As the offseason plods along, Twins fans continue to fixate on the areas the team said it wanted to improve for 2009: SS, 3B and RP. With Nick Punto signed to a 2-year contract, the Twins have settled for the status quo at short. That leaves fans only 2 positions in which to hope for an upgrade. The options at 3B have been underwhelming from the get-go, and yet people are so anxious about improving the position over last season that they get excited about every name that gets proposed, even though they're all essentially the same player. What's beginning to irk me is that that player is no better than the Brian Buscher/Brendan Harris platoon already slated for '09 if nothing better comes along.
The latest candidate is Ty Wigginton, recently non-tendered by the Houston Astros. This is his last year of arbitration, and it was estimated that he would make about $7 million/year, basically the same thing the Twins were offering Casey Blake. And Wigginton is a similar player, a career .270/.330/.460 hitter averaging about 20 HR a season and capable of playing several defensive positions. (Blake's career numbers are .264/.334/.447 with about 20 HR/season.) He is 4 years younger than Blake. So if you wanted to sign Blake for $7 million, you've got to want to sign Wigginton, right?
First of all, while Blake is a rather poor defensive 3B, Wigginton is awful. His career numbers at 3rd suggest that he'd be no better than Butcher -er, Buscher. Bad defense was, for me, the biggest reason to seek a different player at this position, and Wigginton doesn't deliver there.
Second, he's not going to hit any better than the Buscher/Harris platoon. His career-best .867 OPS last year was largely a creation of Minute Maid Park, where it's only 315 down the LF line and 360 in the power alley. That friendly to RH hitting environment helped Wigginton to a 1.081 OPS at home, vs. only .696 on the road. LF is considerably deeper in the Metrodome, so there's no reason to think Wigginton's power numbers will be nearly as impressive there - his career averages are probably a better predictor.
And then I feel I have to reiterate my reasoning for projecting decent offensive numbers from Buscher/Harris. This is the most misunderstood aspect of the Twins' roster right now. Though his .294/.340/.390 line with 9 doubles and 4 HR in 218 AB wasn't anything special, Buscher hit much better vs. RHP, .316/.362/.437 with 9 doubles and 4 HR in 174 AB. The resulting .799 OPS vs RHP is the least anyone should expect from Buscher in 2009.
He hit .244/.323/.329 with 1 double and 2 HR in 82 AB in 2007. The .730 OPS he put up in '08 is an overall improvement of .082. His OPS vs. RHP jumped over .100 points year-to-year. Small sample sizes, true, but indicative of the type of growth Buscher has shown at every level throughout his professional career.
Compare his first season at A+ ball (343 AB, .292/.354/.408, 14 doubles, 4 HR and 2 K/1 BB) to his MLB career so far (300 AB, .280/.335/.373, 10 doubles, 6 HR and 2 K/1 BB). In the following half season at the same level, he improved to .282/.367/.422, 12 doubles, 5 HR and 5 K/3 BB in 206 AB. That .027 increase in OPS was the smallest year-to-year improvement he's had at any level until AAA, when he went from awesome in 2007 to totally awesome in 2008. To whit:
2005 - AA Eastern League: 215 AB, .228/.304/.288, 8 doubles, 1 HR, 1.8 K/BB
2006 - AA Eastern League: 467 AB, .259/.321/.366, 23 doubles, 7 HR, 1.92 K/BB (+.095 OPS)
2007 - AA Eastern League: 247 AB, .308/.391/.478, 19 doubles, 7 HR, 0.97 K/BB (+.182 OPS!)
2007 - AAA International: 132 AB, .311/.374/.523, 7 doubles, 7 HR, 0.85 K/BB
2008 - AAA International: 185 AB, .319/.402/.514, 12 doubles, 8 HR, 1.05 K/BB (+.019 OPS)
Obviously, the bell went off big-time in 2007, but even before then, Buscher was the type of player who needed awhile to adjust to each new level. If we allow that he will show the modest improvement he did between his two years at A+, his overall MLB OPS should reach the happy side of .750 in 2009. But if you add that improvement to just his numbers vs. RHP, you'll wind up with an .826 OPS from Buscher's side of the platoon.
