March 19, 2014

Top 40 Twins Prospects of 2014: 25, 24, 23, 22, 21

Also in this series: 26-30, 31-35, 36-40.

25. Stuart Turner | Catcher | DOB: 12/91 | Bats: Right | Draft: 2013-3

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2013     RK+    142     .264     .340     .380      3      8     12     22

In the third round of last year's draft the Twins selected University of Mississippi catcher Stuart Turner, who had a reputation for being a good defender with an iffy bat despite hitting .374/.444/.518 in 62 games. Turner played just one season against top-flight competition, transferring to Ole Miss from a junior college, and Baseball America noted that "scouts don't like his swing and question his ability to sting the ball consistently."

There were no such questions behind the plate, as BA called Turner the best defensive catcher in the class who "combines strength at 6-foot-2, 220 pounds with flexibility, agile feet, and excellent arm strength." ESPN offered similar praise, calling Turner the draft's "best catch-and-throw guy" with "outstanding hands and a plus arm." All of which suggests that he'd project as a backup if the scouts are right to doubt his bat and a good all-around starter if the numbers prove them wrong.

The early returns weren't encouraging, as Turner began his pro career as a 21-year-old playing against rookie-ball competition in the Appalachian League and still hit just .260 with three homers in 34 games. That's a very small sample size, so it may not mean much of anything, but the lack of walks and relatively high strikeout total certainly aren't positive signs. He'll move up to full-season ball this year and has the potential to go through the system quickly if he hits.

24. Aaron Slegers | Starter | DOB: 9/92 | Throws: Right | Draft: 2013-5

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2013     RK+     9      0     0.47      19.0      16      0      18      2

Because of injuries Aaron Slegers barely pitched as a high school senior in 2010 or for Indiana University in 2011 and 2012, but the 6-foot-10 right-hander got healthy last season and started a team-high 18 games for a dominant Hoosiers squad. He was fantastic, going 9-2 with a 2.04 ERA, but still fell to the Twins in the fifth round of the draft and signed for a relatively modest $380,000 bonus as a draft-eligible sophomore.

In addition to his draft stock being lessened by a wide variety of injuries related to both his size and his arm, Slegers also missed surprisingly few bats in college. Despite being able to reach as high as the mid-90s with his fastball and posting a pretty ERA he managed just 59 strikeouts in 106 innings for Indiana and allowed opponents to hit .260. Baseball America's pre-draft scouting report suggested that he got tired as the season wore on and struggled to maintain peak velocity.

However, he had no trouble beating up on rookie-ball hitters in his pro debut, throwing 19 innings with a 0.47 ERA and 18/2 K/BB ratio for Elizabethton. Between college and rookie-ball Slegers served up just one homer in 128 innings and he issued a total of 19 walks, showing excellent control for a pitcher with his size and lack of experience. There's a lot to like here if Slegers can stay healthy and start generating a decent number of strikeouts.

23. Kennys Vargas | First Base | DOB: 8/90 | Bats: Switch | Sign: Puerto Rico

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2011     RK+    191     .322     .377     .489      6     17     15     50
2012     A-     186     .318     .419     .610     11     22     28     41
2013     A+     520     .267     .344     .468     19     53     50    105

Kennys Vargas predictably wasn't able to duplicate the huge numbers he posted at low Single-A in 2012, but his move up to high Single-A last season was actually encouraging. For one thing he played 125 games and logged 520 plate appearances after totaling 159 games and 667 plate appearances through his first four seasons. Beyond that he continued to show very good power with 19 homers and 53 extra-base hits, and Vargas cut down on his strikeout rate too.

Vargas is 6-foot-5 and huge, so like with most defensively challenged, low-minors sluggers the questions are whether he'll make consistent enough contact versus more advanced pitching to cancel out a total lack of fielding value. Vargas seems destined to wind up as a designated hitter or a poor defensive first baseman, and in order to be an impact player under those circumstances his bat would have to truly be special.

