FORT MYERS, Fla. – There has been a buzz of excitement this spring training at the Lee County Sports Complex, and it has had as much, if not more, to do with the scene on the minor league side of camp as in the big-league clubhouse.
As the Minnesota Twins prepare to return home from spring training, an arsenal of, at last count, 165 minor league players, is getting ready to disperse across the country to the various Minnesota minor league affiliates.
A handful of those prospects will form the foundation of the future for a franchise that finished with a 66-96 record last season and a 63-99 mark in 2011.
Third baseman Miguel Sano, second baseman Eddie Rosario, shortstop Levi Michael, outfielders Oswaldo Arcia and Byron Buxton and starting pitchers Alex Meyer and Trevor May are among those who have been besieged by autograph seekers this spring training.
For the first time in almost 30 years, the prospects will be assessed by a new man in charge. Brad Steil, 36, has been promoted to Twins director of minor leagues. Steil became the fourth man in franchise history to hold that title. He succeeded Jim Rantz, 75, who held the job for 27 years.
Sherry Robertson and George Brophy are the two other men who have had that role since the Washington Senators became the Minnesota Twins in 1961.
“He’s gone through it, and he knows the routine,” Rantz said of Steil, who had worked under Rantz, a Twins Hall of Famer, for 13 years, starting out as an intern.
“One thing he’s more aggressive about, more so than I was, is he goes to the Latin countries,” said Rantz, who has still been on hand this spring training as a consultant. “He has a feel for the game. He played hockey, so he was an athlete.
“We worked closely together, and he deserved this. Everybody wants to move up. He qualified, obviously, with time served.”
Steil hit the ground running, shuffling the coaching staffs and hiring new coaches, including former Twins first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz, who will manage the Class A Fort Myers Miracle and former Twins outfielder Chad Allen, who will be the Double-A New Britain hitting coach.
In addition to hiring, Steil will be firing. At the end of this spring training, minor leaguers are sure to be released to make way for the more promising youngsters.
“The toughest part of this job is when you have to release a player,” Rantz said. “He’s done a little bit of that before. Now, it’s his baby all the way. I won’t miss that part of the job.”
Steil said he’s not looking forward to that part of the job, but he is looking forward to watching how this group of prospects advances.
“They’re chasing their dreams,” Steil said. “The talent level is going to fluctuate over time. We’re excited about what we have. They’re still minor leaguers. We just want to do our job and get them up there to the big leagues.
“We don’t get too caught up with what Baseball America says or what MLB.com says. We have to keep doing our job.”
Baseball America ranks six Twins prospects in its top 100: Sano (No. 9), Buxton (No. 10), Arcia (No. 41), Meyer (No. 59), pitcher Kyle Gibson (No. 68) and outfielder Aaron Hicks (No. 72).
With the exception of Gibson, who is coming back from Tommy John elbow surgery, all of these players made highlights in the minors in 2012.
“Some of the guys had good years last year,” Twins general manager Terry Ryan said. “It’s not just because of their draft status or how much money they got when they signed. They had good years. They produced. On top of that, they’re quality guys. They’ve got good makeup. That’s what we’re looking for.”
Sano, 19, likely will start the season with the Class A Fort Myers Miracle. The 6-foot-4, 236-pound 19-year-old from San Pedro De Macoris in the Dominican Republic, hit .258 with 28 home runs and 100 RBI last season in low Class A Beloit.
“He’s got size, he’s got strength, he can hit, he’s got a powerful arm,” Ryan said. “He’s a good worker. He needs to work on some things on the defensive side, but there’s a lot to like about Sano.”
Buxton, 19 and the No. 2 overall pick in the draft last year, hit a combined .248 with five homers, 20 RBI and 11 stolen bases last season.
Arcia, 21 and the Twins Minor League Player of the Year in 2012, hit a combined .320 with 17 home runs and 98 RBI in Class A Fort Myers and Double-A New Britain.
Meyer and May are two potential front-line starters in the big leagues who joined the Twins in trades for outfielders Denard Span and Ben Revere, respectively.
As the Twins break camp, gearing up for the 2013 season, fans can get geared up for the years to follow.