February 12 has been declared Nick Punto Day across the Twins blogging universe. Since the Twins acquired Nick Punto as part of the Eric Milton trade with the Phillies in the winter of 2003, Punto has been one of the most controversial figures on the team. While Ron Gardenhire and the rest of the Twins front office and staff seems to love Punto and his gritty, head-first-diving style of play, many fans complain that the Twins’ staff is insane for giving a player with Punto’s numbers so many opportunities. He’s a middle infielder destined to be a perfect utility player, but neither he nor Gardenhire will leave it at that. Punto has been at one point or another handed the starting second base, shortstop, and third base role, but can never play well enough consistently to warrant him staying there permanently.
It seems most Twins fans are in the Anti-Punto Club due mostly to his poor hitting. In portions of nine seasons since coming up with the Phillies in 2001, Punto is a career .248 hitter with 12 home runs. Not every player in the lineup is going to be a big offensive threat, but even filling a middle infield hole with a defensive-minded player, you’d hope to see a little more offense. What Punto is sure to provide is solid defense, hustle, and maybe even some veteran leadership. While I’m more of an anti-Punto guy than pro-Punto, I will admit that he made the most spectacular defensive play I’ve seen by a middle infielder. Ever.
Gardenhire and Punto
Why does a successful, respected manager like Ron Gardenhire keep giving a guy like Punto so many chances while guys who have put up better numbers have been cast away? I think it’s because Gardy sees himself in Punto. Gardenhire himself was a small, scrappy infielder for the Mets from 1981-1985, putting up weak offensive numbers—career .232 average with 4 HR in 777 plate appearances. Gardy probably knows how hard he had to fight to stay with the Mets those years and is in turn giving Punto every chance to succeed.
Me and Brendan Harris
But the reason I am anti-Punto is because Brendan Harris is my favorite Twins player. Where Gardy sees himself in Punto, I see myself in Harris. Granted, I do not play baseball, nor have I ever played competitively, but when I did play basketball and football in school, that’s the kind of player I was. In my earlier years, it seemed I would be benched due to a coach’s personal reasons over actual skill level, but when I was called upon I would play well enough. Whereas it seemed I could do no right for certain coaches (Sumption, Noem, Stobbs, the other Noem), it seems there is nothing Harris can possibly do, short of murdering Nick Punto, that will elevate him above Punto on Gardenhire’s depth chart. Just when Punto struggles so badly that even Gardenhire benches him, and you think it’s Harris’s turn to shine, in steps Matt Tolbert to take away Harris’s thunder once more. That was me for many years until I grew to 6’7″ by senior year and then was suddenly a respected member of all sports teams. Maybe that’s what Harris needs: a big growth spurt.
The Back Story
Anyway, back to the matter at hand. For those of you non-baseball fans who have decided to read this, here’s the back story. Punto has absolutely thrived when he has to fight for his playing time, but crashed and burned very hard when he’s handed a starting job. In 2006, Tony Batista was signed to play third base after an impressive year in Japan, pushing Punto to the bench. After a while, Batista’s act got old and Punto played his way into the starting lineup, sparking the Twins to an amazing division title run. Following up his tremendous breakout 2006 season, Punto was handed the third base job in 2007 and struggled mightily, putting up one of the most feeble offensive seasons in recent major league history by hitting .210/.291/.271 in 150 games. Handing Punto so many at-bats directly contributed to the Twins’ only losing season since 2000. In 2008, the Twins turned to free agency, signing former Astro Mike Lamb to handle third. Lamb struggled, and Punto earned the job back by mid-season. In 2009, the Twins looked to Punto to fill shortstop, and again he failed, hitting just .228.
2010 and Beyond
Will the trend continue in 2010? Punto is coming off a terrible year at the plate, so the logic would be to use him in a reserve role, especially with the team bringing in two major upgrades to the middle infield in J.J. Hardy and Orlando Hudson. But the team left the third base job wide open, giving Punto a chance to beat out Brendan Harris, Matt Tolbert, and possibly even Danny Valencia for the starting role. In the deepest Twins lineup top-to-bottom since, well, maybe 1965, Punto could easily bat ninth in the order and have his poor batting numbers go unnoticed with the strong supporting cast around him.
My Final Stance
But I would be happiest with Punto coming off the bench as a late-inning defensive upgrade over Brendan Harris and an occasional spot-starter, resting the Twins’ Triple-H infield of Harris, Hardy, and Hudson and maybe even serving as Denard Span’s center field backup. Not many players are as versatile as Punto, so it would seem to be a shame to start him rather than have him available off the bench for many different roles. But, I have a feeling this is what will happen in 2010: Punto will start at third, and if Span or Hardy or Hudson goes down, Punto will slide over to their position and Harris will come off the bench to take over for Punto at third.
One Bold Prediction
Mark my words: When it’s all said and done, Nick Punto will receive at least 100 more plate appearances than Brendan Harris in 2010.