Twins prospects up the ante in arms race

Three pitchers crack playoff roster, Lewis earns AFL MVP nod

Across two Minor League levels, Devin Smeltzer compiled a 1.04 WHIP with 104 strikeouts in 104 1/3 innings. (Pensacola Blue Wahoos)

By Duane Cross / MiLB.com | November 18, 2019 10:15 AM

Each offseason, MiLB.com goes position by position across each system and honors the players -- regardless of age or prospect status -- who had the best seasons in their organization. Click here to locate your favorite club.

Top to bottom, the Twins organization is brimming with confidence. The big club won 101 games and captured the American League Central title. Minnesota's seven Minor League affiliates combined to go 385-349 (.525) as four full-season teams finished .500 or better. Double-A Pensacola (Southern League) and Class A Cedar Rapids (Midwest League) earned postseason berths, while Class A Advanced Fort Myers was poised for a run before the Florida State League postseason was canceled due to the threat of Hurricane Dorian.

Notably, seven players on Pensacola's Opening Day roster reached the Major Leagues: Jorge Alcala, Luis Arraez, Jaylin Davis, Brusdar Graterol, Sean Poppen, Devin Smeltzer and Cody Stashak.

"There are a lot of good signs," Twins director of player development Alex Hassan said. "With all these players, what we're trying to do is maximize who they are. It doesn't matter if you're a first-round pick or a 50th-round pick, we're trying to take every player in our system and maximize their ability, maximize their chances of reaching the Major Leagues. We're trying to get as much out of every corner of our system and leave no stone unturned to maximize our chances of having players that are going to ascend through our Minor League system and make an impact on the Major League level."

Twins Organization All-Stars

Catcher Ryan Jeffers -- Fort Myers (79 games), Pensacola (24 games): During his second season of pro ball, the Twins' No. 10 prospect bopped 14 homers, drove in 49 runs and scored 48. Across two levels, he had 97 hits, 30 for extra bases, and batted .264/.341/.421. Jeffers began the year with the Miracle and smacked 10 long balls, knocked in 40 runs and scored 35 times in 79 games. After being promoted to Pensacola, the 2018 second-round pick added four dingers and nine RBIs while hitting .287 in 87 at-bats.

"Ryan had an incredibly seamless transition from college to professional baseball," Hassan said. "Day one, it seemed like he had a veteran presence about himself almost right off the bat. Nothing seemed to catch him by surprise this year. We started Ryan at Fort Myers and he did a really good job with a bat, was competitive in a tough league. We promoted him up to Double-A, and he didn't skip a beat. He's an incredible leader, incredible teammate. He's an excellent receiver behind the plate, calls a great game. I think fans will love him; I think pitchers will love him. He's a hard worker, does everything we ask -- can hit, can take some walks, makes contact. I think Ryan has a bright future."

Video: Pensacola's Jeffers' clutch homer

First baseman Zander Wiel -- Rochester (126 games): A 12th-round pick in 2015, the right-handed slugger established career highs with 24 homers, 40 doubles and a system-best 86 runs scored while batting .254/.320/.514 with 76 RBIs at the Minors' highest level. Wiel's season highlight came on June 11 against Lehigh Valley when he went 4-for-4 with two taters, two doubles and seven RBIs.

"Zander has had to fight and earn everything that's come his way," Hassan said. "He wasn't a high-round pick, but he's scrapped. He's done it through his hard work and his production on the field. He came into the year looking to do more damage at the plate, being a corner guy, playing first base and some left field. He was trying to add some power to his game and worked hard on that in the offseason. He was a force in our lineup at Triple-A and [manager] Joel Skinner relied on him and felt comfortable when he would come up to the plate. He took a step forward this year, and he's going to continue to have to earn those opportunities, carve out his path."

Second baseman Travis Blankenhorn -- Pensacola (93 games), Fort Myers (15 games): This was a bounce-back season for the 23rd-ranked Twins prospect. He didn't just press the reset button, he hammered it: more hits, runs scored, total bases, homers, stolen bases -- with fewer strikeouts -- and an improved slash line across the board. The 23-year-old batted .277/.321/.466 with 43 extra-base hits, including 19 dingers, 54 RBIs and 56 runs scored.

"I think if you ask Travis, he didn't have his best year in 2018," Hassan said. "This year, he took a step forward. First of all, he cut down his strikeouts, put the ball in play more often. He attributed that to some of his lower-half mechanics, like the way he loads onto his back leg. He felt like he got a more stable base underneath him and that helped him see the ball more consistently. In turn, it helped him make more frequent, solid contact. He took a step forward with the bat and played some third base, some games in the outfield. The defensive pieces continue to be an area of focus. Travis has put in the work, continues to grind to get better."

Video: Pensacola's Blankenhorn homers to complete comeback

Third baseman Drew Maggi -- Rochester (108 games), Pensacola (11 games): An free agent pickup after spending last season in the Indians organization, Maggi made an immediate impact as he turned 30. He established career highs with 11 long balls, 47 RBIs, 76 runs scored and 174 total bases.

