June 19, 2013

Who are the best young hitters in Twins history?

best young hitters

Oswaldo Arcia has thrived as a 22-year-old rookie, Aaron Hicks has struggled as a 23-year-old rookie, and Twins fans are counting down the days until stud prospects Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton arrive in Minnesota. All of which got me thinking about the best young hitters in Twins history, so I looked up the most productive seasons for each age based on OPS. No teenage hitter has even gotten regular playing time for the Twins, so let's start with 20-year-olds ...


AGE 20              YEAR      PA      OPS
Butch Wynegar       1976     622     .719

Butch Wynegar is the only hitter in Twins history to see regular action at age 20 and he logged 622 plate appearances, started 133 games at catcher, threw out 35 percent of steal attempts, and made the All-Star team while hitting .260/.356/.363 with more walks (79) than strikeouts (63) in a pitcher-friendly era. Adjusting for the time it was a Joe Mauer-esque year, which is why he was such a phenom and why, despite a solid 13-year career, he was ultimately a disappointment.

Bert Blyleven actually has the second-most plate appearances by a 20-year-old in Twins history with 100, because he was an amazing young pitcher who debuted before the designated hitter. In fact, he also has the most plate appearances by a 19-year-old in Twins history with 58. Through age 20 he hit .135 in 158 trips to the plate ... and tossed 442 innings with a 2.95 ERA. Blyleven ended up with 514 career plate appearances and hit .131 with a 193-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Among position players Luis Rivas has the second-most plate appearances by a 20-year-old in Twins history with 64. In the early days of this blog the Twins rushing Rivas to the majors and repeatedly handing him a starting job based almost solely on his age was a frequent source of frustration. He debuted at 20 and got the sixth-most plate appearances in team history through age 24--Wynegar got the most by a wide margin--but Rivas basically never improved.


AGE 21              YEAR      PA      OPS
Tom Brunansky       1982     545     .848
Rod Carew           1967     561     .750
Butch Wynegar       1977     617     .715
Zoilo Versalles     1961     542     .704
Luis Rivas          2001     619     .682
Cristian Guzman     1999     456     .543

Those are the only six 21-year-olds in Twins history to log at least 300 plate appearances. Tom Brunansky actually began that 1982 season at Triple-A in the Angels organization and was hitting just .205/.317/.330 in 25 games there when they traded him to the Twins in mid-May along with Mike Walters for Doug Corbett and Rob Wilfong. He was immediately handed a starting job and hit .272/.377/.471 with 20 homers, 30 doubles, and 71 walks in 127 games.

Rod Carew was also no slouch at 21, hitting .292/.341/.409 in one of the lowest-scoring eras in baseball history. Seriously, in 1967 the American League as a whole hit .236 with a .303 on-base percentage and .351 slugging percentage. If you adjust Carew's raw numbers to today's offensive environment he hit around .315/.360/.475, which is amazing from a 21-year-old second baseman and explains how he missed being the unanimous Rookie of the Year winner by one vote.

Wynegar cracks the list again and Rivas shows up too, along with shortstops Zoilo Versalles and Cristian Guzman. In six decades of Twins history only two regulars have been above-average hitters at 21, which is something to remember when Sano and Buxton show up. Mauer doesn't make the age-21 list because a knee injury cut short his rookie season, but he hit .308/.369/.570 in 122 plate appearances for what would be the top OPS by a wide margin.


AGE 22              YEAR      PA      OPS
Kent Hrbek          1982     591     .848
David Ortiz         1998     326     .817
Joe Mauer           2005     554     .783
Oswaldo Arcia       2013     133     .759
Tom Brunansky       1983     611     .753

I've included Arcia on the age-22 list despite his not having enough plate appearances to qualify yet because he's actually what got me thinking about this topic in the first place. Arcia has fared well enough in the early going that I wondered how his production compares to other 22-year-old Twins, discovering that he's in some pretty nice company with Kent Hrbek, David Ortiz, Mauer, and Brunansky.

In all a total of 12 different Twins have gotten at least 300 plate appearances at age 22 and Hrbek leads the way by hitting .301/.363/.485 with 23 homers in 140 games as a rookie in 1981. The worst OPS in the group of 22-year-olds belongs to Wynegar, who fell to .229/.307/.308 in his third season after being an All-Star at 20 and 21. Rivas, Guzman, Versalles, Carew, and Carlos Gomez also posted a sub-.700 OPS at 22.


