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Grading the Twins 2021 Rookie Debuts


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2021 was not a great year for Twins fans. The Twins came into the 2021 season projected by PECOTA to win the division at 91-71. As we all know, that was not the case, as the Twins finished dead last in the AL Central at 73-89. However, a bad season like 2021 means getting to see some of the prospects we have heard about for so long finally make their Major League debuts.

In 2021, 10 Twins made their Major League debuts with various amounts of success. Nonetheless, a lot of these guys could play major roles in contributing to the future success of the team. Let’s see how they did.

Alex Kirilloff, OF/1B
Even though Alex Kirilloff played a game in the playoffs in 2020, he didn’t officially make his major league debut until April 14, 2021. Kirilloff had a rough start at the plate, going 0-for-15 to start his career despite some bad batted-ball luck. In April, Kirilloff’s xSLG was an otherworldly .825 but his actual slugging percentage was only .400. His average exit velocity was 95.4 MPH in April and 93 MPH in May.

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However, on May 5, the Twins placed Kirilloff on the IL because of a wrist injury. Kirilloff returned to the lineup on May 21 and was not the same the rest of the season, only hitting .260/.316/.387 the rest of the year. On July 21, it was announced that Kirilloff would undergo season-ending wrist surgery.

In 2021, Kirilloff hit .251/.299/.423 (.722) but a lot of that was impacted by his nagging wrist injury. Lately, Kirilloff has been taking batting practice and should be ready to go for the 2022 season. Kirilloff remains an extremely promising player and should be a middle-of-the-order bat for the Twins for years to come.

Grade: B

Ben Rortvedt, C
After Ryan Jeffers started the season 5-for-34 with 18 strikeouts and only one extra base hit, the Twins called up left-handed hitting Ben Rortvedt to back up Mitch Garver. On April 30, Rortvedt made his major league debut against the Kansas City Royals, going 1-for-3 with a walk. He recorded his first major league hit in the bottom of the eighth inning, hitting an RBI single off of Wade Davis to drive in Andrelton Simmons.

Rortvedt was unimpressive at the plate in 2021, hitting .169/.229/.281 (.510) with three home runs in 98 plate appearances. Behind the plate, Rortvedt was a very good catcher. In only 256 innings, Rortvedt was worth five Defensive Runs Saved. This ranked 19th in all of MLB, and nobody else in the top 30 had less than 300 innings. Rortvedt also has a very good arm, throwing out 7 of 16 potential base stealers (44 percent). That was fourth in all of MLB among catchers with at least 200 innings.

Rortvedt was a very good defensive catcher with subpar offensive abilities. If he can take a step forward with his bat, he has the potential to be an important part of the Twins future, especially if the Twins decide to trade Garver or Jeffers to acquire starting pitching.

Grade: C

Nick Gordon, UTIL
Growing up in a baseball family, Nick Gordon had lofty expectations since being drafted in the first round by the Twins in 2014. Since then, he has had struggles with health and he became a bit of an afterthought in terms of Twins prospects. So when he made his Major League debut on May 6th, it was a feel good story for all.

In his first plate appearance, he walked and then stole second on the next pitch. In his next plate appearance, he roped a single to right field for his first major league hit and then stole second base five pitches later. Gordon struck out his next plate appearance before being lifted for Jorge Polanco in the 8th inning. Gordon finished the day 1-for-2 with a walk and two stolen bases. On June 4, Gordon hit his first big league homer with his dad in the stands.

Gordon was below-average with the bat, hitting .240/.292/.355 (.647). As the season progressed, Gordon greatly improved offensively. In September and October, Gordon had an OPS of .752 and a wRC+ of 103, meaning he was slightly above average in those months. He also was hitting the ball harder as the season progressed. Below is a graph of his hard hit rate by month. All season, Gordon’s hard hit rate hovered around 45 percent but in September it jumped to 63 percent. This is very encouraging to see from a young player.

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Gordon also was very versatile and showed he could move around the diamond which can be very beneficial for a team. He played at least 10 games at shortstop, second base, left field, and center field. He was also a good baserunner, going 10-for11 on stolen bases. He was in the 71st percentile of all players in sprint speed.

Gordon could be a valuable asset for the Twins going forward if he continues to build off of his strong September and continues to be versatile.

