JC’s Top 15 Twins Prospects: 2014-15

Ho Ho Ho. Tis the season for being merry and jolly and all that stuff.

It’s also the season for publishing “top prospect” lists. Actually, it’s a bit late in the season for doing this, but I just haven’t felt like doing a lot of writing lately. So sue me.

Miguel Sano

Miguel Sano

This is the fourth year that I’ve put out my own list. I’m not really sure WHY I do it. It’s not like we really need yet another such list and the other people who tout their lists know their stuff better than I do (in many cases, anyway). So let’s just say I do this for fun.

As I was preparing this list, I went back and looked at the lists I’ve put together previously. I did a Top 10 before the 2012 season and Top 15 lists before 2013 and 2014.

It’s interesting (to me anyway) that this is the third consecutive season that I’ve had the same three prospects ranked 1 through 3 in some order or another. They have swapped spots a bit between them, but Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton and Alex Meyer have been in my top 3 spots for three straight years.

It’s more than a little exciting to realize that all three have the potential to make their Major League debuts in 2015.

Without further ado, here’s the list:

  1. Miguel Sano – 3B – Why? I’m more optimistic that he won’t be a liability defensively than I have been previously, but more importantly, I believe his injury is highly unlikely to preclude him from reaching his ceiling.
  2. Byron Buxton – CF – Why? I have some (not a lot, but some) concern that his wrist injuries could become chronic wrist issues that certainly could affect his ceiling as an outfielder and as a hitter. It’s not a huge concern, for me, but it’s enough that I gave the top spot to Sano, who I have no such concerns about.
  3. Alex Meyer – SP – A lot of people are dropping Meyer and moving Berrios up ahead of him based on a year when Meyer didn’t break through as hoped and had some injury issues, while Berrios had a breakout year. I still think Meyer’s ceiling is a notch above Berrios’.
  4. Jose Berrios – SP – But, yeah, Berrios DID have a really good year. He’s a workout fiend and clearly is intent on getting the most out of his opportunity to pitch professionally, despite not being the prototypically tall athlete that is in vogue around the league.
  5. Eddie Rosario – OF – It was nearly a lost year for Rosario after his suspension and only getting half a season in during the summer, but he reclaimed his value with a strong Arizona Fall League. I’m probably a litte higher on him than most people.
  6. Jorge Polanco – MIF – Yes, his cup of coffee with the Twins was more a matter of convenience, since he was on the 40-man roster, than reflective of his current abilities, but he did have a very strong season.
  7. Trevor May – SP – His ceiling might be as a #3 starter, but he’ll seriously contend for a Twins rotation spot in spring training this season. That, in itself, warrants a spot in the top 10 prospects.
  8. Kohl Stewart – SP – Unlike May, Stewart is at least a couple of years away from even being considered for a spot with the Twins, but even though his strikeout rate in 2014 was lower than hoped for, he remains a top of the rotation prospect.
  9. Nick Gordon – SS – The 2014 first round pick had a very good short-season at Elizabethton. If he shows even more in a full season this year, he’ll move up this list quickly.
  10. Nick Burdi – RP – The 2014 2nd round pick has legitimate 100 mph potential and an unfair slider. Should pitch for the Twins at some point in 2015.
  11. Max Kepler – OF – We are seeing more flashes of promise on the potential that’s been talked about for years. He needs a breakout season in 2015.
  12. Stephen Gonsalves – SP – The lefty showed real talent against Midwest League hitters after joining Cedar Rapids and was very young for the level.
  13. Chih-Wei Hu – SP – I’m probably the only one you will find ranking Hu in the top 15, but he showed me more command  – of more pitches – and more mound maturity – than any other starting pitcher in Cedar Rapids in 2014, and that’s saying something.
  14. Travis Harrison – OF – Harrison is dropping out of the top 15 on some lists, seemingly due to his lack of home runs in 2014. I understand that, but I felt Harrison’s biggest need going in to last year was to cut his strikeouts down and develop more as a hitter who can deliver to all fields with some authority. He did both. The home runs will come, he didn’t get “weaker.”
  15. Stuart Turner – C – I have to say, it is very difficult to pick a #15 for this list. I’m going with Turner primarily because he skipped low-A and went to the Miracle and, after a slow start at the plate, he hit better later and reports are he was as good as advertised as a receiver.

It is almost impossible for me to believe that I’ve created a Top 15 Twins Prospects list that does not include Lewis Thorpe, Jake Reed, Mitch Garver, Adam Brett Walker and Taylor Rogers.

