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Twins 2019 Position Analysis: Center Field

A year ago the outlook was so bright. We were gushing about Byron Buxton's off-the-charts Statcast readings, his grand finish in 2017, and his MVP-level potential for the coming season.

But rather than showcasing his almost unrivaled upside, Buxton's 2018 campaign did the opposite. Now we unfortunately must ponder what center field would look like without him. The Twins recently made a key move to protect themselves long-term in this regard.
Image courtesy of © Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports
Projected Starter: Byron Buxton
Likely Backup: Max Kepler

Depth: Jake Cave, Michael Reed, Tanner English
Prospects: Gilberto Celestino, Gabriel Maciel, Misael Urbina

THE GOOD

Buxton looks poised to take the world by storm. It's not just his red-hot start in Grapefruit League play (7-for-20 with three home runs in eight games) after he finished on a scorching streak in Triple-A last year (.365/.400/.596 in 12 August games). These are reflections of what I suspect to be a deeper truth: The 25-year-old has found his focus, after a trying and tumultuous year, and is finally ready to pull it together for good.

The stakes are higher than ever for Buxton personally. Everything we've seen from him since last summer – his words, his muscled up physique, his early exhibition performance – has suggested that he is confronting this challenge with all he's got.

We've seen glimmers of high-end offensive potential from Buxton, who owns a .310/.364/.537 slash line in 100 games at Triple-A and posted an .893 OPS after the break in 2017, but here's the thing: He doesn't need to be a stud hitter to deliver enormous value. He has a good case as both the game's best defender and base runner. Even if he hits up to his .237/.295/.406 career MLB line entering last season, he'll be a quality regular, and of course there's much room for improvement beyond that.

But, in the event that Buxton's pitch recognition issues continue to dog him, or he misses significant time with injury again, the Twins are now insured for the long haul. Kepler was a very fine right fielder last year, but he also showed well during his time in center, and this undoubtedly played into the front office's calculus when locking him up on a five-year extension last month.

If Kepler can be at least average defensively in center (and it sure looks that way), his unflinching rate of production – which hasn't wavered much from his career .233/.313/.417 line in three years as a big-leaguer – would look far more appealing. The average American League CF had an OPS 50 pointers lower than the average RF last year.

While a scenario with Kepler playing center and Alex Kirilloff taking over right may sound appealing at the moment, any outcome that doesn't involve Buxton as a centerpiece for this team would be a huge letdown. His dynamic capabilities in center field and on the bases are unparalleled in terms of practical impact, as well as entertainment value.

One other element worth noting here is that Royce Lewis, the organization's top prospect, still could end up transitioning to center field. That'd create an interesting dilemma if Buxton gets on track, but for now Royce feels like a safer bet to stick at short.

THE BAD

Hopefully Buxton will be a lot less familiar with the Injured List than he was with the Disabled List. Here's the number of games he's been able to play in (majors and minors combined) each year since his full-season debut in 2013:

2013: 125 games
2014: 31 games
2015: 118 games
2016: 141 games
2017: 143 games
2018: 64 games

Last year was obviously a nightmarish medley of health woes: April migraines led to a broken toe on a rehab stint, and later Buck was plagued by left wrist issues. The last part is most worrisome, because his wrist nagged him into the end of the summer, and it's the same one he's had serious problems with in the past.

It's silly to suggest a pristine athletic specimen like Buxton is "fragile" (especially now that he's added more bulk to protect himself), but he does have some pre-existing concerns in addition to a reckless and hazardous style of play. So that partially fuels the uncertainty at this position.

The more concrete stumbling block is Buxton's plate discipline. This is the one thing other than health that can derail him. The outfielder's approach was egregiously bad last year, and while it can surely be attributed in part to physical impediments, this wasn't exactly new for him.

Nothing encapsulates Buxton's outright bafflement at the plate in 2018 better than this stat: after falling behind in the count 1-2 (which happened in more than one-third of his plate appearances for the Twins), he went 0-for-33 with 21 strikeouts. Altogether Buxton struck out 28 times and drew three walks with Minnesota last year, and even in Triple-A where he hit well, his K/BB ratio was 42-to-9. Down the stretch, as he put up a .996 OPS in 55 August plate appearances for the Red Wings, Buxton drew one walk.

