Kernels Hot Stove/Twins Caravan Reception

The Minnesota Twins once again included Cedar Rapids, the home of their Class A affiliate Kernels, in their Twins Winter Caravan tour and last night’s event was entertaining and about as enjoyable as any such event put on by a 100+ loss big league organization could be.

Kris Atteberry emcees the panel of Trevor May, Byron Buxton, Tommy Watkins, Thad Levine and Brian Dinkelman

The venue was one of several new aspects of this year’s Kernels Hot Stove event, the primary fundraiser for the organization’s charitable foundation.

Rather than using a large hotel ballroom to hold a sit-down dinner, the Kernels hosted a reception at the New Bo City Market, a showplace for a variety of local food merchants. All food, beer and wine available at the event was provided by New Bo vendors, giving the event a distinctively local flavor.

Broadcaster Kris Atteberry did a terrific job as the emcee for the Twins Caravan portion of the program, doling out opportunities to address the gathering to five members of the Twins organization gathered on stage. They included a pair of Twins players, pitcher Trevor May and outfielder Byron Buxton, newly announced Kernels manager Tommy Watkins, new Twins General Manager Thad Levine and Brian Dinkelman, who served as the Kernels hitting coach in 2016 and, while no official announcement has been made as yet, is presumed to be serving in that capacity this summer, as well.

In addition to responding to Atteberry’s prepared questions from the podium and answering questions from the crowd, the Caravan participants also were available for media interviews.

Here are a few highlights from one-on-one interviews, as well as the public portion of the program.

Early in January, the Twins and Kernels announced that Watkins, who served as the Kernels hitting coach, under former manager Jake Mauer, from 2013 through 2015 and in the same capacity for Class AA Chattanooga last season, will get his first opportunity as a minor league manager in 2017 when he takes the Kernels’ reins.

Watkins said that he and farm director Brad Steil had discussed the possibility of Watkins getting a managing opportunity for the past couple of years, but no such position had opened up until last year’s Fort Myers Miracle manager Jeff Smith got promoted to a coaching position with the Twins this offseason. Still, Watkins said, “I didn’t know if I would get it or not.”

Trevor May and Tommy Watkins react to Byron Buxton explaining how he “noodled” a catfish

Once the assignment was officially offered, Watkins was very happy to accept. “It was just like the news I got when I was going to the big leagues. I was happy, I was nervous, I was scared, I didn’t want to go. So it was a lot of things. I cried, I laughed, I called my family and told them. It was exciting news.”

Asked by Atteberry to tell the gathering what went into the front office’s decision to offer the job to Watkins, Levine led off with tongue firmly planted in cheek. “I’ve got to be honest with you, I have no idea how this came to pass. This is news to me. I’ll try to adjust on the fly.”

Levine then turned serious – and very complimentary toward the new Kernels manager.

“I think that one thing you guys always hear about is that we’re trying to develop players, there’s a development track. But I think the other thing that we’re trying to develop concurrently is staff members. Guys who have a chance, on the scouting side, to influence decision making and, on the coaching side, a chance to be Major League coaches.

“One of the things that I heard when I first joined the Minnesota Twins was about the man to my right, Tommy, and I think the universal feeling was that he had a chance to be a really good hitting coach, but he had the chance to be special as a manager. So when the opportunity presented itself to give him an opportunity to pursue his career as a manager, I think everybody in the organization really endorsed him because we felt as if that’s where he’s going to be a difference maker.

“We think he’s going to have a chance to be a Major League coach down the road. We think in the short term, he has a chance to really influence our minor league players, and as a manager we think his impact could be even greater than it was as a hitting coach.

“He’s a special man. He’s very charismatic. He knows the game of baseball. He’s still trying to learn every single day. Each time I’ve been around him, I feel as if I’ve gotten to know him a little bit better. This guy’s a very dynamic man. He’s going to be a leader in our organization for a long time to come and he’s just scratching the surface of his potential.”

TC Bear made the trip to Cedar Rapids with the rest of the Twins Caravan crew

Watkins said before the event that he’s looking forward to his return to the Kernels. “It feels good. I had a bunch of different emotions but I’m excited. It feels like I’ve been gone for a lot longer than just a year, but it’s good to be back. I enjoyed my time here and I’m looking forward to it.”

Asked by Atteberry to set the line on how many times Watkins will be ejected by umpires in 2017, Brian Dinkelman didn’t hesitate before saying. “I set it at 3 1/2.”

Buxton said he’s been feeling good since his hot finish to last season in September. “I’ve been hitting since late November, working on a few things and getting some stuff kinked out, but other than that, I feel great.

“I’m just focusing a little bit more on hitting, being a little bit more consistent, using my legs, staying down through the ball, keeping my head down. Just small things to help me out in the long run.”

He said he didn’t think there was any major change in his game that led to his strong finish to the 2016 season.

“Just stop thinking. Just run out there and play baseball. Have fun, going out there and have fun with teammates. We competed, September was different for everybody, not just including me. We went out there with a different mindset to finish the season strong and carry that over into spring training and this season.”

Looking back at his time in Cedar Rapids as a teenager barely out of high school, he said the dream of playing big league ball has turned out to be everything he hoped for, “and more.”

“Not many people are able to make it up there to the bigs, so I’m very blessed and thankful to get up there. Just being able to play beside Trevor when he’s up there pitching, not many people can say you’ve been in a big league uniform and you’ve been behind a pitcher like him that gives it his all and you’re right there giving it your all and trying to compete for a World Series ring.”

For his part, May also indicated he’s feeling good after having  some trouble staying healthy in 2016.

