MINNEAPOLIS -- Considering there wasn't a Minor League season at all in 2020 due to the far-reaching impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was difficult to set any real expectations for how players might emerge from that lost year of development -- or how their health might be impacted as a result during a full '21 campaign.
In emerging from that uncertainty, the Twins, like much of MLB, found their share of both encouraging developments and injury challenges.
As for the former, the Twins had one of the Minor League's most impressive breakout stories in Jose Miranda's complete domination of both the Double-A and Triple-A levels, seemingly setting him up for considerable Major League experience in 2022. Joe Ryan, acquired in the Nelson Cruz deal with Tampa Bay, had an impressive first taste of the Majors, putting him in position to play a significant role next season.
With that said, injuries played a significant role, too. In an ideal world, the Twins would have used this sort of challenging year to acclimate their top pitching prospects to the Majors, as they did with Bailey Ober and Griffin Jax. Injuries got in the way in too many of those cases, leaving important pitchers like Jhoan Duran, Josh Winder and Blayne Enlow on the sidelines at the end of the season, unable to fully take advantage of an opportunity in the Majors.
Let's take a look at the players who did make significant strides this year and who might turn heads among Twins' prospects come 2022.
3 players who forced their way onto the radar this year
INF Jose Miranda
A talented, contact-first hitter who hadn't translated his tools to on-field production before this season, Miranda was a no-brainer choice as the Twins' Minor League Player of the Year for one of the Minors' biggest breakout seasons, during which he hit .344/.401/.572 with 30 homers and 32 doubles across Double-A Wichita and Triple-A St. Paul.
Before this year, Miranda had topped out at an .824 OPS in Rookie ball without this much power. But now that he's added pop to his already outstanding contact ability, the 23-year-old is poised to enter Spring Training firmly embedded in the infield mix with the ability to have an impact in 2022.
Considering the consistency of his numbers once he was promoted to Triple-A, he might not have been out of place in the Majors in 2021, but with Josh Donaldson, Jorge Polanco and Luis Arraez finishing the year healthy, the Twins opted to give Miranda everyday playing time in Triple-A to stay in his playing rhythm -- though performance-wise, it doesn't look like he has much left to prove there.
RHP Louie Varland
The pride of North St. Paul High School and Concordia University in St. Paul could be poised to return to Minnesota's capital city in a year or two -- and, in short order, progress across the river to Minneapolis.
Varland hadn't been as prominently on the radar before the pandemic, but after working at one of the Twins' velocity camps before the 2020 season and continuing his work during the shutdown, both individually and with the organization's pitching coaches, he returned as a changed player in '21. He posted a 2.10 ERA with 142 strikeouts in 103 innings across 20 games at Low-A Fort Myers and High-A Cedar Rapids.
He's not going to be part of the next group of pitchers to impact the Majors like Duran, Winder and Drew Strotman, but the hometown kid could be part of that next group alongside Jordan Balazovic, Cole Sands and Matt Canterino to bolster the starting depth in years to come.
LHP Jovani Moran
It's not often that a Minor League reliever makes a big splash, but even a cursory look at Moran's numbers reveals the potential for an impact left-handed bullpen arm for years to come.
The 24-year-old from Puerto Rico posted eye-popping strikeout rates throughout his rise in the Minors before the pandemic, and his signature changeup was back in full force in 2021, helping him to a 2.41 ERA with 109 strikeouts in 67 1/3 innings for Double-A Wichita and Triple-A St. Paul before he earned a mid-September callup to the Majors.
He didn't have the smoothest transition to the bigs (7.88 ERA in five games), but he'll only be better off for that experience come 2022.
2 possible breakout players to watch in 2022
RHP Matt Canterino
Canterino, the Twins' second-round selection from the 2019 Draft, was already in the midst of a huge breakout season in '21 before elbow issues wiped out his final four months of the season.
He has clearly been on the Twins' radar to potentially move quickly to the Majors, considering his exposure to Major League Spring Training this year, and he backed that up with 45 strikeouts and four walks in 23 innings across six starts for Low-A Fort Myers and High-A Cedar Rapids. He attempted an August comeback before he was shut down again, but Twins leadership is optimistic that he could have a normal offseason in anticipation of 2022.
RHP Drew Strotman
Acquired with Ryan in the trade that sent Cruz to the Rays, Strotman didn't have the smoothest transition to his new organization with a 7.33 ERA in 54 innings across 12 starts for Triple-A St. Paul while dealing with elevated walk numbers. Still, the Twins noted when they acquired the 25-year-old right-hander that they felt he had not yet fully regained his best stuff following his 2018 Tommy John surgery and that Strotman's stuff could play up when he finds himself again on the mound.
One big question for next season
What kind of performance will the Twins get from Royce Lewis, their No. 1 prospect, when he returns to the field for the first time since 2019?
Lewis had a tough 2019 season with a .661 OPS across High-A and Double-A -- and has now lost two full years of competitive play due to the COVID-19 pandemic in '20 and a torn ACL in '21. He's still 22 years old and felt great about the swing work he put in at the alternate training site in '20. But he'll need to prove that can translate to real, on-field results, especially with a glaring need at shortstop in the coming years for the Twins.
"Professional athletes who are really good athletes, they just recover differently than the rest of us," president of baseball operations Derek Falvey said of Lewis' ACL. "He seems to be pushing it every time a doctor puts hands on him. He's doing great. Maybe a little ahead of schedule."