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The Next Minnesota Twins - 2018

The first time I remember watching minor league baseball was when I was 11 years old on vacation to visit family living in Appleton, Wisconsin. At the time, the city was home to a Midwest League affiliate of the Seattle Mariners, the Appleton Foxes. That season, they had a player who went on to become one of the greatest and most hated baseball players the game has ever seen—a wiry shortstop by the name of Alex Rodriguez who would make his major league debut at just 18 years old later that same year.
Image courtesy of Seth Stohs, Twins Daily
My experiences at those small stadiums, and later seeing those same guys play in the major leagues, sparked an immense interest for me in the prospects of my favorite game. When I got older, it was watching a kid younger than me being interviewed on ESPN after being drafted by the Minnesota Twins that sunk that hook in further and got me started blogging on the topic. Trevor Plouffe was his name, and since then I have always wished I had the level of skill required to get to where he was going. Instead, I settled for being a mediocre town ball player (but that was a lot of fun, too).

As a big fan of the minors, top prospects lists have always been must-read material for me during the major league offseason. There are incredibly detailed lists everywhere, including some of the best you will find right here on this site. But because there are so many such lists, I like to take a different approach with my own and look at the prospects you might see make their major league debut with the Twins during the upcoming season. Some of them are “top” prospects, but they’re not the only ones who can make an impact in the majors in the year ahead.

Players who made their MLB debut for the Minnesota Twins in 2017 included pitchers Justin Haley, Randy Rosario, Alan Busenitz, Aaron Slegers, Jason Wheeler, Trevor Hildenberger, Felix Jorge, John Curtiss, Nik Turley, Dietrich Enns and Gabriel Moya. On the position player front they were joined by Mitch Garver, Niko Goodrum and Zack Granite.

If you think that list of players seems long (especially on pitchers), you would be right. The Twins set a club record for the number of different pitchers they used in an MLB season during the 2017 campaign, and they relied on their farm system heavily in that regard.

Of that list Haley, Granite, Rosario, Hildenberger and Goodrum were players I profiled in this column before the 2017 season started. It was a bit of an off-year for me considering how long the actual list was and I only pegged those five (missing on the other nine), but in the prior year I did hit on every player that made his MLB debut with the Twins.

From that extended list of the 2017 season Garver, Hildenberger, and Moya are (currently) the locks for the 2018 Opening Day roster, with Granite having been optioned in the final round of cuts in favor of #SireOfFortMyers Ryan LaMarre. Haley, Rosario, Wheeler, Turley and Goodrum are no longer with the organization while Busenitz, Slegers, Jorge, Curtiss and Enns provide a solid list of pitching depth now with major league experience ticketed for AAA.

The Minnesota Twins already have a strong young core of players in the majors, but as we saw last year a lot can happen during a 162-game season. So, who are the potential Next Minnesota Twins in 2018?

Tyler Kinley (27 years old) – RHP

The almost yearly Rule 5 draft pick, Kinley comes to Minnesota out of the Miami Marlins system. Many were perplexed that Kinley was selected when the Twins had already left several in-house prospects with similar profiles unprotected for the same draft. Since then you may have heard a lot about what went into that process from the front office. There’s not much to really argue with, given the moves they’ve made and even if he’s the name you don’t know.

Kinley can hit triple-digits with his fastball, and throws a slider in the 90’s. That kind of stuff is hard to find and it impressed Twins scouts enough to select him during the Dominican Winter League season where he posted a 0.47 ERA and allowed just 5 hits in 19 innings. He also struck out 32, a rate of 15.2 K/9IP that many players would be envious of. That followed his MiLB season across the A+/AA levels where he struck out 12.2 per nine.

As you’ll often hear about with prospects of his ilk, the high K-rate does come with a high walk rate. This spring in 11IP he has struck out 12, but also issued seven free passes. The hope is that he could be hidden at the back of the bullpen so as to not overexpose this flaw, and as the season goes on for him to earn more trust with coaches. There’s also the possibility the Twins like him enough that they complete a trade with the Marlins to keep his rights and send him to the minors when any such roster move needs to be made.