“I’m feeling good,” said May. “I had some patterns I needed to break. In the past, I’ve always thought four months was enough to heal from everything in the offseason. But I’ve come to the realization that breaking down a muscle and building it back up again to where you want it to work just takes time.”

He said even little things such as posture, while standing or sitting, have been items he’s focused on this offseason, with an emphasis on workouts that increase his flexibility, like Pilates and yoga, rather than weight training.

“I was doing a bunch of stuff that was just exacerbating the problem 24 hours a day. Changing all those things has been a lot of work, but I’m excited to just keep doing what I’m doing into the season.

“I threw a bullpen today. If I threw a bullpen when my back was tight back there, I would definitely feel some stiffness right now after I threw and I don’t feel stiff at all, so I’m just taking that as a really good sign.”

May wasn’t just trying new things in regard to his offseason workout regimen. While he did some DJing again this year, as he has in the past, he also expanded his horizons.

“I actually have a new hobby,” he explained. “I broadcast video games, which has been really fun. It’s like having your own radio show in which you talk and play video games. I really enjoy it. I’m going to try to do it once a month on an offday during the season. I’m going to host tournaments of games I play for viewers.”

Asked to evaluate the state of the Twins’ farm system, now that many of their previous top prospects have broken into the big leagues, new GM Levine said that the Twins front office doesn’t necessarily look at the organization strictly in terms of players that have exhausted their eligibility for Rookie of the Year awards and those that have not.

“I think we look at the farm system as an extension to the Major Leagues, so any guy in the Major Leagues who has two or fewer years of service is part of that next wave, that core,” he said. “So I think when you include those players with your minor league players, you can really see the waves of players coming.

“There’s a wave in the big leagues right now, there’s a wave right behind them, there’s a wave that will be playing at Cedar Rapids this year. I think we’re excited about the depth throughout our system, inclusive of the Major Leagues and I think if you include that young group in the Major Leagues all the way down, you could see that the future is very bright.

“For a team that has the payroll that we will have, you’re looking at having as many young players who can impact the game as possible and I think you’ve got to look at the guys who have matriculated to the big leagues when you’re factoring that.”

The subject of the relatively public flirtation with trading second baseman Brian Dozier came up both in the interview setting and during the public Question & Answer session.

Levine indicated that, while it certainly appears that Dozier will be opening the season with the Twins, he wouldn’t say the door was completely closed on the possibility of moving Dozier, or any other player for that matter.

“I don’t know that we would talk specifically about any one trade negotiation, but I think the way Derek (Falvey) and I are going to operate is that we’re not closing doors at any juncture. At that point, you are not doing your job to the fullest. Any time you close off opportunities to improve the team, I think you’re doing the franchise a disservice.”

Buxton and May did the autograph thing after the Twins Caravan program

During the public session, Levine was asked specifically what he expected Dozier’s future was with the Twins.

“I think we think his future is going to be glorious with the franchise,” he responded. “He’s been the consummate professional throughout this process. We always approached this from the mindset of, the best the Minnesota Twins could be would be with Brian Dozier. If someone wants to blow our socks off, we’ll consider talking about him. But for that fact, we see him as part of this franchise moving forward.”

Atteberry asked Levine to address the “stats vs scouting” issue that comes up in almost any conversation about thenew front office management. Again, the new GM mixed humor into his more thoughtful response.

“When the movie Moneyball came out, everybody who was below a certain age – at that time, I would say 35, now I would say 45, just conveniently (Levine celebrated his 45th birthday in November) – you were viewed to be more of a formulaic-based decision making group vs if you were older, you were more of a scouts guy. And I think it’s a bit of a misconception.

“Derek and I are both guys who are going to have analytics and scouting and player development factor into every decision that we make. We’re not going to focus singularly on any sort of formula to spit out a decision we’re going to make.

“The other big misconception I think about that movie is that anybody working in a front office looks at all like Brad Pitt. We really don’t. Honestly.

“So the movie did some disservices across the board, but I do think analytics plays a role in decision making, but that’s all it is. It’s a piece of the pie. It’s not something that is going to drive us to make any singular decision. It will be something we weigh in, we factor in, but it’s not going to drive our decision making.”

Also during the public session, Atteberry challenged Levine to demonstrate how much he knew about the two players he was sharing a stage with. Atteberry presented a few bits of trivia and asked Levine to guess which player, May or Buxton, the fact pertained to.

The questions were: Which player DJ’d at his own wedding? Which one of them has the highest vertical jump and is the fastest runner in his family (and which is not)? Which has successfully noodled a catfish? And which one has a mother that kept a mountain lion as a pet for four years?

The answers: May (obviously), Buxton is NOT the fastest runner or best jumper in his family (he said his dad jumps higher, his brother is faster and he has a 13-year old sister that may eventually pass them all), but Buxton did noodle a catfish. It was May’s mother who kept a mountain lion as a pet.

And Levine nailed every answer correctly.

Two members of the “Knuckleballs” table took home door prizes. A May & Buxton signed jersey and a Twins stocking cap

The final question from the audience asked Watkins and Buxton to relate the funniest thing that happened to them during their time with the Kernels.

Suffice to say that you won’t find Buxton playing baseball with ping pong balls in the clubhouse again any time soon and Watkins’ days of shaving his head are over.

Who’ll Stop the Rain?

What do you get from me when it’s three degrees outside and I have no desire to even look outside, much less go there, and I have nothing interesting to do inside? You get Creedence Clearwater Revival, that’s what you get.

