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Twins notes: Finding roles for Lewis, Kirilloff

FORT MYERS, Fla. — To paraphrase a song by a famous Minnesotan, the times they have been a-changing. That’s certainly true for the Twins since 2016 first-rounder Alex Kirilloff and 2017 top overall pick Royce Lewis entered the organization. Once a rebuilding organization, Minnesota is coming off a 101-win season

FORT MYERS, Fla. — To paraphrase a song by a famous Minnesotan, the times they have been a-changing. That’s certainly true for the Twins since 2016 first-rounder Alex Kirilloff and 2017 top overall pick Royce Lewis entered the organization. Once a rebuilding organization, Minnesota is coming off a 101-win season and is the clear favorite in the AL Central headed into 2020. The lineup that Kirilloff and Lewis hope to crack just set a Major League record with 307 home runs, complicating their paths to the Majors. 
That leads to questions about where the Twins’ top two prospects will find their defensive homes, and for now, those questions have two different answers.

Lewis, who enters 2020 as MLB.com’s No. 9 overall prospect, played shortstop only for most of his first three seasons in the Twins system. In fact, 2,379 2/3 of his 2,396 2/3 innings in the field came at the six, with the other 17 split between second base, third base and center field. That was until last year’s Arizona Fall League.
The Twins wanted to give Lewis an opportunity to end on a brighter note after he hit just .236/.290/.371 in 127 games between Class A Advanced Fort Myers and Double-A Pensacola. The problem: there were no full-time shortstop openings on the Salt River roster, meaning if the Twins wanted Lewis in Arizona he would have to play multiple spots. So that’s what he did — 105 innings at third, 46 in center, 34 at second and seven at his natural shortstop position. 
Don’t expect that breakdown to continue, according to director of player development Alex Hassan.
“For this year, shortstop is the priority focus,” Hassan said of Lewis, who has played short exclusively this spring. “He’s made tremendous strides at that position since coming into the system. He has development ahead of him, so we want to keep getting him as many reps as possible at shortstop, knowing that when we did move him around he impressed us with his ability to play second, third and center field. … We’re going to keep him on that path. Let him get his feet under him, get him off to a good start this season and see where it leads us.”

