October 14, 2015

My hypothetical Twins MVP ballot

Miguel Sano and Brian Dozier Twins

After four straight 90-loss seasons the Twins re-emerged as a competitive team, going 83-79 and remaining in the Wild Card hunt until the final weekend of the season. Here's my attempt to rank the most valuable individual performances behind the team-wide turnaround:

1. Miguel Sano

It's difficult to be the most valuable player on a team when playing only 80 of 162 games, but two things make Miguel Sano a special case. One is that he was great in those 80 games, ranking as one of the best hitters in baseball and repeatedly coming through with key hits in key spots. Two is that none of the Twins' full-time, season-long players had particularly outstanding years, leaving Sano's great half-season to compete against good but not great full seasons.

Called up from Double-A on July 2 after the Twins went 11-17 in June, he was immediately the best, most patient hitter in the lineup. Sano hit .269/.385/.530 with 18 homers and 53 walks in 80 games, including a 1.055 OPS with runners on, a 1.028 OPS with runners in scoring position, and a 1.100 OPS in close-and-late situations. He easily led the team in the context-dependent stat Win Probability Added and ranked 17th in the entire league despite not playing in April, May, or June.

At age 22 he forced pitchers to throw strikes and punished them when they gave in. An incredible 28 percent of Sano's plate appearances went to a full count, compared to the MLB average of 12 percent, and he posted a 1.281 OPS on 3-2 pitches. He also batted a ridiculous .700 with a 1.650 slugging percentage when putting the first pitch in play, punishing get-me-over strikes too. Sano's rookie season wasn't just good or even great for a rookie, it was one of the best in Twins history.

Sano's adjusted OPS+ of 146 ranked seventh in the AL behind only Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, Nelson Cruz, Josh Donaldson, and Edwin Encarnacion. Sano tied with Chris Davis, who led the league in homers for the second time in three seasons. Within the context of team history, the only other Twins hitters to top an OPS+ of 145 during the past 20 seasons are Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Jim Thome. None of them did it more than once. Sano is 1-for-1.

As a proponent of cumulative production, defense, and positional adjustments being big factors in player value the idea of a half-season designated hitter being team MVP is a tough sell, but Sano had a truly special half-season that was elevated even further in "clutch" situations and it seemed odd not to prefer 80 games of that compared to 150 games of slightly above-average. Sano was the Twins' best player for every moment he wore a Twins uniform and that gets my MVP.

2. Brian Dozier

Brian Dozier appeared to be having a breakout year when he followed up a very strong 2014 season with an even better first half, hitting .256/.328/.513 with 19 homers, 48 total extra-base hits, and 34 walks in 88 games to make his first All-Star team. Seemingly established as one of MLB's best second basemen, he then collapsed in the second half and hit just .210/.280/.359 to finish with worse overall numbers than he posted in 2014.

Starting strong only to fall apart in the second half in back-to-back years is worrisome and calls into question whether Dozier's durability is actually a strength, but the end result was still plenty valuable. He led all MLB second basemen in homers (28), extra-base hits (71), and runs scored (101), ranked second in RBIs (77), walks (61), and total bases (279), and posted a .751 OPS compared the MLB average of .711 for the position.

Toss in up-the-middle defense that rates slightly below average according to most metrics and Dozier was one of the top 10 second basemen in MLB this season. It may have been less jarring for Twins fans to watch if he'd simply been a .750 OPS hitter all year instead of being an All-Star in the first half and replacement-level in the second half, but in assessing all-around value for the season as a whole Dozier has a reasonable argument for being team MVP.

3. Kyle Gibson

Kyle Gibson took a step forward this year, staying healthy with a full-season workload again and upping his strikeout rate by 25 percent while maintaining nearly identical rates everywhere else. Last season he walked 2.9 per nine innings, induced 54 percent ground balls, and allowed a .287 batting average on balls in play. This season he walked 3.0 per nine innings, induced 53 percent ground balls, and allowed a .287 batting average on balls in play.

Those are remarkably similar numbers and Gibson was able to up his strikeouts from 5.4 to 6.7 per nine innings. He's unlikely to ever be a high-strikeout pitcher, but in both 2014 and 2015 his ground-ball rate ranked among MLB's top 10 and pairing that with even a decent strikeout rate can lead to big things. This year for Gibson that mix--along with better bullpen support and fewer blowup starts--led to slicing his ERA from 4.47 to 3.84 while leading the Twins with 195 innings.

