May 13, 2007

Seven and Out: Ponson Done

This isn't going to have a happy ending.

Anyone who spends a significant amount of time with me finds me disagreeable.

- William Somerset, Seven

The Twins were 60-plus games into last season before they finally cut bait on both Tony Batista and Juan Castro in mid-June. This season, that timetable has been pushed up about a month, with the Sidney Ponson experiment officially ending yesterday afternoon. Signed to a minor-league contract during the offseason, Ponson made the Opening Day roster despite a mediocre spring training and in doing so guaranteed himself a $1 million salary for this season.

That works out to a little more than $25,000 per inning after Ponson went 2-5 with a 6.94 ERA in seven starts to more than earn his quick exit. Like Batista and Castro before him, Ponson was predictably awful. He came into this season with a hideous 6.25 ERA spread between 2005 and 2006, giving up 285 hits and 84 walks in 215.1 innings during that span. Despite all the optimistic reports and hope for a feel-good turnaround, he pitched exactly as should have been expected.

Now he's gone, another failed flier on a washed-up veteran that had little chance of ever succeeding in the first place (and that's coming from someone who thought the signing was a decent one). That the Twins play this game with the likes of Batista, Castro, and Ponson on an annual basis is frustrating, but at least they're learning to admit their mistakes more and more quickly. Ponson's departure creates a hole in the starting rotation and the Twins have no fewer than four legitimate options to replace him.

MINNESOTA             IP      ERA     SO     BB     OAVG
Glen Perkins 19.1 3.26 12 9 .242

Kevin Slowey 41.2 1.51 38 2 .161
Scott Baker 42.2 3.16 41 4 .219
Matt Garza 36.0 3.75 41 15 .280

No announcement has been made officially yet, but one of Glen Perkins, Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, and Matt Garza will likely join the rotation beginning Saturday against the Brewers. Picking between the four choices is difficult and something that was discussed in this space last month, which is when cutting Ponson loose first looked like the obvious move. It's tough go wrong regardless of who the choice is, but as was the case back then, my pick would still be Baker.

He has the most big-league experience among the group and has been pitching extremely well at Triple-A, with a 3.16 ERA, 41-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and .219 opponent's batting average in 42.2 innings. He's also older than the other three options and has a much more uncertain future with the Twins, which is why giving him a relatively extended look right now makes sense. If Baker is going to get a legitimate chance to carve out a long-term role with the team, it's going to have to come soon.

By calling him up to replace Ponson now, the Twins would be giving him a deserved chance to bounce back from a terrible showing last season. If he pitches well, he's back in the long-term picture. If he pitches poorly, he earned his way out off the long-term depth chart and can be shopped around in an effort to acquire an impact bat at midseason. In either case, it makes sense to find out right now, far more so than with Perkins, Slowey, or Garza.

That's not to say that calling up Slowey or Garza would be a mistake, or that moving Perkins from the bullpen to the rotation would be the wrong call. The beauty of the pitching surplus that the Twins have built up is that you can throw a rock and hit a qualified rotation option, which is why wasting time on guys like Ponson was questionable to begin with. Between now and the time that one of those four starters gets the nod to join the rotation, Ponson's spot on the roster will be filled by Garrett Jones.

When a major-league team struggles to score runs (appearances on Sunday Night Baseball not withstanding) and there's little chance of the general manager pulling the trigger on trades to dramatically improve the lineup, it's natural to look toward Triple-A for potential help. A perfect example of that in action came in 2004, when the Twins were getting little production from Doug Mientkiewicz (.246/.340/.363) at first base and called Justin Morneau up from Rochester to replace him.

Morneau hit .271/.340/.536 with 19 homers and 58 RBIs in 74 games as the Twins went 43-31 when he played on the way to their third straight AL Central title. That's an extreme example, of course, because prospects like Morneau aren't available at Triple-A very often. Jason Bartlett wasn't nearly the prospect Morneau was when the Twins called him up from Rochester last June, but made a huge impact by hitting .309/.367/.393 while starting 99 straight games as Castro's replacement.

