MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Twins believe they have their center fielder of the future currently in the system. A guy named Byron Buxton. You might have heard of him.
But Buxton isn’t big league ready, not yet at least. The top-rated prospect in baseball suffered a number of injuries this year that slowed his path to the majors, and he played just one game at Double-A in 2014 before recently suffering a season-ending concussion. So it remains to be seen when the 20-year-old Georgia native will be ready to roam center field every day for Minnesota.
In the meantime, the Twins feel comfortable with the options they have — even if the top choice is a converted shortstop. Danny Santana, who came up as an infielder, has now played 72 games for Minnesota this year as a rookie; 51 of them (including 47 starts) have been in center field.
When Santana first was thrown into the mix in the outfield in May, he looked uncomfortable. Though naturally athletic and possessing a strong arm, Santana didn’t always take the best routes to fly balls and didn’t hit the cutoff man on a consistent basis.
Now with several months under his belt, the position is much more natural for the 23-year-old Santana.
"At first when I start to play center and short, it’s hard because I need to take ground balls at shortstop and take some fly balls in center field on the same day," Santana said. "I feel a lot (more) comfortable there (now)."
Minnesota has used several options in center field this year beginning with Aaron Hicks, who has since been demoted to the minor leagues, where he’s spent most of the 2014 season. Sam Fuld played a number of games in center, too, before the Twins dealt him to Oakland in exchange for pitcher Tommy Milone. But playing more games in center than both Hicks and Fuld has been Santana, who played a total of 25 games as a center fielder in seven minor league seasons prior to the 2014 season.
The ability to play Santana in center has had a domino effect for the Twins. It’s allowed Minnesota to keep the aforementioned Hicks at Triple-A Rochester, where he can continue to work on his swing. Hicks, who batted .198 in 48 games for the Twins this season, is hitting .267 with six RBI in 18 games since moving from Double-A New Britain to Rochester.
On top of giving Hicks the chance to develop in the minors, Santana’s ability to hold down center field on an everyday basis has freed up his natural position of shortstop. Among those grabbing that opportunity and running with it has been Eduardo Escobar, who was once viewed as more of a utility infielder but has now played more games at shortstop (70) than anyone else on the Twins roster this season.
"Some of those guys, when you can run and you can throw, his basic thing was, ‘If you think I can do it, put me out there. I don’t care. I just want to be in the lineup,’" Twins assistant general manager Rob Antony said of Santana. "It’s given us the opportunity to play Escobar at short. He’s had a good year, done a nice job and shown that he can handle the position. It’s been good at a lot of different levels, and it’s also allowed us to have Hicks down there who’s playing very well and probably doing the things that we need to see him do to be prepared to play up here."
The Twins acquired outfielder Jordan Schafer off waivers from Atlanta earlier this month, and he has the capability of playing center field throughout the rest of the season. Knowing where Santana will likely be playing in future years, Minnesota will try to mix him in at shortstop between now and the end of 2014.
What was once a temporary fix in center field born out of necessity has turned into a bit more of a long-term solution because Santana has taken so well to the position. But as Minnesota’s young players continue to get at-bats in 2014 to prepare for 2015 and beyond, it’s assumed that Santana’s future won’t be in center field, at least not permanently.
"I want him to get in there and get the time in there playing. I don’t want him to forget about it," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said of Santana at shortstop. "He’s played an awful lot of center field here. He came up through our system as a shortstop. We think he’s going to be a good shortstop.