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Baseball's annual amateur draft is designed to replace misery with hope, so in a perfect world, after last year's 99-loss debacle, the Twins would turn the No. 2 pick on June 4 into something special like the Marlins did 13 years ago.
In 1999, coming off a 108-loss season, the Marlins watched Tampa Bay select Josh Hamilton with the first pick before taking Josh Beckett at No. 2, discovering the brash Texas pitcher who would lead them to a World Series title four years later. In 2004, one year after suffering through 119 losses, the Tigers used the second overall pick on a lanky righthander from Old Dominion named Justin Verlander.
But draft experts can't see it playing out that way for the Twins, who have an organization particularly bare in starting pitching thanks at least in part to a lack of success in recent drafts.
Maybe it's just bad timing. Or something more sinister, such as an extension of the supposed curse that's hovered over the franchise since those black spruce trees were removed from Target Field, but nobody foresees any pitcher from this year's draft class blossoming into the next Beckett or Verlander.
The Astros hold the first pick, and there has been speculation they will either take Stanford pitcher Mark Appel, who has Houston roots, or Georgia high school outfielder Byron Buxton. All signs point to the Twins taking whichever one is left, or University of San Francisco pitcher Kyle Zimmer.
Buxton is an unproven talent who hit only two home runs this spring, and scouts do not view Zimmer or Appel as a potential ace. There is no clear No. 1 choice like the Nationals had when they held the first pick in 2009 (Stephen Strasburg) and 2010 (Bryce Harper).
And it's not like last year when the top seven or eight picks might have gone No. 1 in this draft, a group including pitchers Gerrit Cole (Pirates), Danny Hultzen (Mariners), Trevor Bauer (Diamondbacks) and Dylan Bundy (Orioles). Twins Vice President of Player Personnel Mike Radcliff said this is one of the least talented crops he's seen in more than 20 years working the draft.
"What goes around comes around," Radcliff said. "Last time we were choosing this high [in 2001], we chose between [Joe] Mauer and [Mark] Teixeira and [Mark] Prior. That's pretty good."
Radcliff said no matter how thin the talent looks, good players will still emerge from this draft, and it's up to the Twins to find them, especially with five of the first 72 picks. The Twins gained three extra picks by letting Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel leave via free agency last fall. Under baseball's new collective bargaining agreement, each team has been assigned a specific spending budget for the first 10 rounds. The Twins have 13 selections in that span, more than any other team, so they've also got the biggest spending budget, $12,368,200.
Their scouting department will try to turn their high picks into impact big leaguers, especially starting pitchers, which is something they've struggled with mightily in the first four drafts under current scouting director Deron Johnson.
"It's a chance for us to do some damage and add some upside into the organization," Johnson said. "So, it's an extremely important draft, obviously the most important since I took over in '08."
Losing their touch
The baseball draft always has been a crapshoot, but the Twins used to fare better than most teams. Players they plucked from the draft -- including Torii Hunter, Brad Radke, Cuddyer, Mauer and Justin Morneau -- were integral to the team's success from 2001 through 2010.
In its annual organizational talent rankings, Baseball America had the Twins ranked between fourth and eighth among all 30 MLB teams every year from 2002 to 2007. This March, they ranked 20th.
As Baseball America's John Manuel notes, the Twins have drafted just two pitchers since 2006 who went on to pitch in the majors -- Jeff Manship and Anthony Slama, two righthanders who are back at Class AAA Rochester this year.
"That's the gaping hole in their farm system," Manuel said. "They really haven't had a good pitcher draft since '05. Looking at their farm system last year, I was shocked that their best pitching prospect was Liam Hendriks."
In 2008, after taking outfielder Aaron Hicks with the 14th overall selection, the Twins took Miami's Carlos Gutierrez (No. 27 overall) and Tulane's Shooter Hunt (31). The next year, they chose Missouri's Kyle Gibson (22), Indiana's Matt Bashore (46), Florida's Billy Bullock (70) and Jacksonville State's Ben Tootle (101). In 2010, they picked Ohio State's Alex Wimmers at No. 21.
"It's tough because I think they have drafted guys that the industry as a whole liked," Manuel said. "They haven't pushed guys up their boards, with the exception of Carlos Gutierrez. They thought worst case, he got to the big leagues quick as a sinkerballing setup guy, and best case, he's like a poor man's Derek Lowe.
"Shooter Hunt fell [into the Twins' laps], Kyle Gibson fell, Ben Tootle fell, Matt Bashore fell. It made sense to draft all those guys where they drafted them. You just don't expect five straight college arms like that to fail, but they all -- to certain degrees -- have failed, some of them more spectacularly than the others."