Whether looking at Morneau in 2004, Bartlett in 2006, or any number of other examples from past years, the point is that adding a new bat to improve the lineup doesn't always have to come via trade. Normally that would be good news for Twins fans given Terry Ryan's reluctance to take risks and part with pitching prospects, but unfortunately there isn't a single MLB-ready, impact bat like Morneau or Bartlett to call up from Rochester this year. Yes, including Jones.

The best long-term hitting prospect at Triple-A is Alexi Casilla, who figures to step in for Luis Castillo at second base beginning next season. However, he looked somewhat overmatched when called up earlier this season and is hitting just .235 at Rochester. Plus, while Casilla projects as a very good all-around player--with excellent speed, good middle-infield defense, and leadoff-caliber on-base skills--a lack of power makes him a less than ideal bat to add.

While Casilla has zero homers in 94 at-bats between Triple-A and the majors this year, the truth is that almost no one on the Rochester roster has displayed significant home-run power. In fact, Jones is the only hitter on the entire team to go deep more than twice this season. Those of you who read my "Top 40 Twins Prospects of 2007" series from a few months back may remember that Jones wasn't included, which drew a fair number of e-mails and comments from people wondering where he was.


2005 488 .244 .297 .445 24 36 109
2006 525 .238 .302 .430 21 49 121
2007 118 .305 .351 .525 5 8 25

Admittedly, if you focus solely on homers, Jones looks like a good prospect. Not only is he leading Rochester with five homers, he went deep 21 times last season, 24 times in 2005, and 31 times in 2004. Unfortunately, looking at nearly every other part of his game reveals a player who's anything but a legitimate prospect. The most obvious thing is that Jones turns 26 years old next month and is in his third straight season at Rochester. In other words, he's supposed to be leading the team in homers.

Beyond that, while his .305/.351/.525 hitting line through 30 games looks impressive, his lengthy track record and shoddy 25-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio suggest that the lofty batting average is a massive fluke. Jones came into this season as a .246 hitter in 2,613 minor-league at-bats spread over 721 games and eight seasons. He batted .244 and .238 in his previous two seasons at Rochester, has batted above .250 in exactly one year since rookie-ball, and has a career on-base percentage of .300.

Along with the low batting averages, Jones lacks plate discipline and has atrocious strike-zone control, both of which have been present this season despite an impressive-looking overall hitting line. He struck out 121 times while drawing 46 non-intentional walks in 140 games at Rochester last season, and struck out 109 times while drawing 32 non-intentional walks in 134 games at Rochester in 2005. If you prorate his current totals to 135 games, what you get is 120 strikeouts and 35 walks.

Ah, but all that power, right? Not really. Going deep 25 times in 500 at-bats as a too-old hitter at Triple-A isn't especially impressive and for all that homering in three years at Rochester, Jones has a .446 slugging percentage and .197 Isolated Power. For comparison, Morneau slugged .559 with a .271 IsoP at Triple-A, while Michael Cuddyer slugged .533 with a .228 IsoP. Even Matthew LeCroy, who was anything but a consistent power threat in the majors, slugged .564 with a .238 IsoP at Triple-A.

And unlike Jones at Rochester, Morneau, Cuddyer, and LeCroy weren't several years older than most of the guys they were playing against while putting up those numbers. When you combine horrible batting averages with sub par plate discipline, non-existent strike-zone control, and good but not great power numbers, and then toss in being too old for the level of competition and lacking any kind of defensive value ... well, you can see why Jones didn't crack my top 40.

I'm glad to see that the Twins have ditched Ponson six weeks into something that could very easily have dragged into June and it's comforting to know that they have four legitimate options to pick from as his replacement. However, it's equally frustrating that when the team decided to temporarily fill Ponson's spot on the roster with a hitter called up from Triple-A, the best they could do was a non-prospect like Jones.

The Twins' impressive pitching depth will begin to come in play this week, but their lack of hitting depth has been hurting them all season. Calling up Jones as the local media inevitably talks breathlessly about his "big-time power" and misguidedly focuses on his home-run totals may briefly satiate fans hungry for some offense, but it won't do much to actually put more runs on the board. For that, they may have to go outside the organization. Or at least petition the league to keep those pink bats.

Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.

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