For a team that is pretty filled out going into the season, the Minnesota Twins have a few moving parts that are intriguing at the beginning of the year. There is the matter of who is in the rotation and how that is determined. There are players that are out of options. There’s Joe Mauer’s health, Byron Buxton’s development and Ricky Nolaso’s contract.
But the Miguel Sano-Byung Ho Park-John Ryan Murphy dynamic is the most interesting of all the storylines coming out of Spring Training for the Twins. Unless something crazy happens from here until Opening Day, Minnesota’s decision to sign Park out of Korea and send Aaron Hicks to the New York Yankees for Murphy has the most implications for the team going forward.
For starters, Minnesota needs a long-term solution at catcher. Mauer isn’t going back behind the plate, and Kurt Suzuki had a down year after his career season, hitting .240/.296/.314 and only throwing out 15 percent of base-stealers from behind the plate. Murphy is 24 and will begin the year splitting time at catcher, but could take over the position by the end of the season.
In order to acquire him, however, the Twins had to blow up a promising outfield. Buxton is the No. 2 prospect in baseball and already is one of the better fielders in the game. Hicks was the center fielder before him, lightning fast with the ability to rob players with amazing diving catches. And Eddie Rosario was able to man right field with the big wall and less space to cover.
The big question, of course, is how well each of those players would hit. Buxton’s .209/.250/.326 line in 129 at-bats last year was disconcerting for fans, media and team officials — albeit in a small sample size. “I would have liked to have kept him down there longer,” general manager Terry Ryan said at the end of the season last year, referring to Triple-A. “No doubt that would have benefited him, not us. So don’t evaluate too much on what you saw in the short amount of time we had saw him, but he made progress.”
Hicks, on the other hand, had plenty of time to prove himself and, despite showing glimpses of promise with the bat last season, never fully realized his potential with the Twins. “He’s had ample opportunity,” Ryan said in October of last year. “I think everybody would agree with that.” He was starting to come along towards the end of the year, but his .256/.323/.398 line in 352 at-bats as a third-year player was hardly enough to make him untouchable in the offseason.
And even though Rosario had a promising rookie year (.267/.289/.459 with 15 triples and 13 home runs), he is a candidate for regression. He often swung at pitches out of the zone, didn’t walk a lot (15 walks, 118 strikeouts) and could be due for a Danny Santana or Danny Valencia-like sophomore slump. “There are holes,” Ryan admitted last season, “we all know that, but he’s also played pretty well defensively too.”
The biggest issue with keeping this outfield intact is that it may have meant having two light-hitting fielders in the lineup as well as a wild card. This, in addition to Torii Hunter’s retirement, might have meant that the Twins would be a dominant defensive team but not score enough runs to win on a regular basis.
In many ways, signing Park was very high risk. Not only does he have to pan out as a player, but either Sano has to become a sound corner outfielder defensively or Trevor Plouffe or somebody else is going to make a return to the outfield. The potential for a fluid situation defensively may hamper Sano’s otherwise meteoric rise as one of the team’s top prospects.
In other words, the combination of the Park signing has a chance to go sideways in a major way. If Sano isn’t a great outfielder or third baseman, there’s all of a sudden a glut of first basemen and designated hitters on the Twins roster.
Mauer will be in one of those two positions making $23 million per year. Oswaldo Arcia could be as well, if he can return to form. He hit 34 home runs in his first two seasons with the team, but is a poor defensive outfielder and bottomed out last year, only playing 19 games in 2015 after playing in 103 two years ago. He finished below the Mendoza line in Triple-A, hitting .199/.257/.372 in Rochester to finish the season. “He had a difficult year, and I mean difficult,” said Ryan at the end of the season. “I think it snowballed on him because things didn’t start going in the right direction when he got down there, and ultimately I think he got into more of a power mode, which that’s not a good thing.”
As for Mauer, there are some — perhaps many — in Twins Territory who would like to excommunicate the erstwhile hometown hero. Park would then be the full-time DH, Sano the first baseman and Plouffe would play the hot corner. If Mauer hits .265/.338/.380 with 112 strikeouts like he did last year, that would only lend credence to their argument.
But in an era when the importance of on-base percentage has become better understood, Mauer could play a significant role in the lineup if he can hit near his career .394 OBP. He led the team in on-base percentage last year, among qualifying players. “He can really improve on his numbers,” Ryan said at the end of the season. “I don’t want to put limits on Joe Mauer, because that’s the wrong thing. I certainly think he can get into the .300’s.”
As of right now, the immediate focus is on Sano. If Sano, Park, Plouffe and Mauer can co-exist in the same lineup and outfield, things will be just fine. In fact, fair or unfair, Sano has now become another elephant in the room — a 265-pound elephant — and the question is whether a player of that size can play in the outfield.
“Moving Sano to the outfield … he’s a big kid. An outfielder shouldn’t be more than 220, 225. The outfield is not for big guys,” former Twin David Ortiz told Patrick Reusse, who wrote a recent column exploring the idea of Sano playing in the outfield. “When a big guy dives for a ball, the whole stadium shakes. Every time a big guy is running and then dives in the outfield, he’s going to feel that for a long time.
“Put him at third base. Let Plouffe play right field. He’s not as big of a man.”
Time will tell how this all shakes out, but Twins fans certainly will be watching with bated breath — if only because they’re worried they’ll spill their beer when Sano dives for the ball. Best-case scenario: Sano bucks the trend and mans right field, Plouffe continues to play well at third, Mauer is an on-base machine and Murphy takes over as the full-time catcher by the middle of the year. Worse-case scenario: There is a logjam at first base and DH and serious holes in the outfield.
“Sano’s the power hitter the Twins have been waiting for a long time, and by the middle of the game, his legs are going to be gone,” Ortiz told Reusse. “When do we come to Minnesota? It’s in the summer (June), right. You’re going to remember what I’m telling you and say, ‘Big Papi was right.’”
The question then, of course, won’t just be if Sano’s in the outfield, but if Park can hit major league pitching, Mauer can get on-base and Murphy is an up-and-coming young catcher. That’s a lot of variables, but that’s — as they say — why they play the games.
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