March 6, 2013

Top 40 Twins Prospects of 2013: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1

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

5. 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

Alex Meyer split his pro debut between two levels of Single-A, posting a 2.86 ERA and .211 opponents' batting average with a 139-to-45 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 129 innings. And then 17 months after giving Meyer a $2 million signing bonus as the 23rd pick in the 2011 draft--seven spots ahead of where the Twins took infielder Levi Michael--the Nationals sent the 6-foot-9 right-hander to Minnesota in exchange for Denard Span.

Meyer regularly works in the mid-90s, topping out close to triple-digits, and Baseball America's season review of the South Atlantic League praised his "wipeout slider in the mid-80s" and noted that his changeup "could become an average third pitch." Keith Law of ESPN.com described Meyer as a "potential frontline starter," writing that "his slider is filthy, a bona fide out pitch" and "his changeup has improved to the point where it's probably a future-average pitch."

His control was very shaky at the University of Kentucky, but Meyer's walk rate was a respectable 3.1 per nine innings in his pro debut and he also induced 52 percent ground balls. Expectations should be held in check considering Meyer hasn't even thrown a pitch above Single-A yet, but he immediately becomes the Twins' top pitching prospect and is arguably the organization's best, highest-upside pitching prospect since Matt Garza in 2006.

4. Aaron Hicks | Center Field | DOB: 10/89 | Bats: Switch | Draft: 2008-1

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2010     A-     518     .279     .401     .428      8     41     88    112
2011     A+     528     .242     .354     .368      5     41     78    110
2012     AA     563     .286     .384     .460     13     45     79    116

Last year at this time Aaron Hicks' stock had gradually slipped due to questions about his low batting averages, modest power, perceived passiveness at the plate, and lopsided splits as a switch-hitter. He answered all those questions and then some at Double-A, batting .286 with 13 homers, 45 total extra-base hits, 32 steals, and 79 walks in 129 games while posting an .828 OPS from the left side and an .881 OPS from the right side.

His season was so encouraging that the Twins surprisingly traded both Denard Span and his assumed center field replacement Ben Revere, suggesting they believe Hicks will be ready for the majors in 2013. Whether that's Opening Day or midseason or September remains to be seen, but the former first-round pick has the range and arm strength to be a defensive asset right now, at age 23, and made major strides offensively in New Britain.

His defense has always gotten very positive reviews, as Hicks combines plus range with an arm that had some teams liking him more as a pitcher coming out of high school. He strikes out quite a bit and may never hit for great batting averages, but Hicks has drawn a ton of walks at every level and has the speed to take advantage of his on-base skills. If last year's power development sticks he has a chance to be a star and if not he should be a solid regular for a long time.

3. Oswaldo Arcia | Right Field | DOB: 5/91 | Bats: Left | Sign: Venezuela

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2010     RK+    283     .375     .424     .672     14     42     19     67
2011     A-      81     .352     .420     .704      5     14      9     16
         A+     227     .263     .300     .460      8     24      9     53
2012     A+     235     .309     .376     .517      7     26     23     45
         AA     299     .328     .398     .557     10     35     28     62

Generally speaking few organizations promote prospects slower than the Twins, but every once in a while they veer from that approach with a special player and that's how Oswaldo Arcia reached Double-A a month after his 21st birthday last season. Arcia has produced at every level since the Twins signed him out of Venezuela as a 16-year-old in 2007, hitting .314/.371/.535 in 374 career games despite constantly facing older, more experienced competition.

For much of that time he put up big numbers despite ugly strikeout-to-walk ratios, but that's not uncommon amid aggressive promotions and last season Arcia walked more and struck out less to cement his status as an elite hitting prospect. He batted .328/.398/.557 in 69 games at Double-A, becoming the first prospect to top a .950 OPS in the Eastern League at 21 or younger since David Wright in 2004. Wright is now 30 years old and a six-time All-Star.

Arcia still has some work to do in terms of making consistent contact and handling left-handed pitching, but everything else about his performance and age relative to the levels of competition suggest he'll develop into a middle-of-the-order bat. And while he had to shift to right field after starting out as a center fielder he should add some value defensively too, with solid range and a strong arm.

2. 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

Given their choice of college starting pitchers with the No. 2 pick in June's draft the Twins went for long-term upside over short-term need, taking Georgia high school center fielder Byron Buxton. He hit over .500 as a senior and struck out 18 batters in a seven-inning complete game to win the state championship as a pitcher, with Baseball America, ESPN, and MLB.com all ranking Buxton as the best player in what was considered a weak overall draft class.

