July 18, 2012

Twins Notes: Liriano, Santana, Mauer, Blackburn, Capps, and Pavano

• How dominant was Francisco Liriano against the A's on Friday night? Not only were his 15 strikeouts the second-most in Twins history behind Johan Santana with 17 on August 19, 2007, his 30 swings and misses induced were the most by any MLB pitcher since ... Santana had 32 on August 19, 2007. I went back through the AG.com archives to find what I wrote about his incredible performance that day and shockingly it included a Jessica Alba comparison.

Liriano's first start following his brief demotion to the bullpen also came against Oakland and he overpowered the A's then too, giving him a ridiculous 24-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 14 innings against them since May 30. And it was good timing, as at least a half-dozen teams reportedly sent scouts to evaluate Liriano for a potential trade. Since rejoining the rotation he's thrown 57 innings with a 2.83 ERA, .170 opponents' batting average, and 67 strikeouts.

• Some fun facts from that Santana start on August 19, 2007: He struck out 17 in eight innings and then closer Joe Nathan struck out two more in the ninth inning, as they combined for 19 strikeouts, zero walks, and two hits allowed in a 1-0 shutout of the Rangers. Michael Cuddyer homered for the game's only run, C.J. Wilson pitched in relief for Texas, and the Rangers had a 38-year-old Sammy Sosa batting cleanup. And here was the Twins' lineup:

1. Alexi Casilla, 2B
2. Joe Mauer, DH
3. Torii Hunter, CF
4. Justin Morneau, 1B
5. Michael Cuddyer, RF
6. Mike Redmond, C
7. Rondell White, LF
8. Tommy Watkins, 3B
9. Nick Punto, SS

Oh, and Jason Tyner came in defensively for Rondell White late in the game. One not-so-fun fact about the game: Santana made just seven more starts in a Twins uniform.

• Friday's deadline to sign draft picks came and went without much drama for the Twins, who'd already agreed to deals with their first 11 picks weeks ago. Or so everyone thought. It turns out sixth-round pick Andre Martinez, a high school pitcher from Florida who originally agreed to an over-slot $260,000 bonus, ended up reworking his deal after a pre-signing physical exam revealed shoulder issues. He signed Friday for $80,000 compared to the $200,000 slot.

Another last-minute signing was 20th-round pick Zach Larson, a high school outfielder from Florida who agreed to a $190,000 deal that's nearly twice the slot value for picks after the 10th round. By saving money elsewhere compared to the slot values for various picks the Twins had plenty of extra money to throw Larson's way and in fact overall they spent about $300,000 less than their MLB-high $12.3 million allotment.

Ninth-rounder L.J. Mazzilli is the earliest Twins pick not to sign, as the Connecticut second baseman and son of longtime big leaguer Lee Mazzilli presumably turned down close to the $130,000 slot amount for the No. 280 overall pick. Mazzilli hit .339/.404/.548 with 16 steals in 58 games as a junior, but also committed 20 errors and was no sure thing to stick at second base defensively as a pro. In all the Twins signed 27 of 43 picks, including 14 of their first 15.

Mark Appel, the Stanford pitcher represented by Scott Boras who fell to No. 8 after being an oft-projected No. 1 pick and possible Twins choice at No. 2, ended up as the only first-rounder not to sign. He turned down $3.8 million, which is $900,000 more than slot and the most the Pirates could offer without forfeiting next year's pick. Appel can return to college for his senior year and be drafted again, while the Pirates get the No. 9 pick in 2013 as compensation.

• After going 3-for-4 with a walk (and a great diving catch) last night Joe Mauer is now hitting .333/.420/.462, which is nearly identical to his .324/.404/.470 career line despite offense being down across baseball. He leads the league in on-base percentage and ranks second in batting average, has hit .385 in his last 45 games, and is projected to be worth $26 million this year according to Fan Graphs. He's being paid $23 million.

Nick Blackburn is already back with the Twins after allowing one earned run in two starts at Triple-A following his demotion, but the bad news is that he managed just five strikeouts in 15 innings. He succeeded there by keeping the ball in the ballpark, but his ground-ball rate wasn't exceptional and as usual there's little reason to think pitching to that extreme level of contact is going to get the job done against big-league hitters.

