Twins instructional league has one glaring absence

October 4th, 2018

Take a quick look at the Twins' instructional league roster and the absence of one thing stands out immediately: pitching.

There are no pitchers on the roster whatsoever, and it shouldn't take any real sleuthing to figure out the Twins aren't playing in any instructs game this fall, choosing instead to mostly work on specific skills for position players.

"We're not playing games," Twins farm director Jeremy Zoll said. "We didn't bring any pitchers in for any skill work during this fall. Some were brought in for strength camp this week. But all the pitcher skill work has been shifted to some January programs.

"We focused on an offensive hitting camp that's been going on for two weeks, a one-week catching camp and a one-week defense camp. It's letting us really dive in."

Instructional league rosters

In stark contrast to the absence of pitchers is the sheer volume of backstops that were in Fort Myers for last week's catching camp. Every catcher from Double-A down to the Gulf Coast League was brought in and put through the paces by catching coordinator Tanner Swanson, who laid out the structure for the week.

"Without the pitchers, they weren't pulled in a million directions with bullpens and live BPs," Zoll said. "We feel really good about the progress that was made. They just did defense. Several have now shifted into the offensive camp or strength camp."

The group included long-time catchers like 2016 second-round pick Ben Rortvedt and 2013 draftee Brian Navaretto, but also had newcomers to the position. Ben Rodriguez, a 2017 Draft pick, started catching in the spring and got into games this summer for the first time. Then there are a pair of 2018 draftees who are just starting to get behind the plate. Laron Smith, a 25th-round pick out of Canada, was drafted as a catcher, but played first, third and left field during his brief GCL debut.

Then there's Michael Davis, a senior sign in the 24th round out of Texas Tech. Davis played third for the Red Raiders and shortstop during his summer debut for the Twins, where the organization liked what it saw. But the organization also thought the left-handed hitter could handle adding to his defensive resume.

"He had never strapped the gear on before, so it was all new to him," Zoll said. "He has good hands and is a pretty good athlete. Those things translate well. You can't make too many conclusions from one week, but we'll look to add this to his tool bag for 2019.

"We're going to see how much progress he makes and how he looks in the spring. Michael plays a very good shortstop. We talked to him about versatility, especially at premium positions. We envision him moving around, getting good time at shortstop, but building up behind the plate."

Hitting camp standouts

While there hasn't been competition against other organizations, there certainly have been standouts in terms of swinging the bat well. The Twins staff is getting its first real eyes on Gilberto Celestino, acquired from the Astros in the Ryan Pressley deal, and has been impressive this fall. So has infielder Yunior Severino, who just finished his first year with the Twins after being declared a free agent from the Braves in the wake of their violation of international signing rules.

One other standout has been Andrew Bechtold, who was a very intriguing 2017 Draft pick (fifth round) out of a stacked Chipola Junior College program. After a solid summer pro debut, there was some excitement about the third baseman being able to jump onto the prospect radar more firmly, but he really struggled in the Midwest league, finishing with a .593 OPS. But rather than wallow, Bechtold cleared his head after a couple of weeks off and came to the hitting camp ready to get to work.

"You'll talk to many players who'll acknowledge how hard it is to make big changes to swings while you're competing every day over a long season," Zoll said about Bechtold, who was also learning to play second along with his natural third. "I'm not saying we're making big changes, but he's making adjustments. He's been super receptive and we've seen some progress so far.

"We talked with him, trying to get to more consistency of contact, squaring up balls more, using his ability to drive the ball to left center field and the pull side and not getting caught in a pure opposite field mode. He's improving his swing path which will allow him to attack it more."

Top prospects get work in

Two position players in camp who don't seem to need work offensively are the top two prospects in the system, shortstop Royce Lewis and outfielder Alex Kirilloff. Both split the year between two levels of A ball and performed extremely well at the plate. They're not participating in the hitting camp, though. Not content with being offense-only players, the pair are back in Fort Myers to work on becoming more well-rounded prospects.

"Royce and Alex were in the defensive camp," Zoll said. "That's not to say they're perfect as hitters, but this was an opportunity to get them into some focused, super small groups on the defensive side which doesn't always happen during the year. We were so proud of the year they had; this was a good time to jump in on defense. They did that last week and shifted to strength camp this week."