Fort Myers, Fla. – The Twins played in Port Charlotte on Monday night, allowing the team’s brain trust to spend the early afternoon at the minor league fields in Fort Myers, watching their best prospects play the first intrasquad games of minor league camp.
On Field 2, Miguel Sano, in his first at-bat, smashed a pitch over the left field fence and onto Plantation Road.
On Field 3, Byron Buxton effortlessly sent a fastball on a line over the left field fence, toward the palm trees.
Often over the past 20 years, admiring the Twins’ farm system has required the suspension of disbelief. Even the group of youngsters who rescued the franchise around the turn the century lacked star power, until Torii Hunter matured and Johan Santana learned a changeup.
Their current group of prospects do not challenge the imagination. They are uncommon athletes, whether massive and powerful like Sano or sleek like Buxton.
Monday afternoon, Twins General Manager Terry Ryan, manager Ron Gardenhire, Tom Kelly, Paul Molitor and the rest of the front office fanned out around Fields 2 and 3. Molitor stood behind third base, watching Sano’s footwork.
After big league cuts the past couple of days, the minor league camp holds top pitching prospects Alex Meyer, Trevor May and Michael Tonkin. Monday night, Aaron Hicks, who hasn’t played above Double-A, led off for the big league team again, having all but officially won the Opening Day center field job, and Oswaldo Arcia, a polished hitter, played right field.
Whenever Puerto Rico finishes its run in the World Baseball Classic, second baseman Eddie Rosario and pitcher Jose Berrios will return to give the Twins the most high-end talent they’ve had in their farm system since Kent Hrbek and Gary Gaetti were practicing wrestling holds on each other in fleabag hotels in the Midwest League.
The Twins always have been cautious about praising their prospects. They aren’t cautious about this bunch.
“I’m very excited,’’ Gardenhire said. “Very excited. You’ve seen what Hicks has done here. He’s been really, really good. Berrios has thrown the living crap out of the ball and has no fear. He looks like he’s been pitching here for 20 years.
“Rosario, the same thing, swinging the bat. Incredible. He just steps up and can really hit. I keep telling Terry he can lead off for us. I don’t know what he’s going to do defensively. I don’t know if he’d break even, if this was hockey, but he can really hit.’’
Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson, who has held that job since 2002, said, “This is the best set of young arms I’ve had in my years here. If you look at stuff, with Myers and May and Tonkin — and what we saw from Tonkin over there today was outstanding — this is really exciting.
“You take them, and then add Berrios in there, who is very impressive, and this gets us very excited when we look to the future.’’
An active imagination is not required to envision the team’s best prospects gradually rising to the big leagues over the next two or three years, and helping a franchise that had lost its way reverse course.
Hicks is the pace car for the next wave of talent. The Twins traded center fielders Denard Span and Ben Revere not only to acquire pitching talent, but because they believe Hicks will be better than either.
“We’ve got guys behind us in the minor leagues that are definitely going to be a big part of things once they, hopefully, get up to the big leagues,’’ Hicks said. “Sano, Buxton? Wow. And the pitchers we got from different teams, like Meyer and May? We’ve got talent.’’
Monday afternoon, Hicks walked to the minor league fields to watch the intrasquad games.
Later, Buxton was carrying his equipment away from Field 3, still too unknown to attract autograph seekers. He said he and Hicks have talked.
“Great guy,’’ Buxton said. “Watching guys like him makes me strive harder to do what they do, to be close to as good as them.’’
It’s a competition that played out across several fields in southwest Florida on Monday, and will play out over the next few years at Target Field.