June 30, 2015

Byron Buxton and the curse of the elite Twins prospect

Byron Buxton Twins injury

Byron Buxton is expected to miss six weeks after suffering a sprained thumb in his 10th game for the Twins, knocking out the team's best prospect less than two weeks into his MLB career and right when he'd gotten back on the track to stardom following an injury wrecked 2014. Buxton had a trio of significant health problems last year, missing three months with a wrist injury, suffering a season-ending concussion in August, and skipping the Arizona Fall League with a broken finger.

Now he's sidelined by a fourth injury at age 21, which is a shame because it robs Buxton of crucial development time and each physical problem also potentially lowers his upside by putting dents in his immense physical tools. Unfortunately that's nothing new for Twins prospects and in fact it has become the standard fate for the crown jewels of their farm system. Based on Baseball America's annual top-100 prospect rankings, here are the best Twins prospects since 2000:

1. Joe Mauer
2. Byron Buxton
3. Francisco Liriano
4. Justin Morneau
5. Miguel Sano
6. Michael Cuddyer
7. Jason Kubel

You can certainly quibble with the exact order--I went into more detail here--but those are the only seven Twins prospects to be ranked among MLB's overall top 20 at some point since 2000. Six of those seven prospects suffered significant injuries before reaching their peaks and five of those seven prospects suffered significant injuries in the minors or in their rookie years with the Twins. In other words, nearly every elite Twins prospect since 2000 arrived as damaged goods.

Mauer tore the medial meniscus in his left knee while chasing after a foul ball in the second game of his Twins career, undergoing surgery the week before his 21st birthday and missing all but 35 games of his rookie season. Liriano made the All-Star team at age 22 and was having one of the most dominant rookie seasons ever by a pitcher when his elbow gave out, requiring Tommy John surgery that sidelined him for the entire next season.

Morneau made it to the Twins and reached his peak unscathed only to suffer a concussion in the middle of his age-29 season. At the time he was hitting .345 with a 1.055 OPS through 81 games, but he didn't play again that season, missed most of the next year, and has never been the same. Sano appeared to be on the verge of the majors last spring when he was shut down with an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery, causing him to miss all of last season at age 21.

Kubel hit .352 with power and speed between Double-A and Triple-A at age 22 and then hit .300 in his 23-game debut with the Twins that September, but he suffered a career-threatening knee injury during a gruesome outfield collision in the Arizona Fall League and missed the entire next season before returning as a much different, more limited player. And now Buxton is out for six weeks with a thumb injury after being sidelined by wrist, finger, and brain injuries last season.

Injuries are obviously a part of baseball for all teams, but six of the Twins' seven elite prospects since 2000 suffering major injuries was franchise-altering. Liriano and Kubel were pretty clearly never the same following their injuries at age 22, it's possible that Mauer never truly reached his full potential playing an entire career with a surgically repaired knee, and Morneau was derailed by a brain injury at his absolute peak and never fully got back on track.

Sano is currently playing well at Double-A, but he's also repeating the level after a lost season, the injury lessens his odds of sticking at third base, and at the very least elbow surgery delayed his arrival to Minnesota. Similarly, four injuries in 18 months has stalled Buxton's development and the Twins can only hope that it won't keep him from ultimately reaching his peak or lower his upside whenever he does get there. It's a fate they've seen far too often with elite prospects.


For a lot more about Buxton's injury and the domino effect it has on the Twins' roster, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

June 17, 2015

When will Miguel Sano join Byron Buxton in Minnesota?

Miguel Sano Twins

Within minutes of the Twins calling up No. 1 prospect Byron Buxton the ever-present "when will he be in Minnesota?" questions shifted to No. 2 prospect Miguel Sano, who's spent all season in Chattanooga batting behind Buxton in the Double-A lineup. Sano is six months older than Buxton and has more upper-minors experience, playing 67 games at Double-A in 2013 and 56 games at Double-A this year, but in between he missed all of 2014 following Tommy John elbow surgery.

Buxton's call-up filled an obvious need, because through their first 61 games the Twins gave a dozen or more starts to three different center fielders and the trio of Jordan Schafer, Shane Robinson, and Aaron Hicks combined for a sub-.600 OPS to rank among the least-productive positions in baseball. Buxton was also thriving at Double-A, hitting .310/.379/.540 with 18 steals in his last 46 games. Toss in Hicks' recent forearm injury and all the dots were connected.

Sano, on the other hand, plays a position at which the Twins are pretty well set. Trevor Plouffe has slumped of late, but he's hitting .248/.315/.442 to basically match his 2014 numbers while rating as an above-average defender at third base for the second straight year. Plouffe has been one of the Twins' best all-around players, both this season and last season, and the Twins have the fourth-highest OPS in the league at third base.

