For the Twins, Holding Back Alex Kirilloff would be Overthinking it
In a year where the division could be won by a razor-thin margin, there's just no logical reason to keep Kirilloff down
The Minnesota Twins thought highly enough of outfielder Alex Kirilloff to bring him up to start in a do-or-die playoff game last September against the Houston Astros.
To me, that sort of makes it difficult to justify not bringing him up this spring to start the season.
Now I’m not saying there are even necessarily strong rumblings that this might happen — but it still certainly could. There are service-time reasons to hold Kirilloff back, most notably to gain an extra year of club-controlled service before he hits free agency.
But I don’t think that makes any sense. Again, they thought enough of him to let him play against the Astros last September but might not against the Milwaukee Brewers in April?
Service-time manipulation exists because the current CBA permits it. The next CBA, which will be a heavily-contested issue next winter, may in fact abolish the practice or at very least curb the current mechanisms teams use to skirt the flimsy rules in place.
Let’s also think about it this way — most people would agree the Twins and the Chicago White Sox are neck-and-neck to win this division. Why wouldn’t the Twins attempt to put their best possible product out on the field on Opening Day? They’re going to need to scratch and claw for every last win in a division that could come down to the dog days of summer.
Beyond that, it’s simply overthinking things. There’s no guarantee Kirilloff hits the ground running, and could be sent back to the minors at some point before his option years are used up — rendering any “manipulation” more or less moot.
The truth of the matter is if Kirilloff is good enough to merit a big contract in six years — an eternity in today’s game — they should be happy to pay it.
And again, six years is an eternity in baseball. Imagine if the Twins had tried to curb Byron Buxton’s service time at the beginning of his career. June 14 will mark the six-year anniversary of his debut, and he’s still two full seasons from free agency due to injuries and yo-yo’ing back and forth from the minors for various reasons (and we can get into if they’ve all had merit another time, but we’re just trying to compare apples to apples here as far as the start of careers).
And to be fair, Kirilloff is not on Buxton’s level in terms of prospect status. Kirilloff is a legit, terrific prospect — peaking at No. 7 on Keith Law’s list but generally appearing in top 100s across the entire landscape — but Baseball America recently listed its all-time top-40 prospect list to commemorate 40 years in business, and Buxton was No. 24 on that list.
Joe Mauer was 12th, by the way.
Curbing service time as a practice — outside of the ethics — really only makes sense with super-elite prospects who are around 20 years old, in my view. Someone like Wander Franco, who turned 20 on March 1 and could easily justify starting the season by pushing Willy Adames off shortstop for the Tampa Bay Rays.
Kirilloff, however, is 23. He’s a corner player rather than an elite, up-the-middle prospect. If he settles at first base — as I suspect he will — the path to a huge payday is a really difficult one to tread.
Kirilloff’s 100th percentile outcome would be, in my estimation, the second coming of Kris Bryant. Bryant’s service time was famously gamed by the Chicago Cubs, who just had to see what they had in Arismendy Alcantara, Jonathan Herrera, Chris Coghlan and Mike Olt before handing the keys to the youngster at the hot corner.
Bryant was 23 years and 103 days old when he made his debut in 2015; Kirilloff, as of today, is 23 years and 130 days old.
The reason I bring up Bryant is that the Cubs very nearly forfeited the year they gamed him for in the first place. There were rumors the Cubs wanted to trade or non-tender Bryant this offseason rather than pay him the nearly $20 million the arbitration process decided he was worth, even after he hit just .206/.293/.351 in 34 games last season.
Re-framed, the Cubs — who traded Yu Darvish for relative peanuts just to not have to pay him — were at least somewhat considering moving on from a player who hit .284/.385/.516 over 700-plus games while playing passable defense not only in the outfield, but at third base. That’s something Kirilloff won’t do.
Now certainly it took a confluence of injury and COVID-related issues to get to this point for the Cubs and Bryant, but again that speaks to how uncertain the future is more than a half-decade down the road.
To speak to how long six years is in baseball, let’s look at the Rookie of the Year balloting the year Bryant won back in 2015:
Jung Ho Kang
Bryant and Thor are the only impact players on the list who are still playing, and Syndergaard is laid up until midseason after Tommy John surgery.
The American League side paints a rosier picture, but it’s still a mishmash of guys who became stars and guys who, well, didn’t:
Delino DeShields Jr.
Lindor is lined up for a nice payday from the Mets or someone else at some point in the next year, but Correa — selected the pick before Buxton and rumored to be No. 1 on the Twins’ draft board that June — is far more in flux than one might want from a player entering his prime.
Two of Correa’s last three seasons have resulted in an OPS+ under 100, and the middle was the season with the juiced baseball. Make no mistake that Correa is still a very good player who is set up for a very nice payday in the year of the shortstop, but again, the path to free agency is rarely as paved with gold as it seems.
Back to the idea of first basemen getting paid for a second.
The average first baseman, according to Spotrac, will make a shade over $7 million this season. Only right field and designated hitter carry higher average price tags.
But let’s dive into that for a second. That figure is pushed up by a boondoggle of a contract to Albert Pujols ($30 million) and sizable deals to Joey Votto ($25 million) and Eric Hosmer ($20 million). Hosmer’s deal is already a pretty poor value, and Chris Davis is also sixth at $17 million. So only five first basemen make over $20 million, but only two of them — Freddie Freeman and Paul Goldschmidt ($22 million each) — really have a case for justifying that value at present.
Sano, for what it’s worth, ranks 10th at $11 million this season. But in general, $12-15 million kind of feels like the sweet spot for first basemen who aren’t truly elite but are really, really good. And if Kirilloff becomes truly elite — like Anthony Rizzo or Freddie Freeman — you just pay him to retain him.
My theory on him ending up at first base is fairly simple. He’s played his fair share at first base this spring, which I think portends to the idea that whenever the ageless Nelson Cruz moves on, Sano will move to DH and Kirilloff will take over at first so Trevor Larnach, Gilberto Celestino or someone else can take over the open spot in left field.
He’s also not a jackrabbit in the outfield, and I think the analytically-driven Twins will continue to trend toward athleticism in the corners — unless a player’s bat forces them to do otherwise.
Also, sending Kirilloff to the minors this year is complicated by the fact that it will be — for the first month — an alternate training site at Triple-A as opposed to a normal minor-league season, reminiscent of the COVID-ruined minor league season in 2020.
Would hanging at the alternate site for a few weeks be preferable to playing in big-league games, all things considered? I don’t really think so. The counter-argument would be that it was enough to get him to the big leagues last year, but to me that seems to concede that he’s just as ready now as he was on Sept. 30 last year.
I’m not saying the Twins will send Kirilloff back and game his service time in any way, shape or form. In fact, I suspect they won’t. But if it’s even an inkling in the collective mind grapes of the brain trust, I don’t think it’s a wise idea.