February 14, 2005

State of the Twins: Outfielders

Though we're still about six weeks 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 last week or so, I've been taking 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.)

I already covered the catchers, corner infielders, and middle infielders, so today let's take a look at the outfielders ...

TORII HUNTER | CF | AGE: 29               SHANNON STEWART | LF | AGE: 31
===================================== =====================================
Marcel .267 .326 .475 Marcel .300 .365 .447
PECOTA .275 .334 .487 PECOTA .289 .360 .431
ZiPS .271 .329 .477 ZiPS .296 .366 .433
===================================== =====================================
AVERAGE .271 .330 .480 AVERAGE .295 .364 .437

===================================== =====================================
Marcel .280 .329 .461 Marcel .293 .371 .453
PECOTA .273 .325 .456 PECOTA .297 .370 .459
ZiPS .280 .328 .448 ZiPS .301 .378 .448
===================================== =====================================
AVERAGE .278 .327 .455 AVERAGE .297 .373 .453

===================================== =====================================
Marcel .278 .353 .454 Marcel .283 .344 .447
PECOTA .247 .308 .431 PECOTA .246 .309 .419
ZiPS .257 .319 .442 ZiPS .236 .306 .433
===================================== =====================================
AVERAGE .261 .327 .442 AVERAGE .255 .320 .433

The Twins continue to have an impressive amount of outfield depth, despite moving Michael Cuddyer to the infield full time, trading away guys like Bobby Kielty and Dustan Mohr in recent years, and being without Jason Kubel because of his season-ending knee injury. Minnesota still has four legitimate starting outfielders, three of whom could play center field on an everyday basis (and one of whom has four straight Gold Gloves and is considered one of the best defensive players in baseball).

On a team without Torii Hunter, Jacque Jones would a starting centerfielder and people would be talking about how good his defense is out there. On a team without Hunter and Jones, Lew Ford would be a starting centerfielder and people would be talking about what an outstanding all-around player he is. With the Twins, Hunter patrols center field and Jones has flanked him for years, first in left field and now in right field. Ford is also pushed to a corner spot, although perhaps the most maddening part of Minnesota's outfield situation is that Ford may not even play much defense at all in 2005.

Ford played all over the outfield last year, logging 680 innings in left, 415 innings in center, and 85 innings in right. He played solid defense in all three spots and was the team's most productive offensive player, all despite not even starting the season in the big leagues. However, during the rare times Shannon Stewart was healthy, Ford was shifted to designated hitter. The move was apparently made because Stewart said he wanted to play defense, despite the very obvious fact that Ford is a superior outfielder.

Assuming Stewart is healthy now, Ford may be the team's DH from the outset in 2005. That would weaken what has the potential to be an incredible defensive outfield, and I worry that it would also give Ron Gardenhire reason to toy with Ford's playing time. As an outfielder last year -- whether subbing for Hunter in center or Stewart in left -- Ford was needed in the lineup on an everyday basis. As a DH this season, he would have to have to fight Matthew LeCroy and Eric Munson for playing time. That is a battle Ford should win, but when it comes down to what's going on in Gardenhire's head as he writes out the lineup card each day, you never know what will happen.

Ford deserves to play every day, which is probably more than can be said for Jones, who has batted just .241/.299/.350 against left-handed pitching over the past three seasons, and is definitely more than can be said for LeCroy or Munson. After needing an early season injury to Hunter just to get to the big leagues, Ford ended up leading the Twins in games played (154), hits (170), total bases (254), on-base percentage (.381), walks (67), and runs scored (89), while ranking second on the team in batting average (.299), doubles (31), and stolen bases (20), and third in RBIs (72) and OPS (.827).

