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berrios2By now, Twins fans are more than familiar with the team’s young hitting prospects.

Miguel Sano is in his third season with the team and is rounding into one of the American League’s most consistent offensive threats.

Byron Buxton has also been with the Twins for parts of three seasons. He’s clearly still working to figure things out at the plate, but he’s also had 400 fewer MLB plate appearances than Sano while also providing the Twins nearly unmatched defense and speed.

Eddie Rosario and Max Kepler? They, too, have been here long enough that we know about them.

The immediate prospect pool on the starting pitching side of things, however, is more shallow and less known. If there is one name we’ve heard over and over, though, it is Jose Berrios.

And Berrios, who is slated to make his 2017 Twins debut Saturday against Cleveland, might be the organization’s most important prospect of them all.

I say might because it’s foolish to undervalue hitting in the modern game, but the case can be made for Berrios. If the Twins are going to become legitimate contenders at some point — not just a team on the fringes of the wild card race but real contenders — they are going to need top-of-the-rotation pitchers. You can try to buy those in free agency, but they are both hard to find and ridiculously expensive — more so than big bats.

Berrios certainly isn’t the only pitcher in the Twins’ organization with that capability, but he is the one with the deepest track record despite still only being 22 (he turns 23 later this month).

Berrios’ 14-start audition in 2016 was a cautionary tale similar to what we saw early on from Buxton. There was some raw ability and flashes of brilliance, but overall he struggled mightily: 3-7 record and an ERA over 8. He started this season in Rochester, where he has dominated AAA hitters (1.13 ERA in six starts) — just like he’s dominated every other level except (so far) the majors.

The organization’s inability to develop pitchers for the better part of the past decade has been its biggest downfall, resulting in questionable free agent decisions (Ricky Nolasco is at the top of this list), inflated ERAs and a bunch of 90-loss seasons.

If Berrios is flat-out ready to contribute this season, the Twins are immediately more intriguing in 2017. But even if he merely takes an encouraging step forward from where he was last season, the future Twins’ rotation starts to come into sharper focus. If it’s more of the same from 2016, it’s still way to soon to give up on Berrios, but every hiccup is at least a temptation to adjust expectations downward.

At this point, Berrios is clearly the Twins’ best option for the current rotation. That says as much about him as it does their overall pitching development woes. If Kyle Gibson was the pitcher in 2017 the Twins had hoped he would develop into, Berrios probably wouldn’t be here yet.

But ready or not, here comes the pitcher who could be the Twins’ most important overall prospect.