Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Twins Setting The Table

As February quickly comes to a close, the Twins are ready to get fully underway with spring training activities down in Fort Myers. Pitchers and catchers have reported, with most of the roster following suit. With Paul Molitor eyeing an improvement on a strong first season, he knows that his club has some areas to work on.

Minnesota found themselves in a good deal of beneficial situations a season ago. The club, more often than not, excelled in clutch or high leverage situations. Despite having a bullpen deficiency, the offensive prowess generally kept them in games. With a quality pitching staff and added pop in the lineup for 2016, the Twins feel as though they have put themselves in a position to succeed.

Now one of the questions that remains unanswered for the Twins, is just how the lineup will take shape. I've discussed how I would set the lineup for the bulk of the 2016 season previously, but the leadoff batter still remains a point of contention. There's little reason to believe it won't be Brian Dozier, and the hope is that at some point Byron Buxton would take over, but in the long run, what's actually best for Minnesota?

Realistically, there aren't many candidates, but let's take a look at the few Molitor has to sort through in 2016.

Brian Dozier .236/.307/.444

Dozier is going to be the Twins leadoff hitter on Opening Day. He's got the most experience, is the easiest fit, and gives Molitor some immediate stability. That doesn't necessarily mean he's the best fit long term however. His .307 OBP in 2015 was his worst mark since his rookie season, and he set a new single season strikeout record for the Twins (148).

While the power numbers went up, Dozier walked less, and missed more (he owned a career worst 9.0% swing strike rate). Although Dozier does sell out for pull power (pulling the ball over 60% of the time), he generated a career best 29.0% hard hit rate a season ago. Then there's the fact that Dozier was actually better leading off in 2015 (.246/.313/.499) than he was batting second (.225/.292/.366). My biggest distaste for Dozier batting first is the amount of wasted (solo) home runs, but I suppose it's something you can live with.

Byron Buxton .209/.250/.326

Ideally, Buxton is a prototypical leadoff hitter. He's fast and gets on base, but if you look at the line above, none of that was remotely true in his first big league season. Baseball's top prospect owned a 44/6 K/BB ratio, and had a swinging strike rate of nearly 14%. The good news however is that should be far from what Minnesota can come to expect from the elite Buxton.

Across his two full seasons of minor league ball (2013 & 2015), Buxton slashed .334/.424/.520 and .305/.367/.500 respectively. His career minor league .384 OBP is more than impressive, and he's generated a ton of contact at the plate during his professional career. Obviously, it has to translate at the big league level, but when it does, there's no doubt Buxton has to be the Twins table setter.

Eduardo Escobar .262/.309/.445

There's very little case to be made for suggesting Escobar as a leadoff man. Molitor likes speed, and while Escobar has some of it, he's far from elite in that category. He does play a leadoff type position at short, but that's really where things ends. Escobar just doesn't take walks, and his OBP has generally suffered because of it (just a .303 career OBP).

It's not necessarily an indictment of Escobar as a player, but there's really no good reason to suggest leading him off. Hopefully his power surge in 2015 was real, and he could continue to blossom as a hitter, it should just happen at the lower third of the order.

Joe Mauer .265/.338/.380

Arguably the oddest inclusion in this group, but one that shouldn't be ignored. In his career, Mauer has just two plate appearances (no at bats) batting first in the lineup. He doesn't possess the speed threat generally desired for the role, and Molitor has said plenty of times that Joe won't bat first. In fact, it appears almost certain he'll bat second for the Twins in 2016. However, leadoff may be the thing that benefits this version of Mauer most.

Despite declining averages the past two seasons, Mauer has posted .361 and .338 OBP respectively. He takes walks, and while he strikes out more, he also generates extra base hits (61 doubles over the past two seasons). As a table setter, Mauer getting on base ahead of power threats like Dozier, Byung Ho Park, and Miguel Sano makes a ton of sense. It's probably not even going to happen, but Mauer the leadoff man, or Mauer hitting somewhere around 6th could be the best thing for his career.

At the end of the day, the Twins are almost certain to employ Brian Dozier as their table setter. While it's somewhat of a square peg in a round hole, it's a situation that Byron Buxton can help to change. The quicker things click for him offensively, the faster the shuffle happens. When that day comes, Molitor will once again have to re-evaluate how he rounds out his starting nine.

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