The Next Batch
It seems the Twins are finally coming to their senses. After too long of letting Kyle Lohse provide bad results to their rotation, Minnesota decided to replace his rotation spot with Francisco Liriano. The future ace had dominated in the bullpen, but like Johan Santana so many years before, was waiting to wreak havoc as a starter.
The Twins slow decision to move to their youth is odd considering an organization that developed 21st century success through their 1990s developmental program. Suddenly an organization that had so aggressively used the likes of Torii Hunter and company was keeping Liriano in the rotation and Jason Barlett in AAA. And while Bartlett remains in Rochester, Liriano seems to be the first domino in the next Twins youth movement.
While confidence in their youth seems to have eroded in the last few years, the Twins ability to develop prospects has continued. Minnesota is one of the best drafting teams in the business, showing very little attention to whether a player attended college or not, whether he's a hitter or pitcher. The Twins take the best player on their draft board, and more often than not, the player succeeds.
For years, the top of Twin prospect lists was filled with fantastic talents, from Liriano to Joe Mauer. Suddenly, this season the minor leagues started with no dominant talent, but significant depth. Now past the quarter mark of the season, it seems apt time to look at how I would assess the current Twins farm system.
1. Matt Garza - RHP
With Francisco Liriano moving to the Major Leagues and exhausting his prospect status, the elite top Twins prospect spot was up for grabs at the beginning of the 2006 season. Not even two months into the season, another pitcher, 2005 first round pick Matt Garza, has taken hold. Garza, a product of Fresno State, entered the Twins system a unique blend of polish and projectablity.
Generally, former collegiate Friday Night pitchers are expected to cruise to AA, facing as few roadbumps as possible on their way. Garza excelled in this regard, making it through the Florida State League without a scratch. In 44.1 innings at Fort Myers, Garza allowed just 27 hits and 11 walks while striking out 53. His ERA was 1.42 upon promotion to the Eastern League.
Last night, Garza proved he belonged on top of the list. While it's hard to learn anything from a single start, Garza proved he belonged in AA in his debut: 7.2 IP, 1 H, 2 BB, 0 ER, 13 K. After allowing two of the first five batters he faced to reach base, Garza retired the next 19 hitters before a walk ended his afternoon. With problems in the Twins rotation currently being patched by Boof Bonser, some are hoping Garza makes a meteoric rise to the Majors. However, the Twins would be smartest -- and I don't doubt that they will -- to let Garza take his bumps and bruises in AA.
While Garza isn't on the same plane as Twins prospects of lore, he has a #2/3 ceiling, and should be in the Majors to stay by 2007.
2. Jason Kubel - OF/DH
Many hoped that Kubel's polished bat would start the season in the Minnesota lineup, providing aid to the Twins disastrous offensive problems. However, a lackluster spring coupled with a year away from baseball led to Jason's demotion. Since rejoining the Redwings, Kubel has been solid, if not the International League MVP candidate that many had hoped/predicted.
I am giving Kubel the benefit of the doubt by retaining his high prospect status, but he's a slump away from slipping a bit down the team rankings. I like that Jason is still making contact at a solid rate, and while not proving to be a HR hitter, twelve extra base hits in 106 at-bats is good. However, Kubel's sudden desertion of the base on balls is a concern, only 8 walks so far.
Kubel is a solid prospect at this point, but I don't think he is the middle of the order hitter that many had hoped. Look for Jason to continue hitting well in AAA, and upon promotion, succeeding in the Majors. But please, no more Edgar Martinez comparisons. He ain't that good.
3. Matt Moses - 3B
Few things must excite Twins fans more than the notion of a third base prospect, currently forced to sit through Tony Batista manning the position. And while many likely believe that Moses can't get to the Majors fast enough, the Twins patience with their former top pick should pay off. After back problems in 2004, Moses exploded onto the prospect scene last year, and thus far, has proven his breakout to not be a farce.
Problem is, Moses has also yet to turn on the gas this season. In each offensive category, an improvement could be made. Twenty-nine strikeouts in 131 ABs isn't great. Neither is 10 extra base hits during that time, even if five are home runs. Finally, a third baseman should be walking more than 10 times in 145 plate appearances.
With no real competition to speak of, it's safe to say that Moses is the Twins future at the hot corner. But unless Garza accelerates soon, it will be hard to project anything beyond the average 3B for his future.
4. Glen Perkins - LHP
Confusing early results so far. Perkins, a former first round choice from nearby University of Minnesota, Perkins pitched great last year through high-A before hitting a wall at AA. But good-stuff southpaws are a rare breed, and the Twins promised to use patience with Perkins. So far, Perkins second trial of the Eastern League has gone pretty well.
But, for some reason, things have not gone extraordinarily. Perkins is on a prospect-laden staff in AA, joined by the likes of Errol Simonitsch (2.51 ERA), Adam Harben (2.12) and Justin Jones (3.25). Perkins' 3.58 ERA is the worst of the group, odd because the southpaw also has the group's best peripheral numbers. I am a big fan of Perkins blend of control and stuff, and certainly his handedness helps things. But before becoming an elite prospect, Perkins has to get his ERA down, a feat possibly made easier by reduced HR/9 numbers.
5. Kevin Slowey - RHP
Another early season example of the college pitcher dominating A-ball competition, Kevin Slowey was Garza's running mate in Fort Myers. For some reason, when the Twins decided to move Garza to the Eastern League, Slowey stayed. Apparently, the right-hander's 63/2 strikeout-to-walk ratio was not good enough for the Twins.
Drafting Slowey from Winthrop, the Twins expected to get a polished pitcher. Never one to throw a hard fastball, Slowey has always depended on fantastic control and a better change up. By throwing the ball where he wants and changing speeds, Slowey has developed a formula for success. But the Twins have seen dominating performances turn to rust in the road between Fort Myers and New Britain before (see: Perkins), so approaching Slowey carefully is probably for the best.
