Patrick Reusse: Top hitting prospect has the big club paying attention

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 12, 2007 - 8:07 AM

Now that defense is part of the package, a top hitting prospect has the big club paying attention again.

FORT MYERS, FLA. - Former Twins manager Tom Kelly had concluded an interview with a reporter. He was sitting in front of the team's minor league facility. It was early March in 2006, and the minor leaguers had not yet officially reported to spring training.

A number of early arrivers were jogging on an adjacent playing field. Kelly nodded toward a young man in the group and said: "That's Winfree. He drives the ball pretty good. He has a chance, if he can figure out the fielding part of it."

Dave Winfree had been the Twins' minor league player of the year in 2005, after batting .294 with 16 home runs and 101 RBI at Class A Beloit.

Kelly and the Twins looked at fielding as Winfree's main obstacle, until late April. That was when he requested permission to leave Class A Fort Myers and return home to Virginia Beach, Va.

"I had a lot of expectations for myself after putting together that good season in Beloit," Winfree said. "I had arthroscopic surgery on my shoulder in December. Then I was hit in the thumb by a pitch at the start of the season, and that really affected my swing.

"Frustration. Disappointment. Whatever the cause, I felt like I had to go home. Everyone likes to be home, right? It's comfortable there."

Winfree's father -- also David -- allowed his son to enjoy that comfort for a few weeks. Then Mr. Winfree, the owner of a company that sells stone countertops, etc., decided to give his son a look at his career options.

"Dad put me on the job -- delivering cabinets, countertops," David said. "It was his way of saying, 'This is the way real life is going to be.' "

Winfree smiled. "After about five days, I called Mr. [Terry] Ryan and told him I wanted to come back," he said.

Winfree was out of the Fort Myers lineup from April 28 to July 1. He hit 14 home runs in the final two months, then was sent to the Arizona Fall League.

At 21, he was a young player for that league of top prospects. He didn't hit at all early on, winding up at .176 with three homers and 17 RBI in 21 games.

Winfree is extra important to the Twins because he's the organization's No. 1 righthanded hitting prospect. Project the 2009 lineup and there are five lefties: Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel, Denard Span and Matt Moses.

You look at that potential lineup for the future, then consider Winfree's strong bat and shaky glove and say: "What's the problem? He can be a DH."

Forget it. The Twins aren't an organization to present designated hitter as an option for a player who won't be 22 until August.

"[Manager] Ron Gardenhire is going to address the minor leaguers [today], and I know what he's going to say," Winfree said. "He's going to tell us, 'You need a position to play for the Twins. You have to be able to help us in the field and at the plate.'

"That's why, when I came home from the fall league, I spent a lot of time taking ground balls. I actually kept count. I fielded 8,400 ground balls before I came to Fort Myers."

Winfree wasn't the lone third base prospect working this winter to improve his standing with the Twins. Moses, the No. 1 choice when Winfree was the 13th in 2003, is 30 pounds lighter this spring.

"I played baseball with Matt and against him for years, and I hardly recognized him," Winfree said. "One of Matt's things in high school was he could run. Watch. He'll steal some bags this year."

Moses and Winfree both come from Virginia and both committed to Clemson before signing with the Twins. Despite him being drafted 12 rounds lower, some Twins scouts evaluated Winfree as highly as Moses. That's why the Twins gave him $300,000 -- big money for a 13th-rounder -- to sign.

"I've always wanted to be a big-league player," Winfree said. "I'm driven to be that."

As opposed to driving a delivery truck for Dad? "Exactly," he said.

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