The left side of the Twins' infield, that is. Now that the World Series is over, the Hot Stove season is upon us. ESPN.com is running a series briefly assessing the needs of each MLB team for 2009. Jonah Keri had some decent insights about the Twins, such as this one:
"If not for an ill-advised bout of loyalty toward washed-up sunk cost Livan Hernandez, the Twins might've beaten out the White Sox for the AL Central crown and made some noise in the playoffs with their deep pitching and the deadly duo of Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau."
Well put. And while I think he may be overstating the potential value of Kevin Mulvey and Anthony Swarzak for 2009, he is largely on the mark. He concludes his piece with this:
"If the Twins do little more than stand pat this offseason they should still be dangerous, especially if Cuddyer and Neshek bounce back from injuries and Young takes a step forward. Solid bullpen contributions from the next wave of pitching prospects combined with one well-placed trade for a shortstop or third baseman would make the Twins the favorites to win the division in 2009."
Correct. As I outlined last month, the Twins are in better shape than any of their rivals for 2009. If they merely show the fortitude to ask Carlos Gomez to work on his game in AAA, they can have a solid lineup even with their existing players, because the Brian Buscher/Brendan Harris platoon would be batting 8th, and Nick Punto or Matt Tolbert would be batting 9th. Do not go trading right-handed power bats (Michael Cuddyer) in order to acquire other right-handed power bats! And absolutely do not go trading any starting pitchers unless the return is unimpeachably awesome!
And when I say unimpeachably awesome, I mean drastically better than what we have now. Overall, Twins 3rd-basemen were most unimpressive in 2008, but Mike Lamb did a lot to drag the numbers down. Buscher's OPS ended up at .730, obviously subpar for a 3B, but bear some things in mind:
1. His R/L splits were severe - .455 OPS vs. LHP, .799 vs. RHP, including all 13 XBH.
2. He's been a slow starter at each level of the minors, improving his OPS each year once he had 250-300 ABs (he currently has 300 career MLB ABs).
Based on his past performances, I would say that Buscher is likely to do no worse than an .800 OPS vs. RHP (the only sort he should be facing) in 2009, and there's a very good chance that he could do much better.
Harris, for his part, amassed a .721 OPS in 2008, and had virtually identical numbers against RHP and LHP. Earlier in his career, though, he hit lefties much better (almost .900 OPS in 2007). For his career, he's hit .295/.360/.440 vs. LHP, an .800 OPS.
So, the Buscher/Harris platoon can be expected to OPS at least .800, which, were they one player, would put them solidly in the middle of the MLB pack among 3Bs. The downside is that neither one of them is a particularly strong fielder or baserunner.
Conversely, Nick Punto's OPS can be expected to land somewhere in the mid .600s (it was .664 over the past 3 seasons), but he is an above-average defender and baserunner. (Punto's value as a versatile defender, switch-hitter, and baserunner make him worth keeping in a bench role for the next couple of seasons. I would advocate the Twins signing him to a 2-year deal at $2.5-$3 million/year, but with incentives that would up his salary if he ended up starting. For example, add $1 million if he goes over 300 PAs, and another million if he goes over 500 PAs.)
When we think about potentially trading for people who could upgrade these positions, it would be a mistake to consider just the value of the incoming player compared to that of the outgoing player. Rather, we should look at how much of an improvement the new player is over the baseline - is what we're adding a net gain compared to what we're giving up?
Consider one of the current trade rumors: Michael Cuddyer and/or Kevin Slowey/Nick Blackburn for Garrett Atkins. Over the past 3 seasons, Atkins' OPS away from Coors Field is .790, and his defense is only a little better than that of Buscher/Harris. Cuddyer's career OPS is .785. While replacing Cuddyer in the outfield with Gomez would greatly improve the Twins defensively, it would be a net loss to the lineup, since Gomez is only a .650 OPS hitter right now. Replacing Blackburn or (gulp!) Slowey with Philip Humber would also likely diminish the rotation a bit, all so Atkins could play essentially just as well as what we've already got. No thanks.
Here are the career OPS numbers for the other available 3Bs (either free agents or available for trades), and a brief rating (+, - or =) on how their defense compares to Buscher/Harris:
Casey Blake: .781, =
Russell Branyan: .813, =
Joe Crede: .753, +
Mike Lamb: let's not go there
Doug Mientkiewicz: ditto
Ramon Vazquez: .686, =
Adrian Beltre: .786, +
Andy LaRoche: .560, +
Kevin Kouzmanoff: .753, =
As you can see, none of those guys has historically hit very much better than Buscher and Harris can expect to. A lot of them would hit more homers, but would be on base much less often overall. The few who play better defense are a bit of a step down at the plate. Blake, Beltre and Atkins mash lefties, but are average or worse against righties, the sort of pitchers a regular 3B will be facing most of the time. Crede's splits are opposite.
