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Mining the Minors: Three top prospects impressing in Cedar Rapids

Twins fans interested in watching some of the top talent in the organization should consider taking a road trip to Cedar Rapids.

Over the last decade, players like Mike Trout and Byron Buxton have played for the Kernels on their way to the big leagues. This year, Cedar Rapids has one of the most talented teams in all of minor league baseball, with nine of the top 30 prospects in the organization currently playing for the Kernels.

Typically, this column focuses on high-minors prospects who have a chance to contribute to the big club this year. This week, we’ll take a bit of a detour and examine how some of the top prospects in the lower levels of the Twins’ system are performing. Before we dive into that, though, a brief update on the five players we’ve been tracking here this year:

LaMonte Wade hit his sixth home run of the season Thursday for Chattanooga, after hitting seven all of last year. Wade’s now slashing .305/.406/.458 through play Friday. In my view, he needs to be in Triple-A.

Nick Gordon continues to rake, as well. He’s slashing .333/.384/.516 for the Lookouts. In a recent interview, Thad Levine said Gordon’s bat is “borderline major league ready right now.” My guess is Gordon will be in Rochester before the end of the month, though you could make a case for him being in the big leagues now, as Sano’s injury issues continue to drag on.

Stephen Gonsalves struck out 11 in 5.1 scoreless innings Friday. You can read more about him here. 

Zack Littell has now pitched 16 innings in Triple-A since being promoted from Double-A, and has a 1.69 ERA. Between Double-A and Triple-A, he has 49 strikeouts in 39 innings. Littell continues to be an undervalued prospect, in my view, who could be knocking on the door of the big leagues by mid-summer.

Tyler Jay allowed his first runs of the season last week. He currently has a 1.46 ERA. The strikeouts, however, are down—his strikeout rate is just 16% so far this year.

Low Minors

There are a number of prospects in the low-minors performing well early this season.

Center fielder Akil Baddoo, the Twins No. 11 prospect according to MLB.com, is batting just .222, but his .401 OBP is impressive for a 19-year-old in his first season of A-ball.

Third baseman Travis Blankenhorn, the No. 14 prospect in the organization according to MLB.com, is slashing .248/.290/.474 with 16 extra base hits for High-A Fort Myers.

Starting pitcher Tyler Watson, acquired in the Brandon Kintzler trade last year, has a 2.63 ERA in 27.1 innings for Cedar Rapids.

Three prospects, though, stand out above the rest through the first month and a half of the season. Let’s start with the name everyone knows.

Royce Lewis

Lewis, last year’s No. 1 overall pick and the top prospect in the organization, hasn’t disappointed thus far for Single-A Cedar Rapids. In 117 plate appearances, Lewis is slashing .310/.370/.371 with four doubles and a home run. Lewis is also showing impressive base stealing ability. Already, he’s swiped 12 bags, while being caught just once.

Going into the draft, Lewis was seen as a candidate to stick at short as he makes his way to the big leagues. As is the case with all middle infielders, the ability to play a solid shortstop would significantly increase Lewis’ value. Two levels above him, Nick Gordon is trying to prove he has the glove to remain at short, and Jorge Polanco still has work to do to show the Twins he can be an MLB-average shortstop defensively once he returns. If Lewis develops into an MLB-caliber defensive shortstop, the sky’s the limit for the uber-talented prospect. Already, he’s demonstrating that the bat is legit in his first full season in the Minors.

On a recent episode of The Scoop podcast  with 1500 ESPN’s Darren Wolfson, Twins Assistant G.M. Rob Antony suggested it will be a few weeks before the Twins move Lewis to High-A Fort Myers. Antony said Minnesota may wait until after the All-Star break, though that’s not set in stone. Either way, his quick progression through the system—he won’t turn 19 until next month–is an encouraging sign. As he nears one year in the organization, he’s seemingly done everything possible to validate his selection in last year’s draft.

Brusdar Graterol

It’s been a fantastic start to the season for the 19-year-old Venezuelan. Outside of Fernando Romero, Graterol has perhaps the highest ceiling of any starting pitching prospect in the organization. With a fastball that sits in the upper 90s, wipeout slider, curveball, and changeup, he has the stuff to overwhelm low-minors hitters, and that’s exactly what he’s done. In 14.1 innings with Cedar Rapids, he has a 0.63 ERA, very high 37.3% strikeout rate, and miniscule 1.8% walk rate, while reportedly touching 100 on his fastball.

Despite being just 19, Graterol has already had Tommy John surgery. While that doesn’t preclude arm issues from occurring in the future, the fact that he’s already had the surgery and come back strong from it is a good sign.

Graterol has never pitched more than 40 innings in a season, so the Twins will surely be careful with their prized arm. If he gets a promotion to Fort Myers, though, it will be interesting to see whether he can replicate his dominance at a higher level. He’s still likely a couple of years away from the big leagues, but he’s an intriguing prospect Twins fans should keep an eye on.

Alex Kirilloff

After Tommy John surgery shut him down for the 2017 season, the talented outfielder is picking up right where he left off in 2016, when he had a .794 OPS in rookie ball. Kirilloff is slashing .319/.362/.582 for Cedar Rapids this season, and recently had a stretch in which he had an extra base hit in 13 consecutive games.

Kirilloff was the Twins’ first round pick in 2016, but he’s been a little under-the-radar to this point, primarily due to the injury that wiped out last season. He’s demonstrating now, though, that the bat clearly plays in Single-A. He should be promoted soon, given that he’s already 20 and would likely be in High-A if not for the injury.

Kirilloff is a corner outfielder who hasn’t stolen a base in his minor league career, suggesting he’s going to have to hit his way to the big leagues. So far, so good, for the Twins’ No. 6 prospect.





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