All of those players were mentioned in this preview after a lengthy delay to the start of the MLB season, and you’ll see quite a few of the same other names in this year’s version.
As an immense fan of the minor leagues due to my experiences in those ballparks as a kid, top prospect lists and scouting reports have always been must-read material for me during the winter months as we wait for Spring. There are numerous websites and lists dedicated to these days, including some of the best you will find about your hometown team right here at Twins Daily. I have certainly made plenty such lists over the years and have been a Minor League Report contributor here since the site’s inception, but because of the depth provided elsewhere I like to put out my own version of a list every year that instead talks about prospects you might see in the majors during the upcoming season.
While 2020 was beyond weird when making this list, this season is perhaps even harder as there is no MiLB data from the prior season to rely on. I expect this list to either be woefully inaccurate or right on the nose, as assumptions from the prior season carry over. So, who are the next Minnesota Twins that could make their debut during the 2021 season?
ON THE 40-MAN ROSTER:
The number of names in this section is a testament to the maturity of the Twins minor league system going into the 2021 season. Six of the eight names are on Twins Daily’s Top Prospect List and the other two have appeared there in the past. With this many heralded prospects knocking on the major league’s door and an already established MLB roster, it could lead to some interesting roster moves during the 2021 season.
Jhoan Duran (23 years old on opening day), RHP – TD’s #5 Prospect
There is a lot to like with Duran. He has size, triple-digit velocity, and a unique pitch that can give hitters fits if they are sitting on his fastball. Like many young hurlers, development of his off-speed or breaking pitches will determine whether he remains a starter in the majors or gets transitioned to the bullpen. While he spent time at the alternate site in 2020, he has only pitched 37 innings at the double-A level with inconsistent results. It is not out of the question he starts the MiLB season back in double-A, pushing any potential debut timeline out to later in the summer, which also could come as a reliever much like Brusdar Graterol in 2019.
Nick Gordon (25), IF (Gordon made his MLB debut on 5/6, and went 1-for-2 with a BB and 2 SB)
I have had Gordon on this list for several years now, and the 2021 season may be the make-it-or-break-it campaign for the Twins first round pick from the 2014 draft. The stat lines have not been flashy but improvement year-to-year at each level has been noticeable. He followed up a 2017 season in double-A where he hit .270/.341/.408 by hitting .333/.381/.525 to earn a promotion to triple-A in 2018. He hit only .212/.262/.283 after moving up, but the next season improved to .298/.342/.459 at the same level and it may have been a hard choice between him and Luis Arreaz for a promotion if he had not been injured at the time. I think Gordon can find an infield utility role, but whether that comes with the Twins or not is what the 2021 season may be all about for him.
Jordan Balazovic (22), RHP – TD’s #6 Prospect
Hype around Balazovic, much like Duran, is also warranted. He may not have the same level of raw stuff as Duran, but the performance has been better in comparison. The only caveat there is Balazovic has not pitched above single-A yet, though he did end up at the alternate site late in the 2020 season. I would be surprised if he began anywhere but double-A Wichita to start the year, and he is certainly going to be on an innings limit. These things work against him in terms of debuting in 2021 but being on the 40-man roster also places him high on any depth charts for promotion. He also has far less risk of being transitioned to a reliever in the future due to his above average control of all of his pitches.
Ben Rortvedt (23), C – TD’s #17 Prospect (Rortvedt made his MLB debut on 4/30, going 1-for-3 with an RBI, R, and BB)
Rortvedt was added to the 40-man roster after the 2020 season to make sure he was not lost in the Rule 5 draft. This is mainly due to his defensive chops as a catcher, but potential with the bat still remains as a 23-year-old with good plate discipline likely to play at triple-A for the first time this year. The defense will get him to the majors, but it depends on if his bat is unlocked enough to become a regular in an organization already boasting two strong bats at the position in Mitch Garver and Ryan Jeffers. He is basically an ideal emergency catcher as is and I can envision a career much like former Twins catcher Drew Butera as a good floor.
Dakota Chalmers (24), RHP
Chalmers has only pitched around 60 recorded innings since having Tommy John surgery during the 2018 season, and less than 200 total innings in six years as a professional, but that has not stopped him from getting close to the majors. That is because of strong raw stuff that includes a mid-90’s fastball and bat missing sliders and changeups as his secondary offerings. Control of these pitches has always been the issue as he has walked 6.6 per nine innings pitched over his professional career. This was especially evident in his time in the Arizona Fall League after the 2019 season, where he was all over the board from terrible to dominant in his outings there, depending on that control. He started the AFL Championship game that the Twins prospects went on to win (with help from other prospects, of course).
