .321/.354/.538 second half.

ZiPS also sees Nick Punto's relative breakout in 2006 as a fluke of sorts, because it doesn't match up with the rest of his track record. In reality, Punto made some major changes to his approach at the plate last spring, which seemingly led to his improved numbers. White's second-half surge and Punto's adjustments are the type of things to take into account when looking over any projections, but for the most part ZiPS gives a good baseline for what to expect from the offense in 2007.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Jason Kubel's solid projection becomes even more impressive when you consider that his track record includes missing all of 2005 and hitting just .241/.279/.386 last year. That Kubel projects to do so well after essentially two lost seasons shows how strong his minor-league resume was prior to the devastating knee injury. Some Twins fans have been quick to give up on Kubel, but I remain convinced that he'll be the team's third-best hitter for the rest of the decade.

While the core group remains the same from last season, there are a few important changes. Punto and Jason Bartlett will have their jobs on Opening Day, which means the Twins won't have to suffer through 50 games of Tony Batista and Juan Castro before fixing their mistakes. Even if Punto's numbers decline--and I'm skeptical that he can repeat last year's performance, for several reasons--the left side of the infield almost can't help but be better than it was for the first third of last season.

Similarly, White was the worst hitter in baseball during the first half of last season, but the odds are against him being completely useless for three months again. He may not repeat his second-half numbers for an entire season, but I'd put an awful lot of money on White topping his ZiPS projection. In other words, Bartlett, Punto, and White are the same names from last year, but there's plenty of reason to believe they'll collectively have a much bigger impact this time around.

Kubel is also technically a name from last season, but he still represents the Twins' best chance to "add" someone new this year. Kubel hit well for a brief stretch last season, but for the most part problems with both knees made him a painful-to-watch shell of the player he can be. There's no guarantee that his knees will be healthy for 2007, but the possibility exists and a healthy Kubel would provide a major boost to the Twins' lineup.

Unfortunately, the uncertainty surrounding Kubel's health shines a light on one of the Twins' biggest weaknesses. Depth is normally one of the team's strong suits and last year showed once again why you need plenty of backup options, yet the Twins have almost zero position-player depth beyond Cirillo. I feel confident in Cirillo's ability to step into the lineup for Punto or Luis Castillo (with Punto sliding over to second base) and he could even serve as a passable designated hitter if White or Kubel are out.

However, what happens if multiple injuries strike? What happens if Kubel's knees and Castillo's legs start acting up again? What happens if Punto comes crashing back down to earth and White's shoulder problems become an issue once more? The way things stand now, multiple injuries under just about any scenario would mean significant playing time for guys like Jason Tyner, Lew Ford, Alejandro Machado, Luis Rodriguez or Alexi Casilla.

That group is filled with capable defensive players and some decent on-base skills, and I like Casilla plenty over the long haul, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a fivesome of hitters with less power and there isn't a player in the bunch who I'd want to see playing every day in 2007. The second tier of cavalry involves guys like Ken Harvey and Josh Rabe, which is the same result in a slightly different package. Both guys have their uses, but you don't want either of them playing regularly.

There's plenty to be optimistic about within those ZiPS projections, particularly if you think White and Punto have good chances to out-perform their respective numbers. Even if they don't and those ZiPS projections are right on the money for each and every player, the Twins will essentially be average or better at seven of nine positions, with the league's top-hitting catcher and a stud at first base. That's the recipe for a solid offense.

With that said, a couple injuries or rough performances would seemingly cause the entire house of cards to come crashing down. Barring some last-minute additions, the Twins have less position-player depth on the bench and at Triple-A than they've had in at least five years. That'd be a concern for any team, but it's especially troubling for a group that includes guys like Kubel, White, Castillo, Punto, and Torii Hunter, all of whom carry various question marks into 2007.

If Kubel, White, Punto and the rest of the Twins' lineup stays healthy and productive enough for Cirillo to take on most of the backup duties, the offense has a chance to be improved over last season even if Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau show themselves to be slightly more mortal. If injuries strike as many hitters as they did last season--when Shannon Stewart, White, Kubel, Hunter, and Castillo all went down--things could get ugly in a hurry.

With about six weeks remaining until pitchers and catchers report for spring training, it seems clear that the Twins could really use a solid fourth outfielder who can hit. Ford circa 2004 would be perfect for that role, but Ford circa 2005 and 2006 was not, and last year's fun with Batista, Phil Nevin, and Ruben Sierra suggests that Terry Ryan may not have perfected his time machine yet. Of course, yesterday's signing of Sidney Ponson could signal that Ryan has done enough tinkering to try time travel again.


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