While Miguel Sano, Trevor May, Tyler Duffey, Eddie Rosario and a number of other young Twins players made an impact and expired their rookie status in 2015, a number of prospects remain eligible for prospect lists. Byron Buxton leads this pack, ensuring that not a great deal of luster has gone from the tantalizing talent that Minnesota still holds down on the farm.
Who joins Buxton on MLB.com's top 100 prospect list for 2016?
This is the third year in a row that Buxton has been among baseball's most coveted talents. Prior to 2014 he topped Top 100 lists for MLB.com, Baseball Prospectus and Baseball America. Last year he slipped to number two for Baseball America but maintained his top position on the other two lists. A number of prospect lists have yet to be revealed for 2016, yet it seems unlikely that he'll sit atop multiple lists this time around.
That's understandable. Buxton hung onto his rookie status by one whole at-bat, finishing just shy of the required 130 necessary to have expired his rookie status in 2015. Of course more goes into it than that, and no doubt performance and MLB readiness plays a role. Buxton's minor league season was typically impressive (.305/.367/.500) but the Major League edition was less so (.209/.250/.326). His struggles in stints with the Twins last summer weren't unexpected, however, considering he'd had all of 59 plate appearances in Triple-A...and none of them came before his first dose of the big leagues.
In an ideal world, Buxton would have been healthy for all of 2014 (not to mention both the 2013 and 2014 Arizona Fall League). It would have kept his development on its original course, and he'd have a few hundred more plate appearances - between Double or Triple-A or the Majors hardly matters - helping us to be in a much better position to judge his early returns.
As things stand, Buxton's immense talents will be key for the success of the 2016 Minnesota Twins. He should be starting in center field from Opening Day, and if things go well he'll get his opportunities to lead the batting order before season's end. There isn't a team in baseball who wouldn't like Buxton on their Opening Day roster.
Berrios jumped from #90 on this list pre-2014 to #32 last year, and based on his performance and age it's no surprise that he moves into the game's top 20. Results are one thing, but scouts and the organization can't seem to say enough good things about the player's makeup and maturity, and anyone who follows Berrios on Twitter will know just how focused he is on getting to Minnesota.
After walking through hitters at Double-A in 2015, the Twins gave him a shot at Triple-A. He somehow did even better there, through 12 starts against hitters who were on average six years his senior. The strikeout rates went from great to greater, the walk rates went from good to downright stingy, and he allowed less than a base runner per inning. Berrios accomplished all that, barely 21 years of age, and suddenly all those scouts who kept hedging their bets on him aren't hedging any longer.
With the upside of a number two starter, which is better than anything the Twins have in the rotation at the moment barring Phil Hughes cloning the 2014 version of himself, it will be tempting to want to see Berrios in the rotation from Opening Day. He'll likely start the season as a starter in Rochester, however, thanks entirely to the number of established Major League arms already in play for Minnesota's starting five. Don't be frustrated by that; Berrios will get his chances in 2016. His future is secure.
Kepler was barely a blip on anyone's radar outside of Minnesota prior to 2015. Then he demolished Southern League pitchers, on average two years older, and established himself as one of the game's premier talents. He jumps to #44 on MLB.com's list not just because he hit .322/.416/.531 at Double-A, but because scouts around the league have noticed a distinct evolution in his play.
Tall and lean, Kepler's gifts translated onto the field last summer. But it was the quality of contact at the plate and other intangible qualities that impressed. From his scouting report on the Top 100 list:
For the early stages of his career, Kepler was treated with kid gloves as he adjusted to life in the United States and pro ball. In Double-A, manager Doug Mientkiewicz and hitting coach Chad Allen decided it was time to push Kepler and he responded. Big and strong, Kepler consistently smoked balls to all fields with a line-drive swing and there still might be more power to come. His awareness, instincts and reactions got better, both in the batter's box and in the field.
