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Twins 2019 Position Analysis: First Base

It's been a long time since the Twins had a primary first baseman not named Mauer or Morneau (save for some short-term fill-ins). Fourteen years, in fact. Now, as they venture into a new era at the right corner of the diamond, the team is taking a frugal yet creative approach to filling the position, seemingly biding time for a more permanent solution.
Image courtesy of Kim Klement, USA Today
Projected Starter: C.J. Cron
Likely Backup: Marwin Gonzalez

Depth: Miguel Sano, Tyler Austin, Lucas Duda
Prospects: Alex Kirilloff, Brent Rooker, Zander Wiel

THE GOOD

Tasked with finding a replacement for Joe Mauer at first base, the front office decided to gather up a collection of intriguing low-cost parts rather than invest in a bona fide solution. Those hoping for a Paul Goldschmidt type splash were surely disappointed with the approach this past winter, but the Twins did well in patching together some viable options.

Already the front office had acquired Austin from New York, in last July's Lance Lynn trade. The lefty-mashing slugger seemed to profile perfectly as half of a platoon with someone like – say – Duda, whom they added on a minor-league deal just ahead of spring training. Proceeding with those two would've been a sound short-term strategy, and perhaps Minnesota had plans along those lines heading into the offseason.

But plans quickly changed when Cron became available on waivers in late November. Seeing a late-20s first baseman, with a solid track record, coming off a career year and available for nothing, was too much for the Twins to pass up at one of their clearest areas of need.

Cron seems to offer a reasonably high floor along with a limited ceiling. The first part of that equation is valuable and sets him apart from the alternatives. Owner of a .289/.336/.500 line in the minors, he never posted an OPS below .739 in four MLB seasons prior to breaking out with an .816 mark and 30 home runs last year in Tampa. So even if he regresses a little, he probably won't fall too far. As a reference point, Mauer posted a .746 OPS overall in his five seasons as a first baseman.

The Twins have lacked a reliable power bat at first base since Morneau suffered his concussion in 2010, so Cron looks like a breath of fresh air in that regard. And if something should go amiss with the projected starter during spring training, Minnesota is well equipped to absorb the blow. Austin and Duda have become fallback plans, and they're good ones at that.

Austin is a muscle-bound, intimidating beast in the batter's box, and he put on a convincing power display after coming over from the Yankees last summer, blasting nine home runs in 35 games as a Twin. In 120 career big-league games, the 27-year-old has 24 jacks and a .469 slugging percentage.

Duda has a lengthier track record of hitting with 152 home runs in 919 MLB games. He wasn't great last year between Kansas City and Atlanta, slashing .241/.313/.418, but that's respectable and the prior year he launched 30 homers with an .818 OPS. The 33-year-old has a career OPS+ of 118.

One other creative addition from the offseason was Wilin Rosario, signed to play in Rochester after a three-year stint in Korea. Rosario was a quality bat for the Rockies before heading to Asia, and was a monster hitter for two years in the KBO (.961 and 1.060 OPS marks) before taking a step back in 2018. He's a longshot to make any impact but the Twins aren't counting on him for much – only to replace the departed Kennys Vargas as a readily available option in Triple-A.

On the prospect front, 1B/OF hybrid Rooker is the most immediate possibility and could be up with Minnesota this summer if things break right for him. Trevor Larnach is more or less in the same boat, though he played only right field after being drafted last year. Sano might stop at first for awhile on his way to inevitably ending up at DH.

But I believe the long-term vision is for Kirilloff to take over. He's got the bat, and while he has played outfield exclusively up to this point, he is not considered a special defender out there. With current Twins right fielder Max Kepler now locked up long-term, I expect we'll see the rapidly rising Kirilloff start to break in a first baseman's mitt this year.

THE BAD

Well, let's start here: The admirable present depth at first base is likely to evaporate by the end of spring training, because Austin is out of options (likely to be claimed on waivers) and Duda will undoubtedly opt out if he doesn't make the team, which he won't unless Cron or Nelson Cruz gets hurt.

