June 26, 2015

Twins call up former top starter prospect Alex Meyer as a reliever

Alex Meyer Twins

Two weeks after calling up No. 1 prospect Byron Buxton the Twins have added another top-100 prospect to the roster, promoting 6-foot-9 flame-thrower Alex Meyer from Triple-A for his MLB debut. Stalled development and ongoing control problems from a 25-year-old starter repeating Triple-A prompted the Twins to shift Meyer from the rotation to the bullpen in late May and now after dominating International League hitters for a month as a reliever he's in Minnesota.

Meyer allowed just one earned run in nine appearances as a reliever, posting a 0.53 ERA with 20 strikeouts in 17 innings while holding opponents to a .188 batting average. He walked six batters in 17 innings, so control remained an issue in the bullpen, but the Twins are hoping that Meyer working 1-2 innings at a time will allow him to take his already overpowering fastball to another level while also lessening durability concerns.

When the Twins moved Meyer to the bullpen I wrote about how there's no shame in that switch for pitching prospects, particularly since nearly every standout reliever in Twins history--including current All-Star closer Glen Perkins--was originally a starter. General manager Terry Ryan and company haven't ruled out Meyer taking another crack at starting some day, but if things go well for him initially as a reliever odds are he'll remain in the bullpen long term.

Starters typically become relievers due to a combination of control problems, durability concerns, issues with secondary offerings, and the hope that shorter stints will lead to improved raw stuff. Meyer checks all of those boxes. He walked 4.0 batters per nine innings as a starter, had minor arm injuries in each of the past two seasons, figures to benefit from focusing on his slider as the complement to his fastball, and could reach triple-digits when not trying to pace himself.

Casey Fien and Blaine Boyer have done a solid job serving as Perkins' primary setup men, but realistically they'd be better fits as middle relievers. Meyer has true late-inning potential thanks to a high-90s fastball and power slider that generated 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings at Double-A and Triple-A. No reliever with 50 innings for the Twins from 2010-2015 had an average fastball above 95 miles per hour and here are the top strikeout rates by a reliever in Twins history:

Joe Nathan      10.9
Pat Neshek      10.5
Tom Hall        10.1
Glen Perkins     9.4
Johan Santana    9.1

Back in November of 2012 when the Twins acquired Meyer as a 22-year-old Single-A prospect from the Nationals in a straight-up trade for center fielder Denard Span they did so hoping he'd develop into a top-of-the-rotation starter capable of giving them 180-200 innings per season. That scenario became less and less likely--and now looks like an extreme long shot--but 60-80 innings of late-inning, high-velocity, high-strikeout bullpen work would have plenty of value too.

For more about the call-up timetables for the Twins' top prospects check out this special midweek "Gleeman and The Geek" episode that focuses entirely on the farm system.

June 3, 2015

Alex Meyer and the familiar path of starter prospects moving to the bullpen

Alex Meyer Twins

Alex Meyer was considered a potential top-of-the-rotation starter when the Twins acquired him from the Nationals in exchange for center fielder Denard Span in November of 2012. At the time he was a 22-year-old former first-round pick coming off a strong season at Single-A and rated as a consensus top-100 prospect. Meyer made his Twins debut at Double-A in 2013 and pitched well, but was limited to 13 starts by arm problems.

Meyer moved up to Triple-A last season and again pitched well, leading the International League in strikeouts, but shoulder problems caused him to miss a few starts and kept him from getting a September call-up to the Twins. This spring he was in the mix for an Opening Day rotation spot, but only technically, as the Twins clearly viewed Trevor May as the lone viable option among the prospects in camp and sent Meyer back to Triple-A well before final cuts.

His second go-around at Triple-A has been a mess. Meyer walked six batters in his first start of the season and walked five batters while failing to make it out of the fourth inning in his second start. He had a great third start, striking out 11 in six shutout innings, but then followed that up by allowing 25 runs in 25 innings in his next five starts. And those may prove to be his final five starts, because the Twins have shifted Meyer to Rochester's bullpen.

As a 6-foot-9 right-hander with a mid-90s fastball and shaky control Meyer being moved to the bullpen shouldn't shock anyone and in fact when the Twins traded for him there were already some prospect analysts who doubted he'd remain a starter long term. What makes the move so disappointing now is that Meyer overpowered Double-A and Triple-A hitters as a starter in 2013 and 2014, racking up 237 strikeouts in 200 innings, and was on the verge of the majors.

