The Minnesota Twins acquired outfielder Jake Cave from the New York Yankees on Friday, the team announced in a press release. The Twins sent 19-year-old right-handed pitcher Luis Gil back in the trade, and to make room on the 40-man roster, designated first baseman Kennys Vargas for assignment.
The Twins have 10 days to trade or release Vargas, or put him through waivers to attempt to outright him to the minor leagues. If he clears waivers, he can not refuse this outright assignment — the first of his career.
The smart money remains on Vargas landing elsewhere — including perhaps Tampa Bay, which can use some pop off the bench and at first base.
Cave, who was designated for assignment to make room on the 40-man roster for Neil Walker, was terrific last year between stops at Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes Barre. Cave hit .266/.317/.516 at Trenton in the first six weeks of his season before jumping to Triple-A, where he hit a terrific .324/.367/.554 in his final 72 games.
From just a statistical glance, the tools on Cave seem impressive. He made a distinct jump in power in 2017 — more on that in a minute — as he hit 20 home runs after combining for just 19 in the rest of his minor-league career. The stolen bases took a step back in 2017 (two), but this was a guy who had stolen 10-plus bases in four straight years and 17 bags in back-to-back years.
Add to that the fact that he’s played mostly center field coming up, and it’s easy to see why he’s a player who might bounce around roster limbo as a hotly-contested commodity. Even if the profile isn’t that of a starting-caliber outfielder, he still absolutely has the skills required of what most teams look for in a fourth outfielder.
To that end, it might also say more about how the Twins view Zack Granite and Robbie Grossman. Grossman is out of options and slated to make $2 million this year, and leaves a bit to be desired defensively. If the Twins wanted to keep Cave in the big leagues on the bench, they could cut Grossman and only owe him termination pay (45 days worth of pay).
As for Granite, it’s not like he or Cave make the other superfluous on the roster, but it’s worth noting that Cave is younger — only by about two months — and has significantly more power. To that end, the left-handed hitting Cave gives the Twins another wrinkle offensively, whereas Granite is more of a defense/speed/contact specialist.
Like most left-handed hitters, Cave struggles against lefties. Last year, he had a .999 OPS against righties and just a .638 mark against lefties, and here’s how that divide has looked through his career:
- 2017 – .343/.384/.615 v. RHP | .217/.271/.367
- 2016 – .276/.339/.432 | .243/.306/.414
- 2015 – .304/.366/.402 | .194/.250/.218
- 2014 – .307/.369/.444 | .268/.313/.350
- 2013 – .297/.358/.431 | .230/.307/.290
- 2012 – Did not play (knee)
Cave’s power took a leap with a swing change that was devised by Triple-A hitting coach P.J. Pilittere and the player himself.
“I’ve always felt like I’ve had a little bit of power,” Cave said. “I’ve showed that in batting practice, and that kind of thing, but batting practice doesn’t mean anything. But I always knew I had it in there and it was just something that I never really tapped into in the games and I feel like I’m starting to now. But I feel the approach is a big reason for that. I’m looking to drive the ball more consistently, and looking to drive my pitch more consistently, using all the field as well. It’s really turned my career around a little bit.”
“He’s realizing some of the power potential that we’ve always seen that he had since he was a 19-year-old,” Pilittere said. “It’s always been the story on Jake that there’s some power in there that we can unlock. It’s just going to be a matter of if Jake realizes that potential or not. To his credit, he completely bought into some swing changes last year at the start of the season. It was brand new for him. So you deal with those struggles and sometimes it’s hard to get back on track to something when it’s brand new to you.”
As is often the case, with homers have also come strikeouts. Cave was routinely in the low 20 percent range for strikeouts in earlier years when he was hitting just a handful of homers per year. Flash forward to 2017, and Cave hit 20 homers — again, more than half of those he’s hit in his entire MiLB career — but did so at the price of a strikeout rate of 26.3 percent.
