Talented Lookouts Eye Repeat In Southern League
Image courtesy of Seth Stohs, Twins Daily (Top L to R: Stephen Gonsalves, Nick Gordon, Bottom L to R: Brent Rooker, Zack Littell)New Man In Charge
Jake Mauer led the Cedar Rapids Kernels to four playoff berths in four years as their manager. In 2017, his first year as the Lookouts manager, he led the team to a share of the Southern League title. He decided to spend more time with his family. Tommy Watkins takes over managerial duties for the Lookouts after leading the Cedar Rapids Kernels to a playoff berth in his first year as a manager after years as a hitting coach. Watkins was the Lookouts hitting coach in 2016.
Watkins knows there are differences between Low A and Double A from not only his coaching career, but also from his playing days. He has been in the players’ shoes, working his way up the ladder, and getting the proverbial cup of coffee in the big leagues. Twenty years ago, the Minnesota Twins drafted Watkins with their 38th- round pick out of high school in Ft. Myers. He spent 12 seasons in the Twins minor league system including hitting .357 in his nine games with the Twins in 2007.
“I think the difference between Low A and AA are the guys being a little older. They’ve developed routines and things like that, but it’s still baseball and we as a staff still have to continue to teach and continue to develop routines. We still have to catch, hit and throw the baseball.”
Watkins is looking forward to the challenge of the season starting on Thursday.
“I think Opening Day is special every year, no matter what position I’m in. It’s a fun time of year. Time to get to know and spend time with your baseball family for the summer.” He continued, “We have a great group of guys that all get along together. I look forward to the guys playing the game the right way and having fun doing it.”
Returning to the Lookouts will be pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and hitting coach Javier Valentin. Richard Salazar will serve as the team's bench coach.
Prospects To Watch
The Lookouts Opening Day roster (including the DL) includes eight players ranked in the Twins Daily Top 20 Prospect rankings.
Despite solid 2017 showings in the Southern League and impressive time spent in big league camp, Nick Gordon (Twins Daily #3 Prospect), Stephen Gonsalves (Twins Daily #4 Prospect), Zack Littell (Twins Daily #11 Prospect) and LaMonte Wade (Twins Daily #14 Prospect) return to the Lookouts.
Nick Gordon is expected to play primarily shortstop but also get some time at both second base and third base. He was a Southern League All-Star and played for Team USA in the Futures Game in 2017. He struggled in the second half and against left-handed pitching.
Stephen Gonsalves was the Twins Daily Starting Pitcher of the Year in 2016 and 2017. After spending most of the second half of 2016 and then 2017 with the Lookouts, he ended the year with five starts in Rochester.
Zack Littell was a top candidate for MiLB.com Minor League Starting Pitcher of the Year in 2017. He split the season between High-A Tampa (9-1), AA Trenton (5-0) and AA Chattanooga (5-0). He won a game for the Lookouts in the playoffs to give him 20 wins on the season. Littell is looking forward to his first Opening Day in the Twins organization. “Opening Day is the day we’ve been waiting for all offseason. All the build up and hard work you put in during the offseason is for Opening Day. Obviously it’s an exciting time for everybody, fans and players. So I think Opening Day is one of the most exciting times of the entire season.”
LaMonte Wade clearly impressed the Twins manager, Paul Molitor, in his first big league spring training. When Wade was sent down to minor league camp, Molitor said. “As advertised. Good strike zone knowledge. He's got a lot of good at- bats as well. He's one of the few guys you see in the game who chokes up as much as he does on the bat for bat control. I think he's here to compete. Defensively, we put him in all three spots. He's probably more comfortable in the corners, but that's OK. He's just another guy who's coming. He knows his future is in front of him.”
Brent Rooker (Twins Daily #7 Prospect) was drafted with the 35th overall pick just last June out of Mississippi State. After hitting eight homers for Elizabethton, he jumped up to Ft. Myers where he hit ten more home runs. The Twins are continuing to aggressively promote the right-handed slugger, pushing him right to AA to start the season. Rooker is looking forward to his first full season starting up on Thursday. “Opening Day means getting to continue to make strides in the right direction. It means getting to continue to work to improve your craft and take what you worked on in the offseason and apply it to your game to ultimately become the best player you can be”
Lewis Thorpe (Twins Daily #12 Prospect) came back after missing over two seasons because of Tommy John surgery and a bout with mono. He pitched the second-half of the season with the Miracle and made one late-season start for the Lookouts. Thorpe’s been talked about in prospect rankings for years, so it may be surprising that the southpaw from Australia will be participating in his first Opening Day on Thursday. “To be honest I don’t really know what an Opening Day feels like because I’ve never really had one. But I’m excited to be start the year in AA with a great group of guys.”
Tyler Jay (Twins Daily #19 Prospect) was the Twins top pick in 2015 out of Illinois. Last spring training, he was shifted from starter to reliever. Unfortunately, he missed most of the season with biceps tendinitis, but he looks to come back strong in 2018.
Felix Jorge (Twins Daily #20 Prospect) made his Major League debut in July of 2017 and recorded a win. He made one more start for the Twins before coming back ot the Lookouts. He will begin the 2018 season on the disabled list. Late in spring training, he took a hard line drive off of the knee. It isn’t believed to be too serious.
