What Do The Twins Do Behind Buxton In Center Field?

Photo Credit: Nick Wosika (USA TODAY Sports)

Last week, the Minnesota Twins answered their biggest offseason question when they re-signed star center fielder Byron Buxton to a seven-year, $100 million contract. Everyone in Target Field and throughout the fan base can breathe easy with Buxton locked up as the face of the franchise for years to come.

However, they have to figure out who backs him up in center field after signing him. Buxton’s biggest detriment has been his injury. As almost everyone knows at this point, Buxton only has one season with more than 100 games played.

Buxton is an MVP-caliber player when healthy. His most dominant performance came in 2021 when he slashed .306/.358/.647 with a career-high 19 home runs and 4.2 fWAR in 61 games. It gave Twins fans a good look into how dominant Buxton could be in a full season. But it also reminded everyone that there had been an expected drop-off in production from the center field spot when he’s not healthy.

While the Twins don’t want to come out and say they are concerned about Buxton’s health, they need to make some kind of move to establish a contingency plan should he miss a significant amount of time during the season. You can’t perfectly replace a talented player like Buxton. But you can find someone who imitates his skill sets to make his absence easier to fill, almost like trying to manufacture a discount version of Buxton.

If that is the plan, there are a few options on the Twins to fill that role. Nick Gordon (34), Max Kepler (24 games), and Gilberto Celestino (22 games) were the three players who patrolled center field in place of Buxton.

Gordon played several positions last season, finding a home as a utility player. He played center field the most, but is he a player the Twins can rely on to start in 10-day stretches during the season?

Gordon slashed .240/.292/.355 in 73 games, and his .647 slugging and four home runs wouldn’t be promising to fill in for Buxton. Last season was also the first year where Gordon played in center professionally, and as a result, he had a minus-3 outs above average rating. Gordon has above-average speed, according to Baseball Savant, which could help his defensive ability develop over time. However, it’s not likely that he will take a giant leap in his fielding ability next season.

Kepler has been Buxton’s primary backup in center field, with 156 games played at the position in his career. The Twins moved Kepler over to play center full-time in Buxton’s absence during the 2019 campaign after Buxton’s season ended early due to injury, and he played well with a 3 OAA clip. The downside of doing that is it puts their lineup in flux as it did in the 2019 season, leaving platoon players like Jake Cave and Marwin Gonzalez to fill the gap. That duo only managed four combined hits in the postseason.

But the Twins have more depth in the outfield now, including prospects Alex Kirilloff and Trevor Larnach, who can take over right field if Kepler needs to slide over. If Kepler needed to move over, one of those prospects could solidify their spot in right and allow Rocco Baldelli to put Kepler in that reserve role.

Kepler has seen some decline over the past two seasons. He hit 19 home runs last season, his lowest since 2017, and posted a career-low .719 OPS since his first full season in 2016. Kepler could be the odd man out with some young players on the way. Kepler’s history with the team means moving to a designated backup role won’t be easy, and it likely means the Twins would trade him soon after. Kepler could work in this role, but only for the remainder of a season.

Celestino seems like the logical choice out of the Twins in-house options to be Buxton’s understudy. He still has plenty of promise despite a lackluster first taste of big-league action. Celestino logged 20 games in center with a minud-2 OAA clip and batted .136/.177/.288 in his first big league season, and his sprint speed is in the 80th percentile, according to Baseball Savant.

He can develop into a good defensive center fielder with more time in center. More time facing big-league pitching will only help Celestino at the plate because his numbers in Triple-A (.290/.384/.443) show he has promise with the bat in his hands. With no open position for him to take, Celestino could find his way onto the big-league roster by being Buxton’s understudy.

A few options in the free-agent market could be a stop-gap solution if Buxton gets hurt. Kevin Pillar could be an under-the-radar option for the Twins. He has had some success at the big-league level, but he has seen his production drop over the last couple of seasons with a career-low 0.7 fWAR in 2021 and a minus-1 OAA clip. Those numbers could benefit the Twins, who could snag the former starter on a buy-low deal to make him the backup center fielder. It’s not certain a player of Pillar’s would come to Minnesota with Buxton in front of him, or if Pillar can turn himself around. But it could offer the Twins a veteran backup option at the position.

Buxton is a once-in-a-generation player, so keeping him on the roster for the future was necessary for this team. But the Twins make sure to have a reliable option behind him if the injury concerns pop up again. If they can do that, they can avoid being put in a position where they are shuffling players outside of their other roles to be in a better position to win games with Buxton out of the lineup. While everyone hopes it won’t be necessary, recent history says the team should have a backup plan ready just in case.

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