February 16, 2011

Top 40 Twins Prospects of 2011: 20, 19, 18, 17, 16

Also in this series: 1-5, 6-10, 11-15, 21-25, 26-30, 31-35, 36-40.

20. Tom Stuifbergen | Starter | DOB: 9/88 | Throws: Right | Sign: Netherlands

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2009     RK+    13     13     3.28      79.2      79      4      69      6
2010     A-     19     17     2.98      93.2      99      5      88     23

Tom Stuifbergen signed with the Twins out of the Netherlands as an 18-year-old in 2006 and missed all of 2008 following shoulder surgery, but bounced back to be a member of the Dutch pitching staff coached by Bert Blyleven in the 2009 World Baseball Classic. At the time he had never thrown a pitch above rookie-ball, yet Stuifbergen matched up with Ubaldo Jimenez and tossed four shutout innings versus the Dominican Republic in the tournament's biggest upset.

After playing in the WBC he spent 2009 at rookie-level Elizabethton, posting a brilliant 69-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 80 innings while inducing 64 percent ground balls, but Stuifbergen also missed some time with elbow problems. Last season was a similar story, as the 6-foot-4 right-hander fared very well at low Single-A with a 2.98 ERA and 88/23 K/BB ratio in 94 innings, but missed a chunk of the season with more elbow issues.

Clearly staying healthy is key for Stuifbergen, who's appeared in just 40 pro games, but even in limited action a 169/33 K/BB ratio in 188 innings is impressive and he's still just 22 years old. His raw stuff isn't overpowering, but Stuifbergen throws strikes, misses a fair number of bats, and induces grounders in bunches. Right now Nick Blackburn seems like a decent comparison, but if he can stay healthy for a while and add some velocity he could have mid-rotation upside.

19. Chris Parmelee | First Base | DOB: 2/88 | Bats: Left | Draft: 2006-1

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2008     A-     289     .239     .385     .496     14     27     52     83
2009     A+     501     .258     .359     .441     16     44     65    109
2010     A+      93     .338     .430     .463      2      5     13     11
         AA     463     .275     .341     .389      6     33     43     70

Through his first four pro seasons Chris Parmelee stood out in a system full of toolsy, athletic hitting prospects because his game was about power and patience, but last year at the Twins' urging the 20th overall pick in the 2006 draft totally overhauled his approach. It accomplished what the Twins had in mind, as he hit .285 between high Single-A and Double-A after coming into the season as a .250 hitter and also struck out 43 percent less often than his career rate.

Unfortunately, as his contact and average increased Parmelee's power vanished. He homered just eight times in 133 games and his Isolated Power was 42 percent below his career mark. His walk rate also fell by 22 percent. Add it all up and despite a 35-point uptick in average and 43 percent fewer whiffs his on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS were all lower than each of the previous two years. In other words, the change in approach made him worse.

Or at least it did in 2010. Clearly the Twins felt that, despite solid overall production in the low minors, Parmelee's original approach made him unlikely to succeed in the majors. And they're probably right, as most of the majors' best low-average, high-power hitters actually hit above .280 in the minors. On other hand, regardless of the approach being used if Parmelee can't rediscover his power everything else will be a moot point. Power is the non-negotiable part.

18. Alex Burnett | Reliever | DOB: 7/87 | Throws: Right | Draft: 2005-12

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2008     A+     28     25     3.76     143.2     151     12      84     36
2009     A+     18      0     1.99      22.2      14      0      26      7
         AA     40      0     1.79      55.1      36      2      52     19
2010     AAA    14      0     5.49      19.2      26      1      18      8
         MLB    41      0     5.29      47.2      52      6      37     23

Alex Burnett thrived while transitioning from starter to reliever at high Single-A and Double-A in 2009 and last April the Twins bypassed several more experienced relief prospects to call him up when they needed immediate bullpen help with injuries to Clay Condrey and Jose Mijares. He found success right away, throwing 31 innings with a 26-to-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 2.30 ERA through mid-June, but then fell apart and kept struggling after a demotion to Triple-A.

