2014 Preview: Minnesota Twins

Who will make a more immediate impact for the Twins: Byron Buxton or Miguel Sano?

The Twins may not have very much talent on the big league roster, but their minor league is a whole different story; that story begins with Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton. Both are super talented prospects who have specific skill sets that will serve the Twins well for the future. Buxton is exactly what the Twins would look for in a leadoff hitter, whereas Sano is a middle of the order slugger. There have been few demerits on either’s performance in the minor leagues, but the Twins need some help at the big league level and a lot of their future is tied in Buxton and Sano developing into big league All-Stars.

Miguel Sano may have the best pure power in the minor leagues and is still growing into his large frame. Unfortunately for Sano, his elbow issues have not gone away and he has recently undergone Tommy John surgery, rendering the 2014 season relatively useless. Even when he does play, his power should be sapped a bit and he will not be as solid in the field; all of that being said, Sano is worth the wait. Since moving into professional baseball in 2010, the 20 year old Sano has hit home runs at a prolific pace. He has hit 83 home runs in the last three seasons in the minor leagues; that includes one season where in was in short season rookie ball and were his 18 to 20 year old seasons.

Even more than setting a prolific pace at the plate with home runs, Sano has boosted his walk rate north of 10% and grades out as an above average baserunner. Although there is an abundance of good traits that Sano displays, his poor fielding and high strikeout rate needs to be dealt with as he moves up in the system and on to Minnesota. His strikeout rate has consistently been in the 25% range, with no positive indicators as he has progressed upward through the system. His defense has gotten a bit better as the Twins have decided that his body has grown into third base — they had him between shortstop and third at the beginning of his career — and he did cut his errors nearly in half to 23 this past season.

When all is said about Sano, his power is what will make the difference. If Sano is the 40 home run, 100+ walk hitter that he appears to be, the Twins will be fine if he strikes out 150-175 times per year and will move him to designated hitter if his fielding does not progress. Given that the team does not have much of a chance for the playoffs in a very strong 2014 AL Central, it would be best if they do not rush Sano through his rehabilitation. In fact, this may be a blessing in disguise for the Twins, as Sano will have to be relegated to designated hitter most of the year and the team will be able to see how he reacts to just hitting; some players lose some of their skill at the plate if they do not play the field and the Twins cannot risk that with Sano.

Byron Buxton is the consensus number one rated prospect in minor league baseball and the numbers barely even tell the story on the potential that the young outfielder possesses. There are very few things that are wrong with the approach that Buxton takes to the game and he is truly a five tool player. Over his two stops in A-ball last year, Buxton hit .334 with 12 home runs, 18 triples, and 55 steals while playing an excellent center field. Those numbers are pretty impressive, especially considering that Buxton was only 19 last year, but he does have a couple things to fix before he is a big league star. Buxton may have stolen 55 bases last year, but he was only successful on 74% of his steal attempts. If he continues to steal 50+ bases, the Twins may be ok with a subpar success rate on the base paths but it would be wise for Buxton to create better habits rather than rely purely on his excellent speed.

The biggest issue with Buxton is that his strikeout rate is very high for a leadoff hitter. Buxton has a strikeout rate of about 19% through rookie ball and A-ball; this rate should only get worse as he faces tougher competition. There have been a lot of comparisons to Eric Davis for Buxton; the Twins would be very excited to have a 30/30 type hitter with elite defense, even if his strikeout rates are in the 20% rate. Buxton should get his average closer to .280 or .290 than the .270 that Davis accomplished during his career because his batting average on balls in play is a bit better than Davis’ was; it is to be seen as Buxton’s power develops if he is able to keep the elite BABIP he has displayed, though speedy players are able to find ways to get hits.

Buxton may be a bit better than Sano, but he is a year behind Sano in the system and really needs a full season of upper tier minor league baseball before he takes his spot on top of the Twins lineup. Either way, the Twins have two future MVP candidates in their minor league system and need to make sure that they are utilized the correct way. This is the most vital step in the Twins regaining respectability.

When will the Twins make a trade for the future?

The Twins have very little on their major league roster that is movable, but there are still a couple positions that need filling for the future and they may need to make a trade or two to fill in those gaps. There are very few attractive pieces on the 2014 Twins roster and the Twins need to realize where they are situated as a team and build for the future. They began this last year when they traded away Denard Span and Ben Revere and received Trevor May and Alex Meyer; two starting pitchers that should be strong for the Twins future and may be in the rotation by this summer. The situation is a bit bleak because two of their best hitters, Josh Willingham and Joe Mauer, have expressed that they would like to end their respective careers in Minnesota; in fact, the window for trading Willingham may have expired considering his weak 2013 season. This leaves a couple different options: trading off one of their free agent acquisitions from this past offseason (Ricky Nolasco or Phil Hughes) or trading their All-Star closer Glen Perkins. Considering that the Twins spent a lot of money on Nolasco and see some promise in Hughes pitching in a more spacious ballpark, which leaves the best offer available for Perkins.

