Cedar Rapids Welcomes the 2016 Kernels

A modest, but devoted, crowd of fans, staff and host parents greeted manager Jake Mauer, his field staff and 24 players to Veterans Memorial Stadium with applause and a handful of signs as they stepped off their bus from the Cedar Rapids airport early Monday evening.

It was upwards of 70 degrees in Florida when the team departed their Fort Myers spring training camp earlier in the day and many of the players were still sporting the short sleeve sport shirts that were more appropriate on departure than they were upon arrival at their new home, where temperatures hovered a degree or two on one side or the other of 40 degrees.

Mr Shucks spends some time with young Kernels fans while they wait for the team's bus to arrive.
Mr Shucks spends some time with young Kernels fans while they wait for the team’s bus to arrive.
Manager Jake Mauer steps off the bus to the applause of local fans. (Photo: SD Buhr)
Manager Jake Mauer steps off the bus to the applause of local fans. (Photo: SD Buhr)
Young Kernels fans greeting the arriving 2016 Kernels
Young Kernels fans greeting the arriving 2016 Kernels

After arriving and settling into his office, Mauer confirmed that pitcher Michael Cederoth, originally listed as a member of the initial Kernels roster, did not make the trip to Cedar Rapids with the team. The manager indicated that Cederoth has an issue with his back and that no final decision has yet been communicated concerning who will take his spot on the active roster.

The Kernels will get a formal welcome from media and fans on Tuesday evening, between 5:00 and 7:00, with an introduction of the players and a short workout open to the public beginning at 7:00, weather permitting.

The Quad Cities River Bandits will visit Cedar Rapids on Thursday to open the 2016 season. Game time is 6:35.

-Steve

Who’s Going to Win in 2016?

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the upcoming 2016 Major League season and I’ve gone through every division thoroughly enough to make predictions that I am absolutely confident in.

ouijaYeah, that’s a lie. In fact, that sentence included multiple lies. I’ve barely given a passing thought to the likely fortunes of any team in the National League, I can’t honestly say I’ve thoroughly considered any division and I’m not at all confident my predictions will be anything close to accurate.

Yet, here we are. The season is underway so I might as well make some predictions. After all, if I’m way off, I’ll never mention them again, but if I benefit from a healthy dose of dumb luck, I’ll have opportunities later in the season to link back to this post as evidence of how smart I am. Win-win.

Let’s start with the National League.

NL East:

1 – Nationals, 2 – Mets, 3 – Marlins, 4 – Phillies, 5 – Braves

Almost everyone seems to be handing this division to the Mets, but I think the Nats’ roster is just better and Dusty Baker will whip that roster from start to finish. Of course, he may whip them so hard that the organization won’t be competitive again for a decade, but that’s a different issue.

Ordinarily, I couldn’t imagine any way the Phillies would escape the division cellar, but that was until I looked at the Braves’ roster.

NL West:

1 – Giants, 2 – Dodgers, 3 – Diamondbacks, 4 – Padres, 5 – Rockies

As with the Mets, the Giants seem to be the consensus pick in their division. The Dodgers could be very good, but they also could be very mediocre. The Giants, at worst, will just be good, so I’ll take my chances with them.

NL Central:

1 – Pirates, 2 – Cubs, 3 – Cardinals, 4 – Reds, 5 – Brewers

Going back to swimming against the tide, I’m not going with the popular pick, which would be the Cubs. It has nothing to do with really not liking the Cubs or Cubs fans. Yeah, that’s another lie. It has everything to do with not liking the Cubs or their fans.

I do, however, really like the roster the Pirates have assembled and I think they’ll do very well.

NL Wild Card: I’m going with the Mets and Dodgers because the bottom three teams in their divisions are worse, in my opinion, than the bottom three in the Central. Oh, and I really don’t like the Cubs.

I’ll pick the Giants to win the National League pennant.

