March 26, 2012

Twins Notes: Outfield realignments, Rule 5 returns, and drugs of abuse

• In signing Josh Willingham to a three-year, $21 million contract in mid-December the Twins indicated that he'd be their everyday right fielder despite playing just 264 career innings there compared to 5,524 innings in left field. Getting a first-hand look at Willingham and the various other outfield options in camp apparently changed those plans, as Ron Gardenhire announced yesterday that Willingham will be the starting left fielder.

Gardenhire also made official what was expected by naming Denard Span the starting center fielder, which leaves right field for ... well, everyone. Depending on how often and at which positions Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer are in the lineup right field could potentially be manned by Ben Revere, Trevor Plouffe, Chris Parmelee, or Ryan Doumit, none of whom have ever played the position on more than a semi-regular basis in the majors or minors.

For years the Twins stressed how valuable Michael Cuddyer's arm was in right field, so their willingness to use Revere there when he might have the majors' worst arm and his range is of better use in the more spacious left field is surprising to say the least. If nothing else it signals that Revere is headed for a part-time role, which along with Gardenhire's stubbornness could lead to his biggest strength being diminished and his biggest weakness being magnified.

If the manager were more willing to make daily shifts he could platoon Revere and Plouffe by using Revere in left field with Willingham in right field against right-handed pitching and Plouffe in right field with Willingham in left field against left-handed pitching. That's something plenty of managers do regularly, but it's something Gardenhire has always avoided with occasionally laughable results. Runners going first-to-third at will with Revere in right field would fit that bill.

Whatever the case, based on Terry Ryan's offseason comments and Gardenhire's outfield announcement yesterday it seems clear that the Twins are less sold on Revere than commonly believed. They're certainly right to be skeptical, as I've been making that case since Revere was in the low minors, but the less he plays the less chance their defense has of being above average and I'm similarly skeptical about Parmelee being ready to thrive offensively.

Terry Doyle seemed like an odd choice for the Twins with the No. 2 pick in the Rule 5 draft. Despite being 26 years old he had just 15 starts above Single-A, including zero at Triple-A, and nothing about his raw stuff or track record suggested more than back-of-the-rotation starter potential. At no point has the Rule 5 draft been a sure-fire way to add useful big leaguers, but when picking so high it seemingly made sense to at least target someone with more upside.

In explaining their reasoning for the pick the Twins talked about how impressed they were by Doyle's performance in the Arizona Fall League, where he posted a 1.98 ERA. However, that consisted of just eight starts and was fueled by an incredibly low batting average on balls in play that screamed fluke. My assumption was that they wouldn't have chosen Doyle if they weren't at least convinced he could stick in the majors as a mop-up man, but apparently not.

Doyle coughed up 10 runs in 5.1 innings this spring and the Twins didn't even keep him around until the end of camp, sending him back to the White Sox. Ultimately it's not a huge deal, as they're out $25,000 and the opportunity to add a higher-upside arm, but it's discouraging for a supposedly scouting-heavy team to take someone atop the Rule 5 draft while citing his fluky, small sample size performance in the AFL as a big factor and then cut him five innings later.

Aaron Thompson, a 25-year-old left-hander the Twins signed to a minor-league contract in December, has been suspended 50 games after violating MLB's drug policy for a "drug of abuse." His track record in the minors is mediocre at best, but Thompson is a former first-round pick and apparently the Twins will keep him in the organization despite the suspension. Once activated he'll likely be a fifth starter or long reliever at Triple-A.

• I'll have a lot more on this subject once my annual series ranking the Twins' top 40 prospects concludes later this week, but Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus recently released their annual organizational talent rankings and the Twins placed 20th and 22nd.

• On a related note, Baseball America crunched the numbers to find that the Twins ranked 15th in international spending last season after ranking 12th in 2010. Miguel Sano alone got a record $3.15 million signing bonus from the Twins in 2009, but in the two years since then they've spent a total of $4.85 million internationally.

• This offseason the Twins sliced $15 million from their payroll, but according to Forbes magazine in 2011 they had baseball's 13th-highest revenue at $213 million and an operating income of $16.6 million, causing the franchise's value to rise four percent to $510 million.

Nick Punto is getting the same treatment from the media in Boston that he got from the media in Minnesota. For instance:

In a game where talent can be measured by precise statistical metrics, Punto is a player whose value is harder to calculate but can’t be denied.

Punto played for $750,000 last year and will make $1.5 million both this season and next season, so teams seem to be in agreement that his value is fairly limited. Then again, I've not experienced his charm in person.

