In 2017, the Twins selected Brent Rooker 35th overall out of Mississippi State. He was a stud from a strong SEC conference. Rooker was coming off a ridiculous 1.306 OPS and power that was expected to translate. However, he was immediately tabbed as a bat-only prospect, and his greatest path to the big leagues was in being able to hit. We’ve seen him struggle in the outfield, and reports are that his footwork at first base is worse. Rooker may have a future yet, but he’s now 27 and has just 234 plate appearances to the tune of a .713 OPS under his belt. That’s not going to earn time as a regular.
This isn’t a piece to knock Rooker though, Minnesota’s hope undoubtedly is that a guy under team control through 2027 will find it. Instead, the player you may have been expecting could instead come from 2019 39th overall pick Matt Wallner.
Wallner is a Minnesota native from Forest Lake. He played his college ball at Southern Mississippi, and his 1.127 OPS out of college was plenty impressive in its own right. Wallner both pitched and hit for the Golden Eagles. He has a cannon from the outfield and an arm on the bump that can run it up in the mid-90s. The .810 OPS was a solid start in his 2019 pro-debut, but the pandemic shelved him.
Without an invite to the Twins alternate site in St. Paul, Wallner kept himself ready while 2020 was shelved for Minor League Baseball. In 2021, he played at High-A Cedar Rapids and posted an .858 OPS with 15 dingers in just 68 games. Having been placed on the Injured List with a broken hamate bone which required surgery, Wallner missed nearly half of the season. Participating in the Arizona Fall League, he could have been in contention for league MVP with a 1.011 OPS if a hit-by-pitch in the face didn’t limit him to just 18 games.
Even with the time on the shelf, production suggests the recently-turned 24-year-old is putting it together. Wallner is much more of an athlete than Rooker before him, and he’s average at worst in the outfield. Pitching could be a fallback option for him, but that’s probably never going to be part of the story. I’d be pretty surprised if Minnesota isn’t aggressive with the former Southern Miss star in 2022. Starting at Double-A wouldn’t be a shock, and making it to Triple-A or better is potentially in the cards.
This time last year, Jose Miranda was left unprotected in the Rule 5 draft and became the biggest no-brainer addition. Wallner’s status didn’t necessitate a 40-man roster move this winter, but his production certainly could by next year... or sooner.