February 4, 2009

Top 40 Twins Prospects of 2009: 20, 19, 18, 17, 16

Previous Top 40 Twins Prospects of 2009: 21-25, 26-30, 31-35, 36-40

20. Steven Tolleson | Shortstop | DOB: 11/83 | Bats: Right | Draft: 2005-5

2006 A- 204 .287 .390 .392 2 12 27 34
A+ 186 .268 .353 .408 4 13 22 24
2007 A+ 571 .285 .388 .382 5 33 79 97
2008 AA 397 .300 .382 .466 9 38 44 74

The son of former major leaguer Wayne Tolleson, Steven Tolleson was picked by the Twins in the fifth round of the 2005 draft after a three-year career at the University of South Carolina. Despite being a fifth rounder with college experience Tolleson moved slowly through the Twins' system, reaching Double-A for the first time last season as a 24-year-old in his fourth pro campaign. He displayed excellent plate discipline while hitting .270/.374/.377 in 290 games at Single-A and added power to the mix last year.

Tolleson went deep nine times in 93 games at New Britain to equal his homer total from 181 games at Fort Myers and also hit .300 with 28 doubles, 44 walks, and a dozen steals. He rated 14 percent above the Eastern League average with an .848 OPS and split time between shortstop (34 games), second base (33 games), and center field (17 games) defensively. Tolleson wrapped up the season by batting .383 in the Arizona Fall League, but struggled defensively with a dozen errors in 27 games at shortstop.

Last year's bump in power aside Tolleson doesn't figure to do much slugging, so his value will come from defensive versatility and getting on base. His best bet for a starting job will probably come if Alexi Casilla falters at second base, but for now at least Tolleson seems more likely to end up as a speedy, walk-drawing, gap-hitting utility man. He was added to the 40-man roster in November and will try for a bench job this spring, but figures to get at least a half-year taste of Triple-A before arriving in Minnesota.

19. Anthony Slama | Reliever | DOB: 1/84 | Throws: Right | Draft: 2006-39

2007 RK 6 0 2.45 7.1 2 0 10 1
A- 21 0 1.48 24.1 15 0 39 9
2008 A+ 51 0 1.01 71.0 43 0 110 24

A middle reliever during his senior season at the University of San Diego, Anthony Slama lasted 1,176 picks into the 2006 draft before the Twins took him in the 39th round. When college seniors go that low they're usually destined to be roster filler, but Slama shocked everyone with a dominant debut between rookie-ball and low Single-A that included a 1.71 ERA and 49 strikeouts in just 31.2 innings. He moved up to high Single-A last season and was amazingly even better.

In fact, he had one of the sickest stat lines you'll ever see with a 1.01 ERA, 110-to-24 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and .173 opponent's batting average that included zero homers in 71 innings. Equally amazing is that despite a 24-year-old with college experience absolutely eviscerating Florida State League hitters the Twins inexplicably refused to promote Slama. It's tough to top a 1.23 ERA with 159 strikeouts in 103 innings and it's a shame that Slama is already 25 years old and has yet to throw a pitch at Double-A.

Even adjusting for Slama being a 24-year-old at Single-A doesn't keep his 2008 season from being the best of any pitcher in the Twins' system, because only so much wind can be taken out of the sails of a guy who faces 280 batters and strikes out 40 percent of them without giving up a single homer. Being skeptical of a former 39th-round pick is natural, but his performance thus far goes well beyond "great" and Slama deserves a chance to show that he's for real against some real competition.

18. Robert Delaney | Reliever | DOB: 9/84 | Throws: Right | Sign: America

2006 RK- 17 0 4.64 33.0 37 4 27 1
2007 A- 36 0 0.77 46.2 25 1 56 6
A+ 17 0 1.54 23.1 19 1 27 10
2008 A+ 23 0 1.42 31.2 24 1 34 4
AA 23 0 1.05 34.1 20 2 38 7

As if Slama alone wasn't enough dominance for one bullpen, Fort Myers had him splitting closer duties with Robert Delaney for the first half of last year. Delaney saved 13 games with a 1.42 ERA and 34-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 31.2 innings before a promotion to Double-A, where he tossed 34 frames with a 1.05 ERA and 38-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Delaney's overall numbers aren't quite as jaw-dropping as Slama's, but he's a year younger, more polished, and has already thrived against Double-A hitters.

