July 2, 2015

Twins call up Miguel Sano to take over at designated hitter

Miguel Sano Twins

Miguel Sano is on his way to the majors and the 22-year-old top prospect will make his MLB debut at designated hitter rather than third base, stepping into a position that has been horribly unproductive for the Twins this season. Six players have started at least one game at DH for the Twins--led by Kennys Vargas with 29 and Torii Hunter and Eduardo Nunez with 11 each--and they've combined to hit .250/.305/.357 with five homers to rank second-worst in the league.

Vargas was the Opening Day starter following a strong rookie showing, but hit just .245/.277/.365 with five homers and an ugly 48/7 K/BB ratio in 47 games and has been sent to Double-A after previously being demoted to Triple-A. Oswaldo Arcia hasn't hit enough in Rochester to convince the Twins he's worth letting out of the doghouse and Josmil Pinto has been sidelined by with a concussion, so Sano is getting the call three weeks after fellow elite prospect Byron Buxton.

Signed out of the Dominican Republic as a 16-year-old in 2009 for a record $3.15 million, Sano's immense power potential was evident from Day 1. He's topped an .850 OPS in all five seasons as a pro despite being very young for each level of competition, including hitting .274/.374/.544 with 15 homers and 18 doubles in 66 games at Double-A this year after missing all of 2014 following Tommy John elbow surgery.

And those extremely impressive Double-A numbers include a terrible April, as Sano struggled to get back on track offensively and defensively. However, since May 1 he's hit .315/.400/.601 with 11 homers, 16 doubles, and 28 walks in 48 games. That's incredible production for a 22-year-old coming off a lost season and why, despite questions about his long-term ability to remain at third base defensively, the Twins feel Sano is ready to make an impact with his bat alone.

Even focusing strictly on his bat Sano is far from flawless. He strikes out a ton, whiffing 149 times in 133 games at Double-A, and as a result his career batting average is a modest .278. Of course, struggling to make consistent contact often comes with the territory for big-time power hitters and Sano balances the strikeouts with lots of walks. That's an important distinction, because it means Sano has shown patience and the ability to work deep counts rather than being a free-swinger.

Cutting down at least somewhat on the strikeouts to keep his batting average closer to .300 than .200 and maintaining a good walk rate are keys to his development, but make no mistake about it: Power is the one tool around which his career will revolve. Sano is a massive human being at 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds, looking the part of a prototypical middle-of-the-order slugger, and he's averaged 35 homers per 150 games in the minors.

Three years ago as a teenager at low Single-A he led the Midwest League with 28 homers. Two years ago as a 20-year-old playing at high Single-A and Double-A his 34 homers were the most by any Twins minor leaguer in three decades. This season, as a 22-year-old at Double-A coming back from elbow surgery and a year of lost development, his 15 homers in 58 games ranked second in the Southern League.

Sano has 40-homer potential, which is saying something considering Harmon Killebrew is the only player in Twins history to hit more than 35 homers. That type of power combined with lots of walks would be enough to make Sano an outstanding overall player even with a batting average in the .250 range and little defensive value. Getting into the .280 range and contributing positively defensively--at third base or elsewhere--could make him an MVP-caliber monster.

For now the Twins simply need Sano to be better offensively than a group of DHs that combined for a .662 OPS and are willing to put him into a role that takes defense out of the equation save for what figures to be spot starts in the field. Trevor Plouffe will remain the Twins' starting third baseman, Sano will try to establish himself as an impact bat at age 22, and they'll worry about where he winds up defensively and how well he plays there later.


This week's blog content is sponsored by Uber, which is offering a free ride to first-time users who sign up with the promo code "UberGleeman."

June 30, 2015

Byron Buxton and the curse of the elite Twins prospect

Byron Buxton Twins injury

Byron Buxton is expected to miss six weeks after suffering a sprained thumb in his 10th game for the Twins, knocking out the team's best prospect less than two weeks into his MLB career and right when he'd gotten back on the track to stardom following an injury wrecked 2014. Buxton had a trio of significant health problems last year, missing three months with a wrist injury, suffering a season-ending concussion in August, and skipping the Arizona Fall League with a broken finger.

Now he's sidelined by a fourth injury at age 21, which is a shame because it robs Buxton of crucial development time and each physical problem also potentially lowers his upside by putting dents in his immense physical tools. Unfortunately that's nothing new for Twins prospects and in fact it has become the standard fate for the crown jewels of their farm system. Based on Baseball America's annual top-100 prospect rankings, here are the best Twins prospects since 2000:

1. Joe Mauer
2. Byron Buxton
3. Francisco Liriano
4. Justin Morneau
5. Miguel Sano
6. Michael Cuddyer
7. Jason Kubel

You can certainly quibble with the exact order--I went into more detail here--but those are the only seven Twins prospects to be ranked among MLB's overall top 20 at some point since 2000. Six of those seven prospects suffered significant injuries before reaching their peaks and five of those seven prospects suffered significant injuries in the minors or in their rookie years with the Twins. In other words, nearly every elite Twins prospect since 2000 arrived as damaged goods.

