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The Twins first baseman decision is not a no-brainer

Posted by Thieres Rabelo , 16 February 2019 · 2,144 views

The Twins first baseman decision is not a no-brainer We never expect players signings not to work - but some of them just don’t. Last year was a lesson for Twins fans in that sense, with big splashes like Lance Lynn, Logan Morrison and Addison Reed underperforming. A lot of people would include Jake Odorizzi in that category too. So, in a way, sometimes is wise to lower expectations about new players, in order to be pleasantly surprised down the road.

Long time club hero Joe Mauer officially announced his retirement from baseball on Nov. 9th, at age 35. Despite the age, Mauer still was a vital part of the team’s lineup, having a .351 OBP, which ranked 2nd 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 later, 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. Six days later the Twins claimed him off waivers, 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 isn’t unshakeable at this point. Playing for four years in the Majors before heading to Florida - all of them with the Angels, he has slashed .262/.307/.449 and not once has 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 to believe in Austin? For starters, we’re talking about a younger, not so much less productive than Cron alternative. Of course, his track records are much smaller, but his .758 career OPS aren’t 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, a rookie, .846. Plus, the former Yankee was able to hit 17 home runs in 2018, being given only 268 PA (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 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, which was invited to Spring Training. 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 it could be doable, since 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 even compares 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. The Saint Paul kid had .996 FP, 3 DRS and 2.7 UZR. However, a year earlier, he had a stellar defensive year, with .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 out of the three, but he has the smallest odds of making the team, in theory. Austin, out of the three, looks like the most athletic. You can also tell that by his registered weight, but he’s by far the least experienced. Out 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. If you didn’t find much to enjoy in the Florida games, you have this nice dispute now. There’s a lot at stake for those three guys. Let’s hope Joe Mauer’s heir is the best option possible.

Follow @TwinsBrasil on Twitter.

  • Strato Guy likes this

Feb 17 2019 11:02 AM

It's a Spring Training competition between Cron and Austin with Duda as a dark horse. But they may only be contending for the title of place-holder this year until someone else (Sano, Kepler . . . ) is placed at !B

Halsey Hall
Feb 17 2019 01:35 PM

I can't see Austin on this team .

Cron is going to be on the team. I believe he signed a guaranteed contract before the tender deadline, so he is not under the rules where they can cut him in spring training and only pay part of his contract.


Austin can also play outfield, and that would be the logical fit for him now, since all of the outfielder on this team bat left handed. He may be the 4th OF, or if they carry 4bench players, the 5th OF.