4 Creative Tweaks the Twins Can Make to Get Better
Image courtesy of Brad Rempel, USA TodayByron Buxton and Miguel Sano are the headliners in that discussion, with good reason. Who knows what the future holds for those two. But elsewhere, I see four opportunities for the Twins to work with what they have, get a little creative, and maybe shore up some key areas of uncertainty.
1: Have Max Kepler split time between between the outfield and first base
One of the Dodgers' most valuable players during their run to the World Series this year was Cody Bellinger, whose versatility and strong bat made him a key asset. During the regular season, Bellinger played in every single game, making 85 starts at first base and 50 in center field.
That's a combination you rarely see, because few players possess the skill set to make it work. Bellinger does, and so does Kepler. Although the latter has played first base sparsely in the majors (just 4 1/3 total innings), he made a few dozen starts there as a minor-leaguer. Given his athleticism and coordination, it stands to reason he'd be solid at least and perhaps outstanding.
We already know what he can do in the outfield. Kepler's become one of the league's best defensive right fielders and he's shown quite well during his 500 career innings in center as well. Having him split time between the first base and right field, while occasionally spelling Buxton against righties in center, would enable the Twins to extract big value of from Kepler, even if his offensive production remains somewhat modest.
And if he takes the step forward we're all hoping for with his bat? Well, a season closely mirroring Bellinger's 2018 (.260/.343/.470, 25 HR, 3.6 WAR) is hardly out of the question.
Committing to this arrangement would give the front office much more flexibility in attacking the offseason. With Kepler adding some much-needed left-handed balance to a first base mix that now includes CJ Cron and Tyler Austin, Minnesota can feel better about rostering both (should they desire). And with a bunch of playing time opening up in right field, the Twins can go out and add another RF/DH type who can thump.
2: Use Fernando Romero out of the bullpen
I'm the biggest Fernando Romero advocate you're gonna find. I've been steadfast in my belief he's got the makings of a workhorse, front-of-rotation starter. And I could still see it. But at this point, even I can't deny the obvious logic in activating the righty out of the bullpen.
In a way it feels wasteful to limit Romero to short stints, with his big frame and ability to maintain high-90s heat late into games. But despite having the build and sustainable velocity of a 200-IP starter, he hasn't held up. Romero lost two consecutive years of his development to recurring injuries, and since returning he's been susceptible to late-season breakdowns. He might just be better suited for a relief role.
Luckily, that's not the same diminishment it was once was. As relievers become more and more impactful, a high-powered arm capable of throwing multiple innings is an advantageous weapon indeed.
I'd love to see Romero open the season with the Twins and fill a role similar to the one Jeff Passan envisions here for newly signed Jesse Chavez of the Rangers:
3: Unleash Trevor May as a starter (or "primary")
On the flip side, we have here a current reliever who might be a better fit for the rotation. Trevor May of course finished the 2018 season at closer, and he looked downright phenomenal. I know some might be asking, why mess with a good thing?
That's fair, but I'm just not ready to give up on May as a starter. He was shaping up nicely in that capacity during spring of 2017 before requiring Tommy John surgery. Unlike Romero, he's mostly been very durable and his arm has fared well under a starter's workload (last year notwithstanding). Also: With at least four quality pitches, May absolutely has the repertoire depth to take on lineups multiple times.
Use him as a traditional starter, or as a primary following an opener, as you please. I think May has what it takes to be an effective pitcher over 150 innings. If it doesn't take, they can send him back to the bullpen; it's much easier to make that transition in-season than the reverse. And it feels like if Minnesota keeps May in the bullpen next spring, then it becomes permanent.
That's not necessarily a bad thing given what we saw in the second half. But still, give him one more shot.
4: Give Willians Astudillo 500 at-bats
Yes, I yearn for the sheer joy of watching Astudillo play everyday. Who doesn't? But there's also a solid case to be made for turning the scrappy 27-year-old into a fixture and seeing what he can do.
All he's done lately is hit. In 2017 he batted .342 with a .928 OPS at Class-AAA Reno in Arizona's system, and then he batted .319 in the Venezuelan Winter League. The Twins signed him and watched him post a .782 OPS at Triple-A before finishing with a 22-game stretch in the majors that saw him hit .378/.397/.554 with two strikeouts in 78 plate appearances. Accounting for his first stint with the Twins, Astudillo appeared at five different positions (C, 2B, 3B, LF, CF) while posting an .887 OPS as a rookie. Now, he's back in Venezuela, batting .353 for Caribes with one strikeout in 156 PAs.
When you look at Astudillo and his long-term track record, it's tempting to dismiss his run of success as a fluke. But when a guy literally almost never whiffs, and consistently makes good contact (his soft-hit rate in 2018 was lowest of all Twins other than Jake Cave and Joe Mauer), it's a decent formula for high averages. As we're seeing.
Plus, Astudillo can plug in at catcher, third base, DH and elsewhere when needed. By rotating him around and finding a place for him most days, the Twins can keep other starters fresh and rested – perhaps most importantly, Sano and Mitch Garver. Meanwhile, Rocco Baldelli keeps a pesky spark plug in his lineup regularly. Astudillo is beloved by teammates, cherished by fans, and admired by not-traditionally-athletic types everywhere. His all-out effort and hustle set a great example.
There is of course risk in counting on Astudillo, signed as a minor-league free agent almost exactly one year ago, for such a prominent role. But the Twins are in position to take some risks and this feels like one worth taking.
That's all I've got for now. What say you all? Like these ideas? Hate 'em? Got an outside-the-box notion of your own? Let's hear it in the comments.
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