Seth Stohs of Twins Daily reports that the Twins released six minor leaguers: Michael Tarsi, Dan Osterbrock, Kane Holbrooks, Blayne Weller, Matt Schuld, and Derek Christensen. Osterbrock, Tarsi, and Holbrooks each cracked my annual top-40 prospects list at one point, but none were ever considered more than marginal prospects. Christensen was a 2010 draft pick and dominated the low minors, so cutting the 22-year-old right-hander loose seems odd.

• In late 2010 the Twins acquired reliever Brian Fuentes from the Angels for Loek Van Mil, a marginal pitching prospect whose claim to fame was being baseball's tallest player at 7-foot-1. He spent last year at Double-A, throwing 66 innings with a 2.04 ERA and 46-to-23 strikeout-to-walk ratio, but the righty from the Netherlands failed to make the Angels this spring and manager Mike Scioscia explained that "he's certainly searching for an out pitch" at age 27.

• Last season the local mainstream media often mocked Kevin Slowey for his intelligence, using it as a way to portray him in a negative light, but a fresh start in Cleveland means the narrative has changed. Jordan Bastian, who covers the Indians for MLB.com, wrote last week:

Always nice as a writer when you find ballplayers who are avid readers on the side ... two in Cleveland's clubhouse include Lonnie Chisenhall and Kevin Slowey.

Funny how that works.

• Last and least, with Opening Day right around the corner I'm restarting the AG.com "sponsor of the week" program. For details about advertising and to reserve your week, click here.

February 7, 2011

Top 40 Twins Prospects of 2011: 30, 29, 28, 27, 26

Also in this series: 1-5, 6-10, 11-15, 16-20, 21-25, 31-35, 36-40.

30. Nate Roberts | Left Field | DOB: 2/89 | Bats: Left | Draft: 2010-5

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2010     RK+    153     .336     .444     .547      5     16     21     29

Taken by the Rays in the 48th round of the 2009 draft after leading his junior college team to a national title, Nate Roberts opted against signing and headed to High Point University, where a monstrous junior season led to the Twins picking him in the fifth round last June. Roberts hit .416 with 19 homers and 36 steals in 56 games, leading the country in on-base percentage (.573) and runs (88) while taking home Big South conference player of the year honors.

Despite that spectacular production Baseball America's pre-draft report on Roberts noted that "scouts were concerned that he lacks a standout tool and for some teams he was considered more of a senior sign" than a junior worth drafting as high as the fifth round. That may still prove true, of course, but so far so good as Roberts debuted at rookie-level Elizabethon after signing for $150,000 and hit .336/.444/.547 with five homers and five steals in 35 games.

Thanks to great plate discipline and pitchers being scared of him Roberts drew 53 walks in 56 games at High Point and was also hit by a remarkable 25 pitches so not surprisingly he led the Appalachian League in on-base percentage and ranked 12th in walks despite playing only 35 of a possible 65 games. Dominating in a lower-level college conference and then beating up on rookie-ball pitchers hardly guarantees future success, but it does make Roberts very intriguing.

29. Dakota Watts | Reliever | DOB: 11/87 | Throws: Right | Draft: 2009-16

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2009     RK-     6      0     0.00       9.1       1      0      10      3
         RK+    10      0     2.70      13.1       9      0      12     12
         A+      5      0    14.85       6.2      10      0       6     10
2010     A-     30      0     2.31      46.2      31      2      55     30
         A+     17      0     3.19      31.0      26      2      29     12
         AA      2      0    12.27       3.2       4      0       5      2

Dakota Watts had a 3.65 ERA and 68-to-33 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 67 innings spread over 12 starts as a junior at Cal-State Stanislaus and the Twins picked him in the 16th round of the 2009 draft, shifting the 6-foot-5 right-hander to the bullpen. Watts hasn't stayed very long at any one place, spending time at five different levels despite logging a grand total of just 111 pro innings in less than two full seasons, and reached Double-A at age 22.

His overall performance has been strong, with a 3.50 ERA and 9.5 strikeouts per nine innings, but Watts' numbers would look a whole lot better if not for being clobbered in a pair of brief but ugly stints as part of his frequent level changes. Between his five outings at high Single-A in 2009 and two appearances at Double-A last season he allowed 17 runs in 10.2 innings. In his other 63 games Watts has allowed 29 runs in 100 innings, which works out to a 2.60 ERA.

Watts will definitely need to dramatically improve his control at some point, as he's handed out 5.6 walks per nine innings, but he's missed a ton of bats with a mid-90s fastball that Baseball America ranks as the best in the Twins' system and projects as a potential late-inning reliever if things break right. If nothing else he's worth keeping an eye on as one of the rare pitching prospects not to fit the Twins' preferred mold and is capable of approaching triple-digit heat.

