Wednesday, February 20, 2008

On Lead Off Candidates and Road Trips

So here are somethings you would probably know about blogs if you thought about it, but you probably haven't.

1. We have day jobs. Thus,
2. We don't really have much time for this stuff. And so,
3. A lot of time, we don't really have much time to clean these up.

So, iIf you're looking for highly polished writing, blogs may not be your domain. Not that there aren't advantages that might offset that, like an incredibly high level of independence, or an ability to take risks. And sometime stories can be and are polished. But a good chunk of the time, we sit down to write, and don't necessarily know where we're going. You can either sit in the passenger seat with us and join us for the ride, or bark at us from the back seat.

So, with that introduction, welcome to my little late night road trip. The questions on the table are: who will be the Twins leadoff hitter next year? Should it matter? Will it matter?

Carlos Gomez - Probably the most popular choice is Gomez, the speedy, young, not-ready-for-prime-time center fielder that headlined the trade package for Johan Santana. The consensus opinion seems to be that he's not ready (and maybe not close to ready) to start at center field (or anywhere, really) in the majors. However, the consensus also says that his status as the "blue chip" in the Santana deal will mean the Twins must start the season with him on the major league roster.

I'm not sure I buy that logic. The Twins have never been a franchise to rush a player just because the fans thought that player should be ready. If anything, the opposite has been true, whether it's been Justin Morneau, Jason Bartlett or Pat Neshek. Or Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel or Matt Garza. Or Scott Baker. Or Bobby Kielty. Or Johan Santana, for chrissakes. How much further should we go?

And for all the talk about what the Twins MUST do, consider exactly how much they've cared about public relations in the last year. They traded away Luis Castillo in the middle of the season. They let the face of the franchise, Torii Hunter, walk. They traded away a pitcher who could legitimately lay claim to the best pitcher in the history of this team. And they traded away their top prospect from last year. These are hardly the acts of someone watching the popularity polls.

And finally, even if Gomez does shine in spring training and wins the CF job, would Ron Gardenhire throw the rookie into the leadoff spot? This franchise, and this coaching staff especially, loves to guard their young. There are high hopes attached to Gomez. If he is in this lineup, is there anyway it's above the eighth spot in the order?

Jason Pridie/Denard Span - Of course, the problem with dismissing Gomez is that there aren't any better alternatives. I laid out my choice for center field several weeks ago, arguing that a platoon of Craig Monroe and Jason Pridie gives us the best of both players. But neither of them have the bat smarts or plate discipline to bat leadoff, even against the opposite hand pitchers.

I suppose Denard Span could become the default choice if he either has a monster spring or seems like the least valuable prospect to be messed up long term. At least he can draw a walk, though I weep for this offense if that's what it's reduced to.

And if he makes the team, just how many outfielders do we have on this team? I count at least four others - Cuddyer, Young, Monroe, and Kubel - and just who plays center field if Span is banged up for a couple of days? So that means that either Gardenhire goes will just eleven pitchers (he's already said he wants 12), or one backup infielder (a moral deficiency for an ex-gloveman) or no "true" backup centerfielder. That's the kind of dilemna that makes Gardy reconsider much bigger decisions, justifiably or not. And he'd need to make that decision if Gomez makes the team, too.

Corey Patterson/Kenny Lofton - Earlier tonight someone mentioned Lofton and Patterson not signing yet, along with the line that has probably been repeated roughly 88% of the time their names have arisen during this offseason: "We'll see what happens when it gets closer to spring training." Um, HELLO! It is spring training! And two of the starting center fielders from last year's teams still haven't signed yet! And they're both lead-off type guys!

I wouldn't be shocked if one of them is on the Twins by Opening Day, and I would be shocked if the Twins haven't been in contact with their agents over the last week or so. After all, the top two in-house candidates for center field, Gomez and Pridie, were not with the Twins last year so the Twins may just have a lets-see-what-we-got approach. And with two solid free agent backup plans waiting in the wings, why not? So long as they're signed to one-year deals, there could be worse moves.