Long as I remember the rain been comin’ down
Clouds of mystery pourin’ confusion on the ground.
Good men through the ages tryin’ to find the sun.
And I wonder still I wonder who’ll stop the rain.

I’ve been a Twins fan ever since the first day there were Minnesota Twins to be a fan of so, as far as the Twins’ history is concerned, I have quite literally seen it all.

There have been some good times.

Sandy Koufax broke my heart in 1965, but the Twins team that took Koufax and Don Drysdale seven games in that World Series will quite likely remain my favorite group of Twins forever.

The Championship teams of 1987 and 1991 were special, as well. And while they never quite lived up to our expectations, the teams of the 2000s were a lot of fun to watch. Many of those players were at least indirectly responsible for the Twins avoiding possible contraction. Without them, there might be no Minnesota Twins today.

Still, there’s probably no song lyric that could describe my feeling toward the Twins of the past decade-and-a-half than, “clouds of mystery pourin’ confusion on the ground.”

When the Twins used the first pick in the 2001 draft to select local high school catcher Joe Mauer, they were also celebrating the 10th Anniversary of their most recent trip the World Series.

The hope was that Mauer would join an evolving young group of players, including pitcher Brad Radke and the outfield’s “soul patrol” of Torii Hunter, Jacque Jones and Matt Lawton, to help Minnesota fans put the bitter memories of contraction, Kirby Puckett’s forced retirement and the general confusion that tainted the final years of manager Tom Kelly’s tenure behind them.

We almost took for granted that General Manager Terry Ryan and manager Ron Gardenhire would blend Mauer, along with the likes of Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer and Johan Santana, into a group that would ultimately bring new World Series memories to another generation of Twins fans.

I could never figure out why Gardenhire, Ryan and the players who were perennial American League Central champions so consistently fell short of the World Series, especially since, once you fall short a couple of times, you really should have a pretty solid idea of what you need to do to take that final step the next time.

Whatever the reasons, the job didn’t get done.

I went down Virginia seekin’ shelter from the storm
Caught up in the fable I watched the tower grow
Five year plans and new deals wrapped in golden chains.
And I wonder still I wonder who’ll stop the rain.

Despite the lack of postseason success, nobody wanted to totally break up the band.

One reason they couldn’t get over that hump, we were told, was that the Twins were stuck playing in an oversized pillow built for football. The Twins had a bad lease at the Metrodome and couldn’t fiscally afford to even keep their own top players, much less attract free agents from elsewhere.

The prospect of losing most, if not all, of the core players that seemed to have the club on the verge of bringing another World Series to the Twin Cities, was agonizingly familiar to fans of my generation.

We had, after all, lived through the Calvin Griffith era where, during the early years of free agency, Griffith would trade away any star player that even approached being moderately expensive to retain. The guy alienated and traded away Rod Carew, for crying out loud!

So, I was happy when, despite the questionable fiscal wisdom of public funding for sports venues, the good people of the Twin Cities (or at least a couple of influential politicians among the populace) built the Twins a beautiful new ballpark, ostensibly assuring that the club would be able to afford to retain the best of their home grown talent long enough to see them raise more World Series banners.

Suddenly, the Twins were swimming in new revenue. Certainly a World Series was just beyond the horizon.

Heard the singers playin’, how we cheered for more.
The crowd had rushed together tryin’ to keep warm.
Still the rain kept pourin’, fallin’ on my ears
And I wonder, still I wonder who’ll stop the rain.

Target field brought record attendance, but the fortunes of the Twins in the won-loss column did not improve. Quite the opposite, in fact.

That didn’t keep us from enjoying Target Field, of course, even during chilly, damp early-season games. We were finally watching baseball outdoors again – the way it was intended to be – and Mauer, Morneau and Cuddyer, joined for a while by former nemesis Jim Thome, gave us plenty of excitement in the first couple years of the new ballpark

Eventually, however, the promising “young” players got old and moved on, leaving only an aging Mauer to serve as a veteran presence in the clubhouse for the next generation.

Now, two years after Gardenhire was shown the door, Terry Ryan has followed him. As crowds at Target field have dwindled, the crowds of disenchanted fans with pitchforks calling for the heads of those in charge of the team grew in number and volume, ultimately (and understandably) costing both men their jobs.

The cheers heralding the arrival of the new Twins brass, Derek Falvey and Thad Levineis are impossible to miss. They seem like good choices to lead the Twins into the future. They have the pedigree teams are looking for – business and analytics backgrounds, along with some residual respect for old-school scouting.

David Laurila, over at Fangraphs, posted an interview he conducted with Falvey and Levine at the recent Winter Meetings in Washington and it’s hard, if not impossible, to argue with any of what they shared concerning their philosophies.

I like what I read and hear about both men and I’m putting a great deal of faith in them. I believe they will bring another World Series to Minnesota. I believe they will stop the rain. I have to believe that. I’ve only got a limited number of “rebuilds” left in me.

If Falvey and Levine fail, they’ll ultimately be replaced by some other combination of executives who will bring their unique talents and philosophies to the job. They’ll also get several years to rebuild the organization to suit those philosophies.

Maybe you can afford to wait through another long cycle of futility and rebuilding, but I may not have that option.

It has been 25 years since Jack Morris shut out the Braves to cap what was quite possibly the best World Series in history and, sure, I may be fortunate enough to have another 25 years to wait. Let’s be honest, though. The actuaries in your family wouldn’t allow you to bet much money on my chances. (By the way, if you have actuaries in your family, I’m really, really sorry. Just be thankful they aren’t lawyers.)