LaMonte Wade (24) – OF (TD’s #14 Twins Prospect)

I have to admit, I love prospects like LaMonte Wade. He wasn’t drafted with much fanfare (9th round in 2015) and never gets talked about as having a standout tool, but just keeps getting the job done while moving up the ladder. He does however happen to have one tool that isn’t part of the shed even though it’s the one that led the Moneyball revolution: plate discipline.

All Wade has ever done since he’s had a bat in his hand is get on base—not even his Dad could get him out throwing pitches to him in the back yard at five years old.

Okay, that last part is made up but the first part is true and has been on display this spring as he led the Twins by drawing eight free passes. Since being drafted Wade owns a career .404 on-base percentage in the minors, and he’s drawn more walks than he has struck out in each of his three professional seasons. It’s also an impressive rate at which he’s been able to coax these walks, sitting at 14.67% for his career. That’s elite territory and in a #FunWithNumbers comparison to Joe Mauer’s minor league career, you would think Mauer was a free-swinger.

For this year Wade reminds me a lot of what Zack Granite was looking at heading into last season. With Byron Buxton, Eddie Rosario and Max Kepler’s “nothing falls but raindrops” outfield there’s not much room for him to crack the roster on his own. He also hits left-handed so platooning with Kepler wouldn’t be ideal despite his lack of platoon splits. But injuries and other things happen, and Wade will be on the MLB doorstep at AAA. I think the ceiling here is a Denard Span-type hitter built through a strong on-base percentage, but as a corner outfielder instead of in center. That’s an intriguing fourth outfielder option to have in the Twins' back pocket at a minimum.

Stephen Gonsalves (23) – LHP (TD’s #4 Twins Prospect)

Gonsalves has been fantastic at every level he has pitched since being signed for above slot in the fourth round of the 2013 draft. He doesn’t get as much press nationally because that success has been built around his secondary skills rather than his pure stuff, but discounting what he does bring has been a fool’s errand for MiLB hitters since turning pro.

He’ll sit in the low-90’s with his fastball and his best pitch is his changeup, but he also throws a curveball, slider, and tinkers with a cutter to complete his repertoire. In 2017 he lowered his walk rate to a career best 2.5/9IP and gets above average marks from scouts for his control. He finished last year with four starts at AAA, three very good and one clunker that hampered his small-sample-size stats there. He should be a big part of a stacked Rochester rotation to start the season. He’s probably not first in line for a call-up when a long-term need arises, but spot start duty is not out of the question as he was added to the 40-man roster this offseason.

Barring any flare-ups with shoulder issues that have been intermittent in his minor league career, I fully expect Gonsalves to pitch with Minnesota during the 2018 season. He should slot in the middle of the Twins rotation in the near future.

Fernando Romero (23) – RHP (TD’s #2 Twins Prospect)

If you’re looking for that potential “ace” in the Twins system, your best bet may be Romero. If you’ve also paid attention this spring you probably saw plenty of that potential, as he was arguably the best Twins pitcher before being reassigned in the first round of cuts. In eight innings across four appearances, Romero did not allow a hit, walked only one, and struck out eight. That performance came on the heels of a 2017 season spent entirely at AA where he posted a 3.53 ERA and struck out 120 over 125 innings. Late in the year he was shut down as he neared an innings limit and showed signs of wearing down, but that’s not atypical for a pitcher who has missed nearly two full seasons of action due to injury (Tommy John surgery in 2014, knee surgery in 2015).

It’s this fact that makes me a bit more lukewarm on his potential with the Twins this season than most, despite his enticing stuff that includes a mid-to-high 90’s fastball. If I was making a prediction, I’d say he doesn’t start a game for them. He’s barely thrown even 300 innings in his MiLB career and his 125 from a season ago is where a starting prospect signed at his age should hope to be at already before reaching AA. What I do see happening is a return to AA to start the year due to the depth in front of him, a midseason or earlier bump to AAA, and provided he continues performing, a bump to the Minnesota bullpen as he nears an innings limit in what hopefully is a playoff push. The St. Louis Cardinals are known to have had some good success with this approach and Romero is a prime prospect for the Twins new regime to adopt this type of plan for during the 2018 season.