His power potential certainly has a chance to fall into that category, but it's difficult to gauge that with any sort of accuracy until he moves up another rung or two on the minor-league ladder and the rest of Vargas' offensive game is somewhat lacking for his player type. Still, a hulking switch-hitter with 30 homers and 43 doubles in 166 combined Single-A games through age 22 is certainly not someone to write off.

22. Felix Jorge | Starter | DOB: 1/94 | Throws: Right | Sign: Dominican

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2012     RK-    12      7     2.34      34.2      30      0      37     12
2013     RK+    12     12     2.95      61.0      56      2      72     18

Felix Jorge signed with the Twins out of the Dominican Republic for $250,000 in 2011, made his American debut in 2012, and established himself as someone to watch at rookie-level Elizabethton last season. Pitching the entire season at age 19, he started 12 games with a 2.95 ERA and 72/18 K/BB ratio in 61 innings, posting the second-best strikeout rate in the Appalachian League among all pitchers to start at least 10 games.

Jorge already reaches 92-94 miles per hour with his fastball despite being very skinny and there's plenty of room for projection in his 6-foot-3 frame. In ranking Jorge as one of the Appalachian League's best pitching prospects last season Baseball America noted that his "breaking ball can flash plus with slurvy action and his changeup is developing." If the off-speed stuff doesn't improve he could always wind up in the bullpen, but that's far into the future either way.

I tend to be extremely conservative ranking rookie-ball standouts and particularly rookie-ball pitchers, in part because they're so far away from potentially reaching the majors and in part because so many of them ultimately flame out after posting great numbers as teenagers, but Jorge certainly is very intriguing. He'll make the jump to full-season competition in 2014, which should tell us a lot.

21. Zack Jones | Reliever | DOB: 12/90 | Throws: Right | Draft: 2012-4

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2012     RK+     6      0     0.00       6.0       2      0       9      4
         A-     12      0     3.21      14.0       9      1      25      7
2013     A+     39      0     1.85      48.2      28      2      70     28

Believing that his mid-90s fastball was more telling than his mostly mediocre results in three years at San Jose State the Twins used their 2012 fourth-round pick on Zack Jones. And boy have they been right so far. Jones shifted to the bullpen full time as a pro, added a few miles per hour to his already overpowering heat, and has been almost unhittable with a 1.97 ERA and .165 opponents' batting average, striking out 104 batters in 69 innings.

His control has been terrible with 39 walks and seven wild pitches in 69 frames and despite his overall dominance the Twins had Jones spend all of last season at high Single-A as a 22-year-old, so he hasn't been placed on the fast track to the majors yet. Still, when a young pitcher reaches triple-digits with his fastball and whiffs 38 percent of the batters he's faced through two seasons as a pro that's someone to keep a very close eye on.

The development of his slider figures to be key long term, but Jones and fellow prospect Michael Tonkin give the Twins a pair of high-upside right-handers to potentially fill late-inning setup roles in front of left-hander Glen Perkins. Unfortunately he missed the end of the Arizona Fall League after experiencing numbness in his fingers and then underwent surgery last week for an aneurysm in his upper arm, putting his status for this season in question.

February 23, 2011

Twins Notes: Morneau, Liriano, Gardenhire, Nishioka, Slama, and Punto

Justin Morneau arrived at spring training Monday and spoke extensively about his status to the reporters on hand, saying he's made a lot of recent progress in his recovery from a July 7 concussion but remains less than 100 percent healthy nearly eight months after taking a John McDonald knee to the helmet while trying to break up a double play. He's been cleared to fully participate in workouts and took batting practice yesterday, which qualifies as a big step.

However, the Twins have indicated that he's likely to sit out at least the first two weeks of the exhibition schedule and when asked about a timetable for game action Morneau replied: "We'll find out over the next week or so." In other words he still has plenty of hurdles to clear before anyone should feel confident about Morneau being in the Opening Day lineup. We're six weeks away from that, but he's still not totally symptom-free eight months after injuring his brain.

Francisco Liriano was scratched from his first scheduled throwing session of spring training last week because of shoulder soreness, but an MRI exam revealed no structural damage and he had a problem-free bullpen session yesterday. Pitching coach Rick Anderson blamed that early soreness on Liriano failing to follow his team-recommended offseason workout program, which is certainly the type of thing that adds to the Twins' skepticism about his future value.

