The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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April 8, 2012

Thoma: For the love of glove: Twins bypass the defense

MANKATO — Last September, as the Twins staggered toward the end of their nightmare season, I examined the interconnected failings of the team’s offense, fielding and pitching.

The conclusion: It was time for the Twins to revert to first principles and fix the defense.

My reasoning in a nutshell: A return to normal production from the injured trio of Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Denard Span would largely fix the offensive woes; and history has shown repeatedly that the best cure for a weak pitching staff is an injection of outfield speed and infield defense.

The Twins appeared for much of the offseason to be headed in the direction of my prescription. Then, in the last two weeks of spring training, they reversed course.

They opened the 2012 season with a catcher in right field (Ryan Doumit), a converted catcher in left field (Josh Willingham), a 38-year-old at shortstop (Jamie Carroll), and a bench lacking a legitimate middle infielder.

Oh, and the starting rotation, with Scott Baker sidelined, has one member with an above-average strikeout rate.

Every roster decision in the final weeks went in the direction of surrendering defense in search of run production. (Not that it did much good in the opening series.)

True, a roster is always a work in progress, and it’s easy to overemphasize the opening roster. And much of what happened in late March was rooted in protecting Morneau from a relapse into concussion symptoms.

He’s to be primarily (but, or so they say now, not exclusively) a designated hitter on the theory that he’s more likely to experience the symptoms if he’s tired. Protecting Morneau should be a priority, and doing so had a ripple effect on first base and the corner outfield that can be summarized as: Chris Parmelee in the majors in the lineup at first base, Ben Revere to the bench, Doumit to the outfield.

The result is an outfield that is no improvement on 2011. It’s a crew likely to again result in a lot of singles and outs becoming doubles and triples.

That is, however, a reasonable tradeoff. While Revere would give the Twins two legit center fielders, the flaws in his game are as substantial as his strengths, and he simply will not provide the offense one expects from a corner outfielder.

The place where the Twins have emphatically decided to undermine the defense is in the infield. The overwhelming consensus out of Fort Myers this spring was that Brian Dozier was the team’s best defensive shortstop.

But Dozier is in Rochester, and a 38-year-old is the shortstop — and there is no real backup.

In the final days of the exhibition season, Trevor Plouffe started games at second base and shortstop — the same Plouffe who washed out in ugly fashion as a middle infielder last season, the same Plouffe who was so atrocious that he was told to play outfield.

So he spent his winter shagging fly balls, spent his spring camp in the outfield — and now, suddenly, he’s in the middle infield again.

Failure is always an option.

I really don’t want to disparage the intelligence of the Twins decision makers. Terry Ryan, Ron Gardenhire and Co. have seen more baseball than I have, and they have far more on the line than I do. I’m absolutely certain they have reasons for what they’re doing, even if I can’t identify those reasons.

But I’m also absolutely certain that they’ve focused on the wrong factors in the middle infield this spring.

Dozier should be the shortstop; either Carroll or Alexi Casilla should be the utility infielder; either Sean Burroughs or Luke Hughes should be gone; and Plouffe should be pointed at positions he can play without embarrassment.

Edward Thoma is a Free Press staff writer. He is at 344-6377 or at ethoma@mankatofreepress.com. He also has a baseball blog.

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