January 26, 2011

Nick Punto head-first slides his way to St. Louis

Last week Nick Punto left the Twins as a free agent to sign a one-year deal with the Cardinals and in doing so provided perhaps the most obvious example of the front office overruling the manager's wishes during Ron Gardenhire's decade-long tenure in Minnesota. Some day when Gardenhire retires and is asked about his favorite players I'll be shocked if he doesn't mention Punto right alongside stars like Torii Hunter and Joe Mauer.

As a diminutive, punchless infielder with a great glove and far more frenetic energy than actual talent Punto represents everything Gardenhire looks for (and tends to significantly overrate) in a non-star. No other manager would've given Punto an average of 434 plate appearances per season for a six-year span in which he hit .248/.323/.325 and had a sub-.650 OPS four times. Since his Twins debut in 2005, no MLB player has more plate appearances with a lower OPS.

Some of that can be blamed on the front office, of course, as they re-signed him to a two-year, $8.5 million contract the last time Punto was a free agent following the 2008 season. He hit .232/.328/.291 for that money, posting the worst slugging percentage and third-worst OPS in all of baseball, and Gardenhire wrote him into the lineup enough for Punto to rack up 728 plate appearances even while spending four different stints on the disabled list.

In an offseason full of difficult decisions for the Twins declining their $5 million option on Punto for 2011 and giving him a $500,000 buyout instead has to rank as the easiest, and Gardenhire expressing a desire to bring him back was equally predictable. My assumption was that they'd try to re-sign him at a lesser salary, particularly given the question marks surrounding the new middle infield duo of Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Alexi Casilla, but clearly that wasn't the case.

Not only did Punto leave the Twins for the Cardinals, he did so for a one-year deal worth just $750,000. He earned more than $12 million from 2007-2010 and the Twins gave him $500,000 to avoid paying Punto another $5 million in 2011, so the fact that $750,000 was enough to go elsewhere after being in Minnesota since arriving in 2004 as part of the Eric Milton trade with the Phillies suggests zero effort was made to re-sign him despite Gardenhire's wishes.

Maybe the Twins let Punto go without a fight because they're confident Matt Tolbert or Trevor Plouffe can step into the utility man role. Maybe the Twins let him go without a fight because it was the only way to keep Gardenhire from finding ways to get Punto into the lineup. Or maybe it was a little of both, and after seven years, $14 million, and 2,700 plate appearances they'd simply had enough. Whatever the case, it's a mistake. Or at least it's a mistake for $750,000.

Punto has an awful bat and an excellent glove, which makes him the epitome of a utility man. When that type of player is earning $4 million and getting 435 plate appearances he drags a team down, which is why Punto (and Gardenhire's over-reliance on Punto) has been the target of so much criticism over the years. However, when that same player is earning $750,000 and getting 150 plate appearances he can be a good fit in a limited role.

Punto has long been overpaid and overused, but that doesn't change the fact that the Twins' need for a utility man this season is higher than it has been in years and he's likely a better fit for the role than Tolbert or Plouffe. I understand not wanting to bring back Punto for $4 million and 435 plate appearances or because there's a superior alternative ready to take his place, but neither of those things are true.

He was available for around $350,000 more than the minimum salary and a total commitment that represents less than one percent of the Twins' payroll, and the options to replace him are Tolbert, a 29-year-old poor man's Punto on both sides of the ball, and Plouffe, a 25-year-old marginal prospect whose Triple-A numbers project his bat to be every bit as inept as Punto's. And neither of them will come close to matching his great glove.

There's a tendency to lump utility infielders together because none of them can hit and they all have nice gloves, but there's a difference between good defense and what Punto plays. Based on Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 games, since joining the Twins in 2005 he's 18.9 runs above average at shortstop, 20.0 runs above average at third base, and 4.6 runs above average at second base. In other words, stick Punto out there for a full season and he'll save 10-20 runs.

And that's compared to an average defender, which is already plenty valuable. Among all major leaguers with at least 1,000 innings at a position since 2005, his Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 games ranks No. 1 at shortstop and No. 1 at third base. So yes, he can't hit, but neither can Tolbert or Plouffe or most utility infielders. For that matter, Punto has a higher career OPS than Casilla. At least with Punto you're getting legitimately elite defense along with the bad bat.

To be clear, Punto is a bench-caliber player who's been paid and played too much, and most of the criticism leveled at him, Gardenhire, and the Twins' front office while he logged 2,700 plate appearances has been warranted. However, there's a big difference between someone being overpaid while playing too often and someone being useless, and for $750,000 and a reserve role Punto has value because he's simply likely to be better than Tolbert or Plouffe in 2011.

