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February 15, 2012

Prospects Will Break Your Heart

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: Minnesota Twins

by Jason Parks

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Prospect #1: 3B Miguel Sano
Background with Player: Industry sources
Who: Sano, who has soul-crushing power from the right-side, stands in very elite company when it comes to his raw slugging ability; scouts line up to throw 80s of the future of the tool. Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2009 for a robust $3.15 million, Sano might only have a short-season résumé, but the 18-year-old should be considered one of the top offensive prospects in the game.

In the field, Sano has very little chance of sticking on the left side of the infield. He has good athleticism for his present size and a strong arm, but the teenager is already a very large man and all signs point to him getter even larger during the maturation process. This will push his glove to right field or first base, though he has enough offensive potential to have value regardless of where or how he plays on the field.

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: Like most power hitters, Sano has a leveraged swing with loft and length, so there is some hit and miss in his game. Sano whiffed 77 times in only 66 games against short-season pitching. He struggled against inside velocity and quality sequence, which is an avenue of exploitation that could continue in full-season ball. Sano is naturally aggressive—which I don’t have a problem with—but he can take himself out of hitter’s counts and can subsequently struggle to adjust his approach.

Sano has all the characteristics of a monster power hitter. He has raw strength you can’t teach, ferociously loud contact that seems very natural, and the necessary loft in the swing and backspin to send balls over the wall. He will need to shorten up a bit in 2012 and work on his sequence adjustments and approach, but he will play the majority of the season as a 19-year-old, so even a statistical step back could be viewed as a developmental step forward.

Prospect #2: OF Eddie Rosario
Background with Player: Industry sources
Who: Rosario, a fourth-round pick in the 2010 draft, exploded in the short-season Appalachian League in 2011, hitting for average and power while showing quality futures for all five tools. He has very good bat speed, electric pop for size, good foot speed, strong arm, and good feel for the game, but he lacks elite-level tools. The Puerto Rican outfielder is set to try his hand at second base in 2012, an experiment that should prove to be mutually beneficial; the Twins are weak at the position in the organization, and Rosario’s skill set could shine at the keystone.

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: I haven’t seen Rosario in person, so I had to ask around about his weaknesses in order to project what might go wrong when the 20-year-old makes the move to full-season ball in 2012. A simplified and isolated prognostication would suggest that an assignment to Low-A would prove difficult based on the level of pitching competition Rosario would be facing.

When I asked a scout to expand this basic conclusion, I received a dissertation on Rosario’s pitch-recognition skills, a characteristic I had listed as a positive for the young hitter. The source suggested that Rosario’s quick trigger and bat control often rescued him from poor guesses against average at best pitching. “Look, I really like the player: He can do everything a good five player is supposed to do, and some of the things a good six player is supposed to do. I think his pitch-recognition skills need a lot of refinement, and I think full-season ball will pull back the curtain on some of his other weaknesses.”

There were differing opinions on this statement, and because of my inexperience with the player, I can’t stand next to the report with any conviction. However, with Sano and Rosario (and possibly Kepler) moving to Low-A Beloit in 2012, I’ll need to make the pilgrimage for those prospects so I can see for myself.

Prospect #3: OF Aaron Hicks
Background with Player: My eyes; industry sources
Who: Hicks is one of the more frustrating prospects in the minors. He has crazy-promising tools and a crazy-high ceiling, but his on-field production has been anything but crazy. In 2011, Hicks struggled mightily in the Florida State League, showing weak contact ability and a lifeless approach that led to lots of walks and lots of languid at-bats.

On paper, Hicks is a superstar center fielder in the making, with plus range and a good glove to go along with a legit 80 arm. At the plate, Hicks flashes leadoff skills with above-average power potential. That’s a future seven-grade player right there, but for scouts and fans alike, realizing that future is becoming harder to believe.

