Twins Manager Search: Update No. 1

Yesterday, in the hours following Ron Gardenhire’s ouster as manager of the Twins, I put up a post briefly discussing each of what I considered possible internal candidates to replace Gardy.

Shortly after that post went up, Gardenhire and Twins General Manager Terry Ryan held a press conference where some additional information was shared concerning the thought process that went in to the decision and the envisioned process for identifying and hiring a replacement.

Much has been written/said about the possible candidates in the meantime and there appears to be some small amount of clarity taking shape.

First, Ryan indicated that the search for a replacement would include both internal and external candidates. This is good.

He also indicated that “diversity” would be a factor in the decision making process, not only for the manager, but also for the subsequent decisions regarding the rest of the big league coaching staff. This is very good news.

Ryan also indicated that he was not overly concerned about the age of potential candidates. He isn’t looking only at “young” potential managers, nor only at veteran managers. I think this is good AND it may give a clue as to Ryan’s thinking going in to the process.

The GM also may have slightly tipped his hand when he first indicated that there was a “preference” for an internal replacement, then backtracked and said something along the lines of how the preference is for the “right” candidate, regardless of internal or external, but that ideally he would come from inside the organization. It’s splitting hairs, I know, but I think it does indicate some level of preference for an internal replacement, so long as that person can also be defended as being the “right” person for the job.

As a result, I’m already prepared to revise my list of most likely candidates.

Paul Molitor hitting ground balls to Kernels 3B Travis Harrison in 2013

Paul Molitor hitting ground balls to Kernels 3B Travis Harrison in 2013

Yesterday, I said I thought Terry Steinbach and Doug Mientkiewicz were likely the top couple of internal candidates. I kept Paul Molitor off that list for two reasons.

First, I thought Ryan would, “go younger,” and Molitor is roughly the same age as Gardenhire. Second, I felt Molitor, given his longer history of employment with the Twins than either Steinbach or Mientkiewicz, would be considered too much of a Twins insider to satisfy everyone, inside and outside the organization, that his hiring would not simply be a continuation of the Gardenhire regime with a different figurehead.

A number of stories have since popped up from writers/columnists with connections to the team’s front office pointing out that Molitor was (1) forced on Gardenhire a year ago, and (2) pretty much ostracized by the manager and his inner circle during the season.

One does have to wonder why the same writers weren’t all over that part of the story DURING the season and one conclusion might be that they are just now finding this information out. “From whom?,” you may ask.

We could speculate that the information is coming from sources inside the front office who may have an interest in softening the ground for the ultimate naming of Molitor as the new Twins manager.

What’s more, as various media sources have pointed out, the Milwaukee Brewers may well be considering a change in the manager’s chair. If so, one would expect Molitor to be on a list of likely candidates for that job.

It certainly would not look good to a lot of Molitor supporters to see the Hall of Famer stolen away by the Brewers while the Twins go another direction.

Of course, you could say pretty much the same thing about the chances Steinbach could be hired by Arizona while the Twins go through a more thorough process of screening applicants.

Whatever the reason, there already seems to be a groundswell of support and speculation focused on Molitor that goes beyond, even, what existed previously. In this case, I choose to believe that where there’s smoke, there’s fire and Molitor may well already be Ryan’s preferred choice IF Molitor wants the gig.

I add that condition because we probably can’t totally discount the possibility that he would prefer to get the Brewers’ job, for example. Though, given his in-depth knowledge of the talent coming up through the Twins’ farm system, this would seem unlikely, to me.

I’d be fine with a Molitor choice. I had the opportunity to interview him during June of the 2013 Cedar Rapids Kernels season and “impressed” doesn’t begin to describe the feeling I came away with.

(You can read that interview by clicking here.)

Molitor is one of those guys that anyone with a mind for baseball would just love to get the opportunity to sit and talk with for an hour. I felt genuinely fortunate to get 20 minutes of his time over the course of a couple of days.

He doesn’t have the folksy charm of Ron Gardenhire. But, I found him to be friendly and open during our discussions, and his love for the nuances of the game and teaching young players the right way to play it certainly came through.

In any event, I do believe Ryan will conduct interviews with several internal and external candidates, including Steinbach and Mientkiewicz. (A number of external candidates have been tossed around, but my favorite is Rays coach Dave Martinez.)

In the end, however, Molitor looks like the leading candidate today.

We’ll see how long that indication holds.

What about Jake Mauer?

I mentioned Kernels manager Jake Mauer as a possible internal candidate, along with some thoughts as to why he probably would not be considered at this time.

Let me just say that, selfishly, I’d love to see Mauer return to Cedar Rapids, along with his coaches Tommy Watkins and Ivan Arteaga. That said, if I were to predict Mauer’s 2015 assignment (which obviously I’m about to do), I’d say look for him to be named the manager of AA Chattanooga.

It was Mauer that the Twins tabbed to be the first manager in Cedar Rapids when that affiliation was getting off the ground. He is a hard worker with his players, great with the front office, great with fans and great with media. In other words, the perfect manager to make sure a new affiliation gets off to the best start possible.

He could easily be given the same assignment in Chattanooga, where the Twins are moving their AA team in 2015. Mauer would also then be reunited with many of the players he managed in Cedar Rapids during 2013-14.

It would also be one step closer to a big league coaching assignment for Mauer and he’s more than deserving of being considered for that opportunity in the near future.

If that move opened up an opportunity for Watkins to get the manager job in Cedar Rapids, that would be a good thing, too.

– JC

Gardy out as Twins Manager. Who’s Next?

It didn’t take long for the shoe to drop after the Twins’ season ended with another 90+ loss season on Sunday. That shoe landed on the heads of manager Ron Gardenhire and his entire big league coaching staff.

Gardenhire has been dismissed with one year remaining on his contract. The coaches’ contracts all expired at the end of this season and reportedly all were notified their contracts were not being renewed. The Twins front office apparently wants to give their new manager an opportunity to have input concerning his coaching staff, which certainly makes sense.

A press conference has been scheduled by the Twins for 3:00 pm. Both Gardenhire and General Manager Terry Ryan are scheduled to attend.