  • Pitchers Hit Eighth

    I’m nervous that if Gardy is the manager in MLB that would use Punto the most, that TLR is certainly the second. See Miles, Aaron.

    Between Freese’s injury concerns and Schumaker’s being an outfielder, Punto may well see those 400 AB’s again.

  • http://albethke.blogspot.com/ Al

    He’s not worth anywhere near 15-20 runs unless he plays 120 games or so. Even last year, he was +11 at 2B/SS/3B.

  • Ben B.

    I’ve ripped Punto as much (and more) than anyone else, but you make some good points, Aaron. A $750k utility man with a glove like Punto’s is obviously valuable. The problem is, if he was brought back, Gardenhire would find a way to get him in the starting lineup by May. Especially with Casilla slated to start, who has at least a decent chance of failing.

  • Son of Shane Mack

    I’m glad to see him go to St. Louis just so Gardy can’t pencil him in EVERY day that he’s not on the DL.

    He’s a fine utility guy. If only Gardy actually used him that way.

    So – intentionally or not – this might save Gardy from his own worst tendencies. That’s worth something.

    Now, we just have to worry about him doing that with Tolbert.

    Sigh.

  • Andy K

    “Maybe the Twins let him go without a fight because it was the only way to keep Gardenhire from finding ways to get Punto into the lineup.”

    Given the rest of your analysis, this HAS to be it, right? The front office must have known that bringing him back means he’s back up around 400 PAs. I love Nicky Hustle in the field and on the basepaths, but there’s no way he only gets 150 PAs on Gardy’s roster. Tolbert/Plouffe might stay down around that number, and that’s better for the club.

  • Randy

    Great article…great responses…Gardy just couldn’t help himself–to me and my son, it was get rid of Punto or Gardy. Maybe this will allow Gardy’s son, the Rochester ‘utility’ man to move up to the big leagues…the next Punto?

  • Large Canine

    comments here are spot on. If Punto was paid as and had as many PA’s as, a utility infielder should get, (150 per year at 800K) I doubt if we would have heard many complaints over the years. I periodically check blogs about other teams and rarely see a true utility guy ripped like Punto frequently was. Good luck Nick.

  • MC

    I think Smith is wise and manages the roster around Gardy.

    Examples:
    ->Gardy benches elite CF glove, Smith trades him away
    ->Gardy threatens to bench starting SS to get speed in the line-up, Smith trades him away
    ->Gardy wants blanket back and can’t be trusted, Smith doesn’t sign a reasonable asset that’s clearly better than in house bench

    I sometimes wonder what their relationship is like. Methinks it’s not rosey.

  • marietta mouthpiece

    The guy that regularly pummeled Punto gives him a full throated send-off testimonial (and I agree with both of the divergent views). Nice reverse top spin entry, Aaron. Nicky, we hardly knew ye (mostly because you were misused).

  • http://www.mmmrhubarb.wordpress.com Rhubarb_Runner

    “I love Nicky Hustle in the field and on the basepaths…”

    On the basepaths?! Really, Andy K? Read the title of Aaron’s post again.

  • Nathan Gau

    The problem with bringing Punto back at 750k is that you know he’s going to get far more at bats than he should. I’d have been fine with him back as a utility player, but we all know he would have gotten far more appearances than he should have….

    don’t give cake to the diabetic.

  • Eric B. B.

    One thing that no one seems to be paying attention to is that the Twins’ 40-man roster is currently full. Meaning that we’d likely have to lose someone from the organization just to get Punto on a one-year deal. Add that to the potential for Gardy continuing to overplay him, and I’m fine with letting him sign elsewhere.

  • liner

    Exactly what everyone is saying… $800k and 150 plate appearances is fine, but the 150 plate appearances would never happen.
    Who is the new whipping boy??

  • mike wants WINS

    I’m 100% with Aaron on this. I am surprised though, at just how good his glove has been. I was under the impression it wasn’t as good last year given some arm strength issues. Punto is a good deal at $1MM, let alone $750K.

    The real keys have to be, do they really think Casilla is somehow magically good now, and does Smith really worry about Gardy playing Punto too much?

  • pk

    I’ll miss Natalie more than LNP.

    I love everyone’s comments about how Gardenhire would’ve failed miserably at not putting Punto in the lineup.

    What makes it so funny is it’s absolutely true.

