April 28, 2016
Rochester's Lovely This Time of Year
Byron Buxton’s last major-league start on Sunday began encouragingly enough, as he lined a third-inning Stephen Strasburg fastball over Michael Taylor’s head in center, good for a leadoff double. From there it went downhill quickly, as an overmatched Buxton whiffed to end each of his final four plate appearances, a microcosm of his big-league struggles summed up neatly in four swings:
Buxton has posted a 36.4 percent strikeout percentage since debuting in the majors last season, and that number has jumped to just shy of 50 percent in 2016 alone. So far this season he’s swung at 32 percent of pitches outside the strike zone while offering at just 55 percent of pitches inside the zone. That isn’t the profile of an overly aggressive hacker—like, for instance, Jeff Francoeur, who this season has swung at 63 percent of all pitches encountered—hopelessly swinging at everything. Instead Buxton’s fit more of the confused hitter mold, one who’s letting the hittable pitches pass while swinging when at the pitcher’s mercy. Neither approach generally works at the highest level.
There’s an argument that this is a reactionary move, and it may very well be. There’s no better place for Buxton to learn how to hit major-league pitching than in the majors, and it’s only 17 games worth of performance this season that changed the Twins mind from Buxton, starting center fielder in Minnesota, to Buxton, starting center fielder in faraway Rochester.
Baseball’s been spoiled recently by prepackaged stars seemingly devoid of exploitable weaknesses—think Carlos Correa, or Corey Seager, or Nomar Mazara, or Kris Bryant—guys that are valuable from the get-go. For most young players—shoot, even Mike Trout slashed .220/.281/.390 in 2011—there’s a development curve, a period of rookie adjustments and readjustments that are expected to play out before they turn into useful cornerstones. It’s not surprising that the occasional super-prospect would struggle upon entry into The Show, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that guy won’t figure it out in short order. Further, Buxton has enough value tied up in his defense and base running that he’s a net positive even when he hits like a good-hitting pitcher. In his short major-league career, he’s actually posted 0.5 WARP despite a .205 True Average.
There’s another argument that says Buxton belongs back in the minors, where, in relative obscurity, he can make up for the lost developmental time that he was robbed of by injuries. For as long as it’s felt like Buxton was baseball’s best prospect—and he ranked atop our top 101 before the 2014 and 2015 seasons—he had played in just 73 games at Double-A or Triple-A coming into 2016. The hope from here is that Buxton can work out his offensive kinks in Triple-A, stay healthy, and return to the majors with a more refined approach.
There’s really no right or wrong answer here. This time the Twins had better be patient, though: the next time Buxton’s called up should be the last.
Kepler, a 23-year-old outfielder/first baseman, was called up when Santana hit the DL on April 10. Now, with Santana activated, Kepler heads back to Rochester, ending a strange two-week detour in his development path. He could work well enough as a versatile defender and lefty-hitting bench bat on a major-league roster, sure, but that’s not the role you want to stick on a guy who—similarly to Buxton—had played a grand total of zero games in Triple-A heading into this season. Kepler qualifies as a legit prospect, too, shooting up to 60th on our 2016 list after a breakout .322/.416/.531 showing in Double-A a year ago. It’s one thing to aggressively promote fast-rising prospects; it’s another to promote them when there isn’t an opportunity for everyday reps.
Santana returns from a right hamstring sprain and it looks like he’ll inherit the everyday center field gig. That’s probably not the ideal role for someone who doesn’t project as a starter either offensively or defensively—PECOTA pegs Santana for a .238 TAv and just barely positive WARP. Once the Twins get their outfield situation sorted out, Santana figures to transition into a poor man’s Ben Zobrist-type role, sliding around the diamond for spot starts where needed. On a positive note, he’s spent time at every position outside of first base and catcher as a professional, and teams are always looking for those kind of players.
The Twins converted Meyer, a 6-foot-9 righty, into a reliever last season before deciding to turn him back into a starter this spring. Now he’s back to the majors as a reliever, probably as confused as you and me. The problem here is getting that big frame to work consistently enough to throw strikes, as Meyer has run into control problems in the past. Beyond that, there’s an interesting pitcher here with an arsenal that fits well in high-leverage relief duty, although it’s starting to feel like this strange track the Twins have put him on isn’t helping his cause. —Dustin Palmateer
Signed LHP Phil Coke to a minor league deal. [4/25]
Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s… a pop-up. That’s what Phil Coke is pointing to, as he is wont to do. Coke has been far from super-human over the course of his major league career, despite charging in from the bullpen faster than a speeding locomotive. However, he throws with his left arm and has a pulse, so here we are. The Yankees have signed Coke to a minor league deal and assigned him to Triple-A Scranton to serve as bullpen depth.
Coke had been pitching for the Lancaster Barnstormers in the independent Atlantic League. He made one start, a four-inning, three-run effort. He’s only 33 and boasts a 23.9 percent strikeout rate against lefties, so there’s no real downside here. However, if a lefty with his track record and relative youth was sequestered in an indie league, well, there’s also that. Coke did allow eight home runs in 12.7 innings of work last year, which is pretty awful for a LOOGY. Yet a team can never have too much depth, and given that Branden Pinder and Nick Rumbelow both need to have their elbows sliced open, Coke’s as fine an option as any at this point of the year. If he sees any substantial amount of meaningful playing time in the Bronx, something will have gone grievously wrong. It Kent can’t any worse. —Nicolas Stellini
Called up RHP Cesar Vargas from Double-A San Antonio. [4/23]
Despite having only three appearances in Triple-A, the Padres saw enough in Vargas to give the former Yankees prospect a major-league deal and assigned him to Double-A San Antonio. Hailing from Pueblo, Mexico, Vargas has two plus pitches in his right arm. It starts with a 92-95 mph fastball that has good life, and when he stays on top of his delivery, he commands it to both sides of the plate. The curve is the other 60 offering; a pitch with hard downward break that he'll add and subtract from to keep hitters off balance. That's important, because the change isn't good, and it's not a pitch he appears very comfortable with at this point. He's not completely immune to self-inflicted damage, but the control and command should be good enough to allow him start. Whether or not he will be able to stay there long-term without an adequate third pitch is another question entirely, but in a year where it's almost assured that the Padres won't compete, San Diego can see exactly what they have in this 24-year-old arm. —Christopher Crawford
Dustin Palmateer is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @sacbuntdustin