Globe iconLogin iconRecap iconSearch iconTickets icon

Varland, Sabato provide hope for the Twin Cities

Dominant hurler, big-time slugger impress with flashy campaigns
Louie Varland held a 2.10 ERA with 142 strikeouts and 30 walks over 103 innings across two levels. (Bryan Green/
December 1, 2021

Each offseason, 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.

Each offseason, 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.

After consecutive AL Central Division titles, the Twins took a step back this season with a last-place finish at 73-89. A big reason for the setback was the myriad of injuries to key players early and often throughout the year. Minnesota had nine players make their Major League debuts this season while relying on over a dozen rookies to fill in key roles.

While nearly all of those injured players are expected to return next season, the Twins system also showed flashes from the reinforcements on the way. Across its six Minor League clubs, the organization posted a combined 305-297 mark (.506). And if you take away the Rookie-level teams, the four full-season clubs went 263-221 (.543) with a pair of playoff teams. Wichita won a Double-A Central division crown before falling to Northwest Arkansas in the Championship Series, and Cedar Rapids finished second in the High-A Central before going the distance in the Finals and dropping Game 5 to Quad Cities.

Minnesota currently boasts a trio of Top-100 prospects -- 2017 top overall pick Royce Lewis (No. 35), last year's No. 5 overall selection Austin Martin (No. 36) and 6-foot-5, 215-pound fireballer Jordan Balazovic (No. 81).

Twins Organization All-Stars

Catcher – Jeferson Morales, Fort Myers (71 games), Cedar Rapids (25 games): The 22-year-old out of Venezuela made his stateside debut and rebounded quickly from a slow start to put together an eye-opening campaign for the organization. After spending most of the year in Low-A, Morales joined the Kernels late in the season and really found his groove in Cedar Rapids. The 5-foot-8, 170-pounder posted a .301/.350/.516 slash line with five home runs, 47 walks and 22 RBIs over 25 games at High-A. He was shuffled around the outfield, but posted a .963 fielding percentage behind the dish over 30 games.

“He’s an under-the-radar guy who didn’t signed for very much money at all. But since he’s been in the States, he’s just dominated the strike zone,” Twins director of player development Alex Hassan said. “He’s got an exciting bat. He takes a lot of walks and can put a lot of balls in play. We’ve played him at a few different positions, but catcher is where we want to continue to work him. I think we can keep improving his defense to complement his bat as well.”

First baseman – Aaron Sabato, Fort Myers (85 games), Cedar Rapids (22 games): In his first taste of professional baseball, the Twins’ 2020 first-round Draft pick (No. 27 overall) got off to a really rough start. But the organization's 16th-ranked prospect found his footing around midseason and finished the year on a high note. After batting .189 through 85 games with Fort Myers, the North Carolina product joined Cedar Rapids, where he posted a .253/.402/.613 slash line with eight long balls, 21 runs scored and 15 RBIs. The strike-zone awareness that made him a highly coveted Draft prospect was on display as he walked 92 times in 107 games.

“He was probably part of the most interesting Draft class’ intro to pro ball,” Hassan said. “So I think that contributed to his slow start, but we really saw some encouraging signs towards the second half. We saw more of the guy we expected when we drafted him when he got to Cedar Rapids, and we’re all very excited about the way he finished.”

Second baseman – Edouard Julien, Fort Myers (47 games), Cedar Rapids (65 games): Drafted out of Auburn in 2019, Julien didn’t make his pro debut until this season because of an injury he sustained while playing for Team Canada. Although there wasn't much power early on, the native of Quebec City sprayed the ball all over the field for Fort Myers – batting .299 with 41 runs scored and 24 RBIs over 47 games. But after being promoted to High-A at the end of June, the 22-year-old tapped into his power stroke and launched 15 dingers and 16 doubles in the final 65 games with the Kernels. Julien also worked 110 walks in 112 games while showing the ability to handle three positions in the infield and left field.

“Another guy with an interesting intro to pro ball, [Julien] underwent Tommy John surgery before he ever really got here. He blew out his elbow playing for Team Canada,” Hassan said. “But he’s got a really intriguing set of skills that he showed us right away, and with his versatility, he’s going to be someone who could move quickly.”

Third baseman – Jose Miranda, Wichita (47 games), St. Paul (80 games): The 23-year-old out of Puerto Rico really put it all together this season and was named the organization’s Sherry Robertson Award winner as the Twins' Minor League Player of the Year. Minnesota’s eighth-ranked prospect posted a combined .344/.401/.572 slash line while setting career highs with 30 home runs, 32 doubles, 97 runs scored and 94 RBIs between Double-A and Triple-A. He was named the system's Minor League Player of the Week four times during the season (May 16, June 6, June 27 and July 4). He made his Triple-A debut on his birthday and promptly mashed a trifecta for the Saints.

