You know the answer...
(Hint: he was the lead off hitter for Team Italy in the past World Baseball Cup)
Lots of things have been said about Nick Punto and I am not going to get there tonight (other that snide remark above)
Nick Punto has been a decent utility infielder with the Twins.
His career line .248/.322/.324 (.647 OPS) was to be projected from his career minor league line (.265/.361/.338), so there is no surprise that he has been consistent with the bat.
He is an above average fielder, he is small (5'9, 170 lbs; generously listed) and can play multiple positions and can play them well, albeit a tad fancy (read: form vs. function)
He is a "gamer", "plays his heart out" and "knows how to use the bat". This describes a slew of smaller utility players the Twins had since pretty much their move to Minnesota. Case in point, here are Nick Punto's predecessors, their MLB career slash lines and their listed height and weight in playing days:
Denny Hocking: .251/.310/.344 .654 OPS (1997-2004) 5'10, 176 lbs
Jeff Reboulet: .240/.332/.318 .649 OPS (1992-1996) 6'0", 169 lbs
Al Newman: .226/.304/.266 .570 OPS (1987-1991) 5'9, 183 lbs
Ron Washington: .261/.292/.368 .659 OPS (1981-1986) 5'11, 163 lbs
Rob Wilfong .248/.303/.345 .648 OPS (1977-1981) 6'1", 185 lbs
Luis Gomez .210/.261/.239 .500 OPS (1974-1977) 5'9", 150 lbs
Nothing out of the ordinary
other than the facts that:
Ron Gardenhire handled Punto a starting job (and I hope he does not do it again) and lobbied to sign him to a contract bigger than that of Orlando Hudson's.
Newmie will probably get (s)elected into the Twins' Hall of Fame, Punto is really on his footsteps (minus a couple of rings). Give him the rings and he will be in. Don't like the way he is playing or the fact that he starts? Don't blame him, blame the Manager of the Millennium
This is my 13th year on the beat. This is the best team the Twins have had going into spring training.
I believe that it is an astute observation that the 2010 Twins are very likely the best team the Twins had the last 13 years; however, this does not say much because most of the Twins' teams from 1997 on, when they were competing, they were competing more because of guts and intangibles rather because of the power of the team 'on paper'.
I am starting a two-series analysis to see how does the 2010 team rank (on paper) compared to probably the greatest comparable Twins' team, the 1991 World Champions. I know that statistically the 1965 team that lost the World series to the LA Dodgers was the best Twins team; however, baseball changed so much between 1965 and 2010, and I think that an 'on paper' comparison, might not be very meaningful.
Today I am comparing the position players. I am using actual 1991 statistics for the 1991 and either 2009 or career statistics (in one case) for the 2010 team. Part II will be the pitching with the same parameters.
Let the games begin:
Every Day Players:
C. Brian Harper (.311/.336/.447, 111 OPS+) vs. Joe Mauer (.365/.444/.587, 170 OPS+). Brian Harper was a pleasant surprise for the 1991 team, however Joe Mauer is arguably the best catcher ever in baseball and just entering his prime. Advantage: 2010 (large)
1B. Kent Hrbek (.284/.373/.461, 125 OPS+) vs. Justin Morneau (.274/.363/.516, 129 OPS+). Kent Hrbek's was still a fierce competitor; however, at 31, his production was a step off his peak in the mid to late 80s. Justin Morneau is 3 years removed from the MVP award (but an off-season removed from back surgery) and just entering his prime. Advantage: 2010 (slight)
2B. Chuck Knoblauch (.281/.351/.350, 91 OPS+) vs. Orlando Hudson (.283/.357/.417, 109 OPS+). Chuck Knoblauch in his rookie season, in addition to winning the Rookie of the Year award, provided a sparkplug on the top of the Twins' lineup; however at 22, his best seasons were in his future. The newest Twin, Orlando Hudson, in his prime, has been a very consistent player, esp. with the bat. Advantage: 2010
3B. Mike Pagliarulo (.279/.332/.384, 91 OPS+) vs Brendan Harris (.261/.310/.362, 77 OPS+). Pagliarulo and Harris are very similar players, but Pagliarulo has a slight edge in this matchup. It will be interesting to see how Harris will produce as an everyday player and whether someone like Valencia or Hughes might emerge as the starting third baseman for the 2010 Twins. Nick Punto is also an option here as a starter. Anvantage: 1991 (slight)
SS. Greg Gagne (.265/.310/.395, 90 OPS+) vs J.J. Hardy (career: .262/.323/.428, 95 OPS+) Here is the one instant where I am using career numbers vs. 2009 for Hardy, because I think that he will rebound from his awful 2009. Gagne was a consistent shortstop, Hardy has All-Star potential, much more power and better defense. However, he needs to rebound. Advantage: 2010 (slight)
