Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Luke Hughes scenario

Luke Hughes homered
in his first major-
league at-bat last
season, then got hurt.
Luke Hughes, an oft-injured Australian infielder whose bat has always been reckoned better than his glove, has had an intriguing spring -- lots of playing time, lots of extra base hits, plenty of strikeouts.

And now he's emerged, almost two weeks from Opening Day, as a serious contender for the backup infielder job that had been reckoned to be Matt Tolbert's.

This is a startling notion to those observers who link the utility infielder job with the departed Nick Punto, whose skill set was dramatically different from Hughes'. Punto was a glove and legs; to the extent that he contributed at the plate, it was with singles and walks. Hughes is slower, has never established a real defensive position in the minors and doesn't draw many walks.

Tolbert is a better Punto comp. Hughes is more comparable to Brendan Harris, another infielder now gone from the Twins roster. One significant difference: Harris was deemed usable, or at least most comfortable, at shortstop; while Hughes got a few innings at the position earlier this week, it's unlikely that he'll ever play there other than in an emergency.

What I find interesting in the Hughes scenario is how it suggests a different kind of bench for the Twins. To make a broad generalization, there are two kinds of bench players: specialists, who have a specific role to play in a game; and backups, who are basically waiting to start.

Fans old enough to remember Earl Weaver know that he staffed his Oriole roster with specialists, guys who did one specific thing well. Tom Kelly, particularly early in his career, tended to have professional bench guys;  one of them, Jim Dwyer, had played for Weaver. (Dwyer is now a coach in the Twins farm system.)

Ron Gardenhire has tended to go in the other direction. He has generally gone with reserves whose job is to fill in when a regular sits. Part of that is that he has generally carried just four (non-pitching) reserves, but even with short benches he frequently has somebody with no discernible role. (Remember Luis Rodriguez?)

Tolbert's job, should he make the roster, would be to start occasionally for the infielders; pinch-run for Jim Thome; step in on defense in game in which somebody, most likely Alexi Casilla, is pinch-hit for.

Hughes' job would be a bit different-- less pinch-running, more hitting. Gardenhire would/should be looking for ways to get him fastballs to hit.

Hughes is a right-handed bat for a team whose primary DHs, Thome and Jason Kubel, are lefties with significant platoon differentials. But how willing is Gardenhire to use Hughes at DH against a lefty instead of Thome or Kubel? How often will the manager push Tsuyoshi Nishioka out of his perceived comfort zone by putting him at shortstop so that Hughes can play second? History suggests the answers are "not much" and "seldom."

Tolbert better fits Gardenhire's accustomed style of managing. I'll be surprised if Hughes comes north to open the season.


  1. Hughes is a tough one to know what to do with. You can't ignore his bat, that's for sure. But where to play him?

  2. Another home run today - Thome won't get pinch run for that often - Tolbert or Hughes as late inning replacement at 2B/SS is not as big of a question as what to do when you need some power off the bench.