Buxton signed quickly for a $6 million bonus that's the highest in franchise history and played in two levels of rookie-ball for his debut, totaling 19 extra-base hits, 19 walks, and 11 steals in 48 games at age 18. He also struck out 41 times and hit .248, but the power, patience, and speed were all very encouraging considering the pre-draft questions about the low level of competition he faced in high school and the fact that he was picked mostly for his physical tools.

He'd be the clear No. 1 prospect for many and perhaps even most teams, but my rankings tend to be somewhat conservative with players who've yet to face full-season competition and ... well, the guy in the Twins' top spot is pretty good. Buxton has immense upside as a potential five-tool center fielder, the early returns are positive, and the Twins were right to pass on non-elite college arms for him, but he's still a very long way from the big leagues and very far from a sure thing.

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

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2010     DSL     80     .344     .463     .547      3      6     14     17
         RK-    161     .291     .338     .466      4     18     10     43
2011     RK+    293     .292     .352     .637     20     45     23     77
2012     A-     553     .258     .373     .521     28     60     80    144

After crushing rookie-ball pitching to establish himself as an elite prospect Miguel Sano moved up to full-season competition at low Single-A and had the second-highest OPS in the Midwest League. He got off to a huge start, slumped for a couple months, and then finished strong while the Twins opted against a second-half promotion to high Single-A. His high strikeout total and low batting average were disappointing, but Sano had 80 walks and a league-leading 28 homers at age 19.

To put that production at Sano's age in context, consider that since 2000 only seven hitters have topped his .893 OPS as teenagers in the Midwest League, including Mike Trout, Prince Fielder, and current stud prospects Wil Myers and Oscar Taveras. That doesn't guarantee stardom, but it shows just how rare it is for a 19-year-old to be among the best hitters in a full-season league and why there's no reason to fret about a .258 batting average or lack of consistent contact yet.

There is reason to wonder about Sano's long-term home defensively, as reviews of his range and glove at third base are mixed at best and given his size a move to right field or first base looms as a strong possibility. For now the Twins will give him more time at third base in the hopes that his arm strength and athleticism can carry him, but ultimately Sano's ceiling is so offense-driven that sliding down the defensive spectrum won't change much. He's the real deal.


This week's blog content is sponsored by Rotoworld's annual "Fantasy Baseball Draft Guide," which is available in both magazine and online versions. Please support them for supporting AG.com.

December 6, 2012

Twins trade Ben Revere to Phillies for Vance Worley and Trevor May

In trading Denard Span to the Nationals last week for pitching prospect Alex Meyer the Twins cleared the way for Ben Revere to take over as the everyday center fielder and leadoff man, sacrificing some of their strong outfield depth to address an organization-wide lack of quality pitching. And now it turns out Terry Ryan and company were willing to take that approach one step further, trading Revere to the Phillies for Vance Worley and Trevor May.

Rather than viewing Revere as the long-term replacement for Span the Twins apparently view former first-round pick Aaron Hicks as the long-term replacement for both of them. And rather than waiting until Hicks was clearly ready to replace them--he just turned 23 years old and played at Double-A this year--they moved early to add a middle-of-the-rotation starter for now in Worley and a high-upside prospect for later in May.

Revere predictably was an immediate fan favorite thanks to blazing speed, batting average-fueled offense, and warm smile, but his upside has always been limited by an extreme lack of power and arm strength. Through two seasons he hit .278, but that comes with zero homers, 33 total extra-base hits, and 57 walks in 1,064 plate appearances. Even while hitting .298 this year Revere had a mediocre .333 on-base percentage and measly .342 slugging percentage.

Stealing tons of bases at a good clip makes up for some of that weak production at the plate and Revere's excellent range in center field means that he doesn't have to hit much to hold significant all-around value. However, his terrible arm takes a chunk out of that still-impressive defensive value and there's only so much room for a young hitter to grow when he can barely reach the warning track with fly balls.

Because of his skill set Revere basically has to hit .280-.300 to be an above-average regular and between his elite speed and contact skills he's a good bet to do that, but even then his ceiling is more or less Juan Pierre. Good player? Absolutely. Indispensable building block? Not really. And he still has work to do before reaching the Pierre level. Revere is a good player and an awful lot of fun to watch, but it's difficult to envision him developing much further.

