Alex Kirilloff entered this spring as the frontrunner to be the Opening Day left fielder for the Minnesota Twins. He was projected as the 19th-ranked prospect on Baseball America’s Top 100 list, and his stock had never been higher after making his major league debut last October. Eddie Rosario was non-tendered last winter, seemingly paving Kirilloff’s path to left field on Opening Day.
But things didn’t turn out that way. Kirilloff went 4-for-31 (.129) during spring training. With Jake Cave and Brent Rooker on the roster, the Twins decided to option Kirilloff to the alternate spring-training site.
The immediate reaction to the move was skepticism. Teams across Major League Baseball have made a habit of holding down prospects to earn an extra year of control. There are many recent high-profile examples of service time manipulation. Kris Bryant‘s case might be the most prominent example, but the Twins have also been involved with exercising service-time loopholes to their benefit.
In 2018, the Twins opted to keep Byron Buxton off the roster in September, citing a wrist injury. While Buxton had an injury-riddled season, he played through the pain and even slashed a .365/.400/.596 line in his final 12 games at Triple-A Rochester.
Instead of calling Buxton up, the Twins opted to keep him down to get healthy for the following season. From a medical standpoint, the move made sense: He had been on the injured list for migraines and a broken toe earlier that year. But Buxton also happened to be 13 days from gaining service-time credit for a full season. If the Twins called him up, he would have hit free agency after this season instead of in 2022.
The Twins initially played the “what’s best for the player” card, but Thad Levine revealed the team’s not-so-secret motive.
“I think part of our jobs is we’re supposed to be responsible for factoring service time into every decision we make,” Levine said to the Pioneer Press at the time. “We wouldn’t be doing our jobs if we weren’t at least aware of service-time impacts on the decisions we make.”
The Twins are currently negotiating a long-term extension with Buxton, and pushing back his service time gave them an extra year to get a deal done. This is important considering George Springer received a six-year, $150 million contract as the market’s top position player last winter. While the Twins could spring the money for Buxton, it seems to go against their philosophy to spend larger amounts in free agency, thus taking away from other team needs.
This brings us back to Kirilloff. By keeping the 23-year-old down for the first 15 days of the regular season, they can avoid having him accrue a year of service time. For a team whose owners once offered them up for contraction, this fits the negative Twins fan’s narrative.
But what if the Twins are actually trying to protect Kirilloff?
When the Cubs held back Bryant, it was obvious that he was ready for the major leagues. He smashed nine home runs in 14 games during spring training and backed it up by hitting .321/.364/.679 in seven games at Triple-A Iowa.
Instead of having Bryant on the Opening Day roster, the Cubs decided to go with Mike Olt, who owns a .168 career batting average. Olt was designated for assignment on April 16, and Bryant made his debut on April 17 — 12 days after the start of the regular season.
The situation with Kirilloff is much different. While Bryant had several seasons of producing at the minor league level, Kirilloff has just four career at-bats above Double-A. All four at-bats came in Game 2 of the Twins’ Wild Card Series loss to the Houston Astros, which was also the only official game Kirilloff has played in since Sept. 2019.
Since then, minor league baseball shut down due to the pandemic, leaving Kirilloff to work out at an alternate camp in St. Paul.
The Twins also have options in left field until Kirilloff is ready to contribute. Cave has hit .254/.451/.772 in three seasons as the Twins’ fourth outfielder. Rooker has a major-league-ready bat and produced a .320/.333/.560 line in 13 games last August. He also has 65 games of experience at Triple-A, where he hit .281/.398/.535 with 14 HR and 47 RBI.
By using Cave and Rooker for the opening months of the season, the Twins can allow Kirilloff to work out his issues and join the team when he’s ready. This will avoid a scenario as they had with Aaron Hicks, who started his career with a confidence-devouring 2-for-48 slump, or Buxton, who hit .209 in his rookie season.
It’s worth noting that the minor league season doesn’t start until May, leaving Kirilloff in the same environment he played through most of last season. With a month between games, there’s a chance that Kirilloff won’t make his major league debut until June. There’s also the possibility that Kirilloff could be called up anyway. Cave is prone to slumps, and Rooker’s past two seasons ended early due to injury.
Even if the Twins are trying to manipulate Kirilloff’s service time, they’re not alone. The Chicago White Sox faced the same dilemma with top prospect Luis Robert last spring and eventually settled with a six-year, $50 million contract.
That scenario has a different feel because the White Sox worked around the service-time dilemma by offering him a big contract out of the gate. This is a compromise that can work for both sides, but it may also reduce the player’s long-term value by buying out several years where they could earn more money in arbitration and free agency.
Kirilloff’s agent, Scott Boras, has shown a reluctance to agree to such deals but acknowledged they’re becoming commonplace in MLB.
It will be disappointing not seeing Kirilloff in the Opening Day lineup, but it’s not the end of his rookie season. If Kirilloff works out the kinks in his swing, he’ll be in the Twins lineup sooner than later.