Tuesday, October 26, 2004

The Waves Theory

As the enormity of Jason Kubel’s injury began to set in yesterday, I got to thinking about the Twins minor league organization. As the Twins Geek so eloquently stated yesterday, the Twins (and their fans) depend on their minor league teams more than any other franchise. Without Terry Ryan and his stable of talented scouts, the Minnesota Twins would be, well, the Milwaukee Brewers. With a crappier stadium.

However, for a team like the Twins, simply developing major-league ready talent isn’t good enough if you want to compete for a championship. When you have to fill out 80% (or more) of your roster with homegrown players, you need many of those players to be ready at approximately the same time. Thus, I have developed the “Waves Theory”. While this theory is admittedly rudimentary, I believe it does have some merit.

By now, nearly everyone is familiar with the first “wave” of the post-Dark Years era (’93-’00) Minnesota Twins. Torii Hunter, Jacque Jones, Doug Mientkiewicz, Corey Koskie, Christian Guzman, Eric Milton, Kyle Lohse, Luis Rivas, A.J. Pierzynski, David Ortiz, Johan Santana, even LaTroy Hawkins and J.C. Romero to an extent — these guys were the “Turnaround Twins”. Combined with some of the pieces already in place (Radke, Guardado) and an acquisition or two (Reed, Rogers, Stewart) this core group struggled for three years together finally turning it around in 2001. They were given the opportunity to learn and develop in the big leagues, and delivered. You all know the story, I’m sure.

Yet the First Wave™ is slowly fragmenting. Such is the reality for a small-market franchise. Ortiz was let go (prematurely, it seems), Milty, A.J., and Dougie were traded, and LaTroy and Eddie decided to leave. J.J. is all but gone (for real, this time), as are J.C. and Rivas (there probably wont be any tears shed there). There is a chance that Guzy, Koskie, and Bradke won’t be back, although there is a distinct possibility that at least two of the three will return.

In a perfect world (read: Cleveland in the mid-‘90s) the Twins would have a new stadium and plenty of money to keep all these guys around forever. But this is not the case. In order to survive, small-market teams must pick and choose from that first wave the core players they wish to retain and then fill in the rest with subsequent waves. The Twins are now in the process of doing this. Torii has been already been chosen as a core player; Koskie and Radke will probably be next.

That wave is in the past. But who comprises the next waves of talent for the Twins, the guys who will (hopefully) get us over the proverbial hump? I’m glad you asked.

The Second Wave™
This group of players is not as easily definable as the original core was, but they are just as important to the future of this franchise. Most of these guys weren’t considered “plucky” or “longshots” as that ’98 group was; they are immensely talented and are expected to succeed. Some are already in the majors and contributing, while the others will probably do so in 2005.

Joe Mauer: Though he was only drafted three years ago, the Twins are counting on Mauer to be their cornerstone player well into the future. Mauer is the most talented player on this team, and if his one-and-a-half month big league stint is any indication, he will begin fulfilling his promise next year. Assuming he’s healthy (please, baseball gods, don’t let us down).

Justin Morneau: Morneau is just as important as Mauer when it comes to the future success of this team. If he can continue to improve, the Twins may have their first legitimate power threat since Harmon Killebrew.

Lew Ford: Ford doesn’t fit in here quite as well, considering he’s as old as the first group, but he wasn’t given a chance to prove himself until this past season. A successful club needs players like Ford: steady, high OBP, average power, with good defense. Hopefully Sweet Lew will be around for a long time.

Michael Cuddyer: Cuddyer may be a little older than Morneau and Mauer (he’ll turn 26 next March) yet he still fits in with this wave. The Twins will rely heavily on Cuddyer in 2005 and beyond, and I think he’ll provide consistent production wherever he plays.

Jesse Crain: Reliever prospects like Crain are a rare breed, but the Twins are fortunate enough to have one of the best at their disposal. He was impressive this past August and September, and will undoubtedly become a key cog in the 2005 Twins’ bullpen.

Jason Kubel: I almost didn’t include Kubel, as his once-promising future is now in serious doubt. Now it appears the earliest Kubel will contribute is 2006, if even then. Just a terrible break for both Kubel and this organization.

J.D. Durbin: The “Real Deal” better be ready to step it up in ’05, as his team is going to need him. Durbin’s combination of self-confidence and 95 mph heat should serve him well in the near future, assuming he can fine-tune his location a bit.