AGE 23              YEAR      PA      OPS
Joe Mauer           2006     608     .936
Justin Morneau      2004     312     .875
Kent Hrbek          1983     582     .855
Rod Carew           1969     504     .853
Cristian Guzman     2001     527     .811

Four of the truly elite hitters in Twins history ... and Guzman. He'd been terrible in his first two seasons with the Twins, but in 2001 he hit .308/.346/.507 with seven homers, 22 doubles, and an incredible 13 triples in the first half to make the All-Star team. And then just as everyone was getting excited about a switch-hitting 23-year-old shortstop emerging as a star Guzman hurt his shoulder, missed much of the second half, and resumed being a terrible hitter.

Mauer hit .347/.429/.507 in 140 games at age 23, becoming the first catcher in AL history to win a batting title. He likely should have finished either first or second in the MVP voting, but instead placed sixth while teammate Justin Morneau won the award based largely on racking up RBIs with Mauer on base in front of him. Two years earlier Morneau posted the second-best OPS by a 23-year-old in Twins history, hitting .271/.340/.536 in 74 games after a midseason call-up.

Carew, like Mauer, won his first batting title at age 23, hitting .332/.386/.467 in 1969 to boost his OPS by 200 points compared to 1968, which happened to be one of the lowest-scoring seasons in baseball history and the final season before MLB lowered the pitching mound. In all 28 different Twins have gotten at least 300 plate appearances at age 23 and 13 failed to crack a .700 OPS, including Torii Hunter and Roy Smalley.

Hicks hasn't reached 300 plate appearances yet, but his current .575 OPS at age 23 would rank third-worst ahead of only David McCarty (.542) and Danny Thompson (.482). Greg Gagne (.596) and Rich Becker (.599) also aren't very far ahead of Hicks and two guys who preceded him in center field, Gomez and Ben Revere, posted an OPS under .625 at 23. Next season Arcia will try to become the sixth Twins hitter to crack an .800 OPS at 23.


AGE 24              YEAR      PA      OPS
Kent Hrbek          1984     635     .906
Delmon Young        2010     613     .826
Denard Span         2008     411     .819
David Ortiz         2000     478     .810
Joe Mauer           2007     471     .808

Hrbek has the best OPS for 22-year-olds, the third-best OPS for 23-year-olds, and the best OPS for 24-year-olds. In his age-24 season listed above he hit .311/.383/.522 with 27 homers in 149 games, finishing runner-up in the MVP voting behind Tigers reliever Willie Hernandez despite not even making the All-Star team. Hrbek never finished in the top 15 in MVP voting before or after that season, although he had plenty of other productive years.

Delmon Young appeared to have a breakout season in 2010, hitting .298/.333/.493 with 21 homers and 46 doubles in 153 games at age 24 to convince a lot of people he was finally living up to the hype he received as a prospect. He finished 10th in the MVP balloting because some voters overlooked his terrible defense and focused on his high RBI total, but in three seasons since then he's hit just .263/.297/.404.

Ortiz has the second-best OPS for 22-year-olds and the fourth-best OPS for 24-year-olds, so while no one could have predicted that he'd become one of the elite hitters in baseball after leaving the Twins there was certainly plenty of promise shown at a young age. In all Ortiz hit .266/.348/.461 in 455 games for the Twins through age 25. In team history only Mauer, Hrbek, Morneau, and Rich Rollins had more plate appearances and a higher OPS than Ortiz through age 25.

By age 24 plenty of hitters are regulars in the majors and a total of 38 different Twins hitters got at least 300 plate appearances as 24-year-olds. Kirby Puckett ranks 34th out of 38 with a .655 OPS, hitting .296/.320/.336 with zero homers in 128 games as a rookie. Carew would hold the top spot among 24-year-olds with a .930 OPS in 1970, but a knee injury ended his season after 51 games with a .366 batting average.


AGE 25              YEAR      PA      OPS
Harmon Killebrew    1961     656    1.012
Justin Morneau      2006     661     .934
Tony Oliva          1964     719     .916
Bobby Kielty        2002     348     .890
Joe Mauer           2008     633     .864

Harmon Killebrew couldn't crack any of these lists before age 25 because the team didn't move to Minnesota until then. In his first Twins season Killebrew hit .288/.405/.606 with 46 homers and 107 walks. Five decades later he's still the only Twins hitter to top a .950 OPS by age 25. Tony Oliva also cracks these lists for the first time at 25 because it was his rookie season. He led the AL in batting average, runs, doubles, and total bases, winning Rookie of the Year.