4. Trevor Plouffe

Trevor Plouffe had a typical Trevor Plouffe season, hitting .244/.307/.435 with 22 homers, 35 doubles, and a 124/50 K/BB ratio in 152 games while playing above-average third base defense. His production was nearly identical to his combined 2012-2014 line of .249/.314/.422 and in four seasons as the Twins' starting third baseman his OPS has never been lower than .701 or higher than .756. He is what he is, except for one big difference this year: Double plays.

Plouffe grounded into 28 double plays, which led the league and tied for the most in Twins history. His previous career-high was just 12 double plays. Whether it was a one-year fluke or not, making two outs at a time so often--and in so many key, rally-crushing situations--took a big chunk out of Plouffe's value. Compared to all MLB third basemen he was almost exactly average--slightly below offensively and slightly above defensively.

5. Eddie Rosario

Eddie Rosario was called up from Triple-A to replace the injured Oswaldo Arcia on May 6 and never went back, hitting better than his recent minor-league track record suggested he would and impressing defensively with excellent range and a strong arm. Rosario's total lack of patience held him back, as he swung at everything on the way to a ghastly 118/15 K/BB ratio and .289 on-base percentage, but his other skills mostly made up for all the hacking.

Rosario hit .267 with 13 homers, 18 doubles, and a league-high 15 triples on the way to a sturdy .459 slugging percentage. He nearly led the league with 16 outfield assists and tracked down fly balls that many recent Twins left fielders wouldn't have even gone after. Long term Rosario risks failing to fulfill his potential if he doesn't develop some semblance of strike zone control, but this season his extra-base power, speed, and defense made him an above-average regular at age 23.

6. Trevor May

Demoted to Triple-A at the end of spring training, Trevor May moved into the rotation following Ervin Santana's suspension and posted the best secondary numbers of any Twins starter through early July. His reward was being moved to the bullpen, where May took the role change in stride despite wanting to remain a starter and logged 31.1 innings with a 2.87 ERA and 37/8 K/BB ratio while emerging as the team's primary setup man.

When the Twins needed a starter, May stepped in and did a good job for three months. When the Twins needed a reliever, May shifted to the bullpen without putting up a Mike Pelfrey-like fuss and did a good job for three months. There's added value in that versatility, not unlike a position player with the ability to handle multiple spots defensively, and May finished his first full season in the majors with a 4.00 ERA and 110/26 K/BB ratio in 115 innings overall.

7. Eduardo Escobar

Eduardo Escobar was as a square peg in a round hole when the Twins gave the shortstop job to Danny Santana and regularly used Escobar way out of position in left field. They finally came to their senses in July thanks to Santana's ineptitude and Escobar picked up where he left off as one of the AL's better shortstops. His overall value is tough to gauge because he struggled in left field and thrived at shortstop, but Escobar certainly isn't to blame for the team misusing him.

He ended up starting 71 games at shortstop compared to 34 in left field or at designated hitter, plus nine more at second and third base. Overall he hit .262/.309/.445 with 12 homers and 47 total extra-base hits in 127 games. For some context his .754 OPS was 70 points higher than the average shortstop and slightly below average for corner outfielders, which is why Escobar's early usage was so silly and why his finally replacing Santana at shortstop made such a big impact.

8. Ervin Santana

Suspended for the first 80 games, Ervin Santana initially fared well upon joining the rotation in early July before having a brutal six-start stretch from late July through late August in which he allowed 33 runs in 30 innings. At that point he had a 6.05 ERA and the four-year, $52 million signing looked like a disaster, but then Santana fixed his mechanics and was one of the league's best starters down the stretch with a 1.62 ERA and 47/14 K/BB ratio in his final 50 innings.

There was nothing special about Santana's overall performance, which included a 4.00 ERA and 82/36 K/BB ratio with 12 homers allowed in 108 innings, but he was an above-average starting pitcher for 17 starts and that carries significant value just the same as it would if he'd been a prospect called up at midseason rather than a veteran banned from participating in the team's first 80 games.

9. Tommy Milone

An afterthought for most of the season--including a month-long demotion to Triple-A despite being 28 years old with 500 innings as a big leaguer--Tommy Milone started 23 games and logged 129 innings with a 3.92 ERA. It wasn't always pretty and it was never flashy, but Milone had a better strikeout-to-walk ratio than Gibson, Santana, and Pelfrey while ranking second among all Twins starters in Win Probability Added behind only Gibson.