AL East:

1 – Blue Jays, 2 – Yankees, 3 – Red Sox, 4 – Rays, 5 – Orioles

I’m not sure there’s a division in baseball with one team that is more clearly the favorite, in my mind, than the AL East. Maybe the Red Sox will be much improved and maybe the Yankees will find the fountain of youth. I don’t think either is particularly likely, but one (or both) could happen and the Jays could still be good enough to take the division.

AL West:

1 – Astros, 2 – Mariners, 3 – Rangers, 4 – Athletics, 5 – Angels

I’d love to say I see the Astros regressing, but it’s just not likely. The Rangers are a popular dark horse pick, but I just don’t see it. I can, however, see Seattle bouncing back up into relevancy before Felix Hernandez’s career is completely wasted by the Mariners. And speaking of an organization completely wasting a future Hall of Famer’s career, the Angels are going to stink again, despite having the best player in baseball playing centerfield for them.

AL Central:

1 – Twins, 2 – Royals, 3 – Tigers, 4 – Indians, 5 – White Sox

I have three reasons for picking the Twins to win this division. One, I genuinely see them being much better than they were a year ago (at least if the decision to keep Nolasco in the Opening Day rotation is the last really costly decision the front office makes); two, there is no position in baseball in which one season’s exceptional performance is less likely to be repeated than that of relief pitcher and the Royals will not repeat if their bullpen suddenly becomes anything short of extraordinary. Combine that with three other teams who I simply can’t see as likely to be terribly strong and it means the Twins could see opportunity knock. Oh, and third, I really want to be able to point back to this post in October if the Twins do win this thing.

AL Wild Card: The Royals should easily get one of these spots. Frankly, I could see the Tigers getting the other, but I’m going to go with the Mariners because the AL West competition will be the worst of the three AL divisions.

I’ll take the Blue Jays to win the AL pennant and take home the championship trophy over the Giants in the World Series.

Now, please forget these picks unless and until a significant number of them turn out to be right and I link back to this post six or seven months from now.

-Steve

Kernels’ Opening Day Roster Announced

The Cedar Rapids Kernels and their Major League affiliate, the Minnesota Twins, have announced the club’s Opening Day roster and there are a healthy number of players that should be familiar to Kernels fans as 16 of the 25 members spent time with the Kernels at some point during the 2015 season.

The Kernels will open with a 13-man pitching staff and, as has generally been the case since the Twins/Kernels affiliation began in 2013, they appear poised to utilize a 6-man starting pitching rotation.

Indications are that the rotation will include returning arms Michael Cederoth, Sam Clay, Sam Gibbons, Randy LeBlanc and Dereck Rodriguez, along with newcomer Andro Cutura.

Sam Gibbons (Photo: SD Buhr)
Sam Gibbons (Photo: SD Buhr)

The bullpen will have Nick Anderson, John Curtiss, CK Irby, Michael Theofanopolous and Zack Tillery returning to Cedar Rapids, while Kuo Hua Lo and Logan Lombana will be getting their first looks at the Midwest League.

Rafael Valera saw time in the Kernels’ infield a year ago and, since the end of last season has been learning a new position. He will be one of three catchers to open the season in Cedar Rapids and will be joined by new Kernels receivers Bryant Hayman and AJ Murray.

Like Valera, Jorge Fernandez returns to the Kernels to learn an new position. After primarily catching during his time with Cedar Rapids, Fernandez now will be manning an outfield spot. Max Murphy and LaMonte Wade will also be returning to the Kernels outfield and Chris Cavaness will be the lone newbie in Manager Jake Mauer’s outfield.

Sean Miller (Photo: SD Buhr)
Sean Miller (Photo: SD Buhr)

Infielders Sean Miller and Chris Paul saw time with the Kernels last season and will return in 2016, being joined in the infield by Zander Wiel, Luis Arraez and Jermaine Palacios.

Mauer will be returning for his fourth season at the Kernels’ helm. Mauer has had a different pitching coach in each of his seasons leading Cedar Rapids and that trend continues in 2016. JP Martinez will be the fourth Kernels pitching coach in as many years. Brian Dinkelman will serve his first year under Mauer as the Kernels’ hitting coach.

