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Changing of the Guard?

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For the first time since the acquisition of Shannon Stewart, there's a legitimate question of who will be leading off for the Twins on opening day.

At specific and strategic points in the batting order, there are specific things you look for.  At cleanup you may want your biggest offensive threat.  You may want your best overall hitter in The Three Hole.  Sitting at the bottom of the order is usually a slot or two for players whose assets are something other than a bat.  Leading off, you want not only a man who can reach base, but a man with speed who knows how to use it.

The Suspects

Shannon Stewart

Stewart has been leading off for Minnesota in nearly every game since his arrival in 2003.  He took over for Jacque Jones, and largely he had success.  Stewart ran well, had the occasional pop in the bat, and hit for a nice average.  He didn't walk often, but he didn't strike out, either.

Entering 2006, Stewart will be 32 with a mild string of health issues.  In 2005 he was well enough to participate in 132 games, but largely this was due to injuries to Torii Hunter, Jason Kubel, and a below-expectations season for Lew Ford.  He struck out more often, couldn't reach base in a capacity required of a leadoff hitter, and many times simply didn't look like himself at the plate.  Stewart, who has had decent wheels his entire career, hasn't shown the penchant for stealing bags that made him a multi-threat at the top of the order since, truly, 2001.  Finally, Stewart has range in the outfield, but his armstrength has always been a liability.  If it becomes increasingly apparent that the Twins would be better off without his defense, he'll find himself looking for occasional DH and late game pinch hitting at-bats.  This wouldn't bode well for leading off.

Stewart's Numbers With Minnesota

Year   Age   AB   AVG   HR   BB   SO   SB   OBP   OPS
2003    29   65  .322    6   25   36    3  .384  .854
2004    30   92  .304   11   47   44    6  .380  .827
2005    31  132  .274   10   34   73    7  .323  .711

Luis Castillo

Castillo is one and a half years younger than Shannon Stewart, and had been hitting second for the Florida Marlins since the arrival of Juan Pierre.  Between them they were one of the league's most formidable 1-2 punches.  Both could run, both could reach base and both could hit.  Now in Minnesota he'll have his first sustained look at American League pitching.  The first time around, pitchers usually get the better of the deal.

Looking at the leadoff spot, there are a number of reasons Castillo's name is on the short list.  First, his seemingly innate ability to reach base would be an incredible asset to an offense as stagnant as ours in 2005.  Second, in spite of his hip condition, he retains his speed.  Finally, at 30, he's a professional hitter who can hit for a good average.  He's not going to waste at-bats, and he has been to the World Series; he understands pressure.  Think about this:  Castillo hasn't struck out more than he's walked since 2002.

On the downside, he hasn't done much leading off since Pierre became a regular in Florida in 2001.  The first at-bat is important in setting the pace of the game, and being able to stay in the box long enough for your teammates to get an idea of what the pitcher has that day.  Also, the aforementioned hip condition, while it hasn't affected his overall speeed, has affected his burst.  This has had an effect on how many bases he can steal.  Looking down the years, and I've mentioned it before, there's been a steep decline.  Finally, as speedy as he is, Castillo has recorded only one season of 20+ doubles.  Not being able to watch film on his past, I have a concern.  Is this because he's a slap-hitter, an Ichiro-type just-reach-base guy?  Or is this a sign that he doesn't make good base-running decisions?

Castillo's Numbers Since 2003

Year   Age   Games   Hits   2B   AVG   HR   BB   SO   SB   OBP   OPS
2003    27    152     187   19  .314    6   63   60   21  .381  .778
2004    28    150     164   12  .291    2   75   68   21  .373  .721
2005    29    122     132   12  .301    4   65   32   10  .391  .765

Conclusions

Talk from the clubhouse has foreshadowed a familiar slot in the order for Shannon at the start of 2006.  It's also been mentioned that Stewart has already been talked to about the possibility of moving down in the order, and he's stated he'll do whatever is in the best interest of the team.

Looking at the year Shannon had in 2005, it's easy to forget what he brought to the table prior.  In 2003 there was buzz, in Minnesota at least, about casting MVP votes for Stewart.  Even looking at his 2004 numbers, which were truncated due to injury, there's nothing bad about a .380 OBP.  If Stewart can prove 2005 was an abberition, if there's hope he can return to the form of 2004-prior, then I have no issue with him getting the first at-bat of every game he touches.  If not, then it's time to start holding auditions.

Memory of a fan is a fickle thing in sports.  "So...what have you done for me lately?"  What Castillo has done lately is what makes him so attractive for leading off.  Track record is everything, and Castillo's recent history leads me to believe he has more of the tools needed to be a legitimate leadoff threat.  I love Stewart and everything he's done for the organization, and if it's time for him to slide down in the lineup, then the positive is that we have lengthened our order.  There's nothing bad about having your number six or seven hitter be Shannon Stewart.

Luis Castillo is the biggest splash in trade for the Twins since Shannon Stewart, and the biggest acquisition of any kind for the Twins since Chili Davis.  Shannon Stewart is a class act whose shown in the past he has what it takes, and his talent dictates he should have the chance to prove he still does.  When it comes to the legitimates, it's a two-man race for certain.  I expect to see Stewart leading off on opening day, but once Castillo has his feet wet in the American League, the Twins may be better suited for a changing of the guard at the top.

May the best man win.