May 21, 2008

Twins Notes: Infield Shuffling, Sir Sidney, and TK

  • It looks like Matt Tolbert going down for two months with a torn left thumb ligament won't stop Ron Gardenhire's plan to remove Brendan Harris as the starting second baseman. Alexi Casilla started each of the past three games at second base, with Harris beginning two games on the bench and one at designated hitter. Defensive metrics pegged Harris' glove as awful last season in Tampa Bay, so it's no surprise that Gardenhire almost immediately found fault with his defense during spring training.

    What does come as a surprise is Harris ranking second among AL second basemen in Revised Zone Rating, behind only A's defensive whiz Mark Ellis. While Harris getting to more balls in his zone than anyone in the league save for Ellis is plenty shocking, he certainly hasn't looked bad at second base in my eyes, at least on "normal" plays. However, Harris has looked pretty shaky far too often on double plays, which is seemingly what has Gardenhire doing everything he can to move him off the position.

    With Casilla apparently out of the doghouse for the moment and Nick Punto due to return from the disabled list shortly, Gardenhire will soon have a pair of speedy, switch-hitting, defense-first second basemen to choose from as replacements for Harris even with a third such player, Tolbert, sidelined. Of course, Harris was supposed to be a bad-glove, good-hit second baseman, and he's batted just .262/.335/.355 while flashing a far better glove than expected on non-double plays.

  • What's interesting about Gardenhire not wanting Harris to remain at second base is that sliding him over to shortstop reportedly has become an option. That seems backwards, especially given how awful Harris' numbers were at shortstop last season. However, Gardenhire may agree with this season's numbers showing that Harris has been solid on normal plays at second base and may also feel that he's more capable of smoothly turning double plays as a shortstop.

    Of course, while botched double plays are ugly and memorable, my guess is that a second baseman who makes the normal plays and struggles to turn two is far better than a shortstop who struggles to make the normal plays and capably turns two. On the other hand, Adam Everett was brought in during the offseason solely for his previously elite defense at shortstop, but has looked shaky for much of the year and is clearly having problems making even routine throws with his still-balky shoulder.

    Everett has very little value if he's no longer an elite defender at shortstop, and Casilla replacing him there would seemingly be an obvious option given that Casilla has a great arm and has played plenty of shortstop in the minors. However, the team likely still views second base as Casilla's long-term position and if Gardenhire thinks that Harris can better handle double plays at shortstop that goes a long way toward explaining the latest infield shuffling. My guess? Lots of Punto, beginning next week.

    UPDATE: Sure enough, Everett is now headed back to the disabled list.

  • Meanwhile, John Romano of the St. Petersburg Times writes that Jason Bartlett has impressed his new Rays teammates with the same outstanding range that he showed as the Twins' shortstop:
    The change in Tampa Bay's defense this season has been stunning, and you can attribute much of the improvement to Bartlett. He has brought calm to the infield and confidence to a pitching staff. ... Bartlett is getting to balls that, in years past, have routinely scooted through the infield for singles.

    Based on figures from STATS Inc., Tampa Bay had the worst defensive shortstops in the American League last season. The Rays' zone rating--which measures a player's efficiency on balls hit in his vicinity--was the second worst for any team in the AL in the past 20 years. And Bartlett's zone rating? Last week, he was third in the American League.

    "He is making the routine plays, and then some more on top of that," Rays third-base coach Tom Foley said. "He's got the knowledge, he's got the athleticism. We've seen multiple plays this year with the bare hand over the mound, or turning double plays on balls that you weren't even sure he could get to."

    Most fans and media members still misguidedly believe that "errors" and "defense" are the same thing, which is why Bartlett drew a tremendous amount of criticism for being an error-prone shortstop who possessed excellent range. Romano notes that the Rays got historically bad defense from their shortstops last season, which should be concerning for Twins fans given that Harris saw 53 percent of Tampa Bay's innings there.

  • It's worth noting that for all of Harris' problems on double plays, it was a Casilla error on a potential double play last night that opened the door for the Rangers' seven-run inning. Nick Blackburn certainly did his part by imploding after the error, but all six of the runs that he allowed following Casilla's drop count as unearned. After cruising through five scoreless frames Blackburn coughed up seven runs, including a pair of homers, yet saw his ERA improve from 3.77 to 3.55.
  • Sidney Ponson went 2-5 with a 6.93 ERA for the Twins last year before being released in mid-May, so naturally last night he held them to one run in a complete-game win. His last complete game came way back on April 24, 2005. Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Patrick Reusse took a break from his ongoing series of anti-internet screeds to pen this humorous tidbit about Sir Sidney and Official Twins Beat Writer of AG.com LaVelle E. Neal III:
    The propaganda about Ponson's sinker coming from the Twins' brain trust in spring training was such that LaVelle Neal admitted going on an obscure radio show and predicting ''13, 14 victories'' for the husky righthander (Sidney, not LaVelle). The Star Tribune's senior hardball writer was only generous by 11 or 12.