UPDATE: And now the Twins announced Carl Pavano, not Liriano, as the Opening Day starter.

• Twinkie Town editor-in-chief Jesse Lund conducted a lengthy interview with Rob Antony in which the Twins assistant general manager gave lots of interesting, detailed answers covering a wide range of topics. Kudos to Lund for asking strong questions and to Antony for being so generous with his time. Good stuff.

Rob Kuhn of MiLB.com has a good interview with Billy Bullock, who ranked 10th on my list of the Twins' top prospects for the second straight season.

• Speaking of top prospects, Kelly Thesier of MLB.com wrote a nice feature article about Twins scouting director Deron Johnson.

• Johnson and the scouting department recently added two international pitching prospects by signing 17-year-old Felix Jorge from the Dominican Republic and 19-year-old Markus Solbach from Germany. Ben Badler of Baseball America has video of Jorge in action and reports that the 6-foot-4, 175-pound right-hander "has an 88-91 mph fastball that has touched 92 ... a good delivery, a loose arm, and shows feel for spinning a solid curveball." He signed for $250,000.

Solbach spent four years in the United States as a kid and has been pitching in Australia, with international scouting director Howard Norsetter calling the righty "a projectable talent" with "good arm action and a chance of throwing the ball consistently hard with decent breaking stuff" out of his 6-foot-5 frame. Last year Norsetter and the Twins signed 16-year-old German outfielder Max Kepler for $800,000 and now he ranks 16th on my list of the team's prospects.

Ron Gardenhire never actually played for the Twins, spending his entire 285-game career with the Mets, but he did appear in a Twins uniform during spring training in 1987 and Edward Thoma of the Mankato Free Press discovered video evidence of him striking out against Astros right-hander Julio Solano:

In addition to simply getting a look at skinny Gardenhire, the video is great because it features announcers John Rooney and Harmon Killebrew discussing Gardenhire, Al Newman, and Ron Washington being in a three-way battle for utility infielder. Newman beat out the two future managers, but went on to hit .221/.298/.303 in 349 plate appearances despite Rooney saying "he can do a lot of things." Gardenhire hit .272 with a .380 slugging percentage at Triple-A.

Denard Span introduced himself to Tsuyoshi Nishioka and "asked him how his English was." It turned out to be minor leaguer Ray Chang, whose English is fantastic because he was born in Missouri. And then Span tweeted about it.

• Speaking of Nishioka, this 1500ESPN.com video of him fielding ground balls is worth watching because he doesn't use his non-glove hand at all. Presumably the Twins were well aware of his fielding mechanics when they signed him, but I can't imagine the coaching staff letting that go without some tweaks.

• Nishioka was also the subject of a New York Times article by Brad Lefton.

• After retiring former Twins catcher/designated hitter Matthew LeCroy took a job managing in the Nationals' minor-league system and has been promoted from low Single-A to high Single-A, where he may work with No. 1 overall pick Bryce Harper at some point this year.

Nick Blackburn is the latest in a long line of Twins players to perform horribly while trying to play through an injury. I'll never understand why so many people view that as a positive thing.

Jim Mandelaro of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle explains why the Twins signed more minor-league veterans than usual this offseason.

Anthony Slama told Phil Mackey of 1500ESPN.com that he spent the offseason adding a cut fastball to his repertoire, which may help the right-hander fare better versus left-handed bats. Slama, who ranks 25th on my list of Twins prospects, will hopefully get an extended chance to show that his dominant minor-league numbers can equal big-league success.

• Remember all that stuff I wrote about how the Twins should have re-signed Nick Punto if he was willing to accept the bench role and $750,000 salary he got from the Cardinals? Well, now he's out 8-12 weeks following hernia surgery. Ouch.

• I may have to add this beauty to my bobblehead collection, which for now is limited to just Al Newman and Bill James.

• This might be the most Joe Mauer has talked, ever. And an important topic, too!