Saturday, March 12, 2005

Position Analysis: Left Field

One of the quietest great hitters in the league is Shannon Stewart. He might be the best lead-off hitter in the AL outside of Ichiro. At the All-Star break in 2003, the Twins were underachieving and in need of some kind of boost to get them past the White Sox and back into first place. The trade for Shannon Stewart at first seemed puzzling... why trade a young switch-hitter with great potential like Bobby Kielty for an older veteran like Stew? The move paid off, as Stewart's .322 batting average after coming to the Twins was widely hailed as the key factor in their hot second half and their capture of a second straight AL Central title, even garnering him some MVP consideration. Last year, Stewart hit .304 with 11 homers and 47 RBI while being limited to 92 games thanks to a nagging plantar fascitis problem in his foot.

While he's never going to steal 51 bases in a season again like he did in 1998, Stewart is a good, smart baserunner. And his expertise at the plate goes beyond the outstanding .380 on-base percentage he posted last year. He is a patient hitter who sees a lot of pitches, which is a tremendously important quality in a lead-off man, especially when he's hitting in front of young, inexperienced players like Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. Last season, for the first time in his career, Stewart walked more than he struck out.

Shannon is not going to amaze anyone with his power or speed, but he is one of the better natural hitters in baseball, and a very important piece to the Twins lineup. If he is healthy all year, expect something in the range of .315/15/60. If his foot is back to normal, there is no reason to believe he can't be perfectly effective in the field. But if he has really lost a step and can't field the position a little better than he did last year, the Twins might want to consider putting Lew Ford in left field and batting Stewart at DH. Other options in left, should an injury occur, include Michael Cuddyer if he's not at third, Nick Punto if he's not at short, and Mike Ryan/Michael Restovich/whoever makes the team as a backup outfielder.