When the Twins and the architectural firm Populous designed Target Field, they wedged the ballpark into an improbably small footprint and unwittingly damaged the careers of their two most important players. In its early years, Target Field proved to be a beautiful beast.
A grass infield and higher outfield wall turned many of Joe Mauer’s Metrodome hits into outs. Whether because of curing concrete or unpredictable airflow, Justin Morneau’s drives to center and right-center too often fell short of the seats.
As Target Field hosts its eighth Opening Day, the park’s dimensions may finally benefit the home team. The large outfield will be populated by three fleet athletes with excellent arms. If you want a reason to watch the 2017 Minnesota Twins as they attempt to scramble back to respectability, look toward the young guardians of the green walls.
Byron Buxton, Max Kepler and Eddie Rosario could give the Twins their best fielding outfield since Kirby Puckett, Dan Gladden and Shane Mack were mastering the Metrodome’s idiosyncrasies.
Buxton’s combination of range and arm strength is unmatched in Major League Baseball. He threw a 98 mile-per-hour fastball as a high school pitcher. He may not be the fastest player in baseball, but it is difficult to remember another player with his combination of stride length and speed.
Kepler possesses speed and arm strength and like Buxton is willing to challenge walls to make catches.
Rosario is the most experienced of the three. Like Buxton and Kepler, he has excellent range for his position. While his arm may not be as powerful of Buxton’s and Kepler’s, it is ideal for left field, where his accuracy and quick release allow him to surprise baserunners.
Their success as fielders will likely be determined by their skill as hitters. If they can produce enough offensively to stay in the everyday lineup, they have a chance to give the Twins the best defensive outfield in baseball. That would be a rare earned superlative for a damaged franchise.
“Very, very high in potential,” manager Paul Molitor said of the outfield. “Three exciting young players. It’s certainly early on in terms of numbers of games and at-bats but when you think of high potential on both sides of the ball it’s fun to think about.
“In terms of our pitching and in terms of getting our guys off the field, we had some issues out there particularly early last year with our outfield defense. But we think those three guys, the way they work together and the way Jeff Pickler handled our whole approach to outfield defense this spring, it’s going to be very interesting to watch.
“They’re going to cover a lot of ground, they’re going to make a lot of plays, they can all run and throw and show fearlessness, it’s a good combination of athletes, for sure.”
Buxton was born in Georgia, Rosario in Puerto Rico and Kepler in Germany. They could be to the rebuilding Twins of 2017 what another diverse group of fielders was to the promising Twins of the early 2000s.
American Doug Mientkiewicz, Venezuelan Luis Rivas, Dominican Cristian Guzman and Canadian Corey Koskie formed an athletic infield that was the heart of the Twins’ last resurgence. It was never surprising to walk into a visitors clubhouse and see the four squished together on a small couch, watching television.
An outfield filled with speed and daring could help a desperate pitching staff and give hopeful Twins fans something in which to believe.
“For those three, just the speed they bring throughout the whole outfield is bar none one of the tops in all of baseball in my opinion,” Brian Dozier said. “The talent is there. Mixed in with their knowledge and their learning experience from last year, I think they’re going to do just fine.”
The Twins pitching staff figures to test the range of Buxton, Kepler and Rosario.
And their stamina.