What's the Plan with Tyler Austin?
Image courtesy of Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY SportsUp to this point, Austin has shown some ability as a major-league hitter. Through his age 26-season, he owns a .758 OPS in 404 MLB plate appearances. This year between New York and Minnesota he slugged .480 in 268 PA; that's a higher mark than Eddie Rosario finished with, and barely below what Cron produced in a career year with Tampa.
In many ways, Austin looks like the prototypical "change of scenery special." He showed promise with the Yankees but couldn't differentiate himself in a system full of big power bats. Having acquired him in the Lance Lynn deal, the Twins found themselves with a prime opportunity to give Austin a prolonged look, with first base becoming vacant, but instead they chose to go with Cron – a similar if not redundant player.
Austin's solid overall production has been highly polarized in its concentration. Against right-handed pitchers he's been ineffective, with a .211/.259/.405 slash line and 39% K-rate. Against lefties he's been DOMINANT, at .272/.345/.592 and 32%. The way to best utilize such a player seems clear: partner him with a lefty swinger who can mash righties, and let Rocco Baldelli play the platoon game while also enjoying some great strategic pinch-hitting options.
Cron throws a wrench in that, swinging from the same side as Austin. In fact, given his neutral platoon splits and his success in a full-time role this year, it seems likely Cron will be penciled as the everyday starter at first.
This leaves only one path for Austin, who's out of options next spring and likely to land elsewhere if he doesn't make the roster: designated hitter. There is still opportunity there for the Twins to leverage Austin's strengths and deploy him impactfully.
They can't trust him as full-time DH. It'd be irresponsible to go with Austin as the full-time solution, given his ugly numbers against righties. But if you equip the team with a lefty bat that can frequently plug in at DH? Then we're cooking.
Theoretically, this can be accomplished with the existing setup. Roll with a bench of Mitch Garver, Ehire Adrianza, Willians Astudillo and Jake Cave, then rotate Cave (or Eddie Rosario) through the DH spot against righties. It'd be a good way to keep arguably your reigning two best hitters (Rosario and Cave) in the lineup regularly.
Another bench construction that would intrigue me, if Garver is deemed good to go at catcher, would be swapping out Astudillo (who has an option remaining) for outfielder LaMonte Wade, recently added to the 40-man roster. He'll be 25 on Opening Day, has ample experience at Triple-A, and would help balance out a roster short on patience and plate discipline. Wade has a .391 OBP in the minors and walks more than he strikes out against right-handers.
Alternatively, the Twins could seek out another lefty bat via trade or free agency to complement Austin as a DH/bench piece. It'd need to be someone with a bit of positional flexibility since the team surely isn't gonna carry three first basemen.
These are scenarios in which Minnesota could still roster Austin and maximize his value. But the simple reality may be that they just don't see the 27-year-old fitting into their plans. Cron's addition already hinted toward this (why not just skip him and set up the Austin platoon at first?) and the reported serious interest in Nelson Cruz would be another indicator. If the Twins sign Cruz, Austin's out – that feels like a safe assumption.
In fact, signing Cruz and essentially locking him in for 600 plate appearances at DH would all but eliminate any room for creative platoons or rotations, which strikes me as odd for a team that claims to be focused on sorting out existing assets and developing its core.
Giving up on Austin wouldn't necessarily be malpractice, given that he's so one-dimensional both offensively and defensively, and so very very strikeout-prone. But based on the pure slugging prowess he showed during his short time in Minnesota this year, and his proven ability to terrorize southpaws, he certainly seems worthy of a longer look.
For his part, Austin is undoubtedly tracking the front office's movements at the Winter Meetings as closely as any fan, knowing that the addition of Cruz would turn his grasp on a roster spot from precarious to perilous.
- Monkeypaws, mikelink45, nytwinsfan and 5 others like this