Positional Case Study: Minnesota Twins Third Basemen

Trevor Plouffe has notched double-digit homers in four straight seasons. (via Joe Bielawa)

Trevor Plouffe has notched double-digit homers in four straight seasons. (via Joe Bielawa)

Since 2013, I have written several pieces evaluating the way that a particular team has filled a particular position over the past several decades. You can see them in the sidebar at the right. While front offices change, managers and field personnel change, and the game itself changes, I find these deep dives fascinating, and hope that you do as well.

Alex Remington’s Sporadic Positional Case Studies

May 16, 2013: Atlanta Braves Center Fielders

June 20, 2013: New York Mets Second Basemen

Oct. 24, 2013: San Diego Padres Shortstops

Apr. 13, 2015: Colorado Rockies Starting Rotation

Of the four, the Braves did the best, often filling center field with excellent homegrown players like Dale Murphy and Andruw Jones, and achieving decent results by trade the rest of the time. The Mets used second base as a sort of infield overflow position, a place to stash players who were blocked elsewhere. The Padres suffered from myriad self-inflicted wounds: In the course of their search for a franchise shortstop, they traded away two Hall of Famers (Ozzie Smith and Roberto Alomar), and they were significantly hampered by poor talent evaluation and poor drafting, so their shortstops were frequently replacement level or worse. And the Rockies still haven’t cracked the code.

Today, I want to look at the way the Minnesota Twins have staffed the hot corner. Minnesota is a small-market team, but one that has often overachieved relative to its budget. In the past decade and change, the Twins have employed a few near-Hall of Famers like Joe Mauer, Johan Santana and Torii Hunter, but their approach to third base best illustrates how they have made ends meet. They almost exclusively have filled the position from within, frequently plugging in first-round picks and with occasional one-year free agent stopgaps. In the last three and a half decades, they have never signed a third baseman outside the organization to a multiyear deal.

The story begins, of course, with Gary Gaetti, one of the more underrated players of his generation. (Gaetti retired with 39 WAR, exactly equal to Dale Murphy, three-tenths of a win less than Harold Baines, and seven-tenths of a win more than Aramis Ramirez, who was just as surely one of the more underrated players of his generation.) The Twins selected Gaetti with the 11th overall pick in the June secondary draft in 1979. (Gaetti was selected eight picks after the speedy Otis Nixon; the secondary draft ended after 1986.) He marched through the minor leagues, playing exactly one level per year: Rookie League Elizabethton in 1979, Low-A Wisconsin Rapids in 1980, Double-A Orlando and a tiny cup of coffee in 1981, and in the Show to stay in 1982.

He was the Twins’ full-time third baseman from 1982-1990, winning four Gold Gloves, garnering two All-Star nods, and receiving the 1987 ALCS MVP award. That year brought the team their first world championship in 27 seasons in the Twin Cities, and the first championship for the franchise since 1924, when Walter Johnson’s Washington Senators beat John McGraw’s New York Giants.

In addition to Gaetti, the team was led by future Hall of Famers Kirby Puckett and Bert Blyleven and fellow Hall of Very Gooders Frank Viola and Kent Hrbek. (Steve Carlton, at 42, made seven ineffective starts during the regular season, but it’s hard to count him as a Hall of Famer on the team; he wasn’t even on the playoff roster. Also, as long as we’re between parentheses, the mention of Frank Viola contractually obligates me to link to “The Web of the Game,” one of the most famous pieces of sportswriting of all time, a classic Roger Angell piece about a college pitching duel between Viola and Ron Darling.)

When he first became eligible for free agency, Gaetti re-upped with the Twins, signing a three-year contract for 1988-1990. But he departed as a free agent after that, after producing 25.7 WAR in the previous nine seasons. He wasn’t a great hitter — his wRC+ in that time was 98 — but he hit 201 homers as a Twin, and his bat certainly wasn’t a drag on the lineup. In addition, he was a truly spectacular fielder, leading the majors over the period in fielding runs above average at third base. The Twins would rarely again have a player so well-balanced; in the future, they would typically have to pick a player who could either hit or field, but not both. (There was a notable Canadian exception to that rule.)