So then you're down to Cron and Sano probably sharing duties at first. I'd like to see Kepler play there too against the occasional tough right-hander, but that remains to be seen. Gonzalez's presence is helpful in the event of a Cron injury/implosion, as he can either fill in at first, or (more likely) at third with Sano sliding over. But none of these players are the kind of well rounded, dominant sluggers you ideally envision at first base. (Sano could be, but hasn't shown it since early 2017.)

The Twins will gain more power at the position with Mauer gone, but they'll also lose two critical strengths – top-tier defensive prowess and strong on-base skills. No one is suited to match #7 in those traits, which are especially valuable on a team that features an iffy left side of the infield defensively, and a lineup already heavy on pop and light on OBP.

Yeah, these guys the Twins have brought in can all hit the ball hard. But evidence suggests this isn't widely perceived as being all that valuable on its own. That's why Minnesota was able to get Cron on waivers, Austin as a trade toss-in, Duda on a minors deal, Rosario from Korea.

THE BOTTOM LINE

As far as stopgaps go, the Twins have done pretty well for themselves. Cron is a serviceable – albeit bland – starting option while Austin and Duda provide quality spring depth. There are also a number of players on Minnesota's roster (namely Sano and Gonzalez) who could become frequent plugs at the position, and possibly even regulars.

That's the beauty of first base: it's on the far end of the defensive spectrum, meaning almost any capable hitter can end up there. So while there are no great "first base prospects" in the Twins' system right now, per se, there are plenty who could eventually take on that function as big-leaguers, with Kirilloff leading the pack in my mind.

While the future at first is uncertain, it's hardly ominous, and the Twins have set themselves up for comfortable stability in the short-term.


***


Twins 2019 Position Analysis: Catcher

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49 Comments

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LA VIkes Fan
Feb 26 2019 08:15 PM

Great write-up. Seems very accurate. I guess the one thing I wonder about is whether Austin would be claimed on a DFA if done at the end of Spring Training? He's limitations against RH pitching and in the field are such that I wouldn't think he would have much of a market since a claiming team would have to put him on the 25 man roster.I could see the Twins keeping him until the last minute, putting him on the waiver wire and having him fall through and wind up in Rochester as insurance. 

    • ashbury, birdwatcher, beckmt and 7 others like this

Two spring training starts for Tyler Austin.

 

Both at 1B. 

 

I've been holding out hope for some OF work. 

 

    • Mike Sixel, LA VIkes Fan, DocBauer and 2 others like this

I am somewhat confused at how so many writers have already put Cron down as a mediocre player with some power.I am anxious to see him bust out and show that last year was just a start.I do not have any faith in Austin winning the position and a little ST trade would be good.I see Rooker at 1B not Kiriloff, but soon there will be a lot of debate about who and where if he succeeds as he seems ready to do. 

Thanks for the article and the talking points. 

    • dbminn, Minny505 and MN_ExPat like this
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Aerodeliria
Feb 26 2019 09:50 PM

I'm chewing my fingernails on OBP...I know there are a lot of Grossman haters, and I don't argue the decision to give him his walking papers (not speedy, poor fielder and not much power), but you can't deny the fact that he got a ton of BBs (he probably would have an even higher OBP if someone below him the line-up could have actually produced a hit now and then). Since Mauer has retired, that doesn't bode very well for OBP. No one is above .350 except for Wade who has consistently had a high OBP.

 

It would be nice if Polanco could draw a few more walks. Cruz walks about once in two games; Polanco once in three games. After Cruz and Polanco, no one is even above .330 (except for Willians but that is an outlier for the time-being).

    • Dantes929 likes this
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The Mask of Zoilo
Feb 26 2019 10:19 PM
With Kirilloff in tow and this front office's predilection for drafting bat first college hitters in the first two rounds (Rooker, Larnach, Jeffers), there was no need for anything but a stopgap this year. We might not see another regular first baseman from outside of the organization for the next 12 years. As for this year, hopefully we avoid a LoMo repeat with Cron. A Duda/Austin platoon looks outstanding on paper but why waste two roster spots on players who can only play average or below first base.
    • birdwatcher, Danchat, DocBauer and 3 others like this

Y'know, if this is going to be Kiriloff's position going forward, then this short term fix is fine with me. I was really thinking that they were going to go with Cron & Austin, but with Gonzalez's addition, it's looking like Austin will have to squeeze through waivers to get to AAA, which I don't think the Twins will get him through.

