July 4, 2007

Halfway Home (Part 2: The Offense)

Tuesday in this space I examined how the Twins' pitching staff performed through exactly one half of the season, concluding that they have a "championship-caliber" group that's capable of improving in the second half. Today I'll take the same type of look at the team's offense through the season's halfway point, although the picture isn't nearly as encouraging. Before I begin, a reminder that all stats are through the 81st game of the season, which took place Monday.

Scoring 388 runs through the first half of the season puts the Twins' offense eighth in the league with an average of 4.79 runs per game. That places them exactly in the middle of the 14-team league, which sounds decent enough until you consider that they've produced an average amount of overall team offense despite having four of the league's top hitters. Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer, Torii Hunter, and Michael Cuddyer all rank among the AL's top 30 hitters in Gross Productive Average (GPA).

Unfortunately, the lineup's other five spots have provided amazingly little production:

Catcher           .797      4th     Mauer 41, Redmond 34, Heintz 6
First Base        .857      4th     Morneau 71, Cirillo 6, Cuddyer 4
Second Base       .647     13th     Castillo 66, Casilla 7, Rodriguez 5
Third Base        .617     13th     Punto 58, Rodriguez 13, Cirillo 10
Shortstop         .625     11th     Bartlett 69, Punto 9, Casilla 3
Left Field        .635     14th     Kubel 47, Ford 18, Tyner 8
Center Field      .878      2nd     Hunter 78, Tyner 3
Right Field       .799      6th     Cuddyer 72, Tyner 7, Ford 1
D. Hitter         .654     13th     Cirillo 15, Redmond 13, Tyner 12

The Twins rank second, fourth, fourth, and sixth in OPS from center field, first base, catcher, and right field, which would normally give them the core to build one of the league's top offenses simply by surrounding Hunter, Morneau, Mauer, and Cuddyer with some reasonably productive spare parts. Instead, they've gotten either the worst or second-worst production in the entire league from second base, third base, left field, and designated hitter, plus the 11th-best production from shortstop.

The offense ranks 12th in the league with 63 homers, but even that's misleading. Morneau and Hunter have provided 37 of the homers, which means the rest of the team has gone deep a grand total of 26 times in 2,472 plate appearances. Not only have they gotten zero homers from second base and two homers from shortstop, designated hitter and third base have combined for five long balls in 643 plate appearances. The rest of the league has averaged five times as much power from those two spots.

Of course, power certainly isn't everything and plenty of good offenses have been built around high batting averages and strong on-base skills. Just not this one. The Twins rank eighth in batting average, eighth in walks, and ninth in on-base percentage. Aside from Mauer, Cuddyer, and Morneau, no one on the team has gotten on base at even a .350 clip and seven of the 13 hitters with at least 50 plate appearances have made an out over two-thirds of the time they step to the plate.

Justin Morneau        .295
Joe Mauer             .292
Torii Hunter          .290
Michael Cuddyer       .280
LEAGUE AVERAGE        .256
Mike Redmond          .240
Jeff Cirillo          .239
Luis Castillo         .236
Jason Bartlett        .234
Lew Ford              .234
Jason Tyner           .234
Jason Kubel           .226
Nick Punto            .205
Luis Rodriguez        .173

Like a restaurant that attempts to compliment a menu featuring filet mignon, lobster, and caviar by offering a dozen different types of sardines, the Twins have squandered away the chance for an excellent offense by being so aggressively awful in five of the nine lineup spots. Morneau, Mauer, Hunter, and Cuddyer have all been significantly above average offensively, but no one else on the team has been even close to average at the plate.

General manager Terry Ryan has handed manager Ron Gardenhire a pathetic collection of utility infielders and fifth outfielders to work with, and Gardenhire has compounded the lack of capable bats by choosing the worst options from the weak bunch. All of which is how a 36-year-old backup catcher with a .369 career slugging percentage (Mike Redmond) and one of the worst-hitting outfielders in baseball history (Jason Tyner) start regularly at designated hitter.

Nick Punto has predictably reverted back to his banjo-hitting career norms after a shockingly decent 2006 season and is on pace for one of the worst years ever by a third baseman, yet he started 70 of the first 81 games while hitting .207/.307/.266 in 295 plate appearances. The refusal to remove Punto from the lineup is clearly on Gardenhire, but providing only Jeff Cirillo and Luis Rodriguez as alternatives is just as clearly on Ryan.

