Letting Nick Punto depart is ultimately a bad move for the Twins

Minnesota Twins Nick Punto watches his throw to first base to complete a double play as he leaps over Toronto Blue Jays Travis Snider.
REUTERS/Eric Miller
Minnesota Twins Nick Punto watches his throw to first base to complete a double play as he leaps over Toronto Blue Jays Travis Snider.

Last week, Nick Punto left the Twins as a free agent to sign a one-year deal with the Cardinals and, in doing so, provided perhaps the most obvious example of the front office overruling the manager’s wishes during Ron Gardenhire‘s decade-long tenure in Minnesota. Some day when Gardenhire retires and is asked about his favorite players, I’ll be shocked if he doesn’t mention Punto right alongside stars like Torii Hunter and Joe Mauer.

As a diminutive, punchless infielder with a great glove and far more frenetic energy than actual talent, Punto represents everything Gardenhire looks for (and tends to significantly overrate) in a non-star. No other manager would’ve given Punto an average of 434 plate appearances per season for a six-year span in which he hit .248/.323/.325 and had a sub-.650 OPS four times. Since his Twins debut in 2005, no MLB player has more plate appearances with a lower OPS.

Some of that can be blamed on the front office, of course, as they re-signed him to a two-year, $8.5 million contract the last time Punto was a free agent following the 2008 season. He hit .232/.328/.291 for that money, posting the worst slugging percentage and third-worst OPS in all of baseball, and Gardenhire wrote him into the lineup enough for Punto to rack up 728 plate appearances even while spending four different stints on the disabled list.

In an offseason full of difficult decisions for the Twins, declining their $5 million option on Punto for 2011 and giving him a $500,000 buyout instead has to rank as the easiest, and Gardenhire expressing a desire to bring him back was equally predictable. My assumption was that they’d try to re-sign him at a lesser salary, particularly given the question marks surrounding the new middle-infield duo of Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Alexi Casilla, but clearly that wasn’t the case.

Not only did Punto leave the Twins for the Cardinals, but he did so for a one-year deal worth just $750,000. He earned more than $12 million from 2007 to 2010 and the Twins gave him $500,000 to avoid paying Punto another $5 million in 2011, so the fact that $750,000 was enough to go elsewhere after being in Minnesota since arriving in 2004 as part of the Eric Milton trade with the Phillies suggests zero effort was made to re-sign him despite Gardenhire’s wishes.

Maybe the Twins let Punto go without a fight because they’re confident Matt Tolbert or Trevor Plouffe can step into the utility man role. Maybe the Twins let him go without a fight because it was the only way to keep Gardenhire from finding ways to get Punto into the lineup. Or maybe it was a little of both, and after seven years, $14 million, and 2,700 plate appearances, they’d simply had enough. Whatever the case, it’s a mistake. Or at least it’s a mistake for $750,000.

Punto has an awful bat and an excellent glove, which makes him the epitome of a utility man. When that type of player is earning $4 million and getting 435 plate appearances, he drags a team down, which is why Punto (and Gardenhire’s over-reliance on him) has been the target of so much criticism over the years. However, when that same player is earning $750,000 and getting 150 plate appearances, he can be a good fit in a limited role.

Punto has long been overpaid and overused, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Twins’ need for a utility man this season is higher than it has been in years, and he’s likely a better fit for the role than Tolbert or Plouffe. I understand not wanting to bring back Punto for $4 million and 435 plate appearances or because there’s a superior alternative ready to take his place, but neither of those things is true.

He was available for around $350,000 more than the minimum salary and a total commitment that represents less than 1 percent of the Twins’ payroll, and the options to replace him are Tolbert, a 29-year-old poor man’s Punto on both sides of the ball, and Plouffe, a 25-year-old marginal prospect whose Triple-A numbers project his bat to be every bit as inept as Punto’s. And neither of them will come close to matching his great glove.

There’s a tendency to lump utility infielders together because none of them can hit and they all have nice gloves, but there’s a difference between good defense and what Punto plays. Based on Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 games, since joining the Twins in 2005 he’s 18.9 runs above average at shortstop, 20.0 runs above average at third base, and 4.6 runs above average at second base. In other words, stick Punto out there for a full season and he’ll save 10 to 20 runs.

And that’s compared to an average defender, which is already plenty valuable. Among all major leaguers with at least 1,000 innings at a position since 2005, his Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 games ranks No. 1 at shortstop and No. 1 at third base. So yes, he can’t hit, but neither can Tolbert or Plouffe or most utility infielders. For that matter, Punto has a higher career OPS than Casilla. At least with Punto you’re getting legitimately elite defense along with the bad bat.

