Two areas that the Twins felt pretty comfortable about heading into the season were their starting rotation and their outfield depth. By mid May, both were in shambles. There has been a lot written about the pitching staff, and I’m not going to go over that ground right now, but the outfield needs to be addressed as well.
By position, the players that saw the most time this season were LF – Trevor Larnach, CF – Byron Buxton and RF – Max Kepler. Buxton has missed long stretches of the season with injury, but he still leads the team in games started in center (somehow, with only 32 games) while Larnach is in St. Paul due to ineffectiveness at the plate, and Kepler both saw time on the bench, and time out of position in center field to reduce his numbers. The list of other players who have played the outfield this season are Brent Rooker, Luis Arraez, Jake Cave, Alex Kirilloff, Kyle Garlick, Rob Refsnyder, Nick Gordon, Tzu-Wei Lin, Gilberto Celestino and Willians Astudillo.
The fact that Larnach made it to the majors this year was a surprise. The fact that Gilberto Celestino was pressed into big league action is proof that this season went hard off the rails. One name on this list that will always elicit some sort of reaction is Jake Cave. Cave has had a rough couple of years, and almost any Twins writer you talk to will insist that Cave has got to go.
From a simple look at the overall manpower, it’s probably not likely that Cave will go without a lot of replacement help, but also, with the personnel the team has, Cave is probably (unfortunately, in the minds of many) better suited for the organization than initial first impressions may provide.
Cave has a two pronged issue for the fan base. First, his bat has been dead for two years, and second, he isn’t good in the field. Cave exploded on the scene in 2018 and 2019, but was buoyed by a high BABIP, which is not unexpected by someone who moves well, like Cave does. Unfortunately, that BABIP has dropped precipitously, from the mid .300s to down around .270 this season. He’s not as good as those first two seasons, but I don’t think he is as bad at the plate as he has shown this year. League average, we’ll call it, perhaps a little less.
Cave had the unfortunate task of being Byron Buxton’s replacement in many important situations. I don’t think I will hurt Jake’s feelings by saying that he is no Byron Buxton in the field. But perhaps as an upset, I think I can say pretty confidently that Cave is the second best outfielder on the roster, and has been all season. Cave has so many near misses in the field because he gets to more balls than other outfielders, and his zone rating is high.
The up and coming athletes expected to play in the corner spots surrounding Cave are going to be there for their offense. Alex Kirilloff may not stick in the outfield, and is already splitting time at first, while Trevor Larnach, a better fielder, still hasn’t worked out his bat. When he does and he returns, Cave is still better in the corners on defense.
If Buxton leaves after this or next year, the outfield defense will be further diminished, with Max Kepler likely moving to center every day for a season or two. The need for a defensive replacement becomes more apparent. Jake Cave, in a normal season, should be a near average outfield bat, and a better than average fielder. There isn’t as much depth in the organization as the Twins thought at the beginning of 2021, and while Cave is miscast as a regular, he is a fit in the rotation as a 4th or 5th outfielder. Whether you like it or not.