Sunday, March 19, 2006

Position Analysis: Designated Hitter

Likely Starter: Rondell White
2005 stats (w/ Tigers): .313/.348/.489, 12 HR, 53 RBI


Potential Backups: Ruben Sierra, Jason Kubel, Michael Cuddyer

The Twins have had a considerable problem with the designated hitter position for the past several years. The guys that they have put there -- with the sole duty of hitting -- have not really hit. As such, no single player has really been able to hold down the spot. Several guys have been tried there over the years, but it has been a long time since the Twins have had a solid DH who has been able to hold the spot for an entire season.

Terry Ryan set out during the offseason to change that for this year. The two big-name candidates on the free agent market that the Twins reportedly had interest in were Frank Thomas and Mike Piazza, but there were many issues with both of these players. Aside from injury concerns, Thomas is a questionable clubhouse character and Piazza still wants to play the field. Wanting to avoid these issues, Ryan went the safer route and signed Rondell White from the Tigers to an incentive-laden one-year contract (with an option for a second year). Despite a long injury history, White has been a very consistent hitter in his career, posting a .289/.343/.472 line. The only time he has hit below .270 in a full season was in 2002 with the Yankees, by far his worst season. The Twins had two starters hit over .270 last year.

White has typically been a left fielder over the course of his career, but the Twins plan to move him to full-time DH duties in order to reduce the likelihood of another injury. White has only gotten over 500 at-bats in a season twice in his 13-year career. Last year he only played in 97 games, but hit very well, posting a .313/.348/.489 with 12 home runs and 53 RBI. He injured his shoulder while playing in the outfield, and that is how a lot of his injuries have come. Being used strictly as a DH should hopefully keep him healthy for the majority of the season.

Perhaps the most important thing to look at with White is how he hits with runners in scoring position. Last year he was phenomenal, hitting .364/.417/.525 with with 41 RBI in 99 at-bats. His three-year line with RISP is .301/.387/.501. This is extremely important as White will probably hit cleanup for the Twins, right behind a couple of guys who get on base a ton in Luis Castillo and Joe Mauer. Even though Rondell lacks prototypical power for a cleanup hitter, he should drive in a lot of runs if he gets the opportunities.

The Twins would be exuberant to get the kind of numbers from White that he put up last year, but even if he hits around his career averages it would be a major upgrade for this offense. If he can stay healthy for most of the year, I predict White will have a very good season and hit around .300/.345/.475 with 20 HR and 95 RBI. And I also think that will be a much better year than either Piazza or Thomas will have.

If he's healthy, White should start most of the games at DH. Ruben Sierra will probably start there a few times against right-handed pitchers if he's on the roster. Jason Kubel might also spend some time at DH, particularly if his knee has problems and keeps him from being able to play the outfield.

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On another note, this is why you don't spend 55 million dollars on an extremely injury-prone pitcher. Close call.