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Mining the Minors: Gonsalves pitching well, and an intriguing first start from Kohl Stewart

With the northern half of the country locked into a winter that will never end, Double-A Chattanooga and Triple-A Rochester have both experienced a stop-and-start beginning to their season. Like the Twins, they’ve endured multiple cancellations, and played most of their games in cold weather.

At this point, the sample sizes are still very small. Nevertheless, with the season now underway, let’s take an early peak at how the five prospects we’ll be covering here have fared early on.

Stephen Gonsalves

Gonsalves has responded quite well to the somewhat surprising decision to send him back in Double-A. The southpaw spent the second half of 2016 and most of 2017 in Chattanooga, where he pitched extremely well. He earned a late-season promotion to Rochester last year, and although he struggled a bit in four starts, the assumption here was he’d begin 2018 back in upstate New York. The Twins had other plans, sending him to the Lookouts to open 2018.

In 9.1 IP over two starts this season, Gonsalves has yet to allow a run. He’s given up three hits, six walks, and struck out eight. In his first start, he pitched 5.1 hitless innings before being removed.

Perhaps in part because of the cold weather, the Twins are being very cautious with Gonsalves early in the year. In both starts, he was removed after throwing just 71 pitches. Taking a conservative approach with him makes sense, because the hope is he’ll end 2018 in Minnesota. That would mean potentially pitching deep into September for the first time in his career. No reason to extend him early on has he builds up arm strength.

Nick Gordon

Like Gonsalves, I was a bit surprised the Twins sent Gordon back to Double-A, where he spent all of 2017. In 122 games last season, Gordon hit a solid .270/.341/.408 as one of the youngest regulars in the Southern League. Prior to this season, the organization had moved him up one level each season, and kept him there all year. That seems likely to change in 2018, though. If he plays well through the season’s first two months, a promotion to Rochester is likely, and perhaps even a September call-up to Minnesota.

Gordon’s off to a hot start through the season’s first eight games. In 34 plate appearances, he’s hitting .344 with three extra base hits and a stolen base. Gordon got off to a great start last year as well, hitting over .300 for most of the season, and setting career highs in doubles, triples, and home runs, before fading a bit late.

Gordon’s demonstrated throughout his career that the bat is legit, and the power numbers should continue to rise as he adds muscle. His fielding, and specifically whether he ends up at second or short, continues to be up for debate. One of the more interesting subplots to his season will be where he plays in the field. So far, he’s started six games at shortstop and two at second base, and has a perfect fielding percentage at both positions.

The Twins played him around the infield last year and in spring training this year, suggesting they want to further evaluate whether he can stick at short. One variable that could be in play in that regard is the status of Brian Dozier. If Dozier leaves via free agency after the season, inserting Gordon as his replacement could make sense.

Fernando Romero

Unlike his fellow Top 100 prospects, Gonsalves and Gordon, Romero got a promotion to Triple-A to start the year. That may have been in part due to a phenomenal spring, where he struck out eight over eight hitless, scoreless innings. So far this season, he’s made one appearance, giving up two unearned runs (no earned runs) over five innings, with three strikeouts.

Romero continues to rise in prospect rankings. With a fastball that touches 99 and a solid slider and changeup, he has perhaps the highest ceiling of any Twins minor league starter. If everything breaks right, the Twins feel they may have a potential top-of-the-rotation arm, but durability remains a concern.

Romero missed most of 2014 and all of 2015 after Tommy John surgery, before pitching 90.2 innings in 2016. He made it to 125 innings last year, but was shut down late in the season with a shoulder impingement. Because of these issues, there’s talk of Romero potentially contributing as a reliever this year in the big leagues, likely in the second half. My personal view is he should be given every opportunity to succeed as a starter in Rochester, because that’s where he provides the most value. If, however, the Twins are set in the rotation in August, Romero could be quite a weapon as a reliever, and moving him there wouldn’t preclude them from still developing him as a starter long-term.

LaMonte Wade

After a good spring training in which Paul Molitor praised him for his patient approach at the plate, Wade has continued to draw walks through his first seven games in Chattanooga. With five hits and four walks in his first 27 plate appearances, Wade has a .333 OBP. If history is any indication, that number will be around .400 by the end of the year.

Wade is generally seen as a corner outfielder, but did play a fair amount of center field last year. This season, he’s seen time at all three outfield positions. Wade has the potential to be a solid fourth outfielder in the big leagues, because of his ability to get on base and positional flexibility. His value in that role would increase if he can convince the Twins that he can play a serviceable center field. It will be interesting to track how much he plays that position this year.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see Wade get a promotion to Triple-A relatively soon. He’s shown he can get on base at an elite rate at every level, including Double-A last year. It’s probably time to find out whether he can do the same at Triple-A sooner rather than later.

Tyler Jay

Jay has made one appearance so far for Chattanooga, pitching 1.2 scoreless innings with two strikeouts. After missing nearly all of 2017 with injuries, Jay starting the season on the Opening Day roster should be seen as a positive. The former first round pick has a lot of upside, but injuries have prevented him from fully demonstrating why he was a highly-thought-of college player at Illinois.

When healthy, Jay has shown a mid-90s fastball and devastating slider, which he used to rack up a huge number of strikeouts as an amateur. If that returns, he could be fast-tracked to the Majors relatively quickly. There’s a lot of uncertainty, but as he enters his age-25 season, he’s probably only a couple of strong months away from getting serious consideration for a big league call-up.

Wild card: Kohl Stewart

Stewart, the No. 4 overall pick in the 2013 Draft, had an interesting first start for Chattanooga. In 5 IP, he allowed one earned run, while striking out nine. The strikeouts are notable, because it’s an area in which he’s struggled over the past few years.

Stewart came out of high school as a high-velocity, high-strikeout pitcher, but has put up low strikeout rates the last four seasons. As the strikeouts have dropped, so too has his ceiling. It’s just one start, of course, so there’s only so much to glean from it. If he’s able to repeat that success over the next few months, though, Stewart could vault himself back onto the Twins’ prospect radar in his age-23 season.





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