Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Position Analysis: Shortstop

Likely Starter: Jason Bartlett
2005 stats: .241/.316/.345, 3 HR, 16 RBI

Potential Backups: Juan Castro, Nick Punto, Luis Rodriguez

Following the 2004 season, the Twins decided not to re-sign Cristian Guzman and allowed him to sign a free agent contract with the Washington Nationals. This left an opening at the shortstop position coming into 2005. The leading candidates were career backup and recent acquisition Juan Castro, hustling utility-man Nick Punto, and the young and inexperienced Jason Bartlett. Bartlett seemed ready for the job, considering he had hit an excellent .332/.417/.475 as a 24-year-old in Triple-A the previous year. Despite the organization's reservations about entering the season with Bartlett as the starter because of his defense, Jason forced the issue by hitting .370 with two homers in spring training.

Bartlett started the '05 season hitting second in the order for the Twins, and struggled out of the gate. He hit just .246/.297/.377 in April. When his play did not show immediate improvement in May, he was sent down and Castro started to see a lot of play-time at short. Castro didn't do much offensively over the course of the year, but provided nice defense. After hitting very well in Triple-A for a few months, Bartlett was recalled to the Twins in August. He hit very well right after being recalled, posting a .318/.366/.394 line in the month of August, but then he was atrocious in September, hitting just .164/.288/.230.

I don't know what to make of Bartlett's roller-coaster year. What I will say is that his defense showed marked improvement over the course of the year. Cmathewson, a fixture around the Twins blogosphere, posted an article on Twinkie Town a while back naming Bartlett as his choice for the most underrated Twins player. It's an interesting point. It's hard to understand just why everyone was so down on Bartlett after taking his lumps in his first pro season. His success in the Twins' minor league system still gives one plenty of reason to think he has a future as a productive regular. I'd be interested to see what Bartlett can do given a full season's worth of at-bats.

There is plenty of reason to think he will get that chance this season. While Ron Gardenhire has said that he is not going to hand the starting gig to anyone, Bartlett is hitting .421 and hasn't committed an error this spring. Nick Punto has hit the ball pretty well also, but he is valuable as a bench player and his defense at short is not as strong as Bartlett's. I can't see any reason why Castro would start over Bartlett. For one thing, this team needs to focus on offensive improvement more than anything this season, and Castro plain and simply can't hit. Another thing to consider is that while Bartlett may be a little less consistent than Castro with the glove, the Twins can probably afford that this season considering that their defense around the rest of the infield should be so much better than last year. Justin Morneau will presumably continue to improve at first, Luis Castillo provides a vast defensive upgrade at second, and Tony Batista is a better third-baseman than Michael Cuddyer. Besides, like I said before, Bartlett did show a lot of improvement defensively throughout last season.

Along with Morneau and Shannon Stewart, Bartlett's ability to improve on his disappointing 2005 numbers will be absolutely crucial to the Twins' chances of making the playoffs this year. I think Bartlett should improve considerably. With Stewart and Castillo firmly entrenched as the team's one and two hitters, Bartlett will be able to slide to the bottom of the order where he will face much less pressure to produce. As long as the Twins don't give up on him when he inevitably struggles early in the season, I think he will start to find his groove a couple months in and finish with a line around .280/.330/.380 with 4 or 5 home runs and 15 stolen bases. If he plays defense well, that would be a more than sufficient season for him.

Castro and Punto can both back-up shortstop. Luis Rodriguez started a few games there last year as well.