April 6, 2008

The Cuddyer Dominos

Don't want to discuss it, I think it's time for a change
You may get disgusted, some think that I'm strange
In that case I'll go underground, get some heavy rest
Never have to worry, about what is worst and what is best

- Van Morrison, "Domino"

Michael Cuddyer's dislocated right index finger has had a domino effect on both the roster and batting order, as the Twins replaced him by calling up Denard Span from Triple-A and shifting Joe Mauer into his lineup spot. Span is likely to carve out a career as a reserve outfielder because of his speed and glove, but the fact that he's the first call-up when a corner outfielder gets hurt in early April shows why the decisions to give away prospects Alex Romero and Garrett Guzman for nothing were mistakes.

Span made his MLB debut Sunday, starting in right field against the Royals, which is only marginally less ridiculous than the Twins giving Jason Tyner regular starts at designated hitter during the past two seasons (prior to debuting he said: "I haven't played right field since 11th grade"). Span came into this season as a career .283/.348/.348 hitter in nearly 2,200 minor-league plate appearances, so he has little business starting games in the big leagues and zero business starting them in right field.

There are likely two major factors behind Span getting the call to replace Cuddyer. One is that he was already on the 40-man roster and has minor-league options remaining, so unlike Randy Ruiz, Garrett Jones, or Jon Knott can be shuttled back and forth from Minnesota to Rochester whenever needed. Beyond that, Span was among the final cuts in spring training and because of that the Twins surely felt like rewarding him rather than turning to Jason Pridie or Brian Buscher.

As the best hitters at Triple-A, Buscher or Ruiz would have been my choice to replace Cuddyer. Neither is capable of literally replacing him defensively, but either could have spent time at designated hitter while Jason Kubel and Craig Monroe manned right field. The last thing a team that finished 12th in the AL offensively last season and is averaging 2.7 runs per game this year needs is a slap-hitting rookie with a .348 slugging percentage in the minors playing right field. Here's how their 2007 stats compare:

                    LEVEL        G      AVG       OBP      SLG      OPS
Brian Buscher AAA/AA 103 .309 .385 .493 .878
Randy Ruiz AAA/AA 130 .293 .359 .511 .870
Denard Span AAA 139 .267 .323 .355 .678

Both Buscher and Ruiz beat Span by about 200 points of OPS last year, yet they're stuck at Rochester while Span starts games in the majors at the same position where other AL teams trot out guys like Vladimir Guerrero, Magglio Ordonez, Nick Markakis, Alex Rios, Jermaine Dye, and Bobby Abreu. Last season AL right fielders as a whole batted .280/.353/.450 and their combined .803 OPS ranked behind only first basemen (.827) as the second highest of any position. It's a spot for guys who can hit.

Meanwhile, Cuddyer heading to the 15-day disabled list also means that Ron Gardenhire's smart decision to bat Mauer second in the lineup apparently lasted less than one week. Mauer was a perfect fit in the No. 2 spot, as his patience at the plate gave Carlos Gomez ample opportunity to run and his on-base skills gave the middle of the lineup plenty of RBI chances. He hit .375/.389/.500 in second spot, driving in four runs and scoring two more in just four games there.

The other nice thing about Mauer batting second was that it put the Twins' top hitters in position to accumulate the most plate appearances. That seems like an obvious decision to make, but it's not something that the Twins have typically done in the past. Gardenhire has generally liked a light-hitting middle infielder to bat between the leadoff man and No. 3 hitter, going with Nick Punto, Jason Bartlett, Luis Castillo, Luis Rodriguez, Cristian Guzman, Luis Rivas, and now Matt Tolbert in the role.

Looking back on Gardenhire's lineup choices, it's amazing how often a light-hitting middle infielder has batted second for the Twins over the years and it's amazing how infrequently that light-hitting middle infielder has actually been among the team's best bats. Tolbert is off to a nice start in the majors, but he's no exception, batting just .293/.353/.427 in 121 games at Triple-A last season and .280/.345/.405 in over 1,500 career plate appearances in the minors.

Tolbert batted second in both games over the weekend and it's possible that Gardenhire will continue to give him starts over Brendan Harris or Adam Everett, but it's more likely that Harris will assume the No. 2 spot quite a bit while Cuddyer is sidelined. Harris is better than most of the middle infielders who've manned that spot in the lineup over the years, but he's still not among the team's best hitters and is much better suited to hit in the bottom third of the batting order.

UPDATE: It turns out that I gave Gardenhire too much credit. He has Span batting second (and playing right field) today against the White Sox. Lovely.

The absence of Cuddyer hitting third also means that Mauer and Justin Morneau will see an awful lot of left-handed relievers in key late-game spots if Gardenhire continues to bat them back-to-back in the lineup. Like nearly all left-handed hitters both Mauer and Morneau are significantly worse against southpaws, so not having a solid right-handed bat in between them encourages opposing managers to bring in a lefty specialist to face them in the late innings and puts the Twins at a big disadvantage.

Sliding Delmon Young between Mauer and Morneau seems like an obvious move, but his OPS against lefties was 112 points lower than Cuddyer's last year and so far this season he doesn't look capable of forcing opposing managers to do much of anything. While he's likely to become a good player, Young's long-term potential has been vastly overstated by optimistic Twins fans, old prospect rankings that now take a backseat to his unspectacular recent production, and RBI-obsessed Rookie of the Year voters.

Judging from his performance in the minors and majors over the past couple seasons the two primary weaknesses that figured to hold Young back from reaching his supposed sky-high ceiling were a lack of plate discipline and tendency to hit the ball on the ground. Both traits have been in full effect so far this year, as he's drawn zero walks in 27 trips to the plate while seeing just 2.96 pitches per plate appearance and has hit 65 percent of his balls in play on the ground.

To put those numbers in some context, last season no AL hitter saw fewer than 3.15 pitches per plate appearance or hit more than 56.5 percent of their balls in play on the ground. Young has swung at just about everything thus far and he's hit a tremendous number of weak grounders to second base without pulling a single ball in the air, which is why his on-base percentage matches his batting average and he has just one extra-base hit in seven games. If the big-time power is coming, it won't be like this:

Cuddyer is certainly far from a superstar, but his importance right now is magnified by the handedness of Mauer and Morneau, the organization's lack of quality outfield depth, Young's uninspiring start to the season, the offense's overall lack of punch, and Gardenhire's preferred lineup construction. The good news is that Cuddyer sounds likely to be back from the DL after the minimum 15 days and his absence may finally give Kubel a chance to play nearly every day. The bad news is just about everything else.

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

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