Burnett allowed 20 runs in his final 16 innings with the Twins and had a 5.49 ERA in 20 innings at Triple-A after posting a 1.85 mark between Single-A and Double-A in 2009. It wasn't pretty, but Burnett's low-90s fastball and mid-80s slider combination showed plenty of potential and it's important to remember that he was a 22-year-old in his second season of relief work. Plus, with a 4.54 xFIP in his 48-inning debut Burnett pitched better than his 5.29 ERA shows.

He'll get another chance to establish himself in the majors this year, perhaps right away, and is capable of becoming a key component of the Twins' bullpen long term. Burnett has thrown a total of 98 innings in the minors since becoming a reliever, posting a 2.57 ERA and 96/34 K/BB ratio while allowing just three homers. He obviously needs to bounce back and iron out some rough spots, but it wouldn't be surprising to see him in a late-inning role down the stretch.

17. Carlos Gutierrez | Reliever | DOB: 9/86 | Throws: Right | Draft: 2008-1

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2008     A+     16      0     2.10      25.2      23      0      19      7
2009     A+     11     10     1.32      54.2      37      1      33     22
         AA     22      6     6.19      52.1      62      6      32     24
2010     AA     32     16     4.57     122.0     136      7      81     50

Carlos Gutierrez began his college career as a starter, but moved to the bullpen after Tommy John surgery and served as the University of Miami's closer in 2008 before the Twins selected him 27th overall with the compensatory draft pick received for the Angels signing Torii Hunter. In the three seasons since then Gutierrez has moved back and forth between the rotation and bullpen, but his success as a starter has been limited and he projects as a full-time reliever.

Because of the frequent role changes it's difficult to get a handle on Gutierrez's upside by way of his numbers. He's been dominant at times and awful at others, but the overall performance is mediocre with a 3.93 ERA and 171-to-105 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 259 innings. However, as more or less a one-pitch pitcher Gutierrez should fare better when working exclusively as a reliever and that one pitch is a sinker that induced 60 percent ground balls at Double-A.

Once the Twins cease trying him as a starter Gutierrez has a chance to move very quickly and perhaps even join the big-league bullpen this year, but I'd like to see him thrive in a relief role for a few months before assuming he'll make a late-inning impact. Right now Gutierrez's upside is based more on the praise for his "power sinker" than his actual performance, but mid-90s velocity and a 60 percent ground-ball rate are pretty solid building blocks for relief success.

16. Max Kepler | Center Field | DOB: 2/93 | Bats: Left | Sign: Germany

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2010     RK-    153     .286     .346     .343      0      7     13     27

American-born Kathy Kepler and Polish-born Marek Rozycki met while starring together in the Berlin ballet and their son, Max Kepler, signed with the Twins out of Germany as a 16-year-old in July of 2009, getting an $800,000 bonus that ranks as the largest ever given to a European position player. When he wasn't busy getting his driver's license and going to high school in a foreign country, Kepler held his own while debuting in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League.

He showed limited power, but hit .286 with a decent walk rate and, most importantly for a raw 17-year-old, continued to impress with his physical tools. Asked to assess Kepler's first season Twins vice president of player personnel Mike Radcliff focused primarily on his work ethic and success "navigating the baseball life on and off the field," but also pointed to his "unbelievably athletic body ... pretty swing, terrific bat speed, and strength." In other words, so far so good.

For now at least Kepler projects as a potential center fielder, but that may change quickly once his 6-foot-4 frame fills out and he played all three outfield spots in rookie-ball, where Baseball America named him the ninth-best prospect in the upside-filled GCL. He's likely still a season or two from facing full-season competition, so thinking about how Kepler might look roaming the outfield at Target Field is very premature, but if he gets there the ceiling could be sky high.

