February 25, 2011

Top 40 Twins Prospects of 2011: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1

Also in this series: 6-10, 11-15, 16-20, 21-25, 26-30, 31-35, 36-40.

5. Alex Wimmers | Starter | DOB: 11/88 | Throws: Right | Draft: 2010-1

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2010     A+      4      4     0.57      15.2       6      0      23      5

Prior to the Twins taking him with the 21st overall pick in last June's draft Alex Wimmers won back-to-back Big Ten conference pitcher of the year awards at Ohio State by going 9-2 with a 3.27 ERA as a sophomore and 9-0 with a 1.60 ERA as a junior. He perfectly fits into the Twins' preferred pitching mold as a strike-thrower with strong off-speed stuff, but the 6-foot-2 right-hander is hardly a finesse pitcher and racked up 273 strikeouts in 216 innings at OSU.

Wimmers lived up to his pre-draft billing as one of the year's most advanced pitching prospects by jumping all the way to high Single-A after signing for $1.33 million about a week before the deadline. Despite taking two months off between OSU and his pro debut he went 2-0 with a 0.57 ERA and 23-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in four starts at Fort Myers, including five no-hit innings in his third outing.

He likely doesn't have as much long-term upside as fellow first rounder and college righty Kyle Gibson, but Wimmers figures to move quickly through the Twins' system and could be in the mix as a middle-of-the-rotation starter as soon as 2012. His fastball clocks in at 88-92 miles per hour, but Wimmers has drawn more praise for his outstanding changeup and John Manuel of Baseball America called him "the closest thing to Brad Radke in this draft."

4. Tsuyoshi Nishioka | Shortstop | DOB: 7/84 | Bats: Switch | Sign: Japan

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2008     JPN    522     .300     .357     .463     13     45     36     68
2009     JPN    531     .260     .360     .427     14     43     67     76
2010     JPN    690     .346     .423     .482     11     51     76

Tsuyoshi Nishioka is a 26-year-old veteran of seven seasons in Japan, but for the purposes of these rankings he's a "prospect" by virtue of Rookie of the Year eligibility. By out-bidding the 29 other MLB teams the Twins secured Nishioka's exclusive negotiating rights for a $5.3 million "posting fee" and then signed him to a three-year, $9.25 million deal with an option for 2014, making the total commitment either $14.5 million for three years or $18.3 million for four years.

Nishioka hit .346 to win the batting title last season, but that was fueled by an unsustainably amazing .395 mark on balls in play and he came into the year as a career .280 hitter. Based on his track record the Twins should be happy if Nishioka can bat around .275 while maintaining the solid plate discipline he showed in Japan. He's unlikely to have much pop, as even sluggers in Japan have seen their power vanish in MLB and Nishioka's career-high there is 14 homers.

He stole 32 bases per 150 games in Japan and won their equivalent of a Gold Glove award at both shortstop and second base, but the Twins will take a look at him in spring training before deciding which of Orlando Hudson or J.J. Hardy he'll replace in the middle infield. His defense and base-running will be key, because as a hitter Nishioka projects to be similar to Hudson or Jason Bartlett as a .275/.335/.375-type bat Ron Gardenhire will likely slot into the No. 2 hole.

3. Miguel Sano | Third Base | DOB: 5/93 | Bats: Right | Sign: Dominican

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2010     DSL     80     .344     .463     .547      3      6     14     17
         RK-    161     .291     .338     .466      4     18     10     43

Miguel Sano was considered one of the top hitting prospects ever produced by the Dominican Republic when he signed with the Twins as a 16-year-old in late 2009 for a $3.15 million bonus that ranked second all time for a Latin American prospect outside of Cuba. His pro debut didn't disappoint, as Sano crushed summer league pitching and then moved up to rookie-ball, where he joined stud Yankees prospect Gary Sanchez as the only 17-year-olds to top an .800 OPS.

He struggled to control the strike zone in the Gulf Coast League, but the average pitcher there was three years older than Sano and swinging at everything is to be expected given his age and inexperience. Plus, it's just tough to find any fault in a 17-year-old hitting .307/.379/.491 while being pushed aggressively in his pro debut. Sano is years away from entering the Twins' plans even if everything goes well, but the first step was a good one and his upside is huge.