300 MLB AB is far too small a sample to accurately project Buscher's production for next year. The bottom end of the range should be his career split: .297/.354/.411 with 10 doubles and 6 HR and 1.64 K/BB over 350 AB. Not too bad from your #8 hitter. For the top end of the range, how about his overall numbers from 2 seasons at AAA? It isn't too outlandish to imagine that he could hit MLB RHP as well as he hit all pitching at AAA. That would be .315/.394/.517 with 21 doubles and 17 HR and 0.97 K/BB. I'll split the difference and predict .306/.374/.466 with 17 doubles, 13 HR, 33 BB and 44 K.
As for Harris, his 2008 splits vs. LHP were by far the worst of his career. In 2009, a return to at least his career average is likely. I'll give him 200 AB, since there are fewer LHP in the league (and it's a nice round number!). That would give him a .295/.360/.440 line with 15 doubles, 1 triple, 4 HR, 20 BB and 41 K.
So, in a full season in the #8 slot (550 AB), Buscher/Harris would hit .302/.363/.456 (.819 OPS) with 32 doubles, 1 triple, 17 HR, 53 BB and 85 K, while playing middling to bad defense.
Now, hot stove watchers, I have 2 questions for you:
1. Who's going to do better than that?
2. Would the extra production such a player could bring be worth the cost?
Wigginton might hit more homers, but with a lower OBP and just as poor defense, and he would cost 7 times what the platoon would. Garrett Atkins might play as well, but the Rockies want Denard Span as a starting point. The only player I can see who would be an improvement at low cost is Andy LaRoche. His defense would be better, and his minor league numbers suggest he has the tools to be a RH Justin Morneau.
The Pirates are apparently interested in Wigginton, too, which would be the ultimate vote of no-confidence in LaRoche. If they were to sign Wigginton to any multi-year deal, LaRoche would no longer have a future in their organization, and could certainly be acquired for similar pieces in the Twins' organization (like Philip Humber and Harris, for example). That's the only way I can see for the Twins to upgrade 3B without removing Major League talent and, thus, diminishing the team.
I don't think the anxiety is really about 3B per se. People look at last year's team and say, "We need a RH power bat!" Why? To protect the lefties? Here are last year's OPS vs. LHP for the Twins' left-handed batters:
Denard Span: .873
Joe Mauer: .939
Justin Morneau: .778
Jason Kubel: .704
Brian Buscher: .455
Mike Lamb: .263
On the whole, the Twins' LH batters did not need protecting. Span and Mauer were terrific. Morneau holds his own. Kubel's splits, like his overall numbers, are on an upward trend. Mike Lamb was dismissed. That leaves Buscher, who I propose only be allowed to face RHP, against whom he performed substantially better.
What's amazing about the Twins' performance vs. LHP last year was how poorly the RH batters did:
Carlos Gomez: .712
Delmon Young: .791
Adam Everett: .773
Randy Ruiz: .745
Brendan Harris: .714
Michael Cuddyer: .694
Mike Redmond: .627
Craig Monroe: .449
Gomez, Young and Everett all vastly exceeded their splits vs. RHP, which were poor enough to make their overall numbers disappointing. Ruiz missed his chance to cement a platoon DH spot by notching just 2 XBH in 33 AB. Cuddyer underperformed his career OPS vs. LHP by over .100 points, Harris by .086, Redmond by about .200 and Craig Monroe by more than .300. The young guys should improve and the veterans should rebound to around their career averages (well, maybe not Redmond - he's getting old now). In other words, the Twins do not need to acquire another RH bat in order to see their production vs. LH pitching improve significantly in 2009.
One last thing. If the Twins were to sign Wigginton, it would mean that they'll have invested about $11 million dollars a year to not improve the left side of the infield. Rafael Furcal just signed with the Dodgers for $10 million/year. Had the Twins pursued him, they could have had a left side of the IF costing about $11 million/year, just with $10 million going to Furcal and $1 million going to Buscher/Harris. That would have been an upgrade. Oh well.