Remember when the Minnesota Twins non-tendered and released a future Hall-of-Famer in favor of Matthew LeCroy?
Sure, it was technically every bit as bad as it sounds, but hindsight is always 20/20, right? Let’s take a quick peek back at the decision the Twins had in front of them in the winter between the 2002 and 2003 seasons.
In 2002, the Twins made the playoffs for the first time in 11 years. (It was also the last time the franchise won a playoff series, but who’s counting?) After an 85-win season in 2001 and a 94-win campaign in Ron Gardenhire’s first year at the helm, the Twins appeared to be a clear up-and-coming team to be reckoned with in the American League.
The Twins played much of the 2002 season in a platoon at the designated hitter spot between the massive lefty, David Ortiz, and the shorter-but-equally-as-thick Matthew LeCroy.
A traditional platoon made plenty of sense. Ortiz hit .299/.371/.548 with 15 home runs in 337 plate appearances against right-handed pitchers in 2002. Against left-handers, LeCroy put up a slash-line of .289/.347/.522. The main difference was that LeCroy only saw 98 plate appearances against lefties, hitting five homers.
LeCroy’s home run rate against lefties that season was 5.1%, while Ortiz’s was 4.5% against righties. For some reason, Ortiz still received 129 plate appearances against lefties, slashing only .203/.256/.381 with five home runs.
Taking a step back, it makes sense why the Twins wanted to give LeCroy every opportunity to succeed, and especially against left-handed pitchers. He was coming off a 2001 season at Triple-A Edmonton in which he put up a line of .328/.390/.523 and hit 20 home runs in 441 plate appearances. In his time at Triple-A in 2002, his line improved to a crazy .351/.412/.609 while hitting 12 home runs in 199 plate appearances — a home run rate of 6%.
Ortiz had been in the big leagues for a couple of seasons already but had been equally as dominant in his final season in Triple-A back in 1999. His issue was largely injuries, with a wrist problem cutting short a good rookie campaign in 2001, when he hit .234/.324/.475.
After both players were effective in their platoon roles in 2002 as the Twins reached the ALCS, it made sense to bring them both back and allow them to split at-bats at designated hitter.
However, there were three primary reasons why the Twins moved on from Ortiz.
- LeCroy and Ortiz could each only realistically be used as designated hitters. LeCroy was a poor defensive catcher and was nearly as bad at first base. Ortiz only appeared in 132 games over parts of six seasons with the Twins and wasn’t a viable option there, either.
- Ortiz was due for a raise. After making under $1 million in 2002, he was expected to earn over $2 million in 2003 via arbitration. Remember, this is at the height of the small-market Twins being extra small-market-y.
- The Twins’ lineup had plenty of left-handed hitters, including Doug Mientkiewicz and highly-regarded prospects Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau.
It made sense for Minnesota to avoid tying up two roster spots with DH-only players. Between the money and the too-many-lefties thing...well, those are good reasons to use as tiebreakers if it was really that close between LeCroy and Ortiz.
In 2016, former Twins general manager Terry Ryan avoided naming any specific reasons as to why Ortiz was released, other than admitting that it was simply “a mistake”. But clearly, it was some combination of the three items above. Otherwise, why release a guy with a career .301/.391/.584 slash at Triple-A and a starter-worthy line of .277/.371/.446 and 20 home runs in his age-22 season?
To be fair to Ryan, LeCroy certainly appeared to be a suitable replacement for Ortiz, and at a lower cost. In 2003, LeCroy had a career-year, hitting 17 home runs in 374 plate appearances and putting up a line of .287/.342/.490. Eventually, however, his lack of a position and injury issues caught up to him. After another 17-homer year in 2005, he was allowed to leave in free agency and bounced to Washington and back to Minnesota in 2007 before calling it a career.
We all know what Ortiz went on to do, and while we don’t know for sure if his career would have played out the same way as a member of the Minnesota Twins, it sure would have been nice to find out.