Glen Perkins came up in the Twins organization as a starter and the Minnesota native was very ineffective so the Twins moved him to the back end of the bullpen where he has been a very solid reliever. The 31 year old Perkins saved 36 games last year with a sub-1 WHIP and an 11.1 K/9. He has transitioned into being a true two pitch reliever with a solid slider and 95 mph fastball combo that have rated as very good pitches — even with the slider falling off a bit in the past couple years. All of these things are great, but a closer that is as solid as Perkins is really just a luxury for a team that will not compete in 2014 or possibly even 2015. His salary is very attractive as he is owed only $12 million over the next 3 years and he has only gotten better as he has become more accustomed to being a reliever.

The bigger question than who the Twins should trade is what should the Twins trade for; there is a lot of depth in the minor leagues, yet there are a couple gaps. The infield should be fine with Joe Mauer soon to be joined by Sano, Eddie Rosario, and a bit later by Jorge Polanco; the rotation should be fine with a solid group of Meyer, May, Kyle Gibson, and Sean Gilmartin. The real question when looking at what the Twins have for the future is in the third outfield spot and if that will be occupied by Aaron Hicks. Hicks was a top prospect for the Twins and may still have a great future in the majors, but he has not translated any skills to the big league level, as he hit .192 in 281 at-bat last year.

He did show a decent power, speed combination with 8 home runs and 9 steals, but he was not very good in center field and, quite frankly, projects to have more speed than someone that steals only 9 bases. Buxton will take over center field when he makes it up to the majors, so Hicks will play a corner outfield position and his speed could profile very well for those positions in the future as he does have good range and a very strong arm; it would be smart for the Twins to play him on the corners more during the 2014 season. The trade of Perkins would not come until the trade deadline and the Twins would be wise to see exactly what they have in Hicks and then make a decision on their future in the outfield.

How will Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes fare in Minnesota?

The Twins had a truly woeful performance out of their starters during the 2013 and looked to remedy this issue coming into the 2014 season, spending $85 million this offseason on Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes. Each of these pitchers has their flaws, but they should be good additions to the Twins rotation and are young enough to factor into the development of a winning Twins team.

Ricky Nolasco is a questionable signing in that some of the results that he has had contradict themselves and his adjustments may be questionable. The most glaring change for Nolasco is that he has changed his approach to be more of a ground ball pitcher and has used his off-speed pitches a bit more, also employing more of a split-finger fastball than a traditional changeup; these changes have come with scattered results, as Nolasco had a solid 2013 after subpar 2011 and 2012 season. In each of 2011 and 2012, Nolasco saw a 10 point jump in WHIP, nearly lost 2 strikeouts per 9, and was actually not pitching much deeper into games. He was able to maintain his stellar walk rate and allowed fewer home runs, but did lead the league in hits allowed in 2011 and allowed more than 200 in 2012 as well.

Last year, Nolasco turned it around a bit as he worked more with his slider and had some success, especially with the Dodgers as he cut his walks a bit more, struck out more batters and had a lower BABIP than the two previous years. If he is able to build on the successes of 2013 and working with more curveballs and sliders as he had in 2013, he may be a bit better than a league average pitcher. Considering that Nolasco has exhibited that he is a 200 inning type pitcher, he would be a solid addition for the Twins.

Phil Hughes has always seemed on verge of being a solid pitcher just to have bad luck do him in. In watching Hughes develop, he has seemed to over pitch for situations and, although his home run rate is not awful, it seems that every time Hughes allowed a home run it was either a home run that knocked the Yankees out of the game or ruins his confidence; there are legitimate questions about his mental makeup. Hughes allowed five home runs that had a WPA of 20% and 20 of his 24 home runs either gave the other team the lead, tied the game, or made it a one run lead for the Yankees.

As a fly ball pitcher that has had issues with home runs, it is good for Hughes that he has moved on to Minnesota; Yankee Stadium has been the stadium 5th most prone to home runs since it was opened in 2009 and Target Field has been 23rd since opening in 2010. That alone could swing Hughes’ ERA from high 4’s to the mid to low 4’s. Hughes has also decided to work more on his curveball rather than his slider, which could be a good move as Hughes tended to leave his curveball over the plate and it was hit very hard. As for his pitches, the key for Hughes is to regain the command on his fastball, as Hughes had a commanding fastball earlier in his career and has had some issues over the past two years with the pitch. The upside for Hughes is still there; he is only 27 and the change of scenery may be all that he needs to right the ship, but some of the issues highlighted above need to be addressed before Hughes becomes a reliable starter.

What is the plan for development for the top level Twins’ minor league pitchers?

