For years Twins fans have watched the Cleveland Baseball Club bring up pitcher after pitcher who finds success. In recent years, they have traded pitchers such as Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer and Mike Clevinger and still have a top ten pitching staff in 2021.
It seems to have started in July of 2010 when Cleveland acquired middling pitching prospect Corey Kluber as part of a three-team deal. At the time, Kluber was a 24-year-old just starting to put things together in Double-A. He was never a Top 30 prospect with the Padres, and he wasn’t a Top 20 prospect for Cleveland either.
Kluber debuted in 2011 with three games. He made 12 starts in 2012 and went 2-5 while posting a 5.14 ERA. In 2013, he gained a regular rotation spot, went 11-5 and had a 3.85 ERA. In 2014, he won his first of two Cy Young Awards and finished in the top three in voting four of the next five seasons.
Mike Clevinger was Cleveland’s fourth round pick by the Angels out of junior college. Four years later, in August of 2014, he had not reached Double-A and was traded to Cleveland in exchange for reliever Vinny Pestano. Clevinger debuted in 2016 as a 25-year old. He split time between the bullpen and the rotation through the 2017 season before becoming a full-time starter in 2018.
Shane Bieber was Cleveland’s fourth round pick in 2016 out of UC-Santa Barbara. His timeline was pretty quick. He pitched at three levels in 2017. In 2018, he started at Double-A and dominated for five starts. He moved up to Triple A for eight starts and was great. He debuted in May 2018 at age 23 and moved up and down for awhile, but he’s been in their rotation ever since. He became an All Star in 2019 and was the unanimous Cy Young winner in 2020 at age 25. Bieber wasn’t a top ten Cleveland prospect until that 2018 season.
Aaron Civale was Cleveland’s third round pick in 2016 out of Northeastern. He spent all of 2018 in Double-A. In 2017, he began at Double-A but quickly moved up. The rest of that season, his age-24-season, bouncing back and forth between Triple-A and Cleveland. He posted a 4.74 ERA in 12 starts in 2020, and has started 2021 6-1 with a 3.30 ERA. Civale found himself just outside of Cleveland’s Top 10 prospect rankings.
Zach Plesac was Cleveland’s 12th round draft pick in 2016 out of Ball State. Three years later, he made his debut as a 24-year-old in May of 2019. Since then, he has posted season ERAs of 3.81, 2.28 and 3.93.
So again, what can we learn?
- Don’t write off any pitcher in the minor leaguers, even if they aren’t a top 30 prospect in the organization.
- It is normal for pitchers, even good ones, to bounce between Triple-A and the big leagues for a little while.
- You don’t have to debut at 23 or younger to become a star.
- You can win Cy Youngs at age 25 like Bieber or 29 like Kluber.
- You don’t have to go to a top college to become a good big-league starter.
- Repeating a level doesn’t disqualify a pitcher from becoming a good starter.
- Maybe the most important thing to remember is that you just never know.
Where are the Twins now?
Jose Berrios is homegrown, though he was called up before the current regime took over. The current front office has signed Michael Pineda as a free agent (twice), J.A. Happ, Matt Shoemaker and others. They also traded for Kenta Maeda a year ago. In other words, they are still piecing things together as they wait for the pipeline to produce.
While Lewis Thorpe was signed and developed early under a past regime, he has also developed the past four or five years under the current regime.
Randy Dobnak is absolutely a success story, even if he never makes another start in the big leagues (which, by the way, after six shutout innings on Friday night, it won’t be). You know the story. Undrafted free agent from a Division II school. Signed from an independent league. Spent all of 2018 in Cedar Rapids. Pitched at four levels in 2019, including in the big leagues. Signed a long-term extension.
But, now we want (and really, really need) to start seeing the pipeline. Remember, the first year with Derek Falvey at the helm, there weren’t a lot of changes. There was a lot of evaluation. So in 2017, they started adding some additional technology (Rapsodo, high-speed cameras, added Trackman capabilities). They have also now been adding coaches and coordinators. Each affiliate has two pitching coaches. Each affiliate has at least one Spanish-speaking coach. They have had a minor league pitching coordinator with a couple of assistants. Each pitcher has an individual improvement plan that they get to be part of making.
So who are some of the pitching prospects that potentially could keep developing?
Jhoan Duran (23) made his first appearance on Saturday night for the Saints. He was hitting 97-99 (the radar gun kept showing 102), though it was also clear he was shaking off some rust. The Twins acquired him in a trade from the Diamondbacks and have helped him develop as a starting pitcher.
The Twins current front office has traded for some other pitching prospects early in their development. Luis Rijo (22) came to the Twins from the Yankees in the Lance Lynn deal. He was a pitcher with good command of his pitches. By 2019, he was hitting 95 with his fastball. When the Twins traded Lewin Diaz to the Marlins in 2019, they received Sergio Romo and Chris Vallimont (24). The hard-throwing right-hander made his Wichita debut on Saturday night and struck out eight batters in 4 2/3 innings.
