February 6, 2008

Top 40 Twins Prospects of 2008: 30, 29, 28, 27, 26

Previous Top 40 Twins Prospects of 2008: 31-35, 36-40

30. Zach Ward | Starter | DOB: 1/84 | Throws: Right | Trade: Reds

2006 A- 26 24 3.06 144.1 103 3 118 48
2007 A+ 29 21 4.08 130.0 133 5 107 37

Zach Ward provided an example of the uselessness of minor-league win-loss records while at high Single-A in 2007, going 5-17 despite a 4.08 ERA and 107-to-37 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 130 innings. He threw strikes while missing plenty of bats, kept the ball on the ground in allowing just five homers, and had an ERA right around league average, yet led the Florida State League in losses thanks to shoddy defense behind him and little run support from an offense that combined to bat .241/.316/.346.

Of course, Ward's horrible record at high Single-A has nothing to do with his long-term potential, which remains good. Originally taken by the Reds in the third round of the 2005 draft, Ward was traded to the Twins for Kyle Lohse in mid-2006. Despite beginning his pro career as a 22-year-old with college experience, the Twins had Ward spend full seasons at both low Single-A and high Single-A, which means that he'll turn 24 years old before taking the mound at Double-A for the first time.

That diminishes his performance somewhat, but as a ground-ball machine with good control who has a 3.55 ERA and 225 strikeouts in 274 total pro innings he's still plenty promising. Ward projects as a middle-of-the-rotation starter, although there are some concerns about his durability and he spent the beginning of last season working in relief. If a permanent move to the bullpen is needed, Ward's 3-to-1 ground ball-to-fly ball ratio and above-average stuff could make him a late-inning setup man.

29. Erik Lis | Left Field | DOB: 3/84 | Bats: Left | Draft: 2005-9

2005 RK 180 .315 .356 .577 10 23 9 35
2006 A- 465 .326 .402 .547 16 56 51 83
2007 A+ 539 .274 .334 .470 18 56 41 109

Taken by the Twins in the ninth round of the 2005 draft after hitting .342 with 25 homers, 49 doubles, and 147 RBIs during his 165-game college career at the University of Evansville, Erik Lis continued to put up huge numbers during his first two pro seasons. He led the low Single-A Midwest League in batting average (.326), on-base percentage (.402), and slugging percentage (.547) in 2006, producing a monstrous .350/.420/.650 hitting line after adjusting for the extremely pitcher-friendly environment.

Of course, a 22-year-old with three seasons of college experience should destroy low Single-A, so Lis' big year was less impressive than it looks on paper. In ranking him as the Twins' 15th-best prospect last year, I wrote: "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." Or somewhere in between, it turns out.

He didn't make it to Double-A, but did hit .274/.334/.470 with 18 homers, 56 total extra-base hits, and a 109-to-41 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 132 games at high Single-A. Deteriorating strike-zone control and plate discipline are concerns and he was again old for the level, but Lis led the pitcher-friendly Florida State League in RBIs while ranking among the top 10 in homers, doubles, and slugging percentage. His bat is for real, but the Twins refuse to push him and Lis will be 24 when he debuts at Double-A.

28. Jay Rainville | Starter | DOB: 10/85 | Throws: Right | Draft: 2004-1

2005 A- 16 16 3.77 88.1 83 14 77 27
A+ 9 9 2.67 54.0 54 7 35 6
2007 A+ 27 26 3.29 142.1 145 9 110 31

Armed with a handful of first-round picks in the 2004 draft thanks to losing Eddie Guardado and LaTroy Hawkins to free agency, the Twins used the final one on Jay Rainville, a big right-hander from a Rhode Island high school. He immediately thrived, posting a 1.83 ERA and 38-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 34.1 innings in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League after signing, and then went 12-5 with a 3.35 ERA and 112-to-33 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 142.1 innings between two levels of Single-A in 2005.

