October 19, 2004

Other Early Moves

Yesterday, I commented on the Twins cutting Cristian Guzman loose, but they also made a few other moves over the weekend that I should talk about now, before I forget. The Twins picked up Henry Blanco's $750,000 option for next season, let Jose Offerman and Pat Borders become free agents, and lost Aaron Fultz to the Phillies via the waiver wire.

Aside from not blocking Kyle Lohse's 58-footer against the Yankees in the playoffs, Borders did a nice job for the Twins after coming over from Seattle late in the year. He hit .286/.302/.381 in 44 plate appearances, did well behind the plate, and gave Ron Gardenhire a second veteran catcher he had confidence in, which enabled Gardenhire to both give Blanco a few days off and pinch-hit for him when he started. At the same time, I don't think anyone was counting on Borders coming back for 2005. I'd love to see the Twins sign him to be a catcher/coach at Triple-A.

Similarly, Fultz is no great loss. He started the year well, but faded badly down the stretch as Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson lost complete confidence in him along the way. Fultz's overall numbers were pretty bad -- 5.04 ERA in 50 innings -- but he did a very nice job against lefties, holding them to .212/.290/.271, which is basically what the Twins brought him in to do anyway. In fact, Fultz is a good example of how someone's stock can go down when they perform poorly in a role they were never suited for in the first place.

Fultz is a lefty specialist and he did well in that role for much of the year, but he was often asked to come in and pitch a full inning or even multiple innings, which is when his deficiencies against righties came to the forefront. Righties hit .314/.388/.500 off of him, which led to the 5.04 ERA, but the fact is that he did well in the role he was supposed to do well in. There are far, far worse guys to have in the back of your bullpen, especially if you're not counting on him to be a long reliever.

As for Offerman, he's an example of how someone can out-perform your expectations for them by about a thousand percent and still not have a great season. Offerman's spot on the roster when the season began was one of the more confusing things to me, as it seemed as though the last thing the Twins, with their abundance of first basemen, designated hitters and corner outfielders, needed was a 35-year-old pinch-hitter who couldn't really hit.

To his credit (and to Terry Ryan's and Gardenhire's too), Offerman did extremely well in the role he was asked to fill, hitting .289/.390/.463 against right-handed pitching and .414/.528/.586 as a pinch-hitter. The thing I was worried about all along was that he'd become more than just the "veteran bench bat" that the Twins said they brought him in to be, and that did happen at times, as he hit just .211/.317/.350 as the team's starting DH. In all, Offerman got about 60 more at-bats than I would liked to have seen this year, but that wasn't the end of the world.

More importantly, he got some big hits, was used in some pretty good spots by Gardenhire, and impressed the hell out of me with his extraordinary plate discipline. I don't think I've ever seen a hitter go to the plate and show more discipline on borderline pitches than Offerman this year. Most of the reason for that is the fact that he can't really do much besides lob singles to short center field at this point in his career, but Offerman worked 29 walks in 202 plate appearances and did a nice job avoiding outs all year.

Offerman led the team in walks per plate appearance (.144) and was second to Joe Mauer in pitches seen per plate appearance (4.1). Amazingly, he has the sort of approach at the plate that I'd love to see Guzman have. Of course, Guzman saw the fewest pitches per plate appearance (3.4) on the entire team, so I won't be holding my breath. If the Twins weren't already so stacked at DH/LF/RF/1B, I actually wouldn't mind seeing Offerman back in the same role next year, which are words I would have thought impossible coming out of my mouth earlier this year.

Finally, Blanco will be back to hopefully fill the role the Twins wanted him to fill this season: backup to Mauer. Yesterday, I explained how dumbfounded I've been by the amount of praise Guzman received this year, and I have to admit that I'm similarly confused by the amount of praise Blanco has gotten. I've heard people -- dumb people, but people nonetheless -- say that Blanco was the MVP of the team in 2004, and you'd have a hard time finding a Twins fan who doesn't have glowing things to say about the job he did this season.

The strange thing is that, just like Guzman, Blanco did nothing this season that he hasn't done in past years. In fact, he came into this season as a .219/.295/.353 career hitter in over 1,400 plate appearances and hit .206/.260/.368, which is actually slightly below those incredibly low standards. When that sort of "hitter" plays in 114 games and racks up 353 plate appearances, it usually adds up to him being one of the worst offensive players in baseball. Among all AL hitters with at least 350 trips to the plate this year, Blanco ranked dead last in batting average and on-base percentage, and 110th in slugging percentage.

Of course, Blanco wasn't brought in for his offense and wasn't brought in to play 114 games, but those things don't really matter when talking about how valuable he was to the team. If you go to a Chinese restaurant and order a hamburger, the quality of your meal isn't determined by whether or not they're known for their hamburgers. I'm not saying Blanco did a horrible job, because obviously the Twins needed someone to take those starts behind the plate, but he played just like he has before, which is why he was available to the Twins as a cheap backup catcher in the first place.

Today at The Hardball Times:

- Running on Empty (by Aaron Gleeman)

- A World of Pain (by Brian Gunn)

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