Huge Arizona Fall League Season Leaves Nate Roberts Primed for a Breakout


There is nothing special at all about a 23 year old in the Low-A Midwest League, where the average age is under 22 years old. When you’re repeating the level, even a great season completely loses its luster. That was precisely the case with Nate Roberts, an outfielder in the Minnesota Twins system. However, Roberts’ season didn’t end at the conclusion of the Midwest League season as he headed to the Arizona Fall League- and after Roberts came up with awe-inspiring numbers in the AFL season, suddenly his future is looking bright.

Roberts, who will turn 24 in February, was the Twins’ 5th round pick in the 2010 MLB Draft out of High Point University in North Carolina and got his career off to a great start at Advanced Rookie Elizabethton (the Twins haven’t had a Short Season-A affiliate since 1973), managing a .336/.444/.547 line with 10 doubles, 5 homers, 17 RBI, 5 of 7 stolen bases, and a 29-21 strikeout to walk ratio in 35 games and 153 plate appearances. He played as well as an advanced college hitter should play at Rookie ball and the real test for him would be his first full pro season at Low-A Beloit. Roberts appeared to live up to expectations, managing a .302/.443/.446 line, but that came in just 283 plate appearances as Roberts missed time with a knee injury, prompting the Twins to return him to Beloit to start 2012 after he effectively played half a season for the Snappers. Unfortunately for Roberts, his 2012 season was more of the same. Roberts managed a similar .299/.433/.427 line but was out until late May from more injury issues and made just 352 plate appearances. The good news, though, was Roberts’ basestealing and plate discipline. In 2011, Roberts’ strikeout to walk ratio was a solid 48-28 and he stole 9 bases in 13 attempts. In 2012, though, he upped his strikeout to walk ratio to an outstanding 37-44 and made his speed a real factor on the basepaths as he stole 27 bases while being caught 8 times. The Twins tried to stay positive as they sent Roberts to the Arizona Fall League to try to make up for his lost time not knowing what he would give them considering he would be facing much more advanced pitching that he had ever faced in his pro career. Luckily for them, they had plenty of reason to smile. In 19 games for the Peoria Javelinas, Roberts managed a .446/.565/.662 line with 5 doubles, 3 homers, 15 RBI, 6 of 8 stolen bases, and 12 walks against 7 strikeouts in 77 plate appearances. Obviously Roberts will not be nearly that good moving forward- but it became apparent that the improvements he made in 2012 were real and he was finally ready to take the next step as a prospect.

Nate Roberts is a player with inherent flaws in his game. 6’1″ and 200 pounds, Roberts is a tough position as a “tweener,” a player who can’t play centerfield and doesn’t have the power expected from corner outfielders. Despite that, Roberts is a player with interesting potential who could be in the big leagues for the Twins within the next couple of years. Roberts doesn’t feature great bat speed, but he has a propensity for making contact. That isn’t something uncommon- plenty of players compensate for unideal bat speed with a shorter swing- but what makes Roberts stand out is his excellent patience and pitch recognition and ability to lay off bad pitches but make contact when he connects. Roberts strikes out extremely little, draws more than his fair share of walks, and although he has shown little power, he has been able to compensate with above-average speed that allows him beat out a lot of groundballs. Roberts does need to work on his bunting, which could be another way for him to get on base. But before we write Roberts off as a tap hitter, there is some power that he has yet to tap into as a professional. Roberts’ pitch recognition skills help him find pitches to hit, and he showed in the Arizona Fall League an ability to pick his spots to extend his swing to hit for more power. Roberts’ is far from a power hitter, but adding 10 homers annually would certainly boost his overall profile, and even if the power never really comes, barreling the ball more often will help him hit for a higher average. One other thing to worry about with Roberts is that he’s a lefty hitter who has struggled against left-handed pitching the last two seasons, managing just a .223/.417/.287 line with a 29-13 strikeout to walk ratio in a relatively small sample, 129 plate appearances. It’s clear from his on-base percentage that his patience is fine versus lefties, but he has to find a way to make more contact and better contact against them if he’s going to profile as a regular.

On the basepaths, Roberts combines his good if not great speed with a nice ability to read pitchers, and he has a chance to steal 20-25 bases annually in the big leagues. His speed does not serve him that well defensively, though, as he features sub-par instincts in the outfield and a below-average arm. That forces Roberts to be a left fielder, although he has seen a spattering of time in right field, and he’s really going to have to hit if he intends to start there.

This offseason, the Twins traded away Denard Span, a player defined by his excellent centerfield defense and solid speed. Roberts has the ability to be a similar player to Span in terms of average and stolen bases while getting on base more and maybe hitting for a touch more power. The major difference between the two is about as big as it gets- Span is one of the best defensive centerfielders in the game while Roberts is an slightly above-average defensive left fielder- but Roberts has the ability to be a productive player in his own right hitting in the leadoff spot or two-hole in the Twins lineup. Roberts has work to do before he gets there as he’ll need to do a better job bringing out his power and hitting left-handed pitching for him to possibly be a starting outfielder in the big leagues. Most importantly, he has to find a way to stay on the field. Despite all that, though, Roberts’ all-around game is good enough for him to potentially secure a starting job someday and that could start falling into place pretty soon. Considering his age and advanced approach at the plate, the Twins are going to give a long look to skipping Roberts over High-A to Double-A, and with strong performance he could finish the season at Triple-A with a big league call-up a possibility by the middle of 2014. It’s amazing how quickly things can change over the course of just one Fall.