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The Graffanino Connection

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Is he more than an Uber Punto?

As questions continue to surround what many believe to be the largest holes in the Minnesota defense and batting order, a new name has appeared on the horizon.  AdamOnFirst has already broached the topic, so let's take a bit of a closer look.

Coming into March, Graffanino had been told by Red Sox management that every effort would be made to trade the aging infielder.  With the acquisition of Mark Loretta from San Diego, Graffanino's role has become redundant, and there was interest shown from teams with whom he would play every day.  Initial suitors like Texas have fallen off the radar as they've been smitten by Ian Kinsler.  Still showing interest are the Cubs, Mets and Marlins.  If there's been anything besides blogger speculation as to Minnesota's interest in Graffanino, I haven't seen it.

Spring has been rough on Tony, and it's been reported that Boston placed him on revocable waivers.  He finally hit his first home run yesterday, and is hitting a meager .189 with a .486 OPS.

Tony Batista and Juan Castro have been the aforementioned "holes" on what is anticipated to be the major league roster, and it's hard to disagree.  While Batista has shown flashes of competence, he's still hitting only .222 with a .666 OPS coming out of yesterday's loss to the Devil Rays.  This, however, is brilliance compared to Castro's gooseggs across the board.  Castro hasn't had as much playing time as Batista, but it's not as though it's Cal Ripken Jr. having a sup-par spring.

So we come to Graffanino.  He's had some relative offensive success the past few seasons, as he's beat his career .730 OPS each of the last five seasons barring 2004.  Defensively he's better at second base than third base, but we wouldn't need him at second.  These numbers are interesting:

       Second Base   Third Base
Year   RF9  lgRF9    RF9  lgRF9
2000  5.77   5.03   3.57   2.67
2001  5.37   4.87   2.93   2.73
2002  5.02   4.90   2.53   2.68
2003  5.79   4.94   1.80   2.67
2004  5.77   4.95   ----   ----  
2005  4.70   4.96   2.55   2.76

These numbers indicate Range Factor through innings played.  RF9 is Graffanino's rating, while lgRF9 is the league average for a player at that position.  My concern for Graffanino is multi-purpose.  One, his range factor at third base hasn't been league average or better since 2001...four years ago.  Two, historically he hasn't played as much third base in his career.  If he plays third base for the Twins, how does his inexperience at the position hurt us?  Three, he turns 34 in June.  As he ages, his defense won't get any better.  His offense isn't that great where it can offset an increasingly weaker presence in the field.  Of course...you could say the same thing about Tony Batista.

Because defensive abilities are difficult to quantify I'll also submit Zone Rating numbers for Graffanino, comparing him to some of the players the Twins have to offer at third base.

Player      Career 3B ZR
Graffanino      .742
Punto           .848
Castro          .736
Batista         .756
Cuddyer         .774
Rodriguez       .827
Williams        .800

With Zone Rating, like most other defensive aptitude ratings, it is on some level subjective.  Zone Rating is the percentage of balls fielded by the player in his "range".  Even though some of the players in the above chart have small sample sizes, and some are better at other positions (including Graffanino), you can see that even Cuddyer is a better option at third than Tony G.  This shouldn't be a comforting thought.

Finally there's the offensive part of the equation.  Graffanino has hit over .300 three times in his career, but the games played in those seasons combine for only 224 games played.  This is 74 games per year...in his best offensive years.  Speaking of games played, he hasn't played more than 110 games in a single season.  That career high was set last year, at age 33.  I'm not even going to put up Graffanino's numbers, I'll just link to them.  See for yourself.  Play the odds.

Conclusions

When the offseason began, I was all about taking a look at Tony Graffanino...for second base.  He'd have been a nice stop-gap until Maza was ready or Rodriguez proved he could hit southpaws.  But now that we have Castillo, the best reason you could give to make a bid on Graffanino is that he'd be a decent option coming off the bench.

Off the bench, he's pretty good around second base defensively.  Off the bench, I'd rather see him pinch-hitting than Nick Punto or Juan Castro.  Off the bench, I'd rather him play third base than Tony Batista.  But honestly, if you're looking for a guy to start 135/140 games at the hot corner besides Tony B., it can't be Tony G.  You're taking gambles with each player, for different reasons.  Getting off a blind horse for one with a broken leg doesn't get you home any faster.

I'm not sure if that made sense.  Anyway, the point is that Graffanino isn't a bad option...as a backup.  His defense is slipping, he's two years older than the current slated starter, and his offense definately leaves something to be desired for a third baseman.

Actually, I'm pretty sure if you made a good argument you could convince me that what you're trading out with Batista you'd be getting more back from Graffanino (start your argument with trading SLG v. OBP).  Feel free to do that, although I've pretty much convinced myself that he's a bad option. I need to go update some links.