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Buxton, Sano lead rich Twins crop
Duo tops list of breakout performers in the Minnesota system
11/20/2013 5:00 AM ET
Byron Buxton posted a .944 OPS across two levels in 2013.
Byron Buxton posted a .944 OPS across two levels in 2013. (Mark LoMoglio/MiLB.com)

This offseason, MiLB.com will be honoring the players -- regardless of age or prospect status -- who had the best seasons in their organizations. We're taking a look at each team to determine the outstanding seasons in Minor League baseball. Select a team from the dropdown below.

The debate over which organization has baseball's best farm system might be a close one, but there's no question that Minnesota's ranks in the upper echelon of player development pipelines. There's certainly no debating that the Twins' one-two prospect punch of Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano is the tops in the game.

Scary thing is, there's plenty to excite Minnesota fans beyond that duo. Three of the team's full-season affiliates qualified for postseason play (Triple-A Rochester, Class A Advanced Fort Myers and Class A Cedar Rapids), but more important to the big picture, the Twins' big-name prospects emerged as budding can't-miss stars, while former sleepers and unknowns became breakout performers, and in some cases, Major League contributors.

We chatted with Twins director of player development Brad Steil about the state of Minnesota's farm and got him to share some thoughts about some of the system's top performers over the summer.

Twins Organizational All-Stars

Catcher -- Josmil Pinto, New Britain (107 games), Rochester (19 games), Minnesota (21 games): In a system stocked with rising prospects, perhaps no player shuffled more quickly across the radar than Pinto. The 24-year-old native of Venezuela dominated at three levels and showcased his offensive talents in Minnesota by hitting .342 with a .963 OPS in 76 at-bats. With Joe Mauer vacating the catcher's spot at Target Field, Pinto is the heir apparent behind the dish, and he will compete for the big league gig in Spring Training.



"I think he has the opportunity to be our catcher in the big leagues in the near future," Steil said. "He's really developed his plate approach over the last couple of years. The important thing about him -- he takes really focused at-bats and he's disciplined, and that's a good combination with power and discipline that you don't see a lot, especially from a catcher."

First base -- Chris Colabello, Rochester (89 games), Minnesota (55 games): The fairy-tale story hit its heart-plucking apex this summer as the seven-year independent league veteran parlayed a 2012 Minor League contract offer into 160 Major League at-bats in 2013. The 30-year-old earned International League MVP honors by hitting .352 with a 1.066 OPS, and although he struggled with a .194 average in Minnesota, he still emerged as a versatile piece (since he also plays outfield) and now figures into the Twins' roster plans for the next few seasons.

"I think it's a great credit to him as an individual to stick with it and believe in himself for as long as he did," Steil said. "Once he got the opportunity, he really took advantage of it. He started a little slow last year in Double-A, but I think once he got comfortable, you could see the kind of hitter he is."

Honorable Mention: Playing in the Florida State League cut into his power a bit, but Dalton Hicks' performance between Cedar Rapids and Fort Myers is worth highlighting. The first baseman smacked 17 homers and 39 doubles, posting a .289 average and an .826 OPS between the two stops.

Second Base -- Eddie Rosario, Fort Myers (52 games), New Britain (70 games): Rosario's offensive dominance in Fort Myers during the first half was somewhat overshadowed by the presence of Miguel Sano and his thunderous stick, but what he did in a pitcher-friendly environment was among the Minors' more impressive displays. The 22-year-old hit .329 with a .903 OPS, and he finished the season with 32 doubles and 10 homers across two levels.

Minnesota's No. 5 prospect is battling to become a competent defender at second base but also has spent time at all three outfield spots, and Steil noted his versatility could go a long way toward helping him establish his potentially dangerous bat in the Major Leagues.

His Class A Advanced skipper, Doug Mientkiewicz, wasn't shy in his praise for Rosario's stick during the summer.

"[Rosario's] a little unorthodox, but his barrel stays through the zone for a long time," the skipper said. "The great ones at the big leagues, their bats stay in the zone for forever. Eddie does that. He has a special knack for finding the ball with the barrel."

Third base -- Miguel Sano, Fort Myers (56 games), New Britain (67 games): Sano's robust right-handed bat terrorized pitchers at the Class A Advanced level, where he hit .330 with a 1.079 OPS and launched 16 homers in 206 at-bats. At Double-A, the swing-and-miss in Sano's game hampered his stat line as the 20-year-old struck out in 29.3 percent of his at-bats. Still, Minnesota's No. 2 prospect clubbed 19 homers and posted a .915 OPS with the Rock Cats, all while showing encouraging athleticism and ability at third base after a spring spent working with Twins Hall of Famer Paul Molitor.

"In the second half, when he moved up to New Britain, he was challenged a little bit by the pitchers there, which was good," Steil said. "He got off to a slow start, but I think he improved as the season went on there. He ended up with some nice power numbers, and I think you'll see the average come up and the strikeouts go down with more experience."

Shortstop -- Jorge Polanco, Cedar Rapids (115 games): Likely to profile at second base long-term, the No. 9 Twins prospect flashed offensive talents that would make him a threat from either middle infield position as he turned 20 in the middle of a breakout season in Class A. The switch-hitter from the Dominican Republic batted .308 with 32 doubles and an .813 OPS while splitting time between second and short.

"He's more of a doubles hitter than a home run hitter," Steil said. "But I think the homers will come. He'll develop a little more power. He's just a solid hitter with a good swing from both sides, a solid approach.

"Defensively, he's probably a little better at second base, but he's going to see more time at shortstop in the future. … There's a chance, with his tools, for him to be a shortstop defensively."