Kepler will be under close scrutiny this year. His critics and those who are a bit more cautious in their outlooks will want to see that his improved performance on the field is sustainable; after all, young players can have a fantastic season and then fade away. It's a reality of the game. But people seem to think that this version of Kepler is for real. While his numbers may not translate into the sexy triple slash he had for the Lookouts once he establishes himself in the Majors, he has tools to be a quality player. Injuries or trades seem the most likely ways for him to get his cracks in with the Twins in 2016, but he'll get a look in September regardless.
He was a closer in college, but any team looking to draft him would be taking a chance to develop him into a starting pitcher - which is exactly what the Twins are doing. Being ranked this low in the Top 100 isn't an insult for the sixth overall pick, but picks near the top of the first round tend to be valued quite highly. If Jay had been a starter in college he'd likely be ranked higher on this list.
As things stand he's a lean left-hander with good command, a good fastball-slider combo, and a pair of additional pitches in progress. Giving him a couple full seasons in the minor leagues to develop his skills should see the fastball, slider and command shine, and if the curve and changeup can turn into average pitchers then the Twins could have a special pitcher on their hands. Anytime a left-handed pitcher has control like Jay, people will sit up and take notice.
Evidenced by the organization's consideration of calling up Jay late in the season to bolster the Major League's bullpen, if the club were to turn him into a reliever he'd be ready to help the Twins much more quickly. He would probably be ready at some point this year, in fact. But while he's finding his feet and establishing his routines as a professional baseball player, Minnesota has the luxury of giving him an extended shot in the rotation to see what's there.
His ranking is evidence of just how much shine is artificially polished onto picks taken at the high end of the draft - he debuted last season at #33. That's not unusual for MLB.com's lists, and teams who draft that highly expect their players to be ranked highly on prospect lists. Apparently Gordon's fantastic defensive reputation and .302/.347/.416 second half is enough to take the shine off of a defender at a premier position.
Prospect lists are a great way to keep track of the best young players on their way up the ladder, but they're also a great example of just how fluid - and often arbitrary - these rankings can be. Gordon showed solid development at the dish throughout the 2015 campaign, but because that was a second-half triple slash and not a full-season line he falls nearly 60 spots on the list.
Having said all that, being ranked near the end of the Top 100 may be a truer assessment of Gordon's true talent than his top third ranking at this time last year. The development of his bat has always been the biggest question, and reality almost always takes the sheen off of recently selected players. Even the scouting report's assessment of his defense is a bit more prudent, giving him 60 ratings (still plus tools) for his arm and fielding instead of marks more flashy. To continue to be listed as one of the game's premier prospects going forward tough, one thing is clear: he'll have to hit.
Polanco has been on the Twinkie Town prospect lists for the last six years, including Top 10 showings pre-2014 and pre-2015. His appearance on MLB.com's Top 100 is a bit of a surprise, in part because he has never appeared on any Top 100 list in the past (prior to being bumped up to #75 for MLB.com's mid-season list last year) but also because his stat lines have been less impressive over the last two years. Yes, he's had a couple cups of coffee with the Twins (totalling nine games and 20 plate appearances in two seasons), but his minor league lines have levelled off expectations over the same period.
Yet it's worth noting that Polanco will only be entering his age-22 season in 2016, and he's more or less Major League-ready. The .903 OPS in 2012 and .813 OPS in 2013 piqued everyone's interest, but even though the lines dropped in 2014 and 2015 he still owns a .287/.340/.380 line at Double-A and a .284/.309/.352 line in his first 94 plate appearances at Triple-A. For a player destined to play shortstop or second base (probably second base), that's solid.
Prospect lists are always a balance of ceiling versus floor; upside versus how close the player is to being Major League ready. Polanco has all the makings of an average - if not slightly above average - middle infielder who is ready for the bigs. At his age and with those tools, that makes Polanco quite valuable...and it's nice to see someone notice.
Noteworthy prospects not listed
- Alex Meyer (#29 pre-2015)
- Kohl Stewart (#36 pre-2015)