March 29, 2005

Two Men Enter, One Man Leaves

With the news (or at least implied news) that Terry Tiffee has made the Twins as the left-handed "bat off the bench" that Ron Gardenhire is constantly lusting after, the rest of the roster is starting to come into place. The only problem is that the numbers don't seem to add up. Assuming the Twins open the season with 11 pitchers (I think they should go with 10, but that's never going to happen), here's how the position players break down:

C    Joe Mauer
1B Justin Morneau
2B Luis Rivas
SS Jason Bartlett
3B Michael Cuddyer
LF Shannon Stewart
CF Torii Hunter
RF Jacque Jones
DH Lew Ford

C Mike Redmond
IF Matthew LeCroy
IF Juan Castro
IF Terry Tiffee

Those are the 13 guys who would appear to be locks to make the team, which leaves one spot left for a fifth bench player. The candidates are Nick Punto and Michael Restovich, along with Corky Miller if you believe Gardenhire's statement the other day about potentially opening the season with four catchers. I'm going to assume Miller isn't a serious option, which leaves Punto and Restovich fighting over one spot.

Both players deserve to make the team. Punto showed last year (.253/.340/.319 in 38 games) that he is a solid utility guy, he is cheap and relatively young, and he gives the team a decent alternative to make Luis Rivas sweat a little bit at second base. Restovich has been languishing at Triple-A for years now, he is also cheap and relatively young, and he has done a nice job when given a chance with the Twins (.274/.364/.442 in 61 games).

Perhaps most importantly, both players are apparently out of options (Restovich's option situation has been made public, and a little digging seems to put Punto in the same boat). Assuming that's true, what it means is that the Twins can no longer send them down to the minors without first passing them through waivers. The chances of either Punto or Restovich going through without being claimed by another team seems slim, which means the Twins either keep them on the roster or lose them.

So what will happen? I honestly have no idea. I agree with keeping Tiffee on the roster, because he gives the team a relatively good backup at both infield corners, as well as a nice switch-hitter off the bench. Restovich would be a very solid backup outfielder, particularly if Gardenhire ever realizes that benching Jacque Jones against lefties is a good idea. He won't, of course, which basically just means Restovich would be around as a pinch-hitter and potential replacement should any of the outfielders go down with an injury.

I also like Punto quite a bit as far as spare-part middle infielders go, but he is very redundant at the moment. He does nothing that Juan Castro can't do. Or rather, Castro does nothing that Punto can't do, but makes a guaranteed million dollars a year for the next two seasons doing (or not doing) it. That means Punto is the utility infielder who is expendable (since I don't see the Twins buying into the theory of "sunks costs"), which is just about the opposite of how it should be.

The Twins appear to have backed themselves into a bit of a corner with the Castro signing. He was brought in to provide a veteran option at shortstop should Jason Bartlett need more seasoning at Triple-A. Bartlett has been very impressive this spring, making the need for that nonexistent. Instead, Castro is now being cast as the backup middle infielder, a job he could fill reasonably well. The only problem is that there is no need for him to fill it and no need for the Twins to pay him a million bucks a year to fill it when Punto could do the same job for the league minimum.

Without Castro around, the Twins would suddenly have few decisions to make and they would be looking at a solid, standard bench. Mike Redmond backing up Joe Mauer behind the plate; Matthew LeCroy serving as the third catcher while being available to pinch-hit, back up Justin Morneau at first base, and sub for Lew Ford as the designated hitter; Tiffee backing up Morneau at first and Michael Cuddyer at third, while providing that all-important lefty "bat off the bench"; Punto backing up Rivas at second and Bartlett at short; Restovich backing up Jones in right, Shannon Stewart in left, and giving the team a power bat off the bench.

A backup catcher, two backup infielders, a backup outfielder, and a guy who can play catcher and first base. Toss in the fact that Jones and Ford can each sub for Torii Hunter in center field if needed, and you have a nice, versatile roster. Instead, now the team is facing the prospect of either losing Restovich and having two utility infielders or keeping Restovich and losing Punto while paying someone a million dollars a year to do what he does. And all because they are locked into paying Castro a premium to do a job he no longer has to do (and wasn't all that qualified for in the first place).

Today at The Hardball Times:
- Five Questions: Florida Marlins (by Aaron Gleeman)
- Blast From The Past: Jimmy Wynn (by John Brattain)
- Five Questions: San Francisco Giants (by Steve Treder)
- Five Questions: Pittsburgh Pirates (by Tom Talavage)

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