Twins

Looking Ahead to 2019: Position Players

Mandatory Credit: Jordan Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

In the final installment of the “Looking Ahead” series, it’s time to look at the position players who are currently on the roster and what their role may be in the 2019 season. You can see what the Twins pitchers look like by looking at the article about the bullpen and the starting rotation.

Catchers

Jason Castro

Castro missed most of the 2018 season with a torn meniscus in his right knee and should be healthy by the time spring training starts if he isn’t already.

With only one year left on his three year, $24.5 million deal, the Twins backstop looks to share time after an impressive showing from Mitch Garver in 103 games behind the plate.

Castro had a rough start to 2018 but the 19 games he played are too small of a sample to take a deep dive in.

Mitch Garver

Garver took advantage of Castro’s injury by putting up a higher OPS (.749) than Castro has in every other year of his career with the exception of his 2013 season with the Astros.

While he excelled at the plate, Castro is the far superior defender as Garver was rated as the 110th catcher — out of 117 — defensively according to Baseball Prospectus’ Catcher Statistics data.

On a team that is going to be desperate for some OBP, Garver may be one of the better options and could see a little time at DH when he isn’t behind the dish.

Middle Infield

Jonathan Schoop

A surprise signing by the Twins, Schoop (pronounced “Scope”) will be the starting second basemen for your 2019 Twins. He’s a low-OBP, high-SLG type of player, although that wasn’t the case in 2018, and he plays above average defense.

What’s interesting about Schoop’s 2018 is that all of his sabermetric metrics align with his career averages — as seen below — which typically isn’t the case when your OPS is 180 percentage points lower than your career norm.

In general, people rely too much on BABIP to explain why a hitter is lucky or unlucky, but after digging in this may be the case with Schoop. His career BABIP is .304 while his 2018 BABIP was only at .261 so it’s reasonable to expect Schoop to bounce back a bit in 2019, but probably closer to his 2016 season than his 2017 season.

Jorge Polanco

After returning from his 80-game PED suspension, Polanco was one of the bright spots in an otherwise abysmal season and will be the Twins regular shortstop in 2019.

It’s still early in his major league career to know exactly what the Twins are going to get from Polanco at the plate as his 2016 and 2018 seasons gave Twins fans hope that he’s a long-term solution to a position that has been in flux since the days of Cristian Guzman.

But those seasons sandwiched a 2017 season that had some pop (13 HRs) but lacked in just about every other traditional measure of hitting (BA, OBP, SLG).

According to FanGraphs’ defense metric, Jorge Polanco ranks dead last in defense of shortstops who have played over 2,000 innings at the position over the last three years. Acknowledging that his 2016 was drastically worse (-9.6) than his 2017 and 2018 seasons, he still ranked second to last compared to other shortstops.

Despite this, he is still the Twins’ best option at the position.

Ehire Adrianza

Adrianza filled in nicely while the aforementioned Polanco was out, but he is definitely the inferior of the two. His defense is better than Polanco’s but what he provides with his bat is considerably worse.

A career OPS of .658 tells you all you need to know. In a league that is obsessed with launch angles (LA) and exit velocity (EV), Adrianza has career averages of 10.9 (LA) and 87.3 (EV), according to Baseball Savant, which are each below average compared to the rest of the league.

Baseball Savant has three years of data that shows there have been 135 batted ball instances where a player had an exit velocity of 87 and a launch angle of 11 degrees and in those instances, players actually had a batting average of .763 where 94 of the 103 hits were singles.

So why isn’t Adrianza posting the best batting average of all-time?

FanGraphs would classify Adrianza as more of a flyball hitter as 37.2 percent of his batted balls end up in the air and a below average hard hit percentage of 27.6 percent. Essentially, Adrianza often makes poor contact at the plate which results in “lazy” fly balls.

All that said, he will get a decent amount of playing time as a utility guy off the bench who can play almost anywhere.

Nick Gordon

As of right now, he will be starting the year in the minors but don’t be surprised if the Twins promote him sometime in 2019. He had a phenomenal start to the year with Double-A Chattanooga, but that didn’t translate when he was promoted to Triple-A Rochester.

He’ll start the year in Rochester with the hopes of making his major league debut if one of the aforementioned middle infielders have any injuries.

Corner Infield

Miguel Sano

Twins fans know what Sano can be when he is disciplined at the plate and off the field. Despite what seems to be widely believed by the Twitterverse, Sano’s best seasons — 2015 and 2016 — were partially a result of a higher launch angle and exit velocity than the two disappointing years that have followed.

Sano doesn’t need to change how he swings the bat, but he does need to change how he approaches his at-bats. Below you will see part of Sano’s zone profile — specifically the low and outside corner.

From this data, you can see that pitchers are targeting this area of the strike zone more in the last two years than he did in his first two years. According to FanGraphs, his chase percentage has jumped from an average of 24.5 percent in 2015 and 2016 to an average of 29.5 percent in 2017 and 2018.

Sano does hit well on pitches low and away that stay in the strike zone, but really struggles when the pitches are low and away outside of the strike zone. Again, Sano doesn’t need to fix his swing — he needs to become more disciplined at the plate, specifically when it comes to the low and outside part of the strike zone.

He will begin the year as the Twins starting third baseman, but it remains to be seen how long he can last here before being asked to play first base and/or DH more often.

C.J. Cron

Cron is not Logan Morrison.

