A beautiful, sunny sky helped to christen CHS Field for the first home game of the St. Paul Saints’ 2021 season on Tuesday night, but there were a few notable absences. More than half of the stadium remained empty due to COVID-19 crowd restrictions, and the home dugout was missing some key faces that many figured would be playing in this first home series.
When it was announced that the Saints would become the Minnesota Twins’ Triple-A affiliate starting this year, fans gushed at the idea of seeing the organization’s top prospects in their final stop before making it to the big leagues. The Twins faithful dreamed of seeing shortstop Royce Lewis and outfielder Alex Kirilloff donning the old English STP hat, or maybe the Pig’s Eye alternate cap if they were lucky.
However, 2021 has taught the Twins organization a heartbreaking lesson so far: Things don’t always go as planned. As luck would have it, the top two prospects in the system are both on the shelf.
Tuesday night’s biggest missing piece, however, was 2018 first-round pick Trevor Larnach. The slugger received a promotion to the big league club when Byron Buxton was placed on the IL with a hip strain. Go figure. Of course, it was pretty much inevitable that the highly touted outfielder would graduate from the minor leagues at some point this season. After all, he’s dominated every level since being drafted 20th overall in 2018.
So what does he bring to the table, and can his early promotion thrust the Twins out of their current slump?
The Twins drafted Larnach as a junior out of Oregon State University, where he spent three seasons on the Beavers’ roster. He helped lead his team to the College World Series in 2018, hitting a dramatic go-ahead home run in the ninth inning of the second game. From there, he would go on to make a name for himself as a big bat in Minnesota’s developmental pipeline.
In 172 minor league games, Larnach was an absolute force at the plate. He crushed 20 home runs and drove in 96 runs, routinely batting in the heart of the order.
This should excite Twins fans.
Bullpen issues aside, the team’s biggest downfall this year has been a clear lack of clutch hitting.
The pattern usually goes something like this: The Twins score early, starting pitchers hold their own for the most part, bullpen comes in and leaks a few runs, and the offense can’t scratch enough run support to pull through.
Tuesday night was a perfect example.
Jorge Polanco got the Twins on the board with a two-run bomb. Kenta Maeda was shaky early but straightened out enough to get through five innings. Then the bullpen comes in and breaks the tie. But the defining aspect of that loss was that the Twins offense left 10 runners on base throughout the game.
Even though manager Rocco Baldelli decided to pinch-hit for Larnach in the seventh inning with two runners on, that was mostly to play the splits, as the Chicago White Sox were bringing in a left-handed reliever. The hope — even expectation — is that Larnach will soon be relied upon to knock those runs in with the clutch hitting that he displayed in the College World Series and minor league levels.
That would be an immense relief for the club, as they have struggled with runners on. Take a look at the performance of some key members of the offense:
- Jake Cave has a .150 on-base percentage with runners in scoring position (fifth-lowest in MLB).
- Max Kepler has a .074 well-hit average with runners on (fourth-lowest in MLB).
- Miguel Sano has struck out in 41.4% of plate appearances with runners on (12th-highest in MLB).
Their performance has been a huge factor in determining why the Twins have an atrocious .307 on-base percentage in prime scoring opportunities with runners on base (fourth-lowest in MLB).
If there is any sort of silver lining to this, it’s the fact that Larnach’s presence pushes these struggling players aside when needed, especially when they return from the injured list.
When Buxton returns, the team won’t have to turn to Cave quite so much, especially with Larnach providing a bigger offensive threat in the corner.
When Kirilloff returns, he can play first base while Larnach fills in his spot in the outfield.
If the Twins can get back to full strength, they could have a potentially potent, lefty-heavy lineup against right-handed pitchers.
Of course, Larnach’s presence alone doesn’t automatically fix the issues currently plaguing the Twins. After all, he is a rookie who has yet even to get a hit at the MLB level. But given his reputation and the fact that the current pieces have been underwhelming, it may be time for the Twins to figure out what he can do in big spots.
If they hope to dig themselves out of the AL Central cellar, Larnach may have to step up and assert himself as a game-changing, clutch bat. Otherwise, he may find himself back under the sunny sky in St. Paul.