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Warne: Albers, Baxendale among Twins' unheralded pitching prospects

by Brandon Warne, 1500ESPN.com Updated 28 months ago | 4577 reads

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Twins certainly have their fair share of pitching prospects on the radar. Alex Meyer and Kyle Gibson dot many top-100 lists nationally, and Trevor May was formerly of that ilk as well. Jose Berrios could soon find his way into those listings too.

But the Twins have a few unheralded hurlers in the system who also have a chance to crack the rotation in the years to come.

One of those pitchers is Andrew Albers. Albers isn't exactly a prospect at age 27, but he's pitched extremely well in Triple-A Rochester after a stint with Canada in the World Baseball Classic. So far in 2013, Albers is 0-2 in seven starts but has a 2.75 ERA and 34-9 K-to-BB ratio in 36 innings pitched.

Albers remains winless in large part because the offense has only twice scored more than two runs for him. In both cases, the Red Wings scored those runs long after Albers had departed. For instance, on April 24, the Wings erupted for nine runs between the eighth and eleventh innings, while Albers only went six frames in that game.

"I don't think he's had a clunker yet down there," general manager Terry Ryan noted. Ryan is mostly correct, though nearly half of Albers' earned runs came in one game when he gave up five in 6.1 innings against the Syracuse Chiefs.

Ryan said Albers has "left-handed funk" and that he "relies a lot on deception."

That could be said for a lot of successful left-handers in the game, past and present.

But what the Twins organization likes about Albers is that he's not afraid to throw strikes -- even as a soft-tosser -- with an arsenal that isn't the traditional sinker-slider that one might expect out of a contact pitcher.

Albers isn't on the 40-man roster, and he's never made anybody's prospect hot sheet, but the latter could also have been said about Sunday's starter, fellow countryman Scott Diamond, who is incidentally just three months older than Andrew.

And while it isn't fair to equate the two, it's fair to wonder if Albers will get a shot with the big club later in the season.

D.J. Baxendale has been even more impressive, and is coming off seven innings where he allowed no earned runs and fanned six Saturday versus Jupiter. That ran his season numbers to a 1.25 ERA, 8.5 K/9, and an excellent 0.79 WHIP. All certainly impressive numbers for any pitcher, let alone one who is starting for the first time in his professional career.

The Twins had Baxendale work out of the bullpen between the Appalachian League and the Midwest League before making him a starter this season in the Florida State League (High-A).

But that was a byproduct of keeping Baxendale's innings count down, coming off a College World Series run. Baxendale paced a strong Razorbacks staff -- one which included 2013 draft prospect Ryne Stanek -- with 58.1 innings pitched. But Baxendale fell to the Twins in the 10th round, perhaps due in part to his repertoire -- upper 80s to low 90s heater -- and also perhaps because he was less impressive in 2012 than he was in 2011, when he had a 1.58 ERA.

Assistant general manager Rob Antony saw Baxendale pitch last year, and saw a pretty solid future. "He's got all the traits to be a starter," Antony said. "He's got the mix to start, and he can throw strikes. He's aggressive in the zone, but he doesn't center a lot of pitches. It would be unfair to call him a finesse guy -- he gets it up to 91-92 -- it's not like he's a soft-tosser, and he knows how to pitch."

Some publications had said Baxendale slid a bit in the draft, but the Twins were not only glad to take him in the 10th round -- they had him go straight to High-A despite only 18 2/3 pro innings, all in relief.

"We jumped him up to Fort Myers because we thought he was ready, even though there were pitchers we had taken ahead of him (who weren't promoted that highly)," Antony said. "We didn't have any hesitation moving him up to Fort Myers and skipping over the lower levels. He's done very well."

Antony continued: "(Director of Minor League Operations) Brad Steil and I talked about him at the end of spring training, and said he might be the best starter at Fort Myers based on what he did in spring training. Obviously spring training doesn't always continue into the regular season, but he was very impressive. He's very focused and mature."

Mason Melotakis is another pitcher who, like Baxendale, converted from working in relief as a pro last year. But a key difference is that Melotakis is pretty new to starting; he only started four games in his final collegiate season -- and fewer than 10 total -- at Northwestern State (La.).

"When we went through the draft process last year, our scouts thought he had the potential to be a starter," said Twins farm director Brad Steil. "After he signed, he pitched in the pen for us, since we were just trying to get him acclimated to pro ball. We started to make the transition with him in Instructional League last fall.

"As a starter, he's working to use his change-up more and mix his pitches, which helps when he's facing hitters a second and third time through the order. Also, relievers generally come in and throw as hard as they can for an inning or two, so he's also learning how to manage a game and pace himself, so to speak."

On using Melotakis as a starter, Ryan added, "The only reason we would convert a guy to the rotation would be that he has enough pitches, or he has the strength in his body, or a nice effortless delivery. Any time a guy has the arsenal to start, we feel it's good for both of us."

And if a pitcher can't start, there's always the contingency plan of moving him back to the bullpen, right?

Not so fast, Ryan says.

"There is no contingency," Ryan said. "We want him to be a starter. He's got stuff, so we're going to start him. Starting pitching is much more difficult to develop than relievers."

The road as a starter has been a bit bumpy, but overall pretty good for Melotakis so far at Cedar Rapids. Through six starts, the left-hander is 3-1 with a 3.10 ERA and 30 strikeouts in 29 innings pitched.

That's the good.

Melotakis has also struggled with home runs (four) and baserunners (1.48 WHIP), with a big part of the latter coming more from the 15 walks he's issued.

But the repertoire is there for Melotakis to succeed. In college he routinely threw in the mid-90s with a power slider. It will be worth watching how continues to handle pitching as a starter, in terms of how it will alter his repertoire, and if he can develop his stamina and secondary offerings.

And finally, a pitcher who could eventually crack a list like this is Hudson Boyd. Boyd has made six starts at Cedar Rapids, and is 1-1 with a 4.34 ERA.

Boyd dropped 40-50 pounds in the offseason, prompting Ryan to say it was good to see Boyd was so committed to his craft that he'd do that.

"Whether or not it's the weight loss, or he's starting to understand, or it was just one of those days, we'll have to see," Ryan said. "It's encouraging that he wants to take enough pride in the career he's chosen to get himself in baseball shape and let the other things take care of themselves. Long term, if you're going to be a baseball player, carrying extra weight isn't going to help the cause."

Boyd's pro career to this point could be termed a minor disappointment, but the Twins are certainly hoping Boyd's last start was indicative of what's to come. Boyd tossed six innings of shutout ball against Quad Cities, fanning four and walking just one while allowing just a pair of hits.

As a former first round pick, the Twins are certainly hoping this is a sign of things to come. To date, Boyd's only fanned a disappointing 5.9 hitters per nine innings, which isn't nearly enough for someone who -- by his own admission anyway -- reached 97 mph in high school.

Brandon Warne covers the Minnesota Twins for 1500ESPN.com. He has also contributed as a baseball analyst for Fangraphs.com and BaseballProspectus.com
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