Morneau's aforementioned MVP-winning 2006 season came at age 25, as he hit .321/.375/.556 with 34 homers and 37 doubles in 159 games. Morneau has the second-best OPS for 23-year-olds and 25-year-olds, but hit just .239/.304/.437 in between as a 24-year-old. Mauer cracks the top five in OPS for ages 22, 23, 24, and 25. And he likely would've had the top OPS for 21-year-olds too if not for the knee injury.

Bobby Kielty is the odd man out on the age-25 list, which reminds me that I've never been more wrong about a player. He was a switch-hitting outfielder with power and plate discipline, and as you can see Kielty put up big numbers at an early age. When the Twins traded Kielty to the Blue Jays for Shannon Stewart in 2006 he was a 26-year-old .269/.375/.444 hitter. I thought they'd made a terrible mistake. And then Kielty hit .246/.333/.389 after the trade, flaming out at 30.


Interested in sponsoring a week of AG.com and advertising your product, service, local business, or website directly to thousands of readers each day? Click here for details.

December 13, 2012

Twins Notes: Burton’s extension, Hicks’ clock, and Mientkiewicz’s return

• It was mostly lost in the shuffle on a day when the Twins traded Ben Revere to the Phillies and selected Ryan Pressly in the Rule 5 draft, but they also signed Jared Burton to a two-year, $5.5 million contract that includes a third-year team option. Arbitration eligible for the final time before becoming a free agent next offseason, the 31-year-old Burton will instead get $2.05 million in 2013, $3.25 million in 2014, and $3.6 million or a $200,000 buyout in 2015.

Burton joined the Twins on a minor-league deal last offseason after several injury wrecked years with the Reds and proved he was healthy in spring training to win a bullpen job. He was fantastic, emerging as the primary setup man with a 2.18 ERA, 55/16 K/BB ratio, and .186 opponents' batting average in 62 innings. Despite barely pitching in the previous two seasons Burton was at his best in the second half, convincing the Twins he can hold up physically.

Given his injury history a multi-year commitment is risky, but because he was set to become a free agent next offseason going year-to-year was risky as well. Another good, healthy season would have meant trying to convince Burton to sign an extension before hitting the open market or trying to out-bid 29 other teams for him, neither of which seem likely. Now if he stays healthy they'll get a bargain and if not $5.5 million isn't a huge commitment anyway.

My assumption following the Revere and Denard Span trades was that the Twins would go with Darin Mastroianni as the starting center fielder, basically asking him to keep the position warm until 23-year-old prospect Aaron Hicks is ready to take over around midseason. However, it sure sounds like the Twins will give Hicks every opportunity to win the Opening Day job and potentially jump directly from Double-A to the majors.

I'm generally not in favor of that scenario, for a couple reasons. One is that by delaying Hicks' arrival by as little as six weeks the Twins could add another full season of team control based on service time rules, basically pushing off his free agency for an extra year. Considering their long odds of contending in 2013 anyway I'd rather have Hicks for 162 extra games at age 29 than 30 extra games at age 23, and that service time tactic is common practice across MLB.

Beyond that, asking a 23-year-old to thrive at Triple-A for a month or two before making the jump to the big leagues seems smart from both development and performance standpoints. If he crushes Triple-A pitching for 30 games there's no harm done and if he struggles in Rochester odds are he wasn't ready for the majors anyway. Plus, nearly all of the best hitters to debut with the Twins in the past decade or so spent at least 50 games at Triple-A:

Denard Span         179
A.J. Pierzynski     167
Justin Morneau      143
Michael Cuddyer     139
Corey Koskie        135
Doug Mientkiewicz   130
Jason Kubel         120
Torii Hunter         81
Jacque Jones         52
Joe Mauer             0

Some of those players spent time at Triple-A, debuted in the majors, and then returned to Triple-A, so I counted the number of Triple-A games played before becoming an established big leaguer. Joe Mauer is the only one to jump directly from Double-A to the majors, but obviously he wasn't your average top prospect. Cristian Guzman also went from Double-A to Minnesota, but then hit .263/.303/.383 for the Twins and doesn't crack the "best hitters" list.

Except for Mauer the best homegrown hitting prospects in recent Twins history all spent at least two months at Triple-A and most of them played more than 100 games there. Some of them surely were ready for the majors before then, but if the "prove it at Triple-A first" approach was good enough for the guys on that list then why not Hicks too? Span and Revere, the two players he'd be replacing, played 179 and 55 games at Triple-A, respectively.