Gilberto Celestino (22), OF – TD’s #11 Prospect (Celestino made his MLB debut on 6/2, starting in CF and going 0-for-2 with a K)
Celestino is an interesting case study on 40-man protection situations, as he is a player who has yet to play any games above A-ball, and only eight of them in the advanced Florida State League at that. As is the case with all these guys, you can blame that on a lost 2020 MiLB season, but his apparent rise in those circumstances is noteworthy as he did spend 2020 at the alternate site in St. Paul. Celestino’s bat came alive with Cedar Rapids in the latter half of the 2019 season where from July onward he hit .348/.413/.532. If the bat has continued to come around there is an exciting prospect here as he has always been a fantastic outfielder, including in center. Someone on the MLB roster could learn something about playing walls from him, too:
Bailey Ober (25), RHP – TD’s #20 Prospect (Ober made his MLB debut on 5/18, starting the game and going 4.0 IP , allowing 4 ER on 5 H, 1 BB, and struck out 4 in a win against the Chicago White Sox)
You will not find a better statistical performer as a starting pitcher in the Twins system from the 2019 season, where Ober posted eye opening numbers including a 0.69 ERA, 0.81 WHIP, and K/9 rate of 11.4 at Fort Myers and Pensacola. You might expect such numbers to warrant a higher ranking on prospect lists, but he is a bit of a unicorn in the tool aspects as a 6’9” hurler whose fastball *might* touch 90 MPH on a good day. What he does have however, is perhaps some of the best control you will find in all of the minor leagues. While striking out 100 hitters in 78 2/3 innings in 2019, he walked just nine for a rate of 1.0/9IP. Pitches will always play up when you can locate them like he does, especially from his frame, and Ober is one I am particularly looking forward to following again in the 2021 season.
It is disappointing I had to remove one of the entries who would be in this section before Spring Training even started, but it is still worth mentioning Royce Lewis’ name. His 2019 campaign in the Arizona Fall League that resulted in an MVP award does not seem to get the credit it should. It was the best performance by a Twins prospect by far since I have been following that league with a keen eye for more years than I care to admit. His knee injury is a major bummer for the 2021 season (I guess welcome to the torn ACL club, Royce!), just like the cancelling of 2020’s minor league season was. We are going to have to wait even longer for the former #1 overall pick to arrive in the majors, but I have no doubts it will be well worth the wait.
I consider each of the players in this section to be on equal footing when it comes to their maturity in the Twins system as the 40-man roster players above. They just have not needed to be added to that list yet.
Trevor Larnach (24), OF – TD’s #3 Prospect (Larnach made his debut on 5/8, playing LF and going 0-for-4 but reaching base on a HBP)
Twins Daily’s 2019 MiLB Hitter of the Year gets less accolades than fellow outfielder Alex Kirilloff, but I would not argue with you if you put them on equal footing as hitters. Larnach has comparable power to all fields and a bit better plate discipline to make up for any lag in hitting that skill evaluators might perceive. With the glut of corner outfield talent in the upper portions of the Twins system, having Larnach start the 2021 season back in double-A is logical, but his bat is one that could force the issue as the MLB season wears on.
Blayne Enlow (22), RHP – TD’s #10 Prospect (Update: Enlow hit the disabled list in early June, and was later determined to need Tommy John surgery and will mist the rest of the 2021 season)
When drafted in 2017, Enlow was said to have one of the best curveballs available, which was an even more impressive statement as he was a high school pitcher. But that pitch took a step back when he became a pro, leading to relatively unimpressive strikeout numbers. That tide could be changing as he continues to grow into any adjustments made by coaches, as reports from instructs last fall included added velocity (mid 90’s) and a reinvigorated breaking ball. Losing the 2020 season was especially detrimental to evaluating someone like Enlow, but youth is still on his side as the youngest player to appear on this list. I would envision 2022 as a more likely MLB debut year for him, but you never know.
