December 17, 2007

Twins Sign Lamb

For years the Twins got very good production at third base both offensively and defensively from Corey Koskie, but in the three seasons since Koskie left for Toronto as a free agent the position has been a major weakness. A total of 10 players have started for the Twins at third base since Koskie's departure and nearly all of them struggled offensively, defensively, or both. Here's a list of the motley crew that has replaced Koskie, along with how many starts each player made at third base from 2005-2007:

Nick Punto 189
Michael Cuddyer 92
Luis Rodriguez 64
Tony Batista 50
Terry Tiffee 26
Brian Buscher 24
Juan Castro 13
Jeff Cirillo 12
Glenn Williams 9
Tommy Watkins 8

That ugly list of glorified utility men (Nick Punto, Juan Castro, Luis Rodriguez), washed-up veterans (Tony Batista, Jeff Cirillo), career-long minor leaguers (Tommy Watkins, Glenn Williams, Terry Tiffee), and guys who're now manning less-demanding positions (Michael Cuddyer) is a very long fall from Koskie providing outstanding defense while hitting .280/.373/.463. Here's a look at the pathetic year-to-year production that the Twins have gotten from third base post-Koskie:

YEAR      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS     HR     RBI
2005 .256 .318 .396 .712 13 59
2006 .266 .329 .374 .703 8 64
2007 .236 .308 .323 .631 6 46

TOTAL .253 .318 .364 .682 27 169

Over the past three years Twins third basemen have combined to hit .253/.318/.364 while the average MLB third baseman batted .275/.345/.445, putting them 13 percent below par. During that three-year span Twins third basemen totaled 27 homers and 165 RBIs while the other 29 teams averaged 64 homers and 265 RBIs from the position. While other teams were getting an .800 OPS, 20 homers, and 90 RBIs from third base each year, the Twins got a .680 OPS, nine homers, and 55 RBIs.

Tired of getting little production from a strong offensive position, the Twins signed Mike Lamb away from the Astros for two years and $6.6 million, with a team option for 2010. A part-time player for most of his career, the 32-year-old Lamb was no doubt drawn to the Twins because he'll almost surely enter the season as the team's starting third baseman. "The reality is I've been a bench player for five or six years now," Lamb said. "I realize the Twins are taking a chance on me and I definitely appreciate it."

MIKE LAMB 2004-2007

2004 312 .288 .356 .511 .867 .223 .068
2005 349 .236 .284 .419 .703 .183 .048
2006 421 .307 .361 .475 .836 .168 .054
2007 353 .289 .366 .453 .819 .164 .077

The Twins clearly targeted Lamb because of his bat. He's hit .281/.339/.427 in 2,676 career trips to the plate, including a .281/.342/.464 hitting line during four seasons in Houston that looks nearly identical to the aforementioned MLB average at third base (.275/.345/.445) over the past three seasons. Lamb's numbers away from Houston's hitter-friendly home ballpark have been somewhat underwhelming, but he's capable of being an average offensive third baseman. That's the good news.

The bad news is that Lamb's defense is another story. While the Twins are looking at Lamb as their everyday third baseman, several other teams were reportedly interested in signing him as either a first baseman or designated hitter. And with good reason, because Lamb's numbers at third base have been nearly as ugly as Adam Everett's numbers at shortstop are impressive. While Everett is among the MLB leaders in Zone Rating and Revised Zone Rating every year, the opposite is true for Lamb.

Lamb's .693 Zone Rating ranked worse than every regular third baseman in baseball this season and his .730 career mark would have ranked better than only Ryan Braun (.697), Miguel Cabrera (.714), and Garrett Atkins (.722). Revised Zone Rating tells a similar story, with Lamb's .619 mark this year ranking ahead of only Braun (.564), Edwin Encarnacion (.600), Jose Bautista (.612), and Atkins (.613) among regular third basemen. He's simply not a good defender at the hot corner.

In Everett the Twins got a replacement-level offensive player whose phenomenal defense makes him a slightly above average all-around shortstop. In Lamb the Twins get an above average offensive player whose horrible defense makes him a slightly below average all-around third baseman. That may not sound especially impressive, but "slightly below average all-around third baseman" represents a big improvement over what the Twins have gotten from the position post-Koskie.

Prorating their combined numbers from the past four years to 600 plate appearances (about one full season's worth), Punto has created about 55 runs and Lamb has created about 85 runs. In other words, if they each perform like they did from 2004-2007 then Lamb figures to be worth 30 runs more than Punto offensively over the course of a full season. If instead they each perform like they did in 2007 alone, then the gap is more like 45 runs in Lamb's favor.

There's no doubt that Punto is a superior defender at third base, but his sterling defensive reputation doesn't even come close to matching his actual numbers, which are merely decent. However, even if Lamb is 10 runs below average defensively (which would be a lot) and Punto is 10 runs above average defensively (which would also be a lot), that still leaves a gap of between 10-25 runs in Lamb's favor. And that's probably a stretch. My guess is that Lamb's true all-around edge is about 20-25 runs.

Terry Ryan was good at acquiring talent and providing the Twins with star-caliber players, but often struggled to build a strong roster around those stars when the organization's homegrown talent wasn't ready to fill holes. As Ryan's replacement Bill Smith is faced with the task of improving a sub par lineup without the benefit of many MLB-ready hitting prospects, but he's smartly chosen to go after mid-level free agents rather than follow in Ryan's footsteps with washed-up veterans off the scrap heap.

The Twins will never be big players in free agency and overpaid for a mediocre hitter in Craig Monroe, but it's nice to see the team identify and pursue affordable players who actually have a chance to contribute positively. By signing guys like Monroe, Everett, and Lamb the Twins are shopping on a budget, but that still beats venturing into the clearance section to find the latest broken-down versions of Castro, Batista, Sidney Ponson, Ramon Ortiz, and Ruben Sierra.

Guys like Everett and Lamb push a team forward rather than hold a team back and during his final few seasons at the helm Ryan didn't fill the Twins' roster with nearly enough forward-pushing players while consistently dragging them down with dead weight. Smith is giving Ron Gardenhire capable options to build his lineup with, although it obviously remains to be seen if Gardenhire makes good use of the tools that he's given.

The infield now appears to be set, with Justin Morneau at first base, Brendan Harris at second base, Everett at shortstop, and Lamb at third base. That would seemingly keep Punto on the bench where he belongs, but platooning Lamb and Harris at third base or simply benching Lamb or Harris altogether can't be ruled out when it comes to ways for Gardenhire to get Punto playing time. Of course, that's an entirely different issue. For now, Smith has given Gardenhire some quality pieces to work with.

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

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