January 29, 2007

Top 40 Twins Prospects of 2007: 15, 14, 13, 12, 11

Previous Top 40 Twins Prospects of 2007: 16-20, 21-25, 26-30, 31-35, 36-40

15. Erik Lis | First Base | DOB: 3/84 | Bats: Left | Draft: 2005-9

2005 RK 168 .315 .356 .577 10 23 9 35
2006 A- 411 .326 .402 .547 16 56 51 83

A three-year starter at the University of Evansville, Erik Lis batted .342 with 25 homers, 49 doubles, and 147 RBIs during his 165-game college career. The Twins don't typically go after college sluggers, but liked Lis enough to grab him in the ninth round of the 2005 draft. He debuted at rookie-level Elizabethton after signing, batting .315/.356/.577 with 10 homers and 23 total extra-base hits in 49 games, but posted a sub par 35-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio against less experienced competition.

Lis moved up to low Single-A Beloit in 2006 and absolutely destroyed the Midwest League, winning the "Sabermetric Triple Crown" by leading the MWL in batting average (.326), on-base percentage (.402), and slugging percentage (.547), all while posting a much-improved 83-to-51 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 105 games. The MWL hit a combined .253/.325/.365 in 2006, meaning it was an extremely pitcher-friendly environment, which makes Lis' numbers there even more impressive than they initially appear.

If you adjust the MWL's offensive levels to fit last year's AL numbers (.275/.339/.437), Lis' hitting line jumps to a monstrous .350/.420/.650. Of course, as a 22-year-old former college star he was supposed to dominate low Single-A. The big test will come this year, when Lis either holds his own at high Single-A and makes it to Double-A during the second half of his age-23 season or becomes just another guy who beat up on young pitching to begin his career.

14. Paul Kelly | Shortstop | DOB: 10/86 | Bats: Right | Draft: 2005-2

2005 RK 137 .277 .358 .365 2 8 14 36
2006 A- 378 .280 .352 .384 3 29 32 60

One of several high-school shortstops the Twins have drafted recently, Paul Kelly has moved past Trevor Plouffe and Drew Thompson to become the team's best low-minors middle-infield prospect. A second-round pick out of Texas in 2005, Kelly batted .277/.358/.365 in 40 games in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League after signing. He moved up to low Single-A Beloit last year and hit .280/.352/.384 before a knee injury cut his first full season short after 95 games.

With just five homers and 40 total extra-base hits in 531 pro at-bats, Kelly's biggest strength is clearly his solid on-base skills. However, there's reason to believe he has more power potential than his raw numbers suggest. The Midwest League was very pitcher-friendly in 2006, slugging a combined .365 with a .112 Isolated Power. Despite being a teenage shortstop, Kelly basically matched those league averages with a .384 SLG and .104 IsoP, which is reason enough to hope for double-digit homers.

A high-school pitcher, Kelly boasts one of the organization's strongest arms and is considered a solid defensive shortstop, but may slide over to second base in the future. Most of his value will ultimately come defensively, but Kelly's odds of developing into a capable hitter are probably better than most think. With Jason Bartlett finally entrenched in the lineup and Alexi Casilla set to replace Luis Castillo, the Twins can afford to be patient with Kelly, who won't be ready for several years.

13. David Winfree | Third Base | DOB: 8/85 | Bats: Right | Draft: 2003-13

2004 RK 217 .286 .349 .433 8 16 18 51
2005 A- 562 .294 .329 .452 16 52 22 93
2006 A+ 261 .276 .328 .490 13 28 19 59

Drafted in the 13th round out of a Virginia high school back in 2003, David Winfree hit just .129 in 23 games of rookie-ball after signing. He shook that off to bat .286/.349/.433 in his second try at rookie-ball in 2004 and then broke out at low Single-A Beloit in 2005, hitting .294/.329/.452 while leading the Midwest League in hits and RBIs. That earned Winfree the Twins' Minor League Player of the Year award, but his follow-up performance was put on hold when he left the organization last spring.

While details of Winfree's situation are somewhat sketchy, he said afterward that he needed some time off to get over a shoulder injury and regain his confidence. Winfree also told Baseball America that he questioned whether baseball was what he's "supposed to be doing." Whatever the case, Winfree returned around midseason and picked up right where he left off, hitting .276/.328/.490 with 13 homers and 28 total extra-base hits in 67 games at high Single-A Fort Myers.

Walking away from baseball is a concern and Winfree's plate discipline is sub par, but his power potential is undersold by good-but-not-great slugging percentages. While nothing special in the majors, a .492 SLG is outstanding from a 21-year-old in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League. In fact, the only FSL hitters to top that in 2006 were both two years older than Winfree. He's probably destined to move away from third base, but more importantly might be the Twins' next 30-homer hitter.

12. Jeff Manship | Starter | DOB: 1/85 | Throws: Right | Draft: 2006-14

2006 RK 2 0 0.00 5.2 3 0 10 1
A+ 4 3 2.08 8.2 7 0 12 2

One of the most highly touted pitchers in the country coming out of high school, Jeff Manship showed up at the University of Notre Dame with an elbow injury that eventually required season-ending Tommy John surgery. He missed the entire 2004 season and pitched just 22.2 innings in 2005, before finally putting together his first healthy year in 2006. Pitching alongside Jeff Samardzija in the Irish's starting rotation, Manship went 9-2 with a 3.26 ERA and 111-to-28 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 94 innings.

A draft-eligible sophomore in June due to the injuries, Manship had the leverage of being able to return to school and reportedly fell out of the early rounds because teams were worried about his bonus demands. The Twins snatched him up in the 14th round, handed him a $300,000 bonus that was more like third-round money, and got him on the field in time to toss 14.1 innings with a 1.26 ERA and 22-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio between rookie-ball and high Single-A.

Manship's medical history is always going to be a concern, but he's long been viewed as a potential star and his performance in 2006 was fantastic given that it was his first full season back after a significant injury. Between being arguably Notre Dame's best pitcher and striking out 22 batters in his first 14.1 pro innings, Manship showed that he still has the ability that made him a big-time prospect several years ago. If Manship has an injury-free season, he could be near the top of this list next year.

11. Joe Benson | Center Field | DOB: 3/88 | Bats: Right | Draft: 2006-2

2006 RK 196 .260 .335 .444 5 21 21 41

A two-sport star in high school, Joe Benson was lured away from Purdue University when the Twins selected him in the second round of June's draft and handed him a $575,000 bonus. A catcher in high school, Benson was moved to center field upon signing and reportedly has the speed and athleticism to handle the unique position switch long term. Benson debuted in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League, hitting .260/.335/.444 in 52 games.

Benson's GCL performance shows a player who is both very raw and very promising. The good news is that he smacked five homers and 21 total extra-base hits in 196 at-bats in a very tough environment for hitters, stole nine bases, and drew 21 walks. The bad news is that he struck out 41 times, was thrown out on 10 of his 19 steal attempts, and struggled in a six-game stint at low Single-A Beloit after an end-of-season promotion.

All things considered, Benson's pro debut was an impressive one and puts him in a good position heading into this season. At just 19 years old there's little reason to rush Benson, so expect him to reach Double-A sometime around mid-2008 and start scratching at the door to the big leagues no sooner than 2009. That means he won't be ready nearly in time to replace Torii Hunter, but Benson is the only Twins center-field prospect who has legitimate star potential.

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