Thursday, February 21, 2008

Spring Training Questions: Centerfield

One of the biggest questions the Twins have yet to answer is the identity of the opening day centerfielder. Until the end of spring training, we might not know who will be filling the vacuum left by Torii Hunter. For whatever reason, the unspoken consensus among pundits seems to be Carlos Gomez. For a period of time, I was also swept up in it too. After all, he has some major league experience and all the scouts seem to love his tools. Maybe it is out of craving vindication for trading the world's best pitcher and that we need to see immediate dividends. But ultimately are we allowing emotion to dictate this choice in 2008?

The options are as follows: It could be either one of several candidates including (A) prospects such as Denard Span in addition to the recently acquired Carlos Gomez or Jason Pridie along with (B) veterans Michael Cuddyer, Craig Monroe and Delmon Young or (C) a combination of all of the above or (D) none of the above, such as free agent acquisition that has not happened yet (both Kenny Lofton and Corey Patterson as still available and Coco wants out of Boston). What can be assumed is that there will be multiple attempts throughout the season to see which of these potential suitors will be able to anchor one of the most demanding positions in all of baseball.

Group B certainly has the talent and experience (minus Young) but lacks the speed to cover the area appropriately. Monroe has the most innings logged at center and his best revised zone rating came in 2005 when he played 229 innings with Detroit and produced a .778 rating. In comparison, Hunter has been above .890 in the previous two seasons. The problem presented when we have questionable hitters, such as those in Group A, is that we already have Adam Everett who is glove but no bat. Two suspect bats in one lineup could result in some lopsided games. Which make Group B appealing. Having a member of this group in center would improve the offensive, although it would allow for the power alleys to be expanded defensively (letting in runs is also a prerequisite for lopsided games).

Group D would be a giant question mark, considering someone like Lofton's accelerated age (41), and the fact that we would be right back here in 2009 debating who is going to man centerfield (or woman, maybe I'm not thinking out-of-the-box enough). And this feels masturbatory. Hell, I could start ranting about how much of a perfect fit Grady Sizemore would be in Minnesota but it won't come to fruition. Group D is purely speculative and does not exist plus at this late juncture in the off-season I'd bet the house that the Twins would not acquire veteran talent (maybe at the trade deadline).

Group A, including Gomez, has the necessary tools to cover plenty of turf but would lack the experience and the chances that the team would suffer from interminable lapses in fielding judgement (throwing to wrong bases, over throwing cut-off men, etc) is increased from immaturity. They all cover very good ground as indicated by their minor league numbers:

games in outfield range factor errors fielding percentage assists
Gomez 275 2.38 19 .972 12
Span 444 2.36 17 .984 25
Pridie 536 2.35 18 .986 44

Gomez (2.38 rf) covered significant ground but committed 19 errors (.972 fld pct) in only 275 games in the outfield. This suggests someone who is more probable to having a larger learning curve. Span did not guard as much turf (2.36 rf) and also committed 17 errors (.984 fld pct) in 444 games and Pridie (2.35 rf) committed 18 errors (.986 fld pct) in 536 games. Gomez threw out 12 baserunner in that time period while Span gunned down 25 and Pridie erased 44. What might be determined out of this is that Jason Pridie's steady glove and arm might compensate for having less prowess.

Offensively, they are all suspect. Gomez is the only member of Group A with any major league experience, and depending how much you rely on predictions he is expected to finished somewhere between .247/.307/.355 (ZiPs) or .270/.330/.390 (MARCELS). Instead of using the projections, let us analysis the career minor league numbers instead:

plate appearances xbh% walk% k% milb batting line
Gomez 1,425 27% 5.7% 17.5% .278/.336/.399
Span 2,184 16% 8.4% 14.6% .283/.348/.348
Pridie 2,634 31% 6.2% 18.2% .279/.326/.432

