Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Improving the Offense In Two Easy Steps

The Twins played very well in their four-game sweep of the A's over the weekend, but they didn't really prove anything. They showed that their starting pitching was good enough to suppress an Oakland lineup that has been woefully ineffective pretty much all month, and they showed that their offense could score enough runs to support those great pitching performances four games in a row. Unfortunately, pitching like that cannot be counted on on a daily basis for the rest of the season, especially when the Twins are taking on offenses more potent than that of the A's, which ranks second-to-last in the American League in runs scored. The Twins scored 19 runs over the four-game series, which isn't bad, but they hit just one home run and failed to capitalize in numerous situations. Nick Punto started in all four games and went 3-for-14 with three strikeouts and no walks. Four different players started at designated hitter in the series. The Twins need to make a few adjustments to their lineup in order to get some consistency.

I'm a strong supporter of a trade to bring in a hitter, and I think it's fairly evident that the positions that most need to be addressed are third base and DH. Bringing in help at third base via trade would not be an easy task, as there aren't many cheaply available third basemen out there for the plucking right now. Acquiring a player who can DH would be much easier, as there need be no consideration for defensive ability. Mike Piazza and Ty Wigginton are a couple of players who are believed to be available that would nicely fill the role of a right-handed bat the Twins could stick in the DH spot regularly. Neither would cost the Twins a top prospect, which is not the case with some of the young third basemen who have been mentioned as potential acquisitions for the Twins (such as Colorado's Ian Stewart and and Los Angeles' Andy LaRoche).


But what to do about the third base dilemma? Despite his big two-run triple in Sunday's game, Punto's offense has been atrocious this year and with his .212/.307/.280 line, his continued regular presence in the lineup is hurting the team. It's very possible that the Twins can replace Punto and get a big offensive boost at third base without looking outside the organization. There's a third baseman down in Class-AAA Rochester who is absolutely crushing the ball, and he might be the biggest surprise of the season in the Twins' organization.

The Twins acquired Brian Buscher from the Giants organization through the minor-league Rule V draft during the offseason. The Giants, who had selected Buscher out of the University of South Carolina in the third round of the 2003 draft, were not too terribly sad to see him go. Buscher had never shown the type of power in the pros that he did in college, and he never dominated pitching in the minors, despite being relatively old for each level he played at. In his final year in the Giants organization, Buscher batted .259/.321/.366 with seven home runs and 49 RBI over 130 games as a 25-year-old in Double-A. Needless to say, expectations were fairly low when he came over to the Twins organization.

Buscher started the 2007 season in Class-AA New Britain, where he got off to a solid start by batting .308/.391/.478 with seven homers and 37 RBI over 63 games. Most encouragingly, he showed very good plate discipline by drawing 31 walks while striking out just 30 times. Buscher had never been hugely strikeout-prone in his minor-league career in the Giants organization, but he had never collected more walks than strikeouts in a season. Of course, Buscher's initial success at New Britain this season wasn't exactly overwhelming -- it was about what you'd expect, given that he was 26 and in his third stint in Double-A. What is truly exciting is what Buscher has done since being promoted to Triple-A back in mid-June. In 23 games for Rochester, Buscher has raked to the tune of .347/.425/.613 with five home runs and 16 RBI. He has drawn 10 walks while striking out just six times.

It's possible that Buscher is in the middle of a flukey hot streak, but it's also very possible that he has turned a corner and revitalized his fledgling career by latching on with a new organization. After striking out 244 times in 1,431 career minor-league at-bats entering this season (17 percent), Buscher has struck out just 36 times in 322 at-bats between New Britain and Rochester this year (11 percent). He's hot right now, as he has hit .424 with two homers and eight RBI over his last 10 games in Rochester. And on top of his offensive outburst this season, he is considered to be an above-average defensive third baseman. It would seem like the time is right to call him up and give him a shot at the bottom of the Twins' lineup.

The one downside with Buscher is that he's a left-handed hitter, and some believe he will struggle against southpaws in the big leagues. I don't think that's necessarily true -- he's batting .268/.391/.368 against lefties in Rochester after batting .357/.419/.554 against them in New Britain -- but even if it is, a Buscher/Jeff Cirillo platoon would almost certainly provide a great deal more offense than Punto currently is, and the defensive drop-off would not be as dramatic as one might think.

So there you have it... my plan to eliminate a couple of the major weaknesses in the Twins' lineup with a few relatively minor and very doable roster moves. There is minimal risk involved with these moves, but there is potentially a very big payoff. I don't suspect that Buscher will light the world on fire in his first stint in the majors, nor do I expect the Twins to bring in a marquis hitter to plug into the DH spot. But, if you consider the guys who these players would be replacing, the upgrade could be massive. When you've got a core that is made up of stars like Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer, Torii Hunter and Michael Cuddyer, all you need to do is surround those guys with mediocrity in order to form a pretty darn good offense. So far, the Twins have been unable to accomplish even that, but with a few small moves, the lineup surrounding the big boys could be quite a bit better than mediocre.

8 comments:

beth said...

If we got a good bat at DH, I'd be okay with Punto playing third. His defense, from my views (granted, in the cheap seats) all season has been rather good. Irreplacable? No, but I also don't want a weak defender at third. I don't know much about Buscher's defnese, though.

Andersklasen said...

If Terry Ryan ever had the chance to move someone up from AAA, rather than a big trade at the big level, he would be the first to jump on it.

Dan said...

I'm not sure if we'll be seeing Punto making an exit any time soon. It seems like he is a clubhouse favorite (according to the latest article on the Twins website) and the Twins seem to be in the habit of being very patient with good team-players. I think that as long as Punto isn't a cancer on the bench attitude wise, we should have a little faith and see if he can turn it around.

Having a potential replacement in Rochester is even more reassuring because the Twins won't feel pressured to make a trade. If Nick does indeed implode down the stretch, there is still the option of calling up someone.

Nick N. said...

Don't get me wrong, I like Punto and I recognize his defensive value. But, his offense has been beyond horrible. A sub-.600 OPS is downright despicable, especially for a third baseman. Punto is better suited as a utility man right now, and I think TR and Gardy realize that too. Don't be surprised to see him replaced as the regular 3B within the next week or two.

Anonymous said...

What roster moves would be made? Would Punto remain on the roster as the (as he should be) super utility player? Would Rodriguez go down to make room for Buscher?

Nick N. said...

With Punto moving into the utility role, there would really be no use for Rodriguez on the roster. That wouldn't be much of a loss, as Elrod is barely playing anymore as it is.

The other roster move would of course be the trade for a DH.

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