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Who’s waiting in wings for the Twins? Pitcher Kyle Gibson leads the list of 2011 prospects

Here’s a look at the Minnesota Twins’ top five prospects for 2011:

Prior to the Twins taking him with the 21st overall pick in last June’s draft, Alex Wimmers won back-to-back Big Ten conference pitcher of the year awards at Ohio State by going 9-2 with a 3.27 ERA as a sophomore and 9-0 with a 1.60 ERA as a junior. He perfectly fits into the Twins’ preferred pitching mold as a strike-thrower with strong off-speed stuff, but the 6-foot-2 right-hander is hardly a finesse pitcher and racked up 273 strikeouts in 216 innings at OSU.

Wimmers lived up to his pre-draft billing as one of the year’s most advanced pitching prospects by jumping all the way to high Single-A after signing for $1.33 million about a week before the deadline. Despite taking two months off between OSU and his pro debut, he went 2-0 with a 0.57 ERA and 23-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in four starts at Fort Myers, including five no-hit innings in his third outing.

He likely doesn’t have as much long-term upside as fellow first-rounder and college righty Kyle Gibson, but Wimmers figures to move quickly through the Twins’ system and could be in the mix as a middle-of-the-rotation starter as soon as 2012. His fastball clocks in at 88 to 92 miles per hour, but Wimmers has drawn more praise for his outstanding changeup, and John Manuel of Baseball America called him “the closest thing to Brad Radke in this draft.”

Tsuyoshi Nishioka is a 26-year-old veteran of seven seasons in Japan, but for the purposes of these rankings he’s a “prospect” by virtue of Rookie of the Year eligibility. By outbidding the 29 other MLB teams, the Twins secured Nishioka’s exclusive negotiating rights for a $5.3 million “posting fee” and then signed him to a three-year, $9.25 million deal with an option for 2014, making the total commitment either $14.5 million for three years or $18.3 million for four years.

Nishioka hit .346 to win the batting title last season, but that was fueled by an unsustainably amazing .395 mark on balls in play and he came into the year as a career .280 hitter. Based on his track record, the Twins should be happy if Nishioka can bat around .275 while maintaining the solid plate discipline he showed in Japan. He’s unlikely to have much pop, as even sluggers in Japan have seen their power vanish in MLB and Nishioka’s career-high there is 14 homers.

He stole 32 bases per 150 games in Japan and won their equivalent of a Gold Glove award at both shortstop and second base, but the Twins will take a look at him in spring training before deciding which of Orlando Hudson or J.J. Hardy he’ll replace in the middle infield. His defense and base-running will be key, because as a hitter Nishioka projects to be similar to Hudson or Jason Bartlett as a .275/.335/.375-type bat Ron Gardenhire will likely slot into the No. 2 hole.

Miguel Sano was considered one of the top hitting prospects ever produced by the Dominican Republic when he signed with the Twins as a 16-year-old in late 2009 for a $3.15 million bonus that ranked second all time for a Latin American prospect outside of Cuba. His pro debut didn’t disappoint, as Sano crushed summer league pitching and then moved up to rookie-ball, where he joined stud Yankees prospect Gary Sanchez as the only 17-year-olds to top an .800 OPS.

He struggled to control the strike zone in the Gulf Coast League, but the average pitcher there was three years older than Sano, and swinging at everything is to be expected given his age and inexperience. Plus, it’s just tough to find any fault in a 17-year-old hitting .307/.379/.491 while being pushed aggressively in his pro debut. Sano is years away from entering the Twins’ plans even if everything goes well, but the first step was a good one, and his upside is huge.

Sano was signed as a shortstop and saw about one-third of his action there last year, but no one seems to believe he has any chance of sticking at the position once his 6-foot-3 frame fills out and there’s even some doubt about whether he’ll be able to handle third base once he’s an adult. Ultimately, position and defensive value are a secondary concern, because Sano’s bat is what makes him a special prospect, but it’d sure be nice to have a slugging infielder in 2015.

After a somewhat disappointing full-season debut as a 19-year-old at Beloit in 2009, the Twins had Aaron Hicks repeat low Single-A last season and the 2008 first-round pick responded by upping his OPS by 100 points. He’s yet to show the power many projected coming out of high school, which combined with a high strikeout rate and .279 batting average makes for modest-looking production, but Hicks’ plate discipline is incredible for such a young, toolsy player.

Hicks drew 88 walks and posted a .401 on-base percentage in 115 games. No other prospect in the Twins’ system topped 60 walks or a .375 OBP, and by comparison, Delmon Young had a grand total of 85 non-intentional walks in 353 games as a minor-leaguer. And it wasn’t a fluke, because Hicks drew 68 walks in 112 games through his first two seasons. For someone who’ll play the entire 2011 season at age 21, that’s a remarkable and crucial skill around which to build.

As for everything else, Hicks is largely still learning how to turn his immense physical tools into actual baseball skills, but he has 20-steal speed with the range to be a standout center fielder and an arm that had most teams targeting him as a pitcher. If the power arrives or he can cut down on the strikeouts — both of which can perhaps be accomplished if the switch-hitter ditches a few walks for more overall aggression — Hicks has a chance to be a special all-around player.

Kyle Gibson starred at the University of Missouri and was widely considered top-10 talent, but fell to the Twins with the 22nd overall pick in the 2009 draft when a late-season dip in velocity led to the discovery of a stress fracture in his forearm. It proved to be a minor injury and Gibson signed for an above-slot bonus of $1.85 million literally moments before the deadline, delaying his pro debut until 2010.

He was aggressively assigned right to high Single-A, where a 1.87 ERA and 40-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 43 innings earned a speedy promotion to Double-A. Gibson posted a 3.68 ERA and 77/22 K/BB ratio in 93 innings there and moved up to his third level of the season in time to make three starts at Triple-A. He finished with a 3.04 ERA, .245 opponents’ batting average, and 118/36 K/BB ratio in 142 innings overall as a 22-year-old in his first pro season.

Gibson’s low-90s fastball isn’t overpowering, and his 7.5 strikeouts per nine innings are modest for a top prospect, but his control is excellent and he allowed just seven homers in 152 innings while inducing 56 percent ground balls. Unspectacular velocity and the lack of missed bats may keep Gibson from having true No. 1 starter upside, but he looks capable of developing into a strong No. 2 starter and could be MLB-ready by the All-Star break.

Also in this series: 6-10, 11-15, 16-20, 21-25, 26-30, 31-35, 36-40.

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