 

 

 

I am somewhat confused at how so many writers have already put Cron down as a mediocre player with some power.

Most people are down on it because he was DFA'd by the Rays and the fact that Logan Morrison was a thing last year. I think if we try to ignore those factors, the Twins acquired a pretty good hitter who was a big help to the Rays last season.

 

BTW, just as they DFA'd Cron, the Rays DFA'd Corey Dickerson over the 2018 offseason, a 28 year old LF coming off of a .815 OPS season. Dickerson went on to hit .300 for the Pirates in 2018 with .805 OPS, 3.8 WAR, and a Gold Glove. Just because the Rays are perceived as a smart team doesn't mean they don't make mistakes, like letting Dickerson go. Cron ain't winning a Gold Glove here, but he certainly could hit over .800 OPS, which would be an improvement from Mauer.

    • birdwatcher, diehardtwinsfan, Twins33 and 10 others like this
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TheLeviathan
Feb 26 2019 11:14 PM

I think Cron ends up looking like another Morrison move.

    • Platoon likes this

 

I think Cron ends up looking like another Morrison move.

If he does you have other options here.I am more optimistic here.

    • SF Twins Fan, caninatl04 and MN_ExPat like this

Everything I've read about Marwin Gonzalez focuses on his versatility, but how much first base has he actually played the past two years? In my hazy recollection, he was always more of an outfielder that could also play the infield without embarrassing himself. But what's his glove like at first?

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yarnivek1972
Feb 27 2019 07:25 AM

Everything I've read about Marwin Gonzalez focuses on his versatility, but how much first base has he actually played the past two years? In my hazy recollection, he was always more of an outfielder that could also play the infield without embarrassing himself. But what's his glove like at first?


There is literally no reason for the Twins to find out. Cron, Austin, Sano, Garver and Kepler should all play first base before Gonzalez.
    • SF Twins Fan, caninatl04 and Doctor Wu like this

 

There is literally no reason for the Twins to find out. Cron, Austin, Sano, Garver and Kepler should all play first base before Gonzalez.

 

That's what I had assumed too, which was why I was surprised to see Gonzalez listed as the primary backup option at first in this article. Not to say that would be a bad thing, but I was just puzzled by that choice.
 

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MMMordabito
Feb 27 2019 07:46 AM
With Gonzalez, Torreyes and even Schoop available depending on the circumstances, I hope Tyler Austin is also battling Adrianza for a 25 man spot. I hope he gets as long a look as possible, because the man has plus, plus power. It would be almost a no-brainer for Miami, Detroit or KC to pick him up and play him every day, so he isn't sneaking through, IMO.
    • wabene likes this

It is always puzzling to me when reading about first base that there are several mentions of Kepler.Yes, he played some first base in the minors, but it wasn't that much...was it?But he is our best right fielder, one of the best in MLB.Yes, he does have a second position, but it is center field where he played quite a bit last year. 

 

I don't understand the constant mention of him at first base which would see someone who isn't as good as he playing right field.I say keep one of the best right fielders in the game in right field.Look for others to cover first base.

    • Oldgoat_MN, bluechipper, gocgo and 5 others like this

I think many feel the Twins have a glut of outfielders, so Kepler playing some at 1B helps out with this.  I don't think anyone expects he would play much at first.

    • Steve Lein, birdwatcher and LA VIkes Fan like this
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tarheeltwinsfan
Feb 27 2019 08:14 AM

Quality, not quantity, wins ball games.

    • Mike Sixel, Aerodeliria and Jack like this

 

It is always puzzling to me when reading about first base that there are several mentions of Kepler.Yes, he played some first base in the minors, but it wasn't that much...was it?But he is our best right fielder, one of the best in MLB.Yes, he does have a second position, but it is center field where he played quite a bit last year. 

 

I don't understand the constant mention of him at first base which would see someone who isn't as good as he playing right field.I say keep one of the best right fielders in the game in right field.Look for others to cover first base.

