With Kepler and Berrios, Twins tally talent

Sano, Buxton head to Majors, but plenty more where they came from

Max Kepler and Jose Berrios both started the season at Double-A. (Marvin Gentry/MiLB.com,Vincent Rinaldi)

By Sam Dykstra / MiLB.com | November 19, 2015 10:00 AM

This offseason, MiLB.com is honoring the players -- regardless of age or prospect status -- who had the best seasons in their organization. We're taking a look at each team to determine the outstanding seasons in Minor League Baseball.

It's time to buy stock in the Twins.

It feels like we've been saying that for a few years, but 2015 felt like the start of something for an organization that's cultivated one of the most promising farm systems in recent memory. At the Major League level, Minnesota enjoyed its first winning season (83-79) since 2010 and finished three games behind resurgent Houston for the American League's final Wild Card spot. What's more, the club did so in a time of transition as the future arrived in the form of rookies Miguel Sano, Eddie Rosario, Trevor May and Byron Buxton. 

There's even more where that came from as well. Right-handed pitcher Jose Berrios showed plenty of promise at the upper levels and outfielder/first baseman Max Kepler broke out in a big way at Double-A. Collectively, Twins Minor League affiliates finished seventh in the Minors with a .531 winning percentage (403-356). Double-A Chattanooga, which started the season with Buxton, Sano, Berrios, Kepler and No. 4 prospect Jorge Polanco, captured a first-half division title in the Southern League and later took the circuit's championship in the fall. 

"It's key for us, and it's key for most teams in the game -- developing our own talent," said Twins director of Minor League operations Brad Steil. "We want to make high-caliber players because as we've seen, it's tough living in the free-agent market. We want these guys to do well and be in Minnesota for a very long time."

Twins Organization All-Stars

Catcher -- Stuart Turner, Chattanooga (98 games): This is a more defensive choice than an offensive one as Turner produced a .223/.322/.306 line with four homers and 37 RBIs for the Lookouts. In fact, the best thing to happen to the Twins' No. 18 prospect at the plate was having his walk rate hit double digits for the first time in his career at 11.9 percent. But he displayed his defensive acumen in the Southern League, where he threw out 38.6 percent (32 of 83) of would-be basestealers and showed impressive leadership capabilities behind the dish. The Twins rewarded him with a ticket to the Arizona Fall League, where he had a 35.7 percent caught-stealing rate (5 of 14) and batted .184 with a .548 OPS through 11 games.

"Definitely, the defense is the strength of his game," Steil said. "He handles the staff well, is a solid receiver and can control a running game pretty well. He showed some progress at the plate too. We knew Double-A would be a challenge for him, but it was a good challenge. We're happy with the progress he made there."

First baseman -- Kennys Vargas, Chattanooga (35 games), Rochester (38 games), Minnesota (58 games): Vargas was the Twins' Opening Day designated hitter but fell out of favor by mid-May. On July 3 -- after another unsuccessful stint in the bigs -- Minnesota bumped the switch-hitting slugger down to Double-A. But the 25-year-old certainly made the most of his time in the Minors. Between Chattanooga and Triple-A Rochester, Vargas produced a .283/.414/.516 line with 13 homers, two triples, nine doubles and 46 RBIs in 73 Minor League games. That marked the first time he put up an OBP above .400 since 2012 at Class A Beloit. He returned to the Majors, mostly as a pinch-hitter, during September roster expansion. Vargas could be phased out once again with the expected acquisition of first baseman Byung-ho Park, but given his Minor League numbers, there are reasons for positivity heading into 2016.

Second baseman -- Luis Arraez, GCL Twins (57 games): In his stateside debut, Arraez shined at the plate in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, where he was named a postseason All-Star. He hit .309 while walking 19 times and striking out on only 10 occasions in 233 plate appearances. The 18-year-old Venezuela native, who hits from the left side, also finished second in the GCL with 15 doubles. Those numbers were good enough to make him the second baseman on Baseball America's Rookie-level All-Star team. 

