After strong rookie seasons, four young Twins are looking for more

FORT MYERS, Fla. — If Louie Varland wasn't a major league pitcher, he might have found a career in real estate. It sometimes feels that way anyway.

"Guys ask me if certain areas are good places to live, where to go to buy things, what restaurants I'd recommend," the St. Paul native said. "A lot of guys."

A lot of guys, and more to come.

Varland's chamber-of-commerce skills have come in handy over the past year as there has been a significant surge in impactful ballplayers graduating to Target Field. Over the course of the 2023 season, the Twins received major contributions from four players with only brief big-league experience but with projectable major league talent. The quartet of players each started the season in St. Paul but eventually crossed the Mississippi for what appears to be a semi-permanent assignment.

"It was a new wave, a new wave of talent," Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. "Sometimes a bigger group arrives with some long-term punch, and last year looked like one of those years for us. It seems like a very consequential group."

It sure did last September, as the foursome of Royce Lewis, Edouard Julien, Matt Wallner and Varland — the first two just 24 years old, and the latter two 25 — helped power the Twins to an 18-10 record and pull them away in the AL Central. Lewis posted a 1.022 OPS down the stretch, Wallner .925 and Julien .828, while Varland, in an unfamiliar bullpen role, struck out more than 40% of the hitters he faced, walked only one, and held opposing batters to a .471 OPS.

"They played well, and they got people excited, and for good reason," Baldelli said. "These are not guys just filling in for a few days. They're guys who are actually playing well and making themselves a part of the team, maybe for years to come."

The Twins hadn't necessarily planned to promote so many young players last year, said Derek Falvey, the Twins' president of baseball operations, but "plans change when guys force the issue with their play."

It was by far the biggest influx of rookie talent in Baldelli's five years as manager, and in fact the biggest in eight years, when one of the most celebrated classes of Twins prospects arrived over a 13-month period. In 2015 and the first month of the 2016 season, the Twins debuted top-prospect hitters Byron Buxton (age 21), Max Kepler (22), Miguel Sanó (22) and Eddie Rosario (23), plus highly anticipated pitchers José Berríos (21), Taylor Rogers (25) and Alex Meyer (25). Jorge Polanco (22), who had made two brief cameos in the majors, also arrived to stay.

Meyer never lived up to his promise due to control problems and arm injuries, but the other seven formed the core of the late-2010s Twins. Buxton, Polanco, Berríos and Rogers all earned All-Star appearances, and each player remained in Minnesota into the 2020s. They have combined, so far, for 3,512 hits, 661 home runs, a .251 batting average, a 3.94 ERA and 93.4 wins above replacement.

"We'll see if this [current] group has the impact of that class, but it gives you a good feeling about the future, and it means we did a good job of acquiring talent," said Baldelli, who mentioned first baseman Alex Kirilloff and righthander Bailey Ober, each of whom joined the Twins in 2021, as similarly positioned. "It means the front office did a pretty good job of finding us the right players to work with. It's not easy to do, and to provide this many in a short time, that's especially impressive."

And more graduation ceremonies appear likely this year, too, Baldelli said. "Our system has depth. I see a whole bunch of guys" who could make big contributions to the 2024 Twins, he said. "I'm not going to start naming names, but they're pretty easy to see," Baldelli said, looking around the dugout as he spoke. "There might be one a few feet away from us at any given moment."

A look at the four players who emerged as strong rookies last season:

Edouard Julien

The French Canadian infielder combines expert command of the strike zone — he led the Twins in walks, only the fifth Twin ever to do so, despite playing just 109 games — with a Joe Mauer-like ability to drive the ball to the opposite field.

"Eddy can get to just about any pitch, but he's careful not to expand the zone," Baldelli said. "Balls that are moving in ways that a lot of guys struggle with, he finds a way to get the barrel to them."

But most encouraging, Baldelli said, is how hard Julien worked to make himself a credible major league defender at second base. "He put in the hours and should be proud of the difference it made," the manager said.

Matt Wallner

When the rookie outfielder crushed a bases-loaded, down-the-middle sinker 463 feet to the base of the right-field scoreboard against the A's last September, it was impossible not to notice the historic nature of the blast. Sure, it was the longest grand slam ever hit by a Twin since StatCast began tracking fly-ball distance in 2008. But perhaps even rarer: Wallner smiled as he crossed home plate.

"I grew up watching Joe Mauer," said the Forest Lake native. "He was always so humble on the field. I'm kind of low-key anyway, so I've just tried to have the same demeanor."

He gave fans plenty of reason to smile, though, with 14 homers and a .507 slugging percentage in just 76 games.

Royce Lewis

A pandemic and two knee surgeries cost the former overall No. 1 pick most of three consecutive seasons, but if Lewis ever felt discouraged by his bad luck, he has a funny way of showing it.

"I don't think I've ever seen him without a smile on his face," Baldelli said. "He is one of the most positive players I've ever been around, and you have to root for a guy like that."

He gave Twins fans plenty of reason to cheer once he finally joined the team, completely healthy for a change, last Memorial Day. Lewis drove in four runs in his debut, set a major league record with four grand slams in a 19-day span in August and September and finished third on the team with 52 RBI in a mere 58 games.

Louie Varland

The St. Paul righthander, who made 15 fill-in starts in 2022 and 2023, initially thought he was being demoted when the Twins asked him to pitch out of the bullpen in September and October.

"We had an idea his pitch mix and velocity would play especially well in short bursts, but you could see he wasn't happy," Falvey said. "To his credit, he lived up to everything we hoped and more," especially once his fastball began brushing up against 100 mph.

Varland allowed only two runs in 12 innings down the stretch, with 17 strikeouts. With that confidence-booster, Varland is finally a full-fledged member of the Twins' rotation in 2024.