Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Position Analysis: Third Base

Likely Starter: Tony Batista
2005 stats (w/ Fukuoka in Japan): .263/.294/.463, 27 HR, 90 RBI

Potential Backups: Michael Cuddyer, Terry Tiffee, Luis Rodriguez, Nick Punto, Glenn Williams

There is an awful lot of mediocre "competition" for third base this year. It's most likely that the hot corner will be a weak spot again, simply because the Twins lack any real solidity there. Glenn Williams did well last year before he was injured, but it wasn't all that encouraging since he lacked any power for in his 10-for-25 strech. Luis Rodriguez is talented, but he's better off as a utility man and the same goes for Nick Punto. Terry Tiffee showed last year that he really doesn't bring much at all to the table. He was simply atrocious at the plate and his defense has never been great. Michael Cuddyer failed there last year and probably won't return there. That leaves Tony Batista as the leading candidate and that's rather unnerving.

Now, anyone who has read our offseason posts knows that I am not completely against Batista. He seems like a pretty good clubhouse guy (possibly a major reason for Ryan to sign him) and he had a big power season in 2000, along with a bunch of other good ones. Of course, the problem is he's a standing duck at third with a decent arm and he's an out-making machine at the plate. It's not so much that he can't be used effectively so much as that he won't be used effectively. Batista is exactly the kind of player you don't want to give Ron Gardenhire. Gardy loves his veterans and that's not an issue when you're playing Luis Castillo, Torii Hunter, or Rondell White in your daily lineup. But Batista is a different story. He's an enormous question mark in many ways. Will he hit over .230? Will his OBP be over .300? Will he hit 20 home runs even?

These questions have to be asked in the wake of recent Batista moments. Scouts have been quoted as saying they thought he looked terrible recently and he's out of shape. He got off to a very slow start in spring training. Any way this situation plays out, it's not going to be too great. If Batista loses and Gardy refuses to put Cuddyer back at third, what happens? Does Terry Ryan make a trade? Does Gardy start Tiffee? Williams? Rodriguez?

I sincerely hope for the earlier scenario. Batista has an awful spring, Liriano looks great, Lohse is traded, we get a decent third-baseman and the Twins end up with a more balanced lineup. It could happen. Or we may have a number seven hitter with a .220/.265/.430 line. Ugh.

It is unlikely that anyone other than Batista will start the season at the hot corner. Rodriguez is not a starter and Punto would be even worse in that spot. And it would take an awful lot to get Cuddyer back at third. Also, Batista has been given the opportunity from Terry Ryan, mostly it would seem for fitting in with the clubhouse. So, Batista is all but guaranteed the spot. What can we expect? Batista will strike out a lot. If he plays most of the year, he'll get over 600 ABs, simply because he never walks. That should mean 100 Ks or so. Of course, he may not get so many strikeouts (78 in 2004) as just plain outs. 2004 (his last year in the Majors) seems to be a good year to base things off when looking at what will happen this year.

Yes, he's hit 41 home runs before, but there are many reasons why it won't happen again. For one, it's been six years since 2000. He isn't in his prime anymore. Secondly he was hitting fourth in the lineup that year, getting fastballs behind one Carlos Delgado, who had a career year (hitting .344 with 41 homers and 137 RBI). Joe Mauer is a great number three hitter, but the rest of Twins lineup won't be like the 2000 Blue Jays and Batista won't be anything near the middle of the order unless Gardenhire loses his mind.

I don't think my aforementioned pessimistic prediction (.220/.265/.430) will necessarily come true, but it isn't out of the realm of possibility. Batista will hit low in the order, he'll strike out, he won't walk, he'll have a some doubles, not a lot of singles, and a few clutch 3-run homers. In some ways, he'll just replace what Jacque Jones was. I say .240/.295/.450, 25 home runs and 70 RBI is positive estimate for his productivity. Otherwise, it's going to very ugly before we are forced to replace him.

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