What also makes the move so disappointing is that Meyer represented the Twins' best chance to develop a young, top-of-the-rotation starter with powerful, bat-missing raw stuff in a depressingly long time. It was supposed to be a lineup built around Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano with a rotation built around Meyer. It's still possible that Meyer will wind up starting again, but for now his upside should be recalibrated from top-of-the-rotation starter to late-inning reliever.

And there's no shame in that. Part of the problem with pinning a team's hopes and dreams to the successful development of prospects is that half of them don't pan out at all and the half that do pan out often do so in different roles. Slick-fielding shortstop and center field prospects often turn into third basemen and left fielders. Power-hitting catcher prospects often turn into first basemen. And hard-throwing starting pitcher prospects often turn into relievers.

Across baseball the majority of the relievers in nearly any bullpen began their professional careers as starters and many of them have spent more of their careers as starters than as relievers. With any young pitcher the preference would be for them to thrive as a starter, but some combination of performance, durability, and temperament mean that many of those pitchers are more valuable succeeding in a 70-inning role rather than struggling or getting injured in a 200-inning role.

The greatest relief pitcher of all time, Mariano Rivera, spent five seasons starting in the minors and made his MLB debut starting for the Yankees as a 25-year-old. Rivera started 10 games with a 5.94 ERA, got moved to the bullpen, and turned out just fine. And if any team should know how well starters becoming relievers can go it's the Twins. There are six relievers in Twins history with 100 or more saves and all six of them--including their current All-Star closer--were starters.

Glen Perkins was a first-round draft pick after starring as a college starter at the University of Minnesota. He was exclusively a starter in the minors, twice cracking Baseball America's top-100 prospects list. Perkins got his feet wet in the majors as a reliever, but joined the rotation full time at age 25 and started 43 games between 2008 and 2009. He went 18-12 as a starter, but it came with an ugly 5.02 ERA and some injuries, leading to a permanent move to the bullpen in 2011.

Joe Nathan was a shortstop at Stony Brook University and became a pitcher in the minors before debuting with the Giants as a starter at age 24. He made 29 starts between 1999 and 2000 with a 4.60 ERA and more walks than strikeouts. Then he blew out his elbow, undergoing Tommy John surgery. Nathan returned in 2003 as a reliever, got traded to the Twins in 2004, and went on to save 377 games and make six All-Star teams while earning nearly $100 million.

Rick Aguilera was a starter at BYU, worked strictly as a starter in the minors, and spent his first three years in the majors starting for the Mets with a 31-17 record and a 3.59 ERA through age 25. Elbow problems in 1988 and a trade to Minnesota in 1989 led to him being moved to the bullpen and Aguilera had two successful stints as the Twins' closer separated by a trade to the Red Sox and a one-year experiment as a starter. He had MLB's second-most saves from 1990-2000.

Eddie Guardado made 73 appearances in the minors while coming up through the Twins' farm system and 72 of them were starts. He debuted at age 22 as a starter, but went 3-15 with a 6.95 ERA in 25 starts and was moved to the bullpen at age 24. In his first full season as a reliever he led the league in appearances with 83, earning the "Everyday Eddie" nickname, but it took him five years to progress from lefty specialist to setup man to closer at age 30.

Jeff Reardon was drafted out of high school by the Mets as a starter and spent his first two pro years starting, with decent results. He was shifted to the bullpen in his third pro season and after 30 relief appearances at Triple-A the Mets called him up at age 23. Reardon never started a game in the majors, making all 880 of his appearances out of the bullpen and saving 367 games to rank second in MLB history behind only Lee Smith at the time of his retirement.

Ron Davis was drafted by the Cubs as a starter and spent his first two-and-a-half pro seasons starting. He was traded to the Yankees while at Double-A and never started again, debuting later that season. He spent three years as a Yankees setup man, making the All-Star team at age 25, at which point the Twins traded Roy Smalley for Davis and made him their closer with painful results. Davis saved 108 games for the Twins, but it came with a 4.51 ERA and 19-40 record.

And if the above six closers with 100-plus saves in Minnesota aren't enough, the list of prominent Twins relievers who began their careers as starters also includes Matt Guerrier, Juan Rincon, J.C. Romero, Mike Trombley, Al Worthington, LaTroy Hawkins, and Brian Duensing. In fact, of the 14 pitchers in Twins history to make at least 250 appearances as relievers all but one of them started before they relieved, with Jesse Crain being the lone exception.

