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Minor League Report...Elizabethton Twins

As expected, the Twins cleared three spots on their 40-man roster by outrighting Pedro Florimon to Rochester, non-tendering Jose Mijares and losing Jim Hoey to Toronto on waivers. With the signing of Josh Willingham, their 40-man roster is at 38. Will the two open spots go to pitchers?

They also signed another six minor league free agents, all with major league experience. Included are third baseman Sean Burroughs, right handed pitcher P. J. Walters, catcher J. R. Towles, left handed pitcher Aaron Thompson, corner infielder Steve Pearce and catcher Rene Rivera, who was with the Twins last year. Burroughs was the most successful prior to his leaving baseball for four years. He returned last year to hit .273 average in 115 at bats for Arizona. Pearce, who had 185 games in the big leagues, hit .326 average in AAA as recently as 2010. Towles has played 155 games in the big leagues, including 54 for the Astros last year.

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of spending a morning with A. J. Pettersen. Although my report of his interview will follow later this month, I want to thank A. J. for providing the insight that gives today's review of Elizabethton a more personal feel. My review follows the jump.

In an organization that has struggled the past few years, one team management and fans could count on has been the Elizabethton Twins. Why has Elizabethton thrived while other teams have not?

Their success begins with consistency. In an organization that prides itself for promoting players and management from within, Elizabethton is the exception. Ray Smith played in Elizabethton in 1977 before his brief big league career with the Twins from 1981-1983. Smith joined the Elizabethton Twins staff in 1987 and has stayed for the past twenty-five years. In the 18 years he has been their manager, the Twins have won six championships and lost in the championship series another five times. Until his replacement by Ivan Arteaga following his retirement this fall, Jim Shellenbeck had been Smith's pitching coach for sixteen years. Jeff Reed began his seventeen year big league career with the Twins in 1984. During their time together in the Twins organization, Smith and Reed became friends. So it was natural that Reed, who has family ties to the Elizabethton area, would join Smith as the Elizabethton Twins hitting coach when he retired following the 2000 season. Whereas many managers and coaches in minor league baseball have their off season home elsewhere, Smith, Reed and their families live in Elizabethton.

Many have questioned what it means when hitters put up big numbers in the Appalachian League. Is it because of Joe O'Brien field? Others, such as our own Eric in Madison, have argued that it's because the Twins are traditionally older than other teams in the Appy League. Whereas that has often been true, A. J. told me that a lot of their success is because of Jeff Reed who he believes is one of the best hitting coaches a young player could have. Like so many ballparks in the lower levels of minor league baseball, O'Brien field has a lot of character. The field is a bit smaller than some of the other ballparks in the league, however, the vast majority of the home runs hit by the Twins big hitters would have been out of any park in the Appy or any other league.

A brief look at the Twins reveals that their hitters were the third youngest in a ten team league at 20.0 years old compared with the league average of 20.4. The Twins had the second best average (.274) in a league that the average hitter hit .261. The average Appy League team hit 52 home runs while the Twins led the league with 71. The Twins had the second oldest staff (21.2 years old), compared with a league average of 20.7. The Twins had the third best ERA (4.00) compared with a league average of 4.37. The Twins also had the second most strikeouts (616) and second fewest walks (197). The Twins roster was comprised of players from seven different countries, ranging from the Czech Republic (Matej Hejma) to Australia (Todd Van Steensel, Rory Rhodes and Tim Atherton).

The Twins finished their season in second place with a 42-26 record, 3.0 games behind the Johnson City Cardinals. In the first round of the playoffs, they lost two of three to the East Division champion Bluefield Blue Jays. The Blue Jays advanced to the championship round where they lost to Johnson City.

The Twins lineup was led by several rising stars who were young for the Appy league. Miguel Sano (18), Max Kepler (18), Eddie Rosario (19) and Niko Goodrum (19) were all amongst the five players with the most at bats on the roster. The battle between Rosario and Sano, who were roommates, for the home run title was a highlight of the season. They almost seemed to be playing off each other as the end of the year approached. One would hit a home run one day followed by the other hitting two the next. Mitch Einertson of Greeneville, is the all-time Appy League home run champ with 24 in 2004. The most hit by recent Twins sluggers were by Angel Morales (15 in 2008) and Oswaldo Arcia (14 in 2010). Since 2004, no player in the league had hit 20 or more until Rosario hit 21 and Sano hit 20 this year.

