Twins

The Saints Will Be Competing Against Premier Talent In 2022

Photo credit: St. Paul Saints Twitter account (@StPaulSaints)

By all accounts, the St. Paul Saints had a massively successful inaugural season as the Minnesota Twins’ top affiliate in 2021. Fans sold out CHS Field regularly. The team showcased some high-end talent, and the product on the field was good enough to propel them to an abbreviated postseason. Some of that had to do with a seemingly never-ending stream of rehabbing players from the big league club, but the point remains. Last year, the Saints put on a show, and they’re looking to make even more noise in 2022.

That will be a tall task. With the move to affiliated ball, the level of competition was going to get a bump. But the level of play from this upcoming group of challengers will take an even more significant leap this year. Multiple teams in St. Paul’s division are in a sweet spot of having top prospects on the precipice of making their highly anticipated major league debut. Rest assured, the Saints have some key prospects of their own that should scare opposing teams. The likes of Jose Miranda, Royce Lewis, Austin Martin, Jhoan Duran, and Jordan Balazovic are all pegged to take a starring role in Lowertown at some point this year.

Here’s a look at some of the star youngsters they will be battling.

Omaha Storm Chasers (KC)

It’s been a long rebuild for the Kansas City Royals since their championship season in 2015. Like the Twins, they selected a young shortstop out of high school with their highest draft pick of the last six years. The Royals took Bobby Witt Jr. with the second overall pick in the 2019 draft, and his stock has skyrocketed ever since.

He missed the 2020 season when MLB canceled the minor league seasons due to the pandemic. But he stormed through the Double-A gates in 2021, slashing .295/.369/.570 (.939 OPS, 145 wRC+) in 61 games. That led to a swift promotion to Triple-A, where he didn’t slow down at all.

In 62 games after joining the Storm Chasers, he hit .285/.352/.581 (.933 OPS, 142 wRC+) and made Royals fans salivate thinking about his eventual call-up to the bigs. His best tools are his game power (33 home runs in 2021), speed (29 steals), and improving defense at the shortstop position.

Toledo Mud Hens (DET)

The Detroit Tigers are another example of a team that has been through a lengthy rebuild since peaking in the early half of the last decade. One of their crown jewels from the draft is Spencer Torkelson, the consensus best prospect going into the 2019 draft after obliterating college pitching while with Arizona State.

In 2021, he saw action at the High-A, Double-A, and Triple-A levels, combining for a .267/.383/.552 slash line with 30 home runs in only 121 games. His prodigal power is his marquee trait, but his raw hitting ability is nothing to scoff at. Like Witt, Saints fans will want to get to CHS early in the season if they hope to see him as a minor leaguer.

Torkelson will probably start the year at Triple-A, but don’t be surprised to see him in the big leagues before too long. MLB.com currently ranks him as the No. 4 prospect in all of baseball. It’s hard to picture him not being in the conversation for Rookie of the Year when the time comes.

Indianapolis Indians (PIT) 

The Pittsburgh Pirates might have trouble carrying a tune this year. But they have two of the best-sounding “baseball names” in the game, and both should see time at Triple-A early on. Travis Swaggerty and Oneil Cruz aren’t household names yet, but their prospect stars are undoubtedly rising.

For Swaggerty, he’s still working to tap into his game power while maintaining a solid approach to his at-bats. But a brief 12-game stint in Triple-A was encouraging in 2021. After working behind the scenes in 2020, he returned to action last year and raised his walk rate to a career-high 12.5%, and lowered his strikeout percentage to a respectable 16.7%.

Cruz made his major league debut as a September call-up last year, but look for him to get more fine-tuning at Triple-A. At 6’7’’, he is unmistakably the tallest shortstop in affiliated baseball, but he still can hold his own defensively. Cruz leads the entire prospect class with an 80-grade for raw power on the scouting scale, and that trait will be on full display as he makes a case for an early-season call-up. If Cruz can keep his strikeout percentage under 25%, look for him to do some damage.

Louisville Bats (CIN)

The Twins went with their gut when they selected Lewis with the first overall pick in the 2017 draft. But their brain was surely vouching for them to choose Hunter Greene. A two-way prospect at the time, he was already seen as a prodigy thanks to a cover feature on Sports Illustrated that year.

Greene is no longer working on his craft as a hitter, but he has used his scorching fastball to mow down minor leaguers ever since. Greene missed two full seasons while recovering from Tommy John surgery in 2019, but he returned to the mound last year and proved that he is still the real deal.

While Greene’s heater is big-league ready, he’ll need to work on his command before getting the call to the bigs, but many scouts believe that will happen as he gets more game experience. Who knows if the stars will align to make it happen, but many Twins fans would pay good money to see Greene face off against Lewis at CHS Field before starting their big league careers.

Columbus Clippers (CLE)

The newly-minted Cleveland Guardians are known for fostering a strong pitching pipeline that ceases to feed their rotation, but their top prospect is actually a hitter. Nolan Jones has been an above-average hitter at each level since being drafted in 2016, and he and the club are hoping that this will be the year he brings his big bat to Cleveland.

Last season, Jones hit .238/.356/.431 in 99 games at the Triple-A level. It’s a curious slash line for a player whose best trait is his raw power and a 30% strikeout rate. Nevertheless, scouts think he will be a major-league caliber hitter in short order. A third baseman by trade, he should get an opportunity to get a taste of the hot corner at some point in 2022.

Superstar Jose Ramirez currently occupies that spot, but Cleveland could move him to second base or trade him by the time Jones is ready for a call-up. He’s still just 23 years old, so the Guardians will most likely opt to keep him in Triple-A to get some more seasoning (among other reasons).

Iowa Cubs (CHC)

The Chicago Cubs experienced a major change of the guards in 2021 when they traded away franchise icons Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Javier Baez. They were each integral to their championship in 2016 and were each highly-ranked prospects in their own right before making history.

Now, Brailyn Marquez is hoping to accomplish the same feat. While he doesn’t have a great class of prospects around him like the trio above, he hopes his triple-digit velocity will make him a star for the Cubs soon. Still just 22 years old, Marquez missed last season with a shoulder injury, but he was a standout in the low-minors from 2016-19.

The Cubs then called him up in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, but he only made one appearance and hasn’t seen the field since. With a fresh start in 2022, Marquez will hope to establish himself as a front-end starter in the minors while increasing his workload after missing so much time due to his injury. Barring something unexpected, look for him to spend most of the year at Triple-A, especially if the Cubs commit to rebuilding for the time being.

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Photo credit: St. Paul Saints Twitter account (@StPaulSaints)

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