At the same time, Royce Lewis is a standout. Brent Rooker's approach and swing at the plate are eye-popping. Akil Baddoo is impressive at the plate, on the bases and in the field. Alex Kirilloff’s swing is so smooth. Blayne Enlow appears to be as advertised. Brusdar Graterol throws gas and looks the part of a starter. Fernando Romero and Stephen Gonsalves look close to big-league ready. We already know that. That’s why those guys are top ten types of prospects.
Today I want to highlight some guys that maybe you haven’t heard a lot about. Maybe some of them will end up being Top 20 guys by season’s end. Maybe some of them won’t be with the organization in September. I don’t know. But it’s fun to observe, and in some ways, play amateur scout.
While I was in Ft. Myers, I watch a lot. I love watching bullpens. I love watching infielders take group balls. I love pop up drills. I love watching guys take game at bats against live pitching because that is often different than batting practice swinging, which is also fun to watch. In my time down there, I had the chance to briefly talk to Mike Radcliff, and I met Deron Johnson for the first time. I only wish I had their abilities to scout and evaluate players not only for what they are today, but what they might be in three years, or five years. Scouting is a tough job. And maybe this little exercise will highlight that.
So let’s get to it. Here are five guys (non-Top 20 types) who stood out in my mind having watched them over the course of my eight days in Ft. Myers.
Ben Rodriguez was the Twins 38th-round pick last June out of Pepperdine where he had played for four years. Drafted as a catcher, Rodriguez stands 6-6 and about 230 pounds. After being drafted, he played 50 games in the GCL where he hit .290/.399/. 457 (.856) with 17 extra base hits. While I did see him working on a few drills with the catchers, Rodriguez spent the majority of his time at first base. What is noteworthy is that he spent most of spring training with the Ft. Myers group that is starting the season in Cedar Rapids. He essentially passed by the likes of Kolton Kendrick and JJ Robinson who played first base at Elizabethton last season. He’s had some swing-and-miss in his game, but as you would guess from his size, he has a ton of power and power potential. We’ll see if it comes to fruition, but in my mind, that was a great late-round pick. Rodriguez is very athletic, strong and has potential that makes him intriguing.
Vasquez is kind of a late bloomer on this list. The left-hander was the Twins 32nd- round pick in 2015 out of Westmont College in California. He’s been moved fairly slowly, but he ended 2017 strong. After starting in Cedar Rapids, he moved up to Ft. Myers. Combined, he posted a 1.55 ERA and struck out 85 batters in 58 innings of work. He ended the season with an invitation to the Arizona Fall League where he struck out 14 batters in 12.2 innings (1.42 ERA). I first noticed him in the spring of 2017 when I watched him throw a bullpen. Actually, I heard him throw a bullpen. Just warming up, the ball could be heard as it went by. While his velocity wasn’t too high, it was a heavy fastball. This year, I watched him pitch in a couple of spring games. As I was taking in pitches from the side, and seeing hitters’ knees buckle, I decided to go stand behind home plate and watch. I’d obviously heard about the slider of Vasquez, but to see it is something else. After watching a couple, I looked at Twins assistant minor league pitching coordinator JP Martinez and he just shook his head at me and said, “I wish I could take credit for that.” We watched a couple more of his sliders dart into the strike zone, and it made his fastball appear even faster than its low-90s velocity was. He’s a two-pitch pitcher, and both pitches are really good.
2017 was a forgettable year for Tanner English. He began the season by spending about a month in Chattanooga, but he just couldn’t get his bat going. He moved back to Ft. Myers and continued to struggle with the bat. He will begin 2018 with the Lookouts again, looking to take his career to the next level. You may recall the big league spring training game that English played hero in just over a week ago. He entered the game in the 8th inning as a pinch runner and then hit a two-run homer in the bottom of the 9th inning to tie the game. While he’s not a big guy, English has good tools. The first one you notice is his speed. He’s a good base runner and base stealer. He really shines in center field. English can cover a lot of ground, and he possesses a very strong arm. While he hasn’t hit for average, English puts together really good at-bats. He knows the strike zone and he understands the value of getting on base. And again, despite the lack of size, English has a bit of pop in his bat. The spring training big league home run landed near the top of the berm in left center field at Hammond Stadium. 2018 is a big year for him, and a solid offensive year, with his defense, could make him a candidate for a fourth or fifth outfielder job.
