After eight straight years of being sellers at the trade deadline, it’s only natural for Minnesota Twins fans to become accustomed to focusing on prospects this late in the season. Not only will the rosters expand in September, allowing a flood of players on the 40-man roster to join the Twins once the minor league seasons end, but many of Minnesota’s balleyhooed prospects are already on the team.
Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano arrived in 2015. Max Kepler and Eddie Rosario have manned the corner outfield spots for a while. Jorge Polanco has returned from his PED suspension, and Trevor May from a long rehab. Jose Berrios was named an All-Star this season, and Mitch Garver’s bat has come alive in the second half.
With the departure of Brian Dozier and Eduardo Escobar at the deadline this season, the two most vocal leaders in the clubhouse are gone. Ervin Santana, who was projected to be the ace to start the season, has been injured most of the season and is unlikely to return. Joe Mauer remains the leadoff hitter, but is in the twilight of his career and the final year of his contract.
There are still interesting prospects in the low minors — Royce Lewis, Alex Kirilloff, Trevor Larnach, etc. — but they are still a few years out and unlikely to make an impact in the immediate future.
If the Twins are going to try to build off last year’s Wild Card appearance, they need many of their current players to pan out. They can be opportunistic and try to compete for the AL Central as soon as next season — in between the time that the Cleveland Indians window is (presumably) closing due to a small payroll and aging stars, and before the Chicago White Sox, who are starting to see some of their best prospects reach the majors, are at the end of their rebuild.
While it’s far too early to tell whether they’ll be able to compete next season, so far they’ve had mixed results with their top prospects.
“That’s an ongoing internal dialogue that we have is that when people come up here over some years, they come up and seem more prepared than other years,” said manager Paul Molitor when asked if he feels that the Twins prospects are prepared for the majors when they arrive.
“I just don’t think you can do everything to get them ready for what it’s like up here. But in general, we try to expose them to situations and information and whatever else might come up.
“We’re always thinking of ways to help our guys the eventually get here transition more smoothly.”
Buxton has been injured most of the season, and Sano was hitting .203/.270/.405 before being sent down to High-A Fort Myers for a reset. Their lack of production is a major reason why the Twins were unable to make a playoff push again this season. Conversely, among the positive signs are that the rotation stayed mostly intact this year, Rosario was on the All-Star bubble and Garver is hitting .282/.333/.506 since the break.
There was a good team around them, if they had been on the team all year.
“Physically, [Buxton is] doing fairly well. I haven’t heard much about setbacks, in terms of how the wrist has been doing. Just kinda monitor what happens in the games,” said Molitor, updating Buxton’s status on Sunday.
“He’s playing, and that’s what we’re looking for. Today will be his third consecutive game down there, and we’re just kind of holding off having to consider some of the September things we might do until we get down to that point.”
And while Sano has had a disappointing season after being named an All-Star last year, he is hitting .225/.307/.449 while displaying a more compact swing, plate discipline and good defense at third base since his return.
“I’ve been pleased overall,” said Molitor. “He’s had a little bit of a slump and I think a lot of times people immediately associate a three-or four-game rough patch to what was going on earlier in the year. I don’t think that’s really fair as opposed to just the ups and downs of being a power hitter in the big leagues.
“His attitude has been really good about it. He’s been responding to the bad at-bats as well as the good at-bats. He comes in not happy but he’s ready for a good at-bat the next time. His attitude has been really good about it.”
Kohl Stewart and Stephen Gonsalves also arrived in late August, and Fernando Romero should return in September. Romero displayed a high-90s fastball, but needed to work on his offspeed stuff. Both Stewart and Gonsalves are familiar to anyone that has kept track of the Twins prospects in the past two years — Stewart was the fourth overall selection in 2013, Gonsalves was a fourth-rounder that year.
Both have long been considered important parts of the rebuilding process, and both have had an uneven start to their major-league careers.
Stewart has yet to pitch into the sixth inning in his three major league starts, although he was an out away from getting out of the fifth on Thursday. “Obviously in the fifth, I want to go deeper, but you have to earn those innings,” he said. “Too high of a pitch count, getting behind too often against some really good hitters.”
Gonsalves only got four outs in his first start, but managed to get through five on Saturday. He noted that there are strict pitch counts in the minors, which are intended to preserve a pitcher’s arm, and that he started to labor as he threw more pitches in the second inning.
“That was a lot of pitches in that second inning, and with our rule this year of 35 pitches in the minor leagues, I didn’t get to go a whole lot long in the minor leagues. So it was a little different, I had to dig a little deeper. But I appreciated just kinda hanging out there, they’re letting me battle through it,” he said, reflecting on his first start.
“It didn’t come out positive, but it’s a good experience for longer innings. I noticed I didn’t take a whole lot of breaths in between pitches, I kind of just got rushed. The game sped up, as they say. It happens.”
The Twins have also added major league talent through trades this year.
Jake Cave arrived in a deal with the New York Yankees for minor leaguer Luis Gil before the season, and has filled in at center in Buxton’s absence, as well as in the corner outfield spots, while hitting .265/.303/.452. Logan Forsythe came back in the deal that sent Brian Dozier to the Los Angeles Dodgers, and could hold down second base until Nick Gordon, the No. 5 overall pick in 2015, figures out Triple-A pitching. And Tyler Austin, a former top prospect in the Yankees system who was part of the Lance Lynn trade, is hitting .316/.357/.658 with four home runs for the Twins.
“You like to get a chance to look at people, the new faces, either through our system or some of the guys from the trades, like Tyler. It’s just one of those guys, he’s intriguing — high end power, we’ve seen it with the home runs, even the long foul balls,” said Molitor.
“Whether it’s right- or left[-handed pitching], I’m going to try to work him in as much as I can here down the stretch so we get a better feel over the winter of where we’re at and his future here.”
Players, management and fans alike would rather be following a pennant race in September, of course, especially after last season’s unexpected playoff berth. But too much focus on winning in the short term, could hamper the Twins’ long-term chances. This year’s deadline provided an opportunity to restock the minor league system, and the final month of the season will be used to determine who is part of the team’s immediate future.
Many of the Twins top prospects from the past few years are here. Now they have a month to prove that they belong.