"This year, he had consistent at-bats and tried to hit the ball on a line a little bit more often," said Hassan, who played with Maggi in 2016 in the Dodgers organization. "Ultimately, I feel like he took a step forward in terms of his production at the plate. It doesn't matter where you put him -- third, short, second, outfield -- he's going to play hard. Drew is an amazing guy, and any team that he's on is better off."

Shortstop Royce Lewis -- Fort Myers (94 games), Pensacola (33 games): MLB.com's No. 9 overall prospect lived up to his billing as the Twins' top farmhand. Despite scuffling through much of the first month -- Lewis was batting .192 on April 26 -- he raised his average 46 points before being promoted to Double-A Pensacola on July 28. He finished with 12 homers, 22 stolen bases, 73 runs scored and 49 RBIs across the two levels. In the Southern League semifinals, the 20-year-old batted .400 and scored five times in the Blue Wahoos' five-game loss. He was tabbed Arizona Fall League MVP after scoring 20 runs while hitting .353/.411/.565 with three dingers and 20 RBIs.

"We challenged Royce right off the bat and he got off to a slow start," Hassan said. "But through that process, he learned a lot about himself during that period. He learned a lot about his swing. One of the things that he needs to focus on, mentally and physically, is to put himself in the best positions moving forward. We saw a lot of that progress throughout the year. Eventually, he made the jump to Double-A and finished the year strong, especially in the playoffs.

"He's looking like the player we think he can be. He carried that momentum to the Arizona Fall League and had a tremendous fall. He looked like the best player out there -- great at-bats, playing good defense in multiple spots. He's a tremendous talent, and this was a really big year of learning and growth for Royce."

Video: Blue Wahoos' Lewis slugs three-run homer

Outfielders

Trevor Larnach -- Fort Myers (84 games), Pensacola (43 games): The Twins' top pick in the 2018 Draft, Larnach was consistent across two levels. For Class A Advanced Fort Myers, he batted .316/.382/.459 with six homers, 44 RBIs and 33 runs scored en route to being tabbed Florida State League MVP. After being bumped up to Double-A Pensacola on July 16, the Twins' fifth-ranked prospect continued to swing a hot stick, clubbing seven dingers with 22 RBIs and 26 runs while hitting .295/.387/.455.

"Trevor did everything that we've asked of him as a player," Hassan said of the Twins Minor League Player of the Year, who led the system with 147 hits. "He is arguably our hardest worker in the organization. He's extremely routine-oriented. From the time he wakes up to the time he goes to bed, he is on a mission to take care of his body. He's eating while he's hydrating. He's in the weight room, doing his routines. The other thing that stands out about Trevor is that he has a unique ability to hammer his weaknesses. He works on his weaknesses as well as anybody we have, but he doesn't lose sight of his strengths, either. He's an amazing kid with tremendous work ethic, and we are lucky to have him set an amazing example for the rest of our guys in the Minor Leagues of what it means to be a professional."

Video: Blue Wahoos' Larnach hits a moon shot

Brent Rooker -- Rochester (65 games), GCL Twins (2 games): The 25-year-old was limited by injuries but made a significant impact in 228 at-bats, ranking sixth among Twins Minor Leaguers with 14 homers. He batted .282/.399/.530 with 47 RBIs. A late-season groin ailment cut short Rooker's first Triple-A campaign, but after adjusting to the International League the organization's eighth-ranked prospect hit .302 from May through July.

"Rook has hit from day one with us," Hassan said. "He was that classic power profile, looking to do damage. That's essentially what he's done with us, and he's moved quickly. He had an unfortunate injury at the end of the season, but we're starting to see the hitter that we think Brent can be. I think early, he was challenged, but it was a good challenge for Rooker. He got exposed to what pitchers are going to try to do and had to adjust his approach accordingly.

"As he moved into May, he started to make that adjustment, becoming more selective and waiting for a pitch that he could handle in the strike zone. When Rooker stays in the strike zone, it's loud when it comes off his bat. As soon as he was able to make that adjustment, you saw his numbers shoot up."

Video: Red Wings' Rooker goes full extension

Jaylin Davis -- Pensacola (58 games), Rochester (41 games): Despite being moved to the Giants at the Trade Deadline, Davis posted eye-popping numbers with the Twins: a system-best 25 long balls; 67 RBIs -- third-most among Minnesota's Minor Leaguers -- and 206 total bases, fourth-highest in the organization. Overall, including his time with Triple-A Sacramento, he batted .333/.419/.686 with 35 homers, 94 RBIs and 94 runs scored. He made his Major League debut on Sept. 4 and went 1-for-3 against the Cardinals.

"You run out of superlatives for how amazing Jaylin's season was this past year," Hassan said. "Really, one of the best seasons from the word go, just an incredible year. He hit for power, was taking walks, kept his strikeouts under control. It was power and it was patience. Ultimately, he was traded to the Giants and we're certainly going to miss him. He was an awesome kid. It's hard to describe how good of a season he had. He earned his way to the big leagues. And that's the goal with all these guys -- do everything we possibly can to put them in the best position to get to the big leagues."

