Likely Starter: Nick Punto
2009 Stats: .228/.337/.287, 1 HR, 38 RBI
Potential Backups: Brendan Harris, Matt Tolbert
Much like second base, the hot corner has becoming a revolving door for the Twins over the past handful of seasons. Since Corey Koskie's departure, the Twins have auditioned Michael Cuddyer, Tony Batista, Nick Punto, Mike Lamb, Joe Crede, Brendan Harris, Brian Buscher and others at third base and have never come up with very strong results.
Not surprisingly, third base is shaping up to be the weakest position on the field for the Twins this year. Rather than signing or trading for an established regular to replace the departed Crede, it appears that the Twins will install some combination of Punto and Harris at third this season. Neither of the two figures to be much of an offensive contributor, but they both have their strengths and since they will likely be occupying the ninth spot in the lineup most days, expectations will be fairly low.
Punto is the favorite to man third on Opening Day and draw the majority of starts at the position. How come? Well, for one thing, despite his poor overall performance last year he finished the season strong and was a key contributor in the team's late surge. That helps, particularly since Ron Gardenhire has a tendency to find any reason he can to defend Punto's regular presence in the lineup. In addition, Punto will make $4 million this year, and the Twins likely aren't too keen on paying that kind of money to a bench player.
Punto has molded himself into a walk-taking machine, which helps offset his weak bat. Despite posting terrible numbers in the batting average and slugging percentage columns, Punto managed a respectable .337 on-base percentage last year thanks to a team-leading walk rate. If Punto can stick with this approach (and he has already drawn three free passes in 12 plate appearances this spring) he should avoid being a liability in the nine-hole even if his bat doesn't experience its usual even-year resurgence.
Of course, Punto's greatest value comes in the field, where his outstanding mitt makes him an asset. He's a strong defender all around the infield, but third base rates statistically as Punto's best position, as he has amassed a UZR/150 of 19.9 in nearly 1800 innings there. For reference, Crede's career number in that category is 10.2.
With the Twins' bench shaping up to be relatively thin this season, Gardenhire may look to utilize Punto's versatility by moving him around the field to fill in elsewhere frequently. On these days, and days where Punto is simply on the bench, Harris figures to be called upon at third. While he's not a real strong defender, third base is probably Harris' best defensive position and he's certainly got a more potent bat than Punto. While somewhat useless against right-handed pitching, Harris holds a .302/.348/.403 career line against southpaws so it's obvious when he should be in the lineup.
In the even that both Punto and Harris struggle (which is hardly unthinkable), the Twins' fallback plan will be Danny Valencia, who is slated to open the season in Rochester. The 25-year-old needs to demonstrate improved plate discipline and steady glovework at Triple-A before the organization will be ready to give him a stab at the big-league job, but it would hardly be surprising to see him manning the hot corner at Target Field in the later months of the season.
Early on, though, it appears that the best recipe for the Twins will be a combination of Punto and Harris at third. With more groundball-heavy pitchers on the mound -- such as Nick Blackburn and (hopefully) Francisco Liriano -- the Gardenhire should opt for Punto, who can team with J.J. Hardy and Orlando Hudson to form the rangiest infield we've seen around here in some time. With lefty pitchers toeing the rubber for the opposition, Harris stands out as the best option.
The two aren't likely to make anyone forget about Koskie, but they don't need to. If Punto and Harris can take care of all the balls hit at them while getting on base enough to turn the lineup over, they'll be adequate.
Predicted 2010 Hitting Line for Punto: .240/.335/.305, 2 HR, 40 RBI