Monday, January 24, 2011

Saying Goodbye

Nick Punto has been a fixture for the Twins ever since being acquired alongside Carlos Silva in a 2003 trade. Over the past seven years, perhaps no player has incurred more wrath than the fan base than Punto, who undoubtedly earned more playing time (2,707 plate appearances) and money (over $14 million) than his ability warranted during his tenure in Minnesota.

As anyone who's played on a baseball team will attest, being in the manager's good graces can be very beneficial. Punto knows this better than anyone. For whatever reason, Ron Gardenhire seemed entranced with him, perhaps seeing some of his old self in the versatile, hustling, light-hitting infielder. Without a doubt, Punto's value was overblown by the Twins' coaching staff -- and, perhaps as an extension of that, the front office.

For that reason, it's curious that the Twins were unwilling to bring him back at a point where it would have seemingly made sense to do so. The Twins and Punto officially parted ways on Friday, when the free agent signed a one-year, $700,000 contract with the Cardinals.

Punto was surely stretched as a starter, so it was frustrating to see him paid (and often times played) like one over the past several years. But he's a quality defender at no less than three different positions. Players like that aren't easy to find. He's a good backup and not a bad fallback option to have on the roster; after all, Punto's best seasons ('06, '08) have come when he's started as a backup and stepped in for a struggling or injured starter. Given the uncertainty surrounding the Twins' infield this season, a player with that history would be valuable, especially at the price the Cards got him for.

That the Twins were willing to let Punto walk over such an insignificant price indicates that they feel the 33-year-old's assets -- namely, defense and foot speed -- are ready to decline, though there wasn't much evidence of that last year. Matt Tolbert, on the surface, looks like a decent enough replacement, but the modest difference in price wouldn't seem to override the sizable difference in big-league track record.

Punto's exit is widely being met with glee by fans. He'll probably be remembered more for his historically awful 2007 campaign and his third base overrun in the '09 ALDS than his numerous highlight reel plays, but that's the nature of the beast.

If the Twins were ready to move on, I'm willing to assume that he's done as a useful player. I can't imagine them parting with him over $700K, in their current situation, unless they thought that was the case. As such, I'm not exactly feeling sweet sorrow over this parting.

Nevertheless, it wasn't such a bad run, all things considered.


Eric B. B. said...

Isn't the Twins 40-man roster full? Assuming I'm not mistaken, signing Punto would mean Designating someone For Assignment.

JB_Iowa said...

Any number of possible reasons they didn't bring him back -- including a full roster. But maybe the f.o. just realized -- as did most of us -- that the only way to truly move on and give the Casilla-Nishioka experiment a chance to succeed was to take away the "cushion" of Punto's presence. Lexi, Valencia and Nishioka are going to have to step up and prove they can succeed over the long haul.

Bryz said...

I've heard the front office was starting to get tired of his repeated trips to the DL.

Josh said...

I think the Twins made a reasonable assessment here. Punto is in decline as a player and can't be expected to get any better, only worse from here on out. His versatility give him extra value over his stats, but is it enough to overcome the poor hitting, injury risk, and likelihood of decline? I say no, especially when his contributions are pretty replaceable with guys like Tolbert, Plouffe, and Hughes.

I used to like Nick Punto as a player on this club, but turned on him when Gardy insisted on playing him beyond his capability. Nick is a utility guy who was played beyond his capability, and my fear is he would have continued to get that kind of run in another year here, especially with the 2B & SS positions unsettled. It's not really Nick's fault that Gardy liked him so much, but the fact is...he can't hit.

Moreover, you have to ask if his D was really that good any longer anywhere other than 3B? He's pretty average at SS at this point, a bit better at 2B...but that doesn't make up for an OPS+ that will realistically clock in at 60-70.

Will Tolbert be any better? Probably not much, but he is at least younger and the price is the same. Moreoever, there will be less temptation to bench Casilla & Nishioka in favor of Tolbert. And if Tolbert fails out, it will be easier to give Hughes or Plouffe a shot.

Anonymous said...

It's frustrating when people keep repeating the mantra that Gardy had some irrational love for Punto and that's why he got playing time. Look back at when Punto was getting playing time - and look at who was sitting as a result. Punto was taking starts from people like Harris, Casilla, Tolbert, Everett, Batista, Lamb, etc.

Punto can't hit, but those other players can't hit either, and at least Punto can play defense. Given Gardy's options, Punto was usually the rational choice. A few times he even earned the opportunity to start - but obviously fell short. Doesn't mean the decision to give him starting jobs was wrong - just didn't work out.

Anonymous said...

Gardy was a lot quicker to pull the plug on all of those guys, but never punto.

cy1time said...

I always thought that Punto was more of an NL type. He can play anywhere as a late inning replacement on a double switch or as a pinch runner. I won't miss him, but he'll probably be a productive Cardinal this year.

Anonymous said...

Punto "being an NL type"

Does the NL have a niche for useless infielders?

Anonymous said...

This is a sad day for MN Twins. Nick Punto although a "poor" offensively was and still is one of the best defensive players in the league at ANY position. He is a top 3 defensive player at any position. So by letting him go you are depleting a team of a defensive star. Fans knock him because his offensive numbers are low- give me a break. He could step in and start anywhere else defensively and that is what the Twins are about- Defense.
It is just sad to see everyone bash him when he is an outstanding player and a stand up guy in the community.

SAD day MN

Josh said...

Look, he seemed like a great guy and you can't entirely blame him for being overpaid and overused. But it's the reality that the player gets blamed for management failures too.

Danny Valencia didn't get his shot at playing 3B every day until Lil' Nicky Punto - Tiny Super-Hero (tm Batgirl, who is MISSED) got hurt and Danny V played so well he refused to give it back. Should he have gotten a shot sooner? maybe. But he was blocked by a guy could just can't hit enough, and that hurts.

And the idea that Nick is a Top 3 player defensively at any position (I'm assuming you didn't really mean to include catcher at least) is absurd. He was a terrific defensive player at 3B because he had far better range than most, which made up for a sub-par arm. He was well above average at 2B (again, range), but struggled in some aspects and was never a top 3 guy. At SS he was solid, never below average but rarely above average because his range at SS wasn't as great in comparison, his arm isn't all that great, and he was...right around average. that's actually really nice to have in a utility guy. It's not great for a guy getting starter ABs.

He did some good things for the club, and if wants to come back as a coach when he retires I think that'd be great (so long as he NEVER teaches anyone to slide head-first into 1B). But it's best that they part company now.

CA said...

The Twins' middle infielders, as things now stand, are probably Nishioka, Casilla, and Tolbert. I believe (correct me if I'm wrong) that Casilla is out of options. Assuming Morneau is healthy enough to play, a four man bench would include Thome, Repko, Butera, and only one more spot for a backup IF. Thus, re-signing Punto would likely have meant either cutting Casilla or putting Tolbert in the minors to start 2011.

Personally I'd rather have Punto than Tolbert or Casilla next year, but it seems pretty obvious that the Twins are committed to giving their younger infielders a shot. The best hope is that someone out of the group of Tolbert, Casilla, Plouffe, and (maybe) Hughes emerges enough to be a serviceable everyday option.

Regardless, this season might be Casilla's last big chance.