  • Large Canine

    “Who is the new whipping boy??” -Liner I don’t think the whipping boy was Punto as much as it was Gardy. It’s not Punto’s fault that he got so much playing time. What is he suppose to say? No Gardy, don’t put me in today. If Gardy manages like the consensus says he should, then there will be no whipping boy. Unless someone totally underperforms obviously.

  • Adam

    I’m totally conflicted on this. On one hand, I had basically the exact same reaction as this article says you did immediately: ironic he’d finally be gone exactly when he’d actually be useful, because he was so cheap and is so much better than Tolbert, AND the Twins have such an unconvincing middle infield situation.

    But then I’m reminded of Gardenhire’s irrational love for him, and maybe putting him on the team is basically guaranteeing Gardy will force him into the lineup 120 times per season, so no matter how smart it is to underpay him as a bench glove, you can never keep him off the field and in the right role.

    Tough to say.

  • Benji

    Here I disagree with Gleeman. The Twins could have brought him back for free and it would have been a mistake. 750K and 150-200 plate appearances, yeah good deal. But he would have been here for 750K with 400+ PA’s. Good ridance, no more nooky blanky for Gardy.

  • scott

    Let us not forget that Smith MADE Gardy play Valencia over Punto at third. What if Punto never got hurt this past year? Would Valencia ever have gotten a fair chance? Or would it have been the typical ‘one bad play from a young player means you sit for a week’ (in favor of punto no less).

    And i dont know but this is just me. I thought Punto looked awful and 3B and SS last year.

  • Mike Green

    Excellent, nuanced analysis, Aaron.

  • Josh

    LNP should have been one of the top utility guys in the game and a real asset to the Twins, but he was totally miscast as a starter under Gardenhire. Since he’s getting older and struggling to stay healthy (and still can’t hit) it’s probably wise to let him go and look to other options to fill a utility role.

    I think it’s reasonable to believe that Gardy would have over-used Punto again this season if either Casilla or Nishioka struggled. It’s pretty clear that the front office wanted those guys to play, and considering the investment and decisions that will have to be made there, it’s a fair expectation. I also think they looked at Punto as a guy who was in the decline stage of his career and forecast his defensive value to start dropping; without that he doesn’t have much value at all. Throw in the injuries, which are reasonably expected to continue looking at his age and style of play and he’s no a longer a smart bet.

    Punto frustrated the hell out of me, especially the past 2 seasons, but a lot of it is on the manager for continuing to overplay him. Some of it was on his poor decisions on the basepaths for a player that was supposed to be “heady” (head-first slides, overrunning bases, etc.). A lot of it was based on his inability to hit a lick.

    I don’t think he’ll be missed all that much, except by the manager. His role should have been small this season, and his performance can reasonably expected to have been worse. Tolbert’s not a good player either, but he’s a fairly reasonable replacement. Plouffe doesn’t look like much based on recent minor league play, but he’s cheap and could end up being better than expected. But the real deal is there will be other MLB-caliber middle INF available via trade if the season progresses and none of the options currently on the roster look good enough for a contending team.

  • bernard

    Gardenhire wrote him into the lineup enough for Punto to rack up 728 plate appearances

    It’s not like Morneau was sitting so that Punto could get playing time. Castillo was good, so he played. Hudson was good, so he played. Hardy was good, so he played (when healthy). Casilla, Tolbert, Batista, Lamb, Harris, and Everett struggled, so Punto played. Gardy is not the love-struck charicature that so many in the blogosphere have made him out to be.

  • McGivey

    I love the Twins and love the Cardinals almost as much, why can’t you leave me alone, Nick? Go away!

  • brian

    The problem boils down to the lack of depth of the Twins. They just need to get different players. Punto gets used a lot because the alternatives are often sketchy. Other teams have better utility players and/or better options for moving players around the field. Nice going, AG. It was fun to imagine the Punto reactionaries reading this as it moved from Punto being the problem to Gardy’s use of him being the problem.

  • mike wants WINS

    Punto was also used a lot because Gardy trusted his glove, and didn’t want to use Valencia or Plouffe or anyone else he didn’t know (see Cuddeyer at 3B, as evidence of Gardy’s love for veterans over unproven rookies/young players).

  • Dave T

    Punto leaving opens the door for Toby. I am not so sure Gardy pushed that hard to keep him.

  • Pedro Munoz

    Nicky Hustle? More like Nicky False Hustle. Sliding into first isn’t a sign of hustle. Its a sign of poor fundamentals or that you are just really stupid. No one is going to miss Punto on the basepaths, where he was just terrible.