The Kernels are schedule to arrive in Cedar Rapids shortly after 6:00 pm Monday evening and the club is encouraging fans to join a welcome rally in the Veterans Memorial Stadium parking lot at 6:30.

The annual “Meet the Kernels” event for fans will be held on Tuesday evening, beginning at 5:15 pm. Fans will be able to meet and chat with players and staff on the concourse. At 7:00, Mauer will formally introduce the players fans after which the team will go through their first workout on Perfect Game Field, weather permitting.

The Kernels will open their 2016 season on Thursday, hosting the Quad Cities River Bandits.

 

Twins Moving to Cedar Rapids

For some time, now, I have been trying to find ways to spend my “retirement” years involved with professional baseball. I’ve finally found the answer and decided that April 1 was the perfect time to release the announcement.

I have come to an agreement to purchase the Minnesota Twins from the Pohlad family and yes, I will be moving the club to Cedar Rapids. (I mean, it was either that or I had to move to Minnesota and, no offense, but I’ve lived there already. Pass.)

New Twins owner - me.
New Twins owner – me.

I’ve always wanted to own a Major League team and, like pretty much every Twins fan (or at least all of them who have access to the internet), I have always believed I could run the team better than anyone who actually was responsible for doing so.

As part of the agreement, the Twins’ Class A affiliation will be in Minneapolis, giving Target Field a tenant for at least as long as the original agreement required when taxpayers paid for construction.

Twins President (for now), Dave St. Peter, was pleased with this development.

“I’ve often said in the past that it would be nice to be able to watch the Twins’ young minor league talent play in the Twin Cities,” St. Peter said. “This agreement brings that dream to reality.”

I have scheduled a meeting with Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett to discuss how we can best go about adding an additional 35,000 seats to Veterans Memorial Stadium. I see no insurmountable issues there, as long as the city is willing to cough up the money for the renovations.

As for staff decisions, all positions will be posted at corridorcareers.com. All current Twins employees from St. Peter to every usher and beer vendor, will be invited to apply for their current positions (or any other job they might think they’d be good at). I learned in my experience in the professional world that is is the way progressive companies do things these days.

There is one exception to this policy. General Manager Terry Ryan will be retained.

I’ve made this decision for two reasons. First, I genuinely respect Mr. Ryan and, though I don’t always agree with his decisions, I believe he is very good at his job. Even if I didn’t feel that way about the GM, I’d keep him anyway, just because I know how much it’s going to piss off Twins bloggers/fans/commenters/know-it-alls all over Twins Territory.

There will be some pretty noticeable changes, however. For example, because of my fondness for the Iowa Hawkeyes, much of my wardrobe is black and gold. After paying for the Twins, I’m not going to also go out and buy a new wardrobe. The Twins’ colors will instead become black and gold.

Finally, while I will not be lifting the MLB.tv blackout policy from covering the entire state of Iowa, at least that blackout policy will finally make some sense.

I look forward to meeting all of the new Twins fans when the team opens the 2017 in Cedar Rapids. I hope those of you in the Twin Cities enjoy your final season of watching the Twins and I’m sure you will enjoy watching Midwest League games in the future.

-Steve

Ricky Nolasco? Really?

Entering the spring, there appeared to be eight pitchers contending for the five rotation spots on the Twins’ Opening Day roster. I thought that constituted more depth than at any time in the past several years.

Absent injuries (or, as we learned last season, lengthy suspensions for PED use), Ervin Santana, Kyle Gibson and Phil Hughes were going to be starting games in their Twins uniforms. Tyler Duffey, to me, had showed enough in 2015 that he shouldn’t be too concerned about his roster spot.

That left one rotation spot up for grabs between Tommy Milone (the lone lefty in the group), Trevor May, Jose Berrios and Nolasco.

With those four options, how did we end up with Ricky Nolasco opening the season as the Twins’ fifth starter?

Ricky Nolasco (Photo: SD Buhr)
Ricky Nolasco (Photo: SD Buhr)

May was told early in March that he’d be opening the season in the bullpen, ending his participation in the rotation sweepstakes.

