Am I Still Excited About Willians Astudillo?
Image courtesy of David Berding, USA Today"Our beautiful baby boy!" I cried, as Willians Astudillo hustled into second with a double during some random early-summer evening in 2019.
My wife (fiancée at the time) looked at me with an expression combining befuddlement and a touch of embarrassment. It was hardly the first time she'd overheard such an outburst from me during a Twins game around this time, but that didn't make it seem any less strange to her.
And I mean, it WAS strange. It's an odd type of behavior from an adult person who generally watches baseball with a detached analytical enjoyment. Not to say I don't get excited or emotional – I definitely do – but yeah, I wouldn't say it's normal for me to stan a player so irrationally and exuberantly that I resort to infant-speak and swoon at his most pedestrian of achievements on the field.
Willians just has that effect. Or at least, he did.
Over the course of that 2019 season, Astudillo's magical mystique began to fade. Now, I find myself wondering if it still exists.
While the light has dimmed, I do think there's still a spark, and it intrigues me given his functional fit within this season's reshaped roster.
THE LEGEND OF TORTUGA
First, since he's been out of sight for so long, let us remind ourselves of why Astudillo became such a magnetic attraction to begin with. He arrived as a relative unknown in 2018 – a 26-year-old minor-league journeyman called up for a late-season look after catching some eyes in Rochester.
In 29 games as a rookie in Minnesota, Astudillo did it all. He raked to the tune of .355/.371/.516, striking out only three times in 97 trips to the plate. He appeared at six different positions, including pitcher. He was a beaming ray of light for Twins fans in the waning weeks of a disappointing season.
It wasn't just Astudillo's performance that earned him affinity. It was his VIBE. The man was utterly unique, like nothing any of us had seen before. Every single thing about him screamed "sandlot baseball." He swung at everything and made contact with everything. In spring training he executed a no-look pickoff from behind the plate. He earned himself a label as "one of baseball's most entertaining players" from Sports Illustrated's Emma Baccellieri following his majestic celebration of a home run in the Venezuelan Winter League.
Astudillo became a living meme, and an oddly inspirational figure, openly challenging the prototype for a major-league body.
Ever the smiling jokester, Willians exuded joy and youthful enthusiasm in an infectious way that had plenty of us developing weird pet names and anticipating his at-bats. The guy was just so damn easy to root for.
TURTLE ON ITS BACK
Enthralled as we may have been by La Tortuga, most of us weren't blind to the realities of his ceiling and sustainability. He came to the Twins as an unheralded 26-year-old with no MLB experience. Coming off a season where he batted .342 for Arizona's Triple-A affiliate, Astudillo generated little demand on the market and signed a minor-league contract.
As good as he looked during his rookie stint in 2018, it was in a sample of less than 100 plate appearances.
Still, there was a palpable buzz surrounding Astudillo in spring of 2019. He was viewed as a major wild-card in Minnesota's plans, with the potential to contribute in significant ways if he could keep raking as a versatile defender and occasional backstop. Unfortunately, the ensuing season served as a harsh reality check.
Pitchers quickly began to take advantage of his swing-at-everything approach, rarely giving him anything decent to hit. Astudillo's production sagged, and he saw a 200-point drop in OPS. Over 204 plate appearances, he slashed .268/.299/.379, while his defensive shortcomings became more evident and impactful, especially behind the plate. FanGraphs pegged him as a sub-replacement level player (-0.2 WAR).
La Tortuga's luster wore off in a hurry, and as a result, he came into 2020 as more of an afterthought. The 28-year-old spent most of his summer at the alternate site, making just 16 regular-season PAs for the Twins. His only postseason appearance came when he entered as a pinch-hitter in the ninth inning of Game 1, representing the tying run with two on and one out, and instantly hit into a game-ending double play.
Thus we arrive at the present situation. Entering 2021, Astudillo is even more of an afterthought; in fact, some believe he might be in danger of losing his 40-man roster spot as the club faces crunches with late additions. Not me. I actually see Astudillo having a uniquely useful fit as the 26th man on this year's Twins team, perhaps giving him one more chance to recapture the magic.
ASTUDILLO'S 2021 OUTLOOK
There's no way Willians will be lined up for any kind of substantial role on the 2021 Twins, at least not out of the gate. But keep in mind that despite his recent struggles, he's still a likable clubhouse presence with a .294/.319/.428 slash line in 317 MLB plate appearances and, most importantly, the ability to provide depth at some key spots.
Consider the three defensive positions where Astudillo has played more than 100 innings in the majors:
- Catcher. As third catcher behind Mitch Garver and Ryan Jeffers, Astudillo would make it a lot more easy to occasionally play the non-starter at DH (or first base or left field, in Garver's case), or to use them as pinch-hitters.
- Third base. Josh Donaldson is obviously the biggest injury concern on the roster. While Luis Arráez is now penciled as his top backup, the Twins currently have no other bench players who can fill in there, and Arráez is likely to be occupied by other assignments frequently. Also, it's very possible Astudillo is a better defender than Arráez at third.
- First base. This is a position where the Twins have sacrificed depth by switching to Arráez in the utility role. Marwin González played more than 200 innings at first in his two years with the Twins, and Ehire Adrianza played there a bunch in 2019. I doubt we'll ever see Arráez play at first base in a major-league game. Astudillo can handle it fine.
Arráez and Astudillo actually make for a pretty functional backup infielder combo, giving the Twins coverage all around the diamond while also providing Baldelli with contact hitters from both sides of the plate, to be plugged into the lineup or pinch-hit.
I'm not saying Astudillo is a high-quality defender at any of the positions he plays, but he's competent enough at all of them. And while his bat hurtled back to Earth in 2019, the .678 OPS he posted was fine for a versatile, sparsely-used bench guy.
He can be that. Unlike Travis Blankenhorn or Nick Gordon, there's no need to feed Astudillo regular ABs for the sake of his development. And, I'm still not quite willing to give up on him as an offensive difference-maker. He just wrapped up an absolutely dominant showing in the Venezuelan Winter League, where he batted .379 and led all hitters in total bases.
Maybe it's just the flickering embers of faith and affinity still burning within me, but I've reached the conclusion that... yeah, I am still kind of excited about Astudillo. And now that the hype and oversized expectations have died down a bit, I think he's got a real chance to impress people as a useful piece on this 2021 Twins team.
Now almost 30, it's been a long journey for Astudillo. But if you're counting him out at this point, you clearly never read the story of The Tortoise and the Hare.
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