Friday, March 20, 2015

The center field competition

Shane Robinson was
a popular player among
Cardinals fans.
First there were three genuine candidates for the Twins center field job. Now there are four. The winnowing process, it would appear, is going in the wrong direction.

There remains more than two weeks of spring training, but the indications are that Paul Molitor wants to use the last week of camp to "practice manage" game situations, not evaluate talent. Remember, he's never run a game on any level. So the expectation is that that Twins will look to essentially set their Opening Day roster in 10 days or so.

Let's look at the candidates in alphabetical order:

Aaron Hicks is, for the third spring in a row, putting up good spring training numbers (slash line .330/.400/.500). Call him Mr. March.

Twenty at-bat sample sizes are meaningless to begin with, and particularly so in spring training, and even more so with Hicks. This kind of thing has fooled the decision makers each of the past two springs. I've said this before: I don't know what Hicks can do this spring to convince people that he's better than he's been. He certainly didn't help himself with his wool gathering early on.

He's 25, so growth is possible if  unlikely. Molitor says in this story that Hicks is too young to be a bench guy, that he should play everyday. My take is that Hicks is never going to be more than a fourth outfielder/platoon candidate.

Roster status: 40-man roster, has an option left.

Shane Robinson, 30, split the past four seasons between St. Louis and its minor league affiliates. He's a right-handed hitter, no power, with some speed -- classic fourth- or fifth-outfielder tools. I may be wrong, but he seems to have mainly played corner outfield this spring.

Roster status: Non-roster invitee, but he has, as many non-roster veterans do, an opt-out clause -- if he's not on the 40 by a specific date (in his case, apparently, April 2) he can declare free agency and walk away.

Eddie Rosario, 23, is the guy who wedged his way into the conversation. He has an odd set of splits, .276/.267/.586; he has an on-base percentage lower than his batting average because he has literally never walked but has picked up a sac fly. Patrick Reusse's kind of hitter line, I guess.

Rosario is the only one of the four without major league experience; in fact, he's not played above Double A, and he didn't do much at that level. He is also, presumably, the weakest defensively of the four.

Jordan Schafer is
a .229 lifetime hitter
in  more than 1,300
plate appearances.
Rosario is definitely what Molitor says Hicks is: A young guy with a high ceiling who needs to play every day at some level. He only makes the big league roster as the regular center fielder.

Roster status: 40 man roster, has all three options left.

Jordan Schafer, 28, is the one guy most certain to make the roster, either as the backup behind Hicks or Rosario or in a platoon with Hicks or Robinson. Left-handed hitter who fared better in his 41 games with the Twins late last season than he did in any previous stretch in the majors. Another guy with reserve outfielder tools.

Roster status: On the 40, presumably out of options, has a $1.55 million contract for 2015.

These are the realistic choices for the Molitor and general manager Terry Ryan:

  • Hicks as the regular, Schafer as the backup, Rosario to the minors, Robinson gets to make his choice.
  • Rosario as the regular, Schafer as the backup, Hicks to Triple A, Robinson gets to make his choice.
  • Schafer platoons with Robinson, Hicks and Rosario to the minors.
  • Schafer platoons with Hicks, Rosario to the minors, Robinson gets to make his choice.

My impulse is to vote for the second option, Rosario as the regular. It's consistent with my wish for the organization to push the talent and find reasons to play them. But ... I am also a firm believer that the outfield defense is a bigger problem than the Twins acknowledge, and Rosario as a center fielder doesn't figure to be a defensive asset.

I want him up, but the positions that fit him best aren't available. My guess is that the Twins will opt to follow the same logic that they are following with Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano and send him down.

In which case, I'd say go with option 3, a Schafer-Robinson platoon. There can be no illusion there: These are two low-ceiling players whose purpose is to fill the position until somebody better is ready. Having them in center will give the front office incentive to decide that somebody better -- be it Buxton or Rosario -- is ready.

What's most likely, I fear, is option 1, Hicks as the regular. The definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result.

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