Jordan Balazovic (22) should be returning to action soon. He has been working back from an oblique injury in Ft. Myers, but he is obviously very talented. He was the Twins fifth round pick in 2016 out of high school in Canada. A year later, the Twins were able to sign Blayne Enlow (22) after drafting him in the third round of the 2017 draft and keeping him from LSU. Enlow is now throwing 95-96 mph with a four-pitch mix that has come a long way.
Two other pitchers to watch are in St. Paul. Griffin Jax (26) was the team’s third round pick in 2016 from the Air Force. He was only able to participate part-time early in his career due to obligations, but he’s been a very consistent performer all the way up. Charlie Barnes (25) was the Twins’ fourth round pick in 2018 out of Clemson. Known for his changeup, he also has been quite good as he’s moved up the ladder. Both have been invited to big-league spring training the last two years.
Bailey Ober (25) made his MLB debut this week, a spot start in place of Michael Pineda. He has put up just silly numbers in his minor league career, though he has missed time with arm issues. When healthy, he’s really good despite not throwing real hard.
The 2018 draft brought the Twins a couple of very intriguing prospects. In the fourth round, they selected Cole Sands (23) out of Florida State. In 2019, he pitched at three levels and is starting well in Wichita this year. Wichita’s Opening Day starter was 2018 seventh-round pick Josh Winder (24). No one has increased their prospect value in the past year than Winder. After sitting 91-92 mph in 2019, he now is hitting 97 mph with a fastball and has a very sharp slider and a good change.
Also from that 2018 draft, lefty Kody Funderburk (24, 15th round, Dallas Baptist) and Andrew Cabezas (24, 18th round, U of Miami) have started out well with Cedar Rapids. 19th round pick, Austin Schulfer (25, UW-Milwaukee) has made three starts at AA Wichita already. Regi Grace (21)was the Twins 10th round pick out of high school in Mississippi, and he just had his best start with the Mighty Mussels.
The Twins grabbed Matt Canterino (23) with their second-round draft pick in 2019 out of Rice University. He was an advanced college pitcher when drafted, and then he ended 2020 at the Twins alternate site. He participated in the Twins depth camp at spring training and showed an upper-90s fastball to go with a terrific pitch-mix.
The Twins drafted and signed ten more college pitchers between the sixth and 19th rounds that year. And then in the 30th round, they drafted Tyler Beck, a closer from Division II’s University of Tampa. He has started the 2021 with the Cedar Rapids Kernels and is 1-0 with a 1.42 ERA. Through his first 12 2/3 innings, he has given up just three hits, walked two and struck out 15. Now, he is already 25, but he has taken a very circuitous route to where he is today and whatever he has been developing over the last year or more seems to be encouraging.
And that brings me back to Age. Of course, Age-to-Level-of-Competition is a factor in prospect rankings, it should be only a minor piece to an organization’s evaluation of a player. If that’s the case, the Twins never would have signed Nick Anderson out of the independent leagues, and the Marlins and Rays certainly wouldn’t have traded for him.
In addition, we just have to remember that the majority of these pitching prospects missed a full season of development.
Again, it may be hard to figure out which pitching prospects will become big leaguers, much less big league rotation members, much less All Stars. So what can you look for?
- Stuff - Obviously to get to the big leagues, a pitcher has to have some ‘stuff’. Stuff, in my opinion, means velocity as well as quality pitch movement and shape. Velocity obviously helps make it possible to make some more mistakes and get away with them, but we have also seen so many successful pitchers who top out at 91-92 mph. Those guys need to have quality pitches, movement, shape, sharpness. It is also important to remember that pitchers are able to improve upon those things. Josh Winder bumping his fastball from 92 to 97 is just one example. The technology the Twins have provides the coaches and pitchers to work together to increase velocity, find a more consistent release point, increase spin and more.
- Command - As mentioned, a way to be successful even without triple-digit velocity is by being able to place the pitch exactly where you want to. “Control” just means that you don’t walk many batters. Command means that you are able to place the ball where you want it within the strike zone or just off it.
Obviously there can be more factors for a pitcher’s success as well, but those are the two biggest. In addition, having a high baseball IQ is good. Being willing to ask questions is a good thing. Talking to both Josh Winder and Matt Canterino, they learned from the veteran pitchers while at big-league spring training. However, Canterino also talked about getting to spend some time talking with Josh Donaldson about his stuff, what a hitter might be thinking in certain situations and more. Being willing to learn is very important. And finally, being able to understand that the process is more important than the results, especially lower in the minor leagues. If you are doing the right things mechanically, mentally, in your preparation, and understand that it is understanding the big picture, you can continue to learn.
Like all teams, the Twins have some very intriguing pitching prospects. A couple will make it. A couple may get a short stint. A few probably won’t get there. We will have a good idea of where the Twins front office and pitcher development programs are and will be going forward.