Nick Gordon (22) – IF (TD’s #3 Twins Prospect)

With Gordon, along with the next player in this list, I am a lot more bullish than a lot of people. That’s not just because he’s the first of two consecutive first-round picks on this list. I wrote the draft profile for him on our favorite website since I began helping with our unparalleled MiLB reports (follow all our writers!!!).

While it’s well known how he struggled in the second half of last season at AA, batting just .221/.304/.305 after appearing in the Future’s Game midsummer, it amazes me how quickly his first half seems to have been thrown away. That’s when he hit .315/.376/.504 and was the unquestioned MVP of his team, and perhaps the Southern League. Even with that swoon he ended the year top 5 in the circuit in runs scored (3rd – 80), hits (3rd – 140), doubles (tied for 5th – 29), and triples (tied for1st – 9). In big league camp for most of Spring Training, Gordon was also a standout performer among their prospects as he hit .417/.440/.625 with a double and two triples in 24 at-bats.

While questions remain about his long-term ability to play shortstop in the majors, I often find myself laughing at any takes that say he can’t or won’t play there for the Twins. That’s not because I think they’re incredibly right or wrong, but because this is the Minnesota Twins we’re talking about. In the past 13 seasons, 11 different players have opened the season at the position, and off the top of my head I’d argue Jorge Polanco’s 2017 may have been the best of those. There is an incredibly low bar here for a player to clear, both offensively and defensively. But don’t take that as a knock on Gordon's skills, either.

I think he will hit wherever he plays, with slugging numbers that sneak up on you as he racks up doubles and triples in place of home runs with his also sneaky speed. At just 22 years old he’s also going to keep getting stronger. As for that defense that gets questioned, if you want a comparison I think your best fit is the player you hoped would be the starter on opening day before his unfortunate suspension. Gordon won’t be any different than Polanco has been, and that’s decidedly average or slightly worse, with the remaining potential for more than that in the future.

With no other infielders on the 40-man roster besides those on the Opening Day roster, Gordon is suddenly very high on the organization’s depth chart. With another strong start to a season at AAA, he will likely get the call when the need arises.

Tyler Jay (23) – LHP (TD’s #19 Twins Prospect)

The second of those 1st round draft picks I wrote the draft preview for was the left-handed relief pitcher they selected in 2015, Tyler Jay.

If you peruse that link, you likely know by now that the ship has sailed on Jay’s potential as a starting pitcher, but that shouldn’t discourage you about what potential remains. I think the comparison I made to Glen Perkins is still very much valid, though perhaps that is now the ceiling instead of the floor as a prospect.

Transferred to a bullpen role for good before the start of last year, Jay had his season derailed in spring training by an injury that many initially thought would lead to thoracic outlet surgery (the same procedure Phil Hughes has yet to overcome). He appeared in two games in May with Chattanooga, then not again until August on a rehab tour at the CenturyLink Sports Complex with the MiLB season nearly over. With no surgery determined to be needed, Jay made up as much time as he could in the Arizona Fall League. Though that time was a mixed bag of results, it did provide some confidence on his health heading into the 2018 season.

Jay is likely back with Chattanooga for the start of the MiLB season, but the plan for 2018 isn’t much different than it was a year ago. If he’s performing he should be a quick mover, with the Twins bullpen very much in sight before September.

Zack Littell (22) – RHP (TD’s #11 Twins Prospect)

Littell was plucked from the Yankees with the surprising double-deal of Jaime Garcia at the trade deadline last year and this could prove to be a shrewd move by the new front office. Not highly regarded, Littell put himself on the prospect radar with a 2017 performance that earned him the Fan’s Choice MiLBY award for Top Starting Pitcher. That was due to his nearly unblemished 19-1 record and 2.12 ERA on the season.

Like Gonsalves, Littell gets by more on his pitchability than his pure stuff which limits his upside to a mid-rotation starter at this point, but over the past two seasons he has maintained a sub 3.00 ERA at each stop on his journey and his consistency start-to-start stands out. As one of the youngest starters in AA last season, his performance becomes even more impressive. Due to the depth in front of him he’s likely to spend at least a half-season back at AA but he could be one of the first moves up when that depth is put to work.