What we see is that the left-handed batting Pridie and Span have spent almost equal amount of time at the plate in the minor leagues (minus 500 plate appearances by Span). What we see in these numbers is a profile of two distinctly different hitters. While they have comparative batting averages (.283 vs .279), Span shows slightly more discipline at the plate with a higher walk rate (8.4% vs 6.2%) coupled with the higher on-base percentage (.348 vs .326) while making more contact as indicated by a lower strike out rate (14.6% vs 18.2%). Span though, does not generate nearly as much power as Pridie. Pridie has a great advantage over Span in percentage of hits that went for extra bases (31% vs 16%) and a better slugging percentage (.432 vs .348). These numbers indicate that Pridie is better suited offensively - not overwhelmingly mind you - to be given the opportunity to start in center. However, Gomez is interesting, aside from his MLB experience, is his right-handed bat. He is younger than Pridie and yet his numbers are very similar. His percentage of hits that went for extra bases (27% vs 31%) isn't that far off and Gomez is better at getting on base (.336 vs .326) making him a better candidate for the vacant lead-off spot. Furthermore, Gomez has hit left-handed pitching fairly well as he hit .308/.341/.462 with the New Orleans Zyphers in 2007, usually an Achilles heel for the Twins.

Historically it has been difficult to transition from a prospect to an everyday centerfielder (or any position for that matter), unless your name is Ryan Braun: It took over two seasons for Torii to finally become the centerpiece on the diamond. Group A provides a similar situation to what transpired in 1999 where the Twins pitted prospects Torii Hunter, Chris Latham and Jacque Jones against one another in spring training. While Hunter had the lowest batting average of the three at the end of the spring auditions, his glove and rocket arm as his saving grace (it also didn't hurt that you had Tom Kelly as a manager who highly valued defense). Latham and Hunter went north while Jones went west to Salt Lake for more minor league conditioning. After veteran Matt Lawton was put on the 15-day DL following a Dennys Reyes fastball to the eye socket, the Twins recalled the left-handed batting Jones on June 9th, 1999. From June 20th on Jones was the primary starting centerfielder. The 23-year-old Hunter was the opening day centerfielder and played 107 games in center while Jacque Jones played in 82.

While Jones displayed better range (2.48 rf) than Hunter (2.38 rf), he was deficient in overall fielding (5 errors, .969 fld pct) to Hunter (1 error, .996 fld pct). Offensively, Hunter was behind the curve on Jones. Hunter hit a lowly .255/.309/.380 with 9 home runs (28 xbhs) while striking out in 17% of his 422 plate appearances. Jones, on the other hand, finished his year batting .289/.329/.460 with 9 home runs (35 xbhs) and striking out in 18% of his 347 plate appearances. The Twins commitment to defense won Hunter the opening day centerfield spot in 2000. When his average slumped to .207/.243/.300, though, Hunter was on a trek back to Salt Lake. The two months spent in triple-A helped Torii regain confidence in his plate approach. When he was recalled in July, Hunter rebounded to finish .280/.318/.408.

This of course is a different era than in 1999 or 2000 with a different manager and different general manager but they still orginate in the same school as Tom Kelly and Terry Ryan. If Gomez or Pridie make the roster out of spring training they could experience whiplash from the pulling to and from triple-A.

From here on out the media will be doing its best until the bus is packed and heading north to provide fans with hints from various management personnel from the organization. Bill Smith and Ron Gardenhire have already gone on record giving the opportunity to Pridie, Span and Gomez to win the spot. ESPN, on the contrary, has Gomez as the #1 centerfielder on the depth chart reaffirming the masses belief that Gomez is the odds-on favorite. Rotoworld has Monroe as the lead candidate for the Twins. According to STATS blog, it is a two-dog race between Gomez and Pridie (with the outside chance of Monroe).

The best - and most likely - scenario that will happen in 2008 is Group C (which would be a rotation of Group A and Group B). When Gardy wants the increased defense he might be inclined to start one of his younger, faster kids. If a line-up requires offense, Monroe or Young might be inserted at center and allow for Kubel and Cuddyer to man the corners.

Without seeing a minute of batting practice or pepper for that matter, I am saying that Jason Pridie is the starting centerfielder on opening day. Whether or not he performs well enough to retain the position over the course of the season is still questionable. If the Twins cling to contention, against all odds, certainly a trade deadline transaction might be reasonable if no one has claimed that position through June. Lofton is usually available around that time.