2020 brought Twins' top 3 prospects closer

March 11th, 2021

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Your pandemic lifestyle probably wasn't all too different from those of professional baseball players at the Twins' alternate training site.

There was work to be done, usually until around 4 p.m., but after that, it was mostly just long stretches of being trapped indoors with all manner of video games, occasionally punctuated by golf outings as a treat. It's all too relatable that everyone got far too acquainted with ' love for ordering fast food on DoorDash.

Of course, there was also lots and lots and lots of talking as the Twins' top three prospects -- Lewis, and -- hunkered down at a hotel in St. Paul alongside their teammates at the club's alternate site.

Don't make the mistake of thinking that the chatter was evenly distributed, though.

"Trevor and I usually just listen to Royce," Kirilloff said.

"A lot of it is Royce talking, and we feed off of that," Larnach added.

It's almost become routine for Twins fans to group those three prospects together as the trio has risen through the ranks of the organization to the cusp of the Major Leagues -- and from a baseball standpoint, it's hard to blame them. MLB Pipeline's newly released Twins Top 30 prospects list on Wednesday ranked Lewis, Kirilloff and Larnach as the top three position players in the system for the third straight season, and the top three overall for the second year running.

For as much as their baseball destinies have converged, the personalities behind those three players couldn't be any more different.

In a strange way, that's actually helped them forge a tight bond on and off the field that could be an important part of the next era of Twins baseball, much in the way that the close-knit friendships between the "M&M Boys" -- Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau -- and stars like Torii Hunter, Michael Cuddyer and Joe Nathan were emblematic of the late Metrodome era.

"I think those are just once in a generation -- a lifetime -- of friendships, you know?" Lewis said. "You couldn't ask for any better friends, me personally. Just people to have in your life and your circle."

Flurries of words, smiles and curiosity about every facet of the world spill out of Lewis at the slightest trigger, but president of baseball operations Derek Falvey considers it a success when he can coax a rare smile out of Kirilloff. Larnach is somewhere in between -- definitely more reserved, with an intensity that comes into focus when he seeks every edge and bit of information pertinent to his hitting and when he trash talks his competitors in video games.

There's just something about the shared baseball journey that brings together even the most disparate of personalities, and the bond that they've forged has long since grown to eclipse baseball as they navigate the challenges and discoveries of both baseball and life together on the long road to the big leagues. Even if they hadn't also been under the the unique pressures of being first-round picks and top prospects from the moment they entered the organization, they all insist they'd have gravitated towards each other anyway.

But having your close friends around you every day of that ride under the microscope certainly helps.

When Lewis visits Kirilloff's wife, Jordan, and daughter, Penelope, he's now "Uncle Royce." Their long discussions with other teammates in hotel rooms span UFC, football and basketball (the longstanding and heated debate over whether LeBron James or Michael Jordan is the greatest to ever play in the NBA finally consumed the clubhouse last year). There are also those discussions about life: Lewis planning out loud for his business aspirations, or Kirilloff talking about being a father, or Larnach discussing his initial dabbles in real estate and whether he should spend his offseasons in Texas, where he'll be closer to Lewis, or Florida, where Kirilloff lives.

"It's one of those things where, wherever he stays in the offseason, we'll be able to hang out more," Lewis said with a laugh. "It's pretty funny."

Their paths first converged during the 2019 season in Pensacola, where the Twins had their Double-A affiliate until the Minor Leagues were realigned. Kirilloff, the club's 2016 first-rounder, spent the whole season there, while 2018 first-rounder Larnach was promoted from Class A Advanced Fort Myers on July 16 and Lewis, the first overall pick in 2017, joined them on July 28.

All three were invited to big league Spring Training last season, and their bond continued to flourish when they were included in the Twins' 60-man player pool and sequestered for three months in St. Paul until Kirilloff was briefly called up for the American League Wild Card Series.

The group that would hang out at the hotel after practices also featured, among many others, the rotating cast of Brent Rooker, Travis Blankenhorn and Caleb Hamilton, depending on who was up in the big leagues at the time. Fierce games of FIFA, NBA 2K, Call of Duty and PGA Golf 2K would break out among the group.

