The Next Minnesota Twins - 2019
Image courtesy of Seth Stohs (photo of Nick Gordon)It was at those small stadiums in my youth where that same type of joy for the game was easy to spot. The environments were more intimate, and the teams promoted interactions between players and fans in fun ways the major leagues just didn’t. I also realized that these were guys trying to make the same dream I had come true—to be a professional baseball player. That was certainly a childish dream for me looking back, but I did love the game enough that I still played competitively until I was almost 30 and blew out my ACL roaming the outfields of town ball parks in Minnesota (I made the catch on that play, at least). I’ve also been able to expand my experiences in minor league stadiums to outside of the Midwest to places like the Florida peninsula, Georgia, and Missouri.
Because of my interest in baseball’s up and coming prospects, the offseason news cycle of top prospect lists and organizational depth charts have always been must -read material for me. There are websites and publications everywhere dedicated to only the minors these days, and you’ll find some of the best individual team recaps and summaries right here at Twins Daily. While I’ve put out plenty of my own “top prospect” lists since taking up blogging (over 10 years ago now?! Wow, time flies…), there are so many incredibly detailed ones out there now that I’ve put my own spin on such a list for several years. It harkens back to the idea that all these prospects I’ve watched play are looking to fulfill their dream of playing in the major leagues, and delves into who those players may be in the upcoming season.
Across Major League Baseball during the 2018 season, 247 players made their professional debut. The Minnesota Twins accounted for eight of those players, including pitchers Stephen Gonsalves, Tyler Kinley, Zack Littell, Fernando Romero, Kohl Stewart, and Andrew Vasquez. Joining them on the position player side were Jake Cave and everyone’s favorite, “La Tortuga,” Willians Astudillo.
All of those names were profiled or mentioned in my preview heading into last season, but I only mentioned Astudillo’s name as MiLB depth, despite knowing he was a bit of a unicorn already at the time because he never struck out (3.3% career strikeout rate in the minors). The only name in that list who is no longer with the organization is Kinley, who was sent back to the Miami Marlins after a month with the team after being their Rule 5 draft pick. Romero was ticketed for a big role in the bullpen to start the year but struggled this spring and was sent to Triple A. Cave and Astudillo were among those fighting for backup roles on the Twins bench and have since secured them. Gonsalves, Littell, Stewart, and Vasquez are all near locks to contribute at some point and carry valuable MLB experience with them to Rochester to begin their seasons.
With a strong stable of young hitters with experience and power making up a potentially strong lineup for opening day, the pickings might be slim this year for hitting prospects looking to make their debut. I suspect they’ll churn some pitchers though as the front office duo looks to cash in some of their technological developmental efforts on the mound. You also never know when the injury bug will strike, but if I had to make a prediction, I’d bet that no more than five players will wear an MLB uniform for the first time with the Twins in 2019.
So, who are the next potential players to make their major league debut with the Minnesota Twins during the 2019 season?
ON THE 40-MAN ROSTER:
Ryne Harper (30 years old on opening day) – RHP
Although he has been called up to the big leagues in his career, he never actually got an opportunity to pitch for the Seattle Mariners before being sent back down to Triple A in 2017. One of the best stories in camp this spring, Harper showed off a big breaking ball to the tune of a perfect ERA (has allowed two unearned runs) with 14 K’s, and zero walks in 11 innings pitched with the major league squad. He’s a top candidate for the #SireOfFortMyers and with the news coming out on Monday that he’s made the team, he’s no longer just the biggest dark horse among non-roster invites to head north with the Twins for Thursday’s Season Opener—he’s going to be at Target Field ready for his close-up.
For fun, here’s some of those breaking balls he showed off this spring:
Signed by Minnesota for the 2018 season, Harper began the year by closing for the Chattanooga Lookouts. He quickly picked up a pair of saves in mid-April before the Rochester Red Wings came calling. Roughed up a little in his first taste of Triple A with the Twins, Harper was returned to the Lookouts after four appearances. Chattanooga then started extending out his appearances, as he went two innings for each of his next three saves. This is when he really started to dial himself in as well. Over his final 34 2/3 innings in Double A, Harper struck out 44 while handing out a free pass to just five hitters. For his efforts, he finished the year back in Triple A where he continued to perform well enough to get his invite to spring training.
