After debut in '20 playoffs, Kirilloff eyes MLB

Outfield prospect battling for spot on Twins' Opening Day roster

February 26th, 2021

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- When was unable to start Game 2 of the American League Wild Card Series against the Astros last season, the Twins could have plugged in fourth outfielder , as they had throughout the season. They didn't do that.

Instead, with their season on the line, manager Rocco Baldelli and the Twins asked Alex Kirilloff, the club's No. 2 prospect per MLB Pipeline, to step in for his first Major League start.

"We think our best lineup today has Alex Kirilloff in there," Baldelli said that day. "And that's why he's here. He's here to play. That's why we carried him on this roster."

Kirilloff left the bases loaded in his first at-bat, but he later delivered with a diving catch in right field and his first big league hit, making him the first position player in MLB history to collect his first career hit in the postseason. The Twins have spoken glowingly of the 23-year-old's hitting talent throughout his rise up the organization, and they trusted him enough to start him in their biggest game of the season.

Months later, are they ready to hand him a starting job on Opening Day?

"We know what he’s capable of," Baldelli said. "We’re going to have to wait and see how this spring plays out, see how it plays out for everybody else on our roster and see what things look like three weeks from now, roughly. We’ll be sitting there and have a pretty good feel for it by then."

Eddie Rosario's departure created an everyday opening in left field -- a vacancy that appears destined for Kirilloff at some point this season. Kirilloff's career .317/.365/.498 line in the Minor Leagues was followed by a masterful showing at the alternate training site last season in which he showcased his strong hands, balanced swing, contact ability and power to all fields against solid pitching.

Early in camp, Baldelli has already spoken about Kirilloff as though it's a foregone conclusion that the young hitter will have a big impact on the Twins this season, including a discussion on Wednesday in which he noted that Kirilloff's ability to play both corner-outfield spots and first base will help the versatility of the roster.

That's complicated by the fact that Kirilloff hasn't played above Double-A and played only one game last season. It's tough for all clubs to assess how that will have impacted development. And of course, many top prospects on the cusp of the Majors have notably faced an uphill battle to make their first Opening Day roster.

"As you get older, you’re just kind of aware of stuff that can happen like that, but for me, I’m more focused on the playing side and, like I said, getting ready," Kirilloff said. "There’s a lot of details and stuff that I go through throughout my day, trying to prepare for the season. I’ve got enough to worry about on the baseball side."

Much of that focus this spring has come on Kirilloff's defensive work and versatility. Though he played primarily in the outfield in his first two professional seasons, he's spent the early days of camp working on the Minor League side at first base, his primary position as he grew up in the outskirts of Pittsburgh. He's been working at the Twins' facility since January because he owns a house in the Fort Myers area.

The important thing for Kirilloff is that he already feels comfortable in this setting and ready to compete at the highest level. Considering his understated, even-keeled personality, that's no surprise.

"Personally, I do," Kirilloff said of feeling ready for the Majors. "I've worked hard my whole career. I feel like I've learned a lot in the Minor Leagues. Ultimately, this camp, I've just got to do my best and get ready for a season regardless of where I start out at. Just try to take care of my body, stay healthy and just see what happens on April 1."

The Twins have other options. Cave owns a career .803 OPS against right-handed pitching and has served the team well as a fourth outfielder -- and occasional regular -- for three seasons. Brent Rooker showcased his advanced right-handed bat that helped him rise quickly through the Minor League system before a fractured right forearm ended his 2020 season after seven games. A platoon between those two -- with Luis Arraez as another option -- could work fine for Minnesota.

But this spring, Kirilloff has a chance to make his case. And at some point, the Twins will have a decision to make.

"There’s not one specific thing, two specific things that A.K. has to do to impress us," Baldelli said. "We know what he’s capable of."

"I think the kid is really good," third baseman Josh Donaldson said. "I think he has a bright future ahead of him. What they do is what they do. I don't know who everybody is going to be on our roster at this moment. But I would assure Twins fans that from everything I’ve seen, [president of baseball operations] Derek [Falvey] and [general manager] Thad [Levine] want to put the best team out there."