Berrios was informed that he isn’t ready for prime time and will open his season at Triple-A Rochester.

Milone had a good spring, assuring that the Twins will have one southpaw in their rotation, but instead of claiming the final starting spot, he essentially claimed the fourth spot and bumped Duffey down into a one-on-one face-off with Nolasco for the final spot.

As Edward Thoma writes in a very good piece over at his Baseball Outsider blog, the situation with Duffey is troubling on several levels.

Let’s be clear about one thing – Duffey didn’t pitch particularly well this spring. That’s something he readily admitted himself when interviewed following his demotion to Rochester this week. Nolasco hasn’t been terrific, either, but he has had somewhat better stats than Duffey (though much of Nolasco’s work was against minor league hitters on the back fields of the Twins’ complex).

But, as Thoma reminds us in his post, Duffey wasn’t told, entering spring training, that he needed to have better statistics than the other contenders to earn a rotation spot. In fact, he was told to work on his change up, which he did. That work didn’t go particularly well as he and his developing change up got knocked around quite a bit.

If Duffey had been told he needed to put up better stats than Ricky Nolasco to go north with the Twins, last year’s experience would suggest to us that he’d have had little trouble besting Nolasco simply by using his existing repertoire of two fastballs and two breaking balls.

Tyler Duffey (Photo: SD Buhr)
Tyler Duffey (Photo: SD Buhr)

However, the change up is pitching coach Neil Allen’s baby. Since being hired to Molitor’s staff, the one thing written about Allen more than anything else is his devotion to the change up. Since Duffey used his change up all of about 2% of the time during his 2015 time with the Twins, it’s not surprising that Allen would be pushing him to improve that pitch.

But Duffey, without a change up, wasn’t a borderline fifth starter for the Twins at the end of 2015. He was arguably the most effective starting pitcher they had.

Would an effective change up be helpful to Duffey? Certainly. But even without one, he was pretty damn good last summer. Certainly better than almost anyone would reasonably expect Nolasco to be at this point.

Did Duffey’s focus on his change up this spring, in lieu of spending the time sharpening his existing pitches to prepare for the season, cost him a rotation spot that was his to lose entering spring camp? If so, did he really lose his spot or did a Neil Allen obsession with the pitch cost Duffey that spot and, by extension, cost the Twins games Nolasco eventually loses that Duffey, sans change up, would have won?

Allen’s predecessor as Twins pitching coach, Rick Anderson, became famous – or, more accurately, infamous – for implementing a system-wide “pitch to contact” philosophy that de-emphasized strike outs. That philosophy was adopted at every level of the Twins’ system and it was rare (to say the least) to see pitching prospects who did not embrace that philosophy rise to the big league level with the Twins.

We will never know how different the Twins’ fortunes might have been had they put more emphasis on missing bats throughout the organization during Anderson’s term with the Twins. What we do know is that, during the latter years of Anderson’s era, while he was enforcing his obsession, other teams were developing pitchers with better velocity and winning more games than Anderson’s staffs of comparative soft-tossers were.

I’m hoping we are not witnessing something similar with regard to Allen and his love for the change up, but if Duffey’s spring is any indication, it’s something we should keep an eye on.

Just as it was perfectly fine for Anderson to expound on the advantages of developing sufficient command and control to find spots where hitters are most likely to make weak contact, it’s also perfectly fine for Allen to preach the benefits of a good change up.

The problem comes when those sermons become absolute dogma that is forced upon every pitcher in the organization to the point where it is made clear they have no future in the organization without following it.

Heading into spring training, we are always told over and over again that we shouldn’t read too much into spring stats. Pitchers are often focusing on particular pitches, which hitters figure out pretty quickly during a spring game, so we shouldn’t get too excited about, or too down on, particular players based simply on stat lines.

That’s fine.

So, if we throw out the stats, explain to me again why Tyler Duffey and Jose Berrios are going to be wearing jerseys with Red Wings on the chest in April, while Ricky Nolasco is taking the mound for the Twins every fifth game.

