JC’s Top 15 Twins Prospects – 2014

If it’s November, it must be “Top Prospect List” season.

Last year, I waited until the end of December to publish my personal “Twins Top 15 Prospects” list, which allowed me to include pitchers Alex Meyer and Trevor May after they were acquired by Twins General Manager Terry Ryan in off-season trades. Waiting also allowed me to get a look at a number of lists published by “experts” far smarter than I am.

All things considered, I should probably wait until closer to year end to put my list out there again. But I’m not going to do that.

If there are deals made that bring in new prospects or send away players on this list, so be it. I feel like writing and throwing a Top Prospects list out here seems to be a better use of my time than trying to come up with an off-season blueprint. And, honestly, it’s a lot easier to rank some prospects than try to figure out how to fix all the problems Terry Ryan’s facing with rebuilding the Twins’ roster.

A year ago, I came down on the side of ranking Byron Buxton as the Twins’ number 1 prospect over Miguel Sano.

I had the good fortune of getting to watch Buxton play almost every home game he suited up for with Cedar Rapids before his promotion to Fort Myers, as well as a number of his road games with the Kernels. I believe he was better than any other ballplayer I’ve seen in a Cedar Rapids uniform and that includes Mike Trout.

So, naturally, I’ll have to rank him ahead of Sano in the number 1 spot again this year, right?

Well… yes and no.

What I wrote last year still holds true for me today. Buxton’s potential to play an extraordinary centerfield defensively makes him a better prospect to me than Sano. Centerfield is just about the most critical position on the field (especially on Target Field) and Buxton is simply an amazing outfielder. In fact, the only position in baseball more important than centerfield is probably that of starting pitcher.

And that’s why my number 1 ranked prospect this year is…

  1. Alex Meyer (RHP) – Meyer had a good first year in the Twins organization after coming over from the Nationals in the trade for Denard Span a year ago, but he has appeared to really step up his game in the Arizona Fall League. His fastball is touching 100 mph and averaging between 97 and 98 on the gun. He’s missing bats. He’s dominating some good hitters. He has the potential to be not only a top of the rotation starting pitcher within the next couple of years for the Twins, but to be a legitimate ace. He looks to be to the pitching staff what Buxton could be to the batting order, but he’s a level higher in the organization and thus, arguably, closer to actually realizing that potential than Buxton is.
  2. Byron Buxton

    Byron Buxton

    Byron Buxton (CF) – Buxton is the real deal, folks. There’s nothing he can’t do on a baseball field. In fact, I honestly believe if you wanted to make him a pitcher, he could give the Twins one heck of a 1-2 rotation punch, with Meyer, for years to come. But he’s just too dang good at everything else to consider that option. When he learns to read pitchers a little better on the bases, he will be almost impossible to keep out of scoring position. That’s good news for guys looking to drive in a lot of runs, like, for example…

  3. Miguel Sano (3B) – The best news of 2013 for Twins fans regarding Sano might have been the reviews of his improvements defensively at the hot corner. Let’s face it, a guy who hits like Sano is going to be in the heart of your batting order. But if he can also play a passable third base, that frees a GM and manager up to put other talented hitters who aren’t strong defensively in the corner outfield spots, at first base and/or at designated hitter. Think about this: if Sano sticks at 3B and Mauer can remain behind the plate most of the time, in a year or two, the Twins three best hitters may be their catcher, centerfielder and third baseman. And there’s no shortage of above average hitting prospects in the pipeline to fill the corner OF, 1B and DH spots.
  4. Eddie Rosario (2B/OF) – Speaking of getting outstanding offensive production out of traditionally unexpected positions, if Rosario remains a second baseman, that’s yet another potentially productive bat from a middle infielder. Of course, with Brian Dozier having a solid year at 2B for the Twins, there’s talk of either moving Rosario back to the outfield or possibly even dangling him as trade bait for much-needed pitching help.
  5. Kohl Stewart (RHP) – As has often been said, it’s risky to rank a prospect this high who hasn’t even played his first year of full-season professional ball. Then again, that didn’t seem to keep any of us from ranking Buxton at or near the top of our prospect lists a year ago and he hasn’t made us regret the faith we placed in him. I tend to think that most first round draft picks warrant a high ranking if they show the expected promise in their first taste of short-season ball. If Stewart dominates Class A hitters in 2014, he’ll be a top 3 prospect next year.
  6. Jose Berrios

    Jose Berrios

    Jose Berrios (RHP) – It was cool to be able to watch Berrios strike out Robinson Cano in the WBC tournament last spring, but part of me wonders what his season might have been like if he hadn’t spent that time in the bullpen of Team Puerto Rico. He had some very impressive starts for Cedar Rapids, but he also had some clunkers. He certainly appeared to tire toward the end of the season. However, I also felt he showed more maturity on the mound as the summer went on.

