Thursday, June 02, 2005

Twins Lineup Review

Since we checked in with the stats of former Twins yesterday, today let's review how our current homeboys are taking care of business, roughly one-third of the way through the season.

I'll cover the Opening Day lineup (excluding DH) today. Bench & pitching to come later....

C, Joe Mauer
His lingering knee soreness through spring training made many of us wonder whether it was time to give up the dream of having the next Johnny Bench playing for the Twins, and start training him to play 3rd base. It didn't help calm our nerves to see that even Twins management felt uncertain enough about the issue to carry a fourth Catcher on the roster, just in case Mauer's knee was flaring up on the same day that Mike Redmond went to the hospital and Matt LeCroy was already installed at DH. But two months into the season, there have been no more reported problems. When Mauer sat out most of the road trip to Cleveland and Toronto last week, they said it was just a sore groin. A sore groin! Is that all? Hey, they could say he had scurvy or a touch of the Asian flu, and it may not even faze me. Just as long as his knee feels fine, eh?

Through today's game, he's batting .308/.384/.444 with 5 HR and 18 RBI. Through yesterday's stats update at Baseball Prospectus, his value of 12.7 Runs Above Replacement-Level (RARP) ranks him amongst the Top 5 Catchers in the majors, slightly behind Javy Lopez. His .297 Equivalent Average (EqA) is 2nd best amongst regular Catchers, behind only Jason Varitek (.314 EqA). So the kid with 75 major league games under his belt is already hitting like a legitimate All-Star candidate, to say nothing of his good work behind the plate. According to the stats pages at the Hardball Times, Mauer rates 4th in the AL with 2.3 Defensive Win Shares. His 3.75 Catcher's ERA is 3rd best in the AL, as is his excellent 45.5% success rate at throwing out runners attempting to steal a base. I've never heard nor seen anyone refer to him as "Joey Da Gun," no matter what the Metrodome scoreboard insists, but the Chairman certainly has some formidable skills behind the dish. To think that he's still just learning how to play at this level.... Mark Prior, who needs you, anyway?

Overall, his 7 Win Shares (accounting for both offense and defense) ties him with Varitek, Jorge Posada, and Greg Zaun for the most value at Catcher in the majors. Mark your ballots accordingly, and get used to punching a hole next to his name for the next decade or more. He's showing the skills to prove that he's no empty hype. Provided that The Knee holds up, Mauer should be a fixture behind the plate at the All-Star Game for many years to come.

1B, Justin Morneau
After a spring training noted by tales of his offseason ailments and subsequent lack of power throughout March, Morneau began the season in Seattle without an extra-base hit or a walk in his first 12 plate appearances. Then Ron Villone beaned him in the head, and you may be forgiven if you worried that the poor kid was just snakebit. Would he be the same Morneau who hit 19 homers in half a season last year, ever again?

Upon returning from the DL, however, he reacted to the knock on the noggin like he was in an old sitcom--suddenly forgetting his troubles and wielding a bat as if possessed by magical powers. After collecting 2 hits against the Rangers on May 13, he was batting .405/.430/.759. Then I guess he must have bumped his head again. I dunno--maybe while bending and then straightening up underneath the door of a kitchen cabinet? Been there. Who couldn't relate, huh? Anyway, the spell broke and his bat has cooled since then. He hasn't hit a home run since May 17, a monster shot to the upper deck in RF at the dome, off Toronto's Vinnie Chulk.

However, his season line of .285/.340/.518 is certainly respectable, and the same may be said of his .299 EqA and 8.8 RARP. In a relatively weak field of 1st basemen in the AL, those numbers rate better than average. His defense has been very good as well, which may be astonishing to anyone who remembers all the hand-wringing about his glove when the Twins brought him up even last year. His .895 Zone Rating, measuring the percentage of balls he's fielded within the "zone" of his position, rates 4th amongst AL 1st basemen; and his 10.48 Range Factor (Putouts + Assists, divided by Innings) is tops in the league.

He may not be quite at an All-Star level as things stand today, but along with Mauer he has been one of the most productive bats in the Twins lineup. If he can settle his bat in the next week or two, or take another lump on the skull, he may justifiably find a spot for himself in Detroit come July.

2B, Luis Rivas
Ding-dong, the witch is dead.

I won't bother running his numbers--you know they're lousy. The important thing is, Ron Gardenhire finally accepted that Rivas wasn't going to get any better, too. Rivas has been benched, and now he's on the DL with the mysterious "oblique strain"--which sounds like a phantom injury to me. In the last 11 games of May, the guy had 2 starts: May 22 and 26. Both days, he didn't reach 1st base. On May 23, he was a defensive replacement whose only play was turning the relay on a double play in the 7th inning. On May 31, he was a pinch-runner for LeCroy with 2 outs in the 8th inning, but didn't go anywhere as Torii Hunter popped out; in the top of the 9th, Rivas didn't go out to the field. The next day, he's on the DL. Unless "oblique strain" is a euphemism for contracting splinters in his ass from riding the pine, or it's one of those embarrassing hotel injuries, I don't know how the guy managed to hurt himself.

The sharks must be circling, I guess. Should've happened long ago.

I'll get to Nick Punto later, when covering the reserves.

3B, Michael Cuddyer
If you've been reading the blog awhile, you know I'm a Cuddy Bear fan. I think he deserves to have some patient support while he settles into a regular position--give him a year, at least--and I believe the patience will pay off. To this point, he's run hot and cold. After a hot spring training, his bat went into a deep freeze after coming north in April. Then he was blazing for awhile in May, only to tail off lately, but still posting a fine .310/.365/.437 line for the month. The streakiness and lack of power have been disappointing, but in the past he has shown a tendency to heat up as the season goes along. Just last year, at the break he was hitting .243/.308/.402; but after the break, he hit .287/.378/.487. Of course we'd like to see more of that latter line come sooner than July, but meanwhile I'm willing to keep cool and see how it goes with him.

He's taken a lot of criticism for his defense because of his 10 errors, which incidentally is one more than the reigning Gold Glover at 3rd base, Eric Chavez. Most of them have been charged to his throwing arm, usually on plays when he's tried to hurry his throw; and a few of them, in my opinion, might have been saved by better glovework on the receiving end. He's shown soft hands when picking the ball, and his range has been acceptable: a 2.66 RF and .750 ZR rate his range in the middle of the pack. So he mainly needs to work on making more consistent, accurate throws--which, we may now forget, used to be a struggle for Corey Koskie, too.

SS, Jason Bartlett
As I've written before, his offensive production (.242/.310/.374; .247 EqA) was roughly what the club had come to accept from Cristian Guzman the last few years, and I thought the rookie's range in the field was an upgrade on our old SS. My eyes tell me it's a novel experience to see the Twins Shortstop fielding balls behind 2nd base, and comparing Bartlett's .831 ZR to Guzman's .823 last year gives some statistical confirmation of my impressions. What more did management really expect to see, just 6 weeks into his rookie season?

Meanwhile, Juan Castro looks smooth in tandem with Nick Punto in the field; but he has a lesser .802 ZR at Shortstop, and his bat production isn't any better than the kid's even after hitting a couple homers last weekend. So let's hope that this demotion to the minors helps Bartlett in a way that more instruction with Scott Ullger and Al Newman could not.

So far, it looks like they've just put the little fella in a deeper funk: in 10 games at Rochester, Bartlett is hitting .263/.378/.289.

LF, Shannon Stewart
The talismanic "MVP" started the season in a funk of his own--and not the good kind of funk, either. In April, Stewie was more like Sir Nose D'Void O'Funk. By the Ramada pool on road trips, Torii could always get big laughs by picking up Shannon to make him cry out, "I can't swim! Put me down! I hate water!!!" The guys couldn't get enough of mimicking his inevitable plea: "Awwww, leave me alone!!!!" But it isn't so funny at the ballpark, when a cat who can't swim can't hit, neither.

Stewie's had his groove on since the downstroke of May, though, practically carrying the team at times. He leads the club with 33 Runs Created, and he's even the lineup's greatest power source with 8 home runs. (Gaaiiinin' on Ya!)

It's a bit like saying, "In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is King," but one might even have to admit that such production still makes Shannon Stewart the legitimate team MVP, after all. Even if, as a Leftfielder, his arm is a liability and his bat is maybe a little better than average (.293/.352/.423; .279 EqA, 9.8 RARP on the season). Twins Geek suggested this week that Stewart might be expendable in trade--I really hope the thought never enters Terry Ryan's mind. I'm a Lew Ford fan, but I fear that the immediate impact of trading Stewart would be similar to what happened when Matt Lawton was shipped out in July 2001.