• After spending some time as a hitting coach in the Dodgers' farm system Doug Mientkiewicz is returning to the Twins as the manager at high Single-A Fort Myers, where he began his playing career in 1995. Mientkiewicz, who went to high school and college in Florida, played his 12th and final big-league season in 2009 and is now 38 years old. I'm excited to get a little more use out of my ability to type "Mientkiewicz" without looking. It took years of practice.

Jason Lane spent six seasons as an outfielder for the Astros, hitting .241/.315/.458, but was finished as a big leaguer at age 30. After five seasons in the minors Lane gave pitching a try this year, faring well on an independent league team managed by Gary Gaetti before struggling at Triple-A for the Diamondbacks. And now at age 35 the left-hander signed a minor-league deal with the Twins.

• In addition to Lane the Twins also announced minor-league deals with Brandon Boggs, Ray Olmedo, Bryan Augenstein, Reynaldo Rodriguez, Scott Elarton, Virgil Vasquez, and Michael O'Connor. Odds are none of them will play for the Twins and only Boggs, Olmedo, and Augenstein received spring training invites, but it's an interesting mix of former prospects and one-time big leaguers.

Elarton played 10 seasons in the majors, but was rarely effective after age 25 and hasn't pitched in the big leagues since 2008. Olmedo is a potential utility man. Boggs could be a backup outfielder. Rodriguez is a first baseman with some power. Vasquez is a generic Triple-A starter. Augenstein and O'Connor could be decent middle relievers. Mostly, though, they're all around to help Rochester have a winning record.

• St. Paul native and former Gophers star Jack Hannahan signed a two-year contract with the Reds that includes an option for 2015. Terry Ryan repeatedly talking about wanting some competition for Trevor Plouffe at third base led to speculation that the Twins were interested in Hannahan, but it's unclear if they ever offered him more than a minor-league contract and a multi-year deal wouldn't have made any sense.

Kevin Correia's two-year, $10 million deal with the Twins finally became official Thursday afternoon. He'll get $4.5 million in 2013 and $5.5 million in 2014.

• For a lengthy discussion about the Revere trade and how much the Twins' farm system has improved in the past six months check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

• Last night I hosted a live chat at TwinsDaily.com. It was supposed to go an hour, but there was a good turnout and we ended up going for two hours. You can read the transcript here.

This week's content is sponsored by DiamondCentric's new "Game Six" shirt, commemorating one of the most exciting moments in Minnesota sports history.

April 6, 2012

Twins Notes: The Smiles Are Returning To The Faces

Little darling, it's been a long, cold, lonely winter
Little darling, it feels like years since it's been here
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say, it's all right

Little darling, the smiles are returning to the faces
Little darling, it seems like years since they've been there
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say, it's all right

Little darling, I see the ice is slowly melting
Little darling, it seems like years since it's been clear
There goes the sun
Here comes the sun
And I say, it's all right

- "Here Comes The Sun"

• Reminder: I'll be watching the Twins' opener against the Orioles this afternoon at Wild Boar in Hopkins with my "Gleeman and The Geek" co-host John Bonnes and some other familiar names. First pitch is scheduled for 2:05, so I'd encourage everyone to leave work early and join us for some baseball and beer. Click here for more details.

• Here's the Twins' lineup for Game 1 versus right-hander Jake Arrieta:

1. Denard Span, L        CF
2. Jamey Carroll, R      SS
3. Joe Mauer, L          C
4. Justin Morneau, L     DH
5. Josh Willingham, R    LF
6. Ryan Doumit, S        RF
7. Danny Valencia, R     3B
8. Chris Parmelee, L     1B
9. Alexi Casilla, S      2B

I'd have sent Chris Parmelee to Triple-A to begin the season, but if you assume that those nine players must start on Opening Day that's exactly what my batting order would look like. I'm not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing, but it's something.

• I wrote all the season previews for AL Central teams at HardballTalk and concluded that the Tigers are clear front-runners, perhaps more so than any other team in any other division, while the Indians, White Sox, Royals, and Twins are each very capable of finishing anywhere from second place to last place. If everything breaks right for the Twins staying in contention deep into the season is possible, but my guess is that they finish right around .500.

• While a .500 record may not sound very optimistic, Las Vegas has the over/under for Twins wins around 73, which is higher than only the Astros and Orioles, and ESPN.com's season simulation based on Baseball Think Factory's excellent ZiPS projection system has the Twins going 70-92. They were so awful last season that improving by 15 games would still leave them at 78-84, so .500 would be quite an accomplishment.

