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Around the Horn: Buxton's rise key to Twins' OF

Will former top prospect take his game to next level this year?
February 6, 2019

Leading up to the start of Spring Training, the Around the Horn series will examine each of the Twins' positional groupings heading into the 2019 season. This installment takes a look at Minnesota's outfield.Around the Horn series:C | SP | 1B | 3B | MICan Byron Buxton return to form?The

Leading up to the start of Spring Training, the Around the Horn series will examine each of the Twins' positional groupings heading into the 2019 season. This installment takes a look at Minnesota's outfield.
Around the Horn series:C | SP | 1B | 3B | MI
Can Byron Buxton return to form?
The Twins' outfield picture is largely set entering 2019, with Eddie Rosario and Max Kepler firmly embedded in the corner-outfield spots and Jake Cave the favorite to be the fourth outfielder after exceeding expectations in an expanded role during his first Major League season in 2018.
So everyone's eyes are on center field, where the 25-year-old Buxton will return after a 2018 season marred by injury, rough performances and frustration when he wasn't recalled to the Major Leagues at the end of the season. He has added 21 pounds to his previously lanky frame after channeling that frustration into a focused offseason training regimen.
This could also be a pivotal season for several prospects in the upper levels of the Minor Leagues. LaMonte Wade could make his Major League debut this season, and sluggers Brent Rooker and Luke Raley aren't far behind in Double-A. Alex Kirilloff, No. 2 among the Twins Top 30 Prospects and No. 9 overall on MLB Pipeline's Top 100 Prospects list, will attend big league camp this spring as he continues his quick rise through the system.
Is this a make-or-break season for Buxton?
While Buxton, a former No. 1 overall prospect, has struggled to establish himself at the Major League level throughout four seasons due to a combination of injury troubles and poor performance, he'll have every opportunity to prove that he can return to the level of hitting he showed in 2017, when he hit .253/.314/.413 with 16 homers and 29 stolen bases and was worth 3.5 fWAR.
Though he regressed last season, hitting only .156/.183/.200 in 28 games, he played through toe pain for much of May, which particularly affected him at the plate and on the basepaths. At minimum, the Twins can expect the exemplary center-field defense that earned Buxton the American League's Platinum Glove Award in 2017, which gives him value even if his bat continues to lag.
The bottom line with Buxton is that it's difficult to give up his raw tools, as he's shown double-digit-homer power in two seasons. He's also under team control for four more years, so there's still plenty of time for Buxton to reestablish himself as a cornerstone of the franchise.

Could Kepler take a big step forward?
At first glance, it looks like Kepler has stayed reasonably consistent over the last three seasons, hitting around .230 with 20-homer power to go with his strong defense in Target Field's challenging right field. But the surface statistics hide the sharp improvement that the 25-year-old showed against left-handed pitchers last season.
Through his first two full seasons, Kepler was a .177/.243/.280 hitter against southpaws, with a 27.4 percent strikeout rate and only 16 extra-base hits in 270 plate appearances. But last season, Kepler actually hit for a better average against lefties than against righties, raising his batting line to .245/.323/.422 against left-handers with a 21.6 percent strikeout rate and 16 extra-base hits in 167 plate appearances.
As a whole, Kepler's strikeout rate was down (from 20.1 percent to 15.7 percent) and his walk rate was up (from 8.3 percent to 11.6 percent). He was swinging at fewer pitches outside of the strike zone and more pitches in the zone while making contact at a higher rate. If the peripherals are any indication, Kepler could be a candidate for improved numbers in 2019.

How can Rosario be more consistent?
The 27-year-old Rosario has posted the best numbers among Twins outfielders over the last several seasons, hitting at least .288 with 24 homers and 31 doubles in each of the last two. But he still ended last season on a disappointing note. He had set a goal to reach 200 hits, but a quad strain limited him to 32 at-bats in September as he settled for a career-high 161 hits on the season.
Another thing Rosario noted about last season was that his performance slowed down in the second half. He hit 15 of his 24 homers in May and June, when he hit .350/.391/.650, but he only clubbed five long balls after the All-Star break. He admitted that he sometimes struggled with his focus in the second half.
"In the second half, that's when the injury came, and I wasn't focused on the things that I had to be," Rosario said. "That's what I've learned about my second half last year. Moving forward, I'm getting better, and I take that experience with me."

What does the depth look like?
Cave made the most of his opportunities at the Major League level last season in Buxton's absence, hitting .259/.317/.445 with 13 homers and 17 doubles to finish second in homers among AL rookie outfielders, behind only Daniel Palka of the White Sox. According to Statcast™, 14.5 percent of Cave's batted balls qualified as barrels, placing him 12th in the Major Leagues -- one spot behind Giancarlo Stanton and four spots ahead of Mookie Betts.
Zack Granite and Michael Reed provide additional outfield depth. Though the 26-year-old Granite hit .237/.321/.290 in 40 games two seasons ago, he spent the entire 2018 campaign with Triple-A Rochester, where he spent two stints on the disabled list with right shoulder contusions and hit .211 with no homers in 68 games. The Twins claimed Reed off waivers from the Braves earlier this offseason. He has appeared in 22 big league games over three seasons.
The 25-year-old Wade, the Twins' No. 13 prospect, should start the season at Triple-A but could provide additional depth as the season wears on. He's a patient left-handed hitter who avoids strikeouts, draws plenty of walks and hit .257/.360/.380 with 11 homers across Double-A and Triple-A last season.

Who else is in the pipeline? (MLB Pipeline rankings)
No. 2 Alex Kirilloff (age: 21, highest level: Class A Advanced)
No. 6 Trevor Larnach (age: 21, highest level: Class A)
No. 7 Brent Rooker (age: 24, highest level: Double-A)
No. 12 Akil Baddoo (age: 20, highest level: Class A)
No. 13 LaMonte Wade (age: 25, highest level: Triple-A)
No. 14 Gilberto Celestino (age: 19, highest level: Double-A)
No. 17 Gabriel Maciel (age: 20, highest level: Class A)
No. 19 Luke Raley (age: 24, highest level: Double-A)
No. 25 Jacob Pearson (age: 20, highest level: Class A)
Projected depth chart (2018 statistics)
Left field
Eddie Rosario (.288/.323/.479, 24 HR, 77 RBIs, 113 wRC+, 3.4 fWAR)
Jake Cave (.265/.313/.473, 13 HR, 45 RBIs, 108 wRC+, 1.3 fWAR)
Center field
Byron Buxton (.156/.183/.200, 0 HR, 4 RBIs, -3 wRC+, -0.4 fWAR)
Jake Cave (.265/.313/.473, 13 HR, 45 RBIs, 108 wRC+, 1.3 fWAR)
Right field
Max Kepler (.224/.319/.408, 20 HR, 58 RBIs, 97 wRC+, 2.6 fWAR)
Jake Cave (.265/.313/.473, 13 HR, 45 RBIs, 108 wRC+, 1.3 fWAR)

Do-Hyoung Park covers the Twins for Follow him on Twitter at @dohyoungpark and on Instagram at dohyoung.park.