  7. Josmil Pinto (C) – Pinto has one thing that none of the other guys on this list have and that’s a Major League resume. In fact, none of the other players on this list have even played AAA ball yet. Pinto produced at AA, AAA and in the Big Leagues during his September call-up and he plays a critical defensive position. He’s not a finished product behind the dish, by any means, but the season he had in 2013 has to make him a Top 10 prospect for the Twins. He’s the guy that makes us feel a bit better about the potential move to first base by Joe Mauer.
  8. Jorge Polanco (INF) – While I’m not sure Polanco has the tools to be a starting shortstop at the Major League level, his bat has shown two consecutive years of consistent productivity. He hits the ball hard and if he can turn some of those line drives in to something with a bit more loft, he will hit more home runs. I think his long term position is second base and, that said, if the Twins don’t deal Dozier and don’t move Rosario to the outfield, Polanco could be a guy the Twins start getting some calls about.
  9. Max Kepler gets a secondary lead off first base

    Max Kepler gets a secondary lead off first base

    Max Kepler (OF/1B) – I’ll admit that Kepler’s continued top-10 ranking is, for me, more reflective of his athleticism than of his on-field performance and that makes me uncomfortable. He killed right handed pitching but struggled against lefties. His defense in the outfield was inconsistent and I just don’t think his throwing elbow was ever 100% in Cedar Rapids. That’s a concern, as well. I thought he did a nice job at first base for a guy who hadn’t played there a ton and with all of the outfield prospects the Twins have, 1B could be Kepler’s ultimate position if he stays in the Twins organization. He hasn’t been on fire in his Arizona Fall League work, but it sounds like he hasn’t been completely overmatched, either, and that’s encouraging.

  10. Adam Brett Walker lines a home run vs Clinton on September 2

    Adam Brett Walker lines a home run vs Clinton on September 2

    Adam Brett Walker (OF) – Honestly, in my mind, the Twins have a definite “Top 9” prospects and then seven guys that are all pretty equal that fill out a Top “16” list. I’m giving Walker the nod in to the Top 10 because I saw the way Tony Oliva’s eyes lit up watching him play. When Oliva made an appearance in Cedar Rapids this summer, I found myself in the pressbox alone with him for an inning or so. He wanted to talk about Walker. I told him I thought Walker needed to learn to take that outside pitch to the opposite field and Oliva’s response was something along the lines of, “Noooo, why?! Let him pull the ball!” And you could just see in his eyes and his smile that he really liked Walker as a hitter. With that kind of endorsement, how could I not include Walker in the Top 10?

  11. Lewis Thorpe (LHP) – Not only has Thorpe not had a year of full-season professional ball yet, he hasn’t even made it out of the Gulf Coast League. But a 17 year old lefty who can throw 95 mph and drop a pretty good hammer, as well, is impossible to ignore. The Aussie struck out 64 hitters in just 44 GCL innings in 2013. I know they say you have to ignore GCL stats, but I can’t ignore that one.
  12. Trevor May (RHP) – May, who came over from the Phillies organization a year ago in the Ben Revere trade, missed some time in 2013 and again during the Arizona Fall League. The Twins probably still aren’t sure if he’ll end up in the rotation or bullpen, so he needs a healthy 2014 season to really impress.
  13. Travis Harrison

    Travis Harrison

    Travis Harrison (3B/OF) – I’m wondering if the organization might move Harrison back to his natural corner OF position now that they seem confident Sano can stick as a third baseman. Harrison can hit a baseball very hard. Whether he moves up or down this list by next year will depend somewhat on whether the Twins find a defensive position he can potentially play at the MLB level.

  14. Stephen Gonsalves (LHP) – Ordinarily, you wouldn’t see a 4th round pick from the prior year in your Top 15 list, but Gonsalves was reportedly on track to be a 1st round pick before a disciplinary issue arose during his senior year of HS, allowing the Twins to get a potential steal. If he can add some bulk to his 6’ 5” frame and a couple of ticks on his fastball, he could become very good very quickly.
  15. Miguel Sulbaran (LHP) – Sulbaran largely is flying under the radar among the Twins prospects. Maybe it’s his 5’ 10” stature. Maybe it’s that he only spent a few weeks in the organization after coming over from the Dodgers. Maybe it’s that he was obtained for Drew Butera. Sulbaran may not be tall, but he’s got a pitcher’s lower body and he uses it to get good drive off the mound. He struck out over eight batters per nine innings in 2013 and he has something a lot of other pitchers at his level don’t: an out pitch. His change-up is the real thing.

That final spot was a tough one to decide on as shortstop Danny Santana arguably should be on this list somewhere. In the end, I decided he just made too many errors to project as a defense-first shortstop and didn’t get on base often enough to project as a top of the order hitter. This is going to be a make or break year for Santana, I think.