Ron Gardenhire and Tom Brunansky  (photo: Knuckleballs)

Ron Gardenhire and Tom Brunansky (photo: Knuckleballs)

Gardenhire likely received more credit than he deserved for the Division Championship seasons during the first several years of his time in the manager’s office and more blame than he deserved for the past four years of futility at Target Field. That’s hardly uncommon for a Major League manager. It would not be surprising to see him managing another team in 2015, nor would it be surprising to see him be successful with that team.

Even so, it’s hard to argue that the time for a change in the Twins clubhouse had not come. Sometimes, a team that is transitioning to a new generation of players can benefit from a new figure at the top.

Now the question turns to, “who will that figure be?”

The Twins are not real experienced at the process of identifying and hiring a new manager for their Big League team as Tom Kelly and Ron Gardenhire held down the position for most of the past three decades.

Twins bench coach Terry Steinbach gets mic'd up before 2013 Twins Caravan stop in CR

Twins bench coach Terry Steinbach gets mic’d up before 2013 Twins Caravan stop in CR

It would seem un-Twinslike for Ryan to look outside the Twins organization for a new manager, but the dismissal of the entire Major League coaching staff could signal that the GM will broaden the search.

If Ryan stays inside, there is no shortage of candidates.

Terry Steinbach’s name has been mentioned as a possible candidate to join the new Arizona Diamondbacks organization and could equally be considered a candidate to lead the Twins.

Tom Kelly and Paul Molitor on the Minor League spring training fields

Tom Kelly and Paul Molitor on the Minor League spring training fields

Paul Molitor’s name is often brought up as a potential manager in Minnesota. Molitor spent several years working with the organization’s minor leaguers as a roving instructor before joining the Major League coaching staff this season. Molitor is roughly Gardy’s age, however, so he would not exactly be viewed as a young coach for a young new group of players.

Tom Brunansky spent time as a hitting coach in the minors before taking that role with the Twins. He worked with many of the organization’s up and coming young hitters, but he has not managed at the professional level.

Several current minor league managers could also be considered.

Gene Glynn has had a lot of success in Rochester with the oranization’s AAA club, however, like Molitor, age could be an issue if the desire is to bring in someone younger.

Jeff Smith, at AA, has had detractors inside and outside the organization. However, many of the issues have dealt with Smith supposedly putting winning games ahead of player development. That would not seemingly be an issue if he’s elevated to the big club. Smith was named by the Twins to manage a team in the Arizona Fall League last year, which would seem to indicate that he’s held in high esteem by the front office. If the Twins feel it’s time to move away from the “players manager” model, Smith might be an option.

Doug Mientkiewicz finished his second year as manager at high-A Fort Myers this season with a Florida State League championship. He’s seen as an up-and-comer by many and would certainly bring a fire to the role. Mientkiewicz was disciplined during his first year for his involvement in an on-field brawl during a Miracle game. Mientkiewicz originally asked to be assigned to a Florida team for personal reasons related to the health of a family member. Whether that situation has since been resolved or whether it would preclude a big league position is unknown.

 Jake Mauer works with Travis Harrison in 2013

Jake Mauer works with Travis Harrison in 2013

Jake Mauer, older brother of Joe, has led teams at the Gulf Coast League rookie level, high-A Fort Myers and, for the past two years, at low-A Cedar Rapids. As with the others, he’s worked with most of the young players moving up through the system. He is not as intense, perhaps, as Mientkiewicz, but he’s also not as laid back as his younger brother is reputed to be. Still, unfortunately, fans’ perceptions may be that any hiring of Jake as manager would be a case of nepotism. After watching Jake work in Cedar Rapids for two years, I would love to see him get a shot with the Twiins, but with Joe’s own popularity waning with much of the fan base, that could put Jake in a no-win situation before ever managing a game with the Twins.

For my money, the most likely internal choices would be Steinbach and Mientkiewicz. Either could do a good job, but I’d hope that the Twins would also consider candidates from outside the organization.

Perhaps even more interesting than the choice of the new manager, to me, will be to see what the make up of the big league coaching staff is after the new manager is named.

In any event, it will be an interesting spring training next year, as the Twins get to know just their third manager since 1987.

– JC

 

 

If I Owned the Twins

I’ve been a bit out of touch with Twinsville for a couple of weeks as I’ve had some business travel and other non-Twins-related matters to occupy most of my time.

I did catch up a bit on my Twins reading in the past day or so, however, and – well – let’s just say I’ve been much more interested in the writing about the Twins than I have been with what’s transpired on the field with the Twins.

I read the columns by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s baseball writers and columnists recently, in which they were asked to share their ideas concerning what the Twins need to do to “fix” the sorry state of affairs at Target Field.

Jim Souhan believes manager Ron Gardenhire has to go.

Patrick Reusse believes the Twins need coaches who relate better to the increasing (and increasingly important) Latino segment of their roster.

LaVelle E. Neal wants the Twins to do whatever it takes to add an “ace” at the top of their rotation.

Phil Miller says, as hard as it may be to do so, the answer is patience, as we await the imminent arrival of some outstanding young prospects.

Their respective articles reflect opinions I think we’ve all heard voiced many times as this fourth consecutive 90-loss season has been completing its death spiral.

The only near unanimous opinion is, as TwinsDaily’s Nick Nelson penned this week, “The Twins Have a Problem.”

After doing all that reading, I paused and contemplated what it must be like right now to be Jim Pohlad.

I honestly believe he’s embarrassed by what his team has become – an irrelevant organization. The Twins are irrelevant among their MLB brethren. They are irrelevant within the Minnesota professional sports scene.

Owner Jim Pohlad, GM Terry Ryan and President Dave St. Peter

Owner Jim Pohlad, GM Terry Ryan and President Dave St. Peter (photo: SD Buhr)

Say what you will about the Pohlad family, they did not get to where they are in life by being irrelevant.

I began to wonder what was going through the Twins’ owner’s mind these days as he prepares for, perhaps, the most difficult offseason since the passing of his father, Carl. Maybe Jim is asking himself, “WWCD?” What Would Carl Do?

Naturally, that led me to ponder what I would do if I were in Pohlad’s shoes. What steps would I take to make sure I never, ever, felt like this going in to an offseason again.

One awful season was an unpleasant aberration. Two was uncomfortable. Three was painful. Four is… I don’t even know, but you wouldn’t want to be around me much if I owned a team with the record of abject failure that the Twins have had so far this decade.

