March 31, 2009

Twins Choose Morales Over Butera, Cut Mijares

The Twins made what will likely be their second-to-last round of cuts yesterday morning, sending down Jose Mijares, Drew Butera, and Alejando Machado. Recent reports suggested that Butera's defensive prowess gave him a leg up on the backup catcher job while Joe Mauer is sidelined, but ultimately the Twins decided to go with Jose Morales as Mike Redmond's caddy. It was the correct call and Morales deserves the opportunity after hitting .310/.357/.405 in 164 games at Triple-A.

Despite what the nice-looking batting averages at Rochester may have you believe Morales is far from an outstanding hitter and likely won't even produce league-average offense for a catcher, but compared to Butera he looks like Mike Piazza. Everyone raves about Butera's defense and the Twins clearly view him as a viable backup option despite a putrid .215/.303/.324 line in the minors, but pairing someone with Redmond makes the ability to fare reasonably well against righties more vital than a good glove.

Beyond that, Morales is already 26 years old and has spent the past two seasons starting at Triple-A, so if the Twins weren't going to give him a chance now it was never going to happen. If concerns about his defense prove legitimate they can always turn to Butera and lean far more heavily on Redmond, but the Twins' best chance to minimize the loss of Mauer involves starting Redmond versus all lefties and giving Morales about half the starts versus righties, against whom he hit .318/.373/.421 at Triple-A.

Meanwhile, sending Mijares to Triple-A despite his strong September leaves Brian Duensing and R.A. Dickey competing for a potential 12th spot on the pitching staff, assuming that Philip Humber gets the nod as the 11th man. Kelly Thesier of appeared before me on Seth Stohs' podcast last night and speculated that the Twins will indeed go with a 12th pitcher rather than a 14th hitter, and LaVelle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune has all but guaranteed that arrangement.

Ron Gardenhire noted yesterday that he disagrees with general manager Bill Smith when it comes to the final bench spot, which almost certainly means that Gardenhire wants to keep Matt Tolbert while Smith wants to keep Brendan Harris. Gardenhire has clearly fallen for Tolbert much like he fell for Nick Punto years ago, but hopefully Smith wins the argument. Tolbert is better defensively, but he's not good enough to be an asset at shortstop and Harris has a sizable edge offensively.

Plus, with minor-league options remaining Tolbert would remain in the organization if he doesn't make the team, allowing the Twins to retain both players. Harris is out of options and probably wouldn't pass through waivers unclaimed, so if the Twins don't give him a spot on the 25-man roster he'll likely either be traded or lost for nothing. Tolbert is a useful enough bench player, but keeping him around as the 25th man isn't worth losing middle-infield depth in the form of an arguably superior player.

Of course, my preference would be to keep both Harris and Tolbert while beginning the season with an 11-man pitching staff, but based on Gardenhire's comments and various reports that no longer seems like a possibility. Finding consistent work for 12 pitchers is difficult at best, and choosing Tolbert while parting with Harris in order to keep Dickey around as a second long reliever or Duensing as a second lefty could come back to bite the Twins if something happens to Punto, Alexi Casilla, or Joe Crede.

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