Matt Capps' return from the disabled list lasted all of five days, as he showed decreased velocity and was shut down again with more shoulder problems. That ruins whatever chance the Twins had of trading Capps before July 31, which is a shame because reportedly at least one team was actually showing interest. Suffice it to say that the Twins' decision to forfeit a draft pick in order to re-sign Capps for $5 million has gone about as well as expected.

Carl Pavano isn't close to returning from his own shoulder injury, so the even slimmer odds the Twins had of trading him before the July 31 deadline is officially gone. It's possible that he could return in time to make a few starts before the August 31 waiver trade deadline, but even that's no sure thing and obviously counting on Pavano to be effective enough to draw interest at that point would be wildly optimistic.

David Laurila of Fan Graphs interviewed Terry Ryan and the lengthy transcript is definitely worth reading, but here's one particularly interesting excerpt about the team's oft-questioned involvement with statistical analysis:

We never messed with that too much back in the '70s, but we did in the '80s and the '90s and the 2000s. We've been looking at that forever. ... People don't want to hear that out of the Minnesota Twins. But we've been looking at that forever. Way before some. We're not as deep as some, but we do believe in certainly doing our work, and that stat page is one big piece to the puzzle of putting players together.

Our scouts, and our people, will tell you if I'm looking at a player, and I go down and look at his line, and it doesn't add up, I've got to give him a call quick. I tell him, "This doesn't make any sense." His role, his skills and his statistical history, and you're going to tell me this? How do you get there? I believe in that.

All forms of information are good. I've drilled that into our people. Bring it on. All forms, let me sort it out. ... I read all that stuff, and sometimes it's so much information that I do get paralyzed reading it and taking it all in. You can spend as much time as you want on everything that is available. It's almost mind-boggling how much stuff is out there.

Ryan and other Twins decision-makers have adopted "we're into that even if you don't know it" as their response to those questions. And that's fine, although it's worth noting that, for instance, assistant general manager Rob Antony lacked familiarity with basic aspects of statistical analysis as recently as two years ago and even in the above excerpt Ryan talking about looking at stats isn't really what anyone would consider a new-school approach.

When people wonder if the Twins are involved with statistical analysis the questions aren't about literally looking at a player's stats--that much is assumed, no matter a team's public stance--but rather taking full advantage of new technology and the increasingly in-depth data available. They've recently hired some stat-heads and clearly want to keep things secretive, but what little Ryan and others do say about the issue leaves plenty of room for skepticism.

• Midseason prospect rankings are out and Baseball America moved Miguel Sano from No. 18 to No. 22, whereas ESPN.com moved Sano from No. 28 to No. 26. In other words Sano remains a top-30 talent as an all-around prospect and among hitters who don't play up-the-middle positions only Wil Myers of the Royals, Oscar Taveras of the Cardinals, and Nick Castellanos of the Tigers rank ahead of Sano on both lists.

• As part of their minor-league roster shuffling the Twins released Jairo Perez, who ranked 34th on my preseason list of the team's prospects. He hit .337/.413/.580 at low Single-A last year and .265/.350/.403 at high Single-A this year, which makes cutting Perez in July an odd move. On the other hand at age 24 he was very old for Single-A and didn't really have a clear defensive home. And now he's playing in an independent league.

Matt Maloney parlayed a good spring training into an Opening Day bullpen spot after the Twins claimed him off waivers from the Reds in October, but the soft-tossing left-hander coughed up 10 runs in 11 innings and not surprisingly passed through waivers unclaimed in May. He was even worse at Triple-A, allowing 33 runs in 24 innings, and now he'll be out until mid-2013 following Tommy John elbow surgery.

• Twins castoff Luke Hughes was released by the A's after hitting .223/.316/.338 in 42 games between Double-A and Triple-A.

This week's blog content is sponsored by Ballplayer: Pelotero, a controversial new documentary about baseball prospects in the Dominican Republic starring Miguel Sano as a 16-year-old.

June 21, 2012

Twins Notes: Liriano, Benson, Rosario, Slama, Bard, Doyle, and Marquis

Francisco Liriano had a 9.45 ERA, .346 opponents' average, and 21-to-19 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 27 innings over six starts when the Twins demoted him to the bullpen in May. Since rejoining the rotation he has a 2.67 ERA, .155 opponents' average, and 35-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 30 innings over five starts. It's hard to imagine the Twins re-signing the impending free agent, in which case he has another half-dozen starts to build trade value.

