Trying to Make Sense of the Alex Kirilloff Demotion
So, almost a week ago in this space, I wrote that it would be “overthinking it” for the Minnesota Twins to keep Alex Kirilloff from making the Opening Day roster.
On Tuesday, the Twins optioned him to the alternate training site, all but guaranteeing he won’t break camp with the big-league club.
And while I said on Monday that this would be overthinking things, I’m also of the mind that this isn’t textbook service time manipulation, either. Do I think it’s possible it played a part in the demotion?
But I don’t think it was the primary driving force.
Now I hope that doesn’t seem like a cop-out or a 180 on what I said the other day. Hear me out.
Kirilloff has gone 4-for-31 in big-league camp — a slash of .129/.182/.258 — with a homer and a double to his credit. Now to be clear, that’s somewhere in the vicinity of what, a week’s worth of plate appearances in a regular MLB season?
So yes, small sample size caveats do apply.
But I do think there’s a deeper message here than just “Kirilloff hit .129 this spring.”
My take back to the days of Terry Ryan — and you can take it or leave it, but it’s just what I’ve observed — is that it’s always possible to bring up a veteran and let the youngster steal their job, but it’s very difficult to do things the other way.
For instance, when the Twins brought in Juan Castro to play shortstop ahead of Jason Bartlett, it was easy enough to assume that the latter of the two would eventually push the other off that spot — as he ultimately did.
On the contrary, if you bring up the youngster, it’s pretty hard to have a contingency plan that’s even as good as the veteran you’d have otherwise used — even an over-the-hill one, for what it’s worth — because it’s probably two or three weeks into the season before you find out the young player is in over his head.
This is how you end up with Jordan Schafer or Clete Thomas in center field when Aaron Hicks struggles out of the gate. But I digress.
This isn’t just in deference to the trio of Jake Cave, Brent Rooker and Kyle Garlick. In fact, the above scenario doesn’t exactly apply here as each of those three has minor-league options remaining.
But I think about the optics of the situation, and what they must look like to the players in the position battle.
In isolation, it’s fair to say Kirilloff’s line this spring doesn’t matter. Is he hitting the ball hard? Is he taking good swings? That’s something for the scouts and front-office people to decide, but I would say that’s more important than an iffy slash line.
For instance, Cave — who will almost certainly make the team — is hitting just .143/.357/.190 this spring. To take it a step further, he hit just .221/.285/.389 in 123 plate appearances (84 OPS+) last season. But again, that’s doubling down on a small sample size.
Cave can be a veritable house of cards for Kirilloff to topple assuming he proves he’s ready in fairly quick order.
What I’d really like to hone in on is the performance of Rooker and Garlick. Entering play Wednesday, Rooker had hit .320/.333/.560 in spring training, while Garlick had slashed .333/.355/.815.
Rooker is entering his age-26 season; Garlick turned 29 in January.
In a lot of ways, things are moving toward now-or-never for these guys — but in different aspects. Garlick is a veteran of only 76 MLB plate appearances — and a .214/.276/.414 slash line — who is desperately trying to stave off that dreaded Quad-A designation. He’s hit .281/.332/.568 in 178 Triple-A games with 40 homers and 43 doubles.
Those kinds of numbers merit at least a look, right? Not unlike Tyler Austin, who made the team for a brief spell a couple of years ago.
Fair or not, it probably wouldn’t be an extended look. But if he’s 6-for-15 with a couple of bombs after his first week, maybe he earns himself a longer look, right?
For Rooker, it’s more about carving out a meaningful big-league role. He could be the team’s future at first base, left field or designated hitter — or at the very least the short side of a platoon in the future. Based on his age and prospect pedigree, he’s the kind of guy who’d — unlike Garlick — probably get 4-to-6 weeks worth of a look with regular plate appearances, and failing that, fall into a prominent role at Triple-A or a fairly meaningful one off the bench.
But to make a long story short, the optics of sending one or both of these guys back while letting Kirilloff skate by on a shaky spring probably aren’t very good.
Teams want guys to come to camp with the idea that they really can compete for a roster spot. Maybe the Twins won’t take many non-roster guys — maybe none — north in a week. But if guys on the 40-man can’t come to camp, crush it and have even a chance of making the team, that probably doesn’t look very good.
This isn’t a death knell for Kirilloff; far from it, really. But for Garlick — and to a lesser extent, Rooker — the stakes are much higher.
This might be Garlick’s last chance to become a semi-regular player in the big leagues.
This might be one of dwindling chances for a guy like Rooker to show he’s more than just a complementary cog in the machine.
But with all of this said, the optics will also look bad if the Twins decide to promote Kirilloff in the first month of the season — before he has the chance to play in any actual, meaningful games with the St. Paul Saints.