As we head into the 2015 Major League Baseball season, the Minnesota Twins have two positions in the field that continually get brought up more than any other. Surprisingly enough, both centerfield and shortstop have contingencies that rely upon one another. At any rate, it appears that the centerfield discussion is the one that seems to be the most fluid. However, is it really as complicated as it seems to be?
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Earlier this week, Brandon Warne of 105 The Ticket penned a piece of the possibilities for the Twins in centerfield. Operating under the belief that Aaron Hicks is the favorite to win the job, the discussion focuses around Danny Santana, the man who played the position for most of the 2014 season. With Santana locked into a shortstop battle against Eduardo Escobar, who is the better fielder, Warne argues that we could in fact see Santana back in the middle of the outfield this season for the Twins. He goes on to look at how the breakdown would occur, suggesting Jordan Schafer as the fourth outfielder and Hicks landing back in Triple-A. A final suggestion of Chris Hermann making the 25 man as catching insurance is offered as well. This scenario definitely seems plausible on paper, but many intangibles seem to be left out of the equation.
The crux of the argument for Santana returning to centerfield is that he is not adequate at the shortstop position. At 34 games played at shortstop in 2014 (a minute sample size) Santana was responsible for a -1 defensive runs saved above average. His range leaves something to be desired, and there were questions as to whether he could stick at the position coming up from the minors. Over the course of four seasons, Escobar has actually posted a worse -2 defensive runs above average at short, while posting a +2 total zone fielding runs above average mark (Santana owns a -4 in this category). Therein lies the biggest difference between the two players at shortstop. In a position predicated upon getting to the baseball, Escobar has a larger range.
Now, when looking at the situation as a fluid whole, the Twins must consider more intangibles, and what each domino effect causes. Should they cede the shortstop role to a career utility man in Escobar, they would be slotting Santana back into centerfield. Last season Santana owned a ridiculously high .405 batting average on balls in play. Because of that stat, he hit .319 and paced the Twins in average. A career .275 hitter in the minors, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t see regression coming. Escobar hit .275 last season for the Twins, but with a career high of .236 (coming in 2013) previously, one has to wonder whether or not that mark can be replicated as well.
And then there’s Aaron Hicks.
At this point, there’s no denying that Twins fans (as well as the organization) is sick of waiting on Hicks. A former top prospect with tons of tools, Hicks has failed to put things together at the major league level. However, up until this point he has not been given the best opportunity to do so. Make no mistake, Hicks is not a Byron Buxton type prospect, but it’s fair to argue he was treated as such. Despite dealing both Denard Span and Ben Revere in the same offseason, the Twins didn’t so much as give Hicks a sniff of the big league game prior to his initial promotion. He had a torrid 2013 Spring Training and wis given the starting centerfield job straight from Double-A. Having never progressed through the system naturally, he fell flat on his face. While the defensive ability was there lapses in concentration, lack of effort, and poor performance at the plate led to a demotion (multiple actually). Fast forward to 2015, for the first time in his career, Hicks will have progressed through the entire system. In 67 games between Double and Triple-A in 2014, Hicks slashed .291/.387/.441, arguably numbers that neither Santana nor Escobar should replicate.
That leads to the problem the Twins find themselves facing. No matter who plays centerfield out of the gate for Minnesota, they are merely a placeholder for the arrival of Byron Buxton. Of the options, only Hicks has a likely shot at sliding into a corner outfield spot after Buxton’s arrival. If his demotion was indeed meant to get him right, and in hopes of finding the player that the Twins drafted, Minnesota would be squashing that by starting Santana in center. Coming off of the end of the season he had, and the prove it possibility that 2015 provides, starting a makeshift centerfielder instead of allowing Hicks his final opportunity would seemingly go against process. The net gain of Escobar over Santana at short, would not seem to be high enough to warrant moving on from what could be a bigger positive in Hicks making things work.
Minnesota showed that defensive prowess in the outfield is not going to be one of their strong suits in bringing back Torii Hunter. Moving Arcia to left with Hunter in right provides an uphill battle for whomever finds themselves in center, as well as the pitching staff. Could Santana fill in while the Twins await Buxton, sure. Does giving Hicks one last opportunity to prove his value to the organization provide a stronger asset moving forward, most likely.
In a season that the Twins are looking to turn things around and begin the process of climbing back up the standings, starting Santana and experimenting with a Chris Hermann in the outfield (he’s no longer a catcher on the Twins 40 man roster) or shuffling through Schafer while Hicks toils on the farm seems counter-productive. With Spring Training just days away, the battle will sort itself out soon enough. If Hicks falls off the deep end in the outfield, or Santana looks overmatched at short, the issue could change in an instant. Right now however, the speculation and waiting game remains strong.