FORT MYERS, FLA. – Twins manager Paul Molitor referred to relief pitcher Tyler Kinley by his nickname.
“We’re going to keep evaluating ‘T.K.’ the best we can,” Molitor said. “We talked about trying to get him longer stints and get him up in the game a little earlier, some of the things you want to see here if we get an opportunity.”
Pitching coach Garvin Alston is not yet that comfortable with what to call the rookie.
“I said it once or twice,” Alston said with a slight grimace. “I’m going with ‘Kinz’ for now.”
No one wants to go there, and it is understood. Former Twins manager Tom Kelly encouraged everyone he met to refer to him as T.K., and anytime T.K. is mentioned in the Upper Midwest, it reminds folks of two World Series championships.
Kinley’s presence in camp, however, could force the Twins to get used to using T.K. on a frequent basis again. The rocket-armed righthander has had a few impressive outings in camp as he attempts to stick with the team as a Rule 5 draft pick — under that rule, the Twins must keep Kinley on their 25-man roster for the entire season, offer him back to the Miami Marlins or work out a deal to keep him — an unusual occurrence for a team looking to repeat last season’s trip to the postseason.
“It’s probably the most common generalization about the Rule 5s,” Molitor said. “Teams that supposedly are going to be good have trouble affording that spot. I don’t know if that is always true. It depends on the person.”
The T.K. conundrum exists only because of a historical event that changed Kinley’s family forever. He’s a great-great-great nephew of former President William McKinley, who was assassinated in 1901. McKinley had two daughters who died young, and there was concern others in the family would be targeted.
“After he was assassinated, it was suggested to [my forefathers] that we drop the first two letters for safety,” Kinley said.
So Kinley is known more for his arm than his heritage.
Kinley was drafted by the Marlins in the 16th round in 2013 but left off Miami’s roster after a 2017 season during which he posted a 1.98 ERA at Class A Jupiter but a 5.19 ERA at Class AA Jacksonville. He averaged 12.2 strikeouts per nine innings between those stops, but also 3.7 walks.
Still, the Twins see something — or hear something when his fastball socks into the catcher’s mitt. They monitored him as he pitched for Licey in the Dominican winter league this offseason, where Kinley ripped off an 18-inning scoreless streak and finished with an 0.47 ERA in 14 games there, striking out 32 batters over 19 innings.
“A potential power arm for our bullpen,” pro scouting director Brad Steil said Dec. 14 following the Rule 5 draft.
The Twins definitely have seen that potential in camp. He still has control issues (six walks in 10 innings), but has 11 strikeouts in nine spring outings. During a March 5 outing against the Phillies, Kinley hit 99 miles per hour on the radar gun and flashed a 91-mph slider.
That combination can be devastating to hitters, because of how difficult it is to gear up for a fastball, then adjust to a pitch that suddenly darts away. But it means little if Kinley is unable to throw strikes with his slider.
Less-polished hitters might chase his slider and allow Kinley to put up impressive numbers. But major league hitters will ignore his slider, and sit on his fastball, if he can’t throw strikes with it.
“Yeah, that’s a part of it,” said Kinley, 27. “I think that just comes with repetition and throwing it at game intensity. We throw bullpens and play catch all the time, [but] it is hard to mimic that intensity of a batter stepping in.”
The other challenge is winning a spot in a bullpen with few vacancies.
Closer Fernando Rodney, righthanders Addison Reed, Trevor Hildenberger and Ryan Pressly and lefthanders Zack Duke and Taylor Rogers are expected to be part of the relief corps. After that group, Kinley is in the mix with righthander Alan Busenitz and lefthander Gabriel Moya. The Twins also wouldn’t mind having a long reliever, although Tyler Duffey and Phil Hughes are better suited for that role.
The Twins were going to open with four starters and eight relievers during the first month of the regular season, which includes four off days. Since the signing of righthander Lance Lynn, the Twins are now considering going to a five-man rotation earlier. That would create a seven-man bullpen, and less room for Kinley.
So the better Kinley commands his slider — he was sharp for two innings Monday against the Pirates before being hit hard in a third, raising his camp ERA to 4.50 — the harder he makes the Twins’ decision.
“If he’s able to throw his slider for strikes, early in the count, game over,” Alston said. “It’s pretty good.”
It also increases the chances the Twins will have two T.K.s in town.