October 20, 2010

Twins Notes: Baker, Blackburn, Punto, Sano, Kepler, and Laudner

• Last week Michael Cuddyer underwent knee surgery and now both Scott Baker and Nick Blackburn need elbow "clean ups." Blackburn missed just one start due to the injury, but told Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune that he's been pitching with discomfort "over the last couple years" and "just decided to get it taken care of now." Baker missed more time during the season and needed two cortisone shots, but both surgeries are considered minor.

Kelly Thesier of MLB.com writes that the Twins "will likely decline" their $5 million option on Nick Punto for 2011. Not paying $5 million for a 33-year-old utility man who hit .238/.313/.302 this season and .247/.321/.322 for his career would normally be a no-brainer, but the Twins paid him $4 million in each of the past two years and ... well, I just can't see Ron Gardenhire letting Punto leave without a fight. His deal includes a $500,000 buyout of the option.

• Following the Twins' latest first-round playoff exit there's been lots of talk about needing to add a "true ace" to the rotation without anyone really defining exactly what "true ace" means. For many people it seemingly just means "a starter who pitches very well in the playoffs" even if that evaluation is made after the fact, but Bryan Smith of Fan Graphs crunched the numbers in an effort to determine exactly how each "spot" in the rotation performs across MLB.

Miguel Sano is without question one of the Twins' best prospects, but I'm not sure what to call him at this point. When the Twins signed him out of the Dominican Republic last season for a record $3.15 million bonus he went by Miguel Angel Sano. For most of this season he was generally referred to as simply Miguel Sano. And now John Manuel of Baseball America notes that the 17-year-old infielder "wants to go by his dad's surname and be called Miguel Jean."

Old What's His Name batted .307/.379/.491 with seven homers, 24 total extra-base hits, and a 60/24 K/BB ratio in 61 games between two levels of rookie-ball in his professional debut.

Tyler Robertson's prospect stock has declined during the past few seasons, in part because he's struggled to stay healthy and in part because his strikeout rate deteriorated as he moved up the minor-league ladder. He ranked 16th on my list of the Twins' prospects this winter, but went 4-13 with a 5.41 ERA in 27 starts at Double-A and Baseball America correspondent Phil Miller reports that the 22-year-old left-hander has been moved to the bullpen full time.

• Miller also wrote an interesting article about Max Kepler, the 17-year-old German outfielder who made his pro debut in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League and batted .286/.346/.343 in 37 games. Vice president for player personnel Mike Radcliff had all kinds of positive things to say about Kepler's first taste of pro ball and his numbers, while not jaw-dropping, are impressive for an extremely raw prospect who was one of the youngest players in the GCL.

• After spending the past few seasons as one of the Twins' secondary FSN television analysts Tim Laudner has taken a minor-league coaching job with ... the White Sox. According to Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune, after spending his entire nine-year career as a Twins catcher Laudner will focus on helping to develop the White Sox's catching prospects and could end up spending most of his time at Triple-A Charlotte.

March 30, 2010

Twins Notes: Committees, Timetables, and Risky Girlfriends

  • Ron Gardenhire announced that the Twins will begin the year using a closer-by-committee approach with Joe Nathan out for the season following Tommy John elbow surgery:

    We are a committee. Our closer role is a committee. We're going to try just about anything. I've never had to do it. It's going to be an experience trying to mix and match as best we can. But I've got some capable arms that we're going to rely on. I've seen committees work. It's not always the easiest thing in the world, but you just have to ad lib. When you lose your closer, it's a little different. That's how we're going to start, and we'll go from there.

    Aside from steroids there's nothing the baseball media freaks out about more than a team without a so-called established closer, so expect plenty of logic-be-damned overreactions if the Twins blow a couple leads early on. In fact, expect some of those reactions right now. However, the odds of Gardenhire and the Twins sticking with a true committee approach to the ninth inning all year are very slim.

    Gardenhire has said multiple times that he wants to find one man for the job, so mixing and matching Jon Rauch, Matt Guerrier, Jose Mijares, Jesse Crain, and perhaps Pat Neshek early in the season will likely just be a way for him to determine the best fit for the role. I'd be surprised if a committee approach lasts longer than 3-4 weeks and, assuming the Twins don't trade for a veteran closer, would still bet on Rauch leading the team in saves.