I thought all four of the Strib’s writers had good thoughts. I also believe there isn’t a single one of those ideas that would satisfy me if I owned the Twins.

If the four Strib guys worked for me and came to my office with those ideas, here’s what I’d say:

I think you’ve all made valid points. But here’s my problem.

Patience, Phil? I’ve been patient for three years. Don’t talk to me about prospects. Until they prove themselves at Target Field, those guys are nothing but business assets. They represent fluxuating inventory with short shelf lives. You’re not asking me to be patient, you’re asking me to be comatose.

You want me to buy (in money or prospects) an ‘ace,’ LaVelle. Great idea. I’ve been telling my General Manager to feel free to spend more money on whatever he thinks will improve this team. But we can’t force players to sign with us and pretty much every long term, big money, contract for an ‘ace’ that has been signed has turned out to be a bad contract for the team. And I may not be in love with prospects, but I’m not going to give them away in return for an aging pitcher who my stat buddies tell me has seen his best days behind him. If my GM can find an ‘ace’ available on the market who is willing to come to our town or one with enough tread on the tire left to be counted on for a few years of ace-hood that’s available for any trade even close to reasonable, we’ll go get him.

Jim, I really don’t think any manager in history could have won half his games the past four years with the collection of has-beens, wanna-bes and never-weres wearing a Twins uniform, so if you really believe firing Ron Gardenhire is going to fix things, you know a lot less about baseball than most baseball fans. And that’s a tough bar to get under.

Pat, same for you. I think it makes a lot of sense to have more of a Latin-American presence in the clubhouse. But do you think having a dozen Latino coaches would make this team a winner? I don’t. By the way, between the four of you guys, there must be about a zillion years of covering baseball between you, right? How’s your Spanish? I think every coach in our organization should learn Spanish, but I also think every media member who covers baseball should, too, and until you do, you’ve got very little room to criticize.

The problem is that none of your ideas will fix things. Not if that’s all we do.

Our fans aren’t stupid enough to believe that any one player, no matter how good he is, will turn this team in to a contender. Not if he’s a current Tigers ace, LaVelle, and not if he’s a near-certain future Hall of Fame center fielder who hasn’t completed a full game (much less a season) above high-A ball, Phil.

Many of them want Gardy gone. I understand that. But even the Gardy haters don’t really believe replacing him will turn a 90-loss team in to a 90-win team. Replacing even an unpopular manager won’t put butts back in the seats and replacing his staff with five guys from Venezuela won’t, either.

So, no, we’re not going to do a single one of these things.

We’re going to do all of them.

And more.

That’s when I would thank the Strib guys for their time, give them some drink tickets and send them to Hrbeks for a couple of refreshments while I talk to my President and General Manager.

With Dave St. Peter and Terry Ryan in my office, here’s what I lay out for them.

“Gentlemen, the good news for you is that neither of you are fired. Yet.

But I’m tired of losing. I’m tired of losing games and I’m tired of losing fans. And you two may think I don’t know crap about baseball, but I suspect that just maybe losing games and losing fans might be related.

Terry, I tried to tell you a year ago that I was tired of people telling me I’m cheap and won’t spend money for top talent. Some bozo on the internet even made up a parable about it. I want you to go read it and then, Terry, use the damn ladder!

I’ve got a list of the top 20 starting pitchers in baseball, ranked by some goofy thing called WAR. By the date season tickets have to be renewed, one of those guys is going to be working for me, Terry – or you won’t be. Do we understand one another?

Speaking of people working for me, you’re going to go tell Ron Gardenhire that he doesn’t. At least not as my manager.

Gardy’s a helluva guy and he’s had some good days as our manager. We’ll give him a nice watch, but I don’t believe he’s the guy to lead this team for the next 10 years and neither do our fans. Who you hire is your business. I’m just telling you who you’re going to fire.

I take that back, I am going to tell you a little bit about who you’re going to hire.

When spring training opens, I want at least two Latino members on the bench staff.

I mean it, Terry. And I’m not talking about a couple guys who took Spanish class in junior high. I’m going to send Tony Oliva to talk to whoever you hire and they’d better be able to keep up with him in a conversation.

Every company in every industry in this country has been getting on the diversity bandwagon for years. Everyone figured out long ago that having management that can communicate in Spanish is critical to attracting and retaining top Spanish speaking employees. I don’t know why you haven’t figured this out on your own yet, but now I’m telling you.

One more thing, Terry.

If they’re healthy, Alex Meyer, Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton will open 2015 with the Twins. How do I know? I heard all about it in the giant advertising campaign that St. Peter and the marketing folks are putting together the moment he walks out of this meeting. Right Dave?

That ad is going to run on the local affiliate carrying the Super Bowl. I want everyone in town talking about the Twins the next day and I want them buying tickets. Lots of tickets.

Dave, I keep reading about how attendance is going to drop next year. I’m telling you that it won’t. If it does, the attendance in your office will drop by one.

Our season ticket holders have been paying Major League prices for minor league performance for four years. I don’t care how far you have to slash prices, you put butts in the seats.

Next summer, people may call us crazy for what we’ve done. They may say we’ve lost our minds. But if they’re still saying the Twins are irrelevant, you two will not be calling me your boss.

Give my love to your families.

And then I think I’d take a very long cruise around the world on a very large boat and look forward to seeing what my team looked like when I got back.

– JC

“We’ve got to, otherwise we’re dead”

The Minnesota Twins’ front office is going to be faced with making some difficult decisions this offseason – decisions they are woefully ill-prepared to make.

Ron Gardenhire and Tom Brunansky  (photo: Knuckleballs)

Ron Gardenhire and Tom Brunansky (photo: Knuckleballs)

Many professional sports organizations change their on-field management at least as often as they change accounting firms. It’s just part of the way they do business. When you lose more games than you win for a couple years in a row, you change managers/head coaches and even front office leadership.

It just becomes second nature. Much the way swimming becomes second nature to anyone who has spent much time in the water.

But the very idea of changing field management/coaching staff must, for the Twins ownership and front office, seem as incomprehensible as diving off a cliff in to a river would be to someone who doesn’t know how to swim.

