Friday, December 03, 2010

Will Thome be back?

When the Twins decided to exercise Jason Kubel’s option for 2011 and almost simultaneous declaring their intentions of pursuing Jim Thome, it more or less guaranteed that the lineup would be predominately left-handed once again.
All had been quiet for the longest time when Thome’s agent emerged to announce that his client fully intended on playing in 2011 – no doubt trying to reach that magical 600 home run mark (and sell more of these bad boy shirts). Despite being a fan favorite and the team’s biggest source of power last year, Thome has aged, wants more dinero and is the preverbal slow-footed, one-dimensional player that Ron Gardenhire has been outspoken about avoiding. In spite of those facts, the Twins still remain interested in his services.
In some ways, the team’s insistence on remaining left-handed heavy was one of the reasons behind their demise in the ALDS against the Yankees. Because no right-handed alternative existed, Kubel and Thome were left to combat CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte. To be sure, both Kubel and Thome are middling against average southpaws, let alone the Yankee duo that shuts down more lefties than Bill O’Reilly. The results were predictably ugly. In Game 1, the pair went 0-for-3 with two walks and a hit-by-pitch off of Sabathia. In the ensuing Game 2, Thome managed to line a single left and Kubel coaxed a walk but they finished 1-for-5 in that contest.
And just like that, the Twins were down two games to none.
Several hours after the Yankees recorded the final out in New York in the elimination game, I tweeted in haste that the biggest need this winter was to acquire a bat to fill that role. In short, with no particular rhyme or reason, I listed six would-be free agents who swing a right-handed stick and implored the GM to contact their agents this off-season.
(In full disclosure, I submitted that tweet consumed with equal parts disgust and Grain Belt.)
In my mind, in that hour, after, let’s say, the twelfteenth bottle of Premium that was the most important item to cross-off the to-do list.
It wasn’t just that the Twins were short-(right-)handed for the Yankees, they would have been at a disadvantage if they had eventually met up with the Rangers (who had Cliff Lee and C.J. Wilson). This appeared to be a gross miscalculation by the team’s builders as the post-season landscape starting to take shape at the trade deadline.
Having time to let it marinate, I have since recanted my stance on this issue and no longer view it as a pressing need, per se. In that small sample size of three games, it was clear that the Twins were deficient when it came to right-handed options. This fact remains true. However, this is not an imminent need, at least not in the sense that the Twins need to commit a significant amount of payroll to a right-handed bat. 
The Twins won 94 games last year based on their ability to man-handle their divisional opponents. While going 47-43 with everyone else, they posted a 47-25 record against the Central – the best interdivision record in the American League. They were able to accomplish this feat because the AL Central is loaded with Kansas City Royals and right-handed starting pitchers. And this situation isn’t likely to change in 2011 either.
Unless they make some bold moves, the Indians and Royals currently have five righties slated for their rotation. The Tigers had five right-handers last year but plan on moving the left-handed Phil Coke to the rotation. Only the White Sox, who have Mark Buerhle and John Danks with the possibility of fireballer Chris Sale joining them, are considering going lefty-heavy to presumably compete with the Twins’ core of left-handed hitters. Nonetheless, on the whole, the AL Central will be a righty dominated group.
But the right-handed majority isn’t just limited to the AL Central. At the time of the Kubel option, I wrote this:
“Last season in the American League, right-handed pitchers were on the mound for 62,275 out of the total 86,725 match-ups. That is, 71% of the overall encounters saw a righty on the mound. Therefore, stacking the lineup with potent left-handed bats presents a sizeable platoon advantage to the offense.” 
Given that left-handed pitchers represent a smaller universe compared to their right-handed counterparts, Twins needn’t sign a right-handed hitter who is interested in 500-plus plate appearances – marquee guys like Paul Konerko, Maggilo Ordonez and Derrek Lee are going to want full-time jobs and also be compensated as such. What the Twins need is a player that can siphon off 250 plate appearances during those other 29% of match-ups against left-handed pitchers -- basically a right-handed version of Jim Thome last year.
Unfortunately, that person does not exist. Until scientists figure out a way to extract Thome’s DNA from whatever hunks of raw porterhouse he chews for sport and create a mirror image of him so that the Thome clone swings from the right side, the Twins will have to seek out other alternatives.
There are a handful of modestly priced hitters that can adequately fulfill this need. Marcus Thames, the Yankees righty de jour last season, has demonstrated that he has an ownership over left-handed pitchers (career .264/.333/.505 hitter vs LHP). Because of his non-existent defense, Thames is familiar with the irregular workload and would be a very serviceable platoon partner for Kubel. Similarly, Troy Glaus has mashed left-handed pitching (career .273/.396/.542 vs LHP) but wore down late in the season with the Braves last year. Seeing as that he will be 34 in 2011 and has something to prove, a one-year deal and part-time play appears on his horizon. Other candidates for this type of work include Jorge Cantu (career .272/.323/.451 vs LHP) or Matt Diaz (.335/.373/.533 vs LHP).
Outside of the one-dimensional hitters like Thames, Glaus and company, there are several options that may provide the Twins with more versatility as well as right-handed lumber. Austin Kearns’ numbers were impressive in Cleveland but a wrist injury zapped his offense after he was traded to New York at the end of the year. In addition to being respectable against lefties (career .261/.383/.416 vs LHP), Kearns would be a great defensive replacement in right field (career 11.0 UZR/150). Likewise, Andruw Jones provided the White Sox with some thunder, played above average in the corners of the outfield and was passable as a backup center fielder giving him value beyond just his offense. He too has torn through left-handed pitching (career .261/.361/.501 vs LHP).
To be fair, having Jim Thome return for one more season at $3 million wouldn’t be the world’s worst proposition. Sure, he reduces the roster’s flexibility and likely won’t recreate the same numbers he produced in 2010 but he has been a good “clubhouse presence”, mentoring youngsters like Danny Valencia who credits a lot of his rookie success to the lumbering lug. As noted previously, there is an abundance of right-handed pitchers and Thome was no slouch at handling them (.302/.455/.698 in 246 plate appearances last year). Furthermore, while still in its infancy, Target Field appears to give a slight power advantage to left-handed hitters, as they as a group out-slugged righties by 26 points in the ballpark’s first season (thanks in part to Thome who slugged .688 at home). If Thome indeed comes back to Minnesota, he provides the team with an offensive boost during the regular season.
Of course, it doesn’t mean neglecting the right-handed bat issue either. Even though it may be a future problem, we witnessed how the Twins were brushed aside by the Yankees two lefties and they will attempt to woo Cliff Lee this winter, setting up another one-two southpaw combination. Marching back into the postseason without an answer would pave the way to another mid-October on the golf course.
If nothing attractive manages to manifest during the winter, serviceable right-handed bats are frequently a commodity that is often readily available on the waivers or in a trade near the deadline. Consider the slew of them that changed hands between July 1 and August 31 of last year: Jhonny Peralta, Cantu, Miguel Tejada, Derrek Lee, Kearns, Ryan Ludwick, Jeff Francoeur, Manny Ramirez, and Cody Ross. Certainly several of these kinds of players will be obtainable just in time for a post-season run.
Because the Twins have to run a 162-game marathon before they can even enter the three-game sprint, the focus should be on conditioning for the long run before the short burst. If they can acquire a viable, inexpensive right-handed option like one of the few listed above, the Twins will be better prepared for the post-season than they were a year ago. If they forgo that route to retain Thome, they still have a roster capable of inflicting plenty of damage as well and the possibility of finding right-handed help, if need be.