December 14, 2006

Top 40 Twins Prospects of 2007: 30, 29, 28, 27, 26

Previous Top 40 Twins Prospects of 2007: 31-35, 36-40

30. Alex Burnett | Starter | DOB: 7/87 | Throws: Right | Draft: 2005-12

2005 RK 13 8 4.10 48.1 50 6 33 14
2006 RK 13 13 4.04 71.1 66 6 71 13

The Twins grabbed Alex Burnett out of a California high school in the 12th round of the 2005 draft and started the six-foot right-hander out in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League, where he posted a 4.10 ERA and 33-to-14 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 48.1 innings. Burnett moved up to the rookie-level Appalachian League in 2006 and improved dramatically despite being just 18 years old for much of the season, although his 4.04 ERA in 13 starts is certainly nothing spectacular.

What's impressive about Burnett's second pro season is that he improved his control dramatically, walking just 13 batters in 71.1 innings, yet also managed to rack up 71 strikeouts while holding opponents to a .242 batting average. Secondary numbers like strikeouts, walks, and opponent's batting average are more important than ERAs or win-loss records when it comes to evaluating pitching prospects, and particularly teenagers, making Burnett a very intriguing player at this stage.

The 2007 season will be a big step for Burnett, as he moves past rookie-ball for the first time despite not turning 20 years old until late July. However, even a modest year at low Single-A would keep him on the right track, which is shown by the fact that just one pitcher in these top-40 rankings is younger than Burnett. I hesitate to rank a pitcher with zero experience above rookie-ball much higher than this unless he's an absolute stud, but it wouldn't be surprising to see Burnett a dozen spots higher in a year.

29. Denard Span | Center Field | DOB: 2/84 | Bats: Left | Draft: 2002-1

2004 A- 240 .267 .363 .308 0 7 34 49
2005 A+ 186 .339 .410 .403 1 7 22 25
AA 267 .285 .355 .345 0 11 22 41
2006 AA 536 .285 .340 .349 2 24 40 78

I've been slow to write off Denard Span, but he admittedly has little room for error at this point. Span is extremely fast and athletic, which is why the Twins used a first-round pick on him in 2002, but he's yet to turn that speed and athleticism into great defense or baserunning. He looks like a leadoff hitter and the Twins have molded him into a ground-ball machine, but he doesn't make great contact despite zero power, doesn't draw many walks or steal tons of bases, and doesn't hit for huge batting averages.

All of which leaves him as more of a bottom-of-the-order hitter than a table-setter, and bottom-of-the-order hitters who aren't great defenders are dangerously close to being bench players. Span was considered the Twins' "center fielder of the future" from the moment they drafted him and many still cling to the idea of him as Torii Hunter's eventual replacement, but at this point he's simply among a handful of banjo-hitting center-field options the Twins will be sorting through in 2007.

In fact, the Twins' most advanced center-field prospects all profile as some variation of Jason Tyner and they also have the actual Tyner on the big-league roster, but sadly baseball is the wrong medium for quantity to trump quality. Span is younger than Trent Oeltjen and ahead of Brandon Roberts on the organizational ladder, so if someone is going to emerge from the pack it'll probably be him. However, Span has a long way to go before that happens.

28. Jose Mijares | Reliever | DOB: 10/84 | Throws: Left | Sign: Venezuela

2004 RK 19 0 2.43 29.2 22 1 25 15
2005 A- 20 6 4.31 54.1 43 6 78 40
A+ 5 1 1.50 12.0 5 1 17 5
2006 A+ 27 5 3.57 63.0 52 10 77 27

Signed out of Venezuela in 2002, Jose Mijares made his pro debut in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League in 2004, posting a 2.43 ERA and 25-to-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 29.1 innings as a reliever. He split the 2005 season between low Single-A and high Single-A, bouncing back and forth between the bullpen and the rotation while posting a 3.80 ERA and 95-to-45 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 66.1 innings. Mijares spent all of last season at Fort Myers, again split between starting and relieving.

