September 11, 2013

Twins Notes: September call-ups, bad Buxton, and cleaning up young

aaron hicks september1

• Rochester's playoff run ended Sunday at Triple-A, so the Twins made seven September call-ups after initially not adding reinforcements. Eduardo Escobar, Chris Parmelee, Scott Diamond, and Michael Tonkin return after playing for the Twins previously this season and Cole De Vries is back in Minnesota for the first time this year after spending much of last season in the Twins' rotation, leaving Shairon Martis and Eric Fryer as the surprising call-ups.

Fryer is a 28-year-old journeyman catcher with 2,081 plate appearances in the minors compared to 34 plate appearances in the majors. He hit just .219/.339/.365 in 65 games for Rochester and is a career .208/.312/.313 hitter at Triple-A, but with Joe Mauer on the disabled list recovering from a brain injury and the Twins apparently no longer as willing to use Ryan Doumit behind the plate they wanted another catcher around for the final three weeks.

Martis is a 26-year-old right-hander who spent most of last season and all of this season in the Twins' farm system after being signed to a minor-league deal. He was a full-time starter until this year, shifting to the bullpen in Rochester and throwing 80 innings with a 4.26 ERA and 65-to-31 strikeout-to-walk ratio. There is absolutely nothing about his performance that stands out, this season or in past seasons, so aside from "they just wanted an extra arm" his call-up is odd.

My assumption is that Fryer and Martis will be dropped from the 40-man roster immediately after the season, in which case adding them now has no real impact aside from not giving those same temporary spots to more deserving options this month. De Vries also seems likely to be dropped, along with a handful of other names as part of the annual season-ending purge. Tonkin is the only call-up in the group with big upside, although certainly some people still believe in Diamond.

• As for who the Twins didn't add, the healthy players on the 40-man roster who haven't joined the team are Aaron Hicks, Trevor May, Danny Santana, and B.J. Hermsen. Of that group only Hicks' lack of a call-up is at all surprising, because May, Santana, and Hermsen all spent the season at Double-A and Hermsen was bad enough to potentially be dropped from the roster soon. Hicks, meanwhile, was the Opening Day center fielder and spent four months in the majors.

Hicks was terrible following an August 1 demotion to Triple-A, hitting .221/.317/.333 with zero homers and a 21-to-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 22 games to continue a miserable season that began with the Twins shoving aside development and service time considerations by rushing him from Double-A to the majors at age 23. Of course, Parmelee hit just .231/.318/.370 in 45 games at Triple-A following his midseason demotion and still got a September call-up.

• I dug through the minor-league records back when the Twins promoted Byron Buxton from low Single-A to high Single-A in late June and found that he was one of just six teenagers in the past 30 years to post an OPS of .975 or higher in the Midwest League:

Byron Buxton       2013     .990
Javier Baez        2012     .979
Oscar Taveras      2011    1.028
Mike Trout         2010     .979
Alex Rodriguez     1994     .984
Larry Walker       1986    1.011

After the promotion to high Single-A he played 57 games for Fort Myers, hitting .326/.415/.472 with 23 steals. Here's a list of all the teenagers in the past 30 years to post an OPS of .875 or higher in the Florida State League:

Byron Buxton       2013     .887
Jesus Montero      2009     .989
Giancarlo Stanton  2009     .968
Joel Guzman        2004     .899
Nick Johnson       1998    1.004
Adrian Beltre      1997     .967

So during the first half of the season Buxton did something only five other players have done in the past 30 years and then during the second half of the season Buxton did a different thing only five other players have done in the past 30 years. Overall he hit .334/.424/.520 with 55 steals, 49 extra-base hits, and 76 walks in 125 games between two levels where the average pitchers were 23 years old. He doesn't turn 20 until mid-December. Buxton is a bad, bad man (or kid, I guess).

UPDATE: Right on cue, Baseball America just announced that Buxton is their minor league player of the year, joining Mauer in 2003 as the only Twins to win the award.

• Sunday afternoon Oswaldo Arcia batted fourth for the first time in his career, making his debut in the cleanup spot at 22 years and 122 days old. He's the youngest player to bat cleanup for the Twins since Mauer did it at 22 years and 88 days old in July of 2005 and Justin Morneau did it at 22 years and 26 days old in June of 2003. Here's the complete list of every Twins hitter to bat cleanup before turning 23:

Kent Hrbek        156
Butch Wynegar     101
David Ortiz        44
Justin Morneau     12
Tom Brunansky      12
Joe Mauer           6
Steve Brye          6
OSWALDO ARCIA       3
Don Mincher         1

Butch Wynegar, one of the biggest phenoms in team history, was the youngest Twins cleanup hitter at 20 years and 63 days old in May of 1976. In fact, the 90 youngest instances of a Twins hitter batting cleanup all belong Wynegar and then the 91st spot is Tom Brunansky at 21 years and 266 days old. Steve Brye is the odd man out on that list, batting cleanup six times for the Twins as a 22-year-old in 1971 despite going on to be a career .258/.309/.365 hitter.