Whether they're making the right call at the right time with Meyer is uncertain, as is whether he'll thrive in that 70-inning role. As a 25-year-old with a history of arm issues and career-long control problems Meyer is no sure thing to stay healthy and thrive regardless of the role, but the Twins have been skeptical of his ability to develop into a valuable starter for a while now and there isn't much imagination required to envision him shutting down hitters out of the bullpen.

Check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode for talk about May's new approach, Oswaldo Arcia's role once he's healthy, and what happened to the Twins' pitching depth.

April 3, 2015

Season preview: Are the Twins ready to stop losing?

Paul Molitor

Nearly everyone involved with the Twins, from players and new manager Paul Molitor to general manager Terry Ryan and owner Jim Pohlad, seems convinced the team is poised to take a big step forward. Nearly everyone not involved with the Twins, from national writers and Las Vegas oddsmakers to numbers-driven projection systems and cranky local bloggers, seems convinced the team is headed for another last-place finish and possibly a fifth straight 90-loss season.

Sports Illustrated picks the Twins for last place and 67 wins. ESPN.com picks the Twins for last place and 68 wins. Baseball Prospectus projects the Twins for last place and 71 wins. Bovada sets the Twins' over/under win total at 72.5. FanGraphs projects the Twins for last place and 74 wins. Grantland picks the Twins for last place and "under 75 wins." CBS Sports picks the Twins for last place. Yahoo Sports picks the Twins for last place. You get the idea.

Last year the Twins were 72-90. Then they fired Ron Gardenhire after 13 seasons as manager, handed out the largest free agent contract in team history to 32-year-old Ervin Santana at $55 million over four years, brought back Torii Hunter for a $10.5 million reunion at age 39, signed 33-year-old reliever Tim Stauffer for $2.2 million, and bypassed young talent in favor of veteran mediocrity for every roster spot up for grabs in spring training.

Those are all the moves of an organization that's sick of losing and also sick of their plummeting fan morale and season ticket sales. They spent big on veterans and further delayed the arrival of prospects, leading to an Opening Day roster with just four players who're 25 years old or younger in shortstop Danny Santana, left fielder Oswaldo Arcia, designated hitter Kennys Vargas, and Rule 5 pick J.R. Graham.

This is a rebuilding team in the sense that the Twins have been very bad and are still attempting to get back on track, but it's anything but a young team. Kyle Gibson is the youngest member of the starting rotation at 27. Graham is the only member of the seven-reliever bullpen under 30. Six of the nine starting position players are at least 28. In terms of their collective average ages, the rotation is 30, the bullpen is 31, and the lineup is 29.

When the reality of the Twins' organizational collapse finally sunk in around mid-2012 or so the idea was that they'd be back to contending by now, but injuries ruined those plans. Joe Mauer's concussion derailed his career and turned him from a Hall of Fame-caliber catcher to a mediocre first baseman. Instead of making their MLB debuts Miguel Sano missed all of last year following elbow surgery and Byron Buxton missed all but 31 games with a wrist injury and a concussion.

Buxton and Sano will begin this season as teammates at Double-A, the Twins sent 25-year-old pitching prospects Alex Meyer, Trevor May, and Michael Tonkin back to Triple-A rather than trust them with roster spots that went to Tommy Milone, Mike Pelfrey, and Blaine Boyer, and after back-to-back Opening Day starts in center field Aaron Hicks is back in Rochester too. Toss in Arcia's development stagnating a bit and it's easy to see where the rebuild sputtered.

The good news is Buxton and Sano remain superstar-caliber prospects, Meyer and May still have enough upside to project as impact pitchers in some role, and there's another wave of prospects coming soon led by Jose Berrios, Jorge Polanco, and Nick Burdi. The bad news is none of that figures to actually help the Twins win many games before the All-Star break. Sadly, being a Twins fan in 2015 is still more about waiting for help to arrive than watching it play at Target Field.

Brian Dozier; Danny Santana

There's a lot of optimism surrounding the Twins' offense after the lineup produced the fifth-most runs in the American League last season, but building on or even duplicating that performance is hardly a sure thing. For starters, Santana was the only hitter on the team to crack an .800 OPS last season, coming out of nowhere to hit .319/.353/.473 as a rookie after batting .273/.314/.388 in the minors while failing to top a .725 OPS at Single-A, Double-A, or Triple-A.

Santana is good enough, young enough, and skilled enough to buy into reevaluating his upside compared to what his minor-league track record suggested, but his rookie success was still driven by an unsustainable .405 batting average on balls in play and came despite an ugly 98/19 K/BB ratio. The combination of a so-so track record, poor plate discipline, and a high batting average on balls in play makes him a prime regression candidate.

Brian Dozier also needs to fight his track record to show his 2014 was for real, albeit to a lesser extent than Santana. He was the Twins' best all-around position player, hitting .245/.345/.416 with 23 homers, 21 steals, 89 walks, and solid defense to rank among the top half-dozen second basemen in MLB. Clearly the Twins buy into Dozier's age-27 breakout, but prior to 2014 he hit just .240/.297/.384 in the majors and .232/.286/.337 at Triple-A.

Kurt Suzuki was another source of unexpectedly strong offense, hitting .288/.345/.383 to make his first All-Star team at age 30. As with Dozier the Twins bought into his resurgence with a new contract, but Suzuki hit .253/.313/.362 in the second half to resemble his measly .237/.294/.357 line from 2010-2013. Jordan Schafer's track record strongly suggests he'll be unable to repeat his 41-game Twins showing and Hunter is fighting father time at age 39.

All of which isn't to say the lineup lacks the ability to improve in spots. Mauer getting back to his usual self would be huge and he hit .300 with a .400 on-base percentage in his final 55 games. Arcia should take a step forward at age 24 and is capable of breaking out with a better approach. But for the most part more hitters are likely to decline than improve, some by wide margins. Of course, Buxton and Sano showing up in May or June ready to thrive could change everything.

Then there's defense, which has played an overlooked part in the Twins' struggles as the focus tends to be on the "pitching" rather than the run prevention of pitching plus defense. Combined from 2011-2014 the Twins ranked 28th in Ultimate Zone Rating at 90 runs below average and 24th in Defensive Runs Saved at 115 runs below average. They've been horrendous, especially in the outfield, which is doubly bad combined with fly-ball, strikeout-phobic pitching staffs.

Infield defense may not be bad because Dozier is solid at second base, Santana has the skills to be a plus shortstop, Trevor Plouffe showed big improvement at third base, and Mauer is fine at first base. However, the outfield is guaranteed to be a major weakness again. Arcia and Hunter were two of MLB's worst defensive corner outfielders last year and it's asking a lot of Schafer (or Hicks) to cover up their mess when he's actually gotten below average marks in center field.

Phil Hughes Twins

Last offseason the Twins gave a four-year, $49 million deal to Ricky Nolasco and a three-year, $24 million contract to Phil Hughes, and this offseason they took the uncharacteristic pursuit of free agent pitching even further by signing Santana for $55 million. Hughes got three years and $42 million tacked on to his previous deal following a breakout 2014 season and the Twins have Pelfrey and Milone under contract for a combined $8.5 million in 2015.

That's a lot of resources devoted to veteran starters and there's also a hidden cost that comes with having pitchers with guaranteed salaries locked into rotation spots that might otherwise be handed over to prospects. Hughes is signed through 2019, Santana is signed through 2018, Nolasco is signed through 2017, and even though Pelfrey and Milone aren't signed beyond this season the Twins were still hesitant to push them aside.

Hughes was a tremendous find on what was a very reasonable free agent contract that the Twins turned into a much bigger commitment. He logged 210 innings and pitched even better than his solid 3.52 ERA, striking out 186 and walking 16 for the best strikeout-to-walk ratio in the history of baseball. Asking for a repeat of that performance is wishful thinking, but Hughes seemed like a truly different pitcher last season and enters this year as a clear-cut No. 1 starter.

Santana was signed to take over the No. 2 spot and what he lacks in upside he makes up for in durability, although he's probably more of a No. 3 starter on a contending team. Nolasco looked like a No. 3 starter when the Twins gave him $49 million last offseason, but then pitched horribly for several months before revealing he was hurt and is now a question mark the Twins no doubt regret signing.

Gibson is the lone homegrown pitcher in the rotation and the former top prospect finally broke through last season to throw 179 innings in 31 starts. He was wildly inconsistent, but the end result was a 4.47 ERA in a league where the average starter was below 4.00. Inducing lots of ground balls helps Gibson make up for a lack of missed bats, but at age 27 and with just 5.4 strikeouts per nine innings his upside looks limited to the back of the rotation.

