May 11, 2005

Minor League Update: Triple-A Rochester

One of the disappointing things about being a Twins fan is that you never have any dreams of your favorite team signing a big free agent. The Twins just don't do that, at least not since ... geez, I don't know, maybe Terry Steinbach and Paul Molitor? In other words, it's been a while. The flip side to that is, of course, that one of the nice things about being a Twins fan is that you can track the future of the franchise as they make their way up through the minor leagues.

For instance, this time last year Justin Morneau, Jesse Crain, Terry Tiffee, and Jason Bartlett were playing in the minors. This time two years ago it was Lew Ford, Michael Cuddyer, and Joe Mauer. Each offseason, veterans leave and prospects are asked to fill their spots on the roster. It is both good and bad, but it is definitely something that makes keeping an eye on the team's prospects a whole lot more interesting.

With a little more than a month in the books, I thought it would be worthwhile to take a team-by-team look at what's going on in the Twins' minor-league system. We'll start at the top today, with the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings, who are 17-15 and a game back in the International League North.

  • After seemingly coming out of nowhere to hit .311/.356/.593 in 122 games at Double-A New Britain last year, Garret Jones is off to a very good start this season. He is hitting a very similar .312/.350/.569 with seven homers and 14 total extra-base hits in 29 games. The problem with Jones -- and the thing keeping me from getting particularly excited about his hot start at Triple-A -- is that he continues to have absolutely no semblance of plate discipline or strike-zone judgment.

    He had a 98-to-28 strikeout-to-walk ratio at Double-A last year, and has a 35-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio so far this season. Jones appears to have as much power potential as anyone in the organization and that certainly makes him an intriguing prospect, but a 24-year-old hitter who is drawing a walk per week in the high minors and striking out four times for every free pass he gets isn't destined to become a star in the majors.

  • Here's what I wrote about Brent Abernathy when the Twins signed him to a minor-league deal with a non-roster invite to spring training this offseason:
    Though he's only a career .245/.295/.327 hitter in the majors, Abernathy hit .294/.357/.463 at Triple-A last year and there's a decent shot he could match Luis Rivas' production at second base in 2005 -- and he'd do it for about 20% of the cost. It'll never happen, of course -- he'll do a nice job for Triple-A Rochester.

    Sure enough, Abernathy is hitting .311/.376/.459 in 20 games at Rochester. And, sure enough, I doubt he has any chance of getting a look before September unless an injury hits.

  • Rochester's roster includes three hitters who played semi-significant roles for the Twins at times last year. Michael Ryan, who hit just .239/.280/.296 in 2004 after doing his Roy Hobbs impression in 2003, is hitting .277/.333/.494 in 25 games at Triple-A this season. Augie Ojeda, who surprised everyone by hitting .339/.429/.558 in 30 games filling in for an injured Nick Punto last season, is struggling to the tune of .145/.267/.197 in 27 games. Rob Bowen, who has looked horrible in brief stints with the Twins and may have a future as Mauer's backup, is hitting .273/.322/.382 in 16 games.
  • On the pitching side of things, Boof Bonser is doing surprisingly well so far at Rochester. Bonser was the third player acquired from the Giants for A.J. Pierzynski two offseasons ago, along with Joe Nathan and Francisco Liriano. He struggled quite a bit last year and sort of dropped off the prospect radar, but has bounced back nicely this season by going 3-0 with a 3.00 ERA and 32-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 33 innings. At the very least he now looks like a possible setup man down the road. When all is said and done, the Pierzynski trade will be one of the best in team history (if it isn't already).
  • On the other hand, J.D. Durbin has been a complete mess this year. It started when he couldn't find the plate in spring training and blew any chance he had of beginning the year with a big-league job, and his struggles have sadly continued at Triple-A. Durbin has a 4.66 ERA in six starts, which looks decent enough, but he has walked 15 batters and given up four homers in just 29 innings.

    Durbin's sudden inability to throw strikes is a major concern at this point, because he looked capable of stepping into the rotation on a full-time basis in 2006. His struggles are also why Scott Baker, who was 1-0 with a 1.33 ERA and 20-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in five Triple-A starts, was called up to sub for Juan Rincon this month.

  • Willie Eyre and Travis Bowyer are each making a strong case for a look in the bullpen during the second half. Eyre has a 3.27 ERA and 20-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 22 innings, while Bowyer has a 1.42 ERA and 24-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 19 innings. On the other hand, fellow reliever Beau Kemp is struggling with a 5.40 ERA and 8-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 15 innings.
  • Remember Dave Gassner, who had an impressive big-league debut subbing for an injured Carlos Silva and then got sent back down to Triple-A after a rough second start? He is 3-1 with a 4.98 ERA in four starts at Rochester, showing his typically outstanding control (three walks in 21.2 innings) while also not striking anyone out (nine strikeouts).
  • Bud Smith recently made his 2005 debut for the Red Wings. Some of you may remember Smith as the 21-year-old rookie who threw a no-hitter against the Padres back in 2001. He was one of the best left-handed pitching prospects in baseball back then and went 6-3 with a 3.83 ERA in 84.2 innings with St. Louis, finishing fourth in the NL Rookie of the Year balloting.

    Injuries have since sidetracked his career, and Smith has thrown a grand total of just 173.1 innings between the majors and minors since 2001, including just 16.2 innings last season. He last pitched in the majors back in 2002. I have no idea what sort of condition Smith's left shoulder is in, but he's still just 24 years old. If the Twins can get him back on track and turn him into something at the major-league level, it would be one hell of a pickup.

  • Overall, this current Rochester team is not a particularly strong one. Thanks to a lot of the Twins' best prospects getting the call to the majors over the past two years, the Red Wings have a surprising number of minor-league veterans (Jason Tyner, Todd Dunwoody, Jimmy Anderson, Corky Miller, Abernathy, Ojeda) and very few legitimate prospects. That could change as the year goes on, however, as some of the team's better prospects move up from Double-A or even Single-A in the next couple months.
  • UPDATE: Baseball Tonight researcher and friend of AG.com Mark Simon has a nice piece on Joe Nathan in today's "Baseball Tonight Extra." Go check it out (scroll down to the bottom).

    Today at The Hardball Times:
    - ¡Cuídate, Tony Peña! (by Craig Burley)
    - Ten Things I Didn't Know Last Week (by Studes)

    Today's Picks (31-21, +$1,075):
    Chicago (Garland) -120 over Baltimore (Chen)


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