Sunday, December 09, 2007

The Anatomy of a Rumor (Shortstop Edition)

When you look at the projected Twins lineup for 2008 it appears to contain more gaps than all the regional malls in America combined. Despite finding a right-handed bat to replace Torii Hunter's offensively, Billy Smith has not yet addressed problems that existed at the end of 2007 season (third and center) and recent openings that were created when trading Bartlett to Tampa (short and leadoff). There is more certainty with who will be on the presidential ballot; the Twins middle infield is anybody's guess.

In his press conference with reporters at the winter meetings, Ron Gardenhire attempted to offer some resolve to the matter from the manager's perch. Inquiring as to what the manager thought about the shortstop situation Gardenhire said, "We got Harris in the mix. We've got Punto and Casilla. We've got some good young infielders. I think Harris looks like offensively he can do something offensively: He can swing the bat. If he comes in and shows that he can move around a little bit and make the routines plays and all those things, he'll get a good look at it."

When asked about his recent shortstop dilemma's solution could come from outside the organization, Gardenhire kept the door open for a possibility of a trade or free agent signing. "Not going to back ourselves in a corner," Gardy said, "There could be possibility of going out and finding somebody and making a move to get a shortstop if you had to. If one pops up in your face, you're not going to back away from it, but we've got people in-house that can -- we think can do the job. We don't know that, but we think it. I know Punto can."

From Gardenhire's perspective (not necessarily the Twins front office, mind you) the shortstop options are: 1) Brendan Harris, 2) Nick Punto, 3) Alexi Casilla (Although the possibility seems slight. In a subsequent question, Gardy said "Casilla is kind of a loose cannon. He can make some of greatest plays in the world, and he can get a little out of whack."), 4) Unknown Free Agent, and 5) Unknown Traded Player.

In the ensuing question, a reporter pressed if David Eckstein - who makes an "exorbitant" amount of money - was someone Gardy would be interested in for shortstop Gardy replied, "Yes, I've had a lot of respect for him. A winner. Proven winner. Guys like that, you know, those are decisions and things we'll talk about as you go along."

This one response to a loaded question has incited plenty of chatter in message boards demonizing Gardenhire's preferences. The phrasing of the question reads as follows: "Guy like Eckstein, whose salary is exorbitant." That is barely a question. Even an inept defense attorney would have been screaming "Objection! Leading the witness." Nevertheless, ESPN's Jerry Cransick fueled the fire by writing in the ESPN winter meetings blog that: "With the Twins in search of middle-infield help, one potential target is free agent David Eckstein. "I've always had a lot of respect for him," said Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire. "He catches the ball. He knows how to play. He's a proven winner."

This is a great example of how much weight to put into so-called rumors reported on by even respectable media. Desperate for blog fodder, Cransick did some quick math: Twins have a need at shortstop in addition to Gardy is seemingly infatuated with Eckstein (based upon his interview response). Ergo, the Twins must be interested in signing David Eckstein.

When the interview is read in context, it would appear that no logical person would read further into Gardy's answer for several reasons:

1) If Gardy did offer a derogatory or negative response towards Eckstein and the front office signs Eck anyways, Gardy has now backed himself into a corner and has invited a disgruntled shortstop situation even before the cleats hit the turf. As a major league manager, he knows part of his position is being a mayor.

2) Consider the free agent in question. Eck has been able to command a healthy salary based on the notion that he is a "proven winner" playing in the World Series with both the Cardinals and the Angels. That being said, Eckstein is a Type-B free agent, meaning the Twins would have to sacrifice a draft-pick for signing him.

3) Most importantly, the Twins have very similar options internally and are plenty aware of that. As glove men are concerned, Eck is declining. In 2007, he had one of the worst revised-zone-ratings of any starting shortstop in the National League (.783) and the two below him that have played more than 900 innings in the season were Hanley Ramirez (.773) and Stephen Drew (.777). Ramirez hit .332/.386/.562, a powerful bat that can be forgiven for his fielder errors. Drew was making $4.2 million dollars less for providing the Diamondbacks with 4 more win shares than Eckstein (16 WS to 11 WS). Harris, meanwhile, was playing in 200 less innings at shortstop managed to have a the identical revised-zone-rating as Drew (.777) while playing in a more defensively difficult league (American) and division (East). Harris also provided the Rays with 3 additional win shares than Eckstein gave the Cardinals.

Now that the Eckstein-to-Twins rumor has been thoroughly discredited (by Rotoworld too), let's play devil's advocate and suggest the notion that the Twins are currently seeking external candidates for short. Rotoworld reported that Eckstein is looking for a multi-year deal (after all, he is only seven months older than Edgar Renteria) and goes on to state that the Twins would only be interested in a "stop-gap" season and therefore would not be able to come to terms with the free agent. My question is, who are we "stop-gapping" for? Trevor Plouffe may be more than a season away from being major league ready and may not have the makeup of a shortstop (he made 32 errors last season in Double-A). Behind him in the organization's depth chart appears to be the 24-year-old Steven Tolleson who spend last season at Ft. Myers. At the major league level, Harris is better suited for second or third while Punto is better glued to the bench maintaining the Denny Hocking role. Likewise, Casilla will be at second if anywhere at all next season.

Considering the nature of the market for free agent shortstops (Eckstein, Neifi Perez, Royce Clayton), Eckstein is by far the best option. In full disclosure, I think Eckstein is far from an ideal candidate to man the position. Then again Harris, Punto and Casilla are also all far from ideal. Without a doubt Eckstein will be overvalued and qualify for a larger contract than deserved. The money that would be used in signing Eckstein would be better allocated if used in other avenues (dh, 3b, cf). Optimally, it would benefit the Twins to acquire a shortstop through a trade rather than overpay for a shortstop. One that can also bat lead-off.