When the Minnesota Twins drafted Scott Leius in the 13th round of the 1986 draft, they couldn't have known it was going to be a terrible draft. Derek Parks and Jeff Bronkey were taken 10th and 38th overall, each played 45 games, and combined they produced exactly zero wins above replacement. Three rounds in front of Leius the Twins selected a wirey infielder named Jeff Reboulet, who was the best player the Twins produced in the '86 draft; he'd accumulate 10.2 wins above replacement over a 12-year career that didn't begin until he was 28. 5.9 of those wins were given to Minnesota, where he played from 1992 to 1996.
Leius was the second-best player that the Minnesota brain trust selected in 1986. He didn't produce much with the bat in the minors, but nevertheless made his MLB debut over 14 games in 1990. That winter, when Gary Gaetti signed a contract with the Angels on January 23, 1991, the Twins turned around and signed a new third baseman just two days later - Mike Pagliarulo. But Pagliarulo, even coming off of a couple of bad seasons, had a history of struggling against left-handed pitchers.
From the outset of the 1991 season, Pagliarulo started versus right-handed pitchers and Leius started versus left-handed pitchers in manager Tom Kelly's lineup. Pags was past his best, power-hitting days of his mid-20s, but his splits tell the story. He only saw 19 plate appearances versus southpaws all season, instead batting .284/.323/.390 against righties. Leius, meanwhile, saw most of his playing time versus lefties, against whom he hit a strong .305/.427/.445 in 161 plate appearances.
The Minnesota Twins franchise holds Kelly in high esteem, and with good reason. Nobody is going to confuse him with Joe Madden in terms of a manager who will make decisions based off of numbers, but Kelly still platooned third base in 1991. Even if he hated it:
"We don't platoon here much -- never have," Twins general manager Terry Ryan said recently. "Tom Kelly hated it, and Ron Gardenhire I don't think is all that excited about platooning. I don't think he likes to platoon players at all. I don't either."
Gardenhire, famously is some circles, refused to platoon players like Jacque Jones and Jason Kubel. While it's understandable early in a player's career, to see if they can develop and get better, at some point it becomes nothing more than an exercise in giving away outs.
Still, Gardy doesn't seem fundamentally opposed to the idea, even if he's rarely if ever employed the strategy:
"I don't recall ever having a platoon," Gardenhire said. "I'm not against it. I'll tell you that. I wouldn't have a problem having a platoon if it fits. If it makes sense numbers-wise and it works, then you go with it."
The question then becomes, why haven't the Twins employed this strategy more often? They've had the opportunities, with players like Jones and Kubel and now Trevor Plouffe, and it's not as though teams that employ such a strategy don't make the playoffs. Forget about names of yesteryear like Whitey Herzog or Davey Johnson or even Earl Weaver, just look at Joe Maddon or Bob Melvin or John Ferrell or Jim Leyland. All four of those contemporary managers, all managing playoff teams in 2013, will swap out one or two players depending on if the opposing pitcher is right or left-handed.
Ryan goes on to say that he doesn't look for platoon players, and then later hedges slightly by saying that "If you have to, that's another alternative." But how long do you wait to see if a guy should be platooned? Does he have to be 32? Plouffe has had 1351 Major League plate appearances, and posts a career .665 OPS vesus righties and an .842 OPS versus lefties. How many more years of outs are we supposed to trade in the hope that his production against right-handed pitching gets better?
Avoiding outs is the whole idea behind a platoon strategy. It's about maximizing the limited number of assets you have on the roster, and about minimizing weaknesses. It's about putting the best lineup on the field day-in and day-out.
In an ideal situation, the Twins have nine guys who can play everyday regardless of who's pitching. Even if that means the bench would be made up of terrible players - because who wants to be a bench player on a team where you're never going to play - of course any general manager or fan would love to see a perfect lineup of nine everyday players. But it's not realistic.
So while I understand Ryan's hesitance to go out looking for platoon players, if your current roster presents an opportunity for such a situation, why avoid it? Pretending the situation doesn't exist costs the team outs, runs, and wins. If Plouffe mashes lefties, going out and finding a free agent whose best skill is hitting right-handed pitchers isn't just smart, it's probably going to be less expensive. Because role players don't cost as much as everyday players.
Ryan and the Twins already make a habit of signing role players. Why not bring in role players whose assets can be maximized while at the same time maximizing the value of an existing player?
Maybe some of it is posturing on Ryan's part - showing a strong front to the fan base with the idea that believing he can bring in an everyday player is possible. Because yes, everyday players are preferable. But when the realities of your roster dictate otherwise, it's time to stop turning a blind eye to the advantages that platoon-friendly players can bring to a team.
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