Kepler, Garlick back, among Twins' moves

May 1st, 2021

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Twins activated outfielders and from the COVID injured list on Friday, bringing their outfield depth back to full strength after the offense struggled following the outbreak within the clubhouse on the club's West Coast road trip two weekends ago.

The club also activated JT Riddle off the COVID IL and designated him for assignment. Utility man Tzu-Wei Lin was also designated for release or assignment, and outfielder Brent Rooker was optioned back to the alternate training site to make room for Kepler and Garlick on the 26-man roster.

In addition, the Twins swapped out their catching depth by optioning Ryan Jeffers and recalling from the alternate training site at Triple-A St. Paul for his first career callup.

Though Kepler had been off to a slower start in the regular season with a .234/.315/.362 line with four doubles and a triple, the Twins' offense missed his left-handed bat in the heart of their lineup against right-handed pitching, particularly due to the prolonged struggles of Jake Cave at the plate to start the season.

Garlick, who said COVID "kicked his [butt] for one day," should continue to boost Minnesota against left-handed pitchers after hitting .280/.321/.400 as part of a firm platoon in left field to open the season.

"It’s been a little while since we’ve had our group on the field together and we felt we can roll that familiar lineup out there, and that very good lineup out there that we like," manager Rocco Baldelli said. "As things have played out this year, we’ve seen a lot of different things happen and all that. But to get these guys back is a big pick-me-up for us."

The return of both Kepler and Garlick could make for a meaningful outfield crunch sooner rather than later, with the Twins now carrying five outfielders due to the continued presence of Cave, Alex Kirilloff and Byron Buxton.

That won't need to be resolved now due to Kirilloff's ability to play first base in Miguel Sanó's absence, but the team could face a big decision as soon as Saturday, when Sanó is eligible to be activated from the IL. Will Minnesota send back down Kirilloff, the No. 2 prospect, per MLB Pipeline, in the organization, or a depth player like Cave, who struggled early but has recently found his footing at the plate?

"It really does come down to how guys are playing and performing and what they’re bringing to the table, and also what we might happen to need fit-wise," Baldelli said.

Rortvedt earns first callup; Jeffers optioned

The Twins' move to swap out their catching prospects was more surprising, especially considering Jeffers emerged as their preferred starting catcher down the stretch last season and made both playoff starts against the Astros in the American League Wild Card Series.

A surprise, to be sure, but for Rortvedt, a Wisconsin native ranked as the club's No. 28 prospect by MLB Pipeline, it was rather easy to gather his friends and family for his debut in Friday night's 9-1 win over the Royals. He made it a debut for all to remember, as he notched his first career hit -- an eighth-inning RBI single -- and scored a run.

"There's nowhere to hide," Baldelli said. "You're the catcher. You have to go out there and show up and lead, and that's what he did. He went out there. He prepared very well for the game, went out there and helped our pitchers execute. ... He did have very good at-bats, getting on base a couple times, getting that first knock out of the way. It's a night I'm sure he'll remember forever."

Jeffers is the presumed long-term starter at the position, but he hasn't hit well in inconsistent playing time to start the year, with a .147/.216/.176 line in 11 starts. Mitch Garver has earned the nod in all of the favorable matchups against left-handed pitchers.

"That's probably one of the biggest areas of focus for me the past couple weeks, really the past month, is trying to find that, trying to find a routine that works for me when I'm only playing 50% of the time," Jeffers said earlier in the week. "It’s a little bit harder to fall into that rhythm, to get that timing down."

Rortvedt had last seen competitive action in 2019, when he topped out at Double-A with five homers and a .687 OPS in 55 games. He experienced a "pretty frustrating" year, he said, after being left off the Twins' 60-man player pool last season, but he used the time to work on his swing path and doing more consistent damage at the plate.

With Rortvedt's promotion, the Twins could have a more defined platoon between Garver, a right-handed hitter, and Rortvedt, who brings a lefty bat to the fold, while Jeffers sees more consistent playing time at the alternate training site. It could also open the door for Garver, the 2019 Silver Slugger Award winner at his position, to get more consistent starts.

"Garv’s going to play a bunch," Baldelli said. "He’s going to get a ton of at-bats. Obviously hit a couple of homers the other day. I think he’s been working on some things, too, that he’s taken onto the field and into the game, so I could see Garv getting some more games behind the plate than he had been."