Grade: C+

Trevor Larnach, OF
Ever since they drafted Trevor Larnach with the 20th overall pick in the 2018 draft, the Twins have had high expectations for him. After an impressive 2019 season between High-A and AA, Larnach has looked ready for the big leagues. He finally got his wish on May 8th, when he was the starting left fielder against the Detroit Tigers. Larnach didn’t exactly have a debut to remember, going 0-for-4 with a hit-by-pitch. Larnach picked up his first hit on May 12, when he doubled off of former Twin Liam Hendriks.

Larnach got off to a good start in the big leagues, hitting .262/.357/.436 with a 120 wRC+ through July 9. After that date, Larnach was abysmal at the plate. From that point on he had a wRC+ of 29 and struck out in 42 percent of his plate appearances. He was not a great hitter against offspeed pitches. Among all MLB hitters with at least 50 plate appearances, Larnach had the highest whiff rate against sliders (56 percent) and the highest whiff rate against changeups (52 percent). The good news is that Larnach hit .362 with a .667 slugging percentage against fastballs. Teams figured out he had issues against offspeed and started throwing over 50 percent of pitches as offspeed pitches.

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Larnach showed some flashes of being a great hitter (max exit velocity in the 97th percentile), so if he adjusts to offspeed pitches he will be a cornerstone of the Twins lineup for years to come

Grade: B-

Bailey Ober, RHP
At 6 feet 9 inches, Bailey Ober is the third tallest pitcher in Twins history behind Jon Rauch and Aaron Slegers. Ober and his imposing presence first appeared in the big leagues on May 18 against the Chicago White Sox. Ober went four innings, allowing four runs on five hits and one walk. He gave up home runs to Jake Lamb and Yasmani Grandal and struck out four. He got a no-decision and the Twins ended up winning 5-4 behind three Miguel Sano home runs.

Ober made 20 starts in his rookie season, going 3-3 with a 4.19 ERA. Ober threw 92 innings and had a team high 5.05 K/BB ratio. This ratio was fifth best in the American League. Ober was in the 94th percentile of all pitchers in terms of walk rate and in the 85th percentile in terms of chase rate. Ober hardly threw pitches outside of the zone but when he did, hitters chased them at a high rate. Ober’s average fastball in 2021 was only 92 miles per hour, but his big frame causes the batters to have less reaction time because the ball is being released at around 52 feet from home plate, almost a foot closer than the average pitcher releases it from. This creates the illusion that Ober’s fastball is moving faster than it actually is. Despite having below average stuff (percentile rankings below), Ober’s large frame elevates him to being a good pitcher (102 ERA+) and if Ober can improve his stuff in the coming years he could be a fantastic pitcher for the Twins.

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Grade: A-

Gilberto Celestino, OF
With injuries to Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, Jake Cave, and Rob Refsnyder early in 2021, the Twins needed a center fielder. They decided to call up Gilberto Celestino from AA, and he made his major league debut on June 2 against the Orioles. Celestino had a rather uneventful debut, going 0-for-2 with a strikeout in a 6-3 loss. Celestino recorded his first major league hit on June 9 against the Yankees.

Over the 2021 season, Celestino mightily struggled at the plate with the Twins, hitting .136/.177/.288 (.466). It was clear Celestino was overmatched at the big league level, so they sent him down to AAA St. Paul after 22 games, and he hit well at the AAA level, having a wRC+ of 125 in 49 games there. In retrospect, Celestino wasn’t ready for the big leagues but is still a good ball player. Having some big league experience under his belt will help him going forward, and he could be Byron Buxton’s primary backup going forward so we probably will be seeing Celestino in the big leagues again at some point in 2022.

Grade: D

Griffin Jax, RHP
On June 8, Griffin Jax made history. He became the first Air Force Academy graduate to play Major League Baseball. Jax was used in a mop-up role against the Yankees in the 9th inning when the Twins were down 5-3. Jax did not have a very good debut, going one inning while allowing three runs on home runs from Miguel Andujar and Gary Sanchez. He did record his first big league strikeout when he struck out Tyler Wade on a 2-2 slider.

In 2021, Griffin Jax had a tough rookie season. He went 4-5 with a 6.37 ERA. He allowed 2.52 HR/ 9 innings which was the highest among all MLB pitchers (minimum 60 innings). That number is also the highest for a single season in Twins history (min. 60 IP). The big problem was his fastball. Jax’s fastball was the fifth worst fastball in all of baseball in terms of xSLG. Jax’s fastball got crushed in 2021, but he continued to throw it almost 50 percent of the time. Jax’s slider, on the other hand, could be a very good pitch. Jax’s .271 xwOBA against the slider is good and signals that it is a pitch he should be throwing more than just 30 percent of the time, maybe up to 50 percent.