Now, he’s not really a prospect by any means as he’ll take the mound for the first time this year as a 30-year-old (his birthday is on Wednesday), but stories like his are always awesome to follow. Since I’ll be at the home opener, I hope he gets his MLB debut out of the way early.
Nick Gordon (23) – IF (Twins Daily's #12 Prospect)
Gordon has had his ups and downs the past two seasons, starting each off scorching hot before falling off a cliff in the second half. Last year, that drop-off came when he was promoted to Rochester where he managed just a .544 OPS in nearly 100 games. With Jorge Polanco, Marwin Gonzalez, Ehire Adrianza, and Ronald Torreyes on board there’s already plenty of MLB depth around the Twins middle-infield, but if Gordon comes out hot again and maintains it, he could work his way into their plans mid-to-late summer if a need arises.
Lewis Thorpe (23) – LHP (TD’s #8 Prospect)
Thorpe took a little time to find his groove during the 2018 season as his WHIP was above 1.60 through April and May, but after surrendering nine earned runs on June 8th he dialed it in for the rest of the season. His WHIP was just 0.73 in July, and after that disastrous start went 6-0 in 10 starts before being promoted to Triple A for his efforts. In those final 49 innings with the Lookouts, Thorpe allowed just 12 earned runs (2.20 ERA) on 33 hits and 10 walks (0.88 WHIP) while striking out 66 (12.1 K/9).
With the Red Wings, Thorpe went 0-3 in four starts to end the year, but he was solid in three of them and picked up two quality starts. Overall, he finished his season with a 3.54 ERA and struck out 157 in 129 2/3 IP across the two levels. He’s got nothing left to prove in Double A if you ask me, and should begin the year as part of an impressive rotation in Rochester unless there’s too many bodies for it to make sense early on.
It’s taken some time as he has had to deal with injuries and illness, but it appears Thorpe has gotten back most if not all of his impressive stuff I saw back when I interviewed him while he was with the Cedar Rapids Kernels. While he’s a bit far down on the depth chart with names like Kohl Stewart, Stephen Gonsalves, Chase De Jong, and Zack Littell already having some MLB experience at Triple A, at some point during the 2019 season a promotion could become all about who is performing or lined up to pitch on the right day as Thorpe is already part of the 40-man roster.
LaMonte Wade Jr. (25) – OF (TD’s #18 Prospect)
After posting a .397 OBP with Chattanooga during the 2017 season (his first year not above .400), it was a bit surprising to see him start back with the Lookouts for 2018. But he did show improvement back in the Southern League by raising his slugging percentage by 36 points before being promoted to Rochester for the season’s final 74 games. This is where Wade finally had some trouble, posting just a .229 batting average and striking out more than he walked for the first time in his career. His plate discipline was still there however, as he also posted a 13.2% walk rate that was good for a .337 OBP.
Power is a tool that has yet to manifest much for Wade in his minor league career, but he did make the most of his opportunities this spring with two doubles, a triple, and a homer in 27 at-bats with the Twins. He also finished third on the team in RBI with 10.
I’ve compared Wade to Denard Span as a potential leadoff hitter in the past, but he’ll have to show more with the bat in Rochester this year to reach that ceiling as a hitter. Added to the 40-man roster in the offseason, Wade has an easier path to an MLB debut than others if the Twins outfield depth is challenged at any point during the season.
Luis Arraez (21) – IF
Arraez spent about half of the 2018 season with the Chattanooga Lookouts, and is likely ticketed for Pensacola to start this year with that middle infield depth at Triple A I mentioned above. Arraez is only a second baseman, and not a particularly good one, but his bat has always been the carrying tool for him with a .329 career batting average in the minor leagues. He’ll draw an occasional walk, unlike fan-favorite Willians Astudillo, but like La Tortuga he puts the ball in play more often than not with just an 8.5% strikeout rate as a pro.