LF. Dan Gladden (.247/.306/.356, 80 OPS+) vs Delmon Young (.284/.308/.425, 91 OPS+) I have to mention that while Dan Gladden (now a radio broadcaster) has been one of this most stern critics, Delmon Young's 2009 outmatched his 1991 in every single offensive component. Gladden was 33 (and the elder statesman of the starting lineup) and Young is entering his age 24 season. If the second half Delmon Young shows up, this will not be a comparison, but he still has to prove himself. Advantage: 2010 (slight)
RF. Shane Mack (.310/.363/.529, 140 OPS+) vs Mike Cuddyer (.276/.342/.520, 124 OPS+). Shane Mack at age 27 was entering his prime, while Mike Cuddyer at age 32 has resurrected his career with an above expectations 2009 season. Still, Mack's 1991 was one of the rare seasons for the Twins and his glove was better than Cuddyer's projects. Advantage: 1991
CF. Kirby Puckett (.319/.352/.460, 119 OPS+) vs Denard Span (.311/.392/.415, 114 OPS+). It will be unfair to compare anyone to the only Hall of Fame member of the 1991 squad and arguably the most popular Twins' player on the franchise's days in Minnesota, but (as far as OPS+ goes), 1991 was the worse campaign of Puckett's at the batter's box, since his sophomore 1985 season. As a matter of fact, other than the power numbers, Span's 2009 was close to Kirby's 1991 season. Span will be 26 in 2010 and has not yet entered his prime. Advantage: 1991 (slight)
DH. Chili Davis (.277/.385/.507, 141 OPS+) vs Jason Kubel (.300/.369/.539, 136 OPS+). Chili Davis, the (then) newly acquired switch-hitting designated hitter was absolutely the single difference maker with the bat as far as the 1991 squad went. That said, last season, Jason Kuber, who at 28 will just be entering his prime and be yet another year removed from knee surgery, surpassed all Davis' numbers other than his OBP. Kubel is poised for yet another great season, however more consistency is needed against LHP and there are not many options on the Twins' bench for right handed batters to serve as occasional DHs. Advantage: 1991
The Twins played with a 5 man bench in 1991 and will probably use a 4-man bench in 2010, so I am making a slight adjustment in the comparison
1. Gene Larkin (.286/.361/.373) and Randy Bush (.303/.401/.485; average for both 115 OPS+) vs Jim Thome (.249/.366/.481, 118 OPS+). Gene Larkin was used as a PH and to spell Kent Hrbek on first base against some left handed pitchers, where Randy Bush was playing as a right fielder against some RHP and used as a DH and PH. Jim Thome, the only bonna fide hall of famer, from the 2010 Twins (might be more, but they still needs some seasons under their belts) projects to be used as a pinch hitter, a designated hitter against RHP (when Kubel, presumably assumes a corner outfield position) and see occasional duty as a first baseman. Thome will not hit for average, is on the sunset of his career, but likely will equal the production of the Larkin/Bush duo. Advantage: even
2. Al Newman (.191/.260/.211; 30 OPS+) vs Nick Punto (.228/.337/.284, 67 OPS+). The Twins always liked "versatile, good glove players" and these two (with Denny Hocking) epitomize that fact. Regardless the feelings of most Twins' fans towards him (and these are based on the fact that he has been used as a starter and are justified, in that capacity), Nick Punto is a much better player than Al Newman ever was, both with the bat and the glove. Advantage: 2010 (large)
3. Scott Leuis (.286/.378/.417, 116 OPS+) vs Alexi Casilla (.202/.280/.259, 44 OPS+). Leuis was used a third baseman against some RHP instead of Mike Pagliarulo. Alexi Casilla (if he makes the squad, but he is the only one without options) will project to be used as a pinch runner and late inning replacement (in a scenario when Nick Punto is starting, Jim Thome pinch hits for him, reaches base and Casilla runs for Thome) with occasional starts at second base. Alexi is an enigma and the personification of inconsistency. Advantage: 1991
4. Junior Ortiz (.209/.293/.261, 52 OPS+) vs Jose Morales (.311/.381/.361, 98 OPS+). Unfortunately, Junior Ortiz' claim to fame might just be the double zero on his uniform. Jose Morales has been very consistent with the bat in both AAA and in the majors (in his rookie campaign in 2009) for the last few season. If he can keep healthy (he might not be ready to start the season because of wrist injury), he will provide a great back up catcher, who still needs to work on his catch and throw skill, but will be just entering his prime as a 27 year old in 2010. Advantage: 2010 (large).
Based on the comparisons of the 2010 squad 'on paper' vs. the actual results of the 1991 squad on the field, as far as position players go, it is clear that the 2010 squad, is better than the 1991 squad 'on paper'. What will be the verdict on the pitching staff and the overall comparison? The answer will be revealed in the next segment.