Third baseman -- Miguel Sano, Chattanooga (66 games), Minnesota (80 games): Sano made news this week when he was voted third in this year's American League Rookie of the Year race, finishing behind shortstops Carlos Correa (Astros) and Francisco Lindor (Indians). But before he hit 18 homers with a .916 OPS in the Majors, he was terrorizing Double-A pitching, just one year after undergoing Tommy John surgery. The 22-year-old had a .274/.374/.544 line with 15 homers, a triple, 18 doubles, 48 RBIs and five steals in 66 games for Chattanooga before making his Major League debut on July 2.

"It was a pleasant surprise when he came up and was so good right away," Steil said. "Guys probably pitched him differently after a hot start, and that's when the K's went up. But he was a guy who missed all last season. To have that happen, then go to Double-A and the Majors in the middle of the year and dominate his first year up there was great. That's very valuable to us."

Shortstop -- Jermaine Palacios, GCL Twins (26 games), Elizabethton (31 games): Along with his Organizational All-Star double-play partner, Palacios is one of two teenagers on this list and represents what could become the next wave of Minnesota talent hot on the heels of the current crop. By hitting .421 in the GCL, the 19-year-old right-handed hitter proved too good for the complex level and got the bump to the Appalachian League. Between his two stops, Palacios hit .370/.398/.540 with three homers, four triples, 23 doubles and nine steals in 57 games. He's not currently ranked among Minnesota's Top-30 prospects, but after being placed third among Appy League prospects by Baseball America -- two spots ahead of No. 53 overall prospect Daz Cameron -- expect that to change when lists are updated this winter.

"He wasn't really on anyone's radar. He came out of nowhere a little bit," Steil said. "He's got a really good swing. His barrel stays in the zone a very long time, and that's a big part of why he was productive. He's got some pop for his size and is a good athlete. He'll run better as he gets older and stronger. Defensively, he flashes some tools but is still a little raw. He'll make young mistakes, that's all. We definitely think he has the athleticism to stick at shortstop."


Max Kepler, Fort Myers (six games), Chattanooga (112 games), Minnesota (three games): For all the talent in the Twins system, Kepler likely made the biggest jump in 2015. After producing a .726 OPS in the FSL in 2014, the lefty-hitting right fielder/first baseman batted .318/.410/.520 with nine homers, 13 triples, 34 doubles, 71 RBIs and 19 steals in 118 Minor League games before making his Major League debut on Sept. 27. He also had a favorable K/BB ratio of 68/69 in the Minors. The whole package earned the Germany native the Southern League MVP award and a spot on the World roster for this year's Futures Game. 

After entering the season as Minnesota's No. 16 prospect, Kepler now ranks No. 6 in the system and No. 96 overall.

"With Max, a lot of it was maturing, gaining confidence and catching up to the level he was at," Steil said. "Coming from Germany, he was probably behind players of the same age in terms of baseball development when he got here, but he's catching up now. Coming along with that, his confidence is growing, and I give a lot of credit to [Chattanooga hitting coach] Chad Allen and [manager] Doug Mientkiewicz for the nice job they did with him this year. He's more aggressive at the plate. He's pulling the ball more, and that's a big reason why you saw more extra-base hits and homers. Just overall as a player, his entire game has improved."

Byron Buxton, Chattanooga (59 games), Rochester (13 games), Minnesota (46 games): After a year in which he was limited to just 31 games, the game's top prospect hit the big time this season, playing in two different stints with the Twins. In between, he showed why he's valued so highly by putting together a .305/.367/.500 line with seven homers, 13 triples, 10 doubles and 22 steals in 72 Minor League contests. Despite that limited time, the 21-year-old speedster still finished tied for fourth in the Minors in three-baggers. 

Buxton's numbers in the Majors weren't rosy (.209 average, .576 OPS, -0.5 fWAR), but the Twins are confident his loud offensive skills will translate starting next year, when he'll still have rookie eligibility. 