Matt Canterino (23), RHP – TD’s #9 Prospect
Canterino is another prospect where the loss of a 2020 season looms large. As an advanced college draftee in 2019 he spent time with Cedar Rapids in his first professional season and could have been fast-tracked to the upper levels in 2020. Instead of impressing on the diamond, he did so off of it, earning a late addition to the alternate site in St. Paul where he demonstrated some added velocity and also got some notice for touching 99 MPH in throwing sessions over the winter. Because his delivery has a lot of moving parts, there are some questions about if he can remain a starter long-term, but he has answered them positively in every way he can so far. If he is ticketed for double-A Wichita early in the season (or to start it?), take notice.
MINOR LEAGUE DEPTH:
While these players are not necessarily top prospects, they are at or near the top of the system and have performed well to get themselves there. It could be a thing where a pitcher is lined up to pitch on the right day the Twins need a spot-start across the river at Target Field, or an injury leads to needing a specific position covered and there is no other ready replacement available. Maybe something new has clicked and they have improved their stock from internal evaluators. No matter how it happens, players like these are always needed at some point during the MLB season.
Griffin Jax (26), RHP (Jax made his MLB debut on 6/8 against the New York Yankees, in relief. He pitched 1 inning, allowing 3 ER on 3 H, and striking out 1)
Jax reached triple-A for three starts during the 2019 season due to a stellar campaign at Pensacola where he posted a sub 3.00 ERA in 111 1/3 innings and earned an All-Star nod. He is not a strikeout artist but has limited walks and hard contact as a pro.
Ryan Mason (26), RHP
Mason was not able to pitch as much as he would have liked during the 2019 season due to an ulnar nerve injury that cut it short after just 23 innings with Pensacola. But those innings were fantastic as he closed out seven games for saves with a 2.35 ERA with 28 K’s and earned Twins Daily’s MiLB Relief Pitcher of the Month award for April.
Zander Wiel (28), 1B/OF
Wiel has been a favorite follow of mine since the Twins took him in the 12th round of the 2015 draft out of College World Series champion Vanderbilt. He may not have any loud tools, but has been productive throughout his MiLB career, leading the International League in doubles with 40, and all Twins minor leaguers with 86 runs scored with Rochester in 2019.
There always seems to be a player or two who comes out nowhere to make a surprise debut for me. They might be a known name but are not that far up the ladder at the season’s outset, returning from an injury so they have been forgotten some, or have a unique skillset or background I find intriguing that could pay big dividends. These are my shots in the dark at guys who that could be in 2021.
Tom Hackimer (26), RHP (Hackimer was promoted to triple-A in mid-May but had some struggles and was released in June)
A pure reliever prospect who could remind fans of Pat Neshek when it is all said and done. A sidewinder who missed most of the 2018 season with a shoulder injury returned in 2019 to post a 2.54 ERA and 75 K’s in 56 2/3 innings between Fort Myers and Pensacola, earning a FSL All-Star selection in the process.
Matt Wallner (23), OF – TD’s #13 Prospect
A native Minnesotan and another advanced hitter out of the Brent Rooker/Trevor Larnach mold from college, Wallner could move quickly if he is hitting bombs like he did at this spring training game I was fortunate enough to attend last year:
Cole Sands (23), RHP – TD’s #15 Prospect
Another victim of no 2020 season, Sands was fantastic in 2019 pitching at three levels in his first taste of professional ball, ending the year with a start in double-A. He was especially dominant with Fort Myers, posting a 2.25 ERA and 0.83 WHIP in nine starts. His changeup has been rated as the best in the Twins system by Baseball America.
Yennier Cano (27), RHP
An international signing in 2019, Cano has flown a little under the radar despite being rated as one of the top arms available in that market up to that point. A standout from Cuba that played on their national teams, Cano boasts high-90’s velocity and a full repertoire that could be culled to play to his strengths out of the bullpen.
Chris Vallimont (24), RHP
Vallimont was the prospect addition in the deal with the Miami Marlins for Sergio Romo during the 2019 season and impressed with Fort Myers after the trade. He has been a starter with a full repertoire including a fastball with movement and slider that gets swings and misses, especially against same-sided hitters. The Twins want him to throw that slider more, which could be an interesting development to follow this season as the organization has taken a particular interest in slider heavy relievers recently.
These are (some of) the players I think could make their MLB dreams come true during the 2021 season and don a Minnesota Twins jersey for the first time. When do you think any of them will show up at Target Field? Who are you looking forward to the most? Who are the prospects I’ve missed that you believe could do so this year?