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Minnesota Twins End of Season Prospect Report: Pitchers in Minnesota, Rochester, and Pensacola

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Some excellent seasons from Twins pitching prospects

Minnesota Twins v Cleveland Indians Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

So far this week we have gone over the Twins hitting prospects in the high levels of the organization as well as those in the lower levels.

Today we start our look at the Twins’ pitching prospects in the upper levels—who were by and large more successful than their position player teammates. I’m only talking about pitchers who started the year with rookie status, so no Tyler Duffey or Fernando Romero discussions here.

MLB

Brusdar Graterol

Let’s start with Graterol, who didn’t have the biggest overall impact of the players on this list, but he is widely regarded as the Twins 3rd best prospect and thus brings about the most amount of hype.

Graterol started the season on fire as a starter in Pensacola, going 5-0 with a 1.89 ERA through 47.2 innings in 9 starts. Unfortunately his shoulder started causing problems and he was shut down in May. He started a rehab assignment—specifically as a reliever—in late July and was quickly moved from Double-A to Triple-A and up to the big leagues on September 1st.

He threw 61 innings in the minors overall with a 1.92 ERA, and made 10 appearances in the Majors where he threw 9.2 innings with a 4.66 ERA and a 10/2 K/BB ratio. He has averaged 99 mph with his fastball in the big leagues and might see innings in the playoffs.

Graterol presents an interesting logic puzzle for the future. There is a very good chance the Twins will need prospects to make starts early next season (especially if we resign Michael Pineda and need someone in his rotation spot until his suspension is over). Trying to get the most of Graterol by making him a starter is incredibly enticing, especially if the opportunity is already there for him to slot into the rotation early in the season (assuming he earns it). But as a shorter pitcher with an intense arm action, it makes perfect sense to keep him in the pen long term. He has already had Tommy John surgery and needed almost two months to rest his shoulder this year, making injuries an ever-present concern. He would also get to make the best of his fastball-slider combo, potentially becoming a door-closing bullpen ace alongside Taylor Rogers.

Hopefully he gets some time pitching in the playoffs and it’ll be interesting to see where he ends up in 2020.

Zack Littell

I’ve always been high on Littell, who came over to the Twins for Jaime Garcia back in 2017. He was viewed as a solid starting prospect then, young for his level, but I don’t think anyone expected what we got from Littell this season.

He started the season in the Rochester rotation and fared relatively well despite the increased offense in Triple-A this year.

He was called up to the Twins in late May as emergency bullpen help, and was absolutely hung out to dry on May 30th when he gave up 8 runs over 4.1 innings in a blowout against Tampa Bay.

When he returned to Triple-A after that performance he transitioned to the bullpen full time and never looked back. He had a few more short stints in the minors through the year for roster reasons but he was an integral part of a vastly improved Twins bullpen in the second half of the year.

As a reliever in Rochester he posted a 3.24 ERA in 25 innings with a 31/12 K/BB rate. In 29 games for the Twins he pitched 37 innings with a 2.68 ERA and a 32/9 K/BB rate. If you remove his appearance against the Rays, he threw 32.2 innings and only gave up 3 earned runs for a 0.83 ERA, and gave up only 1 earned run in 18.2 innings in August and September.

His repertoire changed drastically once he moved to the pen as well, dropping his once patented curveball for a vastly improved fastball that sits 93-95 and can hit 97, as well as a slider that averaged 86.3 MPH on the year.

Littell is certainly a benefactor of the Wes Johnson hire, and I’m excited he has found a role he excels in. Relievers are always fickle but I hope Littell can be a consistent piece of the pen for years to come.

Randy Dobnak

Dobnak’s epic 2019 season (and wedding) have made him into a Tortuga-esque folk hero in Minnesota this fall, and he was recently named the Twins minor league Pitcher of the Year for good reason.

Starting the season all the way down in High-A Fort Myers, Dobnak ultimately pitched across four levels of baseball this season and earned big wins as the Twins clinched their Division Title.

Dobnak ended up starting 4 games in Fort Myers (0.40 ERA in 22.1 innings), made 11 appearances in Pensacola (2.57 ERA in 66.2 innings), pitched in 9 games in Rochester (2.15 ERA in 45 innings), and posted a 1.59 ERA in 28.1 innings in the Majors. That’s a 1.98 ERA over 163.1 innings overall.

These are truly incredible numbers for an undrafted guy who was in independent ball just a few years ago.

Dobnak projects as a 4th or 5th starter kind of guy, with a good sinker and usable offspeed stuff. He isn’t a huge strikeout guy (7.3 K/9 in both the minors and majors, interestingly enough) but he doesn’t walk many and he gets a ton of ground balls (54% in majors).