None of these guys bring enough to merit the sacrifice of any of the Twins' projected starters. Were I Bill Smith, I would only offer trade pieces I didn't think I could use, like Boof Bonser, Humber, Bobby Korecky, etc. A couple of teams might be deep enough into rebuilding that they'd be willing to take on some of the 2008 Rochester pitchers. The best trade would be with Pittsburgh for LaRoche. The Pirates need all kinds of pitching help - guys like Matt Guerrier and Humber should look pretty good to them. LaRoche was a top-50 prospect for 3 straight years before injuring his thumb in spring training. He went on to have a horrendous 2008 in the Majors, dropping his stock a great deal. He still has plenty of upside, and has shown a terrific eye at the plate at all levels. If he were to bounce back to the numbers he put up in the minors (career line: .295/.382/.517), the Twins would have a right-handed bat to stick between Mauer and Morneau for the next 5 seasons.
As for the free agents, Crede is the best choice. He's been hampered by injuries the last 2 seasons, and is therefore likely to take a 1-2 year deal for reasonable money in order to try and raise his value for his next contract while he's still in his low 30s. If he could repeat his 2006 numbers (.283/.323/.506, 30 HR), the Twins would have the bat they're looking for, while also improving themselves defensively. If he performs closer to his career average, they're still getting good pop from their #8 hitter. But I'd definitely keep Buscher around in case Crede gets hurt again.
There are a lot more options at shortstop. I'll repeat the exercise from above (in comparison to Punto's defense), and also rate how the available players compare to Punto's baserunning.
Orlando Cabrera: .721, -, -
Juan Castro: Yeah, right!
Alex Cintron: .713, -, -
Alex Cora: .660, =, -
Craig Counsell: .687, =, -
David Eckstein: .712, =, -
Adam Everett: Been there, done that
Rafael Furcal: .764, -, +
Chris Gomez: .685, =, -
Cesar Izturis: .629, =, =
Edgar Renteria: .753, -, -
Omar Vizquel: .693, +, =
Michael Young: .788, -, -
JJ Hardy: .775, -, -
Young and Hardy would certainly command at least Blackburn in a trade. Young's numbers have declined for 3 straight seasons - with his best years behind him, he wouldn't be worth it. Hardy, however, is just 26, and has averaged 30 doubles and 25 HR the past 2 seasons. Though he doesn't have Punto's range and isn't much of a threat on the bases, his hitting ability more than makes up for it. Having that much more production from shortstop for at least 2 seasons would be worth the potential dropoff in performance from Blackburn to Humber or Mulvey.
As for the free agents, Furcal would be the best all-around choice. Coming off of back surgery that cost him most of last season, he may not be in position to command the sort of years and dollars he otherwise would have and, like Crede, may take a shorter deal in order to up his value while he's still relatively young. Even so, he would probably get 8 figures, but the Twins have enough payroll space available in 2009 and 2010 to sign one splashy free agent.
The other intriguing option would be Vizquel. His bat has declined drastically over the last couple of seasons, but he's still a superlative fielder and savvy small-baller. He might be a good fielding influence on Alexi Casilla, and Gardy would love putting plays on while he's batting out of the #9 spot.
At this point, the only player I can see worth trading a projected starter for would be JJ Hardy. The Brewers are going to need some pitching, so it's a deal that could easily be worked out. But my ideal scenario would be for the Twins to sign Rafael Furcal to a reasonably short-term deal for $12-ish million/year while trading some of their spare pitching parts for Andy LaRoche. Those guys, at the top of their games, could eventually provide the Twins with this lineup:
Very good OBP 1-7, a nice mix of R/L, good speed as the lineup turns over. That lineup, combined with an intact pitching staff, would certainly compete for the top spot in the division. But even without big improvements on the left side of the infield, that pitching staff would probably take the Twins pretty far.
Once again, I urge Mr. Smith: don't repeat your mistakes from last year, weakening the team with trades and signings when what you already had in the system was actually better. Would it be nice to have more power from 3B and SS? Absolutely. Will it make this team a champion? Not if we rob Peter to pay Paul.