La Tortuga: The saga continues

March 27th, 2021

It was all fun and games when first arrived in the Majors in 2018. He was a crazy statistical outlier in his contact ability. He dragged his squat frame all over the field, even showing up in center field at one point. He showed, of course, that "chubby people also run."

All that hoopla masked, in a way, the fact that Astudillo has been fighting for his place on the fringes of the roster ever since that debut -- and even with parts of three seasons under his belt entering this spring, "La Tortuga" still found himself on the bubble, with versatile non-roster players performing well all around him.

"All of [the fame] was fun -- it is fun, obviously," Astudillo said. "That’s why you play. However, for me it’s more important to go out there and take care of my job, do my job for me and my teammates. And if I do that, those things are eventually going to keep happening."

But his calling card -- the super versatility -- appears to have won out in the end despite the average-at-best bat over his career and the impressive offensive showings from several depth candidates this spring. The Twins moved five non-roster players to Minor League camp on Saturday, including utility men JT Riddle, Rob Refsnyder and Tzu-Wei Lin, all but securing Astudillo's place on the Opening Day 26-man roster.

Considering that the Twins will otherwise have a short bench of only Luis Arráez and their fourth outfielder during their opening series in Milwaukee due to their desire for Nelson Cruz not to play the field, the plug-and-play ability that Astudillo offers off the bench has to be particularly appealing in the world of double switches and pinch-hitting for pitchers.

"It'll certainly be interesting as we start up and open up in the unusual spot of being in Milwaukee and having to play that kind of [National League] baseball right off the bat," manager Rocco Baldelli said. "But the versatility aspect of it will always be an important part."

In fact, if Kyle Garlick wins the left-field job, it would fall to Astudillo to serve as the primary backup at first base. There's also utility in having him as a further backup at third base, considering the expectation of Josh Donaldson's measured usage. Additional flexibility in the outfield never hurts.

And though the Twins likely won't get much mileage out of Astudillo as a third catcher considering the quality of their top two options in Mitch Garver and Ryan Jeffers, Astudillo's presence could still free up the non-starting catcher as a right-handed pinch-hitter off the bench.

It doesn't hurt that Astudillo has had a strong spring at the plate, as he's 12-for-34 (.353), giving him a share of the team lead in hits. Three of those have left the yard, and he has even added a pair of uncharacteristic four-pitch walks.

The Twins have taken full advantage of Astudillo this spring. La Tortuga has popped in at catcher (eight games), first base (three), third base (four) and right field (two) in Grapefruit League play, and he also adds the ability to fill in at second base and left field when needed. Twins fans may have grown accustomed to seeing him all over the field, but that's still a rare degree of versatility, even as players around the league expand their defensive skill sets.

"When guys are able to do different things, it allows us to use all our other pieces in different ways, more effective ways," Baldelli said. "It means a lot of different things. Specifically, we talk about it a lot. Sometimes it’s roster construction, lineup construction, what we do during a game."

And something that isn't measured on the stat sheet? Astudillo's well-documented ability to keep things loose in the clubhouse, something that takes on additional importance in Year 2 of COVID-19 protocols around ballparks and the associated social challenges for ballplayers around the league. That's part of the legend of La Tortuga -- and for now, that legend lives on.

"He's a treat to have around on that front," president of baseball operations Derek Falvey said. "I think he keeps guys loose. I think he keeps it fun. We have a group that -- they like to have fun. They're pretty relaxed. That's a reflection of Rocco in many ways, and our staff.

"But guys like [Cruz] and others, they're not always the most vocal of the group in the clubhouse all the time. But you have players like Willians Astudillo and Jake Cave and others out there who are talking and keeping it really fun and light in there. I think that does play a role."