He will be 25 for all of next season and I’m sure he will be given a chance to earn a spot in the rotation next year.

Devin Smeltzer

I didn’t know much about Smeltzer when he came over for Brian Dozier in 2018, but he quickly caught my eye this year. He started his season by posting a 0.60 ERA through 30 innings in Pensacola, before quickly moving to Rochester and, for a spot start, Minnesota.

He is a kid with a good story and his 6 innings of shutout ball against Milwaukee in his first appearance on May 28th earned him a lot of fans in Minnesota.

He ended up throwing 49 innings for the Twins this year, posting a 3.86 ERA and a 3.17 SO/W rate (7 K/9 and 2.2 BB/9).

In the minors he ended up with a 2.76 ERA across the two levels with 104 K and 22 BB in 104.1 innings.

While Smeltzer earned his way to the bigs as a starter, he was better as a reliever in his small sample size this year, where his slightly funky mechanics and high spin rates can make up for his low velocity a bit better. He was also noticeably better against righties than lefties in the bigs (.753 OPS Against vs righties and .869 OPS Against vs lefties) which makes sense because of his fastball-changeup combo.

I’d like to see him in the bullpen this postseason and next season as the second lefty in the pen behind Taylor Rogers, but I’m sure he will be stretched out next spring to be able to start. He won’t turn 25 until next September.

Lewis Thorpe

Thorpe has faced a lot of adversity in his career (Tommy John surgery and mono wiped out two straight years of development) and it was good to see him earn his way to the big leagues this season.

In 96.1 innings in Triple-A, the Australian lefty posted a mediocre 4.58 ERA that hid just how good his 119/25 K/BB rate truly was. In the majors he pitched just alright. He had a good start (5 innings and 2 runs allowed with 7 K) in his debut, but only had two appearances out of his 12 where he did not give up a run.

Thorpe will be 24 for all of 2020 and should be given a chance to start, even if it means spending a good chunk of time in Rochester if he doesn’t earn a rotation spot out of Spring Training.

Cody Stashak

Stashak had a few good years a starter in the minors early in his career, but he was moved to a bullpen role last season and he succeeded in that role across three levels in 2019.

He posted just a 4.76 ERA in 28.1 innings in Double-A but moved on to Rochester and posted a stellar 1.44 ERA in 25 innings with a 34/4 K/BB despite the juiced ball at that level.

That success got him to the big leagues where he posted a 3.24 ERA over 25 innings with an insane 25/1 K/BB rate.

Stashak is a hard guy to judge. He averages just 91.7 MPH on his fastball and it only has average spin rates, but he threw it 53.7% of the time in the big leagues. Batters hit .306 off of it (in at bats where that pitch was the final pitch of the at bat). But since he never walks any one, the fastball allows him to get strikes and set up his slider which had a Whiff% of 48.8% according to Baseball Savant.

Who knows if Stashak’s success is sustainable. I would guess not but I’ve been wrong before. If Sergio Romo can succeed with a 86 MPH fastball, an 80 MPH changeup, and a 77 MPH slider, maybe Stashak can make his mix work too. But I don’t think Stashak is guaranteed a 40-man spot next year, as the Twins need space for 4-5 prospects (Fangraphs considers Jhoan Duran, Jovani Moran, and Luis Rijo to be must adds to the 40-man this offseason, and there are 4-6 other prospects eligible for the Rule-5 draft for the first time this year).

Kohl Stewart

The 4th overall pick of the 2013 MLB Draft. I think it is fair to say that Kohl Stewart has been a bust of a pick after failing to pitch well enough to demand a spot on the big league team yet again.

In 91 innings in Triple-A he posted a 5.14 ERA with a 80/44 K/BB rate. In 25.1 innings in the majors he had a 6.39 ERA with just 10 K’s and 8 walks.

Stewart turns 25 on October 7th and it would not be a surprise to see him with another organization in 2020.

Sean Poppen

Poppen technically ended the year on the Twins’ 60-day IL so here he is. He managed a 4.01 ERA in 89.2 innings between Double-A and Triple-A this year, with a 107/44 K/BB ratio. In the bigs he had a very small sample size with 8.1 innings and a 7.56 ERA.

Poppen averaged 94.6 MPH with his sinker and 84.4 with his slider while in the Majors per Baseball Savant, which is good enough stuff to warrant another look, but he is another guy who might see himself off the 40-man roster if the Twins need the space.

Jorge Alcala

Alcala came over from Houston in 2018 as part of the Ryan Pressly trade and is a guy who can hit 100, so people paid plenty of attention to him this year in Pensacola.