Outfield

Byron Buxton -- Cedar Rapids (68 games), Fort Myers (57 games): There isn't much to say that hasn't already been said about the Twins' 2012 first-round pick (second overall). Buxton emerged as the no-doubt best prospect in baseball in 2013, dominating at Class A and Class A Advanced while showcasing a shed's worth of tools and a promising baseball acumen that impresses as much as his athleticism. The final numbers: .334 average, 49 extra-base hits, 55 steals and a .944 OPS.

"He's one of the best athletes in the game, a true five-tool player," Steil said. "It's been impressive to watch his progress.

"That's maybe the thing that stands out most, is to see where he was at last year when we first got him in the [Rookie-level Gulf Coast League] and where he got to this year by the end of the season in Fort Myers, then in the [Arizona Fall League]. He picks things up very quickly. He's confident and he's a team leader."

Adam Brett Walker -- Cedar Rapids (129 games): Power is Walker's calling card, and the Milwaukee native showcased his ability to bop baseballs in the Midwest League in 2013. The right fielder, who just turned 22, led the circuit with 27 homers and finished second with a .526 slugging percentage. The rest of his game is still developing. His 115-to-31 strikeout-to-walk ratio signals a plate approach that needs refinement, and though he has the tools to be a quality defender in right, he's still sharpening his talents with the leather as well.

"I think he's learning how to take pro at-bats," Steil said. "I think that's one area where you saw him progress this year. Early in the season, he was very productive, and I think teams just didn't know how to pitch to him. They made the adjustment and then he struggled, but then, in the second half, he made his own adjustments and had a productive second half."*

*Walker posted an .865 OPS in the second half.

Antoan Richardson -- New Britain (33 games), Rochester (82 games): The former Braves farmhand put together a stellar season as a top-of-the-order hitter at the top two levels of the Minors, posting a 14.1-percent walk rate and a .402 on-base percentage with 39 steals in 48 attempts. The switch-hitter latched on with the Yankees already this offseason, and having just turned 30, will try to crack his way onto New York's Major League roster and ply his trade as a backup outfielder.

"I think he could fill a role in that he can be a pinch-runner, pinch-hitter, and defensively, he can play center," Steil said. "He can certainly run the ball down in center. He was big for our Double-A club early in the season, being a veteran on that club who brought leadership."

Honorable Mention: A 20th-round pick in 2012, Zach Larson dominated at two Rookie-level stops in 2013, hitting .311 with an .848 OPS in the Gulf Coast and Appalachian Leagues. The 20-year-old swiped 12 bases in 55 games.  

Utility Player -- Danny Santana, New Britain (131 games): Already considered one of the best athletes in Minnesota's system, the 23-year-old shortstop from the Dominican Republic added polish to his game and shined at the Double-A level. Minnesota's 12th-ranked prospect batted .297 and swiped 30 bases for the Rock Cats.

"He has a great arm, he can run, has very good range," Steil said. "He does have a little pop for a guy his size, more so from the right side probably. He really improved over the course of the season, both defensively and at the plate.

"Defensively, in the second half, he made the routine play more consistently. At the plate, he improved his approach and was more disciplined and more patient in the second half. The key for him is getting on base so he can use his speed to run and steal."

Right-handed starter -- Kyle Gibson, Rochester (17 games), Minnesota (10 games): The 2009 first-round pick excelled at Triple-A while making a triumphant return from Tommy John surgery. Gibson posted a 2.92 ERA and a .227 batting average against with the Red Wings, then made 10 starts in the Majors.

"It was good to see him back healthy this year," Steil said. "Our main goal was to get him a full season's worth of innings and be healthy coming back from injury. He did everything we expected him to do.

"I think he got back to where he was before the injury this year, although maybe the results weren't what we wanted in the big leagues. Certainly I think he showed in Triple-A that he does have the ability and stuff to be a successful big league pitcher."

Honorable Mentions: Trevor May, ranked seventh in Minnesota's system, was outstanding in 27 starts with New Britain, striking out 159 batters in 151 2/3 innings with a 4.51 ERA and 3.79 FIP. Meanwhile, 2013 first-round pick (fourth overall) and Twins No. 4 prospect Kohl Stewart was dominant in seven appearances between the GCL and Appalachian Leagues, managing a 1.35 ERA and a 24-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 20 innings.

Left-handed starter -- Andrew Albers, Rochester (22 games), Minnesota (10 games): Another feel-good independent league story, Albers signed with Minnesota after pitching for Quebec in the Can-Am League in 2010 and has since been one of the Twins' best starters in the upper Minors. The 28-year-old posted a 2.86 ERA in Triple-A in 2013, striking out 116 and walking 32 over 132 1/3 innings. He did well in the Majors too, posting a 4.05 ERA as a starter and emerging as a potential building block for Minnesota's rotation.

Honorable Mentions: After an inauspicious start to the season in Double-A, Pat Dean made strides controlling his changeup and improved his glove-side fastball command, leading to something of a breakout campaign. His season ended with six starts at Triple-A, where he posted a 2.03 ERA and a 22-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Meanwhile in the GCL, 17-year-old Melbourne, Australia, native Lewis Thorpe dominated older competitors, managing a 2.05 ERA over 12 appearances (eight starts) with an inconceivable 64-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 44 innings.

Relief pitcher -- Michael Tonkin, New Britain (22 games), Rochester (30 games), Minnesota (nine games): The 6-foot-7 23-year-old emerged as an outstanding setup candidate by climbing from Double-A to the Majors in 2013. Between New Britain and Rochester, the right-hander managed a 3.47 ERA with a 66-to-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 57 innings, then posted a 0.79 ERA over 11 1/3 big league frames.

"He has a good fastball, 94-95 [mph] with good sink," Steil said. "He will miss bats with that pitch. He has a good slider to go with it. He has two pitches to get outs with, gets ground balls and he'll get some strikeouts too."

Jake Seiner is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Jake_Seiner. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.
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