Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Should Butera follow Nishioka to Rochester?

The biggest story of the week so far in regards to the Twins was the club abandoning their Japanese experiment by demoting Tsuyoshi Nishioka to Rochester for the start of the 2012 season. Going into last season the Twins thought Nishioka could be their starting shortstop for the foreseeable future and the team invested $14 million to bring him to the United States. This experiment turned out to be a disaster and the Twins had to make a decision as to what they should do with him as the beginning of the season was moving closer. Nishioka will undoubtedly be the highest paid player in the International League but he still might have to fight for playing time on his own team.

Another player that could follow in the footsteps of Nishioka before the end of the spring is Drew Butera. During the past two seasons, Butera has served as the back-up catcher on the Twins squad but his role increased last year with all of the injuries to Joe Mauer. Butera has proven to be one of the worst hitters in the big leagues with his career batting line of .178/.220/.261 in 142 games. The Twins were not satisfied with this output and brought in Ryan Doumit to take over some of the catching duties if Mauer is forced off of the field again in 2012. 

Only a couple of seasons ago, Butera was a rookie and the Twins were in the midst of a tremendous first season at Target Field. The team only needed Butera to play in 43 games during the 2010 season and he seemed to work well with Carl Pavano during that campaign. His defense ability seemed to make up for his offensive troubles over the course of the year. There were only small doses of Butera and when the club is in the midst of a 94-win season, the fans and the front office will be more willing to accept a little ineptitude at the plate.

The Twins did not find similar success as a team in 2011 and this made it much easier to pick out the weaknesses in a line-up full of reserve players. Butera continued to struggle at the plate as he hit .167/.210/.239 with 12 extra-base hits in 254 plate appearances. He was proving to be one of the worst hitters in the history of baseball and it didn't help that his defense also seemed to take a step back. It was a rough year for many players on the Twins roster and Butera's weaknesses stood out because of his increased playing time with Mauer on the sidelines.

The front office of the Twins realized they needed to find some other possibilities, as the team got ready for the start of the 2012 campaign. One of the most intriguing names that a lot of fans have been following this spring is J.R. Towles. The 28-year old catcher came over to the Twins from the Astros organization after he failed to make a significant impact on their big league roster in the last five years. For his career in at the major league level, he batted .187/.267/.315 in 155 games. While those numbers might not look the greatest, it seems that anything would be better than what Butera put together. Towles also showed some decent hitting ability during his early years in the minors and he has been successful at the Triple-A level in the past.

This would seem to set up a battle royale between these two catchers for the third catching spot on the Twins roster. It seems to have been a close race so far and that might not bode well for Mr. Towles. In 10 at-bats so far this spring, Butera has three hits with one double and two RBI. Towles has the same number of at-bats but he has managed one less hit. On the bright side, he does have a game-winning home run and a couple of RBI to his credit. These are both small sample sizes and the similar numbers most likely mean the Twins will be looking hard at each player's defense in the coming days.

If I were a betting man, I would still put the odds more in favor of Butera being the player who comes north with the Twins at the beginning of next month. The Twins tend to show a small amount of loyalty to their players but this might be hard to do with the way Butera has performed on the field in the last two seasons. A hot start for Towles with Rochester could put the pressure on the Twins to call him up and he is just one mysterious Mauer injury from making it back to the big leagues.

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