HomeMLB RumorsTwins Notes: Kirilloff, Santana, Buxton

Twins Notes: Kirilloff, Santana, Buxton

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Not long after the Jorge Polanco trade cleared room in the Twins’ budget, the front office added Carlos Santana on a $5.25MM free agent pact. The veteran offers an alternative at first base to Alex Kirilloff, who started 58 games there a year ago.

Minnesota has stopped short of declaring either player the starting first baseman. However, Aaron Gleeman of the Athletic opined on Monday that Santana is likely to get the bulk of the reps on the strength of his defensive reputation. Manager Rocco Baldelli indeed suggested Tuesday that defense would be a separator in divvying up playing time.

Whoever’s the better defensive first baseman is going to play more at first base. I don’t know any other way to put that,” Baldelli said (link via Phil Miller of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune). “There will be a determination when the time comes, when we put our lineups together. Both are going to play a good amount of first base, but the guy who is doing the best job for us on that side of the ball is the one who’s going to play more.

Santana should have the edge in that regard. The 14-year big league veteran consistently rates as a quality gloveman. Defensive Runs Saved graded him 11 runs above average in more than 1150 innings a year ago. Statcast rated him as more of a solid than excellent defender, estimating he was two runs above par. Kirilloff, by contrast, rated between five and eight runs below average in only 510 first base innings by those metrics.

That’s not to say that Kirilloff’s path to a regular spot in the lineup is blocked. The left-handed hitter has more offensive upside than Santana brings to the table at this stage of his career. Kirilloff is coming off a .270/.348/.445 slash with 11 homers in 88 games. He hasn’t produced much against lefty pitching but owns a .274/.328/.440 batting line in 549 career plate appearances versus right-handers.

Kirilloff should see a good bit of action at designated hitter even if Santana operates as the primary first baseman. Minnesota also isn’t completely closing the book on Kirilloff as an outfielder. The 26-year-old tells Miller that he has continued taking outfield drills and expects to soon log game action on the grass. Kirilloff came through the minors as a corner outfielder. He hasn’t seen a ton of MLB action out there, logging 64 starts over parts of three seasons. Baldelli penciled him into the starting outfield on just 12 occasions last year.

The increased action at first base reflects both Minnesota’s outfield depth and the questions that evaluators have raised about Kirilloff’s athleticism. He’s certainly an inferior defender to Max Kepler in right field. Projected left fielder Matt Wallner has below-average range, although he has as strong an arm as any outfielder in the game.

Byron Buxton has the ability to help cover for a mediocre defender in left field, assuming he stays healthy. He’s among the sport’s best center fielders at full strength, but right knee issues kept him from logging any defensive work in 2023. The Star-Tribune’s Bobby Nightengale spoke with Buxton and hitting coach David Popkins about the difficulty in even remaining in a DH role with the amount of pain through which he had to play last season.

Buxton spoke about the mental challenge of playing through the injury, which he said frequently tightened up between at-bats and made it difficult to decelerate as a baserunner. The Twins are optimistic that he’ll be able to play center field fairly regularly in 2024, although Buxton’s injury history makes it difficult to bank on him starting 100+ games. Minnesota brought in Manuel Margot to serve as a quality fourth outfielder who can spell Buxton in center field and offers a right-handed complement to Kepler, Wallner and Kirilloff in the corners.

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