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Spring Trade Targets: Should Twins Swap Young Arm for Albert Almora, Jr.?

The start of spring training doesn't necessarily spell the end of trade season, and the Twins still have the kind of depth that gives them options on the trade market.
Image courtesy of © Jim Young-USA TODAY Sports
The Twins don't have many holes, and even their worst-case scenarios look relatively rosy. However, spring training is the time of year during which smart contenders consider ways in which they might shore up their minor weaknesses and raise their floor ever further. To that end, Minnesota should explore the possibility of a trade for Cubs outfielder Albert Almora, Jr.

Before you ask, no, Almora isn't someone the Cubs are desperately trying to move, and no, he wouldn't be a notable improvement over Jake Cave or LaMont Wade as a regular fourth outfielder. However, the Cubs are infamously weak in an area (young pitching) in which the Twins are famously strong, and Almora would provide something the Twins do still need: a reliable, viable backup to Byron Buxton, capable of stepping in as an everyday center fielder if Buxton gets hurt and keeping the outfield defense intact. He has three years of team control remaining, including 2020.

Almora, who will turn 26 in April, went to the Cubs just four picks after the Twins took Buxton in the 2012 draft. If Buxton's path to establishing himself in the majors felt circuitous and frustrating, though, it was nothing to that of Almora, who battled hand and wrist injuries, was blocked for most of a season during which he seemed ready for the majors, and has been given only inconsistent opportunities over the last three seasons. That said, he's not wholly a victim of circumstance: He's yet to post a season in which he was even a league-average hitter, according to Baseball Prospectus's DRC+, and he's failed to rein in his plate discipline as the Cubs hoped he would.

Buxton and Almora are very different, in terms of style and profile, but similar in the shape of their overall value. Almora lacks Buxton's power potential and game-breaking speed, but has far superior feel for contact, and makes up for his lack of wheels in center field with terrific instincts. When right, he's well above-average defensively, and a line-drive hitter who can be a headache for left-handed pitchers.

Alas, for much of 2019, Almora wasn't right. He had a career-worst 72 DRC+, as he continued to hack away too often at pitches outside the zone. He put the ball on the ground far too often. Last spring, he benefited when the Cubs sent Ian Happ to Triple-A Iowa to open the season. By mid-summer, however, Almora had lost his starting job in center to Jason Heyward, and Happ came back up to push him into a true platoon role.

For the Twins to take interest in this particular target, they would need to believe they can do with Almora what they've done with so many other young hitters over the last two seasons. That would be a bet against the Cubs' player development, but bets against that particular element of the Chicago operation lately have tended to be wise ones. Almora showed up this spring talking about an overhauled swing, and there is certainly a real change. With his altered mechanics, he's already generated some impressive hard contact this spring, including a double and a home run, and he's more balanced, giving him a longer look at the incoming pitch and a better chance of laying off it if he doesn't like what he sees.

If those changes hold, or if the Cubs (or Twins) build upon them, it's easy to see Almora blossoming into a similar hitter to Buxton, albeit with less impactful defense and baserunning. PECOTA projects an unimpressive .249/.287/.384 batting line for Almora this year, which isn't exciting, but the system only forecasts Buxton to hit .230/.288/.437. When (more than if) Buxton goes down with an injury, Almora could provide a facsimile of his value on both offense and defense.

At the moment, the plan for any extended Buxton absence would seem to be to slide Max Kepler back to center field, with Marwin González becoming an everyday corner man and the roles of both Cave and Wade expanding considerably. Almora would change that. His presence would allow the team to keep Kepler in right field, where he's a Gold Glove-caliber defender. He'd also be a right-handed bat, helping maintain the balance at the bottom and turn of the batting order.

Over the last few years, as teams have reached Peak Bullpen and the squeeze on position players has gotten tighter, the priority for any team in building a bench has been flexibility. Any player slated for a backup role needed to do things someone else on the roster didn't do. Complementary skills were valued much more highly than redundancies.

With the addition of a 26th man and rules in place to prevent teams from further expanding their pitching staffs, that can start to change. The Twins could carry Almora as a late-game defensive replacement for Eddie Rosario, allow him to soak up the pinch-hit opportunities against lefties that would otherwise go (as his roster spot would) to Willians Astudillo, and have him handy as a high-upside replacement for Buxton when injury strikes. They'd still have room on the bench for Alex Avila, González, and Ehire Adrianza. Astudillo, Cave, and Wade, who all have minor-league options remaining, would remain available whenever need arose. For that matter, Almora can be optioned, too.