I felt the pouring rain Griffith allowed to fall on us through most of the 1970s and early 1980s, as well as the stale-aired rain that Carl Pohlad inexcusably allowed to permeate the Teflon roof of the Metrodome for a decade after the Twins’ last championship.

.Will Derek Falvey and Thad Levine finally stop the rain? I sure hope so… and I hope it’s soon.

RIP Yorman Landa

It’s always so sad to see a young, happy life taken away far too soon, but that was the news that greeted us this morning when we learned that Twins pitching prospect Yorman Landa had lost his life in an auto accident overnight.

Landa, who pitched for the Cedar Rapids Kernels during parts of the 2014 and 2015 season, was reportedly a passenger in a car driven by his father on a rainy night in Venezuela when the vehicle collided with a fallen tree on a dark stretch of road.

Landa didn’t speak much English during his time in Cedar Rapids, but he was quick with a smile and, as borne out by the abundance of social media messages from teammates, managers and coaches, he was beloved in the clubhouse.

Click here for the Star Tribune story.

Please remember his family, friends, teammates and coaches in your prayers.

Rest in Peace, Yorman.

Yorman Landa 1994-2016 (Photo: Cedar Rapids Kernels)

 

A Tale of Two Catchers

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Granted, it probably wasn’t anywhere near the “worst of times” for Stuart Turner and Mitch Garver, but the excitement of learning they had been drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the June, 2013 Amateur Draft had to have been at least slightly dampened with the realization that the Twins had drafted both of them.

Mitch Garver
Mitch Garver (Photo: SD Buhr)

Going into that draft, the Twins knew they needed catching. They didn’t yet know just how desperately they needed catching.

The Twins had allowed their organization to become thin at a critical (if not THE most critical) defensive position. And it was understandable, to a degree. After all, they had the reigning American League Most Valuable Player behind the plate. Catcher Joe Mauer was not only good for a .300 batting average and .400 on-base percentage every season, but he had only just turned 30 years old a few weeks earlier.

What the Twins’ brass didn’t know – and couldn’t know – as they gathered in their offices for the June 2013 Amateur Player Draft, was that Mauer would never get behind the plate to catch another big league game after the 2013 season, due to persistent concussion problems.

Still, to their credit, they identified the catching position as one that warranted some focus in the 2013 draft.

And focus they did.

The Twins used three of their top 10 picks in 2013 on catchers and added another in the 22nd round.

After selecting pitchers Kohl Stewart and Ryan Eades in rounds one and two, Minnesota picked Ole Miss catcher Stuart Turner in the third round. He was the 2013 Johnny Bench award winner, presented to the top NCAA Division I catcher.

In the sixth round, the Twins grabbed a high school catcher, Brian Navarreto.

New Mexico Lobo catcher Mitch Garver was selected by the Twins in the ninth round. Garver was one of three finalists for the Johnny Bench award that Turner won. In fact, it was the second year that Garver was a Bench Award finalist.

The Twins added Alex Swim out of Elon (NC) University in the 22nd round, to complete the 2013 catching class.

Adding that many catchers to the organization at one time required a bit of roster manipulation on the part of the Twins farm director Brad Steil and his group. You obviously can’t just start the entire group at the same level and still get everyone enough work behind the plate to develop them.

Navarreto, being a few years younger than the others, was easy to plug into the rookie league programs.

Fair or not, as a lower round pick, there would be less emphasis on getting Swim adequate opportunities to show what he could do behind the plate.

By the end of the 2013 season, of course, the Twins pretty much knew Mauer’s career as a catcher was effectively over and suddenly the club and its fans became much more interested in the catchers coming up through the farm system, particularly in Turner and Garver.

Stuart Turner (PhotoL SD Buhr)
Stuart Turner (Photo: SD Buhr)

The Twins don’t make a habit of starting many of their young players at the Advanced Class A level in Ft. Myers, but it was important that both Turner and Garver get as much time working with pitchers from behind the plate as possible. That could only be accomplished by splitting the two catchers up in their first full season of professional ball. To accomplish that, Turner was assigned to Ft. Myers, while Garver spent 2014 at Class A Cedar Rapids.

A year later, Turner and Garver remained one level apart as Turner was promoted to AA Chattanooga and Garver moved up to Ft. Myers.

In fact, the first time the two became teammates wasn’t even technically with a Twins affiliate.

The Twins sent both catchers to the Arizona Fall League in October, 2015. Both caught 11 games and DH’d in one for AFL champion Scottsdale. Garver hit .317 for the Scorpions, while Turner hit just .171.

That set up a 2016 season where Garver and Turner would both begin the year at Chattanooga.

While the two had been effectively competing with one another for some kind of mythical “Twins top catching prospect” designation since that 2013 draft day, this was the first time Garver and Turner were set up to go side-by-side into a regular season at the same professional level.

That dynamic continued into the second week of August, when the Twins had a spot for a catcher open up at their AAA affiliate in Rochester and the call went out to Chattanooga for someone to finish out the season with the Red Wings.

Since Turner was about to finish his second Class AA season with the Lookouts and Garver was still in his first tour through the Southern League, you might have thought that Turner would get the promotion – but you would have been wrong.

With Garver hitting a respectable .257 (.753 OPS) at the time, while Turner was hovering around .210 (and an OPS around .650), it was Garver that was packing for Rochester.

But it wasn’t just his bat that appeared to have pushed Garver ahead of Turner on the Twins’ organizational depth chart. He threw out 52% of runners attempting to steal on him (23 of 44 attempts) in Chattanooga. Turner threw out 19 of 48 attempted base stealers for a 40% clip.

