Even during the struggles of the 90-loss stretch the Minnesota Twins endured over the last half-decade, fans could always hang their hat on the fact that the club had one of the premier farm systems in the game. It was small consolation — peanuts, really — that the struggles of the day would soon give way to brighter days as those players graduated from the system.
The 2015 season gave way to some of that hope, as guys like Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton, Eddie Rosario and even Max Kepler debuted on a team that finally finished over .500 for just the second time in the Target Field era. But that sunshine soon gave way to storms, as the Twins fell back into the doldrums and even a bit further into the abyss with a club-record 103-loss season in 2016.
But still, the farm system, right? Well….not anymore. After routinely being ranked in the top handful of systems with four or five — or even more — top-100 prospects, the Twins saw their system take a bit of a hit when 2017 rankings came out:
- Baseball Prospectus: Ranked the Twins’ system No. 22 (of 30) with just two top-101 prospects — shortstop Nick Gordon (No. 48) and starting pitcher Tyler Jay (No. 98)
- Baseball America: Ranked the Twins 21st in MiLB talent rankings with just two in their top-100 prospects — Gordon (No. 60) and starting pitcher Stephen Gonsalves (No. 99)
- MinorLeagueBall.com: Ranked the Twins’ system No. 15 with six top-200 prospects — Gordon (No. 42), Gonsalves (No. 56), starting pitcher Fernando Romero (No. 85), outfielder Alex Kirilloff (No. 92), Jay (No. 99) and first baseman Lewin Diaz (No. 185)
While that last one gives a bit more hope — five top-100 prospects — the industry consensus is still that the Twins aren’t in the top-half of farm systems anymore. Combine that with coming off a tough season and it’s easy to see why casual fans think a bad team plus a bad farm equals five more years of bad baseball coming.
It’s not that simple.
First of all, don’t forget that the Twins have the No. 1 overall pick. That’s virtually guaranteed to be a global top-100 prospect, which would give the Twins three top-100 prospects around midseason. With 100 players and 30 teams, three top prospects is about average. No harm done there, right?
But the other logical fallacy in this line of thinking is that you’d have to assume the MLB roster is a finished product. That’s been the thinking for a lot of fans this offseason, namely the “So you lose 100 games and don’t do anything in the offseason?” crowd. Keep in mind that development in baseball is not linear, and past results do not guarantee future performance.
It also hearkens back to my theory that the last two seasons have shown us the volatility of young talent. Virtually identical rosters — save for Blaine Boyer, Torii Hunter and Glen Perkins — won 83 and 59 games in successive years. Surely Hunter and Perkins helped that first team win 83 games, but their performance on — and off — the field did not alter the landscape enough for a team to hemorrhage 24 games. There’s just no way. In fact, getting a full season out of Ervin Santana helped close that gap, and whatever he left on the table was cleaned up by Brian Dozier’s career year.
Rather, we saw what basically the worst-case outcome was when a large portion of the team was turned over to youngsters. There was some bad process in there as well — like Sano playing right field — but basically every young player took a step back at the wrong time.
It’d be one thing if guys like Sano, Buxton and Berrios were finished products and the Twins were a 100-loss team. But they aren’t.
Speaking of young players…virtually all of them dotted these top prospect lists at one time or another. Buxton was the top prospect in baseball at one point or another on virtually every publication’s list and was stuck in neutral — to be charitable — until September of last year. Sano took a step backward in 2016 — perhaps aided by playing out of position — but he too was near the top of all those lists as well. Jose Berrios, who had one of the worst rookie seasons of a starting pitcher in recent memory, was also a mainstay on those lists, revered for his work ethic but also penalized for his slight stature. Rosario and Kepler both peeked through on some of those lists, and even Jorge Polanco, who saw a cup of coffee in 2014 and 2015 before seeing significant time last season, was a well-regarded prospect in the last three or four years.
So what’s the point?
The point is that even though a player graduates from a prospect list doesn’t mean they still aren’t young talent. The only rule for graduation from a prospect list is losing your rookie eligibility. That’s not the same as saying a player is a finished product, it’s just a line drawn in the sand so the next players on the conveyor belt can move through for people in the industry to rank them.
It’d be one thing if guys like Sano, Buxton and Berrios were finished products and the Twins were a 100-loss team. But they aren’t. Does that mean there’s a lot of eggs in the “former top prospects” basket? Sure. But if you were going to put your eggs in any basket, wouldn’t it be young players who were recently top prospects? The answer to that should be fairly obvious.
Don’t be fooled by the Cubs’ success in thinking the Twins have been unable to develop talent. The Cubs have had players who have come along slowly — Jorge Soler, Albert Almora come to mind — just like they’ve had the rapid risers like Willson Contreras, Addison Russell and of course, Kris Bryant. But keep in mind that Bryant was a college bat and Contreras and Russell have had the luxury of being eased into a winning environment rather than being thrown to the wolves. It’s unclear how much of a difference developing in a winning versus losing environment matters in the long run, but it seems like something we should at least think about rather than outright ignore, right?
The strategy this season seems to be surrounding these youngsters with mentally-capable veterans — like Jason Castro, Chris Gimenez, Craig Breslow and Matt Belisle — who can keep them engaged and help them with the finer points of the game. Few teams let more games slip into the margins than the Twins last year, so this has the potential to be an underrated part of the offseason. Don’t expect miracles overnight, but if this team plays more complete baseball as the season goes on, it should not be surprising.