While many, like me, are holding out hope that the Twins can find a way to compete in a 2012 season where the odds are stacked pretty heavily against them, we must acknowledge that there's a good chance the big-league club won't catch the number of breaks it needs, and that by the mid-season point fans will be looking elsewhere for signs of hope.
Those signs will hopefully come from some of the players listed below in my annual preseason ranking of the organization's top ten prospects. Last year's crop fared about as well as the major-league roster, with nearly every player experiencing injury or performance setbacks, so several members of that list have dropped down or off this year's board.
With that being said, there's a lot of promise to be found below, and the Twins should be stocking their farm system with plenty more high-end talent in June when they select five times in the top 75 picks (including No. 2 overall). Here's a look at the Top 10 Prospects, as I currently see them:
10. Brian Dozier, SS
Age: 24 (DOB: 5/15/87)
2011 Stats (A+/AA): .320/.399/.491, 9 HR, 56 RBI, 92 R
Acquired in the eighth round of the 2009 draft, Dozier established himself as an intriguing prospect while showing strong on-base skills over his first two seasons. Last year, he really put himself on the map with an excellent campaign split between Ft. Myers and New Britain, as he continued to display outstanding plate discipline (66/55 K/BB ratio) while sprinkling in some pop (33 doubles, 12 triples, nine homers).
Ultimately, the biggest questions about Dozier revolve around his defense. Folks in the organization question whether he can stick at short in the bigs. If he can, and if his well rounded offensive skill set holds up, he could prove to be a godsend for a system that is extremely light on middle-infield (and especially shortstop) talent in the upper levels.
9. Alex Wimmers, SP
Age: 23 (DOB: 11/1/88)
2011 Stats (GCL/A+): 41.2 IP, 4.10 ERA, 40/23 K/BB, 1.22 WHIP
In his first start of the 2011 season, Wimmers threw nearly as many wild pitches (three) as strikes (four) in a 28-pitch outing that was cut short after he walked the first six batters he faced. The 2010 first-round pick was immediately placed on the disabled list with "flu-like symptoms" as Twins fans drew inevitable comparisons to Shooter Hunt, a promising hurler whose career went off the tracks after he lost the ability to throw strikes.
Fortunately, Wimmers was able to regain his control in the second half, as he returned to the Miracle in July and posted a 3.32 ERA and 39/16 K/BB ratio over 40 2/3 innings the rest of the way. He ended his season with a seven-inning no-hitter that included only two free passes. His walk rate will definitely be worth monitoring going forward, but for now it appears that disaster has been averted, and if he puts together a full season Wimmers has the potential to shoot up this list.
8. Adrian Salcedo, SP
Age: 20 (DOB: 4/24/91)
2011 Stats (A): 135 IP, 2.93 ERA, 92/27 K/BB, 1.17 WHIP
In 355 1/3 innings as a pro, Salcedo has allowed only 12 home runs and 56 walks. Those are extremely impressive numbers, particularly when you consider that he's been on the young side for every level he's played at. His low strikeout rate (6.1 K/9IP) suggests limited upside, but scouts speak highly of his raw stuff and as a 6-foot-4 20-year-old, he's projectable and could ramp up the whiffs as he fills out his lanky 175-pound frame.
7. Oswaldo Arcia, OF
Age: 20 (DOB: 9/9/91)
2011 Stats (A/A+): .291/.335/.531, 13 HR, 51 RBI, 46 R, 3/6 SB
After he put together a monster season in the Appalachian League in 2010, many wondered whether Arcia's breakout performance was for real, given that it was somewhat out of line with his good-not-great previous efforts in rookie ball. The slugging outfielder made a statement right out of the gates last year, raking to the tune of .352/.420/.704 over his first 20 games at Beloit.
Unfortunately, elbow problems that limited him mostly to DH duties over the first month required surgery in early May, shelving him for a good chunk of the season. When he returned, he was promoted to Ft. Myers, where he rounded out the campaign by hitting .263/.300/.463 with eight homers over 227 plate appearances. Those numbers aren't amazing and he struggled a bit with his plate approach, drawing only nine walks during that span, but his power remained intact and the performance was plenty encouraging for a 20-year-old in High-A ball.
6. Liam Hendriks, SP
Age: 22 (DOB: 2/10/89)
2011 Stats (AA/AAA): 139.1 IP, 3.36 ERA, 111/21 K/BB, 1.13 WHIP
After a spectacular 2010 season that saw him register a 1.74 ERA between Beloit and Ft. Myers as a 21-year-old, Hendriks kept the mojo going last year when he jumped out to an 8-2 start in New Britain, posting a 2.70 ERA and 81/18 K/BB ratio in 90 innings. The continued excellence earned him a promotion to Rochester, where his impeccable command held up (three walks in 49 1/3 innings) but the rest of his numbers came back to earth.
