FORT MYERS, FLA. – The Twins will enter the season in the afterglow of being showered with accolades from various publications and websites for having one of the best farm systems in baseball. Having the top overall prospect (Byron Buxton), top power hitter (Miguel Sano) and one of the top power pitchers (Alex Meyer) has led to such praise.
Yet the Twins believe they are an organization with more to offer than only the big three. They believe they have addressed certain positional needs throughout the organization and that they have more prospects on the way — players who might not be of the elite caliber of Buxton, Sano and Meyer but good prospects nonetheless.
“As much as we get the attention at the top of the list, I think we’ve got some depth to this thing,” Twins assistant general manager Rob Antony said.
Minor leaguers reported to camp last week with their spring training games beginning this week. As their season gets underway, here are a few of the key questions heading into the new year:
1 Who is next behind Buxton, Sano and Meyer?
The Twins are very high on righthander Kohl Stewart, their first-round pick (No. 2 overall) from a year ago. He has a fastball that reaches about 95 miles per hour, a very good slider and a decent feel for a changeup. Stewart could open the season at Class A Cedar Rapids.
“I think we’re looking forward to seeing what he does in his first full season,” said Brad Steil, the Twins director of minor league operations. “He really looks like he’s in good shape. It looks like he’s gained some weight over the offseason. I know he trained really hard.”
Eddie Rosario, who must serve a suspension after failing a drug test, remains a fine hitting prospect after hitting .302 between Class A Fort Myers and Class AA New Britain last year. His OPS — on base-plus-slugging percentage — did drop from .903 at Fort Myers to .742 at New Britain, so he must prove he can drive the ball more with the Rock Cats. The Twins also have to decide whether to keep him as a second baseman or move him back to outfield.
Righthander Jose Berrios has a good fastball, changeup and curve. Last year, he tired late in the season for Cedar Rapids after having pitched in the World Baseball Classic for Puerto Rico, but the Twins expected that.
Outfielder Max Kepler missed about half of Cedar Rapids’ season last year due to a sore elbow but showed a smooth swing while in major league camp and has filled out into quite a specimen. Infielder Jorge Polanco batted .308 at Cedar Rapids, and the Twins believe he will develop a little pop.
2 What about power arms?
Once a weakness in the organization, the Twins have addressed that need in recent years. Reliever Michael Tonkin, who throws in the mid 90s, could crack the Twins bullpen this season after making his major league debut last year.
Meyer and reliever Zach Jones are two righthanders whose fastballs average more than 95 mph. Jones, 4-3 with a 1.85 ERA at Fort Myers last season, hit 100 during instructional league in 2012. Unfortunately, he had surgery in February to remove a blood clot, the result of an aneurysm, and will get a late start on spring camp.
“He can’t do anything for another [two] weeks,” Steil said. “Then he will come here and begin some activities.”
Steil has a list of pitchers who top out at 95-96 mph but normally pitch around 93-94: righthanders Stewart, Berrios, Trevor May, Dakota Watts, and Adrian Salcedo and lefthander Mason Melotakis.
There are a few more power arms coming back from injuries. More on them later.
3 What about power bats?
The two prospects with real power potential are first baseman Kennys Vargas and outfielder Adam Brett Walker.
Vargas was in his first major league camp before getting reassigned Sunday. But the switch hitter impressed. Jason Kubel recently watched Vargas take batting practice with Sano and was in awe.
“I used to think I had a little pop, but not like those two monsters,” Kubel said.
Vargas is a project who hit .267 at Fort Myers last season with 18 homers and 93 RBI. He is still a work in progress at first base and might end up as a designated hitter. He’s expected to open the season with Buxton at New Britain.
Walker hit .278 at Cedar Rapids last season with 27 homers and 109 RBI, leading the Midwest League in home runs, RBI and total bases. He’s not a shabby defensive player, either. He should begin the year at Fort Myers.
The Twins hope Kepler develops his power with experience, and third baseman Travis Harrison — .253 with 15 homers and 59 RBI at Cedar Rapids — has good power potential as well.
4 Who’s coming back from injury?
Righthanded reliever Lester Oliveros, the pitcher the Twins acquired from Detroit for Delmon Young in 2011, has recovered from Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery and hit 95 on the gun in a game last week. Luke Bard, another reliever, is rehabbing following shoulder surgery and is getting close to starting a throwing program. Another live-armed reliever, J.T. Chargois, ended up having Tommy John surgery in September after rehab didn’t work and likely will miss the season.
One pitcher finally getting back to competing is righthander Alex Wimmers, the first-round pick in 2010 who has battled severe control problems and had Tommy John surgery in 2012. Wimmers did pitch 15 innings for the Gulf Coast League rookie team last season, but he comes to camp this year looking to leave with a full-season team and try to salvage a career that consists of 77⅓ innings over four seasons.
5 Who’s moving into the top 10 this year?
Some already have Australian righthander Lewis Thorpe in the top 10. Thorpe was signed in 2012, filled out and saw his fastball jump 5 mph. He went 4-1 with a 2.05 ERA for the rookie Gulf Coast League Twins last season with six walks and 64 strikeouts in 44 innings.
“He has a lot of ability and is still a young guy,” Steil said.
Dominican righthander Felix Jorge needs to keep working on his slider and changeup, but he has touched 95 with his fastball. He went 2-2 with a 2.95 ERA for rookie league Elizabethton. Jorge, Thorpe and Stewart could form a prospect-laden rotation at Cedar Rapids.
Shortstop Danny Santana has impressed in major league camp and could move into the top 10 on his way to his major league debut. He has to cut down on his 32 errors last season.
Kepler, Walker and Polanco also could crack the top 10 in what could be an interesting year for Twins minor league teams if Meyer and Buxton move on to the majors and make room for other prospects to assume top spots in the organization.