Is the Twins' Defense a Liability When Buxton and Donaldson Are Out?

Photo Credit: Brad Rempel (USA TODAY Sports)

The Minnesota Twins are off to a hot start, led by a potent offense that has produced 30 runs in their first four games. They’ve had solid pitching as well, save for when the bullpen blew a 5-2 lead to the Milwaukee Brewers in the first game. But there’s room for improvement on defense.

Their first loss of the season came on Opening Day in a game where they were in control for 8.5 innings until it fell apart defensively. Errors from Max Kepler and new closer Alex Colomé allowed the Brewers to come back to tie the game, and they ended up winning in extra innings.

“We had an opportunity to win the game,” manager Rocco Baldelli said after the Opening Day loss. “We didn’t come through.”

It might be early in the season, but defense is the one area the Twins wanted to improve upon this offseason. On paper, it looks to be better than last season, but some gambles are being taken with their defensive construction.

The need for defensive improvement became evident in the playoffs last year when a Jorge Polanco error at shortstop in Game 1 of the Wild Card Series sunk the Twins. Polanco has been productive at the plate, posting a career .277/.334/.431, but his defense at shortstop is limited. In 448 innings last year, Polanco had a defensive runs saved (DRS) of -4. In a full 162-game season two years ago, he had a DRS of -10 in 1,233 innings.

So in the offseason, they brought in Gold Glover Andrelton Simmons to strengthen the defense and kicked Polanco to second, where he hasn’t played since 2016. Despite committing an error in Milwaukee over the weekend, Simmons has been an improvement. He already has a DRS of 2 in only 36 innings this season. Second base is an easier defensive position, but will Polanco adjust and make a positive impact on defense?

By moving Polanco over to the other side of the infield, Simmons would shore up the left side with Josh Donaldson. Two years ago, when Donaldson was on a prove-it deal with the Atlanta Braves, he posted a DRS of 10 while playing 1,297 innings at third base. But an early hamstring injury sent him to the injured list, and he only played in 28 games last season.

His absence means Luis Arraez is stepping in at third base after playing primarily at second over the last two seasons. Two years ago, Arraez played 130 innings at third base and had a DRS of just 1. He had an ultimate zone rating (UZR) of 7.8 runs above average, which is a lot better than his -11 career mark at second. But it’s still a relatively small sample size at third, and Arraez will see a lot of time at third rotating in for Donaldson when he returns from the IL.

Looking to the outfield, Byron Buxton is not only the best defender on the Twins but one of the best gloves in baseball with his speed and athleticism in center field. The 2017 Gold Glove winner had 11 DRS playing 313 innings last year. But like Donaldson, Buxton has had injury issues.

Jake Cave and Max Kepler have filled in for Buxton while he’s been out with illness, and they are nowhere near the defensive level Buxton is. Cave has played 888 innings in center field over his career and has a DRS of -6 and a UZR of -2.7. Kepler can play well in center with a career DRS of 8 in 953 innings and a UZR of 8.6. But it takes him away from his more natural position at right field where he has 27 DRS in 3,939 innings. Kepler in center also means another defender has to fill the right field spot, somebody like Cave, who has a -3 DRS in right field.

Cave and Brent Rooker have been filling in at left, but it’s only a matter of time before bat-first prospect Alex Kirilloff becomes the everyday starter at the position. However, he’s in St. Paul right now, and the Twins are betting that they can get by defensively with a platoon until he arrives.

Out of all three outfield spots, Cave has played the least in left field, with only 162 career innings, but statistically it’s his best spot with a DRS of 3 and UZR of 18.7. Rooker is a bat-first player too and is limited as an outfielder with his range. With only 37 innings in left and right field, he has a DRS of -2 and a UZR of -79.5. It’s a small sample size for Rooker so it’s going to get better, but he doesn’t have a high ceiling defensively as an outfielder.

Behind the plate, Mitch Garver has improved his defense since becoming an everyday player in 2018. That season, Garver had a DRS of -17 in 669 innings but had a career-best 3 DRS in just 169 innings last year. Ryan Jeffers has allowed 14 stolen bases while only throwing out two runners with a DRS of 0. But fielding quality has been deemphasized in favor of pitch framing across baseball, which a big part of Jeffers’ game. Last year he was 16th in all of baseball with a strike rate of 51.6%, while Garver was 41st with a 46.2% strike rate.

When the lineup is at full strength, the Twins not only have a solid offense but some talented defensive players as well. When Donaldson and Buxton are healthy, they have a playoff-quality defense. Minnesota has an abundance of depth at several positions, but the replacements are bat-first players. And with an offensive loaded team like the Chicago White Sox looking to overtake the Twins in the A.L. Central, they need good defense to limit their bats. The baseball season is long but the team can’t take any game lightly, even a game on April 1st that they should have won.

In the age of home runs and strikeouts, it can feel like the need for consistently good defense isn’t as important compared to previous eras. But the Twins learned the hard way in last year’s postseason that just one mistake can sink a team. The evolution of their defense will be something to keep an eye on throughout the year.

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