After a bit of a false start this year, Mining the Minors is now back for (hopefully) the rest of the season. Try to contain your excitement.
The last time this column ran, back in February, I wrote about five players who would likely start the season at Triple-A Rochester but could impact the Twins this year. Out of those five, one is now in the big leagues (Zack Littell), two are no longer in the organization (Tim Collins, Michael Reed), and two remain in Triple-A (Fernando Romero, Kohl Stewart), though both Romero and Stewart have ridden the Rochester-Minnesota shuttle several times this year.
The plan is to stick with the same theme this season and focus on players in the high minors who could help the Twins this year. That’s always been the general aim of this column, but it makes even more sense this season since, as you may have heard, the Twins have a pretty solid bunch this year.
With the best record in baseball, it’s hard to view Minnesota as anything other than a legitimate World Series contender. Even the best teams, though, need to dive into their minor league system when players go on the shelf or don’t perform. The Twins have already looked to Stewart, Littell, Luis Arraez and others to fill in, though no one from Triple-A has played a large role in the team’s success yet. With more than 100 games to go, that will likely change at some point. With that in mind, here’s a look at five players Mining the Minors will be tracking this season.
It was only a year ago when we are all swept up in #FernandoMania. Romero made his MLB debut on May 2, pitching 5.2 innings of shutout ball against the Blue Jays. He followed that with four more impressive outings, and many thought the top pitching prospect in the organization had arrived to save the Twins’ struggling rotation. Instead, Romero struggled in June before being sent down, and made only one more big league appearance in 2018.
Back in Triple-A, Romero saw his strikeout rate plummet, and ended the season with a solid but unspectacular 3.57 ERA. Coming into spring training this year, the Twins opted to convert him into a reliever, with Rocco Baldelli referring to him as a potential late-inning weapon.
It’s easy to see the logic in that decision. The Twins’ ‘pen had some legitimate question marks coming into the season, and with no rotation spots available, Romero and his 98 MPH fastball figured to fill in nicely.
It hasn’t quite worked out that way yet, though. Romero struggled in spring training and was sent to Triple-A. He’s been up and down through the first part of the season, but hasn’t pitched particularly well at either level. In Triple-A, he has a 4.61 ERA, and while his 31.6% strikeout rate is strong, he’s pairing it with a high 10.5% walk rate. His major league numbers tell a similar story (5.63 ERA, 22.2% strikeout rate, 8.3% walk rate), though with fewer walks and strikeouts. He’s also given up seven home runs in just 21.2 innings across the two levels.
In his brief time in the big leagues this year, we’ve seen a pitcher with electric stuff and an inability to locate it. That’s led to falling behind hitters, walks, and more hard contact than we should see out of a pitcher of his caliber.
It’s unfortunate for the Twins, because Romero has the stuff to be a late-inning, shutdown reliever, and they’re still searching for answers in the bullpen. The fact that Romero sits in Triple-A while players like Austin Adams and Chase De Jong have been given big league callups suggests the Twins simply don’t trust Romero right now.
The good news is he’s only a year removed from being a top-100 prospect, and is still just 24. Derek Falvey, Wes Johnson and company have shown a very strong ability to get the most out of their pitchers, with Martin Perez being the best example. Romero can still be the weapon Baldelli thought he’d be this year, but it’s going to take a little more time than the Twins, and their fans, had hoped.
Acquired with Luke Raley in the Brian Dozier trade last July, Smeltzer has pitched exceptionally well at Double-A and Triple-A this season. Across the two levels, the 23-year-old has a 1.15 ERA, 23.6% strikeout rate, 4.7% walk rate, and 0.896 WHIP.
Smeltzer was a reliever in the Dodgers system, but the Twins switched him back to a starting role, at Smeltzer’s suggestion. He’s clearly thrived as a starter, using his four-pitch mix and low-90s fastball to keep hitters off balance. If he’s called up to the Twins this year, it would likely be as either a reliever or spot starter. If he does fill a role in the ‘pen, his minor league experience should serve him well.
Falvey seemed to suggest a callup could happen relatively soon.
“He’s got four pitches and the ability to use all of them in all parts of the zone,” Falvey said recently. “He’s pretty close to being ready for us up here.”