Admittedly, using “caught stealing” statistics as a measure for a catcher’s work behind the plate is iffy, at best. For one thing, runners steal bases off of pitchers as much as (if not more than) off catchers. However, in this case, that factor is largely mitigated since the two were catching members of the same Chattanooga pitching staff.

After the season, the Twins again sent Garver to get additional work in the Arizona Fall League, where he hit .229 and put up a .756 OPS, fueled by four home runs and four doubles in 70 at-bats for the AFL runner-up Surprise Saguaros.

Whether Garver will eventually hit and, perhaps more importantly, catch well enough to work his way into the Minnesota Twins lineup on a regular basis certainly remains an unknown. However, we do know the Twins like him enough that, as the AFL season wrapped up, they added him to their 40-man roster.

Meanwhile, Turner was not added to that roster, exposing him to Major League Baseball’s Rule 5 draft.

On Thursday, the Cincinnati Reds selected Turner from the Twins in said draft.

Ironically, while it’s clear that the Twins now value Garver’s big league potential over that of Turner, it’s Turner that very well could get to the big leagues ahead of Garver.

As a Rule 5 pick, the Reds will need to keep Turner on their big league club in 2017 or return him to the Twins (or offer the Twins some sort of additional compensation in return for being allowed to keep him at a minor league level).

At the same time, Garver will open spring training in the big league camp but has no guarantee in his pocket assuring him a spot with the Twins on Opening Day.

On draft day in June of 2013, Turner and Garver had to be wondering what the chances were that the two of them would somehow both work their way into a Minnesota Twins uniform. It seemed likely that, some day, the Twins were going to need to make a choice between them.

That day came and the Twins chose to cast their lot with Garver.

Fortunately for Turner, he’s getting a pretty good consolation prize, courtesy of the Cincinnati Reds.

Twins and Hawkeyes and Vikings, Oh My

I bet you’re shocked to find I’ve posted a new article here, aren’t you? If it seems like I’m never posting anything new any more, it’s only because I haven’t been posting anything new any more.

Why not? It’s pretty simple. I haven’t felt like writing anything. And if there is one thing I’ve figured out in my 15-ish months since retiring, it’s that retirement means you no longer have to do much of anything you don’t feel like doing.

But a few days ago, I wrote a new article (for which I had to actually get presentably dressed and go conduct a real interview!) and the process reminded me that I kind of enjoy writing.

(As for the article in question, you’re just going to have to wait until the 2017 Twins Prospect Handbook comes out to read it. I’m not sure when that will be, but I got my article submitted ahead of deadline, so if publication is delayed, it’s not my fault!)

Anyway, as I’ve reflected on the past few months, I’ve decided it’s time for me to speak out about some things, so let’s get on with it.

If you are familiar with my sports fandom at all, you probably are aware that I’m a devoted, if occasionally somewhat irrational, fan of the Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Vikings and Iowa Hawkeyes.

The mix is a result of spending my youth in the 1960s living in Minnesota and virtually the rest of my six decades on this planet in Iowa. I guess I also did spend brief periods in Arkansas and Wisconsin that were, at the same time memorable and forgettable, but I digress (this is about 2016, not my bizarre path through the mid 1970s).

Twins

Baseball is conducting their annual Winter Meetings at one of those giant Gaylord Resorts again, this time in suburban Washington, D.C. I’ve been there for conferences a couple of times, as I have to Gaylords in the Nashville, Orlando and Dallas areas.

I’m not a big fan of the Gaylords, but I can see why their ginormous size makes it an attractive venue for ginormous conferences, like the Winter Meetings. You can literally spend four days there, eating and drinking in a different place every night, without ever having to step out to breathe fresh air. I’m just not sure that should be considered a good thing (unless you happen to own a Gaylord, which I do not.)

targetfield
(Photo: SD Buhr)

Everyone involved with Twins baseball operations who is anyone is undoubtedly at the Winter Meetings, as are representatives from their minor league affiliate front offices. The dance cards of new Twins brass Derek Falvey and Thad Levine will be full, I’m sure. I hope they are a lot better at remembering the names of new people they are introduced to than I am.

If they struggle with remembering names, I would offer one piece of advice: Prioritize. Specifically, if the person you were just introduced to can throw a baseball well enough to miss a bat, THAT is someone you want to remember. You’re welcome.

A lot of speculation is circulating concerning the possible trade of Brian Dozier. If the chatter among Twitter feeds of people who should know about this kind of thing is accurate, there are several teams showing more than idle interest in obtaining Dozier and his team-friendly contract.

I like Brian Dozier and I wish the Twins were good enough that keeping him made sense, but they aren’t so it doesn’t.

Dozier’s value will never be higher, so Falvey and Levine (can we just call them “Falvine” until we figure out which of them is playing the bigger role in roster decisions?) need to make the best deal they can and hopefully that will include some high-ceiling near-MLB-ready pitching.

With all due respect to their signing of free agent catcher Jason Castro, fair or not, the return they negotiate for trading Dozier will establish their first impression approval ratings among a sizable contingent of Twins fans – and we all know how first impressions work in this organization. A bad first impression means you’re pedaling uphill to ever get respect from within the Twins community, while a good first impression could mean you’ll have a job for decades.

Good luck, guys. We’re all rooting for you. Until you screw up and we don’t root for you any more.

Hawkeyes (and, I guess, Vikings)

Let’s get this out of the way first – it’s going to be a very tough basketball season for the Hawkeyes.

The football team, however, is headed to Tampa to play the Florida Gators in the Outback Bowl on January 2.