Jason Marquis needs to build up his arm strength after leaving spring training to be with his family following his daughter's bicycling accident, so he's agreed to an assignment to Double-A and will have his turn in the rotation skipped at least once. And thankfully his daughter is making good progress in her recovery.

Scott Baker exited yesterday's minor-league start after just 11 pitches, so it doesn't sound like he'll be returning from elbow problems any time soon.

• As if the Twins didn't have enough question marks, Buster Olney of ESPN.com crunched the numbers and found that they have the toughest early season schedule in the league based on 2011 records.

• In addition to being an excellent guest on this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode Ben Goessling of the St. Paul Pioneer Press also wrote a lengthy, even-handed, and interesting article about all things Joe Mauer. Once you're done reading it follow Goessling on Twitter and bookmark his blog. Good writer, good guy, and good addition to the local Twins media.

• As someone who loves the Twins and The Big Lebowski this commercial is pretty great:

"The Big Hrbowski" is the role Kent Hrbek was born to play.

• For months Terry Ryan insisted that Trevor Plouffe would be used exclusively in the outfield after his disastrous rookie showing at shortstop, but now that the Twins don't have a true backup shortstop on the roster suddenly Plouffe is in the infield mix again. Plans changing was the theme of this spring, but giving Plouffe some chances at second base or third base is a worthwhile idea while they try to figure out where he fits offensively and defensively.

Seth Stohs has a complete rundown of all the minor-league rosters over at Twins Daily. Of my top 10 prospects, Miguel Sano and Eddie Rosario will be at low Single-A Beloit, Oswaldo Arcia and Levi Michael will be at high Single-A Fort Myers, Aaron Hicks and Alex Wimmers will be at Double-A New Britain, Joe Benson and Brian Dozier will be at Triple-A Rochester, Kyle Gibson will be rehabbing Tommy John surgery, and Liam Hendriks will be in the majors.

• Parmelee working his way on to the Opening Day roster left the Twins short a Triple-A first baseman, so they acquired Matt Rizzotti from the Phillies for cash considerations. As a 26-year-old career minor leaguer available for basically nothing Rizzotti is hardly a prospect, but he's consistently had very impressive numbers that include a .295/.392/.511 line with 24 homers, 34 doubles, and 79 walks in 139 games at Double-A last season.

Matt Bashore starred at Indiana University and was the Twins' supplemental first-round pick in 2009, but arm problems have limited him to just 19 career innings and he was released last week. They also released 2009 third-round pick Ben Tootle, a hard-throwing right-hander whose career was similarly ruined by injuries, and Dustin Martin, an outfielder acquired from the Mets along with Drew Butera in the mid-2007 trade for Luis Castillo.

Joel Zumaya underwent Tommy John elbow surgery last week and instead of putting him on the 60-day disabled list all season the Twins released him. And despite his one-year contract supposedly being "non-guaranteed" they're apparently on the hook for his entire $850,000 base salary rather than the initially reported $400,000.

• Back in December the Twins traded Kevin Slowey to the Rockies for marginal prospect Daniel Turpen and then six weeks later the Rockies traded him to the Indians, who were looking for rotation help following Fausto Carmona's arrest on false identity charges. Cleveland gave up a better prospect for Slowey than Colorado did, yet even with Carmona still out of the picture the Indians decided to send Slowey and his $2.8 million salary to Triple-A.

Pat Neshek had a 0.00 ERA with eight strikeouts and zero walks in nine innings this spring after signing a minor-league deal with the Orioles, but they sent him to Triple-A anyway.

Matt Tolbert, did not make the Cubs on a minor-league deal and will begin the season at Triple-A Iowa.

Cristian Guzman, who was attempting a comeback at age 33 after sitting out all of last season for personal reasons, was released by the Indians.

Johan Santana returned from shoulder surgery to throw five scoreless innings in his first start since 2010.

Jason Bulger and Steve Pearce both signed minor-league contracts with the Yankees after being released by the Twins in the middle of spring training.

• If you're interested in keeping tabs on Twins prospects this season Twins Fan From Afar is a blog you should definitely check out, as Andrew Walter will attending games in New Britain, Connecticut and writing about the Double-A team that includes top-40 prospects Hicks, Wimmers, Chris Herrmann, David Bromberg, Deolis Guerra, and James Beresford.

• For anyone who plays Hardball Dynasty on WhatIfSports.com my league is looking for a couple new owners and our next season begins soon. Before contacting me, click here.

• If you impersonate Bert Blyleven on Twitter he will tell you to "get a life a-hole."

