February 2, 2009

Top 40 Twins Prospects of 2009: 25, 24, 23, 22, 21

Previous Top 40 Twins Prospects of 2009: 26-30, 31-35, 36-40

25. Brian Duensing | Starter | DOB: 2/83 | Throws: Left | Draft: 2005-3

2006 A- 11 11 2.94 70.1 68 3 55 14
A+ 7 7 4.24 40.1 47 4 33 8
AA 10 9 3.65 49.1 51 6 30 18
2007 AA 9 9 2.66 50.2 47 2 38 7
AAA 19 19 3.24 116.2 115 13 86 30
2008 AAA 25 24 4.28 138.2 150 16 77 34

Brian Duensing is an example of why win-loss records and ERAs are far from the best way to evaluate the potential of pitching prospects. Some fans and media members misguidedly bought into Duensing as the next Matt Garza or Kevin Slowey after he went 15-6 with a 3.02 ERA in 2007 between Double-A and Triple-A, but a mediocre strikeout rate and high-80s fastball painted a far less promising long-term picture. Sure enough, Duensing's modest velocity and lack of missed bats caught up to him last year.

Despite being a 25-year-old repeating Triple-A his strikeout rate fell from mediocre (18 percent) to sub par (13 percent) and he allowed 150 hits in 138.2 innings while going 5-11 with a 4.28 ERA. His control remained excellent and keeps Duensing on the prospect map as a possible fourth or fifth starter, but his upside looks very limited. That was the case last year as well, but a shiny win-loss record and ERA masked that from many people.

Duensing turns 26 years old next month and has logged 255 innings at Triple-A in addition to pitching in the Olympics, so he's as MLB-ready as he's going to get. His odds of cracking the Twins' rotation are beyond slim and Duensing seems miscast as a reliever because he's been equally effective against righties and lefties. That likely leaves him back at Rochester for a third straight year, waiting for injuries to strike while trying to hold off the higher-upside arms coming up through the system behind him.

24. Deibinson Romero | Third Base | DOB: 9/86 | Bats: Right | Sign: Dominican

2006 RK- 197 .313 .365 .460 4 16 13 37
2007 RK 293 .316 .406 .506 9 27 34 47
2008 A- 162 .268 .309 .396 3 12 7 38

A prospect on the rise last year at this time, Deibinson Romero ranked 13th on my list of the Twins' top 40 prospects after hitting .314/.390/.487 in 116 games at rookie-ball to begin his career. Unfortunately his move up to full-season ball was a struggle last year, as he had modest numbers at low Single-A and missed over 100 games with injuries. Romero came back strong following April knee surgery, but a broken fibula suffered while falling into the dugout chasing after a foul ball ended his season in July.

Romero will probably head back to Beloit to begin this year, making 2008 more or less a lost season in terms of development time, but at 22 years old he'll still be plenty young for the level of competition. Despite his lack of experience and complete absence of success above rookie-ball the Twins smartly added Romero to the 40-man roster this winter to protect him from the Rule 5 draft and he's capable of moving quickly through the system if healthy.

He's added lots of size since the Twins signed him out of the Dominican Republic as a 17-year-old in 2004, but Romero still runs well and is considered a strong enough defender to stick at third base for the long haul while perhaps even being an asset there. Last year was definitely a setback for Romero, but it was hardly disastrous and his ceiling remains as high as any third baseman in an organization that suddenly boasts quite a bit of depth at the hot corner.

23. Trevor Plouffe | Shortstop | DOB: 6/86 | Bats: Right | Draft: 2004-1

2006 A+ 524 .246 .333 .347 4 34 58 93
2007 AA 555 .274 .326 .410 9 48 38 89
2008 AA 249 .269 .325 .410 3 23 16 43
AAA 272 .256 .292 .420 6 26 14 47

The 20th overall pick in the 2004 draft out of a California high school, Trevor Plouffe is now five years and 2,388 plate appearances into his pro career and has yet to crack a .750 OPS at any level. However, within that poor production his offensive game has changed quite a bit. While posting a sub-.700 OPS in the low minors Plouffe showed good plate discipline, but since advancing to Double-A his batting average and power have improved while he's drawn 40 percent fewer walks.

