Nick Punto. Infielder, Minnesota Twins. Bats switch, throws right. Age 31.
The Twins signed Punto, the lightning-rod infielder, to a 2-year, $8.5 million deal yesterday.
Predictably, a significant portion of Twins nation is livid.
That's somewhat understandable, as Punto has never been anywhere near as good as Twins manager Ron Gardenhire oddly seems to think he is. In 2007 the Twins had their most frustrating season of the decade, and Punto took the brunt of the blame, as he posted one of the top 10 worst offensive seasons in major leauge history. When Gardy is gone from this planet, historians are going to dock him serious points when they look back and see he gave 472 at-bats to a guy with a .271 slugging percentage that year.
But a couple of things here, coming from someone who was as anti-Punto as anyone....in '05 and '07.
As bad as Punto was that year, it's unfair that he was essentially the face of that team's failures, as Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Jason Bartlett, Luis Castillo, Johan Santana and Michael Cuddyer, among others, all had down years that year. Not to the extent that Punto did, certainly, but it's not fair to heap all of the blame from that year on one guy.
As it is, Punto has never, and perhaps will never, be able to live '07 down. Many fans posting on the various blogs and newspaper comment sections have said something about Punto's "one good year", a reference to 2006, but guess what? Punto was actually even better last year. His OPS+ was 99 (in '06 it was 90), meaning he was essentially a league-average hitter.
His defense, well, I'll be honest. It's hard to say how good it really is/was.
Punto gets on web-gems all the time, and yes, there are plenty of times during the season when I see him make a play and go, "Man, that was one hell of a play."
But according to most fielding metrics, Punto was about average at third base, where he's spent most of his time in the field the last few years.
At shortstop he hasn't played enough to probably get a real good handle on, but for what it's worth, his Revised Zone Rating last year as a shortstop was .860. It was .688 at third base, which was worse than both Brian Buscher and Brendan Harris, if you can believe it.
I'm not sure to what degree I trust most advanced fielding statistics, but I do know that they seem to show that guys who make a lot of highlight-reel plays often do so because their range is somewhat limited. Adam Everett, for example, makes few spectacular plays (and consequently never wins any Gold Gloves), but, when healthy, consistently grades out as one of the best fielders in the game, because he just gets to so damn many balls.
To put it another way, a ball that your average shortstop makes a diving stab on, and fires from his knees for an out to land on ESPN's Top Plays, Everett gets to standing up, and simply throws across for a routine out. Which is why Punto's .860 is encouraging. If that's no fluke, he's going to get to a lot of balls at short.
Combine that kind of defense with league-average offense, and Punto is actually a bargain at $4 million a year.
Many fans probably would've been much more pleased if the Twins had gone out and acquired a "name" shortstop like Jack Wilson or David Eckstein, but those guys would've been more expensive and, I promise, less effective.
All of which is a long way of saying that if Punto repeats his 2008 performance - or even comes somewhat close to it, this is a good signing. If, however, he returns to the form of the worst offensive player in the league, and/or sacrifices consistent fielding for Web Gems, the Twins will probably wind up playing Brendan Harris and/or Matt Tolbert at short, and Punto will be back to a utility role, making $4 million to sit on the bench.
My guess is Punto will be OK. In fact, my biggest worry is that he'll get hurt.
His signing isn't necessarily great news for the Twins, but it was the best option available to them, and consequently, the right thing to do.
If you're really upset about this move, there are a few things you need to understand:
1. Shortstop is the second hardest position to fill with a quality player, behind only catcher.
2. As such, there aren't that many good ones out there. The Twins were interested in acquiring JJ Hardy, but he would've cost them two starting-caliber players, and most scouts say he'd be better off at 3B anyway. Outside of that, the market was full of guys who aren't much better, if at all, than Punto, but would've cost twice as much.
3. The Twins aren't ever going to be big players in free-agency, or, usually, the trade market. So just get your Rafael Furcal/Matt Holiday/Jake Peavy fantasies out of your head for good. If you're holding out hope for the Twins to go out and get a "big name", you haven't been paying attention for the last few years. This is how the Twins do business. By avoiding risks. It's not sexy, but it works (for the most part).
4. Quit blaming Carl Pohlad. I hate him too, but equating the Punto signing to Pohlad's frugality is ridiculous. There's a reason teams like the Rangers, Orioles and Mariners always suck. They hand out huge contracts just for the sake of handing them out. Never learn. I like the fact that the Twins are thrifty.
Successful teams are built by making good baseball decisions, not by opening the checkbook (and yes, that even goes for the Yankees. Signing CC Sabathia was a good baseball decision. Carl Pavano, Johnny Damon, Kevin Brown, and many, many others, were not).
My guess is if Pohlad woke up one morning and told Bill Smith to raise the payroll to $250 million, the Twins would immediately embark on a long period of suck, as they'd bury themselves by throwing too much money at the wrong people.