CF, Torii Hunter
Just as we were taking some pokes at Torii over at the SBG site yesterday, the man responds with 5 hits and all 6 RBI in a Twins win while making a flashy catch at the wall for good measure. Today he followed with 2 more hits and a walk to bring his season line up to .262/.327/.445. Not far off his career line, and reasonably close to what we can expect to see him posting at the end of the season. At this point, as SBG's buddy Moss says, "He is what he is." He's roughly an average bat at his position, who still struggles with low pitches much of the time, but can deliver the big games for his team just when you're about ready to write him off. He has a .276 EqA and 8.8 RARP, the latter rating 12th amongst Centerfielders in the majors, 5th in the AL.

I was telling SBG that I thought Torii's defense had looked subpar lately, and rattled off a list of gaffes that had stuck in my memory, but his .927 ZR indicates that his range in CF is still among the best in the league. Third in the AL behind Jeremy Reed and Aaron Rowand, to be precise, which is where he rates according to Defensive Win Shares as well. So maybe my selective memory has been a little harsh on the guy, or maybe he just had a rough May.

His .235/.276/.357 batting line in May certainly won't cut it, but I expect him to put that and his miscues in the field behind him. When it's all said and done, he'll be just the Same Ol' T we've grown to know over the last 4 years.

RF, Jacque Jones
I spent a lot of time in the winter railing at Terry Ryan for committing $5m to Jacque Jones and another $1.65m to Rivas, while letting Koskie walk (and eventually Restovich, too) and doing nothing to address the problem at 2nd base. The way Jones rained hits all over the field in April, I had to bite my tongue. He made Terry Ryan look like a wizard genius, once again. The rhyme says that after April showers come May flowers... except Jacque's bloom wilted as he hit a shriveled .222/.286/.300 for the month, and he hasn't hit a home run since May 18. On the season, now he has a .288 EqA and 9.4 RARP, the latter rating 6th amongst AL Rightfielders.

In the field, he has adequate range, but an erratic throwing arm. Most often, it seems one might expect Jacque either to dribble a throw to the infield on 5 bounces or sail the ball 20 feet over his target. He's not ideally suited for Rightfield, but has to make the best of his situation there only because Stewart is the default Leftfielder.

If Terry Ryan were to ask my opinion, and I know he's not, I'd still point to Jones as the expendable outfielder, if somebody had to go. Yes, he's Torii's best friend, and I'm not saying he's a bad player. But does he have any particular skill that really can't be replaced in the lineup?

He hits too many groundballs to be a consistent power source. (He has a 3.08 gb/fb ratio this season; 2.05 career.) He doesn't add a dimension to the offense on the basepaths: he's 3-for-6 in stolen base attempts this season, and has a lousy 59% success rate for his career. He's not a plus defender. In the last year he's been prone to go through some nasty, prolonged slumps. I'm not yet convinced that he's finally solved the riddle of hitting lefthanded pitching, once and for all. Aside from the nebulous issue of "chemistry," is there any crucial reason not to trade Jacque Jones this July?

I'll leave you today with that....


At 6/03/2005 5:37 AM, Blogger SBG said...

I was talking with a colleague yesterday. The Twins have ESTABLISHED STARS on their pitching staff, but who is an established star in the lineup? No one. Mauer, and to a lesser extent, Morneau have the potential, but they have not played enough to be established. Torii? He's not a star. He just isn't. Good player. Stew? Can't be a star when you are playing left field on roller skates. Jones? A good platoon player. They have no stars that don't stand on the bump.

At 6/03/2005 3:08 PM, Blogger frightwig said...

It's true. The Twins still lack a legit league MVP candidate or established star in the lineup. You know, over the winter I looked up some Runs Above Replacement numbers to see how Koskie's value stacked up to Jones in recent years, and I found that not only was Koskie typically more valuable than Jones, but he easily was the most valuable player in the Twins lineup over the last 4-5 years. That was our best, most consistent player--somebody who never sniffed an All-Star Game.

Who has represented the Twins lineup in the ASG since 2000? Matt Lawton, Cristian Guzman, Torii Hunter, and A.J. Pierzysnki. Once each. None of them were ever really league MVP candidates, and the Twins haven't even had a hitter represent the team in the ASG since 2002.

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