Denard Span has consistently exceeded expectations this season. True, expectations might have been a bit low. After all, he lost out on the starting center field job to Carlos Gomez last year, and snuck into the lineup playing right field only when Cuddyer was injured. But the proof is here: Span belongs in the outfield and in the lineup.
As a leadoff man, he has a decent .385 OBP and is 6-for-8 in stolen base attempts. These aren’t amazing stats, but watching him work each at-bat, I expect steady improvement through the season.
Span has great concentration at the plate and is ready to match wits with any pitcher. He is still prone to strikeouts—20 so far, on pace for 90 in a full season. But he’s also good at working walks; he’s collected nearly as many as Ks.
Span has patience at the plate, which pitchers exploit to strike him out looking. He doesn’t strike out with big swings nearly as often. A little more experience and his average and OBP will climb.
Michael Cuddyer started the season very slow, but came to life two weeks ago, in the Cleveland series. He may be cooling off again, but it’s just as likely that he is working into the groove of the long season. At his best, there is some feast or famine in his hitting approach, and his career .268 average isn’t concealing a hidden gem.
Cuddyer is an excellent right fielder whose range always impresses me. When he tunes his hitting toward contact, RBIs, and getting on base, he’s a useful tool in the Twins typical bit-by-bit innings. When he tries to shoulder the weight on his own, innings can fizzle.
For some reason, Gardy doesn’t believe Cuddyer is fully ready to be part of a left-right-left sequence in the lineup. The manager is more likely to know than I am, but I think Cuddyer’s biggest value to the team will be sitting between Morneau and Kubel to give opposing managers more trouble with pitcher choices.
Delmon Young is still a project. He’s a true liability in the outfield, and doesn’t seem to be improving his fielding. He has potential, particularly for power, but in two seasons we haven’t even seen a sustained hot streak.
It’s been small glimpses, game by game, of the upside of the hitter the Twins acquired while giving up Jason Bartlett and Matt Garza. Ask yourself: If the Rays were willing to trade him at 22, is that upside really still there?
Judged against what we lost—a shortstop who can hit and field and helped spark the Rays into the World Series, and a pitcher who’s a ferocious stud (and still a problematic clubhouse brute)—Young doesn’t look like a treasure. His cold start was nearly freezing: he hit .241 in April, but is now coming around, and has nudged the average up to .277.
He’s supposed to have speed, but he hasn’t combined it with good judgment, as he’s been thrown out in his two steal attempts. He’s supposed to have power, but hasn’t engaged it, having hit one home run and one double to date. He’s striking out on a pace for 100 Ks this season, and can ground into double plays with the best of them.
Young is young, only 24. If he’s going to bloom, perhaps he needs to be somewhere else in the lineup, though I don’t see a better spot than seventh or eighth, where Gardy parks him now.
Despite the constant assessment of players as possessors of “tools,” Young’s mean nearly nothing with his current approach to the game. The Twins have had a season to turn that around and the progress doesn’t look great.
Carlos Gomez will always be best defined by his own quote as a rookie last year. He’s a speedster, a lively presence in the clubhouse, and an acrobat in the field. He’s aware of these attributes, and told a reporter, “Everybody loves a player like me.”
And it’s true. He’s impossible not to like, with his boingo grin, impulsive swings, and gravity-defying grabs in center field. He can’t hit a lick, but he’s been trying to compensate with bunting artistry.
Last season, he sparked a few rallies this way, but also committed the cardinal sin of forgetting the count and trying to bunt with two strikes. He’s been asked to dial it back this year, and is less slap happy with these infield dribblers, but bunting still remains his strong suit.
It’s an awfully lightweight strong suit, then. Gomez is hitting .207 right now, with a disastrous .277 OBP. Maybe we can forgive the woeful .310 SLG mark, but the other numbers make putting him in the starting lineup a big puzzler for Gardenhire.
Lately he’s been solving it with Young in left, Span in center, Cuddyer in right, and Gomez cheerleading on the bench.
He’s indefatigable in that role, and when he’s in as a defensive replacement, he can make catches like the one last week against the Tigers: A leap past leaping, a fall and roll with arms stretched out straight, and a proud display of the glove wrapped tight around the ball. Everybody loves a player like you.
Gomez is fast, and already has one triple. But his base stealing is proving the running game naysayers correct: he’s been caught out on all three attempts so far.
Last season these mistakes could be dismissed as rookie recklessness, but now they’re a point of concern. He may have too much confidence in his own formidable speed, and too little respect for the abilities of catchers and pitchers to outwit baserunners.
This aspect of his game can and should improve. If it doesn’t, he’ll be a great fielder never became a major league hitter.
Jason Kubel has a much more clearly defined role this season. Gardenhire is using him as DH almost every night, and starting him against left-handers, while last season he was a pure platoon man.
Now, that chance to start against lefties had a lot to do with Mauer missing the start of the season, but Kubel has done enough to prove himself that the bench-warming days may be confined to times when Mauer gets to take off the catching gear and DH.
Still, fantasy fiends may want to be careful. Minnesota has two odd lineup problems—a glut of outfielders and an ever bigger glut of lefty hitters. Kubel hasn’t been used in the outfield often, and when his DH slot is occupied by Mauer or Morneau on their fielding days off, Kubel can ride the pine. Today, however, he started in left against the Yankees.
The typical current batting order is Span (L), Harris (R), Mauer (L), Morneau (L), Kubel (L), Cuddyer (R), Crede (R), Young (R), and Punto (S).
On paper, there’s great vulnerability to specialist pitching matchups in the late innings. In practice, Morneau and Kubel have both shown strength against lefties, and Mauer is such a high average hitter that handedness can’t stop him.
So Kubel stays, even in an unconventional sequence. All his numbers are up from last year, and the settled role may be the reason why. I’d even consider the idea that he took up the burden of Mauer’s month-long absence and put the team on his shoulders.
Kubel isn’t a total power stud, and will probably crack 25 homers at best, but he’s having the best season of his career so far.
If you’re looking for fantasy players, settle on Span and Kubel. Young and Gomez are still works in progress, and Cuddyer is pretty pedestrian at the plate.