Joe Mauer - If it's not Gomez and it's not Span and it's not a free agent, then the Twins really have an issue that will be fun to watch solve. The only person left on the roster who is even remotely capapble of batting leadoff is Mauer, but that would mean sacrificing him from the middle of the lineup. Mauer-Cuddyer-Morneau-Young seem like a logical string of batters to handle the 3 through 6 spots, or maybe even the 2 through 5 spots in the order. But would Gardenhire thumb his nose at baseball convention by making them 1 through 4? Or even bat Mauer at leadoff and the other three in the 3 through 5 spots?

I doubt it. Traditionally, Gardenhire has built his lineups from the middle out. And yes, I mean "traditionally" in that Gardenhire has built lineups that way in the past, and that one could use that word to describe Gardenhire's lineup. (And actions.)

Alexi Casilla - Hmmm. While we're talking about prospects that might break out this spring, let's not forget Alexi. In the same way that Gomez could solve a lot of problems by hitting the ground running, so could Casilla, and maybe even moreso. If he seized the second base job from Brendan Harris, Casilla could bat leadoff, and Harris could be that second backup infielder and be a productive bat off the bench. In terms of producing the kind of balanced roster that makes the coaching staff all warm 'n cuddly inside, Casilla thriving might be the best case scenario.

???? - The real danger here becomes that the coaching staff doesn't like any of these options and instead looks to bring someone north who isn't ready. After all, Gomez might nominally fit that round hole, if if requires taking a power grinder to those pointy corners.

But, to be fair, the leadoff spot has been a significant piece for the Twins, despite what all the computer models tell us should happen. Shannon Stewart undoubtedly fueled the 2003 season, Luis Castillo's hot streak corresponded with the 2006 surge, and losing Matt Lawton in 2001 and Castillo in 2007 essentially ended all hope those seasons. For whatever reason, this spot has been an important one for the Twins.

And so the road trip ends, though I'm not sure where. I seem to have more questions now than when I started. I think it's an important role for the Twins - but not so important that the Twins should risk the development of underdone prospects by starting them there. I don't think the player who fills that role should come from center field - but I'm completely unable to identify anyone else to fill it.

And so I'll do what the rest of the organization will do. I'll sit and watch what develops over the next couple of weeks and see if an answer reveals itself. Huh. Maybe this road trip isn't over after all.

12 comments:

TT said...

Good analysis, with one quibble.

Lawton lead off in only 25 games for the Twins in 1991. Guzman was the leadoff guy to start the year and Rivas, who lead off most of the games after Lawton left, hit .340 .392 .469 in 177 plate appearances in the leadoff spot. Its pretty tough to see that as the problem.

Lawton leaving had nothing to do with the Twins going in the tank in 1991. That was the result of failures in the pitching rotation and bullpen. Those failures were ones Twins management foresaw and tried to forestall by the deals for Reed and Jones.

I also think the choice for leadoff batter this year would likely be Harris if none of the center field candidates are ready to take on that role. He is better suited to batting second, but no one else really fits at the top of the order.

Peter said...

John:

As usual, a great post.

However, your opening statement ignores the fact that too often newspaper articles, written by union professionals, are often poorly edited.

If they're edited at all.

Not to mention the fact that for whatever reason, most sportswriters there can't include more than one sentence per paragraph.

Kind of like I'm doing right now.

I've written tiny pieces for a large local newspaper, and have known friends who've written at the same, and the editing is minimal. Very little is, in fact, 'cleaned up'. My piece went in unchanged with a small error, as did this friend's piece. Nothing too great, simply a repetition of the same odd word three times in a 150 word review, but still. Grammatically, everything was correct. And it's true, some blogs might have cruddy writing, some might not. However, as someone who's sat in the press box at a few dozen Twins games last year, and having watched certain sportswriters wander about or surf the net as the game was on, I'll take your even-handed, well-written, and attentive sportswriting any day. Your work, and the work of other bloggers, is consistently more thought out, more edgy, and actually is quite often a better read, simply because it's well written.

Especially since you use more than one sentence per paragraph.

Anonymous said...