I want to see Thorpe recover from his elbow issue without requiring surgery before I give him a spot in the top 15 which he otherwise deserves and I want to see Walker be successful against pitchers at least one level higher, given his issues with the strikeouts.

With Reed, Garver and Rogers, though, it was simply a case of running out of room. If they stay healthy, I expect every one of those guys to play Major League baseball (hopefully for the Twins). If you have an organization where those guys are not among your top 15 prospects, you’ve got a damn good pipeline going.

The Twins have a damn good pipeline going.

JC

Joe Mauer in Cedar Rapids – Day 2

Tuesday night was a big deal at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids.

Twins Joe Mauer and Ricky Nolasco were in the Kernels’ line up together and at least twice the usual Tuesday night crowd squeezed in to the ballpark to watch them.

I don’t know that from witnessing it first hand, but only from accounts from media and family members that used my season tickets that night.

Seems I had foolishly committed to making a business trip to St. Louis Sunday through Wednesday this week.

So I missed the filled ballpark and, from what I understand, filled pressbox on Tuesday when Nolasco pitched and Mauer DHed for the Kernels, who beat the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers 9-0 that night.

I did make it home from St. Louis Wednesday in time to see Mauer’s rehab debut in the field at first base. I didn’t expect to see another huge crowd, but I certainly didn’t expect to see what was essentially a pretty normal 2,000+ crowd, either. Yet, that’s exactly what I saw.

I’m not sure what that says about baseball fans in Eastern Iowa.

Maybe it says we aren’t as awe-struck by the presence of big leaguers as some people think we should be.

Maybe it just reemphasizes that the Twins organization still has a lot of work to do in the area if they want to truly make a dent in the Cubs’ stranglehold around here and make this area a part of “Twins Territory.”

Maybe it reflects the reality that Joe Mauer, himself, does not have the star power that he did when he was winning batting titles and MVP awards, not to mention being the cover-boy of MLB video games for two straight years.

Still, while a lot of the Twins fans in Minnesota who have been booing Mauer at Target Field this season might scoff, he’s an almost certain future Hall-of-Famer and he was in uniform playing for the Kernels Wednesday night. If you’re a baseball fan, why the heck would you NOT show up to watch?

You can’t say nobody tried to get you out there.

The Kernels began marketing the Mauer arrival even before they could officially announce it was happening. When it was still an “unofficial” thing, the Kernels announced via every media outlet they could get access to that they would have special extended ticket office hours Saturday and Sunday.

And people did take advantage. They got tickets for Tuesday and they got tickets for this weekend’s games, but there was little demand for Wednesday’s contest.

It’s great that there will be big crowds Friday and Saturday, but honestly, there were going to be big crowds Friday and Saturday, anyway. Already-planned promotions and tie-ins with a major local employer or two this weekend guaranteed the Kernels would have a couple of pretty full houses those two nights, with or without a big league headliner.

That’s good, perhaps, because there’s no assurance that Mauer will play both nights. He’s scheduled for an off day on Thursday and he indicated after Wednesday’s game that he still has a few things on his, “checklist,” that he wants to accomplish before returning to the Twins, so I think we can safely assume he’ll be on the field Friday night. If I were a betting man, I’d put money on him also being with the Kernels on Saturday night.

I would also be betting he’s en route to Houston to rejoin the Twins before the Kernels take the field on Sunday.

Anyway, I just don’t understand the mediocre crowd Wednesday night.

At least the fans who did show up didn’t boo Mauer when he walked to the plate. They didn’t rise to their feet with an ovation, either, but the polite applause is better treatment than he gets from his home town fans at Target Field these days. I don’t understand that treatment, either.

Anyway, on Wednesday night, Mauer continued to kick off the rust a bit. He went 0-3 before calling it a night. He grounded in to a force out in the first inning and was stranded at second base. He barreled up on one in his second at-bat and drove the ball to the warning track in left-center field. In his third trip to the plate, he watched two strikes go by and then went down swinging.

Defensively, I don’t recall a ball being hit to him at all. He did get one ball thrown to him on a DP attempt that went in the dirt and he didn’t come up with it.

He obviously is not lighting up the Class A pitching he’s seeing, but that’s why you rehab in the minors. Keep in mind, it’s not like he’s been taking BP throughout his time on the Disabled List. His injured oblique muscle meant he was pretty much on the shelf until taking a few cuts in the few days before coming to Cedar Rapids. Anyone who thinks it’s easy to sit out a month and then step in and immediately hit any level of professional pitching has never tried to do it.