    Its easy to say that it was worth keeping Punto if he was used right, but he wouldn’t be used right. The only way to keep Gardy from giving Punto too many at bats is to keep him off the roster altogether. Giving Punto 150 at bats was not one of the choices.

    Now it is very possible that those at bats will go to someone who doesn’t put up numbers that are any better. Given that the replacements are younger players whose upsides are not known, I would rather see those players try and fail then see Punto, who was guaranteed to fail.

    Anyway, good riddance, loser. You won’t be missed.

  • sandbun

    So the consensus (which I agree with completely) is that resigning Punto for that price would’ve been a good deal, except Gardy wouldn’t use him correctly so it’s better to let a valuable player get away than resign him.

    Ladies and Gentlemen, you 2010 Manager of the Year!

  • TMW

    Tolbert is REALLY getting sold short here in this post.

    http://www.fangraphs.com/statss.aspx?playerid=7365&position=2B/3B#fieldingadvanced

    I have a hard time getting behind the idea that letting him walk was a full-on mistake. Tolbert can get Punto’s job done and has a smaller chance of getting overused.

  • dirleton

    Calling the guy a loser is far from fair. Punto is a class guy who loves the game and plays it hard. He gave it everything he had (which is becoming increasingly rare) and there was much to be thankful for during his tenure. To put it a different way, Pedro, he’s counting his money and you are trolling. Who is really the loser?

  • JR Cigar

    I like Plouffe in that role a lot more than Tolbert. Plouffe has some nice pop in his bat (17 HR’s, 55 RBI in 480 PA between Rochester and the Twins in 2010). Definitely not a great glove guy, but Gardy should find situations for him where he can succeed. Change of pace player from Casilla when Casilla blows the inevitable hammy next year.

  • clint

    A parting gift…

    http://www.imagebam.com/image/37cbe289236072

    Use it for you computer background/wallpaper, to cherish the memories.

    You’re welcome, everyone.

  • by jiminy

    I agree with almost all of this, but I was still thinking what Bernard pointed out above: “Casilla, Tolbert, Batista, Lamb, Harris, and Everett struggled, so Punto played.” Many of the times that Punto started, he was, sadly, the best option. In the past, Casilla has made PUnto look good sometimes. Still, choosing between two bad players, I’d rather start the young one with upside.

  • birdofprey

    Bernard, you’re spot on. Granted, Gardy overused Punto, but you all should temper your criticism a tad, given the alternatives: Buscher, Crede in a back brace, Lamb, an inmmature Casilla, Harris, Batista, Everett, Tolbert… Which alternatives did I miss that are an overwhelmingly superior one to Punto?

  • Tom

    Given his likeability, his charisma and his never-quit attitude, Nicky should have been one of the most popular guys on the team because people love utility infielders with likeability, charisma and a never-quit attitude (see Al Newman). Instead he was an object of derision through no fault of his own–it’s not his responsibility that Gardy kept putting his name on the line-up card.

    Nick was like a cocaine habit for Gardenhire, and the only way for him to break that habit was to quit cold turkey.

  • Freddy

    OK…full disclosure, I intensely dislike Nick Punto the baseball player…not the person, not the “hustle”, not the clubhouse good guy (who knows, he could be the best Euchre or bourre player ever) but seriously…why is there so much consternation about the facts.

    He is not even arguably the worst hitter in baseball and anyone who has seen him play as much as we all have has had enough of his curious need to show off his less-than-warning track fly ball “power” with RISP or his laughable strikeouts (haven’t you ever watched Luis Castillo scrub out a .280 or .300 line by repeatedly pounding baseballs two feet in front of you, Nicky…thus you can now use that “hustle” you are so famed for). He signed a contract for 8.25MM. Are you kidding???!!!!??? Props to him and his agent but we as fans should be able to wish good riddance no matter if he came back for ten dollars this year. He wayyyyyyy overearned. We have to watch and constantly say, “this guy makes 4 million dollars a year?” and repeatedly groan at his appearance on our screen. Plus, HE HAS FOUR STINTS ON THE DL. In perspective anyone that overpayed with that many DL stints should have been rode out of town long ago.

    So, everyone in agreement with AG and the rest of the Punto apologists are telling me this—We should at 3/4 of a MILLION dollars welcome back the almost universally groaned about worst hitter in baseball, vastly overpayed during his stint, scarily injury-prone, decent glove, terrible armed, questionable baserunning skills, dubious worth hustler to our team. I, for one, relish the blue sky future I now have hoping NP didn’t play that day I chose to go to Target Field.