Milone beat out Pelfrey and May for the fifth spot and the soft-tossing left-hander will try to show that his awful post-trade performance for the Twins was due to a benign tumor in his neck that required surgery. Milone was a solid back-of-the-rotation starter for the A's, but Oakland's pitcher-friendly ballpark overstated his effectiveness and helped compensate for a mid-80s fastball. He has a 4.80 career ERA in non-Oakland ballparks.

If the goal was to put together a rotation less likely to be a disaster than the 2011-2014 versions the Twins absolutely accomplished that, but the price tags indicate they have much higher hopes and that may be pushing things. This is the worst rotation in the AL Central even if it's assumed Hughes will avoid turning back into a pumpkin and there isn't much upside unless Meyer and/or May hit the ground running soon. And compared to the bullpen the rotation is a strength.

Glen Perkins was one of the elite relievers in baseball for 3.5 seasons before melting down late last year while pitching through an injury. The bullpen desperately needs him to be his pre-injury self or things could get very ugly. Casey Fien is the primary setup man. Brian Duensing, who was a non-tender candidate, is the only lefty. Stauffer and Boyer have prominent roles and the Twins are hoping Pelfrey's one-pitch arsenal fits better in relief. It's an underwhelming group.

This should be the least-awful Twins team since 2010, but that's not saying much and confidence in even that mild statement dropped when they stacked the roster with Pelfrey, Milone, Duensing, Boyer, Schafer, Stauffer, Shane Robinson, Chris Herrmann, and Eduardo Nunez. That's a lot of self-imposed dreck for a team with better, younger options and there's a depressingly strong chance the same "are the Twins ready to stop losing?" question can be asked 365 days from now.

March 31, 2015

Opening Day roster takes shape as Twins choose veterans over upside

aaron hicks september1

Some were expected and some were unexpected, but all of the Twins' slew of roster moves skew toward veteran mediocrity. Jordan Schafer is the starting center fielder and Shane Robinson is his backup, with both Aaron Hicks and Eddie Rosario sent to Triple-A. Tommy Milone is the fifth starter, Mike Pelfrey stays on the roster as a reliever, and Blaine Boyer also has a bullpen spot, with Trevor May, Alex Meyer, and Michael Tonkin all sent back at Triple-A.

When viewed individually the moves have reasonable explanations, but collectively they signal that despite the switch from Ron Gardenhire to Paul Molitor the Twins still fetishize age and experience even when it comes attached to poor performances and nonexistent upside. This is a team projected to finish in last place following four straight 90-loss seasons and they're still doing whatever they can to delay fully turning the keys over to the prospects they've been stockpiling.

Two years ago the Twins traded away Denard Span and Ben Revere in the same offseason and handed Hicks the center field job at age 23 and with zero experience at Triple-A. He'd played very well that spring to help convince them it was the right move, but flopped once the games counted and was one of the worst rookies in Twins history. Last season, following another strong spring performance, the Twins handed Hicks the center field job again and he again struggled.

This time around it seemed like Hicks had the inside track on a third crack at the Opening Day gig, in part because Molitor seemed at least a little bit less fed up with Hicks than Gardenhire had been and in part because the alternatives were lacking. But when Hicks hit .206 this spring and failed to make some plays defensively they decided not to bother, demoting him back to Rochester while splitting center field between a 28-year-old waiver claim and a 30-year-old minor-league signing.

Schafer will get the bulk of the starts in center field after playing well in 41 games last year when the Twins claimed him off waivers from the Braves. Matching that .285/.345/.362 line while stealing bases and playing decent defense would make Schafer a solid regular, but the problem is that there's nothing in his track record to suggest he's anywhere near that capable offensively and his defensive numbers are sub par in center field.

Schafer has 1,400 plate appearances in the majors and has hit .229/.311/.310 with 360 strikeouts and 142 walks. And he was even worse at Triple-A, hitting .225/.278/.294 with 95 strikeouts and 35 walks in 120 games. He's been particularly helpless against left-handed pitching, hitting .167 off them as a big leaguer. If you're going to play Schafer regularly it should be only versus right-handed pitching, so in theory a platoon with the right-handed-hitting Robinson makes sense.

Robinson can't hit either, unfortunately. He's a .231/.303/.308 hitter in 452 plate appearances in the majors and a .266/.331/.377 hitter in 1,130 plate appearances at Triple-A. Spotting him only versus lefties would help Robinson in the same way that, say, only eating McDonald's twice a week would help a diet. If you're going to use Schafer and Robinson a righty/lefty platoon makes sense, but it's still probably going to be a really bad platoon.

