The Twins outfield defense has been an Achilles heel all season. Not noticed by the casual fan, but a constant concern and worry in blogs, forums, and pages like Twinkie Town. The four principal Twins outfielders are slow (Kubel), unskilled (Young) and out of position (Span, mediocre in center, but top-notch on the corners) along with the displaced Michael Cuddyer , who might be some combination of the other three. More after the jump
All four outfielders are under team control for 2011--Kubel has an option, Cuddyer had an option already picked up, Young is arb eligible for two more years and Span is under contract at least through 2014 (2015 option), so we'll see the same faces with the same skills unless Twins management does something.
While I discount defensive metrics, my eyes and those metrics agree that Delmon Young, despite decent speed and a fine outfield arm, is among the worst defensive outfielders in major league baseball. He judges balls poorly and takes bad routes, limiting his range. He has poor hands, dropping several balls and fumbling several more and is not adept at playing caroms or making catches at the wall. Delmon has hit better than ever before--he will have career highs in homers and RBI and will almost certainly pass the century mark in RBI, but his defense hurts the club a lot. What to do with Delmon? I don't think DHing him is an answer, he is too young and the Twins probably have other, better options. Delmon was a right fielder in Tampa, but I really don't think it makes any difference. So the choice is either live with the bad defense in left or trade Mr. Young.
Right field has been patrolled by Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel. Cuddyer started 66 games in right before the All-Star break but hasn't been out there since July 7th, due to Justin Morneau's injury. Cuddy isn't fast, doesn't display great instincts or take great routes. He catches what he gets to and has almost as strong an arm as Young, but much more accurate. At best, he grades out average as a right fielder. Kubel has the need for speed. He was slated to be the primary DH, but the need to use Jim Thome as DH, coupled with Morneau's injury has made Kubel the primary RF. Kubel, in contrast to the others, makes good decisions and takes good routes. He also catches what he gets to, but hasn't been great corralling balls that have already hit the ground. The real problem is range, lack of it. Kubel is a slow runner and just doesn't get to balls that other right fielders can catch. Kubel throws well enough as well.
Denard Span was outstanding in both left and right field in the past two years. There is no reason to doubt that he would again be outstanding if he was a corner outfielder. Denard has shown himself to be only average as a center fielder. He has made some bad decisions and taken some bad routes on balls (especially over his head) and he has collided with both his corner outfielders and middle infielders. It hasn't been all bad, Denard has good range and has made a handful of good to great catches. If he has two good-fielding corner outfielders beside him, his defense, while not worthy of a gold glove, is sufficient. Denard's offense has taken a large dip this year, but he remains the only bona fide leadoff man on the squad.
What to do, what to do? I propose the club swap outfielders with somebody. Young has increased his value with his good offensive year. I would like to see him traded for a center fielder who hits righthanded, so that Span could return to left field where he is a plus plus defender. Someone like Franklin Gutierrez of Seattle would improve defense both in left and center, while the Twins could live with adequate defense in right from Cuddyer/Kubel.