Monday, March 12, 2007

Position Analysis: Left Field

Projected Starter: Rondell White
2006 Stats: .246/.276/.365, 7 HR, 38 RBI

The Twins need White to remain healthy and productive in '07.

Potential Backups: Jason Kubel, Jason Tyner, Lew Ford

Last offseason, the Twins signed Rondell White as a free agent with the goal of shoring up their designated hitter spot. I was optimistic about the move, seeing as how White was coming off a very good 2005 season with the Tigers in which he had hit .313/.348/.489. He had also batted .301/.387/.501 with runners in scoring position over the previous three seasons, which made him a good candidate to regularly drive in the high-average guys at the top of the Twins' lineup.

As most readers are no doubt aware, things did not go as planned for White in 2006. He struggled out of the gates and couldn't get himself on track. By June 17, he was hitting a miserable .182/.209/.215 with no home runs, just 15 RBI, and 30 strikeouts to go along with just five walks. White was a disaster. After a trip to the disabled list and a rehab stint in the minor-leagues, White found himself back in the Twins' lineup on July 16, and he looked like a different player. Upon returning, White picked up multiple hits in four of his first six games, including a two-homer performance against the Devil Rays on July 19 and a four-hit, four-RBI outbreak against the Indians on July 21. In total, White was two different players for the Twins in 2006: the unspeakably horrible player before the All-Star break (.182/.209/.215, 0 HR, 15 RBI in 181 AB), and the outstanding hitter after the All-Star break (.321/.354/.538, 7 HR, 23 RBI in 156 AB). Because White seemed to perform so much better offensively when he was playing left field (.326/.366/.507) than when he was at DH (.195/.216/.277), the Twins brought him back during the offseason with the plan of handing him the full-time starting gig out in left, and hoping he can hit the way he did when he was playing there last year.

There are some legitimate reasons to believe that White's 2007 numbers will be closer to his stellar second-half form from 2006 than his horrific first-half form, and in my mind none of them have much to do with the fact that he'll be playing the field.

White has a history of injuries that has earned him the nickname "RonDL" over the course of his career, and his terrible numbers for the first half of the 2006 season can likely be attributed in large part to nagging issues resulting from a surgery he had undergone on his left shoulder following the 2005 season. White felt stiffness in the shoulder that took away from his quickness at the plate and prevented him from being able to get around on hard fastballs. Said White in a March 6 Star Tribune article by Patrick Reusse: "I never want to be looked at as a whiner, but, honestly, the shoulder didn't feel good. ... It made me slower with the bat. So, I had to jump out to hit the fastball. And when you're jumping out, and it's not a fastball, you don't have a chance."

White reportedly went through an intense workout regiment during the offseason to strengthen his shoulder and increase his flexibility. Hopefully this will make his shoulder issue a thing of the past. In looking at White's 14-season big-league history, he did have one other season that was similarly abysmal to 2006; that was in 2002 with the Yankees. That year, White hit a remarkably similar .240/.288/.378 with 14 HR and 62 RBI in 126 games. He bounced back the next year by hitting .289/.341/.488 with 22 HR and 87 RBI in 137 games between the Royals and Padres. If White could have a similar rebound year for the Twins, I think fans would be more than pleased. Of course, he is now 35 years old, so perhaps a bounce-back is not in the cards. At the very least, the emergence of Michael Cuddyer as a reliable right-handed cleanup bat will take a lot of pressure off of White, as he will be able to slide down in the order. Perhaps that will work to his advantage.

It is unfortunate that the Twins seem to feel that White is more productive offensively when he's playing the field, because he is a liability defensively. His range is average at best, and his arm is weak. Jason Kubel is far superior defensively, so if he's healthy I'd hope to see him take over defensive duties in left at some point during the season.

Playing the outfield also puts White at a higher risk of suffering an injury, another reason it would be to his and the Twins' benefit to move him back to DH at some point. Presuming he can stay healthy all year, I would project his numbers somewhere close to the ones he put up with the Tigers in 2004: .270/.337/.453 with 19 home runs and 67 RBI in 121 games. He'll need to show a little patience at the plate, because it was non-existent last year (11 walks in 355 plate appearances) and pitchers took advantage. If White can produce numbers similar to the ones I projected above, I think that would be plenty sufficient for the six- or seven-spot in the lineup.

As for depth, Kubel projects as the starting DH, but presuming he's healthy he can back up left field as well (and hopefully take over full-time at some point). Jason Tyner and Lew Ford can also fill in out there.

If White can bounce back and put up numbers close to his career averages, he'd give the Twins' lineup a big boost in 2007. If he looks more like he did in the first half of 2006, hopefully Ron Gardenhire and the Twins will not hesitate too long to bench him and insert Kubel in left.