February 16, 2010

Top 40 Twins Prospects of 2010: 20, 19, 18, 17, 16

Other entries in Top 40 Twins Prospects of 2010 series: 1-5, 6-10, 11-15, 21-25, 26-30, 31-35, 36-40.

20. Max Kepler | Center Field | DOB: 2/93 | Bats: Left | Sign: Germany

Signed out of Germany in July just four months after his 16th birthday, Max Kepler received the largest bonus ever given to a European position player at $800,000. His parents, American-born Kathy Kepler and Polish-born Marek Rozycki, met while starring together in the Berlin ballet, leading to an intriguing upbringing for their baseball-playing son. Twins scout Andy Johnson first saw Kepler when he was 14 years old and described him running to first base "like a galloping baby deer."

After signing he came to the United States, enrolled in a Florida high school near the Twins' facilities in Fort Myers, and got his feet wet by playing in an instructional league. Kepler recently got his GED, but is still living with his mother and plans to take a few classes at a local junior college. In other words, he's a long way from the majors and may not even see full-season action until 2012. For this year he'll likely stay behind in extended spring training before making his way to the rookie-level Gulf Coast League.

Kepler is on this list almost by default because his physical tools draw rave reviews and the Twins just paid $800,000 for him as a 16-year-old, but it's tough to rate him any higher without some game action to base things on. What little we do know is that Kepler is already 6-foot-3 and said to be a very graceful athlete with good speed and some pop at the plate. Along with Miguel Angel Sano he represents a big shift in the Twins' pursuit of high-end international talent, but right now he's an expensive lottery ticket.

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

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
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
2009     AA     51      0     2.48      65.1      46      5      93     32
         AAA    11      0     3.45      15.2      11      0      19      8

It took until just months before his 26th birthday, but Anthony Slama was finally promoted to Rochester late last season. Clearly the Twins have little faith in the former 39th-round pick despite his absolutely incredible minor-league numbers, but his performance screams out for a chance to prove whether he can get major-league hitters out. There's nothing particularly noteworthy about Slama's raw stuff, yet in 183.2 career innings he has a 1.86 ERA and 271 strikeouts while allowing just 117 hits.

Getting his first taste of the high minors at age 25, he began last season as the closer at Double-A and converted 25 saves with a 2.48 ERA, 93 strikeouts, and .201 opponents' batting average in 65 innings. Promoted to Triple-A in August, he saved four more games while racking up 19 strikeouts and allowing just 11 hits in 15.2 innings. Slama's walk rate rose significantly last season, but nearly a quarter of his free passes were intentional. He handed out 31 non-intentional walks in 81 innings, which is just fine.

I'm certainly not going to suggest that Slama is destined for stardom, but Pat Neshek should've shown the Twins that pitchers who repeatedly put up amazing numbers in the minors despite underwhelming raw stuff can't simply be dismissed. Slama's numbers aren't merely great, they're truly spectacular, and his raw stuff is hardly horrible. If a 2.67 ERA, 112 strikeouts, and .203 opponents' batting average in 81 innings between Double-A and Triple-A aren't enough to get Slama a shot in Minnesota, it's a shame.

18. B.J. Hermsen | Starter | DOB: 12/89 | Throws: Right | Draft: 2008-6

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2009     RK-    10     10     1.35      53.1      32      0      42      4

B.J. Hermsen initially projected as a possible second rounder during his senior season of high school in Iowa, but a broken collarbone suffered while playing football and expectations that he'd play college ball at Oregon State dropped him into the sixth round. Eventually the Twins lured him into the pros with a $650,000 signing bonus that beat the money given to their second-round pick, and Hermsen made his debut last season in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League.

He was nearly unhittable in 10 starts, with a 1.35 ERA, 42-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio, .171 opponents' batting average, and zero homers allowed in 53.1 innings. He also induced a grounder on 52.5 percent of his balls in play, which is important because despite his 6-foot-6, 230-pound frame and promising velocity in high school Hermsen topped out in the low-90s last season while racking up a modest 42 strikeouts in 53.1 frames.

Of course, at just 20 years old he has plenty of time to add a few miles per hour to match his imposing presence on the mound and focusing on velocity or strikeouts is perhaps picking nits given his overall performance. Don't expect Hermsen to move all that quickly through the system, but he definitely has a very high long-term ceiling and a few more missed bats this season could propel him near the top of this list for 2011.

17. Carlos Gutierrez | Reliever | DOB: 9/86 | Throws: Right | Draft: 2008-1

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2008     A+     16      0     2.10      25.2      23      0      19      7
2009     A+     11     10     1.32      54.2      37      1      33     22
         AA     22      6     6.19      52.1      62      6      32     24

Carlos Gutierrez went from the rotation to the bullpen at the University of Miami following Tommy John surgery in 2007 and became one of the best closers in the country, but when the Twins took him with the 27th overall pick in the 2008 draft they talked him up as a potential starter. That plan looked genius when Gutierrez posted a 1.32 ERA in the rotation at high Single-A, but he struggled mightily following a midseason promotion to Double-A and was shifted back to the bullpen.

He works primarily with a low-90s sinker that induces a ton of ground balls, and at the time of the draft Baseball America noted his "rudimentary" off-speed stuff, which is why few projections had him going in the first or even second round and Gutierrez's odds of sticking as a starter are slim. However, there was no real harm in letting him give starting one last try and Gutierrez can still move quickly through the system if the Twins make him a full-time reliever again this season.

His strikeout numbers have been underwhelming, which is what you'd expect from a sinkerballer with lacking secondary pitches, but Gutierrez's worm-killing ability is for real with 61.4 percent of his balls in play being grounders through 132.2 pro innings. That would've ranked as the second-best ground-ball rate in the AL last season and is enough to make Gutierrez a promising relief prospect despite sub par strikeout and walk numbers. The question is whether he can be more than a solid middle reliever.

16. Tyler Robertson | Starter | DOB: 12/87 | Throws: Left | Draft: 2006-3

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2007     A-     18     16     2.29     102.1      87      3     123     33
2008     A+     15     15     2.72      82.2      78      3      73     31
2009     A+     26     26     3.33     143.1     139      7     103     51

Tyler Robertson ranked No. 3 on this list heading into 2008, but missed half that season with shoulder problems and then was mediocre while repeating high Single-A last year. He posted a solid 3.33 ERA in 26 starts at Fort Myers, but managed just 103 strikeouts in 143.1 innings for by far the fewest missed bats of his career and allowed right-handers to hit .285 against him. The good news is that Robertson stayed healthy, throwing the seventh-most innings of any pitcher in the Twins' minor-league system.

Robertson's unorthodox throwing motion has created skeptics since the Twins made him a third-round pick in 2006, with his 2008 arm problems, inconsistent velocity, and falling strikeout rate lending further evidence that the left-hander's mechanics are a legitimate issue. On the other hand he has a 3.03 ERA as a pro and will likely begin this season at Double-A as a 22-year-old, so Robertson remains a plenty good prospect despite the issues dragging his stock down over the past two years.

More than half of Robertson's balls in play have been on the ground every season and he's been death to left-handed hitters, holding them to a .197 batting average with zero home runs last year and a .210 mark for his career. Ground balls and shutting down lefties make it likely that Robertson can transition nicely to the bullpen if concerns about his durability and struggles against righties continue, but for now he definitely still has a chance to develop into a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter.

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