• After missing all of last season and the first five months of this season following Tommy John elbow surgery Scott Baker finally made his 2013 debut Sunday for the Cubs. He'd been very ineffective while rehabbing in the minors, but Baker tossed five shutout innings against the Brewers in his first start since August 8, 2011. He'll be a free agent again this offseason.

• There was some talk of the Twins being in the mix for Cuban infielder Alexander Guerrero, but he ended up signing with the Dodgers for $32 million.

• While looking up some stats I stumbled across this tidbit: In their respective Double-A careers Michael Jordan (.289) had a higher on-base percentage than Drew Butera (.287).

Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette wrote an interesting column about Morneau's first two weeks with the Pirates and how he relates to Penguins star Sidney Crosby.

• For a lot more on Buxton's great season, plus talk about Mauer's concussion, Josmil Pinto's hot start, and Trevor Plouffe's future, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.


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August 14, 2013

The future is now with Oswaldo Arcia

oswaldo arcia homer

Oswaldo Arcia would have entered this year as the No. 1 prospect in most other farm systems and would have been the Twins' top prospect in most of the past 10 years, but instead he's largely been overshadowed by Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton (and for a while at least, Aaron Hicks too). None of which is to say that Arcia is on the same level as Sano or Buxton, but rather that perception and context often play big roles in the amount of hype attached to prospects.

Arcia climbed the minor-league ladder very quickly, particularly in the typically slow-paced Twins system, and now he's showing a ton of promise in the majors as a 22-year-old rookie. There have been plenty of bumps along the way, including strikeout-filled slumps and multiple demotions back to Triple-A, but for a 22-year-old to show this kind of power potential and overall hitting ability is incredibly encouraging.

This year at Triple-A he hit .313/.426/.594 with 10 homers and 22 walks in 38 games and dating back to the beginning of last year Arcia has played exactly 162 games in the minors while hitting .318/.396/.551 with 27 homers, 77 total extra-base hits, and 73 walks. And while posting those monster numbers Arcia was very young for every level of competition and never stuck around in one place for more than a couple months. He was young, he moved quickly, and he crushed.

His numbers in the majors aren't as jaw-dropping, but within the context of being a 22-year-old rookie they're every bit as impressive. Arcia has hit .264/.321/.452 with 10 homers and 25 total extra-base hits in 70 games, which makes him solidly above average in a year when MLB as a whole has hit .254/.317/.398. Here's how he ranks in slugging percentage, OPS, and adjusted OPS+ compared to the other 22-year-olds in Twins history with at least 250 plate appearances:

SLUGGING %                 OPS                        ADJUSTED OPS+
Kent Hrbek       .485      Kent Hrbek       .848      Kent Hrbek       128
OSWALDO ARCIA    .452      David Ortiz      .817      David Ortiz      111
David Ortiz      .446      Joe Mauer        .783      OSWALDO ARCIA    110
Tom Brunansky    .445      OSWALDO ARCIA    .773      Joe Mauer        107
Joe Mauer        .411      Tom Brunansky    .753      Tom Brunansky    103

In the entire history of the Twins only four 22-year-olds have been above-average hitters in 250 or more plate appearances. Arcia is on pace to become the fifth, which would mean joining Kent Hrbek, David Ortiz, Joe Mauer, and Tom Brunansky in some pretty nice company. Breaking his production down even further, Arcia's current Isolated Power of .188 would be second among all 22-year-old Twins, sandwiched between Brunansky at .218 and Hrbek at .184.

Looking to all of MLB, if Arcia maintains his current production he'd join this list of 22-year-olds from 2005-2012 to reach a 110 adjusted OPS+ and a .180 Isolated Power: Miguel Cabrera, David Wright, Grady Sizemore, Prince Fielder, Hanley Ramirez, Brian McCann, Chris Davis, Evan Longoria, Andrew McCutchen, Pablo Sandoval, Jason Heyward, B.J. Upton, Freddie Freeman, Giancarlo Stanton. Guys who hit like Arcia at 22 turn out pretty well.

