How much can you take away from one plate appearance in an intrasquad scrimmage?
No matter how small the sample size or the stakes, Byron Buxton’s 13-pitch plate appearance against Jake Odorizzi in Thursday night’s scrimmage at Target Field was impressive. Odorizzi was in his fourth inning of work and appeared to be airing it out against the Twins’ center fielder, who’d already doubled off the wall earlier that night. Buxton wouldn’t give in to the right-hander, fouling off one pitch after another, 11 in total, before the Twins simply ended the at-bat and inning so as not to run up Odorizzi’s pitch count. Their battle concluded with the most unlikely of baseball outcomes, a draw, but it was clearly an encouraging sign for Buxton, who showed up to camp earlier this week after the birth of his son.
“That last at-bat, I think, was really good for both of us because it shows I’m in the zone with stuff that’s good enough not to be squared up, and I think he’s got good plate discipline, recognizing, covering things, fouling balls off,” Odorizzi said after the game.
Buxton remains perhaps the most critical piece to the Twins’ success. When he’s healthy and right, he’s one of the most valuable players in baseball. Before yet another season-altering injury, he was playing at a superstar level in 2019, slashing .262/.314/.513 while playing his usual Platinum Glove defense. The bat is a huge asset to plug into the nine spot of perhaps the best lineup in baseball. His glove, though, is crucial for a team that was mediocre defensively in 2019. Without Buxton, Max Kepler assumed most of the center field duties last season. Although Kepler is a strong defensive right fielder, he rates out a bit below-average in center. Buxton’s absence, then, meant the Twins had average to below average defenders in center and right, and depending on how you view Eddie Rosario (defensive metrics weren’t kind to him last season), in left as well. With Buxton healthy, the Twins will once again have the best defensive center fielder in baseball patrolling Target Field, and Kepler can resume playing a solid right field.
The glove alone makes Buxton an important contributor, both in what he does individually and the reverberating effect it has on the rest of the defense. When he’s hitting, he’s one of the most valuable players in the league. It’s far too soon to make any determinations on what his 2020 will look like offensively, but Thursday night featured plenty of encouraging signs.
Talent vs Depth
Part of what made the Twins so intriguing in March was their unique combination of top-flight talent to carry the team through the bulk of the season, and strong organizational depth to fill in when starters were injured or fatigued. Now, only the top-line talent figures to play a large role in the team’s success, given how short the season is. Teams like the White Sox—who are young and talented but don’t have nearly the organizational depth of the Twins—were less likely to make a true run at Minnesota over the course of a six-month season, when all teams have to supplement their rosters by dipping into their minor league systems. It’s become routine for teams to cycle through 50+ players in a normal season (the Twins used 50 players in 2019 and 54 in 2018). Particularly on the pitching side, quality depth is hugely important.
The Twins were well-positioned to have a very deep pitching staff in 2020. They had more major league quality starting pitchers in the system than would be needed to fill a rotation. Jose Berrios, Kenta Maeda, Odorizzi, Homer Bailey and possibly Jhoulys Chacin were likely to begin the season in the rotation, with Rich Hill, Michael Pineda, Jhoan Duran and others due for a possible mid-summer arrival. Additionally, the Twins had a number of relievers/swing men who’ve experienced big league success fighting just to make the roster, including Randy Dobnak, Zack Littell, Cody Stashak, Devin Smeltzer, Lewis Thorpe, Matt Wisler, Danny Coulombe, Caleb Thielbar, and Sean Poppen.
The 60-game sprint changes a lot about how to best construct and deploy a roster. In the present format, the depth pieces that figured to play a significant role become far less valuable. Instead, the priority will be to get top talent on the field as often as possible. It’s a stretch to suggest each game will be managed like a playoff game, but any time the Twins have a lead, Rocco Baldelli will likely be much more aggressive in plugging in his best arms to lock down wins. One can imagine, for example, top relievers like Taylor Rogers and Tyler Duffey approaching 30 appearances in a 60-game season.
The same holds true on the position player side. Mitch Garver will likely play a higher percentage of the team’s games than he otherwise would, and giving older players like Nelson Cruz and Josh Donaldson days off won’t have the same appeal.
The Twins are certainly in very good shape from a talent perspective. Their lineup matches up favorably to any team in the league, and their four rotation locks—Berrios, Hill, Maeda, Odorizzi—challenge Cleveland for the top rotation in the Central. In either a 60 game or 162 game season, the roster is legit. I’d argue, though, that as talented as the team is, their depth was going to be an even greater strength, and their inability to use that to their advantage in a shortened season hurts, opening the door for Chicago or Cleveland to challenge the Twins in a way they may not have otherwise been able to.
The Twins have constructed their big league camp to prioritize winning over development. While teams in rebuild mode like Detroit and Baltimore invited more prospects to the big league version of Summer Camp, Minnesota only has one prospect, catcher Ryan Jeffers, working out regularly at Target Field.
Jeffers has impressed in his time in the Twins’ system. He slashed .264/.341/.421 last season between High-A and Double-A, and his defense is thought to be much improved. Listed at 6’4”, 230 pounds, Jeffers projects to be similar to Mitch Garver—a bulky right-handed hitting catcher with pop—and the Twins have treated him as a big-leaguer throughout spring training 1.0 and Summer Camp.
Jeffers is probably third on the depth chart at catcher right now, behind Garver and Alex Avila, though he’s not on the 40-man roster. When Willians Astudillo returns, he could bump Jeffers down, and veteran Tomas Telis also could be in the mix. Jeffers, though, should be a part of the team by 2021, if not sooner.
Outfielders Alex Kirilloff, Trevor Larnach and Brent Rooker, infielders Royce Lewis and Travis Blankenhorn, and pitcher Jhoan Duran are among the prospects working out at the alternate Summer Camp site at CHS Field in St Paul. (Note: Kirilloff, Larnach, Rooker, and Blankenhorn made their first appearance on the big league side of Summer Camp Friday). Among those players, only Blankenhorn and Duran are on the 40-man roster, meaning the Twins would have to free up a 40-man spot before adding any of the others.
Minnesota has plenty of depth in their outfield with Jake Cave and LaMonte Wade Jr. backing up Buxton, Kepler and Rosario, but if a need arises, Rooker could be the first of the aforementioned prospects called up. Rooker has played well at multiple levels in the minor leagues, is the only one of the bunch to reach Triple-A, and at 25 is the oldest of the Twins’ top prospects. He has plenty of swing and miss in his game, but the bat is legit (.933 OPS in Triple-A last year) and he deserves a chance to show he can replicate his minor league success in the Majors.
One prospect not with the club is Jordan Balazovic. The Canadian is arguably the Twins’ best pitching prospect, and was likely to start this season at Double-A. A big league debut was probably not in the cards this season, but it was going to be an important year for Balazovic’s development, and it’s a bit surprising he wasn’t invited to the Twin Cities at all. It’s still possible, of course, that the Twins could add him at some point later this year.