• Last but not least, thank you to everyone who stopped here during the too-long offseason. My goal each winter is to find enough interesting stuff to write about that most of you keep showing up, but I'm ready to talk about actual games again and look forward to my 11th season of blogging. Thanks for reading AG.com, thanks for following me on Twitter, thanks for listening to the podcast, and thanks for supporting my work at NBCSports.com and Rotoworld.

And in what has become an Opening Day tradition, this is Richie Havens singing my favorite version of "Here Comes The Sun":

February 27, 2012

Twins Notes: Zumaya, Morneau, Span, three catchers, and old friends

• It took 13 batting practice throws for Joel Zumaya to show why he was available to the Twins for a non-guaranteed, incentive-laden deal and why they were foolish not to add another setup man in a buyer's market flooded with veterans willing to sign cheaply. Zumaya felt elbow pain during Saturday's mound session, walked off with a trainer, headed to his too-familiar place in an MRI machine, and was diagnosed with a torn ulnar collateral ligament.

He'll miss the entire season, his Twins career is over before it even started, and Zumaya may call it quits at age 27 following what would be his seventh surgery in five years. And it's a shame, because throughout all the injuries Zumaya never lost the ability to throw gas--he reportedly showed mid-90s velocity in the abbreviated session Saturday--and signing him to a one-year deal worth just $400,000 in guaranteed money was a smart gamble by the Twins.

Not so smart was their decision to view Zumaya as something more than a lottery ticket, but by passing on cheap, decent bullpen options like Todd Coffey, Brad Lidge, Dan Wheeler, Chad Qualls, and Takashi Saito in favor of overpaying Matt Capps and counting on Zumaya they're left with a right-handed setup man void and only in-house arms like Anthony Swarzak, Alex Burnett, Kyle Waldrop, Jeff Gray, Lester Oliveros, and Carlos Gutierrez to fill it.

Justin Morneau created a big stir last week when he showed up to spring training and gave a less than encouraging update on his now two-year-long concussion comeback. Morneau noted that he hasn't had concussion symptoms "since January." He meant that in a positive way, but that only dates back a month, and five weeks ago Morneau told Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune that he hadn't experienced symptoms "since December."

Asked what he'll do if the symptoms return this spring, Morneau said:

I don't think there will be a career if it's something I'm dealing with. That's the reality of the whole thing. I've kind of come to grips with that. I'm obviously not going to continue to mess around with this if it continues to be a problem. There comes a point when you can only torture yourself so long. It's something I love to do, but you keep preparing and keep being let down, that's something that nobody wants to go through, obviously.

In other words, his baseball career may very well be determined by the next six weeks.

Denard Span's own comeback from a season-ruining concussion has flown under the radar a bit compared to Morneau, but Rhett Bollinger of MLB.com reports that "he still is bothered by an occasional bad day" nine months after the initial brain injury. This offseason Span changed his diet, took up yoga, and started seeing a chiropractor, but much like with Morneau there isn't a lot he can do now besides wait and see how his brain responds to increased activities.

• As much as injuries wrecked the Twins last season, it could have been worse. Well, sort of. Jeff Zimmerman of Fan Graphs crunched the numbers and the Twins were close to the middle of the pack when it comes to total days spent on the disabled list in 2011, ranking 13th. They did, however, lead baseball in disabled list stints with 28. By comparison, no other team had more than 24 disabled list stints and the Royals only used the disabled list nine times.

• Because they didn't make any changes to the training and medical staff it's unclear how the Twins plan to achieve their oft-stated goal of keeping players on the field and off the DL more this year, but what we do know is that injury information will be disseminated differently. Last season Ron Gardenhire was often tasked with giving medical updates to reporters, which was no fun for the manager and frequently led to confusing or misleading details.

This time around general manager Terry Ryan and assistant general manager Rob Antony will take responsibility for giving those day-to-day injury updates. Ryan explained that the change is in part to "streamline the process" and in part to let Gardenhire focusing on managing. Asked if he was in favor of the change, Gardenhire said: "When he announced that, I wanted to give him a man hug. I'm happy. Yeah, that's the last thing I want to talk about is injuries."

• Bollinger reports that "the Twins are widely expected to carry three catchers to start the season." While perhaps not ideal, particularly when one of those three catchers will almost surely be Drew Butera, no one should be surprised. In fact, in projecting the Opening Day roster back in mid-December my assumption was that they'd carry Butera along with Joe Mauer and Ryan Doumit. At this point I'd be surprised if they didn't.