If he’s not making consistent solid contact by the time the weekend is over, then I’ll be a bit concerned.

The Kernels and Twins PR guy Andrew Heydt have done a good job of getting media access to Mauer without totally disrupting the clubhouse and other aspects of the game day routine for the Kernels. As was the case Tuesday, Mauer met with the media after exiting the ballgame in an auxillary locker room near the Kernels’ clubhouse.

Here’s some video I shot of that exchange. I think you can tell he’s not pleased with his results on the field, but he’s also glad to just be back on the field again. His response to a question I posed also gives a little insight in to those items on his “checklist” that he still wants to try to do before rejoining the Twins.

The Kernels got pretty well drubbed in the game. Chih-Wei Hu had his first rough start as a Kernel, giving up six runs in the fourth inning.

Nick Burdi pitched the ninth inning for Cedar Rapids. He maxed at 99 mph on the scoreboard gun, which is known as a “slow gun.” We use a +2 guideline in Cedar Rapids, adding 2 mph to what shows on the board, which means Burdi likely hit about 101 on that pitch. Otherwise he was in the mid-upper 90s with the fastball and around 90 with the slider.

Finally, here are a few photos of the evening.

You may have heard, Joe Mauer is a Cedar Rapids Kernel this week.

You may have heard, Joe Mauer is a Cedar Rapids Kernel this week.

She'll have a story for her kids some day.

She’ll have a story for her kids some day.

"Hey, I think I recognize this guy."

“Hey, I think I recognize this guy.”

Jake Mauer picking up after his younger brother after Joe is left stranded at 2B

Jake Mauer picking up after his younger brother after Joe is left stranded at 2B

Wednesday was Joe Mauer's first game in the field in more than a month

Wednesday was Joe Mauer’s first game in the field in more than a month

First time Mauer played behind Chih-Wei Hu. May not be the last time.

First time Mauer played behind Chih-Wei Hu. May not be the last time. Wednesday’s fourth inning notwithstanding, Hu has been very good for the Kernels.

We’re celebrating my grandson’s first birthday on Friday by having a “Party at he Park,” and I’m looking forward to seeing Mauer donning one of these, “Jimmy Buffet Night” jerseys on Saturday night.

Hawaiian_Jersey_Promo_8g1ishv5Mauer may well be on his way to Houston to rejoin the Twins by Sunday, but I’ll be at the ballpark that afternoon to watch Ricky Nolasco stretch himself out to 75 pitches in his second rehab start with the Kernels. – JC

Kernels in a Dogfight for MWL Postseason Spot

In mid-June, after a brutal first half to their Midwest League season, the Cedar Rapids Kernels limped in to the MWL’s All-Star break with a 31-39 record, not only 14 games behind Western Division leader Kane County, but also 7.5 games behind the Burlington Bees.

The latter is important because, in the world of Class A minor league baseball, seasons are split in to two halves, with the first and second place teams in each division, each half-season, earning berths in the postseason playoff series.

Kane County and Burlington snatched the MWL West spots in the first half, leaving Cedar Rapids, Quad Cities, Clinton, Beloit, Peoria and Wisconsin to slug it out in the second half for two more spots, with each team starting with fresh 0-0 records on June 19.

With Peoria, Wisconsin and Quad Cities all assembling winning records in the first half, it was logical to assume that those three teams would contend for the Western Division’s two second-half playoff spots – and they have been doing just that.

Entering Wednesday, Peoria and Quad Cities were tied for second place in the Division’s second-half standings, trailing Kane County by just one game, and Wisconsin is two games back.

Clinton and Beloit have repeated their first-half fortunes, each at least 11 games under .500 and filling the final two spots in the standings, as they did in the first half.

And then there’s the Cedar Rapids Kernels.

Rather stealthily, manager Jake Mauer’s Kernels have turned around what, as recently as three weeks ago, looked likely to become a lost season.

There weren't a lot of reasons for Kernels manager Jake Mauer and pitching coach Ivan Arteaga to smile in the season's first half, but that's changing.

There weren’t a lot of reasons for Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and manager Jake Mauer to smile in the season’s first half, but that’s changing.

The Kernels lost four of their first five series to begin the second-half schedule and had compiled just a 6-11 second-half record through July 6.

They haven’t lost a series since.

Cedar Rapids has taken six consecutive series, against six different clubs, while putting together a 15-5 record in that time and launching themselves in to a second place tie with Peoria and Quad Cities, just one game behind Division leader Kane County in the MWL’s Western Division standings.

