February 1, 2005

State of the Twins: Corner Infielders

Though we're still a couple months away from Opening Day, the Minnesota Twins' roster is just about set for the 2005 season. They lost a few of their free agents, re-signed the most important one, took care of all their arbitration-eligible guys, and recently handed out their non-roster invites for spring training.

Over the next week or so, I am going to take an early, position-by-position look at the state of the Twins heading into 2005, with the help of three player projection/forecasting systems -- Tangotiger's Marcels, Baseball Prospectus' PECOTAs, and Baseball Think Factory's ZiPS. (Hat tip to Tom Meagher over at The Fourth Outfielder for the inspiration for the idea.)

We kicked things off with the catchers yesterday, so today let's cover the corner infielders ...

JUSTIN MORNEAU | 1B | AGE: 24             MICHAEL CUDDYER | 3B/2B | AGE: 26

===================================== =====================================
Marcel .274 .342 .492 Marcel .269 .341 .445
PECOTA .282 .351 .513 PECOTA .270 .348 .467
ZiPS .275 .344 .539 ZiPS .276 .351 .458
===================================== =====================================
AVERAGE .277 .346 .515 AVERAGE .272 .347 .457

===================================== =====================================
Marcel .273 .328 .454 Marcel .237 .309 .439
PECOTA .273 .333 .460 PECOTA .251 .336 .474
ZiPS .284 .337 .461 ZiPS .234 .325 .480
===================================== =====================================
AVERAGE .277 .333 .458 AVERAGE .241 .323 .464

Marcel .275 .344 .450
PECOTA .273 .313 .423
ZiPS .280 .320 .419
AVERAGE .276 .326 .431

As it stands right now, Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer, and Matthew LeCroy are locks to make the team -- Morneau and Cuddyer starting at first base and third base, and LeCroy as a part-time designated hitter, emergency catcher, and bat off the bench. Eric Munson and Terry Tiffee are presumably battling it out to see who makes the team as the primary corner-infield backup, as both have experience playing first base and third base.

I've been talking Cuddyer up as someone who deserves everyday playing time for the past three years or so, and I'm hoping this is finally the year he gets a chance to show what he can do over the course of 500 at-bats. His average projection of .272/.347/.457 is right on the money with what I've been saying he could do and it would make him an above-average offensive third baseman. Of course, I'd rather see him put up those numbers at second base, where he'd be one of the better offensive players at the position, but that's not going to happen as long as Luis Rivas is still around (and making $1.625 million).

I am more excited to see what Morneau can do over the course of a full season than I am with anyone on the team, save for maybe Joe Mauer. Morneau hit .271/.340/.536 in 312 plate appearances with the Twins last year and his average projection of .277/.346/.515 is nearly identical to that. It's going to very difficult for Morneau to avoid disappointing a lot of fans after the type of power he showed off in the second half of 2004, but I think that projection is reasonable. If he plays well for the whole year, he'll have no problem topping a .515 slugging percentage, but if he struggles at times (which is to be expected in his first full season), .515 should still be within reach.

If you pro-rate each of Morneau's projections over the course of 550 at-bats (about a full-season's worth), Marcel has him at 28 homers, PECOTA has him at 31 homers, and ZiPS has him at 37 homers -- for an average of 32. If I were a betting man (and I am), I'd definitely take the "over" on that this season (he hit 19 homers in 280 at-bats last year).

If you read my thoughts on Munson when the Twins signed him a couple weeks ago, you know I'm not particularly high on him for anything more than a part-time role. Because of that, I was surprised by how well he does in these three projections, with an average of .241/.323/.464. Considering he hit .212 last year and is a career .215 hitter in the major leagues, I have a hard time believing Munson is a good bet for a .241 batting average. With that said, if he can somehow manage to hit .241, the .323 on-base percentage (.082 Isolated Discipline) and .464 slugging percentage (.223 Isolated Power) are doable, and it would make him a very solid backup at the corner spots.

Tiffee's average projection of .276/.326/.431 is fairly similar to Munson's, but with more batting average and less power. Actually, that average projection is amazingly close to what I suggested Tiffee was capable of back when the Twins first called him up from the minors in September: "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 still don't think Tiffee is going to be much more than a good role player for a contending team, but he'd be a fine backup at first base and third base in 2005. My guess is that Minnesota starts the season with Munson on the bench and Tiffee back at Triple-A, and then makes a decision on who takes the job for the second half based on how they perform in April and May. Both players would be above-average corner-infield backups (offensively, at least), so it's a nice dilemma to have.

Today at The Hardball Times:

- Drying Off the Spitty 1910s, Part 2: The Careers (by Steve Treder)

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