Scott Baker: Baker isn’t the can’t-miss talent that Durbin is, but he too could play a role in 2005. The 2003 second-round pick was terrific in A and AA (2.42 ERA in 115 1/3 innings) but was hit around a bit at AAA. He’s a very polished control-type pitcher who may soon be a good #3 or 4 starter.

Jason Bartlett: I know Bartlett didn’t look very impressive in his short stint with the Twins this year, but he’s still one of the better middle infield prospects in the game. Ranked the 10th best International League (AAA) prospect recently by Baseball America, Bartlett could take over at shortstop as early as next year.

Fringe Members: Terry Tiffee, Boof Bonser

The Future Wave™
I know it seems blasphemous to even mention, but someday even the first and second waves won’t be enough to compete in the ever-improving AL Central. That’s where the Future Wave comes in. Most of these guys are far too young for us to predict their futures with any certainty, but speculation is just so dang fun that I can’t help myself. While the second wave is chockfull of position players, the future (or third) wave is pitching-heavy. The 2004 draft windfall is the key component of this next group.

Francisco Liriano: Liriano, a hard-throwing lefthanded pitcher who actually turns 21 today (Happy Birthday!), was acquired in the Pierzynski-Nathan trade last winter. If he can fight off the health problems that plagued him with the Giants, he could become a very successful major league pitcher. Liriano had a pretty good year between A and AA, averaging about 10 K/9 innings pitched.

Kyle Waldrop: When the Twins took the relatively unknown Waldrop with the 25th overall pick in this year’s draft, many people outside the organization were perplexed. However, it appears that Terry Ryan and his group of geniuses have struck gold again. Waldrop, who is only 18 years old, had a terrific season between the GCL Twins and Elizabethton. Baseball American ranked him as one of the best prospects in both leagues, and he’s described as the rare 18-year-old who “knows how to pitch”. If you’ve ever spent any time watching or playing with high school or college pitchers, you can appreciate just how unique this kid is.

Trevor Ploufee: Ploufee was another 2004 draftee, one of the only position players the Twins took (he’s a shortstop). He had a pretty good season at rookie ball, hitting .283 with a .340 OBP. His defense also impressed, which allowed him to make BA’s top Appalachian League prospects list. Ploufee’s probably already the organization’s second-best middle infield prospect (which isn’t saying a whole lot) and will hopefully rise rapidly through the organization.

Other Potential Future Stars:
Adam Harben: This young RHP is a work in progress. He throws hard and had a good season at Quad Cities last year (3.09 ERA in 143 IP).
Alexander Smit: Smit, a product of the Netherlands, is a talented young lefty at the rookie level. He simply needs time to develop.
Glen Perkins: This U of M product has great stuff and is very polished. He should climb the organizational ladder quickly.
Matt Moses: Moses was the team’s first-round draft choice in 2003, but the third basemen has struggled mightily with injuries and/or sickness.
Jay Rainville: A personal favorite of mine, Rainville (a supplemental pick last year) pitched well in the GCL last year.

There you have it. I know this was a rather rudimentary look at the Twins’ top prospects (it isn’t meant to be a “top ten” list or anything). There are players who don’t really fit into any particular wave of players (Juan Rincon comes to mind) so not everyone can be included. However, I think this is a fun way to look at the method in which the Twins have produced (and are in the midst of producing) major league talent over the past few years.

As you can see, after the upcoming group (Mauer, Morneau, Durbin, etc.) goes through, the cabinet is a little bare. The Twins don’t really have any standout prospects at the AA or high-A levels, and the future wave of pitchers probably won’t be ready until 2007 or 2008 (possibly even ’09). TR and the boys will have to stock the cupboard with shrewd trades (JJ perhaps?) in order to give the organization a little more depth. However, the Twins still run arguably the best organization in the major leagues, and have for quite some time. While other small-market teams like Pittsburgh and Kansas City bemoan their lack of major-league ready talent, the Twins are sitting pretty. In the AL Central, that could mean a run of success unprecedented in team history.

As always, if you feel I’ve neglected to mention something or feel the need to comment on the above topics, I encourage you to drop a comment below. John and I always enjoy responding to these, and they often serve as inspiration for future posts.

-Ryan M.