To our readers: Thank you for taking part in our Mailbag Monday this week. Star Tribune beat writers received many questions about the teams and leagues we cover, and each writer selected at least a couple of questions to answer. Look for a question and answer about each team in Wednesday’s Star Tribune.
Q: The outfield spots are not open: what are the plans for Alex Kirilloff and Trevor Larnach? -- William Mose, Hutchinson
A: I hear fans wonder all the time about Royce Lewis and his future as a shortstop, given that Jorge Polanco is signed for the next four seasons, and potentially six. But the outfield is much more crowded, and it's happening much more quickly.
To my eyes, Larnach (pictured) was the revelation of camp -- he not only looks ready for the big leagues, he looks like he's been there for a few years already. He's got star potential in a Kyle Schwarber / Michael Brantley sort of way -- big extra-base power, left-handed, acceptable fielder in a corner spot. Basically, he’s Eddie Rosario, except he's nearly five years younger and, given that Rosario can be a free agent after 2021, will soon be much cheaper. That's why Rosario keeps popping up in trade rumors, and if Larnach has a good 2020, the Twins will be looking for a way to create an opening.
Kirilloff? Basically, everything I said above holds true for him, too — except he's two years younger than Larnach and is a bit more of an all-around hitter (71 extra-base hits in 2018!). But both could conceivably become regular players, even borderline stars. That means the Twins will have to evaluate them in comparison to Max Kepler, who is signed at relatively bargain prices through 2023, and Rosario. One could eventually move to first base, particularly once Nelson Cruz moves on and Miguel Sano becomes a permanent DH.
Basically, the Twins are waiting to see what happens. I wouldn't be surprised if they eventually decide to trade one of the outfielders (or conceivably even Lewis) if they can get a top-of-the-line pitching prospect in return. But of course, they did that with Denard Span, in order to get Alex Meyer. And we know how that turned out.
Q: Fact or Fiction: playing fewer games and having a later start date is better for the Twins? _ @humantalknews
A: Though nobody wished for it, I do think a shorter season might benefit the Twins. Eliminating April games, which are often cold and frequently rain-interrupted, helps them, and the improvement of their bullpen last season should be a big advantage if, as seems likely, starting pitchers open the season on shorter and stricter pitch counts.
Q: Just one question. Did you see any evidence in limited spring that the ball is still juiced? @pineislepainter
Only anecdotal, but yes — or at least, same as last year. A couple of pitchers mentioned that the ball was carrying this spring (though one also noted that it had been windy in Florida, which makes a difference, too) and they had noticed no difference from last season.
What’s interesting, though, is how few home runs the Twins’ regulars — who, let’s not forget, hit more home runs than any team in baseball history last year (still seems strange to write that) — hit this spring. Nelson Cruz had three, and looked tremendous when he played, and Miguel Sano hit two. But most of the Twins’ power was coming from their prospects: Larnach with three, and Kirilloff, Lewis and Zander Wiel with two apiece (and Lewis hit another blast in Jupiter that was ruled foul by Angel Hernandez as Lewis approached second base). And they were playing in the early innings, against major-league pitching.
Meanwhile, Luis Arraez and Mitch Garver had no extra-base hits, Eddie Rosario and Jorge Polanco had one apiece. Spring stats are meaningless, but it was interesting how little offense the regulars were producing.
Q: How did Caleb Thielbar look in spring training? What are the chances he is on big league whenever opening day arrives? @Ryan_Hilgemann
A: I’m no scout, but I thought Thielbar had an impressive camp. He allowed only a handful of hard-hit balls, most of them in one outing, and otherwise showed he’s not done yet at 33. He piled up 10 strikeouts and one walk in six innings, and was getting both right- and left-handed hitters. I suspect at worst he will open the season in the bullpen at Triple-A, and ride that Rochester Express to the majors a few times this season.
Q: How much of the 26 man roster is already set for the season? -- Bob Knutson, Mendota Heights
A: I can’t remember a Twins camp that had less competition for roster spots. Even with the addition of a 26th player, the Twins reported to Fort Myers with perhaps 22 or 23 spots already guaranteed. The only question about the position players was whether they would keep a fourth outfielder (Jake Cave or LaMonte Wade Jr.) or a third catcher (Willians Astudillo). Had camp continued as scheduled, it seemed pretty clear that Cave would make the team because Byron Buxton’s status was questionable and Marwin Gonzalez was coming back slowly from knee surgery. If they don’t resume until mid-summer, that could change because Buxton and Gonzalez will presumably be completely healed.
On the pitching staff, the story was much the same, with 11 roster spots mostly decided, and only a spot in the rotation and perhaps a bullpen role unclaimed. I’m guessing when the Twins reconvene, Jhoulys Chacin will make the team, if not necessarily the rotation (since Randy Dobnak looked ready to retake that role), and Cody Stashak will sew up a relief job.
Star Tribune photo by Carlos Gonzalez