Nick Punto, Minnesota Twins Battle To Cut Deadweight
There are two accepted truths when it comes to Twins shortstop Nick Punto.
First: Punto is a stellar defender, among the best in baseball.
Second: Despite being a professional baseball player, if forced to get a hit to save his life, Punto would be better off penning his epitaph than taking a practice swing.
Never was this dichotomy clearer than in 2007, when Punto fought to stay above the Mendoza line for the entire season.
As late as Sept. 14 of that year, Punto's batting average actually sat below .200; only a seven-game hitting streak where he went a combined 12-for-25 brought him back from the brink.
So why did Punto make a career-high 150 appearances that season?
Simple: His 13.4 UZR at third base was third best in baseball among players with at least 800 innings at the position.
Not only did his admittedly solid defensive season earn him an everyday spot for the 2007 season, but it also extended into 2008.
That season, he managed to pull his OPS up to a fairly respectable .726 and was subsequently rewarded with his current two-year, $8.5 million deal.
It isn't as though that $4.25 million per season really cramped the Twins' budget, but Punto simply didn't earn that, just like he hasn't earned his starting spot.
Punto is back down to his 2007 hitting prowess, sporting a robust .181/.290/.488.
Yes, that's an OPS of .488. In case the slash stats didn't make his value clear, his OPS+ is a reprehensible 36 and his VORP is -7.4.
Translation: In the pool of freely available talent, the Twins could select almost any shortstop and actually see an improvement upon Punto's offensive output. If an average major leaguer has an OPS+ of 100, Punto is barely hitting a third of that.
But what about his all-world defense? Simply put, it's mythical.
Sure, Punto is a "Web Gem" machine—second best in baseball as of last ranking—but is that really the best measure of a defender?
When fans (and managers) see great plays like the ones Punto is capable of putting out, it cements the player's reputation for being a good defender.
But players like Torii Hunter and Carlos Gomez aren't great because they take away home runs on occasion. They are great defenders because they consistently make the plays they should make in addition to their brilliant displays of athleticism.
This season, Punto has made most of his starts at short due to the addition of Joe Crede. As a pivot, he is still an above average defender, but he is saving just 1.8 runs over an average shortstop, good for ninth best in baseball.
If he was also an average hitter, perhaps the good outweighs the bad and the Twins keep him around for laughs.
As noted above, Punto would need to go on a Joe Mauer-like tear just to get back to average, and he simply isn't capable of doing so.
There isn't a clear solution to this problem. Matt Tolbert has been better at the plate than Punto, but not by much. Brendan Harris hits better but isn't a reliable defender.
The Twins simply can't survive relying on 4-for-5 hitters while calling the rest specialized defenders, but that's what they are doing now.
Serious changes need to be made, and they should start with Punto, who, for all his reputed defensive skill, simply isn't earning his keep on either side of the ball.
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