Monday, February 18, 2008

Centerfield Influx.

It is a daunting task replacing an icon. Just ask Rich Becker. He was the first full-time centerfielder after several attempts were made to insert wayward journeymen into the role following the Kirby Puckett era. The Twins find themselves in a similar situation to what played out during the 1994-1995 seasons. For those two seasons it was a tumultuous time for the Twins, Hrbek had announced his retirement effective at the end of the '94 season and Kirby was not able to cover as much ground as he once did. Like the franchise's modern day version, the 1994 Twins did not seem to have a replacement for the bulbous future Hall of Famer. Some believed that a double-A product Richard Godhard Becker was the right candidate. Others thought they needed a temporary solution to provide more seasoning to Becker and other internal candidates.

In the strike-shortened 1994 season, Puckett was displaced from center by a committee fronted by Alex Cole (who played in 84 games in center), Shane Mack (24 games) and a 22-year-old Rich Becker (23 games). Shane Mack's preseason DL stint allowed for both Becker and Cole to have opportunities to win a full-time position. Becker started as the opening day centerfielder but was sent back to triple-A after returning from the disabled list in June. His highest level prior to the majors had been double-A and it began to show. Cole began to play well enough to convince MacPhail and the front office that he could play center field, which also allowed Becker more conditioning in the minor (whose numbers were steadily declining offensively). Various injuries to Cole (with a broken leg finale) led to Becker's return to centerfield in June 1995 which was his until after the 1997 season when Becker was traded to the Mets and the Twins signed Otis Nixon to bridge the position until the next prospect (Torii Hunter in 1999) could develop.

The Twins searched for replacements before the 1994 season since Rich Becker (AA) and Torii Hunter (low-A) were viewed as light-years away from being major league ready. One player identified was Alex Cole, a journeyman centerfielder who had most recently played with the Colorado Rockies after being selected in the 1992 expansion draft. (This acquisition was one of the last free agent bargains inked by Andy MacPhail prior to Terry Ryan assuming the general manager role for the Twins following the return of baseball post-strike in 1995.)

Cole, after being shuffled from the Pirates, Cardinals and Padres organizations, made his major league debut with Cleveland in 1990. He was called up in July and dispite playing in only 63 games that season he stole 40 bases (caught in only 8 attempts) and hit .300/.379/.359. He showed good plate discipline for a 24-year-old walking 28 times (10.9% bb%) and striking out in only 38 (14.8% k%). His production peaked in his second season as is ability to get on base greatly reduced thereafter. Cole was traded to Pittsburgh but he became the first centerfielder in Rockies history and managed to cover significant ground in the expansive Mile High outfield. The Rockies front office hated his mental lapses such as repeatedly threw the ball to the wrong bases and often missing cut-off men. One play inparticular stands out in Denver fans memories when Cole was tracking a ball deep to center and scaled the wall only to have the ball bounce off of his back. In addition to being a blooper reel with the Rockies, Cole was also a reporter's dream making Rickey Henderson appear somewhat coherent. Once in the lobby of an Atlanta hotel, Cole sought out the Denver Post's Woody Paige and said "Myself made a great try on that long ball. Why are you knocking myself? Anybody can throw to the wrong base once."

Cole signed with the Twins (choosing them over the Tigers and Indians) just before spring training in 1994 to a minor league contract. The former Rockie proved to be swift, stealing 8 bases and breaking the previous Twins spring training stolen base record (7) shared by Rod Carew and Al Newman. This speed led to the decision to bring Cole north as the 4th outfielder. Offensively, it proved to be a good decision as Cole got off to a fast start hitting .329/.444/.476 in the month of April. He also walked in 17% of his plate appearances solidifying the lead-off spot. Unfortunately, the same defensive maladies that made him a liability to the Rockies was afflicting him with the Twins as well. In the home opener on April 6th, Damian Easley hit what would have been a ball played off the plexiglass has it not been removed during the offseason. Cole, playing left field, lazily drifted back short of the warning track when he suddenly realized that the ball was going to be further back than he thought. He scrambled to make an attempt on the ball but it dropped harmlessly into newly unguarded first row of seats. On April 17th, Cole lost two balls in the sun at Oakland resulting in three runs in a 5-1 loss to the A's. A few days later, however, on April 24th the misfortune turned: Cole hit is first home run of his career, a towering shot over the wall in centerfield at the Skydome, ending a 1,317 major league at-bat drought (in comparison, Jason Tyner had to wait only 1,220 at-bats for his first). This home run would be often sited as an example during the juiced-ball accusations of that summer. "When Alex Cole hits one, you've got to take it into consideration," Twins pitcher Kevin Tapani told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Cole would go on to hit 3 more home runs that season.

