August 22, 2005
One constant during the Twins' recent run of success has been the abundance of quality position-player prospects in the organization. Through shrewd drafting, good trades, and outstanding player development, the Twins have had a long list of hitters come up through the minor leagues before making an impact in the majors.
Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Torii Hunter, Jacque Jones, Michael Cuddyer, Jason Bartlett, Matthew LeCroy, Lew Ford, and Luis Rodriguez on the current team, with Jason Kubel's knee injury keeping him from making the same list. A.J. Pierzynski, Doug Mientkiewicz, Corey Koskie, Cristian Guzman, Bobby Kielty, Dustan Mohr, and David Ortiz in the past. The list goes on and on, and is a huge part of why the Twins are on their way to a fifth straight winning season after eight years of losing.
While the Twins have certainly developed their fair share of pitching too, the influx of pitching prospects hasn't been nearly as strong. For instance, trades and free agent signings brought in established major leaguers like Joe Nathan, Rick Reed, Kenny Rogers, Carlos Silva, and Terry Mulholland. And many of the homegrown pitchers -- Brad Radke, Eric Milton, Joe Mays, Eddie Guardado, Latroy Hawkins -- were around long before the winning started.
Things like this tend to run in cycles though, and the next group of major-league ready prospects are pitchers. Most importantly, with Mays and Kyle Lohse likely headed for free agency this offseason, help is on the way in the form of starting pitchers. In fact, the Twins are as stacked with major-league ready starter prospects as any team in baseball and Triple-A Rochester's rotation would be an upgrade over the group at least a few big-league teams are trotting out.
The staff is ace is lefty Francisco Liriano, who came over from San Francisco in the Pierzynski-for-Nathan deal and has established himself as one of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball this season. Liriano began the year at Double-A, posting a 3.64 ERA and 92-to-26 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 76.2 innings, and then moved up to Triple-A. Since arriving at Rochester, he has been the most dominant pitcher in the high minors:
GS IP W L ERA SO BB HR OAVG
12 79.0 8 1 1.59 93 22 2 .160
I see those extraordinary numbers from a 21-year-old southpaw at Triple-A and can't help but start dreaming about Johan Santana and Liriano back-to-back in the Twins' rotation. With 25 starts between Double-A and Triple-A this year and seven starts at Double-A during the second half of last season, Liriano now has a full-season's worth of starts in the high minors:
GS IP ERA SO BB H HR
32 195.1 2.72 234 65 158 12
Expecting Liriano to keep up his current pace at Triple-A is obviously silly, but he has now been a dominant starting pitcher in the high minors for 195.1 innings spread over 32 starts, all before his 22nd birthday. Liriano is no Felix Hernandez, but there isn't another pitching prospect in baseball who is better and closer to the majors.
Of course, the guy at Rochester who has actually held his own in the majors already is Scott Baker, who stepped into the rotation for two spot starts earlier this year and went 1-1 with a 2.77 ERA and 10-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 13 innings. Baker is two years older than Liriano and doesn't have the same top-shelf stuff, but it's tough to argue with what he's done between Double-A and Triple-A over the past two seasons:
GS IP ERA SO BB H HR
40 252.2 3.28 210 54 224 20
I'd like to see a few more strikeouts, but the 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio is nice and 224 hits allowed in 252.2 innings (with just 20 of them being homers) is good to see. From his numbers and the way he's handled himself in the two spot starts, I have no doubt that Baker is ready to begin his career as a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter.
Behind Liriano and Baker, the Red Wings have one former top prospect who had dropped off the radar before a comeback 2005 season and another former top prospect who has dropped off the radar because of a disappointing 2005 season. This time last year J.D. Durbin was as highly thought of as Baker, and perhaps even more so. He had breezed through the low minors and more than held his own at Double-A and Triple-A, all before his 23rd birthday.
Then he got knocked around in a brief stint with the Twins at the end of last season, struggled to throw strikes at spring training this year, and put together a horrible first half at Rochester. He's pitched much better of late and his overall numbers have climbed back to respectability, but Durbin's season has still been very underwhelming
Durbin has been limited to just 87 innings because of injuries and ineffectiveness, posting a 4.55 ERA and 74-to-48 strikeout-to-walk ratio while allowing 83 hits. The hit total is solid and the strikeout rate is decent, but his control problems over the last year and a half are very concerning and he has definitely slipped behind Baker in the Twins' long-term plans. In fact, if the Twins are going to trade a pitching prospect for lineup help, either now or this offseason, I would bet on Durbin leaving.
Back in 2002, I ranked Boof Bonser as the 44th-best prospect in baseball. That was when he was with the Giants, and in addition to being part of the incredible package the Twins got for Pierzynski, Bonser has since seen his prospect stock drop quite a bit. Despite a solid year at Double-A in 2004, he came into this season as an afterthought with almost zero expectations. He has put his name back on the prospect map with a very nice year at Rochester:
GS IP ERA SO BB H HR
26 149.1 4.10 156 54 145 21
Interestingly, Bonser's 2005 season at Triple-A looks very similar to his 2004 season at Double-A:
GS IP ERA SO BB H HR
27 154.1 4.37 146 56 160 22
He's cut his hits and upped his strikeouts, but the biggest difference is doing it two seasons in a row while moving up to the highest level of the minors. The concerns with Bonser are his relatively high ERAs and the fact that he's served up 21 and 22 homers in just 149.1 and 154.1 innings (whereas Baker has given up just 20 homers in his last 252.2 innings). Beyond that, however, there is an awful lot to like about Bonser as a potential fourth or fifth starter.
With Mays and Lohse likely (hopefully?) gone after this season and Radke's contract up after 2006, I could definitely envision the Twins' 2007 starting rotation consisting of Santana, Silva, Liriano, Baker, and Durbin/Bonser. Hopefully by that point the next wave of hitting prospects -- Kubel, Matt Moses, Denard Span, Alex Romero -- are ready to step into the lineup, and the cycle can start all over again.
Today at The Hardball Times:
- Come On, Baby! Let's Do the Splits! (by Steve Treder)