So that’s my list. I’d like to see a few more guys that are closer to being “Major League-ready,” but I just don’t see a ton of high ceiling guys in the high-minors of the Twins organization right now and high ceilings are what I tend to look for in my rankings.

– JC

Kernels: Life After Buck and a Mike Pelfrey Appearance

Minnesota Twins super-prospect Byron Buxton led the Cedar Rapids Kernels through a pretty amazing first half of their Midwest League season. They led the league’s West Division almost from wire to wire.

Almost.

But on Sunday, June 16, the Kernels gave up a late lead to the Peoria Chiefs and sealed their fate as the Division Runner-Up.

That was the last day that Buxton wore his Kernels home whites on Perfect Game Field at Veterans Memorial Stadium.

After returning from the MWL All-Star Game, Buxton boarded the team bus for the trip to Wisconsin. There, the team swept a four-game series with the Timber Rattlers and did so under the watchful eye of Twins General Manager Terry Ryan.

On that same bus, during the trip home to Cedar Rapids, Kernels Manager Jake Mauer got a phone call from the Twins front office and then told Byron Buxton he was being promoted to the Fort Myers Miracle.

You could understand if the Kernels, without the statistical leader of their offense, had needed to take a step back and regroup. Nobody would have been surprised if they had lost a few games as they searched for a new leadoff hitter and a new center fielder. After all, you can’t just replace a guy who many consider perhaps the top minor league prospect in baseball.

What the Kernels have done instead, however, is continue winning.

Since Buxton’s promotion, the Kernels have swept a four-game series with the Burlington Bees and a three-game series over the Peoria Chiefs. Heading in to Tuesday night’s game at Beloit, the Kernels are 11-0 in the second half of their MWL season.

Yes, it has been an eventful couple of weeks since that gut-wrenching meltdown during the final series of the season’s first half.

Max Kepler gets a secondary lead off first base

Max Kepler gets a secondary lead off first base

It certainly didn’t hurt that the Kernels finally welcomed outfielder Max Kepler to the roster to start the second half of the season.

Kepler, another of the Twins’ top prospects, had been slated to open the season with the Kernels but an elbow strain in March kept him in Fort Myers for extended spring training.

Kepler has only four singles in his 44 at-bats since joining the team. Then again, he also has five doubles, a triple and three home runs. That’s good enough for a .659 slugging percentage over an admittedly limited sample size.

The German native has also helped fill Buxton’s shoes defensively. He’s not likely to make the jaw-dropping defensive plays that Buxton seemed to make almost every other game in the outfield, but Kepler has the speed to cover plenty of outfield grass.

JD Williams

JD Williams

Niko Goodrum and JD Williams have both spent time filling Buxton’s shoes at the top of the Kernels’ batting order. Goodrum’s sporting a second-half on-base percentage (OBP) of .362, which isn’t bad, but check out Williams’ second half slash line: .462 BA/ .517 OBP/ .731 SLG/ 1.248 OPS.

Goodrum’s primary middle infield partner, Jorge Polanco, has hit .375 and put up an OPS of .969 since the All-Star break.

Dalton Hicks hasn’t homered yet in the second half, but he’s hitting .306 with five doubles.

Travis Harrison leads off third base

Travis Harrison leads off third base

Travis Harrison has a pair of home runs and six doubles since his All-Star Game appearance. He’s hitting .371 and has a 1.214 OPS.

Adam Brett Walker has a pair of home runs, as well, to go with his .303 batting average.

The second half success hasn’t been limited to the hitters, either.

The next earned run that Tyler Jones or Steve Gruver give up will be the first an opponent has put up against the two bullpen arms. In fact, opponents have a grand total of one hit off the two pitchers, combined, since the All-Star break.

Jose Berrios has made just one start since the break, but he went seven innings in that start and struck out nine hitters without a single walk, while giving up just five hits.

Brett Lee has struck out 12 over the 13 innings that have comprised his two starts this half.

Christian Powell is sporting a 2-0 record and a 0.69 ERA over the 13 innings he’s thrown during his first two starts of the second half.

And just in case the Kernels players needed a reminder of what it is they’re putting in all this work for, they got a visit this week from Twins starting pitcher Mike Pelfrey, who drove down from the Twin Cities with his family to make a rehab start for the Kernels on Monday night.

Mike Pelfrey warms up in the bullpen before his rehab start in CR

Mike Pelfrey warms up in the bullpen before his rehab start in CR

The plan was for Pelfrey to work five innings or throw 75 pitches, whichever came first.

But after throwing just 54 pitches through five innings, Pelfrey went back to the mound for the sixth.

“We got there in the fourth and the fifth and they said, ‘hey you’re done.’ I said, ‘hey I want to go back out for one more.’ I was just starting to get the command of my fastball back, which is very important to have to succeed, obviously, at the Big League level.”

