You don't have to go too far into the archives to find a post from me extolling the virtues of Jason Bartlett. Unfortunately, much of that is lost in the ether of Twins Territory. But a look into the comments will confirm it. Simply put, I think Bartlett is the most underrated Twins player, not only locally but nationally. This is puzzling considering his numbers, especially in the minors. So I intend to try to figure out why.
When I read comments about Bartlett, outside of Sickels a couple of years ago, almost nobody gives him respect. Most say he's at best a stop-gap for Plouffe or Kelly. Dayne Perry of FoxSports called him "worthless" and added that the chief weakness of the Twins was depth up the middle, especially at short. Some of national reports claim he'll have a tough time winning the shortstop job. Locally, he's listed as a big question mark with little upside.
To me, Jason Bartlett is the best shortstop prospect this organization has had since Zoillo broke in. That sounds outlandish, but if you consider the numbers, it becomes an inevitable conclusion. To me all you have to do is prove he is a better prospect than Cristian Guzman or Greg Gagne were. (I don't count Knoblauch because he was a second base prospect who played short in college.) That is what I will do next.
The first thing I look for from a shortstop is not numbers. To me, a shortstop's job 1 is catching the ball. And the most important attribute for this is range. I've watched a lot of baseball games over the years, and there are certain players who get good jumps on balls, combine those jumps with taking good routes on balls, and great speed to get to balls no one else has. These guys are few and far between: Ozzie Smith and Omar Vizquel are the two best I've seen. These guys are the best shortstops of their generations.
But there's a second tier of players, and a handful of teams are lucky enough to get them in any given year. Right now, I would say Chicago's Juan Uribe and Detroit's Carlos Guillen are the class of the AL. I don't watch the NL enough to know, but I'm told Khalil Green is special, and of course there's Omar, who's lost a step but still has that knack to get good jumps and take good routes on balls.
In Twins history, Greg Gagne fits into this class. Even Cristian Guzman had a couple of periods of his career (first half of 2001, last half of 2004) in which he got to balls few others in baseball could get to. Watching Bartlett after his midseason call-up, he has that kind of range. It's tough to measure objectively because the numbers don't distinguish between a one-hop smash and a lazy five-hopper. Though Bartlett rated highly in most scales last year, I pay more attention to my subjective assessment. After Bartlett's call-up, I saw him corral a dozen balls that Guzman would not have gotten to. I thought his range on grounders rivaled Gagne.
It takes a keen eye to see eye to see the difference in range on grounders, even for an experienced viewer. One of the telltale signs is how far out in the outfield a guy ranges after shallow fly balls. After Gagne left, observant fans noticed how many Texas League singles we gave up that he used to catch easily. After Bartlett's call-up last year, I saw him ranging into medium deep left and left center to get to these balls. I hadn't seen that since Gagne.
I would say his range is comparable to Gagne. And his arm is actually a little stronger. Arm strength is a prerequisite for shortstops, so it's tough to distinguish yourself in this area. Both Gagne and Bartlett get a lot on theri throws, but Bartlett is able to throw from different body angles, whereas Gags always had to plant that back foot. This is an indication that Bartlett's arm is actually a little stronger than Gags. And it's certainly stronger than Guzy's, after the shoulder problem anyway.
All in all, Bartlett's got the defensive tools to rival Gagne. But his offensive tools far outclass Gagne's. Gags had one year in the minors in which he hit close to .300 (.297 in the Sally league). Otherwise his minor league numbers are comparable to his major league numbers. He was a streaky hitter and his numbers at the end of the year depended on whether he ended with a slump or a hot streak. But he wavered between .240 and .280 for most of his career. He was a free swinger with occasional power, but his overall career .684 OPS tells the story. He had his moments, but he was not out there because he hit well. And that was OK in his era. Until Ripken, Rodriguez, and Jeter, hitting was always considered a bonus.
For more information on Gags, see Aaron Gleeman's top 40 (#33) retrospective of him.
When you consider what Bartlett did in the minor leagues, no other Twins shortstop prospect comes close. He's hit .300 three out of his six minor league seasons, narrowly missing a fourth (.296 at New Britain in 2003). His other peripherals show that average only tells part of the story. Bartlett has a career minor league OBP of .372. And his numbers have improved as he has ascended levels. The last two years at Rochester, his OBP were .415 and .405 respectively. In the last three minor league seasons, his BB/K rates are close to 1, which shows that he has a good patient approach at the plate. And his slugging percentage lines since 2003 at New Britain also show improvement (2003: .425, 2004: .472, 2005:.459).
The highlight was 2004, when he was ahead of Jhonny Peralta for the International League batting title until he broke his wrist on a high hard one. Because Bartlett missed six weeks due to the injury, Peralta ended up winning the batting title and earning Minor League Player of the Year awards. Bartlett can only wonder what might have been. (It seems to be a theme for top Twins prospects to have a major injury when there close to making an impact.)
Taking all these minor league numbers into account, he's one of the best hitting prospects in the Twins organization. Combine that with his range at shortstop and it's hard to understand why people consider him such a question mark, it's especially hard to figure out why guys like Dayn Perry completely write him off.
There are a couple of reasons that come to mind. First off, he's old for a prospect. Some analysts automatically write off guys who come out of college and ascend a level a year without skipping a level on their way to the majors. The natural progression for these kids is to get to the majors at age 25. So the thinking is, like Lew Ford, old prospects have limited upside. I think the age/production rate is not a fixed, deterministic model but a statistical rule of thumb. Some players continue to develop into their 30s, though it's relatively rare. I won't argue my point, but I think it's overblown, especially in this case, where he did make it to the majors at age 24.
If you don't pay as much attention to age, going into the 2005 season, Bartlett was on par with Peralta in prospect status. Most analysts who favor hitting stats liked Peralta better because he has more power. I liked Barllett better because he has better range. Anyway, if Bartlett was on par with Peralta prior to 2005, why has Barlett's stock gone down and Peralta's gone up?
The answer is in their performances in 2005. Both Peralta and Bartlett struggled with the transition to the majors. But, while Eric Wedge allowed Peralta to get comfortable down in the order and surrounded by veterans, Ron Gardenhire sent Bartlett down to Rochester. It turned out to be the best thing for Bartlett, who regressed under the tutelage of the field staff in Minnesota but returned to form with the coaching staff in Rochester. By the time Bartlett returned, Peralta was lighting it up on a team streaking towards the playoffs (until its late collapse). Bartlett's strong finish was a lost story in a lost season for the Twins.
So nationally, Bartlett is off the radar screen. And locally, the Twins like to reinforce that perception by stating that he might not win the starting job. LEN3, Williams, Gordy and the gang have not seen through this attempt to take pressure off Bartlett yet. But as he continues to hit well and play like Gagne in the field in spring training, the veil will be lifted. Until then, Bartlett is the Twins' most underrated player.