To be clear, Punto is a bench-caliber player who’s been paid and played too much, and most of the criticism leveled at him, Gardenhire and the Twins’ front office while he logged 2,700 plate appearances has been warranted. However, there’s a big difference between someone being overpaid while playing too often and someone being useless, and for $750,000 and a reserve role Punto has value because he’s simply likely to be better than Tolbert or Plouffe in 2011.

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Debbie Gibbons on 01/29/2011 - 06:54 am.

    I agree. Punto gone, I’m gone.

  2. Submitted by Jim Roth on 01/30/2011 - 02:55 pm.

    I like Nick Punto, but baseball is a business too and sometimes hard choices need to be made. I’ll still miss him.

  3. Submitted by Donn Satrom on 01/30/2011 - 07:01 pm.

    Hardy was expendable in part because he spent too much time on the DL. Same logic applies to Punto, except that in addition to getting disabled he cannot hit. I’ll gladly have the Twins take their chances with someone other than Punto.

  4. Submitted by Martin Owings on 01/30/2011 - 09:27 pm.

    Good take Aaron and I can’t say I disagree with much of what you said. There are some unknowns in terms of what Plouffe might be able to do, but as you pointed out his minor league stats don’t point seem to indicate a budding star.

    Punto was the butt of more than a few jokes over the years here particularly when it came to his inept abilities at the plate, but the glove was better than solid. I think raising the expectation for a decent utility player is a good idea, but ideally you don’t need a guy like Punto to play as many innings because your club is solid at those positions.

    I remember people, including myself, being just a little sad when we lost Lew Ford or other similar players, the guys with more guts and work ethic than talent. I guess in some ways we connect with them more than the Superstars.

    Guys like Lew Ford and Nick Punto give hope to every kid out there who thinks if they work hard enough…just maybe. And sometimes just maybe is good enough.

  5. Submitted by Drew Sandquist on 01/31/2011 - 07:46 am.

    I understand that AT THIS PRICE Punto was a bargain. I get that.

    But here’s the problem. As you state in your article, Gardy LOVES TO PLAY HIM. And in a season where we trade Hardy away to give Casilla his “shot,” we can’t give Gardy the temptation to throw Punto another 434 plate appearances. If we’re going “make it or break it” with Casilla (which I think is stupid to begin with, but that’s another story), then you have to make sure he’s out there every day. He’s been a part time player before, and he’s not good at it. That much we know.

    So yea, while I understand that 700k is cheap for a player of Punto’s defensive prowess, he wasn’t right for this team and this manager.

  6. Submitted by Lucy Hynes on 01/31/2011 - 08:42 pm.

    Thank you for someone finally sharing my sentiment on the matter! I enjoyed watching Punto play. He was one of my favorites, and I’m going to miss him.

  7. Submitted by Tony Wagner on 02/15/2011 - 12:42 pm.

    Just stumbled on this article.

    I think it’s important to remember than MLB contracts are not negotiated in the open. While it is easy to assume that Punto would have been available for the Twins to sign at $750k, that also implies that Punto would inform the Twins of his intent to sign at that price. That would effectively put a ceiling on Punto’s offers, which is probably not standard operating procedure in free agent contract negotiations. For all the Twins knew, Punto may have been seeking at least twice that amount, or multiple years, or a chance at a starting role, etc. Maybe Punto simply saw a playing-time advantage in St. Louis, and was willing to sacrifice some cash this year to build his stock for next year.

    Furthermore, while retaining Punto may not have been bad at the right price, it would have reserved a spot on both the 25-man and 40-man rosters for a regularly injured 33-year-old backup player who has enough service time to refuse a minor league assignment. Even at a cheap price, I can see how that may not be the most efficient use of resources.

  8. Submitted by Don Frey on 02/15/2011 - 07:37 pm.

    I, too, am sorry the Twins didn’t re-sign Nick Punto. His defensive excellence will be sorely missed, and his enthusiasm for playing the game will be missed as well. I don’t think either of the PROSPECTS the Twins are considering for their utility infielder position can hold a candle to Punto’s defensive abilities, and their hitting is no better than his. At the end of the day good defense is at least as important as good offense, and the Twins have neither from Tolbert or Plouffe. If the Twins are REALLY lucky, they may be able to Tolbert and Plouffe for Punto (a reasonable even-up trade, in my opinion), or they may be able to re-sign him if the Cardinals let him go.

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