Minnesota Twins Triple-A takeaways: Matt Wallner, Brooks Lee, David Festa wait their turns

Austin Martin was the corresponding call-up for Alex Kirilloff’s demotion to Triple-A St. Paul last week, swapping a left-handed hitter for a right-handed bat because the Minnesota Twins were not ready to turn back to previously demoted outfielder Matt Wallner. But that might not be far off now with the lineup starving for Wallner’s most abundant resource: left-handed power.

Wallner opened the season as the Twins’ primary left fielder, but he looked lost at the plate while going 2-for-25 with 17 strikeouts and was optioned to St. Paul in mid-April. His struggles continued there for a while, but Wallner has caught fire recently, batting .366/.438/.901 with 11 homers in his last 18 games while also lowering his strikeout rate.

Meanwhile, the Twins’ lineup is down to just four lefty bats — Max Kepler, Trevor Larnach and switch hitters Willi Castro and Carlos Santana — after sending Kirilloff, Wallner and Edouard Julien to the minors. That lack of balance doesn’t have to be a problem if righty bats step up versus righty pitchers, but Wallner is capable of adding a dimension they’re lacking.

Wallner’s high strikeout rates have always been a potential red flag and his whiff-filled start to the season further fanned the skepticism flames, but 25 at-bats — no matter how ugly they were — shouldn’t negate years of strong production in the high minors or the big impact he made for the Twins as a rookie in 2023. Three bad weeks don’t wipe away three good years.

Even with this year’s slow start factored in, Wallner has hit .231/.352/.461 with 17 homers in 107 games for the Twins, posting a 126 OPS+ that would rank third-highest on the team right now, behind only Royce Lewis (287 in a tiny sample) and Carlos Correa (149). Those numbers are also backed by Wallner hitting .266/.374/.514 with 33 homers in 169 games at Triple A.

Wallner is far from a perfect player, and it’s possible his biggest weakness, strikeouts, will keep him from being an impact MLB hitter, but that verdict has not been reached. And if anything, with an .813 OPS in 107 major-league games, the evidence would suggest Wallner deserves another chance to prove himself in a Twins lineup that has a .712 OPS against righties.

David Festa’s whiff factory

Three teams have used just six starting pitchers this season, tying for the fewest in baseball. Two of them are the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies, owners of the top record in each league. And the third is the Twins, whose only rotation changes were calling up Simeon Woods Richardson to replace Louie Varland in April and giving Varland a spot start last week.

Woods Richardson has been one of the team’s biggest bright spots, posting a 3.29 ERA in 11 starts; veterans Pablo López, Joe Ryan, Chris Paddack and Bailey Ober have stayed healthy; and Varland just showed he’s still a viable option if more starter help is required. And now David Festa, the Twins’ top pitching prospect, is knocking on the door to the majors as well.

Festa has a 3.50 ERA with 81 strikeouts over 54 innings at Triple-A St. Paul, including double-digit strikeouts in three of his last eight starts in spite of a pitch count capped around 90. Festa leads all Triple-A starters by striking out 36 percent of batters faced, an average of 13.5 per nine innings, and he’s allowed two runs or fewer in 11 of 13 starts this season.

And the 24-year-old right-hander’s overpowering raw stuff has been even more impressive than his numbers. Festa’s fastball has averaged 95.2 mph, regularly reaching 97 to 99, and it’s pretty clearly been his third-best pitch behind a slider and a changeup that have basically turned Triple-A hitters into mush at the plate.

Festa’s high-80s slider, used 37 percent of the time, has held opponents to a .196 batting average and generated whiffs on 45 percent of their swings. His high-80s changeup, used 26 percent of the time, has held opponents to a .197 batting average with whiffs on 44 percent of their swings. Plenty of prospects have mid-90s velocity, but few have two legit, bat-missing off-speed weapons.

Control remains Festa’s biggest weakness, with 4.0 walks per nine innings, but he’s trimmed that to 2.9 per nine in his last 10 starts, the most recent of which featured 10 strikeouts and no walks. Slinging fastballs and sliders to righties, and fastballs and changeups to lefties, is a straightforward recipe for success with such high-octane stuff if he can consistently throw strikes.

Brooks Lee looking healthy

Brooks Lee would almost surely have made his big-league debut by now if not for the herniated disk in his back that popped up in the middle of spring training and sidelined him for the first two months of the Triple-A schedule. After a two-week rehab assignment in the low minors, Lee joined St. Paul’s lineup on June 5 and has hit .290 in his first nine games.

Combined with his rehab work, Lee has hit .342 in 19 games since returning from the back injury and the reports on his fielding have been encouraging as well. Lee continues to play mostly shortstop despite Correa’s presence in the majors, but he’s also been working at second and third base since spring training to prepare for his future in the Twins’ infield.

Lee’s switch-hitting ability and fielding flexibility could make him the next-in-line prospect at a bunch of positions and for varied roles, either directly (shortstop, third base, second base, designated hitter) or indirectly by way of freeing up Castro for more outfield action. For now, his most obvious call-up path is beating Julien in a race to second base at Target Field.

If healthy, Lee will be a factor for the Twins in the second half, and possibly sooner. It’s just a matter of when and where, and the roster domino effects required. Lee is a consensus top-50 global prospect, ranking neck and neck with Double-A center fielder Emmanuel Rodriguez for the No. 2 spot in the Twins’ system behind Low-A center fielder Walker Jenkins. He’s very close.

(Photo of Brooks Lee and Matt Wallner: Brace Hemmelgarn / Minnesota Twins / Getty Images)

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