Torii Hunter has been the Twins regular center fielder since 1999 and will remain for at least another year as the Twins picked up his $12,000,000 option for 2007. Lew Ford and Jason Tyner will return to compete for the starting left field position as well as being available to spell Hunter who has missed part of the last two years with injuries. Considering that it is questionable that Hunter will return after 2007, the Twins will need one of their young center fielders to take that final step next year.
The Rochester Red Wings (AAA) had **Jason Tyner, 28+, (#8/#12) in center during the first two-thirds of the season. Tyner had the highest average of any player in the system, .329Ave, with 14 doubles, 5 triples, 0 home runs, 52 runs scored and 22 rbi in 316 at bats. Tyner, who doesn't strike out often (39) compared with 25 walks, also had 8 stolen bases in 10 attempts. While with the Twins, Tyner hit .312Ave with 5 doubles, 2 triples, 0 home runs, 29 runs scored and 18 rbi in 218 at bats with 18 strikeouts and 11 walks. Tyner is on the 40-man roster and will return next season as a reserve outfielder with a chance of winning or sharing the Twins left field position. After Tyner was called up, Andres Torres, 28, (#34/-) manned center for the balance of the season. Torres is a speedy centerfielder who hit .236Ave with 17 doubles, 9 triples, 2 home runs, 46 runs scored and 30 rbi in 348 at bats. Torres, who had 19 stolen bases in 26 attempts, struck out (89) more than once in every four at bats. With all the New Britain outfielders needing promotions next season, Torres' return is unlikely.
Perhaps the two top center field prospects in the system were both with New Britain (AA) this past season. Denard Span, 22, (#2/#2) has often been considered the heir apparent to center fielder Torii Hunter. Span, the Twins top choice in 2002, has as much speed as any player in the system yet often struggles with his base stealing grabbing 24 bases in 35 attempts. A fine defensive center fielder, Span hit .285Ave this past season with 16 doubles, 6 triples, 2 home runs and 45 rbi in 536 at bats. His 80 runs scored were second to only Alexi Casilla's 84 runs scored at Ft. Myers and New Britain. Span, who is often referred to as a slap hitter, walked 40 times while striking out (78) less than 15% of the time. Trent Oeltjen, 23, (#6/#20) had his break out season this year highlighted by his being the only Twins representative in this year's Futures Game. Considering that Oeltjen was in the same outfield as Span, he played mostly left or right this season. Oeltjen had a fine season at the plate, leading the Rock Cats in hitting with a .299Ave with 16 doubles, a system high 10 triples, 3 home runs, 61 runs scored and 44 rbi in 401 at bats. Oeltjen is also a disciplined hitter who took 36 walks while striking out only 58 times (14.5%) while stealing 23 bases in 34 attempts. Look for both of these speedy outfielders to move up to Rochester next season with one making his first appearance in Minnesota next September.
The Ft. Myers Miracle (Hi-A) had several players who saw playing time in center during the first half of the season including Deacon Burns, who was discussed with the left fielders, and Justin Arneson, 24, (#65/#68). Arneson hit .232Ave for the Miracle including 6 doubles, 2 triples, 3 home runs, 26 runs scored and 24 rbi in 203 at bats. Arneson struck out about one-quarter of the time (52) and had 8 stolen bases on 10 attempts. At the FSL all-star break, the Twins traded Juan Castro to the Cincinnati Reds for Florida State League all-star center fielder Brandon Roberts, 23, (#10/-). Roberts had hit .267Ave in 247 at bats with 23 stolen bases in 30 attempts while with the Sarasota Reds. When he moved over to the Miracle, he caught fire and was the Miracle's top hitter the second half when he hit .316Ave with 12 doubles, 1 triple, 3 home runs, 40 runs scored and 34 rbi in 285 at bats. He struck out 43 times while taking 20 walks and had 27 stolen bases in 34 attempts. Roberts' 50 stolen bases in 64 attempts this season for the Reds and Miracle matched the 50 stolen bases in 60 attempts Alexi Casilla had for the Miracle and Rock Cats. The Twins assigned Roberts to this fall's Instructional League where he broke a bone in his ankle during the first hour of drills. Assuming he returns healthy in the spring, Roberts will likely move up to New Britain where he will pressure Span and Oeltjen for the right to be the Twins next center fielder. Should Casilla also begin the season at New Britain, Rock Cat fans will have an exciting season watching this pair burn up the base paths.
