Arizona Fall League – Minnesota Twins Edition

Cody Laweryson, Twins Spring Training, February 8, 2020. Photo credit Bryan Green, @BeGreen90 on Flickr

The Arizona Fall League is back baby! After missing the 2020 edition due to the coronavirus pandemic, the “Awesomeness in Autumn” (I just made that up) is rocking again. In case you don’t know, this tournament is designed to showcase some of the best minor league baseball talent in a tournament that will allow players from all walks of baseball to play against each other. In years past we’ve seen some elite talent break out and some hidden talents emerge. This year, the Twins have seven players playing and being showcased.

Matt Wallner, RF
Age: 23
Current Level: High-A

Wallner was cruising to begin the season, as he batted .333 with four home runs and a multitude of hard-hit extra base hits, and then he injured his hand while swinging. He was diagnosed with a broken hamate bone and missed the next two months before finally returning. Through 10 games this fall, Wallner has 4 HR, only 1 behind the league leaders.

While he returned as strong as ever in July and finished the month with another four home runs, it was the dog days of summer that were a grind for the pull heavy hitter who saw his batting average plummet almost seventy points by season’s end. And while the end result is a 15 home run season, it’s still disappointing when you look under the hood and see a 33.0% K-rate and realize that his latter half was a major contributor to that. Hence the decision to have him play in the Arizona Fall League. While the power and talent potential are both real, giving him an opportunity to not only make up for lost time but do so against some of the best in baseball is a perfect chance to see exactly what they have here. If he shows anything more than what he’s done this season, it’s a major win for the organization. In fact, anything short of a disastrous performance here is still a win, because getting reps is what he needs to get better.

Andrew Bechtold, 3B
Age: 25
Current Level: AA

Bechtold was someone that could have really used a full minor league system last year, as he was entering his age-24 season after a successful second half promotion to High-A where he showed better bat-to-ball skills. Still, he came into the 2021 year and led the Wichita Wind Surge in games played at third base and even dabbled over at first base. The problem here is that he’s graded to be an average player and his numbers show it. He finished the year batting just .239 with eighteen home runs, and, just behind him with only 36 games played at third is Spencer Steer, who accumulated fourteen home runs with a .241 up with Wichita. Even though third base is somewhat of a depth issue within the Twins’ system, the writing looks to be on the wall for Bechtold, and this could be his last shot at ever making an impact within the organization. I’m not expecting much, but I’ve been wrong before. Hitting .235 through 9 games this fall.

Zach Featherstone, LHP
Age: 25
Current Level: High-A

Arguably the feel-good story of the entire tournament, Featherstone returned this year following a three-year hiatus from pitching. After hurting his arm in Spring Training of 2018, Featherstone received Tommy John surgery and was out of action for all of that season and the best while recovering. With 2020 being a lost year, Featherstone returned to pitch in July of 2021, and hit 96 on his fastball, indicating that he was feeling good.

Where he goes from here is unknown, but playing against the best that baseball has to offer can’t be a bad thing. Given his age, it wouldn’t be surprising if he starts the year in AA and quickly moves up if his body lets him perform as well as the Twins hope he does. Has an 8.44 ERA through 5.1 IP in 6 games this fall.

Kody Funderburk, LHP
Age: 24
Current Level: AA

Funder, Funder, FUNDERBACK, HO! Funderback is on the move, Funderback is loose. Feel the action, feel the roar. Funderback is loose.

Yes, I am a child of the 1980s and yes I watched Thundercats, but let’s get back to the topic at hand. Kody Funderback is someone that I didn’t know much about, but looking at his numbers, he is someone that I will get to know. His 2019 season was a good one, but he seemingly got better in 2021 with multi-leveled career-high K-rates in both High-A and AA (30.7% and 27.1% respectively). What I like too is the fact that he has such a low HR/9 rate showing good command of his pitches, which is also displayed by his second-best walk rate of 8.2% when he pitched in AA. All in all, this could be someone to monitor as a future LHP either in the rotation or in the bullpen, but I’m not too sure how the Twins will handle him. Both in 2019 and 2021, when he moved up one level, he played primarily out of the bullpen despite starting in the level just below. Interestingly enough he pitched a career-high of 67.0 innings in 2021 AND will be pitching in Arizona. If he does well here, he will most likely be in my Top-50 list in the winter. He’ll need to improve on his 2021 AFL so far. 0-2 with 10.29 ERA in 7 innings.

Michael Helman, OF
Age: 24
Current Level: High-A

The addition of Michael Helman could very well be a chance to see if his 2021 gains were legitimate or a flash in the pan. Allow me to demonstrate. After a middle successful 2018 season where Helman worked his way up to A ball to the tune of a .361 batting average, he struggled mightily in 2019 by almost halving his batting average down to .197 due to struggles at the plate and injuries. After missing all of 2020 like everyone else, he has since soared to new heights that nobody has seen from him before.

In 2021 he amassed 19 home runs, 21 steals and walked 11.3% of the time. Combined before this year he had hit a total of seven home runs and stolen 13 bases all while showing minimal patience at the plate. This could be the start of something. Keep an eye on Mr. Helman! He’s hitting .250 (6-24) through 7 games this fall.

Cody Laweryson, RHP
Age: 22
Current Level: High-A

The hard-throwing right-hander started the year with a bicep injury, but worked hard against tougher competition with the well-deserved promotion. He’s currently a fastball heavy pitcher but is apparently working on gaining a slider and a changeup, while being limited to 80 pitches per start all year. Laweryson is someone that the Twins would love to continue to develop and is obviously a pitcher they have plans for in the future. Playing this fall is a no-brainer for him. He’s tossed an impressive 7.1 innings this fall, giving up only 1 ER, striking out 13 this fall.

Evan Sisk, LHP
Age: 24
Current Level: AA

Acquired in the trade that sent J.A. Happ over to the St. Louis Cardinals, Sisk has had trouble with his command all season, as he issued 35 walks this season, which is a career high for him, but takes his time as a starter (albeit in the NCAA) into account. Still, the Twins would like to see a bit more out of their newest pitcher to see if this season’s struggles were an anomaly. His strikeout rate of 29.0% was the highest of his professional career and with some tinkering, he could be useful for Minnesota as a left-handed option out of the bullpen at some point. Through 5 games this fall, he’s putting up a 14.40 ERA in 5 innings.

Summary: This year, more than ever, it seems as if the Twins’ roster is filled with players that the organization wants to see showcased at a high level in order to help evaluate where to go moving forward. Other than Matt Wallner, the remainder of the players seem to be those that would have benefitted from a 2020 season and who are now a little too old for the traditional age of being ready to be called up. For the most part, these are speculative in nature in that they could perform well and see their stock rise, but it’s not inconceivable to see them fail as well and have to go back to the drawing board. My favorite selection of the group is actually Kody Funderburk, primarily because I was fascinated by what I saw when I dug deeper.

Dave Funnell covers the Minnesota Twins minor leagues for Prospects1500. Located just south of Toronto in the city of Hamilton, he's an hour away from Buffalo (and the Bisons). He's been a fan of baseball his entire life and doesn't have a favorite team, which hopefully gives way for objectivty in analysis. Dave is in multiple keeper fantasy baseball leagues and is active on Twitter at @sportz_nutt51.

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