The Twins are Flexing Their Outfield Depth

Photo Credit: Jasen Vinlove (USA TODAY Sports)

The Minnesota Twins have announced their 26-man Opening Day roster. The core is still intact, but a few surprises came with the team’s roster moves over the last week.

The most significant one came on March 23 when management told Alex Kirilloff he would start the season in St. Paul. It was unexpected given that he was called up during the postseason last year even though he didn’t have any MLB experience to that point. It seemed like a lock that he would replace Eddie Rosario in left field immediately.

Some fans felt the Twins were manipulating Kirilloff’s service time. Others pointed to his poor performance at the plate this spring, hitting just .129/.182/.258 and a .440 OPS in 33 plate appearances. Kirilloff had eight strikeouts and just one walk in Spring Training, so outside of one long home run, he didn’t hit well in Fort Myers.

Ultimately, was it service time control or poor play that landed Kirilloff in Triple-A? The answer is a little bit of both. The job felt like it was his to lose at the beginning of spring, and the Twins would forgo his remaining service time to do it. But with other options doing much better at the plate, the Twins felt they didn’t need to force him up if he wasn’t ready. Keeping the extra service time seems like a bonus.

There is always a segment of the fanbase that will say that Spring Training is a small sample size. Players aren’t always focused on results at the plate as they try to ramp-up for the season. But that’s not how the Twins leadership saw it. They emphasized player performance in Florida.

That method ended up giving the edge to players like Willians Astudillo and Kyle Garlick to beat the odds and make the Opening Day roster. Garlick was signed to a minor-league contract over the winter as an extra outfielder. After hitting .300 with five home runs and an OPS of 1.011 in 40 at-bats, he earned a spot on the big league roster.

Every year it feels like we’ve seen the last of La Tortuga, but he always finds a way to stick around. Not only is he a clubhouse favorite, but he hit the cover off the ball this spring with a team-leading 1.125 OPS and four home runs, owning a .415 OBP in 41 plate appearances.

Astudillo and Garlick’s success in Fort Myers earned them a trip north. Both forced their way onto the big league roster.

Brent Rooker was another prospect who ended up in the same position as Kirilloff. It wasn’t a terrible spring for Rooker, but he did tail off at the end to hit .243/.256/.405 in 39 plate appearances. He also struck out 18 times, something that’s held him back in his young career so far. Rooker brings versatility in the corner outfield spots and at first base but ended up as one of the last players sent down to St. Paul when the Twins finalized the 26-man roster — another unexpected roster move.

Does it sting that Kirilloff and Rooker won’t be up with the Twins to start the season? Of course. Will both be back up at Target Field and play a meaningful role at some point in 2021? Most likely. But Minnesota isn’t in any rush to call them up because of their depth, unlike at other times in the team’s history.

The Twins expedited Byron Buxton to the big leagues in 2015 to capitalize on their good record. He was sent back down not too long after it was clear he wasn’t ready. He was shuttled between Minneapolis and Rochester for three seasons until he found his footing late in 2017. Rushing Buxton hurt his confidence and could have derailed his career before it even began. But back then, Minnesota didn’t have the level of talent or depth that they do now.

Now they have a logjam of top prospects and major league caliber players to fill out the roster. Garlick and veteran Jake Cave will most likely platoon left field, and Luis Arraez may play there as well. And don’t forget about 2018 first-round pick Trevor Larnach or minor-league signing Keon Broxton, who also played well this spring.

The Twins don’t have to rush their young players because they can win with the players they brought up to Minneapolis at the end of Spring Training. Compared to their AL Central rival Chicago White Sox, one injury to outfielder Eloy Jimenez has the organization in a tough spot until he returns. For the Twins, an injury to any outfielder would sting, but multiple players can step up and make an impact.

It’s easier for these prospects to come up when they’re ready because if they struggle and get sent back down, what do the Twins do? If they send them up and down like Buxton, they will risk disrupting their development. The Major League Baseball season is a long one, and these issues usually work themselves out. The initial 26-man roster is just that, initial. These roster moves favoring Garlick and Cave are for the short term, and the two aren’t locked into these positions all season.

In 2018, Ryan LaMarre had a great spring and a solid start to the season, hitting a .348 batting average and an OPS of .771 in March/April, but he was off the roster before the All-Star break. Similarly, Tyler Austin looked like a good-slugging platoon guy after ending 2018 with nine home runs in the final months, but he was traded just one week into the 2019 season.

Kirilloff and Rooker will eventually get called up. Garlick is still a placeholder until either of them is ready, but how long that lasts is up to them. And, well, service time might play a role too.

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