It’s been a puzzle. Jason Bartlett received the lion’s share of games at shortstop at the end of last year. Terry Ryan said he wasn’t targeting shortstops during the offseason, because the Twins had Bartlett. And starting spring training, it was clear that the shortstop job was Bartlett’s to lose.
That changed several weeks ago. About the time that Juan Castro returned (injured) from the World Baseball Classic, manager Ron Gardenhire started dwelling on Bartlett’s miscues. And talking up Castro’s experience. Last week, just as Bartlett seemed to have the job won, a hamstring injury opened the door for more playing time for Castro. Yesterday, Jason Bartlett was assigned to Rochester, and Juan Castro was named the starting shortstop for Opening Day.
Does this decision significantly hurt the Twins? Probably not. Castro’s .230 career average and 610 career OPS* will likely cause Twins fans to plea for divine intervention, but Bartlett’s career average of .233 with a 630 OPS is hardly messianic. And while Bartlett has the intoxicating new prospect smell about him, don’t forget to check that odometer. He’s 26 years old, just a few months younger than Michael Cuddyer, who is hardly thought of as “young”.
It’s also encouraging that Twins management didn’t rely on the same excuse they’ve used in the past to keep Bartlett on the farm: his defense. We saw Bartlett’s defense at the end of last year, and while he might not be as fluid as Castro, his glove reaches an extra 8-10 feet across that artificial grass, especially up the middle. This spring, he only made two errors, while Castro made one error in five games.
Instead, there’s a new reason – Bartlett’s “leadership”. From the Star-Tribune:
“He’s a quiet kid,” Gardenhire said, “But in the middle you have to be vocal. You have to lead, and that’s what I told him you need to do. ‘You go down there and take control of the infield. You be the leader. Once you start getting that part of the game down, you’ll be more confident all the way around.’”
Gardenhire wants his shortstop to learn to be a leader. He wants the 26-year-old rookie, who has less than a year of major league experience, to learn to lead the nine-year veteran and two-time all-star that is playing on his right. And the new 10-year veteran and three-time all-star that is playing on his left. And Gardenhire wants him to learn how to do that in AAA. One might wonder exactly how long that will take.
One might also wonder whose leadership example the kid is supposed to emulate. Gardenhire just handed a job to a guy who performed poorly last season, batted .214 this spring, and missed about 80% of camp. He just demoted a guy who batted .382 (with an on-base percentage of .500!) and committed just two errors this spring and hastily worked his way back from injury. And he justified it with the most nebulous of reasons.
Add all that to the fact that Gardenhire specifically asked Terry Ryan to acquire Juan Castro a year-and-a-half ago, and it isn’t going to take a lot of imagination for the clubhouse to wonder if Gardenhire isn’t playing favorites. Given the rifts we saw last year between the veterans and younger players on this club, that’s hardly a message this team needs as a new season begins.
But it’s better than some of the other messages that this move whispers, such as “I don’t trust you guys”. Or “Performance doesn’t really matter.” If this is what qualifies as leadership on this team, Gardenhire might have done us all a favor by sending Bartlett someplace else – anyplace else - to develop those skills.