Friday, March 14, 2008

Position Analysis: Second Base

Likely Starter: Brendan Harris
2007 Stats: .286/.343/.434, 12 HR, 59 RBI

Harris will need to hit well enough to make up for his sub par defense.

Potential Backups: Nick Punto, Alexi Casilla, Matt Tolbert, Matt Macri

Without question, second base is the most uncertain position I have previewed so far. For starters, while we can be certain that Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau will be the starters at catcher and first base barring injury, it is far from a sure thing that Brendan Harris will be playing second base on Opening Day. Ron Gardenhire has been rotating players at second base regularly throughout spring training and hasn't given much of a hint as to who might be the leading contender. Beyond that, while we can reasonably expect that Mauer and Morneau will both put up numbers this year that fall somewhere between their excellent 2006 and disappointing 2007 campaigns, it is far more difficult to predict what type of production the Twins will get from second base, regardless of who the starter is.

I have maintained since the start of camp that Harris is the most likely candidate to get the lion's share of at-bats for the Twins at second base. While his defense leaves much to be desired, Harris was strong offensively with the Rays last year, and was an important component of the trade that sent Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett and Eduardo Morlan to Tampa Bay during the offseason. There is even more pressure for Harris to step up and be a productive starter at second after Gardenhire's revelation that he views Jason Pridie, the third player to come over in the trade along with Harris and Delmon Young, as a "role player" rather than a potential starter. If it turns out that the Twins gave up a young arm with ace potential, a starting shortstop and a top closer prospect for one starter and two backups, the Rays trade could end up looking like a flop, particularly if Young doesn't make major strides this year. All of which is to say that the general manager Bill Smith has got to be pushing for Harris to start and succeed.

So if Harris is the starter, as I suspect, what type of production can be expected? Last year Harris posted a .777 OPS which was solidly in line with the AL average for second basemen (.755) and would be a tremendous improvement over the .640 OPS the Twins got from the position last year. At 27 years old, there's plenty of reason to believe that Harris could repeat that type of production, or perhaps even improve on it. He was a .294/.365/.458 hitter in the minors, and has always displayed fairly decent plate discipline, so it's probably fair to say that the guy is a legitimate major-league hitter.

What is alarming is the fact that, since being drafted by the Cubs back in 2001, Harris has shuttled between six different organizations, and prior to last year had failed to appear in more than 20 games in a season with the same big-league club despite continually posting solid numbers in Triple-A. Clearly, these teams are seeing something they don't like. Maybe it's his defense. Whatever the case, it gives reason for concern. Still, Harris played in 137 games for Tampa Bay last year and hit consistently all year (with the exception of a rough August).

Of course, as long as Nick Punto is on the roster and Gardenhire is the skipper, No. 8 will get at-bats. I wouldn't be terribly surprised if Punto won the starting job out of spring training, but with the abhorrent .210/.291/.271 hitting line he put up last year over a ridiculous 536 plate appearances, I think the manager is going to have a hard time writing Punto's name in the lineup too often regardless of his affection for the scrappy little tail-battler. The good news is that Punto basically has to be better at the plate than he was last year, and he remains an excellent defensive player who can sub in for the range-less Harris as a late-game replacement while also filling in as a starter from time to time.

Meanwhile, Alexi Casilla seems to be the guy that everyone forgot. Casilla was one of the organization's top prospects following an excellent 2006 campaign that saw him start in Single-A Ft. Myers and finish in Minnesota, but many fans seem to have soured on him after a poor 2007 season during which he was mediocre in Triple-A and Punto-like in Minnesota. It was a very tough year to be sure, but we can't forget the talent that Casilla -- still only 23 -- possesses. He could be a factor at some point this year, although I think it's more likely that he'd do so at shortstop.

Predicted 2008 Hitting Line for Harris: .275/.340/.450, 14 HR, 70 RBI

10 comments:

ubelmann said...

Until Gardy starts penciling in Harris on the same days as Everett more often, I'm far from convinced that he'll be "the starter."

I'm guessing that Gardy's spin at the end of spring training will be that neither player distinguished himself by the end of spring training so second base will be a "mix and match" situation.

Nick N. said...

I know what you're saying. I saw your post over at SBG talking about the combinations that have started at 2B/SS this spring, it's a bit perturbing. Still, I have a hard time believing Gardy is going to be starting Punto over Harris regularly. But like I said, I wouldn't be terribly surprised.

David said...

Sending Casilla to AAA is a clear indication that Harris has the job. Punto is too valuable as a backup. I bet he plays a lot of late innings at 3B, when the Twins have the lead.

Nick N. said...

Sending Casilla to AAA is a clear indication that Harris has the job. Punto is too valuable as a backup. I bet he plays a lot of late innings at 3B, when the Twins have the lead.

One might argue that it is more valuable to have the players' roles reversed, where Punto is the starter and you get his defense for the majority of a game and then Harris could pinch-hit in crucial late-game situations while also starting at third against tough lefties.

Not saying that'd be my preference, but there's an argument there.

BD said...

If Santana & Silva were still here, it'd be easy to say "Harris" - we'd have pitching (those guys would make Harris's defense a bit less damaging)& we need more pop in the lineup.

Maybe you still opt for the additional offense when your pitching is likely to be a lot shakier.

Nick N. said...

Maybe you still opt for the additional offense when your pitching is likely to be a lot shakier.

I think that's the key point. The Twins aren't going to win regularly on the merits of great pitching this year, in my opinion, so if they are to stand a chance at competing they'll have to hit.

ubelmann said...

I think that's the key point. The Twins aren't going to win regularly on the merits of great pitching this year, in my opinion, so if they are to stand a chance at competing they'll have to hit.

But with almost every choice Gardy can make to add offense, he sacrifices defense. We'll put more runs on the board if Harris and, say, Monroe (CF) are in the lineup (making Everett and Mauer the only two above-average defenders on the field), but we're going to give up more runs, too. Traditionally, baseball fans tend to give most credit/blame for run prevention to the pitching (hello, ERA!) but for the most part, Gardy's going to be choosing between whether to lose games 5-4 or whether to lose games 6-5 just by changing the position players.

David said...

Harris's batting average this spring is .182. Until he starts hitting, he hasn't won the job.

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