It's a pick the Twins know they can't afford to mess up. And one they have messed up in their past two tries.
Thanks to 99 losses a year ago, the Twins landed the No. 2 overall pick in Major League Baseball's amateur draft on June 4. It became apparent last year that their minor league system was short on top prospects, an opinion seconded by several national publications that have ranked the Twins farm system from middle-of-the-road to near the bottom of the league.
They have an excellent chance in June to land someone who could become an impact player at the major league level.
"We can't miss on that," Twins General Manager Terry Ryan said. "We can't and we shouldn't."
History offers no assurances. The Twins had the No. 2 overall pick in both 2000 and 1996, and both times came up almost empty. They selected righthander Adam Johnson in 2000 and first baseman Travis Lee in 1996. Johnson pitched briefly in the majors, while Lee was declared a free agent after the Twins failed to offer him a contract within 15 days of the draft, a mistake that team officials blamed on not wanting to distract Lee while he played for the U.S. Olympic team.
The Twins have settled on a handful of players they consider candidates to go No. 2. The scouting process with some of them goes back to their early teens.
Finances will be less of a concern this year, Twins officials say. Not because the Twins have a stack of blank checks, but because bonus constraints have been written into the latest collective bargaining agreement. Teams will have a pool of bonus money to spend and will face severe penalties if they exceed their bonus pool.
There are a handful of prospects considered possibilities for the Twins at No. 2, according to national experts.
Stanford righthander Mark Appel, Georgia prep outfielder Byron Buxton, University of San Francisco righthander Kyle Zimmer, Arizona State shortstop Deven Marrero and University of Florida catcher Mike Zunino are considered the top prospects for the draft. California prep righthander Lucas Giolito was part of the mix before injuring his right elbow in March. Given the Twins' recent injury history, they likely won't take a chance with Giolito even if he's deemed healthy.
A year ago, the draft was considered one of the deepest in years. This year's class is considered to have a dropoff in talent compared with 2011, although Appel and Zimmer have mid-90s fastballs, Buxton is multitooled, Zunino has good power and Marrero is considered a complete prospect.
"Every round, every year breaks down differently," said Mike Radcliff, Twins senior vice president in charge of player personnel. "Last year, there were eight super guys. This year is about five, and they are not super guys, just five guys at the top."
Jim Callis, executive editor of Baseball America, agrees.
"There are some good players this year and some legitimate No. 1 picks, but this year's draft isn't as deep, especially when it comes to college talent," Callis wrote in an e-mail. "I'd say the top tier right now would be Buxton, Appel, Giolito [if he's healthy, which we won't know for a while], Zimmer and Zunino. Marrero could be in that mix, too, but I don't see him [and probably not Zunino] going No. 1."
The draft offers no guarantees, even among high picks. History is full of examples of high picks becoming wasted money, and every team has been affected. The last time the Twins had a No. 2 overall pick they selected Johnson from Cal State-Fullerton. He reached the majors in 2001 but appeared in only nine games during stints in 2001 and 2003. He last pitched professionally in 2009, in an independent league.
Three players selected in the first round in 2000 have thrived in the majors -- Adrian Gonzalez (first), Chase Utley (15th) and Adam Wainwright (29th). Phil Dumatrait (22nd) has survived. That's it out of 30 picks.
Although much attention has been placed on the No. 2 pick, it's what a team does in the early to middle rounds that can define a draft. The Twins, because of compensatory picks for Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel leaving as free agents, have five of the first 75 picks of the draft.
It's a great chance for them to restock their system with talented prospects. But history suggests caution there as well. The last time the Twins had five high picks was 2004, when they had five of the first 39 picks and selected Trevor Plouffe, Glen Perkins, Kyle Waldrop and righthanders Matt Fox and Jay Rainville. The Twins were praised for having a good draft. But Fox and Rainville suffered injuries and never were the same, Plouffe is being moved to the outfield, Perkins has found a home as a setup man, and Waldrop has been injured and still is trying to reach the majors. The class will look much better if Plouffe realizes the potential Twins officials still believe exists.
The Twins know that their success in this year's draft will go a long way toward winning in the future. They need to draft well not only at No. 2, but with several other top picks.
"We're very excited about the opportunity we have to select an outstanding prospect," said Deron Johnson, Twins director of scouting. "Obviously, there's a lot of interest in that No. 2 pick, but we have five of the first 75 picks of the draft that we're focusing on."