(In case you're wondering: There's a consensus that Larnach is the best at Call of Duty. Kirilloff claims that he's the best at NBA 2K, but upon hearing that, Larnach planned to contest that title. Blankenhorn is the best at FIFA unless you count team photographer Brace Hemmelgarn, who is said to "get into it" and "have all of our numbers.")

All that personal time makes for a stronger baseball connection, of course. Lewis loves the deep conversations he has with Larnach, a hitting junkie, about the various things Lewis has learned about the intellectual part of the game from Torii Hunter and the nuggets of advice that they pick up in their conversations with Josh Donaldson and Nelson Cruz in the Spring Training clubhouse. Lewis, facing a yearlong recovery from a torn ACL, has drawn advice from Kirilloff's experiences in dealing with Tommy John surgery earlier in his career.

And the differences in their personalities? They're actually cited as a blessing in the everyday grind of baseball as an odd three-way yin-yang balance, of sorts, that keeps the trio intense and competitive -- but still having fun.

"Royce is very loose for an individual to be around, and that looseness and that type of mentality of having fun, that kind of rubs off on you so that you play loose, you go about your business very loose," Larnach said. "At the same time, you're serious because it's what you're being paid to do but you know that that goes to the other part where you watch Kirilloff go about his business. It's hard to go down the wrong path when you see you have those two characteristics rubbed off on you, especially when you're playing with each other."

"Talk about three really mature folks, man," Lewis said. "I mean, we gentlemen have a good time talking and, you know, we act like kids sometimes, but it's one of those things where you can have a little bit of fun here and there whenever you're very mature and balling out and doing your thing."

They do talk about the pressure they share as first-round picks together, openly discussed as the future building blocks of the big league team. But in such a setting, even the weight of those lofty expectations doesn't really seem so bad.

"Even when you're struggling, you've just got some great people by your side to help lift you up or cheer you on for the next day, which is amazing," Lewis said. "And I think that definitely does help to have people by your side. But at the same time, those expectations are just, I think if anything, we get more excited and we can't wait for anything better than just go up there and start doing it. And we'll get on after it up in the big leagues together."

It all seemed so attainable when Kirilloff first got the call to The Show last September and became the first position player in Major League history to record a postseason hit as the first of his career. That made it all the more devastating to both Kirilloff and Larnach -- the pain in their voices is obvious -- that Lewis won't be on the field with them in 2021.

But eventually, they're all confident that this coalescence of their journeys and the time they spent together with Rooker, Blankenhorn, Ryan Jeffers and others in St. Paul last season will transform the normally daunting experience of a first big league callup into a comforting transition, surrounded and aided by good friends.

"Hopefully, that creates a bond where once they get to the big leagues, they can continue to rely on one another and continue to compete and hopefully go out and achieve great things together," farm director Alex Hassan said. "It certainly can't hurt."

"Watching them kind of push each other and learn from each other, because they are all complementary, is kind of a cool thing to see come together," Falvey said.

When Lewis pops on his PlayStation and turns to "MLB The Show" from time to time, his favorite game mode is Franchise. He plays as the Twins, and he's nearly done playing through the 2020 regular season -- a game universe in which the COVID-19 pandemic never happened. ("It's really cool that now I'm in the game, so it's more fun," he says.)

Ninety-nine players out of 100 would almost certainly have promoted his own avatar straight to the Majors and let it ride. Not Lewis, who prides himself on playing as a "realist." He's working on building up the Twins' pitching prospects like Jhoan Duran and Dakota Chalmers to pitch alongside Kenta Maeda and José Berríos on staffs of coming seasons.

"It's just a lot of fun just picturing, like, what the future could be in the Twins in real life on a video game," Lewis said.

And even in that future he creates for himself in his own fictional baseball universe, Lewis has himself, Kirilloff and Larnach all stationed in Triple-A. On the cusp of helping build that future for the Twins. Together.