"Let us go forth a while, and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our closed rooms...
The game of ball is glorious."

--Walt Whitman

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Wherefore Art Thou, Bartlett?

The Star Tribune's Jim Souhan and I don't often agree on the Twins, but one of his recent articles (partially reproduced here) hits the nail on the head.

The remodeled Twins worked out at spruced-up Rogers Centre on Monday in preparation for Opening Day, the most optimistic occasion in sport. This is a time befitting helium balloons and helium expectations, as long as the Twins, like Fox News, avoid looking left.

Reasonable observers can anticipate improvements all over the diamond, from Justin Morneau's health to Joe Mauer's maturation to Castillo's arrival.

Glance left, though, and you find Tony Batista's soft hands and midsection at third base next to Juan Castro's soft hands and bat at shortstop.

In Castro, the Twins are handing the starting shortstop job on a supposed contender to a 33-year-old career utility player with a .230 career average and .271 on-base percentage who has never produced more than 33 RBI or two steals in a big-league season.

A team desperate to dramatically upgrade its hitting chose the weakest-hitting applicant in its camp.

Jason Bartlett, the heir apparent, hit .382 with a .500 on-base percentage this spring. He hit .332 at Class AAA Rochester last year. Though he struggled in the majors last season, he will, given the opportunity, be a superior offensive player to Castro, and he has better range in the field.

Nick Punto, who hardly seized the job when given a chance last year, at least looked like an improved player this spring.

So why did Castro win the starting job? Because he's the shortstop who promises to cause manager Ron Gardenhire the fewest ulcers.

Gardenhire didn't think Bartlett took charge of the infield, so maybe Bartlett should learn to speak Spanish and Canadian.

Seriously, why Castro? "He just looks right out there next to Castillo," Gardenhire said. "He makes the plays. I really like the way they turn the double play."

Can Castro hit enough to keep the job?

"We think so, because he can handle the bat," Gardenhire said. "We're going to have to put plays on. We're going to have to start runners, let him put the ball in play."

In other words, nobody expects Castro to produce runs, which puts the Twins at a competitive disadvantage with the White Sox and Indians, not to mention the Yankees, A's, Tigers, Devil Rays, Orioles and ... you get the idea.

The Twins would be in better shape today if they had stuck with Bartlett last year, coaxing him through his growing pains instead of sending him down.

Now they're compounding that mistake.

This was, obviously, written for opening day. And yes, Castro has been on one of his periodic hitting streaks. But the fact remains that Bartlett is not only much younger and much cheaper than Castro, he also has greater range in the field (there's a big hole in that "defense" argument...) and a much higher offensive ceiling.

They sent him down last year because they were playing for the now at the expense and exclusion of the future. Now the future has arrived, and we're once again relying on a utility player to fill one of the central roles on the starting lineup, and sacrificing the development of a promising player to do so.

Bartlett may or may not be a better option than Castro right now, today. But give him half a season, uninterrupted, in the majors as a starting shortstop and odds are ten to one he'll be the better option then. This team is going to need a good shortstop down the stretch if it wants to contend. The Twins can develop that shortstop now or wake up in August wondering why they don't have one.

0 rejoinders: