There was not much for Twins fans to cheer about with yesterday’s 4-0 loss to the Tigers but Opening Day in the minors tomorrow brings more opportunities to be excited in the Twin Cities.
The Twins feature top-100 prospects at the Triple-A, Double-A, High-A and Low-A levels to start the season. Minnesota has one of the best and deepest farm systems league wide and with a number of elite prospects knocking at the door of the big league call-up, there is plenty to watch at every minor league level as games begin tomorrow afternoon.
Rochester Red Wings (AAA)
The action kicks off at 2:05 EST when the Rochester Red Wings (AAA) take the field in Buffalo to start their season with Alex Meyer on the mound. Meyer starts the season ranked 29th on MLB.com’s prospect list and is coming off a strong 2014 season, in which he went 7-7 over 27 starts with the Red Wings. Meyer allowed just 116 hits over 130.1 innings and he struck out 10.6 hitters per nine innings.
The rest of Rochester’s starting rotation is full of talented arms and the dates of their first starts were released today.
May will get to start the team’s home opener on Saturday afternoon. He was very impressive with the Red Wings last season before struggling after his call-up to the big leagues, where he went 3-6 in the Majors. During Spring Training, May was locked into a battle for the 5th starter position but ultimately fell behind both Tommy Milone and Mike Pelfrey. If any of the Twins starters get hurt or begin to struggle, May is probably the team’s first option to come up and fill the hole from the minors.
The team’s bullpen is also deep with players who already have Major League experience. Lefty Caleb Thielbar has 103 relief outing for the Twins over the past two seasons and a 2.59 Major League ERA to show for it. Some were surprised to see him left off the Major League roster when camp broke. Michael Tonkin, Logan Darnell, Lester Oliveros, Ryan Pressly and A.J. Achter all made appearances in the Majors in 2014 as well and will be joining Thielbar in Rochester to start the season.
The Red Wings offense is also stacked with talent that is close to Major League ready, or possibly even right there and just waiting for the call. The names that jump off the roster sheet at first glance are Aaron Hicks and Josmil Pinto, two players who went into camp expecting spots on the Major League roster only to start the season in the minors.
Hicks has been the Twins Opening Day starter in center field each of the past two seasons but a .201 career average has made the Twins skeptical of his abilities and he will begin the season in the minor leagues for the first time since 2012. He batted .278 in limited action with the Red Wings last year.
Pinto was expected to win the job as backup catcher but multiple injuries kept him away from the playing field for most of spring training, allowing Chris Herrmann to step up and earn a spot on the Major League roster. Because Herrmann is a sub-.200 career hitter over parts of three seasons in the Majors, Pinto can easily get called up very quickly if Herrmann continues to struggle at the plate. Pinto hit .279 with 17 doubles and six home runs in 60 games with the Red Wings last year.
Chattanooga Lookouts (AA)
The Lookouts could arguably be the most exciting team across Minor League Baseball as their roster is packed with elite prospects.
However, this excitement might not be long lived as the big names such as Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano and Jose Berrios are sure to quickly move up through the system which means that their stay in Chattanooga might not be too long.
Byron Buxton is one reason why this team will be so exciting to watch at the start of the season because he is one of the most talked about prospects in the game. He is the number one rated prospect according to MLB.com and was called “Mike Trout 2.0″ by Twins rightfielder Torii Hunter during Spring Training. Injuries slowed down the 21-year old outfielder last season and he was only able to get one game of Double-A expierence under his belt, but a healthy Buxton looked strong in the Arizona Fall League. He has Twins fans excited for what is to come and there is no doubt that Buxton will make it to Triple-A very quickly if healthy.
Sano has Twins fans just as excited as Buxton and he might even be closer to a Major League call up. He enters the season as the 11th ranked prospect according to MLB.com, which is down from 4th a season ago. Sano’s drop-off could be due to him missing the entire 2014 season with an elbow injury but the third baseman showed his potential in 2013 when he slugged 35 home runs between Advanced-A and Double-A ball. He had 37 extra base hits in just 67 Double-A games that season and flashed his power during spring training this year.
Berrios, who stared for Team World at the Futures Game this summer, is the 32nd ranked prospect according to MLB.com and looked awesome this spring by posting a perfect ERA in six innings pitched. The 20-year old Puerto Rican flew up through the system last season pitching at three different levels, including one start in Triple-A. He was 12-8 with a 2.77 ERA across all three levels. His first start of the spring is expected to come on Friday afternoon.
Chattanooga’s high level of talent goes well beyond these three top prospects. 21-year old shortstop Jorge Polanco is on the Twins 40-man roster and was 2-for-6 (.333) with a double and a triple as a September call-up last season. He also drew two walks to post an on-base percentage of .500. 24-year old pitcher Tyler Duffey was 13-3 over 25 starts at three different levels last season, including a 2-0 mark in Triple-A. He is sure to be a force towards the top of the Lookouts rotation.
One last player to watch out for in Chattanooga is 21-year old German outfielder Max Kepler, who is reaching Double-A for the first time in his professional career. Kepler was given the largest signing bonus for any European born player when the Twins signed him in 2009 and he’s preformed strongly in the minors so far, but it will be very interesting to see how Kepler handles his toughest level of competition yet.
Fort Myers Miracle (Advanced-A)
The Miracle’s roster is headlined by Kohl Stewart, who will be the team’s Opening Day starter when the season gets underway tomorrow afternoon.
The Twins took Stewart fourth overall out of high school in the 2013 MLB Draft and it seems to have paid off for Minnesota so far as he has posted a 2.36 minor league ERA over the last two seasons and he has risen to 36th overall on MLB.com’s top-100 prospects list.
Pitching in Advanced-A will be the highest level that Stewart has reached in his minor league career so far no level has proven difficult enough for the 20-year old who turned down a scholarship to play quarterback at Texas A&M to sign with the Twins out of high school.
Ryan Eades is also a big name reaching the Advanced-A level for the first time. Eades was the Twins second round pick in 2013, the year Minnesota took Stewart. Eades, who was taken out of LSU, led the Cedar Rapids Kernels (Class A) with ten wins last season
The Miracle also return a number of players who helped them win the Florida State League last season as they are looking to defend their crown.
Ceder Rapids Kernels (Class A)
The Twins took shortstop Nick Gordon with the fifth overall pick last summer and he will be the big name starting the season in Ceder Rapids.
Gordon played rookie ball after the draft last year and had a very strong season where he batted .294 and tore up the basepaths with three triples and 11 stolen bases in under 60 games. His strong play over the summer made all the scouts take notice and he is already ranked 33rd on MLB.com’s prospect list.
Many of the Elizabethton Twins have gotten the call-up to start the season with the Kernels after a strong season where Elizabethton finished 38-30.