Twins set to go with Harris at second
Punto will now be utilized as backup infielder this season
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Prior to earning the starting third-base job in the middle of the 2006 season, Nick Punto had been one of the Twins' primary utility infielders.Now it appears that he'll be getting re-accustomed to that role. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire indicated before Tuesday's game that he will probably go with Brendan Harris as the club's starting second baseman, a role that Punto had also been competing for this spring. "If I had to say it right now, I'll probably go with Harris out there," Gardenhire said when asked about second base. So that leaves Punto and Matt Tolbert as the two infield options off the bench for the Twins, although Gardenhire stressed that both players will also get their chances to play second base. "It's a role I'm familiar with, so I know how to do the utility guy," Punto said. "But it's something where it doesn't have to be a permanent thing. I've played for [Gardenhire] for four years now, and I know that he's going to play the hot hand. "It's just a matter of me getting back to swinging like I did in '06. If I do that, I know I'm going to play." Offense seemed to be the determining factor between the two players. Neither Harris nor Punto has put on an offensive show this spring, with the two hitting .245 and .125, respectfully. But Harris has turned things around as of late, going 6-for-18 (.333) over the past week. "Harris has been kind of hit and miss with his defense, but he's starting to swing better," Gardenhire said. Harris, whom the Twins acquired from the Rays in the six-player trade this past November, spent most of last season as the Rays' starting shortstop and hit .286 in 137 games. He's said all along that his natural position was second base, despite some shaky moments early in camp. Harris feels that his feet are now finally underneath him in the role, and his increased production at the plate has been a result of changing his focus.
"I kind of felt like I spent the first three weeks here trying to get to know everybody and get comfortable in the atmosphere and the clubhouse," Harris said. "It didn't really do me any good as far as getting myself ready at the plate. I kind of went back to the approach that I used to take, being worried about getting myself ready to play. And the last week or so, I feel a lot better hitting."While Punto hasn't had any troubles fielding, it's been an uphill battle for him to rediscover his stroke at the plate. He lost his starting job last season, when he struggled offensively, hitting just .210 in 472 at-bats. Punto acknowledged earlier this spring that his offense would have to improve for him to earn a starting job. That hasn't been the case as Punto has just five hits in 40 at-bats. He went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts in Tuesday's 7-3 loss to the Pirates. "My numbers in Spring Training don't tell you it, but I definitely feel a lot more comfortable," Punto said. "It's just a matter of getting at-bats." Although Punto won't be in a starting role, Gardenhire still stressed that he, like Tolbert and the rest of the infielders, will all get their fair share of playing time in 2008. Gardenhire said he definitely plans on using Punto as a defensive replacement late in games, and that in addition to some time at second base, Punto will also be shifted to other spots around the infield -- including third base and shortstop. "Believe me, he'll get used quite a bit," Gardenhire said. "I like to see him out on the field." The skipper has not officially informed the players of his decision on second base, so Harris didn't want to assume that the job was his. But he said that he came into camp with the feeling that the job was his to lose. "It's like going to the plate, you expect to get a hit, and I came in expecting to play every day," Harris said. "I just have to prepare the same way and get ready to go. And we'll see what Gardy has to say."
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.