January 31, 2010

Top 40 Twins Prospects of 2010: 40, 39, 38, 37, 36

Other entries in Top 40 Twins Prospects of 2010 series: 1-5, 6-10, 11-15, 16-20, 21-25, 26-30, 31-35.

40. Joe Testa | Reliever | DOB: 12/85 | Throws: Left | Sign: America

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2008     RK-     8      0     1.32      13.2       9      0      17      1
         A+      4      2     4.91      14.2      14      1      13      7
2009     A-     25      1     2.56      45.2      26      1      63     23
         A+     21      0     1.22      37.0      29      2      53     18

Joe Testa set school records for career starts, innings, strikeouts, and wins during his four seasons at Wagner College, but the diminutive left-hander went undrafted in 2008, signed with the Twins as a free agent, and shifted to the bullpen as a pro. Two years later he cracks this list because his numbers are simply too good to ignore. Testa has racked up 146 strikeouts in 111 pro innings, posting a 2.26 ERA while holding opponents to a .195 batting average.

Undrafted free agents who put up great numbers as relievers in the low minors generally don't warrant getting all that excited, but certainly Testa is at least worth keeping tabs on as he moves up the ladder. Poor control makes him an even worse bet, as Testa walked 41 in 82.2 innings between low Single-A and high Single-A last year, but a 1.96 ERA, 116 strikeouts, and just three homers allowed still made him the most effective pitcher in the entire Twins system based on Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP).

Testa's raw stuff definitely doesn't match those amazing numbers, but he's not a total junk-baller either. He gets plenty of movement on a wide assortment of off-speed pitches, but his fastball also tops out in the low-90s. Obviously moving beyond the low minors and facing more experienced hitters will show if Testa is the real deal or not, but if Wagner College can produce the reigning AL Rookie of the Year in Andrew Bailey why can't that same small-college pitching staff have been home to another solid arm?

39. Loek Van Mil | Reliever | DOB: 9/84 | Throws: Right | Sign: Netherlands

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2007     RK     13      0     2.62      24.0      14      0      23     17
2008     A-     28      0     3.22      44.2      36      5      42     25
2009     A+     25      0     2.86      34.2      29      3      23     17
         AA      8      0     2.45       7.1       7      0       5      6

Loek Van Mil has logged a grand total of just 154 innings in four pro seasons since the Twins signed him out of the Netherlands, but as a 7-foot-1 pitcher whose given name is "Ludovicus" his intrigue as a prospect goes well beyond the raw numbers. If he reaches the big leagues Van Mil would be the tallest player in MLB history and the Twins significantly increased the odds of that happening by adding him to the 40-man roster this offseason.

Van Mil's raw stuff certainly doesn't match his gargantuan presence on the mound, mostly because he doesn't throw 110 miles per hour, but he's added velocity since transitioning to the bullpen full time and is far from a novelty act. His command is spotty and Van Mil hasn't missed a ton of bats, yet opponents have hit just .233, .221, and .169 off him in the past three years. It remains to be seen if he can stay that tough to hit without more strikeouts, but it's possible normal ball-in-play rules won't apply to a giant.

Despite his limited workload as a pro Van Mil is already 25 years old, but the Twins have promoted him somewhat aggressively. He reached Double-A in his fourth pro campaign and figures to start this year back at New Britain, with a second-half promotion to Rochester and perhaps even a September call-up to Minnesota in the cards if he fares well. His prospect status has always been based more on intrigue than performance, but the scale is starting to tip in the other direction and he has a 3.03 career ERA.

38. Anderson Hidalgo | Third Base | DOB: 9/88 | Bats: Right | Sign: Venezuela

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2008     RK-    107     .364     .453     .466      1      7     15     13
2009     RK     205     .291     .379     .469      6     19     25     38

Signed out of Venezuela as a 17-year-old in 2006, Anderson Hidalgo batted over .300 in back-to-back seasons in the Venezuelan Summer League before making his American minor-league debut in 2008 with a .364 batting average in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League. He rose to rookie-level Elizabethton last season and batted below .300 for the first time as a pro, but .291/.379/.469 from a 20-year-old in a pitcher-friendly environment was still plenty impressive.