Any discussion of Carlos Gomez making the Opening Day roster should begin--and end--with his potential Super Two status. If he is on the Opening Day roster and stays with the club all season, he effectively loses one year of arbitration status (or, put another way, he becomes a free agent one year sooner). With Scott Boras as his agent, do we really want that?

Gomez MUST start the season at Rochester and stay there until June at the earliest. Besides, he could probably use a little AAA to hone his stroke.

Patthew said...

I just thought the lead off spot was going to default to Brendan Harris.

Aaron said...

Guys like Stewart and Castillo were good professional hitters to be sure, which is why Gardy batted them leadoff. I think their impact on the Twins probably had more to do with them being good at hitting than where they batted in the order (although the leadoff hitter does get the most plate appearances, so it is a natural place to put the best hitter, which is why it should absolutely be Mauer)

spycake said...

Patthew makes a good point -- there's nothing terribly wrong with Brendan Harris as a leadoff hitter. He doesn't have great speed, and he doesn't draw a ton of walks, but he would almost certainly get on base more than Pridie, Span, or Gomez. And he's right-handed, so Mauer could bat 2nd (or Kubel, if they want to revisit that experiment). Heck, although he may draw fewer walks, even Delmon Young could reach base as much if not more than Pridie, Span, or Gomez.

In fact, it might depend on who else has a "breakout" this spring. If Kubel looks like 2nd-half Kubel of last year, the top of the lineup could be Mauer-Harris-Kubel. Or if Cuddyer looks more like 2007 vintage (less power) than 2006, maybe they won't have a problem with him batting 2nd, and just moving up the supposed 3-6 (or 2-5) hitters to 1-4.

Personally, I would like to see Mauer at the top of the lineup. At least no one could accuse us of not putting our best bats highest in the order.

CDW said...

My mother-in-law just emailed me pictures of Maxwell's. From reading your blog, I know you were a fan. My condolences.

http://www.startribune.com/local/west/15802677.html

andrew madison said...

I think the leadoff guy should be Mauer because I think it plays into his strengths as a hitter more than the 3rd or even the 2nd spot does. Mauer doesn't have blazing speed, which is one of the ideals for a leadoff hitter, but he is a patient, contact, live drive hitter that works the count, type that fits in well at the top. He usually walks more than he stikes out, and he has a good OBP. I think it could work if Young is able to take over the 3rd spot, Morneau the 4th, and Cuddyer the 5th. Until Mauer shows he can drive in more runs, I don't think he should bat 3rd.

J. Lichty said...

I don't think that Gardy will want to protect Gomez. Gardy loves speed and basestealing potential, and especially since Gomez came over in a trade.

If Gomez were a homegrown product, I would agree with you, but Gardy will overvaulue his tools and the fact that he puts on a good show in BP. Oh, and Punto bats second, write it in.

TT said...

If he is on the Opening Day roster and stays with the club all season, he effectively loses one year of arbitration status (or, put another way, he becomes a free agent one year sooner).

That confuses two different issues. Super-twos get four years of arbitration instead of three. They still only become free agents after six full years.

The Twins will have control of Gomez for six full years from this point forward if they keep him in the major leagues. He may be eligible for arbitration as a "super-two" after the 2009 season.

spycake said...

Gomez' DL stint in 2007 puts him on the cusp of super-2 eligibility after 2009, assuming he plays the next two full seasons. If he spends at least a month in the minors this year, he probably won't be eligible for arbitration until after 2010 at the earliest (perhaps longer if he spends all or part of 2009 in the minors too).

In order to delay his free agency, though, we would have to keep him in the minors much longer this seasons -- practically all of 2008. With 141 service days (according to Cot's), and a full season is considered ~172, Gomez would have to spend less than 30 days on the ML roster in 2008 to delay his free agency. That's possible if he's still really raw, but not too probable, especially not if he (hopefully) makes progress this season either in AAA or the majors.

So he'll probably be a free agent after 2013 regardless.

Anonymous said...

tt and spycake, I appreciate the clarification of the Super Two provision and stand corrected on the year-earlier free agency comment.