Friday, January 11, 2013

Benchmarks for 2013: Middle infield

Brian Dozier had the most playing time at shortstop
last season, but didn't shine in the field or at the plate.
The Twins have truly lacked stability in the middle infield for much of Ron Gardenhire's tenure. Since the breakup of the League of Nations infield he inherited from Tom Kelly (Doug Mientkiewicz, Luis Rivas, Corey Koskie and Cristian Guzman) after the 2004 season, the Twins have had just two three 100-start seasons in the middle infield: Luis Castillo in 2006 at second base, Jason Bartlett in 2007 at shortstop, Orlando Hudson in 2010 at second base.

Eight seasons of patchwork in the middle infield. 2013 is likely to be more of the same.

There are four primary contenders for playing time at second base and shortstop, with three other middle infielders scheduled to be in camp this spring. Taking the big four alphabetically:

Jamey Carroll played all over
the infield in 2012.
Jamey Carroll, entering the second and final year of his Twins contract, is the one guy assured of a roster spot. The veteran, who turns 39 next month, hit .268/.343/.317 last season as he split time at second base (64 starts), shortstop (36 starts) and third base (30 starts).

It's worth noting that Carroll's final numbers were boosted by a big September (.388 for the month) that was also the month in which he had the least playing time. Only once did Carroll play four days in a row in the final month.

Pluses for Carroll: Versatile, reliable, and the one guy in the running with any track record of competency at the plate. Minuses: An almost complete lack of power (while the on-base percentage is quite acceptable for a middle infielder, the slugging percentage is not), and age takes its toll on everybody.

He might wind up with the biggest share of the second base job, but I think the Twins would rather use him in a heavy-use reserve role.

Brian Dozier was handed the shortstop job in midseason and didn't do much with it. As a hitter, he showed a little more power than Carroll and a lot less ability to avoid making outs. In the field, he was ... well, he was an improvement over the mess that was the 2011 shortstop crew, but he was the weakest regular shortstop in the division.

Dozier illustrates what I see as one of Gardenhire's chronic weaknesses as manager: Although he's a former middle infielder himself, Gardenhire's track record at evaluating middle infielders, and particularly shortstops, appears to be wanting. Gardy essentially had to be forced to play Bartlett in 2006. Last year, it appeared that Gardy wanted Dozier from the start, and Terry Ryan and Co. were dubious. In May, Gardenhire got Dozier, and played him consistently until Ryan took him away in mid August. All summer, Gardy talked up Dozier, and all summer, Ryan provided a background murmur of discontent with the shortstop play.

The plan for 2013 appears to be trying Dozier at second base. He has hit some in the minors, and there is precedence for the theory that shifting a player to a less-demanding defensive position can help him at the plate.

Pluses for Dozier: The most potential in this group to hit. Minuses: Very little experience at second base, and he's probably already blown his shot at the shortstop job.

He's probably the front-runner for second base, but if he has trouble turning the double play, or if his hitting is still the mess it was at the end of 2012, it's back to Rochester.

Eduardo Escobar, acquired from the White Sox in the Francisco Liriano trade, is a largely unknown quantity. He spent much of 2012 as a utility infielder with the Sox and had just 14 at-bats with the Twins. Right-handed hitter, very popular in the Chicago clubhouse, just turned 24 this week (he's the youngest of this field of four serious contenders).  By process of elimination, if nothing else, he should get a good look this spring.

Pluses for Escobar: Reputed to have good defensive tools. Minuses: His minor-league record doesn't indicate that he'll hit.

He could win the shortstop job; he might be the utility guy if Carroll winds up with the bulk of the second base job; he might go to Rochester to get some playing time.

Pedro Florimon:
A .579 OPS isn't going
to cut it in the bigs,
no matter how good
the defense.
Pedro Florimon, picked up on waivers from Baltimore last winter and then outrighted to Double A, ended 2012 as the Minnesota shortstop. Turned 26 last month, a switch-hitter who struck out as often with the Twins as he got a hit (30 of each).

He's a rangier shortstop than Dozier, but somewhat error-prone -- and he is, emphatically, no hitter.

Pluses for Florimon: He can help the pitching staff in the field, and this staff (especially the rotation) needs the help. Minuses: He's got to hit better than .219/.272/.307. His minor league record as a hitter is weaker than Escobar's.

He's probably the front runner for the shortstop job, but I doubt he can hold it.

The other guys: Daniel Santana is on the 40-man roster, but he hasn't played above High-A yet. He's ticketed for Double A New Britain. Non-roster invitees James Beresford and Ray Olmedo are essentially roster filler for Rochester and/or New Britain.

The endgame

Ideally, Dozier takes control of the second base job and hits well enough to justify a slot at the top of the order, and one of Florimon or Escobar emerges as a reliable defense-first shortstop.

It's possible that there are no right answers here for Gardenhire -- that neither Florimon nor Escobar can hit well enough to keep their gloves in the lineup, that Dozier really isn't destined to be a major league regular. But the Twins need to find out. Carroll may be the safest choice in the middle infield, but he's no long-term solution.

In this regard, Gardenhire's lack of job security may get in the way of the longer term good of the organization.

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