If you had told me that was going to happen a few weeks ago after the Penn State debacle, I’d have said you were nuts. I wouldn’t have bet money the Hawkeyes would even end up being bowl eligible, much less finish 8-4 and going somewhere warm to ring in the new year.

(Photo: SD Buhr)
(Photo: SD Buhr)

What I forgot, as I tend to do almost every season, is that Iowa usually plays their best football in November.

Now, to be fair, that Penn State game was in November and it was a stinkbomb (that I fortunately did not witness, as I was attending the Arizona Fall League’s Fall-Stars Game that night), but the Hawkeyes used the following game against Illinois (which has come to be known as the “B1G West Division’s Second Bye Week”) to gear up to upset Michigan and destroy Nebraska in the season’s final weeks.

It has been an interesting football season for me. While Iowa was losing to North Dakota State and Northwestern, the Vikings were being inked into the NFL playoffs and even projected by some as a Super Bowl contender.

Wow, did that change in a hurry.

Ironically, it was an article on Nebraska football by Omaha World Herald columnist Tom Shatel that provided some clarity to me concerning the difference between the fortunes of the Hawkeyes and Vikings.

The point of Shatel’s column (to me, anyway) was that, while Husker fans tend to look down their noses at the “vanilla programs” at Wisconsin and Iowa, Nebraska needs to emulate the Badgers and Hawkeyes, putting their past Big 8/12 days behind them, and figure out how to establish a similar physical identity.

Shatel wrote, “Wisconsin and Iowa know who they are and like who they are and don’t care what you think of them. It works for them.”

That’s mostly true. Sure. many of us wish a Kirk Ferentz team would show a little bit of offensive imagination (or, really, ANY imagination), but we’re also smart enough to know that no coach is likely to recruit four-star (much less five-star) skill position high school studs to play football in Iowa City (while staying within NCAA rules, anyway).

Iowa’s best chance of occasionally making noise on a national level is to bring in the biggest, baddest two-and-three-star linemen and linebackers it can find, spend a couple of years making them bigger and badder, then unleash them to terrorize the Nebraskas and Minnesotas, while battling Wisconsin for supremacy of the B1G West.

If you’re lucky, every once in a while, you’ll put together a group that will also give the big boys in the B1G East a challenge, too.

It’s seldom aesthetically pleasing to many of today’s college football fans, but Ferentz has taken 14 of his last 16 Hawkeye teams to bowl games and 11 of them were January bowl games (including two Orange Bowls and a Rose Bowl), so you can’t say it hasn’t worked.

Which makes me wonder if there’s a parallel between the Vikings and Cornhuskers.

Like many Vikes fans, I’ve been waiting for the next Culpepper-to-Moss combo to show up. Instead, we’ve watched as a parade of quarterbacks and receivers have failed to stretch NFL defenses, to the effect that almost the entire career of one of the most gifted running backs to grace an NFL field in decades has been wasted.

Yes, the Vikings lost the services of Adrian Peterson and Teddy Bridgewater before the 2016 season even got underway, but I can’t imagine any combination of skill players being successful behind the current offensive line. And I don’t want to hear about injuries to the O-line, either. Every team has linemen lose significant time to injury. Successful teams develop depth.

A moderately successful college program like Iowa, who must spend a couple years developing players to get a year or two of high-level contribution, can have its season derailed by critical injuries to upperclassmen linemen. But an NFL team that doesn’t have a constantly revolving recruiting cycle to contend with, should be able to develop and maintain enough depth to withstand some injuries on the line without seeing a promising season turn to crap the way Minnesota’s 2016 has.

The Hawkeyes will never be the Buckeyes, just as the Vikings are unlikely to ever become the Patriots. But if the Vikings will focus on developing beasts two-deep at each line position, and making that focus a part of their DNA going forward, maybe they’ll give the best the NFL has to offer a run for their money on a semi-regular basis.

Given the futility my fellow Vikings fans and I have endured the past couple of decades, I’d take that.

A Week of Baseball in Arizona – in Photos

I spent my final afternoon in the Phoenix area watching baseball this afternoon as Surprise (with 7 Twins prospects and pitching coach Ivan Arteaga) traveled to Mesa.

I thought a good way to put a wrap on this trip would be a post that includes several photos of each Twins participant along with some basic perceptions of what I saw from that player in admittedly limited action in the games I watched.

Let’s do this in reverse alphabetical order, shall we?

That means we start with lefty reliever Randy Rosario, a 22-year old from the Dominican Republic. I saw Randy twice, pitching two innings in each game. He gave up a couple hits, a walk and a run in the first outing on Monday, but struck out three in two hitless innings on Friday. Only one stadium in the AFL circuit shows pitch speed on the scoreboard (or “talent meter”, I’m told the pitchers call it), so I have no idea what kind of velocity Randy (or anyone else) had, but his fastball certainly was good enough to make some guys look silly with his off-speed stuff.

While they wait for their turn to take the mound, relievers take turns playing catch with the right fielder between innings. This was Rosario's turn.

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Next up would be another southpaw bullpen arm, Mason Melotakis. When I last saw Melo in action in a Kernels uniform in 2013, the Twins were trying to see if he could be converted to a starting pitcher. A couple of years (and one TJ surgery) later, he’s mowing batters down as a reliever. Melotakis was almost untouchable in his two 1-inning appearances this week, striking out 3 in a couple of 1-2-3 innings. He has given up just one hit in 10 innings. He has a 11/1 strikeout/walk ratio.