What can be said of Cole was that with every contribution he made offensively and on the basepaths to scoring a run was negated by his defensive ineptitude. At the plate, Cole finished hitting .296/.375/.403 with 4 home runs and 23 rbis. He led the team in triples (5) and walks (44) His splits were terrible in 1994. The left-handed hitting Cole hit righties well batting .327/.399/.451 but was a lethargic .104/.232/.104 in 56 plate appearances against lefties. While carrying a 2.49 range factor (when the league average was 2.09), his .969 fielding percentage (when the league average was .982) overshadowed his ability to cover ground. His mental lapses worried the front office and new GM Terry Ryan. Cole was a restricted free agent but was an uncertainty in the offseason because new policies being discussed during the strike could make him available on the open market.

Prior to the beginning of the 1995 season, Terry Ryan allowed outfield fixture Shane Mack to leave for Japan. Mack, who had led the team with a .333/.402/.564 line in 1994 but had began the season on the disabled list, was expected to command a hefty salary and the finite resources would be allocated in retaining Chuck Knoblauch. It was believed internally that Pedro Munoz and Alex Cole along with Marty Cordova and Rich Becker could easily supplant Mack's production at a much lower cost. On April 6th, 1995, Ryan resigned Cole to a one-year, $500,000 contract. With Cole and Chuck Knoblauch hitting 1-2 with Puckett, Munoz and Cordova following them the Twins felt they had a semi-dangerous line-up. So long as Cole and Knoblauch were on base, there was always the possibility of scoring runs.

From the belated season start on April 26th to May 30th, the decision to retain Cole was looking ingenious. He was batting .360/.422/.493 while adding 6 extra base hits in 75 at-bats. This allowed for one additional season of growth for Rich Becker in triple-A Salt Lake. Defensively, Cole suffered the same ailments as he did in 1994. On May 3rd against the visiting Royals, Cole lost yet another fly ball in the Dome's ceiling and then ended up throwing the ball into the infield to no one in particular. Two runs scored on that play.

Unfortunately, Cole's resurgence as a professional player was up-ended when he broke his leg fielding a base hit. On May 30th playing at Milwaukee's County Stadium, Fernando Vina hit what should have been a routine base hit in the bottom of the 8th inning. Cole, stopping to play the ball on a bounce, snapped his right leg and buckled. The diagnoses was a broken leg. Even though Cole would return for several games in September and play 24 games with Boston the following year, his career was effectively over.

In addition to resigning Cole, the Twins employed the right-handed batting 31-year-old Jerald Clark to offset the void created when left-handed pitching was on the mound. Signed to a minor-league contract on March 6th, Clark had played the 1994 season with the Yakult Caneries in Japan. Initally, Clark was brought on to complete for the recent vacancy at first base as well as left field. In 109 at-bats, Clark showed pop as he batted .339/.354/.550 with 3 home runs and 15 rbis. But he was far from a patient hitter. Through May 16th Clark had 40 at-bats and no walks. Left with no other viable platoon options, Clark would go on to play center in 10 of his 23 games with the Twins. He might have been one of the more astute players on the roster, describing the Metrodome to a Rocky Mountain News reporter: "It's got different acoustics," Clark said "Its got a different smell, too, if you care to notice."

As Clark will also learn, it has a different background too, then say, the sky. Like Cole, Clark turned plenty of balls hit to center into adventures. On May 19th, with Ken Griffey Jr at the plate and Clark manning center at the Metrodome, Griffey hit a towering fly ball that sent Clark sprinting back to the warning track. Only the flyball fell way short of the track in shallow center resulting in an rbi double for Griffey.