The Cubs would want a fairly solid young arm in exchange for Almora. The fifth spot in their rotation is a toss-up between veteran Tyler Chatwood and young hurlers Alec Mills and Adbert Alzolay, but the system is considerably more bullish on Randy Dobnak and Lewis Thorpe than on Alzolay or Chatwood, and even its pessimistic take on Devin Smeltzer puts him on even footing with Chatwood. With Jhoulys Chacín in camp, the Twins could part with one of those three in exchange for Almora, but even if they were unwilling to, they might tempt the Cubs with either Cody Stashak or Zack Littell, because Chicago's bullpen lacks the controllable, flexible arms with which Minnesota's corps is replete.

Moves that contain even a kernel of risk, as an Almora trade certainly would, are unappealing to teams in strong positions like the Twins' in February and March. If they're smart, though, Minnesota will keep their ears open and their thumbs limber, listening on offers and texting with executives throughout the spring. The worst-case scenario for this team isn't Buxton getting hurt, but rather, Buxton getting hurt at a time when any other player is also out, leaving them unable to shift their phalanx to cover their holes neatly. It's Buxton getting hurt while they don't have a solid defensive center fielder to keep their team defense together in his absence. It's having to go make a trade like the one outlined above, but in June or July, with the eyes of the baseball world on them and a whole lot less leverage than they have now.

Proactive teams can avoid major overpays during the height of trade season, the kind that cost valuable prospects who go on to be stars elsewhere, and still be ready for a long season and deep playoff run. The Twins can enjoy that kind of benefit by acting now to fill what might be their only important hole.

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36 Comments

I think Cave/Wade are better options for now. If Buxton gets hurt, then you can maybe swing a trade or waiver pickup for a center fielder if needed. Buxton’s projections seem way too low.
    • jorgenswest, glunn, gil4 and 3 others like this

 

I think Cave/Wade are better options for now. If Buxton gets hurt, then you can maybe swing a trade or waiver pickup for a center fielder if needed. Buxton’s projections seem way too low.

With Buxton and his injury history its not IF needed, its WHEN needed.

    • KFEY93 and KevinLloyd like this
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MMMordabito
Feb 25 2020 06:16 AM
This was an interesting read and very well presented. I would just have a hard time moving starting pitching depth given the uncertainty of what that depth is supporting. Also, watching New York and Cleveland already dealing with pitching injuries gives me further pause. I guess Stashak for Almora would be fine, if that gets it done.

Is a Rosario, Almora, Kepler alignment a measurable upgrade to Rosario, Kepler, Cave? Other than the right-handed bat, I'm not sure.

Would Rooker be a better lefty-mashing 26th man with options?

Celestino is already on the 40. Do you let him be the defensive insurance policy while knowing he may be drinking from a fire hose at the plate?

I like the ideas of exploring value at a cost-effective time and looking to cover holes that may open as this season unfolds.
    • SQUIRREL, glunn, Han Joelo and 13 others like this
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theBOMisthebomb
Feb 25 2020 06:21 AM
Why would the Twins want a Buxton 2.0 with much of the same downsides? I am more than happy plugging in Jake Cave fulltime if Buxton gets hurt.
    • glunn, Twins33, mikelink45 and 2 others like this
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Doctor Gast
Feb 25 2020 06:53 AM

I see your concern but we aren`t famously strong in pitching. On the contrary, our starting rotation need a lot of support from our promising young arms as much as we can, especially w/ Baldelli `s philosophy of plenty of rest. Last year we had a pretty good BP but when Blake folded our whole BP folded & the effect was felt thru out the rotation because we didn`t have any ready young arms in waiting. We can`t depend on old come back pitchers to sustain us & there`s always a threat of injury. We have an excellent pitching development now so we need to develop our young pitchers to the max. not trade them away. Everybody wants & need young arms, I can`t see doing the Cubs or anyone else a favor by offering our young arms only ending up shooting ourselves in the foot.

Celestino & even Lewis would be a much better solution in the near future

    • luckylager, scottz, SD Buhr and 4 others like this

Hard pass. Almora is 50/50 to even make the Cub's opening day roster as a 5th outfielder. The Cubs would jump at the chance to add almost all of the names listed in the article......but the Twins are not interested.

    • mikelink45 likes this

My answer to your question was going to be: Why?But after consideration, a better answer is: No.

