Friday, August 12, 2011

Who is Matt Tolbert?

Tolbert completes a double play off the bat of Orlando Cabrera

Matt Tolbert came to Minnesota in the 16th round of the 2004 draft, signed quickly, and immediately reported to rookie-level Elizabethton.  He hit well there, but considering he was a 22-year old with four years of college experience, the performance was not particularly impressive and he was mostly a non-factor as a prospect.  Following that, he skipped low Single-A and spent the 2005 season at high Single-A Fort Myers.  There, his numbers dropped precipitously, as his OPS fell nearly .200 points, from .876 to .691.

He moved up one level each of the next two years, and better numbers in 2007 at Triple-A finally got him on the cusp of the prospect map.  He grabbed the last spot in Aaron Gleeman's ranking of the top 40 Twins prospects, as his age--almost 26--and very minor upside kept him from rating any higher.  Nonetheless, he made the big league roster out of Spring Training, splitting time between three positions and starting consistently.  A hot start in the team's first twenty games, which saw him hit .400 with a .905 OPS, got many Twins fans unreasonably excited.  When he broke his thumb on May 15th, his average was down to .265 and his OPS to .644, but the hot start still had a lot of fans thinking they'd lost a key piece of the lineup.

By the time he had recovered from his injury, he had lost his roster spot because of Alexi Casilla's improved performance.  Even when Casilla himself went down with an injury, other options had emerged and Tolbert still was not recalled; he only returned to Minnesota once rosters expanded in September.  That's how Tolbert would spend the next few seasons, bouncing between Triple-A and the Majors, filling in for injured starters, playing in a utility role, and starting when no better options presented themselves.

In general, Tolbert can aptly be described as a poor man's Nick Punto.  An infamous Twins player who signed with St. Louis after the 2010 season, Punto's presence was as divisive an issue among Twins fans as you'll find.  Many people absolutely despised him because of his terrible hitting, but others looked past it and saw the value in playing multiple positions defensively and playing them well.  Beyond that, Ron Gardenhire's affinity for the light-hitting infielder irked many fans, as he always found a place for him in the lineup, often over better, more talented players.

What's kept Tolbert from completely repeating that pattern is the last point: he has yet to make his way into the lineup on a regular basis.  Although he's spent stretches of time in the starting lineup, it's always been in place of an injured player.  Tolbert can play second base, shortstop, and third base, just as Punto did, filling in when the regular starters are dinged up or need a day off.  But he hasn't hit even as well as Punto and, while he's a quality fielder, doesn't have quite the glove that Punto did.  For those reasons, he shouldn't ever be considered as a starter in any sort of long-term situation, but he is a decent option in his current role as a utility infielder.

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