Monday, March 10, 2008

New Man in Center

It seems to be something of a foregone conclusion in the blogosphere that Carlos Gomez is going to be the Twins' starting CF when the team opens the season in three weeks. Some point to his superior tools, which give him a higher upside than his competition, Denard Span and Jason Pridie. Some look at Gardy's apparent willingness to use a non-prototypical leadoff hitter. Some feel that the Twins need to show the fans that they got at least one starter out of the Santana trade. And some are giving Gomez a lot of credit for being "entertaining."

Oh, isn't it a gas how hard he swings early in the count no matter what the situation? Isn't it exciting not knowing where the ball is going to land when he launches it from centerfield? Will his speed be enough to make up for it when he misreads a line drive? How entertaining!


You could call it undisciplined. You could say it doesn't help the team win games. You could say he's not ready to play in the big leagues yet. Of the three CF candidates, I find his potential the most exciting, but his present performance the least acceptable.

We're 2/5 through spring training, and Gomez is off to a 4 for 24 start. That's not so troubling - it takes lots of guys up to 50 ABs to get it going. What is troubling is how big his swing is, regardless of what's going on around him. On Sunday, after NY's Igawa had walked the bases loaded by throwing 8 of 9 pitches out the zone, Gomez hacked at the first pitch, then grounded out weakly on the second. Delmon Young was on deck, the pitcher was on the ropes, but Gomez helped him out of it with his, er, exuberance. Just one example of the liability he is at the plate right now.

I could overlook that to some extent if he were making all the plays in the outfield, but he's shown that his powerful arm can be just as undisciplined, missing cutoff men and allowing base runners to take extra bases. And he didn't help Slowey out last week by taking his first step in on a line drive that turned out to be just over his head. I used to play outfield, and "your first step is always back" was drilled into us constantly. It's something a big league outfielder does without even thinking.

Span, meanwhile, has made all the plays in center field. He doesn't look as flashy out there, but he's been getting it done. At the plate, Span's AVG/OBP/SLG line of .267/.450/.333 far exceeds Gomez' .167/.185/.292. And that's not even counting Span's best game, a 2 for 3 with a double performance against Tampa last Tuesday that was rained out 1/2 inning before it became official. Had the rains held off another 15 minutes, Span's line would be .333/.478/.444. By the way, if Gomez' best day (2 for 5 with a triple) had been lost as Span's was, his line would be .105/.141/.158. Let me lay this out side-by-side:

Including best game:
Span - .333/.478/.444 (.922 OPS)
Gomez - .167/.185/.292 (.477 OPS)

Not including best game:
Span - .267/.450/.333 (.783 OPS)
Gomez - .105/.141/.158 (.299 OPS)

If not for a natural, non-baseball event, it would be pretty clear to everyone who looks at the stats the Span is playing about twice as well as Gomez.

What about speed? Each has stolen 3 bases. I suppose it's more impressive that Gomez has 3 steals out of 4 times he's reached first or second base. But I'd rather have a guy who only steals every 3rd time he gets on, if it means he gets on 3 times as often.

Plate discipline? Gomez has 2 strikeouts and 1 walk. Span has no strikeouts and 4 walks. And it's not by accident. Span is making an effort to go deep into counts, make the pitcher work, show his teammates what the guy has. I'll bet he's seen almost 3 times as many pitches as Gomez has this spring.

I hate to be old-fashioned, but there appears to be a prototypical leadoff hitter in camp, and the Twins would be wise to reward his play. This spot is going to be setting the table for Mauer/Cuddyer/Morneau/Young/Kubel. It makes no sense to send somebody up there who is going to get on base less than 30% of the time.

The Twins always preach to their players how this team plays the game the right way. From what they've shown so far, Span knows how to play the game the right way, and Gomez doesn't. As with Garza last year, the best thing for Gomez and the Twins is for him to start the year in Rochester. There, he can hopefully learn to put his considerable gifts to good use, and Span will find himself in a battle for the job again down the road. But for right now, this is a battle that Span should win.

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