In fact, his .848 OPS was 20 percent above the Appalachian League average and Hidalgo has now hit .316/.405/.468 in 76 rookie-ball games after batting .308/.384/.417 over 121 games in Venezuela. He's a very long way from the majors and the flameout rate for guys who knock around rookie-level pitching is incredibly high, but Hidalgo has shown some definite upside offensively while hitting .311 with gap power and a 101-to-90 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

He's played second base and some outfield previously, but Hidalgo has spent the past two seasons strictly as a third baseman despite being very small for the position at just 5-foot-9. Deibinson Romero cracked this list in both 2008 and 2009 thanks to his Hidalgo-like production in rookie-ball only to see his prospect stock plummet after being exposed to full-season competition, so hopefully this story is a bit different. The early numbers suggest plenty of upside, but we'll find out a lot more this season.

37. Steven Tolleson | Second Base | DOB: 11/83 | Bats: Right | Draft: 2005-5

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2007     A+     571     .285     .388     .382      5     33     79     97
2008     AA     397     .300     .382     .466      9     38     44     74
2009     AA     173     .258     .343     .391      2     14     16     20
        AAA     394     .270     .338     .375      6     24     36     52

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 as a 24-year-old in his fourth pro campaign. He had a breakout year there, displaying his usual strong on-base skills while adding power to the mix, but took a step backward last season.

Despite being a 25-year-old who spent all of 2008 at Double-A while hitting .300/.382/.466 he was sent back to New Britain to repeat the level and batted just .258/.343/.391 in 38 games before a promotion to Rochester. He didn't fare any better at Triple-A, batting .270/.338/.375 in 92 games, but did maintain good strike-zone control while seeing action everywhere except first base and catcher. Versatility is key for Tolleson, because he doesn't have the glove to be a regular shortstop and his bat is backup caliber.

Tolleson makes solid contact, draws a fair number of walks, and has some gap power, but he's hit just .276 with a .400 slugging percentage in 500 games as a minor leaguer despite a very deliberate climb up the organizational ladder. Toss in modest speed with a good but not great glove and Tolleson now looks destined to be a utility man at best, so at 26 years old this is a make-or-break time for his odds of reaching the majors. UPDATE: Just hours after posting this, Tolleson was lost to Oakland on waivers.

36. Josmil Pinto | Catcher | DOB: 3/89 | Bats: Right | Sign: Venezuela

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2008     RK-     94     .329     .394     .541      1     13      9     14
2009     RK     230     .332     .387     .610     13     29     19     39

Signed out of Venezuela as a 16-year-old, Josmil Pinto's best position defensively is likely designated hitter and he's yet to advance past rookie-ball. But he's here because batting .330/.390/.590 through 77 pro games is just really impressive. Pinto topped the Appalachian League in home runs and slugging percentage last year, hitting .332/.387/.610 while knocking in 55 runs in 53 games. Those numbers are obviously fantastic in any context, but consider that the league as a whole hit just .257/.328/.384.

Pinto's overall production was 34 percent above par, including an Isolated Power that was 118 percent better than the league as a whole. He fails to rank any higher because smashing rookie-ball pitching hardly guarantees future success and regardless of competition we're talking about just a few hundred plate appearances. Plus, if reports of Pinto's lacking defensive ability prove accurate he'll have to keep hitting like that to have any chance at big-time value.

In fairness Pinto split time between designated hitter and catcher at Elizabethton and actually threw out 46 percent of steal attempts without making a ton of errors. The only thing less predictive than offensive numbers at rookie-ball are defensive numbers at rookie-ball, but there's at least reason to believe that Pinto isn't a complete disaster behind the plate. Assuming that the Twins promote him to full-season competition at low Single-A this year we should get a much clearer picture of Pinto's bat and glove.

Once you're done here, check out my NBCSports.com blog and Twitter updates.

January 28, 2010

Twins Notes: Liriano, Neshek, Winfree, and McLemore

  • Earlier this month Ron Gardenhire passed along a report he received from the Dominican Republic saying that Francisco Liriano was "throwing the living fire out of the ball" with his fastball around 92-94 miles per hour and a "filthy" slider. Two winters ago Gardenhire passed along similar reports of Liriano "letting it fly" at 93-96 miles per hour "free and easy" while coming back from Tommy John surgery, yet he arrived at spring training throwing in the high-80s and was basically a mess.

