Twins 2018 Position Analysis: Center Field
Image courtesy of Kim Klement, USA Today (Byron Buxton)Projected Starter: Byron Buxton
Likely Backup: Max Kepler
Depth: Eddie Rosario, Zack Granite, Jake Cave
Prospects: Granite, LaMonte Wade, Royce Lewis
On August 18th of last season, Buxton drove a high fly ball off the right-center field wall at Target Field and sprinted around the bases for an inside the park homer. His total time from home-to-home registered at 13.85 seconds – a new Statcast record that broke (of course) his own, set the previous October.
Last year Buxton put up the fastest sprint speed in the majors, which comes into play both on the base paths and in the outfield. At 24, he doesn't seem to be at risk of losing a step anytime too soon. And in fact, Buck's foot speed continues to play up more and more as he improves his reads on fly balls and opposing pitchers.
Of course, while Buxton's defense has been elite from the start, his offensive game has been held back by a lack of contact. Strikeout issues carried over into the early part of 2017, when the outfielder dug a deep hole with his voluminous whiffs in April. But he consistently cut down his strikeout rate each month, to the point where he was contributing at an MVP-caliber level down the stretch.
Buxton's .298/.342/.541 slash line in August and September, coupled with a perfect 13-for-13 rate on steals and unsurpassed defensive impact, made him arguably the most transformative single player in the game during that stretch. He was instrumental in Minnesota's unlikely sprint to the postseason, earning him some down-ballot AL MVP love (he finished 18th in the balloting).
For a guy who was batting .195 with a .550 OPS at the end of June, causing some to wonder if additional minor-league seasoning might be required, that's flat-out incredible.
The idea of getting second-half Buxton for a full year in 2018 is exhilarating. The way he can help a pitching staff and propel an offense is unique within today's game. Still only realizing his near-limitless potential, Buxton is the organization's most valuable asset, and fortunately the front office seems fully aware. He's the only young core player with whom they are known to have engaged in extension negotiations.
Hopefully they'll get something done and lock him as the long-term centerpiece he should be. I believe they will. But doing so would not eliminate the importance of quality depth behind him.
There are basically two concerns around Buxton.
The first is that he'll relapse and revert to his whiffing ways – certainly possible, but unlikely given the progressive and convincing nature of his evolution in this regard.
The second is that the speedster's all-out playing style will lead to injuries, and that's a very legitimate apprehension. I wrote about this last spring when I was in camp, and while Buxton went on to mostly to buck his trend (yes yes pun intended) of missing significant chunks of time – save for a two-week hiatus in July due to a groin strain – his season did end with a hazardous crash into Yankee Stadium's outfield wall.
Injuries are always a reality of the game, and in Buxton's case no one could deny that the risk is heightened. He's obviously irreplaceable but the Twins are well served to put multiple solid contingencies in place. Perhaps that factored in to a trade they made on Friday.
The Twins acquired outfielder Jake Cave from the Yankees and designated Kennys Vargas for assignment in the process. Although Cave profiles "best in the corners," according to chief baseball officer Derek Falvey, he has mostly played center in the minors and is considered capable there, giving Minnesota another option. His first day after coming over, Cave started in center against Pittsburgh in Bradenton on Saturday.
But Zack Granite is clearly contingency No. 1. He was the regular in center while Buxton was sidelined by his groin strain after the All-Star break, and played well. Granite is the only natural center fielder in line behind Buxton at this point. Max Kepler or Eddie Rosario could fill in as short-term plugs but neither is really suited for the position for an extended stretch. Prospect LaMonte Wade, much like Cave, has played primarily center in the minors but will likely end up in a corner.
The next impact center fielder in the pipeline might actually be Royce Lewis, the 2017 first overall pick who's currently playing shortstop but could well switch positions as he rises through the ranks. His speed and instinctual savvy would surely make him an asset out there. But if Buxton sticks around for another seven or eight years, he's not getting supplanted by anyone. Should Lewis move off short, I'm sure the Twins won't have much trouble finding something to do with him.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Buxton is already the best defensive center fielder in baseball and could be fast on his way to challenging Mike Trout as the best all-around. He produced 3.5 WAR in a 2017 campaign marred by a brutal first half at the plate, so that almost feels like his floor going forward if healthy.
Granted, that's a bigger "if" than you get with most players in the game today, but the Twins will live with the risks inherent to his aggressive and spectacular playing style. They've got multiple short-term fallback options and hopefully won't be seeking a permanent replacement for a long, long time.
~~~Catch up on the rest of the series:
Twins Daily Position Analysis: Catcher
Twins Daily Position Analysis: First Base
Twins Daily Position Analysis: Second Base
Twins Daily Position Analysis: Third Base
Twins Daily Position Analysis: Shortstop
Twins Daily Position Analysis: Left Field