Mauer's durability plays a big factor, as does Doumit being counted on to be the starting designated hitter. Toss in Gardenhire's longstanding fear of having to forfeit the DH role in the middle of a game if the DH is needed behind the plate and Butera's spot seems fairly safe despite his ghastly .178/.220/.261 career line in 142 games. Elias Sports Bureau found that the Twins have lost the DH spot mid-game just eight times in 10 years under Gardenhire.

• Old friend Cristian Guzman, who sat out last season, will attempt to get back into the AL Central after agreeing to a minor-league contract with the Indians. Cleveland manager Manny Acta managed Guzman in Washington and apparently talked the 33-year-old into making a comeback as a potential utility man. Guzman has hit .279/.314/.384 in 565 games since leaving the Twins as a free agent following the 2005 season, including .266/.311/.337 in 2010.

• Another old friend, Juan Rincon, signed a minor-league deal with the Angels. Rincon's four-year run as a dominant setup man tends to be overlooked--he posted a 2.93 ERA with 318 strikeouts in 319 innings from 2003-2006--but he was pretty much washed up at age 29 when the Twins released him in mid-2008 and since then has logged a total of just 66 innings with a 6.27 ERA for three different teams.

• Just a reminder: John Bonnes and I are hosting a get-together/meet-up/viewing party next Monday night, March 5 at Wild Boar in Hopkins, where we'll watch the Twins-Red Sox spring training game on television, record a "Gleeman and The Geek" podcast episode, drink beer, and talk baseball. It should be fun and if the turnout is decent we'll probably do a lot more events during the season, so come hang out.

September 26, 2011

Why can’t the Twins find any infielders who can hit?

One of the constants throughout my 10 seasons of blogging about the Twins is their inability to develop or acquire middle infielders who can hit. I started blogging in 2002, when the Twins hadn't been to the postseason in a decade, Ron Gardenhire was a rookie manager, and the double-play duo was Cristian Guzman and Luis Rivas. In the 10 years since then they've had 10 different players start at least 100 games at shortstop or second base:

                      G      OPS
Nick Punto          430     .652
Cristian Guzman     423     .684
Luis Rivas          359     .686
Alexi Casilla       335     .643
Jason Bartlett      301     .706
Luis Castillo       227     .720
Brendan Harris      160     .666
Orlando Hudson      124     .712
Juan Castro         117     .599
Matt Tolbert        113     .570

Yuck.

During that 10-season span the average American League middle infielder has posted a .730 OPS, yet all 10 of the middle infielders to start at least 100 games for the Twins posted an OPS below .730. In fact, each of the Twins' four most-used middle infielders had an OPS below .690 and the 10-player group combined for a .670 OPS that's 60 points below the league average, with the high-water mark being Luis Castillo's mediocre .720 OPS from 2006 to mid-2007.

Here's how Twins shortstops have ranked in OPS for the 14-team league each year:

YEAR     RANK     SHORTSTOPS
2002     12th     Guzman, Hocking
2003      8th     Guzman, Hocking, Gomez
2004     11th     Guzman, Punto
2005     14th     Bartlett, Castro, Punto
2006      8th     Bartlett, Castro, Punto
2007     10th     Bartlett, Punto
2008     12th     Punto, Harris, Everett
2009      9th     Cabrera, Punto, Harris
2010      6th     Hardy, Punto, Casilla
2011     13th     Nishioka, Casilla, Plouffe, Tolbert

On average during the past 10 seasons Twins shortstops have ranked 10th among AL teams in OPS and the only time they've finished higher than the middle of the pack was last season, when J.J. Hardy's decent .714 OPS helped them rise to sixth and they immediately jettisoned him. Twins shortstops have been above average offensively once in 10 years and even then it was just barely, whereas they've been 10th or worse six times and 12th or worse four times.

And now here's the same list, but with Twins second basemen:

YEAR     RANK     SECOND BASEMEN
2002      9th     Rivas, Hocking, Canizaro
2003     12th     Rivas, Hocking, Gomez
2004      7th     Rivas, Cuddyer
2005     12th     Punto, Rivas, Rodriguez, Boone
2006      9th     Castillo, Punto
2007     13th     Castillo, Casilla, Punto
2008     10th     Casilla, Harris, Punto
2009     14th     Casilla, Punto, Tolbert
2010      9th     Hudson, Casilla, Tolbert
2011     13th     Casilla, Hughes, Tolbert, Cuddyer

Believe it or not the Twins' second basemen have actually been slightly worse than the woeful shortstops, ranking 11th among AL teams in OPS on average during the past 10 seasons and never placing higher than seventh. In those 10 years they've been ninth or worse nine times and 12th or worse five times. And this year both the Twins' shortstops and second basemen are second-to-last among AL teams in OPS.

