Twins Notes: Infield shuffling, Sir Sidney and T.K.

First of two parts

It looks like Matt Tolbert going down for two months with a torn left thumb ligament won’t stop Ron Gardenhire‘s plan to remove Brendan Harris as the starting second baseman. Alexi Casilla started each of the past three games at second base, with Harris beginning two games on the bench and one at designated hitter. Defensive metrics pegged Harris’ glove as awful last season in Tampa Bay, so it’s no surprise that Gardenhire almost immediately found fault with his defense during spring training.

What does come as a surprise is Harris ranking second among AL second basemen in Revised Zone Rating, behind only A’s defensive whiz Mark Ellis. While Harris getting to more balls in his zone than anyone in the league save for Ellis is plenty shocking, he certainly hasn’t looked bad at second base in my eyes, at least on “normal” plays. However, Harris has looked pretty shaky far too often on double plays, which is seemingly what has Gardenhire doing everything he can to move him off the position.

With Casilla apparently out of the doghouse for the moment and Nick Punto due to return from the disabled list shortly, Gardenhire will soon have a pair of speedy, switch-hitting, defense-first second basemen to choose from as replacements for Harris even with a third such player, Tolbert, sidelined. Of course, Harris was supposed to be a bad-glove, good-hit second baseman, and he’s batted just .262/.335/.355 while flashing a far better glove than expected on non-double plays.

What’s interesting about Gardenhire not wanting Harris to remain at second base is that sliding him over to shortstop reportedly has become an option. That seems backward, especially given how awful Harris’ numbers were at shortstop last season. However, Gardenhire may agree with this season’s numbers showing that Harris has been solid on normal plays at second base and may also feel that he’s more capable of smoothly turning double plays as a shortstop.

Of course, while botched double plays are ugly and memorable, my guess is that a second baseman who makes the normal plays and struggles to turn two is far better than a shortstop who struggles to make the normal plays and capably turns two. On the other hand, Adam Everett was brought in during the offseason solely for his previously elite defense at shortstop, but has looked shaky for much of the year and is clearly having problems making even routine throws with his still-balky shoulder.

Everett has very little value if he’s no longer an elite defender at shortstop, and Casilla replacing him there would seemingly be an obvious option given that Casilla has a great arm and has played plenty of shortstop in the minors. However, the team likely still views second base as Casilla’s long-term position, and if Gardenhire thinks that Harris can better handle double plays at shortstop, that goes a long way toward explaining the latest infield shuffling. My guess? Lots of Punto, beginning next week.

Meanwhile, John Romano of the St. Petersburg Times writes that Jason Bartlett has impressed his new Rays teammates with the same outstanding range that he showed as the Twins’ shortstop:

The change in Tampa Bay’s defense this season has been stunning, and you can attribute much of the improvement to Bartlett. He has brought calm to the infield and confidence to a pitching staff. … Bartlett is getting to balls that, in years past, have routinely scooted through the infield for singles.

 

Based on figures from STATS Inc., Tampa Bay had the worst defensive shortstops in the American League last season. The Rays’ zone rating — which measures a player’s efficiency on balls hit in his vicinity — was the second worst for any team in the AL in the past 20 years. And Bartlett’s zone rating? Last week, he was third in the American League.

“He is making the routine plays, and then some more on top of that,” Rays third-base coach Tom Foley said. “He’s got the knowledge, he’s got the athleticism. We’ve seen multiple plays this year with the bare hand over the mound, or turning double plays on balls that you weren’t even sure he could get to.”

Most fans and media members still misguidedly believe that “errors” and “defense” are the same thing, which is why Bartlett drew a tremendous amount of criticism for being an error-prone shortstop who possessed excellent range. Romano notes that the Rays got historically bad defense from their shortstops last season, which should be concerning for Twins fans given that Harris saw 53 percent of Tampa Bay’s innings there.

It’s worth noting that for all of Harris’ problems on double plays, it was a Casilla error on a potential double play last night that opened the door for the Rangers’ seven-run inning. Nick Blackburn certainly did his part by imploding after the error, but all six of the runs that he allowed following Casilla’s drop count as unearned. After cruising through five scoreless frames Blackburn coughed up seven runs, including a pair of homers, yet saw his ERA improve from 3.77 to 3.55.

Sidney Ponson went 2-5 with a 6.93 ERA for the Twins last year before being released in mid-May, so naturally last night he held them to one run in a complete-game win. His last complete game came way back on April 24, 2005. Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Patrick Reusse took a break from his ongoing series of anti-Internet screeds to pen this humorous tidbit about Sir Sidney and Star Tribune Twins beat writer LaVelle E. Neal III:

The propaganda about Ponson’s sinker coming from the Twins’ brain trust in spring training was such that LaVelle Neal admitted going on an obscure radio show and predicting ”13, 14 victories” for the husky righthander (Sidney, not LaVelle). The Star Tribune’s senior hardball writer was only generous by 11 or 12.

A fat columnist poking fun at a fat beat reporter is highly amusing to this fat blogger.

Tom Kelly seems even less comfortable on camera than I am, but it was great listening to him during last night’s broadcast. Asked about Carlos Gomez, Kelly talked about the need for improved plate discipline and strike-zone control, citing on-base percentage. Then when Bert Blyleven went into his nightly rant against pitch counts, Kelly subtly disagreed that they were pure evil and made some good points that Blyleven has ignored, despite devoting several hundred hours of airtime to the topic.

There’s always been plenty of reason to think that the Twins’ perpetual lack of plate discipline is an organizational problem rather than strictly a manager or hitting coach problem, and assistant general manager Rob Antony provided even more evidence of that during a recent interview at Twinkie Town. After saying that the Twins target athletic guys who work hard and have “all the makeup traits” over “the ‘Moneyball’ guy who has a high on-base and takes a lot of walks,” Antony added:

We’re not so much concerned about how many times they walk, and this and that. Yeah, we pay attention to on-base percentage, and we want guys at the top of the order who have good on-base percentages and set the table for the middle of the order, but what we’re most concerned about is players going up and taking swings at good pitches. Don’t get yourself out, and chase sliders away and balls in the dirt. Swing at good pitches, and give yourself a chance to hit good pitches — more so than looking at all the different numbers that so-and-so has or whatever.

Saying that he’s “not so much concerned about how many times they walk” because the focus is on hitters “taking swings at good pitches” rather than “looking at all the different numbers” would be fine if the Twins had shown the ability to consistently develop good hitters and outstanding offenses. When this season’s offense ranks dead last among all 30 big-league teams in walks and the lineup has scored an above-average number of runs exactly once since 1995, then it’s plenty frustrating to hear.

Here’s more from Antony, in response to a question asking if there’s “any temptation” to teach young hitters to be “more selective at the plate”:

Sure, we try and do that with Delmon. We try and do that with Gomez in particular. But they’re both 22 years old, and the one thing you don’t want to take away is their aggressiveness. … He’s an exciting player who’s gonna learn on the job just like Torii Hunter did, just like Jacque Jones did, a lot of players learn on-the-job with us.

Antony and the rest of the organization trusts scouting over stats, values aggressiveness over patience, and teaches “taking good swings” over “drawing walks.” Meanwhile, those beliefs have led to 15 years of offenses that range from mediocre to horrible while producing two 30-homer hitters in two decades. Pointing to Torii Hunter and Jacque Jones as players who learned on the job is revealing, because while they were both good hitters for the Twins neither player developed even average plate discipline.

Friday: Delmon Young, Joe Mauer and more

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