"First and foremost, the thing with Byron was getting back on the field and getting the rust off," Steil said. "Because of the way last year went, he started slow at the beginning, but he showed everyone how quickly he can make a transition. He really started to hit in Double-A and played well enough to get the opportunity at the Majors. He got his feet wet and struggled here at times, but that's part of the development process. I think the big jump for him was going from missing almost all last season after getting hurt midway to playing a lot again. He held his own, and it's something he'll build on."

Adam Brett Walker II, Chattanooga (133 games): With Walker -- now a three-time Organizational All-Star -- you know what you're going to get. First, tons of power, as evidenced by his 31 homers, which beat out all Double-A competition by 10. (He also finished third in the Minors with 106 RBIs.) Second, tons of strikeouts, as evidenced by his Minors-high total of 195, which result in a typical low average (.239). Still, the Twins and Walker know if he can hone his approach, then he could become a feared middle-of-the-order bat at the game's highest level.

"The positives are that he's shown signs of figuring out the strike zone, but he still goes through some streaks in terms of that," Steil said. "We've seen a little bit of that in the AFL too. But he has the most power in the whole organization. Either him or Sano. When he does make contact, he does a lot of damage. As we've discussed the last few years with Adam, it's all about pitch recognition and controlling the strike zone, and that's something he works very hard at."

Designated hitter/Utility player: Reynaldo Rodriguez, Rochester (132 games): The 29-year-old, who spent time at first base and the outfield in the International League, provided some nice pop for the Red Wings in his third season with 16 homers, seven triples, 34 doubles and 80 RBIs. He led the Triple-A circuit with 55 extra-base hits and 77 runs scored to earn his spot on the IL postseason All-Star team.

Right-handed starter -- Jose Berrios, Chattanooga (15 games), Rochester (12 games): Berrios earned this spot and a MiLBY nomination by leading the Minors with 175 strikeouts in 2015, partly due to his mix of three plus pitches -- fastball, curveball and changeup. But perhaps the biggest reason he was able to notch all those K's was his durability. At age 21, he went 166 1/3 innings between the Eastern and International Leagues, giving him three straight seasons with 100-plus frames. Oh yeah, the 14-5 record, 2.87 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 2.1 BB/9 also look good. 

"We don't have anyone that works harder than Jose," Steil said. "In terms of strength and conditioning and arm maintenance, he does it all. And he's a really competitive guy, you see that on the mound. Those two factors alone helped him log all those innings, but he continued to improve in all facets really. His changeup and curveball got better this year. He made the adjustments at Double-A, and when he went to Triple-A, he wasn't lights-out, but he made the adjustments there too and continually got better. That's what we want to see."

Left-handed starter -- Stephen Gonsalves, Cedar Rapids (nine games), Fort Myers (15 games): Through the first two months of the season, it looked like Gonsalves was putting together something truly special. He went 6-1 with a 1.15 ERA, 0.80 WHIP and 77 strikeouts in 55 innings at Class A Cedar Rapids over that time. The 6-foot-5 left-hander's numbers in the Florida State League weren't quite as shiny (7-2, 2.61 ERA, 55 strikeouts, 38 walks in 79 1/3 innings). But the Twins are no doubt happy with the results and expect his trials in Class A Advanced to be a building block toward another impressive showing in 2016.

"I think two things stood out when it came to Stephen -- his fastball command and his work on curveball," Steil said. "His curveball did get better a great deal, and his changeup is still probably his go-to offspeed pitch. He had a really good first half in Cedar Rapids, but it was a little more of learning process in Fort Myers, due to his fastball command not being where it should be. He walked a few more guys and didn't get as many easy strikeouts as he did before, but that's just a good indicator to show him what he needs to do at higher levels."

Reliever -- Trevor Hildenberger, Cedar Rapids (28 games), Fort Myers (13 games): A 22nd-round pick out of the University of California in 2014, the 6-foot-2 right-hander was nothing short of dominant in his first full season. Hildenberger posted a 1.55 ERA, 0.72 WHIP and .176 average-against in 64 innings. With his sidearm delivery, he averaged 11.2 strikeouts and just 1.0 walks per nine innings in that span while going 17-for-20 in save opportunities. 

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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