March 31, 2016

Season preview: Are the Twins ready to be a playoff team?

Last year the Twins emerged from the wreckage of four consecutive 90-loss seasons sooner than anticipated, out-performing expectations by climbing above .500 in Paul Molitor's rookie season as manager. Miguel Sano immediately established himself as the big bat around which the lineup can be built, leading the way for a deep, upside-rich farm system that's ready to stock the Twins' roster with young talent for years to come. It's a fun time to be a Twins fan again.

However, rather than build on that momentum and their sooner-than-expected contender status by making a series of significant offseason moves to beef up the roster the Twins basically stood pat. They went outside the box to replace Torii Hunter in the lineup by spending $25 million on Korean slugger Byung Ho Park and addressed the organization-wide lack of catching depth by trading Aaron Hicks to the Yankees for John Ryan Murphy. And that was it.

No significant additions were made to a pitching staff that was 10th among AL teams in ERA last season after ranking dead last from 2011-2014 and one of the team's best second-half pitchers, Tyler Duffey, was sent back to Triple-A in favor of contractual albatross Ricky Nolasco. Rumors that the Twins would trade Trevor Plouffe to open up third base never materialized and led to their shifting the 6-foot-5, 270-pound Sano to right field despite zero outfield experience.

Aside from some minor tinkering, the Twins' offseason consisted of two moves and was over by December 1. And while the perception is that the Twins are a young team on the rise thanks to Sano and an impressive farm system, the actual Opening Day roster is heavy on veterans. Kyle Gibson is the youngest member of the rotation at 28, the average age of the pitching staff is 30, and only three of the nine Opening Day hitters are younger than 27.

Their relative inactivity leaves plenty of room for criticism, particularly on the pitching side, and the front office's decades-long conservative streak always offers a viable explanation. With that said, the Twins' disinterest in adding even moderately priced veterans to an 83-win team is easy to explain: Terry Ryan and company are convinced the young talent they've stockpiled through all the losing is now ready to turn the Twins into winners. Just not right away, apparently.

Jose Berrios is an elite pitching prospect and many teams would have promoted him in the middle of last season, but he's back at Triple-A with Duffey for a second go-around because the Twins spent the past two offseasons handing out long-term deals to mediocre starters. Based on service time considerations the Twins should be planning for Berrios to debut in late April or early May, but that makes the shaky assumption that they'll be ready to ditch veterans by then.

Bypassing the many veteran relievers available via trades and free agency may hurt the Twins in the short term, but they clearly believe that by midseason at least one or two good bullpen arms will step forward from a group of hard-throwing prospects that includes Nick Burdi, Alex Meyer, Brandon Peterson, J.T. Chargois, Jake Reed, and Luke Bard. They had similar hopes heading into last year and the payoff was non-existent, but Burdi looks especially close to the majors now.

If by midseason Berrios and Duffey are leading the rotation turnaround and Burdi or Meyer have joined Trevor May and Kevin Jepsen setting up for Glen Perkins then the lack of offseason pitching moves will look prescient. If instead Rochester's pitching staff is thriving and Minnesota's pitching staff is again among the league's worst the fingers will point themselves. Right now the Twins' pitching looks mediocre at best, but the cavalry is coming. Or at least that's the plan.

Offensively most of the cavalry has already arrived and the young, crazy talented starting outfield of 22-year-old stud prospect Byron Buxton flanked by 23-year-old Sano and 24-year-old Eddie Rosario may tell the story of the 2016 season. That trio has the potential to be the Twins' three best players, but Buxton has yet to prove himself as a hitter, Rosario's lack of discipline threatens to stall his development, and Sano's right field sojourn threatens his health and the team ERA.

Here's the beauty of the Twins' farm system: They also have 23-year-old outfielder Max Kepler, a consensus top-100 prospect coming off an MVP-winning campaign at Double-A, waiting in the wings at Triple-A. Their outfield options are so young, so talented, and so plentiful that Oswaldo Arcia--a 25-year-old former top prospect with a .741 OPS in the majors--is an afterthought. If the Twins take a big step forward this season the young outfield figures to be a driving force.

Park is neither young nor inexperienced, winning a pair of MVP awards and four home run titles in Korea through age 28, but he's an MLB rookie for whom outlooks vary wildly. Based on his Hall of Fame numbers in Korea, the scouting reports from people who watched him there, and his spring training showing it's clear that Park will hit for big-time power, but that power will likely come with tons of strikeouts and a modest batting average.

