March 30, 2009

How does the outfield "competition" currently stand?

To begin talking about the current state of the Twins outfield, we have to first venture back to December. During a Q&A segment at an Agricultural Trade Show in Fargo on December 3rd, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire suggested what his starting outfield would be come Opening Day 2009.
"Those three guys (Span, Gomez & Cuddyer) need to play every day. Delmon is in the mix. He’s a helluva player, a helluva talent. But to me, those three guys should be your outfield and then you go from there.
Obviously, this resulted in quite an uproar throughout the Twins blogosphere. It was right before the Manager Meetings in Las Vegas, which obviously churned the trade rumors throughout that week. Despite rumors of Delmong Young being traded to the Phillies, Rays, Mariners and Padres (among other teams), the Twins decided to hang onto Young. Was it because teams were trying to low-ball the Twins? Was it because they really had no intent on trading Young? It's probably something we'll never know, but regardless, Young laced up his cleats with the Twins on the first day of Spring Training.

Yesterday, during the Twins telecast, color commentator Bert Blylevin relayed what Gardenhire had recently told him about the outfield situation.
"Right out of Spring Training, he's going to go with the hot hand, who's hot is going to start."
Is he changing his stance? Obviously this could alter his earlier stance in case one of "those three guys" goes into a slump. And Gardenhire could be facing that dilemma very shortly.

The Twins wrap up Spring Training in less than a week, and the outfield situation looks as if it should be playing itself out. That is if Gardenhire's current stance is the same as what Blylevin mentioned and he doesn't go back to his first statement. But as we've heard throughout Spring Training, Gardenhire isn't worried about the fact that Span is hitting .154/.257/.246 through 65 Spring Training at-bats.
"He's already proven he can play for me, and play up here, you know what I mean? I'm not worried about it."
With a week left to go, here's how the contestants stand in Gardenhire's "Wheel of Outfielders":

Carlos Gomez - Center Field

2009 Spring Training
       G    AB    AVG    OBP    SLG   XBH    HR   BB/K
      18    49   .286   .375   .592     8     3    6/7
Reasons for and against Gomez starting:
Has outstanding potential and although it'd be great to see him grow into the type of hitter he could be, it likely won't happen this season and maybe not even next. He is very raw offensively and will require a lot of ups and downs over the course of his career. The Twins know he is one of the best defensive center fielders in the game and seem willing to handle poor hitting for poor defense so long as his hitting improves. He's hitting the ball well this Spring but still frequently shows his youth.

Michael Cuddyer - Right Field

2009 Spring Training
       G    AB    AVG    OBP    SLG   XBH    HR   BB/K
      17    48   .333   .377   .583     7     2    4/6
Reasons for and against Cuddyer starting:
Cuddyer missed a lot of the 2008 season with injuries and even when he was healthy, he hasn't put up great numbers over the last year-and-a-half. But still, we occasionally see signs of Cuddyer returning to his 2006 form when he hit 24 home runs, drove in 104 runs and had an OPS+ of 124. The Twins value his leadership in the dugout and will want to keep him happy. But we all know that he's one of "Gardy's Boys" and will likely receive most of the starts in right field. He's hitting the ball well, but even if he isn't, he'll still get the upper hand to be penciled in on the lineup card.

Delmon Young - Left/Right Field

2009 Spring Training
       G   AB    AVG    OBP    SLG   XBH    HR   BB/K
      19   58   .293   .317   .517     7     3    0/9
Reasons for and against Young starting:
Young has been hitting great this Spring. Although he isn't getting on base at that high of a clip, he is beginning to pull the ball and more importantly drive the ball which is something Twins fans have expected from Young since he's been a Twin. At 6'3'' and 200 lbs., Young should be able to bash the ball a lot farther than he was doing so last year. His K/BB ratio is alarming, but it's something that he improved on slightly last year and should be something that improves this year.

Denard Span - Left, Center, Right Field

2009 Spring Training
      G    AB    AVG    OBP    SLG   XBH    HR   BB/K
      20   65   .154   .257   .246     6     1   9/10
Reasons for and against Span starting:
Span can play, and we all know it. Although he's fighting it in Spring Training, Span can hit the ball well enough to be the teams best bet at lead-off. His walk-rate is encouraging and it looks like he's at least taking good at-bats and continuing to draw walks. He is extremely valuable as he can play all three outfield spots great and is really the teams best option at lead-off. His hitting line in Spring does raise eyebrows though as many question whether or not his success in 2008 was a fluke or not.

I personally like all three players. It's a shame the Twins cannot find room for all of them. If Cuddyer were as athletic as he was when he first came up through the Minor Leagues, the Twins could use him at second base and this entire competition would be forgotten. But unfortunately the story doesn't work out like that and the team is now faced with a decision.

Although we all know each outfielder will get his fair share of at-bats, we also know that at least one of them will also get stiffed of at-bats while others start much more than them. Although he will probably never say it, Gardenhire knows that both Gomez and Cuddyer will be his everyday center and right fielders from day one. Gardenhire would claim that this "competition" is for all three outfield spots, but we all know that it really only comes down to left field.

Span and Young both possess qualities that the Twins are looking for. Span gets on base at lead-off while Young provides a middle-of-the-order right-handed bat that the team desires. But if Gardenhire is serious about going with "who's hot," then Young deserves the nod at least on Opening Day. And don't let my statements get in the way of the overall picture. I'm not suggesting that Span is bench ridden for the entire season, and I know he needs to get at-bats in order to get out of slumps, but I personally think that he should get his at-bats as long as it doesn't come at the expense of sitting a hot batter. Although a .293 average with zero walks and nine strikeouts is not something that should give him all out immunity, I do think that his improvements at the plate should give him the upper hand in the left field battle.

One thing I'd hate to see is deserving players not get their chance to play due to another player having the "upper hand." We all know that Young is Gardenhire's least favorite of the three other outfielders mentioned (and if we're including Kubel, Young would still rank last), but will he have to suffer? Hopefully not.