Plus, 66 innings of a 1.23 ERA, 72-to-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and .189 opponent's batting average is plenty sick and earned Delaney the award for Minor League Reliever of the Year from MiLB.com. Slama was a 39th-round pick, but Delaney actually went undrafted following a modest career as a starter at St. John's University. He's been a full-time reliever since signing with the Twins and heads into his age-24 season with a 1.91 ERA and 185-to-28 strikeout-to-walk ratio through 174 innings as a pro.

Baseball history is full of relievers who failed to do anything in the majors after dominating in the low minors, but Slama and Delaney both have legitimate, MLB-quality raw stuff in addition to insanely good stats. For whatever reason the Twins decided that Delaney was ready for Double-A when Slama wasn't last season and he's also likely to be given a chance in the big leagues first, but they're both extremely promising relief prospects with a shot to reach Minnesota for good this season.

17. Luke Hughes | Third Base | DOB: 8/84 | Bats: Right | Sign: Australia

2006 A+ 368 .231 .287 .312 4 19 23 72
2007 AA 362 .283 .356 .438 9 29 34 68
2008 AA 319 .319 .385 .551 15 33 28 70
AAA 117 .283 .325 .453 3 11 7 30

Signed out of Australia as an 18-year-old in 2002, Luke Hughes hit well in two rookie-ball stints before batting just .238/.293/.339 in 190 games at Single-A. Despite those struggles the Twins moved him up to Double-A for the first time in 2007 and Hughes posted a strong .283/.356/.438 line in 92 games as a 22-year-old in a pitcher-friendly environment. He stayed at New Britain to begin last season and batted .354/.430/.677 with eight homers in April to officially establish himself on the prospect map.

Hughes cooled down somewhat after that, but was hitting .319/.385/.551 with 15 homers in 70 games when the Twins promoted him to Triple-A and then batted .285/.325/.453 in 29 games at Rochester. It's tough to find much fault in a 23-year-old hitting .309/.368/.523 with 18 homers in 99 games between Double-A and Triple-A, but Hughes had a mediocre walk rate while striking out in 23 percent of his trips to the plate and struggled defensively at third base.

His slide down the defensive spectrum has already seen Hughes go from shortstop to second base to third base and last year's breakout draws some skepticism because of troubles in the low minors, but he's fared well in 191 games at Double-A and Triple-A despite being young for the level of competition and may have enough bat to make an impact as a corner outfielder. For now he'll head back to Triple-A and try to turn in another strong showing offensively while searching for a long-term home defensively.

16. Michael McCardell | Starter | DOB: 4/85 | Throws: Right | Draft: 2007-6

2007 RK- 4 2 2.50 18.0 11 2 25 3
RK 8 8 2.00 45.0 29 3 70 5
2008 A- 22 21 2.86 135.1 110 10 139 25

Michael McCardell was a two-way Division II college star at Kutztown University, but the Twins took him as a pitcher in the sixth round of the 2007 draft and he's quickly fit into the organization's preferred mold of a strike-throwing machine. McCardell outclassed rookie-ball hitters after signing, posting a 2.14 ERA and 95-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 63 innings, and continued to miss bats and throw strikes last year at low Single-A in his full-season debut.

McCardell ranked second among Midwest League starters in strikeout-to-walk ratio and WHIP, but his great numbers aren't quite as impressive as they appear because he was 23 years old. While putting away less experienced pro hitters has come easy for McCardell thus far, outstanding command and a high-80s fastball are unlikely to produce the same results once he's facing more advanced bats. He'll probably begin this year at high Single-A, but there's little need for a prolonged stay if he keeps thriving.

From the small-college pedigree to the great strikeout-to-walk ratios despite modest velocity McCardell looks like a poor man's Kevin Slowey thus far, except he turns 24 years old in April and has yet to throw a pitch above low Single-A while Slowey turns 25 years old in May and has already logged 227 innings in the majors. McCardell looks capable of moving quickly through the system if the Twins let him, but his upside is probably a mid-rotation starter and he's no sure thing to clear the high-minors hurdles.

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