August 22, 2011

Danny Valencia, Joe Mauer, and “the long-term answer at third base”

Ron Gardenhire has had no shortage of worthy subjects for postgame criticisms this year, but the manager has seemingly focused on Danny Valencia's various shortcomings more than any other player during his daily media briefings. Thanks to a nice-looking RBI total Valencia's poor hitting has mostly gotten a free pass, but Gardenhire has repeatedly and consistently singled out the 26-year-old third baseman for his defensive miscues and mental lapses.

Gardenhire's focus on Valencia was never more apparent than on August 12, when the infield collectively imploded behind starter Carl Pavano and most of the manager's postgame criticism centered around Valencia misplaying a bunt in the third inning rather than, say, Matt Tolbert's misplay in the seventh inning or any number of Tsuyoshi Nishioka's wide-ranging assortment of mental and physical errors.

Phil Mackey of 1500-ESPN suggested on Twitter afterward that Gardenhire picked on Valencia because he thinks there's the potential for him to become a much better player, whereas with Nishioka (and Tolbert) he has no such hopes. And there's no doubt plenty of truth to that, but it's also clear that Gardenhire is simply frustrated by Valencia on several different levels, some of which were perceived issues dating back to his days in the minors.

Before calling him up at age 25 the Twins weren't shy about citing Valencia's defense and work ethic as issues keeping him in the minors, but then he hit .311 and played surprisingly well at third base as a rookie to make it easy to overlook any doubts. However, now that he's come back down to earth offensively--as strongly hinted at by an underwhelming minor-league track record--and his defense has also slipped Valencia's flaws are again at the forefront.

So much so, in fact, that Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports "not everyone views Valencia as the long-term answer at third base." Meanwhile, the underlying aspects of Valencia's offensive production mostly haven't changed much from his optimism-creating rookie campaign and in fact in some key areas like line-drive percentage he's actually faring better as a sophomore, but his batting average on balls in play has plummeted from .345 to .275.

None of which is to say the Twins are wrong to view Valencia skeptically long term. He's not as great as he looked with a .345 batting average on balls in play last year and he's not as awful as he looks with a .275 batting average on balls in play this year, so the question is whether the player in between those two extremes is a long-term building block. And the answer likely depends on Valencia's defense at third base.

Despite the wild swings in production his overall .271/.315/.412 line through 207 games in the majors is basically what should have been expected from someone who hit .288/.338/.452 in 246 games between Double-A and Triple-A. During the past three seasons MLB third basemen have collectively batted .260/.325/.410, which makes Valencia almost exactly average for the position offensively.

Defense is a similar story, as blending together last season's strong showing with this year's terrible showing gives Valencia a combined Ultimate Zone Rating of 0.2 runs above average in 1,700 innings at third base. For a 26-year-old making the minimum salary average at the plate and average in the field is plenty valuable, but his current poor defense more closely matches his minor-league reputation.

At his salary even average offensively and slightly below average defensively would make him a valuable player for the next several seasons, particularly in an organization lacking in quality alternatives at third base, but the Twins are likely right not to view Valencia as "the long-term answer" at the position and his short-term status could change in a hurry if, as Christensen reports, some Twins officials "privately hope Joe Mauer adds third base to his repertoire."

I'm still of the opinion that Mauer should remain at catcher unless or until he's sidelined again for a lengthy stretch, but lessening his workload behind the plate by using him more at other positions is clearly in the Twins' plans and certainly a worthwhile idea. And if he does make the switch away from catcher at some point third base is an intriguing destination where catchers like Joe Torre, Johnny Bench, B.J. Surhoff, Todd Zeile, and Brandon Inge have landed.

A huge portion of Mauer's value comes from manning a key defensive position at which only a few players can even compete with his hitting, so moving him to an offense-driven position like first base or designated hitter would dramatically decrease the strength of his bat relative to the competition and wipe away nearly all defensive contribution. As a way to take a break from catching twice a week first base or DH is fine, but as long-term homes they're problematic.

