Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Who's on Second?

Costello: All I want to know is who’s on second?!

Abbot: Like I said, Who’s on first. Luis Rivas is on second.

Costello: Oh. (long pause) Would it be possible for Who, What, or I Don’t Know to play second instead?

I’m sure most Twins fans out there are asking themselves the exact same question as Costello: isn’t there ANYONE else that can play second base for the Twins besides Luis Rivas?!? Rivas went 0-3 again in Monday night’s 6-1 loss to the Blue Jays, lowering his batting average to .197 and his on-base percentage to .222 (he’s also the not-so-proud owner of a .550 OPS). Now, I fully realize that we are less than 20 games into the regular season, but it is becoming more and more apparent every day that Luis Rivas is not the long-term (or even short-term!) solution at 2B.

I know we went through the same debate last year when Rivas started so poorly, but enough is enough. It appears that Rivas has digressed (or remained stagnant) in nearly every facet of his game since his promising rookie season of 2001. His plate discipline has not improved, his defense has possibly gotten worse, and he is no longer the base-stealing threat he once was. I, for one, am thoroughly disappointed.

The thing is, do the Twins have anybody better? Here are the candidates:
Nick Punto: Punto is seemingly the best replacement candidate that we currently have on the major league roster. However, I hate to bust everyone’s bubble, but Nick Punto is not the answer either. At best, he is the Twins version of Bo Hart: short, scrappy, singles-hitting middle infielder. And Punto takes the “singles-hitting” thing to new extremes: in 134 major league at-bats, he has exactly 3 extra base hits (for those of you scoring at home, that works out to be a .276 slugging percentage- only about 1000 points lower that Barry Bonds’ this year). He may work out fine in the short-run, but he is far from a long-term solution. Punto almost makes Rivas look like Bonds.

Michael Cuddyer: I’ve seen a lot of statheads over at the DTFC champion the Cuddyer-as-2B cause. Right now, I’m going to rain on that parade. Michael Cuddyer, simply put, is not a second baseman. He never was a second basemen (although I’m aware he was drafted as a shortstop) and he will never be a second baseman. I do think he could someday be an adequate third baseman in the majors (note the term “adequate”) but he simply does not posses the hands, the footwork, or the instincts to be a second baseman at the major league level (to borrow a term from Bert Blyleven). Anyone who has any baseball-sense whatsoever and has seen Cuddyer play second EVEN ONCE will agree with me. There is no doubt in my mind that he would out produce Rivas easily, but I would not put up with his inferior defense to gain the fairly modest offensive benefits- he’s not Jeff Kent yet remember. Also, let’s not forget this is the same organization that gave up Todd Walker for next-to-nothing, because they were so disgusted with his defense (and attitude).

Minor League candidates: Luis Rodriguez, Alex Prieto, and Jason Bartlett
I’m not sure if any of these AAA players are actually candidates to ever play second base in the majors. Rodriguez is the current 2B for the Red Wings, but it’s obvious the Twins don’t think that highly of him as a prospect (besides the obligatory spring-training invite). He’s only 23, but he’s also 5’9’’ 180 (or so he says). His stats say he’ll probably be a career minor league filler, which is too bad. No power, little speed- a bad combination for a guy hoping to break into the bigs. Prieto is a AAA infielder, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t play second all that much. And it is unlikely that the Twins would have Bartlett, who they have been grooming as a shortstop, break into the majors as a second baseman.

There you have it. Even though he sucks (as I have repeatedly stated), Luis Rivas is currently the Twins’ best option at second base. I hope he can turn his season around, but my faith is dwindling. In the meantime, let the search for Who, What, or I Don’t Know begin.

The Middle-Infield Dilemma

Let me begin by stating that I can no longer defend Luis Rivas. It takes a lot for me to abandon one of my favorite players and this is still not one of those times. When he first came up there was a fire in him. He played baseball like it was supposed to be played. There seemed to always be a huge smile on his face and he had a knack for getting a big hit and occasionally driving the ball into gaps. His defense was close to spectacular. The sky was the limit. This is why I fell in love with him and refuse to believe he can't still be great player for the Twins.

Both middle infielders have been terrible to this point and something needs to be done. The Twins have options. They are not necessarily attractive. Making a change at this point would send a message to both players that it is time to step up their play. The in-house replacements include Michael Cuddyer, Jason Bartlett, and Nick Punto. The team also has a glut of outfielders available to trade.
The Twins should demote Rivas much like was done with Tori Hunter and Joe Mays in 2000. Both players were terrible at the times of their demotion. After spending time in the minors building back confidence they came back to star for the 2001 team. The biggest support for Rivas comes from him being so young. So young that it is too early to give up on him. He hasn't had the at-bats to accurately show what kind of major leaguer he can be. He appears to be mentally strong enough to handle a demotion and come back stronger. The Twins should send him down and let him play his way back to the majors. After feasting on AAA pitching for a month or so he might be ready to return to the majors and play at the level everyone expected 3 years ago. That would be a huge upgrade over anybody who takes his spot in the meantime.

Cristian Guzman is an enigma. Ever since hurting his shoulder on a head first slide in 2001 he hasn't been the same player. Before that he was a rising star. People forget that his injury was largely the cause of the team's second half collapse. The young Guzman was fast, exiting and an igniter for the offense. The question is whether or not he is capable of getting it back and if he can do it while still playing with the Twins.

Guzman was a better hitter when he was driving the ball; he needs to start doing it again. He is terrible because he has been told to hit the ball on the ground. That he doesn't particularly like to work hard is also a hindrance on the situation. Somebody needs to tell him to take the reins off and just play. If he gets hurt again that's really too bad. Right now he is playing his way to an early retirement. Is he capable of being the Guzman of old? Yes, but probably not this year which means it will more then likely have to happen for another team which is sad for anyone who saw him before. Guzman is not likely to see time in the minors anytime soon though so the Twins need to decide what to do with his position.

No matter how much people hate to hear it Cristian Guzman is still the best option at shortstop for the Minnesota Twins. The only way the team upgrades the position is through a trade. With Rivas in the minors the team is going to have to play Nick Punto at second about half the time. Punto has never hit at any level. What he brings to the table is speed and hustle. Cristian Guzman on the bench is worthless to the team; they might as well replace him. He doesn't play any other positions or steal bases. Benching him may cause him to slump even further to the point that the team might as well release him, which would leave an even greater void at the position. It's better to leave him out there and pray.