FORT MYERS, Fla. – The Twins have had a reputation of typically having a strong farm system over the years, with a system ranked in the top five in 2015 and '16, then reaching the top 10 again in MLB Pipeline’s midseason ranking in '18 and settling in at No.
FORT MYERS, Fla. – The Twins have had a reputation of typically having a strong farm system over the years, with a system ranked in the top five in 2015 and '16, then reaching the top 10 again in MLB Pipeline’s midseason ranking in '18 and settling in at No. 8 this year.
But as productive as the system has been over the years, there’s been one knock on the Twins' player development successes: Their ability to produce hitters has far outstripped starting pitching production. Yes, there’s been Kyle Gibson and Jose Berrios, but the bats have been better. Since 2011, in fact, every No. 1 prospect in the system has been a hitter.
• Lewis on base stealing | Twins Top 30 | Twins prospects' Spring Training stats
This year, in many ways, is no different. Royce Lewis and Alex Kirilloff form one of the best 1-2 punches of any organization in baseball. Five of the first six prospects in Minnesota's Top 30 are bats. But Minor League camp in Fort Myers has a different feel on the mound these days, giving Twins staff reason for optimism in its pitching.
“For a long time, I understand we were criticized for not producing starting pitching,” farm director Jeremy Zoll said. “It’s easy to talk about the bats we have, with Lewis, Kirilloff and Trevor Larnach. But as we look at pitching in our system, we’re starting to get excited about those arms having an impact, from a year to two years away. Maybe for the first time in a bit, we have some stuff-based starting pitching prospects in the system."
Zoll ticks off a list of a half-dozen arms with power stuff, all of whom came early to the team’s January pitching programs. It’s led by Brusdar Graterol, No. 3 on the Twins list and No. 68 overall. And he’s quickly followed by Jhoan Duran (No. 7), Blayne Enlow (No. 9), Jorge Alcala (No. 18), Jordan Balazovic (No. 19) and Edwar Colina. All have impressed in camp this spring. Here’s how each have looked, according to Zoll.
Graterol: “He’s been 97-100 mph, with an 87-90 mph slider and a power changeup at 89-92 mph. It gets crowded behind the backstop when he starts to pitch. His stuff makes people stop what they’re doing and watch.”
Duran: “He’s been up to 98 mph and his sinker is his trademark pitch, at 92 mph. He’s been getting more consistent with his curveball, starting in January and is making real strides in that regard.”
Enlow: “He’s been working hard on the consistency of his secondary pitches. He’s really improved his body composition.”
Alcala: “He’s worked on the consistency of his mechanics to help him refine his command and there have been early benefits there. His stuff isn’t in doubt; it’s about helping him harness that to find the strike zone and the early returns this spring have been good.”
Balazovic: “His command is night and day from a year ago in last Spring Training. The strides he’s made in the last year, he could be the most improved in our organization.”
Colina: “He was up to 97-99 mph the other day. He’s had a little back tightness, so he might be slowed a bit. It’s a heavy fastball paired with a hard slider. He was lights out from mid-July until the end of the year for Cedar Rapids last year. There are big things ahead for him.”
“Across the board, all of those younger guys were in our January pitching programs, so they’ve been here for a while,” Zoll said. “It’s cool to see them at the point where they are near the end of March.”
Javier ready to go
It’s hard to believe the Twins signed No. 4 prospect Wander Javier nearly four years ago, in July 2015 to be exact. They saw tremendous upside on both sides of the ball, the reason why they gave the shortstop $4 million to sign. Unfortunately, they haven’t been able to get much return on that investment yet.
Javier's first season, in 2016, was ended really before it began because of a hamstring injury. He did open many eyes with a very strong performance in the Rookie-level Appalachian League in '17, but he couldn’t follow it up in '18 as he missed the season due to a torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder. Javier's shoulder is 100 percent now, and while he’s dealt with a mild quad strain, he should break camp with full-season in Cedar Rapids at the start of the year.
“He was on the Major League side a good amount of early Spring Training games to get him in some action, get him in a competitive environment,” Zoll said. “And to get him around someone like Jorge Polanco. I think that opened his eyes to some things.”
There was some rust to shake off, but then Javier had some good at-bats and smoked a double in a Grapefruit League game. The arrow, however cautiously, is pointing up for the 20-year-old
“You never like to see a guy lose a year of development time,” Zoll said. “But he continues to get more physical, his upper body is strong. He plays a really nice shortstop. We’re hoping he can get moving here and show the talent that he has.”
When the Twins took catcher Ryan Jeffers in the second round of the 2018 Draft, most felt that was ahead of where the industry had the UNC-Wilmington catcher. His summer debut that saw him reach full-season ball and finish with a combined .344/.444/.502 line made it seem like Minnesota got it right. Jeffers' first Spring Training has done nothing to detract from that.
“He’s picked up where he left off,” Zoll said. “He’s had as seamless a transition to pro ball as you can imagine.”
In addition to his performance this spring, Jeffers has really stood out for his tireless work ethic. He’s worked on all aspects of his defensive game while continuing to fine-tune his right-handed swing.
“He’s very professional,” Zoll said. “His thirst to learn has been outstanding. He’s a big, physical kid and when he gets rolling with the bat, it’s fun to watch.”
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLBPipeline.com. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanMayo and Facebook, and listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast.