November 24, 2008

Twins Notes: LeCroy and the 40-Man

  • With his playing days over following a stint in the independent Atlantic League, Matthew LeCroy will begin his coaching career next season as manager of the Nationals' low Single-A affiliate. Throughout LeCroy's time with the Twins he was talked about as future manager material, so it's no surprise that he quickly landed a prominent coaching gig. It's somewhat surprising that his first coaching job isn't in the Twins organization, but instead he'll skipper the Hagerstown Suns of the South Atlantic League.

    One of my all-time favorite players because of his laid-back demeanor and unathletic body type, LeCroy finishes his big-league career as a .260/.326/.440 hitter in 1,539 plate appearances spread over eight seasons. Struggles against right-handed pitching kept his major-league production from matching his minor-league promise, but LeCroy always mashed left-handers and has the sixth-best OPS+ in Twins history among players who logged at least 100 games at catcher.

    If only his arm behind the plate matched his bat at the plate LeCroy could have had a 15-year career in the majors. Instead he'll have to settle for the ninth-most plate appearances in baseball history among players with zero career stolen bases, the knowledge that he once made his 70-year-old, inner-circle Hall of Fame manager cry in public, and the memories of posing for this photo with Twins blogger Will Young (read the fine print on the white shirt). Good guy, good player, and probably good manager.

  • From a catcher who can hit but not throw to a catcher who can throw but not hit, last week the Twins added Drew Butera to their 40-man roster to protect from being selected in next month's Rule 5 draft. Brian Duensing, Anthony Swarzak, Wilson Ramos, Luke Hughes, Trevor Plouffe, Deibinson Romero, and Steve Tolleson were added to the 40-man roster at the same time, but Butera sticks out because unlike everyone else he won't be on my upcoming annual list of the Twins' top 40 prospects.

    In fact, he won't even be close. Acquired along with Dustin Martin when the Twins traded Luis Castillo to the Mets last season, Butera is a .215/.303/.324 hitter in 1,297 plate appearances in the minors and hit .219/.308/.354 in 96 games at Double-A as a 24-year-old this season. He's considered an excellent defender behind the plate and has a good pedigree as the son of former MLB backstop Sal Butera, but if everything breaks right for Butera he has a chance to be a no-hit, good-glove backup catcher.

    When you can't crack a .650 OPS in the minors and your upside is getting 100 plate appearances per year as Joe Mauer's caddy, you're not worth a spot on the 40-man roster. That was true of Corky Miller in 2005 and Chris Heintz in 2007, and it's true of Butera now. Good-glove, no-hit catchers simply aren't that tough to find, so even if some other team felt like taking him in the Rule 5 draft and keeping him on the major-league roster all season it wouldn't impact the Twins' long-term planning one bit.

    Mauer is 26 years old and arguably the best all-around catcher in baseball and Mike Redmond is one of the game's top backups, yet the Twins now have three other catchers on the 40-man roster. It makes sense to protect Jose Morales, because he's spent the past two years hitting .310/.357/.405 at Triple-A and would be called up if something happened to Mauer or Redmond. And it makes sense to protect Ramos, because he's one of the organization's premier prospects.

    What doesn't make sense is protecting Butera, particularly when the 40-man roster already includes Mauer, Redmond, Morales, and Ramos. By keeping other teams from snatching the 24-year-old career .215/.303/.324 hitter who's yet to advance past Double-A the Twins have exposed far more legitimate prospects to the Rule 5 draft, such as David Winfree, Zach Ward, Erik Lis, Ryan Mullins, Jay Rainville, Kyle Waldrop, and Yohan Pino. Certainly not a crippling mistake, but a mistake nonetheless.

  • Along with handing 40-man roster spots to the aforementioned eight prospects last week, the Twins previously added Armando Gabino to the 40-man roster last month. He has a significantly better track record than Butera, but choosing to protect Gabino is similarly confusing given that he's yet to advance past Double-A despite being 25 years old. Posting a 2.59 ERA in 97.1 innings at New Britain no doubt caught the Twins' eye, but his low ERA overstates Gabino's potential.

    In terms of projecting someone's ability to get major-league hitters out ERA is pretty far down on the list of numbers to examine and Gabino is a fly-ball pitcher with a mediocre 75-to-39 strikeout-to-walk ratio and .262 opponent's batting average in those 97.1 innings. Gabino doesn't induce tons of ground balls or miss tons of bats and his control is spotty, which makes him look like a potential middle reliever at best and someone the Twins shouldn't be afraid to lose considering their various exposed players.

  • With all the 40-man roster juggling going on it's noteworthy that Randy Ruiz retained his spot, which suggests that the Twins may view him as a potential platoon partner for Jason Kubel or bench bat next season. Ruiz joined the Twins on a minor-league contract last offseason and since then my take has been that he's a potentially useful role player who deserves a chance in the big leagues after a decade of knocking around minor-league pitching.

    Ruiz finally got that chance in August once the Twins dumped Craig Monroe, but his first taste of the majors ultimately involved only 68 plate appearances spread over eight weeks. Ruiz held his own by hitting .274/.338/.355 and is capable of more, so it's nice to see that the Twins aren't moving on yet. Ruiz's only shot at the Opening Day roster involves the Twins trading an outfielder, but if that happens he could sub for Kubel at designated hitter against certain southpaws and do some pinch-hitting.

  • Asked recently if rumors about Delmon Young being on the trading block are true, general manager Bill Smith said: "He's a 22-year-old outfielder with a bright future and if we were going to trade him we'd have to get equal value." As they taught me in journalism school, that seems like a non-denial denial.

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

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