Saturday, April 01, 2006


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.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Option K

The Twins A, B, and C options in the bullpen haven’t exactly panned out this spring, so yesterday Ron Gardenhire announced that they’re skipping straight to option K.

There is only one pitcher in the Twins farm system who deserves the letter that denotes a strikeout, and that’s Francisco Liriano. Last year he struck out 33 batters in the 23.2 innings as a September call-up. And 112 batters in 91 innings in Rochester before that. And 92 batters in 76.2 innings in New Britain before that. For the mathematically challenged, that’s 237 strikeouts, which nearly matches the 238 strikeouts that Johan Santana rang up.

Oh, and Liriano’s just 22 years old.

So there isn’t a lot of point debating whether Option K belongs in The Show. He would be starting for at least 80% of the other teams in the major leagues, though it appears he won’t have that role for the Twins, given the depth of their starting rotation. Previously, it was thought that if he wasn’t starting in the majors, he would be starting in Rochester. That changed yesterday.

It changed because some of the Twins other options haven’t panned out. Faced with two open spots in the bullpen, they watched Gabe White retire, and they released Darrel May on Saturday. That essentially leaves minor leaguer Willie Eyre and southpaw Dennys Reyes, and there are plenty of questions about both. With Gardenhire’s announcement, it appears the Twins will move either Liriano or Scott Baker to fill one of those spots. It will probably be Liriano, in part because he’s left-handed, and in part because Baker earned that rotation spot last year and is viewed as more mature.

Some will get worked up about this decision one way or the other. Certainly, of the three options, having Liriano in the bullpen is probably the worst possible choice. Most appealing is Door 1, where they have him starting in the majors, developing into the overpowering talent they’ll need to win the division, or win in the playoffs. Door 2 is also a better option, where they send him back to Rochester, which keeps him working everyday while they delay his service time (and his price tag).

But the nice thing about this game show is that all of the prize packages are pretty damn nice. Door 3 gives the Twins a dominating arm the bullpen could use, and might need given the uncertainty about Juan Rincon’s health. It also gives Liriano the chance to show he belongs at this level, and to work everyday with pitching coach Rick Anderson.

But mostly, it gives Twins fans the chance to see one hell of a talented kid. It gives us, on any given night, the opportunity to watch the bullpen and see if the Twins will go with Option K.