Sano is earning a reputation for hitting massive home runs well out of the ballpark. But don't discount Rosario who is smaller and seems to launch his four baggers with a flick of his wrist. A. J. recalled a game at Bluefield. He was on base when Rosario hit a home run off the flagpole behind a high centerfield fence that was 410' from home plate. A. J., who's season was shortened to seventeen games by a broken nose, joked that Rosario had more home runs than he did hits. He usually batted second, immediately in front of Rosario which may be the reason he scored sixteen runs while getting on base twenty-three times.

There has been much discussion here and elsewhere of Sano's defensive abilities, especially in light of his committing 26 errors. A.J. told me that he believes Sano can become a good defensive third baseman. He also mentioned that Sano has the strongest arm he has ever seen. Someone asked Sano one day how far he could throw a ball, so he picked one up while standing on the grass off the first base line. He proceeded to throw it over the left field wall, over the hot dog behind it, across Ash Street behind the left field wall, and over a tree on the front lawn of the house on the other side of the street. How far is that? A. J. thought it was over 150 yards! The perception that Sano struggles defensively is enhanced because he throws so hard that any ball not caught by the first baseman looks really bad.

Both Sano and Rosario, who was co-MVP, had years similar to what Oswaldo Arcia had in 2010 when he was MVP. Rosario had the league's third best average (.337), best slugging percentage (.670), second best OPS (1.068, the best was Chase Davidson with 1.071 and Davidson was 21 years old), most home runs (21), triples (9), runs scored (71) and second most runs driven in (60, Art Charles had 61). Rosario also had the ninth most stolen bases (17) while being thrown out seven times. Sano, who hit for a .292 average, had the third best slugging percentage (.646), third best OPS (.988), second most home runs (20), eighth most doubles (18), second most runs scored (58) and third most runs driven in (59). Rosario, who was one of the fastest players on the team also had the best outfield arm.

Sano, Rosario and Arcia were all together in the Fall Instructional League. We all have debated who the best hitter is amongst this threesome. Arcia is bigger than Rosario and as a hitter more like Sano. When I asked A. J. if Sano and Arcia were better hitters than Rosario, he said you couldn't say that as Rosario's tools were "off the charts." He mentioned that Rosario hit very well off Hi-A and AA pitchers in instructs, including a home run in one game. One of the highlights this fall was Arcia hitting a solid double off Johan Santana. When discussing this exciting trio, although they are somewhat different they all are equal with a bat.

Kepler is a tall, very athletic outfielder with a good arm. Coming from Germany, he doesn't have the experience players have from the U.S. and Latin countries. Kepler hit a solid .262 average in 191 at bats as he took his second step in becomming the star many in the organization believe he will become. Another name that brings a smile to his Elizabethton teammates is JaDamion Williams, who always has a smile on his face. Williams, who was hitting nearly .400 average as the calendar turned to August, finished with a .324 average in 185 at bats. Williams, who was 20 years old and in his second professional season, was also the fastest player on the Elizabethton roster. Another exciting young prospect is shortstop Niko Goodrum who was the Twins shortstop in 54 of their 70 games. At 6'4, Goodrum is a gifted athtete who is still very raw. He has a fluid arm motion and the natural talent to do whatever he wants. Mechanically, he was a much better hitter than last year, when he hit for only a .161 average in 118 at bats in the Gulf Coast League. This was his fifth year as a switch hitter and he improved alot from the left side as the year progressed, finishing the season hitting .261 vs. left handed pitchers and .278 against right handed pitchers. He also has good speed, stealing eight bases in nine attempts.

Matt Parker, who caught the most games, was a solid receiver who hit .277 average in 112 at bats. Matt Koch, who signed late in the summer, also hit for a good average (.273) in only 44 at bats. Kennys Vargas is a big (6'5) first baseman who had the third best average (.322) on the team in 174 at bats with six home runs. Unfortunately, the Puerto Rico native was suspended late in the season for a banned over the counter drug and began serving his 50-game suspension. Rory Rhodes was the team's other first baseman who is even bigger than Vargas. Rhodes has a reputation for hitting massive home runs, unfortunately, he hit only two in 157 at bats along with a solid .261 average. What is surprising for someone who is 6'7, Rhodes is a very good first baseman.

