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May 5, 2013

Thoma column: Minor league projects offer major return

— The best record in the minor leagues last month (21-4) belonged to the Fort Myers Miracle, the Twins’ high-A affiliate.

The second-best record in the minor leagues last month (18-5) belonged to the Cedar Rapids Kernels, the Twins’ low-A affiliate.

Notice a trend here?

I suggested in my blog during the offseason that the single most important job in the Twins organization for 2013 would be in Fort Myers, where rookie manager Doug Mientkiewicz has the assignment of turning Miguel Sano into a usable third baseman and Eddie Rosario into a usable second baseman.

I still think that’s true. But another intriguing project — the conversion of several collegiate relievers drafted last summer into starting pitchers — is largely going on in Cedar Rapids, where Jake Mauer (older brother of the Twins star catcher Joe) is the manager.

One month in, and so far so good with both projects.  In Fort Myers, Sano, who was charged with 42 errors last season in the Midwest League, has cut down the error rate considerably (one error every three games last year, less than one error every five games this year).

Rosario, playing strictly second base after mainly playing outfield for the Puerto Rican team in the World Baseball Classic, has yet to be charged with an error and has been involved in 24 double plays in his first 26 games. (In 2012, it was 15 errors and 48 DPs in 67 games.)

There is more to defense, obviously, than errors and double plays. But the Fort Myers pitching staff is not loaded with strikeout arms — they rank last in the Florida State League in strikeouts — which means the gloves have to carry much of the load. Bad defense in the Miracle infield seems unlikely considering the team ranks fourth in runs allowed.

Sano and Rosario impressed Twins manager Ron Gardenhire during spring training with their bats. Gardy said this spring both could hold their own as hitters in the majors right now, but was quick to add that they might let in as many runs as they create. Their apparent improvement on the defensive side of the game fuels speculation that either or both might be on the move soon to Double A. I would expect that would be more likely in June than in May; similar speculation was rampant outside the organization about Sano a year ago, and then the Dominican spent much of May in a slump.

Two of the starters in Cedar Rapids (and the two with the most innings pitched entering the weekend) are prominent 2012 draft picks who were relievers in college. The Twins, eager if not desperate to add power arms to their system, deliberately targeted a number of hard-throwing collegian bullpeners last June with this idea in mind.

Tyler Duffy, fifth round pick out of Rice, threw seven perfect innings in his first start for the Kernels before being pulled for pitch count reasons (the bullpen finished the no-hitter). He entered the weekend with a 2.60 ERA and leading the team in innings. Mason Melotakis, second round pick from Northeastern State (Ark.), is second in innings (3.80 ERA).

Toss in J.O. Berrios, who also played for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic, and the Kernels have an intriguing core of starters with skill sets beyond the Twins stereotype of command and control.

They aren’t getting the attention that teammate Byron Buxton, last June’s No. 2 overall pick, draws, but how they progress is at least as important.

Edward Thoma (344-6377; ethoma@mankatofreepress.com) maintains his Baseball Outsider blog at fpbaseballoutsider.blogspot. com. Follow him on Twitter @bboutsider.

 

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