• As if the Twins' farm system wasn't weak enough already now four of their top 10 prospects in my preseason rankings are on the minor-league disabled list. No. 7 prospect Kyle Gibson is still making his way back from last year's Tommy John surgery, No. 9 prospect Alex Wimmers is trying to rehab an elbow injury of his own to avoid the same fate, and now No. 2 prospect Joe Benson and No. 4 prospect Eddie Rosario are both sidelined for extended periods.

Benson fractured his left wrist and surgery will keep him out until mid-July. Rosario was struck in the face by a teammate's line drive and is expected to miss six weeks after surgery to insert a metal plate above his lip. Benson had already been demoted from Triple-A to Double-A and wrist problems often linger, so his injury is the bigger long-term concern. Rosario's injury is also a shame, because it sounds gruesome and he was hitting .293/.363/.473 at low Single-A.

• Sadly the "Free Anthony Slama" movement has been put on ice, and not because the Twins finally called him up after years of dominating in the minors. Slama is slated to miss six weeks after a line drive broke his leg, potentially ending his season with a 0.40 ERA, .175 opponents' average, and 37-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 23 innings at Triple-A. He'll be 29 years old before next season and has a 2.24 ERA with 172 strikeouts in 141 career Triple-A innings.

• No. 42 pick Luke Bard was the last remaining holdout among the Twins' top 11 draft picks and the Georgia Tech right-hander agreed to a deal yesterday, meaning just two weeks after the draft they've signed every player selected within the first 250 overall picks. No. 2 pick Byron Buxton is expected to make his rookie-ball debut within a week, so the earlier signing deadline as part of the new collective bargaining agreement has worked well for the Twins.

Ben Goessling of the St. Paul Pioneer Press reports that in preparing scenarios for the No. 2 pick the Twins narrowed their list to Buxton, Carlos Correa, Mark Appel, and Kyle Zimmer. Most pre-draft speculation had them choosing whichever one of Buxton or Appel didn't go No. 1, but in reading between the lines it seems like they were set to take Correa if the Astros had taken Buxton. And there was lots of organizational disagreement about the best player.

• In examining the Twins' draft it was obvious that they went out of their way to get power arms, even if they came in the less-than-ideal form of college relievers. Sure enough vice president of player personnel Mike Radcliff admitted that was the plan going in, saying: "Pitchability and playability, maybe we overemphasized that. Maybe we emphasized that for too long. It added up. This year, we went for the more presentable qualities."

• Going into the draft Mitch Brown seemed destined for the Twins, as they had six picks in the top 100 and the local right-hander from Rochester Century high school was regarded as a consensus top-100 player. General manager Terry Ryan even scouted him in person multiple times, but then the Twins passed on him at 32, 42, 63, and 72. Brown wound up with the Indians at 79 and signed for an above-slot bonus of $800,000.

• They also repeatedly passed on Gophers right-hander T.J. Oakes, who was selected by the Rockies in the 11th round and signed for $100,000. Oakes is considered a marginal prospect, placing 292nd in Baseball America's pre-draft rankings, but the Twins liked the 6-foot-5 starter enough to draft him in the 41st round last year as a sophomore and have a history of picking Gophers. Oakes had a 2.31 ERA and 78-to-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 97 innings as a junior.

Released by the Twins with an 8.47 ERA and more walks (14) than strikeouts (12) in seven starts, Jason Marquis signed a minor-league deal with the Padres and made one Double-A start before returning to the majors. Marquis and his agent were smart to choose an NL team with MLB's most-pitcher friendly park, but this is crazy: Through three starts he has a 1.86 ERA and 20/8 K/BB ratio in 19 innings, including his first double-digit strikeout game since 2001.

• Waiver claim Erik Komatsu became expendable once the Twins decided to recall Ben Revere from Triple-A a month ago, so the Rule 5 pick was designated for assignment and predictably the Nationals accepted his return. Komatsu had more upside than the guy he replaced as fourth outfielder, Clete Thomas, but there wasn't much fit for him on a roster that includes both Revere and Denard Span. He's back at Triple-A for the Nationals.

• Speaking of the Rule 5 draft, Terry Doyle is headed to Japan after the Twins selected him with the No. 2 pick only to send him back to the White Sox in spring training. Doyle rejoined the White Sox at Triple-A with a 2.83 ERA and 71-to-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 76 innings, including a near no-hitter against Rochester, but they agreed to release the 26-year-old right-hander so he could sign with a Japanese team. A fitting end to an all-around weird story.

Phil Dumatrait, who was pitching in Rochester's bullpen after spending much of last season with the Twins, announced his retirement at age 30. He spent parts of 10 years in the minors and finishes with a 6.20 ERA in 151 career innings as a big leaguer, but the 2000 first-round pick had enough smoke and mirrors to post a 3.92 ERA in 45 appearances for the Twins last season despite an ugly 29-to-25 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 41 innings.

Kevin Mulvey also called it quits, becoming the first player from the Johan Santana trade to retire. At the time of the Santana deal Mulvey was 23 years old and the former second-round pick looked like a potential mid-rotation starter who was billed as close to MLB-ready, but he posted a 7.90 ERA in 27 innings as a big leaguer. He was a bust, but the Twins managed to get some value out of Mulvey by trading him to the Diamondbacks for Jon Rauch in mid-2009.

Ben Nicholson-Smith of MLB Trade Rumors crunched the numbers on every team's payroll commitments for next season and the Twins have the 13th-most money already spent at $65 million. This year's payroll is around $94 million, which represents a 17 percent drop from last year's $113 million.

Trevor Plouffe isn't the only Twins hitter putting up big numbers since May 15. Through that date the Twins' lineup scored an average of just 3.3 runs in 36 games, but in 31 games since then they've averaged 5.2 runs.

Alex Burnett has a great-looking 2.16 ERA, but he's gotten it done with a ton of smoke and mirrors while posting a horrid 13-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 33 innings. Burnett's strikeouts per nine innings have plummeted from 7.0 in 2010 to 5.9 in 2011 to 3.5 this season, which is the lowest mark by any reliever in baseball.

Jim Thome has hit .315 with 61 homers and a .640 slugging percentage in 194 career games against the Twins. He hit .266 with 37 homers and a .562 slugging percentage in 179 games for the Twins, producing the highest Isolated Power in team history.

Paul Konerko (.431) and Joe Mauer (.415) are the only hitters in the American League with an on-base percentage above .400.

Justin Morneau is hitting .310 with a .595 slugging percentage against right-handers and .091 with a .197 slugging percentage against left-handers.

Lew Ford, who last played in the majors for the Twins in 2007 and is now 35 years old, has hit .383/.450/.626 with five homers and four steals in 28 games at Triple-A for the Orioles.

John Sickels of MinorLeagueBall.com took a trip to Beloit to see the Twins' low Single-A team and had some interesting thoughts on a variety of prospects, including a pre-injury Rosario.

• ESPN.com ranked the 25 best single-game performances in postseason history and two of the top three spots belong to Twins.

• I was a guest on the Bucs Dugout podcast, talking about the Twins and my decade blogging about them with host Charlie Wilmoth.

• And if you haven't listened to this week's Gleeman and The Geek episode yet, the show was a good one as my guest co-hosts Parker Hageman and Joe Nelson subbed for Wally Pipp.

This week's blog content is sponsored by DiamondCentric and their new "Plouffe There It Is!" shirt, which is available in men's and women's sizes. Please support them for supporting AG.com.

June 13, 2012

Byron Buxton gets $6 million as Twins sign 10 of their first 11 draft picks

One of the nice things about the draft-related changes to the collective bargaining agreement is that MLB moved the signing deadline from mid-August to mid-July, encouraging players to sign quickly and get their pro careers started in the minors. Kyle Gibson and Levi Michael are recent Twins first-round picks who signed too late to debut the year they were drafted, but this year the Twins have already signed 10 of their first 11 picks within two weeks of the draft.

That includes No. 2 overall pick Byron Buxton, who arrived in Minnesota yesterday to undergo his pre-signing physical exam and also took batting practice at Target Field in the same hitting group as Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. Jim Callis of Baseball America reports that Buxton agreed to a $6 million signing bonus, which is slightly below the $6.2 million slot figure and substantially more than the $4.8 million Carlos Correa got from the Astros as the No. 1 pick.

Not every dollar figure is public yet, but Baseball America reports that No. 32 pick Jose Berrios agreed to a deal for the exact slot amount of $1.55 million and No. 63 pick Mason Melotakis accepted $750,000 compared to the slot amount of $818,500. And among the 11 players the Twins took within the draft's first 250 overall selections Georgia Tech right-hander and No. 42 pick Luke Bard is the only one yet to sign.

