December 10, 2007

Twins Notes: Eckstein, Rule 5, and Jennie

  • While speaking to reporters at the winter meetings last week, Ron Gardenhire indicated that he'd like the Twins to pursue free agent David Eckstein, saying: "I've always had a lot of respect for him. He catches the ball. He knows how to play. He's a proven winner." There's plenty of room to poke fun at a quote like that and the comments section here was predictably filled with a lot of anti-Eckstein (and anti-Gardenhire) sentiments.

    There's little doubt that Eckstein is significantly overrated by a fawning mainstream media and Nick Punto-loving managers, but the perception that many fans seem to have of him being a horrible player is just as off base. Eckstein has seemingly become so overrated in some circles that he's underrated in other circles. In other words, he's a poor man's Derek Jeter. At the end of the day how Eckstein is "rated" matters little, which leaves his actual on-field performance to evaluate.

    Judging from the many comments and e-mails that I received on the subject, many people seem to view him as a Punto-like hitter. In reality that's far from the case, as Eckstein's .286/.351/.362 career hitting line is vastly superior to Punto's .245/.314/.321 career mark. Instead, the player who Eckstein truly resembles offensively is Luis Castillo. In fact, whether looking at this season or the past three seasons, Castillo and Eckstein have been about as similar as two hitters can be:

    2007            PA      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
    Eckstein 484 .309 .356 .382 .738
    Castillo 615 .301 .362 .359 .721

    2005-2007 PA AVG OBP SLG OPS
    Eckstein 1449 .297 .357 .375 .732
    Castillo 1791 .299 .369 .367 .736

    They're both middle infielders who were born in 1975 and have consistently hit around .300 with very limited power and good on-base skills. Eckstein is basically a right-handed hitting version of Castillo, except that he can play a passable shortstop while Castillo is limited to second base. Beyond that, Eckstein's .297/.357/.375 hitting line over the past three seasons also compares favorably to Jason Bartlett's .272/.341/.362 career mark.

    To be clear, I'm not suggesting that the Twins should sign Eckstein to a three- or four-year contract, because that would be an obvious mistake. At the same time, as a short-term fix for a team that's currently lacking in appealing middle-infield options he'd be fine if the price was right. His defensive numbers at shortstop were sub par this season, but he's shown the ability to capably man the position in the past and would likely be above average at second base (where he played in the minors).

    At worst he's a better fielder than Brendan Harris, a much better all-around player than Punto, and essentially represents the best-case scenario for Alexi Casilla offensively. Is Eckstein as good as guys like Gardenhire or Tim McCarver or Joe Morgan think? Definitely not, but if Eckstein could hit his usual .300/.350/.375 with decent defense up the middle he's a very solid player who could absolutely help the Twins in 2008.

  • Last Monday in this space I noted that "the Twins are in danger of losing several solid prospects" via the Rule 5 draft, which took place Thursday afternoon at the winter meetings in Nashville. Among the players exposed to the draft and eligible to be plucked from the organization by other teams were Brock Peterson, Yohan Pino, Garrett Guzman, and David Winfree, all of whom figured to make my annual list of the Twins' top 40 prospects when it comes out later this winter.

    The good news is that the Twins avoided losing Peterson, Pino, and Winfree. The bad news is that they had a total of six players plucked from the organization, including Guzman, who was selected by the Nationals. Between Austin Kearns, Lastings Milledge, Wily Mo Pena, Elijah Dukes, Nook Logan, and Ryan Langerhans the Nationals seemingly have way more than enough outfield depth, which increases the chances of Guzman not making the team out of spring training.

    If that happens then Guzman will be offered back to the Twins prior to Opening Day, in which case no harm is done. Of course, strong outfield depth or not the Nationals may simply decide to keep Guzman around as their 25th man, in which case the Twins have given away one of the few solid upper-minors hitting prospects in the entire organization for absolutely nothing just because they didn't see fit to give him a spot on a 40-man roster that had plenty of room.

    Guzman is certainly a long shot to become an impact player in the majors, but he's also very capable of becoming a solid big leaguer after hitting .312/.359/.453 in 125 games at Double-A in 2007. He's a .290 hitter in 516 minor-league games who's struck out in fewer than 11 percent of his 2,085 career plate appearances and has shown increased power since coming back from a broken neck that wiped away his 2005 season following a car accident.

    In other words, he's a solid young hitter who has a chance to carve out of an MLB career, which can't be said for many of the Twins' position-player prospects above Single-A. Toss in Alexander Smit and Alex Romero, and the Twins have given away three perfectly good prospects in the past year. There's a chance that all three fail to become anything worthwhile and losing Guzman may become a non-issue, but at some point these repeated mistakes made managing the 40-man roster will hurt the Twins.

  • Guzman was the best of the Twins prospects lost in the Rule 5 draft, but reliever Tim Lahey actually went No. 1 overall. Drafted as a catcher out of Princeton University, Lahey moved to the mound in 2005 and has posted a 3.94 ERA with a 145-to-70 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 178.1 career innings. Lahey had a 3.45 ERA and 56-to-33 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 78.1 innings at Double-A in 2007, which is far from a great performance in a pitcher-friendly environment.

    On the other hand, Lahey is 6-foot-5 and about 250 pounds, induces tons of ground balls, and has far less pitching experience than most 25-year-olds at Double-A, so there's more room for long-term development than his mediocre numbers suggest. With that said, the Twins can't be blamed much for exposing him to the draft and the fact that he was picked at all is a surprise. That he went No. 1 overall and was then traded for $150,000 is a shock.

    Lahey will try to crack the Cubs' bullpen, but like Guzman there's seemingly a strong chance that he'll be offered back to the Twins. Along with Lahey leading off the draft, another surprise was that the Mariners selected R.A. Dickey one week after he joined the Twins on a minor-league deal. Chris Gomez was selected shortly after signing a minor-league contract a few years ago, so it's not unheard of, but it's odd given that the Mariners could have convinced Dickey to sign with them instead.

    Losing a minor leaguer days after signing him obviously isn't a big blow, but Dickey is intriguing after going from "regular" pitcher to knuckleballer and posting a 3.73 ERA with a 119-to-60 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 169 innings at Triple-A. He was slated for the Rochester rotation and could have found himself in Minnesota at some point. Dickey, Lahey, and Guzman were lost in the draft's MLB phase, but the Twins also lost three guys in the minor-league portion (which is how they got Brian Buscher last year).

    Losing right-handers J.P. Martinez and Joshua Hill is no concern, but Martinez was a ninth-round pick in 2004 and Hill has been in the organization since signing out of Australia in 2001. Neither pitcher projects to ever be anything more than a middle reliever in the majors, if that. Rashad Eldridge is also a long shot to have any sort of MLB career, but as a center fielder who hit .291/.360/.429 in 105 games at Double-A in 2007 he was worthwhile depth in an organization that's thin in the outfield.

  • Last week the Twins inked Casey Daigle to a minor-league contract. Daigle was a first-round pick back in 1999, but has been a bust as a pro and posted a 6.59 ERA in 109.1 innings at Triple-A in 2007. He'll probably step into Dickey's spot in the Rochester rotation and there's admittedly little reason for me to make note of his signing, except for the fact that he's married to Jennie Finch. Finch is one of the most successful softball players of all time, starred on the 2004 Olympic team, and looks like this:

    Here's a picture of the happy couple, who amusingly named their son "Ace." Not to take anything away from Jim Mandelaro, but the crowd at Red Wings games just got a lot more attractive.

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

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