September 25, 2007

Twins Notes: Retirement, Targets, Changes, and Laws

  • Rondell White batted .313/.348/.497 in 97 games with the Tigers in 2005 and then signed with the Twins that December, inking a reasonably priced one-year deal with an option for a second season. The plan was for the 34-year-old veteran with a career .289/.343/.472 hitting line in 1,337 big-league games to slide into the cleanup spot behind Joe Mauer, providing some much-needed right-handed pop. Instead, White batted .182/.209/.215 in the first half and found himself playing at Triple-A.

    Whether simply healthy or motivated by the quasi-demotion, White returned to bat .321/.354/.538 in 45 games after the All-Star break and then went 5-for-12 (.417) with a homer in the three-game playoff series loss against the A's. That amazing turnaround was enough to convince the Twins that White's horrendous first half was behind him, so they bought out his 2007 option for $750,000 and re-signed him to a new one-year deal worth $2.75 million.

    Nicknamed "RonDL" for having played as many as 140 games just once in 15 major-league seasons, White made it through three games before going down with a calf injury. He missed the next 96 games before returning in mid-July and has batted .163/.220/.293 in 32 games since then, saying Monday that there's a "99-percent chance" that he'll retire at season's end. "My body hurts," White said. "There's a good chance this is it."

    I liked the decision to sign White as a free agent two years ago and thought that re-signing him was a decent gamble given how well he hit in the second half, but there's no spinning the fact that he's been an unmitigated disaster. Cash-strapped and hurting for offense, the Twins have paid White $6 million to split time between designated hitter and left field while hitting .226/.264/.346 and playing 42 percent of the team's games.

    White falling apart shouldn't have come as a huge shock given his lengthy injury history and advanced age, but he hit .289/.341/.476 in the three seasons prior to signing with the Twins and had an OPS between .790 and .900 in eight of the previous nine years. There was no reason for the Twins to expect the two worst seasons of his career and he seemed like a perfect low-risk pickup. Instead, no Twins player has contributed less while having more words devoted to him in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

  • On the subject of old, injury-prone designated hitters, Mike Sweeney said last week that he might be interested in signing with the Twins as a free agent this offseason:

    I've always loved hitting in the Metrodome. If I'm not playing in Kansas City, I'd love to play on a winning team, and Minnesota's been that for a long time. I don't know. We'll pray about my future and see which door God opens. I know there will be one that will be wide open, and that's the one I'll walk through, whether it's here in Kansas City or someplace else.

    Sweeney was one of baseball's most underrated hitters during his prime, batting .313/.383/.521 from 1999-2005 while posting an OPS of at least .850 every year. Unfortunately, he's 33 now and injuries have kept him off the field while turning him into a shell of his former self, as he's hit just .261/.333/.427 while playing 41 percent of the Royals' games over the past two seasons. A one-year investment similar to White's original deal wouldn't be a bad gamble, but anything beyond that is a mistake.

  • Geoff Jenkins is another potential veteran pickup for the Twins assuming that the Brewers do as expected and decline his $9 million option for 2008. A formerly outstanding defensive outfielder who's still good in either corner spot at the age of 32, Jenkins has been above average offensively in each of his nine full seasons. A left-handed hitter who should be platooned at this point in his career, Jenkins has the following year-to-year splits against right-handed pitching:
    YEAR      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
    1999 .326 .381 .602 .983
    2000 .309 .363 .615 .978
    2001 .244 .322 .445 .767
    2002 .258 .350 .472 .822
    2003 .308 .400 .607 1.007
    2004 .281 .338 .505 .843
    2005 .307 .384 .538 .922
    2006 .306 .381 .490 .871
    2007 .267 .332 .493 .824

    CAREER .289 .359 .526 .885
  • Ron Gardenhire probably wouldn't use Jenkins optimally because he tends to save his platooning for young players whose development might actually benefit from playing every day, but he'd still be a good bet for an .800 OPS and 20 homers. Along with good numbers against righties, Jenkins also offers a strong arm, solid range in an outfield corner, and better health than Sweeney. In terms of veteran bats who might be available to the Twins for a reasonable price, Jenkins is an appealing target.

  • A not-so-appealing target is Darin Erstad, whose $3.5 million option for 2008 figures to be declined by the White Sox after batting .250/.308/.339 while missing half the year with injuries. Erstad remains a good defensive outfielder, but he's played a total of 125 games over the past two seasons and hasn't been an above-average hitter since 2000. Unfortunately, the Twins' recent track record with such things suggests that they're more likely to target a low-upside veteran like Erstad over someone like Jenkins.
  • Back in December, when I interviewed him at the Winter Meetings in Orlando, Gardenhire said that Glen Perkins wouldn't be asked to work out of the bullpen this season and was viewed as a long-term starter. Gardenhire's long history of saying one thing and doing another makes the fact that all 16 of Perkins' appearances this season have come as a reliever less than shocking, and the same is true for Gardenhire saying yesterday that Perkins could remain in the bullpen next year:

    It's just going to depend on how everything breaks down and how his health is, with his arm, and what our needs are. If we're in dire need of starting pitching, he'll go into the rotation. If we need him to come out of the bullpen, that's where he'll go. It just depends on how everything else breaks down. There are a lot of arguments as to whether he should be a starter or a reliever. What it comes down to is that he's a young pitcher with a great arm.

    I ranked Perkins as the Twins' third-best prospect coming into the season and wrote that he "has No. 2 starter potential," so it'd be nice to see him given an extended chance to start before being pigeonholed into a bullpen role based on some arm problems and 32.2 good relief innings. Either way, Perkins is one of many reasons to think that the Twins' pitching staff is in excellent shape long term whether or not Johan Santana sticks around.

  • Last week Gardenhire said that Nick Punto "would have a head up" on the starting second-base job for next season "if we were to start right now" and "has got a lead going into spring training, as far as I'm concerned." The oddly timed statements about Punto's role on next year's team were met with a lot of criticism and Gardenhire has seemingly backed off his stance a little bit. Asked about Punto again yesterday, here's what he said:

    He's giving himself an opportunity to come into spring training and fight for a job. He'll be an option for second base, at least be in the mix for it, and I think that's all he expects.

    That's quite a change. Last week Punto "would have a head up" for the job and "has got a lead going into spring training." Now Punto will "come into spring training and fight for a job" and "will be an option for second base" who will "at least be in the mix for it." Either someone in the front office talked to Gardenhire, the criticism reached him, or he's simply at the point where he amuses himself by tossing out ever-changing quotes that he knows fans will be confused by.

  • Matthew LeCroy began his major-league career as the Twins' starting catcher back in 2000, but struggled both offensively and defensively as a rookie. The Twins did their best to avoid using him behind the plate over the next five seasons, with LeCroy catching exactly one inning in 2005 while hitting .260/.354/.444 in 101 games. Because of their past reluctance to let him catch, it's interesting to note that LeCroy got back behind the plate Monday and caught a shutout against the Tigers.

    His noodle arm was on full display as the Tigers went 3-for-3 stealing bases, but LeCroy showed the soft hands and solid pitch-calling ability that have allowed him to compile a 4.63 career catcher's ERA. Nichols' Law of Catcher Defense states that "a catcher's defensive reputation is inversely proportional to their offensive abilities," so LeCroy being washed up as a hitter probably made it more likely that the Twins would give him time at catcher in his return to the team.

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

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