Pictured here sandwiching fellow "futility infielder" Alexi Casilla
Both will most likely figure into the team's plans for next year, with one being a likely starter (Punto), and the other hopefully only being a bench option if he makes the roster (Tolbert), but that could all change if the Twins find any other realistic options either in-house or via trade/free-agency, as practically ever position on the infield except for Morneau and Mauer probably figure to be question marks.
The Twins will likely have 13-14 positions on their roster for hitters, and and after subtracting probably 5 spots for the outfield, one for Morneau at 1B, one for Mauer at catcher, and one for Morales as the back-up catcher, that leaves us with 5-6 spots, including the starting 2B, SS and 3B. Barring some crazy occurrence, you can almost guarantee one of those starting spots will be occupied by Nick Punto.
Pictured here flying through the air, as he always appears to do.
The Twins already have Punto under contract for around $4M next year, and Buscher, Tolbert, Harris, and Casilla will all either be under team control or receive minimal arbitration salaries. I doubt anyone who follows this team looks forward to those 5 players rounding out our infield next year, but unless they look into the minors (Hughes, Valencia, Plouffe, Huber, Peterson), that's probably the group we'll be choosing from.
The only thing keeping Buscher on this roster is his friendship with Morneau and the fact that he knows how to hold a bat left-handed (swinging it is another story), and Casilla and Harris are probably so far in Gardy's doghouse that they'll be lucky if they're on the roster next year. In truth, Harris is probably the one of those 5 we should keep around, but he'll also be the easiest for the front office to ship to another team and actually get something back in return.
That leaves Punto and Tolbert, with three people who very well might replace Buscher, Harris and Casilla, yet to be identified and will make themselves known this offseason. So let's familiarize ourselves with Mr. Punto and Mr. Tolbert, as I'm sure we'll grow accustomed to them next year.
Punto pictured here, diving through the air ... again
Tolbert pictured here, apparently knows how to plant his feet.
The definition of a scrappy switch-hitter, Punto is turning 33 this November (happy early birthday), and in 9 seasons of major league service he's amassed a .249/.321/.326 slash line with 12HR, 174RBI, and 83 stolen bases.
He's quite the enigma, I don't know if we'll ever quite figure out who the real Nick Punto is. Breaking down his individual seasons, he was strictly a bench utility player from '01-'04, never amassing a significant amount of starts or plate appearances to really see his true style.
Though this, apparently, is part of his style...
He's had 5 years where he has essentially been a starter (and I'm including this year), and oddly enough each year he seems to be the exact opposite of the previous. In '05 he was bad. In '06 he had his best year to date (.290/.352/.373). He dropped back down to non-relevance in '07 before rebounding slightly last year by posting .284/.344/.382 slashes. This year? Well, it's an odd numbered year so he's struggling away again at .232/.332/.288 with 1HR and 34RBI (this is even taking into account his recent slew of superb play, so, picture how bad his numbers looked before this...)
In the field, Punto has held his own. He's posted a .976 fielding percentage this year at SS (though that's dropped slightly to .973 this year), and that's been just slightly more than league average.
But does THIS look league average to YOU?
At 2B he's just slightly below league average, displaying a .983 career fielding percentage, two points lower than the league.
At 3B he's actually well above the league average of .958, as he's actually posted a .970 fielding percentage there. My amateur opinion on this would be that 3B is typically more offense-oriented, and so to have a cat-like middle infielder at the hot corner he'd be fielding the position better than some of the more "bat-oriented" players who are filling it on other teams.
Unfortunately, we're paying Punto a salary equivalent to that of Jason Kubel, which pretty much cements the fact that he'd better lock down a starting spot because we don't want to pay $4M for a bench player. The Twins would probably be better off releasing Punto (or trying to trade him), because they essentially have a younger (read: cheaper) version of him in Matt Tolbert.
Pictured here thinking "Who? Me?"
Tolbert is 6 years younger than Punto (math says he's 27), and also a switch hitter (and making 3.5 million less, thankfully). With the void of no-Joe Crede haunting us, Tolbert has inexplicably apparently been handed the starting 3B job over the platoon of Buscher and Harris. Even more amazingly, he's been holding his own, though nothing leads me to believe that this will last.
He saw limited big-league action for the first time in '08 (123 plate appearances), and responded with a respectable .283/.322/.389 slash and 7 stolen bases (though he was walking less than once for every two strikeouts). Those numbers were relatively in line with his 6 seasons of minor-league ball, where he posted a career .280/.341/.404 with limited power, decent speed (47 stolen bases, caught 19 times), and around the same strikeout-walk ratio.
For whatever reason, his numbers have plummeted down to Punto-level this year, and although the season isn't over, he's amassed more plate appearances than last time. He's currently sitting on a .221/.301/.266 slash with 6 stolen bases and his normal strikeout-walk ratio.
Whereas Punto as a switch hitter only has a modest difference in his splits batting right-handed vs. left-handed batting, Tolbert skews more significantly. As a lefty versus right-handed pitchers, he's hitting .198/.288/.207, but as a righty hitting lefties, he's .279/.333/.419.
I don't want to get too down on Tolbert. He could actually be a decent bench-option and serviceable player if that kind of role wasn't already taken up by Punto. But to have two of them on the 25-man roster next year is a little ridiculous. And if Punto wasn't there, you can sure bet that Gardy would find a way to sneak Tolbert into an every-day spot so he wouldn't really be filling the role he's best suited for anyway.
It's harder finding pictures of Tolbert sprawling all over the place...
As far as fielding goes, Tolbert has a small sample size at each position. At SS, he appears to have about a .978 fielding percentage, which is somewhat better than league average. At 2B, he's almost exactly league average (he's .987, average is .986). And at 3B his fielding percentage skews drastically down to .930, a good 30 points lower than the average at the position. This is in part due to the fact that he was horrible at 3B in 17 games through '08, but after starting there practically every game this September he's been flawless (1.000 fielding percentage...). Those numbers probably won't remain unblemished for the long-haul, but it seems that regardless of where you put him (SS, 2B, or 3B), he'll be just around league average in terms of fielding.
(I'm not qualified to talk about UZR or Range Factors, I'll leave that to more qualified bloggers.)
Suffice to say, that if Punto is not released or traded this offseason, there's no reason that the Twins should renew him again. Tolbert should easily slide into his role and still be much cheaper, and by the time Tolbert deserves a significant raise, there should be someone else in the pipeline as well, so hopefully we don't hand out another albatross of a contract.
But in the meantime, Punto and Tolbert continue to defy numbers and logic...
and apparently gravity...
...as they hold down 2B and 3B daily in our race to the postseason, and I'm all for it for now. As long as they don't start batting lead-off or in the 2-hole if Span has to miss any games because of his concussion.