For years the Twins' lineup was lefty dominated, but adding Sano and Park to Plouffe and Brian Dozier has swung the balance to the right side. In fact, this might be the most right-handed pop any Twins lineup has ever featured and Target Field is an ideal home for right-handed power. Six of the nine Opening Day hitters are right-handed, along with switch-hitter Eduardo Escobar and lefties Joe Mauer and Rosario.

Mauer simply hasn't been the same since suffering a concussion in August of 2013 and at age 33 the odds are heavily stacked against him being more than an above-average first baseman, but his on-base skills are desperately needed in a lineup long on power and short on OBP. Last year Sano and Mauer were the only Twins to crack a .330 on-base percentage and all the right-handed power bats need base-runners to drive in.

Escobar has quietly been one of the best shortstops in Twins history whenever they've actually given him a chance to play the position regularly, hitting .285/.331/.452 with solid defense in 203 career starts. For decades the Twins have repeatedly failed to find competent offensive shortstops, but Escobar is a switch-hitter with plus power for the position and has the ability to lengthen the lineup considerably. He's turned a lot of people--me included--from doubters to believers.

Nearly every hitter in the lineup comes attached to a question mark because of inexperience or injuries and that makes it tough to feel confident predicting how the offense will fare overall, but it's impossible to ignore how much young upside, right-handed power, and depth the Twins have assembled. If they get any sort of decent bottom-of-the-order production from the catcher spot and Buxton the Twins are going to score a bunch of runs.

And they'll need to, because the pitching staff with by far the fewest strikeouts in baseball since 2008 is again lacking the same type of upside and power that fills the lineup. There is some depth in that Ervin Santana, Phil Hughes, Tommy Milone, and Gibson are solid veteran starters and May, Jepsen, and Perkins are a strong bullpen trio, but at a time when MLB-wide strikeouts and velocity have never been higher the Twins simply lack firepower.

That could change if Berrios and Burdi receive quick call-ups and thrive right away, but counting on two prospects who've never thrown a pitch in the big leagues to drag an entire staff kicking and screaming into the power pitching era is probably wishful thinking. Molitor keeping the lesser starters on a short leash could be crucial, because turning games over to fresher, harder-throwing relievers often makes more sense than risking another trip through a lineup past 75 pitches.


Based on the Opening Day roster the Twins look mediocre, with an above-average offense and a below-average pitching staff. Based on the much younger, higher-upside roster they could begin transitioning to as soon as late April the Twins absolutely have a chance to build on last season's surprising success by making a run at the AL Central title. They just need to trust the youth and have it pay off. And here's the best part: This figures to be the worst Twins team for a long time.

February 26, 2016

Top 40 Twins Prospects of 2016: 10, 9, 8, 7, 6

Also in this series: 1-5, 11-15, 16-20, 21-25, 26-30, 31-35, 36-40.

10. Wander Javier | Shortstop | DOB: 12/98 | Bats: Right | Sign: Dominican

Wander Javier cracks the top 10 despite being a 17-year-old with zero professional experience because just six months ago the Twins signed him out of the Dominican Republic for $4 million, breaking the organization's previous record for an international prospect signing of $3.15 million for Miguel Sano in 2009. Javier is a long way from the majors, but based on publicly available scouting reports he's the type of player around which a farm system could be built.

Baseball America ranked Javier as the ninth-best international prospect eligible to sign last July, noting his "wide range of tools that are plus or project to be plus in the future." He's currently a six-foot, 175-pound shortstop with some chance to remain at the position long term. MLB.com ranked Javier as the eighth-best international prospect of 2015, noting his "potential to be the best all-around player in the class."

Of course, he's not without massive risk. For one thing projecting the future of a 17-year-old is incredibly difficult bordering on impossible (he was born in 1998!). Beyond that, Baseball America says there's a "widespread question" about Javier's offensive upside because his approach at the plate can be shaky. Similarly, according to MLB.com some scouts tracking Javier wanted "to see him display his talents more consistently." He's a $4 million mix of big-time upside and risk.

9. Nick Burdi | Reliever | DOB: 1/93 | Throws: Right | Draft: 2014-2

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2014     A-     13      0     4.15      13.0       8      0      26      8
         A+      7      0     0.00       7.1       5      0      12      2
2015     A+     13      0     2.25      20.0      12      1      29      3
         AA     30      0     4.53      43.2      40      3      54     32

Nick Burdi received a lot of hype heading into last year because he throws 100 miles per hour and seemed likely to make a midseason impact for the Twins within 12 months of being drafted in the second round out of Louisville. Instead he struggled at Double-A to begin the season, posting a 5.93 ERA with 22 walks in 30 innings, and was demoted back to Single-A in July. He failed to reach Minnesota and it took a great stretch at Single-A just to finish the year back at Double-A.

