September 17, 2007

No Mas

One of the few positives that comes along with being out of the playoff picture long before the end of the season is that the final portion of the schedule can be used to look at young players in preparation for next year. In Alexi Casilla and Brian Buscher, the Twins have a pair of infield prospects who could emerge with prominent roles in 2008 and beyond, so giving them playing time now figures to pay off down the road while helping the team evaluate their potential.

Instead, Ron Gardenhire continues to write 29-year-old Nick Punto's name into the lineup nearly every day. There's certainly no rule saying that teams must stop playing veterans once they fall out of contention, but given Punto's horrendous play this season and the presence of young talent it seems like a natural thing to do. Punto has been the single worst hitter in all of baseball at .205/.290/.262 overall, including .194/.250/.244 in the second half, yet has started 30 of the past 36 games.

Casilla has struggled at the plate while being very prone to mistakes and Buscher has looked rough defensively at third base, but why not give them some low-pressure playing time over a guy who turns 30 years old soon and is now a .244/.314/.320 hitter in 1,672 career plate appearances spread over seven big-league seasons? The answer, or at least Gardenhire's answer, is that Punto needs plenty of work to prepare for starting again next season. Seriously.

According to Official Twins Beat Writer of LaVelle E. Neal III, Gardenhire has "practically named Punto the starting second baseman in 2008." Here's a quote from Gardenhire:

We already know what we've got with Nick. We know we've got a player. And [Casilla] has all the tools in the world. Nothing's a given. You have to go out and play. But if we were to start right now I would say Nick would have a head up on him, believe me there.

I know what he can do, catch the ball and make all the plays. So he's got a lead going into spring training, as far as I'm concerned. I hope he comes out and has a good spring. I like him in my lineup, somewhere. He makes things exciting. But he's got to play. Got to come back and rebound, we all know that.

If Gardenhire actually "knew what he had in Punto," he'd stop playing him every day. Instead, Punto already has over 500 plate appearances with two weeks left to play despite ranking dead last among all MLB hitters in batting average, slugging percentage, and OPS (and 161st out of 166 in on-base percentage). When viewed alongside the rest of his minor-league and major-league track record, Punto hitting .290/.352/.373 last season is a clear fluke.

He batted .256/.352/.321 in 1,185 plate appearances at Triple-A and has hit .224/.299/.304 in 1,158 plate appearances in the majors surrounding his fluke 2006 season. Yet surely in Gardenhire's mind Punto's 2006 season represents his true ability and the other nine years of his career are the fluke. Perhaps the most amazing thing is that Punto's fluke season wasn't even all that great, yet Gardenhire is willing to stick with him through historic ineptitude because of it.

Similarly, Luis Rodriguez has gotten regular playing time since returning from a demotion to Triple-A, starting nine of 15 September games. At 27 years old, Rodriguez has hit .245/.311/.345 in 491 plate appearances in the majors and .273/.354/.356 in 3,415 plate appearances in the minors. Toss in what is at best passable defense at second base and the inability to handle shortstop, and it's unclear why he's playing. Over those same 15 September games, Casilla and Buscher have six starts each.

I don't blame Gardenhire and the Twins for being unsure of what they have in Casilla and Buscher, but they're not going to learn much by keeping them on the bench and now is a rare opportunity to give them playing time in a situation where mistakes can be tolerated. Why not give Casilla and Buscher even a fraction of the patience that has inexplicably been provided to Punto? Why not let them play through struggles in a low-pressure time when Punto is allowed to play through struggles all season?

Letting Casilla and Buscher rot on the bench and perhaps head back to Triple-A next season won't ruin the Twins, and neither will handing Punto a starting job again. However, the team's handling of the situation provides a perfect example of an organizational weakness that has been prevalent for years. Casilla and Buscher deserve a chance to play, yet they sit even when the games mean nothing. Punto deserves a seat on the bench, yet he plays every day whether it's April or September. Or 2008.

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

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