For those of you who don’t know how that scene of Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid turned out, both outlaws survived their jump and their trip down river just fine and lived happily ever after (at least until they decided to move to Bolivia).

The most famous quote from that movie scene is, “the fall will probably kill you.” But, for the Twins’ purposes, I’d focus on Butch’s earlier point. “We’ve got to, otherwise we’re dead.”

I think the same is true of the Twins if they foolishly decide to keep the status quo regarding their field management.

I know that changing managers and coaching staff just is not something the people who run the Twins are comfortable with.

They know the guys they have. They may not be winning much, but they HAVE won in the past, so they MIGHT win again, no matter how hopelessly unlikely that may seem to be at the moment.

If the people who run the Twins decide to (shudder) make changes, there is no guarantee that the new guys will be any better. After all, how many people in the Twins front office have actually gone swimming in the deep waters that go along with the process of interviewing candidates for a Major League manager?

Figuratively, they don’t know how to swim!

At some point, though, they’re going to have to realize that NOT taking that leap means the organization is almost certain to continuing their current death spiral. Once you consider that the worst thing that can happen when you take that big jump off a cliff is the same thing that’s going to happen if you don’t, it’s really not that hard to just holler, “Ohhhhh Shiiiiit,” and make the leap.

Once you’ve taken the leap and decided you will not simply go on doing business the same way you have for the past three decades, you can get down to the business of figuring out who is best suited to turn the next group of raw-but-talented young ballplayers in to a contending Major League team.

Maybe it’s someone on the Twins’ current big league bench, such as Paul Molitor or Tom Brunansky. Maybe it’s one of the organization’s excellent full-season minor league managers (all four of which guided their respective team to a winning record in 2014, by the way). Maybe it’s someone from outside the Twins organization altogether.

But first things first.

If they haven’t already, the Twins’ decision makers need to conclude that there is literally nothing that can happen that would be any worse than continuing to fight it out with the status quo.

To do so would send a terrible message to a fan base who simply will not tolerate another do-nothing offseason and continue to buy tickets for a 2015 season that does not come with the benefit of All-Star Game tickets.

There is a lot of talent set to arrive at Target Field in the next couple years. Names, both familiar and unfamiliar to Twins fans, like Buxton, Sano, Meyer, Berrios, Polanco, Gordon, Burdi, Kepler, Harrison, Kanzler, Stewart, Thorpe, Gonsalves, Turner, Garver, Walker and many more, could well become cornerstones of the next great Minnesota Twins team.

The class of Mauer, Morneau, Cuddyer, Baker, et al, has been wasted. We could discuss “why” this class failed to bring a championship to Minnesota, but that’s pointless.

What matters now is making sure that the upcoming class is not similarly wasted and that process begins with asking ourselves who would be the best choices as manager and field coaches to get the most of their talent.

I’m not sure who that person is, though I certainly have some favorites among the likely possibilities.

What I think has become abundantly clear, however, is that manager Ron Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson are not the right choices.

The decision to dismiss them is not easy for a front office like that of the Twins.

I respect that, actually. Letting go of loyal and, at times, effective employees should not be easy – certainly not as easy as it seems to be for many owners and General Managers in professional sports.

But sometimes, it’s absolutely necessary.

Even the most devoted fans of Gardy and Andy in the front office must, by now, be having a hard time envisioning that duo effectively leading the upcoming group of 20-year-olds to championships.

With fresh talent, fresh eyes and fresh approaches are necessary. It’s possible (and perhaps even quite likely) that Gardenhire and Anderson could provide that fresh approach to another organization. I hope they can (as long as it’s not in the AL Central), because I think they’re good men who know something about baseball.

But just as a young Tom Kelly was the perfect fit for a young group of Twins in the mid-late 1980s, it’s time to find new management to work with the next wave of young Twins.

There’s no reason to wait another year, prolonging the inevitable.

It’s time for the Twins’ front office and ownership to take the leap off that cliff and live to fight another day.

(Just don’t move the team to Bolivia. That would not end well.)

– JC

Kernels Alums Closing in on FSL Title

While the current edition of the Cedar Rapids Kernels have been making their way through the Midwest League playoffs this week, a group of 20 Kernels alumni are on the verge of claiming the first Florida State League championship in franchise history for the Fort Myers Miracle.
Adam Brett Walker lines a home run vs Clinton on September 2, 2013. Walker led the FSL in HR and RBI this season for the Fort Myers Miracle

Adam Brett Walker lines a home run vs Clinton on September 2, 2013. Walker led the FSL in HR and RBI this season for the Fort Myers Miracle

Since their permanent home, Hammond Stadium, is undergoing major remodeling, the Miracle won the first two games of their best-of-five championship series with Daytona (Cubs) on Thursday and Friday in their temporary home park, JetBlue Stadium. They will need to win one of the next three games, all in Daytona, to claim the championship title.

Thirteen active members of the Miracle suited up for the Cedar Rapids Kernels in 2013, when the club put together an 88-50 overall record before getting bounced from the Midwest League playoffs by eventual MWL champion, Quad Cities. Two additional ‘13 Kernels are currently on the Miracle Disabled List. The Kernels can also claim Fort Myers pitching coach Gary Lucas as an alum. Lucas was the Kernels’ pitching coach a year ago.
Six current members of the Miracle (and one on their DL) were promoted to Fort Myers this season after spending time with the Kernels.
The recent addition of outfielder Jeremias Pineda to the Miracle roster from Elizabethton accounts for the 20th former Kernel on their roster. Pineda spent time on the Cedar Rapids roster in both 2013 and 2014.
Here’s a list of the Kernels alumni currently pursuing a FSL championship ring:

2013 (1 coach, 13 active, 2 DL)

Gary Lucas – pitching coach

Madison Boer P

Steven Gruver P

David Hurlbut P (DL)

Tyler Jones P

Zack Jones P

Brett Lee P

Tim Shibuya P (DL)

Matt Tomshaw P

Tyler Grimes C/IF

Jairo Rodriguez C

Niko Goodrum IF

Dalton Hicks IF

Travis Harrison OF

Max Kepler OF

Adam Brett Walker II OF

 

2014 (6 active, 1 DL)

Nick Burdi P

Ethan Mildren P

Alex Muren P (DL)

Brandon Peterson P

Todd Van Steensel P

Bryan Haar IF

Jason Kanzler OF

 

BOTH 2013 and 2014:

Jeremias Pineda OF

JC’s ALS Icebucket Challenge

Over the Labor Day Weekend, John Bonnes (aka TwinsGeek) over at TwinsDaily.com issued an ALS Icebucket Challenge to all of the TwinsDaily writers. Since I write a weekly Cedar Rapids Kernles report (most weeks anyway) at TD, I assumed this included me. Maybe I should have clarified that to make sure, but I didn’t.