There are still plenty of rough edges to be smoothed out too. Arcia has struck out 81 times in 70 games, which is the equivalent of 179 strikeouts prorated to 600 plate appearances. Studies have shown that high strikeout totals can actually be a positive thing for very young hitters because it often foreshadows significant power development down the road, but it's nearly impossible to post high batting averages whiffing in 30 percent of your trips to the plate.

Arcia whiffed a lot in the minors too, including 99 strikeouts in 454 plate appearances between Double-A and Triple-A. He managed to hit .323 in the high minors despite striking out nearly once per game, but that was due to a .380 batting average on balls in play that simply isn't sustainable in the majors. To put that in some context, no active big leaguer has a career batting average on balls in play above .365 and a .335 mark is in the top 30.

So despite his lofty batting averages in the minors it's hard to see Arcia challenging for batting titles in the majors barring a change in approach. Of course, with his power even a .285 batting average could be enough to make him one of the league's best hitters. More worrisome than the high strikeout total is Arcia's ugly strikeout-to-walk ratio, which stands at 81-to-18 through 70 games. Plenty of excellent hitters strike out a lot, but very few have strike-zone control that bad.

The good news is that walk rate and strike-zone control are weaknesses for many young hitters and also tend to improve with age and experience. And in this specific case Arcia drew a decent number of walks in the minors, especially factoring in his age and rapid promotions. He's certainly a free-swinger right now and Arcia seems unlikely to ever become a truly patient hitter, but if he can draw walks somewhere around a league-average rate he'll be just fine.

Arcia's long-term ceiling is very high, but in trying to be at least somewhat realistic projecting his future performance based on his current strengths and flaws a .285 hitter with 30-homer power and mediocre plate discipline seems reasonable. Jason Kubel spent five seasons as a regular for the Twins and hit .273 with an average of 22 homers, 55 walks, and 113 strikeouts per 600 plate appearances, so a rich man's Kubel might not be a bad target for now.

Kubel's upside became limited by his inability to do damage versus left-handed pitching, against whom he's hit just .244/.316/.420 for his career. That may also end up limiting Arcia, who has a 30-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio versus left-handers in the majors so far. Small sample size caveats apply, but Arcia showed extreme splits in the minors too. Over the past two years in the minors Arcia had a .961 OPS against righties and a .742 OPS against lefties.

Also like Kubel he figures to be a below-average defensive corner outfielder. His early defensive numbers are awful, with a collection of awkward plays to match, and even in a best-case scenario he seems destined to be a minus in the field. None of that will impact his ability to develop into a middle-of-the-order slugger offensively, but defense will certainly play a big part in Arcia's overall value and raises the bar for his offense on any potential path to all-around stardom.

Dreaming about the arrivals of Sano and Buxton is exciting, but in the meantime Arcia is already in Minnesota and already a quality middle-of-the-order bat having more success at age 22 than anyone in Twins history but Hrbek, Ortiz, and Mauer. He's the best Twins position player prospect to reach the majors since Mauer in 2005 and the best young power hitter the Twins have called up since Justin Morneau in 2003.

For a lot more about Arcia's rookie-year production and long-term potential, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.


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August 2, 2013

Miguel Sano, Chad Rupp, David Ortiz, and the chase for Tim Laudner

sano and sluggers

Friends and family, we are gathered here today to drool over Miguel Sano's power potential.

As a 19-year-old last season Sano played 129 games at low Single-A and hit 28 homers. Not only did that lead the Midwest League, no one else had even 20 homers. And that's nothing compared to what he's doing now. Sano began this season with 16 homers in 56 games at high Single-A and has homered 10 times in 40 games since a promotion to Double-A. That adds up to 26 homers in 96 games and puts Sano on pace for the most homers by any Twins minor leaguer in 25 years:

                    YEAR      PA     HR
Chad Rupp           1997     491     32
Garrett Jones       2004     563     31
Mike Ryan           2002     600     31
David Ortiz         1997     594     31
Michael Cuddyer     2001     593     30
Matthew LeCroy      1999     506     30
David Ortiz         1999     563     30

Chad Rupp was a 44th-round pick in 1993 out of the University of Miami who hit .272/.352/.575 with 32 homers in 117 games at Triple-A in 1997. That season the Pacific Coast League as a whole hit .293 with a .465 slugging percentage, so Rupp's power wasn't as impressive as it looked and as a 25-year-old first baseman who hadn't hit much before that he was a non-prospect. He was out of baseball two seasons later.

Garrett Jones and Mike Ryan were longtime Triple-A fixtures for the Twins in the early 2000s, combining to play parts of 10 seasons there in the organization. Ryan had his 31-homer season as a 24-year-old in the hitter-friendly PCL, a year before the Triple-A team moved to Rochester. He hit .261/.330/.522 in 131 games, but never produced like that before or after. Ryan got a handful of brief chances with the Twins, hitting .265/.313/.408 in 285 plate appearances.

