Monday, February 2, 2015

The Twins by position: Shortstop, part one

Eduardo Escobar turns a double play last season.
Shortstop is one of two positions at which the Twins won't enter camp with an obvious starter.

Or maybe the starter is obvious and I just don't want to admit it.

Danny Santana is going to play somewhere. He was too good last year -- .319/.353/.472 slash line, OPS+ 30 percent above league average -- not to. But there are buts: He never performed anywhere near that level in the minors, and ought not be expected to match that level of production.

He did that hitting while playing mostly centerfield, an unaccustomed position. He was mostly a shortstop in the minors -- short with a little second base, and he hadn't played second in more than a year.

Paul Molitor has been pretty emphatic about Santana this offseason: He wants to return Santana to his accustomed role as a shortstop.

There are three problems with that plan in my eyes:

  • Santana is, as long as Bryon Buxton is ruled out of the majors after his injury-riddled 2014, probably the best of a sorry set of choices for center field;
  • Santana has never been regarded as a good or even average defensive shortstop in the minors;
  • Eduardo Escobar, who emerged as the regular shortstop last season, did nothing to suggest that he needs to be replaced.

I'll discuss the center field situation in a future post, so set that aside for now.

Escobar hit .275/.315/.406 last year with 37 doubles. His OPS was 102, two percent above league, which is perfectly acceptable for a shortstop.

Question: How sustainable is that level of production for Escobar?

The general view seems to be that he's not really a league average hitter. I'm not quite so dismissive. It's easy to lose track of this fact: He spent basically a year and half rotting on the bench for two teams (White Sox and Twins) in his age 23-24 seasons. The Twins sent him to Triple A for the second half of the 2013 season, and he mashed: .307/.380./.500. He opened 2014 on the Twins bench, got a chance to play when Pedro Florimon flopped, and performed well enough that Ron Gardenhire never worked up the nerve to pull him for Santana despite hints from the front office.

Question: How good is his defense compared to Santana?

This is a case in which I hesitate to turn to the defensive metrics. Even the most avid defenders of the various systems will readily concede that it takes three years to get a sufficient sample size for the numbers to measure ability, and we don't have even a full year at short for either in this case.

For what it's worth, the runs saved system rates Escobar for his career as -2 as a shortstop per 1,200 innings, meaning he costs his team two runs compared to an average defensive shortstop. It puts Santana at -4.

What that is worth isn't much. This is truly a case in which the eyeball test is relevant. And I know of nobody who has watched much of Santana in the minors who's been impressed with his defense. The tools, yes. The use of them, no. I watched him some in spring training last year before they sent him down, and he was giving away outs.

I can't say that Escobar looked like Ozzie Smith, or even Florimon, in the field last year, but I'm comfortable with asserting that he's an average defensive shortstop. He doesn't have great range, but he's not giving away an out a game.

An average defensive shortstop who can hit a bit is not to be idly discarded. Which is something I'll explore in a followup post.

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