It has become blindingly clear that Buxton's indiscriminately aggressive attack, so successful in the minors, won't hack it in the big leagues. Pitchers at the highest level have eagerly taken advantage of his habits and tendencies to devastating effect.

THE BOTTOM LINE

I believe in Byron Buxton. He looks ready to put last year's unthinkable catastrophe behind and firmly establish himself as a star of the game. But setting such optimistic beliefs aside, and accepting the reality of an injury-prone player with a career 32% K-rate and 7% BB-rate, further patience may be warranted.

The Twins will live with further growing pains at the plate, given all the value Buck provides elsewhere, and the knowledge that sometimes it just takes a while (see: Hicks, Aaron). But neither team nor player can dictate health outcomes, which have to this point been brutally cruel. Knowing this, it's awfully nice to have a guy like Kepler around, as well as a few exciting talents in the lower levels of the minors.


***


Twins 2019 Position Analysis: Catcher
Twins 2019 Position Analysis: First Base
Twins 2019 Position Analysis: Second Base
Twins 2019 Position Analysis: Third Base
Twins 2019 Position Analysis: Shortstop
Twins 2019 Position Analysis: Left Field

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26 Comments

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railmarshalljon
Mar 10 2019 08:50 PM

This is it. This is the year Buxton becomes a bonafide MVP candidate. 

    • Mike Sixel, Twins33 and Battle ur tail off like this

I do not believe in Buxton, I believe in his potential and it is up to him to make the step and convince us after a really poor start to his career. 

    • peterb18 likes this
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TheLeviathan
Mar 10 2019 09:58 PM

I hope he keeps the K's in check and uses last season as the motivation to put it all together this year.

    • peterb18 likes this

Buxton MVP candidate?Didn't he have a 5 for 5 game early on?Since then, he is 2 for 15 for a .134 average.I sure hope he can turn it around....but it seems like there are going to be a lot of strike outs and probably a sub .250 batting average.We can still hang our hat on his defense though.......which still makes him a starter!

 

Seems like a kind of horse or cart thing. I hope he hits well enough to play every day so that he can make adjustments andlearns to hit better. 

I don't know what to believe, but happy he finally is just going to be himself and not adjust his approach for the 20+ "coaches" telling him what he needs to change. He has the talent, but even adding 10 pounds of muscle won't allow him to make contact more often unless he believes in himself and the player he is.

 

Stop the over-coaching and let him be the player he is. If that doesn't work (please, please, please let it work!) we have to move on. 

No doubt that Buxton can hit a fastball.Question is, can he recognize a breaking ball let alone hit it, particularly the one 6 inches to a foot off the plate?

    • DocBauer likes this
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MMMordabito
Mar 11 2019 08:09 AM

Expectations for Buxton and Sano are close to zero for me. I think the FO extended the correct players so far (just hope they are still talking to Berrios).

 

With that said, I agree with Nick. A 701 OPS season from Buxton makes him a quality CF option. Even at a 650 OPS, you have to play him every day and bat him 9th. His defense and disruption ability on the basepaths make up the difference. If it gets worse than that, he probably becomes a LHP platoon option and late inning defensive replacement.

 

I'm definitely not going to set myself up for more disappointment with these two.

 

Lower the bar and you'll have a good time.

    • Twins33, PDX Twin, Minny505 and 1 other like this

 

No doubt that Buxton can hit a fastball.Question is, can he recognize a breaking ball let alone hit it, particularly the one 6 inches to a foot off the plate?

 

Spoiiler alert: No, he won't be able to hit one 6-12" off the plate.  

    • ashbury, James, DocBauer and 1 other like this
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Aerodeliria
Mar 11 2019 09:38 AM
I'm not sure what to think of Buxton. I want him to be a force to be reckoned with, but I'm not that confident. I think it would be so great if he started bunting. Early in the Kirbster's career he often bunted to get on base, especially to snap out of a slump. It seems as if Buxton doesn't take it upon himself to bunt. I recall him bunting twice last year, both at the direction of Molitor. (Correct me if I'm in error.) I think it's a waste not to bunt with his speed. Mickey Rivers used to cause havoc because he was good at bunting, so the corners had to cheat in. It didn't matter much. If he laid down a good bunt, he'd be standing at second base more often than not. *Sigh*

 

This is it. This is the year Buxton becomes a bonafide MVP candidate. 

