Thursday, March 16, 2006

Position Analysis: Left Field

Likely Starter: Shannon Stewart
2005 stats: .274/.323/.388, 10 HR, 56 RBI

Potential Backups: Lew Ford, Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, Ruben Sierra

Unless Shannon Stewart is seriously injured, left field is his at the beginning of the year. However, depth remains important because Stewart comes into this year with injury issues. In 2004 he was plagued with plantar fascitis in his foot. Last year, he struggled with a left-shoulder injury and in 551 at-bats, he only hit .274. This is after a run of six straight .300 or above seasons for Shannon.

This year, expect a comeback. Stewart remains a career .300 hitter and has gotten on base at a .364 clip throughout. He also carries a career .441 slugging percentage. His .388 SLG in '05 was his lowest in his career since getting limited at-bats in the 1995 and '96 seasons. Stewart also just turned 32, so imagining that his career is going downhill quick is a heavy suggestion. He isn't a catcher, after all.

Like his teammate Rondell White, Shannon's injury issues seem to come on plays in the outfield. He isn't a great left fielder and he has a very weak arm. Thus, its important for him to come back and contribute on the offensive end. With the changes this offseason and time to rest, that should happen.

For one, with two very patient hitters -- Luis Castillo and Joe Mauer -- waiting behind him in the second and third spots in the order, the patience should rub off and return Stewart to his usual good OBP levels. Having such good hitters behind him should mean more fastballs for him to feast on as well. With that, he should have a good rebound year. The most important statistic for him to improve on his is K/BB ratio, which was uncharacteristically bad for him last year at 73:34 (in 2004 it was 44:47). Stewart's offensive game is built around good patient at-bats, and I think he will return to that form in the upcoming season.

What should we expect? I don't see him hitting at his career-high levels like 21 HRs in 2000 or 202 hits in 2001, but a .290 average isn't a stretch for Shannon. Something in between his career average (.300) and last year's level seems right. With that, I predict his line to be about .287/.360/.440 with 12 HRs and 55 RBIs.

Stewart fell hard last year, especially amongst Twins fans, but in a contract year, I expect lots of good things from Shannon offensively. He should lead a rebuffed and more powerful Twins lineup as it pursues the AL Central title.

If Stewart has injury troubles, Lew Ford would probably jump in for him, as he played a lot in left field in 2004 when Stewart battled plantar fascitis. Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel are more suited for right field, but could play in left if needed. Ruben Sierra probably should be kept out of the field at all costs, but if he does play anywhere, it would have to be left.