No position is more demanding defensively or less productive offensively than catcher, so on paper there isn't a way to move Mauer without having his overall value drop unless his hitting and/or health significantly improves as part of the switch. With that said, compared to first base or DH at least third base would allow him to remain an elite hitter for the position while giving him the opportunity to contribute sizable value defensively.

In other words, if the Twins decide Mauer has to make a position switch beyond simply taking a couple days off from catching each week third base could be the lesser of all evils. It should also be noted that Mauer is certainly no sure thing to be an asset at third base after playing exclusively catcher for more than a decade, but his skill set suggests the potential to do well there in time and the possibility existing in the Twins' collective mind is bad news for Valencia.

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  • JR Cigar

    Valencia has his flaws, no doubt. If Wilson Ramos is still in the organization then the “Mauer to 3B” argument has more legitimacy. The cather position would be in seemingly good hands with Ramos on those days when Mauer needs a break from behind the plate. Can’t get too excited about Mauer at 3rd (and no Valencia) if it means Drew Butera as our catcher. I can’t see how that would make us better.

  • Pedro Munoz

    I went to Friday night’s disaster, and while Nishioka was not credited with any errors, he was directly responsible for a couple of runs. The worst play was a pop fly that fell in after Nishioka quit on it, even though he was a lot closer than Revere. The ball was in the air so long the runner made it to second and got credited for a double. Compared to that guy, Valencia looks like he’s in line for a gold glove, so I think Mackey is probably right because Nishioka is so hopeless that its not even worth bothering. But there has been a lot of other shoddy play by other players (who are not hopeless) that Gardy doesn’t comment on. Valencia is clearly not one of Gardy’s guys so he gets for criticized while Gardy’s guys get a pass.

    If Valencia was really a problem, he wouldn’t be playing as much as he is now. He may not be the long term answer, but third base isn’t even close to being the biggest hole on this team right now.

  • jokin

    Aaron, part of your breakdown should have included the sophomore factor, in which just about every 2nd year player has to adjust to the fact that every team now has hours of video and an entire “book” assembled on his every potential weakness. I think Valencia’s frustrations at the plate are distracting his overall focus and are almost entirely responsible for his defensive troubles. One thing with not being a “Gardy guy”, he isn’t in the clique of veterans who have followed Mauer’s lead and endlessly find their way to the parade on the DL- frequently with some of the most curious and inexplicable “injuries”. Pedro Munoz is right on (and deserves his own blog!), the MI and veteran Right Fielder’s have been a disaster this year, just watch some of the Twins pitcher’s reactions to the tragicomic opera behind them. Finally, this is a column that should have been written befor last July 28th, 2010. Dealing Danny Valencia to Washington for Capps would have been far less disastrous than what actually happened in cutting Ramos loose. As JR Cigar wrote, the point of moving Mauer to 3B is moot one right now, unless the Twins can convince the Yankees to trade Montero and Nunez for Liriano.

  • mike wants wins

    Valencia is league average at 3B. They have no DH or 1B option that could be league average in the minors. IF you are going to move Mauer to another position, wouldn’t DH or 1B make more sense than putting, say, Chris Parmalee at DH? Plus, their catcher alternatives are awful, since they seem to be all dreamy over Butera for no reason.

    Given his struggles this year, I’m not sure I’d move anyone out of the way for Mauer right now. Until he can show me that he’s healthy, I am not in favor of moving Valencia, Kubel, or Morneau out of his way. IF he’s healthy next year, then you can think about it.

    Does anyone know if there is anything to the college thing? It just seems odd that many of the college players they bring up (Valencia, Garza, Bartlett) are the guys Gardenhire seems to have trouble with.

  • spoof bonser

    Throw Slowey in there too.

