Byron Buxton’s return is getting close.
Nothing is confirmed, but it’s possible he’ll be in uniform in Chicago on Tuesday if all goes well in his brief rehab stint in Cedar Rapids. After a successful day as the DH Sunday, he’s slated to play center field Monday. Then, perhaps, a flight to Chicago.
It’s not ideal for Buxton to only get a few rehab at-bats in the low minors, but the tradeoff of getting him back in center field quickly is worth it, even if it means taking a few games in the big leagues to get his timing back at the plate.
Buxton’s defense, of course, is world class, but the reverberating effect he has on the rest of the team’s defense and pitching is what makes him such an important player. Max Kepler, an average center fielder, returns to being an above-average right fielder. Luis Arraez, a below-average left fielder (can’t fault him there, he’s never played the position), can return to the infield full time.
The benefits for the pitching staff are clear in terms of simple outs and runs. With Buxton converting so many bloops and doubles into outs (and Kepler doing the same when he returns to his natural position), the team’s pitching staff obviously gives up fewer runs.
A less obvious, but still important, effect of Buxton’s defense on the pitchers is the reduction in their pitch counts. Although it’s difficult to fully quantify, every ball a Buxton-led defense converts into an out that a non-Buxton defense doesn’t saves the starting pitcher a certain number of pitches, and reduces the amount of pitches thrown under duress (i.e. with men on base). If a Rosario/Buxton/Kepler outfield converts two would-be hits into outs while the starter’s in the game, that could translate to an extra inning of work from said starter, which in turn lightens the load on a bullpen that’s been hampered all year by short starts.
Kyle Gibson’s outing on Saturday against Detroit is a great example. It took him 95 pitches to get through 5 1/3 innings, but he likely gets through at least six, and perhaps pitches into the seventh, if his defense makes a couple of routine plays behind him they weren’t able to make. Gibson adding an extra inning to his line means one of Sam Dyson/Sergio Romo/Taylor Rogers doesn’t have to pitch, leaving them fresh for the next day’s game.
Simply put, Buxton’s presence in the outfield prevents runs, reduces pitch counts, and rests the bullpen. Even when he’s not hitting, his impact his substantial. When he is hitting, he’s one of the most valuable players in the league. For a team that’s given away far too many outs in the second half (a critique Rocco Baldelli offered in Milwaukee in a rare show of public criticism) Buxton’s return can’t come quickly enough.
If Buxton does indeed return Tuesday, the Twins will have a difficult decision regarding Jake Cave. After a strong 2018, Cave has struggled in the big leagues most of the season, but raked in Triple-A each time he got sent down. For the first time this season, he’s showing what he can do offensively in the majors. In August, he’s slashing .442/.500/.767 with five doubles and three home runs in 48 plate appearances. He’s also been solid defensively in the corner outfield spots, and made a tremendous catch in the left field corner Sunday against Detroit.
There aren’t any position players who are realistic candidates to get sent down and with the Twins reportedly filling Lewis Thorpe’s roster spot with Randy Dobnak, Cave would seem to be the odd man out. With September 1 looming, though, the Twins could get creative if they wanted to keep him.
There are five games between now and September 1. If the Twins were willing to go to an 11-man pitching staff for those five games, it would allow them to keep Cave up. Cody Stashak, for example, could get optioned to make room for Buxton.
If the Twins needed someone to eat innings in a blowout game, Dobnak could pitch, get optioned, and be replaced by Zack Littell (currently in Triple-A) as a long-reliever. On September 1, they could add a significant number of ‘pen reinforcements, and after the conclusion of the minor league season on September 2, they could add even more. (One note on Dobnak: because he was optioned and spent less than 20 days in the minors before being recalled, the Twins wouldn’t lose an option year on him if he doesn’t get sent down a second time, so they may be reluctant to option him again and burn that option year.)
Given Cave’s hot streak, it would probably be worth going with a six-man bullpen for a short period of time.
The Twins have yet to use an opener this season, but Rocco Baldelli said Sunday they’ve considered doing it this season, and will continue to do so. Once rosters expand in September, using openers, or having full bullpen games, could be a smart strategy.
With so many arms likely on the way (Brusdar Graterol, Jorge Alcala, Ryne Harper, Trevor Hildenberger, Devin Smeltzer, Kohl Stewart, Littell, Thorpe), Baldelli will have a huge amount of flexibility in how he wants to approach games. He could use an opener for one or two innings before turning it over to a starter, but he could also have full bullpen days and still have enough fresh arms to be covered for the days that followed. This would allow the Twins to throw a bunch of different arms, all pitching full throttle, at an opponent, and give the starting staff an extra day of rest near the end of a long season.
Let’s map out how this might work. Graterol—a starter throughout his career—could begin the game, pitching through the opposing lineup one time with his 100 MPH fastball. The second time through the order, the Twins could throw Hildenberger and Smeltzer, giving opposing hitters a completely different look and not allowing that lineup to face the same pitcher a second time. Hard throwers like Alcala and Trevor May could follow for the third time through the order.
In an ideal scenario, this would get the Twins to the late innings, where they could pitch some combination of Dyson, Romo, and Rogers. If things didn’t go according to plan, an innings-eater like Stewart or Dobnak could take over. Even if half the bullpen pitches in that type of game, there would still be plenty of fresh relief arms available the following day to relieve the starter. That’s not a strategy that could be employed often, but in the right situation (Cleveland, for example), it could a creative way to keep the opposition off-balance.