He struggled mightily as a starter, with a 5.86 ERA in his 16 starts. Once he moved to the pen he pitched well enough in 5 August appearances to quickly move to Rochester, where had a flawless ERA and a 11/2 K/BB ratio in 7.2 innings before his call-up to the Twins in September.

He only pitched 1.2 innings for the Twins and only through 29 pitches total. But he averaged 94 MPH on his fastball and 85.9 MPH on his slider. I expect his velocity will tick up after a winter of rest and a permanent move to the bullpen.

Barring a truly epic Spring Training, I assume that Alcala will start 2020 in Triple-A as one of their primary relievers and just a call away from the Twins.

Rochester

With the Red Wings missing the playoffs they either called their pitchers up to the Twins if they were on the 40-man roster or sent them down to Pensacola, who made the playoffs.

Jake Reed is technically still rostered by Rochester but he just turned 27, has never pitched in the bigs, and posted a 5.76 ERA this year, so take that for what you will.

Pensacola

Jordan Balazovic

Way back in February Keith Law surprised us all by naming Jordan Balazovic his #102 top prospect, noticeably ahead of Brusdar Graterol.

We are no longer surprised. Balazovic destroyed Single-A this season. He started with a 2.18 ERA and 33/4 K/BB ratio in 20.2 innings in Cedar Rapids before moving up to Fort Myers, where he recorded a 2.84 ERA and 96/21 K/BB rate in 73 innings there. He missed some time for the Futures Game and the Pan-America games, which are both huge honors for the young Canadian.

He’s listed here because he actually started a playoff game for the Blue Wahoos, giving up 2 runs over 4.2 innings and striking out 7 without allowing a walk.

He started sitting between 93-95 MPH with his fastball more often this year, hitting 97 MPH, and his control was downright fantastic. His secondary stuff still needs improvement, especially his changeup, but his slider has been flashing plus according to most reports.

Of course I would love to say that Balazovic could make an impact for the Twins at the tail end of 2020, but the organization has the time to be patient with him. He only barely got over 100 innings this season if you include the playoffs, the Pan-American Games, and his inning at the Futures Game. He is also only going to be 21 for all of the 2020 minor league season (turning 22 on September 17th).

Jhoan Duran

Jhoan Duran came over from the Diamondbacks last year for Eduardo Escobar and proved his value over the course of the 2019 season. While Duran didn’t have the gaudy numbers that Balazovic did, he still had a very solid season with lots of progression.

In 78 innings in Fort Myers, Duran posted a 3.23 ERA with a 95/31 K/BB ratio. He earned himself a spot in Pensacola and struggled a bit, with a 4.86 ERA through 37 innings but a solid 41/9 K/BB rate in that time.

Duran is a very interesting prospect because while he has the ability to sit 94-96 with his fastball, his bread and butter is a weird splitter-slider that sits in the low 90s. The pitch makes him hard to forecast. Keith Law sees him as a one pitch reliever, relying on the splitter-thingy while Fangraphs like his three pitch mix and have him rated as the 80th best prospect in baseball after the 2019 season.

Duran will start 2020 back in Pensacola but poised to move with success. Since he is eligible for the Rule 5 draft this offseason he will easily command a 40-man roster spot, meaning he is just a successful month or two from making an impact for the Twins. He will be 22 for the entire 2020 season.

Stephen Gonsalves

Gonsalves missed the vast majority of 2019 with injury, only throwing two innings in Rochester before rehabbing in the GCL in August and getting two innings at Pensacola to end the year. In his four innings between Double-A and Triple-A he walked 7 and gave up 4 earned runs with 5 strikeouts.

There was a time when Stephen Gonsalves was the best pitching prospect in the Twins system and highly regarded overall, earning himself positions on top-100 prospect lists. His lack of pure stuff became apparent in the upper levels of the system and he has struggled with command since the beginning of 2018.

Considering the fact that he turns 26 in July, Gonsalves might be seeing himself in another organization if the Twins need his 40-man roster spot.

Griffin Jax

A third round pick out of the Air Force Academy in 2016, Jax has had himself a weird career, missing most of 2017 because of his military training. He returned to baseball full time the last two years since he has “technically” been training for the 2020 Olympics.

He pitched great in 2019, with a 2.67 ERA across 111.1 innings in Pensacola and a 4.50 ERA in 16 innings in Rochester. Jax is an old school control guy without elite stuff, posting just a 6.6 K/9 rate this year. He is a fastball-changeup guy who usually sits around 90-92 MPH. While his results are stellar, he just isn’t that exciting.