As Pelfrey freely admitted in an interview before the game, his season didn’t get off to the kind of start he and the Twins hoped it would. But, as Kernels pitching coach Gary Lucas said after the game, “It was fun to watch him. Man, what a pro. What a good pro he is,” said Lucas. “To see how he handled himself and how he interacted with the guys on the bench. Pretty cool.”

It was a pretty cool night for the Kernels organization and their fans, as well.

Mike Pelfrey addresses the CR media (including a scruffy looking blogger in a faded ballcap)

Mike Pelfrey addresses the CR media (including a scruffy looking blogger in a faded ballcap)

According to Kernels General Manager Doug Nelson, a typical Monday crowd at this point in the season is about 1,500 fans. The Kernels drew 2,246 to see Pelfrey pitch, with a sizable portion of that total coming from “walk up” ticket sales. That extra 746 fans may not seem like a lot to those accustomed to seeing Major League attendance totals, but that’s several thousand dollars of extra revenue that the Kernels wouldn’t have had if the Twins hadn’t sent Pelfrey to Cedar Rapids for his rehab start.

Nelson indicated before the game that the topic of rehabilitation assignments had come up last September when the Twins and Kernels were discussing a possible affiliation agreement. While the Twins made no specific promises, they did tell the Kernels that they were comfortable with the facility in Cedar Rapids from a player-safety standpoint and that rehab assignments here would be simply a matter of schedules and timing working out.

With Pelfrey’s appearance, the Twins have now equaled the total number of rehab assignments that the prior Kernels affiliate, the Angels, sent to Cedar Rapids during the entire 20-year relationship between that organization and the Kernels. Angels pitcher Ken Hill joined the Kernels for a rehab stint in 1998.

The Kernels ballboy and the home plate umpire might have had the toughest challenge getting through Pelfrey’s appearance.

Plate umpire and Kernels ballboy switch out MLB balls for MWL balls between innings

Plate umpire and Kernels ballboy switch out MLB balls for MWL balls between innings

Pelfrey brought a supply of Major League baseballs with him to use in Cedar Rapids, which meant every half inning, the ballboy and plate umpire had to completely switch out the umpire’s supply of baseballs to allow Pelfrey to use Major League balls and the Peoria pitchers to use the Midwest League versions they are familiar with.

By winning their tenth straight game this past Sunday, the Kernels earned a free dinner from the team’s Board of Directors. By tradition, the Board treats the team to dinner at the Ox Yoke in the Amana Colonies whenever they reel off 10 straight wins. No date has been set yet, but it’s something the Kernels players are looking forward to.

That’s especially true of Kepler, the German native. The restaurant specializes in traditional German food, something Kepler said he hasn’t had in awhile.

While the team will have to wait for an evening they can fit a trip to the Amana Colonies in to their busy schedule to collect on that meal, they tasted the benefits of Pelfrey’s appearance immediately after the game.

According to Nelson, Pelfrey treated his temporary Kernels teammates to prime rib for their postgame meal in the clubhouse.

– JC

Prospects and Prospects: Projecting the 2013 Kernels, Part 5

It’s no secret that the Minnesota Twins have issues these days with regard to their starting pitching rotation, but is there any hope for the future? The Twins acquired a couple of legitimate starting pitching prospects in trades this offseason, which bodes well for New Britain’s 2013 rotation, but what about here in Cedar Rapids?

(Image: Kernels.com)

(Image: Kernels.com)

After checking out the position players likely to spend time with the 2013 Kernels in Parts 1 through 4 of this series, in Part 5 we’ll take a look at a number of pitchers that Kernels fans are likely to see in the team’s starting rotation during 2013.

One of the challenges in projecting starting pitching vs. bullpen pitching is that, at this level, organizations tend to ask many of their pitchers to spend time in both roles. Nobody really knows for sure which pitchers have a Big League future as a starter and which will eventually find a role in the bullpen. In addition, the Twins will want to limit the number of innings many of their pitching prospects put on their arms during each minor league season. One way to accomplish that is to have even those pitchers clearly earmarked for rotation roles spend a chunk of each minor league season in the pen.

For our purposes, we’ll try to identify a number of pitchers that the Twins clearly are looking at developing as starting pitchers and then, in Part 6, we’ll include those that appear most likely to have futures working in relief.

David Hurlbut – Age 23 – Throws Left

2012: Beloit (Class A – MWL)

G GS ERA IP WHIP K H/9 K/9 BB/9
25 15 2.76 111.0 1.171 85 8.5 6.9 2.0

The Twins liked Hurlbut so much, they drafted him twice! Originally picked by the Twins as a junior college pitcher in the 35th round of the 2009 draft, Hurlbut chose to go to Cal State – Fullerton rather than sign with the Twins at that time. In 2011, the Twins used their 28th round pick to choose Hurlbut again and the lefty threw 66 innings in Elizabethton after signing that summer.

