December 14, 2004

Koskie's Gone

She's gone, oh I, oh I'd

Better learn how to face it

She's gone, oh I, oh I'd

Pay the devil to replace her

She's gone ... what went wrong

--- Hall and Oates, She's Gone

The ink on Corey Koskie's contract with the Blue Jays is just about dry, putting an end to Koskie's seven-year career with the Twins. A 26th-round pick back in 1994, Koskie made his major-league debut with an 11-game stint in 1998 and then became a regular in 1999, hitting .310/.387/.468 in 117 games between third base, right field, and designated hitter. After talk of moving him permanently to the outfield or first base because of his rough defense at third base, the Twins eventually gave Koskie a chance at the hot corner in 2000 and he hit .300/.400/.441 in 146 games, playing exclusively at third.

In the years since, Koskie has worked very hard to turn himself from a good-bat/bad-glove guy into a legitimately excellent defensive third baseman, one of the best in all of baseball. And all along the way he continued to provide very good offense. The knocks on Koskie over the years have been pretty simple -- he strikes out a lot, which set him apart from most of the Twins' hitters, and he tends to miss time with nagging injuries. In fact, even when he's healthy Koskie has a certain way about him that suggests he's struggling just to move. I think I once described it as like an elderly man without his walker.

The list of maladies that have kept Koskie off the field is a long one -- he has missed 16, 9, 22, 31, and 44 games during the past five seasons. Even when healthy, Koskie's performance was incredibly volatile, as he'd often go through stretches where he was one of the best hitters in baseball and then have a month where he seemed completely lost at the plate. When all was said and done though, the end result was always right around the same level.

YEAR      OPS      GPA     OPS+

1999 .855 .291 114
2000 .841 .290 107
2001 .850 .285 121
2002 .815 .277 118
2003 .845 .290 121
2004 .837 .278 113
TOTAL .836 .284 115

Some years Koskie posted big batting averages, other years he showed huge power, and other times he relied on his usually outstanding plate discipline. However he got there each season, Koskie gave the Twins an OPS between .815 and .855, posted GPAs between .277 and .291, and checked in with OPS+ totals from 107 to 121. That is remarkable consistency and outstanding year-to-year production from a third baseman, particularly when you toss in the defensive value he brought to the table.

All of which is why, unlike losing Cristian Guzman earlier this offseason, losing Koskie leaves the Twins without one of their best players. Unlike losing Latroy Hawkins and Eddie Guardado last offseason, losing Koskie leaves the Twins without an obvious, in-house replacement. And unlike trading away A.J. Pierzynski and Eric Milton, losing Koskie leaves the Twins without anything in return to help strengthen the team. Losing Koskie just leaves a big void at third base and in the middle of the lineup.

So who will step in for Koskie next year? At the moment, there seem to be three main options ...

1) Joe Randa

Randa has been mentioned as a potential replacement for Koskie throughout the offseason, as he has apparently expressed interest in playing for the Twins and Terry Ryan has apparently expressed interest in signing him. The good news with Randa is that you pretty much know what you're getting; Randa will be 35 years old in 2005 and has 10 major-league seasons under his belt. The bad news is that what you're getting with Randa is a clearly dropoff from what you got with Koskie.

Randa is not the defensive player Koskie is, and his offense is several notches below Koskie's as well. Compare what they've done at the plate over the past few seasons ...

2002-2004        PA      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS

Koskie 1626 .271 .369 .463 .832
Randa 1722 .286 .344 .429 .773

As you can see, Koskie holds a clear edge offensively. His on-base percentage has been 7.2% better than Randa's, his slugging percentage has been 7.9% better, and his OPS has been 7.6% better. Plus, Koskie's offensive advantage is actually larger than it appears, thanks to Randa playing his home games in an extreme hitter's ballpark in two of those three seasons. Once you adjust for ballparks, Koskie has been about 9% better than the league average over the past three seasons, while Randa has been about 2% worse than the league average.

That represents a substantial downgrade offensively, one that probably accounts for 15-20 runs over the course of a full-season's worth of playing time. Toss in the defense, and swapping Koskie for Randa looks like a likely dropoff of somewhere around 20-30 runs, assuming each player performs similarly to what they've done over the past three years.