All of which is a major change from past years and particularly encouraging for Buxton, who can now get an early start on his development and potentially play a full rookie-ball season at age 18. Buxton will likely be assigned to the Gulf Coast League, which is the lower level of rookie-ball, and if things go well there early on Rhett Bollinger of MLB.com reports that the Twins could move him up one level of rookie-ball to the Appalachian League by season's end.

Even the best-case scenario for Buxton's development probably won't get him to Minnesota before 2015 and not arriving until 2016 or 2017 wouldn't be surprising, but to get him signed, get him working with Twins coaches, and get him in the lineup against professional pitchers just weeks after being drafted is a nice first step down the long road to the big leagues. I'm already looking forward to checking those rookie-ball box scores.

This week's blog content is sponsored by PickPointz, where you can make predictions, pick games, and win prizes for free. Please support them for supporting AG.com.

June 6, 2012

Twins follow Byron Buxton pick by loading up on hard-throwing pitchers

Using their highest pick since 2001 to choose Georgia high school center fielder Byron Buxton over Stanford right-hander Mark Appel will understandably be the focus of the Twins' draft, but along with the No. 2 pick they also had five other top-100 selections in one of the most stacked collections of early picks in draft history. That included No. 32 and No. 42, which are essentially first-rounders and not far off from where they've usually made their first picks.

For instance, last year their top choice was No. 30 and from 2002-2011 they chose higher than No. 20 just once. This year, thanks to a combination of last season's 63-99 record and losing Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel to free agency, they had picks at 2, 32, 42, 63, 72, and 97. That provided a unique and much-needed opportunity to restock the farm system and after taking the best player available in Buxton the Twins loaded up on high-velocity pitchers.

Buxton being the focus of everything means No. 32 pick Jose Berrios will get considerably less attention than No. 30 pick Levi Michael received last year, but in a draft where Carlos Correa became the first Puerto Rican player to be the top pick Berrios also became the highest drafted Puerto Rican pitcher of all time. Berrios threw a no-hitter against Correa's team in April and the Twins snagged the high school right-hander sooner than most draft analysts expected.

Baseball America ranked Berrios as the 49th-best player, including 25th among pitchers, while ESPN.com ranked him 73rd overall and 27th among pitchers. That suggests the Twins may have reached a bit for him, although that's much more common in MLB than the NFL or NBA and the scouting reports on Berrios are encouraging. Baseball America noted that he added significant muscle to his 6-foot-1 frame and "his fastball now sits in the 93-95 mph range."

ESPN had a similar review of his raw stuff, noting that "he'll touch 96 and works at 92-94 with a hard downward-breaking curveball at 80-82 and a straight changeup in the same range." While watching the first round of the draft unfold Monday night it became apparent that there weren't many top-ranked college pitchers left on the board for the Twins at No. 32 and that may have played a part in choosing Berrios, but he certainly sounds like a high-upside arm.

Ten picks later the Twins took Georgia Tech reliever Luke Bard, who'll be given a chance to start. His brother, 2006 first-round pick Daniel Bard, emerged as a top setup man for the Red Sox before struggling in a move to the rotation. Luke doesn't quite have Daniel's overpowering raw stuff, but in ranking him as the 93rd-best player Baseball America noted "plenty of power in his fastball, at times sitting 93-95 mph" and "a power breaking ball with depth and late bite."

Bard's college numbers were fantastic, with a 0.99 ERA and 26-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 27 innings to go along with zero homers allowed, but he missed much of the season with an injured lat muscle that ESPN.com speculated may have kept him out of the first round. Twins scouting director Deron Johnson called the injury "a low to moderate risk" and expressed optimism that Bard can develop his changeup enough to be an effective starter.

Berrios was compensation for losing Cuddyer and Bard was compensation for losing Kubel, so with their own second-rounder the Twins took Northwestern State reliever Mason Melotakis with the 63rd pick. ESPN actually ranked Melotakis higher than Berrios and Bard at No. 63 while Baseball America rated the left-hander No. 88 following a junior season in which he threw 62 innings with a 3.63 ERA and 70-to-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Melotakis made the occasional start in college, but Baseball America calls him "a true power relief arm" with "short arm action" who works in the mid-90s and has an inconsistent but potentially solid slider. ESPN calls him "one of the best potential left-handed relievers in this draft" and offers more praise for "a hammer curveball" while suggesting that he might have a future as a starter, so like with Bard the Twins may let him try it in the low minors.

