Reading over at Twins Daily, there are a lot of different perspectives on the state of the upper levels of the Twins’ systems. Conventional wisdom says that the vast majority of impact prospects in the system are at the lower levels and at AA and AAA the best we can hope for is some bench guys and some second-division starters. Other, more optimistic folks, point to a number of guys who could fill big league roles within the next couple of years, guys who may not be studs, but look to be upgrades over what the Twins currently have.
Terms like “impact prospect” and “difference maker” which get thrown around a lot are tough to pin down. For instance, just about everybody would apply those labels to a guy like Miguel Sano, few though, would have done the same with Danny Valencia a couple of years ago. Then Valencia came up in 2010, proceeded to wOBA .351 while playing a good third base and put up 2.7 WAR in just 322 PA–absolutely an impact performance. The Twins have constantly found guys who caught fire upon call-up (Chris Parmelee last year, Lew Ford, Doug Mientkiewicz) despite lacking the talent to be long term starters. Hopefully a few guys can do just that, outperforming their track records and providing the Twins with some solid production on the cheap over the next few seasons. The fact is, for a team with a mid-level payroll like the Twins to compete they need to fill a few spots with league-minimum guys. So, lets take a look at what guys might have an impact on the Twins in the next two seasons.
1. Joe Benson OF
Benson is the closest thing to and industry consensus “impact prospect” on this list, making two of the big three (Law, BA, Golstein) top 100 rankings, coming in at 99 on BA’s list and 90 on Goldstein’s list at BP. Benson has, like most Twins prospects, spent ample time in the minors (2012 will be his 7th season) and just turned 24. Repeating AA last year he showed a the tools that made him a second round pick in 2006. He hit a robust .285/.388/.495 good for a 141 wRC+ all while playing quality defense. He struggled mightily, however, during his September call-up, hitting just .239/.270/.352 in 74 PA’s.
Benson will always have a lot of swing and miss in his game (he’s only once posted a K-rate under 20% (’06) and the .285 average he put up last year was the best of his career) but he should bring enough secondary skills to the table to offset his contact issues. He’s big and fast, the kind of guy who could post consistent 20-20 seasons, while playing excellent corner defense and maybe some centerfield as well. He’s always posted solid walk rates, nearly hitting 12% at New Britain last year. He’ll likely begin the year at AAA as he’s still behind Span, Revere, Plouffe, Willingham and Doumit on the outfield depth charts. I’ve no doubt, though, that we’ll see him some this season, and hopefully in a full-time starting role in 2013. At the very least, he can be a solid platoon guy in a corner, and if he can solve some of the contact issues he could turn into a 3-4 win outfielder.
2. Brian Dozier 2B/SS
Brian Dozier was essentially a non-prospect entering the 2011 season. An 8th rounder in 2009, he’d posted solid but unspectacular numbers in two minor league seasons but he’s not the possessor of the physical gifts that can offset statistical production in prospects. Then, in 2011 he began the year by destroying (151 wRC+) Ft. Myers, earned a midseason call-up to New Britain and just kept hitting, rocking a .318/.384/.502 line at AA that had Ron Gardenhire clamoring for a late-season call up to The Show. The only caveat to those number is Dozier’s age. A senior sign, he played last season at the age of 24, quite old for A+ and AA ball.
Dozier isn’t long on tools, but he can really hit and has soft hands that provide solid defense in the middle infield. It doesn’t look like he has the range or the arm to play short, but he should be able to play a quality second base while hitting enough to justify the position change. Dozier has earned rave reviews out of Ft. Myers this Spring and could likely handle a spot in the infield on opening day. As it stands, he should begin the year at AAA and be first in line for a call-up should Jamey Carroll or Alexi Casilla struggle or hit the DL. Dozier looks like he could be about a league-average second baseman, posting 2-3 wins annually–perfectly acceptable for a guy making the league minimum.