Of course, counting on Koskie for either a full-season's worth of playing time or similar production is iffy, since he'll be 32 next year and seems like a good candidate for a dropoff. On the other hand, Randa is three years older than Koskie, which makes him a fine candidate for a dropoff, and he hasn't exactly been an iron man either. Randa missed 11 games in 2002, 31 games in 2003, and 34 games this season, which makes him just slightly less durable than Koskie over the past three years.

2) Michael Cuddyer

In isolation, I would love to see Cuddyer replace Koskie at third base. I have always been one of Cuddyer's biggest supporters, even through his various struggles, and I remain convinced that he can become a very good offensive player and a passable infield defender. However, moving Cuddyer to third base full-time would also open up a hole at second base, which could lead to Luis Rivas in a starting role for the fifth straight year. As a wise man once said, that's not going to be good for anybody.

The good news is that Cuddyer will be just 26 next year, and considering he hit .263/.339/.440 in 382 plate appearances this season, there's a good chance he could come close to replicating Koskie's offensive production. The bad news is that there would still be a major dropoff defensively and anything that gives Rivas another opportunity to waste 500 plate appearances is a very bad idea.

3) Terry Tiffee

Tiffee is sort of the sleeper option, the unknown of this group. Just reading between the lines, it seems clear that Ron Gardenhire (and perhaps Ryan, too) doesn't think he can handle a starting job in 2005, because he would seem to many like the obvious choice to replace Koskie. This year, Tiffee batted .307/.357/.522 in 82 games at Triple-A Rochester and .273/.333/.500 in 17 games with the Twins. He also hit .315/.351/.464 in 139 games at Double-A New Britain in 2003. Plus, he's the same age as Cuddyer and has actually been playing third base in the minors.

However, like the Twins, I remain unconvinced that Tiffee would be a quality starter at third base. His defensive reputation is not very good, and from the brief look I got of his glove this year I tend to agree with that assessment. Offensively, Tiffee should post solid batting averages, but the rest of his game is very empty, without much plate discipline or power.

When the Twins first called Tiffee up back in September, here's what I wrote about his long-term potential:

With his walk rate, Tiffee is likely going to need to hit at least .290 in order to be an average offensive player at third base, where the average major leaguer has hit .274/.344/.455. If he hits .280, his lack of walks would put his on-base percentage somewhere around .320-.330. And, if his power is closer to his pre-2004 levels, his slugging percentage would check in at around .430. I don't know about you, but I can't get excited about a guy who'll struggle to post a .750 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) unless he hits .300.

An intriguing role player? Absolutely. A future star? I doubt it. Someone Twins fans should count on replacing Koskie at third base next season? No way.

Nothing has changed since then, but I do think that Tiffee would be the easiest of the three options. He is already in the organization, he is in his prime, he would cost very little money, and he has been playing third base for years. Plus, the Twins could stick him at third base and not have to move anyone else around the diamond. However, I also think Tiffee would be the least-productive option, at least in 2005. His offense would likely be worse than Cuddyer's and his defense would almost certainly be worse than Randa's.

Which is the most desirable option for the Twins? I don't think there's an easy answer to that, which is why losing Koskie really hurts. Cuddyer would be my first choice, without question, but he comes along with also choosing Rivas, which negates a lot of his value. Randa would be a decent short-term fix, but he'll cost significantly more than either Cuddyer or Tiffee, and there's a good chance he won't be significantly better than either of them. Tiffee wouldn't cost anything and would allow Cuddyer to play second base, but there's a decent shot he'll be sub par both offensively and defensively.

It's a very tough choice. If I had to guess, I would say Randa will be starting at third base on Opening Day. Ryan and Gardenhire value veteran players like Randa, and it really sounds as if Gardenhire is deathly afraid of what his infield might be like if he goes with an all-out youth movement. That's why the team signed Juan Castro and signing Randa to a one- or two-year deal would fall under the same sort of thinking. Personally, I think Randa is the worst of the three options, but I also thought the Castro signing was an awful one and generally trust young players more than I should.

The best option, of course, would have been giving way to a couple of Koskie's demands and handing over a little extra money. I'm fairly certain he would have agreed to a two-year deal if the Twins would have upped the offer a bit and given him a no-trade clause. Instead, they've lost one of their best players, they have a major hole with no obvious choice to fill it, and they are in a very tough position. Third basemen who hit for power and plate discipline, post OPS totals in the .800s, and play good defense don't grow on trees. Or at least not on any trees the Twins can afford.

Today at The Hardball Times:

- The Baseball Time Machine: Denny Young (by Steve Treder)

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