  • liner

    We should have kept Nicky to fill out the TC Bear costume where his hustle would be appropriately used and he could play everyday! Plus, it would give others a chance to actually win the softball homerun hitting contest.

  • scot

    First I blame management for giving LNP a $8.5M 2 year deal. Even the most novice fan knew that was a ridiculous contract for a utility player. Gardy is definitely an accomplice in this crime giving Punto many more at bats than he deserved while partly in his defense there were not always better options until last season when we had both Hardy and Hudson and later Valencia on the roster. Goodbye LNP!!!

  • ML

    Who is the new whipping boy?? I predict Tsuyoshi Nishioka

  • brian

    Yer right. He’s Japanese. Nick as an Italian was alien enough in MN.

  • Chris

    I’ll always remember him popping up a bunt to the pitcher & making bad baserunning errors at key moments in playoffs. It especially drove me nuts because he was supposed to be such a fundamentally sound hustle guy that does not make those type of mistakes.

  • Son of Shane Mack

    We should have kept Nicky to fill out the TC Bear costume where his hustle would be appropriately used and he could play everyday! Plus, it would give others a chance to actually win the softball homerun hitting contest.
    Winner!!!

  • sigh
  • Pedro Munoz

    “Calling the guy a loser is far from fair. Punto is a class guy who loves the game and plays it hard. He gave it everything he had (which is becoming increasingly rare) and there was much to be thankful for during his tenure.”

    Punto does not play hard. He pretends to play hard, but really just plays stupid. And a player that gives it everything he had would not have the poor fundamentals that Punto does. His problem wasn’t so much his lack of talent, but that he was too lazy or too stupid to learn how to play baseball the right way.

    “To put it a different way, Pedro, he’s counting his money and you are trolling. Who is really the loser?”

    If I had the talent to make it to the major leagues, I wouldn’t waste it the way Nick Punto does. I would take the time and effort to learn how to play the game and to maximize my ability. I wouldn’t make bone-headed mistakes that cost my team games. Punto can’t or won’t do that. That makes him the real loser.

  • birdofprey

    Pedro, congratulations on optimizing your God-given gifts by regaling all of us with your keen insights. Sure wish Nick Punto was a winner. Like you, Pedro.

  • ewen21

    Nick Punto’s presence on this team got to be problematic because he was so clearly favored by the manager. Never have I seen a Twins player so effusively praised for so little by the manager. Yes, he’s an above average fielder. But he is a blundering fool other than that and he has been among the worst hitters in baseball for years. No matter how many brain cramps Punto made on the bases, no matter how many ABs he wasted, no matter how many bunts he failed to get down he was never criticized publicly by the manager. And yet that same manager routinely criticized other players in the media for similar transgressions. That cheapens the concept of ACCOUNTABILITY if you ask me. I can recall the manager once saying something to the effect of…’if the others do their jobs, Nick Punto is great’. In other words, Punto can post a .560 OPS and still be ‘great’ so long as the other players pick up his slack. Nick Punto is about 1/2 of a major league player because he is so inept offensively. I don’t care what his UZR is. In the long run, he cost the team more than he helped; and with that I am pleased to see him elsewhere. In fact, I am almost certain he will struggle in a different environment and I will go as far as to say he will end up being released before the season is over.

  • TMW

    Pedro, aside from the fact that he’s not a good hitter and his inability to accept the fact that diving into first is a slower, more dangerous strategy to beat a throw, everything about Punto’s fundamentals and heart is right.

    The fact that he has no arm strength and still has consistent +UZRs says a lot. Guys like JJ Hardy and Joe Crede can be slow-footed but their arm strength allows them to play deeper and make more plays. Punto has to rely on positioning and baseball acumen to achieve those zone ratings. Since he doesn’t have the arm that Hardy has, he can’t play deep and be effective. This forces him to have better instincts and fundamentals. So you’re assumptions that he’s ‘pretending’ is false.

  • SL__72

    Gleeman,

    “To be clear, Punto is a bench-caliber player who’s been paid and played too much”

    Punto produced 10 WAR over 2707 PA with the Twins. That is more than 2 WAR per 550PA. In what universe is that “bench-caliber?”

  • SL__72

    And while he may have been overpaid in the sense that the market didn’t dictate a $4m/yr salary for him the last two seasons, in terms of production/$ the Twins came out well ahead in the Nick Punto experiment.

  • SL__72

    Pavano and Liriano are going to miss Punto/Hardy this season the way Baker and Slowey missed Gomez last year.

    The Twins are setting themselves up to be one of the worst defensive teams in baseball in ’11.