Friday, March 12, 2010

Position Analysis: Second Base

Likely Starter: Orlando Hudson
2009 Stats: .283/.357/.417, 9 HR, 62 RBI

Hudson can fill some significant needs for the Twins in 2010.

Potential Backups: Nick Punto, Brendan Harris, Alexi Casilla, Matt Tolbert

After the Chuck Knoblauch trade in 1998, Todd Walker took over second base duties for the Twins and was a quality contributor there for a couple years. Yet, Walker never seemed to mesh with manager Tom Kelly, so the Twins dealt him to the Rockies during the 2000 season and called on a promising young Venezuelan named Luis Rivas to anchor the position. The Twins stuck with Rivas for several years, but he never really developed into the player they'd hoped he would become, and by the middle of the 2005 season the team was in such dire need of a replacement that Terry Ryan made a desperation trade for a washed up, 36-year-old Bret Boone.

The Boone experiment failed, and so Ryan went out during the ensuing offseason and traded for an accomplished veteran in Luis Castillo. For a year and a half, Castillo provided solid production as the team's second baseman, but midway through the 2007 campaign the team once again decided to put its faith in a promising young Latin player, trading away Castillo and handing the second base gig to Alexi Casilla. Like Rivas before him, Casilla has failed to fulfill his promise as a major-leaguer and now the Twins have once again fallen on a temporary veteran stopgap as they continue to search for a viable long-term solution at the position. Orlando Hudson, signed to a one-year deal last month, will become the fifth different Opening Day second baseman for the Twins in the past six years.

Much like Castillo, Hudson comes to the Twins as a respected and reputed vet. In his eight major-league seasons, he has won four Gold Gloves and made two All-Star appearances while accumulating an impressive .282/.348/.431 career hitting line. Reporters and teammates often commend Hudson's affable nature and strong work ethic. He also hit .283/.357/.417 last year and comes to Minnesota to play a position that put forth a miserable .209/.302/.267 hitting line, and he seems perfectly suited to fill a second spot in the lineup that had become an enormous liability. In many ways, Hudson seems like an ideal fit for the Twins.

Yet, in spite of his solid overall performance, there was something distinctly odd about the way Hudson's 2009 season ended. As the Dodgers made their final charge down the stretch, an apparently healthy Hudson found himself frequently relegated to the bench in favor of Ronnie Belliard. Then, in the Dodgers' eight postseason games against the Cardinals and Phillies, Hudson didn't draw a single start.

So what happened in Los Angeles last year? To get a better idea, I asked Chad Moriyama of the Dodgers blog Memories of Kevin Malone. Here's his take on Hudson's 2009 campaign:
Before the 2009 season started, I projected Hudson's numbers to regress from his Chase Field days, but he made me look foolish early on by absolutely destroying the ball to the tune of a .332/.407/.469/.877 clip. Unfortunately, that didn't last long, and he hit .253/.325/.385/.710 the rest of the way, leading the Dodgers to explore other options at second base late in the season. On the upside though, he handled his benching like a true professional, and Hudson's end line of .283/.357/.417/.774 was right in line with his career norms after taking into account park factors, so there doesn't appear to be any age regression occurring in his offensive game.

The same can't be said on the defensive side of things though, as the once elite defender is now merely average. Whether it's age or the wrist injury, something is definitely not the same about Hudson, and his Gold Glove was won on pure reputation. He is still a joy to watch when tracking down pop-ups, and he's great moving to his left, but Hudson has a lot of difficulty moving away from first base nowadays. That opinion is backed by statistics, as the Plus/Minus system puts Hudson at +9 on fly balls, +13 going to his left, and -15 going to his right or handling balls hit right at him. I don't think he's a below average defender like UZR (-3.7 UZR/150) says he is, but it's certain that he's no longer the gloveman that he once was.

Then again, on a one year contract for a mere 5 million dollars guaranteed, it's hard to argue against the deal the Twins made. I really wouldn't worry about his late season benching, as that was just Joe Torre playing the hot hand. The bottom line is that Hudson was a godsend at times for the Dodgers last year for 7-8 million, and there aren't any signs that things are going to change for him in 2010.
As Chad notes, there was a "hot hand" dynamic at work with Hudson's benching, as Belliard was scalding hot during the month of September and continued to hit well in the postseason. Hudson has expressed nothing but bafflement over the situation and insists he had no health issues, and if that's the case Twins fans can breathe easy. He's been very consistent over the past four years, with a hitting line that has never veered far from .290/.360/.440, and if he can put forth a similar effort this year he'll be an excellent cog between Denard Span and Joe Mauer.

While -- as Chad hinted -- Hudson's defensive reputation might be a bit inflated, he is a solid fielder who should be able to team with J.J. Hardy and dramatically upgrade the Twins' middle-infield defense this year. In the event that Hudson gets hurt or needs a day off, Nick Punto and Casilla (assuming he makes the team) will be the top fill-in options. Brendan Harris can play second but Ron Gardenhire is clearly squeamish about his defense there. Matt Tolbert, if he's on the roster, can also play the position.

The Twins have struggled to find a legitimate answer to their second base woes over the past decade. Hudson, 32 years old and signed to a one-year pact, likely won't be a lasting solution. But for this year, O-Dog looks like a great fit and should effectively add some bite to the top of the Twins' lineup.

Predicted 2010 Hitting Line for Hudson: .285/.345/.415, 8 HR, 60 RBI