Hunt had severe control problems and went to the Cardinals last December in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft. Gibson and Bashore both needed Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery, and Tootle battled arm problems, too, before he and Bashore were released this spring. Wimmers and Gutierrez are still in the minors, rehabbing arm injuries. Johnson said the Twins are involving their medical staff more this year in the pre-draft process, "just so we won't be caught by surprise."
It's too early to grade the Twins' 2011 draft, but one of their best hopes is second-round pick Madison Boer, an Eden Prairie native signed out of the University of Oregon. The righthander is 0-5 with an 11.76 ERA for Class A Fort Myers.
Manuel realizes the Twins had previous success drafting college pitchers -- including Scott Baker (Oklahoma State) and Matt Garza (Fresno State) -- but thinks they could have been more aggressive taking high school pitchers in the early rounds.
"I think they focus too much on polish," said ESPN draft analyst Keith Law. "There's two basic types of starting pitching prospects in the draft: You have high-upside power guys and you have high-probability command guys. They only draft from the second group. There's nothing wrong with that, but you've got to mix in the first group every now and then."
The last power pitcher the Twins drafted and brought to the majors was Garza, who was taken in the first round (25th overall) in 2005 and made his big-league debut the next year. But their other attempts have fizzled.
"I saw Ben Tootle throw 98 [miles per hour] in the Cape [Cod League] the summer before we drafted him," Johnson said. "I saw him throw 92-96 early spring the year we signed him, with a good curveball. Bashore -- his last start [for Indiana], he was up to 96-97 with a hammer [curveball]. We've had some tough luck."
This could be a tough year to turn the tide. It's the first time since 2001 that the Twins have picked anywhere higher than 14th. That was the one downside about the sustained major league success they had over the previous decade.
"Usually we're picking 20 to 30, and it's very tough to gauge who you might get," General Manager Terry Ryan said. "For probably the last eight, nine months at least, we've had a fair idea who's going to be around in that [top two] area. So, if we don't get that guy right, then shame on us. You can't miss on ones and twos."
At that spot, any team is looking for a perennial All-Star, but there is great debate over who those players could be in this draft. Radcliff said the Twins' choice likely will boil down to "a high school position player and a college pitcher." This suggests Buxton is a strong possibility, even though the organization is thick with outfield prospects and ghastly thin on starting pitching.
"What if we go the safe route and take a college pitcher, and he ends up being a third or fourth starter, and a college or high school position player is a superstar three years from now?" Johnson said. "That's why I think we have to take the best player available."
The highest-rated college pitchers are Appel and Zimmer, along with Louisiana State's Kevin Gausman and Texas A&M's Michael Wacha. The Twins say the final decision will be made by Johnson, though like any scouting director, he will be weighing recommendations from everyone else in the draft room, including Ryan and Radcliff.
"I assume out of those college guys, they would like Zimmer the best," Manuel said. "Just knowing D.J. [Johnson]. He's a [Northern California] guy. They would like Zimmer's athleticism. I'm sure they have history with Zimmer. They're looking for pitchers with strike-throwing arm action. I understand why they look for that, but that track record is not inspiring confidence."
|Seattle - LP: F. Hernandez||0||FINAL|
|Cleveland - WP: J. Masterson||6|
|Arizona - LP: W. Miley||1||FINAL|
|Miami - WP: R. Nolasco||2|
|Cincinnati - LP: A. Chapman||2||FINAL|
|Philadelphia - WP: A. Bastardo||3|
|Houston - LP: L. Harrell||0||FINAL|
|Pittsburgh - WP: J. Locke||1|
|Los Angeles - LP: K. Jansen||2||FINAL|
|Atlanta - WP: L. Avilan||5|
|Tampa Bay - WP: M. Moore||3||FINAL|
|Baltimore - LP: C. Tillman||1|
|Boston - WP: J. Lackey||5||FINAL|
|Minnesota - LP: P. Hernandez||1|
|Milwaukee - LP: K. Lohse||2||FINAL|
|St. Louis - WP: J. Gast||4|
|NY Mets - WP: S. Rice||4||FINAL|
|Chicago Cubs - LP: K. Fujikawa||3|
|Chicago WSox - LP: J. Peavy||2||FINAL|
|LA Angels - WP: J. Vargas||6|
|Kansas City - LP: K. Herrera||3||FINAL|
|Oakland - WP: J. Blevins||4|
|Washington - LP: D. Haren||4||FINAL|
|San Diego - WP: A. Cashner||13|
|San Francisco - LP: B. Zito||0||FINAL|
|Colorado - WP: J. Nicasio||5|
|Detroit||4||Bottom 5th Inning|
|Pittsburgh||1||3rd Prd 13:21|
|Red Bull New York||1|
|Sporting Kansas City||1||FINAL|
|Real Salt Lake||9:30 PM|