Or, if he doesn't prove himself at least capable offensively, it's just it.I sure hope you're right though!Really like the kid.Seems to have used the September debacle as a motivator.  

    • bunt_vs_the_shift likes this

Since the article is about "Position Analysis", I'll say that if Buxton fails, the big league club is in pretty good hands with some combo of Kepler, Rosario, Cave.Also, if Lewis doesn't stick as a SS, I wonder what the chances are of FO moving him to CF if Buxton can't hack it?

    • Mike Sixel and DocBauer like this
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TheLeviathan
Mar 11 2019 10:45 AM

 

Since the article is about "Position Analysis", I'll say that if Buxton fails, the big league club is in pretty good hands with some combo of Kepler, Rosario, Cave.Also, if Lewis doesn't stick as a SS, I wonder what the chances are of FO moving him to CF if Buxton can't hack it?

 

The problem is that OF cannot be elite.What Buxton can provide, if he becomes what we hope, is elite.And it elevates Rosario and Kepler.

 

I hope people don't take too much from Buxton crushing fastballs the first two weeks of spring.April is our true test, anything before that is just nice to hear, but mostly meaningless.

    • Mike Sixel, Twins33, Tibs and 3 others like this
Stop over-coaching? Everything points in the opposite direction doesn't it? The entire spring training throughout the whole system is flooded with coaches and former players. All coaching and instructing.
    • peterb18 likes this
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bunt_vs_the_shift
Mar 11 2019 11:58 AM

 

Or, if he doesn't prove himself at least capable offensively, it's just it.I sure hope you're right though!Really like the kid.Seems to have used the September debacle as a motivator.  

Buxton has always seemed like a decent, humble guy, but this year he definitely seems like he's got an edge to him, which is refreshing to me. Up to this point, I think he's felt the need to live up to his prospect hype, but after last September it seems like he's shifted into "I'll show you" mode and is showing some fire, which is a mindset that some people need to have to be productive.

 

In a perfect world, if he could parlay some early success into a true leadership role, it would be transformative for this team. I know the Torii comparison has been made and I don't know how fair that is, but how great would it be to see a world where Buxton takes exception to getting thrown at and chucks the ball back at Danys Baez? I'm not advocating for brawling just to brawl, but I am advocating for Buxton standing up for himself and finally being the guy he can become.  

    • DocBauer likes this

The problem is that OF cannot be elite. What Buxton can provide, if he becomes what we hope, is elite. And it elevates Rosario and Kepler.

I hope people don't take too much from Buxton crushing fastballs the first two weeks of spring. April is our true test, anything before that is just nice to hear, but mostly meaningless.

Absolutely 100% agree. But at least we wont see Grossman, Shane Robinson etc out there
    • Mike Sixel, beckmt, h2oface and 2 others like this

That Tanner English is "depth" is kinda depressing.

 

.233/.313/.417 for an outfielder, any outfielder, is NEVER "appealing". The whole modern day acceptance of center fielders and catchers and shortstops being bad hitters, and that is acceptable even with elite fielding, is hogwash. Every MLB player, when all they do is play baseball, needs to aspire and acheive hitting and fielding. For a line like that to be 'more appealing' in center than right is just settling for mediocrity.

I'd add Jimmy Kerrigan to the depth category andAkil Baddoo and DaShawn Keirsey, to the CF prospect list.Seems they will stick at centerfield.

    • DocBauer likes this
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yarnivek1972
Mar 11 2019 06:46 PM

That Tanner English is "depth" is kinda depressing.

.233/.313/.417 for an outfielder, any outfielder, is NEVER "appealing". The whole modern day acceptance of center fielders and catchers and shortstops being bad hitters, and that is acceptable even with elite fielding, is hogwash. Every MLB player, when all they do is play baseball, needs to aspire and acheive hitting and fielding. For a line like that to be 'more appealing' in center than right is just settling for mediocrity.


It may not be appealing, but it is reality for half the league. There were 14 qualified center fielders with an OPS higher than .730 in 2018.
    • Mike Sixel likes this

 

It may not be appealing, but it is reality for half the league. There were 14 qualified center fielders with an OPS higher than .730 in 2018.

