Sunday, November 1, 2020

The Twins Unlikely Byron Buxton Insurance

This offseason the Minnesota Twins needed to allocate some dollars into contingency plans. With Josh Donaldson having missed so much time, and Byron Buxton always an injury away, legitimate talent behind both is a must. For Buxton, that answer may be more exciting than initially anticipated.

When Rocco Baldelli was filling out his American League Wild Card Series roster in October, one of the biggest surprises in recent memory took place. Top prospect Alex Kirilloff not only made the roster, but he drew his Major League debut start in game 2. Kirilloff garnered rave reviews all summer from Minnesota’s alternate site, and so too did the other top Twins prospect, Royce Lewis.

There has been plenty written already wondering what happens with Jorge Polanco at shortstop, if a utility role makes sense, and if he sticks there long term. Offensively in 2020, the 2019 All-Star was a problem. He posted a career worst .658 OPS and lost all power at the dish. We now know that could’ve been related to his bulky ankle, and a strong improvement in the outs above average category means his may be taking steps forward defensively. Under contact until 2024 and just 27 years old, he’s not going anywhere any time soon. Maybe the position changes, but here to suggest maybe it doesn’t.

We now enter a scenario in which the 2017 first overall draft pick makes his debut in centerfield.

Last fall the Twins allowed Lewis to play centerfield in the Arizona Fall League solely for the purpose of allowing him the flexibility to generate more at bats. It’s a position he’s been suggested of potentially moving to, and there’s reason to believe he’s not necessarily a lock to stick at shortstop. Coming off such a weird year in 2020, the focus in 2021 will be offensively contributing as fast as possible, and then likely finding a way to get him up to the big league club.

Although shortstop would be the traditional and straightforward path of progression, Lewis could experience a similar scenario to his teammate Kirilloff. For much of the past year Minnesota has begun to groom the lefty slugger as a first basemen. Regardless of Miguel Sano currently occupying the position, Kirilloff has found more of a home on the dirt than he did in the corner outfield. It was right field though that provided the opportunity for his debut, and it’s left field where he could find a home should the Twins non-tender Eddie Rosario.

Back to Lewis, we are working with a scenario in which the roster becomes constructed with the most possible talent, and Royce finds the quickest opportunity to play. Whether or not Byron Buxton finds himself on the shelf in 2021 isn’t a situation Minnesota wants to dream on. By having Lewis ready for that possibility however, they have a ready-made fill-in that could represent a higher ceiling than any bench alternative brought in from the outside.

No matter how or where it happens, I’d bet a sizeable amount that Royce Lewis makes his Major League debut for the Minnesota Twins in 2021. I’d place a greater than 25% chance that it comes at a position other than shortstop, and it’s a decent bet that there won’t need to be an injury to Jorge Polanco in order to facilitate the opportunity.

I can definitely imagine that Minnesota would like to simplify things for a prospect with so much promise. Bringing multiple gloves to the yard each day, and positional uncertainty wouldn’t represent that. Lewis is a poised kid though, and once they feel the bat is ready to play, the athleticism and instincts will take him far on their own no matter which number designates his position.

Go out and get pitching. Go out and find a worthy fill in for Josh Donaldson. Minnesota Twins, you can skip the centerfield replacement, your top prospect has that covered.