Video: Wings' Davis lifts grand slam

Honorable Mention: Twins No. 20 prospect Gilberto Celestino totaled 10 homers, 54 RBIs and 58 runs scored in 125 games, mostly with Cedar Rapids. He batted .277/.349/.410 and swiped 14 bases.

Utility player -- Wilin Rosario, Rochester (105 games): The 30-year-old had not played stateside since 2015 -- suiting up in Korea, Japan and the Dominican Republic in the meantime -- but signed as a free agent in February and immediately began to lend a hand wherever needed: 71 games as a DH, 17 games at first base, 17 behind the plate and one at the hot corner.

"Wilin made a huge impression on our staff," Hassan said. "Coaches, coordinators, staff, advisors -- everybody seemed to love this guy almost from the word hello. He carved out an opportunity for himself at Triple-A because he had an incredible Spring Training and made the most of that. He hit in the middle of that Triple-A lineup, drove the ball, put the ball in play. Behind the plate, he worked hard to improve his defense. He made the team better just by his presence on that roster."

Honorable Mention: Trey Cabbage began the season with Cedar Rapids (18 games), his third straight year with the Kernels. He was promoted to Fort Myers (81 games) and finished with 15 homers, a .447 slugging percentage, 53 RBIs and 57 runs scored -- all career highs.

Right-handed starter -- Randy Dobnak, Pensacola (11 games), Rochester (9 games), Fort Myers (4 games), Minnesota (9 games): Four-seam fastball, curveball, sinker and changeup, what's not to like about the 24-year-old who pitched across four levels this season? The icing on the cake: he started Game 2 of the American League Division Series against the Yankees. At three Minor League stops, Dobnak was 12-4 with a 2.07 ERA over 135 innings. He struck out 109, walked 28 and compiled a 0.98 WHIP.

"Absolutely fantastic season for Randy," Hassan said. "He was voted our Minor League Pitcher of the Year. He started the year in Fort Myers and ended up on our [Major League] playoff roster, so hopefully, that paints a picture of just how he progressed throughout the year. He made some real adjustments to his fastball and slider. He pounds the strike zone, fills up the strike zone, and comes at you with quality stuff. Overall, in my opinion, one of our most improved pitchers in 2019. Coming from where he came -- didn't get drafted and came out of independent ball in 2017 -- to end up on a playoff roster in 2019, that's only possible with a special person with character and makeup and ability. That's certainly who Randy is."

Video: Blue Wahoos' Dobnak posts ninth K

Honorable Mention: Fourth-ranked Twins prospect Jordan Balazovic made four starts with Cedar Rapids before a promotion to the FSL. He whiffed 129 batters, third-most in the system, and walked only 25 over 93 2/3 frames while going 8-5 with a 2.69 ERA and 0.98 WHIP.

Honorable Mention: Brusdar Graterol was unbeatable in 2019. MLB.com's No. 53 overall prospect was 7-0 across three levels: Gulf Coast, Southern and International leagues. He had 61 punchouts in 61 frames and sported a 1.92 ERA with a 0.98 WHIP before being called up to the big leagues on Sept. 1.

Left-handed starter -- Devin Smeltzer, Rochester (15 games), Pensacola (5 games), Minnesota (11 games): Acquired from the Dodgers at the Trade Deadline in 2018, the 24-year-old made a quick Minor League ascent. He was called to the big leagues five times during the season and earned a spot on the Twins' postseason roster. In 20 Minor League games, Smeltzer was 4-5 with a 2.76 ERA and 104 strikeouts in 104 1/3 innings. He issued only 22 walks, contributing to a 1.04 WHIP.

Offseason MiLB include

"Devin's one of the fiercest competitors that we have in the organization," Hassan said. "He started in Double-A and made it very clear to us that he would learn in Triple-A. He sent the same message [at Rochester] and was able to carve out a Major League opportunity for himself. When he got to the Major Leagues, he didn't skip a beat. He wasn't scared, wasn't intimidated. You saw that same competitiveness, and he's another guy who made it onto our playoff roster."

Relief pitcher -- Cody Stashak, Pensacola (19 games), Rochester (14 games), Minnesota (18 games): Like Dobnak and Smeltzer, the 25-year-old right-hander made his way to The Show -- and the Twins' playoff roster. He began the season with Pensacola, then got hotter after he was promoted to Triple-A Rochester on June 9. He went 5-0 with a 1.44 ERA and 0.84 WHIP with the Red Wings. For the season, he was 7-3 with a 3.21 ERA, punching out 74 batters with nine walks over 53 1/3 innings.

"The notable thing about Cody, especially in the Minor Leagues, was that he was missing bats and he was getting strikeouts," Hassan noted. "That's something that he's done throughout his career, but what was interesting was he was getting those strikes, but it wasn't coming at the expense of filling up the strike zone. He was not allowing any freebies. Cody just consistently pounded the strike zone and was getting a ton of swings and misses. Again, it forced our hand to promote him to the Major Leagues. As a relief pitcher, isn't that really what you want, a guy who can fill up the strike zone and miss bats? Absolutely. You want to bring those guys into high-leverage spots, and ultimately, he continued to demonstrate that in just a short time in the Major Leagues, as well."

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

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