The Twins were in enough of a jam for healthy outfielders that Jake Cave, a perennial backup, was close to being an ironman for the first five weeks of the season.
Cave had 21 outfield starts in the first 31 games, at which point he was batting .152. He went on the injured list May 13 and that’s now a 60-day assignment because of a stress fracture in the back.
As of Tuesday, Luiz Arraez still led the Twins with 14 starts in left field, What this did was provide Luis with the chance to prove he’s a true infielder.
The outfielders spending time on the injured (or COVID) list have been Cave, Brent Rooker, Kyle Garlick, Max Kepler, Alex Kirilloff and the player who turns a C-minus fielding team into a solid B: Byron Buxton, the best defensive center fielder in the six-decade history of the Twins.
This time, Buxton has a strained right hip that showed up running for first base. He went on the injured list May 7. Expect his return around June 8, when the Twins open a homestand against the Yankees.
When Buxton does appear again, and perhaps (only perhaps) becomes a daily presence in the lineup, the Twins will have an element that has not been previously evident in 2021: A fantastic problem.
The Twins summoned Kirilloff from St. Paul on April 23 to take over as the left fielder. He started hitting a few days later and then, on May 3, he joined the wounded with a sprained wrist.
Four days later, Buxton was out of the lineup and the Twins put Trevor Larnach on the big-league roster and called him up from St. Paul. The odds were probably 2-1 against that Larnach would’ve seen the major leagues this season without the outfield injuries.
And now, 14 starts into his Twins career — 10 in left, four in right — Larnach looks like he belongs. And Kirilloff, back since last weekend in Detroit, definitely belongs with that terrific swing … meaning someone has to move aside if everyone’s healthy.
This would be the best Twins lineup in affected positions: Kirilloff at first, Larnach in left, Buxton in center and Kepler in right field.
That will leave Miguel Sano to move to his best position, designated hitter, except the Twins have a better hitter there in Nelson Cruz, who turns 41 on July 1.
This scenario of good health and the nearly simultaneous arrival of the Twins’ two best-hitting prospects, lefthanders Larnach and Kirilloff, was offered to manager Rocco Baldelli before Tuesday’s game.
Under these circumstances … roster crunch?
“It will be, and I’m glad we’re having to make those decisions,” Baldelli said. “It bodes very well for us in every way. I think [Larnach and Kirilloff] are going to be huge not just in the future, but presently.
“They’re doing it. They’re already doing it. I talk about potential. This is production.
“Does that make for tough decisions at some point? Absolutely … in some ways, they’re really forcing the issue, which is fantastic.”
Larnach was an anxious hitter in his first few games, trying to yank the ball to right field. That wasn’t the approach he brought with him from national champion Oregon State in 2018, where he featured power from left-center to the right-field pole.
On Monday, against a fastball from John Means, Baltimore’s outstanding young lefty, Larnach was back toward center field — and way above it, smashing a home run 460 feet into the restaurant above the juniper bushes.
“He’s shown us a little bit of that, in spring training games especially,” Baldelli said. “He’s gone a long way to the middle of the field. Not many players have that strength to the middle of the field.”
One player that has to be celebrating the quick optimism aimed at Larnach and Kirilloff is Kyle Garlick, the 29-year-old journeyman outfielder. Garlick is a righthanded hitter and on the club because he’s know to hammer lefthanded pitching.
Presuming the Twins wind up with Kepler, Larnach and Kirilloff as lineup staples, respites will be required against tough lefties, and Garlick could provide those.
That leaves Sano and Cruz. The immediate reaction for large numbers of Twins fans would be to trade Sano. Yet, he’s 28 and giving him away would not be wise.
As noble as Cruz has been for the Twins, dating to his arrival as DH in 2019, a case could be made the Twins owe him the favor of being moved to a contender — Tampa Bay? — to take a run at winning a World Series.
That’s not happening here, where Larnach and Kirilloff should be able to create intrigue but not a miracle.