Besides, John pledged $50 to ALS for each of the TD writers who accepted his challenge and, if nothing else, I like the idea of dipping in to Geek’s pocketbook.

With that said, here’s my challenge video:

As you heard, assuming you played the video, I’ve challenged each of my fellow Knuckleballs bloggers (Eric, Kristie and Babs) to follow suit.

In hindsight, I realized that perhaps Eric was included in the TwinsDaily challenge, since he, too, contributes at TD.

In any event, as John did, I’m pledging $50 to the ALS Foundation for each of my fellow Knuckleballs bloggers that follows through on the challenge.

In the event any/all of them have already done the challenge, all I’ll need is video evidence of such and I’ll make good on the pledge.

– JC

 

Weekend Wrap Up: Kernels Clinch, Pub Crawl, MLB Blackouts

A lot of stuff has happened over the past few days.

Kernels are Playoff bound

First, the Cedar Rapids Kernels clinched a Midwest League playoff spot.

Whether they did this Saturday or Sunday is a bit hazy, but what’s certain is that the Kernels will be playing baseball beyond the scheduled end of the regular season on Labor Day. This makes the Kernels a perfect 2 for 2 qualifying for playoff work since affiliating with the Minnesota Twins.

Going strictly by “magic number,” the Kernels qualified for the playoffs on Sunday, when Peoria fell to Clinton. However, as Jim Ecker at MetroSportsReport.com pointed out, tie-breaking criteria favored the Kernels over Peoria, so in fact Cedar Rapids apears to have wrapped up their postseason spot late Saturday night.

Most likely, the Kernels will open the playoffs with a best of three series against Burlington. They would host Burlington on September 3 and then travel to Burlington for games 2 and 3 (if necessary) on September 4 and 5, respectively.

Unfortunately, I was not in attendance when the Kernels clinched, regardless of whether you consider that to have occurred Saturday or Sunday.

“Touch ‘em All”

Instead, I joined 100 or so Twins fans taking part in the second “Touch ‘em All Pub Crawl” sponsored by Twins Daily/Gleeman & the Geek.

The “Crawl” involved stopping at several establishments along the Twin Cities’ light rail line and ending with attendance at the Twins game Saturday night. It officially started at the Barrio Tequila Bar in St. Paul at noon, but since I was staying out in the southern ‘burbs and wanted to eat breakfast downtown at Hell’s Kitchen before getting started, I’d already spent at least 90 minutes on the rail before ever getting to the start of the official event over in St. Paul.

It was a great time, offering opportunities to renew friendships from prior TwinsDaily events and to meet even more fellow Twins fans for the first time. I’m always surprised how many people at these things have read the stuff I contributed to Knuckleballs and to TwinsDaily.

It was a great time with great people, all of whom just happen to be fans of a pretty poor baseball team. Despite that, the only real negative comment I heard was from Star Tribune Twins beat writer, Phil Miller, who thought the Kernels camo jersey I was wearing was ugly.

Hey, you can’t please everyone, right? And I enjoyed talking to Miller, once we moved away from fashion-related topics.

It really was a good time and I appreciate the TwinsDaily guys and Aaron Gleeman going to the effort to put it together. I always enjoy the events they organize.

Blackout News

Finally, some of you that have been reading Knuckleballs for a while may recall one (or more) of my rants concerning MLB’s TV blackout rules. Those rules result in Iowa residents being unable to watch games involving six diferent teams, the Twins, Brewers, Cubs, White Sox, Cardinals and Royals, online via MLB.tv.

Late last week, the Star Tribune posted a story quoting MLB’s head of online business, Bob Bowman,  as saying that baseball is nearing a solution that will allow people to watch their hometown teams online, if they are also subscribers to cable and/or satellite services.

That’s great for people in Minneapolis that want to watch the Twins on their mobile devices.

I’m guessing it’s still not good news for Iowans.

As crazy as it sounds, what seems most likely to happen is that MLB will broker a deal to allow people who already have access to Twins games via their local cable company to also have access online. Meanwhile, those of us in areas where FSN is not even an option via cable will continue to be blacked out.

I do understand the theory. We are supposed to individually get so up in arms over this that we all march on our local Mediacom office and demand that they pay FSN whatever they want for fees to get the regional sports channel added to our Eastern Iowa cable options.

That hasn’t happened yet, it’s not happening now and it won’t happen… ever.

However, given that MLB and the teams let the regional sports networks set whatever they want as the “home market” geographic footprint (because, after all, those rights fees are pretty much the major thing propping up MLB teams’ revenues), it’s pretty clear that any relief from the bizarre and antiquated blackout rules for places like Iowa, Las Vegas and North Carolina, which several teams claim as part of their “home market,” isn’t likely happening either.

Instead, what I expect is that we’ll see MLB, under their new Commissioner, Rob Manfred, address the online issue for fans who could already watch their favorite teams on TV. Then, they’ll claim they’ve “solved” this problem and ignore the fact that they’ve solved nothing for the fans in areas like Iowa.

Maybe I’m wrong and there will indeed be a solution for the rest of us. But, given the selection of a Commissioner who got the gig basically by promising to be “Bud Light,” I’m not expecting anything remotely close to real solutions to any of MLB’s biggest challenges.

I’d be really happy to be proven wrong, of course.

Finally, a few pictures from Saturday’s “Touch ‘em All Pub Crawl.”

The meeting spot, Barrio Tequila Bar, St. Paul

The meeting spot, Barrio Tequila Bar, St. Paul

Campus Pizza, which will be on my list for a return if/when I journey up for Hawkeyes/Gophers in the future. Friendly service, good thin crust pizza.

Campus Pizza, which will be on my list for a return if/when I journey up for Hawkeyes/Gophers in the future. Friendly service, good thin crust pizza.

