While some clubs have struggled to find continuity in their outfield — the Cardinals, Padres and Blue Jays come to mind — the Twins have enjoyed a rather reliable trio in recent years. True, injuries to Byron Buxton have frequently held him out of the lineup, but the general expectation over the past three to four seasons has been that Buxton would be flanked by left fielder Eddie Rosario and right fielder Max Kepler. Since 2016, Rosario ranks fourth among MLB left fielders in innings. Kepler ranks seventh in right-field innings. Both would likely rank higher on those leaderboards were it not for occasional stints manning center field while Buxton mended from injuries.
And yet, as much of the team’s young core has been locked up on long-term deals — Kepler, Jorge Polanco and Miguel Sano are now all signed through at least 2023 — Rosario finds himself nearing free agency. The 27-year-old slugger agreed to a $7.75MM salary this winter and is controlled through 2021. There have reportedly been some talks between the two sides in recent years, but nothing has come together. Other key members of the Twins core remain unsigned (e.g. Buxton, Jose Berrios, Taylor Rogers) but are controlled an additional year beyond Rosario.
Moreover, the Twins now find themselves with a pair of corner prospects pushing for a spot in the big leagues sooner than later. Former first-round picks Alex Kirilloff (2016) and Trevor Larnach (2018) both rank comfortably among the game’s best overall prospects and both found success in Double-A in 2019. The former returned from a wrist injury to hit .283/.343/.413 (121 wRC+) through 411 plate appearances, while the latter hit .295/.387/.455 in 181 PAs — good for a 148 wRC+ that was an exact match for his mark through 361 PAs in Class-A Advanced.
Both Kirilloff (No. 9 overall on Keith Law’s prospect rankings at The Athletic) and Larnach (No. 45 at Baseball America) are 22-year-old corner outfielders with bats that have been deemed close to MLB-ready. Both would’ve likely advanced to Triple-A in 2020 had the season begun under normal circumstances, and it’d be reasonable to think that either could’ve made his MLB debut this year. Each notched an OPS north of 1.100 during brief Spring Training showings (30 PAs for Larnach, 22 for Kirilloff). Beyond that pairing, Brent Rooker posted a 139 wRC+ in Triple-A last year. He’s not as highly regarded and may be more of a first base or DH type in the long run, but Rooker’s been playing left field regularly since being drafted 35th overall in 2017.
It’s unlikely that any of those prospects would’ve been plugged directly into the Major League lineup to begin the season under any circumstance, but it’s nevertheless notable that Rosario’s name crept up in trade rumblings this winter. Had a deal come together, the Twins could’ve added a one-year stopgap, turned to Marwin Gonzalez as a primary outfielder and/or given Jake Cave an opportunity to establish himself. As it turned out, retaining Rosario only left the club with enhanced depth.
At some point in the near future, the Twins will have to ask whether they’re better off paying Rosario another raise in arbitration — though it remains to be seen how much of an increase he’ll get over his current salary next time — or whether some combination of Kirilloff, Larnach, Cave and Rooker can provide similar or greater value at a fraction of the price. Minnesota only has $55.5MM on the 2021 books as of this writing, so it’s not as if payroll is an immediate issue, but Rosario’s game isn’t without its flaws, either.
A former high-end prospect himself, Rosario has never demonstrated much plate discipline, but his swing-happy tendencies revved up to new levels last year. Jeff McNeil was the only qualified hitter in the Majors last year who swung at a higher percentage of pitches than Rosario’s 59.1 (although he didn’t chase out of the zone nearly as much as Rosario and had a markedly better contact rate on pitches in the zone). On top of that, only three qualified hitters chased balls out of the zone more than Rosario.
To his credit, Rosario has greatly improved his bat-to-ball skills, cutting his strikeout rate from 25.7 percent in 2016 to 14.6 percent in 2019. But Rosario’s penchant for swinging at pitches out of the zone leads to far more weak contact than one would expect from a player who hit 32 home runs in 2019. His 89.1 mph average exit velocity ranked 123rd of 250 qualified hitters, per Statcast, and his 36 percent hard-hit rate ranked 166th in that same grouping. Despite his clear power, Rosario hasn’t ranked higher than the 34th percentile of big league hitters in terms of hard-hit rate in any of the past four seasons. His expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) has hovered around league average or a bit below.
This isn’t intended as a piece meant to disparage Rosario, who has proven himself to be a useful corner outfielder. He’s averaged 27.6 homers over the past three seasons, ranks seventh in the Majors in outfield assists in that time and, with the exception of a 2019 season during which he played through a notable ankle injury, he’s graded out as a reliable and at times well-above-average defender.
A rangy left fielder with a strong arm, consistently solid batting averages and 25- to 30-homer pop is a fine player — even if he comes with some on-base deficiencies. But when corner outfield options are typically plentiful in free agency and there are a pair of top-tier prospects looming in the upper minors, it’s easy to see the front office debating Rosario’s future. Rosario isn’t going to fetch a top-of-the-rotation arm in a trade given his rising price, questionable OBP and waning club control, but the Twins will still surely ponder whether their resources can be better allotted elsewhere soon — if they haven’t already.
Some may argue that Buxton or even Kepler are the better pieces for the Twins to consider moving from the current outfield group. But Buxton’s 80-grade glove and speed are harder to replace, and he’s controlled an additional year while currently earning less than half of Rosario’s salary. In terms of ceiling, he’s the highest of the bunch even in spite of his frequent injuries. Kepler’s extension, meanwhile, allows the Twins to control him for another five years and $38MM — the final season of which is a $10MM club option.
The alternative, of course, is to eventually look to package some of the aforementioned young talent to address other areas of need — likely high-end rotation help. The Twins’ offseason quest to bolster the starting staff ended up with more quantity-over-quality outcome than many expected, as the club missed on its top targets and instead pivoted to a surprising four-year deal with Josh Donaldson. Part of the reason they weren’t able to add an impact starter was the simple fact that virtually none were available in trade, but that could change down the road.
With three former top 40 picks thriving in the upper minors, two of them top 100 picks, and a long-entrenched mix of quality regulars at the MLB level, it seems inevitable that Minnesota’s outfield depth will undergo some form of reshaping in the near future. (None of this even mentions 2017 No. 1 overall pick Royce Lewis — a shortstop who some feel is destined to end up in center field instead.) Of course, this is the type of logjam that rebuilding clubs look forward to eventually trying to manage, and it serves as a reminder that despite their current lack of prototypical “ace,” the Twins are well-positioned for another run of competitive years in the American League Central.