Earlier this week we ran through the roster crunch that's going to hit the starting rotation over the next few days. Minnesota's outfield has just as much of a logjam, with no fewer than five players deserving of a starter's plate appearances.
Let's just take a moment to appreciate that. The Twins have five outfielders who are deserving of a starter's playing time. This discussion is so much more fun than trying to find a second good outfielder, much less three. Remember those days? Like last year? And the year before?
Byron Buxton, Eddie Rosario, and Torii Hunter are on the active roster (or Buxton was before ruining this article and heading to the disabled list, forcing me to re-write portions after it was finished and ready to go) and have been getting the lion's share of innings in the outfield. But there's still Aaron Hicks, who is scheduled to begin his rehab assignment in Rochester today, and Oswaldo Arcia, whose middle-of-the-order potential is currently on hold in Triple-A. Injuries and sub-par play at Triple-A give the Twins breathing room for the moment, but that won't last forever.
What can the Twins do? When everyone is healthy the front office will need to clear room somewhere. Let's talk about these five players to see what Minnesota's options are.
When healthy Arcia has 30+ home run power and, as one of the organization's best young sluggers ever, should be batting somewhere between fifth and seventh. To reach that potential, he needs to be playing everyday.
Still just 24, the Twins have the luxury of leaving Arcia in Triple-A until he forces their hand. That leaves Minnesota with some flexibility in the Major League outfield. Unfortunately, if Arcia isn't forcing the Twins' hand to be promoted then it also means his trade value is minimal. For a guy who is a .308/.368/.530 career hitter in 1,898 minor league plate appearances, selling low would be doing Arcia and the Twins a disservice.
Buxton doesn't need to be an immediate star to keep his role. While there's always a point a player could reach where they're constantly over-matched, unless that happens the Twins need to roll with the 21-year old phenom. As long as he's healthy and merely holding his own, however, he's the best option in center field for the Twins.
If Buxton eventually shows himself to be overwhelmed, then having him optioned to Triple-A is an option. That doesn't seem to be the best option in the short term, meaning that A) Buxton is definitely getting a starter's plate appearances with the Twins, and B) if the outfield roster crunch comes in the next week or two then another outfielder could have already been moved.
In the short term, being sent to the disabled list with a sprained thumb leaves Minnesota with a little more time to sort things out. According to an interview with Paul Molitor, the Twins manager says Buxton could miss a month or more, but most outlets are reporting a significantly shorter recovery time.
At this point, the best part of Hicks returning to the Twins is that the club can choose to keep him as the fourth outfielder if they so choose. He's still young enough to show some development, and with the tools to play all three spots in the outfield he becomes a superior option to Shane Robinson.
Trading any of these players will be difficult for their own reasons, but moving Hicks seems unlikely. If Buxton does need time away (oh and look at that, he does!), the Twins could do worse than giving Hicks more time in center field. He's still just 25, and as tempting as it is we need to be patient with young, toolsy players. Minnesota has been burned by giving up on young players in the recent past, and they'd be wise to be hesitant in cutting ties with Hicks simply because of a roster crunch.
In spite of his recent woes at the plate, Hunter is still one of just five Twins batters who are at least a league average hitter, and of course he's also the team leader at this point. On a one-year deal as a mentor, Hunter isn't going anywhere - and that includes the bench.
Rosario has been playing competently in the corner outfield spots for the Twins, providing the club with another pair of legs that can widen the net for the pitching staff. He's provided a surprising amount of pop at the dish and, in spite of only accumulating five walks through 139 plate appearances, has been showing off a solid hit tool and some smart base running.
The Twins have flexibility with Rosario obviously, considering that 2015 is his first option year and therefore Minnesota can send him down and call him up as many times as they like. The issue is that Rosario has been playing relatively well in all aspects of his game, and much like Trevor May in the rotation crunch you can't send down one of your better guys simply because you can. In Buxton's absence, we could also see Paul Molitor try Rosario in center field.
Personally, I think the Twins will try to let things play out as they are for as long as possible. When Buxton returns he'll go back to center field in Target Field, leaving him with Rosario and Hunter as the starting outfield. Before he's back, Arcia's bat could come alive and Hicks should finish his rehab stint.
Essentially, the issue comes down to this: the Twins cannot find legitimate starter's plate appearances for Buxton, Rosario, Arcia, Hicks, and Hunter at once. Sending four of the five to Triple-A is an option, but in most cases that would require the team to voluntarily take Major League time away from a talented young player. Trades are also an option, probably for Arcia or Rosario more than the other three, but considering the potential of these players the front office also won't want to sell low.
Maybe sub-par play and injuries will make this a moot issue, allowing the front office to strike a balance without selling out on a player's ceiling quite yet. If not, well...it's a nice problem to have, but it's an uncomfortable one, too.