CHICAGO – It has been the year of the center fielder for the Twins. And not in a good way.
An organization that was building a legacy of strong center field play has been relegated to scouring the waiver wire for options this season and using a natural shortstop in the position.
Their latest example is their addition of former Braves outfielder Jordan Schafer, who was claimed off waivers Sunday. It’s the second time this season the Twins claimed a center fielder off waivers to address a need on their roster.
How did the Twins get to this point? They went from Kirby Puckett (1984-95) to Torii Hunter (1997-2007) to Carlos Gomez (2008-09). First-round picks Denard Span, Ben Revere, Aaron Hicks and Byron Buxton were all in the organization at the same time. They were covered, or so it seemed.
“We have been fortunate to have had some very reliable center fielders as you pointed out,” said Rob Antony, Twins assistant general manager. “This has been a different year but the positive is that Sam Fuld had an opportunity to play and he produced, which made him valuable.”
Fuld was claimed off waivers April 20 and played 53 games for the Twins before being traded Thursday to Oakland, the team that waived him. Once Schafer steps into center for the Twins, he will become the seventh player the Twins have used there, the most since 1995. At least they will have a true center fielder on the 25-man roster.
The Twins put themselves in this pickle with a series of moves.
They traded Gomez to Milwaukee for J.J. Hardy in 2009. In a span of about a week in 2012 they dealt Span to Washington for Alex Meyer and Ben Revere to Philadelphia for Trevor May and Vance Worley. They were desperate for starting pitching upgrades at the time, but it cost the Twins center field depth. Righthanders Meyer and May both are on the verge of their major league debuts.
The transient state of the position was evident in spring training, when they lost Alex Presley to Houston on waivers as they maneuvered to make room for infielder Jason Bartlett and others on the 40-man roster. Bartlett ended up retiring less than a month into the season.
When they claimed Fuld, they needed to make room on the 40-man roster for him. They tried to sneak Darin Mastroianni, another center fielder, through waivers but lost him to Toronto.
Quite the body count this season.
One happy accident is that is that Danny Santana has gotten a chance to flash his tantalizing skill set in center field — despite having played only 25 games there in his minor league career.
A natural shortstop, Santana went off Sunday in the Twins’ 16-3 victory over the White Sox, going 5-for-6 and finishing a homer shy of the cycle. He’s batting .306 for the season. What’s mind-bending is that, if he had enough at-bats to qualify, his on base-plus-slugging percentage of .816 would be fourth among center fielders and third among shortstops.
“I feel good,” Santana said. “I feel comfortable at both positions.”
To get out of this mess, the Twins need Hicks to click and Buxton to stop getting injured.
The Opening Day center fielder in 2013 and 2014 was Hicks, who has looked overmatched at the plate in the major leagues. A switch hitter, Hicks is batting .194 through 129 career games. He flirted with batting righthanded only a month into the season but, when he returned to the minors, decided to return to hitting from both sides of the plate.
“We hoped that Hicksey would take off and run with it and it has been a struggle with him,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “All the other guys are basically fill-ins, so you are looking for someone to take over. We just haven’t had anyone do that until Santana right now.”
Hicks batted .198 in 48 games with the Twins this season. He is batting .297 at Class AA New Britain with four homers and 21 RBI in 43 games. Gardenhire said he would like to see Hicks move up to Class AAA Rochester and earn a return to the majors from that level.
Buxton, the top prospect in baseball at the beginning of the season, has played only 23 games because of a left wrist injury that he aggravated once and a right wrist injury suffered when he was hit by a pitch. Instead of starting the season at New Britain and possibly working toward a late-season call-up, Buxton is at Class A Fort Myers trying to get in a groove and move on to New Britain.
Even if Hicks hits his way back to the majors this season, his time in center will be short-lived, as Buxton eventually will force him to a corner outfield spot. At least, that’s what the Twins hope.
For now, the Twins would take Hicks earning a return to the majors and Santana playing more at short.
“All we needed was for someone to step up,” Gardenhire said. “We believe Hicksey is going to step up. We believe it is going to happen. It just hasn’t happened yet.”