    A fat columnist poking fun at a fat beat reporter is highly amusing to this fat blogger.

  • Tom Kelly seems even less comfortable on camera than me, but it was great listening to him during last night's broadcast. Asked about Carlos Gomez, Kelly talked about the need for improved plate discipline and strike-zone control, citing on-base percentage. Then when Bert Blyleven went into his nightly rant against pitch counts, Kelly subtly disagreed that they were pure evil and made some good points that Blyleven has ignored despite devoting several hundred hours of airtime to the topic.
  • After collecting multiple hits in each of the past three games, Joe Mauer now leads the AL with a .336 batting average. He also ranks fourth in the league with a .406 on-base percentage and only Kurt Suzuki has logged more innings behind the plate. For all the silly, Dan Barreiro-style talk about Mauer not coming through in the clutch or not making a huge impact because of a lack of power, Mauer ranks third among AL hitters in Win Probability Added, trailing only Manny Ramirez and Josh Hamilton.

    Once you adjust for catcher being the worst-hitting position in baseball and throw in his considerable defensive value, a WPA-based analysis likely shows Mauer as the league's most valuable position player thus far. Some homers would certainly be nice, but anyone complaining about a player hitting .330 and getting on base at a .400 clip while playing the most physically demanding, least-offensive position is merely doing a fine job showing how little they really know about baseball.

  • After his hot streak at Triple-A was spotlighted Monday in this space, Denard Span went 0-for-14 with six strikeouts and suffered a broken finger that will likely sideline him for a month. It's bad timing for an injury, because Span may have been close to getting another chance with the Twins. However, the good news for Span is that the injury allows him to maintain a nice-looking .327/.431/.471 hitting line for a while when he appeared to be rapidly regressing toward his underwhelming career norms.
  • Last week Jason Tyner was called up from Triple-A by the Indians and took it as an opportunity to criticize the Twins for letting him go during the winter:
    I thought I had earned my stripes there. I had a tough role. You'd go a week without playing, but I thought I did my job. I guess they didn't think about that when they made the decision. I'd like to get a shot at them. I know that.

    Tyner never got "a shot at them" because days after being called up by the Indians he was designated for assignment. He then went unclaimed on waivers, with the Twins and 28 other teams declining to take him for essentially nothing, and accepted his demotion back to Triple-A. Tyner spent the entire 2004 season in the minors and looks likely spend nearly the entire 2008 season in the minors, so perhaps the team that kept him in the majors from 2005-2007 wasn't so bad to him after all.

  • With Kelly Thesier getting the day off, longtime AG.com reader and "Gleeman World" member Thor Nystrom covered last night's game for MLB.com and also had a write-up about Punto's injury status.
  • With the draft about two weeks away, Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com--who penned a guest entry here back in March--has posted his first mock draft. Mayo projects that the Twins will select California high schooler Aaron Hicks with the 14th overall pick and gives this explanation:
    Remember how I said Hicks reportedly doesn't want to pitch and that he was a toolsy outfielder as well? Here's a team that might be willing to take a shot on those considerable tools. Hicks has shown the ability to be a game-changing center fielder, though it may take some time for the bat to come. You never want a fall-back for a pick this high, but any team giving Hicks a shot as an outfielder surely knows that they can always turn to pitching and his 96-mph fastball if things don't work out after a while.

  • Back in 2004 many teams liked California high schooler Trevor Plouffe as a pitcher, but the Twins took him 20th overall as a shortstop and he's now one of the system's few decent middle-infield prospects.

  • Danny Graves didn't pitch in the majors last year after posting a 6.52 ERA in 2005 and a 5.79 ERA in 2006, so when the Twins signed the 34-year-old former All-Star to a minor-league deal he looked like Triple-A roster filler. Instead, with a 3.24 ERA and 14-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 25 innings in the minors he reportedly may soon be a bullpen option. Lots of washed-up relievers have gotten chances in the Twins' bullpen over the years, but expect him to be more Jesse Orosco than Mike Jackson.

  • Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.

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