CHICAGO — The Minnesota Twins put a lot of emphasis on versatility when they decided who was heading north with them after Spring Training in Fort Myers, Fla. Marwin Gonzalez and Ehire Adrianza could both play multiple infield positions and provide depth as corner outfielders. Max Kepler could step in at center field if Byron Buxton went down. And Willians Astudillo has played every position on the diamond except shortstop.
“Even with the way that Derek and Thad built this team out, going back into the offseason and Spring Training…” manager Rocco Baldelli said, referring to Twins chief baseball officer Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine.
Then a toilet flushed, halting his train of thought.
The assembled media had packed the cramped manager’s office at Guarantee Rate Field, home of the Chicago White Sox. It had gotten so crowded that a few people had been backed into the adjacent bathroom, and someone got so close to the toilet that it went off during Baldelli’s sentence.
“This is special,” he said, sarcastically, as it flushed. “This is absolutely special.”
“There’s always the anticipation that things are not gonna go cleanly,” he continued shortly after, even though the toilet a couple feet away from him was still running. “There are always gonna be injuries, there are always gonna be other things going on, and I think teams are gonna start planning for these things ahead of time.”
Down the hallway from him Kepler was walking around with a massive ice pack around his knee. Gonzalez had shown up with ice wrapped around his abdomen. Miguel Sano could be seen receiving treatment on his forearm the night before after being hit by a pitch during the series.
“This has been the story of our season, which has been when one guy has had some difficulties health-wise, somebody else has stepped up, and we’ve been blessed that somebody else has stepped up and has usually performed at a really high level,” said Levine.
“That’s why we are where we are today. That’s the strength of the numbers that we’ve had throughout the course of the season, so I don’t see why now should be any different.
“That’s the way Rocco’s really managed conservatively. When a guy has expressed discomfort, we’re trying to wipe it out and do the best we can to avoid those extended IL stints. Now, of course we’ve had some like every other team, but I hope that this actually lends itself to two things — keeping us a little bit more healthy and also keeping more of the players engaged on a day to day basis.”
Their team is beat up, and they need players who can provide depth even if they aren’t playing their regular position. With Kepler out of the lineup on Thursday, Luis Arraez hit leadoff, Jake Cave took over at center field, Adrianza started in right. Arraez played third base in place of Sano.
“Luis has done a great job for us,” said Baldelli. “He’s been on base all year long. He has tremendous at-bats. The one thing I can say that it is great that you have that option to put him up there and let him go and do his thing.”
Asked if the focus on versatility at the beginning of the year was, in part, because he anticipated injuries late in the season, Levine said, “I don’t know that you ever have linear plans as to how this is going to all work out.
“I do think we saw it five, six years ago in the game. When you talked about a player being a utility player, it was almost used as a pejorative. He was utility, which meant he was not capable of playing every day,” he added, “and then we all I think look to guys like Ben Zobrist but there were certainly others, guys who were able to play around, wear different gloves but play every day and I think we’re now all striving to find as many of those as we possibly can.
“We’re blessed to have quite a few of them and we’ve kind of invented a few on the fly. Luis Arraez played predominantly second base throughout his minor league career and has come up and played left field, second base, shortstop, third base for us. I think the more versatile players can be, the more beneficial they are to the team.”
Arraez is hitting .336/.402/.435, but has only led off three times this year because Kepler has been one of the Twins’ hottest hitters all season long, and Mitch Garver has led off against lefties. He’s a natural fit in the leadoff spot, but was not a top prospect and has forced his way into Minnesota’s plans because of his ability to play multiple positions and get on base.
“You’re gonna go through periods of time where everyone’s healthy and ready to play, and you’re gonna have a tough time finding at-bats for multiple guys,” said Baldelli. “And then you’re gonna run through probably more periods of time where there are one or two or three or four guys unable to go, and then you have the coverage that you need.”
Adrianza’s situation is a microcosm of this. A light-hitting utilityman throughout most of his career, Adrianza, 30, is hitting .285/.367/.425 this year. But with the team fully healthy, Baldelli had to be creative to keep him in the lineup early in the season because of the team’s depth.
On Thursday, however, the Twins had 100 home runs sitting on their bench — Kepler (35), Sano (26), Garver (24) and Gonzalez (25) — and a need for Adrianza in the outfield. Had he not gotten regular playing time earlier in the year, and spent some time in the outfield, he would have been less prepared to step in.
“Every time we’ve given him a shot regardless of where we hit him, regardless of the last time he’s played, he’s gone out there and has had a highly successful season in a lot of different ways,” said Baldelli. “With the way we’re set up, if you don’t get the guys out there and get them the at-bats, you could talk yourself in and out of a 100 different lineup situations, and who’s gonna play, who’s not. You start looking at it days out, and you have to spend time on it because it gets complicated.”
The Twins will get reinforcements when rosters expand to 40 players in September. Some players will arrive in Minneapolis Sept. 1, others on Sept. 3 when the minor league seasons are over. Others will after that depending on other restrictions like the 10-day rule, which states that players who were optioned or sent down have to remain in the minors for ten days.
“It’s gonna be larger than a breadbasket, smaller than a donkey,” said Levine, in jest, when asked how many players will come up. “I don’t know if we’ve finalized that. I will say this, there are a handful of guys that you guys know who are on the IL, who are recovering through the rehab process.
“We would expect to bring those guys back. There’s a lot of guys that you guys have seen contribute to the 2019 Twins, I think a lot of those guys will have an opportunity to come back as well.”
Many of those players will be pitchers to add depth to the bullpen. But LaMonte Wade and Nick Gordon could potentially be placed on the active roster to help bolster the outfield and infield depth, respectively.
For the time being, however, the Twins’ emphasis on versatility is paying off. They’ve been able to keep their distance ahead of the Cleveland Indians in the AL Central and avoid forcing their impact players onto the field when they should be healing.
Baldelli has been able to adjust to everything this year. Even a toilet flushing unexpectedly while he’s talking.