At this point in the season, Slowey's numbers are simply out of this world. However, few types of pitchers demand AA results before proper evaluation like Slowey's kind, lacking any projectablity to speak of.
6. Anthony Swarzak - RHP
After watching a player in person, at his worst, the memory is difficult to forget. Last year, following his fantastic May, I saw the beginning of a June Swoon for Anthony Swarzak. Ever since, I stayed farther away from his bandwagon than most. This season, that mentality seems to be paying dividends. Swarzak has not been bad this season, striking out 40 in 39 innings. But, accusations of being both hittable (44 hits) and wild (20 walks) is not a good omen. I was concerned last year that Swarzak's high-80s fastball was not enough, and I will stick to that belief. Swarzak will always get noticed thanks to a great hook, but without a good, controlled fastball, Swarzak's curve will go to waste.
7. Alex Romero - OF
One of the missed breakout predictions I had from 2005, Romero is having an interesting season so far. First assigned to AAA, the Twins rushed to a demotion when Romero was hitting just .192 through eight games. The decision seemed a bit forced - Alex had a good BB/K ratio and seemed on the verge of turning things around - but promoting confidence at an easier level is defensible. Since being moved back to the Eastern League, Romero has done very well, hitting .277/.362/.458. For about three years now, Romero has continued to be good at everything, but great at nothing, the sign of a future fourth outfielder. With good speed, better patience, a fantastic ability to make contact and a left-handed bat, Romero is as good a bet as any to have a long Major League bench career. But until his defense improves or his power blossoms, a starting spot seems like a stretch for Romero.
8. Eduardo Morlan - RHP
Alright, now we're talking. Morlan, who turned 20 years old during Spring Training, is an exciting prospect. A former Cuban, the Twins grabbed Morlan in the third round of the 2004 draft, obsessed with the stuff he would bring to the system: mid-90s fastball, a very good breaking pitch, and a solid change. Morlan lacked control and profiled as a reliever, but given his stuff, worse things could be said. This season, the report is still the same. In the Midwest League, Morlan has surrendered just 13 hits in 25.1 innings, actually allowing more walks: 15. He strikes batters out at a great rate (34), and keeps the ball in the park. Right now, the Twins have jerked Morlan between the rotation and the bullpen, but given his success, expect an extended starter trial to undergo soon. Morlan's stuff is second just to Garza's on this list, as is his ceiling, but few players could flame out as easily.
9. Paul Kelly - SS
Now that Reid Brignac's breakout if becoming official, I'm really starting to believe that teenage Midwest League middle infielders should have reduced expectations. To just use recent examples, the aggregate Midwest League OPS of Adam Jones, Brignac and Brandon Wood -- all of whom played in the MWL at 19 as shortstops -- was .727. Kelly's, thus far, is sitting at .724. I am beginning to become high on Kelly, who has shown gap power (10 2Bs in 149 ABs) that could eventually provide home runs, patience (17 BBs) and a good enough ability to make contact. Kelly is likely going to have a modest season, mostly generating excitement through doubles and good defense. But on the horizon seems to be a breakout, unfortunately Paul's next stop is not the California League.
10. Denard Span - OF
If nothing else, I can respect a prospect with a back-up plan. While, without a doubt, Span would ideally like to become the next Twin leadoff hitter, there is another route he can take: fifth outfielder. Span, a fantastic defensive outfielder, also has the great contact skills associated with good top-of-the-order players. Unfortunately, Span doesn't walk a ton, and offers even less power. After homering in his first game, Span has just three extra-base hits since, all doubles, and looks to be a future bench player if things don't change soon. However, a bench career would be helped if Span became a better baserunner; he has been successful on just five of eight attempts so far, bringing his success ratio under 66%. A frustrating talent, to be sure.
And those that deserve mention outside the top ten, in no particular order...
The Twins system is loaded, so a breakdown of the top ten cannot even do it justice. Just outside the top ten were a pair of AA pitchers, Adam Harben and Justin Jones, both of which have control problems, both of which probably will need moves to the bullpen to make any real success happen ... Trevor Plouffe began the season hailed by many as a breakout candidate, but his hitting problems have continued. In addition to a complete lack of power at the plate, I think Plouffe is the rare example of a player too selective at the plate: 24 walks in about 150 plate appearances! ... In fact, Plouffe's double play partner, Alexi Casilla, might be the better prospect. Acquired in a trade for J.C. Romero, Casilla has good contact ability (21 K in 157 AB) and great speed up the middle. Likely a future bench player ... Kyle Waldrop has not pitched good enough in his second Midwest League go-around so far, still proving to be too hittable. I don't think the fastball will ever be good enough for sustained success ... Pat Neshek is the most interesting story in the farm system, a former 6th round pick (from Butler University) that entered the year with a career 2.22 minor league ERA. This season, in AAA, Neshek has struck out 49 batters in 27.2 innings. Other than a high HR rate, all signs seem to be go for Neshek's big league promotion ... Henry Sanchez was the rare example of a first round high school first baseman in 2005, but his early results have been very damning. After an early season power surge, Sanchez has allowed his OPS to drop to .660 while striking out in nearly 40% of his at-bats ... I'll close things out by mentioning two completely different pitchers: J.D. Durbin and Brian Duensing. Durbin, a prospect in the system for ages, has looked good in AAA so far except for a very high walk ratio. His move to relief needs to be made soon. Duensing is just in low-A, but he's far more polished than Durbin. Too early to get any good readings from Duensing's numbers, but he could enter legit prospect status if he replaced Kevin Slowey soon in the Fort Myers rotation.