Saturday, March 10, 2007

Position Analysis: Third Base

Projected Starter: Nick Punto
2006 Stats: .290/.352/.373, 1 HR, 45 RBI

Will Punto still be starting in July?

Potential Backups: Jeff Cirillo, Alejandro Machado, Luis Rodriguez

So far we've analyzed three positions for the Twins--catcher, first base and second base--and each of those spots looks pretty strong and well-set heading into the 2007 season. Now we come to third base, which is a different story. Last year the Twins entered the season with Tony Batista as their starter at the hot corner, and the results were disastrous. Batista was simply horrendous on both offense and defense, and in mid-June the Twins finally dumped him and gave Punto a shot at the position. Punto stepped in and never looked back, locking up his spot in the starting lineup with a ridiculous .374/.432/.515 hitting line in the month of July.

Punto finished the season with a .290 batting average, which stunned a number of people because his career average prior to the 2006 season was just .238. I can honestly say that I wasn't all that surprised. I have always felt that Punto had the skill set to be a solid little hitter given regular playing time. He started to show this back in 2005. When the Twins pulled the plug on Luis Rivas early in the season, Punto started to see regular playing time at second base. On June 2 of 2005, Punto was hitting .293/.351/.423, but it was on that day that he suffered an injury that kept him out for a month. Punto was never the same after returning and finished the season with an ugly .239/.301/.335 line, but he did show me something during his hot stretch in May, and he showed it again last season. That's why I'm one of the few people who believe Punto has a chance repeat--or perhaps even improve on--his offensive production of last season.

The big key to Punto's offensive emergence last season was his ability to cut down on strikeouts and put the ball in play more often. Prior to last year, Punto had struck out in 130 of his 588 career major-league at-bats (22%); in 2006 he struck out just 68 times in 459 at-bats (15%). He started to stray from this new trend toward the end of the year (in September, he struck out 18 times while drawing just three walks), but if he can get back to a that low-strikeout zone while drawing a decent number of walks, I think he stands a good chance of hitting for a good average again this season. He's never going to hit for a ton of power, but he is an excellent bunter and he can steal bases (17 on 22 attempts last year), so he definitely has a chance to be a decently valuable piece at the top of the Twins lineup this year, even if his production will never be ideal for a third-baseman.

At the very least, Punto showed great defensive ability while playing third base last season, despite the fact that he had relatively little major-league experience at that position in the past. He has good range to both sides and can make accurate off-balance throws. These are important factors, because I think the importance of third base as a defensive position is an underrated.

Should Punto regress back toward his old banjo-hitting self and cause the Twins to feel that his offense is not sufficient to warrant a starting spot, there is a back-up plan in place in the form of off-season acquisition Jeff Cirillo. The 37-year-old right-handed hitter holds a career hitting line of .298/.368/.432. He was a great hitter in his earlier years with Milwaukee and Colorado, but he hit a rut when he went to Seattle in 2002 and just finally got back on track when he returned to the Brewers in 2005. Cirillo hit .319/.369/.414 in 263 at-bats for Milwaukee last year, including .413/.451/.493 against southpaws. For that reason, he will probably see a number of starts against left-handed starters this season, be it at third base or first or second. It's worth noting that Punto, a switch-hitter, performed better against lefties than against righties last year so it is unlikely that Cirillo will see action at third for platoon reasons. But Cirillo is an established veteran with good plate discipline and solid defensive skills. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see him in place as the regular third basemen by the All-Star break should Punto struggle in April and May.

Luis Rodriguez or Alejandro Machado are both capable third basemen as well, so whichever one makes the roster (if either one does) will provide additional depth at this position.

Despite what has thus far been an unimpressive spring for him, Punto has a solid grasp on the starting third base spot for the Twins, and it would take a couple months of putrid offensive performance for him to lose it. If that happens, Cirillo should be ready to step in and provide solid offensive production along with reasonable defense at third. This position is not as strong as the others we've covered so far, but it's not exactly a weak spot either.