Starting Pitchers: Stephen Gonsalves, Randy LeBlanc, Zack Littell, Lewis Thorpe, Kohl Stewart
This is clearly a very talented group of starting pitchers, even with Felix Jorge on the DL. Three of these pitchers ranked in the Twins Daily Top 20 prospects, and Kohl Stewart remains as talented as any of them. He missed time with injury last year. Hopefully he can stay healthy and start putting it all together.
Relief Pitchers: Zack Jones, Ryan Eades, Williams Ramirez, Todd Van Steensel, Ryne Harper, Omar Bencomo, Tyler Jay, Sam Clay
This is an interesting group of pitchers. You’ve got a couple of veterans in Omar Bencomo (who returns to the organization) and Ryne Harper (who spent the last two years in the Mariners system). Tyler Jay fits the top reliever prospect profile to a T with his big fastball/slider combo. Ryan Eades is a former second-round pick who has spent time as a starter and a reliever. Williams Ramirez is the flame-thrower with occasional control issues but big upside after transitioning from infielder to pitcher four years ago. Sam Clay had an opportunity to start after being drafted. At Ft. Myers last year, he was fantastic. He struggled greatly with his control in just a couple of games with the Lookouts last year, so he looks to take that next step.
While we want to see all of these guys do well, it’s hard not to root for Zack Jones and Todd Van Steensel. Van Steensel signed with the Phillies and pitched in the GCL in 2009. He was let go. The Twins signed him and he pitched in Elizabethton in 2011, but the Twins released him. Before the 2014 season, the Twins re-signed Van Steensel, now a reliever. Since then, he has very slowly moved up the ladder while being one of the best, most consistent relievers in the organization, putting up low ERAs and high strikeout rates. “I’m just thankful that I get to be part of Opening Day. It’s been ten years since I first signed so I consider myself very lucky that I’m still out here doing this each year.”
Zack Jones was the Twins 4th-round pick in 2012 and was immediately a dominant reliever, often hitting triple digits with his fastball. He struck out 70 batters in 48 innings in 2013 in Ft. Myers and pitched in the AFL after the season. Unfortunately, he missed most of the 2014 season after an aneurysm was found in a blood vessel near his right shoulder. He returned late in the year and was the closer for the Miracle in their FSL championship. In 2015, he struck out 68 batters in 51+ innings. Following the season, he was selected by the Brewers in the Rule 5 draft. Unfortunately, he fought shoulder problems and was returned to the Twins after getting healthy. After a few outings, he ended up having surgery on his labrum. That cost him the 2016 season as well. As he was working his way back in 2017, blood clots were found near his elbow which cut off circulation to his hand. Another surgery and his 2017 was lost. Jones appears to be healthy as 2018 starts and he’s looking forward to the season. Jones said, “For me Opening Day is the opportunity to put to test all the work and preparation you made in the offseason. The opportunity to compete and succeed with your teammates who all have the same common goal.”
Catchers: Brian Navarreto, Wynston Sawyer
Sawyer spent the first seven years of his career in the Orioles system before spending 2017 with the Dodgers. Still just 26, he can also play some first base. Navarreto participated in his first MLB spring training this year and loved every moment. “I learned so much from (Jason) Castro and Joe (Mauer).” Navarreto is a defense-first catcher, though he still has the potential to provide some pop with his bat.
Infielders: Brent Rooker, Sean Miller, Nick Gordon, TJ White, Chris Paul, Ryan Walker
Rooker and Gordon will, understandably, get the majority of the attention among this group, but the others have a lot of talent too. Sean Miller won the award as the top Twins minor league defensive infielder. He played in the AFL last year as well. Chris Paul also played in Arizona last fall. He hit .328 last year in Ft. Myers but missed most of the last three months of the season with a broken hamate bone. TJ White had a real nice season in 2017 with the Lookouts. In 96 games, he hit .276 with an .842 OPS and 44 extra base hits (26 doubles, 4 triples, 14 home runs). Ryan Walker is also a defensive whiz all around the infield. He got a little time with the Red Wings late last season and will again play all over.
Walker was a part of the 2017 Lookouts championship, but he is excited for Opening Day. “Opening Day for me is just the start of another year to continually improve, have fun coming to the ballpark every day, and mostly to win ball games at whatever level we're at. We celebrated the victories and successes of last season during the fall and spring training, but now it's time to start fresh, put our heads down, and get after it.”
Outfielders: Zander Wiel, Tanner English, Edgar Corcino, LaMonte Wade
LaMonte Wade hit well for the Lookouts in 2017 and begins 2018 with the team again. Tanner English is a terrific center fielder with all the tools. He’s looking to put it all together. Zander Wiel was drafted as a first baseman and has played there most of his career. When Brent Rooker arrived in Ft. Myers last year, Wiel started spending more time in the outfield. That process continued in spring training .Edgar Corcino was a Southern League All-Star in 2017 and spent a little time in Rochester.
Thursday’s Twins Minor League Pitching Probables (Times Central)
Rochester starts its season on Friday.
Birmingham @ Chattanooga - 5:15 - RHP Zack Littell
Charlotte @ Ft. Myers - 6:00 - RHP Phil Hughes
Cedar Rapids @ Quad Cities - 6:35 - LHP Bryan Sammons
Previous Twins Minor League Opening Day Roster Previews
Cedar Rapids Kernels - Class of 2018 “Should Be Pretty Entertaining” - Steve Buhr
Ft. Myers Miracle - Miracle Hop Experience Transfers on the Field - Cody Christie
Kernels Media Night Highlights - Steve Buhr
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