10. Tyler Duffey

It was only 10 starts, but Tyler Duffey saved the Twins' rotation by throwing 58 innings with a 3.10 ERA and 53/20 K/BB ratio down the stretch as veteran starters were dropping like flies and May was working out of the bullpen. After getting knocked around by the Blue Jays in his debut Duffey joined Santana as the only reliable starters for the final six weeks, completing at least six innings and allowing two or fewer runs in each of his last five starts.

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October 6, 2015

Eight big positives to take from the Twins’ half-full, half-empty season

Miguel Sano Twins

There are half-full and half-empty ways to view the Twins' season. On the half-full side they won 83 games compared to a Las Vegas over/under of 72.5 and local optimism topping out around 78, emerging as a contender ahead of schedule. On the half-empty side they made plenty of decisions on playing time, player evaluation, and call-ups that seemed iffy at the time and now stand out as especially damaging within the context of missing out on a Wild Card spot by just three games.

Whichever side you lean toward from a team-wide perspective, there's no doubt that looking at the Twins' season from a player-by-player view leads to an abundance of half-full glasses and a few that are overflowing. I've identified eight players whose 2015 performance stood out in a very positive way, both for this season and for the Twins' long-term plans. There are more, of course, but these eight made me feel the best about what happened this season on the way to 83-79.

Miguel Sano: I've spent the past three months obsessively posting Sano statistical porn on Twitter, so I'll try to keep this #SanoPorn somewhat brief. Sano arrived from Double-A on July 2 as a fully formed middle-of-the-order monster and one of the most extreme Three True Outcomes bats of all time, hitting .269/.385/.530 with 18 homers, 17 doubles, 53 walks, and 119 strikeouts in 80 games at age 22. He was a revelation, shattering the typical Twins hitting mold.

He's not without flaws, including a strikeout rate that will make posting decent batting averages difficult, but Sano's power and patience are both 99th percentile skills and his debut was one of the best in Twins history. Actually, that's underselling it. Sano had the 12th-highest OPS (.915) in MLB history among 22-year-old right-handed hitters, taking his spot on the list directly after Hank Aaron (.923) and Alex Rodriguez (.919). His long-term potential is drool-inducing.

Eddie Rosario: Despite little in his 2013 or 2014 performance to suggest he was ready for the majors Rosario was the first outfielder called up when reinforcements were needed in early May and never went back to the minors. He swung at everything on the way to 118 strikeouts and 15 walks in 122 games to match the idea that he wasn't ready, but Rosario also batted .267 with 46 extra-base hits and plus defense to show Paul Molitor was right to believe in his raw talent.

There's no doubting Rosario's tools, which include an extremely quick bat, very good speed on the bases and in the outfield, and a strong arm that killed 16 runners when stubborn teams refused to stop testing him. None of that will mean much if Rosario can't develop some semblance of strike zone control, but in terms of debuts for 23-year-olds there was a ton to like and even with the undisciplined approach at the plate he was an above-average player as a rookie.

Trevor May: May was sent down to Triple-A at the end of spring training, but Ricky Nolasco immediately getting hurt opened up a rotation spot and he had the best strikeout rate, swinging strike rate, and xFIP among Twins starters through mid-July. And then the Twins moved May to the bullpen, where he took the unwanted and undeserved role change in stride and thrived as a reliever with a 2.87 ERA and 37 strikeouts in 31 innings.

Like most starters May's velocity and raw stuff went up a tick or two as a reliever, giving him the potential to be a late-inning setup man or closer. However, he's also shown enough as a starter to think he can help the Twins more logging 200 innings in the rotation instead of 70 innings in the bullpen and May has made it clear he wants to start. Whatever happens, May took a huge step forward this season at age 25 and gives the Twins' pitching staff a much-needed building block.

Eduardo Escobar: For whatever reason the Twins were very hesitant to trust Escobar as their starting shortstop despite a strong 2014 in that role, first handing the Opening Day job to Danny Santana and then waiting three months to give it back to Escobar when Santana flopped. Escobar ended up starting 71 games at shortstop--along with way too many games miscast as a left fielder and designated hitter--and batted .262/.309/.445 with 12 homers and 47 total extra-base hits.