In his five starts there, Mijares went 0-4 with a ghastly 8.00 ERA, walking a dozen batters in 18 innings while allowing a .296 opponent's batting average. When working out of the bullpen, Mijares was 3-1 with a 1.80 ERA and 57-to-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 45 innings, holding opponents to a measly .195 batting average. The starter-reliever splits are huge, but not surprising, because there have long been concerns about the six-foot, 230-pound southpaw's control, weight, work ethic, and stamina.

He seems destined to end up as a full-time reliever and certainly has the raw stuff to be a late-inning setup man, with a big-time fastball-slider combination that racks up tons of strikeouts and has held opponents to a .210 batting average over the past two years. However, even if the concerns about Mijares' work ethic prove overblown, he has a lot of work to do in terms of consistently throwing strikes and keeping the ball in the ballpark. At 22 years old, he's a boom-or-bust prospect.

27. Jay Sawatski | Reliever | DOB: 5/82 | Throws: Left | Draft: 2004-8

2004 A- 15 0 1.37 26.1 14 1 29 10
2005 A+ 43 0 3.94 61.2 71 5 50 21
2006 AA 44 2 2.87 75.1 69 3 69 22

Jay Sawatski went 10-3 with a 3.38 ERA as the swing man for a University of Arkansas team that advanced to the College World Series in 2004 and the Twins took him in the eighth round of the draft that June. He signed quickly and posted a 1.59 ERA and 38 strikeouts in 34 relief innings between rookie-ball and low Single-A. Sawatski continued to work strictly out of the bullpen in his first full season, posting a 3.94 ERA and 50-to-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 61.2 innings at high Single-A.

Sawatski made the jump to Double-A last season, was briefly sent back to Fort Myers to get some work in as a starter, and then returned to New Britain to finish with a 2.87 ERA and 69-to-22 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 75.1 total innings while holding opponents to a .241 batting average. A ground-ball pitcher who features a fastball-slider combination, Sawatski allowed just three homers in 83 total innings between the two levels, including zero long balls over the final three months of the season.

Sawatski turns 25 years old in May and projects more as a middle reliever than late-inning setup man, but he's bordering on major league-ready and could emerge alongside Dennys Reyes as a second left-hander in the bullpen at some point in 2007. While Mijares has a much higher ceiling, Sawatski has a better chance to simply become a solid big leaguer. Trying to find a balance between those two things is the toughest part of prospect analysis, but in this case I lean (slightly) toward the surer thing.

26. Garrett Olson | Third Base | DOB: 3/85 | Bats: Right | Draft: 2006-4

2006 RK 176 .313 .396 .381 0 10 19 30

Taken in the fourth round of last June's draft out of Division II Franklyn Pierce College, Garrett Olson is unique in that he played his college ball in a wood-bat league. Olson hit .367/.425/.663 as Franklyn Pierce's everyday shortstop last season, dominating marginal competition by posting huge numbers without the aid of metal bats. He smacked 14 homers and 38 total extra-base hits in 59 games, showing impressive power that unfortunately didn't translate to his first pro season.

Olson signed quickly and reported to rookie-level Elizabethton, where he batted .313/.396/.381 with zero homers in 49 games. He also moved from shortstop to third base, which is considered his likely long-term position, making his lack of power even more of an issue. The Twins clearly like Olson a lot, using an early-round pick on a Division II player, and coming out of the gates by hitting .313 against significantly better competition than he's used to is a mark in his favor, even if it was a powerless .313.

Olson's defense at third base is reportedly good enough that his playing second base at some point might not be out of the question and his on-base skills look pretty solid, but he'll have to start hitting for some power to emerge as a legitimate factor in the team's long-term plans. Olson turns 22 years old in March and as always the Twins are short on young infield talent, so he could move quickly if his bat holds up. I'm cautiously optimistic, but 2007 will give a much clearer picture of where Olson stands.

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