Since the Cougars and the Burlington Bees locked in their postseason spots in the first half, it doesn’t matter where they finish in the second-half standings so, from a practical standpoint, Cedar Rapids was tied entering Wednesday, with Quad Cities and Clinton, for the top available playoff spot, with Wisconsin trailing that group by one game.

The Kernels will face those three rivals 12 times in August and nine of those games will be on Perfect Game Field at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids, where the Kernels have accumulated an 11-5 home record in the season’s second half.

How have the Kernels propelled themselves in to a four-team dogfight for playoff spots entering the final month of the regular season? And can they keep it up?

The answer to the first question is pretty clear when you look at the numbers and there is no way to know the answer to the second.

In the first three series of their current six series winning streak, Cedar Rapids essentially bludgeoned the opposition. In those ten games, they scored 6.7 runs per game. It’s a good thing, too, because their pitching was allowing 4.2 runs per game.

The offense stepped up in those series, but since then, things have taken a pretty dramatic turn.

In the nine games covering the last three series of this stretch, the results have come from pitching. While Kernels hitters were averaging just 3.9 runs per game, themselves, the pitching was giving up only two runs per game.

Michael Quesada

Michael Quesada

Digging deeper, it’s tough to find much in the offensive statistics that indicate a significant turnaround.

About half the club’s current position players hit a bit better in July than they had been hitting and about half had fallen off a notch, perhaps.

Catcher/DH Michael Quesada appears to have found his stroke and is hitting .270 in July, with a pair of home runs, after a dreadful June in which he managed just .150 with no extra-base hits.

Fellow catcher (turned primary right fielder) Alex Swim is hitting .364 in July after posting a .267 mark in June.

Alex Swim

Alex Swim

But a number of their teammates, including Mitch Garver and Chad Christensen, who have been among the team’s offensive leaders all season, have seen some of their numbers fade slightly in July, too, so it’s hard to credit this turnaround strictly to the offense.

Perhaps the most important contribution the offense has made has been its consistency.

Before Tuesday’s game with the Burlington Bees, Mauer emphasized the importance of that consistency.

“Knock on wood, we’ve had a steady core group,” Mauer said. “Obviously, (Jason) Kanzler was (promoted), but we’ve had that set core group for about four weeks.

“Position player wise, we haven’t really changed much. It’s pretty much the same group of guys other than Swim and Wade playing a bigger part. Christensen, Garver, Haar, 3-4-5, have been that way since about May.”

The pitching side of the ledger tells a slightly different story, however.

As the Kernels’ manager observed, “The starting pitching’s been good, bullpen’s been outstanding.”

Indeed.

Of the ten pitchers currently on the Kernels roster who made appearances in June and July for Cedar Rapids, nine dropped his ERA in July, as compared to June.

The tenth, reliever Dallas Gallant, couldn’t cut his. He had a 0.00 ERA in his three June appearances and has exactly the same 0.00 ERA through eight trips to the mound in July.

Fellow bullpen arm Jake Reed also has a perfect 0.00 ERA in his six appearances in July after posting a 4.50 mark in June.

Chris Mazza hasn’t been that perfect in relief. His July ERA is 0.69. It was 2.25 in June.

Jared Wilson has slashed his ERA from 4.60 in June to 1.84 in July.

Hudson Boyd did the same. He had a 10.00 in June and a 1.13 in July. (Boyd, however, was suspended on Tuesday for an unspecified period of time for violating team rules.)

The sharpest drop, however, has to be Nick Burdi, the Twins’ second round draft pick in June of this year. How can you beat a drop from infinity to 2.25?

Burdi made one infamous appearance upon joining the Kernels at the end of June in which he walked all four batters he faced and all four came around to score. In July, he has allowed just a pair of earned runs. He has also struck out 16 batters in his eight July innings, while walking just three.

The rotation arms are getting in to the act, as well.

Aaron Slegers, who leads the Kernels with 113.1 innings pitched this season, struggled in June to a 7.97 ERA in four starts. It sits at 1.96 through six starts in July.

Aaron Slegers

Aaron Slegers

18 year old Lewis Thorpe posted a 6.50 ERA in his four June starts, but he’s cut that to 3.51 in his six starts this month.

Kohl Stewart, Minnesota’s top draft pick in 2013, had an ERA of 2.16 in June. That’s pretty good. In fact, it was better than Stewart posted in April or May. But he’s bettered that in July, posting at 1.32.

Stewart, unfortunately, finds himself on the 7-day Disabled List at the moment, with a sore shoulder.

His replacement in the rotation is Stephen Gonsalves, freshly arrived from the Twins’ Appalachian League affiliate in Elizabethton.

