Joe Crede ain’t coming back.
That’s the message that general manager Bill Smith relayed to fans and reporters at TwinsFest a few weeks ago and with mere days remaining before pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training, it’s pretty evident that he was serious.
That leaves the Twins with a hole at third base, yet again.
On paper there are four likely candidates headed into Spring Training.
First and foremost we have the recently-displaced Nick Punto who just lost his job at second base to newcomer, Orlando Hudson.
Punto is heading into the final guaranteed year of his deal with the club and—in a perfect world—would be best-served as a super utility player.
Second is Brendan Harris, most commonly referred to as “that other guy in the Delmon Young trade.”
Harris, who just signed an ill-advised two-year deal with the club, seems to be the frontrunner for the job in the eyes of most fans and sportswriters.
Third in line for the job is super prospect Danny Valencia who was just ranked as the sixth-best prospect in the Twins farm system by Baseball America.
It is largely believed that Valencia isn’t quite ready for the big leagues on either side of the ball and—at best—should be ready in time for September call-ups.
The fourth—and undoubtedly least-likely—option is light-hitting Matt Tolbert.
In his defense (pun intended), Tolbert is pretty slick with the glove. Based on popular defensive metrics his work at both third and short is very solid, but he doesn’t have nearly enough time at either position to legitimately be in the mix.
Those are the four most-likely candidates. Some believe prospects Luke Hughes and Miguel Jean could eventually surpass Valencia, but for now, neither figures to factor into the mix for 2010.
With that in mind, let’s start handicapping the race for the hot corner, starting with Danny Valencia.
Even if Valencia shows up and had a great spring, the club would be wise to keep him in Rochester until mid-to-late May to push back his arbitration by a year, much like the Rays and Brewers did with Evan Longoria and Ryan Braun, respectively.
As such, Valencia is probably out as an option straight out of Spring Training.
Matt Tolbert doesn’t figure to hit nearly enough to win the job and with both Punto and Harris making more than he is, it’s hardly justifiable to leave both men on the bench.
In all likelihood, Tolbert figures to start the year in the minors unless he quickly adapts to the outfield in Spring Training and latches on as a fifth outfielder.
That brings the fight for the hot corner down to the two original frontrunners, Punto and Harris.
Harris seems to be the favorite among sports writers and Twins fans, but the belief is that Punto will win the role out of Spring Training.
Many will jump to the conclusion that Punto is only in the lineup because of his bloated salary and manager Ron Gardenhire’s affection for the scrappy Italian.
In reality, Punto is simply the better option.
That statement may raise some hairs, as Nick Punto is a very divisive figure in Twins Territory.
Some view Punto with incredible disdain and see him as a black hole in the lineup and as that dude who didn’t know when to hit the brakes in the playoffs.
Others view him as a “scrappy sparkplug” in the Twins lineup and one of the few remaining “piranhas.”
Personally, I view Punto for exactly what he is: a great defensive ballplayer that belongs in the lineup.
Punto’s career Ultimate Zone Rating—or UZR/150—at third base is an astounding 19.9. That means that over the course of a season, Punto saves the Twins nearly twenty runs with his stellar glove work at the hot corner.
Brendan Harris, however, has a career UZR/150 of -19.6 at third base. Essentially he’s the exact opposite of Punto at the hot corner. Harris’ glove figures to cost the club nearly twenty runs a year.
Without even looking at what either man can do with the bat, I’ve got to wonder why anyone in their right mind would want Harris in the lineup on a regular basis.
His defense at second base (-6.8) and shortstop (-9.9) is also bad, so he’s not even an ideal utility player.
Had the club not just signed him to the aforementioned two-year deal, there is a very real chance he could have been cut after Spring Training in favor of Tolbert and his more impressive glove work.
Offensively, Harris clearly has more upside than Punto.
Harris is just 29-years old and Punto is 32-years old, so age is clearly on his side.
Additionally, Harris offers more power than Punto. Granted, that’s not saying much, there’s a pretty good chance that everyone reading this article could post a higher slugging percentage than Punto.
Over the past two years—the length of Harris’ tenure in Minnesota—Punto has posted an average line of .255/.340/.331 compared to Harris’ equally pedestrian .263/.319/.379.
The two have largely been equals during Harris’ time in Minnesota, but with Punto posting a higher on-base percentage and playing far better defense.
When it comes to Brendan Harris, we know what we’re getting. He is a .260 hitter with an awful glove and the ability to pop a dozen homers if given sufficient at-bats.
That’s who he is, nothing more, nothing less.
Nick Punto is a wild card. We’ve seen him get hot for stretches and we’ve seen his glove save numerous games.
In 2006, his hot play invoked the “Puntober” phenomenon that still exists to this day, albeit mostly in muted whispers.
Punto is undoubtedly best-served as a super utility player. He’s a very, very poor-man’s Chone Figgins.
Until Valencia is ready for the big leagues or Brendan Harris learns the fine art of fielding, however, Punto is our best option at third base.
Personally, I’ll take a glove that’ll save nearly twenty runs and a .340 on-base percentage out of the ninth-spot in the lineup any day of the week.
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