5. Brusdar Graterol, RHP (20)
2018 Ranking: N/A
By the time Graterol turned 20, on August 26th, he had already logged 50 innings in the Advanced-A Florida State League, striking out 46 and allowing zero home runs. As one of the youngest players to throw a pitch in the FSL, the hard-throwing righty was experiencing immediate success. This came as no surprise to those who'd watched him obliterate the Midwest League for two months.
Powered by a fastball that reaches triple digits and a plus slider, the stocky young right-hander has been climbing national prospect lists. There's a considerable amount of risk here given that he hasn't yet reached the high minors and lacks a bona fide third pitch, but the dazzling upside outweighs it all. This is the kind of prized arm any franchise covets.
4. Alex Kirilloff, OF (21)
2018 Ranking: 20
Kirilloff's 2018 was, simply put, one of the most impressive seasons we've ever seen from a Twins prospect. He led the Midwest League in OPS (.999) during his first half, then ranked third in the Florida State League (.943) after being promoted. The two players ahead of him in the FSL were three and four years older. Between the two levels of A-ball, Kirilloff batted .348 with 44 doubles, 20 homers and 101 RBIs.
"It didn’t take Kirilloff long to outgrow Max Kepler comparisons and head straight for Christian Yelich territory," wrote Baseball America in ranking him the organization's second-best prospect. Yelich was of course the 2018 NL MVP.
Kirilloff entered the year with only 55 games of pro experience. He ends it as one of the top hitting prospects in the minors, with a sweet lefty swing that generates power to all fields and rarely fails to connect. He projects as a middle-of-the-order bat and could arrive as soon as 2019.
3. Byron Buxton, OF (25)
2018 Ranking: 1
"Buxton impacts games in so many ways, bringing entirely new levels of entertainment and excitement for the viewer. He received MVP votes and a Gold Glove at in his age-23 season, and I'm guessing he'll be getting plenty more of both in the coming seasons. Humble, likable and hardworking, he's a perfect face for the franchise."
So I wrote one year ago in naming Buxton the organization's most valuable asset. All of those things are still true, at least in theory, though he needs to be on the field and getting on base in order to entertain and excite anyone. Those things didn't happen in 2018, when he played only 28 games for the Twins and posted a .183 OBP, plagued by injuries, misfortune, and perhaps some self-inflicted aggravation due to overcompensating.
It was a lost year, but the Twins didn't lose a year of control, thanks to their controversial decision to snub Buxton in September and delay his free agent eligibility until after 2022. He remains one of the most potentially impactful players in the game. We've already seen his offensive floor (basement, really) and there's nowhere to go but up. But without question, the center fielder needs to show he can stay healthy and sustain some kind of production at the dish. I anticipate a monster year.
2. Jose Berrios, RHP (24)
2018 Ranking: 3
In 1991, the Twins drafted a prep right-hander named Brad Radke. Three years later, a child by the name of Jose Berrios was born in Bayamon, Puerto Rico. Berrios was one year old when Radke debuted in the majors, embarking on a career that would be criminally underappreciated due to coinciding with baseball's steroid-fueled offensive eruption.
I'm not here to debate whether Radke could accurately be described as a front-of-the-rotation starter. But I can say with confidence he's the closest the thing this franchise has been able to draft and develop in that mold in the last three decades. At least he was, up until Mr. Berrios arrived.
Berrios didn't win 20 games in his age 24 season, as Radke did, but he was an All-Star, backing up his outstanding 2017 with another stellar effort while extending to almost 200 innings. His ascent thus far has been unusually devoid of turbulence – few young pitchers perform as consistently well, and stay as reliably healthy – which seems to validate the hurler's legendary work ethic. He's still got more ceiling above him as he reaches his mid-20s, but already Berrios is a playoff-caliber starter, with four years of control remaining.