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I was glad to hear the Twins were sending shortstop Nick Gordon to Arizona, not necessarily because I thought he was near being ready for the big leagues, but because I was anxious to see how he would fare against better pitching than he’s likely seen thus far in his career. If his AFL performance is any indication, he could really move up quickly. Gordon was 4-11 in three games this week (though he went hitless in the “Fall Stars Game” Saturday night) and had a double and a triple. He’s hitting .344 for the fall with an .875 OPS. He’s been successful in 3 of 4 stolen base attempts.

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I only got to see one start from Stephen Gonsalves and it wasn’t what he, or anyone, was hoping for. Gonsalves has been dealing with a back/shoulder strain that caused him to miss most of the AFL season. He threw 2 innings in his return last Friday and managed to get just two outs in his start on Wednesday. His velocity was obviously way down and he struggled with control, leading to being charged with 4 runs on 3 hits and 3 walks. The Twins don’t give me a vote on these things, but I’d shut him down and just let him rest that tired arm. He should only have one more start scheduled in the AFL season anyway.

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Catcher Mitch Garver is completing his second stint in the AFL after playing here last fall, as well. Garver was just 3-13 in games I saw this week, with one double, but he was hitting a lot of pitches right on the screws. I’d love to know what the exit velocity was on the balls he hit, especially in the first two games I watched. Seven of Mitch’s 14 hits this fall have been for extra bases, four of which have left the park on the fly. Today (Friday), he also threw out three of four runners trying to steal second base on him.

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garverthrow3

If the Twins sent outfielder Tanner English to Arizona to find out if his success at AAA in the five games he spent with Rochester this year was a mirage, they’re getting their answer. No, English isn’t batting over .300, but he’s making good contact. I saw him strike out just once in 11 plate appearances this week and, technically, he DID bat .300 (3-10 exactly) in the games I saw. English also covers a lot of ground in the outfield and I saw a couple instances where he cut off a ball in a gap to hold the hitter at first base, rather than give up a double.

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Righthanded reliever John Curtiss started the 2016 season with the Cedar Rapids Kernels, so I’m guessing not many would have predicted he’d be finishing the year in the Arizona Fall League. But Curtiss tore through Midwest League hitters and got a quick promotion. The 6′ 4″ 23-year-old has shrugged off a tough first appearance in the AFL to have an excellent fall. He has struck out 16 while walking just 3 in 10 2/3 innings. In the two single-inning appearances I saw this week, he gave up just one hit, walked none and struck out two (both in today’s appearance).

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I also enjoyed getting a chance to catch up with Ivan Arteaga, who served as the Kernels’ pitching coach in 2014 and is filling that capacity with Surprise this fall. I’ve always enjoyed talking pitching, baseball and life, in general, with Ivan and this week was no exception,.

gonsalvesarteagaafl16bThis was my first trip to the AFL where all members of the Twins’ contingent had come through Cedar Rapids with the Kernels and I got a chance to at least say a quick ‘hi” to all of them. It’s just really enjoyable to see the way the players have matured as ballplayers now that they are so close to realizing their dream of playing Major League baseball.

(All photos are the property of S D Buhr and may not be used without permission. That said, permission is REALLY easy to get. Just ask.)

Images From Arizona Fall League – Day 2

Yeah, I really should have looked at the Surprise Saguaros’ schedule before I reserved my hotel for this trip. After Saturday night’s Fall Stars Game and Monday afternoon’s Surprise game, the Saguaros (for whom all of the Minnesota Twins AFP prospects play this fall) have no more home games while I’m in town.

The game today was the first of four games that Surprise is playing in some other distant part of the Phoenix area. Just means I’ll be doing a lot of driving between now and Friday. Live & learn, I suppose.

The Saguaros dropped a 10-7 decision to the Mesa Solar Sox this afternoon (Tuesday). It was interesting, in that Mesa scored four runs in each of the first two innings and when the score stood 8-5 after three and a half innings, this was looking like it had the makings of a four-hour game.

In the end, it wrapped up in two hours and forty-six minutes. It is not a coincidence that they use the pitch clock in this league. It really does keep the game moving.

It also didn’t hurt that the only two Twins prospects to take the field for Surprise, relief pitchers Mason Melotakis and John Curtiss, each worked a clean 1-2-3 inning when their turns came to toe the rubber.

Tomorrow afternoon, it’s over to Scottsdale. With any luck, some of the Twins’ position players will be back in the lineup and maybe I’ll even get to see Stephen Gonsalves get a start against Tim Tebow and the Scorpions.

As always (or almost always, anyway), here are a few pictures of Twins in action today.

Ivan Arteaga
Ivan Arteaga
Mason Melotakis
Mason Melotakis
Mason Melotakis covering first base on a ground ball to the first baseman
Mason Melotakis covering first base on a ground ball to the first baseman
Mason Melotakis
Mason Melotakis
John Curtiss
John Curtiss
John Curtiss
John Curtiss
John Curtiss
John Curtiss

All photos by S D Buhr and may not be used without permission.

Images from Arizona Fall League

For the third year, I’ve made the trip top the Phoenix area to watch a little November baseball in the Arizona Fall League and, while I have no pearls of wisdom to pass along, I thought the least I could do is share a few photos during the week.

The AFL consists of six teams that each use one of the Phoenix area MLB spring training sites and each big league team sends six or seven minor league prospects to participate. Representing the Twins this fall are pitchers Stephen Gonsalves, Randy Rosario, Mason Melotakis and John Curtiss, as well as shortstop Nick Gordon, outfielder Tanner English and catcher Mitch Garver.

As a bonus, for the first time, every Twins representative in the AFL is also a Cedar Rapids Kernels alum.

