Last year, Nick Blackburn emerged as one of the Twins most consistent pitchers, especially down the stretch. Baseball America had named him the Twins' best prospect before the season, which turned out to be justified, but which nevertheless surprised many fans.
It shouldn't have been such a surprise given Blackburn's last year in the minors, and especially his run through the Arizona Fall League. In six starts, Blackburn was 4-0 with a 1.64 ERA, a .68 WHIP, and a stunning 20-2 K/BB rate.
This year, as always, the Twins have a lot of prospects playing late season baseball. Here are three that have turned heads.
Jose Mijares (2-1, 0.59 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 8 Saves)
Mijares was already grabbing attention at the end of the Twins season, when, as a September call-up, he won over Ron Gardenhire's trust and pitched in key spots down the stretch.
He's continuing to pitch well for the Aragua Tigers of the Venezuelan Winter League, and has given up just one run in his last 10 outings. In almost any other franchise, Mijares would be the closer of the future, but he should settle down into short relief nicely for the Twins. With the loss of Pat Neshek for yet another season, Mijares could easily find himself in the 8th inning role setting up Joe Nathan.
Alexi Casilla (.381/.490/1.062, 6-7 K/BB, 9 RBI)
These numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, since Casilla has played just 13 games so far in the Dominican Winter League. He missed the early part of the season, but now seems to be getting good work in.
Casilla was a huge part of the Twins run last season, providing stability at second base and a reasonably high OBP ahead of Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. He improved substantially from his 2007 call-up, and it looks as though that trend will continue.
He was acquired by the Twins for J.C. Romero, and it looks like that deal will go down as one of the better ones the Twins have made. Casilla should be a long term solution to either 2B or SS, whichever position he takes to best. Either way, a healthy and productive Casilla is a huge asset to the Twins.
Luke Hughes (.292/.333/.760, 7 XBH, 14 RBI)
Hughes and Danny Valencia are the two infielders in the Twins pipeline closest to making a big impact. Valencia improved his defense by leaps and bounds, but it seems to have come at the expense of his offense. Twins minor league guru Seth Stohs (who has just released his 2009 Prospect Handbook. GO BUY A COPY!) isn't worried, since Valencia was supposed to be working on his defense anyway. I, on the other hand, remain a bit skeptical. (Check the comments section)
Hughes' numbers have been better than Valencia's this winter, and he's improved substantially over his slow start. Comparing the two would be a mistake though, since Valencia played in the AFL and Hughes is Mijares' teammate in Venezuela. His strike out rate may keep him in AAA until he can work out some of his plate discipline issues, since the Twins already have problems with the strike zone.
Nevertheless, he is showing decent power and continuing to hit better than he had in the lower minors, which is a good sign. While he may not be the Twins first choice third baseman, as evidenced by their pursuit of a free agent, he is likely on the short list for call-ups in 2009.
Like Denard Span last year, he will probably spend a long time in camp before getting sent to Rochester instead of coming north with the team. If Hughes continues to hit, he will have a place in this franchise. Whether that spot may be taken away from him by Danny Valencia remains to be seen.
Mijares and Casilla will almost certainly be expected to make substantial contributions right from the beginning of 2009, and appear to be ready to do it. Hughes is lagging behind, but is showing the improvement the Twins wanted from him. He'll be ready to contribute should the Twins need a call-up due to injury, but will need more time before he's a real everyday option at third.