Report from The Fort: Leading Questions
Image courtesy of © Ken Blaze-USA TODAY SportsThe pivot point in the Twins' lineup comes early, very early. It’s the leadoff hitter. Go one direction, and the lineup looks one way. Go the other, and it looks very different. For the last two years, that leadoff hitter has mostly been Max Kepler, but coming into the season, there were two significant challenges to that status quo:
Luis Arraez Is Healthy
Arraez is expected to get a lot of at-bats as a multi-positional player. Arraez isn’t exactly a prototypical leadoff hitter because he doesn’t walk a ton, and doesn’t bring a lot of speed to the bases. But he battles and he gets on base: at a .390 clip in his 487 career plate appearances.
Arraez is fearless, and an asset almost anywhere except the heart of the lineup. “He's an on-base machine, a line-drive machine," gushed Twins manager Rocco Baldelli this week. “He's a throwback. You don't see a lot of guys with the skills he does with the bat in his hands.”
An on-base machine would be a logical fit for the top spot in the lineup. Especially when the left-handed hitting 23-year-old would likely bat right in front of right-handed hitting Josh Donaldson and Nelson Cruz.
Eddie Rosario Is Gone
The Twins have a hole to fill in the middle of their lineup with the departure of left-handed hitting Eddie Rosario. Rosario batted fourth for the vast majority of his plate appearances the last two years. He’ll likely be replaced in the outfield with left-handed hitting Alex Kirilloff, but odds are the Twins would thrust cleanup on a rookie making his (regular season) debut this year.
With Rosario gone, the best left-handed hitting Twins' batter is Kepler. (He probably was before Rosario left, too.) So he makes a lot of sense to bat cleanup, but – follow me here – he’s not allowed to do that if he’s batting leadoff. I know, it’s a silly rule.
In the Twins first four spring training games, Kepler has lead off twice and Arraez has lead off twice. Baldelli is notorious for not tipping his hand when it comes to lineups, and this year is no different. But it’s clear he recognizes the luxury having both affords him.
“Two different hitters, but two guys that can certainly be productive at the top of the order, Baldelli said, talking about Arraez and Kepler. “One thing they both do well is they both see the ball well. They are hitters that see the ball and then react. They're not in swing-first mode like a lot of guys can get into that mode.”
There is not bad answer. Some might wonder since Arraez is slated for a utility role, whether the decision takes care of itself? But Kepler has played in 89% of all the Twins games since 2017, and Baldelli is vowing to make sure that Arraez will get as much run as any other regular. So odds are there is going to be significant overlap in the playing time of the two.
It should also be mentioned that theoretically, Kepler and Arraez are not the only options. Mitch Garver and Jorge Polanco have both been in the leadoff spot over the last two years, and it’s possible that would be the case against some pitchers. Byron Buxton, if he ever raises his ability to get on base, would certainly be electric out of that spot. But Kepler and Arraez seem to be the top options, and they’re the only two we’ve seen lead off so far in spring training.
So if you’re looking to track a spring training battle from afar this spring, here’s your chance. Arraez and Kepler haven’t been in the same lineup yet, but one would think that would certainly give a clue to what Baldelli is thinking. Until then, build your lineup, maybe starting in the comments below, and see if you can settle this leading question.
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