The following year, the job mostly went to 31-year old journeyman Mike Pagliarulo, an erstwhile Yankee who these days is probably best remembered as the butt of jokes on FireJoeMorgan.com. But that year, Pags put up numbers that were about 75 percent of Gaetti’s: a 90 wRC+, 14.9 defensive runs, 2.3 WAR. He threw in a homer in the ALCS and a homer in the World Series, producing a nice .910 OPS in the only postseason he’d ever see, the Twins’ second successful championship run in five years.

Thirteenth-round draftee Scott Leius (pronounced “lay-us”) more or less had the job through 1995, and he frankly wasn’t very good. But he was cheap, and they let him keep the job until he left as a free agent. He was similar to Ron Coomer, who had the job in 1997 and 1998; neither could really hit or field all that well, but they were farm products, so they cost little.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

But in 1996, the team’s moves were nothing short of brilliant: They signed 30-year old Dave Hollins as a free agent, and he had his best year ever with the glove while contributing a 95 wRC+ with 13 homers — another vintage Gaetti season. He produced 2.3 WAR through the first five months of the season, and the Wild Card-hopeful Mariners liked what they saw. In late August, they traded a player to be named later to acquire Hollins to upgrade their black hole at third, where they had struggled through much of the year with the no-hit combo of Andy Sheets, Luis Sojo and Russ Davis. Hollins would be a major improvement for the final month of the year.

The player to be named later was David Ortiz.

The next man was their best third baseman since Gaetti, and at least by rate stats, you could argue that he was the best third baseman in franchise history: the pride of Manitoba, Corey Koskie. A shutdown fielder with power and on-base skills, Koskie produced 23.5 WAR in six full seasons, and was yet another example of the Twins’ astonishing luck.

A hockey goalie growing up, Koskie had a scholarship offer fall through because he didn’t realize he needed to take the SAT. So he got a volleyball scholarship, then made his way to an Iowa community college, where he played baseball in earnest, after having played it while growing up. Then he went to the now-defunct National Baseball Institute in Vancouver, where he focused on his third-best sport. (“I didn’t play with a home run fence until I was about 16-years-old [sic],” he told the Winnipeg Sun.) Two years later, the Twins drafted him in the 26th round. I hope that scout got a raise.

Koskie left as a free agent after the 2004 season, playing decently before suffering a career-ending concussion in 2006. The Twins tried plugging in Michael Cuddyer, a former first-round pick who had been a part-time player for the previous three seasons. He didn’t have a true position and still doesn’t, but the problem in 2005 was that he didn’t hit enough to make the experiment worth it, producing just 1.2 WAR. Possibly scarred by watching him in the field, the Twins went the other direction entirely, giving the job to the banjo-hitting Nick Punto, who could field but not hit, and who had come to the Twins as a throw-in in the trade of Eric Milton for Carlos Silva.

Punto produced 3.6 WAR that year but just 0.7 in 2007, so it was time for a change. However, the next year, nothing worked, as seven different players got a start at third. It was basically the working definition of replacement level. In 2009, they signed 31-year-old free agent Joe Crede, who had a great glove and a below-average bat. It wound up being his last season, but it was pretty vintage: 1.7 WAR, 15 homers, 82 wRC+. (You could call it something like 75 percent of Mike Pagliarulo, or maybe 60 percent of Gary Gaetti.)

In 2010, 19th-round draftee Danny Valencia got the job, and he rode a .345 BABIP to a 2-WAR performance and a third-place finish in the Rookie of the Year voting. The following year, his bat and glove turned back into pumpkins, and he lost his job after a terrible 2011. So the Twins quickly turned the job over to another former first-round pick: Trevor Plouffe.

Plouffe is an interesting case. His bat is a lot like Gaetti’s: a career 100 wRC+, with 20-homer power and relatively low on-base percentage. But he came up with a stone glove, and his first two years on the job were virtually replacement-level, more Scott Leius than Corey Koskie. And then, as the Minneapolis Star Tribune noticed, his defense got a lot better. He improved his range and his throws while cutting down on misplays, and after being worth just a combined 0.8 WAR in 2012 and 2013, he produced 3.6 WAR in 2014 and 2.5 in 2015.

