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Position Competition: Twins' Third Baseman

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With Spring Training beginning and the many rosters set, teams are beginning to let their Opening Day lineups and starting rotations take shape. Yeah, some roster spots certainly are locked up better than others; I certainly wouldn't expect Allen Craig to usurp King Albert as the Red Birds' first baseman.  But throughout the league, teams are going through the annual tradition of using Spring Training to recognize bench and platoon pieces, as well as to determine Opening Day starters at various positions.

Some of these competitions won't really matter in the long run. I wouldn't presume that many people are losing sweat over whether Angel Pagan or Gary Matthews Jr. is the Mets' everyday center fielder in April. Yeah, it should obviously be Pagan, but Carlos Beltran should be back soon enough that letting Matthews take some of the at-bats isn't a huge deal.

But there are still many full-time jobs that are up in the air, with teams looking at multiple candidates to fill those positions. Today, I'd like to start a series of going through many of these competitions in more detail, as we close in on the long awaited regular season. Now, I'm not necessarily saying who's the best player among the options at hand, as often times contractual issues come into play with these things. Rather, I'm simply looking at what could be the best possible solution in each situation.

We're going to start today with the hot corner in chilly Minnesota, where the Twins primarily used Joe Crede, who departed as a free agent and is yet to sign with a new club, Brian Buscher, who signed a minor league deal with Cleveland, and Brendan Harris last season.

Since the departure of Corey Koskie after the 2004 season, the Twins have rotated numerous players through the position in the hopes of filling the void, as Michael Cuddyer, Nick Punto, Buscher and Harris have dominated the playing time at the position. None of them has really emerged as a legitimate everyday option at the position, as Cuddyer's glove necessitated a move to the outfield, and the other players all lack the pop that one would expect from a corner infielder.

The Twins did manage to solve their middle infield issues this offseason with two very solid moves to add shortstop J.J. Hardy from Milwaukee and second baseman Orlando Hudson through free agency, but in doing so they neglected to at the very least replace Crede's sparkling glove at the hot corner.

The moves have left Minnesota with three basic candidates for the third base job going into 2010: Harris, Punto and top third base prospect Danny Valencia.

Harris, 30 in August, may be the favorite of the group. While he's nothing special, he's at least shown the ability to be near league average as a hitter (wRC+ of 93 in over 1600 PA), although his numbers have suffered since posting a 107 wRC+ in nearly 600 PA with Tampa Bay in 2007. He's a poor defender though at all three infield positions, though, and Jeff Zimmerman projects him to be 6 runs below average over 150 games for 2010.

Punto, 32, retains essentially all of his value from his fantastic defense, which he's capable of playing at all of the infield positions except for first base. He's played in between 1770 and 1790 innings at all three infield positions, and graded out above average at all three positions, and exceptionally well at two of them, according to UZR. UZR has him at 3.9 per 150 games at second base, but he grades out at nearly 20 runs above average per 150 games at both shortstop and third base. The sample size is relatively limited, but it jives with scouting report. To put it simply, Punto is a glove man.

At the plate, he's a slap hitter who's shown the ability to induce walks, but he has practically no power (.076 ISO), so while he can be a near-league average hitter with a high BABIP (like in 2006 and 2008), he's more likely to post a wRC+ in the 75-80 range. He's also a good baserunner, which adds some additional value. But it's worth noting that he was also 32 runs below average at the plate in 2007, so when he's off, he can be really off.

Valencia may offer the most upside of any of these hitters, but there are a good number of question marks surrounding the young third baseman after a precipitous drop in his walk rate after being promoted from Double-A to Triple-A. After posting a 12.3% walk rate in Double-A, he moved up to Triple-A, where he maintained his numbers in nearly aspect with the exception of his walk rate, which plummeted to 2.8%. He's a slightly below average defender at third, according to TotalZone, but he would presumably be better than Harris. Valencia, 26 in September, has done well at practically every stop in the minor league ladder, and is regarded by many in the organization as the team's third baseman of the future.

Certainly, the Twins have put themselves in a great position to contend next season. But there's almost no doubt that the third base position will be the weak spot in what should be a pretty good lineup next season, given what Minnesota currently has to work with.

At this point, as odd as this sounds, it appears that Nick Punto may be the best option that Minnesota has for third base going forward. Harris and Valencia may have the ability to offer more offense, but Punto's defensive and baserunning advantages easily outweigh what the former two could provide offensively. The bench could certainly benefit from Punto's versatility, but Harris is capable of playing all of the infield positions as well (albeit not remotely as well as Punto).

Punto may not provide the traditional offensive production that one would hope for from a third baseman, which makes him far from an ideal option. But Minnesota's cornered itself into some pretty limited options, and Punto at the very least is a sure thing to provide quality defense from the hot corner, and he's been decent enough offensively to post two 2.5+ WAR seasons in the past four years.

If Valencia emerges some point during the season with a couple of monster months in Triple-A, he could very well supplant Punto at third base, giving the team the opportunity to return Punto to his utility role while pushing Harris off the roster, although this is unlikely as Harris is due $1.45M for 2010 and $1.75M for 2011. The Twins almost assuredly won't exercise Punto's $5M option for 2011, instead opting for his $500K buyout, so presumably they view Harris as their utility infielder going forward.

But for 2010, it seems pretty clear that Punto's defensive ability makes him the team's best option at third base. With a left side of the infield of Punto and Hardy, the Twins should have one of the better defensive infields in the game.