When the season began, Pettersen and Nick Lockwood were splitting time at second base. Unfortunately, A. J. was hit in the face with a pitch in his third game, breaking his nose in ten places. He returned to the Twin Cities for surgery that would keep him off the field until early August. Lockwood was solid in his third professional season, hitting .260 average in 208 at bats. A. J. also had a solid, albeit short season. He finished his rookie season hitting .286 average in 56 at bats with a .388 on base percentage and one run scored per every four plate appearances. Eddie Rosario spent a lot of time at second base in the Fall Instructional League. When I asked A. J. what he thought of the move, he said that it made a lot of sense for the Twins. He also said that although Rosario is raw at second, he improved throughout the fall and has the athleticism to be a very good second baseman.

The Twins won another award they frequently receive when Tim Shibuya was named the Appy League Pitcher of the Year. Shibuya was this year's 23rd round pick out of UC-San Diego who led the league with a 8-2 record while posting a 3.30 ERA in thirteen starts (73.2 innings) with 70 strikeouts and 11 walks. Shibuya's stuff isn't as electric as the three pitchers chosen in rounds 2-4, nor does he throw as hard. He is however, effective with a very good slider. Aussie Todd Van Steensel was their opening day starter. The former Phillies prospect had a solid year, finishing with a 5-2 record, 5.68 ERA, 51 strikeouts and 12 walks in a ten starts (66.0 innings). This year's 28th round pick, David Hurlbut, had 12 starts with a 3-6 record and 4.50 ERA in 66.0 innings. Pedro Guerra is a starter who has great stuff and several pitches that he mixes up very well. He made six starts before moving on to Beloit, pitching 41.1 innings with a 2-1 record, 3.70 ERA, 41 strikeouts and 7 walks. Derek Christensen was 5-2 with a 2.84 ERA in nineteen games (six starts with 57.0 innings) with 61 strikeouts.

One pitcher many of us are waiting to see pitch a lot more is 2009 first round pick Matt Bashore. A. J. commented that when the Gophers faced Bashore in the Big Ten tournament in 2009, he pitched the best game of anyone he had ever played against. This summer, Bashore was one of A. J.'s roommates as Matt worked his way back from Tommy John surgery in 2010. Whereas Bashore was throwing 95-96 in 2009, his velocity was back to 91-92 this summer. He appeared in twelve games (16.2 innings) with a 3.24 ERA before his arm tired and he was shut down the last few weeks of the season. Matt is a very hard worker who with another winter of rehab, should be the pitcher the Twins drafted in 2009.

Several other pitchers who were important to the Twins success include Steven Gruver, this year's seventh round pick out of the U of Tennessee. Gruver appeared in 23 games (31.1 innings) with a 1-0 record, 3.45 ERA and 32 strikeouts. He also had his innings limited after his arm tired after pitching a lot of innings for the Volunteers. Tim Atherton had a 3-0 record with a 1.50 ERA in 24.0 innings. Steven Evans, who was this year's thirteenth round pick out of Liberty, appeared in 21 games (23.1 innings) with a 3-1 record, 1.54 ERA and 24 strikeouts. Evans is a lefty reliever who is very deceptive. Bart Carter struck out 24 in 12.2 innings with a 1.42 ERA before moving on to Beloit. Cole Johnson was a lower round pick out of Notre Dame who appeared in 12 games (21.0 innings) with a 1-1 record, 2.14 ERA and 22 strikeouts.

Perhaps the biggest difference in this year's team was that the pitchers taken in the high rounds of the draft were all relievers, rather than starters like Kevin Slowey, Pat Dean and others who have dominated the Appy League in previous years. The top college pitchers selected this year were Eden Prairie native, Madison Boer (2nd round), Corey Williams (Vanderbilt lefty taken in the 3rd round) and Matt Summers (4th round). All were used as relievers, although there is talk of converting Boer and/or Williams to starters next spring. Boer is a tall, 6'4, pitcher who has excellent control. Before moving on to Beloit, he had a 2-1 record with a team high 9 saves in 15 appearances (17.1 innings) with 31 strikeouts and only 2 walks. Summers is more of a bullpen guy who reminds one of a younger Jesse Crain, as he puts all of his body into every pitch. Summers appeared in 20 games (20.2 innings) with a 1-1 record, 6 saves, 0.87 ERA, 0.77 WHIP, 36 strikeouts and 5 walks. Williams signed late and appeared in only seven games (11.2 innings) with a 3.86 ERA. Williams is a hard thrower (93+) who has a big cutter with up to a foot of tail.

We all know it is a long way from the rookie Appalachian League to Minnesota and that few players make that journey. That is what may be most unusual about this ballclub. No one will be surprised if many of this year's Elizabethton Twins play for the Minnesota Twins someday with the liklihood that several will become stars!.