The Twins only have one lefty reliever in the ‘pen, Taylor Rogers. Rogers has been phenomenal, but they could use a second left-handed specialist. Gabriel Moya and Andrew Vasquez have both struggled in Triple-A, so if Smeltzer continues to pitch well, we may see him in Minnesota sooner than later.
Alcala was the big prize in the Ryan Pressly trade last year. With a fastball that touches 100, he has the upside to eventually be a big league starter. So far this season, Alcala has a 4.31 ERA, 26.6% strikeout rate and 8.7% walk rate for Double-A Pensacola. He’s given up just three home runs in 48 IP.
Alcala is far from a finished product, and at least on the surface, he has a similar profile to Fernando Romero, in that he’s a hard throwing right-handed starter with a huge fastball and secondary pitches that still need refinement. His command has been okay, but not great, and the Twins likely want to see his walk rate go down a bit before they’d consider a promotion to Triple-A or the big leagues.
That said, if Alcala continues to show progression, he could be another relief option later in the season. With top pitching prospect Brusdar Graterol and Stephen Gonsalves both going on the IL, Alcala is one of the few highly-regarded pitchers in the high minors who’s healthy and pitching reasonably well. Littell is in the big leagues. Tyler Jay, Lewis Thorpe, Vasquez, and Moya have all struggled. There are other options, including Stewart, Randy Dobnak and Ryan Mason, but they aren’t thought of as highly as Alcala, nor do they possess the triple-digit fastball.
This gets at a larger issue for the Twins—their lack of pitching depth in the high minors. They have plenty of promising prospects, but many of them are hurt or putting up less than optimal numbers. This has forced the front office to turn to some of the replacement-level players discussed earlier. At some point, they’re going to need one of their prospects to step up. (Or they could just sign Craig Kimbrel.)
I’ve been writing about Gordon for the better part of three years. In that time, he’s had plenty of ups and downs. He started out extremely well in Double-A in 2017, before fading late and finishing with a .270/.341/.408 batting line. In 2018, he again started well in Double-A, earning a promotion to Triple-A, where he really struggled (.212/.263/.283 in 99 Triple-A games). That performance led to his removal from most of the top-100 prospect lists he’d been on throughout much of his career, and was likely a factor in the Twins signing Jonathan Schoop to a one-year deal in the offseason, which of course has worked out nicely.
Now, Gordon finds himself back at Triple-A with a lot to prove. Luis Arraez has probably passed him in the pecking order, and based on his aggressive promotion to Triple-A and the big leagues, the Twins may now view Arraez, rather than Gordon, as their 2B of the future.
Giving up on Gordon this early would be a mistake, however. Sure, he had a down year last year, and there are still questions about the glove, but Gordon has always been very young for his level, and prior to last season, put up consistently strong numbers in the minors.
So far this year, he’s had two stints on the IL, but has hit well when healthy. In 52 plate appearances, he’s slashing .320/.346/.440 with six extra base hits. It’s clear he’s no longer the obvious heir apparent to Brian Dozier we all thought he’d be; he’s going to have to earn his spot. With Arraez’s emergence, this is a big year for Gordon.
Before landing on the IL with a wrist injury, Rooker was slashing .222/.278/.478 with six home runs and five doubles in his first stint in Triple-A. Rooker was an incredible college hitter at Mississippi State, putting up huge offensive numbers in the best college conference in the nation, which earned him a first round selection in the 2017 Draft. Since then, he’s been moved quickly through the Twins’ system. In 2017, he slashed .281/.364/.566, mostly in High-A. Last year, he hit .254/.333/.465 in Double-A.
Rooker’s an intelligent hitter who’s talked a lot about his use of analytics and video analysis to tweak his swing. The power is certainly there, though the Twins will likely want to see an increase in OBP before giving him an opportunity in the big leagues. As a corner outfielder, he’s stuck behind one of the most talented outfields in the big leagues, and is competing with Jake Cave, LaMonte Wade and others to be next in line if an injury occurs. If he gets healthy and puts it all together in Triple-A, though, he’s an intriguing option who could be a nice bench bat during the playoff push in September.