For his Twins career Escobar has started 187 games at shortstop and hit .281/.328/.480 in those games, which is the best shortstop production in team history and should be more than enough to make him the 2016 starter. Escobar is a free-swinger, but he's got rare power for the position and offers solid, sure-handed defense too. At age 26 he's under team control through 2018, so they may have stumbled into a shortstop solution after two decades of unsuccessful searching.

Tyler Duffey: Entering the year as a mid-level prospect with questions about his durability and bat-missing ability, Duffey finished it as arguably the Twins' best starter. Called up in early August as a short-term rotation patch, Duffey got knocked around by the Blue Jays in his debut and then went 5-0 with a 2.25 ERA and 52/18 K/BB ratio in 56 innings over his final nine starts while giving up just two homers in 229 plate appearances.

Duffey was even stingier with the long ball in the minors this season, giving up just one homer in 138 innings and 559 plate appearances at Double-A and Triple-A before the call-up. Because he's not an extreme ground-ball pitcher those low homer totals figure to be somewhat of a fluke long term, but Duffey has good command of a low-90s fastball and his curveball is a swing-and-miss weapon. At age 25 he deserves a full-time shot in the Twins' rotation next season.

Aaron Hicks: All but left for dead as a prospect after back-to-back awful seasons in the majors, Hicks earned his way back to Minnesota by dominating Triple-A for six weeks and finally showed the skills that made him a first-round draft pick and four-time Baseball America top-100 prospect. With a revamped approach at the plate that dialed up aggression and converted passiveness into patience, he hit .256/.323/.398 with 11 homers in 97 games.

Hicks also looked much better defensively in center field, making his usual assortment of standout plays without mixing in as much shaky route-running, and went 13-for-16 stealing bases too. He slumped down the stretch and it remains to be seen if the switch-hitting Hicks can handle right-handers well enough to thrive as an everyday player, but he was an above-average all-around center fielder at age 25 and that's a remarkable turnaround given how far his stock had fallen.

Jose Berrios: Setting aside whether or not the Twins should have called up Berrios to the big leagues this season--in July or August would have been my preference--his performance while spending the entire year in the minors firmly established the 21-year-old right-hander as the organization's best pitching prospect since Matt Garza in 2006. Berrios began the season at Double-A, moved up to Triple-A in early July, and was one of the best pitchers in both leagues.

Overall he threw 166 innings with a 2.87 ERA and 175/38 K/BB ratio while limiting opponents to a .223 batting average and 12 homers. His handling may have been frustrating to Twins fans, but it was a fantastic season for an excellent prospect and one that would have gotten Berrios to the big leagues in most organizations. Pitching prospects fail at a remarkably high rate, but Berrios looks MLB-ready and projects as a potential front-line starter. His development in 2015 was impressive.

Max Kepler: Prior to this season Kepler's prospect status was based more on his physical tools and youth than actual production, which was mostly mediocre thanks in part to a bunch of injuries keeping him off the field. That all changed in a huge way this year, as Kepler stayed healthy and crushed Double-A, hitting .322/.416/.531 with 54 extra-base hits, more walks (67) than strikeouts (63), and 18 steals to be named MVP of the Southern League at age 22.

Kepler is 6-foot-4 and significantly stronger than when the Twins signed him out of Germany as a 16-year-old in 2009, but still has enough range to occasionally play center field and figures to be a plus defender in a corner spot. Much like with Berrios, in most organizations Kepler likely would have been called up to the big leagues for more than a September cup of coffee, but regardless of that his season was a true breakout and thrusts him into the Twins' long-term plans.

For a lengthy discussion of the highs and lows of the Twins' season and Paul Molitor's first year as manager, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

August 6, 2015

Twins Notes: Duffey, May, O’Rourke, Hicks, Sano, Mauer, and Hendriks

Tyler Duffey Twins

Tyler Duffey allowed a grand total of one homer in 540 plate appearances between Double-A and Triple-A this season and then served up two homers in his Twins debut, including one to the second MLB hitter he faced. Based on the "game score" statistic Duffey had the seventh-worst debut start in Twins history. Who had the worst? LaTroy Hawkins in 1995. And then 21 years later Hawkins closed out the Blue Jays' win against the Twins in Duffey's debut.

Trevor May never deserved to be demoted from the rotation to the bullpen in the first place and hopefully the Twins remain committed to him as a long-term starter, but he's looked strong as a reliever. He's got a 3.18 ERA and 10/2 K/BB ratio in 11 innings along with increased velocity, which is probably enough to make him the Twins' best right-handed bullpen option over Blaine Boyer, Casey Fien, and trade deadline pickup Kevin Jepsen.

