Last year, the leadoff spot in the lineup was often occupied by Aaron Hicks and Brian Dozier, with a slight exception in September when we saw Alex Presley. There are certain skill sets one looks for in a leadoff hitter, and these can vary depending on the person. Those into sabermetrics often want an on-base machine at the top of the lineup. A Dusty Baker-type is more interested in a player that can swipe a ton of bases, but often sacrifices OBP in order to get that speed demon atop the lineup.
Yesterday, Ron Gardenhire was asked about his leadoff options this year. He acknowledged that if the players competing for center field were unable to impress this spring (Aaron Hicks, Darin Mastroianni, and Alex Presley) that he would have two other players in mind: Brian Dozier and - wait for it - Kurt Suzuki.
Let's take a look at all of the choices first before we talk about Suzuki. Provided he shows improvement this year, Hicks would be a solid option. He takes many pitches, almost to the point of being called passive, and thus should be able to draw quite a few walks. Even if he musters only a .250 batting average, his walk rate should push his OBP up to around .315, which is pretty bad for a leadoff hitter but at least would be around league-average from last season. With the added bonus of being a speed threat, he would be a decent choice, but again, it's all predicated on his ability to show last season was a fluke.
Mastroianni would be another solid yet unspectacular option. Two years ago, he hit .252 with a .328 OBP while stealing 21 bases in 24 attempts, an excellent 88% success rate. If he could show that last year's numbers were a result of his foot injury that knocked him out for most of the season, he would probably be the safest option currently under consideration. However, I think no matter what, he's destined to be the team's 4th outfielder.
Presley is not really a prototypical leadoff hitter. If anything, he's Jacque Jones Lite, in that he doesn't walk very much, but does have a little more pop in his bat than Hicks or Mastroianni, especially against righthanded pitching. He's not too good as a basestealer (20 for 35 in his career, 57%) so Ron Gardenhire would sell him as a leadoff hitter with the ability to start the game with a bang with his doubles or home runs. Out of the center fielders, Presley is my least-favorite choice, but I also see him as the frontrunner unless Hicks dazzles in camp.
If the center field group doesn't work out, then Brian Dozier appears to be the next-best option to lead off. He did have about 70 games batting first last season, and his overall line of batting .244 with a .312 OBP is roughly in line with what I'd expect from a good Aaron Hicks or Darin Mastroianni. He has a 72% career stolen base success rate which isn't too bad, so I think it really comes down to your opinion on his power. If you think last year's breakthrough was real, then he probably belongs more as a #2 hitter this season. If you don't think highly of it, then perhaps you have him bat leadoff.
And finally, this comes to Kurt Suzuki. I have to say, I'm utterly baffled as to why Gardy would think that he would be a good option atop the lineup. It doesn't matter what you look at, virtually all the evidence goes against him. He hasn't hit above .242 since 2009 when he was 25 years old. His career OBP is .309, and he hasn't bested that since 2009 when it was .313. He's had 9 stolen bases in the past four years. Basically the only thing working for him is that he doesn't strike out much, but if you're not getting on base, that ability to avoid the strikeout isn't doing much good. Really, I can only see someone playing the "He takes professional at-bats" card, but there's just no evidence to suggest that's even true. (Plus there's my annoyance that there's not really a right way to take a "professional at-bat" unless you're swinging at everything.)
Of course, there is one obvious solution that could be thrown into the mix, but there are no indications that Joe Mauer will ever be a leadoff hitter. While his ability to get on base 40% of the time is just begging to be used to start a game, he seems entrenched as the team's #3 hitter as he'd set up the middle of the order of Josh Willingham, Oswaldo Arcia, and Trevor Plouffe. Thus, we'd be stuck with watching one of the mediocre options above, but at least none of them should project to be a disaster.
Aaron Hicks, Darin Mastroianni, Alex Presley, I'm begging you... please don't falter so Kurt Suzuki hits leadoff. Or at least let this observation from Brandon Warne be true.