1. Royce Lewis, SS (19)
2018 Ranking: 2
Lewis was already challenging Buxton for the top spot on this list a year ago (an amazing feat, considering where Buck was at). Then he went and took Single-A by storm, posting an .803 OPS between Cedar Rapids and Ft. Myers while facing almost exclusively older competition. During his masterful 2018 campaign, Lewis importantly did two things that were by no means a given: he hit for power and he excelled at shortstop.
Many scouts assumed Lewis would develop some pop eventually as he filled out, but it was downright stunning to see the skinny teenager bust out for 29 doubles and 14 home runs in his first full season. When he was drafted, scouts also expressed skepticism about his long-term viability at shortstop (center field was viewed as a somewhat likely fallback) but that's fading. "Early returns on his glove suggest he can not only stick at the 6, but be above-average there," wrote Baseball Prospectus recently.
A big part of these rankings is factoring in risk, and obviously there is always inherent uncertainty when you're talking about a 19-year-old who hasn't reached the high minors yet. But, while I know it sounds utterly ridiculous to talk about "sure things" as we watch Buxton and Miguel Sano slide down this list... Lewis really does have that vibe. His athleticism is surpassed only by his aptitude, and I've honestly never heard better reviews of a player his age when it comes to makeup, poise and adaptability.
The Twins have a superstar-caliber talent in Lewis. They might have four or five of them listed in this article alone. If enough plays out as hoped with the top quintet, and a few things break right elsewhere in the Top 20, you've got a championship nucleus within five years.
RECAPPING THE RANKINGS:
20. Nick Gordon, SS
19. C.J. Cron, 1B
18. Adalberto Mejia, LHP
17. Jake Cave, OF
16. Wander Javier, SS
15. Stephen Gonsalves, LHP
14. Miguel Sano, 3B
13. Kyle Gibson, RHP
12. Trevor May, RHP
11. Mitch Garver, C
10. Taylor Rogers, LHP
9. Max Kepler, OF
8. Eddie Rosario, OF
7. Jorge Polanco, SS
6. Fernando Romero, RHP
5. Brusdar Graterol, RHP
4. Alex Kirilloff, OF
3. Byron Buxton, OF
2. Jose Berrios, RHP
1. Royce Lewis, SS
A few parting thoughts as we reflect on the whole list...
Where are Trevor Larnach and Brent Rooker?
I certainly think both these players can be important to the franchise's future, but from my view, the presence of both (and the similar functional profiles) makes each less vital at the moment... if that makes sense. Should Rooker fail to pan out, they have Larnach for essentially the same role, on a similar timeline. And vice versa. Since Rooker was good-not-great in Double-A, and Larnach hasn't played above Low-A, I don't feel we have enough solid data to solidly determine which is the safer bet to make an impact.
One thing I like about this exercise is that it forces me to think about things in different ways. For instance, I've never really pondered whether Fernando Romero or Brusdar Graterol is more valuable to the Twins. Both have big upside but Graterol's currently looks quite a bit higher. Romero is already here but Graterol doesn't look that far off. I'm guessing (but not certain) Graterol would bring back more in a trade, though both have appeal. Another tough call was Eddie Rosario versus Max Kepler. Kepler has an extra year of control, and superior defense. Rosario is the more explosive hitter (and all-around player) with his value trending up. I gave Eddie the nod but could've easily gone the other way.
Based on feedback, the most controversial rankings seem to be C.J. Cron, Jake Cave and Mitch Garver (too high), and Miguel Sano and Nick Gordon (too low). Solid arguments were made and if I re-did these rankings I'd probably move several of those guys around a bit. In particular I was likely too hard on Sano, overemphasizing his stock-drop effect. He's an important player to this franchise, no question.
I put this list together a few days before the Twins agreed to terms with Nelson Cruz, which is why he's absent. Given his immense short-term impact and delightfully team-friendly contact, Cruz would certainly factor in somewhere despite his age. I'm thinking maybe around #15? Where would you slot him?
Feel free to air any final grievances and pick your bones with the Top 5 below. Thanks to all who read and commented.