Thursday, November 12, 2015

No Training Wheels, Are The Twins Diving In?

Going into the offseason, the Twins absolutely needed to address the issue that was not having a long term solution behind the plate. After having dealt Aaron Hicks to the Yankees in exchange for John Ryan Murphy, they believe they have fixed that issue. Now looking at the outfield landscape, are the Twins ready to take a major plunge?

There was a handful of reason that the Twins were in a position to move Hicks. The outfield is a position of strength and depth for Minnesota. On top of that, it appears Terry Ryan and the Twins are believers in Eddie Rosario, while Hicks was probably more valuable to other teams. New York gave up a level of certainty, in exchange for a player who's ceiling is likely not yet reached. The deal poses an interesting option for Minnesota however.

Early on in the offseason, there had been talk that Miguel Sano would assume one of the corner outfield spots (likely left field). That change would come under the assumption that Minnesota does not deal Trevor Plouffe (I believe they will). Should the roster moves play out as expected, that would leave Paul Molitor with youth (Buxton, Rosario, and Max Kepler) as well as depth (Oswaldo Arcia, Danny Santana, and potentially Shane Robinson) to fill his three man outfield.

Considering the attitude showcased in the Hicks trade, one of aggressiveness, Minnesota may be best served to carry that same principle into the season. In that, I am suggesting that Molitor's best outfield may in fact be starting the season with Rosario in left, Buxton in center, and Kepler in right.

There's no doubt Rosario could be the most concerning of the bunch. He's been a followed prospect, but never one expected to be elite. He garnered Rookie of the Year talk (despite the performance of the big three: Sano, Francisco Lindor, and Carlos Correa), and got it done on both sides of the game. His 16 outfield assists were outstanding, and the 11 defensive runs save were impressive. At the plate, his 13 long balls and major league leading 15 triples no doubt were beneficial to the Twins lineup. If he can work on his 46% chase rate (swings at balls out of the zone) and 14.5% swinging strike percentage, he should be just fine.

When it comes to the other two names, the Twins probably have a bit more feel for what should happen. The interesting obstacle in starting the season with Buxton in center and Kepler in right, is when exactly will what should happen play out?

Last season, Buxton played 46 games with the Twins. He slashed just .209/.250/.326 while contributing just 10 extra base hits. Swinging and missing at 13.5% of pitches, he just didn't make enough contact to be a top of the order force. However, his 18.5 DRS total (projected across 162 games) only substantiates his elite defensive ability.

Although Kepler did get his cup of coffee in the big leagues to end the season, he didn't factor into the 2015 Twins. What he did do however, was mash on the farm. At Double-A Chattanooga, Kepler hit .322/.416/.531 with 13 triples and nine homers driving in 71. He walked more than he struck out (67/63) and was named the Southern League MVP. His 63 outfield games a year ago saw him contribute three assists and right field was the spot for each of them.

Going into 2016, an outfield consisting of Rosario, Buxton, and Kepler could have more question marks than almost any other team in the big leagues. You could make a similar argument however, that the grouping has the ability to be arguably the best defensive outfield, with an immense offensive upside.

Both Ryan and Molitor will have to make tough decisions this winter and spring regarding the three players. Rosario should be a lock for the Opening Day roster, and I'd put Buxton near 90% after dealing Hicks. If the club decides to take off the bubble wrap though and have the kids learn, contribute, and go for it right out of the gate, Kepler will be there with them.

There's going to be growing pains either way, but the Twins may put together one of the most promising outfields in club history right from the get go.