The Minnesota Twins have opened themselves up to speculation and uncertainty regarding their plan for their corner outfielders this offseason. However, Byron Buxton has center field locked down for years to come.
Buxton was Minnesota’s most dynamic player in 2022. He hit a career-high 28 home runs and made his first All-Star game appearance while showing flashes of how he could truly become the face of the franchise. It was a great sign for Buxton, especially in Year 1 of a 7-year, $100 million extension.
Buxton’s injury history is the only thing holding him back. In his eight years in the league, Buxton has only played 100 games or more in a season once, in 2017. That was five years ago, and Buxton is who he is at this point in his career. Instead of going through each season hoping for more games from him, the Twins should ensure he has strong options behind him.
The Twins already have an in-house option who could take over as the No. 2 center fielder. Gilberto Celestino has the potential to become Minnesota’s go-to backup center fielder. Joey Gallo and even Nick Gordon have previous experience in center field, but neither can play the position the way Celestino can. Celestino’s skillset can be beneficial for manager Rocco Baldelli because he offers most of the abilities that Buxton has but on a smaller scale.
Celestino’s offensive development should take another step in 2023. Keep in mind, he only played in High-A ball in 2019, followed by no minor league season in 2020. In 2021, the Twins thrust him into the major leagues after starting the season in Double-A at age 22. In his first season in the big leagues, Celestino slashed .136/.177/.288 with two home runs and 23 wRC+ in 23 games in 2021.
But Celestino fared much better last year, with a .238/.313/.302 slash line, two home runs, and 82 wRC+. Those aren’t All-Star numbers, but it’s a nice step in the right direction for a young player.
It’s unlikely Celestino will produce the power numbers that Buxton can. However, Celestino draws more walks and strikes out less than Buxton. In 2022, Celestino’s 22 percent strikeout rate stayed roughly the same as the season before, but his walk rate nearly doubled to 9.2 percent last year. Compare that to Buxton, who had a 30 percent strikeout rate with an 8.9 percent walk rate in 2022.
Steamer projects Celestino to continue his offensive development with a .248/.321/.372 slash line with two home runs and a 101 wRC+. Even if those aren’t starting caliber numbers, that still is a league-average wRC+ with a .693 OPS. However, league-average offense can’t replace Buxton’s production at the plate. Still, it can keep the Twins afloat if Celestino has to fill in at the position for a multi-week stretch. He has the ability to take good at-bats, and he puts the ball in play.
Buxton has earned a reputation for creative havoc on the basepaths with 77 career stolen bases in 87 career attempts. Celestino also has a knack for stealing bases, even if he doesn’t have the same raw speed as Buxton. Celestino has 4 career stolen bases in 5 career attempts in the big leagues. That’s a nice stat, but also a small sample size. Throughout his minor league career, he has 66 stolen bases in 82 career minor league attempts (80 percent).
Teams will likely attempt more stolen bases following MLB’s rule changes they will implement next season. Pitchers will get three pickoff attempts per pitch, which will benefit base stealers like Celestino. That rule and slightly bigger bases should mean the Twins give the green light more often to some of their better baserunners like Buxton and Celestino. Gallo and Gordon have the ability to steal bases, but Celestino has been able to do it more effectively.
Gallo is also an option in center field. He could fill in like Max Kepler has done next year, where he slides into center if Buxton isn’t in the lineup, especially if the Twins trade Kepler this offseason. Gallo’s arm strength and athleticism allow him to hang in center field. Therefore, it’s likely that Gallo will see some time in center field this season even though he has only played there 56 times in his major league career. However, only two of those appearances in center have come since the start of the 2020 season.
Gordon also has experience in center, but he still lacks the tools to be Buxton’s primary backup at one of the most important defensive positions on the field. Gordon doesn’t have the arm strength to be a legitimate center fielder. However, there was some slight improvement from Gordon’s -3 outs above average in 2021 to a 0 OAA in 2022.
Still, Baseball Savant’s rankings say Celestino has a better arm than Gallo and more range as a center fielder than Gordon. Celestino has been comfortable in center, with 112 big-league appearances at the position. As a big-league outfielder, he’s shown improvement playing that position at the highest level. Last season, Celestino’s .985 fielding percentage in center field was nearly a 35-point improvement from the previous season. For the more analytically-minded Twins fan, his minus-2 OAA in 2021 jumped up to 3 OAA in 2022.
Buxton is one of the top three center fielders in baseball when healthy. But there does need to be a competent option behind him. Nobody can recreate everything he does, but the Twins need someone who can reliably hold them over when Buxton is out.
Celestino provides an option to put the ball in play, steal some bases, and play solid defense in center field if he can take the next step in 2023. The Twins might not be able to field Buxton every game. However, they may be able to offer you some Buxton lite in Celestino – a worthwhile backup at one of the most important positions on the field.
Celestino has spent the past two seasons getting his feet wet in the big leagues. He has shown improvement each year. Another jump in 2023 can put him as the undisputed understudy to Buxton.