On Saturday night, the Minnesota Twins debuted an outfield alignment that figures to be quite common in the coming years: Eddie Rosario in left, Byron Buxton in center, Aaron Hicks in right.
With all three possessing excellent range and arm strength, it has the potential to become one of the best defensive units in the majors. So it's only fitting that Saturday's game ended with Buxton making a great running catch with the bases loaded and two outs to salvage a victory.
Kevin Jepsen, who was awarded a save after narrowly protecting the ninth-inning lead in that game, was certainly grateful to Buxton for bailing him out. And that's a feeling that will be shared by many Twins pitchers going forward.
Run prevention has been a sizable issue for Minnesota over the past several seasons, and lousy outfield defense has been an overlooked culprit in that equation. Sure, it doesn't help when your pitchers are allowing the opposition to put everything in play, but that weakness is magnified substantially when nobody's tracking anything down in the vast green expanses that comprise the outfields in major-league parks.
Last year, trudgers Josh Willingham and Oswaldo Arcia were the primary recipients of playing time in the outfield corners for a Twins team whose pitchers allowed the fifth-highest percentage of fly balls in baseball. It should come as no surprise that Minnesota converted batted balls into outs at a lower rate than any other MLB team.
They entered this season with Arcia and Torii Hunter in the corners, representing a minimal upgrade if any. But over the course of the season, Arcia has banished himself to the minors and Hunter has shown his age. Meanwhile, a new wave of youngsters has entered (or in one case reentered) the picture.
Defense enthusiasts have long anticipated a day where Rosario, Buxton and Hicks would all share the same outfield. It was an eventuality delayed by injuries, first to Hicks and then to Buxton, but it finally became reality on Saturday night. Coincidentally, Ervin Santana was the starting pitcher for the Twins in that game.
The Twins signed Santana to a four-year deal during the offseason, locking him up through 2018. Eleven days later, they signed Phil Hughes to a three-year extension, committing to him through 2019. Those two starters are now the most deeply entrenched members of the rotation going forward. And fortunately, they figure to benefit as much as anyone from this outstanding group of outfielders.
Santana and Hughes don't have a ton of commonalities as pitchers, but they do have this one: both tend to give up a lot of fly balls and line drives. This can manifest in bad ways, as we've seen this year; the pair has combined to give up 39 home runs in 35 starts.
For fly ball pitchers, the long balls can come in sporadic bunches, often attributable to bad luck as much as anything, but the high volume of balls hit in the air to the outfield is inherently constant. Hurlers like Santana and Hughes rely heavily on the players behind them to prevent baseballs from dropping onto the grass, and that's what made the idea of an Arcia/Robinson/Hunter trio so groan-inducing at the outset.
An alignment of Rosario, Buxton and Hicks essentially gives the Twins three center fielders ranging around out there. It's not an exaggeration to suggest that each has a realistic shot at being an elite fielder at his respective position. We've already seen all three players make countless game-changing plays with their gloves and arms.
Hopefully they can all do enough with their bats to keep themselves in the lineup for a long time, because watching them play in the same outfield is a treat, and if you want evidence of how valuable a top-tier defensive outfield can be, look no further than the team the Twins are currently facing in Kansas City.
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