With their second compensatory pick for losing Cuddyer the Twins selected yet another college reliever in Rice right-hander J.T. Chargois, whom Baseball America rated 77th and ESPN rated 64th. As a junior Chargois threw 38 innings with a 2.15 ERA and 38-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and according to ESPN he has the mid-90s fastball, sharp-breaking slider, and high-effort delivery "that virtually demands he get to the majors as quickly as possible."

Chargois also played first base for Rice and hit .323 with a .411 on-base percentage, but he failed to homer in 51 games and his future is on the mound. Unlike with Bard and Melotakis there's no chance of Chargois starting and concerns about his mechanics appear in every scouting report, but ESPN says he's "someone to sign and send right out to Double-A" and praises his slider for being "almost comical in how quickly it appears to dive down out of sight."

After selecting three consecutive college pitchers the Twins used their third-round pick on a college hitter, taking Jacksonville first baseman Adam Walker with the 97th pick. Rarely have the Twins used high picks on college sluggers, but the Wisconsin native whose father was a replacement player for the Vikings in 1987 apparently caught their eye by hitting .343 with 12 homers, 14 doubles, and a .581 slugging percentage in 56 games as a junior.

And he was even better as a sophomore in 2011, hitting .409 with a .682 slugging percentage in 61 games. Unfortunately all that power came with 110 strikeouts in 117 games, which along with far fewer walks than strikeouts is often a red flag for a college bat. Sure enough, Baseball America notes that Walker "struggles to lay off breaking pitches or fastballs up and out of the zone." Despite that they rated him as the 58th-best player in the class.

After snagging a potential power bat in Walker the Twins went back to the well for more college relievers, using their fourth-rounder on San Jose State right-hander Zack Jones and their fifth-rounder on Rice right-hander Tyler Duffey. Jones started occasionally, but Baseball America says "scouts view him as a reliever" because he lacks a quality third pitch to go with a mid-90s fastball and hard slider. As a junior he threw 54 innings with a 60/17 K/BB ratio.

Twins scouts apparently saw a lot of Rice games, because Chargois and Duffey were the Owls' co-closers and now they have both of them. Duffey can't match Chargois' dominant raw stuff, but Baseball America says he throws in the low-90s with a good slider and his numbers were even better with a 1.93 ERA and 68/21 K/BB ratio in 51 innings. And unlike Chargois there's apparently some hope that Duffey's changeup is good enough to make it as a starter.

Stepping away from the college ranks the Twins took Florida high school left-hander Andre Martinez and Puerto Rico high school catcher Jorge Fernandez in the sixth and seventh rounds, but then went to college with their next eight picks. That included big, hard-throwing College of Charleston right-hander Christian Powell and good-hitting, iffy-fielding Connecticut second baseman L.J. Mazzilli, whose father Lee Mazzilli played 14 seasons in the majors.

They went high school heavy at the top, putting their faith in Buxton over Appel and using the No. 32 pick on Berrios, but the Twins took college players with 14 of their next 16 picks. And within all those college players the theme is clear: After years of hoarding low-velocity strike-throwers the Twins have finally focused on adding more big-time velocity and bat-missing ability. Powers arms is what the fan base has wanted and powers arms is what they got.

Unfortunately this wasn't a deep draft for high-end college starters and by the time the Twins were ready to start picking again after Buxton the cupboard was pretty bare, so they went heavy on college relievers. Normally that's not a great investment in the top 100, but the lack of highly touted college starters available beyond the first round forced their hand and they seem confident that at least some of those college relievers can develop into starters as pros.

This group isn't the amazing collection of high-upside talent you'd like to see come from such a stockpile of early picks, but that has more to do with the weak draft class than any decisions the Twins made. They deserve credit for addressing the organization-wide pitching issues, albeit several years later than they should have and with relievers instead of starters. It'll be years before we can properly pass judgment on this draft, but the approach was a good one.

This week's blog content is sponsored by PickPointz, where you can make predictions, pick games, and win prizes for free. Please support them for supporting AG.com.