Despite a bad 2021, Jax could bounce back by relying more on his off-speed pitches and revamping his pitch arsenal going into 2022.

Grade: D

Charlie Barnes, LHP

Charlie Barnes made his major league debut in the first game of a July 17 doubleheader with the Detroit Tigers. After the first batter he faced (Robbie Grossman) went deep, Barnes was very good. Barnes went 4 2/3 innings, allowing one run on four hits and a walk while striking out one. He recorded his first major league strikeout in the second inning when he struck out Zack Short on a changeup.

In Barnes’s rookie season, he went 0-3 with a 5.92 ERA. Barnes made eight starts for the Twins and threw 38 total innings. Barnes bounced back and forth between the Twins and the minor leagues quite a bit, so he never really got the chance to establish himself at the big league level.

On December 23, Barnes signed with the Lotte Giants in Korea, so we wish him the best of luck in Korea as he pursues professional baseball there.

Grade: D

Joe Ryan, RHP

Any prospect who yields a player as good as Nelson Cruz should be good enough to make an impact in the big leagues for a long time. On September 1st, Joe Ryan gave us a taste of what he will be like for years to come. Ryan had a solid major league debut, going five innings, allowing three runs on three hits and a walk while striking out five batters. He got his first career strikeout in the first inning when he struck out Ian Happ with a high fastball.

Ryan had a solid debut season for the Twins, only throwing 26 innings, but going 2-1 with a 4.05 ERA. However, Ryan had some bad luck, as his xERA was 2.99. He also had 10.1 K/9 and only 1.7 BB/9. This 10.1 K/9 rate is the highest by any rookie starter in Twins history (min. 25 IP). Ryan relied on a very good high fastball/slider combination to get strikeouts.

Going into 2022, Ryan is one of three starters the Twins have in the rotation. His role on the team will depend on if the Twins make any more pitching acquisitions, but expect Ryan to be a fixture in the Twins rotation next year.

Grade: A-

Jovani Moran, LHP

Jovani Moran was very limited in year one, but he should be a fixture in the Twins bullpen in years to come. Moran made his major league debut on September 12 and went 1 1/3 innings, allowing no runs on two hits and two walks while striking out two batters. He collected his first major league strikeout when he got Nicky Lopez to chase a devastating changeup.

Jovani Moran only threw eight innings for the Twins in 2021, and at first glance you wouldn’t think he was very good. He had an ERA of 7.88 and walked seven guys in eight innings. If you look deeper, Moran was unlucky. He had an xERA of 3.84, meaning he had some awful batted-ball luck. He also throws one of the best swing-and-miss pitches in the Twins organization, a disgusting changeup. His whiff rate on that pitch was an astounding 51.4 percent, meaning that over half of the swings on that pitch were misses. This changeup whiff rate was the fourth highest for any pitcher in the league.

Moran was impressive in his limited work in 2021, and I am excited to see him and his changeup in the 2022 bullpen.

Grade: B

Final Thoughts
Despite a rough season, the Twins gave us a glimpse into their future. We saw a lot to like out of some of the Twins young players in 2021 and if these players can take a step forward in 2022 and continue to develop, the Twins should be able to contend for the AL Central in the near future. 

What do you think of these grades? How would you grade these players for their rookie seasons? Which of these players are you most excited to watch in 2022? Who is the most likely of these players to succeed going forward? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Thank you for reading, and Go Twins!


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Very interesting.  Perhaps the best grade overall was the fact eight young prospects got their feet wet and offer encouragement for the future (didn't include Gordon or Barnes in that group).

We can all quibble with grading, however, believe your grades for both Rortvedt and Celestino were too low.  Neither should have been in MLB before late last year at the earliest, thus, we should have expected their bats to be quiet.  

Considering that only Kirilloff was the only one who was a Top 5 prospect (Larnach wasn't top 5 last year, was he?), 2022 and beyond should be exciting for Twins fans.  

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If he develops....... if he develops......... if he develops. Geeeez I hope he develops. 

