He’s won a world championship, changed teams in the biggest trade in baseball history, and yucked it up with Danny DeVito. And now in the 11th year of an unlikely major league career, Nick Punto feels like he’s back where he started.
“This team reminds me of my early days in Minnesota,” Punto said last week from the visiting clubhouse at Target Field, where he was putting on his new Oakland A’s uniform. “There are a lot of young guys who played together in the minor leagues, then got up here together and were really good. When I got here in ’04, [the Twins] were like that — Torii Hunter, Jacque Jones, [Doug] Mientkiewicz, Corey Koskie, all had been together awhile.”
Then they added Punto, a sure-handed infielder who slowly, quietly developed into a clubhouse leader, just as he anticipates becoming in Oakland. Now 36, he’s the ultimate utility player and a baseball oracle, willing to dispense wisdom to any who ask. “He’s a winner. He knows how to win,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “He’s a great fielder, he can handle the bat, and he’s a leader, a guy who’s been there before. ... He’s seen it all.”
Punto earned a World Series ring with the Cardinals in 2011, was included by Boston in the trade that sent Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez to Los Angeles, and was surprised when Danny DeVito, wearing a Punto jersey, interrupted a postgame interview after he homered last summer, a story that went viral.
“It’s crazy how fast the years have gone. It feels like I was playing here just yesterday,” Punto said. “I tell guys, you’ve got to remember to enjoy it all, because it goes fast.”
Gardenhire cited Punto as an example of the clubhouse leader he was looking for when the Twins added Jason Bartlett to the roster last month, and Punto said he’s willing to fill that role with his new team, though “it has to come natural.” He’s new to the A’s, having signed a $3 million contract with an option for 2015, so “I’m not coming in here throwing my weight around. You’ve got to get to know them first.”
But he’s a storehouse of experience, he realizes, “and I enjoy sharing those things. [A’s third baseman] Josh Donaldson might want to talk hitting, talk tendencies of pitchers. I learned how to watch those things, and it’s being able and willing to do whatever I can to help.”
Former Twins in the majors
Grant Balfour, TB
Joe Beimel, Sea
Craig Breslow, Bos
Drew Butera, LAD
Jesse Crain, Hou*
Michael Cuddyer, Col
R.A. Dickey, Tor
Ryan Doumit, Atl
Matt Garza, Mil
Carlos Gomez, Mil
J.J. Hardy, Balt
LaTroy Hawkins, Col
Torii Hunter, Det
Garrett Jones, Mia
Francisco Liriano, Pit
Kyle Lohse, Mil
Jeff Manship, Phi
Justin Morneau, Col
Pat Neshek, StL
Joe Nathan, Det
David Ortiz, Bos
A.J. Pierzynski, Bos
Alex Presley, Hou
Nick Punto, Oak
Wilson Ramos, Was*
Ben Revere, Phi
Rene Rivera, SD
Kevin Slowey, Mia
Denard Span, Was
Danny Valencia, KC
Delmon Young, Bal
Any plans the Twins had for bringing Miguel Sano to the majors this season evaporated when the third base prospect underwent season-ending elbow surgery. But they are hardly the only AL Central team whose blueprint for 2014 has been altered by a major injury. The casualty list:
Tigers: After finishing as the runner-up in Rookie of the Year voting, Jose Iglesias was supposed to be Detroit’s shortstop for the next 10 years.
But he was diagnosed with stress fractures in both shins in March, likely costing him all of 2014. The Tigers traded for 37-year-old Alex Gonzalez as a stopgap. Closer-in-waiting Bruce Rondon is also gone for the season after elbow surgery.
White Sox: Outfielder Avisail Garcia, acquired in the same trade that sent Iglesias to Detroit, dived for a fly ball in Colorado on Wednesday and tore the labrum in his left shoulder. Surgery will cost him the rest of the season.
Royals: After years of floundering as a starter, Luke Hochevar was brilliant out of the bullpen last year, posting a 1.92 ERA.
But the former first-round pick underwent Tommy John surgery in March.
Indians: Center fielder Michael Bourn played with a sore left hamstring late last season, tore it during the regular season’s final game, and underwent surgery to repair it. He hoped that was the end of it, but then he strained it during spring training and hasn’t yet returned.
He’s due back within a week, but Cleveland has to be anxious about the potential of reinjury, since speed is a major part of his game.
MLB short takes
• Only four former Montreal Expos remain in the big leagues nine years after the team moved to Washington, and the Twins will have faced three of them before their first homestand is over. Lefthander Scott Downs (2000-04 Expos) faced one batter April 2, when the Twins played the White Sox; Kansas City’s Bruce Chen (2002) lost at Target Field on Friday; and Maicer Izturis (2004) comes to town with Toronto on Tuesday. Barring a trade, the Twins are unlikely to see the fourth surviving Expo this year, the Mets’ Bartolo Colon.
• The list of ex-Twins in the major leagues figures to grow as the season goes on. Johan Santana and Luis Ayala, both under contract to the Orioles, are working their way back from injury and hope to be in Baltimore around midseason. There are also a few free agents who were cut as spring training ended. Jose Mijares opted out of his contract with the Red Sox in order to find a major league job. Jamey Carroll (Nationals) and Jon Rauch (Royals) lasted until the final few days of training camp before being let go.
• Cleveland’s Danny Salazar beat the Twins on April 4, but his next start was bizarrely successful — and terrible. Against the White Sox on Thursday, Salazar faced 18 Chicago hitters, allowing three singles, a double and two home runs, while also walking two. The other 10 batters? Every one of them struck out. Cleveland didn’t record an out on a ball put into play against Salazar.