Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Ron Gardenhire's evolving infields

A running theme in this corner of the Internet is Pitching Plan B. Nobody gets through a full season with five starters, much less four -- nine men started at least once for the 2010 Twins. Teams have to have Plan Bs available to plug into the rotation.

Nick Punto has plugged infield
holes at three positions in midseason.
But an intriguing aspect to the Twins is how often they have to turn to an infield Plan B. And considering that Plan A for 2010 involves one middle infielder who has never played a major league game (Tsuyoshi Nishioka) and another who has twice before been handed a starting job and twice handed it back (Alexi Casilla) -- and that Plan A is vague on which of those two will play shortstop and which second base -- the organization's ability to handle such infield turmoil is significant.

Ron Gardenhire inherited the "League of Nations infield" when he assumed the managerial job for the 2002 season: Doug Mientkiewicz at first base, Luis Rivas at second, Corey Koskie at third, Cristian Guzman at short. No real stars in that group, but no oozing sores either.

That foursome began to break up after a couple of division titles. Rivas faded out of the lineup; Mientkiewicz gave way to Justin Morneau, griped about it and was traded in midseason; Koskie and Guzman left as free agents for bigger offers.

The Twins have since gone with Morneau and a series of stopgaps, with frequent midseason changes because of injury or ineptitude. Let's chart this over the past five seasons:

April infield: Morneau, 1B; Orlando Hudson, 2B; Nick Punto, 3B; J.J. Hardy, SS
September infield: Michael Cuddyer, 1B; Hudson, 2B; Danny Valencia, 3B; Hardy, SS

April: Morneau, 1B; Alexi Casilla, 2B; Joe Crede, 3B; Punto, SS
September: Cuddyer, 1B; Punto, 2B; Matt Tolbert, 3B; Orlando Cabrera, SS

Joe Crede opened 2009 at
third base but couldn't make
it through the season.
April: Morneau, 1B; Brendan Harris, 2B; Mike Lamb, 3B; Adam Everett, SS
September: Morneau, 1B; Casilla, 2B; Brian Buscher/Harris platoon, 3B; Punto, SS

April: Morneau, 1B; Luis Castillo, 2B; Punto, 3B; Jason Bartlett, SS
September: Morneau, 1B; Casilla, 2B; Punto, 3B; Bartlett, SS

April: Morneau, 1B; Castillo, 2B; Tony Bautista, 3B; Juan Castro, SS
September: Morneau, 1B; Castillo, 2B; Punto, 3B; Bartlett, SS

There are two constants in that string of seasons: Morneau is always Plan A at first base, and Nick Punto is alway plugging a hole created by somebody else's failure. (Punto's best seasons have come when he wasn't Plan A.)

It should be no surprise that Ron Gardenhire wants Punto back as his security blanket.

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