Welcome to the second installment of the Best Twins Position Players Since 2000.
The first time around, we covered #20 to #16. Also notable: I neglected to specify that I’m leaving pitchers off this list. It’s so hard to weigh the value of pitchers versus position hitters, and beyond that, relief pitchers versus starters.
So, to make things easier, we’re only going to talk about position players. Perhaps a list of pitchers will be next.
If you want an explanation of criteria for the ranking, follow the above link to Part One.
No. 15 - Byron Buxton, 2015 to present
- Career line of .237/.292/.414
- No. 2 overall draft pick in 2012 draft
Believe it or not, Byron Buxton has already appeared in the majors for the Twins in five different seasons.
It seems like only yesterday that Twins fans were reveling in a .334/.424/.520 line with 12 home runs, 19 doubles and 18 triples (!) in 125 games of A-ball, and then shortly thereafter wringing our collective hands over injuries in the minors, including a scary concussion.
But, that was back in 2013. Buxton debuted for the Twins in 2015 and was a top defensive outfield from the get-go. Injuries and offensive inconsistencies plagued him throughout 2015 and 2016, but it all came together in 2017.
Buxton hit a more-than-passable .253/.314/.413 in 140 games for Paul Molitor’s surprising, AL Wild Card-winning Twins. He was a 5-win player, according to Baseball-Reference, including contributing 2.7 dWAR (Defensive Wins Above Replacement). Buxton won his first Gold Glove Award that season, too, and even finished 18th in MVP voting. (True story — he finished a single point ahead of future teammate Marwin Gonzalez in the voting!)
Buxton limped through an injury-riddled 2018 season along with a disappointing Twins squad, and was leading the American League in doubles in 2019 before injuries befell him once again. Ultimately, Buxton’s season was cut short due to shoulder surgery, and his 2020 Opening Day would have been in question due to his recovery timeline.
At this stage, Buxton’s stellar defense over parts of five seasons, plus a season-and-a-half of fantastic offensive production, is enough to get him to No. 15 on this list. Here’s hoping that an update list in a few years will find Buck quite a bit higher in the rankings.
No. 14 - Nelson Cruz, 2019 to present
- Line of .311/.392/.639 with Twins
- Won Silver Slugger, 9th in MVP voting in 2019
Somehow, the Twins landed Nelson Cruz on a one-year deal worth $14 million for last season and a team option for $12 million in 2020. On the heels of a second consecutive All-Star season in Seattle and five straight seasons with at least 37 home runs, it seemed like a bargain.
As it turned out, “bargain” is a complete and utter understatement.
Cruz was phenomenal, notching the best on-base percentage and slugging percentage for any season in his career in which he appeared in at least 100 games. If it wasn’t for a couple of injured list stints, he would have almost certainly eclipsed his previous career-high of 44 home runs in a single season. Cruz logged a career-best 7.9 percent home run rate, dwarfing his previous best of 6.7 percent back in 2015.
To make things even more impressive, Cruz’s second injury of the season was a wrist problem that threatened to require surgery. However, the tendon reportedly ruptured and didn’t present any threat for further injury, and Cruz finished the season strong.
One phenomenal season was enough to place Cruz No. 14 on this list, saying a lot about just how good Boomstick was in 2019, as well as some of the offensive challenges the Twins have battled over the last 20 years.
No. 13 - Doug Mientkiewicz, 1998 to 2004
- Line of .275/.367/.408 with Twins
- Won 2001 Gold Glove Award
Doug Mientkiewicz was the best hitter on the first good Twins team in nearly a decade when he hit .306/.387/.464 with 15 home runs in 2001 while winning the American League Gold Glove at first base.
He took a step back offensively in 2002 as the Twins won the division, but was back to a .300/.393/.450 in 2003. After a slow start to the season in 2004 and the Twins teetering on the brink of non-contention in July, Minnesota sent him to the Boston Red Sox. The Twins ultimately won their third consecutive division title that season, but the miracle Red Sox went on to win the World Series with Dougie Baseball catching the clinching put-out at first base.
His offense never came close to his early-career levels as he bounced from team to team, with stops in New York (one season each with the Mets and Yankees), Kansas City, Pittsburgh, and the Los Angeles Dodgers. His best non-Twins season was the .283/.359/.411 mark he put up for a 100-loss Royals squad in 2006.
Mientkiewicz’s two great offensive seasons and roughly five seasons of stellar defense, not to mention the key role he played in making the Twins relevant again on a national level near the turn of the millennium, makes him a top-13 player for the Twins over the last 20 years.
No. 12 - Eddie Rosario, 2015 to 2019
- Career line of .279/.309/.479
- Finished No. 6 in Rookie of the Year voting in 2015 and No. 18 in MVP voting in 2019
Eddie Rosario has always been more highly thought of by the scouting community than what he has actually been able to provide on the field. At least until 2019, that is.
After a rookie campaign in which Rosario hit .267/.289/.459 and clubbed 13 home runs, 18 doubles, and a major-league leading 15 triples, expectations were sky-high. But the power wasn’t quite as effective in 2016 and Rosario took a mini step backwards.
In 151 games in 2017, however, Rosario knocked 27 home runs while putting up a career-best on-base-plus-slugging (OPS) of .836. After another mini step backwards during the Twins’ disappointing 2018 campaign, he started 2019 red-hot. As he was making a run at the final spot on the American League All-Star team, Rosario sprained his ankle running the bases and wasn’t quite himself for the balance of the season.
Ultimately, he still hit .276/.300/.500 with career-highs in home runs with 32 and runs batted in with 109. Rosario was leading the league in home runs as late as the final week of May, and it sure seemed like he was on pace to hit 40-plus homers before the injury bug hit.
Rosario had been a solid defender until 2019, so there’s hope that he’ll bounce back on that side of the ball. He’s always been a bit too much of a free swinger, which suppresses his on-base percentage and overall production. If Rosario ever figures out how to reach base even just a little bit more often, he’ll be a regular on the A.L. All-Star team.
No. 11 - Max Kepler, 2015 to present
- Career line of .238/.319/.444
- Finished No. 20 in MVP voting in 2019
On its face, it would appear that Rosario has a slight edge over Kepler to this point in their respective careers. In reality, it’s more of a tie with Kepler’s defense and on-base capabilities giving him a slight edge.
When pressed into duty in center field, Kepler has been markedly better than Rosario, and he’s been better in right field than Rosario has managed on a consistent basis in left.
Kepler arrived to unfair comparisons with Justin Morneau’s sweet left-handed swing. He struggled at the plate for much of his first three full seasons in the big leagues, logging remarkably consistent OPS marks of .734, .737, .727 from 2016 through 2018 for an overall line of .233/.314/.418 across 1,626 at-bats.
But he broke out in a big way in 2019, hitting .252/.336/.519 and knocking 36 balls over the fence for the Bomba Squad. After improving against lefties somewhat in 2018, Kepler flipped things around entirely during the Twins’ 102-win season, hitting a fantastic .293/.356/.524 in 163 plate appearances against left-handed pitchers.
Kepler’s above-average defense, including the ability to play a passable center field, and his sudden ability to hit lefties makes him an exceedingly valuable player. Still just 27 years old, there appears to be quite a bit of upside remaining for Kepler.
Next up: Nos. 10 through 6...