Center could provide an interesting alternative for Lewis, even if shortstop remains the primary focus. Jorge Polanco would seemingly block Lewis at short, but the oft-injured Byron Buxton may not have the same effect. Lewis’s plus-plus speed and above-average arm both give him the tools to play center, and despite playing just one game there during the regular season, the 20-year-old had Double-A Pensacola manager Ramon Borrego singing his praises.
“Ramon’s view was, yeah, he’s probably one of our better center fielders right now,” Hassan said. “He’s a natural out there and everything he did came pretty naturally to him. He’s a fantastic athlete, good actions. It’s a reaction position. You’re watching and reacting and moving very quickly, and that fits Royce’s skill set. I still want him to play shortstop and get more experience at that position, but he certainly opened some eyes with his ability to move around.”
While Lewis seems to be settled for now, Kirilloff — MLB.com’s No. 32 overall prospect — is anything but.
The Twins started splitting Kirilloff’s time between the corner outfield spots (primarily right field) and first base during his stint with Pensacola in 2019 and were pleased with the results.
“The interesting thing about Alex is he played a good amount of first as an amateur,” Hassan said. “Then once he joined the pro ranks, he was focused mainly on the outfield. But when we put him back over to first base, he’s fairly natural over there. His actions are really good. He picked back up with that position pretty well. We’re building versatility for him and for a lot of our players that reach the upper levels. It’s important to get them multiple avenues to get to the big leagues. That’s something we’ll continue to focus on with Alex, making sure he’s getting reps at the outfield corner and at first base.”
The Twins currently have Eddie Rosario and Max Kepler, both coming off career years, locked into the corner outfield spots and are sliding Miguel Sanó over to first base to make room for the newly signed Josh Donaldson at third. The Twins also have Top-100 prospect Trevor Larnach, who also plays the corner outfield spots and finished his first full season at Double-A.
The reason Lewis and Kirilloff’s positions deserve such attention is because their offensive ceilings are incredibly high.
Lewis’ trip to the Fall League was a runaway success. He was named the circuit’s MVP after hitting .353/.411/.565 with 12 extra-base hits in 22 games. The organization credits his turnaround with an improvement in the direction of his hitting stride that kept him through the ball rather than opening up. Lewis himself says the high competition of the AFL forced a change in his mindset. Either way, the right-handed hitter showed enough in the Fall League that he still projects as a plus hitter with above-average power.
Kirilloff, on the other hand, battled wrist injuries for much of 2019, sapping him of some of the power that allowed him to lead the Minors in extra-base hits the previous season. He finished with a .283/.343/.413 line and nine homers in 94 Southern League games. From Aug. 1 onward, however, his regular-season numbers jumped to .309/.358/.491, and in the postseason he went 8-for-21 (.381) with four homers in five games.
“When he felt better, the power started to show up,” Hassan said. “I have a ton of conviction and belief in his ability to hit for power. After an offseason of rest and his wrist healing up, you’ll see that.”
With both players expected to open 2020 at Triple-A Rochester or back in Pensacola, it remains to be seen where they’ll fit in Minnesota’s bid for its first World Series title since 1991. The Twins, for their part, aren’t worried. If Lewis and Kirilloff are as good as they hope they’ll be, they will find roles in the Twin Cities before long.
“Ultimately, it’s up to them,” Hassan said. “They can create their own opportunities. Having a strong Major League team, we’re going to rely on everybody. We’re going to rely on our Major League group. We’re going to rely on the depth that we have. We’re going to rely on the guys in Triple-A. It’s going to take everyone to achieve the goals that we’re hoping as an organization to achieve in 2020. I think it’s a tremendous opportunity. The team’s going to be out there looking to win. We try to convey to our players that if you’re out there doing what you’re supposed to be doing, you can help the Major League team.”
Thorpe may not be down long: No. 10 Twins prospect Lewis Thorpe entered Major League camp as a candidate to win the fifth spot in the Major League rotation. That bid came to an end Monday when he was among the first round of big-league cuts. That’s understandable given that he had allowed six earned runs over 4 2/3 innings in Grapefruit League play, coming off a 2019 campaign in which he posted a 6.18 ERA over 27 2/3 Major League innings while working mostly as a reliever. 
This isn’t the first time Thorpe has been down. The Australian left-hander missed all of the 2015 and 2016 seasons following Tommy John surgery and a serious bout of mono, but he’s returned to show an above-average fastball, above-average curveball and good control in the upper Minors. In 2019 he struck out 119 batters and walked only 25 over 96 1/3 innings with Triple-A Rochester.
“He’s battled adversity,” Hassan said. “We say that about all of our guys. That’s what the Minor Leagues are for. You go through the times when you’re down and when you need to break out of something. Ultimately, those skills you learn, those apply every single day of your Major League career. He’s certainly had his ups and downs with both injuries and performance and all those things. He’s been tested. Knowing the person, he’s going to attack those and use those experiences to make him a better guy out there.”
Cavaco looking for Minor League rebound: No decision has been made on whether 2019 first-rounder Keoni Cavaco will open his first full season with Class A Cedar Rapids or be held back before joining a short-season affiliate.
The Twins’ No. 7 prospect has the skills to make the jump. Cavaco earns plus grades for his speed and arm at shortstop, and he’s capable of above-average power from the right side.
The results have been mixed, however. Cavaco struck out 38 percent of the time over 25 games in the Gulf Coast League and finished with a .172/.217/.253 line and one home run. Hassan noted that the California native missed time with injuries and to deal with a personal matter, making it difficult to find his rhythm.
Now in Cavaco’s first spring, the Twins are still trying to get him acclimated before they settle on his opening assignment. If they get his development right, they could have another top shortstop prospect on their hands.
“Number one, it’s making sure he’s getting into a good routine, he’s taking care of himself in the weight room, he’s on a good nutrition program — all those things that come with the transition to professional baseball,” Hassan said. “On the field, working on him being consistent at the plate, consistent in the field and having consistent routines across the board. He had some of those growing pains you see from guys making the transition from high school to professional baseball, and we’re trying all we can to set him up for success in 2020.”

Healthy Javier hoping results come next: One shortstop who knows the trials of a full season is No. 8 Twins prospect Wander Javier. The 21-year-old right-handed slugger missed all of 2018 due to a torn labrum and saw his Class A debut delayed until May 25 last season following quad issues. He then struggled immensely at the plate, hitting just .177/.278/.323 with 11 homers in 80 Midwest League games. He was left unprotected from the Rule 5 Draft and went unselected despite earning plus grades for his defensive work and above-average speed. With his injuries in the past, the organization hopes that Javier can turn a corner now that he’s a full participant in Spring Training.
“Certainly by his own admission that last year was a tough year,” Hassan said. “Certainly struggled with the bat. We’re working to get him comfortable. He had a good routine this offseason working with his trainer, and he feels like he came in and had a full offseason of being healthy. [We’re] helping Wander make good swing decisions at the plate. He has really good talent. The ball comes off his bat extremely well, but getting the ball in play as often as possible, those are the things we’re trying to help Wander.”

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.

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