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A minor sleeper: Whit Robbins

Whit Robbins could help the Twins soon as a left-handed bench bat, DH and back-up first baseman.
Whit Robbins could help the Twins soon as a left-handed bench bat, DH and back-up first baseman.

Whit Robbins' career is back on track after a three-year battle with a stress fracture in his back.

The Twins drafted for the long-term in the 2006 draft, taking high school prospects Chris Parmelee, Joe Benson and Tyler Robertson with the first three picks. With their first pick of the fourth round, they chose their first college player at a position of organizational need: third base. It was Garett Olson, who was widely considered a reach, from a Div. III school. The Twins' explanation was that Olson came from a wood-bat league, which somehow was a better league than the Div. I schools that use metal bats. There were several Div. I third basemen still on the board, whom many of us had watched play in the CWS, including Whit Robbins and Danny Valencia.

Those of us watching the draft groaned when they took Olson instead of Robbins, who had put up a monster year at Georgia Tech his junior year, hitting .352/.468/.595/1063 and playing a decent third base. Groans turned to cheers when the Twins appeared to correct the mistake, using the compensation pick they received for losing Jacque Jones to take Robbins. The more die-hard fans among us who watched the whole day 2 festivities got to see the Twins also select Valencia in the 19th round. How he slipped to that late round is a mystery to many of us. But the story that is most often told is that he didn't get along with his college coach at Miami, who told scouts some negative stories about him. So character issues scared other teams away.

Those of us following the draft that day can smile at the following facts: Olson never made it out of Beloit and was released at the end of last year; Robbins is now the organization's top hitting prospect (by the numbers) hitting .326/.402/.505/907 with 27 walks, 37 Ks 16 doubles and 7 homers in 245 plate appearances while playing every day at first base for New Britain. Also, Danny Valencia is now the organization's top third base prospect after Robbins was moved to first base. Those two corner infielders have driven the Rock Cats to within a game and a half of first place in the Northern Division of the Eastern League.

Everybody knows about Valencia (this board rated him the top overall prospect last winter). But Robbins' prospect stock fell off a cliff and never recovered after he suffered the stress fracture in his first year with the organization. Finally healthy, it's time to give him his stock back and look ahead to when he might be able to help the Twins (after the break).

First of all, it was a testament to what the organization thought about Robbins' bat that they sent him to Beloit after signing, while they sent Olson and Valencia to Elizabethton. Robbins quickly proved that he not only belonged at Beloit, he could probably have held his own at a higher level, hitting .304/.421/.482/903 in an extreme pitcher's league. But towards the end of that year, he suffered the stress fracture in one of the lower vertebrae in his back. He hardly did anything that off season and wasn't able to do many organized activities until extended spring training.

When he did get into the swing of things, he was not close to 100 percent. But he tried to play through it. Eventually, the Twins activated him in Fort Myers, but his numbers suffered as he suffered through the pain. He only hit .210/.233/.249/.582 in just 64 games, mostly at first base. By then his stock had plummeted as speculation swirled that he would never fully recover from the injury. Optimists among us looked for any signs of hope: Some of that poor line was bad luck, as his BABIP dipped to .267 from a career average of about .320.

But he worked on strengthening his back all that off season and reported to Fort Myers somewhat healthier in 2008. He responded with a .268/.383/.405/.788 in an even more extreme pitcher's league. He also played roughly a third of his games at third base, indicating that his back was feeling better. The most encouraging sign was that his walks (52) and strike outs (55) continued to indicate good plate discipline. Some thought if he could ever get on top of this injury, he would return to the production he showed prior to it.

His second season at Fort Myers earned him a promotion to New Britain, where he has been the every-day first baseman. Apparently his back is finally 100 percent and his hitting has rebounded against tougher competition. With the rebound comes higher expectations. He should stay in New Britain all year. But if he continues to hit like this through this year and into his next season at AAA Rochester, he could help this team in mid-2010 as a bench bat, DH and back-up first baseman. It's not out of the question for him to receive a promotion to Rochester this year, in which case he could be in the running for that role as early as spring training.

That role is currently occupied by Brian Buscher. To give you an idea of what Buscher was doing at Robbins' age (24), he split the year between the High A California League (.789 OPS in a hitter's league) and the Eastern League (.592 OPS). As a 25 year old, Buscher hit .687 in the EL and was left off the 40-man roster by the Giants. The Twins drafted him in the AAA phase of the Rule 5 draft and he eventually made it up to the big club as a 26 year old. He played well at New Britain (.869 OPS) and Rochester (.897 OPS), before getting a late-season call-up to the Twins. But Buscher has never had the kind of success Robbins has. So it would appear Robbins will be an upgrade over Buscher when he's ready. It would be helpful, as Buscher has started the regression to his mean that journeymen (.654 OPS) often manifest as they age past 28 years old.