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The 2003/2004 offseason was a difficult one for Twins fans. The Twins had gone from being a horrible baseball team to being a contender and an AL Central champ, but several of the key players through that transition were moved. AJ Pierzynski was traded to the Giants for Joe Nathan, Boof Bonser and Francisco Liriano. The deal made room for Joe Mauer to start. LaTroy Hawkins signed with the Cubs. Eddie Guardado signed with the Mariners.
On December 3, 2003, Terry Ryan trade lefty Eric Milton and the $9 million he was owed in 2004 to the Philadelphia Phillies in exchange for Carlos Silva, Nick Punto and a Player to be Named Later (who turned out to be Bobby Korecky). It was the early years of my blogging career, and I lacked the ability to look at the big picture, so I called it a salary dump. Milton was a solid, still-young pitcher, and all the team could get was a long reliever and a utility infielder?
Torii Hunter, who had just signed a four year contract extension and never at a loss for words ran his mouth and showed his scouting abilities after the series of moves, “This stinks! It looks like we’re rebuilding again. If I had known this was going to happen, I probably wouldn’t have signed my deal… You’d think we could have offered that (what Hawkins got from Chicago). I think we’re forgetting who we’re dealing with here. Joe Nathan is no LaTroy Hawkins. He might be a good pitcher, but LaTroy has proven himself here, and he’s a chemistry guy.”
It didn’t take long for Terry Ryan to look like a genius, and for Torii Hunter to say all the wrong things.
But it is Nick Punto Day today, so let’s get back to that topic. Shortly before Twins Fest, Andrew Kneeland of Twins Target presented Twins bloggers with the following:
Nick Punto could quite possibly be the most controversial figure on the Minnesota Twins. Some hate him, a few love him, and even more think he is a decent utility infielder. I thought it would be a good idea to hold a Nick Punto Day among Twins’ bloggers. On Feb. 12 post your Nick Punto thoughts on your blog, and we will get a chance to see how this incredible blogging community feels about Nick Punto.
Where do you stand? How do you view the player who Gardy seems to be obsessed with? What is the ideal position for Punto? Feel free to go any number of ways with this topic, but please keep the focus on Punto.
So let’s bring the focus back to Nick Punto. Andrew mentioned that Punto is a controversial figure with the Twins. I would say that he is a completely polarizing figure. I mean, some people love his attitude, the effort, the hustle, the defense, the dirty uniform, his stature, and probably a few other things. There are other fans who can’t stand Punto, questioning if he has incriminating pictures of Gardy, calling his dives into first base ‘fake hustle,’ lack of power, lack of ability to not hit the ball in the air, the lack of ability to hit period.
I’ll be completely honest. In Punto’s six full seasons in a Twins uniform, I have felt very polarizing thoughts on Punto from various times. In 2004 and 2005, his low-.600 OPS numbers showed that he indeed was a utility hitter, and that was fine. He was solid with the glove. Then came 2006 when he was forced into every day duty at 3B and performed admirably. Twins fans loved the glove. And he hit .290 and got on base 35% of the time. Of course, all that hype and when you look back at his season, you see that his OPS+ was just 90. An OPS+ of 100 is league average, and Punto’s “excellent” 2006 season still was 10% below average.
He was then given the Twins starting 3B job in 2007, and he was horrible. He lost the 3B job but played nearly every day somewhere because of his glove. He hit just .210/.291/.271. Offensively, he was the worst player in baseball. Twins bloggers seemed to want to bash Punto every single day. In honesty, I couldn’t do it. I did for awhile, but after awhile, I had a change of heart. Yes, Punto was horrible, but that’s what he was. Ron Gardenhire was the one who kept putting him in the lineup every game. It was like Twins fans being upset with Jacque Jones’s inability to hit left-handed pitching rather than blaming the manager who continued to have Jones hit against left-handers. Fortunately, Punto did not let his offensive struggles affect him defensively.