Mauer tore the medial meniscus in his left knee while chasing after a foul ball in the second game of his Twins career, undergoing surgery the week before his 21st birthday and missing all but 35 games of his rookie season. Liriano made the All-Star team at age 22 and was having one of the most dominant rookie seasons ever by a pitcher when his elbow gave out, requiring Tommy John surgery that sidelined him for the entire next season.

Morneau made it to the Twins and reached his peak unscathed only to suffer a concussion in the middle of his age-29 season. At the time he was hitting .345 with a 1.055 OPS through 81 games, but he didn't play again that season, missed most of the next year, and has never been the same. Sano appeared to be on the verge of the majors last spring when he was shut down with an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery, causing him to miss all of last season at age 21.

Kubel hit .352 with power and speed between Double-A and Triple-A at age 22 and then hit .300 in his 23-game debut with the Twins that September, but he suffered a career-threatening knee injury during a gruesome outfield collision in the Arizona Fall League and missed the entire next season before returning as a much different, more limited player. And now Buxton is out for six weeks with a thumb injury after being sidelined by wrist, finger, and brain injuries last season.

Injuries are obviously a part of baseball for all teams, but six of the Twins' seven elite prospects since 2000 suffering major injuries was franchise-altering. Liriano and Kubel were pretty clearly never the same following their injuries at age 22, it's possible that Mauer never truly reached his full potential playing an entire career with a surgically repaired knee, and Morneau was derailed by a brain injury at his absolute peak and never fully got back on track.

Sano is currently playing well at Double-A, but he's also repeating the level after a lost season, the injury lessens his odds of sticking at third base, and at the very least elbow surgery delayed his arrival to Minnesota. Similarly, four injuries in 18 months has stalled Buxton's development and the Twins can only hope that it won't keep him from ultimately reaching his peak or lower his upside whenever he does get there. It's a fate they've seen far too often with elite prospects.


For a lot more about Buxton's injury and the domino effect it has on the Twins' roster, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

June 26, 2015

Twins call up former top starter prospect Alex Meyer as a reliever

Alex Meyer Twins

Two weeks after calling up No. 1 prospect Byron Buxton the Twins have added another top-100 prospect to the roster, promoting 6-foot-9 flame-thrower Alex Meyer from Triple-A for his MLB debut. Stalled development and ongoing control problems from a 25-year-old starter repeating Triple-A prompted the Twins to shift Meyer from the rotation to the bullpen in late May and now after dominating International League hitters for a month as a reliever he's in Minnesota.

Meyer allowed just one earned run in nine appearances as a reliever, posting a 0.53 ERA with 20 strikeouts in 17 innings while holding opponents to a .188 batting average. He walked six batters in 17 innings, so control remained an issue in the bullpen, but the Twins are hoping that Meyer working 1-2 innings at a time will allow him to take his already overpowering fastball to another level while also lessening durability concerns.

When the Twins moved Meyer to the bullpen I wrote about how there's no shame in that switch for pitching prospects, particularly since nearly every standout reliever in Twins history--including current All-Star closer Glen Perkins--was originally a starter. General manager Terry Ryan and company haven't ruled out Meyer taking another crack at starting some day, but if things go well for him initially as a reliever odds are he'll remain in the bullpen long term.

Starters typically become relievers due to a combination of control problems, durability concerns, issues with secondary offerings, and the hope that shorter stints will lead to improved raw stuff. Meyer checks all of those boxes. He walked 4.0 batters per nine innings as a starter, had minor arm injuries in each of the past two seasons, figures to benefit from focusing on his slider as the complement to his fastball, and could reach triple-digits when not trying to pace himself.

Casey Fien and Blaine Boyer have done a solid job serving as Perkins' primary setup men, but realistically they'd be better fits as middle relievers. Meyer has true late-inning potential thanks to a high-90s fastball and power slider that generated 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings at Double-A and Triple-A. No reliever with 50 innings for the Twins from 2010-2015 had an average fastball above 95 miles per hour and here are the top strikeout rates by a reliever in Twins history:

                SO/9
Joe Nathan      10.9
Pat Neshek      10.5
Tom Hall        10.1
Glen Perkins     9.4
Johan Santana    9.1

Back in November of 2012 when the Twins acquired Meyer as a 22-year-old Single-A prospect from the Nationals in a straight-up trade for center fielder Denard Span they did so hoping he'd develop into a top-of-the-rotation starter capable of giving them 180-200 innings per season. That scenario became less and less likely--and now looks like an extreme long shot--but 60-80 innings of late-inning, high-velocity, high-strikeout bullpen work would have plenty of value too.


For more about the call-up timetables for the Twins' top prospects check out this special midweek "Gleeman and The Geek" episode that focuses entirely on the farm system.

June 17, 2015

When will Miguel Sano join Byron Buxton in Minnesota?

Miguel Sano Twins

Within minutes of the Twins calling up No. 1 prospect Byron Buxton the ever-present "when will he be in Minnesota?" questions shifted to No. 2 prospect Miguel Sano, who's spent all season in Chattanooga batting behind Buxton in the Double-A lineup. Sano is six months older than Buxton and has more upper-minors experience, playing 67 games at Double-A in 2013 and 56 games at Double-A this year, but in between he missed all of 2014 following Tommy John elbow surgery.

