Should Brent Rooker Get First Crack at First Base?
Image courtesy of © Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY SportsWith the news that Miguel Sanó has tested positive for COVID-19 and will need to remain away from the team for some period in order to reduce the risk of spread, we should assume there’s at least some chance that Sanó will not be ready to man first base when the season begins.
The most obvious potential replacement for Sanó is Marwin González, whose knee has had extra time to heal after offseason surgery, but who might still not be the best fit for any potential needs in the outfield anytime soon. González came to spring training in March with an adjusted swing, which invited Twins fans to hope he could build upon the impressive batted-ball numbers he had in 2019.
However, González’s utility remains closely tied to his versatility, and there’s still no guarantee that he won’t be needed elsewhere on the diamond come Opening Day. For the moment, outside of González, there are three main candidates to play first base regularly for however long Sanó might be unavailable or unready: Alex Kirilloff, Brent Rooker, and Zander Wiel.
None of those three are on the 40-man roster right now. All three would need to be added by late November in order to be protected from the Rule 5 Draft, however, so they’re on equal footing in that respect. (Trevor Larnach is both a half-step further from apparent big-league readiness and a year further from needing to be added to the 40-man, which is why he’s not much of a consideration.) The three have very different profiles and prospect statuses, though, and that could help steer the Twins brass toward a decision.
Kirilloff remains a top-100 prospect in the game, and while his 2019 was far less impressive than his breakout 2018, he still looks like an all-around hitter with average power and the ability to handle advanced pitching. He also spent about 40 percent of his 2019 campaign playing first base. However, because he’s such a seemingly safe bat-first prospect, the Twins might reasonably conclude that keeping him off the roster in 2020 would be worthwhile. If they could do so, they’d have significantly better leverage in possible discussions about a long-term extension, especially given the likely financial state of the game over the next few years.
It’s pennywise and (arguably) pound-foolish, and the Twins have worked hard recently to portray themselves as a more progressive organization, but that economic reality could keep Kirilloff off the big-league roster unless and until a more severe injury or illness problem forces the franchise’s hand. The opposite consideration could stand in Wiel’s way. When he’s not a part of the active roster, Wiel isn’t the kind of player teams like to carry on their 40-man roster. He’s not versatile, he’s already 27 years old, and he doesn’t offer much upside. The team would almost certainly wait until they had a clear and sustained need for a bench bat before calling upon the minor-league veteran.
Rooker is the Goldilocks candidate of the set. The Twins used their competitive-balance pick to snag him at the tail end of the first round in 2017, liking his right-handed power and his mental approach to hitting. He’s played more in the outfield than at first base, but he might well be a first baseman or DH in the big leagues, anyway. If he approximates the level the team hopes he’ll attain, he’ll be well worth keeping on the roster even after Sanó returns at full strength, and he could easily become a candidate to replace Nelson Cruz as the DH in 2021.
That said, Rooker is not likely to blossom so impressively that the Twins would have much interest in keeping him beyond 2026, which is when he would hit free agency if he debuts this year. He’s easier to call up than Kirilloff, and easier to keep around when he’s not actively needed than Wiel.
According to PECOTA projections, Kirilloff is the best candidate for the job, on a sheer performance basis.
2020 PECOTA Projections
One huge driver of these projections is that Kirilloff projects to strike out 22.3 percent of the time, about as often as González, whereas both Rooker and Wiel project to strike out well over 30 percent of the time. Rooker projects for the highest walk rate in the group, but because Kirilloff blends contact and a modicum of power, the system views him as more promising.
The counterargument is simple: Rooker’s skill set is the one that truly mirrors Sanó’s. In fact, it mirrors the profiles of almost every offensive success story the Twins have generated over the last handful of seasons, and those of their top recent offensive acquisitions. If the team is as good as they appear to be at coaching up disciplined, pull-happy sluggers, then Rooker could find another gear. It’s also true that, in this shortened season, the variance inherent to the endeavor swamps almost all of the numbers, and makes good predictions next-to impossible.
Given the variables in play and the long-term considerations that underlie the decision, the Twins might be well-served to give Rooker a long look at first base, unless and until Sanó is cleared to rejoin the team and has shaken off the rust. Their bevy of solid options, however, only serves as a reminder that their depth can be an advantage even during a shortened season.
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