In addition, Ivan Arteaga is serving as the Surprise pitching coach this fall. Arteaga was the Kernels’ pitching coach in 2014.

After landing a bit late at the Mesa airport on Saturday, I missed the first half-inning of the AFL’s “Fall Stars” game on Saturday night, but it wasn’t a huge deal since Nick Gordon was the only representative in the game from the Twins organization.

After the league’s day off on Sunday, I got my first look at the Surprise Saguaros on Monday afternoon.

Garver, Gordon and English were all in the Surprise lineup on Monday and reliever Randy Rosario worked a pair of solid innings on the mound.

Now, here’s the photographic evidence of my attendance at the game!

Tanner English throwing a runner out at second base
Tanner English throwing a runner out at second base
Mitch Garver
Mitch Garver
Nick Gordon
Nick Gordon
Randy Rosario
Randy Rosario
Tanner English
Tanner English
Nick Gordon
Nick Gordon
Mitch Garver
Mitch Garver
Randy Rosario
Randy Rosario
Tanner English
Tanner English
Nick Gordon
Nick Gordon
Mitch Garver
Mitch Garver
Andy Ibanez (Rangers) awaits a throw from Garver as Brett Phillips (Brewers) slides. No, the picture doesn't involve any Twins prospects, but I just really liked the way the picture turned out! :)
Andy Ibanez (Rangers) awaits a throw from Garver as Brett Phillips (Brewers) slides. No, the picture doesn’t involve any Twins prospects, but I just really liked the way the picture turned out! 🙂

All photos are the property of S D Buhr. Use without permission is prohibited.

Never Forget

It’s incredible to think that there is now almost a complete generation of Americans who have little or no direct recollection of the day the United States was attacked and thousands of people lost their lives when the two tallest buildings collapsed to the ground in New York City.

never-forgetI suppose my parents’ generation felt much the same way about Pearl Harbor and all of the horrors that came about out of World War II.

Of course, I remember 9/11 and as long as I have my full mental capacities, I always will. I’ll remember one of our administrative assistants sticking her head into my office and telling me a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers. I’ll remember doing almost no work that day as I was hitting “refresh” on CNN.com every minute or two. And I’ll remember trying to reach friends who lived and/or worked in Manhattan to make sure they were safe.

As much as that day, though, I’ll remember what came after.

I’ll remember the stories of the bravery and ultimate sacrifices made by first responders that day.

I’ll also remember the way sports helped return a sense of normalcy to our lives, while at the same time giving us an avenue for expressing our strong resolution that, while we Americans disagree on many things, we are one people and when you come after us the way Al Qaeda did that day, we will stand together.

There’s a lot of talk today about how various NFL stadiums, athletes and others will be choosing to memorialize this 15th anniversary of that day. I’m sure some will be better than others, but I’m confident there will be some very touching scenes.

That’s all well and good.

But what I would much prefer to see is a return to that sense of unity that we all felt in the aftermath of that attack. In the past 15 years, it feels like we have turned from a diverse people held together by a common pride in what our country can stand for into a population irreparably fragmented along lines defined by political ideology, race, gender and other factors.

That saddens me and, in some ways, it makes me feel like we might be dishonoring somewhat those who have given their lives so that we are free to express our differences.

Later today, I’ll spend my day watching the Vikings on television and going to Clinton to watch the Kernels in the Midwest League Playoffs, Most of you will be doing similar “normal” Sunday things, as well.

But for just a few moments, let’s reflect on 9/11 – and the way we’ve evolved as a population over the subsequent 15 years – and consider what each of us can do to make our country something worthy of honoring those who lost their lives that day

-Steve

P.S. This weekend, I read an incredible recounting of 9/11 from the perspective of the people who were traveling with President Bush on 9/11. It’s at Politico.com and you can find it by clicking here. It’s not a quick read, but it’s well worth your time. One thing that really stood out to me was just how “backward” technology was just 15 years ago, even aboard the most technologically well-equipped aircraft in the world, at the time.

Kernels on the Links

Every year, a number of Cedar Rapids Kernels players and coaches spend one of their off-days sweating on a golf course with a bunch of people willing to shell out a couple dollars (actually a bit more) for the pleasure of sharing their company as they knock a little white ball about 6,000 yards around a local golf course to benefit the organization’s childrens’ reading program.

Max Cordy is slightly taller than Sean Miller
Max Cordy is slightly taller than Sean Miller

Today was such a day.

I was fortunate enough to get to be part of a fivesome that included Kernels relief pitcher Max Cordy.

It's in the hole! OK - maybe not.
It’s in the hole! OK – maybe not.

Cordy is a 23-year-old righthander drafted by the Twins out of UC-Davis a year ago, made just three appearances at E’Town this year before being promoted to Cedar Rapids. He has a 2.00 in eight appearances for Cedar Rapids and is striking out about one batter per inning since arriving in Cedar Rapids.

Our group didn’t come close to winning anything in the 5-man best-shot competition, but that didn’t stop us from having a good time, despite enduring some heat (and even more humidity) as we made our way around Hunter’s Ridge Golf Course.

Kernels infielder Sean Miller was playing with the group ahead of us on the course and, despite our best efforts, we couldn’t even hit a decent shot into Miller’s group to make them nervous.

The golf outing is just one of several ways Twins minor leaguers participate in community relations activities in the Cedar Rapids area during the season.

That drive was right down the middle!
That drive was right down the middle!

I’d like to tell you everything Max and I talked about during our 4+ hours together, but what’s said on the golf course stays on the golf course. Plus, I might have had a beer or two during the round, so I probably wouldn’t relate anything we talked about accurately anyway.