Buxton's call-up filled an obvious need, because through their first 61 games the Twins gave a dozen or more starts to three different center fielders and the trio of Jordan Schafer, Shane Robinson, and Aaron Hicks combined for a sub-.600 OPS to rank among the least-productive positions in baseball. Buxton was also thriving at Double-A, hitting .310/.379/.540 with 18 steals in his last 46 games. Toss in Hicks' recent forearm injury and all the dots were connected.

Sano, on the other hand, plays a position at which the Twins are pretty well set. Trevor Plouffe has slumped of late, but he's hitting .248/.315/.442 to basically match his 2014 numbers while rating as an above-average defender at third base for the second straight year. Plouffe has been one of the Twins' best all-around players, both this season and last season, and the Twins have the fourth-highest OPS in the league at third base.

Plouffe has emerged as an above-average starting third baseman at age 29 and with two more seasons of team control remaining before free agency. Beyond that Plouffe's performance--low batting average, mediocre on-base percentage, good power--is exactly the type of performance the Twins would be hoping to get from Sano as a 22-year-old rookie. Calling up Buxton to replace Hicks/Schafer/Robinson was a clear upgrade. Calling up Sano to replace Plouffe is not.

However, that doesn't mean calling up Sano to take over at another position wouldn't make sense. Defense has never been his strong point anyway and many people were skeptical about his ability to remain at third base long term even before missing an entire season following elbow surgery. His range will always be limited at 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds, surgery may have lessened his arm strength, and Sano has committed 25 errors in 118 games as a Double-A third baseman.

He's also hit .302/.384/.561 in 38 games since May 1 following a rough April, basically picking up where he left off before missing all of last season. If the Twins still believe Sano can stick at third base they may be hesitant to halt his development there, but his bat has always been what makes Sano a top prospect and it looks just about ready now. It would be asking a lot for him to learn a new position on the fly and in the majors, but they could simply ask him to do nothing but hit.

Twins designated hitters rank 13th among AL teams in OPS, combining for a .250 batting average with three homers and a .339 slugging percentage in 60 games. Kennys Vargas has gotten 25 of those 60 starts, with another 18 going to Torii Hunter and Joe Mauer when they take days off from fielding. And the Twins' remaining 17 starts at DH have gone to light-hitting middle infielders Eduardo Escobar, Eduardo Nunez, and Danny Santana.

Vargas is capable of much more than he's given the Twins this season and if Oswaldo Arcia gets on track at Triple-A he's another quality DH option. But if the Twins again run out of patience with Vargas and continue to be less than enthused with Arcia, calling up Sano to take over at DH--with some action at third base and first base mixed in--would make only slightly less sense than calling up Buxton to take over in center field. It's an obvious hole and he's ready to fill it.


This week's blog content is sponsored by Uber, which is offering a free ride to first-time users who sign up with the promo code "UberGleeman."

June 13, 2015

The future is now: Twins call up top prospect Byron Buxton

Byron Buxton Twins call-up

In the midst of an ugly 1-7 stretch the Twins have delivered some exciting news to their fans, calling up stud center field prospect Byron Buxton from Double-A. Buxton will make his MLB debut Sunday at 21 years and 178 days old, arriving three years and 10 days after the Twins selected him with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2012 draft out of a Georgia high school. He's the best prospect to join the Twins since Joe Mauer in 2004.

Buxton missed nearly all of last year with a pair of serious injuries, including a concussion from a nasty outfield collision that ended his season in August and kept him from playing in the Arizona Fall League. Despite the health worries and missed development time he ranked as a consensus top-three prospect across baseball, along with Kris Bryant of the Cubs and Carlos Correa of the Astros. Bryant debuted on April 17. Correa debuted on June 8. Buxton will debut on June 14.

Buxton got off to a slow start at Double-A, hitting just .180 through his first dozen games. And then he turned things around in a huge way, hitting .310 with a .379 on-base percentage and .540 slugging percentage in the next 46 games culminating with his call-up. Over that 46-game stretch, which is a little less than one-third of a full season, Buxton drew 22 walks and smacked 22 extra-base hits, including an incredible 11 triples. He also stole 18 bases in 19 tries.

Initial expectations should be held in check, because not many 21-year-olds thrive in the big leagues immediately. However, his long-term upside is almost unlimited on both sides of the ball. Buxton is one of the fastest players in baseball, with the range to be a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder, the base-stealing skills to swipe 50-plus bags at a high success rate, and the flat-out speed to turn routine ground balls into infield singles and gappers into stand-up triples.

He's still somewhat raw offensively and a high strikeout rate could keep his batting average from being great, but Buxton has drawn more walks than most toolsy high school draft picks playing against much older competition and has the power potential to develop into a middle-of-the-order bat if the Twins don't fall in love with him atop the lineup. He's a truly elite, A-plus prospect with franchise-lifting talent and if things go according to plan he'll be in the mix for MVP awards.

Giddy. Up.


If you want a lot more about Buxton's arrival, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode for what was essentially 90 consecutive minutes of Buxton talk.

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