November 20, 2006

Top 40 Twins Prospects of 2007: 40, 39, 38, 37, 36

40. Matt Fox | Starter | DOB: 12/82 | Throws: Right | Draft: 2004-1

2004 RK 8 5 5.40 26.2 27 6 32 8
2006 RK 20 1 3.79 40.1 32 1 46 13

After losing Eddie Guardado to free agency, the Twins received the 35th overall pick in the 2004 draft as compensation and used it to select Matt Fox, who went 14-2 with a 1.85 ERA in his final season at the University of Central Florida. Fox signed quickly for $950,000 and made his pro debut at Elizabethton of the rookie-level Appalachian League, where he struck out 32 batters in 26.2 innings but served up six homers on the way to a 5.40 ERA.

Expected to move up to Single-A, Fox instead missed all of the 2005 season after undergoing labrum and rotator-cuff surgery. Those injuries can be death to a young pitcher's career, far more so than even Tommy John surgery, but Fox bounced back by returning to Elizabethton in the second half of last season. Pitching almost exclusively as a reliever, Fox posted a 3.79 ERA and 46-to-13 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 40.1 innings while holding opponents to a .216 batting average and coughing up a lone homer.

Fox turns 24 years old next month despite never having thrown an inning above rookie-ball and health issues will always be there, but his showing last season is enough to put him back on the prospect map. It's unclear whether the Twins plan to keep him in the bullpen or were simply letting him work his way back slowly with some relief work. He profiles as a middle-of-the-rotation starter thanks to what are considered solid off-speed pitches, but may also fit as a late-inning setup man if needed.

39. Loek Van Mil | Starter | DOB: 9/85 | Throws: Right | Sign: Netherlands

2006 RK 10 8 3.30 43.2 51 3 24 17

Loek Van Mil has appeared in just 10 professional games while throwing a total of 43.2 unspectacular innings, but he's one of the better known Twins prospects thanks to being profiled by Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Patrick Reusse back in March. A 7-foot-1 right-hander named "Ludovicus" who was signed out of the Netherlands, Van Mil sounds like a character from a bad baseball movie. However, his spot in these rankings is not based on a cool-sounding name or an intriguing story: He can pitch.

Van Mil's pro debut was a mixed bag, as he posted a 3.30 ERA in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League and served up just three homers in 43.2 innings, but allowed opponents to hit .290 against him and struck out just 24 batters. While those numbers would be decent from most 21-year-old pitchers in their first minor-league season, they're downright encouraging given Van Mil's unique circumstances and significant potential for improvement.

Van Mil remains a major project who has a long way to go before he can become the tallest pitcher in big-league history, but he throws in the low 90s, has reasonable control even at an extremely early stage in his development, and finished last season with 13 straight scoreless innings. This time last year he was far more curiosity than prospect, but after a season holding his own in the GCL he's legitimately someone to watch in 2007.

38. Steven Tolleson | Second Base | DOB: 11/83 | Bats: Right | Draft: 2005-5

2005 RK 56 .321 .457 .571 2 9 11 4
A- 102 .176 .311 .284 3 5 17 23
2006 A- 171 .287 .390 .392 2 12 27 34
A+ 157 .268 .353 .408 4 13 22 24

The son of former major leaguer Wayne Tolleson, Steven Tolleson played three seasons at the University of South Carolina and was taken by the Twins in the fifth round of the 2005 draft. He signed quickly and batted .321/.457/.571 at rookie-ball, but then hit just .176 after moving up to low Single-A to end his debut season. Tolleson went back to Beloit to begin 2006, batted .287/.390/.392 in 42 games there, and was given a mid-year promotion to high Single-A.

He continued to hold his own at Fort Myers, batting .268/.353/.408 to give him a combined hitting line of .277/.369/.396 in his first full season in the minors. Tolleson doesn't have much power, homering just 11 times in 494 pro at-bats, but combines good strike-zone judgment and decent contact skills with excellent plate discipline. In 145 career minor-league games, Tolleson has an 85-to-77 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a .368 on-base percentage.

A middle infielder in college, Tolleson has moved around the diamond as a pro, seeing significant action at second base, shortstop, and third base last season. His defensively versatility and modest offensive capabilities mean he profiles more as a utility man than an everyday player at this point, although that's a somewhat meaningless label in a minor-league system that has rarely been deep in talented young infielders.

37. J.D. Durbin | Starter | DOB: 2/82 | Throws: Right | Draft: 2000-2

2004 AA 13 13 2.52 64.1 62 4 53 22
AAA 7 7 4.54 35.2 49 4 38 16
2005 AAA 22 19 4.33 104.0 97 8 90 51
2006 AAA 16 16 2.33 89.0 67 3 81 50

Taken in the second round of the 2000 draft, J.D. Durbin emerged as one of the Twins' top prospects after going 13-4 with a 3.19 ERA at low Single-A in 2002 and following it up by going 15-5 with a 3.12 ERA between high Single-A and Double-A in 2003. Unfortunately, injuries and mediocre pitching have sent Durbin tumbling down the prospect rankings ever since. Despite not yet turning 25 years old, the man who famously refers to himself as the "Real Deal" is now facing a major crossroad in his career.

Durbin missed the second half of last season with a nerve problem in his right biceps and is out of minor-league options, meaning he'll have to either make the Twins out of spring training or clear waivers before being sent back to the minors in order to remain in the organization. When combined with back-to-back shaky seasons at Triple-A, Durbin was certainly far from a no-brainer to include in these rankings. After all, there's a decent chance he may not even be Twins property in a few months.

With that said, he's still young and still has the type of stuff that suggests he can succeed in the big leagues. Durbin's control let him down at Triple-A, with 117 walks in 228 career innings at Rochester, but he also managed 209 strikeouts and a 3.58 ERA while serving up just 15 homers over that same span. Given a chance to pitch one inning at a time, Durbin could still emerge as a late-inning reliever, following the same rotation-to-bullpen path Joe Nathan, Juan Rincon, and Matt Guerrier once took.

36. Garrett Guzman | Left Field | DOB: 2/83 | Bats: Left | Draft: 2001-10

2004 A+ 275 .269 .321 .385 4 19 22 42
2006 A+ 259 .274 .310 .409 8 18 15 31
AA 222 .275 .333 .446 7 23 18 27

Taken in the 10th round of the 2001 draft out of a Nevada high school, Garrett Guzman hit well in rookie-ball before batting .282/.343/.399 at low Single-A in 2003 and .269/.321/.385 at high Single-A in 2004. Poised to get his first crack at Double-A in 2005, Guzman instead broke his neck in a spring car accident and missed the entire season. Facing a year of lost development as a result of a potentially career-ending injury, Guzman bounced back with a solid season between high Single-A and Double-A.

Guzman's raw numbers weren't overly impressive in 2006, but they get a lot better once you adjust for both the Florida State League and Eastern League being extremely pitcher-friendly. Placed in a neutral hitting environment--defined for these purposes as matching the overall level of offense in the major leagues--Guzman's numbers work out to .297/.332/.477 at high Single-A and .300/.349/.513 at Double-A. While not what future superstars are made of, those are solid hitting lines for a 23-year-old.

He has lots of room to improve when it comes to plate discipline, walking just 33 times in 129 games last season, but also makes excellent contact at the plate. He's struck out in 12 percent of his career at-bats, including just 58 whiffs in 481 at-bats last year, which is a style that matches up well with his line-drive stroke. He'll be limited to left field, first base or designated hitter defensively, which means his bat will have to carry him, but I like Guzman's chances of developing into a productive big leaguer.

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