PT TOMORROW: AL Central—Byron Buxton's under-the-radar arrival

Minnesota Twins

Byron Buxton (OF, MIN) has put up solid, if unspectacular numbers this season as we pass the halfway point of May. His current slash line of .282/.338/.519 with three home runs and eight steals through 131 at bats from the bottom part of the order can’t match his eye-popping .306/.353/.539 line with 12 home runs and 15 steals over 232 at bats in late 2017 that had the touts imagining the possibilities. But given his lengthy injury history, just staying in the lineup and off the injured list feels like a win. He remains one of the best defensive center fielders in all of baseball, starting 39 of Minnesota’s 44 games there, with Max Kepler (OF, MIN) starting the other five. Other than those two, only Eddie Rosario (OF, MIN) has logged any innings in center field for the Twins so far. If Buxton does land on the IL at some point, how would Minnesota proceed?

Kepler would be the first option, but moving him from his natural position in right field could end up hurting the defense in two spots as someone like super-utility Marwin Gonzalez (INF/OF, MIN) Ehire Adrianza (INF/OF, MIN) or even Willians Astudillo (INF/OF, MIN) could see time in right field in this alignment. At Triple-A, Jake Cave (OF, MIN) has been the usual center fielder, but his bat (.220/.347/.268 in 48 plate appearances) isn’t major-league-ready yet so while he might be the best option for run prevention in center, the team’s run production would likely suffer.

Good center fielders who are productive on offense and defense are tough to come by, as Minnesota’s shallow depth at this position indicates. It has been said that staying healthy is a skill, and maybe it’s one that Buxton can demonstrate for the length of the season this year.

 

Detroit Tigers

Tyson Ross (RHP, DET) is the fourth Tiger starter currently on the injured list, joining Michael Fulmer (RHP, DET) Matt Moore (LHP, DET) and Jordan Zimmermann (RHP, DET). Ross has been diagnosed with nerve inflammation in his throwing arm and there is no timetable for his return. This has opened up an opportunity for the recently promoted Gregory Soto (RHP, DET) to see if he can establish himself in Detroit’s patchwork rotation.

Though Soto started the year at High-A, he quickly reached Double-A for the first time in his career and has put up some decent numbers with a 17/6 K/BB ratio, a 3.12 ERA, and a 1.15 WHIP over 17.1 innings pitched. His short stint in the majors so far has been less successful as his 4/4 K/BB ratio with 12 hits and nine runs allowed over a mere six innings pitched indicate. Soto will have the opportunity to improve on that line and as he skipped Triple-A entirely, there may be some growing pains as he makes adjustments at the highest level.

Recently optioned Ryan Carpenter (LHP, DET) remains a rotation option and could be back up soon given the immense need at the major league level, though his 7/4 K/BB ratio and 13 ER through nine innings pitched may eventually relegate him to the bullpen.

Fellow lefty Matt Hall (LHP, DET) remains a candidate to make a spot start or two should the need arise, but he has yet to excel at the Triple-A level this year, posting a respectable 46/13 K/BB ratio, but giving up 48 hits over 36.2 innings pitching including nine home runs, leading to his 6.87 ERA and 1.66 WHIP. Hall doesn’t look ready for the bigs yet.

Beau Burrows (RHP, DET) and Kyle Funkhouser (RHP, DET) are not currently on the 40-man roster, but both could get the call if some combination of Soto, Carpenter, and Hall can’t stabilize the rotation.

The Tigers don’t appear to want to rush any member of the gifted Double-A trio of Alex Faedo (RHP, DET) Matt Manning (RHP, DET) or last year’s first overall draft selection Casey Mize (RHP, DET) so it appears to be all hands on deck for nearly any other starter in the high minors as they attempt to navigate this spate of pitcher injuries.

 

Kansas City Royals

Though the Royals were already 14.5 games out of first place entering the weekend, fans should be excited about the young talent both on the horizon and arriving in the majors now. Middle infielder Nicky Lopez (2B/SS, KC) earned the callup on the strength of his .353/.457/.500 line at Triple-A, and should slot in at second base, moving Whit Merrifield (2B/OF, KC) to the outfield on a more regular basis.

