Potential future stars fuel hope for Twins

Published 10:11 pm Sunday, June 9, 2013

MINNEAPOLIS — These days, many fans of the Twins are more excited about players like Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton than Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau or anyone else in Minnesota.

That’s not even a slight to the former American League MVPs. Mauer is producing another All-Star performance at the plate. Morneau’s power has disappeared, but he’s still on pace to drive in 100 runs. The Twins have made recent strides and crept close to the .500 mark after 195 combined losses over the last two seasons.

But the minors are the location for most of the promising action for this organization.

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“It’s hard to think that anyone has had a better year on the farm than the Twins have had,” said J.J. Cooper, the managing editor at Baseball America, a magazine and website that extensively covers the minor leagues.

The story begins with Buxton, the second overall pick in the 2012 draft. The center fielder entered Wednesday batting .333 with 55 runs, seven homers, 39 RBIs and 26 stolen bases in 52 games for the Cedar Rapids Kernels in low Class A. That’s still four levels away from the limestone walls of Target Field, but the 19-year-old is exceeding expectations even for such a high draft pick.

This is what teams have to do with bad seasons in the majors: Turn terrible records into future stars. That’s what they did with Mauer, the catcher and hometown kid taken at the top of the 2001 draft. This year, the Twins pick fourth, and the pressure is on. The draft begins on Thursday night.

“You just don’t have that many chances in any venue to get the star player. You only have so much money internationally. You only have so many chances in the draft,” vice president of player personnel Mike Radcliff said. “At fourth, it has to be a guy who can make an impact.”

The same summer that Mauer turned pro, the Twins were emerging from a downturn that lasted nearly a decade, beginning soon after their last World Series title in 1991. The group of drafted-and-developed players like Torii Hunter, Corey Koskie and Doug Mientkiewicz led the turnaround.

By 2015, perhaps Sano will join Aaron Hicks and Oswaldo Arcia as the young hitters providing support for a rotation led by Kyle Gibson, Trevor May and Alex Meyer. Buxton probably won’t be ready for the majors that soon, particularly given the conservative approach to promotion the Twins have long employed, but he ought to be close.

“I think it’s nice for our players to get the recognition that they’re getting,” minor leagues director Brad Steil said. “We’re just focusing on helping them continue their development and get to the next level in their career.”

The high draft picks that come from losing are one way to rebuild, but that can’t be it.

Sano, the third baseman in high Class A, was signed out of the Dominican Republic four years ago, a prime example of the improved scouting the Twins have devoted in recent years to that baseball-rich country. Sano entered Wednesday hitting .333 with 15 doubles, 14 home runs, 45 RBIs and eight steals in 54 games for the Fort Myers Miracle.

Then there are the trades the Twins made last winter, swapping center fielders Denard Span (to Washington) and Ben Revere (to Philadelphia) for Meyer and May.

Baseball America ranked the Twins’ farm system the 10th-best in the game before the season began. Cooper said they’ll be a lot higher on the next list. The key, of course, is acquiring players with star potential, not simply a deep collection of guys destined for utility roles or middle relief.

“There are just a number of players in that organization who are having really good years who are also prospects,” Cooper said.

Starting pitching problems have been a major part of Minnesota’s recent struggles, and a concerted effort has been made to restock the system with harder-throwing, legitimate top-of-the-rotation pitchers. The Twins are still lacking there at the Triple-A level, but the state of their farm system is much stronger than it was just two years ago.

After answering questions a few summers ago about what was wrong with their scouts, Twins officials have quickly found themselves the subject of all kinds of praise around the sport this summer as the numbers pile up for players like Buxton and Sano.

“We don’t get too carried away in either direction,” Radcliff said. “Obviously it’s way nicer when you feel like you have some players coming who are going to be good. But we also know that’s fleeting. You’re one injury away from not having anybody, so you’ve got to keep grinding.”