Add it all up and what you get is an inconsistent lineup that has surrounded the occasional breakout game with a whole bunch of flailing away helplessly while mustering little or no offensive attack. The Twins scored three runs or fewer in 36 of their first 81 games (44.4 percent), including being shut out six times (7.4 percent) and scoring just one run eight times (9.9 percent). In other words, the lineup was essentially completely shut down in one out of every six first-half games.

The nice thing about a lineup that has four spots that rank worst or second-worst in the league is that it's easy to improve. In particular, it would be incredibly easy for the Twins to find a competent veteran bat so that Gardenhire will stop the ridiculousness that is writing Tyner's name in the lineup at designated hitter. Of course, it also would have been easy to make the move for a veteran bat 60 games ago, when it became clear that Rondell White wasn't going to be returning any time soon.

That the Twins entered the season with no real alternative to the 35-year-old, oft-injured White is simply poor planning, but that they still did nothing when White predictably went down with a significant injury is a pretty clear example of a team willing to coast along. Some will spin it as patience, but spending 70-plus games rotating guys like Tyner and Redmond through the DH spot isn't an example of patience any more than standing still while someone repeatedly hits you in the head with a hammer is.

White is currently on a minor-league rehab assignment, but given his progress thus far it's a pretty good bet that he'll end the season with more "setbacks" than at-bats in a Twins uniform. And as good as White was down the stretch last season, he's far from a savior who's worth waiting for after batting .246/.276/.365 overall last year. Ryan could throw a rock and hit a veteran hitter who would immediately improve the offense and he should have done so months ago.

Replacing Punto at third base is more difficult, because you can't just plug any bat into the lineup there. Cirillo would be a capable alternative if healthy, but his balky knees have limited his playing time and effectiveness. However, much like designated hitter, third base is still a spot where upgrading is not overly difficult and should have been done already. Ryan doesn't have to swing a deal for anyone spectacular in order to provide a big boost over Punto.

Second base and left field are trickier, because it's unlikely that the Twins would look to replace Luis Castillo or Jason Kubel despite poor first-half production. Castillo started 66 of the first 81 games and Twins second basemen rank 13th in OPS, yet it's not difficult to find people who view him as one of the team's best players. While that's far from true, Castillo is certainly very capable of improving upon his first-half performance and making second base something less than a huge weakness offensively.

Similarly, Kubel has shown various signs of coming around since getting off to a poor start. After failing to homer in his first 118 plate appearances, Kubel finished the first half of the schedule with five long balls in his next 121 plate appearances and then kicked off the second half with a key two-run blast yesterday against the Yankees. Like designated hitter, left field is a spot where finding a capable bat isn't overly difficult, but there's reason to believe that Kubel can provide a boost on his own.

While acquiring a star hitter to plug into the middle of the lineup would be nice, far less than that is needed to dramatically improve the offense. Simply finding non-horrible bats for two or three lineup spots would change things significantly, but the organization's lack of MLB-ready hitting prospects means that trades will likely be needed even for that. The two Triple-A players mentioned most by fans are Garrett Jones and Matt Tolbert, but neither player's potential matches the hype they've received.

Jones is no more a legitimate major-league designated hitter than Tyner or Redmond and Tolbert has predictably come crashing back down to earth after a flukishly great start at Rochester. The best hitting prospect Triple-A can offer is Alexi Casilla, who's hitting .284/.375/.362 and figures to step in for Castillo at second base next season. While he'd likely be an upgrade over Punto or Rodriguez, playing Casilla regularly at third base is no one's idea of a solution.

Delving a little deeper into the Rochester roster provides names like Ken Harvey, Darnell McDonald, Denard Span, Tommy Watkins, Glenn Williams, Trent Oeltjen, Doug Deeds, and Matthew LeCroy, but those aren't homegrown solutions so much as evidence that a trade for outside help is needed. With White injured and Punto struggling, the Twins have no capable alternatives at designated hitter and third base. For the offense to improve in the second half, that needs to change.

Give Morneau, Mauer, Hunter, and Cuddyer some help and the Twins' offense can do some damage.

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

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