The circumstances might be how the Minnesota Twins envisioned it, but their top prospects are getting their first taste of big-league action. Minnesota’s top prospect, Alex Kirilloff, and Trevor Larnach (No. 3) have made their highly-anticipated major-league debuts.
Both prospects made a name for themselves as power-hitting outfielders in the farm system. Kirilloff was the 15th overall pick in 2016 coming out of high school. He quickly became the team’s most highly-regarded minor leaguer, hitting 36 home runs in three minor league seasons before making his big league debut in the Wild Card Series last season. After Eddie Rosario departed in the offseason, it was expected that Kirilloff would become the new everyday left fielder this season and for the years to come.
Then there’s Larnach. The 20th overall pick in 2018 was a College World Series hero for Oregon State who flew through the system with just over two full seasons of minor league experience. Larnach made it look easy at the plate, hitting .306 with an .857 OPS while smashing 20 home runs in the minor leagues. Two of those long balls came in his first three games of Triple-A action after not playing in a minor-league game above Double-A since 2019.
Byron Buxton’s hip injury meant that Larnach would be the next outfield prospect to be called up. Big league call-ups for two highly regarded prospects like Kirilloff and Larnach don’t happen by accident. The front office now has a good opportunity to assess the organization’s plans for both players in the years to come.
There needs to be a long-term role for each player to slide into at some point in the future. It doesn’t seem like the Twins would have two of their top prospects fight for the same starting spot in left field. So where else can they put one of them?
Kirilloff and Larnach both play corner outfield spots.
Larnach has made 121 appearances in right field and 14 in left. However, Max Kepler is in the middle of a five-year extension, so despite his hitting issues, he isn’t going to be leaving right field anytime soon. Larnach has been an outfielder his entire college and minor league career, and moving him from that at this stage in his career doesn’t seem prudent.
On the other hand, Kirilloff can play first base. He spent most of his minor league career in the outfield, starting in 213 games between left and right field. But he started getting time at first base two years ago, with making 35 starts there in 94 games. He has been slotted at first ever since Miguel Sano went on the IL. Despite his limited time at first, it’s evident he plays the position well.
Kirilloff has a range factor of 10.26, a universal zone rating of 0.4, and four plays made out of his fielding zone in just 43 innings at first base. His solid defense has been a welcome sign compared to Sano, who has only made two plays out of his fielding zone for a UZR of minus-0.7, along with a range factor of only 8.09. For a team like the Twins that spent part of the past offseason trying to get better in the field, Kirilloff presents a better option than Sano in that category as they try to build a more stable unit defensively.
But a decision to take over first for Sano would have to go deeper than just fielding. Kirilloff has delivered as Minnesota’s top hitting prospect. He hit the ball hard despite a slow start, generating 40 percent medium contact and nearly 57 percent hard contact when he hits the ball. His average exit velocity of 96.5 MPH leads the team and puts him well in front of Sano, who has an average exit velocity of only 87 MPH.
All of a sudden, one of Minnesota’s most-feared power hitters is in a big slump, and his potential replacement is getting playing time while he’s on the IL.
Kirilloff has also shown an ability to put the ball in play. Sano walks nearly 20 percent of the time, but his strikeout numbers have continued to stay high this year even though his power numbers have declined. By only hitting a pair of home runs and no other extra-base hits in 62 at-bats, his batting average on balls in play sits at .194, his isolated power is at .097 and he owns a slugging percentage of .226. Conversely, Kirilloff hand found his groove before landing on the IL with a wrist injury, hitting four home runs in his last three games with a strikeout rate of 29.5 percent and an isolated power clip of .357.
Unless the Twins have a surprise plan to trade or cut Sano before his club option in 2023, he’s not going anywhere. In a way, finding a place for Kirilloff on this roster could mean that it changes the course of two veteran Twins in Rosario and Sano. But for Sano and Kirilloff to co-exist, the Twins must move Sano off the field entirely.
Nelson Cruz is Minnesota’s current designated hitter, but it doesn’t seem likely that he returns for his age-41 season. If the Twins decide to retain Sano, he could easily slide over into the DH role and can focus more on hitting while Kirilloff becomes the everyday first baseman.
Moving Kirilloff to first base might not have been the path the front office of Derek Falvey and Thad Levine had envisioned for the 23-year-old but could give them the ability to give their top prospects a path to develop in their roles. As this season continues, where Kirilloff and Larnach play and how long they remain in the majors will be worth keeping an eye on.