My last Opening Day roster projection (version 2.0) was put out on February 10th. Not much has changed since then, and I feel good about what I came up with. The end of the position players come down to a two-way battle in my mind, and that would be between The Turtle and Rake Cave.
After jumping into relevance during 2018, Astudillo came back to earth a year ago. Cave was acquired in exchange for Luis Gil and has served in an adequate fourth outfielder role since. Now entering 2020 with one of the best rosters in baseball, it will be about production and function when considering who will grab that coveted 26th roster spot.
Let’s get to the tale of the tape.
What Does Willians Do Well?
When considering the functionality of Astudillo, you’d be hard pressed not to immediately notice his flexibility. No, not in terms of limberness, but in the sense of positional opportunity. Over the past two seasons he has played six different positions each year and calling him a primary anything may be a stretch.
On top of being able to move him all over the diamond, there’s his ability to put the round bat on the round ball. He’s got 301 major league plate appearances and has struck out just 11 times. That 4% strikeout rate is in line with the 3% mark he set in the minors over 2,500 plate appearances as well. In a league dominated by power, commanding the zone to that extent is a feat in and of itself.
What Doesn’t Willians Do Well?
This is where strengths also become weaknesses for the artist famously known as La Tortuga. Rocco Baldelli is afforded the ability to play Astudillo all over the diamond, but defensive metrics suggest it’s not an opportunity he should be excited about. He’s a below average catcher, small target at first base, poor at third, and substantially stretched in the outfield. He’s a utility player in that he “can,” but the utility is lost in thinking whether he “should.”
Also, about that strikeout rate. Last season Astudillo’s swing tendencies were exploited to the tune of a dismal .678 OPS. He still didn’t strike out at all, but because he doesn’t take walks either, he’ll never be a strong OBP guy. He has a very good ability to hit the ball, but a poor ability to discern what pitches he should be attacking. A 40% ground ball rate and 30% hard hit rate aren’t going to result in many positive outcomes. Aggressiveness works against him for the most part and opposing pitchers have exploited it.
What Does Cave Do Well?
Andrew Thares recently did a great job breaking down Jack Cave over at Twins Daily. His 2019 was exponentially better than starting outfielder Eddie Rosario, and he played a key role after Byron Buxton went down. Finishing with an .805 OPS in 72 games, Cave posted a .296/.377/.556 slash line over his final 50 games (39 starts 142 AB). He certainly fans plenty but doubling his walk rate to nearly 10% was a good adjustment.
In the field Cave is limited to just the grass, but he contributes in all three positions. Although he’s an average at best outfielder, it’s not as though he’s a liability. Centerfield is not the place you’d want to put him, but he’s plenty adequate on the corners. Given the volatility involved with Minnesota’s starting centerfield option, the ability to cycle players through makes a good amount of sense.
What Doesn’t Cave Do Well?
I’m not sure Cave’s greatest hinderance is that there’s something he doesn’t inherently do well on his own as much as it’s the hand he’s currently being dealt. He’s a fourth outfielder on a team that has one of the better outfields in all of baseball. Although Eddie Rosario could be replaceable, that doesn’t appear to be a blueprint that will happen internally at the moment. On top of that, acquisitions in the infield have made Marwin Gonzalez more of an outfielder (a role he has been defensively superior at) pushing Cave further down the ladder.
From a personal contribution standpoint, Cave does have some opportunity for growth in terms of contact rate. He’s just below 70%, and given the 52% hard hit rate in 2020, more bats on balls is a good thing. He owned a .358 BABIP despite just a .258 average. Sure, the counting numbers aren’t there yet but that could turn quick.
At the end of the day, I think there’s little argument to be made that Cave isn’t the better player of the two. What this could come down to is the more ideal positional fit, and right now, Astudillo has that working in his favor.