Revere will be missed, just as Span will be missed, but even with both on the team the Twins weren't going to contend in 2013 and were going to struggle to contend in 2014 and beyond if they didn't find a way to bring in some high-upside pitching. Both trades accomplish that and if Hicks stays on his current trajectory he'll be starting in center field soon enough anyway, with one-time top prospect Joe Benson still looming as another potential option.

Hicks took a big step forward this year, hitting .286 with 13 homers, 45 total extra-base hits, 79 walks, and 32 steals in 129 games at Double-A as a 22-year-old and he's considered a very good defender with an exceptional arm. He'll begin 2013 at Triple-A unless the Twins rush him to the majors to replace Span and Revere, and in the meantime they can turn to Darin Mastroianni (or Benson if he can get healthy and back on track) to keep the position warm.

Mastroianni is a question mark defensively and will almost certainly be a dropoff from Span or Revere in center field, but his .252/.320/.350 line in 186 plate appearances as a part-time player this year wasn't far off from Revere hitting .294/.333/.342 as a regular. Mastroianni also stole 21 bases in limited action and has a decent minor-league track record. He's unlikely to be as good as Revere or Span in 2013, but 2013 rightfully isn't the Twins' focus.

And yet the trade isn't all about the future. Worley missed the final month of this season following surgery to remove a bone spur from his elbow, but plenty of pitchers--including Johan Santana in his Twins days--come back from that procedure without missing a beat and at the moment he's arguably the Twins' best starter. Even including second-half struggles while pitching with elbow pain Worley has a 3.50 ERA in 278 career innings through age 24.

His secondary numbers aren't quite that good, but a 3.83 xFIP isn't far off--for context, Scott Baker has a 4.07 career xFIP--and Worley has managed 7.7 strikeouts per nine innings despite a fastball that tops out in the low-90s. There are some questions about maintaining that strikeout rate without missing many bats. Worley has gotten a very high percentage of his strikeouts on called third strikes and his swing-and-miss rate is actually below average.

Toss in his elbow issues and Worley is certainly a risk, but he's also just 25 years old with a good track record through two seasons in the majors, currently making the minimum salary, and under team control through 2017. If not for the elbow issues Worley by himself might be a reasonable return for Revere, but the Twins may not even view him as the centerpiece of their haul because May is a good prospect.

Philadelphia's fourth-round pick in 2008, the 6-foot-5 righty led the minors with 12.4 strikeouts per nine innings in 2011 and came into 2012 ranked 69th on Baseball America's annual prospect list, drawing praise for a mid-90s fastball with "heavy life and great angle." Promoted to Double-A as a 22-year-old this season, May often struggled with a 4.87 ERA and 78 walks in 149 innings and his strikeout rate dipped to a still-strong 9.1 per nine frames.

His stock definitely declined, but May is still a borderline top-100 prospect and still has plenty of long-term upside. May is similar to Meyer in that he's a big, hard-throwing right-hander with potential control issues and that's exactly the type of pitcher the Twins misguidedly shied away from for so many years. Neither of them is a sure things by any stretch of the imagination, but they each give the Twins a chance to hit a home run.

In analyzing the Span trade last week I felt the Twins did well enough under less than ideal circumstances, getting good but not great value for a player they'd normally be building around rather than using to help rebuild. In trading Revere they did even better, getting immediate help in Worley and future value in May while selling high on a player with limited upside at a position where they have quality alternatives.

I'm glad the Twins are focusing on 2014 and beyond, as contending in 2013 wasn't realistic and they so desperately needed an influx of young arms. If either Hicks or Benson develop as hoped Span and Revere won't necessarily be missed for long and Ryan got solid value in an obvious area of weakness. Now the question is whether the bold rebuilding moves will continue with Josh Willingham and Justin Morneau following Span and Revere out the door.

For a lot more on the Revere trade and what it means for 2013, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

December 5, 2012

Twins Notes: Guerra, Field, Oliveros, Butera, Allen, Appel, and Hendriks

• Last week the Twins filled the 40-man roster by adding eight new players, but they've already created four openings. One came by trading Denard Span to the Nationals for a 22-year-old pitching prospect, Alex Meyer, who doesn't have to be added to the 40-man roster for several years, and the other three spots came by designating Deolis Guerra and Tommy Field for assignment and non-tendering Lester Oliveros.