And while a lot of Twins fans seem to be skeptical about Ford's chances of repeating that sort of performance in the future, his track record says he is more than capable. Not only did Ford knock around major-league pitching to the tune of .329/.402/.575 in a 34-game stint with the Twins in 2003, his overall numbers in the majors match up very well with his numbers in the minors:

LEVEL            G      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
Majors 188 .302 .383 .461 .844
Triple-A 101 .315 .371 .465 .836
Double-A 155 .274 .357 .453 .810
Single-A 255 .302 .373 .453 .826

Ford has been consistently productive regardless of where he has played, and while his minor-league numbers show that he might have been playing at the peak of his abilities in 2004, they also suggest that he is capable of similar numbers in 2005. Yet while Ford's offensive production was the best on the team last year and his average projection of .297/.373/.453 for 2005 is better than the projections of Hunter, Stewart, and Jones, the Twins and their fans often talk as if Ford is nothing more than a fourth outfielder.

The lack of respect Ford gets is a little disturbing, but it is certainly not unexpected for a player who didn't get his first chance in the majors until he was 26 and then only got to play regularly because of injuries. For some reason it is difficult for people to keep from thinking of Ford the way they did before he turned in an excellent 2004 season. But the fact is that plenty of people (myself included) were calling for Ford to get a chance before last season and there is little in his track record that suggests he isn't a solid everyday outfielder in the major leagues.

A full season of a Ford-Hunter-Jones outfield would be one of the best in recent memory, and while a Stewart-Hunter-Jones outfield is still plenty good, limiting Ford to only hitting so that Stewart can see more time in left field is a huge waste of resources. The only thing worse, of course, would be limiting Ford's trips to the plate too.

While Ford's average projection is fairly optimistic, I think the average projections for Hunter (.271/.330/.480), Stewart (.295/.364/.437), and Jones (.278/.327/.455) are very doable. Hunter's is basically an exact replica of what he did in 2004 (.271/.330/.475), while Jones' is predicting a slight comeback from what was the worst season of his six-year career. Stewart's projection would actually be a step down from the numbers he put up in limited action last season and would also be below his established norms, so I'd probably go with the "over" on that one. If each of the four outfielders more or less match their average projections, I'd be a very satisfied Twins fan and the team's lineup would be in good shape.

After the four main guys, the Twins have a less-than-inspiring group of potential backups. The best of the bunch is Michael Restovich, a hulking former second-round pick who was once considered a solid prospect. Restovich's development stagnated a while back and he has spent the past three seasons at Triple-A, where his numbers declined each year. He has a good chance of sticking with the Twins in 2005, not because he has earned it, but because he is out of options and the team would have to risk losing him to send him back to the minors. To his credit, Restovich has played well when given a chance with the Twins, hitting .274/.364/.442 in 129 plate appearances spread over three seasons. He would be a perfect platoon partner for Jones if such a thing could actually exist in Gardenhire's world.

The bottom of the outfield barrel consists of Michael Ryan, Armando Rios, Jason Tyner, and Todd Dunwoody. I discussed Tyner and Dunwoody when I covered the team's non-roster invitees for spring training and the nicest thing I had to say about either of them was that "if a team asked for a fifth outfielder from Central Casting, Tyner would be high up on the list of guys they sent." Ryan won a spot on last year's team as a pinch-hitter based on his Roy Hobbs-like performance in a 27-game stint in 2003, but he hit just .239/.280/.296 in limited action, lost his job when he went down with an injury, and then hit .211 in 50 games at Triple-A.

Rios is the most intriguing of the bunch, which isn't saying a whole lot. He was once a very good platoon outfielder for the Giants, hitting .279/.361/.499 in 815 plate appearances from 1998-2001. He then hit just .264/.319/.332 with Pittsburgh in 2002 and .212/.245/.298 with the White Sox in 2003, which is why he didn't play in the majors last season and was available to the Twins for a minor-league contract in February. Rios' name was also mentioned in connection with the ongoing steroid scandal, which probably didn't help his job search any.

He'll be 33 years old in 2005 and hasn't had success in the majors since before the Twins started winning division titles, so I'm not holding out much hope. Still, Rios has actually had success in the majors, which gives him a leg up on the rest of the group, and he has done well at Triple-A over the past couple years.

Today at The Hardball Times:
- Defensive Regression Analysis (by Michael Humphreys)
- The Best and Worst Teams of the Trade: Revisted (by Studes)

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