• Rookie reliever Ryan O'Rourke is living up to the hype of being death to left-handed hitters, who are 2-for-21 (.095) with 11 strikeouts against him since last month's call-up. Using him in a very limited role remains crucial, but the Twins may have found a long-term bullpen piece in the unheralded 27-year-old southpaw. With a strong finish he should be able to secure a spot in next year's Opening Day bullpen, which won't include Brian Duensing.

Aaron Hicks' improved overall performance is very encouraging from a one-time top prospect who's still just 25 years old, but not being able to hit right-handed pitching remains a big issue. This season he's hit .375/.429/.578 off lefties and .228/.291/.315 off righties. For his career he's hit .288/.374/.466 off lefties and .197/.277/.287 off righties. Hicks is a switch-hitter, but in both the minors and the majors he's shown little ability to be an asset from the left side of the plate.

Byron Buxton's long-awaited debut was cut short after 11 games by a thumb injury that he's still recovering from six weeks later, but fellow stud prospect Miguel Sano has immediately lived up to the hype. As expected he's struck out a ton and hit for a ton of power, but the 22-year-old has also shown incredible plate discipline with 21 walks in 27 games and an impressive ability to lay off borderline pitches. Twins fans should be thrilled with how he's looked so far.

• There have been occasional signs of life, but sadly Joe Mauer has continued to look like a shell of his former, pre-concussion self. He's hit just .275/.346/.398 in 47 games since I wrote a "What happened to Joe Mauer?" article that examined the numbers since his late-2012 concussion and expressed very little confidence in his getting back on track. Mauer is now in his second season of being a below-average first baseman after a decade of being a Hall of Fame-caliber catcher.

Danny Santana got a longer leash than most struggling Twins prospects, but he's finally back in the minors after hitting .218/.242/.298 with a ghastly 66/5 K/BB ratio in 74 games and playing mistake-filled defense at shortstop. His great rookie season screamed fluke, but no one could have expected Santana to be this awful as a sophomore. However, his career .272/.316/.392 line and poor strike zone control in the minors are reasons to be skeptical of a big turnaround.

Liam Hendriks was the Twins minor league pitcher of the year in 2011, but he went 2-13 with a 6.06 ERA in 156 innings as a starter and they lost him on waivers for nothing. Still just 26 years old, he's found a home in Toronto's bullpen with a 2.47 ERA and 50/6 K/BB ratio in 47 innings. As a starter Hendriks always had modest raw stuff, topping out in the low 90s, but this season he's averaging 94.4 miles per hour with his fastball and topping out 97.

For a lot more about Jepsen's arrival, Duffey's upside, and Hicks' improvement check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode with a special guest co-host.

February 6, 2015

Top 40 Twins Prospects of 2015: 35, 34, 33, 32, 31

Also in this series: 1-5, 6-10, 11-15, 16-20, 21-25, 26-30, 36-40.

35. J.R. Graham | Starter | DOB: 1/90 | Throws: Right | Rule 5: Braves

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2012     A+     17     17     2.63     102.2      88      6      68     17
         AA      9      9     3.18      45.1      35      2      42     17
2013     AA      8      8     4.04      35.2      39      0      28     10
2014     AA     27     19     5.55      71.1      79      2      50     26

Selected by the Twins in the Rule 5 draft, J.R. Graham is a one-time top prospect whose career has been derailed by shoulder problems. Graham was the Braves' fourth-round draft pick in 2011 out of Santa Clara and moved quickly through their system, advancing to Double-A in his second pro season. He fared well there at age 22 and that offseason Baseball America ranked Graham as a top-100 prospect, praising his mid-90s fastball and ability to generate ground balls.

However, the diminutive right-hander broke down in 2013, making just eight starts, and last year Graham posted a 5.55 ERA while being limited to 71 innings back at Double-A due to more arm issues. Once on the fast track, Graham is now 25 years old and has yet to advance past Double-A, spending three years there with increasingly poor results. His fastball has dipped into the low-90s and the Braves thought so little of Graham's upside that they left him off the 40-man roster.

Rule 5 picks must remain in the majors for the entire season or be offered back to their original team. Graham has been a starter throughout his career, but shifted to the bullpen last year and could be stashed by the Twins in a middle relief role pretty easily. They did that with Rule 5 pick Ryan Pressly in 2013, giving him 49 low-leverage appearances, and shifting to the bullpen full time could help Graham stay healthy too.