28. Anderson Hidalgo | Third Base | DOB: 9/88 | Bats: Right | Sign: Venezuela

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2008     RK-    107     .364     .453     .466      1      7     15     13
2009     RK+    205     .291     .379     .469      6     19     25     38
2010     A-     315     .316     .375     .443      3     29     24     50

After putting up impressive numbers in the Venezuelan summer league and rookie-ball during his first four pro seasons Anderson Hidalgo moved up to full-season ball last year and hit .316 with 29 extra-base hits in 81 games at low Single-A before missing the final two months with a fractured right forearm. He had the third-best OPS in the Beloit lineup behind Angel Morales and Aaron Hicks, and only 21 players in the entire Midwest League topped his .818 mark.

He hasn't shown a ton of home run power yet, but Hidalgo has batted at least .290 in each of his five professional stops while showing decent plate discipline and control of the strike zone for a young hitter and averaging 40 doubles per 550 at-bats. As a 21-year-old at low Single-A last season his overall production was 15 percent above the Midwest League average and in 2009 he was 20 percent above average in the rookie-level Appalachian League.

Hidalgo isn't close to the big leagues despite being signed out of Venezuela way back in 2006, but he's consistently thrived versus low-level competition and potentially could reach Double-A by the end of this season if he continues to play well. Hidalgo has played exclusively third base in the past two years, which is interesting since he's 5-foot-9 and only two active big leaguers 5-foot-10 or shorter have even 300 games at third base: Chone Figgins and Placido Polanco.

27. Kane Holbrooks | Reliever | DOB: 6/87 | Throws: Right | Draft: 2009-21

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2009     RK+    17      1     5.04      25.0      33      0      29     12
2010     A-     33      2     1.67      54.0      47      2      71     13
         A+      8      7     2.27      43.2      37      2      36     15

In the span of just 18 months Kane Holbrooks went from being a 21st-round pick out of Texas State University to solidly on the prospect map following a breakout 2010 season that saw him begin the year at low Single-A and end it at Double-A while posting a 2.10 ERA and 110-to-29 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 103 innings. Statistically he had the third-best season of any pitcher in the Twins system with at least 100 innings, behind only Liam Hendriks and Kyle Gibson.

Holbrooks has racked up 139 strikeouts in 128 pro innings, which is remarkable for someone who didn't miss many bats in college. As a senior at Texas State he went 10-1 with a 3.29 ERA in 16 starts, but Kolbrooks managed just 57 strikeouts in 101 innings. He's nearly doubled that strikeout rate as a pro and has the raw stuff to match, as the 6-foot-3 right-hander's fastball was regularly clocked in the mid-90s while he split time between the rotation and bullpen.

He was used primarily as a reliever prior to arriving at high Single-A in the second half and to stick as a starter Holbrooks needs to develop his offspeed offerings, but Twins vice president of player personnel Mike Radcliff told Phil Miller of Baseball America that his fastball "is a tent stick that can be a foundation for a good career" and also noted he "got our attention" and "is in our plans now" even if "we might not have had high expectations when we drafted him."

26. Eddie Rosario | Center Field | DOB: 9/91 | Bats: Left | Draft: 2010-4

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2010     RK-    213     .294     .343     .438      5     16     16     28

Selected in the fourth round of last year's draft, Eddie Rosario was born in Puerto Rico on the same day the Twins clinched the division title on the way to the World Series in 1991. Prior to the draft Baseball America called Rosario "the best pure hitter on the island" and compared him to Bobby Abreu for his "sound approach at the plate" and solid left-handed bat. He signed for $200,000 and debuted impressively in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League.

Rosario batted .294, drew a fair number of walks, showed some pop with 16 extra-base hits in 194 at-bats, and swiped 22 bases in 51 games. Those raw numbers aren't jaw-dropping, but he topped the GCL average by 111 points of OPS as an 18-year-old and also saw most of his action in center field, although the consensus seems to be that Rosario will eventually move to a corner spot full time once his six-foot, 170-pound frame fills out.

While not quite a success story yet Angel Morales has developed into one of the Twins' best outfield prospects since they nabbed him out of Puerto Rico in the third round back in 2007, so hopefully Rosario can follow a similarly methodical path to top prospect status. He's a long way from the majors and may not even get his first crack at full-season competition until 2012, but Rosario is definitely among the low-minors hitters worth keeping an eye on.