September 20, 2005

Target: Ryan Howard

Someone made a comment here last week criticizing me for not offering any actual solutions to the Twins' many problems that I've been chronicling all season. I found that criticism amusing, because those of you who have been reading this blog for a while now would probably say that one of the things I do most often is pretend like I know what's better for the Twins than the people actually running the team.

I talk about free-agent signings they should make and shouldn't have made, prospects who deserve a shot they haven't gotten yet, which hitters should be platooned, and how the manager should write up the lineup card each day. In fact, aside from marveling over Johan Santana, dreaming about Joe Mauer's future, boring people with stories about poker, and drooling over Jessica Alba, giving the Twins unsolicited advice might just be what this blog is all about.

In that grand tradition, allow me to suggest Philadelphia as a potential home for Torii Hunter. The Phillies are in a large market and have a shiny new ballpark, which gives them plenty of room to add payroll. Plus, they've given 38-year-old Kenny Lofton the majority of the starts in center field this season. And while Lofton and his platoon partner, Jason Michaels, have both been very productive, it is a position I could see general manager Ed Wade addressing this offseason.

Beyond all of that -- and perhaps just as importantly -- the Phillies have a talented young hitter who the Twins could add to the middle of the lineup immediately. Ryan Howard is a left-handed slugger who has been playing first base for Philadelphia since Jim Thome went down with a season-ending injury. With Thome's long-term contract paying him handsomely through at least 2008, Howard will be without a place to play come spring.

Howard is limited defensively, but with Justin Morneau entrenched at first base he could focus entirely on his offense as the Twins' designated hitter. I ranked him as the 28th-best prospect in all of baseball heading into this season, and the 25-year-old Howard is now one of the leading candidates for National League Rookie of the Year. Here's what he's done over the past couple seasons:

YEAR     LVL       G      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     XBH
2004 AA 102 .297 .386 .647 37 56
AAA 29 .270 .362 .604 9 19
MLB 19 .282 .333 .564 2 7
2005 AAA 61 .371 .467 .690 16 35
MLB 76 .289 .355 .549 18 33

Or presented another way:

LVL       G      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     XBH
AA 102 .297 .386 .647 37 56
AAA 90 .336 .430 .660 25 54
MLB 95 .289 .352 .551 20 40

However you want to break Howard's numbers down, they're very impressive. He has huge power, slugging well over .600 in the high minors and .551 through his first 90 major-league games, and has also managed to hit for good batting averages. Combining his numbers at three different levels over the past two seasons, he has 82 homers in 287 games, or an average of 43 long balls for every 150 games played.

Of course, Howard also has some faults. As I mentioned earlier, he's not a good defensive player. He'll turn 26 years old in November, which makes him fairly elderly for a rookie. Also, Howard strikes out more than just about any hitter in baseball and doesn't have a ton of plate discipline.

LVL      AB      SO     BB      SO%     SO/BB
AA 374 129 46 34.5 2.80
AAA 321 103 53 32.1 1.94
MLB 305 103 29 33.8 3.56

Given a full-season's worth of playing time in the majors, Howard is a good bet to strike out in excess of 170 times. He'll also draw about one walk for every three times he strikes out, so if his batting average dips below .260 or so (which is a possibility when you're not making much contact) he's likely to have a sub par on-base percentage.

Oh, and here's another weakness: Howard has gone just 7-for-59 (.119) against left-handed pitchers in the big leagues. That could be the biggest problem for the Twins, because they are already loaded with young, left-handed hitters (Mauer, Morneau, Jason Kubel) who figure to struggle against southpaws. I'd say the Twins could lessen the impact of Howard's weakness against lefties by platooning him, but we've all seen how much Ron Gardenhire has listened to the same advice regarding Jacque Jones.

Instead, given the side of the plate Howard bats from, the number of times he figures to strike out, and the lack of skill he brings to the table defensively, he doesn't strike me as a player the Twins would actually go after. Which is a shame, because he's clearly major-league ready, it looks like he'll be available this offseason, and his bat in the middle of the lineup against right-handed pitching could really make a difference.

Today at The Hardball Times:
- Just How Good Are These Rookies? (Part 2) (by Aaron Gleeman)

Today's Picks (105-94, +$925):
Boston (Wakefield) -140 over Tampa Bay (Kazmir)

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