34. Ryan Eades | Starter | DOB: 12/91 | Throws: Right | Draft: 2013-2

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2013     RK+    10      0     4.60      15.2      13      0      13     12
2014     A-     26     25     5.14     133.0     147     11      98     50

Ryan Eades was the Twins' second-round draft pick in 2013, selected 43rd overall, and the right-hander from LSU signed for $1.3 million. Yet from the moment he was drafted no one seemed to think much of Eades as a prospect. Quotes about him from team employees were tepid, Baseball America didn't include him in their annual top-10 Twins prospects list which often includes top-50 picks from the previous year, and in general he seemed like an afterthought.

It was odd, because Eades was widely viewed as a top-50 talent within the 2013 draft class and while second-round picks are far from guaranteed to succeed teams don't generally throw them away on players they view as marginal prospects. But sure enough he struggled last year in his full-season pro debut, posting a 5.14 ERA in 133 innings as a 22-year-old at low Single-A facing younger, less experienced competition.

Eades struck out just 6.6 batters per nine innings with poor control and allowed opponents to hit .285 with an .800 OPS against him in a pitcher-friendly league where the average OPS was below .700. Less than two years ago Baseball America wrote that Eades "looked the part of a front-line starter" and the cost for the Twins to acquire him was a top-50 draft pick and $1.3 million, but 150 innings later he looks in danger of being a completely wasted selection.

33. Tanner English | Center Field | DOB: 3/93 | Bats: Right | Draft: 2014-11

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2014     RK+    141     .316     .439     .474      3     10     18     27

Tanner English didn't hit much in college, batting .289 with two homers in three years at South Carolina, but the Twins liked his defense, speed, and athleticism enough to draft him in the 11th round. And then he batted .316/.439/.474 in his pro debut at rookie-level Elizabethton, surpassing his 185-game college total with three homers in 32 games and also showing more plate discipline than he displayed against SEC pitching.

College players thriving in rookie-ball isn't really noteworthy, but in this case it stands out a little more than usual because English is good enough defensively in center field that he could make it to the big leagues without hitting much. In their pre-draft scouting report Baseball America called English "one of the better athletes in the college game" and noted that "some evaluators think he could handle center field in the big leagues right now."

English has elite center field range with a very strong arm, and between college and rookie-ball he stole 26 bases in 94 games while being caught just four times last season. If he hits even a little bit English will be a major leaguer, so rookie-ball or not his early showing was worth getting excited about. We should have a much better idea of his overall prospect status after he faces full-season competition for the first time at Single-A this year.

32. Sam Clay | Reliever | DOB: 7/93 | Throws: Left | Draft: 2014-4

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2014     RK+    19      0     5.59      29.0      35      0      44     17

As has become their custom of late the Twins went heavy on college relievers in last year's draft, including Georgia Tech sophomore Sam Clay in the fourth round. Clay had a sparkling 1.26 ERA with 67 strikeouts in 57 innings as a college closer, but the lefty walked 4.6 per nine innings after being a mess as a freshman. He averaged nearly two innings per relief appearance and Baseball America's pre-draft scouting report noted that he "could move into the rotation as a pro."

Clay stayed in the bullpen after signing with the Twins for $400,000 and was awful early on for rookie-level Elizabethton, but finished his pro debut with 16 straight scoreless innings. Even that great stretch lowered his overall ERA to a still-ugly 5.59 and Clay walked 17 batters and uncorked 10 wild pitches in 29 innings while allowing opponents to hit .285. College closers aren't supposed to pitch like that against rookie-ball hitters.

On the other hand, the 16-inning scoreless streak suggests the coaching staff got Clay to address some mechanical issues and within the overall problems he whiffed 44 of the 144 batters he faced for an average of 13.7 strikeouts per nine innings. Clay also allowed zero home runs, so he was hardly being knocked around. He works in the low-90s with his fastball and his curveball gets the most positive reviews. If they can get him to throw strikes the Twins might have something here.