In 2008, Punto was back in a utility role but it wasn’t long before he was in the lineup every day. He responded again by hitting .284/.334/.382 and by season’s end was the clear choice to be the Twins shortstop in 2009. In fact, as a free agent, he had offers from the Phillies and the Yankees, but he stayed with the Twins when they offered him two years and $8.5 million. When those numbers came out, many Twins fans seemed to forget the value Punto provided in 2008 and only thought of his struggles in 2007. The reality was that Punto and the Twins agreed to a fair market contract at the time.
Unfortunately, 2009 was another rough season for Punto. Given the shortstop job, it didn’t take long before Brendan Harris took over the duties and did well. Punto was back in the utility role. And now he goes into the 2010 season, maybe as a 3B option, maybe as a utility guy, maybe even as the backup centerfielder. And who knows, he may have a good year (And when I say “good”, I mean another 90 OPS+, of course).
So as I said, Punto has been polarizing to Twins fans, myself included. And those opinions can change from year to year, or from month to month.
So, what are my thoughts?
At this point, I have to say that I appreciate what Nick Punto is. A former 21st round draft pick, Nick Punto has been a huge success in his career. He is a little guy, but he is strong. It’s hard not to respect the career that he has had. But instead of expecting him to be something that he isn’t, I think we do need to take a step back and realize what he is, and what he can be.
- Defense – Clearly he wasn’t 100% in 2009 because his arm was not strong at all. He bounced a lot of throws to 1B in the early part of the season. But in general, Punto plays very good defense at all three infield spots. Yes, there are all the web gems, and a lot of that is hustle, but there is no questioning his defensive value. Punto is one of the better utility players in baseball .The problem has been that he has had to be more than a utility player.
- Base running – he isn’t the fastest guy on the team, but he has very good speed. He had the bad base running in Game 3 against the Yankees, but in general, he’s a solid base runner. Yes, I am completely annoyed every single time Punto dives head-first into first base.
- Offensively – He moves runners over. He gets bunts down… once in awhile. But Punto’s value with a bat is his ability to get on base and take walks. He is a career .248 hitter, but in the last four years, he has hit over .284 twice and under .228 twice. When he hits for average, he is solid. When he doesn’t hit for average, he still provides some value because he takes a lot of pitches, fouls off a lot of pitches and finds a way to get on base. For a guy with no power, his Isolated Discipline of .072 is very good. He hit just .228 in 2009 and yet still got on base almost 34% of the time. No, his OPS will never look good, because he has no power. On-base percentage is really the only number to look at with Nick Punto. That, and pitches per plate appearance. How many 10-12 pitch plate appearances did Punto have late last year? How much information does that allow Denard Span to attain while standing in the on deck circle? Ideally, a lineup would have Nick Punto batting ninth, but in a pinch, I really don’t have a problem with Punto batting second from time to time.
- Yes, he is the guy that would be pinch hit for in the late innings, but he can also be the glove that comes into games in the late innings.
- Willingness to do whatever – This is one of those intangibles that that statistics don’t measure. Over a 162 game season, team and roster fits and such matter so much in baseball. Punto is a great team player.
- 2011 Option – I really hope that the Twins just pay the buyout and move on, but only because I think there are other utility options.
I really like this idea of having a Nick Punto Day, and I look forward to reading the postings from all of the other Twins bloggers that choose to participate today. Be sure to check many of them out. And then express your opinion. What are your Nick Punto Day thoughts?
One More Thought, for your consideration – Since the 1987 World Series championship season, the Twins have had a few long-term utility players. There was Al Newman. Then there was Jeff Reboulet. Next was Denny Hocking. And then came Nick Punto. Punto is as good and probably better than each of them. Those three were liked and appreciated for their performance. Punto is bashed. Now, sure, Gardy has played Punto in a more significant role, but that’s not Punto’s fault. There is a certain inconsistency here.