Jones is one of the Twins' most prolific minor-league sluggers, homering 31 times at Double-A in 2004 and then topping 20 homers at Triple-A in four of the next five seasons. He also hit just .259 with a .318 on-base percentage and 411-to-167 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 518 games at Triple-A and no tears were shed when he left the organization as a free agent in 2009. Jones signed with the Pirates, worked his way to the majors, and has hit .258/.319/.462 in 661 games.

Michael Cuddyer had his 30-homer season as a 22-year-old at Double-A, hitting .301/.395/.560 in 141 games in 2001. He was repeating the level following a mediocre season for New Britain in 2000 and didn't get an extended opportunity with the Twins until 2004, when he was 25. Cuddyer had good power for the Twins and is nearing 200 career homers, but he's topped 25 homers in a season just once with 32 in 2009.

Matthew LeCroy had his 30-homer season as a 23-year-old at Single-A in 1999 and then hit 20 homers in 89 games back at Single-A the next season before the Twins finally promoted him to the high minors. He continued to show big-time power at Double-A and Triple-A with 57 homers in 246 games, but never managed more than 17 homers in the majors because he struggled against right-handed pitching and served as a part-time designated hitter/first baseman/catcher.

David Ortiz is the only Twins minor leaguer to reach 30 homers twice in the past 25 years. He did it split between Single-A, Double-A, and Triple-A as a 21-year-old in 1997, hitting .317/.372/.568 in 140 games. And then he did it two years later at Triple-A, hitting .315/.412/.590 in 130 games. And now 15 years later Ortiz is closing in on 500 career homers, although only 58 of them came with the Twins.

What does all of that mean for Sano? Who knows. In terms of upside he's certainly more Cuddyer and Ortiz than Rupp and Ryan, but Sano is a year younger than Ortiz was in 1997 and two years younger than Cuddyer was in 2001. And if Sano stays in the minors for the entire season he may end up closer to 40 homers than 30 homers. Tim Laudner is the last Twins minor leaguer with 40 homers, going deep 42 times at Double-A as a 23-year-old in 1981. Sano was born in 1993.


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July 9, 2013

Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, midseason rankings, and great prospect duos

buxton and sano

Baseball America released its midseason top 50 prospects list--updating their preseason list based on performances, injuries, and graduations to the majors--and the No. 1 spot belongs to Byron Buxton. Midseason lists and preseason lists aren't apples-to-apples comparisons, but dating back to 1990 the only Twins prospect to hold Baseball America's top spot was Joe Mauer in 2004 and 2005. Buxton was No. 10 on the preseason list, which is remarkable in itself after 48 pro games.

Miguel Sano was No. 9 on the preseason list and moves up to No. 3 in the midseason update, behind only Buxton and Cardinals outfielder Oscar Taveras. Preseason lists are the standard for measuring prospect status and things could change between now and the official 2014 version, but I thought it would be interesting to go back through Baseball America's archives looking for other instances of one team having multiple prospects in the top five.

2009: Braves had Tommy Hanson at No. 4 and Jason Heyward at No. 5.
2006: Diamondbacks had Justin Upton at No. 4 and Stephen Drew at No. 5.
2004: Devil Rays had B.J. Upton at No. 2 and Delmon Young at No. 3.
1999: Cardinals had J.D. Drew at No. 1 and Rick Ankiel at No. 2.
1998: Dodgers had Paul Konerko at No. 2 and Adrian Beltre at No. 3.
1995: Yankees had Ruben Rivera at No. 2 and Derek Jeter at No. 4.
1994: Blue Jays had Alex Gonzalez at No. 4 and Carlos Delgado at No. 5.

Seven times in the past 24 seasons a team has placed multiple prospects in Baseball America's top five, which is actually more often than I'd have guessed. It's interesting that there are two sets of brothers (the Uptons and the Drews) included in the sample of 14 total players. And the presence of Delmon Young is kind of a buzzkill for Twins fans attempting to get swept up in the Buxton-Sano hype.

Of those seven pairs of top-five prospect teammates only the 1998 Dodgers' duo of Konerko and Beltre both went on to have lengthy, star-caliber careers. Drew and Ankiel for the 1999 Cardinals were both headed to sustained stardom before Ankiel's pitching career imploded suddenly and the 2009 Braves' pair of Hanson and Heyward were briefly both stars before injuries wrecked Hanson. In general, having two top-five prospects has usually just meant ending up with one star.

