July 16, 2006

In Case of Emergency Break Glass

Most teams use the All-Star break to get healthy, but the Twins apparently used the time off to prepare themselves to get hurt. Within the first series of the second half, Torii Hunter, Shannon Stewart, and Lew Ford headed to the disabled list with injuries of varying severity, and Jason Kubel's ongoing knee problems kept him from playing defense and running without a limp.

All teams deal with injuries, but what makes this batch particularly difficult to handle is that they took place within the span of about three days and all involved outfielders. Hunter going down wouldn't be as big of a problem if Ford was around to sub for him in center field, and Stewart returning to the DL wouldn't hurt so much if Kubel could play every day.

Unfortunately, when taken together the injuries left the Twins with a makeshift, Triple-A outfield over the weekend. Actually, that's not quite accurate. Michael Cuddyer remains the last man standing in right field and he's certainly a major leaguer, but yesterday's lineup also included Jason Tyner in left field, Nick Punto in center field, and Rondell White at designated hitter.

Tyner has spent most of the past six years at Triple-A, including the first three months of this season. He hit an empty .329 in 80 games at Rochester and has had a remarkable impact in his brief time with the Twins, but in the end Tyner is organizational filler in the form of a slap-hitting fifth outfielder. He's been the Twins' starting left fielder for the past three games.

Calling White a Triple-A player would have been ridiculous this spring, but now it might be kind. He hit an execrable .182/.209/.215 before the Twins mercifully sent him to Rochester, and then managed a pathetic .255/.265/.319 line in 12 games against International League pitching. Now he's back, having proven absolutely nothing during his demotion ... and homered yesterday for the first time all year.

Similarly, calling Punto a Triple-A player is perhaps not fair. He's been excellent since replacing Tony Batista as the Twins' everyday third baseman, playing good defense and getting on base at the top of the lineup. However, purely in terms of defense, having Punto patrolling center field on a regular basis would not be very pretty.

The end result was a DH who has been historically bad and couldn't even get on track at Triple-A, a left fielder with a .360 slugging percentage in 3,000 career minor-league at-bats (and .305 in 834 big-league at-bats), and a center fielder who has a grand total of two dozen innings of experience at the position. Adding to the Triple-A feel was that moving Punto gave Ron Gardenhire the choice between Luis Rodriguez and Terry Tiffee at third base.

None of this is intended as criticism of the Twins, but rather simply to point out what rough shape they suddenly find themselves in. As organizations go, the Twins are typically fairly deep in terms of minor-league reinforcements that can be called upon, but that can only go so far. When you lose two starters and your primary backup at all three outfield spots, there's only so much help down on the farm.

In addition to Tyner and White, the Twins also called up Josh Rabe from Rochester. Rabe was a hot topic amongst Twins fans after hitting .350 through the first month of the season, but here's what I wrote about him back in early May:

Josh Rabe is getting a lot of attention for his hot start at Triple-A, but it'd be smart to curb most of that enthusiasm. ... Rabe is going to come back down to earth once a few of those singles start finding gloves. He is no more of a prospect or long-term option in the Twins' outfield than Michael Ryan was.

Sure enough, Rabe was hitting .297/.364/.399 in 84 games at Triple-A when the Twins called him up to replace Hunter on the roster, which matches up with his career line of .273/.345/.403 heading into the season. Rabe isn't a legitimate option for more than a few games at a time, he's just what happens when you burn through the first few lines of defense.

In fact, all four of the players who have posted an OPS over .750 while playing regularly for Rochester are now in the majors, with Tyner and Rabe joining Kubel and Jason Bartlett. Toss in Tiffee (who had a .719 OPS) and the bones at Triple-A have been picked clean. The next line of defense includes Alex Romero and Kevin West, but Romero has been horrible since moving up from Double-A and West has yet to get on track after missing most of the year with an injury of his own.