The Aussie eventually made four starts for the Twins as a September call-up, and looked predictably overmatched. This isn't entirely discouraging, considering his age, and doesn't change the right-hander's outlook as a potentially effective mid-rotation strike-thrower.
5. Joe Benson, OF
Age: 23 (DOB: 3/5/88)
2011 Stats (GCL/AA): .284/.387/.491, 16 HR, 67 RBI, 71 R, 14/24 SB
Taking his second shot at Double-A pitching, Benson showed significant improvement in some key areas last year, raising his batting average by 25 points and his on-base percentage by 44 points. He didn't approach his home run total of 27 from the prior season, but his power showing was respectable.
Benson has some notable flaws in his game, the most alarming of which is a bulky strikeout rate (27 percent over the last two years) that will limit his ability to hit for average in the majors. He's also been successful on less than 60 percent of his steal attempts in the minors, which is odd in light of his exceptional speed. Still, even if Benson doesn't live up to the considerable offensive promise he's shown in New Britain over the past two years, he'll maintain value as a strong defensive outfielder who can work the count and hit for power.
4. Kyle Gibson, SP
Age: 24 (DOB: 10/23/87)
2011 Stats (AAA): 95.1 IP, 4.81 ERA, 91/27 K/BB, 1.43 WHIP
Gibson put together one of the best 2010 campaigns of any prospect in baseball, and impressed coaches in big-league camp last year to the extent that certain members of the organization wanted to see him head north out of spring training. Instead, the 23-year-old was assigned to Rochester, where he got off to a solid start before seeing his performance deteriorate until eventually it came to light that he had a torn ligament in his elbow.
He'll miss the entire 2012 season and will return in 2013 as a 25-year-old learning to throw with a surgically repaired arm. Certainly it's a major bump in the road, and many boards are going to have him even lower than I do, but I'm still a big believer in his talent and upside. His timetable may be pushed back by a year (or more), but I think we'll see Gibson become a staple at the front of the Twins' rotation down the line.
3. Eddie Rosario, OF
Age: 20 (DOB: 9/28/91)
2011 Stats (Adv-Rk): .337/.397/.670, 21 HR, 60 RBI, 71 R, 17/23 SB
A year ago, Rosario was a little-known prospect who had put together a solid yet unspectacular debut in the Gulf Coast rookie league after being drafted 135th overall in 2010. That has all changed now. Rosario moved up to Elizabethon last year and absolutely obliterated the pitching there as a 19-year-old, smashing 21 homers to lead all hitters in the Appy League.
Rosario doesn't have the pedigree of his similarly transcendent teammate (who you'll find two spaces below) so it's wise to remain cautious of a drop-off as moves up to full-season leagues, but this incredible performance cannot be ignored. Additionally, the Twins have announced that they'll try moving him from the outfield to second base next year. If that transition takes and his offense continues to shine, he could find himself at the top of this list next year.
2. Aaron Hicks, OF
Age: 22 (DOB: 10/2/89)
2011 Stats (A+): .242/.354/.368, 5 HR, 38 RBI, 79 R, 17/26 SB
In the first two years after he was drafted 14th overall, Hicks was the Twins' consensus No. 1 prospect. At this point, however, I'm taking a leap of faith by keeping him in the second spot. The switch-hitting outfielder has all the tools to develop into a big-league star, but his on-field performance simply hasn't progressed as anyone would hope. His power numbers remain substandard, he strikes out too much, he doesn't hit from the left side of the plate and last year he put up the worst batting average of his career.
I remain bullish on Hicks because his raw tools are just too impressive to give up on, and he's consistently displayed two uncommon skills in spite of his disappointing overall output: exceptional plate patience and stellar defense in center field. He raked in the Arizona Fall League recently (.294/.400/.559) and I'm hoping he can build on that and turn the corner in 2012. If not, his tremendous athletic prowess won't save him from sliding down this list next year.
1. Miguel Sano, 3B
Age: 18 (DOB: 5/11/93)
2011 Stats (Adv-Rk): .292/.352/.637, 20 HR, 59 RBI, 58 R, 5/9 SB
When the Twins signed Sano out of the Dominican Republic with a hefty bonus back in 2009, the 16-year-old drew some lofty offensive comparisons. His performance across three levels of rookie ball has left no reason to doubt the high praise.
Sano's second pro season was more impressive than his first, which had already established him as one of the game's better up-and-coming power hitters. Despite being only 18 years old, he finished third in the Appy League in OPS, second in homers and first in total extra-base hits. His strikeout rate was a bit high and his walk rate a bit low – both understandable given his age and degree of dominance – but otherwise it's tough to find much fault with his production.
He's still got a long way to go before reaching the majors, and much can happen between now and then, but at this point Sano is on a path to become the best pure power hitter to come through Minnesota in decades.