It was a disappointing first full season for the right-hander Baseball America called "the hardest thrower in college baseball" going into the 2014 draft, but Burdi still showed the high upside he displayed while posting a 0.62 ERA in college. From July 1 through the end of the season he had a 1.89 ERA and 50/13 K/BB ratio in 33 innings, holding opponents to a .174 batting average. If he'd pitched that way to begin the season he'd likely have been in the Twins' bullpen by June.

Burdi had 15.7 strikeouts per nine innings for Louisville in 2013-2014 and has 13.0 strikeouts per nine innings as a pro, including at least 11.0 per nine innings at all three levels. He looks the part of a flame-thrower at 6-foot-5 and has the triple-digit fastball and low-90s slider to match. If he can simply throw strikes on a somewhat consistent basis Burdi has a chance to be a late-inning stud and he heads into 2016 just as he headed into 2015: On the verge of the big leagues.

8. Stephen Gonsalves | Starter | DOB: 7/94 | Throws: Left | Draft: 2013-4

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2013     RK-     5      2     0.63      14.1       8      0      18      7
         RK+     3      3     1.29      14.0      10      0      21      4
2014     RK+     6      6     2.79      29.0      23      1      26     10
         A-      8      8     3.19      36.2      31      1      44     11
2015     A-      9      9     1.15      55.0      29      2      77     15
         A+     15     15     2.61      79.1      66      2      55     38

Stephen Gonsalves fell to the Twins in the fourth round of the 2013 draft due to a high school suspension and has lived up to the billing of being a first-round talent. Signed for an above-slot bonus of $700,000, the 6-foot-5 left-hander has a 2.17 ERA in 228 innings as a pro but the Twins have been conservative with his promotion timetable. Gonsalves spent parts of three seasons in rookie-ball and began last year at low Single-A despite already thriving there to end 2014.

He made 17 total starts at low Single-A with a 1.96 ERA and 121/26 K/BB ratio in 92 innings. His numbers ceased being video game-like following a midseason promotion to high Single-A last year--his strikeouts dipped and his walks rose--but Gonsalves still managed to be very tough to hit with a 2.61 ERA and .225 opponents' batting average while allowing just two homers in 79 innings. He was one of six 20-year-olds to throw 75 or more innings in the Florida State League.

Gonsalves' control definitely needs plenty of work, but for all the talk about the effectiveness of his off-speed pitches lagging behind his low-90s fastball he's a rare lefty with consistently better numbers versus righties. It's possible that high Single-A and Double-A hitters could expose some of Gonsalves' flaws this season, but if not he has a chance to be a consensus top-100 prospect across MLB this time next year.

7. Tyler Jay | Reliever | DOB: 4/94 | Throws: Left | Draft: 2015-1

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2015     A+     19      0     3.93      18.1      18      0      22      8

College relievers drafted with top-10 picks have a very poor track record, but in taking University of Illinois left-hander Tyler Jay sixth overall the Twins made it clear they believe he can develop into a starter. Baseball America ranked Jay as the 13th-best prospect in the draft and suggested he could be the first from the class to reach the majors if used as a reliever, but instead the Twins sent him to high Single-A and left him there to make 19 appearances out of the bullpen.

Jay's college numbers were great with a 0.60 ERA and 70/7 K/BB ratio in 60 innings last season and after a rough first few outings he pitched well in his pro debut, showing the mid-90s fastball and power slider that dominated Big Ten hitters. In question is how much velocity he'll lose as a starter, how he'll hold up physically, and how effective his changeup can be. For the Twins turning college relievers into pro starters has mostly been a struggle, but it certainly can be done.

Most college stars who're top-10 picks move very quickly through the minors, but since the Twins are trying to teach Jay to do something he's basically never done it may take a while. "Late-inning reliever" is a nice fallback plan that can always be put in motion to get Jay back on the fast track, although the history of college relievers suggests that's also far from a sure thing. Either way, the Twins went out on a limb picking Jay and now they need to get value from player development.