Shouldn't we be looking for better than league average with Buxton? if all he is is a career .730 OPS guy, that will be disappointing... He's supposed to be a star.

A few thoughts, rather than a bunch of quoting:

1] Agree with Thrylos in regard to Badoo and Keirsey. Not sure about Kerrigan.

2] Really thought/hoped/predicted English was going to surpass Granite last season. Then they both had bad years. I think English still has potential, but he needs a healthy and productive 2019 or he will not only be passed, but probably gone.

3] While a bit of a question mark, especially after battling injuries in 2018, I wouldn't fall asleep on Aaron Whitefield. If we are talking talent and potential, this kid has to be included.

4] I don't buy Lewis in CF, though I'm sure he could do very well there. I just don't see why he can't stick at SS with time and ironing out a few things. Further, even if the very talented Javier were to be the better option, Lewis could potentially move to 3B rather than the OF, (as could Javier potentially in a reverse scenario). Potentially, either of them could make for an outstanding overall 3B with defense and offense rather than a move to the OF where it seems the Twins have a lot of nice options.

Lastly, Buxton himself. Despite potential, will he ever achieve the potential he has, and others have speculated he has? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe his close to 2017 was merely an illusion. But please don't let "potential" and a horrible and cluster-filled 2018 season cloud real possibility. Hunter wasn't Hunter for a couple of seasons. Painful reminder or not, examine Aaron Hicks, as was brought up, and what he has done, or Gomez, also rushed, and then moved on before a series of some nice seasons elsewhere.

Muscled up now or not, Buxton had pretty good power beforehand. He has game changing speed and defense. Touched on, but i will expand, if he only hits .250-.260 and isn't a SO windmill, be can be an All Star and game changer. Hitting .270-.280 he can be elite.

I think his anger and disappointment has transformed to determination. Knock on wood for good luck/karma that weird and nagging injuries are mostly behind him, I think he's poised for a very nice season...even if his touching his ceiling is still a year or two away.
    • Thrylos, h2oface and bunt_vs_the_shift like this

A few thoughts, rather than a bunch of quoting:

1] Agree with Thrylos in regard to Badoo and Keirsey. Not sure about Kerrigan.

2] Really thought/hoped/predicted English was going to surpass Granite last season. Then they both had bad years. I think English still has potential, but he needs a healthy and productive 2019 or he will not only be passed, but probably gone.

3] While a bit of a question mark, especially after battling injuries in 2018, I wouldn't fall asleep on Aaron Whitefield. If we are talking talent and potential, this kid has to be included.

4] I don't buy Lewis in CF, though I'm sure he could do very well there. I just don't see why he can't stick at SS with time and ironing out a few things. Further, even if the very talented Javier were to be the better option, Lewis could potentially move to 3B rather than the OF, (as could Javier potentially in a reverse scenario). Potentially, either of them could make for an outstanding overall 3B with defense and offense rather than a move to the OF where it seems the Twins have a lot of nice options.

Lastly, Buxton himself. Despite potential, will he ever achieve the potential he has, and others have speculated he has? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe his close to 2017 was merely an illusion. But please don't let "potential" and a horrible and cluster-filled 2018 season cloud real possibility. Hunter wasn't Hunter for a couple of seasons. Painful reminder or not, examine Aaron Hicks, as was brought up, and what he has done, or Gomez, also rushed, and then moved on before a series of some nice seasons elsewhere.

Muscled up now or not, Buxton had pretty good power beforehand. He has game changing speed and defense. Touched on, but i will expand, if he only hits .250-.260 and isn't a SO windmill, be can be an All Star and game changer. Hitting .270-.280 he can be elite.

I think his anger and disappointment has transformed to determination. Knock on wood for good luck/karma that weird and nagging injuries are mostly behind him, I think he's poised for a very nice season...even if his touching his ceiling is still a year or two away.


Moving Lewis to 3B would be awful asset management. His best tool is his speed. This would be like converting Mike Trout into a pitcher.
    • jkcarew likes this

I'm going to draft him for the 3rd straight season in my fantasy league. No way I'm letting someone else get him after I've suffered so much over the past 2 years.

 

Shouldn't we be looking for better than league average with Buxton? if all he is is a career .730 OPS guy, that will be disappointing... He's supposed to be a star.

 

That post was about the backup to the backup to the backup numbers.......not Buxton....


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