We’re just under a quarter of the way through the season, and I’m assessing the team player by player. Today’s subject is the infield.
The season began with Joe Mauer on the DL, and that’s a big void in the lineup. But bigger still was the absence of production from the RH hitters who were needed to get on base for the boppers, or do some bopping themselves. The cold start of the team overall may well have had something to do with Mauer’s absence.
A classic Twins inning from last season included a few singles or walks, with RBI production from the hitters to follow. Mauer had a chameleon role here—he could start off the single or walk fest himself, or produce the double that drove in a run. His power game was nearly an afterthought, while his average was a thing of beauty.
Without Mauer to start or finish these scoring drives, it seems very few of them got started in April. Mauer’s return has not rekindled last season’s pattern, however.
His first at-bat after coming off the DL was a home run, and he hasn’t really stopped. He’s on pace for a fat 50 dingers after missing 24 games, homering about every ninth at-bat, a rate we can’t expect him to maintain. This is un-Mauer-like, but hugely welcome in the Twins’ lo-cal lineup.
He’s not just hitting homers, he’s hitting period. His average rests at .423, with a great .827 SLG and a fine .524 OBP. An elite catcher when he just hit for average, now he has stats you look for in first basemen.
His hot streak is still going after a little over two weeks. Remember, he missed all of spring training with serious back issues, yet somehow got his swing ready for what could be a career year. But if he does drop back to earth, his norms are still good enough to have won him two AL batting titles (2006 and 2008).
His newfound power doesn’t seem to be hurting his overall approach at the plate, but his strikeouts bear watching. He’s getting twice as many walks as Ks right now, but his full season strikeout rate projects to 69 Ks, well above the 50 or so he normally notches.
Mauer at this moment is arguably the best catcher in baseball. Gardenhire has several ways to keep him fresh by giving him a DH rest day or cycling him out of the lineup against any especially fearsome lefty. Fantasy owners who salted him away until his late start must be glowing, and should keep him active every day.
The backup catching corps was tested all April, and veteran Mike Redmond and youngster Jose Morales performed better than might be expected. Both of them hit as well or better as the many quiet bats in the lineup.
Jose Morales was initially sent to the minors on Mauer’s return, and it had to be a tough call for Gardenhire to choose his spare catcher. Because Delmon Young is on a brief DL stint, Morales is active now but this won’t last.
Morales will probably be heard from again in September. He hit .333 in the 20 games he played, and his .385 OBP also eclipses Redmond’s. He’s got a rookie’s telltale susceptibility to strikeouts, but he stands a good chance of developing well for the Twins.
He gets extra credit for catching RA Dickey in the knuckleballer’s only start this season and acquitting himself well with one of those dishpan-size gloves.
He might not be Mauer, but Mike Redmond’s infectious enthusiasm can sometimes keep rallies going, and his .255 average and .327 OBP are respectable for a catcher.
The Twins have a true extreme here. Redmond is the vet who keeps the clubhouse loose and can coax a hit or two by sheer savvy but whose offensive contributions will dwindle a bit more each year. Morales may well be a genuine prospect, who may be able to master a few positions and hit with real authority. When do you tilt from the past to the future?
Justin Morneau has been magnificent this year. I recall slow starts from him, but he began 2009 like an MVP. Morneau has been consistently excellent each week, each series, and virtually each game. It’s hard to pin an 0-fer on him, and he’s prepared to contribute to each game.
After his recent tear in Yankee Stadium, he happens to be on pace for double his typical home run production: 52 should he clock in for all 162 games. Speaking of which, he rarely misses a day and is the picture of health and endurance. Last season, I think Gardy resorted to DHing him about twice. A rock who hits for power.
And for RBI. Because the Twins like to plant a few runners for Morneau, he’s logged over 100 RBI for the last three years. The only impediment this year might be Mauer’s homer-happy hitting, which clears the bases.
Morneau truly has few weaknesses. He started strong and is still getting better, going from an April .318 average to .333 in May. He’s actually hitting lefties better than righties—a 1.124 OPS against southpaws versus .997. He
has good strike zone judgment, is willing and able to produce sac flies as well as stinging line drives and the aforesaid homers, and he plays first like a picking machine.
The Twins have the middle infield set on Shuffle Play. Brendan Harris, Matt Tolbert, and Nick Punto can all appear at second or short.
Alexi Casilla, so promising last year, has been sent down to the minors to try to cure an egregious case of poor offense. It got bad enough to affect his defense, and he’ll either reemerge in a month or disappear for the season.
Brendan Harris was Gardy’s second choice for second base, but with Casilla’s ultra-disappointing start, Harris is getting the majority of starts. His current average is a respectable .271, but look elsewhere for power.
Harris has the basic skills necessary if we can get last year’s piranha hitting attack underway again, but so far our fish are merely nibbling.
Matt Tolbert is a light-hitting infielder. He plays his position very well, but is currently hitting below the Mendoza line. He’s a backup second baseman who knows how to play the Twins way.
Nick Punto is, as I understand it, a favorite of Gardenhire’s and I can see why. He has hustle and commitment, and sound baseball understanding of baserunning, fielding, and situational hitting.
Of course the missing piece is hitting, and it’s really missing. This season he’s had a few serious droughts at the plate, and just snapped an 0 for 17 streak. Sorry to say that may only mean he’s about to begin his next hitless streak.
Punto is a team sparkplug, and his defensive skills help solidify the infield. He can play second or third, and puts his heart and soul into every game. You can see why he contributes to the team, but don’t make the mistake of letting him appear in a fantasy lineup. He’s hitting .200 with 18 mortifying strikeouts.
The Twins are widely criticized for letting shortstop Jason Bartlett go to the Rays in 2008, along with Matt Garza, in the trade for Delmon Young and Harris. Punto is by no means an equivalent shortstop, though I don’t think the Twins ever thought he was.
They hoped to acquire some genuine power in Young, after spending so many years with league bottom power stats. Young didn’t match his hype, but that trade didn’t go astray because the Twins thought they no longer needed a good shortstop; they just thought they needed a masher much more.
Joe Crede, acquired from the White Sox in February, fills a third base hole that has troubled the Twins for many seasons. The knock on Crede is his pesky back, which has him out of the lineup right now.
He’s a solid hitter, and is still basking in his walkoff grand slam heroics of last week. He projects to 30 homers, but he’s unlikely to appear in over 100 games, so I suspect he’ll total no more than 20.
If the Twins get their incremental hitting attack going, he’s positioned to collect more than the 55 RBIs than he got with the Sox last year. He’s still likely to strike out more than he walks and sports a so-so .296 OBP, but for the Twins he’s an upgrade.