The last time the Twins were any good (2010) they were swept out of the post season once again by the New York Yankees. The Twins finished that season with 84 wins, 4th best in all of baseball. They were rewarded for their success with the 30th selection in the 2011 draft. With that pick they selected Levi Michael.
At the time of the draft Levi Michael and the University of North Caroline Tar Heels were playing their way into the College World Series (where they promptly made a two game exit). Levi Michael was in the midst of a fairly strong junior season (.289/.434/.434 (BA/OBP/SLG)), but he dealt with an ankle injury early on in that season which nagged him for a good part of the year. His sophomore season at UNC was his best, hitting .343/.484/.575 and ranked as the 13th best hitter in the ACC. While Michael was never projected to be a power hitter, his on-base skills (more walks than strikeouts 47/41) and his speed, coupled with pretty decent range on the defensive side of the ball made him one of, if not the top shortstops in the draft.
PHOTO BY SCOTT BUTHERUS, NAPLES NEWS
Selecting Levi Michael was a departure from the Twins’ usual draft strategy of drafting toolsy high schoolers (think Ben Revere and Aaron Hicks) and college arms (Kyle Gibson and Alex Wimmers), and was their first college position player taken since Travis Lee in 1996.* Perhaps the Twins selected Michael understanding that he was one of the best players available to them with the 30th pick and they certainly had a system void of shortstops with high upsides.
The Twins signed Michael late for $1.75 million and despite not having a chance to play competitive baseball for the Twins in 2011, they started him at High A playing a combination of shortstop and second base for the Ft. Myers Miracle. Going into 2012 Baseball America rated Michael as the Twins 6th best prospect. TheTwins’ rationale at the time had to be that Levi Michael was a polished college player who should not have much trouble adjusting to professional baseball, and could rise quickly through the Twins MiLB system.
In 87 games for the Miracle, Michael has struggled to get his offensive game going. He is hitting just .237/.333/.309. He has continued to showcase a strong understanding of the strike zone at High-A, walking in more than 11% of all plate appearances. Unfortunately, he is not getting on base enough to steal bases and he has not shown any of the power he did in college, with just 15 extra base hits so far this year (his OPS of .642 does not even rank him in the top 100 of the Florida State League). Michael’s batting line is held down mostly due to a poor 1st half where he batted just .216/.317/.293. He’s been much better in the second half so far (.275/.365/.339) and he’s cut his strike out rate nearly in half down to 12.8% from 22.6%. However, as a switch hitter he’s still struggling mightily against right handed pitching, with an OPS of just .608, almost 100 points lower than against left handed pitching. At 21 years of age Levi Michael is the 3rd youngest player on the Miracle Roster, and almost two full years younger than the average Florida State League player, so even if he spends all of 2012 and part of 2013 in Ft. Myers he would still be a full year younger than the average player when he joins the Double-A Rock Cats.
While his bat is still adjusting to the professional game, Michael is making most of the plays at both SS and 2B and leads the Miracle in games played and Fielding% at both positions. Michael’s future in the middle infield is still up in the air as the Miracle have him splitting time between the two positions, spending slightly more time at short. I’m not going to pretend to know much of anything about his defensive abilities beyond the tidbits I have listed above. I have not seen him play in person, and I do not know if the errors he is committing are because he is getting to balls outside of his range and not making plays, or because he is just booting balls on routine plays. Any help in this area would be greatly appreciated.
The biggest take-away on Levi Michael is that it is still early. He is in his first year of professional baseball and he is one of the youngest players on his team. He is going to face plenty more ups and downs in his career. Compared to the Twins’ current shortstop, Brian Dozier, Michael has posted essentially the same line in his first year of High-A baseball that Dozier posted in his first full year at the same level, but Michael is two years younger and did not have the extra two years in the Twins system that Dozier had. The future might not look bright right now, but Levi Michael is still the best middle infield prospect in the Twins system not named Eddie Rosario.
*The Twins whiffed on Lee in 1996, failing to sign him in the two weeks following the draft. He eventually signed a $10 million dollar 4-year contract with the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks and was their starting first basemen in their inaugural season in 1998 (and came in 3rd in Rookie of the Year voting). Lee posted a career bWAR of 5.3.