David Hurlbut

David Hurlbut

Hurlbut is one example of where the Twins have drafted a college relief pitcher and given him an opportunity to start. He pitched a full season at Beloit in 2012, racking up 111 innings in 25 games, 15 of them as a starter. He doesn’t have overpowering velocity, but his numbers at Beloit improved considerably over his Appy League season. His ERA dropped to 2.76 and his WHIP to 1.171, largely due to allowing almost three fewer hits per nine innings, compared to his Rookie level season.

So after a respectable year at Beloit, why wouldn’t the Twins promote David to Fort Myers in 2013? That’s a fair question and they may well do exactly that. This is simply one of those situations where it looks to me like the rotation in Fort Myers may be pretty crowded to start the year and Hurlbut may be the odd man out for a while. Of course, he could also start out in the Fort Myers bullpen. Even if he does start in CR, he certainly should be one of the first pitchers moved up when pitching spots open up for with the Miracle.

Tyler Jones – Age 23 – Throws Right

2012: Beloit (Class A – MWL)

G GS ERA IP WHIP K H/9 K/9 BB/9
18 16 4.67 86.2 1.442 102 9.3 10.6 3.6

Jones was drafted by the Twins in the 11th round of the 2011 draft out of LSU in time to get just four appearances in for Elizabethton that summer. It’s probably just as well he didn’t get more work in because his seven innings there did not go well at all. He spent the entire season in 2012 at Beloit, where things went much better, but there’s still much room for improvement.

One thing Tyler continues to do is rack up a good number of strikeouts. That’s the good news. Unfortunately, he also gave up better than a hit per inning of work and it wouldn’t hurt for him to figure out how to cut his walks a little, too. Jones throws two different fastballs and can touch the mid-90s, but reports are that his other pitches need to improve.

It’s possible that Jones could open the season in Fort Myers, but I doubt it. It would be tough to say he demonstrated the ability to consistently get outs in the MWL last year and the Twins should have no shortage of rotation options at the high-A level that are more advanced than Jones at this point. If he does start the season in CR, however, don’t expect him to stick around all summer. He’s got the talent to move up quickly if he can cut down on the baserunners he allows.

Taylor Rogers – Age 22 – Throws Left

2012: Elizabethton (Rookie – Appy) and Beloit (Class A – MWL)

G GS ERA IP WHIP K H/9 K/9 BB/9
15 10 2.27 63.1 1.105 74 7.5 10.5 2.4
Taylor Rogers

Taylor Rogers

Rogers was picked up by the Twins in the 11th round of 2012’s amateur draft out of the University of Kentucky and pitched his way through two levels in his first partial year of professional baseball. Rogers dominated hitters in six starts (covering 30 innings) at Elizabethton, striking out 11.7 hitters per nine innings. He continued to pitch well for Beloit, though, as you’d expect, hitters had more success against him at the higher level. Still, he continued to strike out more than a hitter per inning with Beloit.

Rogers isn’t overpowering with his fastball, but he’s obviously doing something right. The jury is probably still out on whether he’ll end up as a starter or reliever, but as long as his secondary pitches continue to be effective, you have to imagine the Twins will continue giving him opportunities to prove he belongs in future rotations.

Tim Shibuya – Age 23 – Throws Right

2012: Beloit (Class A – MWL)

G GS ERA IP WHIP K H/9 K/9 BB/9
17 15 5.59 74.0 1.392 56 10.7 6.8 1.8
Tim Shibuya

Tim Shibuya

Shibuya will be starting his third season in the Twins organization after being drafted in the 23rd round of the 2011 draft out of the University of California, San Diego. He has dealt with some injuries in both of his professional seasons, so it will be interesting to see if he can stay healthy all summer and, if so, what kind of numbers he can put up.

Shibuya seemed to run a little hot and cold in 2012. He had some very good outings, but too many that weren’t so good. In the end, over 74 innings of work, he racked up a pretty ugly 5.59 ERA and gave up 10.7 hits per nine innings. He had much better numbers in 2011 at Elizabethton, so he’s demonstrated some talent, but at 23, he’ll need to step up his game a bit in 2013. Staying healthy all season would be a good start.

Hudson Boyd – Age 20 – Throws Right

2012: Elizabethton (Rookie – Appy)

G GS ERA IP WHIP K H/9 K/9 BB/9
13 13 2.95 58.0 1.483 36 9.8 5.6 3.6

Boyd was a Supplemental 1st round pick (55th overall) by the Twins in the 2011 draft out of his Fort Myers FL high school, but didn’t sign with the Twins until just before the deadline that summer. As a result, 2012 was his first year of professional baseball. Rather than starting his career in his hometown with the GCL Twins, the big rightie went to Elizabethton after extended spring training.