Guerra passed through waivers unclaimed and was sent outright to Rochester, meaning the Twins keep him at Triple-A without taking up a 40-man spot. Once upon a time Guerra was a top prospect and arguably the centerpiece of the haul for Johan Santana, but at this point they'd be happy if he developed into a middle reliever. Field was claimed off waivers from the Rockies last month and when the Twins put him back on waivers the Angels claimed him.

Oliveros was acquired from the Tigers in the Delmon Young trade and the hard-throwing right-hander showed some promise between Double-A and Triple-A this year, logging 48 innings with a 2.42 ERA and 51-to-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Unfortunately he underwent Tommy John elbow surgery in August and won't be at full strength until 2014, but after being non-tendered Oliveros opted to re-sign with the Twins on a minor-league deal.

• As expected the Twins tendered contracts to all three arbitration-eligible players: Jared Burton, Brian Duensing, and Drew Butera. Non-tendering Butera and his .183 career batting average would have made sense, but the Twins have stuck with him for three seasons already. In other words, if they thought he was worth $450,000 then a raise to, say, $600,000 isn't going to sway their opinion. Obviously with Butera money isn't really the main issue.

Chad Allen, who played for the Twins from 1999-2001 after being their fourth-round pick in 1996, is the new hitting coach for Double-A New Britain at age 37. I'll always remember Allen hopping after a hit to the gap in Cleveland after tearing his ACL and somehow keeping speedster Kenny Lofton from an inside-the-park homer by getting the ball back into the infield before collapsing. He never played for the Twins again.

• With the Twins set to pick No. 4 overall in June's draft Baseball America's early player rankings have Stanford right-hander Mark Appel in the top spot, followed by Indiana State left-hander Sean Manaea, Arkansas right-hander Ryan Stanek, North Carolina third baseman Colin Moran, and Florida right-hander Jonathan Crawford. They passed on Appel with the No. 2 pick this year and he went back to school rather than signing with the Pirates as the No. 8 pick.

Liam Hendriks underwent minor elbow surgery and won't pitch for Australia in the World Baseball Classic, but should be ready for spring training.

• Old friend Pat Neshek, who spent most of this year at Triple-A before thriving for the A's down the stretch, has signed a one-year, $975,000 deal with Oakland to avoid arbitration.

• Old friends Danny Valencia and Lew Ford might be teammates at Triple-A after the Orioles purchased Valencia from the Red Sox. Neither player is on the 40-man roster.

• As expected, Terry Ryan indicated that Chris Parmelee will be given every opportunity to be the starting right fielder following the Span trade, with Ben Revere shifting to center field.

• It turns out Span was born to play in Washington, D.C.

Parker Hageman of Twins Daily analyzed Meyer's pitching mechanics, which are especially important for someone 6-foot-9.

• I'd bet on the Twins signing at least one of the five starting pitchers on this list.

• Target Field was supposed to solve a lot of the Twins' payroll issues, but things haven't gone as planned and the growing local television revenue chasm doesn't bode well for the future.

• For a lengthy discussion of the Span-for-Meyer trade, plus talk about prospects in general and the Twins' next offseason steps, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

November 30, 2012

Twins trade Denard Span to Nationals for pitching prospect Alex Meyer

Reports of the Nationals trying to get Denard Span from the Twins started in mid-2011. Back then the rumored deal involved one of Washington's late-inning relievers, either Drew Storen or Tyler Clippard, coming to Minnesota. When it ultimately never happened speculation about the reasons why included Span's post-concussion health status and the Twins' request for a mid-level prospect also being part of their haul.

Seventeen months later the two sides agreed to a trade that sends Span to Washington in exchange for 22-year-old prospect Alex Meyer, a 6-foot-9 right-hander the Nationals picked out of the University of Kentucky in the first round of the 2011 draft right around the time rumors of their interest in Span began swirling. Meyer was the 23rd overall pick, seven spots ahead of where the Twins selected University of North Carolina infielder Levi Michael.

Meyer signed for $2 million and made his pro debut this year at low Single-A, moving up to high Single-A in the second half. Overall between the two levels he threw 129 innings with a 2.86 ERA and 139-to-45 strikeout-to-walk ratio, holding opponents to a .211 batting average and just six homers while inducing 52 percent ground balls. Debuting with such strong numbers is particularly encouraging because Meyer's raw stuff has never been in question.

Meyer works in the mid-90s with his fastball, topping out close to triple-digits, and Baseball America's season review of the South Atlantic League's top prospects praised his "wipeout slider in the mid-80s" and noted that his changeup "could become an average third pitch." Most prospect lists aren't published yet, but Baseball America staffers I talked to are confident he'll be in their top 75 and the one prominent list that's out, MLB.com, rated him No. 50 overall.