    It would make sense to get some 3rd base reps to Luke Hughes as well. It would be alright moving Valencia if Hughes was able to hold down the fort, but at this point why would we trade someone making the league minimum? I say keep all the young cheap guys around. Trade your playaz (Thome, Cuddyer, Capps, Nathan) for some great AA players

  • Mike

    1) 3 starting pitchers. 2) 4 relief pitchers. 3) shortstop. 4) second base. 5) 1/2 time catcher. 6) left field. 7) right field. After we get these 13 players replaced and upgraded Vanelcia is next in line. Mauer and Morneau can share 1b/DH of course then we have to carry 3 catchers in case the….. Gardy’s worst nightmare we lose his DH for a couple innings because the backup catcher gets hurt.

  • Jeff

    Who would of thought in March that Valencia would lead the team in games played (by 11), doubles (by 1), and AB’s (by 36), and be second in hr’s and rbi’s. Those would all be great, if he wasn’t just league average for the position. Geez, no wonder this has been such a disatrous year.

    Despite all the negatives, does anyone think that Valencia won’t be their starting 3rd baseman next spring though? There isn’t anyone in the organization right now who is in a position to take it from him, and I can’t see the Twins spending free agent money at that spot when there is a whole starting rotation, bullpen, and middle infield to worry about. Not to mention 1 corner outfield spot.

  • Curt

    The Twins’ problem this year is that the team’s “stars” have played like horse-crap. Go down the list by salary and see how they have done. There have been countless injuries but do we remember those first couple of weeks of the season when the lineup was intact? Pathetic. Valencia is a disappointment and I hope he can get his act together but he does not deserve the amount of criticism aimed his way. The Twins suck because of the play (and lack of, due to injuries) of Mauer ($23M), Morneau ($15M), Nathan ($11M), Pavano ($9M), Capps ($7M), Young ($5M), and Liriano ($4). Add a long spell of no production from Kubel ($5M) due to injury, and Cuddyer’s first two months of the season ($10M) and the total clusterf$#@k of the Slowey situation ($2.7).

    Valencia’s “averageness” seems pretty good at $400-$500k or so. Gardenhire and Smith are cowards for using Valencia as a scapegoat.

  • Curt

    I forgot Nishioka at $3M plus the cost to obtain his rights. Ouch.

  • Caleb

    @Curt you hit the nail on the head! Valencia was playing way over his head last year, but for the criticism he is receiving this year is unfair. Our “core” (or highest paid) players have done so little this year. Valencia has at least performed like a minimum-salary player this year.

  • jokin

    Aaron said:
    ” During the past three seasons MLB third basemen have collectively batted .260/.325/.410, which makes Valencia almost exactly average for the position offensively.”

    To riff on your theme, Caleb and Curt, what Aaron left out in his discussion on “averageness” at 3B is disclosing what the average third baseman’s salary is. According to USA Today’s listing of all 3B salaries, how does $4.45 Million/yr grab you? I’d say Valencia is a bargain, getting him at one tenth of the going rate, particularly in his sophomore jinx year. Now it’s time for Aaron to break down the average performances at the other positions, where I suspect most/many Twins come in at WELL BELOW AVERAGE, while WELL ABOVE AVERAGE in salary. I’d say that Gardy and Smith are beyond mere cowards for their scapegoating of Valencia (and others) and more revealing of their unhealable and disfunctional personnel management and character.

  • Brent

    Someone will have to explain to me why we are supposed to care who the manager blames in a press conference. I don’t get the outrage at calling out Valencia and not Mauer, Morneau, Kubel et al. It really makes no difference to me what Gardy says in his mundane and routine postgame press conferences.

    Furthermore Gardy has always been protective of his “Veterans” and harder on his “Young Guys.” This shouldn’t be shocking to anyone. He routinely called out Cuddy, Kubel, Morneau, Casilla and others when they were “Young,” now that they are “Vets” he tends to lay off them in the media. In 2 years from now if Danny is still on the team i am guessing you won’t hear about his mistakes, rather it will be “Young Player X” who gets called out. Its the way he is cut and dry, its the way he learned from TK and others. My suggestion, Get over it!

