August 31, 2006

The Nevin Trade

One of the Twins' biggest weaknesses this season has been the complete lack of production they've received from designated hitters. That spot in the lineup has batted a combined .264/.311/.371, which is good for a .682 OPS that ranks dead last among AL teams. Amazingly, those numbers would be far worse if Joe Mauer hadn't hit .480 in 50 at-bats there while taking time off from catching.

Included in that pathetic overall production has been almost zero power. Twins DHs have managed just six homers, while every other team in the league has had at least twice that many long balls from the position and six teams have gotten at least four times as many homers from the spot. Twins DHs also rank dead last in RBIs, runs scored, and total bases.

August is never a great time to upgrade a contending team, because the available players are typically mediocre and the price to acquire them is almost always inflated. In particular, pitching is at such an extreme premium with mere weeks to go in the season that teams actually found themselves bidding for what is probably the final month of David Wells' career.

With that said, if there's one thing that is generally available at reasonable prices this time of year, it's unspectacular veteran first basemen and corner outfielders. Jeff Conine, Russell Branyan, Shawn Green, and Eric Hinske were all dealt for relatively little in return within the past two weeks, providing their new teams with capable bats at little cost.

The Twins had been standing pat while those low-cost veterans switched teams, no doubt hoping that either Rondell White or Jason Kubel could provide the offense necessary to make the DH spot something less than a huge problem down the stretch. White homered yesterday and has generally hit well since returning from Triple-A in July, but he's been far from a consistent offensive force.

Meanwhile, Kubel has been hobbling around on bad wheels for far too long and has been lost at the plate for weeks. It's clear that he's simply not right, and at this point everyone might be better off if he shut things down and focused on being healthy for spring training. In other words, there's been little to suggest that the DH problem was going to go away.

With last night's deadline looming for traded players to retain playoff eligibility with their new teams, the Twins finally decided to acquire a veteran bat of their own, sending a player to be named later to the Cubs for Phil Nevin just before the clock struck midnight. At first glance, this trade might look an awful lot like the one that brought Bret Boone's corpse to Minnesota last year.

After all, Nevin is 35 years old, has already been traded once this season in a salary dump, and is clearly winding down his career. However, while dealing for Boone looked like a bad move from the moment rumors started circulating, there's plenty of reason to believe Nevin can actually help the Twins down the stretch.

He's no longer the middle-of-the-order slugger who batted .300 while smacking 72 homers with 233 RBIs between 2000 and 2001, but Nevin remains an asset at the plate. He has hit .245/.321/.456 with 21 homers and 64 RBIs in 113 games this season, including .274/.335/.497 with 12 homers and 33 RBIs in 67 games after being dealt to Chicago.

A right-handed hitter, Nevin has hit right-handed and left-handed pitching equally well this season, posting a .780 OPS against one and a .770 OPS against the other. In the past he's shown a relatively huge platoon split, including a .924 OPS against lefties and a .727 OPS against righties from 2003-2005. In other words, in a lineup built around Mauer and Justin Morneau, he's a good fit.

(Nevin and his dog, which has only six fewer homers than the Twins' DHs.)

Nevin will almost surely be asked to take over as the Twins' primary DH, but he's capable of filling in at several other positions. He's started games at first base, left field, and right field this year, and was an everyday third baseman just a few seasons ago. Plus, Nevin has seen sporadic time behind the plate throughout his career, thus filling the Twins' need for a third catcher.

This is not the trade many Twins fans had in mind when names like Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Lee were swirling around in July, but picking up Nevin for what is presumably a low-level prospect makes sense. There's a chance he'll be a Boone-like bust, but if Nevin simply hits like he has all season he'll provide a significant upgrade over what the Twins have gotten from the DH spot.

At the very least he provides a fourth power threat to go along with Morneau, Michael Cuddyer, Torii Hunter and the singles-hitting piranhas surrounding them in the lineup. In fact, Nevin's 21 homers would rank tied for second on the team with Hunter and only Morneau has produced more long balls per at-bat.

Assuming Luis Castillo's ankle injury doesn't keep him sidelined for an extended period of time, here's what the Twins' lineup will probably look like in September:

                      BATS        AVG      OBP      SLG
1. Luis Castillo Switch .294 .348 .371
2. Nick Punto Switch .307 .383 .405
3. Joe Mauer Left .350 .427 .505
4. Michael Cuddyer Right .278 .361 .515
5. Justin Morneau Left .315 .370 .577
6. Torii Hunter Right .269 .338 .462
7. Phil Nevin Right .245 .321 .456
8. Jason Tyner Left .314 .343 .346
9. Jason Bartlett Right .342 .409 .447

There's room to quibble with how Ron Gardenhire will arrange those nine guys in the batting order, but the Twins' lineup is stronger than it was yesterday and Nevin's arrival also provides more viable bench options. If White continues to play well--he's hitting .291/.317/.506 with four homers in 21 games since returning from Rochester--he can platoon with Tyner in left field.

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