FORT MYERS, Fla. -- For the Twins' player-development system, 2013 was a banner year. Byron Buxton rose to the status of baseball's top prospect in his first full professional season, and several other players took steps forward as well.
As he enters his second year as Minnesota's director of Minor League operations, Brad Steil said he thinks the Twins' system is well positioned.
"I think we're happy with the talent we have in the Minor Leagues," Steil said. "I think our scouting department -- both domestically and internationally -- has done a good job the last few years of signing guys and drafting guys, and now it's just our job to try to get these guys ready to move up to the next level and on to the big leagues in the future."
Perhaps the most important task for the Twins' player-development team will be getting Buxton ready for the Major Leagues. Last year, he showed the exceptional talent that made him the No. 2 overall pick in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft, hitting .334 with a .944 OPS between Class A Cedar Rapids and Class A Advanced Fort Myers. Buxton then finished the season in the Arizona Fall League, where he was the fourth-youngest player.
Buxton played like a phenom last year, but Steil said there is room for improvement in all areas of his game.
"Offensively, I think being a little bit more aggressive -- probably early in the count -- and making sure that he's taking advantage when he gets fastballs to hit," Steil said. "On the bases, he had 55 stolen bases last year, but I think there's more in there. Working on his leads and reads and jumps on the bases, and the same in center field. He's got tremendous range, but he's still a young guy. And although he learned a lot his first year with us, there's still a lot he can learn to become a better defensive player."
Buxton, of course, isn't the only prospect Minnesota has high hopes for. Right-hander Kohl Stewart, the club's top pick in the 2013 Draft, leads the newcomers to the system. He is ranked fourth on MLB.com's latest Top 20 Twins Prospects list.
After making his professional debut last summer, Stewart is getting prepared for the rigors of a full Minor League season, which Steil said he thinks is crucial to a player's development.
"With first-year guys, you just like to get them in that first year and get them used to pro ball," Steil said. "The second year is really when you get to see what you have."
With Buxton, Stewart and all of their Minor League players, Minnesota's Minor League coaching staff is focused on preparing them to play at the next level and, eventually, in the Major Leagues.
Steil said that emphasis is one of the reasons why the Twins' Minor Leaguers had so much success last season.
"That's a lot of what their focus is and that's what we reinforce all the time -- get them ready to play at the next level, get them prepared," Steil said. "It's a mental thing, too, that when they do move up, we just try to get them to stick with what they've been doing, because what they've been doing, is why they're being promoted. It's a lot of mental preparation."
Three questions with Lewis Thorpe
The Twins signed Thorpe as an international free agent out of Australia in 2011 when he was 16 years old.
MLBPipeline.com: You were able to go back to Australia this winter to play in the Australian Baseball League. What did you get out of that experience?
Thorpe: Just facing the older guys that have a lot of experience in the game and guys higher up in the levels over here, Double-A, Triple-A guys. It helped me a lot, seeing what mistakes they capitalized on and seeing what I have to work on. I got helped through my season, so I was really appreciative of the guys that took the time to help me. I love playing in that league, the ABL. It's a fun league, great guys.
MLBPipeline.com: Have you see an increase of interest in baseball in Australia?
Thorpe: I think so. Because of the ABL, of course, that's getting bigger and bigger. And now the Opening Day is in Australia, so it's getting a lot of publicity over there now. So people are starting to pay more attention and starting to get to know the game more.
MLBPipeline.com: After making your professional debut in the Gulf Coast League last year, what are your goals for this season?
Thorpe: Goal is to get better every day. Hopefully learn, get a feel for my slider now. I got a pretty good feel for my fastball, changeup and curveball, so now all I need is that fourth pitch. Hopefully I can progress to that at the end of the season, keep my walks down and we'll see where I end up.
Camp standout: Max Kepler
An elbow injury kept Kepler sidelined for much of the first half of last season, and he posted somewhat lackluster stats in both Class A Cedar Rapids and the Arizona Fall League. But he has looked strong this spring, making a good impression during his time in Major League camp.
Despite never having played above Class A, Kepler wasn't overmatched by the more experienced pitchers he faced. Kepler went 6-for-12 with a double and two walks in seven games before being optioned to Minor League camp.
Steil said it was clear Kepler had learned from his trip to the AFL.
"It was a great experience for him to face some upper-level pitching there," he said. "You don't see a lot of that in the Midwest League. I think over in big league camp, he kind of showed that helped him. He kind of took a step forward. He definitely had a good camp over there, and that'll help him as we get started this season."
Breakout candidate: Jorge Polanco
Polanco has posted solid offensive numbers in each of the last two seasons and was added to the 40-man roster last winter. So he's not exactly flying under the radar. But if Polanco is able to put together another big season in 2014, this time in the Florida State League, he could make the jump to MLB.com's Top 100 Prospects list.
Polanco began his spring in big league camp, where he went 3-for-11 and didn't strike out in six games. Steil said it was good for the 20-year-old Polanco to get experience against more experienced competition during Spring Training.
"It was good for him to get that experience coming out of the Midwest League last year," Steil said. "We're expecting good things from him."