Likely Backup: Marwin Gonzalez
Depth: Miguel Sano, Tyler Austin, Lucas Duda
Prospects: Alex Kirilloff, Brent Rooker, Zander Wiel
Tasked with finding a replacement for Joe Mauer at first base, the front office decided to gather up a collection of intriguing low-cost parts rather than invest in a bona fide solution. Those hoping for a Paul Goldschmidt type splash were surely disappointed with the approach this past winter, but the Twins did well in patching together some viable options.
Already the front office had acquired Austin from New York, in last July's Lance Lynn trade. The lefty-mashing slugger seemed to profile perfectly as half of a platoon with someone like – say – Duda, whom they added on a minor-league deal just ahead of spring training. Proceeding with those two would've been a sound short-term strategy, and perhaps Minnesota had plans along those lines heading into the offseason.
But plans quickly changed when Cron became available on waivers in late November. Seeing a late-20s first baseman, with a solid track record, coming off a career year and available for nothing, was too much for the Twins to pass up at one of their clearest areas of need.
Cron seems to offer a reasonably high floor along with a limited ceiling. The first part of that equation is valuable and sets him apart from the alternatives. Owner of a .289/.336/.500 line in the minors, he never posted an OPS below .739 in four MLB seasons prior to breaking out with an .816 mark and 30 home runs last year in Tampa. So even if he regresses a little, he probably won't fall too far. As a reference point, Mauer posted a .746 OPS overall in his five seasons as a first baseman.
The Twins have lacked a reliable power bat at first base since Morneau suffered his concussion in 2010, so Cron looks like a breath of fresh air in that regard. And if something should go amiss with the projected starter during spring training, Minnesota is well equipped to absorb the blow. Austin and Duda have become fallback plans, and they're good ones at that.
Austin is a muscle-bound, intimidating beast in the batter's box, and he put on a convincing power display after coming over from the Yankees last summer, blasting nine home runs in 35 games as a Twin. In 120 career big-league games, the 27-year-old has 24 jacks and a .469 slugging percentage.
Duda has a lengthier track record of hitting with 152 home runs in 919 MLB games. He wasn't great last year between Kansas City and Atlanta, slashing .241/.313/.418, but that's respectable and the prior year he launched 30 homers with an .818 OPS. The 33-year-old has a career OPS+ of 118.
One other creative addition from the offseason was Wilin Rosario, signed to play in Rochester after a three-year stint in Korea. Rosario was a quality bat for the Rockies before heading to Asia, and was a monster hitter for two years in the KBO (.961 and 1.060 OPS marks) before taking a step back in 2018. He's a longshot to make any impact but the Twins aren't counting on him for much – only to replace the departed Kennys Vargas as a readily available option in Triple-A.
On the prospect front, 1B/OF hybrid Rooker is the most immediate possibility and could be up with Minnesota this summer if things break right for him. Trevor Larnach is more or less in the same boat, though he played only right field after being drafted last year. Sano might stop at first for awhile on his way to inevitably ending up at DH.
But I believe the long-term vision is for Kirilloff to take over. He's got the bat, and while he has played outfield exclusively up to this point, he is not considered a special defender out there. With current Twins right fielder Max Kepler now locked up long-term, I expect we'll see the rapidly rising Kirilloff start to break in a first baseman's mitt this year.
Well, let's start here: The admirable present depth at first base is likely to evaporate by the end of spring training, because Austin is out of options (likely to be claimed on waivers) and Duda will undoubtedly opt out if he doesn't make the team, which he won't unless Cron or Nelson Cruz gets hurt.
So then you're down to Cron and Sano probably sharing duties at first. I'd like to see Kepler play there too against the occasional tough right-hander, but that remains to be seen. Gonzalez's presence is helpful in the event of a Cron injury/implosion, as he can either fill in at first, or (more likely) at third with Sano sliding over. But none of these players are the kind of well rounded, dominant sluggers you ideally envision at first base. (Sano could be, but hasn't shown it since early 2017.)
The Twins will gain more power at the position with Mauer gone, but they'll also lose two critical strengths – top-tier defensive prowess and strong on-base skills. No one is suited to match #7 in those traits, which are especially valuable on a team that features an iffy left side of the infield defensively, and a lineup already heavy on pop and light on OBP.
Yeah, these guys the Twins have brought in can all hit the ball hard. But evidence suggests this isn't widely perceived as being all that valuable on its own. That's why Minnesota was able to get Cron on waivers, Austin as a trade toss-in, Duda on a minors deal, Rosario from Korea.
THE BOTTOM LINE
As far as stopgaps go, the Twins have done pretty well for themselves. Cron is a serviceable – albeit bland – starting option while Austin and Duda provide quality spring depth. There are also a number of players on Minnesota's roster (namely Sano and Gonzalez) who could become frequent plugs at the position, and possibly even regulars.
That's the beauty of first base: it's on the far end of the defensive spectrum, meaning almost any capable hitter can end up there. So while there are no great "first base prospects" in the Twins' system right now, per se, there are plenty who could eventually take on that function as big-leaguers, with Kirilloff leading the pack in my mind.
While the future at first is uncertain, it's hardly ominous, and the Twins have set themselves up for comfortable stability in the short-term.
***Twins 2019 Position Analysis: Catcher
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