Hudson didn’t exactly set the league on fire last summer and part of me thinks it wouldn’t be a terrible idea for the Twins to hold him back a bit and promote him to Cedar Rapids later. For a guy who reportedly has a high-90s fastball, he certainly didn’t miss all that many bats in E’town. His K/9 rate needs to be higher and he should not be giving up more than a hit per inning. Still, he didn’t give up all that many runs, so he’s doing something right.

The Twins historically push their top pitching prospects up the organizational ladder faster than they do their hitters. That being the case, I suspect we’ll see Hudson with the Kernels to start the season. Since he threw just 58 innings in 2012, he’s one of the guys we could see spend time both as a starter and in the bullpen during the course of the season. In fact, it’s quite possible he’ll project as a closer as he moves higher up the ladder.

Even after his mediocre first season, he’s still ranked among the Twins top 25 prospects on most such lists. That and his velocity should make him a fun pitcher for Kernels fans to watch.

Jose (J.O.) Berrios – Age 18 – Throws Right

2012: Fort Myers (Rookie – GCL) and Elizabethton (Rookie – Appy)

G GS ERA IP WHIP K H/9 K/9 BB/9
11 4 1.17 30.2 0.620 49 4.4 14.41.2 1.2

Berrios’ name appears very high on a number of Twins Top Prospects lists, as you’d expect for a pitcher drafted with a Supplemental 1st round pick in 2012 (32nd overall). JO was drafted out of his high school in Puerto Rico and spent most of the summer with the GCL Twins. He did, however, earn a promotion to Elizabethton toward the end of the year, where he got three starts in to help E’town finish off their championship season.

Berrios only started in half of his 14 appearances during the season, however, and as a result he only pitched a total of 30.2 innings. The 18-year-old struck out an amazing 14.4 hitters per nine innings (exceeding 14/9 at both levels) and barely walked more than one batter per nine innings. It’s hard to imagine the Twins pushing him too aggressively this season, so nobody will be surprised if he stays behind in extended spring training and perhaps even heads back to Elizabethton when they start their season in June. At the same time, if he pitches anything like he did last year, there’s little doubt he’ll be wearing a Kernels uniform before the end of the season.

Berrios is a legitimate top-of-the-rotation prospect… something the Twins have very few of in their organization. He won’t turn 19 until May, so the Twins won’t risk overworking the young man’s arm, but I also don’t see them hesitating to promote him to the next level as soon as he shows he can dominate hitters where he’s at. Enjoy him when you get to watch him, Kernels fans. He’s got a chance to be very special.

Angel Mata – Age 20 – Throws Right

2012: Elizabethton (Rookie – Appy)

G GS ERA IP WHIP K H/9 K/9 BB/9
13 13 3.38 53.1 1.219 55 5.2 9.3 5.7

After signing with the Twins as a teenager out of his native Venezuela, Mata spent 2010 in the Dominican Summer League and 2011 with the GCL Twins. At Elizabethton in 2012, he gave up slightly fewer hits per nine innings than he had been previously and even increased his strikeout rate by a full 2 Ks per 9. On the other hand, his walk rate also rose and, at 5.7 per nine innings, that’s a potential concern.

At just 20 years old, however, Mata has time to work on his control and the Twins organization can certainly use all the pitchers capable of missing bats that it can get. Mata has been almost exclusively used as a starting pitcher, thus far, but assuming he opens the season in Cedar Rapids, 2013 will be his first year of “full season” baseball. It will be interesting to see if the Twins limit his innings somewhat by having him spend at least part of the year working out of the bullpen.

That’s just seven names and we all know there will be more starting pitchers toeing the rubber for the Kernels in 2013. Some of the others will be covered in Part 6 when we look at guys that profile primarily as relievers. In addition, the following two pitchers are likely to get looks in Cedar Rapids this season, perhaps even to start the year.

Ricardo Arevalo was signed out of Venezuela in 2009. In three Rookie level seasons, he’s continued to rack up a lot of strikeouts (9.2 K/9 in 2012), but has also given up too many walks. Ricardo will be 22 years old by Opening Day and will probably need to show the organization some progress in the control department this year in Cedar Rapids.

I’m not sure how much of the US Hein Robb has seen during his three summers in Rookie level ball for the Twins organization, but the South Africa native has certainly seen a lot of the world. He played for South Africa’s entry in the World Baseball Classic as a 16-year-old and has continued to be active in international competition. The Twins signed the lefty in 2008 and he put up a 3.73 ERA for Elizabethton in 2012, starting eight games out of 13 appearances and striking out a respectable 8.3 hitters per nine innings.

Quite a list, isn’t it? There’s definitely pitching talent at this level in the Twins organization and we’ll see a lot of it this summer.

Next: We wrap up this series with a look at those pitchers most likely to spend most of their time pitching in relief for the Kernels in 2013.

