It's amazing how predictable some things are.
During the All-Star break, I put together a bit of a rant about Nick Punto. I railed on his ghastly play up to that point in the season, and lamented that "no matter how poor his performance gets, he will seemingly always maintain a starting role on this club." Lo and behold, despite having batted just .226 since the day I wrote that article, Punto has started 15 of the team's 18 games. And while the acquisition of Orlando Cabrera would have seemingly nudged the underperforming Punto out of his starting job at shortstop and onto the bench, the move has instead only slid Punto over to second base, where he has started three of the team's four games since Cabrera's arrival.
Meanwhile, Brendan Harris has started just one of the Twins' past six games, and since Ron Gardenhire remains steadfastly opposed to letting him play second base, it appears that Harris has been essentially banished from any type of middle-infield duty. I guess that's what he gets for outhitting Punto by 56 points while posting a better fielding percentage than either Punto or Cabrera at short.
In the previously linked rant, I noted that Punto had "kept his offensive game afloat to some degree with a respectable .319 on-base percentage, buoyed by an impressive walk total of 32," adding that he had drawn an impressive 10 walks in 33 July plate appearances at that point. Yet, I went on to opine that there was no way this would last, stating that "there's simply no reason for pitchers to throw him anything but strikes until he shows he can actually hit them with any type of authority." In 59 plate appearances since then, Punto has drawn four walks and posted a .276 on-base percentage. In his past 37 plate appearances he's drawn exactly one walk, good for a .250 on-base percentage.
Predicting this outcome doesn't make me any sort of masterful prognosticator. This turn of events was pretty easy to foresee, which makes it all the more frustrating that Gardenhire willfully elects to ignore basic facts in order to keep writing his favorite pet into the starting lineup. I am not easily driven to frustration with matters like this, but this team is in the middle of a pennant race and needs all the help it can get; Gardenhire's stubborn refusal to take Punto out of the starting lineup is driving me close to insanity. Benching Harris in favor of Punto against left-handed pitchers -- as Gardy has the past two nights -- is particularly inexcusable, considering that Harris is batting .306 against southpaws this year and holds a solid 787 lifetime OPS against them.
I'm not saying Harris is having a great year, and I'm not saying he's the answer at second. But he is at the very least a competent hitter and if he's starting over Punto, this lineup suddenly has only one real hole. Does this trade-off lead to a defensive downgrade? Sure, but the negative effects can be reduced when Harris plays on days that a fly ball pitcher is on the mound, and certainly no one is saying that he needs to be starting every game. I don't buy that Harris' difficulties turning a double play here and there are going to cost the Twins more than Punto's constant rally-killing at-bats.
If the Twins truly want to stop second base from being a liability before this season is over, their best bet might come in the form of Steve Tolleson or Mark Grudzielanek. Until one of those players is deemed ready for major-league action, though, Gardenhire must discontinue his habit of starting Punto there every single day. Punto has his merits, but he's better served as a utility player and Harris' performance has not warranted a permanent benching when the alternative options are taken into account.