I would love to spend the next few hundred words or so of this article talking about the impending arrival of Byron Buxton, the near-consensus No. 1 overall prospect in the game, who promises to immediately change the face of the Minnesota outfield and the lineup as a whole.
Unfortunately, Buxton’s ETA is more likely 2015 — potentially late 2014 — so we’re stuck talking about the guys who are actually going to get the bulk of the playing time this year, and it may not be pretty. Eyeballing our depth charts, Minnesota is the only team who isn’t projected to get even 2 WAR from a single one of their outfield spots; If you want to split hairs and say that 1.9 WAR and 2 WAR are basically the same thing, you wouldn’t be wrong, but you also wouldn’t really be changing the point. Minnesota’s outfield tied with Houston for last in both wRC+ and wOBA last year, and they return largely the same group, so no, this may not be pretty.
If you’re looking for some hope in left field, it’s that Josh Willingham was very good in 2012 (35 homers, 110 driven in) before being considerably less good in 2013 (14 homers, 48 driven in). At 34, it’s completely possible that he’s into a decline phase from which he’ll never return, and that may very well be the case. That said, Brandon Warne took us through exactly how that 2013 disaster unfolded back in November, and it’s always nice when there’s a reason other than “old” that you can point to for a sudden decline. Willingham was actually hitting .254/.397/.542 through the first month of the season before tweaking his knee on a late-April slide, then just .214/.342/.353 over the next two months while attempting to play through the pain. Finally, he underwent surgery that cost him more than a month, though he didn’t exactly hit well when he finally made it back.
Obviously, we cannot just assume that Willingham will suddenly be at peak health and ready to go at age 34 as though nothing had happened, but if the knee is healthy — an big if, of course — it’s not unreasonable to hope for a season in between his 2012 highs and 2013 lows. That would give him something like a .240 average, .340ish OBP with 25 homers. That’s at least worthy of a roster spot, and in this outfield, that’s all we’re hoping for.
Center field is a bit more complicated, because after Aaron Hicks flopped spectacularly, Clete Thomas got the bulk of playing time before Alex Presley took over in September, once he was acquired from Pittsburgh for Justin Morneau. Thomas is off to Philadelphia, so Hicks and Presley figure to be the primary center fielders for the team in 2014. If Hicks has anything going for him, it’s that he has a history throughout the minors of struggling upon reaching a new level, and taking some extra time to get acclimated. Since he’s only 24, it’s too soon for Minnesota to give up on him, but he was so bad last year — you can’t talk around a .192/.259/.338, along with not even getting called up in September — that it seems more than likely that he’ll start the year in Triple-A, needing to prove himself before getting another chance. With Buxton looming, Hicks’ window may be slamming shut more quickly than anyone anticipated.
In the meantime, Presley is basically a placeholder, someone who won’t kill you, but isn’t going to do much for you either. Steamer has him at .267/.322/ .404, which seems about right, and if he played every day for an entire season he might, might get you double digits in steals and homers. Of course, it’s difficult to see a situation where he hangs on to the center field job long enough to get the 600 plate appearances he’d likely need to get to those numbers. In an AL-only league, he’s not the worst guy to have as a final outfielder, but ideally you’re able to get someone with at least a bit more upside.
Right field gets a bit more interesting due to Oswaldo Arcia, who popped 14 homers in just 378 plate appearances during his age-22 debut season. Mike Podhorzer had much to say about Arcia’s power:
Arcia’s most exciting tool is his power. He has routinely posted .200+ ISO marks and combined for 24 home runs between Triple-A and the majors this year in fewer than 500 at-bats. But his .179 ISO with the Twins doesn’t really begin to explain how much power Arcia possesses. He actually ranked 14th in baseball in average home run and fly ball distance with his nearly 303 foot mark. He was one of only 16 hitters to average more than 300 feet in batted ball distance. That’s an impressive feat for any hitter, no less a rookie.
Of the 16 hitters who recorded an average distance above 300 feet, Arcia’s HR/FB rate was the lowest, coming in just below 15%. The unweighted average of the group was 22%, while 11 of the 16 posted rates of at least 20%. This all suggests that Arcia could be due for a nice bump in HR/FB rate next year if he maintains that same distance. Conspiring against him though is a home park that ranked fourth lowest in left-handed park factor. It’s a small sample size of course, but his home HR/FB rate was just 11.1%, while his away mark was 19.5%. There’s nothing he could do about Target Field’s conditions, but there shouldn’t have been that large a disparity in his splits.
Arcia isn’t without his downsides, since he struck out 31.0% of the time, and hit only three of his 14 homers against fellow lefties. He also won’t give you anything on the basepaths, but it’s possible to see a .250, 20 homer season from him, and that makes him interesting.
As for backups, expect some combination of Chris Parmelee, Chris Colabello, Chris Herrmann, Jason Kubel, Darin Mastroianni. Unless Mastroianni somehow finds his way into enough playing time to take advantage of his speed, or Kubel can turn back the clock to his first tour in Minnesota, you don’t want any of these guys.
As with the impending arrival of Buxton in center, the likely debut of Miguel Sano may have an impact here, because if and when it’s deemed he can’t handle third base, an outfield corner seems like a likely destination.