  • Heinie Manush

    Brent, we care because we worry that Gardy’s doghouse has contained several good ballplayers that we undervalued. Listen, I’m a big fan of the “Twins Way” and bad eggs (Garza) can disrupt a carefully crafted chemistry (and yes, I believe in chemistry). But sometimes it seems as if it’s just a matter of a guy rubbing Gardy’s the wrong way (Bartlett, Slowey). I wish that Gardy’s would have a thicker skin in these situations.

  • frightwig

    Valencia has a 100 OPS+ in his first 810 career PA’s, which probably should earn him another season to prove himself at 3B with the Twins. But let’s not pretend that he’s been anything but a disappointment this season, fans. An 89 OPS+, -7.2 UZR/150, 0.5 fWAR is nothing to be satisfied about, is it?

    There’s plenty of blame to go around for this season. The Twins’ pitching and hitting both rank 12th in the AL. There might be just about eight guys on the roster who have pulled their weight (and not all of them have been healthy, either). But Danny Valencia isn’t one of them. By fWAR, he rates 8th among regular position players on the team, with barely more value than the jettisoned Delmon Young. The only remaining regulars worse than Valencia this year are the utility scrubs and rookies who have shuffled through the SS and OF positions. And rWAR is much more harsh on him: by that measure, he’s been worth -0.7 WAR this year. Whatever criticism he gets from his manager, he has coming to him.

  • Old Twins Cap

    On Thursday against the Yanks, Valencia had two balls glance off his glove down the line, even after shading that way and timing his dive to make them look harder than they were. He straightened up on a grounder by Cervelli, paused, then threw, and the ump called him out, but it was a bone-headed play to be so casual. His body language at the plate and in the field is terrible. Third base is one of those positions — Koskie, Gaetti, Scott Leius — where you want someone who embodies the spirit of team. Valencia seems more interested in being on Dancing with the Stars that sticking his nose to the grindstone and toughing it out to win a game.

  • Ben

    Gardenhire seems to dislike any player who has any talent that doesn’t become an instant all-star. If you have absolutely no talent at all but you try hard (think diving head-first into first base) he will die for you. I assume this is the result of Gardy feeling like he never got a fair shake in the bigs while more talented players who didn’t try as hard as he did (in his opinion) got chance after chance from teams hoping they would capitalize on their potential. He never had any so he dislikes those who do. Potential that is.

    The problem with this years squad was with the construction of the team not the way it was used. I can’t remember a team going from one of the best middle infields in baseball to easily the worst. BY CHOICE. I’m convinced that the Nishioka thing had next to nothing to do with baseball and everything to do with opening up the Japanese market.

    It seems Smith makes trades in a very curious way. He gets it in his head that he will trade a player and regardless of what the offers are he trades the guy simply because he had the idea. Maybe he’s drunk dialing.

    On the brighter side
    Both Joe Benson and Eddie Rosario went deep last night giving Benson 14 and Rosario 16 tying him with Sano for the Appalachian League lead. Rosario also is third in the league in FanGraphs speed rating while the guys near him on that list aren’t in the same league when it comes to hitting. He could be something else. Brian Dozier has been red hot and just passed Benson in OPS. Aaron Hicks is still drawing walks so he’s got a .349 OBP but a ridiculous .357 SLG. Maybe they should talk to that dude about pitching because he has fallen off a damn cliff this year and the system is full of outfield prospects that are vastly out-performing him. That might be a little harsh considering how well he did last year but he’s been awful and has a power arm which we are in desperate need of.

  • jokin

    “There might be just about eight guys on the roster who have pulled their weight (and not all of them have been healthy, either).”

    Could you name them, please?

    “But Danny Valencia isn’t one of them. By fWAR, he rates 8th among regular position players on the team, with barely more value than the jettisoned Delmon Young. The only remaining regulars worse than Valencia this year are the utility scrubs and rookies who have shuffled through the SS and OF positions.”

    So, 8th means worst position player on the team? This has to be a flawed statistic or comparing apples to oranges. Seriously, worse than Nishioka, Butera, Morneau (MIA), Mauer (MIA), Tolbert, Plouffe? Revere’s pop-gun arm and flurry of dropped balls and missed plays, combined with his horrible lead-off stats and suspect baserunning against lefties are indicative of the raw rookie he is. In addition Cuddy and Kubel are demonstrably butchers wherever they play in the field (look up their UZRs) and Kubel had the two month mystery injury.

