Tuesday, June 01, 2010
Tinkering with the TwinsPosted by Joshua Fisher
On the flight to Seattle after Sunday's win over the Texas Rangers, the Minnesota Twins faced a dilemma. The team's starting second baseman, Orlando Hudson, had been injured in a cartoonish collision at the end of the night's game. The logical backup, Alexi Casilla, is still nursing a bad elbow. Of his status, Casilla says, "I can swing, but it's not a good swing." Considering that "good" Alexi Casilla has punched up a .245/.305/.315 line in nearly a thousand career plate appearances, the thought of his offense at less than 100% is avert-your-eyes terrifying.
Of course, Ron Gardenhire had Brendan Harris at his disposal. And he's healthy! But, problem: he's a pretty bad hitter too, in the way that even the worst major leaguers are amazing baseball players, of course. Harris is approaching two thousand plate appearances; we're very much at the what-you-see-is-what-you-get stage of his career. And what Gardy's got is a disposable infielder. Heck, even David Eckstein's spiritual successor Nick Punto, himself only slightly less disposable than Harris, knows it. Cue the Star Tribune's Joe Christensen:
Michael Cuddyer and Nick Punto sat on the Twins' flight to Seattle late Sunday night, discussing the team's lineup options with second baseman Orlando Hudson out because of a left wrist injury.
Together, they realized it might be best for Cuddyer to briefly return to second base.
"Nick decided to go back and tell [manager Ron Gardenhire]," Cuddyer said. "I guess Gardy said he'd already been thinking about it."
Indeed, Gardenhire pulled the trigger on this bold move. Cuddyer had departed the infield for greener pastures several years ago, and the results of the experiment were delightful in their predictability. The erstwhile rightfielder notched two hits, including a solo homer. In the field, he got eaten up by a terrible hop on a play up the middle, and delivered a low throw to demigod Justin Morneau on a double play attempt. Cuddyer was awarded an error for neither play (I didn't know they gave gifts on Memorial Day, but whatever), but, to his credit, he did make a nice backhand play on a ball hit approximately six inches to his right.
What really interests me this morning is what this sequence of events says about Gardenhire's philosophy with these suddenly-thunderous Twins. The Star Tribune's Michael Rand hits on the meaning of the move:
He can see that offense is a vital third strength of this team. While the pitching has been solid and the defense has been other-worldly in terms of errors, the Twins' offense -- when loaded up the right way -- can be very dangerous. Unlike years past, when taking defense instead of offense might have been prudent because stealing runs was more likely than creating them, this year's team can slug its way to some wins.
All in all, Gardy has seen what life is like when he has a threat like J.J. Hardy or Delmon Young (last night) down in the No. 8 hole. And while he still loves pitching and defense, he also looks like he loves having a good chance to score every inning.
Setting aside the reliance on errors as a measuring stick, Rand has a point. This Twins team is built to score runs. One look at the rotation of corner outfielders (Cuddyer, Delmon Young, and Jason Kubel) tells you where defense stands on the list of priorities. If Hudson goes down for a game or two, sure, why not stick Cuddyer at second? It's not a viable long-term solution, but I suppose you could do worse in a pinch. Which is why I was dismayed this morning to read that the Twins had placed the unspeakably-awful-if-less-than-100-percent Alexi Casilla on the DL, recalling infielder Matt Tolbert. Now, nothing against Tolbert, but if you're going to move Cuddyer back to the infield rather than start Brendan Harris, why call up another Brendan Harris?
I think Gardy should have committed to his musical positions strategy. If you think Cuddyer can play second in an emergency, surely you think he can manage not to embarrass himself at third should Punto go down. And if J.J. Hardy misses a game, Punto can go there and Cuddyer can slide to third. This gets all the bats in the lineup. And remember you've still got Harris; you're not completely stuck with Cuddyer in the infield. That's either Plan B or Plan C, depending on the balance of talents you want on the field in any given game.
Besides, if you think the Twins are weak on infield depth, I would advise not thinking about who would man center field if Span missed time. A Kubel/Young/Cuddyer outfield is frightening to consider. The Twins should have called up former Dodgers prospect Jason Repko. Until he gets hurt again, he could provide relief in the outfield, and he might not actually be a bad major leaguer. Think Mitch Maier. He won't win you a lot of games, but he might not cost you many. In any case, I don't get the wisdom of duplicating Brendan Harris, a player Gardenhire mostly gave up on last night anyway.
All of this is the cosmic opposite of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. This Twins team, at absolute worst, will be competing for a playoff spot in September. Mixing and matching pieces here and there is mostly a way to keep things interesting in the interstitial linking the freshness of baseball in April and May to the pennant races of August and September. All the wins count the same, of course, but how it feels matters, even if only a little. And it sure feels cool to see something different. The Twins need another Brendan Harris like they need another domed stadium. Bring up some Denard Span insurance, and choose between Harris and Cuddyer when the infield needs patching. It'll be more fun that way.
Josh is a lawyer in the Kansas City office of Bryan Cave LLP. He created the website DodgerDivorce.com.