Brent Rooker (23) – OF/1B (TD’s #7 Twins Prospect)

Although he’s only been in the organization for less than a season’s worth of baseball, Brent Rooker is the prospect I’m most interested to follow this season. After winning the Triple Crown in the SEC with the Mississippi State Bulldogs and being drafted by the Twins with the 35th overall pick, Rooker got his pro career started with a bang—18 of them to be exact. Those 18 home runs in 62 games after being drafted was the most by a Twins prospect in his draft year since 1990 and it’s hard to ignore his approach, preparation and dedication to the art of hitting.

Though his defensive position is undefined at this point he will get plenty of opportunity in the outfield, at first base, and as a designated hitter. As he puts it himself in a great Q & A courtesy of MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo, “I'll play left field, first base, right field, I'll DH. Whatever gets me in the lineup and allows my bat to contribute as quickly as possible.” You also have to love the confidence.

I think Rooker is going to mash for the Twins for a long time. In terms of this article it’s just a matter of how quickly his bat can get him there. With his experience in the SEC and the advanced plan and preparation he brings to the plate every at-bat, I think that could be late in 2018. That becomes even more likely if he starts the year with the Chattanooga Lookouts.

Other Names To Keep An Eye On:

Lewis Thorpe (22) – LHP (TD’s #12 Twins Prospect): Thorpe has missed a full two seasons of action, but returned in 2017 to log 77 innings with Fort Myers and also made one start with Chattanooga. Added to the 40-man roster in the offseason, Thorpe should start back in AA. If he looks anything like when I interviewed him with Cedar Rapids, he could be knocking on the MLB door late in the year.

Jake Reed (25) – RHP: Reed has made good impressions in spring training for a few years now, but his 2017 season was delayed by a shoulder injury that hampered his MLB debut plans. He allowed one run (on a HR) in six innings with four walks and eight K’s this spring in MLB camp. He’ll be a big part of Rochester’s bullpen to start the 2018 season, a phone call away.

Mason Melotakis (26) – LHP: A left-handed bullpen arm who will be in AAA to begin the year. Melotakis was a 40-man roster add last year, but as reports of diminished velocity surfaced he was removed during the season and cleared waivers. Whether or not he can throw a mid-90’s fastball anymore won’t be a problem if he can continue to post numbers like he has at AA.

Kohl Stewart (23) – RHP: A lot has been made of Stewart’s lack of strikeouts since being drafted with the 4th overall pick in the 2013 draft. When you read scouting reports on him though, there’s still a lot to like. My favorite is the idea he doesn’t get hit hard, as evidenced by the fact he’s only allowed 17 home runs in 462 career innings (a rate of 0.33/9IP). If he finds a way to pile up some more K’s, Stewart could put himself back on the map as a prospect as he’s still just 23 years old. He should be in the Chattanooga rotation again to start his 2018 campaign looking to do just that.

Jake Cave (25) – OF: Acquired from the Yankees on March 17th, Cave is another option to serve as a fourth outfielder with the Twins during the season. He had a breakout year of sorts during 2017, batting .305/.351/.542 with 20 home runs at the AA and AAA levels. Unlike LaMonte Wade above, Cave is on the 40-man roster so it could be easier to add him to the MLB roster if a need arises.

Nick Anderson (27) – RHP: The Twins signed Anderson before the 2015 season after he had spent a few years in the independent leagues. Since then, he may be the most impressive reliever the Twins have had in the system as far as results go. In 2017 with Fort Myers and Chattanooga he posted a 1.00 ERA in 54 innings while notching 11 saves. He may not be considered a prospect due to his age (turns 28 in July) but numbers force the promotion issue sometimes, and that’s what Anderson has produced. He’s also #OneOfUs, as he went to high school in Brainerd, MN.

Minor League Depth:

Willians Astudillo (26) – C, Zack Jones (27) – RHP, Andrew Vasquez (24) – LHP, D.J. Baxendale (27) – RHP, Ryan Eades (26) – RHP

These are the guys I think have the best chance to make their MLB debut in 2018, but as evidenced by last season’s roster turnover there're likely a few I’ve missed. If you think I overlooked anyone, state your case in the comments! Hopefully when anybody does make their debut, they can emulate the results of Trevor Hildenberger last year!

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