I'm liking Ryan and Ober. Maybe a 3rd and 5th rotation pieces? If it works out. Throw the top prospects out there. If 2 or 3 flash the Twins could have something they have NOT had in a looooooong time. A quality home grown rotation. 

Ahhhhh I hope he develops. 

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Your grades are fine. Of this group, I'm most confident in Kiriloff. He'll be a solid bat, occasional all-star, for us. Just a solid hitter. 

I think Rortvedt ends up with a very long MLB career, like most glove-first catchers. But, man, his bat was so bad. He has to get better. I suspect he will. (Seriously, Kiriloff, Rortvedt, Baddoo, Miranda, Jax, Balazovic all in the first 5 rounds of the 2016 draft. Nice draft). 

I'm not usually the type to worry about Larnich. Rookies struggle, he's a slugger, he'll be ok. But he's a bit older than I'd want (COVID probably affected his and Gordon's career the most). Ideally, he's a middle of the order bat and, at times, looked it. But I'd also consider trading him before all the shine wears off his prospect status for some pitching.

I was impressed with Gordon's defense, speed, and versatility. But his bat was poor. He has to improve to be Nick Punto. Good bench player, perhaps, but certainly not a future all-star at short that we had envisioned. 

I think Ryan is a legit starting pitcher. I'm not sure how the Twins will use him - 5 inning games, 130 inning season? Or will they let him develop into a more traditional pitcher? But he had a great rookie season for us and no reason to kill any optimism toward him. Ober is probably more a bullpen-game type pitcher where he doesn't get exposed. Solid rookie season but I don't think we should expect much more from him.

 

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The grades on these guys are reasonable, but there's a lot of good in there even for someone of the guys with lower grades. (some...maybe not. There's a reason Charlie Barnes got cut from the 40-man.)

The only thing stopping Kirilloff is health. I just hope the wrist thing isn't chronic, because he can flat-out hit, but with the bum wrist the power vanishes. But he's why I'm not terribly interested in renting a LF, because I think Kirilloff can play there just fine while mashing balls around the park.

Ober & Ryan did great in their debuts, they just need more innings. The floor is 5th starter on both of them, and we won't know what their MLB ceiling is until they play more. My feeling is they're likely to be considered mid-rotation guys who could have all-star seasons if/when they have a year where everything comes together. lot to like there.

Larnach had a tough year. Showed he could mash fastballs early, went to hell after they stopped throwing them to him and then got so messed up trying to deal with offspeed that he couldn't even hit fastballs once they started throwing them to him again. he was rushed a bit earlier than anyone would have liked, but I believe in his talent. Hopefully he can start the year at AAA, get a good reset, and refine his approach. 

Celestino is someone who looked like he had a brutal year...until you look beyond his MLB stats. He was dreadful at the plate in MLB, but he shouldn't have been up this early either. He did great when he got sent back to AAA, which is where he should have spent most of the year anyway. I like him to battle for the 4th OF job, since he should be able to play all 3 positions and the RH bat makes him a balance for the lefties in Kepler/Kirilloff in the corners and Larnach as a next man up.

Moran is another guy I'm excited about. he had some rough numbers, but that changeup is legit. he's going to have to work on command so guy walk up looking to swing rather than walk, but if he gets it down enough then he's going to make some people look really silly chasing that change. Twins have had some great results with lefties throwing the change-up and Moran could be another one. I'm pumped about him.

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27 minutes ago, gman said:

Do you understand the definition of rookie. Obviously not so why are you writing this article?

 

He didn't define it by "are you eligible for MLB's Rookie of the Year", he was talking about rookies making their MLB debut, aka "how did these guys do in their first taste of MLB". There's no need to be so damned snotty.

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Another informative article Andrew!  I agree with a few of the responses and even your analysis that the players like Rohrtvedt and Celestino were rushed and the harsh reality of your ratings is they didn’t perform well and deserve the grade you gave them,, but that’s how life goes…doesn’t mean they won’t be much better in ‘22.  It’s amazing to see the deep insight about how all these performed against league comparisons.  

Keep up the great posts!  The debates  about debuts vs rookie status feel oddly unnecessary…

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Kiriloff was a C and expectations were an A, I am hoping to see the complete player for a complete season.  Ober and Ryan both deserve A's as they came up and did exactly what we needed and did it well.  Because he was thrown in and should not have been in the majors Jax gets a C.

I was pleasantly surprised that Gordon did as well as he did and was really disappointed when Larnach could not stop his slide.  