I can’t think of any reasons for that, other than that Duffey was told he needed to spend his spring focused on developing a change up, which he arguably has demonstrated he did not need to effectively retire Major League hitters, and that the Twins can retain control over Berrios for an extra year if he spends a couple of months in Rochester to open the season.

OK, that’s not really true. I can think of about 25 million other reasons. But I hope that the Twins have reached the point where money isn’t the primary factor behind roster decisions.

The only thing that should matter to the Twins is, “who can get out big league hitters better?”

I’m sorry, but there is no way I can look at the group of May, Berrios, Duffey and Nolasco and be convinced that the best option for the Twins’ fifth rotation spot is Ricky Nolasco.

Whether the reason Nolasco is in this rotation is because the front office didn’t improve their bullpen enough to allow May to move into the rotation or because they want to keep Berrios’ big league service clock from starting until June or because Duffey was told to focus his spring on a pitch he doesn’t need or because the Twins don’t want to throw the $25 million they still owe Nolasco down the toilet, the result is that the Twins are likely to lose more games in 2016 than they would have with one of the other three pitchers opening in the rotation instead of Nolasco.

The Twins may have pulled themselves out of the ranks of the irrelevant in 2015, but they won’t be contenders again until the first and only factor determining the make-up of their roster is winning baseball games and the last I knew, games won or lost in April count exactly the same as those in June, July, August and September.

-Steve

Will Write for Beer

I just returned from a 10 day vacation in Fort Myers, Florida. In a way, my annual trip to hang out on the grounds of the Minnesota Twins spring training complex is a “working vacation.” I do, after all, spend a lot of time there watching this season’s prospective Cedar Rapids Kernels and having conversations with front office staff, coaches and former Kernels players, all of which, I believe, prepares me to do a better job of writing about the Kernels once the season starts in April.

1422057369395This year’s trip to Florida, however, started out on a bit of down note. While enjoying some lunch at a Sonny’s BBQ in Georgia on the drive down, I checked my email and discovered that the degree to which my Florida trek would be a true “working” vacation was perhaps significantly lower than originally thought. I received word that MetroSportsReport.com, for whom I have been covering the Kernels for the past three baseball seasons, was suspending operations and my services would no longer be required.

The news didn’t come as a complete shock to me, for a couple of reasons.

First, perhaps, is because it wasn’t the first time in the past year that I’ve been invited to cease working for someone. Last summer, my “day job” employer of some 38 years also decided they no longer needed me to show up for work. So, being told I no longer have a job is just becoming a regular thing for  me.

Second, and more importantly for the purposes of this discussion, it simply is no longer surprising when any sportswriter (or anyone involved in a journalism business) finds him/herself out of a gig. It may be because of staff cutbacks, financial belt-tightenings, or, as is the case of MetroSportsReport.com, an entity determining that it is just too hard to keep a journalism business afloat.

I’m grateful to Jim Ecker, the owner of MSR, for having given me the opportunity to help cover Kernels baseball the past three seasons. I not only got paid to go to ballparks and write about baseball, but I gained a significant appreciation for the work that regular beat writers do. If you think that it’s easy to find an interesting angle for game stories that will draw readers’ interest night after night, you only need to try doing it for a week or two to learn you are very mistaken. Covering a beat – any beat – can be difficult work and the people doing that work are facing some tough truths in their chosen profession these days.

One of those difficult truths is that sportswriting (and news reporting in general), as a business, is challenged to find a way to stay relevant and financially solvent at the same time. Newspapers are losing circulation as people rely more and more on the internet as their channel of choice for news and information of all types. If the employer experiences revenue challenges, it’s not good news for those working for that employer, no matter how well they do their jobs.

I confess that I’m part of the problem because I haven’t subscribed to a newspaper in this millennium.

It used to be that when I wanted to buy or sell something, the first thing I did was open the Cedar Rapids Gazette. I’d look for local sales. Maybe I would check the personal ads for a used snowblower or place an ad to sell a set of golf clubs I no longer needed. When was the last time any of us did that? