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Around the Horn: Who will Twins start at first?

January 28, 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 first-base situation.Around the Horn series: C | SPMINNEAPOLIS -- As Logan Morrison remained sidelined for left hip

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 first-base situation.
Around the Horn series: C | SP
MINNEAPOLIS -- As Logan Morrison remained sidelined for left hip surgery at the end of a disappointing 2018 season, and the question of Joe Mauer's departure and possible retirement loomed over the Twins, Christopher Austin arrived from the Yankees at the non-waiver Trade Deadline in a trade that sent Lance Lynn to New York. Austin went on to hit nine homers in 35 games to bring a home run threat to Minnesota's first-base platoon.
Even with Austin's power potential in play, the Twins saw first base as an area of need this offseason once Mauer officially decided to retire, and when the Rays designated C.J. Cron for assignment, Minnesota moved quickly to claim the slugger off waivers and signed him to a one-year, $4.8 million contract for 2019.
While Cron is set to receive the majority of playing time at first, the questions of Austin's continued development and how he'll work into the first-base rotation will also be topics to watch this season.
What does Cron bring to the table?
Cron saw the most consistent playing time of his career this past season with the Rays, appearing in a career-high 140 games, and he responded with his first 30-homer season and registered career-bests in slugging (.493) and OPS (.816).
According to Statcast™ metrics, Cron is squaring balls up at a greater rate, with his barrel rate climbing from 8.0 percent in 2016 to 10.2 percent in '17 and a career-high 12.2 percent in '18, well above the MLB average of 6.1 percent. Cron's 44 barrels last season were second to Oakland's Matt Olson among the American League's primary first basemen.
Mauer was never much of a power threat in his five seasons as Minnesota's starting first baseman, and Cron's 30-homer potential at $4.8 million offers the Twins an immediate, cost-effective boost after Minnesota first basemen combined for only 17 home runs this past season, the second-lowest mark in the AL (ahead of only Detroit, which saw 15 homers by first basemen). The Twins' 91 wRC+ from first basemen in 2018 was ahead of only the Rangers, Angels and Orioles in the AL.
What about Austin?
Remember Cron's 12.2 percent barrel rate in 2018? Austin's was 15.8 percent, putting him in the top 10 in Major League Baseball, just behind J.D. Martinez and two spots ahead of Giancarlo Stanton. (And while we're on the topic, Jake Cave actually clocks in just behind Stanton, at 14.5 percent.)
The 27-year-old Austin is out of Minor League options and is blocked at first base by Cron and at designated hitter by Nelson Cruz. With the defensively limited Cruz eventually needing a spot on the 25-man roster, positional flexibility will be at a premium on the bench, and Austin does have plenty of outfield experience in the Minor Leagues. As things currently stand, fourth outfielder Cave, backup catcher Mitch Garver and utility man Ehire Adrianza would likely slot onto the bench, which could leave room for Austin.
Cron has essentially neutral platoon splits, while Austin is much better against southpaws in a small sample size, with a .937 OPS against left-handed pitching in his career.
First base isn't currently a position of much depth on the Twins' 40-man roster, though prospects Brent Rooker and Luke Raley are rising through the system and both have invites to big league camp this spring. Austin offers plenty of upside with his bat against lefties and is controllable through 2023 -- three seasons more than Cron.
Could others on the roster see more time at first?
The Twins are going to be open-minded with their position players this spring, especially in light of Cruz limiting the bench's defensive flexibility. Chief baseball officer Derek Falvey has said that Max Kepler, Cave or others could potentially see reps at first base. Miguel Sano, Garver and Adrianza also played first at various points last season.
(No, Willians Astudillo did not appear at first base in 2018.)
Who else is in the pipeline? (MLB Pipeline rankings)
No. 7 Brent Rooker (age: 24, highest level: Double-A)
No. 16 Lewin Diaz (age: 22, highest level: Class A Advanced)
No. 19 Luke Raley (age: 24, highest level: Double-A)
Projected depth chart (2018 stats)
C.J. Cron (.253/.323/.493, 30 HR, 74 RBIs, 122 wRC+, 2.1 fWAR)
Tyler Austin (.230/.287/.480, 17 HR, 47 RBIs, 103 wRC+, 0.3 fWAR

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