Ultimately he's not going to draw a ton of walks because pitchers won't be afraid to throw him strikes, so Plouffe's improving average and power are more important than his declining walk rate. However, the deterioration of his walk rate without a corresponding shrinkage in strikeouts is a red flag for a guy who really can't afford to let chunks of value disappear at this point. Another concern is that Plouffe's shortstop defense gets mixed reviews and he played lots of second base and third base last year.

Plouffe's potential offensively is better than his ugly .255/.319/.380 career line suggests because he's played in pitcher-friendly environments while being much younger than the competition, but he's at the point where performance needs to take precedence over age and so far he's done nothing to show a bat that's starting-caliber unless it comes with excellent defense at shortstop. Plouffe has always been pushed more aggressively than his play warranted, so he'll give Triple-A a second try at the age of 23.

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

2006 RK 13 13 4.04 71.1 66 6 71 13
2007 A- 27 27 3.02 155.0 140 9 117 38
2008 A+ 28 25 3.76 143.2 151 12 84 36

Alex Burnett has been young for every level he's pitched at since the Twins took him out of a California high school in the 12th round of the 2005 draft, but he's yet to struggle and impressively posted a 3.76 ERA at high Single-A as a 20-year-old last season. Not only was Burnett the third-youngest pitcher in the Florida State League to log 100-plus innings last season, of the 32 other guys who qualified 24 of them were at least two years older and seven of them were at least four years older.

That's the good news. The bad news is that his 3.76 ERA, however impressive for a 20-year-old versus Florida State League hitters, came along with 84 measly strikeouts in 143.2 innings. Burnett struck out 24 percent of the batters he faced at rookie-ball in 2006, but that dropped to 18 percent at low Single-A in 2007 and fell again to just 14 percent at high Single-A last season. His control has been consistently great throughout and his overall success is impressive, but the decline in missed bats is a concern.

Of those same 32 other Florida State League pitchers who tossed 100-plus innings last season, only three had a lower strikeout rate than Burnett. With a low-90s fastball and sharp-breaking slider Burnett seems capable reversing that downward trend in his strikeout rate as he gains more experience and adds more strength, but unless or until that happens it's tough to project him as more than a potential middle-of-the-rotation starter.

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

2006 RK 221 .260 .335 .444 5 21 21 41
2007 A- 507 .255 .347 .368 5 31 49 124
2008 A- 290 .248 .326 .382 4 23 24 73

Viewed as the center fielder of the future when the Twins took him in the second round of the 2006 draft and lured him away from college football with a $575,000 bonus, Joe Benson has hit .254/.337/.386 in three pro seasons while Aaron Hicks, Ben Revere, and Angel Morales all passed him on what is now a crowded center field depth chart. Benson's repeat of low Single-A ended after 69 games last season due to a stress fracture in his back, but at 21 years old he'll still be very young for high Single-A in 2009.

Beyond having youth on his side Benson's seemingly modest production has actually rated above the league average in each of his three seasons, which is impressive for a toolsy young center fielder any way you slice it. However, he's struck out 244 times in 251 games while hitting just .254 and has been thrown out on 45 percent of his steal attempts despite having good speed. He also manned right field often last season while Revere played center field and figures to end up in a corner spot long term.

Benson is a good athlete with plus speed and a .252/.338/.370 line in 199 games at Beloit is far better than it looks coming at the age of 19 and 20, but the back problems are a concern and at some point he needs to begin refining what is an extremely raw all-around game for someone who showed good plate discipline right out of high school. Cutting his strikeouts by just 10-15 percent would be a major first step even if Benson isn't able to post big numbers in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League.

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