As this article has drawn attention to many times, the Twins have a truly talented farm system and the future should be much brighter for the Twins. Hitters like Sano, Buxton, Eddie Rosario, and Josmil Pinto are going to be great for the Twins as they build, but the pitching needs to be there as well for the team to compete. There are a couple young minor league talents for the Twins like Jose Berrios and first round pick Kohl Stewart but they are a bit too far to really project; the Twins would hope that they are more of factors that make the Twins a playoff team rather than building blocks to getting to be a winning team. There are four pitchers in the minors that should be the building blocks for the Twins and should be very helpful as the team regains respectability. Kyle Gibson has already been in the major leagues and may break camp with the team in 2014, so this question will not look at him, but the trajectory of Alex Meyer, Trevor May, and Sean Gilmartin are things that Twins fans should monitor closely.

Alex Meyer was a 1st round pick in the 2011 draft out of the University of Kentucky and the key part of the trade that sent Denard Span to Washington. After coming to the Twins organization, Meyer was sent to Double-A New Britain and was solid there with a mid-3 ERA and struck out more than a batter an inning. He did miss two months with a shoulder injury, but came back even stronger after the injury, pitching well in New Britain and in the Arizona Fall League. As with most power pitchers, the issue for Meyer is his walks; a good sign for him is that he had his lowest walk rate in his 26 innings of Arizona Fall League and the Twins would hope that this carries over to his 2014 season. Another good sign for Meyer is that even with a high walk rate, his K: BB rate has been over 3 thus far in his career, showing that his aggressive pitching has worked out for him. He should start the year in Rochester with the Triple-A team, but, as with the other two pitchers on this list, a good start in upstate New York should lead to a promotion to the major leagues. He is the most talented pitcher on this list and the 6’9 Meyer is seen as the ace of the future for the Twins.

Continuing on the theme of power pitchers, Trevor May is also in a position to be a threat for the Twins in the future. It has been said before that May is better suited for the bullpen after two weaker seasons in Double-A and that may not be a horrible idea. During his time in the Florida State League with the Clearwater Threshers in 2011, May was dynamic with over 200 strikeouts and was truly unhittable at times. Since then, May’s stock has fallen off a bit as his control issues have had his WHIP stabilize at around 1.4 and his strikeout rate has diminished a bit too. He has a very good fastball and slider and should play those up a bit more and it might not be a bad idea for the Twins to give him one more chance at starting in Triple-A before they move him to the bullpen. As a seasoned 24 year old pitcher with two major league ready pitches, May could be a huge factor in the Twins bullpen during the 2014 season and beyond.

Sean Gilmartin was acquired by the Twins in a trade where they moved a player that they really did not need, Ryan Doumit, to get better for the future. Gilmartin is not a very flashy player, but rather is a low ceiling, high floor type of pitcher that every team needs. A first round pick out of Florida State, Gilmartin has been pushed quickly through the minors leagues and struggled a lot in Triple-A this past year; this should not be a huge issue as the Braves aggressively moved Gilmartin through the system since his pitches were more seasoned than his teammates. Possibly the Braves were a bit too aggressive with Gilmartin considering that he has walked a lot of batters in relation to a low strikeout total and has allowed more than 10 hits per 9 innings.

Since the Twins are in a position to be patient, it would not even shock me to see him start the season in New Britain, gain some momentum going into 2014, and then move up to Triple-A. He is a good pitcher and there are reasons to believe that he will turn it around. The number one reason is that his FIP was a run lower than his ERA last year; each were not very good at all, but at least that shows that there is more skill than the statistics show. He is basically a finished product, coming up through a major college program and more or less handling four pitches; he just needs to be able to put it all together with some decent results and little tinkering in his approach. He will make it up to Minnesota soon and should be a stalwart in the middle of the Twins rotation.

The Twins have to rebuild and they are doing it the right way by building from within. These three pitchers will aid the rebuilding efforts for the Twins and may make them relevant in the near future.

Why are the Twins going to win 74 games?

The Twins made some strides to be respectable this year by adding Phil Hughes and Ricky Nolasco, but the talent is not there yet and the team just does not have the pieces to compete. Fortunately for the Twins, the talent is coming very soon. The Twins have a top minor league system in baseball and there are a lot of nice pieces that will fill in the empty spaces for the Twins. As this article has discussed, there is top level pitching talent that is very close to Minnesota and then there are the mega prospects in Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton. Prospects can always rise and fall, but the Twins have to even cautiously see Buxton and Sano as perennial All-Stars. This year should be tough for the Twins again, but the future is bright.

5 You Know:

1. Josh Willingham

2. Joe Mauer

3. Ricky Nolasco

4. Phil Hughes

5. Kevin Correia

 

5 You Will Know:

1. Josmil Pinto

2. Trevor May

3. Oswaldo Arcia

4. Sean Gilmartin

5. Alex Meyer

 

5 You Should Remember:

1. Miguel Sano

2. Byron Buxton

3. Eddie Rosario

4. Jose Berrios

5. Kohl Stewart




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One Response to “2014 Preview: Minnesota Twins”

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  1. Luke in MN says:

    Thanks, enjoyed article. Having to wait another year for Sano is pretty rough, but there’s a lot to watch develop both at the majors and minors this year.

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