The Twins made a number of quality additions over the course of the offseason that should enable them to improve on problem areas as they move forward into the 2010. JJ Hardy should make the Twins better at the shorstop position if he can rebound even moderately from a rough 2009 campaign. Jim Thome adds a veteran power threat that was amiss on the bench last season. Clay Condrey provides another solid righty option out of a bullpen that was at times so thin that it forced the team to rely on Bobby Keppel in key situations.
Given the flaws on last year's team, though, no offseason acquisition by Bill Smith looms larger than the most recent: the signing of Orlando Hudson.
Hudson overtakes the reigns at second base, a position from which the Twins received an abysmal .209/.302/.267 hitting line last season. Provided that he's healthy, Hudson -- a .282/.348/.431 career hitter -- will almost certainly improve significantly on that number this year. But teams can live with a poor hitter at second base, provided they bury him at the bottom of the order and place competent hitters around him on the field. Indeed, Hudson's most important function might be filling the second spot in the batting order, which was a major liability for this team a year ago.
In The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, noted sabermetrician Tom Tango teamed up with Mitchel Litchman and Andrew Dolphin to analyze strategic decision-making in baseball based on years of historical data. One chapter in the book addresses lineup construction, and perhaps the most striking conclusion drawn by the authors is that the No. 2 spot in the order is actually more important to run production than the No. 3 spot. To quote a paragraph from the book:
The run values of each event favor the #2 hitter over the #3 hitter by .02 to .03 runs. And this is across the board, except for the HR (which is even). Likewise, the run values of the #4 hitter's events are all higher than those of the #3 hitter. This means that the #3 hitter should be worse than the #2 and #4 hitters. For most teams, the gap in talent between the #3 and #2 slots is enormous and that talent is concenterated in the #3 slot. This is simply wrong.
Many people disagree with this blatant rejection of traditional baseball thought, and in truth the disparity in "run values" between the two lineup spots as outlined in the book is so small that even if you buy into the authors' reasoning, there's still no call to disparage managers who elect to bat their best hitter third. But what's clear from this study and others -- not to mention common sense, really -- is that having a strong hitter in the two-hole is highly important. The No. 2 hitter figures to receive the second-most plate appearances of any player on the team and also generally bats in front of the club's very best hitters.
Last year, the Twins' No. 2 hitters combined for a .262/.306/.394 line, which is pretty weak even without accounting for the fact that Joe Mauer made 142 plate appearances in that spot (posting a spectacular 1158 OPS). If you remove Mauer's at-bats, the Twins got an absolutely dreadful .232/.272/.326 line from the second spot in the order. It goes without saying that having that kind of production directly in front of the league's best hitter (as Mauer was typically batting third when he wasn't batting second, with the exception of April when he didn't play) is beyond unacceptable.
Hudson has seen his performance fluctuate some over the years, but he has been steady in the OBP department as of late. In each of the past four seasons, he has reached base at a clip of .354 or higher, putting him well above the league average. If he can produce at close to that rate while also providing his usual strong batting average and solid power output, Hudson will give the Twins a massive upgrade in front of Mauer.
Ron Gardenhire loves to write players who can bunt and execute the hit-and-runs into the second spot in his lineups. Certainly, Hudson is a guy who can do those things. But he's also a very competent hitter overall, and his presence could give Mauer a legitimate shot at posting his first 100-RBI campaign.
I slammed my head into my desk last year every time Orlando Cabrera, Alexi Casilla, Nick Punto or whoever else occupying the two-spot ended a rally by making the third out while Mauer stood in the on-deck circle. So, at the very least, Hudson's addition to the lineup should be beneficial for my forehead.