Hicks' remaining window of opportunity with the Twins was narrow to begin with because they've got the best outfield prospect in baseball, Byron Buxton, starting the year at Double-A, but the Twins couldn't even stand to let Hicks keep the position warm until Buxton is ready. That doesn't mean Hicks is a totally lost cause any more than handing him the Opening Day job in 2013 (or 2014) meant he was totally ready to thrive, but it does mean he might be done in Minnesota.

As more and more people jump on the "Hicks just can't hit MLB pitching" bandwagon, it's worth noting that he already has hit MLB pitching as long as it's left-handed. Hicks has a .758 career OPS off lefties, which is higher than, among others, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. And the switch-hitter had similar splits in the minors. If there's any role for which Hicks is actually suited it's platooning against lefties, but instead the Twins will use Robinson in that same role.

For all the talk of Rosario having an impressive spring training he ended up hitting .233/.227/.442 with nine strikeouts and zero walks in 17 games. Spring training numbers aren't worth much and there's certainly plenty he could have done outside of actual games to impress the Twins' coaches, but when your batting average is higher than your on-base percentage and your strikeout-to-walk ratio is infinity that suggests there's some more development needed.

Rosario also struggled at Double-A last season, missing the first 50 games while suspended for marijuana and then hitting just .237/.277/.396 with a 68/17 K/BB ratio in 79 games. Perhaps the spring hype surrounding Rosario was mostly driven by the team's lack of faith in Hicks and their hope that Rosario would step forward as an alternative. Instead they saw what his track record shows, which is a talented 23-year-old with lots of rough edges and zero high-minors success.

Tommy Milone Twins

Milone was horrible for the Twins after they acquired him from the A's for Sam Fuld on July 31, but it was revealed later that he was pitching hurt and needed surgery to remove a benign tumor from his neck. Prior to the trade Milone was a solid back-of-the-rotation starter, albeit one with mid-80s velocity and little upside. He's still relatively young at 28 and still relatively cheap at $3 million, but the Twins have younger, cheaper, higher-upside options in May or Meyer.

Pelfrey made it clear that he's upset about being moved to the bullpen, saying the Twins never intended to make the fifth starter competition a fair fight. He might be right, but certainly there was no bias against Pelfrey when the Twins signed him for $5 million and then re-signed him for $11 million. He's given them plenty of reason for bias during the past two seasons by going 5-16 with a 5.56 ERA and getting hurt.

Pelfrey is a 31-year-old former top-10 draft pick who's spent a decade in the majors without ever making more than two relief appearances in a season, so it's easy to see why he'd be against the idea of full-time bullpen work. However, given his lack of success as a starter, durability concerns following multiple injuries, and career-long inability to develop useful secondary pitches to pair with a hard fastball relief work may suit him best. Or at least less bad.

He throws basically one pitch and that tends not to cut it as a starter, which is why Pelfrey has a 4.56 career ERA with 5.2 strikeouts per nine innings. However, being a one-pitch pitcher can be much less of an issue when you're only working an inning at a time and if Pelfrey can follow in the footsteps of many starters-turned-relievers by adding 2-3 miles per hour to his fastball the Twins might have something. Or he might just be a bad pitcher. You know, Occam's razor and all.

May is 25 years old with 400 innings between Double-A and Triple-A, and amid an awful overall debut he posted a 41/9 K/BB ratio in his final 37 innings. Meyer is also 25 and started 27 games at Triple-A last season, leading the league in strikeouts. Neither is a can't-miss prospects by any means, but they've pitched well in the minors, throw hard while generating strikeouts, and unlike Milone or Pelfrey might actually be part of the next good Twins team.

Tonkin and his mid-90s fastball are going back to Triple-A for a third straight season at age 25 despite being good there with a 3.48 ERA and 82/20 K/BB ratio in 78 innings and being good for the Twins when given a chance with a 3.26 ERA and 26/9 K/BB ratio in 30 innings. They opted to keep Boyer, a 33-year-old journeyman with a 4.63 ERA, poor control, and just 191 strikeouts in 274 innings who was signed to a minor-league deal in January.

Spring training presented the Twins with plenty of opportunities to fill the margins of the roster with younger, unproven, higher-upside players, many of whom already have significant Triple-A experience. May and Meyer were viable fifth starter and long reliever options. Hicks and Rosario each could have started or platooned in center field. Tonkin could have taken his first extended shot at a setup role and there were also several other intriguing bullpen candidates.

