Who's on First? Cron's No Sure Thing
Image courtesy of © Kim Klement-USA TODAY SportsLongtime club hero Joe Mauer officially announced his retirement from baseball on Nov. 9, at age 35. Mauer still was a vital part of the team’s lineup, having a .351 OBP, which ranked second on the team. He also slashed .407/.500/.617 with RISP and .333/.443/.468 with men on while playing Gold Glove level defense. And 2018 was, by far, one of the worst years of his career. So talk about big shoes to fill at first base.
Less than two weeks after the retirement announcement, the Tampa Bay Rays designated C.J. Cron for assignment, even after his career year in which he hit 30 home runs, while also being a LHP’s nightmare. The Twins claimed him off waivers six days later, making him, at least in theory, the new everyday first baseman. But was his career year enough to give him such big job security? Let’s talk about possible backup plans the club may have, in case Cron doesn’t repeat his last year’s performance.
It’s important to explain why my faith in Cron is shaky at this point. Playing for four years with the Angels before heading to the Rays, he had slashed .262/.307/.449 and not once had hit more than 16 home runs in a season. Granted, he had never had more than 445 PA in a season before 2018, so he did make the best when given a real shot. Still, it’s hard to believe that he won’t be back to his old self.
Even having the best season of his career so far, Cron’s secondary numbers weren’t so different from the previous seasons. When talking about his plate discipline, there’s even a considerable drop. He had a career-low Contact% of 72.6, which was 2.1% lower than in 2017 and 3.7% lower than his career average. He also struck out more than any time before, having a career-worst 25.9 K%, 3.3% higher than his career average.
Are all those numbers indicators that he is bound to fail as a Twin? Absolutely not. I just believe that they are evidence that going all in on Cron, parting ways with good possible replacement or platoon options, could turn out to be too costly later on. If the Twins actually choose to go all in on him, could this threaten Minnesota’s chance to contend? Not necessarily. But I don’t think it would hurt them to be extra cautious here.
Before the Cron signing, Tyler Austin was seen as the natural replacement. Now, everything seems to point to the fact that Rocco Baldelli and his staff will have to choose between one or the other, since Austin doesn’t have any minor league options left in his contract. But one thing is absolutely clear as well: if Austin had no chance to at least fight for that position, he would already have been cut.
So, why believe in Austin? For starters, we’re talking about a younger, not so much less productive than Cron alternative. Of course, his track record is much smaller, but his .758 career OPS is not too far from Cron’s .772. Last season, with both of them having their breakout seasons, their performance against lefties weren’t extremely different, with Cron having a .930 OPS facing southpaws and Austin .846. Plus, the former Yankee was able to hit 17 home runs in 2018 despite being given only 268 PA (a career high), while the 30 times Cron went yard came with 560 PA, more than twice as much.
Like I said before, if the Twins thought Austin didn’t stand a chance against Cron, they would have gotten rid of him long ago. It all comes down to what the club has in mind. Cron is the obvious choice if you want an experienced, low risk bet, that might have turned the corner and should be able to help the team now (but it’s worth remembering that we thought the same about Logan Morrison a year ago).
On the other hand, if you have a younger option, with similar production, who could help the team long-term, Austin should be your guy. He’s no kid, but he seems to have more potential. With only 404 career PA, he has produced eight more home runs, 12 more runs batted in and more than twice as many walks as Cron did when he had reached that many PA.
One extra piece of information to the mixture. Minnesota’s current contract with Cron has him earning $4.8 million this season. But according to last week’s “Gleeman and the Geek” podcast, if the club were to decide to cut him before Opening Day, they would only owe him 25% of that amount ($1.2 million). Of course, they would not have claimed him off waivers if they didn’t believe he is their guy, but having that exit possibility sure makes things easier if they don’t like what they see from him in spring training.
And just when we thought this decision couldn’t get any more complicated, the Twins proved us wrong. Less than ten days ago, the club signed a minor-league contract with LHH and former MVP-candidate Lucas Duda. Ted Schwerzler wrote this great piece analyzing how the 33-year old could help Minnesota. It would be tricky to try to fit him in this packed Twins roster, although the team wouldn’t need a fifth starter until mid-April, allowing the bench to have a fourth player. It’s hard to see him making the Opening Day roster and remaining there for the rest of the year. But if Duda were to accept a job at Rochester for most of the year, he could either become a good option in case of injury or even a trade asset eventually.
Since all of their offensive numbers look rather similar, if you’re still undecided on which one is your favorite, you can also look at their defense. But bad news: none of them compares closely to what Joe Mauer was in that department. The future Hall of Famer has had impressive numbers overall in the five full years as a first baseman. Last year wasn’t the best example, but his numbers were still better than the Cron-Austin-Duda trio. Mauer had .996 FP, 3 DRS and 2.7 UZR in 2018, but was even better the year before, posting a.998 FP, 7 DRS and 6.9 UZR. He was shockingly snubbed from the Gold Glove award that year.
But let’s steer clear of the Mauer nostalgia and see where do his successor candidates stand in comparison to his defense. Again, we have pretty similar metrics, when looking at their 2018 final numbers, so you will be the judge:
C.J. Cron - .993 FP, -2 DRS, 1.3 UZR
Tyler Austin - .997 FP, 1 DRS, -1 UZR
Lucas Duda - .995 FP, 0 DRS, -0.1 UZR
Numbers aren’t everything when talking about defense. You have to take into account experience and athleticism. Duda is obviously the most experienced and his defensive numbers aren’t the worst of the three, but he has the smallest odds of making the team, in theory. Austin, of the three, looks like the most athletic, but he’s by far the least experienced. Of the three, Cron has the worst fielding percentage and defensive runs saved. You make the call on which defender you like best.
All we fans can do right now is wait for spring training action. There’s a lot at stake for those three guys.
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