Sunday, November 30, 2008

Prospects for 2009

Earlier this week we got news of two big events on the prospect front. The Arizona Fall League wrapped up with the Phoenix Desert Dogs (the team the Twins' farmhands play for) winning their 5th straight championship, and Baseball America released its list of the top 10 Twins prospects. Last year, those same events centered around Nick Blackburn, who won the championship game of the AFL and received the #1 prospect ranking from BA. He went on to contribute greatly to the Twins' unexpected success in 2008. Will any of this year's crop have something to offer in 2009?

Baseball America's Top 10 Twins Prospects

#1 - Aaron Hicks - The 14th overall pick in this year's draft, Hicks had a terrific debut in rookie ball, hitting .318/.409/.491 with an excellent 28/32 BB/K ratio and 12/14 SB. Baseball America gave him top marks among Twins' prospects for plate discipline, athleticism, outfield defense and outfield arm. Certainly an exciting player to watch, but he's only just turned 19, so I think even a meteoric rise through the organization wouldn't see him in a Twins uniform until 2011.

#2 - Ben Revere - The Twins' first-round choice in 2007, Revere also had a stupendous 2008. He flirted with .400 for much of the season in Beloit before settling for .379/.433/.497 with a 27/31 BB/K ratio and 44/57 SB. As well as he's playing, the Twins don't seem to be in any hurry with him, so, like Hicks, I wouldn't expect to see him in MN for at least 3 more years.

#3 - Wilson Ramos - Joe Mauer's heir-apparent (unless they sign him to an extension right away), Ramos has been remarkably consistent through his first 3 professional seasons. In the Gulf Coast League, he hit .286/.339/.435, in Beloit he hit .291/.345/.438, and in Fort Myers he hit .288/.344/.434. He's got good pop and is an excellent defender. But, again, the Twins have been content to give him a full season at each level so far, meaning we can expect to see him in 2011.

#4 - Jose Mijares - An offseason auto accident broke Mijares' elbow, setting him back in 2008. He progressed through 4 levels as he regained his groove, including an impressive September call-up in which he allowed just 1 ER on 3 H in 10.1 IP. Overall for 2008 he had a 1.91 ERA and 1.00 WHIP in 47 IP, with a 8.81 K/9. With Pat Neshek out and Dennys Reyes likely cut loose, Mijares would have to have a ghastly spring training to keep from making the team. If he's healthy, he should give the Twins 60-70 IP in 2009, and could be one of the keys to their season.

#5 - Danny Valencia - This is a pretty impressive place for a 19th-round pick to find himself. Valencia has earned his way up the prospect list by hitting .305/.361/.485 over 4 levels since he was drafted 2.5 years ago. His numbers took a hit when he was promoted to AA this summer - he hit .289/.334/.485 in 69 games in New Britain. He kept his slugging up with 10 HR, but his BB/K rate got way out of wack - before AA, it had been about 1/2, but it was about 1/4 in those 69 games. Not to worry. Valencia put up a similar .291/.332/.422 line with a 1/3 BB/K ratio in his first 61 games in Fort Myers, then blew up to .336/.402/.518 with about a 2/5 BB/K rate in his first 60 games there this year. That alone suggests to me that he will be spending at least the first 2 months of 2009 in New Britain.

#6 - Anthony Swarzak - He's landed somewhere in the #5-#7 range on this list for 5 straight years. Despite having his worst career ERA, WHIP, K/9 and HR/9 through 20 starts at New Britain, he was promoted to Rochester, where he allowed just 9 ER on 41 H over 45 IP in 7 starts (6.1 IP/start). His K/9 dropped even further, however, so he's got an adjustment to make. He made 40 starts at A+ and 34 at AA before advancing, so I'd be surprised if he turns up in a Twins uniform before September of next year.

#7 - Shooter Hunt - The 31st overall pick in this summer's draft (thanks to the departure of Torii Hunter - Hunt/Hunter!), Hunt demolished the competition in Rookie ball. In 19 IP, he allowed just 1 ER on 4 H and 6 BB with 34 K. After his promotion to Beloit he continued to put up nice numbers in most areas, averaging less than a hit and more than a strikeout per inning. But he screwed himself by walking 27 in 31.1 IP, resulting in an ugly 5.46 ERA. Control, you must learn control! He's at least 3 years off.

#8 - Kevin Mulvey - Good to see someone from the Santana trade on this list! Mulvey did OK at Rochester, but you'd like to see such a highly touted prospect put up better numbers, particularly considering the International League's tendency to favor pitchers. He had a slight increase in his walk rate over his 2007 at AA, but an alarming 4-fold increase in HR allowed in 2008. He's also got just 321 professional IP on his resume. Still, I suspect he'll get the first call if someone from the Twins' stretch-drive rotation gets hurt or falters next year.

#9 - Carlos Gutierrez - The Twins' 2nd first-round pick this summer (27th overall), Gutierrez already rates the organization's best fastball. At 25, he was quite old to be drafted, so the Twins dropped him straight into the Fort Myers bullpen. He pitched well in 16 appearances, allowing 6 ER on 23 H and 7 BB with 19 K in 25.2 IP. Now he's 26, so I'd bet that the Twins will continue to push him through the system. But even so, I doubt he'll be anything more than a September call-up in 2009.