    So there were good reasons to be skeptical about third-hand reports of Liriano's velocity in winter ball this time around, particularly after he went 5-13 with a 5.80 ERA in 136.2 innings last season. However, my skepticism has faded because his numbers in the Dominican Republic are insanely good and last night he dominated while starting the final game of the league's World Series. And as an added bonus the game was broadcast online by ESPN, so those third-hand reports are no longer really needed.

    First let's talk about the stats, which prior to last night included a 0.82 ERA and 54-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 43.2 innings. Whether his fastball was 85 or 95 those numbers are impossible to ignore. And it turns out last night showed that reports about his velocity were pretty accurate (assuming the radar gun used was based somewhat in reality). He tossed five innings of one-hit, shutout ball while racking up 10 strikeouts, was regularly clocked at 93-95 mph, and unleashed some wicked high-80s sliders.

    To say that Liriano looked like the pre-surgery phenom who was baseball's best pitcher in 2006 would be hyperbole, but for one night at least he certainly looked closer to that guy than the one who averaged under 91 mph with his fastball for the past two seasons and constantly struggled just to throw strikes. Ultimately the real test will come when he faces MLB lineups, but he faced plenty of major leaguers in the DWL and his video game-like stats match the glowing reports. Skepticism is turning into optimism.

  • MLB.com's Kelly Thesier reports that Pat Neshek is "a little anxious" but "on track to be ready for the start of spring training" 14 months after Tommy John surgery. "I just want to face hitters to see where I'm at and get that in my head," Neshek said. "I want to face hitters to give me that total confidence back. Right now it feels like I'm killing time waiting for that to happen." Prior to going down in May of 2008 he had a 2.91 ERA with 143 strikeouts and a .188 opponents' batting average in 121 innings.After signing Clay Condrey the Twins have six relievers as locks for the Opening Day roster, so even if they go with a 12-man pitching staff that leaves just a single spot for Neshek or one of the losers of the fifth-starter competition. And that assumes they won't sign Jarrod Washburn. In other words, healthy or not I'd say there's a decent chance Neshek will begin the season on the disabled list if only to give the Twins some extra time to sort out the pitching staff.
  • David Winfree was the Twins' minor league player of the year in 2005, but in the four seasons since then he failed to improve his plate discipline while sliding down the defensive spectrum, and now after seven years in the organization the former 13th-round pick has signed with the Yankees. I'm not sure if the Twins were even interested in keeping him around, but certainly Winfree's odds of reaching the big leagues with the Yankees have decreased. He'll probably be a part-time player for them at Triple-A.Winfree once ranked as high as 13th on my annual list of the Twins' top prospects, but dropped to 27th in 2008 and 28th last season. He may have squeaked onto the list again this year, but it's tough to fault the Twins for letting him go. While a .275 hitter with good power and bad plate discipline is intriguing in a teenage third baseman, the exact same skill set in a 24-year-old corner outfielder who failed to show an ounce of improvement for five years is a much different story.

    He has excellent power that's been masked somewhat by pitcher-friendly environments throughout the Twins' system, but that plus his age are about the only positives left on his resume at this point and it's tough to see Winfree developing into more than a platoon guy in the majors. His on-base percentages, by year: .329, .323, .308, .319, .317. His slugging percentages, by year: .452, .478, .426, .450, .460. And for his career Winfree has averaged 35 walks and 113 strikeouts per 600 plate appearances. Oh well.

  • Winfree becomes minor-league filler for the Yankees and the Twins added some Triple-A depth of their own by signing Mark McLemore to a minor-league deal. Not to be confused with the switch-hitter who played 19 seasons in the majors, this Mark McLemore is a 29-year-old left-hander who missed all of 2008 following Tommy John elbow surgery and struggled at Triple-A for the Astros in his return. Even before the injury his numbers were mediocre, so he'll likely compete for a rotation spot at Rochester.
  • Yahoo! Sports put together a directory of Twins blogs as part of Big League Stew's ongoing series, showing again why my blogging career would be much different had my parents named me something that didn't begin with back-to-back A's. It got me first in line for french toast sticks in elementary school and now it gets me first in line for links.
  • Lastly, my annual series ranking and profiling the Twins' top 40 prospects starts Monday with 36-40, unless of course they make a big move over the weekend or something. Oh, and Link-O-Rama returns next week too, because my hard drive can only store so many bookmarked Mila Kunis photo shoots.