– JC

P.S. Seth Stohs’ 2013 Minnesota Twins Prospect Handbook is now available for order! If you want to know more about the prospects we’ve profiled in this series, Seth and his fellow writers annually provide statistics and write-ups on pretty much every Twins prospect at all levels of the organization. You can order your copy of the Handbook by clicking here.

JC’s Top 15 Twins Prospects

Over the past couple of months, a number of smart, informed people who spend a lot of time analyzing young baseball players have been publishing their lists of top Twins prospects. Since I’m not nearly as smart or informed about these players as others are, I’ve held off on publishing my own rankings.

But I’m going to put my rankings out there today, for two reasons. First, I’ve now had time to read and consider the opinions of a lot of those smarter, more informed people and use the research and analysis they’ve done to help solidify my own opinions. Second, and perhaps more importantly, we’re still getting through a holiday season when many people are not bothering to go online and read blogs like ours, so if I write something really stupid, it’s less likely than usual to be noticed.

So without further delay, here’s my list of top Twins prospects heading in to the new year:

  1. Byron Buxton (OF) – It’s risky to elevate a player this high when he has yet to complete his first year of “full season” professional baseball, but the Twins first round pick from 2012 (and 2nd overall pick) was named top prospect of both rookie leagues, Gulf Coast and Appy, last year by Baseball America and that’s pretty hard to ignore. He doesn’t have the power of Miguel Sano, the consensus top Twins prospect for the past couple of years, but his potential as a centerfielder gives him an edge over Sano, who’s still a work in progress defensively. While Buxton could stay behind for extended spring training, I’m not sure he really has anything left to prove in Rookie leagues. He should spend most of the year in Cedar Rapids (A).

    Miguel Sano

    Miguel Sano

  2. Miguel Sano (3B) – Dropping Sano a spot from last year is simply a reflection of Buxton’s arrival rather than any red flags with regard to Sano. I saw Sano play several games in 2012 and saw nothing that would keep me from continuing to believe that he should someday claim a spot in the heart of the Twins batting order. We all know he can hit, but until I watched him several times, it didn’t really sink in to me just how well he runs the bases, as well. Midwest League pitchers seemed to pitch around him at times (for good reason), so it will be interesting to see how he fares against better pitching in Fort Myers (A+).
  3. Alex Meyer (P) – Acquired from the Nationals in return for Denard Span, Meyer immediately became the Twins’ best hope for a top of the rotation starting pitcher within the next couple of seasons. It has become evident that having a true ace… a pitcher who can miss bats consistently… gives a team a much better chance to compete for championships and Meyer has the potential to give the Twins such a weapon for the first time since Johan Santana was dealt to the Mets. It’s not going to happen right away, though, as Meyer didn’t exactly overwhelm hitters in the handful of starts he got at high-A last year. The Twins have invited him to open Spring Training in the Major League camp, but that almost certainly is simply to give the staff an initial look at the new guy. He may open the season at New Britain (AA), but I won’t be surprised if the Twins will keep him in Fort Myers (A+) to start the season with the hope that he’ll earn a quick promotion.
  4. Oswaldo Arcia (OF) – Arcia has been projected to be a future corner outfielder for the Twins, as he’s shown power and the ability to hit line drives in to the gaps, while demonstrating solid corner outfield skills with his legs, glove and arm. Arcia split time in 2012 between Fort Myers (high A) and New Britain (AA) and actually hit better at the higher level, where he put up a .328/.398/.557 split. Arcia really hadn’t been projected to arrive in Minnesota until at least 2014, but with the departures of Span and Ben Revere, the question now is whether Arcia’s path to The Show will be accelerated. I assume he’ll start the season in Rochester, but if he plays well there, look for him to be promoted to Minnesota if/when there are injuries or the Twins start trading away veterans like Justin Morneau or Ryan Doumit toward mid-season. To my mind, Arcia is the “position player” prospect most likely to make the earliest significant offensive impact on the Twins Major League roster.
  5. Aaron Hicks (OF) – Hicks was the Twins first round draft pick in 2008 as a high school player and his progression through the minor leagues has not been without some challenges. After a solid rookie league year after signing with the Twins, he spent the following two seasons at Class A Beloit, partially due to injury and partially due to unsatisfactory performance. In 2011, he had another lackluster season at Fort Myers (high A), leading his name to be dropped from many “top prospect” lists. In 2012, however, he put up a solid .286/.384/.460 split at AA New Britain and that was good enough, apparently, to restore the organization’s confidence in Hicks to the point where GM Terry Ryan felt comfortable trading away Span and Revere. I think it would be best for Hicks to spend some time at AAA this season, but it sounds like he’ll be given the opportunity to win the Twins CF job in Spring Training.
  6. Kyle Gibson (P) – Another first round (2009) pick of the Twins, Gibson’s career has been one full of promise… and injuries that seem intent on quashing that promise. A college injury resulted in his dropping to the Twins with the 22nd pick and after zipping through high-A, AA and AAA during the 2010 season, Gibson’s career was derailed by Tommy John surgery midway through his 2011 AAA season. He threw just over 28 innings across three minor league levels toward the end of 2012, with encouraging results and performed relatively well in the Arizona Fall League. There’s little doubt that he’ll get an opportunity to pitch for the Twins in 2013, but the Twins intend to limit his innings somewhat, so it may be 2014 before we see what Gibson can really do at the Major League level. It’s not unreasonable to expect him to be a mid-rotation starting pitcher for years to come. I’d like to see him open in Rochester (AAA), but won’t be surprised or disappointed to see him with the Twins to start the season.

