As we move past the All-Star break and embark upon the baseball season's unofficial second half, local discussion will increasingly center on what the Twins can do to make up their four-game deficit in the AL Central standings and mount a late charge that results in a division championship. This club has some glaring weaknesses which will almost certainly need to be addressed if they are to make a run over the final two-and-a-half months of the season. Whether it's through trades, promotion or lineup tweaking, those who aren't helping this team win need to be replaced by better producers. One particular player on the roster has stood out to me more and more as a chief example of this: Nick Punto.
This isn't an easy article for me to write, because in all honesty I don't mind Punto. In the past, I have defended him against staunch criticism from local fans and writers. I was one of the seemingly few people who thought the contract he received from the Twins this past offseason was a reasonable one. I understand the value that a player with his skillset can bring to the table. He's versatile, he's got a good glove, he takes a patient approach at the plate, he is a consummate teammate and he hustles his ass off at all times. He's the type of player I enjoy watching.
But there's simply no way around the fact that he's been terrible this year. He entered the All-Star break with a .201 average, and over the first 63 games of the season he has managed a whopping four extra-base hits (all doubles), leading to a .234 slugging percentage. During his disastrous 2007 campaign, Punto hit .210 with a .271 slugging percentage.
Now, Punto has kept his offensive game afloat to some degree with a respectable .319 on-base percentage, buoyed by an impressive walk total of 32. In the month of July, Punto has worked 10 walks in 33 plate appearances, which has enabled him to reach base at an excellent .394 clip in spite of a paltry .130 batting average. Now, I will say that it simply blows my mind that opposing pitchers have thrown the ball out of the strike zone often enough for Punto to walk in nearly one-third of his plate appearances this month in spite of the fact that he's shown almost zero ability to hit the baseballl; but, I just can't believe it's going to last. There's no doubt that Punto has shown a keen eye at the plate and an ability to lay off pitches out of the zone, but there's simply no reason for pitchers to throw him anything but strike until he shows he can actually hit them with any type of authority.
If Punto were an elite shortstop who brought the type of defensive value that Adam Everett did in his prime, the situation could be viewed a bit differently. But Punto is merely a good defensive player, as both fielding metrics and observation will attest.
The troubling thing about Punto is that no matter how poor his performance gets, he will seemingly always maintain a starting role on this club. He has started in each of the Twins past 12 games and has basically been written into the starting lineup whenever he's been healthy enough to play over the past couple months. The recent recall of Alexi Casilla from the minors would seemingly indicate that Punto -- who has been starting at second base regularly -- could be nudged to the bench, but there've been indications that he'll now take the lion's share of playing time at shortstop.
Never mind that Brendan Harris -- who has been far from spectacular offensively in his own right -- holds an OPS that is more than 150 points higher than Punto's. Never mind that in the final game before the All-Star break, Harris smacked three extra-base hits, which is of course one less than Punto has managed in 223 plate appearances this year. Never mind that Harris has held his own defensively at shortstop and actually rates very similarly to Punto there according to UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) this season, in an admittedly small sample size. In the eyes of Ron Gardenhire, it seems that Punto simply must be a regular player.
Gardenhire continually reminds us of his warped view of Punto. In a Sid Hartman column printed from Sunday's Star Tribune, Gardy rattled off a number of over-the-top quotes inflating Punto's value to a ballclub, intimating that he has been one of the team's most valuable players because of his defense and claiming that when "everybody else does their job in the lineup, Nick Punto is fantastic."
At some point, members of the Twins organization have to start wondering if this man is delusional. Under no circumstances is a .234 slugging percentage "fantastic." And even if that type of production were tolerable in a lineup where everyone else is hitting, the simple fact is that this lineup already contains a several black holes as is. Punto's contributions are not "fantastic" and they are not helping this team win -- far from it.
Yet, there doesn't seem to be much doubt that Punto will play out the rest of the year as a regular starter. I generally like Gardenhire as a manager for several reasons, but his tendency to run the team based on personal feelings and preferences is beyond maddening. It's downright unprofessional. The situation that is unfolding with Punto is tantamount to an unqualified employee in another line of work receiving undeserved promotions because he sucked up and worked his way into the good graces of his boss. I can't imagine that the majority of people in the Twins' front office or even players on the team have a hard time seeing that Punto is clearly better suited as a utility man at this point in time; at what point does an organizational desire to win games override Gardenhire's stubborn fixation?
The Twins need to get better production from the middle infield, specifically from second base, where they've gotten a miserable 519 OPS this year. I doubt that replacing Punto with Casilla at second is going to provide the type of meaningful jolt this team could use, and I'm nearly certain that inserting Casilla at second while sliding Punto to short to displace Harris -- who's been the team's only competent hitter at a middle-infield spot this year -- will not help the situation at all.
The Twins must look to the minors or to other major-league rosters in order to address this frustrating dilemma. And whoever they call upon to help must dislodge Punto from his starting spot. Even if that means that someone has to go forcefully remove the lineup pencil from Gardenhire's hands.