Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Past Never Dictated 2016 Twins Future

Coming into spring training, the Minnesota Twins had a couple of players to keep their eyes on. With the majority of the 25 man roster being fleshed out, it was going to be a battle for a few final inclusions. While the role of the 5th starter in the rotation may have been up in the air, it was no doubt largely decided, and so too was the man that would man the middle of the outfield.

Somewhat surprisingly this spring, there has been a decent amount of articles written regarding Byron Buxton and him closing in on the Twins centerfield role. After sifting through the level of backwards thinking that train of thought employs, it should be apparent that Buxton was never closing in on anything.

What Buxton did in his first big league season was struggle. He slashed a paltry .209/.250/.326, struck out over 30% of the time, and was used as a defensive replacement down the stretch. What's also worth noting is that being somewhat of a slow starter, Buxton has taken to adapting rather quickly. After all, you don't elevate yourself to baseball's top prospect without that ability.

Coming into the 2016 season, Buxton was the odds on favorite for the starting centerfield job, regardless of what some may have thought (example 1, example 2). It's a silly narrative to believe the Twins were ever closing in on giving Buxton the gig, when in reality it was his to lose.

Having put up four defensive runs saved in just 35 starts for the Twins, defensively Buxton has the makings of the best centerfielder in the game. On that alone, Paul Molitor would have been best served to go with his top prospect. Then considering that secondary options included a list of players such as Danny Santana, Ryan Sweeney, and Darin Mastroianni, it should have been all but a foregone conclusion.

With spring training numbers what they are (Buxton currently slashing .200/.261/.561), the month of March was always going to be more process than results. Barring a complete ineptitude at the plate, the only storyline worthy of contemplating would be one in which Buxton had actually lost his grip on the role. Having shown a solid approach at the plate, and being able to square pitchers up, Buxton has done nothing to put that storyline into play.

At the end of the spring, Buxton is the Twins centerfielder to open the season, and that ever being in doubt seems more fodder than fact.

That leads us to another situation that previous Twins teams may have handled differently. Despite the idea that Ricky Nolasco (and even Trevor May) was competing for a rotation spot, the reality has always been that he's working to pitch for this club at all.

Gone are the Twins rotations including Cole DeVries, Jason Marquis, and Kevin Correia. No longer is a contingent of five hurlers thrown out there and asked to duck their way back into the dugout. In fact, Minnesota's group is arguably going to be one of the better bunches in the entirety of the AL Central.

A season ago, Nolasco pitched hurt, and the year before that, he was simply ineffective. Through three spring outings, he's been a detriment as well. Aside from the numbers, and they aren't good (7.36 ERA 11 H 6 ER 7 K 3 BB in 7.1 IP), his process has been equally poor. Failing to get ahead of hitters, not finding the zone, and putting himself in less than advantageous situations, Nolasco has done nothing to warrant any consideration for the roster, let alone a starting spot.

Unfortunately, that leads us to the ugly reality that Minnesota will owe Nolasco over $24 million through the next two seasons. It is this number that has some believing Ricky had an insider track to a rotation spot. Again, the narrative should be that number giving him a leg up on a roster spot ahead of the more deserving competition.

There was little reason to believe an ineffective veteran was ever serious consideration for a starting role on a team with significantly better options. While a former Twins way of thinking may have seen that play out, it more reasonably would have been the by-product of circumstance (less than advantageous pitching), than desired practice.

It's completely understandable to view the current Twins team in the context of what has previously taken place. The context provided by the situation however is that the 2016 squad is coming off a near playoff year, as opposed to spending the season in the doldrums of the Central losing 90 games. For a team looking to take a step forward, even Terry Ryan isn't silly enough to turn away his best centerfielder or hand over the keys to his car loving, but unworthy starter.

Buxton's story was written long before the seemingly backwards notions were unveiled, while Nolasco will continue to hold onto his thread a little while longer. When this club goes north however, expect for the most sensible outcomes to play out, as they have been brewing all along.

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