6. Jorge Polanco | Shortstop | DOB: 7/93 | Bats: Switch | Sign: Dominican

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2013     A-     523     .308     .362     .452      5     47     42     59
2014     A+     432     .291     .364     .415      6     29     46     60
         AA     157     .281     .323     .342      1      7      9     28
2015     AA     431     .289     .346     .393      6     26     35     63
         AAA     94     .284     .309     .352      0      6      4     10

Two years ago Jorge Polanco became the youngest position player to debut for the Twins since Joe Mauer in 2004 and last year he again received a brief call-up, but he spent most of 2015 at Double-A. He played well there, hitting .289/.346/.393 with modest power and a decent walk rate in 95 games. He also played 22 games at Triple-A, hitting .284 with less power and fewer walks. And given that Polanco did all of it at age 21 it was an impressive season.

Polanco played mostly shortstop for the second straight year after splitting time between second base and shortstop in the low minors, but reviews of his defense there are mixed. He's committed a lot of errors at shortstop in the minors and his arm strength appears somewhat lacking, but the Twins insist they think he can stick at the position. Given his offensive skill set that could be key, because as a passable defensive shortstop Polanco has a chance to be an impact player.

If instead Polanco winds up at second base his limited power and unspectacular plate discipline lower his upside considerably, not to mention the Twins have Brian Dozier signed through 2018. It's unclear where Polanco fits into the Twins' plans and because of that--plus his impending MLB readiness--the speedy switch-hitter is the top-10 prospect most likely to be trade bait. He's set to arrive at one of the few times in two decades the Twins may not need middle infield help.

February 27, 2015

Top 40 Twins Prospects of 2015: 10, 9, 8, 7, 6

Also in this series: 1-5, 11-15, 16-20, 21-25, 26-30, 31-35, 36-40.

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

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2012     A-     429     .296     .345     .490     12     48     31     69
2013     A+     231     .329     .377     .527      6     24     17     29
         AA     313     .284     .330     .412      4     26     21     67
2014     A+      34     .300     .382     .300      0      0      4      5
         AA     336     .237     .277     .396      8     31     17     68

After a strong 2013 it took less than one week for things to get ugly for Eddie Rosario in 2014. In early January he was suspended 50 games for a second positive marijuana test, causing him to sit out until late May. When he returned the Twins demoted him back to high Single-A despite his playing 70 games at Double-A the previous season. And then when a promotion pushed him up to Double-A again in June he hit .237/.277/.396 with an ugly 68/17 K/BB ratio in 79 games there.

Oh, and after two years trying to convert him to second base the Twins basically gave up on that project and played Rosario mostly in the outfield. Because of his limited center field defense and Byron Buxton's presence he's never going to be the Twins' long-term starter there, which means Rosario will have to put his plus speed to good use in a corner spot and prove that his bat can be an asset in a place often home to sluggers.

So far he hasn't done that, hitting .260/.302/.403 with 12 homers and a 135/38 K/BB ratio in 149 games at Double-A. Rosario is still just 23 years old, so there's time for his power and/or plate discipline to develop further, but right now his offensive game revolves around batting average. Starting strong could get Rosario called up to the Twins by midseason and the good news is that being added to the 40-man roster means he's no longer subject to testing for marijuana usage.

9. Nick Burdi | Reliever | DOB: 1/93 | Throws: Right | Draft: 2014-2

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2014     A-     13      0     4.15      13.0       8      0      26      8
         A+      7      0     0.00       7.1       5      0      12      2

In recent years the Twins have gone very heavy on drafting hard-throwing college relievers and the returns have been underwhelming so far. That could change with Nick Burdi, their hardest-throwing college reliever yet. His college numbers at Louisville were video game-level ridiculous, with a 0.62 ERA and 127 strikeouts in 73 innings for 2013/2014, and Baseball America's pre-draft scouting report unequivocally called him "the hardest thrower in college baseball."

He was originally drafted by the Twins in the 24th round out of high school and they picked him again last year, this time 46th overall. He signed for $1.2 million and skipped rookie-ball, starting his pro career at low Single-A and quickly moving up to high Single-A. Between the two levels the 6-foot-5 right-hander racked up an incredible 38 strikeouts in 20 innings while regularly cracking 100 miles per hour. His low-90s slider (yes, low-90s slider) is considered a plus pitch too.

College relievers in other organizations tend to move quickly through the minors and while the Twins in general tend to hold back their draft picks Burdi making it to Fort Myers already is a sign they have him on the fast track. As you might expect from a triple-digit thrower his control needs a lot of work, but his walk rate is merely bad and not disastrous. Burdi could be the first pitcher to truly usher the Twins into the modern era of high-velocity arms and he could do it in 2015.