  • Once you're done here, check out my NBCSports.com blog and Twitter updates.

    January 26, 2010

    Twins Sign Jim Thome To One-Year Deal

    As the legendary Ron Burgundy once said: "Boy, that escalated quickly."

    Just days after rumors started swirling about the Twins' interest in Jim Thome, the two sides agreed to a one-year deal worth $1.5 million in guaranteed money and another $750,000 in potential incentives. At that price the signing is an absolute no-brainer move for the Twins and should end any debate about whether he's a worthwhile addition. Now the biggest question revolves around Thome's role, which the Twins insisted yesterday will be fairly minimal.

    Bill Smith, Ron Gardenhire, and company really like the notion of having Thome available off the bench as pinch-hitter in the late innings. And they ought to, because the guy topped an .840 OPS last year for the 16th time in 17 seasons. Of course, as long as they're shifting players into unnecessarily limited roles Joe Mauer would probably be an even better pinch-hitter, Denard Span would likely be a fantastic pinch-runner, and Scott Baker would surely fare well as a long reliever.

    All of which is a long way of saying that Thome is still far too dangerous offensively to limit him strictly to pinch-hitting duties. Against right-handed pitching he hit .262/.383/.498 last season and .274/.402/.551 over the past three years, which is basically the same as Justin Morneau's production versus righties during that span. Seriously. Morneau hit .272/.379/.526 against righties last season and .293/.385/.529 from 2007-2009, which is at most marginally better than Thome's numbers.

    Now, he's 39 years old and has certainly declined from his MVP-caliber peak as a 1.000-OPS monster, so some further slippage can be expected from Thome in 2010, but the notion that he's just another in the line of washed-up veterans to join the Twins via free agency is silly. He's only an emergency option at first base and has always struggled with lefties, but remains a legit middle-of-the-order bat versus righties. So why are the Twins indicating that he'll be used merely as a bench bat? Delmon Young.

    By trading Carlos Gomez to the Brewers for J.J. Hardy the Twins committed to Young as their starting left fielder. Certainly giving a 24-year-old everyday playing time is a good idea for his development, but the problem is that Young has done nothing to warrant that many at-bats and has been vastly inferior to Thome against right-handed pitching. In fact, Thome's mediocre-for-him 2009 numbers beat Young's career line versus righties by 66 points of on-base percentage and 102 points of slugging percentage.

    That's an awful lot of production to forfeit in the name of aiding the development of a guy who's been an absolutely terrible all-around player through 1,851 plate appearances in the majors, so my hope is that Gardenhire eventually sees the benefit of getting Thome into the lineup regularly against righties, using him at DH while Jason Kubel shifts to left field and Young goes to the bench. That would significantly upgrade the lineup and Young is a horrible defensive left fielder anyway, so there's no big dropoff there.

    One of the criticisms that I've seen lobbed at the Thome signing is that he does nothing to address the infield, where right now Nick Punto and Brendan Harris are the projected starters at second and third base. While true, those are separate issues and paying Thome about $1 million beyond the minimum salary can't possibly change their plans that much. If they were going to make a run at Orlando Hudson or Felipe Lopez they still can and if they weren't then at least adding Thome improves them elsewhere.

    Another criticism is that Thome adds to what was already an overly left-handed offense. There's some truth to that, yet for all their lefty bats last season the Twins had a higher OPS against lefties (.785) than righties (.768) and even I'm not advising Thome take starts away from Young versus southpaws. Plus, with as few as four lefty starters and zero lefty closers on the AL Central's other four teams the division is a place where a lineup stacked with Denard Span, Mauer, Morneau, Kubel, and Thome can thrive.

