The Minnesota Twins are in a unique situation heading into the winter.
While the team won 87 games and a playoff series and will return a ton of top-flight, young talent, there are few positions that seem to be set in stone for Opening Day 2024.
Carlos Correa will play shortstop. Ryan Jeffers will be the primary starter at catcher. And that’s ... pretty much all we know for sure.
Royce Lewis will probably start at third base, but returning to the outfield may be an option as he nears the two-year point of his most recent ACL surgery. After all, the Twins will need to make room for Brooks Lee in the infield.
Jorge Polanco or Edouard Julien will start at second base. Max Kepler or Matt Wallner will start in right field. One of Wallner and Trevor Larnach is likely to start in left. Center field seems to be wide open, as does the designated hitter role, although Byron Buxton will be in one of those spots. Willi Castro will almost certainly be the primary utilityman, while Kyle Farmer would seem to be a likely trade candidate.
All that to say, the Twins’ positional flexibility has put us offseason prognosticators in a tough spot.
Still, the position that is the most intriguing might just be first base. While Alex Kirilloff figures to be Plan A, his health has consistently gotten in the way. Even when healthy last year, the Twins preferred to deploy a platoon at first base with Donovan Solano, who is a free agent.
Let’s list the options, ranked in order of how many innings I believe they’ll have a shot at playing next year.
The former first-round pick had his healthiest — and, not coincidentally, best all-around — season at the big-league level. Still, he only managed to see 319 plate appearances across 88 games.
Kirilloff slashed .270/.348/.445 with 11 home runs overall but turned in a fantastic .300/.373/.485 line against righties. He was shut down mid-series against Houston with a right shoulder injury after going 0-for-9 with two walks and four strikeouts across the Wild Card Series and ALDS. His surgery revealed no tear in his labrum, however, and he’s likely to be ready to play by spring training.
Derek Falvey has already mentioned that the Twins would consider additional options at first base this offseason. It makes sense, given Kirilloff’s injury history and both Solano and Joey Gallo hitting the free agent market.
Plan A remains Kirilloff, but adding the Twins’ preference to play platoons when possible (Kirilloff has a career line of just .207/.287/.343 against left-handed pitchers) on top of the injury concerns, the Twins would indeed be well-served to explore additional options.
Last year’s Opening Day starter at third base, Jose Miranda had a nightmare season in 2023.
Miranda went from putting up a 114 OPS+ in his rookie season and earning the third base job to starting the year batting just .220/.275/.318 before being sent down on May 10. He didn’t fare much better with Triple-A St. Paul, hitting .255/.326/.360 in 39 games before eventually returning to the big leagues on July 2. He went 1-for-10, with his only hit coming in a late-game pinch-hitting appearance in a blowout loss. It turned out to be his final plate appearance of the season before being shut down with a shoulder injury.
Miranda is still only 26 years old and has clear offensive talent. But arm issues in spring training and then at the close of the season last year make it fair to wonder if he has a shot to stick at third base. Enter Lewis and Lee, and it’s even tougher to see him competing for playing time at the hot corner.
Miranda only played 69 1⁄3 total innings at first base last year, with 67 of those innings coming in Triple-A. By comparison, he played 540 2⁄3 innings at third between the Twins and Saints. In 2022, he played more than twice as many big-league innings at first, however.
At this stage, it seems likely that the Twins will give Kirilloff and Miranda a chance to win platoon jobs at first base, with Miranda an option at third and Kirilloff still theoretically a potential option in the outfield corners as well.
Still, the Twins front office will almost certainly bring in some additional competition to push the incumbent duo at first base...
Free Agent Options
The free-agent market for first base is ... uninspiring, to say the least.
Frankly, bringing back Solano on a modest deal once again seems to be the best option.
Otherwise, Old Friend C.J. Cron may be a buy-fairly-low option; he followed up a pair of strong offensive seasons in 2021 and 2022 in Coors Field with a rough 2023, slashing just .248/.295/.434 with 12 home runs between the Rockies and Los Angeles Angels. Given the downturn and his age (he’ll turn 34 before next season), perhaps the Twins could bring him back as a platoon option.
On the other hand, Cron is still probably too close to his All-Star campaign to agree to a minor-league deal, and the Twins value positional flexibility so much that it would be mildly surprising for them to bring in a player who is cemented in one position.
But none of the other options out there are all that exciting, unfortunately.
Other In-House Options
This list probably starts and ends with Julien.
While it’s probably more likely that the Twins trade Polanco and give the second base job to Julien, it’s also possible that they keep Polanco and work Julien at both second and first base.
Julien played exclusively second base at Triple-A this year, but he did see two starts at first base for the big club. Given the strides he made defensively at second, the Twins may very well have him focus there and give him the Opening Day job — if Polanco is traded.
There’s also the reality of Lee and Lewis both needing a spot to play. A couple years down the road, it wouldn’t be a shock at all to see Lewis at third base, Lee at second, and Julien at first. But in 2023, it’s more likely that Julien still sees more time at second base than first.
Other players to see time at first base in 2023 for the Triple-A Saints include Chris Williams and Yunior Severino.
Williams has started 210 minor-league games at first base and 128 at catcher. Last year, he started 60 at first and 25 at catcher for St. Paul. He also continued to perform on offense, putting up a .857 OPS (OPS+ of 153) while clubbing 21 home runs. However, Williams will turn 27 before next season and is probably more of a bench/platoon option.
Severino, on the other hand, is a legitimate fringe prospect. Still just 24 years old, Severino hit .287/.365/.560 across 84 games at Double-A Wichita before a mid-season promotion to St. Paul, where he hit a decent .233/.320/.511. He played mostly third base in Double-A with a few appearances at second base. In Triple-A, he mixed in a few games at first base as well.
Expect both Severino and Williams to get long looks in spring training. Behind them is 2020 first-round pick Aaron Sabato, who was underwhelming in his age-24 season in Double-A. To make matters even more disappointing, the defense is below average.
The most likely scenario is...
The Twins are most likely to platoon Kirilloff and Miranda at the start of next season, and will probably bring in at least one non-roster invitee from outside the organization to battle for a roster spot during spring training. Don’t bet on a splash acquisition; it’s more likely to be a signing similar to the Solano addition last year, or perhaps even a utility-type player such as Castro.
Severino and Williams may also have a chance to make the team next year, but they’d have to genuinely impress in Fort Myers this spring.
Of course, if Kirilloff and Miranda both stay healthy, it could absolutely be an extremely potent duo that gives the Twins above-average offensive output at the position. That, of course, would be the preferred outcome.