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A rant

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Am I Still Excited About Willians Astudillo?

In this introspective journey, a mid-30s Twins fan confronts his complicated feelings about the enigmatic player known as La Tortuga.
Image courtesy of David Berding, USA Today
"Our beautiful baby boy!" I cried, as Willians Astudillo hustled into second with a double during some random early-summer evening in 2019.

My wife (fiancée at the time) looked at me with an expression combining befuddlement and a touch of embarrassment. It was hardly the first time she'd overheard such an outburst from me during a Twins game around this time, but that didn't make it seem any less strange to her.

And I mean, it WAS strange. It's an odd type of behavior from an adult person who generally watches baseball with a detached analytical enjoyment. Not to say I don't get excited or emotional – I definitely do – but yeah, I wouldn't say it's normal for me to stan a player so irrationally and exuberantly that I resort to infant-speak and swoon at his most pedestrian of achievements on the field.

Willians just has that effect. Or at least, he did.

Over the course of that 2019 season, Astudillo's magical mystique began to fade. Now, I find myself wondering if it still exists.

While the light has dimmed, I do think there's still a spark, and it intrigues me given his functional fit within this season's reshaped roster.

THE LEGEND OF TORTUGA
First, since he's been out of sight for so long, let us remind ourselves of why Astudillo became such a magnetic attraction to begin with. He arrived as a relative unknown in 2018 – a 26-year-old minor-league journeyman called up for a late-season look after catching some eyes in Rochester.

In 29 games as a rookie in Minnesota, Astudillo did it all. He raked to the tune of .355/.371/.516, striking out only three times in 97 trips to the plate. He appeared at six different positions, including pitcher. He was a beaming ray of light for Twins fans in the waning weeks of a disappointing season.



It wasn't just Astudillo's performance that earned him affinity. It was his VIBE. The man was utterly unique, like nothing any of us had seen before. Every single thing about him screamed "sandlot baseball." He swung at everything and made contact with everything. In spring training he executed a no-look pickoff from behind the plate. He earned himself a label as "one of baseball's most entertaining players" from Sports Illustrated's Emma Baccellieri following his majestic celebration of a home run in the Venezuelan Winter League.

Astudillo became a living meme, and an oddly inspirational figure, openly challenging the prototype for a major-league body.



Ever the smiling jokester, Willians exuded joy and youthful enthusiasm in an infectious way that had plenty of us developing weird pet names and anticipating his at-bats. The guy was just so damn easy to root for.

TURTLE ON ITS BACK

Enthralled as we may have been by La Tortuga, most of us weren't blind to the realities of his ceiling and sustainability. He came to the Twins as an unheralded 26-year-old with no MLB experience. Coming off a season where he batted .342 for Arizona's Triple-A affiliate, Astudillo generated little demand on the market and signed a minor-league contract.

As good as he looked during his rookie stint in 2018, it was in a sample of less than 100 plate appearances.

Still, there was a palpable buzz surrounding Astudillo in spring of 2019. He was viewed as a major wild-card in Minnesota's plans, with the potential to contribute in significant ways if he could keep raking as a versatile defender and occasional backstop. Unfortunately, the ensuing season served as a harsh reality check.

Pitchers quickly began to take advantage of his swing-at-everything approach, rarely giving him anything decent to hit. Astudillo's production sagged, and he saw a 200-point drop in OPS. Over 204 plate appearances, he slashed .268/.299/.379, while his defensive shortcomings became more evident and impactful, especially behind the plate. FanGraphs pegged him as a sub-replacement level player (-0.2 WAR).

La Tortuga's luster wore off in a hurry, and as a result, he came into 2020 as more of an afterthought. The 28-year-old spent most of his summer at the alternate site, making just 16 regular-season PAs for the Twins. His only postseason appearance came when he entered as a pinch-hitter in the ninth inning of Game 1, representing the tying run with two on and one out, and instantly hit into a game-ending double play.

Thus we arrive at the present situation. Entering 2021, Astudillo is even more of an afterthought; in fact, some believe he might be in danger of losing his 40-man roster spot as the club faces crunches with late additions. Not me. I actually see Astudillo having a uniquely useful fit as the 26th man on this year's Twins team, perhaps giving him one more chance to recapture the magic.

ASTUDILLO'S 2021 OUTLOOK

There's no way Willians will be lined up for any kind of substantial role on the 2021 Twins, at least not out of the gate. But keep in mind that despite his recent struggles, he's still a likable clubhouse presence with a .294/.319/.428 slash line in 317 MLB plate appearances and, most importantly, the ability to provide depth at some key spots.