BarZia in downtown Minneapolis. Met a number of the hard working moderators of TwinsDaily's forum section. I'm not sure what possesses these people to put in the work being moderators, but I'm sure glad they do it.

BarZia in downtown Minneapolis. Met a number of the hard working moderators of TwinsDaily’s forum section. I’m not sure what possesses these people to put in the work being moderators, but I’m sure glad they do it.

Mason's, near Target Field, was the last stop. Gotta be honest, I wasn't impressed with Mason's this time. TD has used Mason's as a meeting place in prior events and I've always liked it. But this time, some of us got the sense from their people like we were imposing. They closed off two of their seating areas to us, requiring most in our group to stand. Not a big deal, perhaps, but I can tell you it cost them some food orders, not to mention general goodwill, among some of the people I was hanging with.

Mason’s, near Target Field, was the last stop. Gotta be honest, I wasn’t impressed with Mason’s this time. TD has used Mason’s as a meeting place in prior events and I’ve always liked it. But this time, some of us got the sense from their people like we were imposing. They closed off two of their seating areas to us, requiring most in our group to stand. Not a big deal, perhaps, but I can tell you it cost them some food orders, not to mention general goodwill, among some of the people I was hanging with.

The view from our Home Run Porch seats at Target Field were better than what this picture might indicate. First time I've watched a game from these left field seats and it really is not a bad place to watch a game from.

The view from our Home Run Porch seats at Target Field were better than what this picture might indicate. First time I’ve watched a game from these left field seats and it really is not a bad place to watch a game from.

Kernels Second Half Turnaround Almost Complete

Tuesday night’s Cedar Rapids Kernels come-from-behind win over the Quad Cities River Bandits was bittersweet.

On the one hand, they tallied three runs in the home half of the eighth inning and put away the Bandits for their eighth straight win. They swept three games in Beloit last week, three more from Peoria in Cedar Rapids over the weekend, and now the first two games of their series with the Bandits. The team also played to near-capacity home crowds on Friday and Saturday night.

On the other hand, Kohl Stewart, the Twins’ first round draft pick in 2013 and a key member of the Kernels’ rotation all season long, left the game during the second inning with an as-yet-undetermined ailment. Regardless of the ultimate cause, it’s a pretty safe bet Stewart has thrown his last pitch for this Cedar Rapids club in 2014.

Stewart was one of the few bright spots for the Kernels during a challenging first half of the season. He notched a 2.44 ERA over the course of a dozen starts prior to the Midwest League’s All-Star break in mid June.

The Kernels finished sixth among the MWL Western Division’s eight teams in the first half race with a 31-39 record, 14 games behind the first half West champion Kane County Cougars and 7.6 games behind second-place Burlington.

The Midwest League breaks their schedule in to two halves, with the top two teams in each division, in each half of the season, qualifying for the postseason.

The Kernels have certainly taken advantage of the split season arrangement by turning their season around 180 degrees in the second half.

With 13 games to play following Tuesday night’s win, the Kernels sit one game behind Kane County in the MWL West’s second-half standings.

Since the Cougars clinched their playoff spot in the first half, however, it doesn’t matter how the Kernels fare with them. What matters is that they finish among the top two teams in their Division who have not already qualified in the first half.

Going in to Wednesday’s series finale with Quad Cities, Cedar Rapids holds a six game lead over third place Wisconsin and a nine game lead over fourth place Peoria. That means their “magic number” for qualifying for the playoffs sits at 5.

How did this happen? How did a team go from a 31-39 first-half record to a 36-21 record, so far, in the second half? Certainly, not many fans gave the Kernels much chance of making the playoffs two months ago.

Their manager, Jake Mauer, and coaches Tommy Watkins and Ivan Arteaga, gave their thoughts on the subject on Sunday, which was three Kernels wins (and three Peoria losses) ago.

“Pitching is probably number 1,” said Mauer. “We’ve shaved a whole run off our (team) ERA. Obviously we’re a little different at the back end of the bullpen than we were early on.”

It hasn’t all been improved pitching, however. Mauer also was quick to mention some newcomers to the offense that have contributed.

“Some of the additions, obviously Logan Wade and (Alex) Swim have been huge. Max Murphy’s been a good addition,” added the manager.

Max Murphy

Max Murphy

The Kernels have lost some very good players, as well, of course. Several pitchers and position players have earned promotions to high-A Fort Myers, which is what led to the new players arriving in Cedar Rapids.

Players coming and going is just part of minor league life.

Mauer pointed out another pretty major difference between his club’s first and second half fortunes.

“We’re keeping guys healthy, like (Mitch) Garver and (Engelb) Vielma and guys like that,” observed Mauer. “I think that really is the reason why we’re where we’re at.

Engelb Vielma (1)

Engelb Vielma (1)

“We went through a tough stretch there early. It seemed like somebody was going down every week. We’re still missing three of our top arms in our organization who are still down with surgery. Obviously, it gave a good opportunity to get up here to (Mat) Batts and (Chih-Wei) Hu and (Stephen) Gonsalves and (Lewis) Thorpe. They’ve really been holding down the majority of the big innings for us.”

Watkins, the Kernels hitting coach, echoes many of Mauer’s thoughts.

“I think we’ve stayed healthy, for the most part. It seemed like every other day we were losing somebody in the first half. But for the most part, outside of some minor bumps and bruises, we’ve been pretty healthy the second half.”

Watkins also sensed a change in the consistency of the team’s performance.

“In the beginning, we didn’t click on both sides. One day we would hit, we didn’t pitch. One day we would pitch, we didn’t hit,” Watkins added. “Now it seems like we’re getting timely hitting, pitching. The defense is making some plays.

“All the pitchers are doing well but we’ve got a few guys at the back end of that bullpen that have been pretty lights-out for us. We give those guys some leads and they’ve been pretty good lately.”

Watkins has seen a change in the clubhouse, as well as on the field.

“I just think the overall confidence right now, the guys are a lot better. The guys are loose, they’re having fun with each other. We came in here the other day, they were doing Kangaroo Court with each other. They’re just having fun right now. They’re winning baseball games, so it’s been a lot of fun.”

