Through the first two and a half weeks of the season, much has been made of the struggles of several key Twins hitters. While Byron Buxton’s offensive woes have gotten the most attention, he’s certainly not the only Twin off to a slow start. Joe Mauer has just one extra base hit through 55 at-bats this year, and Eddie Rosario is slashing .220/.264/.240.
With the lineup struggling to score runs, it’s reasonable to wonder whether the Twins should call up a bat from Triple-A in an attempt to jump start the offense. The Twins could send down one of their 13 pitchers, or a position player.
Personally, I wouldn’t send down Buxton, because he’s mashed at every level of the minor leagues (with a lot of strikeouts mixed in) and I think he needs more time to figure it out in the majors. Rosario, on the other hand, might make more sense, for two reasons. First, his defensive impact is less significant than Buxton’s, because he plays a corner outfield spot. Second, there’s a ready-made replacement waiting in the wings (pun absolutely intended).
Red Wings left fielder Daniel Palka has been mashing at the plate. Through 13 games, he’s hitting .300/.352/.620 with 5 home runs. Although it’s a small sample size, Palka’s body of work has been strong throughout his career (his career slugging percentage is .513), suggesting his start isn’t likely just a flash in the pan. Rather, we may be seeing a 25-year old power hitter entering his prime.
I haven’t watched enough of Palka to fairly grade his defense, but reports suggest he’d likely be a downgrade from Rosario. While the Twins have demonstrated this year how important outfield defense is (especially for a pitching staff that isn’t heavy on strikeouts), corner outfielders need to hit to stick in the majors, and Rosario hasn’t done enough of that to this point to really justify a starting spot (his career OPS+ is 95, which is below league-average).
If, as Derek Falvey has suggested, this is a learning year for the Twins, it’s probably time we learn about Palka. He’s on the 40-man roster, has torn up the minor leagues, and shown progress early this year. He’s cutting down his strikeout rate and increasing his on base percentage, two correlated variables I’ve suggested were a key to his continued development. If he keeps hitting like this, he may force the Twins’ hand.
Palka isn’t the only Twins’ prospect off to a strong start. Their top prospect, shortstop Nick Gordon, is hitting well at Double-A Chattanooga, slashing .333/.389/.458 with a home run. After writing last week that the Twins were making the right decision in playing Gordon every day at shortstop, Gordon’s split the last six games between shortstop and second.
The reason I question moving Gordon around is the same reason I think Miguel Sano and Jorge Polanco should play the vast majority of their games at third base and shortstop—there are question marks about their defensive ability, and the more data the Twins can collect, the better they’re able to make evidence-based decisions. The Twins need to know whether Gordon can stick at short; playing him anywhere else seems like flawed process.
Gordon’s Double-A teammate, 2B/SS Engelb Vielma, also continues to hit well. As I’ve discussed here in the past, Vielma is the opposite of Gordon in that his defensive ability at shortstop is unquestioned, while his bat needs work. That he’s opened the year hitting .317/.349/.390 with three extra base hits through 11 games is a good early sign for the career .265/.328/.311 hitter. If he can keep it going at the plate for another couple of weeks, promoting him to Triple-A Rochester would be a logical move, in that it would allow Gordon to get more innings at short at Double-A, and give Vielma the chance to prove he can hit at the next level.
Another prospect I’m tracking here, hard-throwing reliever Nick Burdi, continues to impress at Double-A. He’s now pitched 4.1 innings without allowing a run, while striking out 7. His fastball velocity is in the mid to upper 90s, which is around where he was at before an arm injury effectively wiped out 2016. Another positive sign for Burdi is that he’s only walked one batter. Burdi struggled with control in both 2014 and 2015, and has a career BB/9 rate of 4.6. It’s early, but Burdi’s trending in the right direction.
No. 2 prospect Stephen Gonsalves continues to be sidelined by a shoulder injury. And while that’s bad news for Gonsalves and the Twins, it did lead to an amusing Twitter exchange. After a communications breakdown between G.M. Thad Levine and Twins beat writers led to erroneous reports of Gonsalves heading to Minnesota to get the shoulder examined, Gonsalves tweeted this:
@MiLB Someone explain how I don’t know about this?
— Stephen Gonsalves (@TheSGonsalves) April 16, 2017
Turns out, he’d already been checked out and results showed no structural damage. Gonsalves still appears to be at least a couple weeks away from returning to game action, however.
Another Twins pitching prospect, reliever Trevor Hildenberger, reminds me a bit of former Rochester reliever Anthony Slama. Remember Slama? For years, he would put up ridiculous numbers as the Red Wings’ closer, but got almost no action with the Twins, logging just 7 career big league innings and inspiring a #FreeSlama hashtag among frustrated Twins fans. The Twins, rightly or wrongly, questioned whether he had big league stuff, obviously concluding he didn’t. Hildenberger, in my view, has a similar profile. Flying under the radar for most of his career (MLB.com ranks him as the Twins’ No. 19 prospect), Hildenberger has put up phenomenal minor league numbers. Over 3+ seasons, he has a career 1.41 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, and 10.6 K/9, and has thrown 5.1 innings of scoreless ball at Triple-A this year. Hildenberger is 26, and like Slama, doesn’t have overpowering stuff. Given the numbers, though, he’s earned a shot to see whether his stuff plays in the big leagues at some point this year. It may soon be time to #FreeHildenberger.