Consider the three defensive positions where Astudillo has played more than 100 innings in the majors:
  • Catcher. As third catcher behind Mitch Garver and Ryan Jeffers, Astudillo would make it a lot more easy to occasionally play the non-starter at DH (or first base or left field, in Garver's case), or to use them as pinch-hitters.
  • Third base. Josh Donaldson is obviously the biggest injury concern on the roster. While Luis Arráez is now penciled as his top backup, the Twins currently have no other bench players who can fill in there, and Arráez is likely to be occupied by other assignments frequently. Also, it's very possible Astudillo is a better defender than Arráez at third.
  • First base. This is a position where the Twins have sacrificed depth by switching to Arráez in the utility role. Marwin González played more than 200 innings at first in his two years with the Twins, and Ehire Adrianza played there a bunch in 2019. I doubt we'll ever see Arráez play at first base in a major-league game. Astudillo can handle it fine.

Arráez and Astudillo actually make for a pretty functional backup infielder combo, giving the Twins coverage all around the diamond while also providing Baldelli with contact hitters from both sides of the plate, to be plugged into the lineup or pinch-hit.

I'm not saying Astudillo is a high-quality defender at any of the positions he plays, but he's competent enough at all of them. And while his bat hurtled back to Earth in 2019, the .678 OPS he posted was fine for a versatile, sparsely-used bench guy.

He can be that. Unlike Travis Blankenhorn or Nick Gordon, there's no need to feed Astudillo regular ABs for the sake of his development. And, I'm still not quite willing to give up on him as an offensive difference-maker. He just wrapped up an absolutely dominant showing in the Venezuelan Winter League, where he batted .379 and led all hitters in total bases.



Maybe it's just the flickering embers of faith and affinity still burning within me, but I've reached the conclusion that... yeah, I am still kind of excited about Astudillo. And now that the hype and oversized expectations have died down a bit, I think he's got a real chance to impress people as a useful piece on this 2021 Twins team.

Now almost 30, it's been a long journey for Astudillo. But if you're counting him out at this point, you clearly never read the story of The Tortoise and the Hare.

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80 Comments

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LA VIkes Fan
Feb 07 2021 10:31 PM

Sorry Tom, but no. Please no. Astudillo has no business on the roster of a contending team. Hr's a subpar defender wherever you put him in the field and he can't hit. Could he change, become a more discerning hitter, and get is OPS over .700? Maybe, but I doubt it and even then it would be barely over .700.

 

There's nothing wrong with La Tortuga (BTW, why are we using the femine?) being the 28th or 29th man in AAA and called up as an injury replacement, It will say very bad things about this tem's ability to compete if he's on the the opening day roster. Very bad things. Championship contenders don't have guys like Astudillo playing a role unless there are injuries. 

 

I usually agree with you but I can't get behind this one. Please, we have to have someone better.  

    • Twins33, TopGunn#22, jud6312 and 2 others like this
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Nick Nelson
Feb 07 2021 10:38 PM

Nick, not Tom. I think you should keep expectations in check for a the 26th man on the roster. The hope is that he plays very little. Would say nothing about their ability to compete if he's on the roster compared to some other random bench piece.

 

I don't know why you think he needs to make some dramatic improvement to become a .700 OPS guy given that he has a .750 OPS in the majors with his current approach. He's not going to become discerning and that's fine. 

Turtle in Spanish is la tortuga. It's not "using the feminine." It's how that language works. I spent far too many years pointlessly learning it in high school and college, trust me! 

    • glunn, ScrapTheNickname, Danchat and 13 others like this

I think, with Tomas Telis on his team in Venezuela, the only position that he played in the VWL this year (and last year) was left field.  

 

Out there, you can get great diving catches like this: 

 

    • glunn, h2oface, VOMG and 2 others like this

The guy is a ballplayer's ballplayer, and LA Vikes fan, he can hit: all zones all fields.

