Twins 2019 Position Analysis: Center Field
Image courtesy of © Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY SportsProjected Starter: Byron Buxton
Likely Backup: Max Kepler
Depth: Jake Cave, Michael Reed, Tanner English
Prospects: Gilberto Celestino, Gabriel Maciel, Misael Urbina
Buxton looks poised to take the world by storm. It's not just his red-hot start in Grapefruit League play (7-for-20 with three home runs in eight games) after he finished on a scorching streak in Triple-A last year (.365/.400/.596 in 12 August games). These are reflections of what I suspect to be a deeper truth: The 25-year-old has found his focus, after a trying and tumultuous year, and is finally ready to pull it together for good.
The stakes are higher than ever for Buxton personally. Everything we've seen from him since last summer – his words, his muscled up physique, his early exhibition performance – has suggested that he is confronting this challenge with all he's got.
We've seen glimmers of high-end offensive potential from Buxton, who owns a .310/.364/.537 slash line in 100 games at Triple-A and posted an .893 OPS after the break in 2017, but here's the thing: He doesn't need to be a stud hitter to deliver enormous value. He has a good case as both the game's best defender and base runner. Even if he hits up to his .237/.295/.406 career MLB line entering last season, he'll be a quality regular, and of course there's much room for improvement beyond that.
But, in the event that Buxton's pitch recognition issues continue to dog him, or he misses significant time with injury again, the Twins are now insured for the long haul. Kepler was a very fine right fielder last year, but he also showed well during his time in center, and this undoubtedly played into the front office's calculus when locking him up on a five-year extension last month.
If Kepler can be at least average defensively in center (and it sure looks that way), his unflinching rate of production – which hasn't wavered much from his career .233/.313/.417 line in three years as a big-leaguer – would look far more appealing. The average American League CF had an OPS 50 pointers lower than the average RF last year.
While a scenario with Kepler playing center and Alex Kirilloff taking over right may sound appealing at the moment, any outcome that doesn't involve Buxton as a centerpiece for this team would be a huge letdown. His dynamic capabilities in center field and on the bases are unparalleled in terms of practical impact, as well as entertainment value.
One other element worth noting here is that Royce Lewis, the organization's top prospect, still could end up transitioning to center field. That'd create an interesting dilemma if Buxton gets on track, but for now Royce feels like a safer bet to stick at short.
Hopefully Buxton will be a lot less familiar with the Injured List than he was with the Disabled List. Here's the number of games he's been able to play in (majors and minors combined) each year since his full-season debut in 2013:
2013: 125 games
2014: 31 games
2015: 118 games
2016: 141 games
2017: 143 games
2018: 64 games
Last year was obviously a nightmarish medley of health woes: April migraines led to a broken toe on a rehab stint, and later Buck was plagued by left wrist issues. The last part is most worrisome, because his wrist nagged him into the end of the summer, and it's the same one he's had serious problems with in the past.
It's silly to suggest a pristine athletic specimen like Buxton is "fragile" (especially now that he's added more bulk to protect himself), but he does have some pre-existing concerns in addition to a reckless and hazardous style of play. So that partially fuels the uncertainty at this position.
The more concrete stumbling block is Buxton's plate discipline. This is the one thing other than health that can derail him. The outfielder's approach was egregiously bad last year, and while it can surely be attributed in part to physical impediments, this wasn't exactly new for him.
Nothing encapsulates Buxton's outright bafflement at the plate in 2018 better than this stat: after falling behind in the count 1-2 (which happened in more than one-third of his plate appearances for the Twins), he went 0-for-33 with 21 strikeouts. Altogether Buxton struck out 28 times and drew three walks with Minnesota last year, and even in Triple-A where he hit well, his K/BB ratio was 42-to-9. Down the stretch, as he put up a .996 OPS in 55 August plate appearances for the Red Wings, Buxton drew one walk.
It has become blindingly clear that Buxton's indiscriminately aggressive attack, so successful in the minors, won't hack it in the big leagues. Pitchers at the highest level have eagerly taken advantage of his habits and tendencies to devastating effect.
THE BOTTOM LINE
I believe in Byron Buxton. He looks ready to put last year's unthinkable catastrophe behind and firmly establish himself as a star of the game. But setting such optimistic beliefs aside, and accepting the reality of an injury-prone player with a career 32% K-rate and 7% BB-rate, further patience may be warranted.
The Twins will live with further growing pains at the plate, given all the value Buck provides elsewhere, and the knowledge that sometimes it just takes a while (see: Hicks, Aaron). But neither team nor player can dictate health outcomes, which have to this point been brutally cruel. Knowing this, it's awfully nice to have a guy like Kepler around, as well as a few exciting talents in the lower levels of the minors.
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