What an interesting year for rookies.  I wish we had seen more of them.

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I think the grades are fair and no need to quibble about a slight adjustment here or there. Pretty right on.

Was very encouraged how Celestino responded at AAA and have pretty high hopes for him going forward as a versatile regular who will probably be an excellent 4th OF with potential for more.

Larnach was also rushed a bit and I'm not worried. Through college he always hit and has shown that ability and a decent eye in milb thus far. He just needs to settle in and learn and adjust some more. I think he's going to be fine.

Speaking of being rushed, we've seen Rortvedt progress slowly but surely as a hitter with some power potential to go along with his great defense and game calling. Really hoping he can spend the majority of 2022 at St Paul to really get his bat right. He will probably never be a great hitter, but he doesn't have to be. All he needs is to be decent, not be a K machine, and jack some balls with his natural strength.

I was actually impressed by Gordon more than some. Despite looking like a 16yo standing in with a uniform that didn't quite fit, he looked like he felt he belonged. He leaned the OF on the fly and appeared to have aptitude and ability there. I was also encouraged that he finished strong. I think he has a chance to be a nice utility player with speed and a bat that doesn't embarrass. The speed is NICE!

Ryan flashed that he's a keeper. Not sure what more Ober could have done. My goodness, he's refined his delivery for better health, consistency and velocity and made adjustments all through the year. Expectations should be tempered for a pair of rookies, but I don't think either of these guys are #5 SP.

Moran could be nasty with just a little more time and control. He may not break camp on the ML roster, but we're going to see a lot of him in 2022.

Jax was inconsistent, to say the least, game to game and inning to inning. But that slider looks pretty nasty. I could see him developing in to a pretty good middle reliever.

 

 

 

 

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55 minutes ago, roger said:

Great comments about Celestino.  My memory  has a gap, he arrived in one of those 2019 deadline trades, didn’t he?  Which was it?

In 2018, the Twins traded Ryan Pressly for Celestino and Alcala.

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Grades are always odd entities. When a player's debut is RotY, Cy Young, MVP, or something akin to Bert Blyleven it almost seems heretical to pass out an A to anything that just exceeds our expectations and make us hopeful for future performance but is well below All Star status. The other end of the spectrum is a failing or low grade for a player forced into MLB play well before they are ready because there just isn't another body on the 40 person roster to put in uniform. Either way, judgments are made and the post is excellent with information.

While I would not have handed out any A grades this year, I don't disagree with the analysis or judgments passed. I would have been too lenient on the lower end, so no fails. Ober, Ryan, and Kirilloff get S+; Moran, Barnes, Gordon, and Jax get an S; and Larnach, Celestino, and Rortvedt get an S-, which roughly corresponds to B, C, and C-. The player I expect to rise above all others is Kirilloff. I'm interested in watching how Ober and Moran develop as pitchers, and believe that Rortvedt could be much more than expected. Barnes was smart to take an opportunity to pitch in Korea because while I think he can be a decent pitcher in the big leagues, he wasn't going to get much of a chance. He can prove himself overseas and still make a living.

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59 minutes ago, tarheeltwinsfan said:

How do I edit my comments after I post them?  I meant 99 %.

Click edit after hitting the 3 dots in the upper right corner of your comment.

99% of the comments? Well we got 17 comments and we all know the one comment you didn't like, so that would be 94.22%, just saying. 

Why do I mention this? No idea I must be very bored.

 

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15 minutes ago, RonCoomersOPS said:

So did Kirilloff, and yet he made your list.

Kirilloff made his regular season debut in 2021. He made an appearance in the 2020 post season. Those are kept as separate categories. Simple misunderstanding that many might miss. The post was just for 2021 regular season debuts.

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2 minutes ago, tony&rodney said:

Kirilloff made his regular season debut in 2021. He made an appearance in the 2020 post season. Those are kept as separate categories. Simple misunderstanding that many might miss. The post was just for 2021 regular season debuts.

Correct. This post is just for those making their regular season debuts in 2021. Sorry for the confusion.

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10 hours ago, Andrew Mahlke said:

In 2018, the Twins traded Ryan Pressly for Celestino and Alcala.

I think by the end of 2022 we will finally be able to  grade that trade.  I am betting Alcala will be a dominant RP this year we saw at the end of 2021 and we have him for 4 more years.  I think we see quite a bit of Celestino too.  

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