Instead they'll all keep waiting, often in Rochester for a second or third go-around, in favor of proven veteran mediocrity like Pelfrey, Milone, Schafer, Eduardo Nunez, Boyer, and Robinson. Barring last-minute changes the Opening Day roster will include a grand total of just four players who're 25 years old or younger: Designated hitter Kennys Vargas, shortstop Danny Santana, left fielder Oswaldo Arcia, and Rule 5 pick J.R. Graham. Twins will have to keep waiting too.

For a lengthy--and surprisingly heated--discussion of the Twins' roster decisions, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

March 4, 2015

Top 40 Twins Prospects of 2015: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1

Also in this series: 6-10, 11-15, 16-20, 21-25, 26-30, 31-35, 36-40.

5. Kohl Stewart | Starter | DOB: 10/94 | Throws: Right | Draft: 2013-1

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2013     RK-     6      3     1.69      16.0      12      0      16      3
         RK+     1      1     0.00       4.0       1      0       8      1
2014     A-     19     19     2.59      87.0      75      4      62     24

Considered the top high school prospect in the 2013 draft, the Twins selected Texas right-hander Kohl Stewart fourth overall after college stars went 1-2-3. On draft day scouting director Deron Johnson described Stewart's ceiling as "unlimited" and he signed for $4.5 million, bypassing a chance to follow in Johnny Manziel's footstep as Texas A&M's quarterback. Stewart had a great pro debut with a 1.35 ERA and 24/4 K/BB ratio in 20 rookie-ball innings.

He moved up to low Single-A last season and on the surface Stewart had similar success, posting a 2.59 ERA in 19 starts and holding opponents to a .233 batting average. However, he managed just 62 strikeouts in 87 innings, struggled to maintain peak fastball velocity, and was shut down with shoulder problems. High school pitchers make risky top-10 picks for a reason and Stewart failed to crack Baseball America's annual top-100 prospects list after placing 52nd last year.

Along with the sub par strikeout rate he did induce plenty of ground balls and allow just 17 total extra-base hits in 360 plate appearances, so if the shoulder issues prove minor Stewart's first full season was hardly a disaster. If not for the hype attached with being a top-five pick simply holding his own against low Single-A hitters as an 19-year-old with 20 post-high school innings under his belt would be very encouraging.

4. Alex Meyer | Starter | DOB: 1/90 | Throws: Right | Trade: Nationals

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2012     A-     18     18     3.10      90.0      68      4     107     34
         A+      7      7     2.31      39.0      29      2      32     11
2013     AA     13     13     3.21      70.0      60      3      84     29
2014     AAA    27     27     3.52     130.1     116     10     153     64

Acquired from the Nationals in exchange for Denard Span two offseasons ago, Alex Meyer was the 23rd pick in the 2011 draft out of the University of Kentucky and the 6-foot-9 right-hander with a mid-90s fastball has a 3.14 ERA with 420 strikeouts in 364 innings as a pro. Last year he made 27 starts at Triple-A and struck out 153 in 130 innings, leading the International League in strikeouts and strikeout rate. Yet he's already 25 years old and hasn't debuted in the majors.

Poor control and some nagging arm issues have certainly delayed Meyer's arrival to the majors, but when a last-place team has a top-50 prospect make 27 starts at Triple-A as a 24-year-old that rightfully raises eyebrows. For some context: In the majors last season 750 games were started by a pitcher younger than Meyer and he's less than six months older than Madison Bumgarner. Meyer is a very good prospect who's almost too old to be considered a very good prospect.

Meyer has an overpowering fastball that approaches triple-digits, his slider and knuckle-curveball receive praise, and his changeup is said to be improving. And coming from a 6-foot-9 frame adds a little extra to every pitch. If he can stay healthy and harness his dominant raw stuff Meyer has top-of-the-rotation potential, but shifting to the bullpen to unleash his fastball even further gives him a late-inning relief role to fall back on if needed.