Sano was signed as a shortstop and saw about one-third of his action there last year, but no one seems to believe he has any chance of sticking at the position once his 6-foot-3 frame fills out and there's even some doubt about whether he'll be able to handle third base once he's an adult. Ultimately position and defensive value are a secondary concern, because Sano's bat is what makes him a special prospect, but it'd sure be nice to have a slugging infielder in 2015.

2. Aaron Hicks | Center Field | DOB: 10/89 | Bats: Switch | Draft: 2008-1

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2008     RK     204     .318     .409     .491      4     18     28     32
2009     A-     297     .251     .353     .382      4     22     40     55
2010     A-     518     .279     .401     .428      8     41     88    112

After a somewhat disappointing full-season debut as a 19-year-old at Beloit in 2009 the Twins had Aaron Hicks repeat low Single-A last season and the 2008 first-round pick responded by upping his OPS by 100 points. He's yet to show the power many projected coming out of high school, which combined with a high strikeout rate and .279 batting average makes for modest-looking production, but Hicks' plate discipline is incredible for such a young, toolsy player.

Hicks drew 88 walks and posted a .401 on-base percentage in 115 games. No other prospect in the Twins' system topped 60 walks or a .375 OBP and by comparison Delmon Young had a grand total of 85 non-intentional walks in 353 games as a minor leaguer. And it wasn't a fluke, as Hicks drew 68 walks in 112 games through his first two seasons.  For someone who'll play the entire 2011 season at age 21 that's a remarkable and crucial skill around which to build.

As for everything else, Hicks is largely still learning how to turn his immense physical tools into actual baseball skills, but he has 20-steal speed with the range to be a standout center fielder and an arm that had most teams targeting him as a pitcher. If the power arrives or he can cut down on the strikeouts--both of which can perhaps be accomplished if the switch-hitter ditches a few walks for more overall aggression--Hicks has a chance to be a special all-around player.

1. Kyle Gibson | Starter | DOB: 10/87 | Throws: Right | Draft: 2009-1

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2010     A+      7      7     1.87      43.1      33      2      40     12
         AA     16     16     3.68      93.0      91      5      77     22
         AAA     3      3     1.72      15.2      12      0       9      5

Kyle Gibson starred at the University of Missouri and was widely considered top-10 talent, but fell to the Twins with the 22nd overall pick in the 2009 draft when a late-season dip in velocity led to the discovery a stress fracture in his forearm. It proved to be a minor injury and Gibson signed for an above-slot bonus of $1.85 million literally moments before the deadline, delaying his pro debut until 2010.

He was aggressively assigned right to high Single-A, where a 1.87 ERA and 40-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 43 innings earned a speedy promotion to Double-A. Gibson posted a 3.68 ERA and 77/22 K/BB ratio in 93 innings there and moved up to his third level of the season in time to make three starts at Triple-A. He finished with a 3.04 ERA, .245 opponents' batting average, and 118/36 K/BB ratio in 142 innings overall as a 22-year-old in his first pro season.

Gibson's low-90s fastball isn't overpowering and his 7.5 strikeouts per nine innings are modest for a top prospect, but his control is excellent and he allowed just seven homers in 152 innings while inducing 56 percent ground balls. Unspectacular velocity and the lack of missed bats may keep Gibson from having true No. 1 starter upside, but he looks capable of developing into a strong No. 2 starter and could be MLB-ready by the All-Star break.

  • toby

    DK already put the lie to the idea that all the guys listed as power arms are in fact high-velocity power guys, but I’ll add Matt Cain to the list. Once upon a time, maybe, but in the year he was apparently the sort of power guy teams just have to have to win in the post seasson, his K rate last year was 7.13/9 and his average FB velocity was 91.6, so he was pretty much Scott Baker with more walks and fewer strikeouts. (Maybe Baker should’ve started over Pavano’s ‘finesse’, then?) His success in fact comes in large part through a seeming-to-maybe-exist skill to limit HR/OFFB and BABIP that’s been discussed to death in the last month on the big SABR sites.

