The Twins have enough outfield depth that they traded center fielder Aaron Hicks to the Yankees for catcher John Ryan Murphy, but their options lack experience, as Buxton, Sano, Rosario and Kepler all made their Major League debuts in 2015. Barring a trade of third baseman Trevor Plouffe, Sano will also be heading to the outfield for the first time in his career.
It'll be an interesting Spring Training to see who replaces Hicks in center field, as Buxton remains at the top of MLBPipeline'com's list of the best prospects in baseball, but he struggled in his first taste of the Majors, hitting .209/.250/.326 with two homers, seven doubles and two stolen bases in 46 games.
But center field is there for the taking for Buxton, who is the best defender among the Twins' core of young outfielders. Rosario and Kepler can both handle center field, but they are more suited for corner-outfield roles, where they're both plus-defenders.
"There will be a question about whether Triple-A at-bats are needed for [Buxton] to start the season or will he make an impression that will be so favorable that we will lean to go with him right out of the chute," Twins manager Paul Molitor said at the Winter Meetings. "Either way, he's going to be an impact player, I believe, for a long time. We're just going to see when that clock really starts ticking."
The Twins wouldn't have moved Hicks if they didn't believe Buxton could handle being the club's everyday center fielder in the near future, but Molitor noted Buxton still has plenty he needs to work on. The 22-year-old isn't participating in winter ball this offseason, but he needs more repetitions against top competition, as he made the jump from Double-A Chattanooga to the Majors and struggled with big league-caliber breaking balls. But it's something Buxton will get better at with time, Molitor said.
"The transition for him has always been how to deal with the next level of pitching," Molitor said. "And we saw that somewhat, I think, in his at-bats at the Major League level this year. We saw some improvement, particularly in September."
Rosario, meanwhile, is coming off a breakout rookie season and figures to be firmly in the mix, along with Sano, who will be transitioning to a corner-outfield spot. Kepler will compete for a starting spot, but he has yet to play at Triple-A, so he's the most likely of the group to start the year in the Minors.
The Twins, though, are hesitant to have any of their young outfielders to spend time on the bench, which is why they're looking for a veteran fourth outfielder to essentially serve in the role that Shane Robinson occupied in 2015.
Internally, the Twins could look to Danny Santana as a super-utility player who could see time in both the infield and the outfield, while Oswaldo Arcia remains on the roster and is out of Minor League options. Arcia is still just 24, but he is coming off a down year, so he has plenty to prove and still possesses plenty of raw power. The Twins also signed Ryan Sweeney, Darin Mastroianni and Joe Benson to Minor League deals.
So the Twins do have some options in their outfield, but their main core is inexperienced, which does give Molitor some concern.
"We all thought that we would have tremendous outfield depth last year in terms of who we had at the big league level and people who were forthcoming, but I'm not so sure that's exactly the case," Molitor said. "We might, if anything, positionally, be looking at deepening our outfield somewhat."