31. Tyler Duffey | Starter | DOB: 12/90 | Throws: Right | Draft: 2012-5

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2012     RK+    12      0     1.42      19.0      10      1      27      2
2013     A-      9      9     2.78      58.1      49      5      47      6
         A+     15      9     4.45      62.2      67      3      44     17
2014     A+      4      4     2.82      22.1      22      0      13      5
         AA     18     18     3.80     111.1     104     14      84     19
         AAA     3      3     3.94      16.0      16      3      16      6

Rice University had co-closers in 2012 and the Twins drafted both of them, taking J.T. Chargois in the second round and Tyler Duffey in the fifth round. Chargois stayed in the bullpen and is currently making his way back from Tommy John elbow surgery, whereas Duffey shifted to the rotation and reached Triple-A last season at age 23. He pitched for Fort Myers, New Britain, and Rochester last year, making 25 total starts with a 13-3 record and 3.68 ERA.

Duffey has shown excellent control as a pro, walking just 1.7 batters per nine innings, but he's struggled to generate strikeouts. In fact, he barely has more strikeouts (196) in 259 innings as a pro starter than he had (189) in 153 innings as a college reliever. Duffey shut down right-handed hitters last season, but allowed an OPS that was 200 points higher versus lefties, suggesting that his off-speed stuff needs some work.

Duffey's low-90s fastball also limits his upside, but the Twins certainly value starters who pound the strike zone with mediocre raw stuff and occasionally those guys have decent runs of success. Going heavy on college relievers in the 2012 draft with plans to turn them into pro starters has been a bust for the Twins thanks to injuries and ineffectiveness, but Duffey has stayed healthy and shown the potential to contribute in the back of a rotation.

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March 7, 2014

Top 40 Twins Prospects of 2014: 35, 34, 33, 32, 31

Also in this series: 36-40.

35. Brian Gilbert | Reliever | DOB: 8/92 | Throws: Right | Draft: 2013-7

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2013     RK+     6      0     0.00       6.0       1      0       7      1
         A-     13      0     1.06      17.0      12      0       7      0

Brian Gilbert split the 2011 and 2012 seasons between Seton Hall University's rotation and bullpen with mediocre results, but switched to relief work full time in 2013 and thrived in the closer role with a 2.40 ERA, .198 opponents' batting average, and 49 strikeouts in 49 innings. Drafted by the Twins in the seventh round, he signed for $120,000 and predictably dominated inexperienced hitters in the low minors during his pro debut.

He made six rookie-ball appearances and 13 more at low Single-A, posting a 0.78 ERA and 14/1 K/BB ratio in 23 innings while allowing zero homers after serving up just one long ball last year at Seton Hall. Gilbert issued 22 walks and uncorked six wild pitches in 49 college innings, so his control in the low minors was a surprise. Baseball America's pre-draft scouting report pegged his fastball at 92-95 miles per hour, but noted that his off-speed pitches need improvement.

College relievers tend to move quickly through a farm system if they perform well, so hopefully the Twins test Gilbert against some more experienced hitters and see if his raw stuff translates into missed bats higher up the organizational ladder. They also drafted his Seton Hall teammate, outfielder Zack Granite, in the 14th round and he hit .285/.362/.343 with 14 steals in 61 games at rookie-ball.

34. Corey Williams | Reliever | DOB: 7/90 | Throws: Left | Draft: 2011-3

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2011     RK+     7      0     3.86      11.2      12      0      11      5
2012     A-     47      0     3.47      62.1      55      5      68     33
2013     A+     35      0     5.16      45.1      44      7      43     23

Corey Williams took a step backward last season, but it wasn't as big as his ERA jumping from 3.47 to 5.16 would suggest. Most of his secondary numbers remained similar, but the problem is that he spent a full season being sub par at high Single-A as a 22-year-old in his third pro season and hasn't improved upon his poor control since being drafted in the third round by the Twins out of Vanderbilt University in 2011.

Williams has totaled 125 strikeouts in 121 pro innings, which is good but not great for someone the Twins hoped would develop into a mid-90s throwing, late-inning reliever. More troubling are his 63 walks in 121 innings, along with a relatively high 12 homers allowed and struggles versus right-handed hitters. Last season righties had an .823 OPS against Williams and he also failed to shut down lefties after holding them to a .179 batting average in 2012.

This is a key season for Williams, who once signed for $575,000 but now appears to be on the verge of falling into the potential middle reliever or situational left-hander pile, which isn't home to many actual prospects. He throws hard, induces plenty of ground balls, and misses a fair number of bats, but his actual results have been underwhelming dating back to college and there is no shortage of intriguing relief prospects throughout the Twins' farm system.

