Previewing Spring Training Battles: Starting Left Fielder
Image courtesy of Tim Heitman-USA TODAY SportsEarlier this week, I previewed the battle for the last rotation spot, and later this week I will look at the players competing for the last bench spot. The competition for left field is a very hard one to predict as there are many different layers to consider aside from just simply picking the best left fielder. Whether the players and fans like it or not, the service time game is always one factor while making sure guys are getting consistent at-bats is another factor. At the end of the day, we may end up seeing somewhat of a rotation or platoon in left field based on who’s hot, match ups, and the need to get some at-bats. Like the fifth starter piece, this article is not meant to make a prediction, but is to provide a quick snippet on each of the players competing for the spot.
Of the undermentioned guys in this article, Cave has the most big league experience and has been a regular part of the active roster for the last three seasons. He’s been the primary beneficiary anytime Buxton has missed time and has found moderate success with a career OPS of .795 and 21 home runs over 481 at-bats through his first two seasons with the club. He had established himself as one of the better fourth outfielders in baseball before really struggling in 2020 and casting doubt on whether he could really sustain the production he previously had, especially with news that Major League Baseball is deadening the ball. Furthermore, he may have the least upside of the others he’s competing with. Realistically, I think Cave is better than the 2020 but worse than the 2019 versions of himself and will spend another year as a fourth outfielder with the Twins.
Before fracturing his forearm on Sept. 12, Rooker looked all the part of a Major League hitter through 21 plate appearances sporting a 161 wRC+ including a 390 no-doubter off of Daniel Ponce de Leon. Although a small sample size, I would think that Rooker’s early success would make him a front runner for the starting left field spot and slot in the middle third of the batting order. The Twins, likely planning for Rosario’s departure, had Rooker spend the 2019 season in left field, but he also has the experience to spell Miguel Sano at first from time-to-time which gives him an edge in the competition. They aren’t going to keep Rooker on the active roster to sit on the bench, so if he makes the team expect him to get a lot of reps in left field.
All that said, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows when it comes to Rooker who has always been susceptible to strikeouts and, according to his scouting report on MLB.com, doesn’t project to be a very good defensive player. As promising as the first 21 at-bats looked, he will undoubtedly face some of the same swoons and criticism that has plagued Sano throughout his career while offering less power although does have a better knack at drawing walks. Rooker’s calling card is and likely always will be his hitting, which is why I really like having Cruz back, so it will be important he learns to adjust to Major League pitching and cut down on the strikeouts.
With the addition of Andrelton Simmons, Arráez all of a sudden found himself as the odd man out of a starting role as it’s expected that Jorge Polanco will slide over and be the everyday second basemen. Although he may lose some at-bats over the entire season, we will likely see Arráez in the line up on nearly a daily basis as he has previously established himself as a versatile defender which includes left field. He actually spent 161.0 innings in left field in 2019 and ended up with a UZR/150 of 3.6 per FanGraphs, and although that’s too small of a sample to project it’s worth noting that FanGraphs defines that as being “average”. Aside from currently being the most passable option in left field, ZiPS projects him to win the batting title in 2021 which also makes him the best option offensively of the group. I’d imagine that Arráez will still get most of his at bats from Polanco, Simmons, and Josh Donaldson needing rest days but he could also be a nice platoon type against righties if Rooker is the other left field option.
Rooker is still technically a rookie/prospect, but being that he had already debuted in 2020 and would likely have exceeded the minimum 150 at-bats if not for breaking his forearm he was left out of this group. The Twins have Alex Kirilloff (#26 prospect in all of baseball), Trevor Larnach (#80 prospect in all of baseball), and Travis Blankenhorn (#17 Twins prospect in 2020) who are all ready for their shot at the big leagues despite the circumstances of 2020. The challenge of having any one of these guys on the roster, Rooker included, is making sure they are getting consistent playing time, as it would be wasteful to have them sitting on the bench more than once or twice a week.
Kirilloff, of course, became the first player ever to make their Major League debut by starting in a playoff game. Furthermore, he is probably the long term solution to left field and expected to be a major part of the Twins organization moving forward. On top of playing either corner outfield position, he’s actually played some first base which gives the Twins some nice versatility. I think the only thing that keeps him off the opening day roster is the Twins playing the service time game, but I’d suspect that we will see him some time this season.
Larnach probably isn’t quite as ready for the Big Leagues as Kiriloff as he’s only had 43 games above High-A ball back in 2019. That said, he has a lot of the same hype and expectations as Kiriloff despite being drafted two years after him. He’s in a tough spot as he’s probably behind the aforementioned players on the depth chart while also competing with Royce Lewis (#17 prospect in all of baseball) who is primarily a middle infielder, but does have some outfield experience. More to come on that ...
Blankenhorn doesn’t have the tools to be an everyday outfielder but will still be competing for a roster spot as a super utility. That said, with Arráez and (probably) Rooker as utility options for the Twins I don’t see him getting at-bats he would need for the Twins. He’s still only 24-years-old and may be the Marwin Gonzalez type for the future, but he’s stuck behind the same group Larnach is.
I think most would be shocked if the Twins made any other moves outside of a relief pitcher, but there also isn’t really anyone out there outside of Jackie Bradley Jr. The Twins already have a logjam in the outfield so signing a free agent just wouldn’t make sense.
Trading for a Starter
One thing I’ll briefly expand upon, is the logjam the Twins currently have and the possible need of improving the rotation at some point. Happ and Shoemaker are solid adds and could provide a lot of value, but the Twins have some young, intriguing prospects mentioned in this article that could allow them to add an even better arm at the deadline. Time will tell.
Who would you like to see in left field? One player specifically or a rotation of players?
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