If Lopez is able to stick in the lineup at the big league level, Jorge Soler (OF, KC) is likely to see more time at designated hitter, with the Royals favoring an Alex Gordon (OF, KC)-Billy Hamilton (OF, KC)-Merrifield alignment defensively. Hunter Dozier’s (3B, KC) .304/.395/.581 slash line production over 169 plate appearances means he’s entrenched at third base while Ryan O’Hearn (1B, KC) could lose some time in a platoon situation when veteran Lucas Duda (1B, KC) returns from a back ailment sometime in late May.

Kansas City is trying to keep O’Hearn in spots where he’s most likely to succeed (i.e. facing righthanders only) as his 20 at bats this year against lefties have yielded poor .050/.200/.050 line on 20 at bats. A small sample size to be sure, and he’s unlikely to improve getting so few looks, but it’s plain to see why Duda was signed.

The biggest playing time casualty of Lopez’s promotion is Kelvin Gutierrez (3B, KC) whose .281/.300/.386 slash line was not terrible for his first taste of the majors, but was sent down to Triple-A last week. He will need to improve on his 3% bb%, his 68% ct%, and 0.11 Eye, before a return trip is likely.

In spite of the team’s current struggles, there are a number of players here who warrant our attention, and another handful who are on their way.

 

Chicago White Sox

The bad news came for Carlos Rodon (LHP, CHW) last week as his injured left elbow required Tommy John surgery and he will be out for the rest of the 2019 season and likely most if not all of 2020 as well.

Adding injury to injury, Manny Banuelos (LHP, CHW) was pulled from his start last week after pitching into the fifth inning but recording zero outs on account of what’s being described as a strained shoulder and he was put on the IL over the weekend. Something has been amiss with Banuelos since the calendar flipped to May. In his three starts this month over a mere 11 innings pitched, he has given up 22 hits, eight walks, and eight home runs as his ERA ballooned from a sleek 2.70 to an unsightly 7.26 so this shoulder problem may have been bothering him for some time.

The length of Rodon’s absence and the IL stint for Banuelos could force Chicago’s front office to consider more seriously the possibility of calling up top pitching prospect Dylan Cease (RHP, CHW) at some point in the season. To date, he has thrown only 34 innings at the Triple-A level and while he has had a few excellent starts, he has yet to dominate that level’s batters in a way that is indicative of a promotion. He has the goods – he’s just not ready yet.

Other names to consider for spot starts, depending on how quickly Banuelos recovers, include Carson Fulmer (RHP, CHW) Jordan Stephens (RHP, CHW) and Donn Roach (RHP, CHW) but none of them have pitched well enough at the Triple-A level this year to warrant a promotion based on anything other than need due to injury. Given the White Sox’s less-than-premium options, it’s a fool’s errand to guess which name they pull out of their cap.

 

Cleveland Indians

The outfield issues facing the Cleveland Indians are slightly more serious than previously imagined. Of all their outfielders, only part-timers Jake Bauers (DH/OF, CLE) and Jordan Luplow (OF, CLE) have positive BPV scores entering the weekend—hardly the mark of a potential playoff team—and aside from recently promoted Oscar Mercado (OF, CLE), the minor league cupboard is largely bare. Leonys Martin (OF, CLE) in particular, seems to be in a bit of a freefall, not only in terms of his production, but also in terms of his spot in the batting order.

Martin led off to start the season while Lindor was recovering from his calf and ankle injuries. When Francisco Lindor (SS, CLE) returned, Martin moved down a spot to number two. But since the first week of May, Martin has been in the seven or eight spot on account of his .223/.307/.378 slash line in 169 plate appearances with as many times caught stealing as stolen bases (three apiece) this season. They can’t move him much farther down before he lands on the bench.

Both Greg Allen (OF, CLE) and Luplow have made starts in center this year and they would be the obvious substitutions should Cleveland decide to go in another direction regarding Martin. Luplow is putting up decent numbers so far, albeit in only 64 plate appearances, slashing .259/.323/.500 while Allen hasn’t fared as well as even Martin going a meager .105/.167/.158 in 40 plate appearances.

Tyler Naquin (OF, CLE) is currently on the injured list with a calf strain but isn’t slated to return until sometime in June so Cleveland may be more patient with Martin than they want. Given the poor team production from the outfield, it’s amazing Cleveland is only five games behind the Twins entering play this weekend.


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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.