Amid an Oblong Journey, Twins Prospect Matt Wallner Aims For Home

Dan Powers/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

Matt Wallner has taken a circuitous route in his quest to play close to home. Geographically speaking, it might be better-described as an oblong route. The 24-year-old Minnesota Twins outfield prospect grew up thirty minutes northeast of Target Field, then circumstances sent him to Hattiesburg, 17 hours south. Since being drafted 39th overall in 2019 out of the University of Southern Mississippi, Wallner has played in Elizabethton, Tennessee and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the latter of which sits four-and-a-half hours southeast of where he started.

Exposure-wise, the shape of Wallner’s boomerang journey changed when his intended destination out of high school dropped baseball. The left-handed-hitting slugger — No. 10 on our newly-released Twins Top Prospects list — had planned to continue his studies in Grand Forks, North Dakota, four-and-a-half hours northwest of the Twin Cities.

“[The University of] North Dakota cut baseball in April of my senior year,” explained Wallner, who battled back from a hamate injury this year to log a 131 wRC+ and wallop 15 home runs in 294 plate appearances at High-A Cedar Rapids. “I had some connections to Southern Miss through the North Dakota coach, so I went for a visit and fell in love with it. Playing college baseball when it is warmer than 30 degrees was enticing.”

Belying the fact that he considers his freshman fall at the Conference USA school “the biggest jump I’ve ever had to experience,” Wallner went on swing a hot bat in his first taste of high-profile collegiate competition, compiling numbers that included 19 dingers and a 1.118 OPS. He went on to set Southern Mississippi’s career home run record, going deep 58 times in three seasons.

Why was a player with his level of talent originally earmarked for a school that played in the lower-profile Western Athletic Conference?

“It was my only Division I offer going into my senior year of high school,” said the 6-foot-5, 235-pound Wallner. “I was the same height I am now, but I only weighed 185 pounds. I also loved North Dakota and the coaches up there. It was an opportunity I was going to jump on.”

He was also going to climb atop a bump more often than he did as a Golden Eagle. Regardless of where he went to school, Wallner was going to be a two-way player. He threw “low-to-mid 90s, probably 93,” as a prep, and “a little harder than that” in his 21 appearances — all but one in relief — at Southern Miss. Prior to matriculating from Forest Lake High School, he’d been unsure of his positional future. It wasn’t until after he arrived in Hattiesburg and forged a connection with then-hitting coach Chad Caillet that he decided to focus on hitting.

Befitting his size and track record, Wallner identifies as a power hitter.

“Yeah, I think so,” he responded when asked if he merits that label. “I mean, I try to hit for as high of an average as possible, but at the same time I’m trying to do damage every time I go up there. That’s the best fit for me profile-wise, so I try to live up to it.”

He more than lived up to expectations in the Arizona Fall League. Playing for the Scottsdale Scorpions, Wallner went deep six times in just 79 plate appearances, stinging opposing pitchers to the tune of a 1.011 OPS. Every bit as meaningful were his efforts to expand the directionality of his damage.

“The biggest thing I’ve been working on here is power to all fields,” he said late in the AFL season. “I’ve been hitting the ball the other way more in the cage and hoping to translate that to the games. It’s worked out pretty well so far. I think four of my home runs have been the other way.”

Choosing hitting over pitching has also worked out pretty well for the Gopher State native. All throughout his oblong journey from the upper midwest to the deep south and back again with a stint in the desert southwest thrown in for good measure, Wallner has shown that he can rake. If he can rein in the swing-and-miss — his 33.3% K-rate last year remains a concern — a homecoming is well within reach.

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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