    Even if they stick to the stated plan of using Thome off the bench he's worth the modest investment, in part because he can still do plenty of damage in a couple hundred at-bats and in part because should Morneau, Kubel, or Michael Cuddyer get hurt the Twins now have a viable replacement. However, the potential is there for Thome to make a much bigger impact if the Twins are willing to give him a sizable chunk of Young's starts versus righties. Give him 350 plate appearances and this can be a great move.

    Once you're done here, check out my NBCSports.com blog and Twitter updates.

    Report: Twins Sign Jim Thome

    Kelsie Smith of the St. Paul Pioneer Press reports that the Twins have agreed to terms with Jim Thome on an incentive-laden one-year contract. As noted yesterday when the whole thing was merely in rumor stage I'm in favor of bringing in Thome, but I'll have a full breakdown of the move here tomorrow. And if you can't wait until then, I'll be talking Twins (and Thome) at around 7:30 tonight with Joe Anderson on KSTP-1500 radio. Click here to listen online.

    January 24, 2010

    Twins "Have Real Interest" In Signing Jim Thome

    Friday morning a rumor was circulating out of Chicago that the Twins were close to signing Jim Thome and when Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune did a bit of digging he surprisingly found that there was actually some fire behind the smoke:

    I called a Twins official, expecting to hear that this is totally far-fetched, and turns out they do have real interest in Thome and haven't ruled out their chances of signing him. Probably not today, mind you, but it's getting late in the offseason and the prices for free agents are falling fast. The Twins are bargain hunting, and if Thome were to accept a bench role at a severely reduced price--he made $13 million last year--there could be a match.

    Obviously that's a long way from "close to signing," but it's intriguing nonetheless. At first glance you'd think that the 39-year-old Thome would be just another name on the long list of over-the-hill veterans the Twins have brought in via free agency, but there's a big difference: Thome is still a very dangerous hitter. He batted .249/.366/.481 with 23 homers in 434 plate appearances last season, topping an .800 OPS for the 16th time in 17 seasons, and hit .265/.391/.542 during his four years with the White Sox.

    Thome hasn't played first base regularly since 2005 and didn't see a single inning defensively in either of the past two seasons, but the fact that he's strictly a designated hitter at this point matters little with Justin Morneau around. His other big flaw is a career-long weakness against left-handed pitching, but while the Twins' lineup is certainly very heavy on lefty bats their OPS against righties (.768) was actually slightly worse than their OPS against lefties (.785) last season. They aren't that unbalanced.

    Thome isn't going to help much versus lefties, but he crushed righties to the tune of .274/.402/.551 over the past three seasons, including .262/.383/.498 last year. To put that into some context, consider that Morneau hit .272/.379/.526 against righties last season and .293/.385/.529 from 2007-2009. So yes, he can't play defense or hit lefties, but when facing righties Thome has essentially been as productive as Morneau. If platooned at DH versus righties Thome would be a huge upgrade to the Twins' lineup.

    However, that would mean shifting Jason Kubel from DH to left field while benching Delmon Young. Both moves would be just fine with me, because Kubel is no worse than Young defensively and Young platooning against lefties is about as much playing time as his performance has warranted so far, but my guess is that the Twins think differently. In fact, Christensen suggests that if signed Thome would serve merely in "a bench role."

    He'd certainly beef up the bench and provide Ron Gardenhire with an interesting late-inning option, but then again so would Joe Mauer if for some odd reason the Twins ceased starting him. In other words, Thome hits right-handed pitching too well not to start against them, particularly when the alternative is Young with his career .317 on-base percentage and .396 slugging percentage versus righties. Thome is a decent bet to top those marks by at least 50 points of OBP and 100 points of SLG.

    Right now the Twins will have Young in left field and Kubel at DH against righties, but having Thome at DH, Kubel in left field, and Young on the bench would make them a superior team for those 100 or so games. Whether or not Thome is willing to take a one-year contract for modest money and whether or not the Twins are able to recognize that he shouldn't be limited to a bench role are big questions, but if the answer to both is yes then there's no doubt that Thome would significantly improve the offense.

    Once you're done here, check out my NBCSports.com blog and Twitter updates.

    Older Posts »