    “And rWAR is much more harsh on him: by that measure, he’s been worth -0.7 WAR this year. Whatever criticism he gets from his manager, he has coming to him.”

    I’m all for holding guys accountable, including Valencia, but there are veterans who have more accountability to answer for.

  • Pedro Munoz

    Here is a link to the Fangraphs page on the Twins sorted by WAR:

    http://www.fangraphs.com/winss.aspx?team=Twins&pos=all&stats=bat&qual=0&type=8&season=2011&month=0

    Valencia comes in behind Cuddyer, Span, Kubel, Revere, Casilla, Mauer and Thome, and ahead of Young, Hughes, Repko, Plouffe, Tolbert, Morneau, Butera, Tosoni and Nishioka.

  • For the Love of Mauer

    Let’s not care about Valencia right now. He may not be the future with the possibility of a Joe Mauer move and upcoming prospect Miguel Sano. But he’s still in the plans for the next few years and he has plenty of time to prove himself. How about we find a solution at 2B/SS to play opposite Casilla? How about we worry about about 15million investment and former MVP Justin Morneau who has hit between .220 and .230 all year? Or Joe Mauer’s excessive star contract when he’s only playing above average for a catcher now? What about the awful rotation and bullpen and how Crazy Billy ruined this years team? There are much more important issues for the state the Twins are in now.

  • jokin

    “Valencia comes in behind Cuddyer, Span, Kubel, Revere, Casilla, Mauer and Thome, and ahead of Young, Hughes, Repko, Plouffe, Tolbert, Morneau, Butera, Tosoni and Nishioka.”

    All of the players “ahead” of Valencia (according to Fangraphs) have spent significant time NOT PLAYING, with the exception of Cuddyer. This non-availability is not properly taken into account and represents a significant detriment to the team. In addition, Valencia and Revere are the only MLB minimum salary players on the list, the cost per hit/walk/run scored/RBI, etc. are infinitesimal compared to all the others (except Casilla @ $865,000/yr). If Valencia can get closer to the “norm” he established last year by breaking the sophomore jinx next year, the Twins will have a bargain-priced asset in their control for the next few seasons or a great potential trade-sweetener.

  • frightwig

    jokin–

    A lot of fans (and certain columnists) want to lash out at players who have needed to rest on the DL this year, as if they were nursing minor aches or maybe even faking injuries, but I’m willing to give the guys the benefit of the doubt. Mauer had complications from knee surgery, but tried to play through the problems until it was clear that he just couldn’t. Morneau had a pinched nerve that required surgery, after he’d tried to play through the problem. Old Man Thome had to sit out with an oblique strain, which he had aggravated by trying to play through the pain. Kubel’s foot injury was severe enough to require wearing a boot. Span had a concussion, and he tried to play through the problems. Nishioka broke his leg. Scott Baker finally had to shut down because of elbow pain, after he’d tried to pitch through the problem.

    These all seem like significant injuries, some of them very serious, and yet most of the guys tried to play with their injury until it got to be too much (which may not have been necessarily the wisest idea, but the point is that they didn’t go to the DL easily). You say that they should be “accountable,” jokin. What would you have them do?

    Most of those guys, when they could play, actually did a fine job. No MVP candidates among them, and of course they have their flaws, but save for Morneau and Nishioka they added value to the team. But Danny Valencia has hardly brought anything to the table this year. His cheap cost just means that the club hasn’t sunk a bunch of money into his poor performance. IF he can turn himself around next year, sure, he’ll be a nice value again. But as long as we’re talking about whether he deserves to get ripped for his performance this year, the answer is YES. The only lineup regulars who deserve it more are Young and Nishioka–and Young is gone, and it probably would be counterproductive for the manager to pick on Nishioka (a rookie trying to adjust to a foreign culture as well as a tougher level of ball, while recovering from a broken leg), anyway.