    • SQUIRREL, scottz, mikelink45 and 4 others like this
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ChrisKnutson
Feb 25 2020 08:49 AM
There’s already a possibility of Cave not making the team, so why add another outfielder to the mix?? While I do like the idea of having Buxton insurance, not only do I think we could we do better both internally and externally, but this may not even be necessary until the deadline (dare I say, at all...).

Also, instead of trading our young pitching, perhaps we should still be working on bringing more arms into camp since there’s never really having enough, right?? I mean, McHugh is still available.

Personally I think Celestino is the answer to your question.Hard to say if his bat will play at the MLB level at this time but his defense is already MLB ready.Buxtons defense has been more valuable than his bat anyway and I don't think Celestino will be a complete black hole at the plate certainly can't be too much worse than Buck.

 

As noted by others if you don't like Celestino there then Kep moves over and you can arrange things anyway you like.I don't see the need to take on the Almora risk.We are close to having a glut of outfielders on the 40 man as it is granted not center fielders but in due time Celestino and if needed Royce Lewis can be used in CF if needed.

    • SQUIRREL, Twins33, Monkeypaws and 5 others like this

Appears Twins have starting pitching depth but how many will be there in 1-2 years. Odorizzi is FA this year, Hill over 40, Bailey is just a one year stopgap type player, Chacin will he even make it back to MLB. Need plenty of prospects since not all of them will make it. So my answer to trading pitching is no.

    • glunn, Cap'n Piranha, Harrison Greeley III and 1 other like this

If they were looking to have back up CF I think they would have sought one on market and not trading for one.There were a few that could have been Kepler level defense on the open market they did not seek.I doubt they go this route. 

The swing mechanics work, the Cubs are not going to trade him. The changes do not work, you don't want him, either.

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Cap'n Piranha
Feb 25 2020 10:21 AM

I have to concur with the majority of the posters here.In looking at Almora's defensive stats on fangraphs, he was below average last year, albeit slightly above average in 2017 and 2018.As such, I think what you would be adding is a league-average fielder.At the plate, he swings at 40% of pitches outside the zone, and as such, has really bad rates of both soft and hard contact (6th highest soft contact rate out of 241 players with 350+ PA's, 17th lowest hard contact rate). 

 

Add in that he's now arbitration eligible, and plays at a position group where the Twins are 5 deep in MLB-quality regulars, and where at least 2 and possibly 4 of our 5 best hitting prospects play, and I have no idea why the Twins would add Almora for free, much less give something up for him.The floor for this Twins team, thanks to a killer lineup, deep bullpen, and broad collection of decent starters, is quite high.Therefore, if the Twins are making a trade, it shouldn't be to try and win a couple more games in the regular season; it should be to win a couple more games in the postseason.

    • glunn, Dman and kenbuddha like this

I'm fine with Cave/Wade now and, if necessary, Celestino or even Royce Lewis in the future. And I don't really believe the Twins are so flush with pitching they should be looking to move any of it.

    • SQUIRREL, glunn, scottz and 2 others like this
The Twins are famously deep in young pitching?
When did this happen?
    • Ben Noble, Tomj14 and jkcarew like this

Interesting. When I read the headline, my first reaction was HARD pass because of the current glut we have at OF. After reading the article, I think you made some decent points, but I still would give this a pass.

 

I could see how Almora may give us a little more value this year as a backup CF, but starting next year, I don't think he would make better emergency depth than Lewis/Celestino or one of our other young outfielders (Cave, Wade, Kirolloff, Rooker, Larnach). Of the players I mentioned, I'm not sure who will make the jump, but I'm fairly confident at least one of them will progress to the point where they are more valuable than Almara.

 

So if the question is, how much would I be willing to pay for a one year improvement of our backup CF, maybe some low level prospect, or an older prospect with a limited ceiling (e.g. Jax, Barnes, Winder, Romero) but not more than that. Barring a complete career revival from Almora, I think 5-6 years of Smelter/Littell/Stashak is more valuable for the Twins.

    • glunn, DocBauer, gagu and 1 other like this

Reading through the comments I'm seeing people discredit Almora's ability to play CF. We can move Kepler from RF to CF if Buxton gets injured, but then he drops from a well above average defensive player to about average. Cave cannot play center, that's been proven time and time again.

 

It's easier to bring in a specialist to play center if Buxton were to get hurt. That's why I wish we would have just signed Kevin Pillar instead of discussing trading for a backup center fielder.

 

That being said, of Dobnak, Thorpe and Smeltzer, I think Smeltzer is the only one I'd consider giving up for Almora, and I definitely wouldn't add Littell or Stashak to that deal. 