Plouffe has emerged as an above-average starting third baseman at age 29 and with two more seasons of team control remaining before free agency. Beyond that Plouffe's performance--low batting average, mediocre on-base percentage, good power--is exactly the type of performance the Twins would be hoping to get from Sano as a 22-year-old rookie. Calling up Buxton to replace Hicks/Schafer/Robinson was a clear upgrade. Calling up Sano to replace Plouffe is not.

However, that doesn't mean calling up Sano to take over at another position wouldn't make sense. Defense has never been his strong point anyway and many people were skeptical about his ability to remain at third base long term even before missing an entire season following elbow surgery. His range will always be limited at 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds, surgery may have lessened his arm strength, and Sano has committed 25 errors in 118 games as a Double-A third baseman.

He's also hit .302/.384/.561 in 38 games since May 1 following a rough April, basically picking up where he left off before missing all of last season. If the Twins still believe Sano can stick at third base they may be hesitant to halt his development there, but his bat has always been what makes Sano a top prospect and it looks just about ready now. It would be asking a lot for him to learn a new position on the fly and in the majors, but they could simply ask him to do nothing but hit.

Twins designated hitters rank 13th among AL teams in OPS, combining for a .250 batting average with three homers and a .339 slugging percentage in 60 games. Kennys Vargas has gotten 25 of those 60 starts, with another 18 going to Torii Hunter and Joe Mauer when they take days off from fielding. And the Twins' remaining 17 starts at DH have gone to light-hitting middle infielders Eduardo Escobar, Eduardo Nunez, and Danny Santana.

Vargas is capable of much more than he's given the Twins this season and if Oswaldo Arcia gets on track at Triple-A he's another quality DH option. But if the Twins again run out of patience with Vargas and continue to be less than enthused with Arcia, calling up Sano to take over at DH--with some action at third base and first base mixed in--would make only slightly less sense than calling up Buxton to take over in center field. It's an obvious hole and he's ready to fill it.


This week's blog content is sponsored by Uber, which is offering a free ride to first-time users who sign up with the promo code "UberGleeman."

June 16, 2015

Byron Buxton’s first career hit

Byron Buxton's first career hit was a stand-up triple. Of course.

I'd bet a lot of money on Buxton finishing his career with more than one inside-the-park homer. In the meantime, here are the Twins' all-time leaders in triples:

Rod Carew           90
Cristian Guzman     61
Kirby Puckett       57
Zoilo Versalles     56
Chuck Knoblauch     51

He's gonna be a lot of fun to watch.


If you want a lot more about Buxton's arrival, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode for what was essentially 90 consecutive minutes of Buxton talk.

June 13, 2015

The future is now: Twins call up top prospect Byron Buxton

Byron Buxton Twins call-up

In the midst of an ugly 1-7 stretch the Twins have delivered some exciting news to their fans, calling up stud center field prospect Byron Buxton from Double-A. Buxton will make his MLB debut Sunday at 21 years and 178 days old, arriving three years and 10 days after the Twins selected him with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2012 draft out of a Georgia high school. He's the best prospect to join the Twins since Joe Mauer in 2004.

Buxton missed nearly all of last year with a pair of serious injuries, including a concussion from a nasty outfield collision that ended his season in August and kept him from playing in the Arizona Fall League. Despite the health worries and missed development time he ranked as a consensus top-three prospect across baseball, along with Kris Bryant of the Cubs and Carlos Correa of the Astros. Bryant debuted on April 17. Correa debuted on June 8. Buxton will debut on June 14.

Buxton got off to a slow start at Double-A, hitting just .180 through his first dozen games. And then he turned things around in a huge way, hitting .310 with a .379 on-base percentage and .540 slugging percentage in the next 46 games culminating with his call-up. Over that 46-game stretch, which is a little less than one-third of a full season, Buxton drew 22 walks and smacked 22 extra-base hits, including an incredible 11 triples. He also stole 18 bases in 19 tries.

Initial expectations should be held in check, because not many 21-year-olds thrive in the big leagues immediately. However, his long-term upside is almost unlimited on both sides of the ball. Buxton is one of the fastest players in baseball, with the range to be a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder, the base-stealing skills to swipe 50-plus bags at a high success rate, and the flat-out speed to turn routine ground balls into infield singles and gappers into stand-up triples.

He's still somewhat raw offensively and a high strikeout rate could keep his batting average from being great, but Buxton has drawn more walks than most toolsy high school draft picks playing against much older competition and has the power potential to develop into a middle-of-the-order bat if the Twins don't fall in love with him atop the lineup. He's a truly elite, A-plus prospect with franchise-lifting talent and if things go according to plan he'll be in the mix for MVP awards.

Giddy. Up.


