Monday, March 17, 2008

Position Analysis: Third Base

Likely Starter: Mike Lamb
2007 Stats: .289/.366/.455, 11 HR, 40 RBI

Lamb could well reverse a long-standing trend of ineptitude at third.

Potential Backups: Nick Punto, Brian Buscher, Brendan Harris, Matt Macri

Third base was an absolute disaster for the Twins last year,when the team got a collective .236/.308/.323 hitting line from the position thanks in large part to Nick Punto's historically bad season. Seeking to solve the long-standing issues at the position (the Twins haven't gotten an OPS over .712 from third base since Corey Koskie left following the '04 season), the Twins went out and signed free agent Mike Lamb to a multiyear contract.

Lamb should undoubtedly provide an instant upgrade. A .281/.339/.427 career hitter, Lamb is coming off a pair of very good seasons and at age 32 he isn't terribly old. The Cal State-Fullerton product spent his first four major-league seasons with the Rangers before traveling to Houston, where he has spent the past four years.

Lamb was a solid hitter with the Rangers, putting up OPS figures of .701, .760 and .765 in his first three seasons before having his fourth cut short by injury. Yet, he truly kicked his game up a notch after latching on with the Astros, where he posted OPS totals of .867, .703, .836 and .819 during his four-year tenure. The improvement is undoubtedly in part due to playing in the Astros' hitter-friendly park, but certainly the park tilts a lot more toward righty hitters than lefties, so that is probably not the sole explanation.

What I find most interesting about Lamb is his split against lefties and righties. While in Houston, Lamb was consistently shielded against southpaws, never making more than 60 plate appearances against them in a season. However, it is worth nothing that his career OPS against lefties is just 23 points lower than righties (.770 to .747). His numbers against left-handed pitchers have been sporadic throughout his career -- he's had seasons where he has hit them well and others where he struggled mightily against them. This all makes it very difficult to judge his proper usage. I'd say that based on the evidence it seems like there's a decent chance he could hold his own against southpaws this year, but if not, it would be nice to have a right-handed hitter who could slide in and start against tough lefties. Brendan Harris would be a nice candidate to do so.

Because he was held out of the lineup against left-handers so often, Lamb wasn't truly a full-time player in Houston, never amassing more than 421 plate appearances in a season. The Twins probably expect him to be something close to a full-time player this year, which he really hasn't been since his rookie year in Texas when he appeared in 138 games. Since Lamb's failure to reach 500 plate appearances since that rookie season has had more to do with managerial strategy than a lack of durability, I see little reason to believe he won't be capable of handling full-time duty.

The largest problem with Lamb is that he is very limited defensively, so we should expect to see Punto frequently taking over at third base as a late-game replacement, as well as getting occasional starts when a groundball pitcher like Francisco Liriano is on the mound. Harris can also play some third, and as I mentioned he'd make a good platoon partner. If Brian Buscher makes the roster, he'd likely see some action at the position as well, but my guess is that he would serve more as a left-handed bench bat and injury safeguard than a true backup third baseman, since his skill set is incredibly redundant with Lamb's.

Even if Lamb can't put up the type of outstanding numbers he did in three of his past four years with Houston, he's still likely to provide the Twins with a fairly massive upgrade at third base. For the first time in four years, it's looking like the hot corner will not be a major concern.

Predicted 2008 Hitting Line for Lamb: .280/.345/.430, 10 HR, 50 RBI