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: Hicks needs to take a step forward at the plate in 2012, upping the intensity of his approach and transitioning his game from flash to fire. I’m assuming he makes the jump to Double-A, and given the level of pitching in the Eastern League, Hicks could get exposed early and often. His swing isn’t bad; he gets into the zone quickly and efficiently from both sides of the plate and shows some bat control once he’s there. The problem is that his game swing doesn’t pack much of a punch against fastballs, and when off-speed offerings are brought into the mix, Hicks is all over the place. This is what we have: a switch-hitter with five o’clock power, good patience but some pitch recognition and sequence adjustment issues, and poor contact rates against High-A pitching.

What could go wrong is that the Hicks of 2012 proves to be the same Hicks as 2011, only facing more advanced competition in a more advanced league. There is still a chance that the toolsy outfielder finds his groove at the plate and becomes the star many scouts suggested was inevitable. Unfortunately, there is a much better chance that 2012 is a rerun of prospect frustrations past, a retelling of the age-old classic, Aaron Hicks’ 2011 season.

Prospect #4: OF Joe Benson
Background with Player: My eyes; industry sources
Who: After being selected in the second round of the 2006 draft, Benson slowly inched toward the ultimate goal when he received a September callup in 2011. During his Double-A campaign for the New Britain Rock Cats, the soon-to-be 24-year-old outfielder showed off all five tools, hitting for a decent average, game power, game speed, good glove, and a very strong arm, while also flashing a quality smile. Reports are mixed on Benson’s ceiling; some suggest he could be a first-division talent, and others suggest he might not have the stick to start.

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: Benson will compete for a spot on the 25-man roster in spring training, but he will need to show more at the plate than he offered up in his 71 at-bat sample last fall. The fear here is that Benson isn’t going to make enough contact at the major-league level for his secondary skills to find utility.

Benson’s hit tool is average at best, and his trigger, his path to the ball, and his ability to manipulate the barrel for contact have been a few of his swing’s characteristics that people in the industry have questioned. Against major-league pitching, these flaws are highly exploitable, but Benson’s backers are adamant that he will figure out major-league pitching, becoming a solid-average regular at worst, and possibly a first-division type if everything clicks. Those that lack such optimism suggest Benson’s defensive skill set is better suited for right field, and that his bat won’t have enough thump for a corner spot, making him a candidate for a fourth outfielder role. That’s quite a separation in value.

Prospect #5: SS Levi Michael
Background with Player: Industry sources
Who: With the 30th overall pick in the 2011 draft, the Twins popped the North Carolina shortstop and signed him for a $1.175 million bonus. Michael is not a physical specimen with the type of tools to drool over, but he maximizes his strengths and minimizes his weaknesses on the field. He profiles as a solid-average regular at the major-league level. Michael has good hands and bat speed; he shows a smooth, line-drive stroke from both sides of the plate. He can barrel balls and use the gaps, but doesn’t profile as a power threat at the highest level.

In the field, Michael has good actions and a strong arm, but there are already whispers about his limited range at the position and how he might be a better fit at second base. By all accounts, the 21-year-old eats the infield dirt for fuel and snorts the chalk line for inspiration, causing scouts to label this gamer a “gamer,” a player likely to push his physical tools passed their perceived ceiling.

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: Michael is a mature player with more polish than projection in his game, so what you see is basically what you are going to get. The problem is that some people didn’t see a major-league starter when they watched Michael in college, and those same doubts carry over to the professional ranks, where weakness gets exploited without prejudice.

One source who had eyes on the middle-infield prize last season was very impressed with Michael’s ability to make loud contact and gave me a very glowing report, but did mention that he was much better at barreling 86-90 mph than he was with offerings in the plus velocity range, and that professional pitching is going to present a serious challenge. This is a reductive truth applicable to most offensive prospects in the game, but given Michael’s average secondary skills, the ability to hit (make contact) is what will define the player and ultimately decide his role. If the doubters’ doubts prove to be true and Michael is a better fit for second base, the bat will have to carry a much bigger load, and the likelihood of major-league success slips down another notch. 

Jason Parks is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here

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