If you want a lot more about Buxton's arrival, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode for what was essentially 90 consecutive minutes of Buxton talk.

April 27, 2015

Twins Notes: Mauer, Hughes, Gibson, Perkins, Santana, and Gardenhire

Joe Mauer beard

• He's still not showing any power, but Joe Mauer is doing his usual thing (.299 batting average, .392 on-base percentage, 11/11 K/BB ratio) despite dramatically changing his approach at the plate by being more aggressive early in counts and pulling more balls in the air. Whether it will ultimately lead to a better overall performance remains to be seen since it's tough to improve upon a lifetime .318 AVG and .401 OBP, but the new approach is more likely to generate power.

• Mauer is 13-for-34 (.382) against left-handed pitchers this year and has hit .296 with a .368 on-base percentage off lefties for his career. Among everyone since 1965 the only left-handed hitters with a higher career batting average and on-base percentage vs. left-handers than Mauer are Tony Gwynn, Rod Carew, Todd Helton, Larry Walker, and Wade Boggs. So three Hall of Famers and two near Hall of Famers who called Coors Field home. No platoon needed.

Phil Hughes hasn't pitched particularly well, but his 0-4 record is misleading thanks to awful run support and he's performed better than he did through four starts last season:

YEAR    GS      ERA     IP     SO     BB     HR
2014     4     6.43     21     20      6      3
2015     4     4.39     27     22      2      6

Keeping the ball in the ballpark has been a career-long struggle for Hughes, so serving up six home runs in four starts certainly isn't a positive thing, but everything else is encouraging and Hughes really didn't start rolling last season until May.

Kyle Gibson continues to be difficult to evaluate because for all the talk of his raw stuff being good he can't generate strikeouts and his control has been poor. Through four starts he has twice as many walks (12) as strikeouts (6) in 22 innings and his career strikeout rate of 5.1 per nine innings in a high-strikeout era puts him in the same category as guys like Scott Diamond, Joe Mays, and Nick Blackburn who couldn't sustain their early success.

Casey Fien returning from a minor injury has really helped stabilize the bullpen after what was a horrendous start to the season. Not only is Fien clearly the best non-Glen Perkins option in the bullpen--he has a 3.47 ERA and 159/31 K/BB ratio in 169 innings for the Twins--counting on him as the primary setup man has allowed manager Paul Molitor to push replacement-level relievers like Blaine Boyer back into lower-leverage roles.

• On a related note, the sample size is very small but Perkins looks like his usual, pre-injury self after struggling mightily and then being shut down in September last season. His velocity is up, he's generating swinging strikes, and he's allowed just one run in eight innings while striking out eight and walking zero. Perkins, who's under team control through 2018, has a 2.84 ERA and 332 strikeouts in 317 career innings as a reliever.

Danny Santana hit .319 as a rookie, but his inflated batting average on balls in play, bad plate discipline, and underwhelming track record all suggested he was over his head. Sure enough he's turned back into a pumpkin, hitting .210 with 20 strikeouts and zero walks in 15 games. Santana has 118 strikeouts and 19 walks in 116 total games for the Twins after averaging 91 strikeouts and 23 walks per 116 games at Double-A/Triple-A. That's not the approach of a leadoff man.

• Santana "leads" all American League hitters by swinging at 50 percent of the pitches he's seen outside of the strike zone. Kennys Vargas and Torii Hunter have swung at 40 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, giving the Twins three of the league's nine worst hackers. Santana is still very young and has plenty of talent, but there's a reason his rookie success came as such a big surprise after he hit just .273/.317/.391 in the minors.

Ron Gardenhire is officially looking for another managing gig. He hired an agent for the first time in two decades and is said to be "willing to consider virtually any position." He's still being paid by the Twins in the final season of his contract, but Gardenhire figures to be a popular name brought up by fans and media members to replace managers on the hot seat. He has a 612-685 (.471) record, one 90-win season, four 90-loss seasons, and zero playoff wins since 2007.

• No. 1 prospect Byron Buxton and No. 2 prospect Miguel Sano are both hitting below .200 at Double-A after injury wrecked 2014 seasons, so don't expect to see that particular cavalry arriving at Target Field anytime soon. However, there's plenty of potential lineup and bullpen help playing well at Triple-A, including Aaron Hicks, Josmil Pinto, Michael Tonkin, and Lester Oliveros.

• Right-hander Kohl Stewart, who was the No. 4 overall pick in the 2013 draft and ranked No. 5 on my annual list of Twins prospects this year, has been shut down with elbow problems.

Joe Nathan needs Tommy John elbow surgery, which at age 40 means his career may be over.


This week's blog content is sponsored by Uber, which is offering a free ride to first-time users who sign up with the promo code "UberGleeman."

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