 

    • VOMG, Huskertwin and BeatTheRich like this
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yeahyabetcha
Feb 07 2021 11:03 PM
He should not be on the 40 man roster. Although he has the ability to fill several roles...he does all of them at a below average level.
    • Twins33, h2oface, LA VIkes Fan and 2 others like this

I don't mind him on the 40 man roster, kind of in the mix for 26th-28th man, the #3 catcher (preferably #4 behind Telis), able to play 3B, 2B, 1B, LF, RF, and occasionally pinch hit. He's not good defensively at any of those positions, and his offensive approach is awful. Yup, it works out from time to time. It's nice that he's got one more option left and hopefully the Twins front office will have a solid group of guys going back and forth to St. Paul. Astudillo can be part of that. 

    • LA VIkes Fan, mikelink45, DocBauer and 3 others like this
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terrydactyls1947
Feb 07 2021 11:13 PM
He makes fat guys like me watch baseball. Go Turtle!
    • woolywoolhouse, iowaguychris and Huskertwin like this
I think he is a fun guy to have on the roster. Unless he is hitting the snot out of the ball, I would be fine as long as he gets less then 200 ABs this season and Catches less than 25 innings. He also needs to start less than 15 games at both 3rd, 1B, and 10 in LF.

Who doesn't love Willian?  He offers some flexibility with a 3rd catcher so Garver can play some first and or DH to spell other RH bats.

 

However, if there wasn't extra roster spots because of covid, I would say no, not a reliable enough player, and we are contenders.  But with a few more spots, I don't mind the depth.

    • MN_ExPat and Huskertwin like this
Disregarding the lovable personality and physic, I don’t understand why people don’t see value in his unique skill set. A guy who can catch and play 3rd 1st and LF and you do t have to give regular at bats to. even if it’s subpar has value.
Offensively he can put the bat on everything, just a small amount of plate discipline he could be a very productive hitter.

During the course of the season we are going to run into injuries and Arraez will have to fill in. Who do you call up after Blankenhorn? How about if Garver or Jeffers has a short term injury? I just see many cases were have his versatility could be a value during the long season.
    • Dman, Platoon, Dave The Dastardly and 3 others like this

"His only postseason appearance came when he entered as a pinch-hitter in the ninth inning of Game 1, representing the tying run with two on and one out, and instantly hit into a game-ending double play."

 

That was nail in the coffin for me. I was so upset to see him get that at bat as he walked out of the dugout. Disgusting. You all probably liked Colon, too.

 

I love that diving catch, though. Perfect for the kids on youtube.

    • big dog and jud6312 like this
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Richard Swerdlick
Feb 08 2021 07:00 AM

Nick, I hate to disappoint you, buthis ship has sailed.

    • TopGunn#22, jud6312 and KFEY93 like this
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yeahyabetcha
Feb 08 2021 07:26 AM
What I don’t get is how Marwin, who is twice the player that this guy ever will be, is vilified by most posters, and this guy is seen as a legitimate backup.
    • ashbury, wsnydes, jud6312 and 2 others like this

With the long pitching rosters and the short benches you need someone to FILL in for a short term emergency. Not someone who needs to be in the playing rotation. There really aren’t many guys who can catch and play both corners in the IF, and apparently have some OF experience in winter ball. Will he perform to the starters standards? Not a chance, or else he would be one. Btw, as a defensive catcher, this is a team that played Mitch Garver behind the plate? While  The Turtle is not Joe Mauer, we lowered that standard quite a few years ago. If you don’t have excess roster spots for specialized subs, and you don’t want to let your future starters mold on the bench, then you end up with a "26th man" type. Ala La Tortuga.

 

What I really found interesting is that Nick yelled "our beautiful baby" at the tv over a roly poly catcher, and his GF still married him? :)

 

    • stringer bell and DocBauer like this

Nick that was a great article absolutely loved it!Very well written.I totally agree with you as well.The luster has worn off for all of us but you can't keep a ball player like Willians down for long.I think he bounces back and I too like his versatility for this team.If there are injuries he is a great player to plug in. 

 

I am still a believer.I just love what he brings to the game. I admire that despite his physical limitations he can play the game at the highest level.He might not be a superstar but he is an inspiration to many of us.

 

He's had some tough times but this guy is a fighter I think he finds some of that magic again this year.Can't wait to watch him play.

    • MN_ExPat likes this

I think La Tortuga should be trade bait to a catcher needy team.There are players who have far more upside than him in the Twins system.He will always be nothing more than a "hanger-on" in MLB.With Rortvedt coming soon deal him for something else. 

 

"His only postseason appearance came when he entered as a pinch-hitter in the ninth inning of Game 1, representing the tying run with two on and one out, and instantly hit into a game-ending double play."