33. Taylor Rogers | Starter | DOB: 12/90 | Throws: Left | Draft: 2012-11

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2012     RK+     6      6     1.80      30.0      20      2      39      5
         A-      9      4     2.70      33.1      33      5      35     12
2013     A-      3      3     7.20      10.0      14      1      10      4
         A+     22     21     2.55     130.2     119      5      83     32

University of Kentucky pitchers have been popular Twins targets in recent drafts and that includes selecting left-hander Taylor Rogers in the 11th round two years ago. Rogers' college numbers were actually very ugly, as he went 13-18 with a 5.35 ERA while posting an ERA above 4.50 in all three seasons, but he's nearly halved that with a 2.69 ERA in two years as a pro. However, he's done that against Single-A hitters and with a high-80s fastball his prospect status is questionable.

Rogers' strikeout rate was very good at rookie-ball and low Single-A, but he's managed just 83 strikeouts in 131 innings at high Single-A and it's tough to take seriously a pitching prospect who can't crack six strikeouts per nine innings in the Florida State League. His control also hasn't been especially good, with 2.2 walks per nine innings at high Single-A, but Rogers did induce lots of ground balls while serving up a total of just five homers in 528 plate appearances there.

There are certainly plenty of soft-tossing lefties with poor strikeout rates who do just fine the big leagues, but for the most part they tended to have decent strikeout rates in the minors. Rogers shouldn't be written off as a total non-prospect and can do away with a lot of skepticism if he thrives at Double-A this season as a 23-year-old, but the odds are stacked against him and he lacks upside.

32. Tyler Duffey | Starter | DOB: 12/90 | Throws: Right | Draft: 2012-5

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2012     RK+    12      0     1.42      19.0      10      1      27      2
2013     A-      9      9     2.78      58.1      49      5      47      6
         A+     15      9     4.45      62.2      67      3      44     17

Two years ago the Twins drafted Rice University co-closers J.T. Chargois in the second round and Tyler Duffey in the fifth round. Chargois' career has been derailed by elbow surgery, but Duffey transitioned from reliever to starter at low Single-A last season with a lot of success, starting nine games with a 2.78 ERA and 47/6 K/BB ratio. Unfortunately he was considerably less impressive after being promoted to high Single-A and finished the year in the bullpen.

As a reliever at Rice and in his rookie-ball debut Duffey racked up tons of strikeouts, but last year as a starter he missed fewer bats and instead relied on very good control with an 83/20 K/BB ratio in 111 total innings. Those numbers match his raw stuff, which includes a low-90s fastball and slider/changeup off-speed repertoire, so it'll be interesting to see how long the Twins stick with Duffey as a starter.

Selecting college relievers and trying to turn them into professional starters was the focus of the Twins' draft in 2012 (well, that and picking some guy named Byron Buxton), but so far none of them have emerged as a standout starter prospect. Duffey and third-rounder Mason Melotakis look like the best bets right now, while Chargois and supplemental first-rounder Luke Bard have barely gotten out of the gates due to injuries.

31. Brett Lee | Starter | DOB: 9/90 | Throws: Left | Draft: 2011-10

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2012     RK+    16      4     2.68      43.2      39      3      48     12
2013     A-     23     19     2.95     116.0     117      7      89     26

Brett Lee was drafted in the late rounds by the Pirates in 2009 and the Dodgers in 2010 before signing with the Twins for $150,000 as a 10th-round pick out of St. Petersburg College in 2011. He had an excellent pro debut at rookie-ball in 2012 and then moved up to full-season competition last year, thriving at low Single-A with a 2.95 ERA and 89/26 K/BB ratio in 116 innings for Cedar Rapids.

Lee had the sixth-best walk rate in the Midwest League among all pitchers with at least 15 starts, but his strikeout rate of 6.9 per nine innings was actually below the league average of 7.6. Those numbers suggest that Lee is just another soft-tosser, of which the Twins never have a shortage, but he's actually a 6-foot-4 left-hander with decent velocity. Whether or not that ever translates into more missed bats is a key question for Lee's development.

Another reason to possibly be more excited about Lee's season than his overall numbers show is that he put together a fantastic second half with a 1.41 ERA and 45/8 K/BB ratio in 57 innings while holding opponents to a .204 batting average and one homer. Still not as many missed bats as you'd like to see, but eight walks and one homer in 57 innings is some awfully good pitching to contact and his ground-ball rate was strong as well.

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