July 22, 2008

Flipping The Leadoff Switch

Once it became clear at the end of spring training that Carlos Gomez would be the Twins' everyday center fielder and leadoff man, here was my take:

I'm as excited as anyone about Gomez's future, ranking him as the Twins' top prospect, but it's likely a mistake to put him in a position to receive the most plate appearances of anyone on the team while batting directly in front of the lineup's most dangerous hitters. There'll no doubt be flashes of brilliance while Gomez shows off his amazing speed on the bases and in center field, but leading off should primarily be about getting on base and at 22 years old he doesn't figure to do that especially well.

That was March 27, so it only took Ron Gardenhire four months, 99 games, and 418 poorly divvied up plate appearances to come to that same conclusion. Of course, correctly predicting that Gomez would be woefully ill-suited to hit atop the lineup--and spending four months campaigning for a switch--hardly qualifies as genius on my part. In fact, it should have been obvious to anyone focusing on his on-field performance and minor-league track record rather than getting caught up in his speed and potential.

Baseball Prospectus projected Gomez to hit .249/.301/.361 this season. Baseball Think Factory had him at .241/.299/.346. The Hardball Times pegged him at .247/.293/.337. In other words, three of the top performance-based projection systems around combined to predict that he'd produce an average hitting line of .246/.298/.348. When Gardenhire finally pulled the plug on Gomez leading off prior to last night's game, he was hitting a near-perfect match for the projections at .247/.281/.345.

Gomez's track record suggested that he'd hit around .250 with horrible plate discipline and little power, and that's exactly what he's done thus far. If the Twins are aware of such projections they certainly didn't pay any attention to them, choosing to hand their raw, 22-year-old center field a job that set him up for likely failure. It took a 5-for-57 (.088) slump to finally convince Gardenhire that it was time to reverse a decision that never should have been made in the first place.

For now Denard Span replaces Gomez atop the lineup while trying to prove that his breakout is more legit improvement than sample-size fluke. He carried a 283/.348/.348 career line in the minors into this season and batted just .267/.323/.355 at Triple-A last year, which is a performance that would make him as ill-suited for the leadoff spot as Gomez. However, unlike Gomez he's shattered all projections by hitting .340/.434/.481 in 40 games at Triple-A and .341/.437/.466 in 30 games with the Twins.

DENARD SPAN         PA      AVG      OBP      SLG      BB%      SO%     IsoP
Pre-2008 2183 .283 .348 .348 8.4 14.7 .065
2008 289 .340 .435 .475 14.2 18.0 .135

Prior to this season Span looked like a No. 9 hitter at best, but whether because of laser-eye surgery or good, old-fashioned development by way of maturation he's looked like a prototypical leadoff man for the past four months. Lots of weird things can happen in 289 plate appearances and the 60-point jump in batting average obviously won't last very long, but Span has upped his walk rate by 70 percent while producing 108 percent more power. He's been a completely different player.

If Span maintained his performance so far this season he'd be one of the best players in baseball, but even if his batting average dips back to .280 or so while his current rate walk rate and Isolated Power both decline by 15 percent, he'd end up hitting around .280/.360/.395. Toss in some good speed and that version of Span would be an ideal leadoff man. With that said, following six mediocre years with four good months leaves plenty of reason to be skeptical and Span may yet turn back into a pumpkin.

Beyond that, even if the new and improved Span is here to stay he seemingly won't have anywhere to play once Michael Cuddyer returns from the disabled list. Between signing a long-term extension this winter and hitting just .252/.324/.376 between hand injuries Cuddyer isn't going anywhere whether the Twins want him to or not. Delmon Young was acquired at a huge cost this offseason and has turned things around recently after a brutal start. And Jason Kubel has been the team's third-best hitter.

That leaves Span as a fourth outfielder unless the Twins are willing to take Gomez's demotion a step further by platooning him in center field or several steps further by sending him down to Triple-A. Given how long it took just to bump him from the leadoff spot my guess is that sending Gomez to Rochester would require a 5-for-500 slump, give or take a couple of bunt hits, but a Gomez-Span platoon would seemingly be a good fit considering their complimentary handedness.

Whatever the case, after finally making the correct decision regarding Gomez's spot in the lineup the Twins could face an even tougher call once Cuddyer comes off the shelf at some point next month. Assuming that Cuddyer, Young, and Kubel are more or less locked into the lineup, can the Twins really bench Span if he continues to hit anywhere close to this well with Gomez looking totally overmatched at the plate while making an out 70 percent of the time?

Gomez has swung at more pitches outside of the strike zone than anyone in the AL save for freak of nature Vladimir Guerrero, and among the league's 82 hitters who qualify for the batting title he ranks 71st in batting average, 81st in on-base percentage, 78th in slugging percentage, 79th in pitches per plate appearance, 74th in Isolated Power, 80th in walk rate, and last in strikeout-to-walk ratio. He's the worst-hitting regular in the league overall and is batting .207/.244/.271 in 43 games since June 1.

Prior to the season my stated preference was for Gomez to begin the year at Rochester while a place-holder manned center field, with the idea being that he could use additional minor-league seasoning after being rushed to the majors and using up a year of his team-controlled, pre-free agency service time made little sense given that he was likely to struggle. At the time my choice for that place-holder was a low-cost veteran free agent, but Span's emergence has made him the obvious choice.

If Cuddyer gets healthy and the clock doesn't strike midnight on Span, it should become obvious (or perhaps more obvious) that Gomez's performance doesn't warrant a starting job. If that time comes, will the Twins stick with him at Span's expense? Will they move Gomez into a part-time role, platooning with Span? Will they make Span the full-time center fielder and send Gomez down to Triple-A? Moving Gomez from the leadoff spot is a start, but once Cuddyer returns something else has to give.

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

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