March 16, 2011

Twins Notes: Utilities, options, t-shirts, blends, OBPs, and sausages

• My assumption all offseason was that Matt Tolbert would get the utility infielder job backing up middle infield starters Alexi Casilla and Tsuyoshi Nishioka, as the only other player on the 40-man roster with significant shortstop experience is Trevor Plouffe. That may still prove to be the case, but Ron Gardenhire revealed that the backup infielder doesn't necessarily need to be a shortstop because he can shift Nishioka from second base to shortstop if needed.

That's something I wrote about after Gardenhire announced that Casilla would be the starting shortstop and it certainly makes a lot of sense, but it's surprising given his longtime love affair with Nick Punto in the utility man role. After all, Gardenhire is the same guy who carried three catchers on the roster for long stretches because he was afraid of losing the designated hitter for a few innings in a scenario that might occur once every 100 games.

So, why the sudden change of heart regarding the need to have a legitimate shortstop on the bench at all times? Nishioka's shortstop experience in Japan obviously plays a part, but this is also a very strong indication that Gardenhire doesn't view Tolbert as being in the same league as Punto defensively. And rightfully so. However, the biggest factor is no doubt prospect Luke Hughes hitting .361 with four homers, three doubles, and 13 RBIs in 13 spring training games.

Basing decisions of how someone fares in some small sample of at-bats during spring training is mostly silly, but Hughes' minor-league track record suggests he can be a useful bench player or platoon starter and the Twins could certainly use another capable right-handed bat. I'm not convinced Gardenhire would actually bench any of the lineup's lefty-hitting regulars for Hughes versus southpaws, but either way he brings more potential "utility" to the role than Tolbert.

Hughes actually got a little action at shortstop in Monday's game, which seemed to catch even Hughes off guard. He hasn't played there regularly since 2003, when he was an 18-year-old in rookie-ball, and hasn't played an inning there since 2006 at Single-A. Hughes doesn't even get strong reviews for his glove at second base and only an emergency would force him into action at shortstop in a regular season game, but Gardenhire is obviously giving him a thorough look.

• On a related note, LaVelle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that Tolbert has one minor-league optioning remaining, which means the Twins can send him to the minors all year. Not having to risk losing a replacement-level player like Tolbert on waivers normally isn't a big factor, but if Casilla or Nishioka were to land on the disabled list the Twins wouldn't be put in a tough spot with Plouffe as the only shortstop reinforcement on the 40-man roster.

Among players potentially on the roster bubble Glen Perkins is the only one out of options, so the Twins would have to pass him through waivers unclaimed before sending him to Triple-A. Perkins has fallen out of favor in a big way and pitched horribly in both the minors and majors last year, but as a relatively young lefty with some track record of success there's a good shot some team would claim him. It sounds like he'll have a spot in the Opening Day bullpen.

My plea for someone to stick Gardenhire's "just fire it through the internet" quote on a t-shirt has already been answered, which I suppose shouldn't be surprising. After all, as Gardenhire will tell you the internet moves very fast. It's not a bad looking shirt, either:

As one of several portly Twins bloggers, I strongly suggest they add some sizes above XXL.

Kelsie Smith of the St. Paul Pioneer Press did a terrific job incorporating advanced defensive metrics into an article about Delmon Young, noting that the 30 pounds he lost last offseason didn't actually lead to major improvement in his fielding numbers and then using her access to get comments from Gardenhire and outfield coach Jerry White. For all the silliness trying to pit new-school versus old-school, I'm hoping to see more mainstream writers blend the two.

My favorite excerpt is this Gardenhire quote: "We thought he was running faster, but that just meant he was chasing the balls he missed faster." It'd be even funnier if it weren't so true. On the other hand White said Young "is actually a good outfielder" and "knows how to play guys." I find it almost impossible to believe White thinks Young "is actually a good outfielder," but the guy in charge of coaching outfield defense doesn't have much to gain by saying otherwise.

• While on recently researching Indians catcher Carlos Santana for an upcoming Hardball Talk article I stumbled across some interesting numbers. Here are the best career on-base percentages among all players with two-thirds of their games as a catcher and at least 2,500 plate appearances during the past 50 years:

Joe Mauer         .407
Mike Piazza       .377
Jorge Posada      .376
Victor Martinez   .369
Jason Kendall     .366

Not only is Joe Mauer the only catcher in the past 50 years with an on-base percentage above .380, at .407 he's 30 points ahead of the next-closest guy, who just happens to be arguably the best-hitting catcher in baseball history. Something to think about the next time someone says Mauer is overrated because he doesn't hit enough homers.

• For those interested in a glimpse at how the sausage gets made, a spring training attendee who goes by "TCAnelle" on Twitter snapped a photo of Star Tribune writer Patrick Reusse and pitching coach Rick Anderson chatting away from the fray at a picnic table Monday. Reusse's column the next day? All about the bullpen, with lots of quotes from Anderson.

• Who has the best facial hair in Twins history? An important question that the boys over at The Platoon Advantage are attempting to answer, NCAA tournament-style.

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