When the Twins called Luis Arraez to the big leagues last summer, no one in authority said, for the record, that Arraez would win the second base job and become a fixture in their long-term plans.
If you listened closely to the way Rocco Baldelli talked about Arraez, you didn’t need an official news release to draw that conclusion.
So as the Twins conducted their year-end interviews and avoided saying anything that would produce a dramatic headline, it’s instructive to remember the way Baldelli spoke of top hitting prospect Alex Kirilloff, who made his big-league debut in a playoff game on Wednesday.
The Twins lost this series, like so many during their record 18-game postseason losing streak, because they failed to produce professional at-bats and power. Other than Nelson Cruz, no Twin recorded an extra-base hit or an RBI in two games against the Astros. For a team built to win with the long ball, this was an embarrassment.
Before Game 2, Baldelli raved about not just Kirilloff’s talent, but his composure, professionalism and ability to hit with power to all fields. That assessment contained volumes.
“We have great faith in him,’’ Baldelli said. “We wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t have great faith in him as a player and a guy and a person. He’s a very talented ballplayer. He’s got a tremendous offensive upside. He’s got power to all fields.’’
Miguel Sano strikes out at a ridiculous rate while trying to pull the ball. Eddie Rosario swings at pitches far outside the strike zone and makes silly outs on the bases. Jorge Polanco (perhaps because of an ankle injury) and Max Kepler slumped this season and Mitch Garver imploded. Byron Buxton flashed power but not patience.
The Twins this season ranked 20th in the big leagues in on-base percentage. They ranked 14th in slugging. While they have determined that slugging is more important than on-base percentage, on-base percentage is one way to gauge the ability of a hitter to get a good pitch to hit, and not give in to a savvy pitcher.
The Astros’ savvy pitchers took the Twins’ lineup apart this week.
The fan base may again demand that the Twins fix all of their problems with one, flashy free agent signing, but he answer to this team’s problems might reside within the organization.
Kirilloff will be a middle-of-the-order hitter for the Twins for a long time. Brent Rooker looked big-league ready before he broke his arm this season. Trevor Larnach ranks just behind Kirilloff as a hitting prospect. The organization’s top prospect, Royce Lewis, could be ready for the big league sometime in the next calendar year.
There is a wave of hitters coming who are known for power and quality at-bats. Add one or two of those bats to the middle of the lineup, along with a healthy Josh Donaldson, and the Twins would have a chance to score more than four runs in a playoff game for the first time since 2004.
The question is, who makes way for Kirilloff and the others?
There is one core Twins player who is arbitration-eligible, is a year from free agency, is undisciplined at the plate, was moved from left field to right last year at Yankee Stadium because his fielding had lapsed, is a poor baserunner and just got ejected from an elimination game: Rosario.
Kirilloff could replace Rosario, and that would be a start on improving this team’s plate discipline.
Where might the other bats fit into the lineup?
That’s why the framing of the decision on Cruz decision is so important. He’s been the Twins’ best hitter for two years. He’s their most important leader. He also can’t be counted on to continue at this rate, not at 40.
There should be at-bats available at DH and first base, to rest Cruz and bench Sano in unfavorable pitching matchups.
The Twins may have to spend free-agent money to bolster their rotation and bullpen. Their lineup could be improved by a bunch of kids who may take more mature at-bats than their predecessors.