Three-Bagger: DH, Dozier And Destiny
Image courtesy of Kim Klement, USA Today (Brian Dozier)* Heading into camp, it appeared the Twins were committed to keeping the designated hitter spot flexible this year, adhering to the revolving door approach that's basically been their norm.
Not a bad idea for a team with a slow-footed fourth outfielder, an aging first baseman who benefits from rest, and a hefty third baseman coming off leg surgery.
The arrival of Logan Morrison has flipped this dynamic on its side.
Fresh off a 38-homer season with Tampa, Morrison is a big add for the offense, and figures to become a mainstay at DH. That will represent a change of course for the Twins, who haven't had a single player make 70+ starts at designated hitter since Jim Thome in 2010.
In addition to stability, they'll hope Morrison can bring more production. Last year's DH cohort, led by Robbie Grossman, hit just .237/.328/.383 for a .711 OPS; only catchers (.703) yielded a worse mark among Twins position groups.
Grossman appears to be thrust onto precarious ground by the new slugger's arrival. In 2017, 57% of his 456 plate appearances came as DH, and it's not clear the team is interested in shifting that balance toward the outfield. Last year Paul Molitor became very comfortable writing in the Rosario-Buxton-Kepler alignment almost every day, and there's no reason to expect him to deviate if all are healthy. Swapping in Grossman downgrades the defense, and it's not clear he's an offensive upgrade over any of the three.
With that said, I have a really hard time envisioning Grossman being left off the roster. He led the team in on-base percentage in 2016 and ranked second last year. Even if he doesn't start frequently, there's plenty of value in a switch-hitter who can come off the bench and give you a disciplined AB from either side.
One school of thought suggests the Twins could part with Grossman and carry Zack Granite as their fourth outfielder. I don't see it. Granite has multiple options remaining, so he can easily be stashed at Rochester until he's needed. He wouldn't serve much purpose on the Twins roster with all three starting outfielders healthy.
And as for the forgotten man, Kennys Vargas? As Seth put it yesterday: "At this point, he's essentially getting at-bats to show 29 other teams what he can do."
* Over the past few years, Brian Dozier has been known for launching bombs on the baseball field. Earlier this week, he dropped one in the clubhouse.
Okay, that's a stretch. It's been clear for some time that Dozier was intent on testing the free agent market, and there've been zero rumors of contract negotiations with the Twins. Still, it was a bit surprising to see him so frontal and candid about his looming date with the open market.
I respect it. Dozier might be going against the grain by dispelling the notion of a spring or in-season extension, but he's shutting it down as a talking point right off the bat and that's just fine. He insists it won't distract him this year and I believe it.
Left unspoken by Dozier was this: He is very likely entering his final year as a Twin.
We've seen how shrewd this new front office is; what are the chances they'd pay him the money he'll want as a 31-year-old, with Nick Gordon standing in line as a cheap long-term replacement?
From the very start, Dozier's relationship with Minnesota's current baseball ops leadership has been lukewarm at best. The first thing Derek Falvey and Thad Levine did when they arrived was float him in highly publicized trade talks with the Dodgers. At the deadline Dozier openly took exception to the team's sudden pivot from buyer to seller. And the Twins haven't publicly hinted at any serious desire to hammer out a long-term deal with their best player.
In the entirety of his MLB career up to this point, Dozier has pocketed about half of Joe Mauer's 2018 salary. If he's got a chip on his shoulder, and feels he's earned himself a windfall from whatever club is willing, I don't blame him in the least. Frankly, I can't wait to see how the added motivation manifests this season.
* Speaking of Mauer, he too is heading into the final year of his contract, as you might have heard. Much like Dozier, he makes it no secret that he is going to let the 2018 season play out and go from there. But unlike his infield neighbor, Mauer won't be chasing a big payday in the fall – he'll be weighing retirement.
Mauer, who turns 35 in a month, proved last year that he isn't cooked. (Before that, it was very much in question.) If he can continue at that 2017 level or better, it'd be an easy decision to invite him back on a short-term pact for around half his current salary.
But if he reverts to something resembling his 2014-through-2016 form? Then things get interesting.
These days, it isn't hard to find high-quality hitters who can play first base – Logan Morrison serving as case in point. In fact, by the end of this season, Morrison may have clearly established himself as the clearly superior offensive weapon, in which case he can be retained for $8 million in 2019. At that juncture, what's stopping the Twins from moving on?
Well, there is Mauer's already mythical status within the franchise, and with at least some corners of the fanbase. Also: his phenomenal glove, familiarity in the clubhouse, and revered presence in the batter's box cannot be overlooked. But as we've seen with Dozier, the new brass ain't too sentimental.
There's pretty much zero chance Mauer, with his deep Minnesota roots and young twin girls, is going to go play in another city for a year or two. He basically admitted as much: “This is where I want to be. This is where my family is, where my daughters are growing up. I have no intention of going anywhere else. Hopefully it doesn’t come to that.”
So, if his play this year doesn't inspire the Twins to make a serious run at bringing him back, we could be looking at the end of the road for Joe Mauer. And if this winds up being the last year in a Minnesota uniform for both he and Dozier – the two longest-tenured Twins – that's 25 combined years in the organization, walking into the sunset. The last enduring links to bygone eras.
Can the new wave combine with the final vestiges of the old to make an epic run? It almost feels like... destiny.
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