 

Kepler may tell you first base is his "natural position" if you asked him. He actually never played the outfield until the Twins signed him to be a pro, was always a first baseman. 

 

Yes, he's a great outfielder and certainly more valuable there, but there also is literally zero downside to having him as an option at 1B. I'd personally love to see him fill in there about 20 times a season when a tough righty is on the mound and they have Cave they can put in the OF.

    • birdwatcher, Mike Sixel, beckmt and 6 others like this
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howieramone2
Feb 27 2019 09:09 AM

 

I think Cron ends up looking like another Morrison move.

Only similarities between the two are both are coming off career years, both have good power, and the national experts thought both were solid moves. Cron is a low risk, high reward placeholder. Rooker and Kirilloff will probably be up in September, and hopefully one will take over 1B early in 2020.

    • birdwatcher likes this
I don't see anything wrong with a bench of
Cave
Garver
Gonzalez
Austin

I mean the guys they have playing everyday are young, and as long as the twins don't have any new 80 game suspensions I don't see that much need for an Adrianza or any other light hitting middle infielder. If need be, injury or something you can probably find a guy like that on waivers, or use Gordon in that role if need be? I mean Danny Santana is still getting work, so there are guys out there that can fill that need. Put the bats on the bench until they need that guy.

Cave OF PR
Garver C 1B
Gonzalez pretty much anywhere
Austin 1B DH PH
    • DocBauer, Minny505, NewClearHarley and 2 others like this

 

Everything I've read about Marwin Gonzalez focuses on his versatility, but how much first base has he actually played the past two years? In my hazy recollection, he was always more of an outfielder that could also play the infield without embarrassing himself. But what's his glove like at first?

 

There is literally no reason for the Twins to find out. Cron, Austin, Sano, Garver and Kepler should all play first base before Gonzalez.

Gonzalez grades pretty well at 1B.1B and OF are the only positive UZR fielding positions for him.He has played 191 games at 1B in his career and 55 over the last 2 years.Sano has played 22, Garver 8, and Kepler 3 (4.1 innings) in their careers.

 

I don't understand why players like Kepler should be ahead of him at 1B.Kepler is one of the best defensive right fielders out there.Moving him to 1B would be a downgrade defensively.I would argue that any OF prospect should be considered for 1st before unseating Kepler.Just because Kepler can play 1st doesn't mean he should.

 

 

Gonzalez grades similar to Sano at 3rd in UZR and much better than him at 1st.Seems like the best case here would be to keep Sano at 3rd and Gonzalez at 1st if both are in the lineup.

 

Then you have Austin who likely won't make the team and Garver who should probably be the primary catcher.

    • Minny505 likes this
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LA VIkes Fan
Feb 27 2019 09:54 AM

 

It is always puzzling to me when reading about first base that there are several mentions of Kepler.Yes, he played some first base in the minors, but it wasn't that much...was it?But he is our best right fielder, one of the best in MLB.Yes, he does have a second position, but it is center field where he played quite a bit last year. 

 

I don't understand the constant mention of him at first base which would see someone who isn't as good as he playing right field.I say keep one of the best right fielders in the game in right field.Look for others to cover first base.

I think it's because when you look at the bench, we don't have a LH 1B to spell Cron. Cron got over 500 ABs last year for the first time and you don't want to over expose him. I think the thought is that there will be 30-40 games at 1B for someone else and a LH hitter would be better. Also, Cave hit well last year and is a capable defensive OF - he was the regular CF last year when Buxton went down, not Kepler, so Molitor saw Cave as the better CF - and you'd like to get Cave 300+ ABs to see if his .797 OPS with 13 HRS in 300 ABs last year is for real.Add that all together and playing Cave or Kepler at 1B for 20 games makes some sense. Kepler's played there and is 4 inches taller so he seems to make more sense, although I hope that both Kepler and Cave are getting work at 1B this spring. I see 1B this year as a place to get ABs for Cron, Sano (with Gonzalez at 3B), Gonzalez (with Sano at 3B), and one of Kepler or Cave. 

 

That probably means no room at the Inn for two or all three of Astudillo, Austin or Adrianza unless you exercise Cave's option. I think Cave's the best player of the 4 but Rocco's going to have to make that decision this spring. 

