March 26, 2008

Twins Notes: Cuts and Kicks

  • Ron Gardenhire gave Nick Punto a chance to claim the starting second-base job this spring, giving him plenty of at-bats and consistently pairing him with shortstop Adam Everett. Brendan Harris' shaky defense and modest hitting further opened the door for Punto, but going 5-for-41 (.122) made it hard for even Gardenhire to hand him the job. Instead, Gardenhire said Tuesday that he'll "probably start Harris and go from there," which may be code for "as soon as Punto shows any sign of life, he'll be starting."

    Gardenhire has already taken to referring to Harris' defense as "hit-or-miss," which while accurate isn't a good sign for his chances of holding off one of the manager's favorite players while hanging onto the job all year. Meanwhile, Gardenhire has predictably been brainstorming ways to get Punto into games, saying: "Believe me, he'll get used quite a bit. I like to see him out there on the field." Unless Harris hits .350 in April and never looks back, I'll be shocked if Punto isn't playing regularly before midseason.

  • While Harris is merely the unofficial and perhaps temporary starter at second base, the Twins left no doubt that Carlos Gomez is the starting center fielder. Denard Span's never-ending "confidence" and a .282/.404/.385 hitting line in 16 spring games weren't enough to keep him from being sent to Triple-A along with Jason Pridie, leaving Gomez as the only true center fielder on the roster (although Punto, Craig Monroe, and Delmon Young have each played center field in the majors).

    As usual Official Twins Beat Writer of AG.com LaVelle E. Neal III wrote plenty about Span's point of view, reporting that he "took the news hard" and "choked up a few times while he spoke with reporters." I've poked fun at Span for over-confidence and at the local reporters for chronicling his every thought while failing to note that he's simply not a very good player, but he deserves credit for playing well this spring and will no doubt be first in line for a call-up should Gomez struggle.

  • Gomez will also lead off for the Twins, showing that Gardenhire values speed over on-base skills at the top of the order. Unless Punto works his way into the lineup, Gomez and Everett have a good shot at posting the two worst on-base percentages among Twins regulars. They'll be batting back-to-back, directly in front of Joe Mauer in the No. 2 spot, which guarantees that we'll get to hear people like Dan Barreiro and Jim Souhan continue to misguidedly criticize Mauer's lack of run production.

    I'm as excited as anyone about Gomez's future, ranking him as the Twins' top prospect, but it's likely a mistake to put him in a position to receive the most plate appearances of anyone on the team while batting directly in front of the lineup's most dangerous hitters. There'll no doubt be flashes of brilliance while Gomez shows off his amazing speed on the bases and in center field, but leading off should primarily be about getting on base and at 22 years old he doesn't figure to do that especially well.

  • Along with Span and Pridie, Brian Buscher was also among the Twins' last batch of position-player cuts, meaning that Matt Tolbert will be on the Opening Day roster as a backup infielder. Buscher can be a useful role player if given the chance, but coughed up whatever opportunity he had this spring by going just 5-for-35 (.143) and will likely never make much of a fan in Gardenhire because of his weak glove and patient approach at the plate.

    Everett is a prime candidate to be pinch-hit for in key spots, it seems obvious that Gardenhire plans to remove Harris' glove from the equation late in games, and he may eventually want to do the same with Mike Lamb at third base, so Tolbert should get some work as a late-inning sub even if Punto is the first choice off the bench in such situations. While Gomez headlined my aforementioned annual list of the Twins' top prospects, Buscher ranked 38th and Tolbert ranked 40th.

  • While the 13 position players are settled barring a last-minute move, the dozen pitchers haven't yet been finalized. Philip Humber was sent to Triple-A along with Span, Pridie, and Buscher, suggesting that Brian Bass has beaten the odds to win a spot in the bullpen. Bass is out of minor-league options and pitched well this spring after putting together a career-year at Triple-A last season, so the Twins would rather give him a look in a low-leverage role than risk losing him for nothing on waivers.

    Assuming that Bass sticks as a long reliever, that leaves Nick Blackburn waiting to see whether Scott Baker and Francisco Liriano begin the season in the rotation. If Baker needs a stint on the disabled list or Liriano heads to Triple-A, Blackburn will slide into the rotation along with Livan Hernandez, Boof Bonser, Kevin Slowey, and either Baker or Liriano. If both Baker and Liriano are ready, Blackburn will join Humber, Glen Perkins, Kevin Mulvey, and Brian Duensing in an amazing Rochester rotation.

  • Lew Ford's career in Minnesota fell apart after he batted .302/.383/.461 through his first 188 games, but his new career in Japan is off to a pretty strong start. Playing right field for the Hanshin Tigers in an exhibition game against the Red Sox over the weekend, Ford reportedly "made a highlight-reel running catch into the right-field wall to rob Jacoby Ellsbury of an extra-base hit" and "singled, drew two walks, and scored twice."

    Interestingly, Ford was originally selected by the Red Sox in the 12th round of the 1999 draft out of Dallas Baptist University and hit .315/.378/.479 with 52 steals for their low Single-A affiliate in 2000 before being traded to the Twins for Hector Carrasco that September. Carrasco appeared in just eight games for the Red Sox, allowing eight runs on 15 hits in 6.2 innings, and then re-signed with the Twins that offseason. Ford hit .272/.349/.402 in 1,716 plate appearances with the Twins.

  • Given all the weight that he's lugging around it's not surprising that Hernandez avoided bending over to field a ground ball yesterday, but what followed was apparently pretty amusing:
    Elliot Johnson led off the third by trying to bunt down the first-base line. He kept it close to the line and it rolled down close to the bag. Morneau went to cover the bag and Hernandez moved his considerable bulk over toward the ball. Seeing that he wouldn't be able to scoop it up in time to get Johnson, Hernandez instead kicked the ball, right on the toe, and it went straight into Morneau's glove.

    Your average, everyday 1-3 putout. Unbelievable.

    Now on the Rays, former Twins shortstop Jason Bartlett had plenty to say about "The Kick":

    That was awesome. Usually you'd see that and you'd get mad about it, but it was so amazing that everybody in our dugout was taking their hat off and just bowing to him. To kick it and to hit it in the air right at Morneau's glove is impossible, but he did it. Any other first baseman, it probably would have hit off their knee or something, but Morneau, with that hockey instinct, kick save and he got it in the glove.

    Sure enough, Justin Morneau also brought up the hockey angle, adding: "Usually that's no goal in hockey, kicking it in."

  • Over at MinnPost, Pat Borzi catches up with Torii Hunter as he prepares to return to the Metrodome for Monday's season opener as a member of the Angels.

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