Last night Jesse posted the first part of his interview with Twins assignment general manager Rob Antony. There's plenty of great content in there, and one particular thing caught my eye. The interview kicked off with some questions about Torii Hunter, and Oswaldo Arcia's name popped up during the discussion.
JL: So would you say it was a situational signing because of the transitional period that the team is going through at the moment?
RA: Yeah, and I think the timing was right. We didn't have somebody that was knocking on the door at Triple-A that we were trying to find a spot for. So when we traded Josh Willingham, who was in the last year of his three-year deal, it kind of opened the door. And I think Arcia probably fits better in left field than right field, so plugging Torii in made a lot of sense on a lot of different levels like I said.
We've known for months that Arcia was going to shift over to left field from right field, but Antony dropped a small hint that he thinks Arcia will be a better fit on the left side of the diamond, whatever that means.
This is not a new position for Arcia, though. He played all over the outfield as a minor leaguer (though only 33 games in left) and he also made 56 appearances (54 starts) in left as a rookie in 2013. However, the early returns on his defense in left don't look great. A -15.4 UZR/150 is even worse than his -11.1 rating in right field. Yes, small sample size caveats apply and Arcia can certainly pull a Trevor Plouffe and turn around his defense. Yet, I don't think anyone among us would say that he has appeared to be even an average defender in the outfield. So, why the confidence in moving him across the field?
Well, I'm not going to pretend that I have any significant insider knowledge, but there was one tidbit I learned over the winter that may explain some of the reasoning. Every winter the part-time employees for the Twins have their holiday party and there are always some significant guest speakers. In past years we've been graced with Dave St. Peter, Ron Gardenhire, and Glen Perkins. This past December, we were able to meet Paul Molitor and Terry Ryan, and it was Ryan that dropped a piece of information about Arcia.
Upon discussing the Torii Hunter signing and subsequent position switch for Arcia, Ryan echoed what Antony told Jesse in their interview but with one additional comment. Ryan added that they believe that Arcia was overthinking in the outfield due to the three surfaces that make up the right field fence.
As you can see, there's the Kasota limestone that juts over the warning track. The middle portion is wood, and the bottom is the gymnastics padding. All create varying ricochets and an outfielder must determine quickly how to play a carom. Back in the Dome days, Michael Cuddyer was excellent at this. However, the transition to Target Field didn't go well for him. Chris Parmelee succeeded in the early days of Target Field, but eventually his poor bat was what held him out of the lineup. According to Ryan, Arcia's struggles have been caused by the inability to play the ball off the outfield fence.
If you want to call bull on that explanation, I don't blame you. It sounds reasonable, but I also remember quite a few grounders down the right field line that Arcia's had trouble playing. There's also the fly balls in the gap that he's been incapable of catching. There's no way the worry of a limestone vs. wood carom would have caused misplays on those types of batted balls. Instead, there's a trend that has occurred over the past few years that I think the Twins are repeating once more.
For this trend, you could go back as far as you'd like but I'm just going to go to the ill-fated Delmon Young / Matt Garza swap. In the trade, the Twins were convinced they were dumping their talented headcase starting pitcher for a talented headcase outfielder. Young had just turned 22 and had completed a season in which he appeared in all 162 games. Though primarily a right fielder, he had also made 29 appearances as a center fielder (!). Yeah, Delmon used to be svelte enough to roam center field. Anyway, virtually as soon as the trade was announced, there were reports that Delmon was the new left fielder for the Twins. Why? Because former super-utility player Michael Cuddyer was already entrenched in right field.
Fast forward to 2012. Ben Revere was a speedy light-hitting center fielder that had just completed his first full season as a Twin. Stepping in for the injured Denard Span, he performed admirably as a replacement in center field in spite of his lack of power and noodle throwing arm. Prior to the start of the season, the organization set a then-franchise record for largest free agent contract by signing Josh Willingham to a 3-year, $21 million deal. Although left field was Willingham's main position, it was screaming Ben Revere's name and Willingham did have some experience in right field. You just don't put the weakest arm in baseball in right field... except that's exactly what the Twins did with Revere. Bowing to Willingham's preference, they kept him in left and sent Revere to right. In fact, Revere has played a grand total of 21 games in left field. Now, part of that is due to him being a solid defensive center fielder, but he's also made 91 appearances in right field. That's a pretty big disparity.
That brings me back to Torii Hunter and Oswaldo Arcia. It's pretty clear that the Twins like to give the veteran player his position preference and then shift the younger guy to the other opening. Although Cuddyer had bounced all over the field, he found his niche in right field and was allowed to stay there. Willingham's vast majority of appearances were in left field, so the Twins felt more comfortable putting the ribbon arm of Ben Revere in right. Now it's Torii Hunter, who shifted to right field after failing to handle center, even though Arcia has also spent most of his professional career as a right fielder.
With this pattern, I think there are some factors that come into play. Not only were these three players the veterans, but they were also being paid significantly more money and are/were being viewed as leaders in the clubhouse. Though I can't imagine Willingham or Cuddyer being malcontent, I'm sure the Twins wanted them to remain happy with the team. They have the contracts, so they should be allowed some say in where they play. Second, theoretically the younger guys should be more athletic and more able to learn a "new" position. Now it's debatable on Hunter vs. Arcia, but I think most people would say the 23-year old Arcia should be able to move around much better than the 39-year old Hunter.
However, those reasons don't exactly play well towards the fans and media. Though I'm sure we're all aware it actually happens this way, full-out admitting that your veterans self-select where they play makes you sound like a pushover. Also, it could make the player look bad, as I'm sure many people out there wouldn't recognize the differences in playing left field compared to right field.
As for my second point, I'd think you'd much rather give a young guy a position and let him stick with it so he can become more comfortable in a shorter period of time. Granted, that's not how it works all the time, but I'd imagine it has to be preferable. This creates the odd reasoning that Arcia hasn't figured out the right field fence because it sounds reasonable without significantly alienating anyone to an extent. It doesn't exactly pass my smell test, but I suppose I'm willing to admit that there are far worse excuses Terry Ryan could have given. Besides, Hunter's only here for one season; there's still plenty of time to move Arcia back over to his natural position in right.