“I’m not sure you could have a better season than the one Jose just had. One of the best all-around years I’ve ever seen in the Minor Leagues,” Hassan said. “We’re really proud of the progress that he made. He just dominated the strike zone, was really tough to strike out and just started driving the ball really well.”

Shortstop – Jermaine Palacios, Wichita (110 games): After being signed by the Twins in 2014, Palacios was traded to Tampa Bay in 2018 as part of the Jake Odorizzi deal. The 25-year-old opted for free agency in November 2020 and was signed back by Minnesota in February. And it’s been a welcome reunion for both sides as the Venezuela native appeared to regain his form at the plate – batting .259/.340/.439 with a career-best 19 taters in 110 games at Double-A – after a couple of down seasons in the Rays system. Palacios also sparkled at short for the Wind Surge, posting a .962 fielding percentage there.

“He was here my first year and then we traded him, but it was nice to be able to get him back,” Hassan said. “He really took a step forward with the bat this season. He showed some power and that defense at short we already knew about. He really put himself on the map with his performance.”


BJ Boyd, Wichita (66 games), St. Paul (26 games): Signed as a free agent out of the Independent League at the end of May, the 28-year-old made an immediate impact. Boyd hit .291/.349/.484 with 16 dingers, a pair of triples, 16 doubles, 73 RBIs and 67 runs between Double-A and Triple-A. The 2012 fourth-rounder was also a perfect 11-for-11 in stolen-base attempts. He is currently a free agent.

Trey Cabbage, Cedar Rapids (40 games), Wichita (68 games): The 2015 fourth-round Draft selection of the Twins has shown steady progress every season since joining the organization, and that trend continued with his best pro campaign this year. The 24-year-old played his way to Double-A while posting career bests in average (.264), on-base percentage (.346), slugging (.535), home runs (27), total hits (102), total bases (207), RBIs (82) and runs (61). On Nov. 7, Cabbage elected free agency and was signed by the Angels on Sunday.

Mark Contreras, Wichita (19 games), St. Paul (95 games): Another player who has been in the Twins system his entire career, the 2017 ninth-round Draft pick out of UC Riverside put together his best performance in 2021. Working his way to the Minors’ highest level (where he stuck for most of the season), the 26-year-old posted a .251/.338/.485 slash line while setting career highs with 20 homers, 30 doubles, 74 RBIs, 72 runs and 43 walks.

“He’s a guy that we know very well. He played his way to Triple-A this year and really solidified himself as an everyday player at that level,” Hassan said. “We always knew about the defense, and he can play all three spots in the outfield, but his bat caught up this year and that was good to see. He does a lot of things well and he’s set himself up for the future.”

Right-handed starting pitcher – Louie Varland, Fort Myers (10 games, eight starts), Cedar Rapids (10 starts): The St. Paul, Minnesota native was named the Jim Rantz Award winner as the Twins' Minor League Pitcher of the Year. The 6-foot-1, 205-pound hurler went 10-4 with a 2.10 ERA between Low-A and High-A. The 28th-ranked Twins prospect posted a 1.09 WHIP and a .214 average-against while whiffing 142 and walking 30 over 103 innings. The 2019 15th-round Draft selection led all Minnesota Minor League pitchers in strikeouts, wins and ERA.

“He really worked his butt off in 2020 [during the lockdown] and came back throwing harder than we’ve ever seen. He just put together an incredible year,” Hassan said. “He improved as much as any pitching prospect we had in the system. He really missed a lot of bats, showing incredible maturity, just really proud of him.”

Left-handed starting pitcher – Andrew Albers, St. Paul (18 games, 17 starts), Minnesota (five games, three starts): The veteran who last played professionally in 2017 made his return to affiliated ball this year and proved to still be a serviceable option. The southpaw spent most of the season at Triple-A, where he posted a 3.88 ERA and punched out 88 while walking 11 over 102 frames. The 26-year-old also made three spot starts for the Twins, appearing in 19 big league frames over five games in The Show.

Relief pitcher – Jovani Moran, Wichita (20 games), St. Paul (15 games), Minnesota (five games): The organization’s 25th-ranked prospect played his way through three levels to make his Major League debut. He worked around two hits and a pair of walks while fanning two in 1 1/3 shutout frames on Sept. 12 against the Royals. The 24-year-old posted the best K percentage in the system (31.6) and the second-best WHIP (0.89) over 67 1/3 frames at Double-A and Triple-A. In 35 Minor League games, the left-hander notched a 2.41 ERA, a .124 average-against and struck out 109 while walking 32. In eight big league innings, Moran fanned 10.

“He was just in attack mode this year, and he missed a ton of bats,” Hassan said. “He threw more strikes overall, we saw his stuff really tick up as well, and he just did an incredible job of punching batters out and limiting damage if we brought him into a high leverage situation. Just impressive all around and it was exciting for us to see him make his Major League debut.”

Rob Terranova is a contributor to Follow him on Twitter @RobTnova24.