Likely Starter: Nick Punto
2008 Stats: .284/.344/.382, 2 HR, 28 RBI
Potential Backups: Brendan Harris, Matt Tolbert
Last year, the average major-league shortstop batted .272/.327/.391. That puts Nick Punto’s 2008 production right around average, and when his above-average defense is taken into account, he’s a quality starter at short.
Of course, Punto keeping his numbers at that comfortably average level is hardly a given. No one has forgotten about that 2007 season in which he painfully amassed 536 plate appearances while batting .210/.291/.271, posting a miserable 52 OPS+ and an astonishing -26.5 VORP. Punto’s paltry numbers were especially ugly that season because he posted them while playing a more offense-oriented position, but clearly if his production approaches that level this year even while playing shortstop he won’t cut it as a starting player.
Fortunately, there’s little reason to believe Punto has another 2007 in him. His .284/.344/.382 line from last season was extremely similar to his .290/.352/.373 line from 2006, and I think those stat lines set a fair baseline for his performance. Punto has to prove he can hold up as an everyday player over the course of the season, and it’s possible he’ll take a step back and post numbers slightly lower than the 06/08 variety, but I’m pretty bullish on his ability to adequately fill the role of starting shortstop and No. 8 hitter.
One thing to keep an eye on with Punto is his health. He has a style of play that is conducive to injuries (the head-first slides into first base being a great example) and has had a reputation as being rather injury-prone in the past. Punto’s done a pretty good job of staying healthy over the past couple seasons, but should he go down the Twins aren’t very strong on backup options. The offensive difference between Punto and Brendan Harris or Matt Tolbert might not be terribly large, but the defensive gap is considerable, which is a major concern at the most important infield position.
It seems clear that the main reason the Twins re-signed Punto and handed him the starting shortstop job is for his defensive ability. We’ve seen time and time again what he can do with the glove, so the key will be for him to maintain his defensive proficiency while hitting enough to avoid becoming a liability, the Twins should be set for serviceable production from the shortstop position.
Predicted 2009 Hitting Line for Punto: .270/.335/.370, 3 HR, 45 RBI