Thursday, July 23, 2009

First Half Pickup of the Season (Minnesota Twins edition)

The Twins enjoyed a great deal of off-season stability once again heading into Season 8, so this particular accolade was not hotly contested. Only two ML contributors ended last season as a member of some other franchise. Coincidentally, both of those players ended last season as part of the St. Louis Cardinals.

The Runner-up for the First Half Pickup of the Season (Minnesota Twins edition) is Wade Harper. The only Rule 5 acquisition for the Twins this season, Harper was selected in Round 1 of the Rule 5 Draft, with the 32nd overall pick. Though he has been part of the platoon, along with William Koh, that was asked to replace departing Free Agent Solly Yearwood, management was fully aware that Harper's value was tied to his glove rather than his bat.

Prior to being picked up by the Twins, Harper had never been fully appreciated by the franchise that employed him. A Third Round pick (108th overall) in Season 3 by donaldkey and the Chicago Cubs, Harper signed for the modest sum of $425,000 as a signing bonus. He then logged 190 AB in 69 games for the Cubs' Rookie League team that season before he was released. Recognizing his value as a minor league defensive replacement, jonboynky claimed him off of the waiver wire on behalf of the St. Louis Cardinals and assigned him to the AA level after the season had ended.

For the next three seasons, Harper toiled away at the AA level as a part-time player. He production with the bat was unspectacular, but he slowly forced himself into the lineup more and more often by virtue of his defensive prowess. His AB progressed steadily from season to season, from only 70 AB in 101 games in S4, to 191 AB in 100 games in S5, to 238 AB in 102 games in S6. Finally, in S7, still at AA for STL, Harper broke into the lineup full-time, posting a .224/.299/.310 line in 504 AB in 144 games. Though he struggled to make contact at times (103 strikeouts), Harper did accumulate 30 extra-base-hits and 20 stolen bases in that full season. Nevertheless, he did not fit into the long-term plans of STL, and so was left unprotected in S8's Rule 5 draft, where he was snapped up by the Twins.

Since getting his break in Minnesota, Harper has filled his role admirably. As the primary SS against right-handed hitting, Harper has batted .205/.271/.308 in 117 AB over 40 games. He's also been successful on 5 of his 6 stolen base attempts and contributed 14 runs, 4 doubles, a triple, 2 home runs, and 13 RBI. More importantly, he has fielded the SS position well, turning in a .981 fielding percentage and a 5.09 Range Factor thus far.

All that said, while Harper has undoubtedly been a valuable role player for the Twins so far, he is clearly not the winner of the First Half Pickup of the Season (Minnesota Twins edition). That honor goes instead to Hideo Hyun.

Primarily a left fielder in S7 for the Cardinals, Hyun was reasonably productive last season, particularly with the bat, hitting .243/.319/.513 with 38 HR and 23 SB. Eligible for his second arbitration hearing in S8, however, Hyun was seeking more money than the Cardinals thought he was worth. As such, he found himself in the unenviable position of being released and looking for work before Spring Training in S8.

The Twins, at that time, were faced with a bit of a dilemma. Management thought the ML squad was one big bat from becoming a top contender, and while Blade LaRue had filled in admirably towards the end of S7, he wasn't quite what management had in mind long-term. After some very surprising arbitration hearing results (most notably Virgil Mendoza and Gabby Martin losing their cases and being awarded the league minimum of $378,000 each), the Twins had an unanticipated payroll surplus and went looking at the available free agents.

By this point, four days after arbitration hearings, most of the better FA had been signed and were holding press conferences showing off their new uniforms. Hyun, however, had seemingly slipped through the cracks. Though not the big bat Twins management was hoping for, Hyun's combination of power and speed seemed to fit well with the Twins transition to a more well-rounded offensive team, and management thought he would be worth the signing as a stop-gap until the big bat could be landed (those attempts eventually proved fruitless). Hyun, anxious for a place to play, signed with the Twins for the reasonable salary of $3,750,000 in a one-season deal.

Four years removed from a stellar rookie season (.285/.346/.655, 56 HR, 102 runs, 130 RBI), Hyun found himself at a career crossroads when Spring Training opened. With All-Star candidates Jay Black and Hiram Bang firmly entrenched at the corner OF positions, Hyun was given the opportunity to compete for AB at 1B/DH. With the pressure on, especially with Donn Stafford expected to make the jump to the Major Leagues as the primary DH, Hyun performed admirably, hitting .389/.421/.667 in 18 Spring Training AB. While Stafford opened the season in AAA, Hyun played on a nearly daily basis early in the season at DH vs LH pitchers and 1B vs RH pitchers. When Stafford was called up, Hyun stuck as the 1B vs RH SP and the 4th OF vs LH SP, used to keep other players fresh (Moe Larkin generally starts vs LH SP).

So far, Hyun has recaptured the potent production that characterized his inaugural ML campaign. Appearing in 53 games, Hyun has logged 217, batting .313/.373/.650 for an OPS of 1.023 to go along with 20 HR and 10/11 SB. A 20-20 season seems in the works, and if playing time allows, 30-30 seems a possibility as well. Hyun has fit particularly nicely into the #3 spot in the batting order, allowing him to both score runs (53) and drive them in (50).

For all these contributions, Hideo Hyun has unquestionably been the First Half Pickup of the Season for the Minnesota Twins. For that Twins management salutes him, and vows to do its best to help Hyun add a World Series title to his collection of baseball accomplishments.

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