#10 - Angel Morales - Like Adam Dunn with a better batting average, Morales had a monster year at Elizabethton, hitting .301/.413/.623 with 15 HR in just 54 games. But ugh, the strikeouts - 72 in just 183 ABs! That makes Carlos Gomez look like Paul Molitor. Morales just turned 19 last week, so, unlike Gutierrez, I predict that the Twins will take their sweet time with him and hope that he's ready to take on MLB pitching by 2012 or so.

Some promising players, but only Mijares is likely to have a significant impact in 2009.

Arizona Fall League

The AFL, unlike most of the Twins' minor leagues, greatly favors the hitters. Over its 38 game season, the average hitting line was .293/.369/.473, and the average pitcher put up a 5.79 ERA and 1.61 WHIP. Bear that context in mind as we look at the performance of these prospects.

Rob Delaney - Even for a guy in some pitcher-friendly environments, Delaney's performance over the past 2 seasons has been stupendous. He began 2008 in Fort Myers, where he had a 1.42 ERA and 0.88 WHIP in 31.2 IP, with a sensational 34/4 K/BB ratio. At midsummer he was promoted to New Britain and was even better, sporting a 1.05 ERA and 0.79 WHIP in 34.1 IP with a 38/7 K/BB rate. His AFL numbers weren't anywhere close to that (including the championship game 13 IP, 16 H, 6 BB, 11 K, 4.85 ERA, 1.69 WHIP), but were still a little better than league average. Also, Delaney improved as the season went on, allowing just 1 ER on 7 H and 1 BB with 7 K in 7.1 IP over his final 6 appearances, suggesting that he may have made a quick adjustment to the higher level of competition. Between that and his otherworldly performance at New Britain, I'd be surprised if Delaney doesn't start the season in Rochester next spring. He could be someone the Twins look to if the bullpen is struggling midseason.

Tim Lahey - Control has been Lahey's problem throughout his professional career, and this fall was no exception. Though he managed to avoid giving up many runs (3.97 ERA thanks in part to allowing 0 HR in 11.1 IP - a rarity in the AFL), he had a lousy 8/6 K/BB rate. While his AFL performance is encouraging enough to earn him a good look in spring training, there's nothing in his track record to suggest that he'll be able to beat out Boof Bonser or Philip Humber for a middle relief spot with the Twins in 2009 - most likely he'll repeat at Rochester.

Jeff Manship - The Twins should be pleased with Manship's progress since he was drafted in the 14th round in 2006. After a solid half-season in Fort Myers (13 GS, 78.2 IP, 2.86 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 63/20 K/BB and 0 HR allowed!), Manship was promoted to New Britain. There, in almost the same number of innings (76.2) he essentially maintained his K/BB ratio (62/24), but allowed 22 more H - including 8 HR. His AFL numbers indicate improvement over his AA performance: a better than average 5.01 ERA, 1 HR allowed in 32.1 IP and an excellent 29/8 K/BB ratio. Still, I'm guessing he'll begin 2009 back in New Britain, and won't have an impact with the Twins until 2010 at the earliest.

Anthony Slama - It's not clear why Delaney was promoted this summer while Slama remained in Fort Myers, when Slama's numbers were arguably even more fantastic: 71 IP, 43 H, 110/24 K/BB, 1.01 ERA, 0.94 WHIP and 0 HR allowed(!). Considering he had never faced anything above A+ hitters, it's perhaps not surprising that his first 12 appearances against AA and AAA studs didn't go so well. His AFL line of 10 IP, 14 H, 9 ER, 7 BB and 10 K (though still 0 HR) shows that there's an adjustment he needs to make. He'll be 25 in January, so it wouldn't be a bad idea to get him moving through the system. He'll begin 2009 no lower than AA, and if he has another season like 2008, he'll likely get a call-up to the Twins in September.

Dustin Martin - Of the 6 players the Twins collected from the Mets' farm system in the Luis Castillo and Johan Santana trades, Martin had the strongest 2008. His .290/.355/.447 was well above average for the Eastern League - his only glaring negative was a high strikeout rate (125 in 510 AB). That trend continued in the AFL, where he hit .314/.397/.449, but struck out 37 times in 118 AB. He should wind up at Rochester next year, where he'll need to work on making contact a little more consistently. If he can do that, he might move ahead of Gomez on the depth chart before too long, and certainly will be considered should an OF go down during the season.

Steve Tolleson - He was overshadowed by the spectacular numbers Luke Hughes put up, but Tolleson also had a terrific offensive season for the Rock Cats. He hit .300/.382/.466 with a solid 44/74 BB/K ratio. He was even better in the AFL, batting .383/.449/.543 with a 11/16 BB/K rate. He will certainly join Hughes in the Redwings' IF to start 2009, and could be called up should the Twins need IF depth as the season moves along.

Danny Valencia - One of the few hitters who failed to take advantage of the happy offensive conditions in the AFL, Valencia hit just .209/.254/.270 with a 7/25 BB/K rate. Since that line is reminiscent of Nick Punto's 2007, needless to say, Valencia's AFL experience did nothing to accelerate his progress through the Twins' system. I'd guess he's still at least 2 years away from a shot with the Twins.

So, despite some exciting prospect news earlier in the week, the only help the Twins are likely to get from those guys next year is in the bullpen or as injury fill-ins. I'll look at some other prospects who might be a bit closer to having an impact in the coming days.

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