'Special' Kirilloff playing for permanent spot

May 1st, 2021

MINNEAPOLIS -- Now that finally got the monkey off his back with his first two career home runs on Friday, he’s starting to settle in.

On a beautiful spring day in which the Twins’ offense couldn’t get much of anything going against Royals left-hander Danny Duffy, Kirilloff brought Minnesota’s first punch of the game with another opposite-field homer in a tough left-on-left matchup, his third home run in two days. He and Nelson Cruz both went deep late in an 11-3 loss on Saturday at Target Field.

Ranked the No. 2 prospect in the organization by MLB Pipeline, Kirilloff started his career 0-for-15 due in part to bad luck on hard-hit balls -- which seems like ancient history after the last two days. All three home runs to begin his big league career have gone to the left of center, an early display of the power and hard-contact ability to all fields that made him such a highly touted hitting prospect.

“Not every guy can do that,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “That's what makes a lot of these big league hitters special: the ability to drive the ball to the middle of the field and the other way is one of those things you can key in on.”

Kirilloff now has the third-most homers in Twins history through his first 10 career games, behind Graig Nettles (five in 1968) and Gary Gaetti (four, from 1981-82).

The jolt from Kirilloff’s blast was the only one the Twins really found against Duffy, who retired 12 straight hitters from the first to fifth innings before issuing a pair of walks. Kirilloff’s seventh-inning big fly -- the first of his career against a southpaw -- was Minnesota’s first hit off Duffy since the first inning.

Coming off a pair of blowout wins, the Twins were out of Saturday’s game early after right-hander Matt Shoemaker allowed nine runs (eight earned) and didn’t complete the fourth inning in a second straight tough start. He still had swing-and-miss stuff, with 10 whiffs among his 68 pitches, but couldn’t finish at-bats, as six of the eight hits he allowed came with two strikes.

But Kirilloff’s blast, which traveled a career-long 432 feet into the bullpens in left-center field, gave the 9,993 fans at Target Field something to cheer for -- and it’s something they’ll see for years to come.

The question, then, is whether Kirilloff will remain on the roster when Miguel Sanó is activated from the injured list in the coming days, following his recovery from a mild right hamstring strain.

When Kirilloff was first promoted to the MLB roster ahead of last Friday’s matchup against the Pirates, that didn’t appear to be a sure thing -- and even less so when he started off his career without results to show for his hard contact. But with the way he’s hit the ball throughout this recent promotion, and considering his solid defense at first base, he could well be here to stay for the foreseeable future.

“To have the hitting ability to use the whole field is one thing,” Baldelli said. “To have the strength on top of it to hit the ball out the other way, left-center field and drive the ball like that, it's a great sign. It's what you really want to see from a guy like AK.”

If the Twins keep Kirilloff upon Sanó’s return, they’ll likely need to option either Willians Astudillo or Jake Cave. Though the Twins have a glut of outfielders on their roster with Max Kepler, Kyle Garlick and Byron Buxton also in the fold, they could get Kirilloff playing time against right-handers in both the corner outfield spots and at first base, and potentially sit the struggling Sanó against tougher righties.

That’s not a problem for now, with the Twins opting to give Sanó some extra time to find his timing, leaving Kirilloff at first base, his natural position.

But even when Sanó returns, Baldelli indicated that Kirilloff could still factor in at first if he keeps hitting this way.

“[Sanó’s] going to get regular ABs, but like everything else, when our other guys are playing well, we’re going to find ways to get them in the lineup, too,” Baldelli said. “We’re going to continue to mix and match, and we’re going to continue to move guys around on the field.

“AK is swinging the bat good. We have some other guys swinging the bat good. We’ll find a way to make it all work.”