June 5, 2012

Twins use No. 2 pick on high schooler Byron Buxton, pass on Mark Appel

For months the assumption was that the Astros would use the No. 1 pick on either Stanford right-hander Mark Appel or Georgia high school center fielder Byron Buxton and the Twins would take the other guy with the No. 2 pick. That all changed last night when the Astros shocked the baseball world (and immediately ruined every mock draft) by taking Puerto Rico high school shortstop Carlos Correa, leaving the Twins with their choice of Appel and Buxton.

Leading up to the draft Twins officials were adamant about selecting the best player available rather than targeting a specific need, which is absolutely the correct approach to take for the long-term health of the franchise and a big part of what separates the MLB draft from the NFL and NBA versions. And ultimately they ended up with the top-ranked prospect on their draft board in Buxton, choosing the raw high school outfielder over the polished college pitcher.

It sets the Twins up for years of second-guessing if Appel quickly becomes an ace or Buxton flames out, but this year's draft class was considered extremely lacking in elite-level talent and there was no clear-cut top choice. Many draft analysts believed that at least five and as many as eight players from last year's class would have been the No. 1 pick this year and the Astros and Twins weren't alone in passing on Appel. He fell all the way to the Pirates at No. 8.

Most mock drafts had Appel pegged for the Astros in the top spot, but his being from Houston seemingly played a big factor in that assumption and based on prospect rankings rather than pick projections Buxton was as close as anyone from this class got to being the consensus top talent available. Baseball America, ESPN.com, and MLB.com all ranked Buxton as the best player available, whereas those same three outlets rated Appel fourth, sixth, and second.

None of which is to say that choosing Buxton over Appel or various other college options isn't a significant risk for the Twins, because that's undeniable when committing a hugely valuable pick and more than $5 million to a teenager lacking experience versus high-level competition. On the other hand, as the Twins unfortunately showed the last time they had the No. 2 pick choosing a polished college arm hardly guarantees anything and can prove plenty risky too.

Appel isn't Adam Johnson, but simply being a dominant college pitcher doesn't offer immunity to going bust and they fell in love with Buxton's immense physical tools, which include elite speed and range in center field, a right-handed swing that produced a batting average above .500, and an arm so strong that he struck out 18 batters in a seven-inning complete game last week to win the deciding game of the Georgia state championship series as a pitcher.

Along with the level of competition in rural Georgia power potential is his other major question mark, but hitting 30 homers isn't exactly a prerequisite for center fielder greatness. And while the question with 2007 first-rounder and fellow Southern high school outfielder Ben Revere was whether he could become a star-caliber player without any power, the question with Buxton is whether his 6-foot-2 frame will produce substantial power. There's a big difference.

In ranking Buxton as the best player available, here's some of what Baseball America said:

Buxton emerged last summer and fall as the top position player in the 2012 draft class, first with his premium, athletic body and blazing speed, then with his emerging power potential and intriguing bat. Buxton has a chance to be a true five-tool player if his bat develops as hoped. The 6-foot-2, 170-pounder has a high-waisted frame that oozes projection. He hasn't hit for big power this spring, though he flashes plus raw power in batting practice and was runner-up in last year's home run derby prior to the Under Armour All-America Game at Wrigley Field.

ESPN also ranked him as the best player available, with a similarly glowing scouting report:

Buxton is by far the best upside prospect in this year's draft, as his body and off-the-charts athleticism have earned him comparisons to players from the Uptons to Matt Kemp to Eric Davis to Willie Mays. If you want raw tools, this is about as good as it gets. ... Buxton has quick wrists and gets good rotation in his right-handed swing, with good hand-eye coordination but a slight tendency for his swing to get long on balls out of the zone. ... There are risk factors here. Buxton has hit for very little power this spring, giving up the long ball for more contact but raising questions about what his actual power ceiling might be.

Ultimately the decision hinges on the Twins and their scouting department being right about what type of player a teenager will be in five years, which is admittedly pretty scary. However, the history of the No. 2 pick shows very few sure things, the lack of elite-level talent in this year's class created even less certainty than usual, and clearly the Twins aren't the only team with doubts about Appel becoming an ace. And so they swung for the fences with Buxton.

This week's blog content is sponsored by PickPointz, where you can make predictions, pick games, and win prizes for free. Please support them for supporting AG.com.

« Newer PostsOlder Posts »