Thursday, February 4, 2016

Resurgence Needed For Twins Prospects

In 2015, the Minnesota Twins saw the year of the position player. With Eddie Rosario leading the charge during spring training, and into the regular season, Paul Molitor watched as his 25 man roster was transformed with youth. One of baseball's best farm systems is far from depleted after a handful of graduations, but growth now needs to take place. For two former first round picks, the year ahead couldn't be any more important.

Enter Kohl Stewart and Travis Harrison.

Earlier this week, Jim Crikket highlighted both of these two players in his Prospects of Top Prospects piece. His assessment was that while both have a pedigree of performing, and have struggled through professional hiccups thus far, a resurgence is coming. While I'd like to find myself on that side of the fence, I'm not quite as sure as to what's next for both former first round picks.

The latter was the 50th overall pick by the Twins in the 2011 Major League Baseball draft. Hailing from Tustin High School in California, Harrison was drafted as a third basemen that could potentially shift to the outfield. To date in his professional career, he's stuck at a single level every season, and generally played against players as much as two years older than himself.

Through 433 minor league games, Harrison has compiled a slash line of .261/.366/.391. While not dreadful by any means, it's disappointing to note that the development hasn't followed the expected path. Player either infield or outfield on the corners, Harrison was expected to generate more pop with his bat. After a 15 home run season at Low-A Cedar Rapids in 2013, he's followed that performance up by hitting just three and five long balls at Fort Myers and Chattanooga respectively.

Looking at him as a whole, Harrison does a handful of things well. He's taken more than 60 walks each of the past three seasons, and he has clubbed more than 20 doubles at each of his last three stops as well. What's working against the former high school draftee is that he hasn't developed into doing anything exceptionally. Playing positions with organizational depth, he's at a point where he could get lost behind better talent.

Should Minnesota continue the trajectory that has followed Harrison thus far, he should be playing his age 23 season at Triple-A Rochester. Once again significantly younger than much of the competition, he'll have to show he can handle himself. In the outfield in upstate New York, he'll have plenty of battery mates. The signings of Joe Benson, Darin Mastroianni, Ryan Sweeney, and Carlos Quentin all need fall in somewhere. Those names also don't include the likely promotion of Double-A teammate Adam Brett Walker.

For Harrison, the year ahead is a critical one. Having now filled into his body, production at the next level will be about taking a significant step forward. Can he flash some exceptional ability in a few different categories that help him force his way into the Twins future plans. Not looking to get bench players that high in the draft, Minnesota is no doubt hoping it happens.

That brings us to the former player, and one whose situation is also much more dire. Kohl Stewart, the 4th overall pick out of St. Pius X High School in Texas during the 2013 Major League Baseball Draft, is at a much more significant crossroads. Having the pedigree of a top five pick, expectations for the pitcher were through the roof, and they haven't been close to being met.

Stewart's first 20 professional innings, spent in the Appalachian and Gulf Coast Leagues, were dominant as expected. He totaled just a 1.35 ERA and struck out 10.8 batters per nine innings. From there though, the story differs. Pitching in 87 innings at Low-A Cedar Rapids in 2014, Stewart's arm went through it's first issues. There were injuries due to should fatigue, and his electrifying stuff produced just 6.4 strikeouts per nine innings. His 2.59 ERA was still sparkling, but the secondary numbers all left a significant amount to be desired.

Heading into the 2015 season, Stewart made tweaks in his workout routine in hopes of conditioning himself for professional baseball. A Texas A&M quarterback recruit, he had spent a significant amount of time focusing on football, and throwing one, in his not so distant past. His belief was that a new throwing program would help to elevate his game during the 2015 season, while also providing him a more clean bill of health.

Unfortunately, that didn't happen. Stewart played all of 2015 with High-A Fort Myers, throwing a career high 129.1 innings. His ERA remained solid at 3.20, but his peripherals once again took a step backwards. In the Florida State League, Kohl fanned just 4.9 batters per nine innings, while walking a career high 3.1 per nine. His 134 hits surrendered put him over a hit per inning, and his 1.384 WHIP was no longer reflective of the dominant prospect he was billed as.

Having peaked on prospect lists at number 28 overall by Baseball Prospectus, Stewart has dropped out of the top 100 all together heading into 2016. His declining strikeout rates along with arm concerns have gained more recognition than anyone would have hoped. There's no doubt the year ahead is a massive one for the Texas native.

Whether Stewart heads to Double-A Chattanooga out of spring training, or is handed a locker for a brief time in Fort Myers, he's going to need to distance himself from his previous two seasons worth of results. Once projected as a top of the rotation arm, Stewart is trending in the wrong direction. To right the ship, sparking his strikeout totals while staying healthy no doubt has to be the focus in the year ahead.

For the Twins, the farm system is still filled with a ton of depth talent that should contribute at the major league level. What Terry Ryan can't have however, is first round picks that end up not panning out. Both Harrison and Stewart are no doubt on board with wanting more from themselves, the year ahead is one in which we should see what happens next.

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