Keith Law of ESPN describes Meyer as a "potential frontline starter," writing that "his slider is filthy, a bona fide out pitch" and "his changeup has improved to the point where it's probably a future-average pitch." Law's annual prospect list isn't out yet, but he was kind enough to give me a sneak peak and said Meyer figures to be in the 50-75 range. Law also told me Meyer is in the class of the college arms the Twins passed on with the No. 2 pick to take Byron Buxton.

Ideally if the Twins were trading Span for pitching help it would have been for an established big leaguer or at least an MLB-ready prospect, but they were never going to get someone like James Shields for Span without including significantly more value in the deal and MLB-ready pitching prospects with big-time upside are rarely available in trades for non-stars. To acquire a pitcher with top-of-the-rotation upside for Span you likely also have to acquire uncertainty.

Meyer is a huge, hard-throwing pitcher 18 months removed from being a consensus top-20 player in a very deep draft class and performed well in his debut, striking out 139 batters in 129 innings with better than anticipated control. Simply by virtue of being a 22-year-old pitching prospect he's nowhere near a sure thing, but if the Twins' plan was to turn Span into high-upside young pitching they accomplished that about as well as could be expected.

Whether that plan was the right one is another issue, of course. Once upon a time Span was a first-round pick himself, going 20th overall in 2002 out of high school. As he climbed the minor-league ladder his upside began to deteriorate and after hitting .267/.323/.355 at Triple-A in 2007 he looked more likely to be a fourth outfielder than a quality regular. That all changed the next season, as Span hit .340 at Triple-A before a fantastic rookie showing with the Twins.

He hit .294/.387/.432 in 93 games as a rookie and followed that up by hitting .311/.392/.415 in 145 games in 2009. His production dropped off in 2010, as Span hit .264/.331/.348 in 153 games, and his strong start in 2011 was ruined by a concussion that sidelined him for most of four months and left him extremely ineffective when he tried to play. Span entered this year as a huge question mark, but responded with a productive, mostly healthy season.

In all Span hit .284 with a .357 on-base percentage and .389 slugging percentage in 589 games for the Twins, emerging as a prototypical leadoff man with patience, strike zone control, and speed. Among all center fielders with at least 1,500 plate appearances from 2008-2012 only Andrew McCutchen, Josh Hamilton, and Dexter Fowler had a higher on-base percentage than Span and his defensive numbers were consistently well above average.

Span is far from perfect--he lacks power and arm strength, and misleadingly good stolen base totals hide that he's regularly among the MLB leaders in being picked off--but players at up-the-middle positions with .357 on-base percentages and above-average defense are very difficult to find. And, as was usually the case with Span, those players tend to be underrated by people focusing on offense over defense and production without positional context.

He's also 28 years old and under team control for three more seasons at a total cost of $20 million, so in addition to being one of the better all-around center fielders he's one of the biggest bargains. Of course, that's all part of what made Span one of the Twins' few desirable trade pieces and perhaps their most desirable. He's the type of player teams build around, but unfortunately in the Twins' situation he's also the type of player needed to facilitate a rebuild.

Outfield depth throughout the organization made it easier to trade Span, as the Twins have Ben Revere ready to step in as the everyday center fielder, Chris Parmelee ready for a shot somewhere, and prospects like Aaron Hicks, Oswaldo Arcia, Joe Benson, and Eddie Rosario waiting in the wings. There's reason to be skeptical of Revere's bat and Parmelee's glove, but the Twins dealt from an area of strength to address a massive weakness.

I'd much rather have traded Justin Morneau or Josh Willingham or even Revere, but none of those players would have been in as much demand as Span and if the Twins' goal was to swap him for a young, high-upside starting pitcher they accomplished it. Meyer immediately becomes the Twins' top pitching prospect, which admittedly isn't saying much, but he's also one of the 30 or so best pitching prospects in baseball.

A lot can go wrong here if Revere fails to develop better on-base skills and/or Meyer fails to develop, period. And the only reason trading Span makes any sense to begin with is that the Twins are so lacking in pitching talent and so shaky in general coming off 195 losses in two seasons, but there's no magic wand that can be waved to make those problems vanish. They dug themselves this hole and Span-for-Meyer is a reasonable step on their climb out of it.

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