Eduardo Escobar is the Twins' starting center fielder. Well, not really, but he was yesterday. Before him, it had been Sam Fuld. Yep, Sam Fuld. On a scale of 1-10, how aware of Sam Fuld were you about a month ago? I'd say I was a 2 and I have MLB player flash cards that I practice every night. Aaron Hicks has had another disastrous April, but he appears to have a safe hold on the starting job because...well, he's the only option. No intended slight in Fuld's direction, Hicks's direction or #Eddie400's direction, but how did the Twins get to this point? Why is this position in such shambles?
The journey actually begins back in 2007, Fuld's rookie season with the Chicago Cubs. The Twins had just wrapped up a disappointing 79-83 season. While no one liked that outcome, the Twins had made the playoffs in four of the previous five seasons. A blip on the radar, but not the end of the World. During that 2007 season, Torii Hunter completed his ninth consecutive season as the Twins' starting center fielder. He had one of his finest seasons to that point, hitting .287/.334/.505 with 45 doubles, 28 home runs and 107 RBI. According to Baseball Reference, he was a 4-win player. Not bad.
However, Hunter was also finishing his most recent contract with the Twins and had just turned 32. The Twins wanted Hunter back, but they didn't want him back at any cost. We know with relative certainty that they offered Hunter a 3 year, $45 million contract and Hunter turned that down, seeking a longer deal. There were also murmurs that Hunter didn't want to play on the Metrodome turf any longer and/or he preferred a warmer climate. He got all of those things at once when he signed with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim for 5 years and around $90 million.
This left the the Twins in need of a center fielder for the first time in nearly a decade.
Should the Twins have done more to keep Hunter? That's a debate for a different
Reusse column time. In fact, it's become an irrelevant detail. The fact remained, Hunter was gone and the Twins needed someone to replace him. The obvious in-house choice was Denard Span. Span was the Twins' 2002 first-round pick and he had a lot of Minor League experience. What he didn't have was a ton of Minor League success, as he had just hit .267/.323/.355 in 139 games with AAA Rochester in 2007. The Twins had used a first-round pick on Ben Revere in June of 2007, but he was just a teenager and nowhere near ready for the Majors.
While Span could have certainly made the leap to the Majors and learned on the job, the Twins were hopeful to contend for the AL Central in 2008 and a young guy with no MLB experience and little MiLB success didn't feel like a great option. The Twins lost Hunter, their best offensive player in 2007, so replacing him with a massive question mark was a risky move at best. Of course, as Spring Training approached, Span seemed to be the obvious choice to replace Hunter. It seemed he was even Hunter's choice to replace him, if that mattered at all.
Luckily for the Twins, their best pitcher was going to be a free agent after the 2008 season. Please make sure to re-read that last sentence with as much sarcasm as you possibly can. Johan Santana was coming off of his fifth-straight top ten Cy Young finish, having won the award in 2004 and 2006. His contract was running out and the Twins were not going to sign him to the massive contract he had earned. Thus, they started looking for suitors and they wanted a young center fielder in return.
The Yankees were reportedly offering a package that included Melky Cabrera. The Red Sox were willing to trade Jacoby Ellsbury, but they wouldn't include Jon Lester in the same deal. One idiot blogger (read: me) thought that the Dodgers were offering Matt Kemp. Those deals didn't come together and instead, the Twins chose a package from the Mets that included center fielder Carlos Gomez. In fact, Gomez was one of the cornerstones of the deal, a then 22-year-old speedster with great fielding ability and the type of elite talent that allows a player to make his MLB debut at just 21.
With the acquisition of Gomez, the 2008 Twins had a little Spring Training battle on their hands. Span and Gomez were each given ample time to prove their worth to the club. Span outplayed Gomez, had more Minor League experience and was an older and more mature player. Thus, you can only guess that Span won the job out of Spring Training.
Well, you're a terrible guesser. The Twins chose Gomez.
The cynic in anyone would say that they chose Gomez to justify the Santana trade. Whether or not that was true is another irrelevant detail. Gomez was given the center field job and the leadoff spot in the order despite a complete lack of plate discipline. Of course, no one will argue that Gomez wasn't the more dynamic fielder and athlete. Span was sent to AAA, although an injury to Michael Cuddyer would lead to Span's MLB debut in early April anyway. Span was only up as long as Cuddyer was hurt. On April 24, with Span hitting .258/.324/.258, he was sent back to AAA and Gomez, then hitting .242/.258/.352 continued his first season with the Twins.
Fast forward to the end of June. Span is murdering AAA pitching to the tune of .340/.434/.481 and Gomez has on OBP under .300. Logically, this would be the time to swap center fielders right? Well, Michael Cuddyer's fingers just wouldn't heal. He was back on the disabled list and now being transferred to the 60-day DL. Span would be in his place shortly thereafter. Now both center fielders were playing! The Twins could continue to "develop" Gomez and see what they have in Span.
Related, but unrelated, the Twins used another first-round pick on a center fielder earlier that June, drafting Aaron Hicks with the 14th overall pick. Of course, his is a tale for another day.
By the end of the 2008 season, both Span and Gomez had improved on their April performances. Gomez finished with a 77 OPS+, 33 stolen bases and downright excellent defense in center. Span hit .294/.387/.432 with 18 steals of his own, great defense in right and a sixth place AL Rookie of the Year finish. While Gomez had improved, he was mostly a mess at the plate. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was nearly six, which is impressive in an "ate a whole cheese wheel" kind of way. Span was clearly the better player at this point in time and probably the front-runner for the 2009 center field job.
Would Span assume the starting role in 2009? Now a year removed from the Johan Santana trade, would the Twins have license to send Gomez down to AAA for a little while? Will we hear from Revere and Hicks again? This saga will continue next week as get closer and closer to Sam Fuld's dynamic Twins debut.