He will likely start 2020 in Rochester, unless his Olympic training status gets in the way. He will be 25 for the entire 2020 season and is eligible for the Rule 5 Draft if teams aren’t afraid of his weird military status.

Cole Sands

Outside of Devin Smeltzer, Cole Sands is the pitcher who really surprised me the most this season. Taken in the 5th round of the 2018 draft, Sands didn’t pitch professionally last year due to injury.

In his first start of 2019 he threw 5 no-hit innings with 8 strikeouts and never really looked back. He managed a 3.05 ERA in 41.1 innings in Cedar Rapids with a 49/11 K/BB ratio and then a 2.25 ERA through 52 innings in Fort Myers with a 53/7 K/BB ratio. He made one start in Pensacola before landing on the disabled listed and gave up 2 runs in 4 innings with a 6/1 K/BB ratio.

If Sands can stay healthy he projects as a solid back of the rotation type, with a solid but not great three pitch mix and very good control. I could see him starting the year in High-A or Double-A, but either way he could easily move himself to Rochester by season’s end. He doesn’t turn 23 until July 17th.

Edwar Colina

In the first half of the 2018 season, Edwar Colina walked 32 batters in 44 innings at Low-A Cedar Rapids. The pitching coaches there helped him make a mechanical change, and in the second half of that season he only walked 18 in 54 innings to go along with a 1.50 ERA in that span.

Starting 2019 in High-A, Colina picked up right where he left off, posting a 2.34 ERA in 61.2 innings with a 61/15 K/BB ratio. He moved up to Pensacola and posted a 2.03 ERA in 31 innings although his command faltered a bit, with a 37/15 K/BB rate at that level. He even got to throw 4.2 innings in Rochester but got walloped and posted a 17.36 ERA despite only walking 2.

Colina is a fully-built 5’11”, 240lbs and is primarily a fastball-slider guy who can hit 98 MPH, so the general consensus is that he will end up as a reliever. He is eligible for the Rule 5 Draft this offseason and turns 23 in May. I think he has a good chance of getting a 40-man roster spot and finding himself in Minnesota in 2020.

Jovani Moran

Moran is a fastball-changeup lefty with enough funk to make him a bizarrely intriguing prospect, primarily because he either walks or strikes out everyone. After a stellar 2018 (2.25 ERA with a 107/35 K/BB rate in 76 innings) he struggled this year, only throwing 37.2 innings in the regular season with a 55/25 K/BB ratio and a 4.54 ERA (4.98 ERA in Double-A).

If Moran can harness his control just a bit better he could be an interesting bullpen piece. He turns 23 in April and is Rule 5 eligible for the first time this offseason.

Bailey Ober

Ober had struggles staying healthy this year, but when he was on the mound he was electric: 0.69 ERA and a 100/9 K/BB ratio through 78.2 innings, with the majority coming at High-A Fort Myers.

Ober turns 25 in July but is also 6’9”, and it is well known that taller pitchers can take a bit to develop. If Ober can stay healthy in 2020 he might have enough helium to get him close to the major leagues.

Dakota Chalmers

Chalmers makes the cutoff for today’s piece because like Balazovic, he appeared for the Blue Wahoos in the playoffs.

Acquired in 2018 for Fernando Rodney, Chalmers was out for the majority of that season with Tommy John and he had a short season this year working back from the injury.

He pitched 13.1 innings in the GCL with a 19/8 K/BB rate and 4.05 before moving up to Fort Myers. In 5 starts at that level he pitched 21.1 innings with a 3.38 ERA and a 29/15 K/BB ratio.

Obviously the control needs work, but Chalmers can strike guys out and will be interesting to watch in 2020 another year removed from surgery. He will be 23 for the entire 2020 campaign.

Thoughts

Luckily for the Twins, our pitching prospects did a whole hell of a lot better in 2019 than our hitting prospects did.

Guys like Dobnak, Smeltzer, Stashak, and even Zack Littell are never guys who get a lot of prospect hype, but getting successful contributions from these kinds of players is key in a long baseball season.

More highly touted prospects like Balazovic, Graterol, and Duran pitched very well and set themselves up for big seasons in 2020. I think Graterol will be a bullpen fixture and that Balazovic and Duran are most likely 3rd starter types, so we still lack a clear frontline starter type of prospect. That issue could be erased by any of these three guys having a stellar 2020.

While I think guys like Kohl Stewart and Stephen Gonsalves—long tenured prospects that were once highly touted—have likely worked their way out of our system, we still possess a good amount of depth that will start 2020 in Triple-A or Double-A, ready to replenish the Twins’ staff whenever Falvine come calling.

Tomorrow is our last day of our prospect review, and we will look at our pitching prospects in the lower minors.