Grzelakowski went undrafted last year after his four years at Madonna University in Michigan. After the draft, “Gelly” was set to play in the United Shores Professional Baseball League, but after playing in 29 games, the Twins signed him. He went to the GCL where he played in 12 games. He spent this offseason continuing to work on his body. He noted that he lost 20 pounds since the end of last season, and he has now lost 62 pounds since entering college. All that is a nice back story, but Grzelakowski was impressive this spring. Though he played in the GCL last year, he has made the Ft. Myers Opening Day roster because he had such a strong camp. He’s got a smooth, but strong, left-handed swing. He knows the strike zone. Defensively, he’s got work to do behind the plate, but his improved physique has made him much more agile on balls in the dirt. His footwork has improved a lot. And, he’s always had a strong arm. With Mitchell Kranson and Caleb Hamilton also in Ft. Myers, it will be interesting to see how playing time is allocated. Kranson and Hamilton both have the ability to play multiple positions.
Leach was ranked in the 20s among Twins prospects by most ranking sources. That was probably too low if only based on him being a second-round pick. Leach will begin the season in extended spring training, but he does have a lot of potential. People are excited about the Twins 2017 draft, but generally the focus is turned to Royce Lewis, Brent Rooker and Blayne Enlow. Leach isn’t talked about as often. However, after seeing him work in the bullpen and in games, I’m convinced he will be very good too. Drafted out of high school in Canada, the term “helium” was appropriate as the draft approached. He may be a bit more raw than some, in part due to cooler climate, but he also has only been pitching for a couple of years after being a catcher before that. Leach is a big, tall kid with a strong frame. He was clocked at 96 in a game, but he sat 94. He’ll have to continue to work to improve his secondary pitches, but he’s got a huge arm and will continue to grow. Like Brusdar Graterol, Leach could be a guy who gets to Cedar Rapids before the short season leagues start.
Just a few more…
- Shortstop depth is good. Even after trading Jermaine Palacios, the Twins have Nick Gordon, Royce Lewis and Wander Javier at the position. And Sean Miller was named the Twins organization’s best minor league infielder for 2017. At Extended Spring Training, the Twins will have 2017 draft pick Ricky De La Torre and international signings Victor Tademo and Yunior Severino. All three were impressive with the glove and the bat.
- Centerfield defense is also an important trait, it seems, throughout the Twins system. Byron Buxton. Zack Granite. Tanner English. Aaron Whitefield. Akil Baddoo. Having watched 2017 draft pick TJ Dixon man centre field, they may have another. And Jacob Pearson can also play center field, though he played mostly right field.
- While watching the Astros/Orioles game last night, the announcer pointed out that Carlos Correa was clocked at 97 mph from the hole at shortstop to first base. That’s pretty impressive. Twins fifth-round pick in 2017, Andrew Bechtold, told me that before he came to spring training, he was clocked at 101 mph on a throw across the infield. While he has a good approach at the plate and some power potential, his defense is a big positive in his game.
- Along with all of the new coordinators and other positions in the minor leagues, the Twins have also added a fourth coach at each of the minor league levels. In the past, each affiliate would have a manager, a hitting coach and a pitching coach. One more coach can only be a positive.
- A little over a week ago in a minor league spring training game, Felix Jorge took a laser liner to the knee. While it is not believed to be serious, it is the reason he’s starting the season on the Disabled List.
- While the Twins added minor leaguer pitcher Adam Bray and first baseman Robbie Rinn in trades, the Twins also traded catcher Rainis Silva to the Seattle Mariners in exchange for cash.
- Losing weight was an important offseason activity for several Twins minor leaguers besides Taylor Grzelakowski. RHP Tyler Wells lost nearly 30 pounds over the winter. After losing about 25 pounds last offseason, catcher Mitchell Kranson said he lost about 10 more this offseason. And outfielder Shane Carrier, who had a fantastic second half in 2017, lost about 20 pounds as well. And he did so without losing any power as he launched a couple of the longest home runs I've seen.
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