FORT MYERS, FLA. – You want to have some fun with the Twins scouts of such solid reputations that they have managed to survive the 28-month upheaval that started in November 2016 when the impeccably educated East Coasters took over the baseball administration?
Here’s the strategy: You welcome these veteran baseball men, well-traveled in cheap hotels and dusty ballyards, with an Italian greeting, and not the traditional “buon giorno” but a lyrical rendition of “Ben-in-tenn-dee.”
The baseball draft is the most inexact science in player acquisition among the four major sports, rivaled only by hockey, but there are some blunders too obvious to excuse.
The Twins had the sixth overall selection on June 8, 2015, after losing more than 90 games (70-92) for the fourth consecutive season in 2014. It was a draft that fell so that Andrew Benintendi, a lefthanded-hitting outfielder from Arkansas, was available to the Twins.
Benintendi had led the Razorbacks to the College World Series with 20 home runs, 57 RBI, a .376 average and .488 on-base percentage, and there was considerable backing for him among Twins scouts.
I’m not much of an OPS guy, but Benintendi’s 1.205 was above average, right?
Deron Johnson, then in charge of the draft, now an adviser to scouting director Sean Johnson, went with Tyler Jay, a pitcher for Illinois. Jay had a lively left arm, but he also had been a reliever, with only two starts in 71 appearances in three Illini seasons.
A college reliever, sixth overall?
The Red Sox were delighted to take Benintendi with the next selection. He was in the big leagues by Aug. 2, 2016, and he has played in 333 games for Boston, with 38 home runs, 191 RBI and a .287 average. He also has played in five postseason series, with 15 hits in 14 games, including six hits in the Red Sox’s five-game blowout of the Dodgers in last fall’s World Series.
“Ben-in-tenn-dee.” Gets the crusty vet scouts every time.
The Twins attempted to transform Jay into starter. He had a shoulder scare in 2017, rehabbed, and came back as a reliever in 2018. He appeared in 38 games with marginal effectiveness last season for the Class AA Chattanooga Lookouts..
Jay was on the Twins’ Class AA roster (now Pensacola, Fla.) for the Rule 5 draft last December, and went unclaimed for a $100,000 fee by a major league team.
On Friday, the Twins signed infielder Adam Rosales to a minor league deal with an invite to spring training. That puts the number of invitees at 19, and Jay is not among them.
This is a year when players from the 2015 draft should be making an appearance, if not an impact. After four pro seasons, the players 19 and over (mostly college players) signed in that draft must be placed on the 40-player protected list to avoid the Rule 5 draft. The players drafted at 18 and under (high school) get a fifth season before that requirement.
There are 14 players originally drafted by the Twins on the current 40-man roster. Only two of those come from the 2015 draft: outfielder LaMonte Wade (ninth round) and lefthanded reliever Andrew Vasquez (32nd).
As short hauls out of a draft go, this is dramatic — when you consider 26 of the 40 players in the Twins’ 2015 draft were college or JUCO players and, entering Season 5, two have earned places on the major league roster.
Five of the 26 college draftees didn’t sign, including second-rounder Kyle Cody and the Gophers’ Dalton Sawyer, a 27th-round pick. Ten collegians have been released and another was sold for a cash stipend.
The eight remaining collegians on Twins minor league rosters are pitchers Jay, Cody Stashak, Hector Lujan and Alex Robinson; shortstop Alex Perez; first baseman Zander Wiel; and outfielders Chris Paul and Jaylin Davis. None has a spring training invite.
There were 14 high school players selected by the Twins in that draft, and the first six (Rounds 3 to 16) got the available money and signed. Two were quick busts, and the four high schoolers who remain are third baseman Travis Blankenhorn (third round), outfielder Trey Cabbage (fourth) and lefthander Jovani Moran (seventh) on Class A rosters, and outfielder Lean Marrero (16th), still on a rookie-ball roster at Elizabethon, Tenn.
Deron Johnson rallied in 2016, his last year running the Twins draft, starting with Alex Kirilloff at No. 15 overall. The outfielder is now 21, has overcome a missed 2017 season due to Tommy John surgery, and has a lefthanded swing the Twins are eager to inspect with his invitation to this spring training.
As for the 2015 draft, there are a couple of exclamations from which to choose: “Ben-in-tenn-dee!” or “Uff da!”
Note: Earlier versions of this article contained incorrect information on Tyler Jay’s pitching career in 2017 and 2018.