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Twins Off-Season Question #4: How Do You Play Five Outfielders Full Time?

Between the guys we know the organization likes to play and the guys who expect to play, is it feasible to get five players 500 plate appearances (or more) over four positions?

I'm just going to start us out by jumping off a limb screaming:  NNNOOOOOOO!!  (Fade scream, cue Wile E. Coyote landing.)

It's a question that's pretty cut and dried, considering last year the grouping of Michael Cuddyer, Carlos Gomez, Jason Kubel, Denard Span and Delmon Young combined for 2444 plate appearances.  Cuddyer only managed 279 due to injuries, but mathematically it almost seams plausible, doesn't it?  2444 isn't that far from 2500.  But the issue isn't the number of available plate appearances throughout the season, it's how many opportunities there are to get them.

After the season, mostly in November and December, Young's name was popular in trade rumors.  Especially after Ron Gardenhire stated that his preferred starting outfield didn't include Young, it was even easier to foresee the shape of the '09 outfield and how playing time would be allocated.  Yet here we are a month away from spring training, and pretty soon what was considered a strength of depth over the winter will turn into a battle for playing time.

Right.  So how do we sort this out?  By breaking it down.  If Gardenhire is facing a right-handed starter, a southpaw, a guy who struggles to find the strike zone or if the focus is defense, there should be a set package for each of these scenarios.  But ultimately, and perhaps more importantly than finding the right splits for any of these guys, let's have a look at service time.  Whether we like it or not, it makes a difference.

Going into 2008, here's how service time looked according to Cot's Contracts.  Numbers are listed in years and days on a major league roster.

Denard Span:  0.000
Carlos Gomez:  0.141
Delmon Young:  1.034
Jason Kubel:  3.009
Michael Cuddyer:  4.157

The only guy worth getting in depth on in this list is the notorious Carlos Gomez.  Span's service time is under a year, Delmon Young will be arbitration eligible after this season, and the two Twins veterans are under team control.  What we have to watch, from a financial as well as a scenario standpoint, is how the Twins approach Gomez in 2009.

Another full season for Carlos means he'll be eligible for arbitration following 2010.  But by limiting his major league exposure--say by limiting him to 90 days on the 25-man roster--Minnesota could push his arb-eligible date back to 2011.

You can offer a lot of the same arguments you can hear elsewhere, that it's a cheap maneuver or that he needs to see MLB pitching or that he brings that sudden impact character to a game, but this move also has a number of positives:

  1. The outfield logjam for playing time clears.  Young, Span, Cuddyer and Kubel can each easily garner more than 500 at-bats, much less plate appearances, when the fifth outfielder is just that--a fifth outfielder.
  2. In spite of a promising .289/.330/.470 line in September last season, Gomez still has no plate discipline or strike zone judgment.  Rochester can be used as a primer, a confidence boost, and as a way to make sure he's still able to play every day.
  3. Gomez's specific outfield competition, Denard Span, has not only earned a starting spot due to his play, but fills a gap in the lineup that Gomez currently cannot fill:  leadoff hitter.
  4. Jason Pridie will get an opportunity to establish a major league career, which is something he's earned.
  5. It allows the Twins to evaluate their current talent, albeit at different levels, without the pressure of "needing" to give a certain amount of playing time to each player.
  6. Oh yeah, it keeps Gomez from being arbitration-eligible for one more season.  It doesn't seem like much now, but it's still money that can be allocated elsewhere.  In this financial market, that's not a bad thing.
  7. One last thing:  it keeps Delmon Young on the field, instead of on the bench.  That's the last place Young needs to be.

Outside of service time, we certainly could look at splits and package scenarios.  The Defensive Outfield - This one should be pretty obvious.  Span in left field, Gomez in center and Cuddyer in right.  Versus LHP - Using major league splits from the last three seasons, Kubel would be the designated hitter with Young (.790 OPS) in left, Span (.874) in center and Cuddyer (.851) in right.  Versus RHP - There's not much of a decision to be made here, either.  Kubel will be the DH again, Young will man left field (.721), Span in center (.795) and Cuddyer in right (.784).

What makes this decision crystal clear for me is the answer to this question:  which outfielder is the furthest from being who he can possibly become?  Whily Delmon still has a lot of work to do, his raw hitting ability is something this offense needs.  Gomez has all the tools, but as of right now that raw talent still isn't turning into any semblance of an offense.  And instead of causing playing time issues between all five players, hopefully the Twins see it as a developmental opportunity.  Minnesota can make their depth a strength again, instead of allowing that depth to disrupt what happens on the field.

Q#1:  What Do We Have?
Q#2:  How Much Money Do We Have to Spend?
Q#3:  Who Gets Offered Arbitration?