There’s little doubt that the biggest change in the Kernels’ fortunes in the second half has come on the pitcher’s mound. That being the case, it stands to reason that Arteaga, the Kernels pitching coach, would have a great deal of insight in to how those fortunes changed for the better in the season’s second half.

He summed up the reasons for the improvement in the club’s pitching in two words, “Experience and chemistry.”

“They go hand in hand,” he explained. “Early, we went through some growing pains, pitching wise.”

Arteaga noted that the team lost three highly rated young pitchers in the first half that the organization had been counting on to play big roles for the Kernels. Felix Jorge struggled and was sent back to extended spring training and, ultimately, to Elizabethton. Randy Rosario and Yorman Landa got hurt, ending their seasons.

Pitchers that remained in Cedar Rapids also went through some rough patches early.

“(Aaron) Slegers had a rough go for about a month,” added the coach. “He was working on some stuff. (Ryan) Eades was learning a lot of things about the league and about himself. Our relievers went through some growing pains. We had Hudson Boyd – early, he was very good. He had a rough go for about three or four outings.

Ryan Eades

Ryan Eades

“So everybody’s learning. Like I said when I first got here, it is a process. They get to learn the league. They get to learn the hitters. They get to learn themselves. Work on a different pitch, work on the delivery. Work on some stuff.

“It’s growing pains. Kids like Eades, you know, second round pick, he learned a lot this year. And you get a guy like Stewart – first round pick. He learned a lot this year. In the first half, you have a lot of learning to do. A lot of growing pains.

“And we didn’t do that bad. Not what we wanted to, but we weren’t that bad.”

In the second half, though, the pitching went from, “not bad,” to very, very good.

“Then we got the new boys. We got Thorpe, we got Hu, we had Gonsalves, Batts, Burdi, Reed, Gallant. They brought a different mindset and obviously we’ve been doing very well.”

Arteaga also agrees with Watkins’ observation that the success is reflected off the field as much as on.

“I think that the learning, gaining some experience and at the same time, we’re winning. You see a different atmosphere in there ( the clubhouse). It’s a different environment. It’s chemistry. They like each other. They talk to each other. When you get that, which is chemistry, it shows on the field.

“They come here every day with effort, with a purpose they have in mind. They know, they can feel the possibility of being in the playoffs – how great that’s going to be for the players to experience that. Some of them in their first year of full season. I hope that they actually embrace the possibility.”

If the players are excited about postseason possibilities, they aren’t alone. Arteaga is right there with them.

“Personally, I’m very excited by it because I went through a lot of things this year with these guys. To try to teach the pitchers the fundamentals of baseball, the fundamentals of pitching, pitch sequence, just the growing pains. And just the things you see, to me, it’s very rewarding.

Stephen Gonsalves

Stephen Gonsalves

“I guarantee you that there’s not a better feeling than seeing these guys playing every day and understanding the moment. And going out and playing the way they played Peoria and the way they played on the road (in Beloit).”

Of course, winning championships is great. But is winning really important for minor league affiliates?

It’s important, of course, to the local fans who want to see a winner. But some fans of the Major League affiliate see minor league games as little more than exhibition games, attaching little, if any, value to won-loss record.

Arteaga clearly feels winning is important, but not necessarily the most important thing.

“We (the Twins organization) have a philosophy. Basically, we want to develop winners. And the only way you can develop winners is by teaching the process, by teaching the fundamentals of baseball.

“Now, we are very careful with the amount of innings, the activities that we do. Teaching the game the right way, the Twins way.

“But one thing that we don’t do, is to go the extra mile to try to win. We want these guys to win, but I won’t pitch my guys two days in a row. I won’t pitch my guy 125 pitches because I want to win one game. We won’t do that. We have a program. That program works. It’s good. We stick to it. It is our job as coaches to teach these guys how to win. To motivate these guys every day.”

Make no mistake, though, talking about a playoff run brings a smile to the coach’s face.

“When you go to the postseason, there’s a difference,” Arteaga concluded. “That’s what we want these guys to experience. When it’s only you. There’s nobody else playing, just you playing. (Others) going home. They’re going on American Airlines somewhere. You’re not. You’re still playing. That’s the beauty of postseason. You’re sending somebody else home and you’re playing. So that’s good.”

******

Finally, various members of the Kernels’ players and front office accepted the ALS ice bucket challenge on Monday this week.

KernelsIce1 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Ivan Arteaga on Change ups, Sliders and Curves

There’s much about the game of baseball that never changes. Three strikes and you’re out. Bases are 90 feet apart.

Then again, some aspects of the game are constantly adjusting to the times. Witness the amount of defensive shifting going on in Major League Baseball this season.

You could say that one thing that never changes is that pitchers try to throw fastballs by opposing hitters.

But the arsenal of pitches the pitchers use beyond the fastball seems to differ from one era to another.

Pitchers in the first part of the 20th century could – and did – legally throw a spitball.

Even after the spitter was outlawed, pitchers continued to do whatever they could get away with to gain an advantage over the batter. Roughing up the ball became popular.

Now umpires toss baseballs out of the game the moment there’s the slightest scuff noticed on the surface of the sphere.

Even legal pitches have come in to, and fallen out of, favor among professional pitchers.

Recently, writer Pat Jordan posted an article at SportsOnEarth.com entitled, The Decline of the Curve. Jordan talked to a number of big league pitching coaches about why fewer pitchers are throwing a curveball than was the case in previous eras.

Some of the coaches he talked to indicated that their organizations dissuade pitchers from throwing the traditional curve and others indicated that they don’t teach the pitch to their pitchers.

Since I’ve observed a number of Cedar Rapids Kernels pitchers throwing curveballs, I was curious about whether the Twins organization and, in particular, Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga, have any established policy aimed at dissuading use of the curve or any other pitch.

Over the past weekend, Arteaga graciously agreed to talk to me about the subject.

I started out by asking whether the Twins have any kind of established policy concerning the subject of Jordan’s article, the curveball.

“We actually encourage it,” Arteaga said. “We believe in having a complete mix. I believe, this is my opinion, mix creates value.

“For example, I’ve got (Ricky) Nolasco this week here. He’s got five different pitches. Throws a slider, he throws a curve, he throws a split, he throws a straight change up, he’s got a two-seemer. And he throws low-90s.

