Despite being a near lock to make the playoffs, the Twins are facing plenty of challenges on their way to October. Over the weekend, Michael Pineda was hit with a 60-game suspension for violating the MLB’s Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program. That seriously hurts the Twins starting rotation considering he’s been their best starter since June. But that’s not the only problem the Twins are facing now. Yesterday, news broke that center fielder Byron Buxton had labrum surgery, knocking him out for the rest of the season.
Byron Buxton will undergo labrum surgery today.
Rocco said his guess idea of an initial timeline is 5-6 months, but they’ll obviously know more once the procedure is done and they have a better idea of the work that was done.
— Do-Hyoung Park (@dohyoungpark) September 10, 2019
Buxton had been on the injured list since early August, but before that, he was putting together the best season of his career. In addition to his elite defense in center field, his bat had finally risen to meet the high expectations his prospect pedigree placed on him. He had cut his strikeout rate to 23.1% and pushed his isolated power up to .251, helping him post a 111 wRC+ in just under 300 plate appearances. If given a full year on the field, he was on pace to post a five-win season.
Buxton had been making progress rehabbing his shoulder with the hope of a late-September activation with an eye towards helping the team in the postseason. His return was never guaranteed, but now that he’s entirely out of the picture, it pushes the Twins outfield depth to its limit. Three other outfielders on the Twins roster have battled nagging injuries recently, leaving them critically short-handed despite the expanded rosters in September.
Max Kepler had been covering center field while Buxton was sidelined, but he’s been dealing with his own shoulder problems that have kept him out of the lineup the past few days. An MRI came back negative on Monday, showing just inflammation, but a timetable for his return is unclear. A groin injury has derailed Jake Cave’s year and Marwin Gonzalez has been out since August 27 with a strained oblique.
Eddie Rosario is the only regular outfielder who is healthy at the moment. To fill the other two spots in the field, the Twins have turned to a pair of players getting their first exposure to the big leagues, a couple of infielders, and a minor leaguer just picked up from the Braves earlier this week. Here’s a look at the Twins’ outfield depth chart right now:
|Max Kepler||CF/RF||587||123||8||Day-to-Day, Shoulder|
|Marwin Gonzalez||Util||437||95||5||Day-to-Day, Oblique|
|Jake Cave||RF/CF||190||109||0||Day-to-Day, Groin|
|LaMonte Wade Jr.||RF/LF/CF||21||112||0|
The Twins’ ideal outfield alignment probably looks like Rosario in left, Kepler in center, and some combination of Cave and Gonzalez in right. Instead, they’ve used Luis Arraez, an infielder by trade, out in left field a few times and have given LaMonte Wade and Ian Miller more playing time than expected. The Twins were so desperate for healthy outfielders, they traded for Ryan LaMarre earlier this week. He was stuck in the Braves’ minor league system after playing 76 games for the Twins last year. They’ve even resorted to giving Willians Astudillo a few innings in left.
Even though his bat will play wherever he lines up in the field, Arraez is probably best suited to continue playing second base regularly. Jonathan Schoop has been a bit disappointing in his first season in Minnesota and had been relegated to the bench with Arraez’s rise. Seeing Astudillo in the outfield probably brings some amount of joy to fans of weird baseball, but the Twins simply can’t put him out there in a playoff series.
Wade was the 16th-ranked prospect in the Twins organization this year but struggled offensively at Triple-A. He’s always had a keen eye at the plate, and that skill has transitioned well to the majors. Despite collecting just a single hit in 21 plate appearances, he’s reached base nearly half the time he’s come to the plate, giving him a rather ridiculous .083/.476/.083 slash line. Defensively, he profiles best as a corner outfielder, though his range does allow him to cover center field in a pinch.
Miller was a long-time farmhand with the Mariners organization and had the honor of being Jerry Dipoto’s 100th trade as the Mariners GM. A true center fielder, he’s probably the best defender on the roster, making him a strong candidate for the postseason. But his bat is a big question mark. He posted the best power numbers of his career this year with the dragless ball in Triple-A, but before this year, his ISO had never surpassed .100 in a full season.
Because these replacement options are rather lacking, there have been some calls for the Twins to promote Alex Kirilloff, their No. 2 prospect. He was slowed by injuries earlier this year but ended up posting a solid campaign in Double-A. He really caught fire over the last month of the season, posting a 146 wRC+ in August and blasting four home runs in Pensacola’s five-game playoff series. Pushing the 21-year-old prospect into the middle of a major league pennant race would be risky, but Kirilloff is hugely talented. Still, Twins beat reporter La Velle E. Neal III reported that there’s a “zero percent” chance of a Kirilloff promotion. Calling up Kirilloff at this point would likely be more than a year ahead of schedule and could be more detrimental to his development if he really struggles in the majors.
With a five-game lead over Cleveland in the AL Central, the Twins have some leeway to give Kepler, Cave, and Gonzalez time to heal. That might give them time to see which of these replacement outfielders is best suited to continue playing should any of these injuries linger. But if Cleveland comes on strong over the last couple of weeks of the season, or the Twins begin to stumble, they could be pressed to rush their outfielders back before they’re completely healthy. That could have significant ramifications on their ability to play competitively in a potential Division Series matchup against the Astros or the Yankees. The Twins are already looking a little more vulnerable without Pineda in the rotation. Their lack of depth in the outfield is just another hurdle they’ll have to overcome in their quest for success in the postseason.