Play Travis Blankenhorn Every Day
Image courtesy of © Kim Klement-USA TODAY SportsBlankenhorn, 24, was called up Monday to help the team weather its seemingly perpetual dearth of fully healthy, fully functioning hitters. He was 18th on our preseason list of the Twins’ top prospects, although national prospect publications tended to slot him a bit lower. Some injury issues contributed to his slow ascent through the minors after he was a third-round pick in 2015, and they’ve slowed him down enough to drain defensive upside from his profile. He’s mostly with the club so that they can determine whether he can carry the power progression he showed last season at Double-A Pensacola into the big leagues.
At 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, Blankenhorn is built like the other rookies on whom the Twins have called in the face of this wave of injuries, Ryan Jeffers and Brent Rooker. Unlike those guys, he was dinged by some scouts because of questions about whether he could access his power in games. There are three main reasons why a prospect might not project to carry batting-practice or minor-league power into big-league competition: an overaggressive (or overly passive) approach; a flat swing plane; and a lack of sheer strength. Blankenhorn certainly has no issues with that last item, but he’s been a very free swinger throughout his professional career, and there were questions about whether he could get the necessary lift with his swing, too.
Some of those questions, Blankenhorn put to rest last year. His total of 19 home runs in 471 plate appearances doesn’t leap out at the jaded modern stat-reader, but neither the Florida State League nor the Southern League has seen the kind of power surge that has swept the Triple-A and MLB levels recently. After a summer at the alternate site, where the Twins have been doing intensive player-development work focused on the same things (lifting and pulling the ball as often as possible, without opening up massive holes in one’s swing or approach) they’ve been focusing on organization-wide over the last two years, Blankenhorn is likely as ready as ever to get the ball in the air to the pull field. Even in the minors, he’s been a pull hitter.
That leaves two questions: what his plate discipline (or lack thereof) will allow him to do at bat, and where he might fit in the field. The latter is actually the easier answer. With Luis Arraez currently sidelined, and with Eddie Rosario now nursing an elbow contusion, the two positions Blankenhorn has played most often are at least periodically available, for the foreseeable future. Jake Cave and LaMonte Wade, Jr. are good enough to man left field if needed, but that assumes that both Max Kepler and Byron Buxton are healthy enough, on any given night, to patrol the other two-thirds of the grass. That, lately, has not been a safe assumption.
Given his size and his below-average speed, Blankenhorn is a suboptimal option in the outfield. However, if the team must choose between putting him there or having him at second, while the hobbled Marwin Gonzalez goes out to chase fly balls at 25 feet per second, they might well elect to let the younger legs do the running. Failing that, or if (it’s not hard to imagine, and in fact, it’s what led to Blankenhorn’s call-up) Gonzalez is unable to play on a given night, Blankenhorn can slot in at second base, his best position and the one where he makes the biggest difference, relative to potential alternatives (like Ehire Adrianza).
That leaves us wondering only whether Blankenhorn can make enough contact against big-league pitching to hit the way he’s proven himself capable of hitting in the minors. The best metric for evaluating performances one needs to translate into potential big-league production is Baseball Prospectus’s Deserved Runs Created rate (DRC+), and last year, Blankenhorn’s was 119 at Pensacola. That suggests that, despite striking out nearly 23 percent of the time, he was a genuinely effective hitter, doing things that can translate well into other contexts. Even so, his minor-league strikeout rates (and a lack of complementary walks) make it impossible to know what to think until Blankenhorn gets into the lineup and sees some big-leaguers who want to get him out.
To that end, the Twins should play him every day down the stretch. Even once Arraez returns, one of Nelson Cruz, Josh Donaldson, Rosario, Kepler, Gonzalez, and Arraez is likely to want a day off, anyway, given the way their 2020s have gone, so there will be openings on the lineup card. With a robust (if still very small and potentially misleading) sample of play to evaluate, the Twins will be able to decide what they can expect if they carry Blankenhorn on the playoff roster.
It matters, in a big way, because there will be no days off during any of the first three rounds of this year’s playoffs. Given the nature of the lingering injuries with which many of the players named above are dealing, and considering the conservative approach the team has taken with those players, the likelihood that they’ll need an extra left-handed bat (at second base or in left field) at some key juncture, perhaps even to start one or more games, is quite high. Starting Adrianza in any playoff game would be hard to justify, even given his solid glove.
It’s not hard to find encouraging comps for Blankenhorn, as he matriculates to the majors. A few years ago, such a big, bat-first player at second base would be tough to imagine, but Mike Moustakas and Max Muncy have been highly successful regulars at that spot recently. Nor does his profile seem as risky, offensively, as it might if the Twins didn’t specialize so well in magnifying the things (power, a selectively aggressive approach) Blankenhorn most needs to do in order to succeed. He’s with the team. They need a player like him, even if everything breaks right in terms of health over the rest of the season, and that’s a big ‘if’, anyway. Rocco Baldelli needs to get Blankenhorn onto the lineup card often.
MORE FROM TWINS DAILY
— Latest Twins coverage from our writers
— Recent Twins discussion in our forums
— Follow Twins Daily via Twitter, Facebook or email
- mikelink45 likes this