Wednesday, May 14, 2014

8 Years of Minnesota Twins Center Fielders: Part 3

This is the third part in a multi-part series.  You can click here if you missed part 1 or part 2.  

The Twins enjoyed a stable season in center field in 2010.  After two years of a Denard Span/Carlos Gomez battle, the Twins chose Span and traded Gomez.  Span was the full-time starter in 2010 and had just signed a long-term contract.  However, 2011 would be less stable.  Span dealt with concussions for the entire second half.  Ben Revere joined the MLB team and became a fan favorite.  With two guys competing for one spot, the 2012 center field job seemed to be at least slightly open for applicants.  That said, if Span was healthy, he'd be the starter.  Would he be healthy?

He would be healthy.  In fact, Span proved his health and reclaimed his starting center field job heading in 2012.  With Josh Willingham in left and another former first-round pick, Chris Parmelee, in right, the Twins did with Revere what they wouldn't do with Carlos Gomez just a few years earlier, they sent him to AAA to get at-bats and seasoning.  Of course, Parmelee flopped and Revere was back in Minnesota by the end of May.  Revere would mostly play right field, save for the month Span missed with a shoulder injury.

Span saw a slight return to his former glory at the plate, hitting .283/.342/.395, good for a 104 OPS+.  In addition, he played his finest center field defense of his career and finished with an rWAR of 5.0, a career-best.  He also had 38 doubles, and that's a lot!  Revere improved in his second full season, hitting .294/.333/.342 with 40 stolen bases.  Despite not having an arm for right field, he and Span showed fantastic combined range and pretty much caught everything that was hit around or between them.  Two center fielders in the outfield at the same time?  That works defensively.  It works even better when both guys nearly hit .300. 

This same June, the Twins used another first-round pick on a center fielder, this time converting their second-overall selection into Georgia High Schooler Byron Buxton.  With two MLB-quality center fielders on roster and another promising player at AA, this selection was strictly a "we can't pass up this guy's talent" selection and it would prove to be the right choice.  Buxton wouldn't fully break out until 2013, but when he did, he moved all the way to the top of every prominent Minor League analyst's top prospect list.  While Buxton is not part of the present in 2012, his selection could prove to have played a part in how things would play out over the next few months.  But we'll get there later.  

Meanwhile in AA, Aaron Hicks was enjoying a breakout season.  He got off to a slow start with New Britain, but he finished with an impressive .286/.384/.460 flexing potential at the plate that eclipsed the capabilities of either Span or Revere. If his performance was a harbinger of anything, perhaps he was now the long-term answer in center.  Span was going to be 29 in 2013 and was only under contract for a couple more years.  Revere was a nice player but a slap hitter with questionable overall defensive value and absolutely no power.  If Hicks could be everything these two players added up to and more, then perhaps he was the long-term solution, at least once Span's contract ran out. 

Of course, that was further down the line, right?  Hicks was just a 22-year-old with no experience above AA.  He often needed full seasons to adjust to new levels and the Twins currently had two starting-caliber center fielders under contract at reasonable rates.  There would be simply no reason to rush Hicks with both Span and Revere capable of holding down the fort for at least a couple more seasons. 

On Opening Day 2013, both Span and Revere had been traded and Aaron Hicks was the starting center fielder.  Quite a fast forward, huh?  But let's go back just a bit. 

The 2012 season was the second dud in a row for the Twins.  Their starting pitching was awful and their assets had dried up.  Nearly all of the core from the 2000s had moved on, save for Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau.  Mauer couldn't be traded, lest the Front Office likes eating pitchforks and Morneau was coming off of concussion issues of his own.  The organization had to face the cold reality that it was in the midst of a rebuild, one that came upon them without warning. 

Thus, they had to start looking at how they could maximize their assets.  The Twins' two best non-M&M assets were the two center fielders who may have been set to battle for the job in 2013.  Trading one of their center fielders could help them boost the starting pitching that they so desperately needed.  Not long after the season, feelers went out, conversations started, frameworks of deals were formed and before the end of November, the Twins had made a deal.

Denard Span was traded to the Nationals for minor league pitcher Alex Meyer.  Meyer was a first-round pick as well, and he has incredible promise as a starter.  However, he was set for AA in 2013 and was in no possible way an answer for the Twins in 2013.  With the starting pitching still in shambles, the Twins made another move just one week later.  Ben Revere was traded to the Phillies for Vance Worley and minor league pitcher Trevor May.  May was the more promising of the two, but Worley had MLB experience and success. 

The Worley outcome is now irrelevant but I'm sure you want to punch me in the face for pointing that out.  It doesn't change the fact that it's true.  Sitting here in 2014, it appears the Twins traded their two center fielders for two potential long-term starting pitchers.  You can argue the merits of both sides, but if things work out that way, the trades were huge successes in a vacuum.  The problem was the new gaping hole in center field going into 2013.    

Before we move on, I want to state that I fully believe that the Twins wanted to trade one, but not both players.  However, once the deals started coming in, they had to pounce on the offers they received.  It was possible that they put out feelers on both players and were surprised with how good the deals were.  If that was the case, I applaud the Twins for being aggressive.  It sucks right now, but it could pay off huge in the future. 

Future being the key word.  Back to 2013, the Twins were now without an MLB-quality center fielder with AAA experience, much less MLB experience.  Aaron Hicks was great in 2012, but two levels below the Majors.  Even so, Hicks was the favorite to win the center field job out of Spring Training.  His competition was Darin Mastroianni, a serviceable 4th outfielder but nothing more, and Joe Benson, a guy that I complete forgot about before I started writing this despite the fact that I thought he was a future star once upon a time.  Do you think that's a good thing?

In the next part, we'll see how that 2013 season unfolded.  Did Aaron Hicks win the job?  I know it happened in the recent past, but human memories aren't really as good as we think they are, so maybe we'll all remember something great that we forgot about.  We'll have to see if that's true tomorrow.  

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