    In the meantime we're bound to hear how monumentally insane the Twins supposedly are for treating the ninth inning just like the seventh and eighth innings, which shows just how wrapped up everyone is in a role built around the save statistic. I don't think Gardenhire will go with a true closer-by-committee approach for long, if at all, but the Twins will be just fine if he does. Baseball existed without a one-inning closer for a hundred years or so.

  • Nathan officially underwent surgery Friday, with Mets team doctor David Altcheck doing the honors in New York. Nathan has remained very upbeat publicly while expressing confidence that he'll be ready for Opening Day next season, but those are longer odds than he may be willing to admit. Neshek is 16 months removed from his Tommy John surgery, so I asked him whether coming back in 12 months would have been possible in his case:

    For me, at 12 months there was no way I was ready to face hitters at that time. I don't know how guys come back quicker than that because it honestly was painful at that stage. Lots of scar tissue that would break up. I think they wrote my program to go slower so everything I did was set back a couple months, whereas a normal guy is around 12.

    Plenty of pitchers have returned from the surgery within 12 months and been effective, but I'd be very surprised if Nathan is able to do so at age 35. Incidentally, if you weren't already a huge Neshek fan his answering my questions about elbow surgery via Twitter at midnight on a Tuesday should make you one.

  • After shopping around for a better deal all offseason Ron Mahay finally settled for re-joining the Twins on a minor-league contract last week. Mahay originally signed with the Twins in late August of last season after being released by the Royals, but pitched just nine innings down the stretch. Much like Jacque Jones he's apparently willing to accept an assignment to Triple-A, which makes Mahay a nice low-cost pickup as a potential lefty middle reliever.
  • Along with Mahay, the Twins also signed 29-year-old Yoslan Herrera and 30-year-old Brad Hennessey to minor-league deals. Hennessey spent five years with Giants and even served as their closer for much of 2007, saving 19 games with a 3.42 ERA in 68 innings. He was let go after coughing up 35 runs in 40 innings in 2008 and then spent last season sidelined by elbow problems after agreeing to a minor-league contract with the Orioles.

    Herrera received a $2 million signing bonus from the Pirates after defecting from Cuba as a 25-year-old in 2006, but has been mediocre in the minors and allowed 20 runs over 18.1 innings during his only major-league stint in 2008. They both seem destined for spots in the Rochester bullpen and are solid organizational depth, but Mahay is significantly more likely to see time in Minnesota this season.
  • LaVelle E. Neal III recently profiled 17-year-old top prospects Miguel Angel Sano and Max Kepler. The whole thing is worth reading, but my favorite part was this quote from Kepler:

    I can't wait until I get my driver's license because I have to look for people who are 21 to get into my car and just go somewhere. I was thinking about getting a girlfriend who was 21, but that's kind of risky.

    I initially imagined that quote being said in a thick German accent, but then hearing Kepler's nearly flawless English during a radio interview with Patrick Reusse ruined the fun.

  • Despite extraordinary minor-league numbers Anthony Slama didn't reach Triple-A until just before his 26th birthday last year and I've criticized the Twins for not promoting him more aggressively. However, while the front office may not have much confidence in Slama being for real both Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson indicated they were impressed by the right-hander who ranked 19th on my annual list of the Twins' top prospects.
  • Acquired from the Mets in the package for Johan Santana and traded to the Diamondbacks for Rauch in August, Kevin Mulvey is now competing for the final spot in Arizona's rotation. Meanwhile, a groin injury is hurting Boof Bonser's bid for a bullpen job in Boston.
  • Joel Sherman of the New York Post reports that the Yankees "made a series of attempts" to trade for Denard Span last season "only to be rebuffed each time by the Twins."
  • Remember the lone voter who kept Joe Mauer from being a unanimous MVP? Well, suffice it to say you won't be satisfied by his reasoning.
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