It's also worth noting that they haven't been any better at finding productive third basemen, at least since Corey Koskie left as a free agent. Koskie was the Twins' starting third baseman from 2000-2004 and on average during those five seasons their OPS at third base ranked fifth in the league. Koskie signed with the Blue Jays after the 2004 season and since then here's how Twins third basemen have ranked in OPS among AL teams:

YEAR     RANK     THIRD BASEMEN
2005     10th     Cuddyer, Rodriguez, Tiffee, Castro
2006     13th     Punto, Batista, Rodriguez
2007     14th     Punto, Rodriguez, Buscher
2008     11th     Buscher, Lamb, Harris
2009     11th     Crede, Harris, Buscher, Tolbert
2010     10th     Valencia, Punto, Tolbert
2011      9th     Valencia, Hughes

Actually that's even uglier than the middle-infield picture. This year is the first time since Koskie left that Twins third basemen have ranked better than 10th in the league in OPS and they're still below average in ninth place. Koskie started 762 total games at third base for the Twins, producing an .839 OPS. In the seven seasons since his departure they've started six different players at least 75 times at third base and none of them have cracked a .750 OPS:

                      G      OPS
Nick Punto          246     .653
Danny Valencia      222     .724
Michael Cuddyer     107     .741
Brian Buscher       106     .702
Brendan Harris       86     .688
Joe Crede            84     .729

If you combine their shortstops from 2002-2011, second basemen from 2002-2011, and third basemen from 2005-2011 that's 27 total years of infielders. And in those 27 positional years the Twins have had an above average OPS twice (shortstops in 2010 and second basemen in 2004) and have never finished higher than sixth in the league while ranking 10th or worse 18 times. All of which is a very long way of saying they can't find any infielders who can hit.

As for why they can't find any infielders who can hit ... well, there are a few theories that seem to make sense. First and foremost is that the Twins clearly focus on speed and defense more than most teams. Whether they do so successfully is up for debate, but when Nick Punto has the team's most middle-infield starts since 2002 and most third base starts since 2005 glove work and running fast are obviously priorities.

There are some exceptions, of course, particularly at third base, but even in the cases where the Twins attempted to sacrifice defense for offense they did so with non-sluggers. Third base has long been a power-hitting position and during the past 15-20 years more and more teams have viewed second base and to a lesser extent shortstop as a spot for guys with the power for 20-plus homers, but the Twins have never really come around to that approach.

Their shortstops and second basemen have almost always been diminutive players with a low strikeout rate, above-average speed, and below-average power, and that skill set rarely adds up to strong offensive production. They've been more willing to stray from that player type at third base in guys like Tony Batista, Mike Lamb, Joe Crede, Brian Buscher, Brendan Harris, and now Danny Valencia, but in none of those cases was there upside beyond solid regular.

As a tall, slow shortstop with 25-homer power Hardy is perhaps the most obvious example of the Twins going against their usual infield focus and not surprisingly they tired of him after just one year despite the highest OPS by a Twins shortstop since Guzman in 2001. Hardy's injuries were a big factor, but so was Gardenhire's desire to add speed to the infield. And now Hardy has 30 homers and an .800 OPS for the Orioles while Twins shortstops are back to not hitting.

Hardy and his .750 career OPS were sent packing because of injuries and lack of speed, while Valencia and his .735 career OPS are entrenched in the doghouse because of shaky defense and a general lack of awareness. Valencia is hardly a long-term building block, but he's a solid all-around player with a better bat than most Twins third basemen since Koskie and has plenty of value while earning the minimum salary.

It'll be interesting to see if the Twins ditch Valencia a year after ditching Hardy because neither player fits the organization's preferred infield mold and there's little indication they've realized how ineffective that mold is at finding competent hitters. Trevor Plouffe might be another test case, because in addition to possessing 20-homer power he's bigger, slower, and considerably less reliable defensively than the Twins like.

Trading away Hardy and replacing him with Tsuyoshi Nishioka showed a discouraging inability to properly evaluate those two players, but it also speaks to an overall approach to acquiring and developing infielders that's resulted in a decade of consistently awful offensive production from second base, shortstop, and third base. It's long past time to find infielders who can hit, but it remains to be seen if the Twins are capable of learning from mistakes and adapting.