Twins 2020 Position Analysis: Left Field
Image courtesy of David Dermer-USA TODAY SportsProjected Starter: Eddie Rosario
Likely Backup: Marwin Gonzalez
Depth: Jake Cave, LaMonte Wade Jr.
Prospects: Alex Kirilloff, Trevor Larnach
I have ridden the Rosario rollercoaster. After the 2018 season, I wrote an article honoring him as Twins Daily's MVP. A year later, I was openly wondering if his dramatic drop-off in performance might cause a valuation rift with the team. I've seen people say he is the team's most essential player, and I've seen people say he's the team's fourth-best outfielder.
Clearly, there are a lot of differing views on Rosario. But I do know of two people who clearly view him very highly: Paul Molitor and Rocco Baldelli. The left fielder was Opening Day cleanup hitter in Molitor's last year as manager, and in Baldelli's first.
As a matter of fact, Rosario batted fourth in a whopping 127 of Minnesota's 162 games last year, plus all three in the playoffs. He anchored an offense that scored 939 runs and set the MLB home run record. Yes, this did inflate his gaudy RBI total (109) but still, hitting 32 home runs and slugging .500 in a down year is pretty telling.
Baldelli never wavered in making him a central lineup fixture, because Rosario kept rewarding his faith. There was no inherent loyalty influencing the decisions. Eddie simply produced when it counted, slashing .340/.370/.538 with runners in scoring position and a nearly identical .324/.360/.539 in high leverage.
Over the two seasons preceding 2019, Rosario was second among Twins players in fWAR, edged slightly by Brian Dozier. His built-up cred and a continuing flair for clutchness kept him high in the manager's esteem, even while Rosario battled through a campaign that was undeniably trying in some ways. There's evidence his lapses may have been injury-impacted.
The really good news is this: If Rosario can't buck his downward trend, the Twins are absolutely loaded with outfielders. Jake Cave and LaMonte Wade Jr. are readily available, and could hold their own as big-league starters. In the minor-leagues, Brent Rooker is ready to step in now after mashing as Rochester's left fielder last year. Alex Kirilloff and Trevor Larnach are also top-tier hitting prospects verging on MLB-readiness, and while both have played much more right field than left in the minors, there's little doubt the Twins would be fine rolling either one out to LF if Rosario falters.
The organization's corner outfield depth is phenomenal, and will likely come into play here much sooner than in right. One way or another.
On June 26th, Rosario rolled his ankle while charging around first base in a home game against the Rays. Coming up with a limp, he spiked his helmet into the ground, immediately recognizing the gravity of a season-altering injury.
His frustration was understandable. Rosario was in the zone at the time. His OPS sat at .841 and was heading north, thanks to a patented hot streak: In his past 10 games, he had a .413 average.
Despite the seemingly serious nature of the injury, he returned to action a mere three weeks later. But he wasn't the same. Rosario slashed .268/.286/.465 the rest of the way, and his already iffy defense completely tanked alongside his sprint speed, as chronicled in an excellent column from Dan Hayes and Aaron Gleeman at The Athletic.
Healthy after a winter of rest, Rosario has vowed to recapture his previous form. But his running and defense weren't really strong points beforehand, and late-season dropoffs have now become a trend; in 2018 a first-half .890 OPS gave way to a .622 OPS in the second half. Rosario's 2018 tailspin also carried injury implications – a quad strain he fought through before it ended his season in mid-September – but in both cases, the outfielder's well-intentioned tenacity ended up hurting more than helping.
Another flaw in Rosario's 2019 cannot be attributed as cleanly to a limited ankle. He showed zero patience at the plate, giving in to his worst tendencies by chasing a league-high and career-high 46.3% of pitches outside the zone. This surprisingly didn't translate to an avalanche of swings-and-misses (Rosario's whiff rate and K-rate were actually both career lows), but it did result in a TON of weak contact as he constantly offered at pitcher's pitches.
The occasional big blasts were enough to keep his slugging numbers afloat, but Rosario finished with a horrendous .300 on-base percentage, seventh-worst among qualified hitters. Modern statisticians generally agree that OBP is more valuable than slugging, and that's all the more true in this power-laden era. Rosario's .500 SLG ranked 61st among qualified hitters last year, whereas great on-base guys are harder to come by.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If Rosario is making outs at a 70% rate and playing sub par defense in left field, he's really not much an asset, theatrics aside. His 1.2 fWAR in 2019, which ranked 11th among Twins position players, might understate the totality of his impact, but an energetic presence and flare for dramatics won't offset Eddie's negatives if they persist – not with his price rising (he'll make $7.75 million this year), his free agency approaching (he's eligible after next season), and premier talents increasingly pushing from below.
I haven't been shy about expressing my disappointment with Rosario's 2019 campaign, but I think it's a mistake to write him off. He's a tremendously skilled player, still only 28 years old, humbled and determined. I like his chances to bounce back, and even if he doesn't, the number of quality fallback options is reassuring.
Left field is in good shape for the Minnesota Twins. One way or another.
Twins 2020 Position Analysis: Catcher
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Twins 2020 Position Analysis: Second Base
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Twins 2020 Position Analysis: Shortstop
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