Friday, February 15, 2019
Following in his Footsteps
This is obviously not a real 1984 Kirby Puckett card - I finally caved and bought one of the ACEO customs off eBay. It's not bad, actually, card stock is thin compared to 1984 Topps, but it's on par with recent card issues.
The post today is all about the guys that followed in Kirby's footsteps. Puckett was a franchise player, a Hall of Fame talent with World Series heroics in two different Fall Classics.
Puckett was a 6 time Gold Glove winner - and was the Twins' primary Center Fielder from his rookie season of 1984 up through the 1993 season. Reaching his mid thirties but still providing average and power at the plate, the Twins made the difficult but wise decision to move him to Right Field where he could still make impact plays covering a smaller piece of Astroturf.
Replacing a 6X Gold Glove winner would not be easy, and the transition was not particularly smooth. In 1994, they tried Alex Cole. He certainly was fast, stealing 29 bases, but he wasn't nearly the hitter Puckett was.
Matt Lawton was not a Center Fielder by trade, but the Twins did try him there over 100 times during his 7 seasons in Minnesota. Ultimately, he would replace Puckett in Right Field instead of in Center.
Rich Becker was the primary Center Fielder in 1995 through 1997 for the Twins. He had a decent glove and a roughly league average bat. He had a really promising 1996 season, but ultimately he couldn't hit lefties and wasn't able to stay healthy.
In 1998, the Twins went old school, adding veteran Otis Nixon, who was 39, but looked about 65 (as he did for most of his career). As much as he looked like a senior citizen, he ran like the wind. He swiped 37 bases for the Twins, in what would be his second to last season in the big leagues.
More than anyone else on this list, Torii Hunter went the longest way towards "replacing" Kirby Puckett. He was drafted by the Twins in 1993, the same year that Puckett was transitioning from Center to Right. Hunter made his debut in September of 1997, pinch running for Paul Molitor. It would be 1999 before he was up to the big leagues as the Twins' everyday Center Fielder.
Hunter's defense was outstanding, probably a step above Puckett in center. He was a nine time Gold Glove winner, including every season for Minnesota from 2001 to 2007. His bat was a work in progress early in his career, but he developed bat on ball skills and power mid way through his career. He never really cut down on strikeouts, but the league would catch up to him in that regard and strikeouts would be less of an issue for everyone. Hunter actually has an intriguing if tough case for the Hall of Fame. 350+ homers, nearly 1,400 RBI, 2450+ hits, 9 Gold Gloves, 5 All Star appearances. He never finished higher than 6th in MVP voting, and he never played in a World Series, so that will probably keep him out of serious consideration.
When Hunter left via free agency in 2008, the Twins were better prepared with a few first round draft picks.
Carlos Gomez was a Mets draft pick, but the headliner for the Johan Santana trade to come to the Twins. He would be the Twins' main CFer for 2008 and 2009. He hit for the cycle in a game in 2007, cementing his place as a dynamic talent. He was blazing fast then, and already had that swagger and style that rubbed some old fogeys the wrong way. He would be traded after the 2009 off season for JJ Hardy of the Brewers.
Denard Span was ready to fill in, and would be the #1 option in CF for 2010 and 2012. The lefty hitting leadoff man had a little bit of pop in his bat and played solid defense, if not as flashy as Gomez (or Hunter).
Sandwiched in between the two Span seasons was Ben Revere in 2011. Revere was, like his CF prospects before him, a terror on the basepaths and an excellent defender. In 2012, he would play most games in RF with Span in Center, though Revere seemed to be the faster of the two. Both Span and Revere would be traded for some much needed pitching depth the following year.
The Twins had year another first rounder waiting in the wings, the switch hitting phenom Aaron Hicks. He was the primary CF in 2013 and 2015, with a trip back to the minors to re-tool his swing mixed in. Hicks had a breakout season in 2017-- for the Yankees. Hicks may have been rushed to the majors, and his swing dissected and scrutinized in the media. At one point he ditched switch hitting altogether, only to go back to it later in the 2015 season. He's held his own in a loaded Yankees' lineup, and for a Twins team that was starved for power in recent years from the outfield, losing Hicks for catcher John Ryan Murphy does sting a little.
It stung a lot less starting in 2016 when Byron Buxton came up. More on him later.
We interrupt this top prospect career to bring you a bunch of guys just filling in as needed. In 2014, when Hicks was demoted to AAA, Utility man Danny Santana ended up with the most games in CF for the Twins. It was a strange and frustrating season in the Twins' outfield, with infielders making the best of bad situation trying to cover more ground than they ever had to before. The Twins would draft Buxton right after that. After winning a Gold Glove (and the Wilson Defensive Player of the Year award) in 2017, Buxton played in just 28 games for the Twins in 2018. With Buxton battling injury and hitting slumps, he was marooned in Rochester with the Twins AAA affiliate when he was healthy enough to play. It meant that RFer Max Kepler would slide over to Center for much of the year. Ryan LaMarre a journeyman minor leaguer, Zack Granite a rookie with injury woes of his own, and Jake Cave (who doesn't have a Twins Card yet) had to pick the remaining innings in center in 2018.
But THIS is what the people are hoping for in 2019! Buxton was at one point the #1 Overall prospect in baseball, drawing comparisons in AA to Mike Trout at the same point in his career. Buxton has had a similar career arc so far to Hunter and Hicks, though Buxton already has shown better numbers at the plate (at times), and is clearly a defensive wizard. His defense alone makes every pitcher better, helping the team even when he's not hitting. The motto for the Twins' outfield with Buxton, Kepler, and Eddie Rosario is "Nothing falls but raindrops." Twins fans are looking forward to the next footsteps from the most promising talent the Twins have seen in Centerfield since Kirby.