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Top Ten Prospects: Minnesota Twins
Complete Index of Top 10s
By Josh Boyd
Baseball America's Top 10 Prospects lists are based on projections of a player's long-term worth after discussions with scouting and player-development personnel. All players who haven't exceeded the major league rookie standards of 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched (without regard to service time) are eligible. Ages are as of April 1, 2004.
After facing the possibility of contraction following the 2001 season, the Twins posted their first consecutive 90-win seasons in a decade. Contrary to commissioner Bud Selig’s assertion that they were an aberration, they’ve become the model for small-market success. General manager Terry Ryan holds the blueprint.
It starts and ends with scouting and player development, the lifeblood of the organization. Despite their recent turnaround, which has included consecutive American League Central titles, the Twins still deal with strict financial constraints. That puts more pressure on the farm system to have major league-ready talent on call. Minnesota doesn’t have the payroll to keep its predominantly homegrown roster at home for long.
In one of the rare instances where the Twins were able to be a factor in the trade market, Ryan sent Bobby Kielty to the Blue Jays for Shannon Stewart last July, sparking a second-half turnaround. But in order to retain Stewart as a free agent, Minnesota couldn’t re-sign Eddie Guardado and LaTroy Hawkins. They freed up more payroll by trading Eric Milton and A.J. Pierzynski.
Scouting director Mike Radcliff—one of the game’s most respected evaluators—farm director Jim Rantz and their staffs have been up to the task, churning out enough big leaguers to keep pace with departing free agents. An impressive core of power pitching prospects waits in the wings to help replace Guardado and Hawkins in the bullpen. Joe Nathan, part of the Pierzynski trade with the Giants, could open the season as the closer. Minor leaguers Jesse Crain and J.D. Durbin also have the stuff and makeup to swoop in and finish games.
Their most anxiously awaited arrival, however, is 2003 Minor League Player of the Year Joe Mauer. He’s the best prospect in the game and the best all-around catcher to come along since Pudge Rodriguez. His rapid development allowed the Twins to part with Pierzynski.
Minnesota will be able to add another haul of prospects in June, when they’ll have four extra first-round picks as compensation for the loss of Guardado and Hawkins. Whether the Twins will be able to sign all those premium picks remains to be seen, though. Their seven unsigned first-rounders represent the highest total in draft history.
Beyond the draft, the Twins have been one of the most progressive organizations in scouting Australia and have branched out into Europe and Africa. Australians Grant Balfour and Brad Thomas, signed in 1997 by Howard Norsetter, will be counted on to contribute to the pitching staff this season. Shortstop Luke Hughes, outfielder Trent Oeltjen and second baseman Paul Rutgers lead the next wave from Down Under.
Venezuela has also proven to be a fruitful scouting ground for Minnesota. Righthander Juan Rincon showed an electric arm and turned in a solid rookie campaign last year. The Twins have lacked a presence in the Dominican Republic, and are in the process of moving into the academy formerly operated by the Blue Jays and Diamondbacks.
Top Prospect: Joe Mauer, c
Age: 20 Ht.: 6-4 Wt.: 230 Bats: L Throws: R
Background: Growing up in St. Paul as a Twins fan just 10 minutes from the Metrodome, Mauer seemed destined to play for the hometown team. He was regarded as one of the top quarterback recruits in the nation and nearly followed fellow Cretin-Derham Hall grad Chris Weinke to Florida State. Twins scouts saw Mauer play more than 100 times as an amateur and ultimately chose him over Mark Prior with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. While Prior has become a star in the majors, Mauer isn’t too far behind. He won BA’s Minor League Player of the Year award in 2003 and is set to make his big league debut at 20 when he opens this season as Minnesota’s regular catcher. Mauer was a member of the U.S. team that fell short in the Olympic qualifying tournament, though he was inexplicably left out of the lineup in the deciding game against Mexico. His older brothers Jake, a second baseman, and Bill, a righthander, also are Minnesota farmhands.
Strengths: Mauer combines a picture-perfect lefthanded stroke with impeccable strike-zone judgment to generate high batting averages and on-base percentages. His natural approach and swing path lend themselves more to a batting title than a home run crown. He’s geared to hit line drives back up the middle and toward left-center. Defensively, Mauer had no equals at the minor league level. Some scouts say he’ll be the best receiver in the American League when he debuts in April. Despite his size—only Sandy Alomar Jr. is bigger among major league catchers—Mauer expertly blocks pitches with his soft hands and moves quickly on balls in front of the plate. Outstanding arm strength gives him a third present 80 tool on the 20-80 scouting scale to go with his bat and glove. Mauer has a quick release and puts his throws on the bag with uncanny accuracy; he nabbed 52 percent of basestealers last year. He’s a quiet leader who exudes confidence but maintains a low profile. The Twins wanted Mauer to become more comfortable at running a pitching staff, and he did just that. He runs better and has more athleticism than most catchers.
Weaknesses: Though Mauer has hit just nine career homers, Twins scouts insist he has the power to one day hit 35-40 in a season if he wants to. He showed signs of adding more loft to his swing in Double-A.
The Future: Most scouts give Mauer the nod over Devil Rays shortstop B.J. Upton as the best prospect in the game. The Twins cleared Mauer’s path to the majors by dealing all-star A.J. Pierzynski to the Giants in November. Mauer, who will bat seventh or eighth to start 2004, is an early favorite for American League rookie of the year. There’s no reason he shouldn’t develop into a perennial all-star.