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Introducing Brendan Punto

Brendan Harris and Nick Punto should provide the Twins with a serviceable third base platoon

Offseason acquisitions of shortstop J.J. Hardy and second baseman Orlando Hudson will give the Twins infield a new look this season. As it became clear that Joe Crede's injury issues would render him expendable, many fans were hoping the Twins would make a push for a new third baseman as well. But the team has decided that "Brendan Punto" will be responsible for manning the hot corner. Ideally, the Twins would be able to somehow "merge" Nick Punto and Brendan Harris to create a player who possesses Punto's defensive prowess and Harris's steady bat. But the Twins will have to roll the dice with a rotation of the two, and hope they can get the job done.

Harris arrived in Minnesota in November 2007 after the Twins traded Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett to Tampa Bay for Delmon Young and Harris. The Twins have received the short end of this deal thus far, but it has been primarily due to the fact that Young has underachieved with the Twins thus far. Harris has basically been the player the Twins thought he was -- a competent utility infielder. Harris is Mr. Ordinary. He doesn't receive a lot of harsh criticism from Twins fans (unlike Punto), but he doesn't get showered with praise very often either. The Twins, however, clearly thought Harris was valuable enough to sign him in January to a 2-year contract worth $3.2 million.

Harris has been fairly consistent offensively in his two seasons with Minnesota. In 2008, he hit .265 with 7 HR and 49 RBI. Last season he hit .261 with 6 HR and 37 RBI. Additionally, Harris has hit 51 doubles in his two seasons with the Twins, an impressive number. His main weakness offensively is that he strikes out frequently and does not draw many walks. Throughout his six-year career, Harris has struck out once every five at-bats and walked once every 12.5 at-bats. While not necessarily a slow runner, Harris is not a base stealing threat either, as he has just one stolen base with the Twins. On the plus side, though, he provides some pop at the bottom of the batting order and has a decent batting average.

Defensively, Harris could probably be considered simply adequate. His arm strength is fine, but his range is somewhat limited. With the Twins, Harris has played mostly shortstop (111 games), third base (78 games) and second base (50 games). His fielding percentage at third base for his career is .939, compared to .971 and .971 and .984 for shortstop and second base, respectively. These numbers could be somewhat misleading, however, since he has had a lot more time at short than he has at third throughout his career.

No Twins player has been lambasted by fans in recent years like Punto has. If you don't believe this, read a Twins-related Star Tribune article online and I can almost assure you that you will notice negative Punto-related comments after it, regardless of whether the article has anything to do with him. Punto has annoyed Twins fans the past few seasons mostly in part because of his inconsistency at the plate, but also because of his unnecessary dives into first base and somewhat overly dramatic plays in the field.

Despite what legions of Twins fans believe, however, Punto is an excellent defensive player and he is not as bad offensively as he may seem to be. Punto, acquired from Philadelphia before the 2004 season, was a major part of the Twins' dramatic AL Central title run in 2006. That season, the switch-hitting Punto finished with a batting average of .290 and became the face of the "Little Piranhas" that drove opposing managers crazy. But Punto's production declined drastically in 2007, as his batting average plummeted 80 points to .210. His average was much higher in 2008 (.284), but he missed much of the second half due to an injury. Last season, Punto hit just .228. In terms of batting average, Punto's 2007 and 2009 seasons are a major disappointment. However, because he drew a high number of walks last season (71), Punto's on-base percentage of .337 was only 15 points lower than his 2008 OBP of .352, which is not a huge drop at all. Punto also is an effective base stealer who has swiped 64 bases in the past four seasons.

From a defensive standpoint, Punto has been solid at second base, shortstop and third base during his career, as evidenced by his career fielding percentage of .978. At times, it does seem like he's making plays look more difficult than they are so he be part of Baseball Tonight's "Web Gems" highlight reel, but I don't think anyone can say that he hasn't made several spectacular plays for the Twins. His quickness enables him to get to a lot of balls that many infielders cannot, and he has a strong enough arm to handle long throws from short and third.

I believe Punto's defensive ability make him a better all-around player than Harris, but Punto will lose playing time if he continues to struggle at the plate. Harris is winning the battle at the plate in spring training, outhitting Punto .400 to .130 thus far. But Punto picked up his offense a bit toward the end of 2009, so let's hope he can build on that when the regular season starts. If both Harris and Punto struggle, the Twins may need to call up prospect Danny Valencia. But for now, I expect to see the Twins start Harris against lefties and go with Punto against right-handers. It's nice that either of them can play shortstop or second base, to fill in for Hardy or Hudson if needed.

Overall, I think Harris and Punto complement each other nicely. I wouldn't really like to see either one as an everyday starter, so it's nice that the Twins can rotate the two. Sure, it would have been exciting if the Twins picked up one of the big-name free agents available this offseason, such as Mark DeRosa, Kevin Kouzmanoff or Adrian Beltre to play third base. But I can't criticize the front office much when it has made a number of big moves to improve the team significantly. And I think the Twins could do a lot worse than a third baseman named Brendan Punto.

-Mike Mack

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