3. Chris Parmelee 1B
Parmelee is another guy who hit the ball well at AA last year, owning a .287/.366/.436 line that earned him a cup o’ tea in September. Parmelee proceeded to impress with the Twins, mashing his way to a 187 wRC+ in 88 PA’s in September. Parmelee was rated as one of the best power-hitters coming into the 2006 draft (where the Twins took him with their first selection) and put up good power numbers in the low minors. He then reworked his swing to make more contact, and hasn’t shown much power since.
Parmelee’s September was impressive, but we’ve got a long minor league track record that would indicate that he doesn’t possess the bat to play first base in the bigs and doesn’t possess the physical tools to play defense at any other position. In what was termed a breakout by many, Parmelee slugged only .436 as a 24 year old at AA last season, a number dwarfed by middle infielder Brian Dozier’s .502. Parmelee could see a lot of time this season depending on Justin Morneau’s health, but unless he can start posting some slugging percentages at or near the .500 mark, he’s likely nothing more than a decent bench bat or platoon guy in the majors.
4. Chris Herrman C
Herrman signed as an outfielder after the 2009 draft but has since converted to catcher. Like any decent college guy should, he destroyed the Appy League as a 21 year old in 2009 but gave everything back by hitting .219/.310/.301 in the FSL in 2010. Repeating the level last year, however, Herrman mashed a .380 wOBA in 24 games before moving up to AA where he posted a very respectable 119 wRC+ (.356 wOBA). For what it’s worth (likely very little) Herrman put the hurt on the Arizona Fall League last year, hitting a bonkers .380/.456/.620 (.478 wOBA).
Herrman is, by all accounts, still learning the intricacies of catching but has the makings of a solid defender, nailing a solid 37% of runners over his career. He still has to prove that 2011 was his true talent with the bat and the plethora of AAA catchers in the Twins’ system means that he’ll likely repeat AA. While he lacks great contact skills or impact power, Herrman has shown excellent plate discipline in the minors and could be in for a breakout year as a hitter. It’s unlikely that we see any of Herrman this season but continued improvement coupled with Joe Mauer’s iffy future as a catcher could see Herrman competing for a roster spot right out of the gate in 2013.
5. JR Towles C
Towles’ inclusion on this list is a bit of a cheat as he’s not really a prospect at all (that should tell you a bit about my view of the Twins’ system at the upper levels). Back in 2008, Towles was a prospect, in fact he was a hell of a prospect ranking 53 on BA’s annual list. He was coming off a .324/.425/.551 line in AA and built upon that hitting .304/.370/.500 in AAA that year. Unfortunately, he has pretty much sucked as a big leaguer hitting a Butera-esque .187/.267/.315 in 155 games.
Towles is getting a chance to compete with Butera to make the roster as the team’s inevitable third catcher. He has continued to hit at AAA and the hope is that he can at least provide a modest upgrade with the bat–maybe a wOBA north of .300. He’s posted pretty much neutral defensive numbers in the bigs so defense shouldn’t be much of a concern. The upside here is minimal but taking a flyer on a guy with a strong minor league track record was a no brainer here.
A few more to keep an eye on:
Ray Chang IF
Chang is a career minor-leaguer who has played all around the diamond, providing solid defense and unspectacular offense. He hit well at Rochester last year and could be in the mix as a utility guy.
Pedro Florimon IF
Florimon was claimed from the Baltimore Orioles this offseason. He’s got a reputation as a defensive ace and posted solid (.267/.344/.396) numbers with the bat at AA last year. Another guy who could be in the mix as a utility infielder.
Rene Tosoni OF
Tosoni lost his prospect eligibility last year thanks to a number of injuries. Up to that point, he had posted solid minor league numbers over four seasons. He struggled at the bigs–he clearly wasn’t ready–but has the makings of an OK fourth outfielder and can do a little bit of everything.
There is very little to be hopeful about as far as minor league hitters go. Benson and Dozier could develop into solid major-leaguers but are far from sure things. Beyond that there’s very little upside. The two glass half full outlook here is: a) the upper minors as a whole have been weak the last year or two and b) the list of pitchers looks to be a lot stronger. I’ll write up the pitchers tomorrow.