TOP PROSPECTS WHO COULD FORCE THEIR WAY:
Brent Rooker (24) – OF/1B/DH (TD's #6 Prospect)
The slugging Rooker began the 2018 season with an outside shot to reach the majors if he continued to mash like he did after being drafted the previous summer. It didn’t quite start out that way for him as he hit below .250 in the first two months, but he started heating up with the weather in mid-May.
He hit six or more homers three months in a row and posted an OPS over 1.000 in June and July as he started making a strong case for a promotion. But just as quickly as he found his power, it was lost when August rolled around. Over the final 30 games of the season he slashed only .168/.299/.262. After the year was over, he was slated to get some more time in the Arizona Fall League, but a sprained ankle in mini-camp before the schedule kicked off resulted in the Twins shutting him down.
Rooker has seen action in 11 games with the major league squad this spring and clubbed two home runs and a triple among his 22 at-bats. It would be surprising if he doesn’t start the season with the Rochester Red Wings and while the corner-OF/1B/DH situation appears to be cluttered with the Twins, he’s got the type of bat to merit a look when the need arises at any of those positions if he’s mashing taters at Frontier Field.
Alex Kirilloff (21) – OF (TD’s #2 Prospect)
After missing the entire 2017 season as he recovered from Tommy John surgery, Kirilloff burst back onto the prospect scene in 2018 by being the best overall hitter in the minor leagues not named Vladimir Guerrero Jr. He led all of MiLB in both extra-base-hits (71) and total bases (296), along with slugging 20 home runs and driving in over 100 baserunners. He’s on the top end of top 100 lists everywhere this spring, and if he duplicates his 2018 season with the Blue Wahoos he might not sniff Triple A a la Joe Mauer if an outfield spot opens up in the majors or C.J. Cron pulls a Logan Morrison at first base (I don’t think Alex would play there in this scenario, but a good backup plan is plugging Max Kepler there to open up RF). This is the best pure hitting prospect the Twins have had since Mauer, but where Joe paired this skill with elite plate discipline, Kirilloff instead brings a much bigger boomstick.
And I mean, this is just pure hitting perfection:
MINOR LEAGUE DEPTH:
Ryan Eades (27) – RHP: The former second-round draft pick whose numbers never quite lived up to his stuff may have finally figured some things out in the bullpen at the tail end of the 2018 season. In his final 18 innings with Chattanooga, he allowed only five runs on 16 hits and just one walk, while striking out 20. He didn’t miss a beat after his promotion to Rochester, as he posted a 0.59 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, and five-to-one K/BB ratio in 15 1/3 innings to finish his season. Eades strikes me as the type of guy who may benefit the most from the developmental teachings of new Twins pitching coach Wes Johnson. He pitched well with the big-league squad this spring, striking out nine, walking none, and allowing only one run in seven innings pitched.
Jake Reed (26) – RHP: If there is anyone on this list who probably should have made his MLB debut already, Reed is that guy. He’s spent a few weeks with the MLB team during spring training the past four seasons now, and his ERA with the Rochester Red Wings in that time is a sterling 1.92 in 89 total innings. While he hasn’t racked up K’s at a necessarily elite level in Triple A (8.4/9IP), the movement on his sinker and slider combo tends to limit damage against him (only two home runs allowed) while also sometimes wreaking havoc with his command. That last note, along with some missed time due to injury the last two seasons, has probably combined to keep him out of the majors. Hopefully that changes in 2019.