In terms of the Twins' highest-ranking duos, they've never come particularly close to placing two prospects in Baseball America's top five. In fact, Buxton and Sano this year are the only instance of two Twins prospects cracking the top 10. Back when Mauer was No. 1 in consecutive years the Twins' next-highest prospects were Justin Morneau at No. 16 in 2004 and Jason Kubel at No. 17 in 2005. They also had Mauer at No. 4 and Morneau at No. 14 in 2003.

There isn't much question that Buxton and Sano are the best Twins prospect duo of at least the past 25 years and if they both maintain their current status for the rest of the season there's an argument to be made that they're one of the top two or three prospect duos any team has had since 1990. I'd say Drew and Ankiel currently hold that distinction and they'd be awfully tough to surpass, but after that it would at the very least be open for debate.

Also of note from Baseball America's midseason top 50 is that Alex Meyer ranks No. 32, moving up from preseason No. 59. Meyer hasn't pitched since June 1 because of a shoulder injury that the Twins insist is minor, but before going on the Double-A disabled list the 23-year-old right-hander acquired from the Nationals for Denard Span posted a 3.69 ERA and 73-to-27 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 61 innings while holding opponents to a .226 batting average and just three homers.

With the same caveat that midseason and preseason lists aren't on equal footing, the last time Baseball America ranked a Twins pitcher higher than No. 32 was Matt Garza at No. 21 in 2007. Before that it was Francisco Liriano at No. 6 in 2006 and Eric Milton at No. 25 in 1998. Toss in the fact that Oswaldo Arcia and Kyle Gibson surely would have joined Buxton, Sano, and Meyer in the midseason top 50 if they weren't already in the majors and it's tough not to start dreaming.


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July 3, 2013

International signing day: Twins spend $2 million on 16-year-old hitters

lewin diaz

In recent years the MLB draft has gotten significantly more attention as media members and fans have increased their focus on prospects, but the international signing period continues to lag far behind. My assumption is that the dearth of readily available information about 16-year-olds from foreign countries plays the biggest role in the lack of attention, because certainly in terms of the long-term impact on teams international signings are every bit as important as draft picks.

This year's international market opened yesterday and the Twins' biggest splash was spending $1.4 million on 16-year-old Lewin Diaz, a 6-foot-4 first baseman from the Dominican Republic. Ben Badler of Baseball America, whose coverage of foreign prospects is the most informed and thorough anywhere, ranked Diaz as the 15th-best international player available and wrote long before signing day that "the Twins appear to be higher on Diaz than any other team."

Badler writes that "his value is all in his bat" and his "big, lumbering body ... could end up along the lines of David Ortiz physically." Having an Ortiz build doesn't mean having an Ortiz bat, but Badler reports that Diaz has "good bat speed and flashes some of the best raw power in Latin America during batting practice." However, he also notes that Diaz "doesn't bring the same loft power against live pitching" and "will have to make adjustments for his power to play in games."

Jesse Sanchez of MLB.com ranked Diaz as the 10th-best international prospect, writing that "scouts love the big left-handed hitter's stroke at the plate and his body reminds many scouts of Ryan Howard." When a baby-faced 16-year-old is compared physically to Ortiz and Howard he's going to be a massive adult some day, so not surprisingly Diaz has sub par speed and projects as a first baseman. In other words, the Twins are betting on him developing huge power.

DPLBaseball.com has video of Diaz doing outfield drills and taking batting practice:

Along with spending big on Diaz the Twins also dropped $550,000 on another 16-year-old from the Dominican Republic, third baseman Roni Tapia. He didn't crack the top-30 list on Baseball America or MLB.com, but Badler correctly pegged the Twins' interest in the 6-foot-3, 175-pound Tapia and calls him "an average runner who generates easy power from the right side" while also noting that "defense is a challenge for Tapia, so a position change is likely."

DPLBaseball.com has video of Tapia fielding grounders at third base and taking batting practice:

When it comes to drafting position players the Twins have long targeted athleticism and speed at the expense of power potential, but their recent approach to international signings has been much different. Four years ago they made a record-breaking $3.15 million bet on a 16-year-old slugger from the Dominican Republic named Miguel Sano and now they've committed another $2 million to a pair of 16-year-old Dominicans with bat-driven upside in Diaz and Tapia.

Sano was considered one of the best 16-year-old international prospects ever and it's taken him four years just to reach Double-A, so it'll be a while before any kind of judgment can be passed on the Diaz and Tapia signings. In the meantime, though, it's nice to see the Twins straying from their overall comfort zone in an effort to add some much-needed power to an organization that has lacked it for a couple decades now.


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