Among the handful of decisions that the Twins face in the two weeks that remain until Opening Day on April 1 in Milwaukee, none looms larger than the competition to fill the slot in left field that was vacated when Eddie Rosario was non-tendered and eventually went to Cleveland.
On one hand, this competition could lead to the ceremonial passing of the torch on Opening Day to No. 2 prospect Alex Kirilloff, who figures to hold down a starting role on the Twins for years to come. But other candidates -- including a fellow prospect, Brent Rooker, and a veteran newcomer, Kyle Garlick to the roster -- have made a strong push for consideration at camp.
There’s likely one spot up for grabs alongside Max Kepler, Byron Buxton and Jake Cave. Where do things currently stand? Let’s take a look.
Spring stats: 3-for-25 (.120), 1 homer, 1 double, 8 strikeouts, 1 walk
Minor League options remaining: 3
This whole discussion revolves around the question of whether the Twins are open to putting Kirilloff, the top position player prospect in the organization, on their Opening Day roster. They’ve indicated since the start of the spring that Kirilloff will have “every opportunity” to make his case for inclusion, and they’ve spoken nothing but highly of his ability to impact the Major Leagues from the moment he made his big league debut last postseason.
“He just hasn't had the opportunities yet at the Major League level to show what he can do,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “We think he's already a good offensive player. He's handled himself really well… He's a very consistent individual in the clubhouse and out on the field. So yeah, he's been fantastic."
The question, then, is whether Kirilloff’s rough spring stats will factor into the decision. Baldelli and president of baseball operations Derek Falvey could not have made it more clear that they’re barely looking at statistical results -- if at all -- as they evaluate their players this spring, considering factors like small sample size, inconsistency in quality of competition and the simple fact that this is still a ramp-up and adjustment period. Kirilloff’s tools are still considerable, as flashed in his 420-foot blast to straightaway center on March 11.
In the bigger picture, there’s also the consideration that this spring has been Kirilloff’s first taste of consistent live action since the 2019 season, and perhaps that has something to do with the uncharacteristic strikeout rate for the prospect (though, to be fair, that’s a consideration for everyone on this list). He would also give the outfield a very left-handed skew next to Kepler and Cave.
With that said, the delay to the start of the Triple-A season will mean that Kirilloff likely wouldn’t have a consistent way to see more live action if he doesn’t break camp with the team, and he’d get plenty of that in the big leagues, as it’s hard to imagine the Twins promoting a prospect of Kirilloff’s pedigree to play in a platoon.
Spring stats: 7-for-18 (.389), 1 homer, 2 doubles, 6 strikeouts, 1 walk
Minor League options remaining: 3
Rooker is about as developed as a prospect can be, and the No. 13 prospect in the organization is out to show that the skills he flashed in seven games in 2020 before a season-ending arm fracture can make him a longtime contributor in the big leagues. Strikeouts have always been the concern with Rooker throughout his Minor League career, but with a significant small sample size caveat here, his strikeout rate (five in 21 plate appearances) and whiff rate (27.3%) didn’t stand out in his brief cameo in 2020. He’ll need to show he can sustain that.
Rooker has continued to make solid contact in a productive spring. He could play into a left-field platoon alongside Cave, and the Twins seem to consider Rooker as the primary backup option at designated hitter. There’s no urgency to get him on the roster considering his three Minor League options, but there also appears to be very little to be gained in development by keeping him down -- which has been backed up by his performance this spring.
“I think we can definitely find ways to get him in this lineup and help us,” Baldelli said. “We know he can play both corners in the outfield. If [Nelson Cruz] for any reason is not out there every single day at a given point of the season, you can always look to Rook to help out there. And he can play some first base, too. How it all works together, nobody knows that right now, not even me.”
Spring stats: 7-for-19 (.368), 3 homers, 1 double, 4 strikeouts, 1 walk
Minor League options remaining: 1
Garlick is making this decision even more difficult for the Twins because he’s done nothing but perform in Spring Training as the club’s top home run hitter and the best of the bunch at limiting strikeouts (again, with small sample size caveats). This kind of production tracks with what he’s been able to do throughout his Minor League career (23 homers and a 1.057 OPS in Triple-A in 2019), and his path to the roster is realistic because he’s already on the 40-man roster following his arrival on a waiver claim late in the offseason.
The primary distinction between Garlick and Rooker is that Rooker has experience at first base, which could be a significant factor come Opening Day, considering the Twins will open the season at a National League park. Still, Garlick has done all he can to make his push for the roster -- and he’ll almost certainly see considerable time in Minnesota this season, regardless of what happens Opening Day.