TwinsFest gives fans a chance to beat Minnesota's mid-winter blues by gathering at Target Field and seeing some of their boys of summer a few weeks ahead of Spring Training.
But instead of just signing some autographs and doing a local radio interview, Alex Kirilloff got a little bit more out of the Twins' answer to a themed convention. He was embraced by a fan base that probably hasn't seen him play yet. He posed for a picture with franchise legend Torii Hunter, current stars Joe Mauer and Byron Buxton and fellow prospects Royce Lewis and Tyler Jay -- all of whom were first-round picks by the Twins at some point in the past 25 years. He felt like a big part of the program, and he wasn't the only one who did.
"My wife [Jordan] turned to me for the first time and said, 'Wow, I really like being a Twin,'" Kirilloff laughed.
It was a shot in the arm for the Kirilloff family at the right time. Taken with the 15th overall pick in the 2016 Draft, the 20-year-old outfielder should be coming off his first full Minor League season and preparing for his second campaign of 140 games or more. Instead, he hasn't taken the field in an official capacity since Aug. 28, 2016, having undergone Tommy John surgery on his left elbow last March. Now just weeks before the official start of Spring Training, he's ready to enter his first full season a year healthier and, he believes, a year wiser.
"I'm getting the arm ready again and continuing to get stronger," Kirilloff said. "My body feels a lot stronger than it ever has going into a season. I'm very excited to to be moving forward, and I think I benefited a lot from taking the year off. Obviously, you don't want to be away from the game for that long, but it happened. I took a lot from it and I'm excited to put it all together."
When Minnesota drafted the left-handed hitter from the Pittsburgh area smack dab in the middle of the first round, he was seen as a high-floor, low-ceiling player. There was power potential, which he showed by winning the Perfect Game All-American Classic Home Run Derby the previous summer, and a solid arm, but MLB.com didn't give any of his tools potential grades higher than a 55 on the 20-80 scouting scale. But none of his tools were graded lower than 50 either.
The Twins hoped he could be solid everywhere and they could build off that foundation -- and confirmed that faith by agreeing to give him the full pick slot bonus of $2,817,100 when he officially signed later that June.
Kirilloff backed that up in his assignment to Rookie-level Elizabethton, where he played all of his 55 professional games so far. He hit .306/.341/.454 with seven homers, a triple and nine doubles and was named the Appalachian League's Player of the Year. In winning that award, he beat out notable names such as current No. 3 overall prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Padres infielder Allen Cordoba, who made the jump to the Majors one year later.
But as good as his numbers looked, the Pennsylvania native was battling intense pain.
"My initial Draft year, my elbow was hurting me all summer. It got to the point by the end of the season that it was almost unbearable," he said. "We tried [platelet-rich plasma] injections hoping that would do something, but they didn't work. By March, we decided to swallow the whole pill to move past it quickly and focus on getting my body stronger, rather than wait things out some more."
• The Show Before the Show: Episode 91 featuring Alex Kirilloff »
After consulting with doctors, the club, his agent and his family, Kirilloff underwent the procedure in the same month some of his Draft classmates got their first full-season assignments. While they were trying to figure out Class A arms or bats, he made a checklist. First day without the brace. First day of stretching. First day of lifting. As the summer wore along, he was joined at the Twins' rehab facility by fellow Twins Class of 2016 Draft picks Tyler Benninghoff and Alex Schick, who were going through their own Tommy John recoveries. Living out of the home he bought with his wife in Fort Myers, he also focused on strengthening his marriage in a new place after they tied the knot as teenagers the previous October.
"It was kind of a blessing in disguise in that sense," he said.
But he couldn't stay away from the diamond either. Kirilloff signed up for the Major League Baseball package through his TV provider so he could watch as many games at the top level as he could. (Yes, that included a lot of Twins games.) He also spent time, when his rehab allowed, taking in games for the Twins' Class A Advanced or Gulf Coast League affiliates in Fort Myers, trying to glean what he could in preparation for his return. While he couldn't swing a bat yet, he was trying to learn to become a better hitter by watching all levels of the game.
Offseason MiLB include
"For me, I was trying to figure out my approach hitting-wise," said Kirilloff, whose father, Dave, is a former Pirates scout and current owner of a baseball facility in western Pennsylvania. "I want to do all I can to have a more advanced approach for when I'm back. ... Honestly, I haven't been a big pitch-recognition guy in the past. It's been more about timing and vision for me. But the pitchers get smarter and they do a better job of hitting their spots, so I have to do a better job of picking up pitches and working on counts. I had a lot of studying to do, and I've got a lot more work left there too."
In July -- four months after the elbow surgery -- Kirilloff was allowed to start throwing again. On Aug. 25, he posted a video on Twitter proudly showing his first swing in seven months. While most Minor Leaguers' seasons were ending, Kirilloff was ramping up again, not with the intention of getting in any games immediately, but to enter the offseason with some sense of normalcy. By the end of November, his rehab was deemed officially complete, and after a brief battery recharge from Thanksgiving through the holidays, it's been a relatively typical offseason since.
But in order for the 6-foot-2 outfielder to turn a typical offseason into a full and healthy regular season, he knows he'll have to make other changes as well, based on lessons from the rehab process. For starters, he'll focus more on preventative care to stave off future injuries in a way that he didn't in his prep days when he was both a pitcher who could throw in the 80s and an outfielder who could routinely homer.
"For me, this stuff really has to be done every day," he said. "You can do tons of stuff that you think is going to help, but in pro ball, it needs to be every day. It needs to be a routine. Ice baths, other forms of recovery, your diet, what you put in your body -- it all needs to be consistent. Staying healthy is just the culmination of that consistency."
The Twins would love to see Kirilloff healthy for a full season (beyond the obvious reasons) because Class A Cedar Rapids, where he's likely headed in April, has a chance to feature one of the lower levels' most prospect-heavy lineups. Lewis, the No. 1 pick in last year's Draft, is probably headed back to the Midwest League, even after he reached the circuit as an 18-year-old last summer, and MLB.com's No. 20 overall prospect has the plus bat and plus-plus speed to serve as a perfect leadoff hitter for the Kernels. What's more, there could be a logjam at shortstop with Wander Javier likely needing a new challenge after batting .299/.383/.471 in 41 games at Elizabethton at age 18.
With those two serving as table setters at the top of the Cedar Rapids order, Kirilloff could provide the perfect power boost a few spots below them, and with his experience in both center and right, it shouldn't be difficult to find him a spot to play as much as he's able to. For his part, Kirilloff is hoping to head back to next year's TwinsFest with no more stories of rehab and more tales of what he did to earn his place as a promising Twins prospect.
"Honestly, I'm focusing on the long game," he said. "That means staying healthy. I love this game no matter what, but it helps a lot if I'm healthy. Performing has a lot to do with it too obviously. But that's all in God's hands. I try not to worry about the future. I want to be even keel over a full season. That's my main mentality going into it. I want to carry that all the way through to September."