Sunday’s double feature was less about any one game won or lost, it was about making introductions: To shortstop Francisco Lindor in his first game with the Cleveland Indians, and to center fielder Byron Buxton in his first game with the Minnesota Twins.
They are two of Keith Law’s top five prospects as recently as the end of May, and with the promotion of Houston Astros shortstop Carlos Correa last week, they’re sure to make the major leagues more talented than it was before. But what will these two do for their teams now that they're here?
The immediate question is what this will do to improve these AL Central teams' fortunes. The Twins are the unexpected contender who have stumbled to a 3-9 record in June before Buxton’s promotion. You can argue his promotion's timetable was advanced by their unexpected relevance, but it could help them transform a hot start into a run at an unexpected division title. The Indians were the team picked by several to contend, but they’re trying to overcome a slow start and an ugly first month.
Both players should provide immediate upgrades on defense for two teams that need the help, but both might also shore up their respective team’s holes on offense as well. How well both young men deliver on their promise could do more than get their careers started, it could deliver an immediately better present, altering expectations for who ultimately wins the division.
In Cleveland's case, the hope is that Lindor will help accelerate their improvement on defense this season. Per ESPN Stats & Information research, the Indians were last in the majors in Out Rate through 45 games this season (65.7 percent), but they’re already up to 66.6 percent a couple weeks later through Saturday’s games (and now 28th overall). That’s in part thanks to ditching the left side of their infield earlier this month, benching shortstop Jose Ramirez and demoting third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall. Planting defensive wizard Giovanny Urshela at third base last week was the first step, but installing Lindor at short should finish the Indians’ in-season infield fix. The additional benefit is that they’ll get the benefit of moving Mike Aviles back into a rover role, moving around the diamond to provide rest days for the rest of the regulars.
The 21-year-old Lindor comes up having already delivered a .745 OPS for Triple-A Columbus, an improvement on his .727 OPS across two levels last year. Whatever else Lindor might add at the plate now before he comes into his own with age -- ESPN Insider’s Dan Szymborski suggests it might already close to league-average, which will be an instant step up from Ramirez -- he’s supposed to deliver instant impact on defense. That, plus a high-strikeout rotation coming into its own, could seriously stifle opponents down the stretch.
For the Twins, the biggest addition Buxton might deliver is with his bat. Twins center fielders have already combined for an OPS below .600. At Double-A Chattanooga, Buxton was putting up an .840 OPS, ripping 25 extra-base hits (including 12 triples) and stealing 20 bases in 22 attempts. That's coming after an injury-wracked 2014 season that might have put a dent in his development. Being an improvement on the likes of Aaron Hicks and Jordan Schafer is a clear case of setting expectations perhaps ludicrously low, but Buxton's development is accelerating at his own fast pace on a trajectory that should take him to stardom sooner rather than later.
The other instant expectation is that Buxton will also instantly improve the Twins' fielding. They might be a sturdily mediocre 18th in Out Rate, but center field was a question mark manned by fourth outfielders such as Schaefer and Shane Robinson as well as Hicks, a fallen prospect who failed to demonstrate any ability to adapt and adjust. The Twins, having already made their own change at shortstop earlier in June (moving to Eduardo Escobar from Danny Santana), should reap an additional benefit in tightening their up-the-middle defense. That could have an especially big payoff for a pitching staff with a league-low 15 percent strikeout rate.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.