Luke Raley (24) – OF/1B: Raley was the prospect portion of the package the Twins received in sending Brian Dozier to the Los Angeles Dodgers last summer. He spent all the 2018 season in Double A, hitting .275/.350/.471 with 20 home runs for a bit of a breakout season much like Jake Cave of the previous year. With the Twins this spring, he clubbed two doubles, a triple, and a homer in 26 plate appearances. He’s a bit of a way down a depth chart full of options in the outfield for the Twins, but as a hitter ticketed for Triple A in 2019, he’s also a name that’s just a phone call away if he’s performing.
Zander Wiel (26) – 1B/OF: Wiel has been an interesting guy to follow for me since being drafted out of Vanderbilt in the 12th round in 2015. He was arguably the top hitter on a Vandy team that won the 2014 College World Series and flies a little under the radar. While he’s filled up a stat sheet in aggregate every year in the minors, the numbers point more to consistency than a standout. In Double A in 2018, he broke out some by hitting .311/.382/.446. Those numbers were good for second in the Southern League in avg., and fourth in OPS. He’s a hitter who will sneak up on you with his athleticism if you don’t pay attention and should be ticketed for Rochester’s lineup to start the 2019 season, either at 1B or in a corner outfield position.
Tyler Jay (24) – LHP: (Update: after middling results through early June, Jay was traded to the Cincinnati Reds for cash considerations) After investing the sixth overall pick on Jay in the 2015 draft, he has dealt with injuries and ineffectiveness that have stunted his once lofty profile. The hope here is the new pitching development staff can get him back on track and keep him healthy. As we’ve seen with Kohl Stewart last year, if at some point during the year the scouting reports come back better than expected, Derek Falvey and Thad Levine have let bygones be bygones.
Jovani Moran (21) – LHP: All you need to know about Moran is this number: 12.7. That’s how many hitters per 9 IP Moran set down at Cedar Rapids and Fort Myers last season. Equally impressive is that was tied to a solid 1.05 WHIP. He was effectively wild in his time with the Kernels but reined that in upon his promotion to Fort Myers. He was the runner up to Andrew Vasquez for Twins Daily’s 2018 Relief Pitcher of the Year award and if you’re looking for 2019’s version of Vasquez, you need only look in Moran’s direction.
Cody Stashak (24) – RHP: Minnesota transitioned Stashak to the bullpen for the 2018 season, and the positive returns were immediate. With the Lookouts, his 2.57 FIP was good for fourth in the Southern League among pitchers who threw at least 50 innings. His 11.2 K/9IP and 5.31 to 1 K/BB ratio were also the best of his career, which was another arrow in the positive direction for a pitcher who has always had good control (2.2 BB/9IP for his career).
Tyler Wells (24) – RHP: (Update: Wells underwent Tommy John surgery in May and will not pitch in 2019) Wells is your reigning Twins Daily Minor League Starting Pitcher of the Year, and that’s because he combined to go 10-6 with a 2.49 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, and struck out 121 in 119 1/3 innings between Fort Myers and Chattanooga. His improvement as a prospect has had a direct correlation with Wells dedicating himself to fitness and his diet as a pro, as he’s dropped nearly 60 lbs. from his big 6-foot 8-inch body in the process. Opposing hitters managed just a .544 OPS against him in 2018, and when you read about his story it reminds me of a lot of guys who came out of nowhere to have solid MLB careers. He’ll start the year back in Double A, but if he continues to show improvement, he has a great chance to vault up the depth chart as the season wears on.
Jorge Alcala (23) – RHP (TD’s #19 Prospect): Alcala was one of the pieces to come to the Twins organization in the deal of Ryan Pressly to the Astros last summer. It’s likely his arm that got Minnesota interested as he’ll sit mid-90’s with his fastball and, when he wants, can reach back for 100+ mph velocity. He’s worked as a starter for most of his MiLB career thus far, but with his arm and lack of plus secondary offerings he could be a good target to transition to a power reliever.
So, there you have it—my picks for the potential players to make their MLB debut with the Minnesota Twins during the 2019 season. When do you think any of these guys will show up at Target Field? Who will be the rookie to make the biggest impact this year? It’s also likely I’ve missed a few names, so who would be your own additions?
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