Minor League Report...February 20, 2010

In a week we all were hopeful we would hear about Joe Mauer signing a new contract, the only news related to Mauer was about a trip back to his Minnesota cabin with J.J. Hardy and his beard.

Although it wasn't the signing we were hoping for, the Twins did sign minor league free agent Charlton Jimerson.  Jimerson is a career minor league outfielder with a handful of major league at bats.  He can play all three outfield positions, has some power and doesn't hit for much of an average. 

With no other player transaction news and winter ball complete, let's take a look at several of the key questions facing the Twins this spring.  In doing so, I will keep an eye on how the answers to those questions will affect the minor league rosters and Twins depth at the higher levels.

I believe that Bill Smith will continue to massage the roster throughout the spring.  The Twins 40-man roster is full.  Will he move a couple excess players from positions of strength for prospects who don't have to be placed on the roster at this time? 

One of the roster decisions Smith and Ron Gardenhire will be making is who will be the backup catcher?  With Jose Morales out until late in spring training, indications are he won't break camp with the Twins.  Thus the Twins will decide between veteran minor leaguer Drew Butera, who is light hitting defensive specialist, and top prospect Wilson Ramos.  Who makes the 25-man roster remains to be seen.  

Catcher is a position however, that has only one top prospect in the entire organization.  Danny Rams had a great month in Elizabethton last summer, however, Eric from Madison has taught me that we need to see production at a higher level before anointing any player putting up big numbers in the Appy League.  So we need to see a lot more from Rams who continued to hit for power at Beloit, however, his average dropped to .229.  If the Twins do complete a trade or two this spring, it would be prudent that one of the players coming back is a good prospect playing at AA or High-A.

It doesn't appear that both Alexi Casilla and Matt Tolbert will make the opening day roster.  Casilla is out of options, thus, he either needs to be on the roster or traded as he would certainly be claimed if placed on waivers.  Tolbert has options remaining which may cause him to again begin the season in Rochester unless he clearly beats out Casilla.  In that case, look for the Twins to move Casilla who has spurts of brilliance. 

The Twins have an abundance of good middle infielders in the higher levels of the organization, however, are any real candidates to be a starting second baseman for a title contender in 2011?  The answer is probably no.  Is Trevor Plouffe a future Twins starting shortstop, especially now that J. J. Hardy is on the team?  Will Plouffe see playing time at second or third?  Will Pouffe, who will turn 24 in June, finally blossom into the prospect the Twins hoped he was when taken in the first round in 2004?  Nick Punto is an excellent utility infielder who can start at second base in 2010 should Hudson be injured.  But at $5,000,000, Punto is not the answer in 2011 when other raises will begin to put pressure on their budget.  Unless they intend to re-sign Orlando Hudson, second base is a position that the Twins should have an interest in acquiring a top prospect playing in AA or higher.

It appears that third base will be split between Brendan Harris and Punto while Danny Valencia returns to Rochester to fine tune his game.  Valencia got some valuable experience this winter when his Mayaguez team made it all the way to the Caribbean Series, finishing one game behind the champion Dominican Republic team.  Valencia reported to Puerto Rico in early December, then proceded to play nearly every day while hitting only .224/.288/.343.  He didn't hit better in the playoffs, however, his bat was the key to several wins in the championship series.  Is Valencia the Twins future third baseman?  It is likely we will learn the answer to this question this season.  If he isn't, next winter will again be spent searching for a third baseman unless Brendan Harris takes a huge step forward this season.

The Twins starting outfield is again four deep, with Delman Young, Denard Span, Michael Cuddyer and designated hitter, Jason Kubel.  For at least 2010, the presence of Jim Thome means that the Twins lineup doesn't take a major hit when Kubel is playing in the field.  A problem however, is that this outfield isn't particularly strong defensively.  Other than Span, there isn't much speed and none of the others can play centerfield.  I expect we will see Nick Punto, Matt Tolbert and Alexi Casilla all see some time in centerfield in spring training as they develop a short-term option should one be needed during a game or for a few days.

Several of the top prospects in the organization are centerfielders, led by Ben Revere, Aaron Hicks, Angel Morales and Joe Benson.  The problem is that there is a gap between Span and Revere, who will begin his season in New Britain.  This problem will disappear in 2011 when Revere should be ready to contribute to the Twins.  Jason Pridie was lost on waivers and the Twins apparantly lack confidence in Dustin Martin, who wasn't invited to spring training.  Thus, there is a huge opportunity for someone to make a statement this spring that they are the answer should the need arise. 

The Twins have begun to address this concern by signing former Twin Jacque Jones and minor league veteran Charlton Jimerson.  They will have an opportunity to impress, but is either the answer should Span be lost for more than a few days?  Others, including Martin and Brandon Roberts will also have the opportunity to be noticed, but Rene Tosoni may be the only prospect you would want playing centerfield on a team headed to the World Series.  But Tosoni also has limited experience in AA and really is better suited for a corner outfield spot.  With Revere and others a year or so away, I don't see the Twins having a centerfielder at the top of their wish list when completing a trade this spring.  Should lightening strike Span during the season, look for the Twins to be active in the trade market at that time for a short term fix for the balance of the season.

A strength of this year's team should be their starting rotation.  The Twins will have two young right handers with a handful of major league starts, Jeff Manship and Anthony Swarzak, who will be waiting in the wings in Rochester.  They also have three lefties, Francisco Liriano, Brian Duensing and Glen Perkins, all battling for the fifth starter spot.  Liriano may be the leader following a winter season in which many scouts reported he was approaching the Francisco of old.  Brian Duensing certainly earned a spot with his excellent pitching during the Twins playoff drive last season.  Glen Perkins has been very good at times over the past three seasons, however, appears to have burned some bridges last season and again in January.  One of the three will likely be the fifth starter.  What happens to the others will be one of the biggest stories of the spring?  Although one could go to the bullpen as a second lefty/long reliever, the bullpen already has seven strong candidates.  Unless he wins the fifth starting spot, Duensing will likely return to Rochester.  There appears to be some interest from other teams in Perkins, with several reports that they wanted to see him throw in spring training.  I believe Perkins is out of options.  Unless he really impresses both on and off the field, look for Perkins to be moved before the final roster is set.  Perkins is a young, quality starting pitcher who should return a very bright prospect(s). 

The Twins probably will begin the season with a twelve man pitching staff.  Unlike last season, the Twins have seven strong arms, Joe Nathan, Pat Neshek, Matt Guerrier, John Rauch, Jesse Crain, Jose Mijares and recently acquired, Clay Condrey.  The concerns with this group are: 1) there isn't a long reliever; 2) there is only one lefty; and 3) although everything we hear about Pat Neshek's arm is positive, he hasn't pitched an inning since May, 2008.  Will Neshek be close to the pitcher he was before his injury?  Will Duensing lose the fifth starting spot, yet pitch so well that he demands a spot on the roster?  With Anthony Slama, Rob Delaney, Jose Lugo and Alex Burnett all top prospects who are one step away, the Twins may be in position late in spring training to move a quality reliever for a prospect.

Perkins, Casilla, and one of the quality relievers all could be dealt before the end of next month.  The top needs I see include a quality AA or High-A catcher, a top AA or AAA second baseman, and possibly a solid AAA center fielder.  The next forty days should be exciting for all Twins fans as Bill Smith and company put the finishing touches on the 2010 Minnesota Twins!                 

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