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Nick Gordon needs to play in the majors

Why can’t his development as a utility player happen with the Twins?

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Texas Rangers v Minnesota Twins Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

The first time Nick Gordon was called up to the Minnesota Twins, in April of this season, he watched three games from the bench without entering a game. The second time he was recalled across town he played in one game out of five he was on the roster. In that start, he played second base and notched his first hit and first two stolen bases. The third time he was recalled, on May 11, it was for an extended stay, albeit with sporadic playing time and limited sustained chances to prove his abilities.

Now 25 years old, The 2014 first round draft pick has seen action in just 37 of the Twins’ 109 games this season, starting in 25. Twenty-five of the Twins’ 109 games occurred without Gordon on the active roster, so he has played in less than one-half (37 of 84, 44%) and started less than one-third of the team’s games (25 of 84, 30%) for which he was eligible.

You can count me among those that expected to see Gordon’s playing time tick up in August and September. With the Twins far from contention and undertaking a youth movement after the moves of veterans at the trade deadline, I thought we’d see Gordon’s name penciled into the lineup nearly daily, as the Twins have pledged to do with Brent Rooker and Trevor Larnach.

The Twins appear to agree that Gordon would benefit from more playing time. But instead of making that a priority at the major league level, the team announced yesterday that Gordon was being optioned out to get regular playing time at multiple positions for St. Paul:

Gordon was drafted years ago as a shortstop who was expected to stick at the position thanks to solid defensive mechanics, well regarded baseball instincts, and a frame that projected to get stronger physically. Gordon never had a standout tool, but was average or better across the board, giving him a high floor as a prospect. He moved quickly with strong performances through the low minors and ranked among the game’s global top 100 prospects from the time he was drafted in 2014 through 2018. The shine wore off his prospect apple when he struggled in his first chance at AAA. Gordon faded in the second half of seasons at AA and AAA, which raised concerns that the expected strength gains would not arrive and that he would not be able to hold down shortstop. As a result, the Twins started moving Gordon to the other side of second base to help him prepare for an eventual utility infielder role. His 2019 trial at Rochester resulted in a career best line at the plate (.298/.342/.459), but was limited to 70 games thanks to injuries. His 2020 season was lost altogether when a COVID infection and gastrointestinal issues ($) prevented Gordon from participating in the Twins’ alternate training site.

Healthy again in 2021, but no longer viewed as a shortstop or a highly regarded prospect, the Twins want Gordon to add more defensive versatility to his bag of tricks, hoping he can add value as a Marwin Gonzalez-esque super-utility player. After spending nearly his entire minor league career in the middle infield, Gordon has primarily played second base (74 innings) and center field (157.2) this season with the Twins. Now they want him to add third base and left field to his skillset:

It’s a smart plan that makes sense. Gordon adapted quite well to the surprise apprenticeship in center field and he’s a solid athlete, so there is little reason to think he can’t pick up the other positions adequately. This Twins front office regime values positional versatility and has a track record of stretching numerous player’s skill sets to other positions in recent years. I’ve got no issues with this plan for Nick Gordon.

I do have an issue with its execution. Why does this development opportunity for Gordon need to occur in St. Paul?

Gordon has already played more than a full season (178 games across three seasons and four years) at the AAA level. Over his last 79 AAA contests, he’s hit .306/.352/.466 in 355 plate appearances. There is little left for him to prove offensively at that level. He needs more at bats and repetitions in the majors, where he’s only received 103 plate appearances and hit .250/.301/.333 in his sporadic playing time.

But the Twins management is suggesting there are not enough repetitions and at bats available in the majors right now. So for Gordon to play regularly, he needs to go across town. I have a hard time digesting the assertion that a team that is 17 games back in the standings and publicly broadcasting that their focus for the rest of this season is on the development of young players has a logjam on its roster.

Gordon, along with Luis Arraez, Brent Rooker, Trevor Larnach, Ryan Jeffers, Mitch Garver, and Miguel Sanó should be getting as many chances in the major leagues as they can handle for the rest of this season. It also makes sense to see more of Rob Refsnyder, who performed very well prior to his injury and implemented a swing change that gives some reason to think he’s a different player now than his track record reflects.

It’s worth finding out what these players are at the major league level. It’s an investment in the future that could help answer questions about next year’s roster. If doing that means a handful more off days than normal for Andrelton Simmons, Josh Donaldson, Jorge Polanco, and Max Kepler, so be it. You already know what those players are and what they can be expected to bring next season. (If they are still around.)

With that as the goal, it’s actually not all that hard to sketch out a week’s worth of lineups that gets all the young players lots of run while also having the veterans play most of the time. (Note that I hypothetically optioned out Willians Astudillo instead of Gordon for the below exercise):

Notional Lineup Combinations

The table here shows that if they want Gordon to play nearly every day at different positions, they can make that happen. The same goes for Arraez, Refsnyder, and the young corner sluggers. You could do the same with Astudillo in place of Cave if needed.

It’s not a logjam. It’s a question of prioritization.

Instead, with their decision to option Gordon to St. Paul, they are implicitly prioritizing Andrelton Simmons staying in the lineup and Willians Astudillo and Jake Cave getting semi-regular opportunities.

In the past year, the Twins have repeatedly chosen Jake Cave over other outfield options (Akil Baddoo and LaMonte Wade, Jr. come to mind) despite his recent performance failing to justify it. In 2018 and 2019, Cave was more than adequate as a fourth outfielder, playing in 163 games and batting a combined .262/.329/.466 over 537 plate appearances which was good for 2.3 fWAR. The past two seasons though, those same numbers are .200/.270/.329 over 231 PAs and he’s accumulated 0.4 fWAR. With Byron Buxton hurt perhaps the idea now is that he is needed to man center field. However, the Twins suddenly have several viable options in center field with Kepler, Gordon, and Refsnyder healthy and Buxton beginning baseball activities in his injury rehab. If they are worried about retaining Cave as insurance against a potential Buxton departure this offseason, it’s worth noting that Cave still has a minor league option year remaining so the club would not risk losing him by sending him down now.

Astudillo has been roughly a replacement level player in short burst opportunities over the past four seasons. He’s a fine player to have near the bottom of your 40-man roster, to fill holes in a lost season, and the La Tortuga shenanigans are fun, but he is not a prospect with any reasonable amount of untapped upside that could be uncovered with a long stretch of regular playing time in the majors. It makes little sense to prioritize him at the expense of players with higher upside.

We’ve discussed Simmons at length on these virtual pages this season. You all know the context there. His excellent defense has value, especially while the Twins are developing a host of young pitchers the rest of this season. But he doesn’t figure to be here after 2021 and I’m not sure the value he provides now outweighs the future benefits that could come from getting extra reps for younger players that will be around after this season.

The point is, Simmons, Cave, and Astudillo likely are not major parts of Minnesota’s long term future. To me, that means they should not be getting priority over Gordon’s development or hindering the Twins’ ability to evaluate if Gordon can be a piece of the future puzzle in a utility role.

Prioritizing them over Gordon is a curious choice, to say the least.

John is a contributor to Twinkie Town with an emphasis on analytics. He is a lifelong Twins fan and former college pitcher. You can follow him on Twitter @JohnFoley_21.