“We were having a conversation and one thing we agreed on was that pitchers in the big leagues actually have to reinvent themselves time and time again.

“So that being said, the curve is a pitch that is high-to-low, 12-to-6, you name it. It’ll give you depth. It’ll make your fastball better. It’ll save your arm a little bit.

“So we encourage it. If you have the curve, great. If you don’t, we’ll try to teach you one. Hopefully, you can get it.”

Ivan Arteaga

Ivan Arteaga

Some of the coaches that talked to Jordan blamed the shrinking strike zone for the demise of the curveball. Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan could throw fastballs at the letters and get them called strikes, which set up their devastating curveballs.

Umpires today won’t call that high pitch a strike and Arteaga agrees that the strike zone getting smaller has had an effect on the choices pitchers have made when it comes to their arsenal.

“Over time, pitchers started to throw the change up more, moving back and forth,” Arteaga observed. “I remember in the 80s and 90s, the split finger fastball was the pitch to learn and then came the slider. That’s the pitch these days being taught.

“Those pitches are basically strike zone down, strike zone right or strike zone left. The curve actually starts up away from the strike zone and it gets in to the strike zone at the end with some depth.

“So if you have that pitch, the hitters are so used to looking for pitches in the strike zone, that once they see the ball go up, they give up on it. And then once they give up on it, it’s hard for them to actually make an adjustment and hit it. So they give up on it and you get some weak swings.

Arteaga has a theory, beyond those that the coaches Jordan interviewed expressed, concerning why you see fewer pitchers throwing a curveball today.

“This goes beyond professional baseball. Because in college, you get big programs, the same way you get big programs in Venezuela, Dominican and Puerto Rico, and so forth and so on. What creates value? The fastball.

“Thirty-five or forty years ago you had to mix, you learned how to pitch. These days, you get kids that are 17-18 years old, they’re just fastball throwers. If they throw something else, it will be a change up and it will be a slider, because it’s easier to throw. But at the same time, it creates more stress on the shoulder and in the elbow.”

Jordan, in his article, claimed that the curveball actually is easier on the pitcher’s arm than other pitches, which goes against some conventional wisdom in the game. Arteaga agrees, however.

“It’s less stressful. It’s not as stressful as the slider.” Arteaga explained. “What happens with the slider is, there’s some kids who believe the slider should be lateral – should be either right or left – it’s more sidewise than it is up and down. And for them to create that, they have to actually drag their arms a little bit.

“So when they drag their arm a little, they get a lower angle. Once you want to make that ball spin, the elbow suffers a lot. So you get tight. Once you get tight, those muscles start to pull against those tendons. That’s when you get all the injuries.”

Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and then-Kernels pitcher Ethan Mildren

Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and then-Kernels pitcher Ethan Mildren

There has been talk among the fan base about the Twins limiting the number of sliders and similar pitches that some of their youngest pitching prospects throw in a game. The coach’s next comment perhaps sheds some light on that philosophy.

“If you ask an 18-19 year old to pitch at a level like this,” Arteaga observed, “where he understands he has to come up with something more than the fastball, then he’ll throw the slider more than he should. He might not be ready to throw it, because he needs to mix.“

Arteaga doesn’t necessarily see the curveball as the hardest pitch for his young pitchers to master.

“The change up to me is like the last pitch to come in an arsenal,” Arteaga said.
“There’s not many guys that have the feel for the change up and the repeatability for the change up. And so it’s easier to throw fastball-slider-fastball-cutter than become a fastball-slider-change up guy. So the change up is like the last pitch to come in to the arsenal.

“It’s hard to repeat, because there’s a couple of things that come in to play,” he explained. “One is the grip. You have to find the perfect grip. And number two, you have to find a repeatable delivery, the same as the fastball. So you can get that extension out in front and the pronation to actually make the ball fade a little bit or go down as much as you can.

“So you need to repeat it a lot. Almost as much as your fastball. You need to repeat it so you can get that same feeling, every time, of extension, pronation and arm speed.

“Because if you ask any guy what they fear the most, it is to leave a fastball or change up or breaking ball up in the zone. They say, ‘I don’t want to do that,’ so what do they do? They develop a sinker, they develop a slider; anything they can do to make it go down.“

Arteaga was asked about that split-fingered fastball that he acknowledged was all the rage 20 or so years ago. Does he, or do the Twins, teach splitter?

“No, we don’t,” he answered quickly. “If you have one out of college or whatever and you can throw it, yeah, we’ll let you throw it. Why not? But we don’t encourage that.

“We believe the less stress you put on the arm, the better it is. If you see the games on TV, in the big leagues, you don’t get that many guys throw the split finger fastballs any more. Maybe a few, but not what it used to be.

“And it really has to be a good one for you to throw it in the big leagues, because they can see the seams. If it looks like a fastball, yes, you’ve got an advantage. Make it look like a fastball, in and out of the strike zone, you’re OK.”

As Arteaga alluded to earlier, Nolasco spent the better part of a week in Cedar Rapids, getting a pair of rehabilitation starts in with the Kernels. The interview came before Nolasco’s final Kernels appearance Sunday, but the coach liked what he saw of Nolasco leading up to that point.

“He threw everything he’s got in the first outing so I expect the same in this one too. He got in to a jam a little bit there, and struck out a couple of guys. He looked like a big leaguer. Throwing his pitches down, making it go right, left, down.

“Like Joe (Mauer) was saying, he’ll make it tough on hitters, when he’s right, he’ll make it tough because everything goes different directions and it’s the same motion.

“Just seeing him throw in the bullpen, he’s got command, he’s got control. And he’s healthy, so hopefully he’ll be OK.“

And did Arteaga’s young Kernels pitchers watch the way Nolasco went about his business?

“Oh yeah. That’s the way it should be. They’re paying attention.“

Video from Kernels Walk-off Win

Just a quick post with a couple of videos I took at the Kernels game Thursday night.

First, we have Jake Reed, who pitched the 9th and 10th innings for the Kernels. Here, we have video of his 9th inning.

With the game tied at 3-3 in the bottom of the 11th inning, Mitch Garver comes to the plate for the Kernels.

And here we have the climactic moment as Bryan Haar comes to the plate  with pinch runner Jon Murphy at second base, running for Garver.