 

That was nail in the coffin for me. I was so upset to see him get that at bat as he walked out of the dugout. Disgusting. You all probably liked Colon, too.

 

I love that diving catch, though. Perfect for the kids on youtube.

 

Good article, but it should have come with a trigger warning (I've never said that before and don't expect to say it again, but seriously).

 

When he came to the plate for that playoff at-bat my response was WHY?WHY?WHY? I turned to my wife and said the same thing tens of thousands of Twins fans must have been saying- "you've got to be kidding.He's going to swing at a pitch a foot out of the strike zone and probably ground into a double play."

 

If we want versatility in the field, we should have kept Adrianza. Slow guys make diving catches in left field. Fast guys make easy catches in left field.

 

Sorry, I was hoping that ship would sail last August but then it crashed into my dock.

 

 

    • blindeke and jud6312 like this
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Dodecahedron
Feb 08 2021 08:29 AM

 

Astudillo has no business on the roster of a contending team. 

 

Superstar, no. Place on a contending team? Why not?

 

He is a good guy. He pushes himself hard. He is popular with fans. He hits and fields better than you describe.

Astudillo is a better player than 4 starters on the 87 Twins roster and the entire bench. Astudillo is also better hitter than 4 starters on the 91 Twins roster. I think the Twins can find a place for him.

 

You could argue that Astudillo had no place on the legendary 65 Twins, but they did not win a championship. Maybe they should have had an Astudillo.

    • Dman, MN_ExPat and rdehring like this

He is the essence of entertainment and that is what sport is supposed to be.I am all for the Turtle - ready for more smiles!

    • PDX Twin, Wizard11, Dave The Dastardly and 1 other like this

Loved the article, Nick. Count me among those that believe Willians should get the #26 spot on this year's team.

 

And as much as we all question his defense, he is serviceable in left, at third and behind the plate (heck, third might be his best spot) . Not a guy you want playing any of them every day, but certainly competent a day a week or for a few games while someone has a nagging injury. Add that he also can play first and second, not as well, and you have the definition of what that 26th man can be.

 

Watching his winter back home, seems like he continues to get a bit better every year. Hopefully, that carries over to this season with the Twins.

    • Dman, DocBauer and MN_ExPat like this

No lack of opinions here. I agree with Seth. It's a long season and you never know how many injury/wuhan virus absences will occur. A versatile guy like Willians could come in handy. And, some here like watching him play.

    • MN_ExPat and iowaguychris like this
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VivaBomboRivera!
Feb 08 2021 08:52 AM
The Twins have raised the bar to make the roster every offseason under the new administration. This is not a bad thing. Because we like Astudillo, we should want him to raise his personal performance bar so that he can remain relevant for the club. Reminiscences and wishful thinking will not do it.
    • LA VIkes Fan likes this
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LylesCrocodiles
Feb 08 2021 09:06 AM
Tortuga is emergency depth only. The argument that he can play the corners is kind of meaningless. I bet if Rocco told Rooker (or any other AAA guy we might call up) “we need you to play a couple innings at 3B today” he could figure it out. These are professional baseball players. The one position Astudillo can help is catcher. But if he continues to hit at the level he did in 2019 and 2020 (weak contact with no walks and little pop) why not just add a true defensive catcher to the 40 man to replace him.

I don’t mind him in the current role he’s slated for but if he doesn’t produce I’m not keeping him around for his hustle or clubhouse presence. He’s got to start hitting again. Period.

I don't know if Hayes/Gleeman and you are collaborating, but their latest analysis on the 26 man roster also includes The Turtle as the 26th man.Now that the all-important middle infield is well set, addition of Tortuga primarily for PH, 3rd string catcher, and fill-in at 1B/DH seems like a no-brainer.Once Kirillof is added, this should be a very formidable lineup, IF Buxton/Donaldson can be counted on for full seasons.No need now to add to the offense, assuming no trades for pitching.

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tarheeltwinsfan
Feb 08 2021 09:31 AM

Well written and thoughtful article. I agree 99.9 % with everything you wrote. In fact, it reminded me of some the great Sports Illustrated articles which I have read in the past. I do, however disagree that Donaldson is obviously the Twins biggest injury concern for 2021. I contend that Buck is an equal, or greater concern, when comparing the replacements at 3B and CF. I really do enjoy a piece of writing where the author invests a lot of his feelings into the article. Thanks.

    • Seth Stohs, Dman, MN_ExPat and 1 other like this

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