When the Twins front office begins to renovate this mess of a house in the winter, at the top of the list the highest priority has to be fixing the starting rotation. It is the home’s crumbling foundation and that needs the most attention.
Afterwards, item number two could be repairing the all-important middle infield position.
Offensively, over the past two seasons the Twins shortstops have hit a combined .241/.303/.326. It was this kind of hitting that had forced the 2009 team into acquiring Orlando Cabrera and the 2010 team to land JJ Hardy.
In terms of OPS, just three other American League teams have extracted less production out of the position since the end of the 2010 season: the Mariners, Rays and Athletics. The difference is, while those teams’ shortstops struggled at the dish, they were all good with the glove providing them with some value. What’s more is that two of those three teams either changed direction or will likely change in the near future.
In the past two seasons, outside of a geriatric doctor in Sarasota performing physicals, nobody in this country picked up more balls than Seattle’s Brendan Ryan, so it is easy to exchange offense for his defense. Meanwhile, Elliot Johnson in Tampa has been solid, doing more on defense in 2010 over 2011, but he will likely give way to one of the two defensive stalwarts in Tim Beckham or Hak-Ju Lee in the coming future. Over in Oakland, Chad Pennington has been average in the field however his lack of offense encouraged the A’s to grab the equally struggling Stephen Drew, who has yet to rebound after leaving the hitting-haven of Arizona’s Chase Field.
In theory, the Twins thought they were getting a strong defensive player in Tsuyoshi Nishioka but realized that the bar for a Gold Glove in Japan was apparently set ridiculously low. For their part, recognizing the lack of depth at the upper levels, the Twins have nabbed a few additional shortstops including Pedro Florimon and Eduardo Escobar to go with the in-house Brian Dozier.
Florimon, who has been up with the team for all of 19 games, comes equipped with plenty of range but an error-prone resume. We’ve seen some slick fielding plays thanks to his speed. Consider with a grain of salt based on the sample size yet according to Baseball Info Solution’s data in 158.1 innings he has made 11 out-of-zone plays at short. Compare that to Jamey Carroll - who had 150 more innings than him at short – and made just 18 out-of-zone plays. However, he’s been unable to make the plays within the standard zone. He’s had 42 balls hit into his zone and made just 27 plays (.643 revised zone rating). While Carroll could not touch Florimon’s speed, Carroll compensated by making the vast majority of plays that were hit near him (85 of 105 for a .810 revised zone rating). And although he has turned a corner and has made just 16 errors so far this year, the fewest E’s the 25-year-old shortstop has commitment was 21 in the low-A Sally League. If he does not find a way to harness all of his physical talent and smooth out his glove work, his minor league track record suggests he will not contribute much offensively judging by his .249/.321/.354 batting line in just under 3,000 plate appearances.
Escobar has proven to be a much more sure-handed individual over his development but does not necessarily project as a starting shortstop – more likely a second baseman or utility infielder. Even though the White Sox used him at third base, there is nothing in his minor league batting line of .267/.312/.348 that would be indicative of someone capable of hitting like a third baseman.
Before they decided against recalling him in September, the accept belief was that Brian Dozier would be the frontrunner for the position in 2013 among all the internal options. For most of the year Dozier played decisively average defense. Compared to the rest of the league’s starting shortstops according to BIS, he made a less than average amount of plays in a shortstop’s zone. Some of that was blamed on lack of awareness of his competition. Upon his demotion, Ron Gardenhire questioned some of his positioning that allowed speedier guys like Cleveland’s Jason Kipnis and Kansas City’s Jarrod Dyson to reach on grounders. Improving his defense would require preparation and ability to position in the field to handle those types of situations. Then again, there are plenty of baseball minds who have believed Dozier to be more of a second baseman than a shortstop. And, offensively, he degraded into a Danny Valencia-like mess at the plate, chasing sliders out of the zone and putting a very high amount of those kinds of pitches in play (74% out of zone contact).
To be sure, the gaggle of shortstops has improved the defense a smidge over the 2011 group. Last year the team had a .268 batting average on ground balls in play, well above the league average of .240. This year, that number has dropped to .258. Still on the high-side but an increase of grounders converted to outs, nonetheless.
Based on what we know today, it would seem that none of these three players are close to becoming fixtures in the middle infield. They certainly all have skills and plenty of upside, although it is hard to envision a team interested in competing for a division title next year to roll forward with any of these three at the vital position.
The point is, when the Twins brass sits down when the season ends on October 3, they should think critically about their plans for shortstop next year. Any one of these players may be able to get a team through a season and it is possible that one of these existing candidates figures things out either defensively or offensively. On the other hand, based on their prior experience, it is more likely that they do not and will leave the organization, once again, hunting for an answer at shortstop.