Unfortunately, a shoulder injury halted Rainville's rapid climb up the organizational ladder and surgery wiped away his entire 2006 season. Rainville returned to the mound in 2007 and his first season back was a tremendous success, as he posted a 3.29 ERA and 110-to-31 strikeout-to-walk ratio at high Single-A while coincidentally matching his exact pre-injury workload from 2005 with 142.1 innings. Still just 22 years old despite losing a full season to injury, Rainville figures to begin 2008 at Double-A.

Shoulder surgery still clouds Rainville's future somewhat even after a fantastic comeback season, but the fact that he was able to immediately regain his outstanding control is an excellent sign. Mediocre strikeout rates and extreme fly-ball tendencies limit Rainville's long-term potential somewhat, but he has better raw stuff than your typical strike-throwing machine, has yet to struggle at any level, and projects as a potential middle-of-the-rotation starter who could be ready as soon as 2009.

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

2005 A- 601 .294 .329 .452 16 52 22 93
2006 A+ 287 .276 .328 .490 13 28 19 59
2007 AA 490 .267 .308 .426 12 44 26 106

Taken out of a Virginia high school by the Twins in the 13th round of the 2003 draft, David Winfree was the organization's Minor League Player of the Year in 2005 after hitting .294/.329/.452 while leading the low Single-A Midwest League in hits and RBIs. He raised eyebrows that spring by walking away from baseball and questioning his long-term commitment to the sport following shoulder problems, but returned at midseason to hit .276/.328/.490 with 13 homers in 67 games at high Single-A.

Winfree moved up to Double-A last season and played 123 games, but saw his performance sag in all areas. Power potential has long been his biggest asset, but he managed just a dozen homers and 44 total extra-base hits for a .159 Isolated Power that's modest even after adjusting for the pitcher-friendly environment. He also continued to show almost zero plate discipline and struggled to control the strike zone, posting a dismal 106-to-26 strikeout-to-walk ratio while watching his batting average dip to .267.

Considered sub par defensively at third base, Winfree spent the bulk of his time at New Britain as a first baseman and figures to remain near the bottom of the defensive spectrum long term. Because of that his lack of improvement offensively is especially concerning, although somewhat expected given that the Twins have pushed him through the system so aggressively that he played most of last season as a 21-year-old at Double-A. The potential remains, but Winfree's stock has dropped.

26. Nick Blackburn | Starter | DOB: 2/82 | Throws: Right | Draft: 2001-29

2005 A+ 15 15 3.36 93.2 95 5 55 16
AA 7 7 1.84 49.0 35 1 27 10
AAA 3 3 5.14 14.0 20 2 7 3
2006 AA 30 19 4.43 132.0 141 11 81 37
2007 AA 8 7 3.08 38.0 36 1 18 7
AAA 17 17 2.11 110.2 96 7 57 12

Taken by the Rays in the 34th round out of an Oklahoma high school in 2000, Nick Blackburn chose junior college over signing and was drafted by the Twins 28 rounds after Joe Mauer in 2001. He was inconsistent and had modest success through three pro seasons, failing to make it past Single-A while posting a 4.42 ERA that was due to trouble missing bats and an inability to keep the ball in the ballpark. Beginning in 2005 something clicked for Blackburn and he's been a different pitcher since.

Blackburn didn't miss many bats in the low minors and his strikeouts fell even further at Double-A and Triple-A. That's normally a very bad thing, but in Blackburn's case the drop in strikeouts also came with far fewer homers and improved control. Few pitchers are able to succeed in the majors after striking out only 4-5 batters per nine innings in the high minors, but the ones who do are strike-throwing machines who keep the ball on the ground and Blackburn has turned himself into just that.

He's not nearly as good as his 44-inning scoreless streak and 2.36 ERA overall last season suggest. Beyond that, Baseball America's surprising decision to rank him as the Twins' No. 1 prospect prior to the Johan Santana trade seems absolutely absurd given that he's 26 years old and managed just 75 strikeouts in 148.2 innings last season. With that said, Blackburn is likely MLB-ready and should soon be able to carve out a niche as either a back-of-the-rotation starter or middle reliever.

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