 

Isn't it a refreshing change to be debating the merits of 4 guys who actually belong on a major league roster competing for the last 1 or 2 spots instead of wondering what long time journeyman/has been/never was is going to fill out the last couple of uniforms? I'm cautiously optimistic that this team could actually be pretty good in the field.Now if only we could do something about that pitching staff....

    • Nick Nelson, Steve Lein, birdwatcher and 9 others like this
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Nick Nelson
Feb 27 2019 10:23 AM

 

There is literally no reason for the Twins to find out. Cron, Austin, Sano, Garver and Kepler should all play first base before Gonzalez.

Gonzalez has played 1200 innings at first base in the majors. Sano, Garver and Kepler have played about 180 combined. Austin probably won't be on the roster.  

 

 

    • Danchat, ChrisKnutson, rghrbek and 1 other like this

 

I don't see anything wrong with a bench of
Cave
Garver
Gonzalez
Austin

I mean the guys they have playing everyday are young, and as long as the twins don't have any new 80 game suspensions I don't see that much need for an Adrianza or any other light hitting middle infielder. If need be, injury or something you can probably find a guy like that on waivers, or use Gordon in that role if need be? I mean Danny Santana is still getting work, so there are guys out there that can fill that need. Put the bats on the bench until they need that guy.

Cave OF PR
Garver C 1B
Gonzalez pretty much anywhere
Austin 1B DH PH

So, what do line-ups look like versus RHP and LHP?

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MMMordabito
Feb 27 2019 11:20 AM

 

I don't see that much need for an Adrianza or any other light hitting middle infielder. If need be, injury or something you can probably find a guy like that on waivers, or use Gordon in that role if need be? I mean Danny Santana is still getting work, so there are guys out there that can fill that need. Put the bats on the bench until they need that guy.

 

 

They also have Torreyes available for this situation.

    • Danchat, Minny505, wabene and 1 other like this
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yarnivek1972
Feb 27 2019 11:54 AM

Gonzalez grades pretty well at 1B. 1B and OF are the only positive UZR fielding positions for him. He has played 191 games at 1B in his career and 55 over the last 2 years. Sano has played 22, Garver 8, and Kepler 3 (4.1 innings) in their careers.

I don't understand why players like Kepler should be ahead of him at 1B. Kepler is one of the best defensive right fielders out there. Moving him to 1B would be a downgrade defensively. I would argue that any OF prospect should be considered for 1st before unseating Kepler. Just because Kepler can play 1st doesn't mean he should.


Gonzalez grades similar to Sano at 3rd in UZR and much better than him at 1st. Seems like the best case here would be to keep Sano at 3rd and Gonzalez at 1st if both are in the lineup.

Then you have Austin who likely won't make the team and Garver who should probably be the primary catcher.


Gonzalez’s bat doesn’t play at first base. I guess the hope is that it would for Cron, Sano, Garver, Austin and Kepler.

I didn’t look at the numbers, but if Gonzalez is about the same as Sano at third, that’s concerning. Sano has been one of the worst in the league the last two years.

I'm a little surprised to see Kirilloff already be suggested as the long-term solution at 1B; from what I've been reading (particularly here at TD) he grades out to be a solid if unspectacular corner OF with a capable arm and good overall athleticism. And unless Kepler starts hitting a lot more, you lose so much value bumping him all the way down to 1B; you're better off trading him at that point, aren't you?

 

Rooker seems like he's one of the better options for a longer term solution, assuming Cron doesn't step up and become a serious contender. And I think it's a mistake to write Cron off: He's had 4 seasons as a (mostly) regular. 2016 & 2018 he was a quality starter, 2015 & 2017 he was just a guy. But in the 2nd half of 2017 he raked, and had a very solid 2018, so it's not unreasonable to think that last year's performance is repeatable and if that's who CJ Cron is I think we're going to be awfully happy and not worrying too much about Tyler Austin.

 

Regardless we'll get more pop and less D with fewer BBs out of 1B this year at a significantly lower price. Dan Barreiro will be thrilled as long as whomever he is gets RBIs and swings at more pitches with runners on base.


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