June 13, 2006

Bartlett Up, Batista Out

The final image I'll have of Tony Batista in a Twins uniform is him excitedly teaming up with Michael Cuddyer to dump a bucket of Gatorade on Jason Kubel following Kubel's walk-off grand slam against the Red Sox. In fact, it sounds likely (and somewhat sad) that Batista was told of the Twins' plan to designate him for assignment just moments later, making him perhaps the last person to know.

After going 1-for-4 with a single last night in the 185th game of his Triple-A career, the Twins finally decided that it's time to give Jason Bartlett another chance in the big leagues. Bartlett is expected to join the team in time for tonight's game against the Red Sox and Batista is being let go to make room on the roster.

The natural reaction is to praise the Twins for calling Bartlett up and cutting bait on Batista, because both moves are good ones. However, this isn't a team simply making two good decisions. This is a team making two good decisions that are only possible because of worse decisions that came first. This is a team attempting to fix mistakes.

Bartlett should have been up a long time ago and Batista never should have been signed in the first place, and that it took falling completely out of the playoff picture in mid-June for the Twins to realize that is pathetic. While making both moves now is certainly better late than never, another cliche is just as true: It's too little, too late.

The Twins wasted $1 million and bypassed numerous other third-base options to secure Batista's services this winter, and then watched as he hit .236/.303/.388 with horrible defense in 50 games. The day after Batista signed I called the move "an unqualified disaster" and despite hearing a seemingly endless stream of rose-colored arguments to the contrary all offseason that's exactly what it turned out to be.

I can't even begin to imagine how many words were wasted by people defending the Batista signing in the comments section here and at any number of other locations, but in some twisted way it pleases me that things turned out the way they did. Now perhaps a few more people can begin to see that when something looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's a duck even if Terry Ryan tells you otherwise.

Unfortunately, Ryan's misguided pursuit of Batista leaves no viable alternatives. Platooning Terry Tiffee and Luis Rodriguez will almost certainly be an improvement over Batista, but won't stop the Twins from having one of the least-productive third-base situations in baseball. And come November the team will once again be looking for a starter at the position.

As for Bartlett ... well, this is where the Twins should have been with him last June. Instead of showing some patience with him last season and potentially having him established as the starting shortstop heading into this year, now the team will try to work him into the mix in preparation for 2007. And why? So he could hit .300 for a third straight season at Rochester while Juan Castro dragged the team down for a second year.

Within the Twins' online community the arguments about Bartlett have been almost as plentiful and heated as the arguments about Batista. As is the case in such situations, both sides have taken on an exaggerated view of the other side's stance. In particular, the pro-Bartlett faction has been met with cries that Bartlett won't turn the Twins' season around and may not be a huge upgrade over Castro.

Both of those things are true, of course. The Twins are far beyond needing whatever help a rookie shortstop can provide and there's a good chance that Bartlett will not become anything more than a moderately useful player. However, given the Twins' dearth of other options over the past two seasons it's mind-boggling to me that they've been so unwilling to at least find out.

Now, instead of finding out what they had in Bartlett last season, they've delayed things by a year for no good reason. Bartlett went to Triple-A and did what he always does, knocking around International League pitching. Castro stayed at shortstop and did what he always does, being one of the league's worst players. And in the process the Twins fell completely out of contention.

Here are Bartlett's career numbers at Rochester:

  G      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     XBH     BB     SO
185 .326 .395 .462 9 69 72 96

Whatever you think of Bartlett, there's just no way a relatively young player who performs that well at Triple-A should have been left there for nearly 200 games spread over three years. Whether it's making him the starting shortstop, using him as a utility man or even trading him, anything would have been better than letting Bartlett rack up 800 plate appearances in Rochester, New York.

Last night's moves are a definite step in the right direction, but as I said last month this is all ultimately as meaningless as shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic until the Twins address the organizational issues that have led to these mistakes in the first place. The ability to stop sticking with and acquiring sub par veterans at the expense of jerking young players around is what can save the Twins, and that's not something Bartlett can help them with.

Now, let's see if Ron Gardenhire actually plays him.

* * * * * * * * * *

Lost in the Bartlett-Batista news is that last night's Johan Santana-Curt Schilling matchup lived up to the hype, with both aces turning in dominant performances. In fact, Santana was as good as I've ever seen him, beginning the game with five straight strikeouts and ending up with the following pitching line:

 IP     H     R     ER     BB     SO     HR     PIT
8.0 5 1 1 0 13 1 102

As fun as it was to watch Santana, it was equally frustrating to see the Twins run themselves out of an inning and then bunt themselves out of an inning. The go-ahead run was thrown out at third base in both instances--with the second time being the game-winning run--and only a Cuddyer homer off Schilling saved Santana from picking up a 1-0 loss.

I should probably write something about how it's a shame that Santana ended up with a no-decision after pitching so well and how having too many games like last night's may rob him of yet another Cy Young Award. To be honest though, the Twins' lack of run support for Santana over the past two years has made me sick of saying that.

It's sad that something completely beyond Santana's control may end up keeping him from what will probably be three straight deserved Cy Youngs, and down the road it'll be even worse if that ends up keeping him out of the Hall of Fame. Last year Santana's run support ranked 59th among 80 MLB starters who qualified for the ERA title, and this year it ranks 76th.

Incidentally, Dennys Reyes was last night's "winner" despite throwing exactly four pitches and getting a grand total of one out. As Joe Morgan would tell you, some pitchers just know how to win.

Oh, and since returning from Triple-A and being put into the lineup for good on May 29, Kubel is hitting .353 (18-for-51) with three homers and 11 RBIs.

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