Sometimes the most exciting players to watch are minor league prospects. When you watch your team’s Big Leaguers, you usually know what to expect. But minor leaguers are blank slates. They could become superstars, or they could become nobodies. It’s a very thin line.
The Twins have quite a few players in their system who are straddling that line. For the five very talented minor leaguers listed below, 2012 is a make-or-break year. If they make some progress, they could shoot up the prospect rankings. If they regress, they might never make it to the Majors.
I’m hoping for the first option.
Hicks was the team’s top pick in 2008, and at #14 overall, he was the highest draft pick the Twins have had since Joe Mauer in 2001. The Twins have been gushing about his tools and potential ever since, but Hicks hasn’t produced a whole lot in the minors. Hicks can draw walks and get on base, but he’s yet to exceed eight homers in a minor league season. In 2011 at Ft. Myers, Hicks went .242/.354/.368 with five home runs and 110 strikeouts in 443 at bats. His performance in the Arizona Fall League might be cause for optimism. In 30 games, Hicks hit .294/.400/.559. He only had three homers, but his five triples were a nice accomplishment.
Hicks is a switch-hitter, but he isn’t a natural left-hander. During that AFL performance he hit .361 as a right handed batter and just .258 as a lefty. His career minor league splits mirror those numbers. At this point, it looks like Hicks should seriously consider dropping left-handed hitting altogether. I have a feeling his numbers would get a lot better if he did.
Another 2008 first round selection who hasn’t lived up to the hype, Gutierrez was the #27 pick for the Twins that year. He apparently has an excellent sinkerball, and he throws in the upper 90s, but that hasn’t translated into upper minor league success. That’s unfortunate, because the Twins drafted Gutierrez with a closer-of-the-future tag in mind. With Joe Nathan‘s departure, that role would have been available this year had Gutierrez shown any signs he was ready for it.
Gutierrez dominated at Ft. Myers in 2008 and 2009, but when he moved up to New Britain in ’09, his ERA ballooned to 6.19. The last two years at New Britain and Rochester he’s been around the 4.50 mark. His strikeout totals were alarmingly low for a relief pitcher until last year, when he fanned 57 in 62.1 innings. He’ll need to start missing more bats soon if he’s going to become a viable MLB relief option.
Guerra wasn’t a first round pick. The Mets signed him out of Venezuela in 2006 then dealt him to the Twins in the Johan Santana trade two years later. He looked like a great prospect back then, but his stats have been gag-inducing ever since. 2011 was Guerra’s third season at AA, and at first glance his 5.59 ERA seems to indicate that he hasn’t improved at all.
But hold on – the Twins shifted Guerra to the bullpen late in the season, and night became day. In 52 relief innings, Guerra had a 2.77 ERA and 65 strikeouts. He followed it up with a 3.71 ERA in the Venezuelan Winter League. As a reliever Guerra won’t be as valuable as the starting pitcher the Twins thought they were getting in 2008. But if he takes another step as a reliever in 2012 it will at least mean the Santana trade wasn’t a complete loss.
(Tip of the hat to commentor MNTwinsGUFS for pointing out an error I made with Guerra’s stat line; I have made the correction)
Back to the first rounders. Wimmers was drafted 21st overall in 2010. He was the type of polished college hurler who looked primed to fly through the minors. So far, so good in 2010, when he struck out 23 in 15.2 innings at Rookie ball. But 2011 got off to a very bad start. In his first outing for Ft. Myers, Wimmers walked six batters without recording an out. Alarm bells rang, and the Twins shut him down until after the All Star break. He recovered to post a 3.32 ERA in 40.2 innings.
The situation for Wimmers isn’t as desperate as the other players on this list. He’s only 23 years old, and he hasn’t had a terrible track record so far. There’s still time for him to get back on track. Still, it would be very disappointing if he had another meltdown to start 2012. Hopefully he’ll pick up where he left off at the end of the season.
Jacobson is kind of a wild card here. He isn’t a top prospect like the others once were, but he is a relief pitcher with potential. Obtained in the infamous J.J. Hardy trade, Jacobson can throw in the mid-90s. Jacobson had success as a reliever in the Orioles organization: 8-1 with a 2.79 ERA and 8.5 K/9 for high Class A Frederick in 2010. His performance for New Britain last year was not as good: 4.55 ERA and just 7.2 K/9 in 100.2 innings. Interestingly, the Rock Cats used him as a starter part of the time. He regressed even further in the Arizona Fall League, giving up 9 runs in 11 innings, but it’s probably unfair to read too much into that small sample size.
If Jacobson can step it up and succeed as a starter, he could be a very valuable power starting pitcher in a system that completely lacks them. If not, he’ll give Twins fans another reason to complain about Bill Smith’s trade choices.