    Eddie Rosario

    Eddie Rosario

  7. Eddie Rosario (2B/OF) – Since being drafted in 2010 out of his Puerto Rican high school, Rosario has put together 2 and a half seasons of solid work, hitting about .300 and tallying an even .900 OPS. Those would be pretty encouraging numbers for a centerfielder, which is what Rosario was drafted to play. But in 2012, the Twins asked Rosario to learn to play 2B in Beloit (A) and while his defense in the infield is still a work in progress, if he can successfully develop Major League level skills at 2B, his abilities with the bat could mean the difference between a “solid” CF and an “All-Star” 2B. This makes Rosario one of the most interesting players to watch as he takes his talent to Fort Myers (A+) this season.
  8. Jose (J.O.) Berrios (P) – Until Alex Meyer was acquired from the Nationals, Berrios was arguably the Twins’ best hope for a future top of the rotation pitcher. That probably says as much about the overall dearth of top pitching in the Twins organization as it does about Berrios, but nonetheless Berrios made a very impressive debut after being a supplemental first round pick by the Twins this past June. Berrios threw only 30.2 innings for the Twins two rookie league teams, starting four of the 11 games in which he made appearances. He struck out 49 batters in those innings, however, while walking only four and pitching to a WHIP of only 0.620. It will be interesting to see how quickly the Twins push the 18-year-old Berrios through the system. We may get an indication of their intent by watching to see if they send Berrios to Cedar Rapids (A) in April or keep him in Florida for extended spring training.
  9. Max Kepler (OF) – Kepler was signed as a teenager out of Germany and given the highest signing bonus ever for a European ballplayer the same offseason the Twins signed Miguel Sano. Kepler was not as developed as a ballplayer as Sano, however, and as a result, Kepler was spending his second short season at Elizabethton (rookie) in 2012, while Sano was playing his first year of full season ball in Beloit (A). In 2012, Kepler finally showed some of the promise the Twins saw in him before signing him, hitting just a couple clicks below .300, putting up a .925 OPS and hitting 10 home runs in 59 games. He reportedly has the skills to play some CF, but with the other CF prospects the Twins have in the pipeline, he’s probably more likely to fill a corner OF spot. Kepler will turn 20 years old a few weeks before he likely opens 2013 in the Cedar Rapids (A) outfield.
  10. Trevor May (P) – The 10th spot is probably not the right ranking for May, who was part of the return the Twins got for sending Ben Revere to the Phillies. In all likelihood, May should be ranked a few spots higher or several spots lower, depending on which version of this 23 year old pitcher shows up. If he’s the fireballing hurler who struck out between 12 and 13 hitters per nine innings at some stops of his minor league career and caused him to be a consensus “Top 100 overall prospect” at one time, he would project to join Alex Meyer at the top of a future Twins rotation. But if he’s the pitcher who walked almost five hitters per nine innings and posted a 1.450 WHIP for Reading (AA) in 2012, he would join the ranks of several other arms in the Twins organization that project to potentially fill back of the rotation spots in Minnesota down the line some time. I would think he would open the season at Rochester (AAA), but wouldn’t be shocked or even disappointed if the Twins let him open in New Britain (AA).

It’s a good sign for the Twins and the relative depth of their organization that a number of my picks for spots 11 through 15 this year have been ranked, by me and/or others, as top 10 Twins prospects previously. Each of these players have the potential to make significant contributions to the Twins sooner or later. Trying to distinguish these five guys from one another in a way to rank them 11-15, though, is just too much for my limited knowledge to do, so I’ll just list them alphabetically, along with where I would expect them to open the 2013 season.

  • Joe Benson (OF) – Rochester (AAA)
  • Travis Harrison (3B) – Cedar Rapids (A)
  • B. J. Hermsen (P) Rochester (AAA)
  • Chris Herrmann (C) – Rochester (AAA)
  • Randy Rosario (P) – Elizabethton (Rookie)

There’s a lot of baseball talent on this list and a number of other Twins prospects have a lot of potential, as well. It should be a fun year to follow all of the Twins’ minor league affiliates in 2013.

– JC