Twins 2020 Position Analysis: Center Field
Image courtesy of David Berding-USA TODAY SportsProjected Starter: Byron Buxton
Likely Backup: Max Kepler
Depth: LaMonte Wade Jr., Jake Cave
Prospects: Royce Lewis, Gilberto Celestino
Buxton's ability to rank among the best center fielders in the majors finally changed from theoretical to undeniable last season. When he suffered a (basically) season-ending shoulder injury on August 1st, his 2.7 fWAR was second-best among full-time CFs.
There are plenty of excellent and athletic players who spend some time in center, or even a lot of time. This includes guys like Houston's George Springer, Arizona's Ketel Marte, Atlanta's Ronald Acuña, even Minnesota's Max Kepler. But among true, no-doubt center fielders – the guys you wouldn't dream of playing anywhere else on the field – only the eventual MVP Mike Trout was having a better season than Buxton through four months according to Fangraphs' all-encompassing metric.
This shouldn't come as a surprise to any Twins fan who had the opportunity to observe Buxton's breakout showing. As usual the speedster was a spectacular force in the outfield, routinely taking away extra-base hits from the opposition and earning affinity from his pitchers. Meanwhile his bat finally emerged, as Buxton slashed .262/.314/.513 with 30 doubles, 14 home runs and four triples in 295 plate appearances.
Looking vastly more comfortable at the plate after years of fits and starts, Buxton just played his game. He wasn't patient, but he was aggressive and intentional, reducing his career 32% K-rate to a far more palatable 23%.
Because of his lineup depth, Rocco Baldelli was able to use Buxton as No. 9 hitter almost exclusively, keeping pressure off Buck's shoulders and also positioning him as a second leadoff man. Getting the league's fastest player on base as the lineup flips over gives the Twins a dynamic competitive advantage. That's beyond the simple fact of boasting an .827 OPS in the nine-hole, where American League peers averaged a .652 mark. Buxton seems very likely to return to that spot in this year's loaded batting order.
Taking into account everything he adds, it's no coincidence Minnesota went 53-25 (.679) in games Buxton started last year, compared to 48-36 (.571) in those he didn't. For context, over a full season, that's the difference between a 110-win team and a 92-win team.
Baseball is a game where the impact of individual contributors is inherently limited – what with nine players in the lineup and on the field, and 12-13 different pitchers in the mix at any given time. But when he's got it going like last year, Buxton makes an outsized impact that few others in the league can match.
If you could guarantee me he'd be on the field and healthy for a vast majority of the Twins' games (however many they play), I'd pick the 26-year-old Buxton as preseason favorite for team MVP – ahead of Josh Donaldson, Nelson Cruz, Miguel Sano, everyone – without hesitation.
Unfortunately, as we all know, this is far from guaranteed.
Throughout his pro career, dating back to his days in the minors, Buxton has continually been unable to avoid injuries, thanks to a style of play that often puts him in harm's way (plus a healthy dose of bad luck). Jammed thumbs, strained wrists, concussions, a broken toe... the center fielder has seen it all, and as a result he's played in 100 games only once in an MLB season since first arriving in 2015.
His collision with the wall in Miami last August was not only another sobering reminder of the hazards incumbent in Buxton's game, but especially worrisome because of what it did to his shoulder. Buxton suffered a subluxation (or dislocation, essentially), and after the rest-and-rehab approach failed to take, he required surgery to repair his labrum.
It's a pretty serious procedure, which is why six months later, he still wasn't quite ready to appear in spring training games and the Twins weren't fully committing to his Opening Day readiness. Having said that, all indications suggest things are going smoothly and with the delayed start to the season, he's got a good shot at being out there from the jump.
But even if he's available for Game 1, it's gonna be tough for anyone to trust in Buxton's ability to stay consistently available for the balance of the season. As much as injury-prone tends to be a miscast label, it's one of the only things Buxton can't run away from.
Life without their star center fielder is something the Twins have sadly grown accustomed to over the years, and they are fairly well equipped for it. Last season Kepler made 53 starts in center while the starter was sidelined, and he was perfectly serviceable there. It's a big part of the reason we named him our 2019 team MVP.
Kepler remains an option if Buxton goes down for any length of time, and it wouldn't be entirely surprising to see him in center field on Opening Day. But it sounds as though the Twins would prefer to avoid taking Kepler out of right field, so they may be more inclined to go with LaMonte Wade Jr. or Jake Cave, especially in a shorter-term absence. Each has proven himself capable defensively there – albeit Cave to a lesser extent – and can hit enough to be a viable starter. A true backup center fielder is one of the few things missing on this roster, but I think the Twins are in decent shape make do.
In the minors, much hinges on No. 1 prospect Royce Lewis and where he ends up. When he was drafted as a shortstop, many believed he was destined to end up in center, due to his rough edges as an infielder and his blazing speed. Every one of his defensive starts in the minors had come at short until his second-to-last one at Pensacola in September, when he was in center. He then started primarily out there in the Arizona Fall League, where he looked like a natural and was voted MVP.
Lewis might be the heir apparent behind Buxton, who's still under team control for three more years. But in order to actualize such a plan, the Twins will need to get their top prospect more outfield reps. For the time being, it looks like they're intent on sticking with him at shortstop, leaving 21-year-old Gilberto Celestino as the most promising center fielder in the system.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Buxton is the most exciting wild-card factor in play for the 2020 Minnesota Twins. If his surgery takes and he returns to the field without losing anything, he'll be a transformative force for the lineup, defense, and pitching staff. If he can manage to stay out there, he elevates this team in drastic ways.
But, if history repeats and he can't stay out there, the Twins are in better shape than most teams would be when losing a cornerstone talent. Kepler makes for a fine fill-in, and opens the door for Minnesota to tap its copious corner outfield depth in right.
The Twins will be okay without Buxton. But with him? They might be unstoppable.
Twins 2020 Position Analysis: Catcher
Twins 2020 Position Analysis: First Base
Twins 2020 Position Analysis: Second Base
Twins 2020 Position Analysis: Third Base
Twins 2020 Position Analysis: Shortstop
Twins 2020 Position Analysis: Left Field
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