3. Jose Berrios | Starter | DOB: 5/94 | Throws: Right | Draft: 2012-1

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2012     RK-     8      1     1.08      16.2       7      0      27      3
         RK+     3      3     1.29      14.0       8      1      22      1
2013     A-     19     19     3.99     103.2     105      6     100     40
2014     A+     16     16     1.96      96.1      78      4     109     23
         AA      8      8     3.54      40.2      33      2      28     12

Jose Berrios was the Twins' "other" 2012 first-round pick, going 30 spots after Byron Buxton in the compensatory slot received for losing Michael Cuddyer via free agency. He's six-foot-nothing on a good day, but Berrios regularly works in the mid-90s with his fastball and complements it with a good curveball and changeup. Not yet 21 years old, he spent much of 2014 at Double-A, made a cameo at Triple-A, and was named the Twins' minor league pitcher of the year.

Berrios dominated high Single-A hitters to begin last season, starting 16 games with a 1.96 ERA and 109/23 K/BB ratio in 96 innings while holding opponents to a .218 batting average. He was one of just three 20-year-olds to make at least 15 starts in the Florida State League and then in July he moved up to Double-A, where he was the youngest pitcher in the Eastern League to throw more than 40 innings.

Even with a poor season-ending start at Triple-A included his overall numbers were brilliant for a 20-year-old, with a 2.77 ERA and 140/38 K/BB ratio in 140 innings. Berrios is often overshadowed within the Twins' system, but he'd be the No. 1 prospect for a lot of teams and could be knocking on the door to the majors in the second half. It's subjective, of course, but Berrios' mix of upside and polish makes him arguably the Twins' top pitching prospect since Matt Garza in 2007.

2. Miguel Sano | Third Base | DOB: 5/93 | Bats: Right | Sign: Dominican

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2012     A-     553     .258     .373     .521     28     60     80    144
2013     A+     243     .330     .424     .655     16     33     29     61
         AA     276     .236     .344     .571     19     37     36     81

As a 20-year-old Miguel Sano destroyed Single-A and was one of the best hitters at Double-A in 2013, hitting .280/.382/.610 with 35 homers and 65 walks. Last spring he arrived in Fort Myers on the verge of the majors, but elbow problems that first popped up during winter ball worsened early in camp and Sano underwent Tommy John surgery. He missed the entire season, losing a crucial year of development at age 21, and must now re-establish himself as an elite prospect.

Sano's chances of sticking at third base always seemed iffy given his 6-foot-5, 250-pound frame and now his arm strength, which had been his main asset defensively, may be diminished by the elbow surgery. The good news is that Sano's upside offensively is high enough that even being forced to move from third base to right field or first base would leave plenty of room for stardom, although he certainly also has lots to prove at the plate following a lost year.

You won't find prospects with more power potential than Sano, but his .268 batting average and 286 strikeouts in 252 games above rookie-ball are possible red flags. Or at least reasons to pause dreams about Sano turning into the next Miguel Cabrera. There are only six active right-handed hitters with a batting average below .270 and an OPS above .800: Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, Nelson Cruz, Josh Donaldson, Carlos Quentin, and Mike Napoli.

1. Byron Buxton | Center Field | DOB: 12/93 | Bats: Right | Draft: 2012-1

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2012     RK-    102     .216     .324     .466      4     11     11     26
         RK+     87     .286     .368     .429      1      8      8     15
2013     A-     321     .341     .431     .559      8     33     44     56
         A+     253     .326     .415     .472      4     16     32     49
2014     A+     134     .240     .313     .405      4     10     10     33

This time last year Byron Buxton was MLB's consensus No. 1 prospect after hitting .334 with 49 extra-base hits, 55 steals, and 76 walks between two levels of Single-A as a 19-year-old. Then a spring training wrist injury that was supposed to be minor knocked him out for most of the first half. He returned to Single-A for 30 games and hit just .240, at which point the Twins promoted him to Double-A and he suffered a concussion from a brutal outfield collision in his first game.

While not a totally lost season like Miguel Sano experienced, Buxton played poorly when not sidelined by two significant injuries and now faces the same post-concussion question marks that loomed over Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Denard Span. The good news is Buxton is still just 21 years old. He'll begin this season as one of the youngest players at Double-A or Triple-A and could be the first 21-year-old with 100 plate appearances for the Twins since Mauer in 2004.

Thanks to the rough 2014 he's no longer MLB's consensus No. 1 prospect, but Buxton still claims the top spot on several prominent lists and holds a top-three spot everywhere. Upsides simply do not get much higher than a Gold Glove center fielder with a middle-of-the-order bat and 50-steal speed, and before the injuries he showed more plate discipline and power than expected in the early stages of his development. He has franchise-lifting talent if he can just stay healthy.

For a lengthy discussion about what to expect from Miguel Sano following a lost season, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

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