RHP Jose Berrios, Minnesota
The Twins resisted the urge to call up top pitching prospect Jose Berrios for the duration of the 2015 season, instead shutting him down in early September after 166 minor league innings with the big club just three games out of a postseason spot. Minnesota ended up hanging around in the wildcard race until officially being eliminated in game 161, and it's fair to wonder if Berrios, the high man in all the minors with 175 strikeouts, could have made a difference down the stretch for a staff that was last in the AL in both K's and hits allowed.
Berrios made the decision a tough one for GM Terry Ryan, first earning a spot on the Southern League all-star team and going 8-3, 3.08 with AA Chattanooga before ramping it up and showing even better over 12 second-half starts with AAA Rochester. The young righty saved his best for last, allowing just 3 ER and striking out 32 over his final four starts, two of those with GM Ryan in attendance.
In the end, Twins' brass admitted their desire to play it safe with Berrios' workload, citing concerns over his sub-6 foot frame withstanding the late-season grind. The team had no further nits to pick concerning Berrios' game - perhaps because there don't appear to be any. The 32nd overall pick in 2012 was tabbed by Baseball America as having the best control in the Southern League as well as leading the world in strikeouts, a deadly double that points to the possibility he can be a rotation anchor. Berrios gets its done with command and control of three quality pitches: a four-seamer that sits 92-96, a slurve that he can ably change the speed and shape of, and a deadly changeup that has action akin to Johan Santana's, per long-tenured Twins' minor league pitching coach Stu Cliburn.
John Sickels noted back in 2012 that Berrios had tinkered with a cutter as an amateur but hasn't brought it out to play over his four-year pro career. It was an interesting nugget to find, as the addition of a moving fastball - whether it has cutting or sinking action - could be a boon for a pitcher whose fastball comes from a lower-than-ideal launch angle and has a tendency to straighten out. Since Grapefruit League stadiums do not appear to be equipped with Pitch F/X technology, we'll have to wait until Berrios lands in an MLB park to fully assess what kind of pitches he's going to battle with.
As always, money will be a factor in whatever mid-market Minnesota decides to do. With two early off days in April, the team won't need a fifth starter until the third week of the season. The timeframe is convenient for the Twins, as holding Berrios back for those 20 days equates to an extra year of control at the end of his 'rookie contract'. Even so, his spring performances will go a long way in telling the club just how soon he's ready to make an impact.
Needing only to beat out a ragtag group consisting of Ricky Nolasco, Tommy Milone, and someone named Tyler Duffey for a rotation spot, the smart money is on Berrios arriving at Target Field during the first month of the season. After watching Detroit, Chicago, and KC flash their free-agent cash in the offseason, the Twins know they'll need to accelerate their homegrown players to keep pace with divisional rivals.
OF Jesse Winker, Cincinnati
Back in late January, Reds' beat reporter Mark Sheldon covered all bases in a thorough preview of the clubs' left-field camp competition. With Yorman Rodriguez out of minor league options and Rule 5 pick Jake Cave necessitating a spot on the 25-man roster, they were seen as the favorites to land the gig, with bench pieces Adam Duvall and Scott Schebler also in the mix for ABs. Sheldon was sure to touch on Cincy's top hitting prospect, outfielder Jesse Winker, tabbing him as a longshot to break camp with the club but noting (and quoting) that a strong spring could change their thinking, per manager Bryan Price.
Flash forward a month, and the Reds' recent trade activity portends an even bigger shakeup in the Cincinnati outfield than originally thought. The team was thought to have struck a three-way deal with the Angels and Jays, sending away longtime RF Jay Bruce and bringing in unnamed prospects. Reports of the deal were nixed soon after one of the sides backed out upon reviewing medicals, but the message was clear: Bruce is available, and surely wouldn't command an impact prospect coming back, especially if an interested party can pick up the entirety of his $12.5M salary for the upcoming season.
Though trade talk has been quiet in the few days after the fallout, venerable Jon Heyman thinks Toronto could still get their guy, perhaps by dealing with Cincy directly or getting a different team involved. Dangerously up against the luxury tax, the Halos also have apparent interest in a lefty bat and very little regard for the health of their farm system. Baltimore might be the favorite to make a play for Bruce after losing out on Dexter Fowler in dramatic fashion, and the O's do have some prospect ammunition to get a deal done. Wherever Bruce lands, his departure will create yet another job up for grabs in the rebuilding Reds' outfield.
Jesse Winker hit .488 as a senior out of Olympia HS in Orlando and planned to enroll at the University of Florida before Cincinnati popped him in the compensation round of the 2012 draft. He's been universally ranked among the Reds' top prospects since that time on the strength of a compact left-handed stroke and a patient plate approach that remain his calling cards. Winker's reputation as an offensive force was on display during his first two seasons in the lower levels of the system, but last season's jump to AA Pensacola was expected to be the real indicator of how close he was to reaching the Show.
Winker's Southern League season started painfully slow, possibly due to a lingering wrist injury suffered in a car accident the previous year. But from June onwards, he slugged the ball as well as any player in affiliated ball, notching a robust .316/.426/.516 line and a finicky 43:41 K/BB ratio in the season's second half. With a fully-healed wrist, Winker's power numbers also surged to the tune of 10 HR and 15 doubles after the all-star break.
While Winker is commonly thought of as a left-fielder by trade, a career-high 15 assists in 2015 may indicate his arm is plenty passable in right field. Indeed, the organization may also be thinking along those lines as he received 36 starts in right last season, perhaps in preparation to inherit the job when Bruce is dealt. Winker doesn't necessarily *need* a Bruce trade to have a chance to break camp with the club, but it'd certainly help.
Scrap-heap holdovers Duvall and Schebler are ill-suited for RF, and the Jake Cave/Yorman Rodriguez combo has some intrigue but also enough swing-and-miss in their game to be exposed in an everyday role. Winker is on the opposite end of that spectrum, having displayed advanced pitch recognition at every minor league stop to the point where the team is at least discussing the notion of him skipping AAA altogether. The Reds have assigned jersey #85 to Winker for now, but a strong showing in Cactus League play could convince the club to hand over a more conventional number as well as a starting spot in one of Cincinnati's corners.