8. Lewis Thorpe | Starter | DOB: 12/95 | Throws: Left | Sign: Australia

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2013     RK-    12      8     2.05      44.0      32      2      64      6
2014     A-     16     16     3.52      71.2      62      7      80     36

Lewis Thorpe was signed out of Australia by the Twins for $500,000 as a 16-year-old and one year later he dominated rookie-ball hitters in his pro debut, racking up 64 strikeouts versus six walks in 44 innings. Convinced he was ready for full-season competition, the Twins had Thorpe skip advanced rookie-ball and sent him to low Single-A as an 18-year-old. Not surprisingly he got off to a rough start, allowing 13 runs in his first 18 innings.

Thorpe turned things around quickly and finished the season with a 12-start stretch in which he posted a 2.52 ERA and 73/26 K/BB ratio in 54 innings while holding opponents to a .213 batting average. Those great numbers become spectacular numbers when you consider he was the only 18-year-old in the entire Midwest League to throw at least 70 innings and the average age of the hitters he faced was 22.

Things came to a screeching halt in September when Thorpe was diagnosed with a sprained ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow, which can often lead to Tommy John surgery. He skipped pitching winter ball in Australia and is expected to be ready for Opening Day, but given the Twins' recent history with such things it's hard not to be pessimistic. If healthy Thorpe has top-of-the-rotation upside and his performance at such a young age really stands out.

7. Jorge Polanco | Shortstop | DOB: 7/93 | Bats: Switch | Sign: Dominican

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2012     RK+    204     .318     .388     .514      5     22     20     26
2013     A-     523     .308     .362     .452      5     47     42     59
2014     A+     432     .291     .364     .415      6     29     46     60
         AA     157     .281     .323     .342      1      7      9     28

When the Twins needed emergency infield depth they surprisingly called up Jorge Polanco from Single-A one week before his 21st birthday, making him the youngest position player to debut for the team since Joe Mauer in 2004 and just the second to do so before turning 21 since 1980. He ended up starting just one game for the Twins, spending most of the season at Single-A before moving up to Double-A for the final six weeks.

Polanco did his usual thing in Fort Myers, hitting for a strong batting average and modest power while controlling the strike zone. He hit .281 following the promotion to Double-A, but it came with very little power and a poor 28/9 K/BB ratio in 37 games. He was one of the youngest players in the Eastern League, so simply holding his own for New Britain was an accomplishment. Polanco also resumed playing mostly shortstop after playing more second base than shortstop in 2013.

His raw numbers aren't eye-popping, but Polanco has moved quickly through the system while faring well and moving him back to shortstop is a positive long-term sign for his defensive value regardless of which position he ends up calling home. He projects as a solid player on both sides of the ball and that hasn't been said about many Twins middle infield prospects for a long time. Despite his early debut Polanco may not factor into the Twins' plans until 2016.

6. Nick Gordon | Shortstop | DOB: 10/95 | Bats: Left | Draft: 2014-1

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2014     RK+    255     .294     .333     .366      1     11     11     45

For the third time in three years the Twins had a top-five pick and used it on a high school player, taking Florida shortstop Nick Gordon. His father, Tom Gordon, was a three-time All-Star pitcher with 21 seasons in the majors and his brother, Dee Gordon, led the majors in stolen bases last season and is currently the Marlins' starting second baseman. Nick Gordon signed for $3.85 million as the fifth overall pick and made his pro debut in advanced rookie-ball.

He got off to a fast start and then cooled down, finishing at .294/.333/.366 with one homer in 57 games. His lack of power was expected, although Baseball America's pre-draft scouting report was convinced his swing has the potential to develop more pop. Gordon was raw at the plate, striking out 45 times compared to 11 walks, and he was successful on just 11 of 18 steal attempts while showing speed that's several notches below his brother.

By drafting Gordon at No. 5 despite a lack of big-time offensive upside the Twins clearly think he has a chance to be a plus defensive shortstop with a solid bat, which is a tough combo to find as Twins fans know all too well. However, outside the organization opinions on his long-term ability to play shortstop seem mixed and as a second baseman Gordon's skill set is far less promising. Last time the Twins used a top-10 pick on a high school shortstop: Michael Cuddyer in 1997.


For a lengthy discussion of the Twins' top 10 prospects, including all five players listed above, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.