There are some recognizable non-outfielder names on the Rochester roster, but Garrett Jones, Glenn Williams, Shawn Wooten, Luis Maza have been awful and come with suspect track records. And while Double-A has somewhat more legitimate long-term outfield options in Denard Span, Trent Oeltjen, and Doug Deeds, none of them are ready now. In other words, barring a trade of some sort, this is it.

I suspect the Twins used Tyner in left field over the weekend because of his weak throwing arm, but in terms of actual game impact, a center fielder's arm matters significantly less than his ability to simply run down fly balls. I'm hopeful that once the roster settles in a bit Gardenhire will move Tyner to center field, because he's the best defender with the most experience there left on the roster.

There's little doubt that Tyner is far more equipped to handle center-field duties than Punto would be learning on the fly, and it would allow Punto to remain at third base, where he's been so good. The defense won't suffer as much with Tyner in center and Punto at third, and it shouldn't be that difficult to mix and match various warm bodies between left field and DH.

The nice thing about White being horrible is that there's no longer any need to worry about him getting hurt. That means the Twins are free to put him in left field, and in the past White has actually been a quality defender there (albeit with a Stewart-like noodle arm). If Kubel and White can rotate between left field and DH depending on which one is somewhat healthy, that leaves Rabe as the backup outfielder and gets the Twins out of playing guys completely out of position.

If the Twins have higher hopes than finding guys who can hold their own defensively, they have the option of calling up Erubiel Durazo. Durazo was signed to a minor-league contract last week after being let go by the Yankees, and went 2-for-3 with a double yesterday in his Rochester debut. Durazo is among baseball's worst defensive players, but as a DH he could give the lineup a boost.

Age and elbow surgery appear to have sapped much of Durazo's power, so it would be wishful thinking to expect anything close to his .281/.381/.487 career line in nearly 2,300 big-league plate appearances. With that said, he still batted .290/.381/.428 in 40 games at Triple-A prior to latching on with the Twins, which suggests he could be an upgrade over White, Tiffee, and Rabe should Kubel get healthy enough to play the field.

Whether it's Tyner, Rabe, Durazo or White, their role with the team comes down to when the injured outfielders are due back. It sounds as if Stewart is done for the season, which means the Twins will almost surely have to let him walk as a free agent this offseason rather than dealing him for something of minimal value before the trading deadline.

I also expected Hunter to be done for the year upon hearing that he had a stress fracture in his left foot, but the early reports seem optimistic that he could return at some point in August. As with Stewart, the injury likely wipes out any chance the Twins had of cashing Hunter in at the trading deadline and his health status complicates (or perhaps makes easier) the decision whether or not to pick up his $12 option for next year.

Ford's oblique injury isn't as severe as a broken bone or torn plantar fascia, but it's something that has a tendency to linger. I've become somewhat familiar with recovery timetables thanks to my news-gathering gig at RotoWorld, and there are numerous cases of seemingly innocuous strained oblique muscles turning into lengthy rehabs involving multiple setbacks.

The rash of injuries is a blow to the Twins' already slim chances of making the postseason and also takes away the option of trading two veterans. That means even if the Twins decide to be sellers as the deadline approaches, they won't have a whole lot to offer. It's a shame, because anything they could have gotten for Stewart would have been gravy, and I believe the best thing for the team long term would have been dealing Hunter for prospects and using his money on something else this winter.

Depending on how quickly he returns and how healthy he looks if he does get back next month, it may be significantly easier for the Twins to justify declining Hunter's option for 2007. However, if the team is going to part ways with Hunter now, they'll probably have to do so without receiving anything in return. That makes the decision more about strictly money than before, because the team can no longer trade Hunter with the idea of it helping the rebuilding effort.

Oh, I almost forgot in the midst of all this injury stuff: The Twins took three out of four from the Indians and are now "only" 6.5 games out of a playoff spot with 72 games left to play. Assuming Joe Mauer stops hitting into multiple double plays per game and Tyner continues to collect multiple RBIs every time out, I think they have a chance.

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