But he’ll be eligible for free agency in 2017, and the Twins haven’t tried to keep a homegrown third baseman since signing Gaetti to that three-year deal in 1988. Indeed, third base has been more or less a revolving door since they arrived in the Twin Cities in 1961. Only three third basemen have played as many as 800 games in Minnesota: Gaetti, Koskie and Rich Rollins, a player from the 1960s. Based on past history, odds are long that the Twins will try to lock down Plouffe long term. Instead, they’ll probably just get an inexpensive veteran as a stopgap before handing the job to a prospect.

Third basemen occupy a star-crossed position. Hot-hitting center fielders like Torii Hunter inspire a lot more adulation than slick-picking third basemen like Gary Gaetti, despite the fact that those two players retired with virtually identical WAR totals: 39 for Gaetti, 41.6 for Hunter. Even star third basemen languish in relative obscurity compared to their peers at other positions: as a recent tweet pointed out, the WAR leader among eligible third basemen not in the Hall of Fame is Yankee star Graig Nettles, who despite his perfectly respectable 65.7 WAR has never really gotten an internet campaign mounted in his defense. He doesn’t even have a statue in Monument Park!

So, the Twins’ anonymous strategy — attempting to get the best production they can while refusing to pay much for the privilege — may be the right move, considering the historical context of the position. It will certainly lead to some lean years, like the early ’90s or the late 2000s, but at all events, controlling costs at the position means that they know they have more to spend elsewhere.

In contrast with the Mets’ approach to the keystone, in which New York has used second base as a way to relieve logjams at other infield positions, the Twins used an austere approach to third base as a way to control costs. Of course, that’s a good illustration of the way a lot of small-market teams approach a lot of positions. Some years, it works: it’s hard to knock two world championships in five years. But it’s also hard to replicate.

Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times.
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8 years ago

Great article Alex. Please continue with the series.

I did feel old as when I read “three and a half decades” I never thought it would start with Gary Gaetti, who I could have sworn was playing just a few years ago.

87 Cards
8 years ago

1966 Twins: Hall-of-Famer Harmon Killebrew put in 103 starts at the hot corner with Rollins taking the remaining 59 games. The 1966 Twins ended up -111 runs from the 1965 A.L. championship season; only Tony Oliva and Killebrew hit to expectations. In an effort to keep Don Mincher in the lineup at first and add more punch than Rollins had, manager Sam Mele put at Killebrew at third base and also in left field for 20 games.

the new
8 years ago

Plouffe is eligible for free agency “after” 2017, not “in”2017. See here: http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/p/plouftr01.shtml

Rob Mc
8 years ago

The G-Man was a stud. A great clutch hitter and a huge part of the Magic that was the’87 Twins.

Ramblin' Gamblin' Man
8 years ago
Reply to  Rob Mc

…such a stüd he has inspired his own cült, complete with grätüïtöüs ümläüts.

Rusty Shackelford
8 years ago

I’d love to see an article on the history of the Indians at 1B. Outside of the Thome years I can’t think of anyone of note that really played there. Hargrove for a bit I suppose, it just seems like they have gotten such little offense out of that position.

The White Sox and 3B comes to mind as well. They had Ventura and then a bunch of nobodies.

The Mariners at RF might be an interesting study too just because of how few starters they have had at that position. It was manned by Ichiro and Buhner for what felt like 20 years.

Paul G.
8 years ago

Bill James had a lot of fun with the White Sox third base problems between Kamm and Ventura and he only detailed a decade in the Abstract. The rest of the story would be interesting.

John G.
8 years ago

Nicely done. Coincidentally, Graig Nettles was drafted by, and made his MLB debut for…the Twins.

8 years ago

Gaetti is also know for being the only 3rd sacker to start 2 triple plays in the same game!!

Marc Schneider
8 years ago

“A hockey goalie growing up, Koskie had a scholarship offer fall through because he didn’t realize he needed to take the SAT”

Apparently, Koskie took too many pucks to the head. But where were his parents in all this? And it’s appropriate that he ended up playing baseball, since baseball players, as a group, are probably the dumbest pro athletes-or at least the least educated.