Twins hitting prospect Alex Kirilloff has played one real game — a starting major league debut historic because it came in a playoff game — in almost a year. That all changes starting Sunday, when the Twins open spring training games, against Boston.
Last season brought a second version of spring training after COVID-19 disrupted everything in March. Kirilloff and about 30 other prospects worked and scrimmaged behind closed doors at an "alternate site" — the St. Paul Saints' CHS Field — from July to September, when a shortened major league season was played but minor league seasons were canceled.
"It was a long summer," said Kirilloff, a 23-year-old who could compete for the Twins' left field job after he last played a season with Class AA Pensacola in 2019. "A lot of intrasquads and sometimes we didn't have an outfielder or we were missing an infielder, stuff like that. It'll be nice to have nine players on both sides again."
He was among the many whose lives all summer stretched not much further than the short walk from their downtown St. Paul hotel to their work at the minor league ballpark.
"The players did a good job of holding each other accountable and giving it their best and taking it seriously," Kirilloff said Thursday from Fort Myers in a video teleconference with reporters. "It was competitive. "
Kirilloff and others improved themselves last summer, even if was sometimes hard for coaches to quantify a minor league season otherwise lost.
"It has been a very tough year throughout baseball for assessing players," Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. "Normally, we have an entire season of information and experience and coaches and staff get looks at guys. It's a different version we're working with right now. We don't have as much of the on-field stats. A lot of it comes down to the visual and talking about what a guy's year was like in a very unusual set of circumstances.
"In some ways it's harder, but we also got to watch some guys go through some adversity. … One thing we know for any guy to be a successful major league player, he's going to have to know how to deal with tough times."
Kirilloff's hitting potential could land him in the lineup on Opening Day. Or it could a player who skipped right past AAA ball in the minors at least for the season's opening weeks. That would allow the Twins to extend his service time before free agency to seven years rather than six.
"As you get older, you're just of aware of stuff that can happen like that," Kirilloff said. "I'm more focused on the playing side and getting ready … I've got enough to worry about on the baseball side."
Twins president of baseball operations Derek Falvey said his team is "focused on fielding the best team we can. I'm not going to talk about any individual player, but I can say that hasn't been part of our discussions at all."
Baldelli saw something of a changed man when starting center fielder Byron Buxton arrived at another spring training.
"Physically, watching Buck walk into the ballpark was kind of a wild moment in a lot of ways," Baldelli said. "He's a great athlete and we know him very well, We know what we're getting physically and with the things he can do. But seeing him come in after putting on 10 or 15 pounds, it's just muscle there. There's really not much else going on. It's just that."
Baldelli also noted offseason work Buxton did with his track coach.
"It wasn't just putting on size and leaving it at that," he said. "He spent the offseason really, really working to help better himself and it was obvious when he walked in the door."
• Lefthander Devin Smeltzer — 2-0 with a 6.75 ERA in 16 innings last year — will start Sunday against the Red Sox.