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.

June 9, 2015

Twins draft Illinois left-hander Tyler Jay with No. 6 pick

Tyler Jay Illinois

In selecting University of Illinois reliever Tyler Jay with the No. 6 pick the Twins made it clear they think he can develop into a starter and according to Baseball America that's an opinion shared by some, but not all, teams. Jay saved 14 games with a 0.60 ERA and 70/7 K/BB ratio in 60 innings for Illinois during the regular season and actually started a College World Series game against Vanderbilt hours before the draft, allowing a homer to No. 1 overall pick Dansby Swanson.

Jay is a left-hander with good control who throws in the mid-90s as a reliever, but the question is whether his secondary pitches and durability will hold up as a starter and how much of his electric raw stuff will be lost when trying to throw six or seven innings instead of one or two innings. Very few teams invest top-10 picks in college relievers and when they have done so the results are a mixed bag at best, suggesting the "sure thing" aspect is somewhat misleading.

Here's a list of every college reliever drafted with a top-10 pick in the past 20 years:

RELIEVER         PICK     YEAR
TYLER JAY          #6     2015
Drew Storen       #10     2009
Daniel Moskos      #4     2007
Casey Weathers     #8     2007
Matt Anderson      #1     1997
Braden Looper      #3     1997

Prior to Jay there had been just five college relievers drafted with top-10 picks since 1995 and of those five only Drew Storen, the 10th pick in 2009, panned out as hoped. Braden Looper, the third pick in 1997, had a solid career as a setup man and sometimes closer, but finished with a 4.15 ERA. And the other three were busts. That has little to do with Jay, specifically, but it does show that using a top-10 pick on a college reliever has been anything but a sure thing.

In recent years the Twins have used several high-round picks on college relievers with plans to turn them into pro starters and it hasn't worked out well at all, with a combination of injuries and poor performances derailing most of them long before the majors were in sight. Mediocre, injured, and/or failed starters become great relievers far more often than great relievers become even mediocre starters, which is why teams almost always go for more upside with top-10 picks.

Baseball America ranked Jay as the 13th-best prospect in the draft, noting that he "was trending toward the top half of the first round and could be the first player from the draft class to reach the majors if he stays in a relief role." However, their pre-draft scouting report also noted that "scouts were mixed on whether or not Jay could start" and despite a mid-90s fastball and "wipeout" slider. Terry Ryan indicated that Jay will continue to be used as a reliever for the rest of 2015.

MLB.com ranked Jay as the ninth-best prospect in the draft, noting that he's "not very physical at 6-foot-1 and 175 pounds" but "generates that heat with athleticism and a quick arm rather than an excessive amount of effort in his delivery." Their pre-draft scouting report also noted that Jay "has a deeper repertoire than most relievers" and "has enough pitches and control to lead a pro team to consider trying him as a starter."

Jay is the Twins' fourth consecutive top-10 pick, following high school outfielder Byron Buxton at No. 2 in 2012, high school pitcher Kohl Stewart at No. 4 in 2013, and high school shortstop Nick Gordon at No. 5 in 2014. And he'll be the Twins' only draft pick in the top 70 this year, because they forfeited their second-round pick for the right to sign the since-suspended Ervin Santana to a four-year, $55 million contract this offseason.


For more draft talk, plus a discussion of the Twins demoting Danny Santana and promoting Kennys Vargas, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

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