Thursday, April 22, 2004

Who's in Center?

There has been much recent talk of who should play center when Torii Hunter returns from his injury. While no one has exactly given his job away, the general feeling seems to be shifting in Lew Ford's favor. Torii Hunter will start when he returns and Ford is going to have to find at-bats elsewhere. There will be many people who will argue with this and complain that he is better then Hunter. Mark this down: Torii Hunter belongs in center when he returns to the team.

Torii remains the Twins All-Star, arguably their most popular and recognizable face. His presence legitimizes the lineup. He has produced big numbers at the major league level and his defense is a huge asset in centerfield. That is why he is paid as much as he is. He gives the rest of the team confidence when he is out there. He is a veteran in a lineup who sets an example for the young kids.

Lew Ford has had an excellent couple of weeks. Despite the fact that he has hit at every level, there is no certainty that he will keep it up when pitchers adjust to him. His numbers have got to come down and he lacks the power potential of Hunter. His ceiling is not very high and he is more likely to be traded then given a starting job with the Twins. There is a reason he started the year at AAA. Yes the Twins wanted him to play everyday but he is also buried on the depth chart at every position except center. Given a full season, I think Michael Cuddyer can be expected to put up better overall numbers. With his short swing, Ford is an excellent pitch hitting option off the bench and his patience at the plate is refreshing. With a full time job there are too many unknowns. Will he continue to be patient when he hits a slump and how long will that slump last? His defense is above average but far below the level of Hunter.

Despite Ford's recent production he is not a valid option to hit in the middle of the order. While Hunter is sometimes erratic, he drove in 102 runs last year and has averaged 26 homeruns the last 3 years. He has proven that he can hit in the middle of the order and produce, something the Twins are in need of at this time. Ford is more of a bottom of the order guy at this time because of his lack of power. People have to respect Hunter's right-handed bat and his potential to take them deep when he is in the lineup. He is the best option to break up the rest of the lefties in the middle of the order.

Torii is paid like a star and has done nothing to warrant losing his job to a two-week phenom. Those who advocate trading him would be disappointed in the value the Twins would receive in return. They are unlikely to get fair market value trading away their star and the team would be worse off as a result. Everyone complains about last winter’s free agent losses and the team turnover. Many of the same people have encouraged a possible trade of Hunter. It makes no sense.

On a side note, people have suggested that Ford should platoon with Jacque Jones upon Hunter's return. If this risks upsetting Jones's hitting against right-handers it is not worth it. While it is true Jones struggles against lefties his hitting has taken off since becoming a full-time player, and to take that confidence away from him may cause more harm then good. This is an issue I don't believe many people have considered.

The Twins play Kansas City this weekend and Hunter is unlikely to return, due to the field conditions. It should be a telling series. If the Twins go out and play like they did last weekend they will further expose the Royals as a flawed team. If the Royals are able to come back and take 2 out of 3 or sweep, it could be 3-team race this year. After watching last weekend’s games, the Twins are not going to be able to play as well but Kansas City is not a playoff caliber team. They have no pitching. The Twins starting pitching is likely to improve at about the same time their hitting cools off. It should be a fun weekend for Twins baseball.

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