Gonsalves has made just one appearance for the Kernels since arriving, but the lefty threw six shutout innings against Dayton on Sunday.

Chih-Wei Hu, the 20 year old from Taiwan, wasn’t with the Kernels in June, but he’s posted a 1.50 ERA in four July starts for Cedar Rapids.

Chih-Wei Hu

Chih-Wei Hu

Earned Run Average is not the only important pitching statistic. Arguably, it’s not even the most important, especially among relief pitchers.

But when your entire pitching staff is slashing their ERA from one month to the next, that’s a sign that good things are happening for your team.

The Kernels have put themselves in to contention for postseason play, but they’re going to need to overcome some challenges over the final month to earn one of those final MWL playoff spots.

They may need Stewart to come back from his DL stint healthy and effective.

They lost their center fielder, Jason Kanzler, who was contributing with his bat and his glove, to promotion this week. He has been replaced by Max Murphy, who was tearing up the Appy League to the tune of a .371 batting average and nine home runs.

Murphy, however, got off to an inauspicious start, going 0-4 with three strikeouts and a walk in his Kernels debut on Tuesday.

The Twins’ high-A affiliate in Fort Myers is already postseason-bound, having clinched a spot in the first half of their Florida State League season. There’s certainly no assurance the Twins won’t tab more Kernels for promotion to aide the Miracle’s own playoff preparations. In fact, with the way some of the players in Cedar Rapids are performing this month, you can probably count on it.

However, right at this moment, the Kernels are in serious contention for the postseason and that’s not something many fans would have envisioned just three weeks ago.

Hu’s on first? No, he’s pitching (for the Kernels)

The merry-go-round that is a minor league team’s roster continued to spin over the weekend in Cedar Rapids as the Kernels saw two pitchers promoted to high-A Fort Myers, one infielder put on the 7-Day Disabled list and two new pitchers arrive from Elizabethton.

The new pitchers, right handed starting pitcher Chih-Wei Hu and righty bullpen arm Jake Reed, were in uniform for Tuesday night’s series opener with the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, won by the Kernels, 15-5.

The two will replace starter Ethan Mildren and co-closer Todd Van Steensel on the Kernels’ pitching staff.

Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and pitcher Ethan Mildren

Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and pitcher Ethan Mildren

Mildren has been dominant through his most recent pair of starts, throwing seven shutout innings against Clinton on June 29 and duplicating that feat on Independence Day against Beloit. He allowed just seven hits and three walks over that 14-inning stretch.

Van Steensel had not been charged with allowing a run, earned or otherwise, in his last seven appearances for Cedar Rapids. Overall, he put up a 1.30 ERA covering 34.2 innings of work in 23 appearances in a Kernels uniform.

If early impressions mean anything, Reed will be a capable replacement for Van Steensel in the Kernels bullpen.

The 21-year old righty, drafted in the 5th round out of the University of Oregon last month, threw nothing but shutout innings for the E-Twins in his first six innings of work this season. He struck out eight batters and held opponents to a .053 batting average.against him.

That scoreless streak, however, came to an end in Reed’s first appearance in a Cedar Rapids uniform on Tuesday night. Reed gave up one unearned run in an inning of work on Tuesday night when the first batter he faced reached on a two-base error and came around to score on a subsequent single.

Reed recorded his first strikeout as a Kernel to finish the eighth inning.

The man with the biggest shoes to fill with the Kernels, perhaps, will be Hu.

Cedar Rapids has struggled to find consistency from their rotation and Mildren was just beginning to provide much needed leadership in that area.

Hu will get Mildren’s spot in the rotation and should get his first start for the Kernels on Thursday against the Rattlers, in front of the home crowd.

Like Reed, Hu was off to a strong start for Elizabethton.

The Taichung, Taiwan, native had time to make just three starts for the E-Twins before being promoted. He was 1-0 with a 1.69 ERA. He threw six shutout innings of two-hit baseball in his last start, striking out nine batters in the process.

After watching Hu throw a bullpen session on Tuesday, Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga pronounced the 20-year old Hu, “ready to go.”

“His fastball moves a lot and his slider’s got good rotation,” Arteaga added. “He really competes, according to the reports we got.”

The Kernels played Tuesday a man short on their roster as shortstop Engelb Vielma has been placed on the 7-day DL with concussion symptoms and no corresponding roster move was immediately announced.

Manager Jake Mauer indicated to media after the game that infielder Logan Wade would be re-activated from the DL on Wednesday to replace Vielma. – JC