Thursday, March 05, 2009

Taking the Lead

In nine seasons since the turn of the century, the Twins have posted a winning record seven times and made the playoffs four times while watching their players hoist two Cy Young Awards and one MVP. During this run, the Twins have found a great deal of success and featured many great players. Yet, one thing has always seemingly been missing, and it is a quintessential component of any quality baseball club. The Twins have had their dominant aces, their automatic closers, their outstanding No. 3 hitters and their run-producing cleanup men, but during this span they have always been unable to pinpoint a true, great leadoff hitter.

Since they traded Chuck Knoblauch after the 1998 season, locating a true, prototypical leadoff man has been a difficult task for the Twins. A great leadoff hitter ought to possess a specific set of skills. He should be patient and willing to take pitches. He should have great speed, so that he can move himself into scoring position with steals and score from second on singles. Most importantly, he should be able to reach base at an exceptional clip so he that he is frequently aboard for the team's most productive hitters in the middle of the lineup. A little power doesn't hurt, but isn't generally considered a requirement. In general, the leadoff man should just be a great hitter, because ultimately he'll get more chances to bat than any other player in the lineup.

When the Twins began their successful run at the beginning of the decade, their leadoff man was Cristian Guzman. Guzie had some success in those days, but with his poor .299 on-base percentage in 2000 and his mediocre .337 OBP in 2001, he was hardly the ideal candidate to receive the most at-bats on the team. Late in the '01 season, the Twins handed the leadoff gig to Matt Lawton, and he was actually pretty well-suited for it. Unfortunately, his time there was short, as he was shipped to the Mets in return for Rick Reed during the following offseason.

In 2002, the Twins inserted Jacque Jones in the leadoff spot. Jones had a very nice offensive season that year, batting .300/.341/.511, but as a free swinger with impressive power and a lack of top-end speed, he looked much more like a No. 3 hitter than a leadoff man. Jones held the top spot in the lineup throughout the '02 campaign and into 2003, but midway through that season the Twins determined that they needed a change at the top. So they traded Bobby Kielty for Shannon Stewart, who had spent the past five seasons as a high-caliber leadoff man for the Blue Jays. Stewart provided a jolt for the '03 Twins, getting on base at a .384 clip while hitting for solid average and power down the stretch. Stewart continued as an effective leadoff hitter in 2004, batting .304/.380/.447, but he was limited to just 92 games due to a foot injury. And while Stewart's offensive production was very good in his early days with the Twins, the excellent speed he'd shown earlier in his career was gone; Stewart was just 9-for-16 on stolen base attempts in 157 games between 2003 and 2004.

Injuries continued to derail Stewart in 2005 and his production took a dive. He spent most of the year in the leadoff spot, but saw his OBP dropped to .323 as his once-impressive plate discipline evaporated. After posting a 36-to-25 strikout-to-walk ratio with the Twins in 2003 and a 44-to-47 K/BB in 2004, Stewart fanned 73 times while drawing just 34 walks in '05. At the end of the season, the Twins were once again in search of a quality leadoff hitter.

Terry Ryan sought to solve the problem that winter by trading a pair of prospects for Luis Castillo. Earlier in his career, Castillo had been almost the perfect embodiment of a prototype leadoff hitter. Capable of batting from both sides of the plate, Castillo had a patient approach that routinely yielded on-base percentages in the high-300s, and was also an elite base-stealer as well as a Gold Glove defender. Yet, by the time the 30-year-old Castillo had joined the Twins, his knees had worn down and he was no longer the player he once was. In 2006, Castillo got on base at a .358 clip while swiping 25 bases -- solid yet unremarkable numbers for a leadoff man. In 2007, Castillo's knees were in even worse shape. He continued to display a good eye at the plate, but was visibly hobbled running down the first base line and had turned into an extreme chop hitter with virtually no power. The Twins dumped him midway through the season, allowing Jason Bartlett and Alexi Casilla to split leadoff duties down the stretch, though neither performed well enough to seize the spot.

Last year, the Twins opened the season with Carlos Gomez manning the leadoff slot. A tremendous athlete with potential to hit for power and perhaps more footspeed than any other player in the league, Gomez had some of the attributes one would look for in a top-of-the-order bat, but his complete lack of patience at the plate and his inability to reach base at even a respectable rate made him a poor candidate for the job.

By mid-July, Gomez's on-base percentage was hovering around .280 and it was clear to just about everyone that the time had come for a change at the top of the lineup. A replacement came in the form of Denard Span, who took the job and ran with it. After taking over leadoff duties on July 22, Span batted .282/.375/.424. In his major-league debut last season, Span displayed all those skills associated with a prototypical leadoff man. He displayed great patience and discipline, racking up nearly as many walks (50) as strikeouts (60) in 93 games. He flashed impressive speed, stealing 18 bases on 25 attempts. He even flashed some power, clubbing 29 extra-base hits in 347 at-bats. All this as a 24-year-old rookie still acclimating to big-league play.

Span enters the 2009 season as the de facto leadoff man. What remains to be seen is whether he can be a long-term fixture in that spot, or whether he'll fizzle out or be dealt to another team, as have nearly all his predecessors. There is some reason to be conservative in projecting Span, who carries a mostly underwhelming minor-league track record. Yet, Span's abrupt turnaround shows signs of legitimacy. After four unimpressive months in Triple-A to start the 2007 season, Span hit .330/.420/.417 with a notable increase in plate discipline, and he carried that momentum forward into an outstanding full 2008 campaign. While one should remain cautious in assessing Span's future, there is plenty of reason for optimism.

The Twins have had an awfully difficult time finding a legitimate player to fill their leadoff role, but in Span they might have a consistent, reliable option over several years. That's something they've lacked since Knoblauch's departure, and could be a key to taking the Twins lineup to the next level.

4 comments:

SoCalTwinsfan said...

The Twins really haven't been prototypical with other key spots in the lineup in the same time period. They've never had a prototypical No. 3 hitter in that time because Mauer and all those that came before him lacked power. Morneau is a prototypical No. 4 hitter, but it wasn't until 2008 that he was moved permanently into that spot. Otherwise, the Twins haven't had anyone bat cleanup with 30-HR power since Hrbek retired.

Sean said...

I think Span mentioned somewhere that he attributed his turn around to having undergone LASIK allowing him to see the ball better.

Nick N. said...

So they say. I'm skeptical as to whether that procedure really can have that significant of an effect. Apparently Morneau and (I think) Cuddyer had LASIK this past offseason, so we'll see if it reflects in their numbers at all.

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