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Twins biggest hole? Shortstop

In all but one position, the Twins have options in 2009 and beyond.

Nick Punto's OPS+ this year is 39. His UZR numbers are under water. He is on a pace to strike out 88 times this year as the number 9 hitter. You can look at the numbers for regular shortstops in Twins history and fail to find worse numbers, projecting Punto's numbers out over the course of a full season, in almost 50 years of baseball.

The last time he was the starter at a regular position (third base in 2007), he managed to put up the worst season statistically by any third baseman in Twins history (OPS+ 52). You can make a good case that it was the worst full season for a regular third baseman in the history of the game. Even if you find a regular third baseman in the history of the game with a lower OPS+, it's quite a feat to be the worst regular Twins player at two positions in your career.

Last year he became the starter by default after Adam Everette got hurt and he did decently (99 OPS+, UZR 150 17.9). Despite his checkered career, the Twins signed him to a two-year, $8.5 million contract in the offseason. Why? Because the Twins brass determined that there were no better options internally or on the free agent market and trade partners were scarce.

I could argue there were better options. Cristian Guzman, for example, was a free agent coming off consecutive seasons with an above average OPS+ with slightly below average UZR numbers. But it didn't happen. And this piece is not about looking back, it's about looking forward. Punto is clearly not the solution at shortstop despite begin the fourth highest paid player on the team. After last night's fiasco, in which Brendan Harris showed why he's not a regular shortstop, it's clear to me that the Twins need to find a solution outside the organization if they hope to fulfill the promise of a good young nucleus.


Options on the farm

I agree with the Twins general philosophy that trades are a last resort, especially for positions like short, which are very costly to fill. (Outside of the Garza/Young trade, without which I wouldn't be writing this.) The apparent plan was to use Punto as a bridge to Trevor Plouffe. For reasons that will become clear, if this is the plan, we need a new plan.

Plouffe is a former number-one draft pick who has had his ups and downs (mostly downs) as he moved along one level at a time in the minors. He's never put up the kind of numbers that make you want to push for a promotion at any level. In his best years, he's held his own while being young for his level. So he's hung around the prospect lists more on draft order and youth than on the strength of his numbers.

His OPS in New Britain as a 21 year old was 724. As a 22 year old, repeating that level, he did essentially just as well (731) before getting promoted to Rochester and holding his own there (708) for the second half of last season. Those were the best numbers of his career. The hope this year from the Twins front office (as expressed by Joe Cristensen and others) was that he would take the next step as his age caught up with his level of competition. Unfortunately, that hope has yet to be realized. In fact, he's regressed to a 634 OPS in the early going.

Contrast that to the last good shortstop we had--Jason Bartlett--who had an OPS of 887 as a 24 year old in Rochester. There's still time for Plouffe to hone some things (particularly his defense, which continues to be the weaker side of his game). So I wouldn't give up on him as a future utility option. But unless he has some miraculous ascendancy that belies his numbers over the course of his career, he will not even be a replacement-level player as a starter in the majors. Though he could easily do better than Nick Punto (who is several runs below replacement level) this year and next as the starting shortstop, that's not saying much. If the Twins hope to win, they need to find a league-average shortstop.

The Twins have other players who can play shortstop. Steven Tolleson just got promoted to Rochester to replace Alexi Casilla. He could likely hit like a competent shortstop, but his defense is more suited to second base. The Twins could revisit moving Alexi Casilla to short and insert Tolleson at second. That is not likely to happen because Ron Gardenhire has stated he prefers Casilla at second and Bill Smith refuses to tell Gardy how to make out a line-up card.


External options

Speculating on trades is an iffy proposition at best because it's almost impossible to predict how much one GM will require to trade a player. But identifying potential trade targets is somewhat easier. I will focus on four targets--two old guys and two young guys--in this space and leave you all to use the comments for other options.

Miguel Tejada

Tejada is likely available as Houston admits it needs to scrap the ship and rebuild. Tejada would fit in nicely in the middle of the Twins order with his current OPS+ (135). But his fielding is way substandard. His UZR/150 is -20 right now, which is awful. On the other hand, last year it was 9.4, which is an indication that UZR can fluctuate wildly for one player. Considering that the Astros will likely ask for a tidy sum for this rent-a-player, and he's making $13 million this year. he's not likely to be a good fit for the Twins.

Cristian Guzman

Like the Astros, the Nationals aren't going to contend this year, which makes Guzman a target for a trade. Unlike Tejada, Guzman is signed through 2010 (at $8 million a year). Also, unlike Tejada, Guzman is not horrible in the field. Though a UZR/150 of -15 this year is not good, his typical UZR/150 over the last few years is more like -4. So perhaps we're dealing with small samples, like Brendan Harris with a UZR/150 of 3.4, when he's typically in the negative teens over his career. Guzman can hit, though. Since his surgery, his OPS+ is 114, which is about what it is this year. If the price is right, perhaps the Twins should look at him. Still, I doubt the Twins will consider him because his defense is a liability and it's not getting any better.

Reid Brignac

The Twins just got done playing the Rays, so we saw this kid a fair amount. He looks impressive, both in the field and at the plate. His major league numbers suffer from small sample sizes. But he was hitting very well (817 OPS) this year for Durham prior to being called up with Bartlett's injury. Assuming Bartlett comes back in the customary time frame for an ankle sprain, he could be available in a couple of weeks.What the Rays would want for him is another matter. Would they take Plouffe and a pitcher?

Jed Lowrie

I only bring him up because Adam P. did in another thread. If the Red Sox are looking for outfield help and Lowrie is available, he would be a perfect fit. He's an above average fielder (21 UZR/150 over his career at short) and a tough out. Though currently on the DL with a wrist injury, he's on track for a return in two weeks. Perhaps it's wishful thinking, but maybe he could be had for one of our four outfielders.