Sure, he is coming off a career year, as Morrison was. Sure, he is coming from the Rays, as Morrison did. Sure, he changed his swing, as Morrison did.

BUT, Cron is not Morrison.

I’m not saying he’s going to replicate his 2018, but I am saying to give the guy a chance. In the last two seasons, he has bought into the launch angle theory that is overtaking baseball which helps explain the increase in power he had in 2018.

Now that he has made more of a name for himself as a power threat, pitchers and pitching coaches are going to spend a little more time trying to figure out his weaknesses. In short, it’s pretty easy to figure out — just throw him anything off speed.

According to Baseball Savant, he slugged almost .600 against fastballs while slugging under .500 against all other pitches. Below you can see a picture of his slugging percentage against breaking balls.

Claiming Cron off the waiver wire is a low-risk, high reward opportunity for the Twins who will only owe him $4.8 million in 2019 and he will be arbitration eligible in 2020.

The only confusion here is that he has a very similar profile to Tyler Austin, discussed below, as a power hitting 1B/DH who struggles defensively.

That said, I give him the nod over Austin at first base as he has had more success throughout his career and already has a relationship with new Twins manager Rocco Baldelli.

Tyler Austin

Austin had a tremendous start to his Twins tenure as was written about here. As projected in the article, his first 68 at-bats went quite a bit better than his second 68 at-bats did.

From Sept. 3 to the end of the season Austin hit only two home runs while slashing .206/.250/.349, which was drastically different than how he started with the team. He isn’t going to be as good as he was in his first 68 at-bats but he’s not going to be as bad as he was in his second 68 at-bats either.

Expect somewhere in between, but with the addition of Cron and the possibility of Sano getting time at first, it isn’t clear what Austin’s role will be with the team in 2019.

At a minimum, he will get semi-regular time as a 1B/DH especially when a southpaw is on the bump.

Outfield

Byron Buxton

Like Sano, the Twins know what Buxton can be when he is at his best.

At his best, he’s in the top third of the lineup with plus power and a consistent threat on the basepaths while still pulling in platinum gloves. At a minimum, he’s a bottom of the order bat with a platinum glove in center field.

Like Sano, Buxton needs to find more discipline at the plate. In the three previous seasons his chase rate was at about 30 percent, but last year it was almost 40 percent. Think about that, 40 percent of the pitches he swung out were outside of the strike zone.

Simply stated, Buxton’s biggest problems are chasing bad pitches and making contact with the good ones — especially offspeed. Byron’s defensive value cannot be overstated – as long as he can consistently put up an OBP above .300 he will be the Twins everyday centerfielder.

Max Kepler

Early on in 2018, it had seemed that Kepler had become a complete hitter by figuring out how to hit left-handed pitchers.

After the first month of the season, Kepler slashed .209/.312/.378 with a fly ball rate of 47.4 percent compared to 41 percent in March and April. So what changed? Simply stated, his hard hit percentage decreased significantly after the first month of the season.

Brooks Baseball shows that the way pitchers attacked him really didn’t change much. FanGraphs shows that he hit more flyballs as the season went on.

As you can see below, Baseball Savant shows that he had tremendous success against breaking balls in the first month and that significantly decreased after that.

Kepler will continue as the Twins everyday right fielder in 2019, as he is a “great” defender by FanGraphs standards which will give him some leeway at the plate.

That said, Kepler needs to do better than .209/.312/.378 if he wants to be the long-term solution in right field.

Eddie Rosario

Another player that had a strong start — although his lasted longer than Kepler’s — who cooled off by the end of the season, Rosario is one of those players who can be fun to watch one inning and equally as frustrating the next.

He’s another above average outfielder for the Twins who will be given some leeway at the plate because of his defense. His 2018 splits aren’t as drastic as Kepler’s, but take out May and June and Rosario’s season can’t be described as anything other than disappointing.

Rosario is a free swinger and his hard hit data shows that he was making good contact during his hot streak. As with the Twins other two outfielders, the biggest difference came in the success against breaking balls.

Rosario saw significantly more fastballs in May and June than he had in all other months, which is why he was so successful. For him to be more consistent at the plate he will need to do less chasing of breaking balls and become more patient at the plate.

Jake Cave

Cave did a nice job filling in for Buxton. That said, he is nothing more than a bench player who will see the field when one of Rosario, Kepler or Buxton need a day off or become injured.

He can also be used as a pinch runner in late game situations. He will battle with Michael Reed for the fourth outfielder spot.

Michael Reed

Reed looks like the possible replacement for Robbie Grossman has a high OBP outfielder. OBP is something this team will be desperate for and he could move into a semi-regular DH role if Austin and/or Cron aren’t providing the pop needed to make up for the lack of on-base skills.

Utility

Ronald Torreyes – 2B, SS, 3B, OF

The Twins brought him in shortly before signing Schoop. He’ll likely compete with Adrianza has a utility player.

Willians Astudillo – C, 3B, OF

Astudillo took Target Field by storm during the second half of 2018 and had a cult following.

He’s had a good amount of success in the Venezuelan Winter League, but it remains to be seen what his role is in 2019. With the additions of Cron, Reed and Torreyes it seems like he may be the odd man out — at least at the start of 2019.

An area that was seemed like it was going to be a strength in 2018 now is, arguably, the biggest question mark the Twins have going into 2019.

The biggest concern is the lack of OBP the Twins will have and the fact that there isn’t one position player who the Twins know will successfully contribute in 2019.

The 2019 season could live or die based on the contribution of the position players.


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