The Twins Should Make Alex Kirilloff the Opening Day Left Fielder
Image courtesy of Seth Stohs, Twins DailyIf Minnesota’s front office manipulates Kirilloff’s service time by having him open the year in St. Paul, the year of team control they will gain over their former first-round pick is 2027. That year, Kirilloff will be 29 years old. The chances that Kirilloff will be a valuable player at that age are quite slim, and if he will be, the team will have plenty of time to offer him a contract extension that renders his service time moot.
Let me defend that assertion — that it’s unlikely Kirilloff will be good enough in 2027 to sweat over this decision now — a bit, because it might seem shocking. It’s true, though, and not just because of the inherent uncertainty associated with players who have yet to prove they can hit big-league pitching over a full season. In today’s game, it’s rare to find a player with Kirilloff’s profile thriving past their mid-20s.
I used Stathead, from Baseball Reference, to find the number of players in each season of baseball history who met the following criteria:
- Batted left-handed
- Played primarily in a corner outfield spot
- Qualified for the batting title
- Had an OPS+ of at least 115
- Were 29 years old or older
Since 2013, there have been just 18 player-seasons meeting the criteria above, an average of a bit over two per year. Only Arizona’s Kole Calhoun met these criteria in 2020. Only Charlie Blackmon and Michael Brantley did so in 2019. Brantley is the only guy to make the list in two separate seasons since Andre Ethier, who managed it in 2011 and 2012. That underscores the unpredictability here; even guys who ostensibly attain and cling to a solid everyday job through 29 rarely produce consistently thereafter. For more evidence of that, note the non-tenders of Kyle Schwarber (28 next month) and Eddie Rosario (29) this winter, and the tepid market for the services of Joc Pederson, also 29.
There are many reasons for this, going beyond the ones to which I alluded already. Defensive shifts disproportionately affect the production of this type of player. Accelerating and changing trends in pitcher usage have made it a younger man’s game all the time. So, too, have impressive advancements in the realm of player development. There’s even the fact that, as hitters seek to lift the ball more often, outfield defense has incrementally increased in importance, leading to a stronger preference for young, fresh legs in the corner spots than the industry has had in decades.
If Kirilloff is able to overcome these odds and become such a hitter, obviously, he’s more valuable than ever. By the time he’s even 25 or 26, though, it should be obvious whether or not he has that potential. That’s when the Twins could approach him with a contract extension, and benefit from the goodwill they would engender by giving him a job on Opening Day. The talk of the baseball world is the contract to which the Padres just signed Fernando Tatís, Jr., but not enough attention has been paid to the fact that San Diego set the stage for the deal two years ago.
They installed Tatís, then 20, as their Opening Day shortstop in 2019, even though it cost them control of his age-27 season in 2025. Once he proved to be a superstar in the making, they were happy to shell out huge dollars to keep him (more or less) forever. The Twins wouldn’t even need to go to the same lengths for Kirilloff, for the reasons I explore above.
In fact, I’m not even in favor of the remedy to this dilemma some have suggested, which is extending Kirilloff now. Actuarially (as we have seen), he’s unlikely to be worth much in the latter, most expensive seasons of such a deal. If he and his representatives were willing to consider a deal that reshaped his earning curve, getting him higher salaries sooner but selling his arbitration-eligible seasons at a below-market price, and if the Twins could get multiple team options at the end of the deal, it would be worth their while, but otherwise, they should just skip the manipulation, press pause on any contract considerations, and install him in the majors right away.
To close, let me acknowledge one truth, and stress two others. First, the acknowledgement: Kirilloff has never played in Triple A, and only has limited time in Double A. Because of that, there is some case to be made that having him open the season in St. Paul wouldn’t be manipulating his service time, but rather, the natural choice for a player with his experience. I understand that line of thinking, but reject it. This is 2021. We all know why he didn’t get the reps he’d normally have gotten at the upper levels of the minors in 2020.
We all also know that that justification crumbles the moment the team calls him up in early May, because really, what difference does one month make? What is Kirilloff likely to learn over such a span? Moreover, and here’s the first fact I want to stress and reiterate: Kirilloff is 23. He’s only still waiting to crack the roster because last season was truncated, and because of injury issues earlier in his professional career. If he’s going to be anywhere near as good as the Twins hope he will be, he needs to hurry up and do it. The Twins also need to be able to evaluate him against big-league pitching right away. A month of at-bats in St. Paul proves nothing. A month of at-bats in Minneapolis lets the team start deciding how important Trevor Larnach is to their future, whether Luis Arraez is likely to be needed often in left field, and how they should construct their lineup on a day-to-day basis to maximize its output.
The other thing I want to emphasize is that this is all predicated on Kirilloff having a strong spring training. The indications that he is or isn’t ready for the majors, for which some would have the team look only once he lands in St. Paul, will be noticeable before the end of Grapefruit League play. They won’t place any value on his stats in exhibition games, of course, but they should and will be able to assess his readiness based on data they collect there, the expert judgment of coaches and scouts, and conversations with the player himself.
Since we can’t know whether Kirilloff will have that kind of impressive camp or not, one could argue that the conversation should be put off for a few weeks. I disagree. To get this narrative right, and to shape the argument properly, we need to premeditate upon and look at these threads of argument now. Once one does so, it becomes easier to respond in an informed way if the facts on the ground change. Barring something unforeseen, I’m confident in my belief that Kirilloff belongs on Minnesota’s Opening Day roster.
This article first went out Sunday morning, as a piece for subscribers to my email newsletter, Penning Bull. If you're interested in that newsletter, which costs $11.11 per year and covers the whole league, you can find out more and sign up at penningbull.com.
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