Schafer hopes to be Twins’ answer in center field
MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Twins don’t have a ton of questions to answer defensively this spring.
Center field, however, is one of the big question marks.
Jordan Schafer hopes he is the answer to that question for the Twins. Claimed off waivers from Atlanta last August, Schafer had 41 games with Minnesota last year in which to audition for a starting job in 2015. Though he’ll enter spring training competing with Aaron Hicks for that spot, Schafer feels he’s found a home with the Twins after battling for playing time with the Braves.
"From Day 1 within the clubhouse, I felt welcomed. The players welcomed me with open arms," Schafer said. "I felt comfortable right from the beginning. I’m super grateful for the opportunity that they gave me. Hopefully I can make them very happy."
The Twins clearly felt highly enough of Schafer to work out a one-year deal with him this past weekend to avoid arbitration with the 28-year-old center fielder. Minnesota inked Schafer to a $1.55 million contract for the 2015 season.
The contract was finalized on Friday, the same day as Schafer’s first appearance at TwinsFest. Before he arrived at Target Field for the annual event, though, Schafer toured the state of Minnesota on the team’s winter caravan. He and teammate Trevor Plouffe, along with a few others, made several stops in central and northern Minnesota to meet with Twins fans of all ages.
After spending the first four years of his big league career in Atlanta, Schafer was blown away by the support Minnesotans still give the Twins despite four straight 90-plus loss seasons.
"I know the last four seasons here haven’t been up to the standards that the fans are used to, but just for them to keep coming out, I told them, I think one of the first games I was here was a midweek day game. There were 30,000-plus people here," Schafer said. "To me, it was shocking because you would think being in Atlanta, it’s a big fan base. We didn’t draw fans like that there. To see the support was unbelievable."
Schafer hopes to be a reason why fans support the Twins in 2015. After batting just .224 in 259 career games with the Braves, Schafer was a pleasant surprise at the plate in his 41 games with Minnesota. He not only batted .285 but also stole 15 bases — third-most on the Twins despite having played in significantly fewer games than Brian Dozier (21 steals in 156 games) and Danny Santana (20 steals in 101 games).
Some of that credit, Schafer said, belongs to his new manager, Paul Molitor, who was on the Twins’ coaching staff last year. While Molitor worked plenty with base running, he also served as an interim first base coach at the end of the season. Whenever Schafer would get to first base, he’d talk to Molitor about an approach to stealing bases.
"As far as stealing bases and picking up stuff, obviously he was an unbelievable Hall of Fame-type player," Schafer said. "He’s very knowledgeable about the game. When he talks, you definitely listen."
Schafer started his offseason baseball activities two months ago, working on some of the mechanical changes he made to his swing. He thinks he’s found a key to staying more consistent as a hitter. The biggest change, Schafer noted, was trying to stay shorter with his lower half and not pick up his front foot as much when he swings. The result, ideally, is more line drives and fewer fly balls. If Schafer is hitting more line drives, he feels he can get on base to steal more bases and score more runs, perhaps leading to more wins for the Twins.
One of the keys to his success at the plate with the Twins, Schafer added, was the ability to be in the lineup every day. After joining the team on Aug. 5, he played in 41 of Minnesota’s final 51 games and missed the final five games with an elbow injury.
He’ll now go to spring training fighting for the opportunity to be in the lineup on an every-day basis.
"Obviously it’s no secret that I want to play every day," Schafer said. "Whatever (Molitor) needs me to do to help this team win, I’m more than happy to do. We’ll see what that is coming out of spring training. I’m just super excited to be here."
Follow Tyler Mason on Twitter