CEDAR RAPIDS — The Midwest League just released its top prospects baseball card set. That’s big, if you’re into that sort of thing.
There are 32 players featured, though one of them is not Alex Kirilloff.
Don’t let that fool you, because the Cedar Rapids Kernels outfielder most definitely is a top prospect.
“Probably the best player in the league. Fun to watch,” said Kernels Manager Toby Gardenhire.
That’s an interesting first statement considering Gardenhire also has another top prospect on his club in shortstop Royce Lewis, last year’s first-overall draft pick. Both Lewis and Kirilloff are starters in Tuesday night’s Midwest League All-Star Game at Lansing, Mich.
Read more: Royce Lewis plays through knee issue
Kirilloff was to take part Tuesday night in a Home Run Derby associated with the game. He finished the first half of the MWL season with a league-best 13 long balls and 56 RBIs in 65 games.
“I would say kind of an Adrian Gonzalez type. Does that make sense?,” Gardenhire said, when asked about Kirilloff’s big-league comp. “He’s got a really nice, smooth swing, drives the ball a long way. Hits it the other way like Mauer. I don’t think Joe had as much power growing up as Kirilloff. Joe had a couple of really nice years where he hit home runs, so it’s tough to say he doesn’t have power, but, I don’t know. Kirilloff can really drive it the other way.”
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There has been a lot of warranted hype surrounding Lewis, but don’t forget Kirilloff also was a first-round draft pick. The 20-year-old was taken by the Minnesota Twins with the 15th-overall pick in 2016 out of Plum High School in Pittsburgh.
He didn’t actually attend Plum High, just played for it. Mostly home schooled by his parents, Kirilloff took all of his high school classes online through Pennsylvania Cyber School.
That allowed him to focus more on his passion: baseball.
“Usually I’d be up by 8 or 9 in the morning and be done studying by 12,” he said. “Then I’d go hit with my dad every day, go to practice or play a game. Get that out of the way, get that done, then I’d have the rest of the evening to do whatever, whether it was practice or a game or homework. It was easy. I was able to travel (because of it), too. I’d do tournaments and stuff in the fall.”
Kirilloff’s father, Dave, was a player and coach, and also scouted for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He owns an indoor training facility, is a hitting guru who travels to tutor players and teams and sells extensive videos on the art.
It was Dave Kirilloff who helped hone his son’s beautiful left-handed swing and mold his approach at the plate. Alex hits the ball to all fields, with power, and doesn’t have an over abundance of strike outs.
Sunday in the first-half finale against Peoria, Kirilloff doubled off the left-field fence in his first at-bat, then doubled down the right-field line in his second.
“I was just kind of brought up in that (baseball) environment,” said Alex Kirilloff. “He always had a facility and stuff, so I was just birthed into it kind of. I’m not complaining about it, though ... It was countless hours hitting together. Us bantering at each other, a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff that people don’t know about that produces results years later.
“I love him. He has always been there for me, has been an integral part of my life and a reason why I’m here today.”
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Speaking of love, Kirilloff credits his wife, Jordan, for a large part of his success, too. The couple lives in Fort Myers, Fla. (location of the Twins spring training complex) in the offseason, though Jordan has been able to be in Cedar Rapids most of this season.
Being married at such a young age is unusual these days, but shows you Kirilloff’s maturity level. Unlike the charismatic Lewis, he is more introverted, preferring to just go about his business.
That business was rehabbing his left throwing arm last summer. Kirilloff had Tommy John surgery to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament, missing the entire 2017 season.
What he has been able to accomplish with the Kernels is pretty amazing since he had to knock off a full year-plus of playing rust. Kirilloff posted a .333 first-half batting average with 20 doubles, five triples and a .999 OPS.
“Nothing really surprises me about him,” Gardenhire said. “I knew he was a really good hitter. You never really know what you’re going to get with a guy after he has a year off, so I’m really happy for him. I saw him a lot last year down in Florida when I was down there (coaching), going through all the rehab stuff, and that sucks. It’s just one day after another where you don’t do anything. Everyone else is playing games, and you can’t. Guys can really get into a bad place when they’re down there all year like that. So to see it go like this, where he’s back in baseball and having fun and swinging it really well, that is really nice to see.”
Frankly, it’d be a surprise to see Kirilloff wear a Kernels uniform after Tuesday night. There’s no question he has conquered the low-A level and is poised for a promotion to high-A Fort Myers.
“Ultimately, for me, I am just happy to play baseball again after missing all that time,” he said. “To be able to do that, to play in the All-Star Game is pretty good coming back. Hopefully, I can just build on that and continue on through the second half.
“I don’t really put statistical goals out for myself. I just go out every day and work hard. Wherever that takes you, whatever happens is whatever happens. So to say I have been surprised by what I’ve done would probably be false. You take it day by day and do your best.”
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