In this hypothesis, what do the Twins do with Cave relative to the 26-man roster?

 

 

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MMMordabito
Feb 25 2020 12:06 PM

 

It's easier to bring in a specialist to play center if Buxton were to get hurt. That's why I wish we would have just signed Kevin Pillar instead of discussing trading for a backup center fielder.

 

I'm actually happy Pillar signed with Boston and not the Twins.His defensive value has been declining for four years straight.If you could guarantee 2016 or even 2017 Pillar, I'm all ears.Unfortunately, I don't think a bounceback year in range, etc. usually works that way with age.

 

The Twins are famously deep in young pitching?
When did this happen?

Exactly what I was going to say - waaaaah???

The Twins, with barely enough pitching to seriously call themselves WS candidates, only a couple legit starting MiLB options, and having just traded their #1 pitching prospect, can not afford to swap a prospect for ANOTHER outfielder!  It’s literally the Twins strongest position.

    • mikelink45 likes this

Having a hand-full of low-ceiling prospects, with one or two high-ceiling guys just getting their feet wet in AA ball, doesn't make you "famously strong" in starting pitching.

 

In the meantime, if the FO is that worried about Buxton's health and/or performance that they're tempted to trade for a bench player...who isn't very good...

 

they'd be better off simply trading Buxton for a good player.

 

I'm actually happy Pillar signed with Boston and not the Twins.His defensive value has been declining for four years straight.If you could guarantee 2016 or even 2017 Pillar, I'm all ears.Unfortunately, I don't think a bounceback year in range, etc. usually works that way with age.

Pillar still had more DRS in center than Kepler did. Kepler is a fantastic right fielder and about average centerfielder. To keep his defense in RF and slot Pillar into CF with 5 DRS and 2 outs above average makes for a better defense even with Pillar's aging drop. Pillar is declining but he was still a bit better than league average in CF even in the enormous outfield of Oracle park.

 

My argument is basically that if you move Kepler over and slot Cave or Wade into RF, you downgrade two positions on defense instead of just one. We've got two open 40 man spots and not much of an urgent need to fill with that 26th roster spot. It wouldn't have been the end of the world to sign another right handed outfielder that can play a decent center field.

 

 

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MMMordabito
Feb 25 2020 02:39 PM

 

Pillar still had more DRS in center than Kepler did. Kepler is a fantastic right fielder and about average centerfielder. To keep his defense in RF and slot Pillar into CF with 5 DRS and 2 outs above average makes for a better defense even with Pillar's aging drop. Pillar is declining but he was still a bit better than league average in CF even in the enormous outfield of Oracle park.

 

My argument is basically that if you move Kepler over and slot Cave or Wade into RF, you downgrade two positions on defense instead of just one. We've got two open 40 man spots and not much of an urgent need to fill with that 26th roster spot. It wouldn't have been the end of the world to sign another right handed outfielder that can play a decent center field.

 

Where did you get those numbers?Fangraphs shows a -5 DRS for CF.Statcast shows a -2 OAA for CF.He only got to 2 OAA overall because of RF play.

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TwinsFan347
Feb 25 2020 03:54 PM

My initial reaction why would we trade Pitching for another OF to clog things up for our young players.

 

You put some effort into your reasoning, but I can't be moved from that original thought.

 

IMO it doesn't make sense to trade Pitching which we need to continue to develop, as you really can never have enough arms. In exchange we get an average OF that will clog the way not only for Cave and Wade, but for our cluster of OF prospects (Rooker, Celestino, Larnach or Kirilloff) to get experience.

 

Now if the Cubs want to trade some pitching for an OF, that's more like it.

    • Doctor Gast likes this
For a team that has huge hurdles to clear in order to compete on the open market for a decent #2 Zach Wheeler type, let alone an ace caliber pitcher, trading starting pitching prospects for outfield depth would be a head scratcher, IMO. If you can’t buy pitching, you have to develop it, which is a numbers game.

I think there are some guys that can step into CF in an emergency. Celestino will be a AA guy. We’ve long heard about Royce Lewis’ potential to land in center field (Polanco isn’t going anywhere with Arraez and entrenched at 2B). I don’t see how it’s more beneficial to lose a pitching prospect all together instead of starting the clock on some guys like that.

Very creative idea. I love trade scenarios. Could work out wonderfully and look like a steal down the road. I just have a hard time dealing pitching prospects if we’re not getting a pitcher, or a “impact” starting position player in return.
    • Dman and gagu like this