    People seem to see a pitcher succeed in the post-season, then argue *from that success* (which often involves a bunch of strikeouts, because that’s often what leads to a successful start) that he is a member of a genus of pitchers who succeed in the post-season, the sort of guy who can rare back and miss bats at crunch time. But that’s circular. You can’t ignore a guy’s overall numbers and deny that his velocity is what it is or deny that he strikes out (only) thus and such hitters on average in favor of a tiny self-selected sample size to show that there’s some unique “type” that succeeds in the post-season that the Twins don’t have. The Twins pitching just hasn’t sucked the way Kurt is claiming. I mean, Buehrle is the OPPOSITE of what’s being argued and he was the man for the White Sox in 2005.

    I am the LAST guy to defend the Twins front office, I just happen to think that Wimmers and Gibson were damn good picks given what was available.

    BTW, Kurt IS correct that Lincecum led the league in K/9 for starters, but the point about top 10 finishes for WAR (i.e. actual true “aces”) holds: sometimes they’re there (more often than randomly, since aces tend to help you win ballgames all the time) but sometimes they’re not.

    CJ: As a Pirates fan they’ve actually doing almost NOTHING wrong in terms of their drafting and international signing since Neal Huntington took over a few years ago. It’s a pretty freaking exciting time, actually, for those who follow their whole organization. Maybe Kurt should get on board since much of their player development strategy is about huge upside power arms. You can afford gamble when you’ve got nothing to lose!

  • chris

    Jeff Bailey? Who is he? A BoSox guy? Playing for us yesterdaY???
    can someonte tell me more?

  • toby

    Chris, Bailey’s a AAAA player. He put up a .420 wOBA for Pawtucket a few seasons ago.

  • brian

    It is great that Phil and others are doing the research on aces. But you are looking at the wrong stats. The real issue is comparing the pitching stats between the teams that actually played in the those playoff series. Then you will see that the team with the superior pitchers have always won. That has always been the case. Defense and hitting have never overcome this, certainly not through three playoff series. That is the dilemma the Twins face. Regular season baseball.

  • Arnold4321

    Well Brian I wouldn’t go that far, last year’s Phillies didn’t win it all and the 90s Braves clubs won 1 world series while having 3 HOFers in the rotation. But I’d say there’s a minimum requirement for a staff in order to win the whole thing, and at least compared to recent WS winners (say in Gardy’s era), the Twins haven’t had that.

    The frustrating thing for me is that I think they’re ONE GUY away. Sure, it would need to be a #1 or a strong #2, which don’t grow on trees, but we’re so tantalizingly close yet without the front office’s committment (or perhaps even their acknowledgement of the issue) we aren’t ever going to get there.

  • Kurt

    Arnold – Correct, and I’m sure you’re even more encouraged by the rumors that our best pitcher that actually misses bats will soon be a Yankee.

  • Dan

    To all those saying an ace is what’s missing, and is the reason we haven’t had any postseason success, I agree. If only we had had an ace-type guy like Francisco Liriano last year…or maybe someone like Johan Santana in 2006 or 2004…

    It seems to me the only playoff series the Twins have actually won since 1991, we threw out 4 “finesse” pitchers; Radke won twice, Eric Milton won once, Rick Reed and Joe Mays both lost. Pray tell me, oh proponents of 97mph fastballs and aces, which of those 4 pitchers was a power pitcher?

  • brian

    Arnold, thanks for the correction.

  • jimbo92107

    About Hicks, keep in mind also that the Twins organization is well known for keeping guys down in the minors longer than anybody else.

    Remember that first rounder they kept in the minors for over five years, and whom most people had given up on? Well, Denard Span finally made it, and now he’s doing rather well. However, he really did need to spend all that time in the minors before he was a finished ballplayer. Now, he’s got the skills to make an all-star team.

    It takes years for even a highly talented guy to learn how to look good out there on a consistent basis. Ask Carlos Gomez…

  • I think Sano will be a great player. I just hope the Twins don’t hold him in the minors too long. They have a tendency to be overly cautious with young players and many prospects can spend extra time in the minors. I think this can actually hurt their development. Most of the great players came up early and succeeded, ex Kirby, Mauer.