With Cole about to be out for the majority of the season with the broken leg and Tom Kelly not ready to allow Jerald Clark to be the full-time centerfielder, Terry Ryan made an emergency recall of Rich Becker from triple-A. Becker, who was drafted by the Twins in the 3rd round of the 1990 amatuer draft, had seen sporadic major league time in 1993 and 1994. He developed well in the minors: in high-A Visalia, he hit .316/.442/.486 with 15 home runs. At double-A Nashville in 1993, Becker hit .287/.397/.450 with 15 home runs again (a strikingly similar season to that of Carlos Gomez's .285/.350/.423 while with Binghampton). This performance earned him a September call up in 1993 and the opportunity to vie for the starting centerfielder position in spring training in 1994. The scouts took note of his hustle, his uniform was always dirty. In fact one Twins scout, Don Cassidy, told the Pioneer Press after seeing Becker play in Kenosha that "Rich Becker will be our starting center fielder one day. He's got all the tools; reminds me of (Philadelphia's) Lenny Dykstra." But Becker suffered from on-going knee problems. In September 1993 he torn some cartiledge that required surgery on his knee. The following April, Becker strained a ligament sliding into home.

After being assigned to the Pacific Coast League in spring training, the 23-year-old Becker had been hitting well at Salt Lake, through 36 games he was batting .309/.430/.512. He was fleet of foot and covered ground as indicated by his 2.73 range factor (lgRF 1.99), though he too was a blooper reel stemming from youth and inexperience. On July 29th, he lost a fly ball in the Dome's roof as the bases loaded with Yankees costing the Twins the game (although, Matt Walbeck failed to cover home in the 7th that led to another run as well). On September 5th, Becker allowed a groundball to skip through his legs allowing CECIL FIELDER to score from 1st. A little over a week later he misplayed a Lance Johnson flyball for a triple. In spite of this, Becker proved to be much more reliable with the glove in center than Cole or Clark.

Becker's bat was his biggest detriment. From May 31st on, Becker hit a paltry .237/.303/.296. He struck out in over 21% of his plate appearances and coaxed walks in only 7%. His plate approached proved so poorly that in August the Twins decided to send Becker to the Florida Instructional League with the rest of the rookies to have him rediscover his swing and phase out his switch hitting (by 1997 he was strictly a left-handed batter).

In all, 1995 was right near the sharp bottom of the Twins decline. Fans stayed away from the Metrodome in droves. Only 1.05 million people entered the downtown stadium as the Twins finished last in attendance in the American League (even being outdrawn by Milwaukee). The team followed suit and finished 5th in the newly created AL Central, a whopping 44 games behind the front-running Cleveland Indians. In what was Kirby's last professional season he hit .314/.379/.515 with 23 home runs, earning yet another berth the All-Star game. Puckett led the team in extra base hits (62) and rbis (99). But at 35, Puckett was slowing down even by corner outfield standards where he had a low 1.86 range factor (1.99 league range factor). Had 1995 not been Puckett's swansong and would have been able to come back for the 1996 season, he would have been best suited for designated hitter.

The 1996 season did not go according to plan. In what was Terry Ryan's first full season to prepare for, he signed Greg Myers and Paul Molitor with the assumption that the pitching prospects like Brad Radke, Frankie Rodriguez and Latroy Hawkins would emerge has front line starters. Tragically, Puckett had to bow out of baseball after glacoma appeared in late spring. Throughout the season Molitor, Marty Cordova and Chuck Knoblauch all played well but only Rick Aguilera could produce a winning record (8-6) in his 19 starts. Fans began to reappear as the Dome was visited 1.4 million times, good enough for 11th best out of 14 American League clubs. In the first full season back from the strike, Becker was in a battle with double-A sensation Matt Lawton and recently acquired Roberto Kelly as a backup insurance policy. With good reason too. Becker started the season 3-43 (.070 ba), hitless in 23 at-bats, finally batted through and finished the season as his best totals as a professional. He finished .291/.372/.434 with 12 home runs but struck out in nearly 20% of his at-bats. His 1997 season emulated his 1995 season and the Twins decided to give up on him. On December 12th, 1997, the Twins traded Becker to the New York Mets for Alex Ochoa.