The Beloit Snappers (A) got a fine year from center fielder Edward Ovalle, 20+, (#28/#24). Ovalle, who had been one of their top hitters at Elizabethton in 2005, was one of the Snappers' more productive hitters with a .261Ave, 24 doubles, 2 triples, 9 home runs, 65 runs scored and 55 rbi in 471 at bats. Ovalle struck out (121) more than once in every four at bats while swiping 15 bases in 22 attempts. Terrance Patterson, 21+, (#36/#36), who was at Beloit for a second season, also played center field in addition to both corner outfield spots. Patterson is a speedy outfielder who stole 35 bases in 51 attempts while hitting .257Ave with 12 doubles, 2 triples, 1 home run, 62 runs scored and 19 rbi in 382 at bats. Patterson will likely join Ovalle at Ft. Myers next season.
The Elizabethton Twins (Rookie) had their outfield anchored by center fielder Danny Santiesteban, 21, (#26/#23). Santiesteban had a remarkable start to his rookie season in 2005 prior to being hit in the hand with a pitch that ended his season after only 75 at bats. Many Twins followers were surprised that Santiesteban didn't begin this season at Beloit, however, a slow start to spring training and a few defensive lapses late in spring training left Danny in Extended Spring Training before joining the Elizabethton Twins. Danny struggled early in the Appalachian League hitting .103Ave in his first 29 at bats in June, however, recovered to hit .250Ave, a team high 14 doubles, 2 triples, 6 home runs. 32 runs scored and 30 rbi in 244 at bats. Santiesteban is an excellent defensive center fielder (2 errors in 64 games) with a tremendous arm and very good speed as evidenced by his 8 stolen bases in 9 attempts. Depending on whether or not Danny can get off to a better start in spring training next year, look for him to begin 2007 at either Beloit or Ft. Myers.
The Gulf Coast League Twins (Rookie) were anchored in center field by 2006 second round pick Joe Benson, 18, (#39/-). Benson is an athletic center fielder, who much like Torii Hunter was a tremendous high school football player. Benson hit .260Ave with 11 doubles, a team high 5 triples, 5 home runs, 30 runs scored and 28 rbi in 196 at bats. Benson has excellent speed, however, needs to learn the finer art of base stealing as he was successful in stealing only 9 bases in 19 attempts. Benson was called up by the Snappers late in the season after their roster was depleted by injuries where he hit .263Ave in 19 at bats. Benson will likely move up to Beloit next season as he begins to climb his way through the Twins system to Minnesota.
With four of the top ten players in the organization listed as center fielders, it is the top ranked position in the system. The ten players playing center field had an average ranking of #25 out of 88 position players. The top center field prospects include:
Denard Span (#2) - New Britain Rock Cats
Trent Oeltjen (#6) - New Britain Rock Cats
Jason Tyner (#8) - Rochester/Twins
Brandon Roberts (#10) - Ft. Myers
The Twins delayed their decision regarding center until at least July when they exercised their option to retain Torii Hunter. Hunter has indicated that he will test free agency unless he is signed to an extension prior to the start of the 2007 season. Will Terry Ryan sign Hunter before opening day? If not, will Ryan trade Hunter next July or allow him to possibly leave via free agency? If Ryan isn't successful in reaching an extension with Hunter, there will be a great deal of pressure for one of their three top center field prospects to take a big step forward next year to become the Twins starter in 2008. If not, look for either Lew Ford or Jason Tyner to anchor center until one of these prospects is ready.