With legitimate power in the big leagues, that strikeout rate is palpable. In the minor leagues, amidst a transition to becoming a power hitter and with very few walks (115-28 K/BB ratio) to speak of, it’s easy to see why Cave’s future is a bit murkier than his physical talents otherwise would suggest.
But the ceiling here is higher than Granite or Grossman, thus making the gamble worthwhile.
With his recent evolution, most scouting reports on Cave are a bit dated, but here’s what we managed to find:
Yankees blog River Avenue Blues ranked Cave the 23rd prospect in a deep New York system in early February, calling the outfielder potential trade bait while lauding his story of perseverance. Cave was taken in the Rule 5 draft by the Cincinnati Reds, but was returned at the end of Spring Training in 2016, and made some swing changes to alter his game for power. Not only did it work in terms of in-game results, but it got him on the 40-man roster as well.
Ultimately, Mike Axisa says in the column that he sees Cave more likely as a fourth outfielder — which is not at all a slight.
Baseball America’s draft report on him is already seven years old, but one interesting piece from that — they say his arm is good enough to stick in right field if he focuses on hitting. Apparently, Cave was an established prep pitcher as well, hitting 94 mph with his fastball while possessing “aggressive makeup” that some deemed “reckless and immature.”
BA also listed Cave as the team’s No. 24 prospect after 2011, No. 22 after 2013 and No. 17 after 2014.
Baseball Prospectus has some fun tidbits on Cave.
From the 2017 annual:
“The Yankees’ prodigal son Jake Cave went to Cincinnati and returned last year, and hit a home run so far it landed on top of an apartment building. That was representative of his larger success at Triple-A.”
“August 27, 2016: A ballplayer wanders into the familiar Scranton locker room. It is dark. He cannot see his teammates. Daylight spills through the open doorway, casting each man’s shadow against his locker. “I’m back. And you won’t believe what I have seen,” the ballplayer calls out, excitedly. “The major leagues! The way the cameras sparkle in the second decks. The jets. The way men eat meals. Not burgers, but meals,” he says, a catch in his throat, “with nutritional value.” The men do not turn, but continue to put on their socks and shoes, tape up their ankles. “Come with me! Leave this place and come with me to the major leagues. I know it is bright there, and the pitchers fierce. But it is the real world, not this shadow life, this lie.” He grabs the shoulder of Slade Heathcott, but his former friend only looks away. No one speaks, no one moves. The shadows are all that are real to them.” (Writer’s note: WTF?)
“Cave broke his kneecap in his first professional game and missed two years, so he’s doomed to wander the lands as Old For His Level. Despite the setback, he had a nice season with the bat in 2014 and might be described as a slower Brett Gardner, which sounds better than “potential fourth outfielder.”
They also have some fun comparables for Cave on their player cards, like Mikie Mahtook, Trayce Thompson, Matt Den Dekker and Jaycob Brugman — a veritable toy factory of fourth outfielders — and their weighted-mean forecast for him in 2018 is hitting .259/.319/.444 with nine homers in 256 plate appearances.
That line from a fourth outfielder is perfectly reasonable, though more so if that player can handle center. Not because the Twins need another center field type — all three starters can do it — but because that line is wholly unremarkable from a corner outfielder. After surveying the prospect landscape, it’s hard to get a good feel for if anyone thinks he can hang in center.
It almost feels like he’s a better version of Daniel Palka, for what it’s worth. Palka plus defense would probably still be on the 40-man roster. As for Vargas, his time with the Twins ends — most likely — with a career .252/.311/.437 line in 236 games. Gil, meanwhile, is a right-handed pitcher who posted a 2.59 ERA in 14 starts with the DSL Twins last year (41.2 innings) with 10.6 K/9 but also 4.3 BB/9. After missing all of 2016, he was old for the level (0.2 years older than average league contemporary).
Also, according to Phil Miller of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Cave was one of the palyers the Twins asked for in the Jaime Garcia deal last year, but were rebuffed.
Like our guy Luke Inman says: “Go get your guys!”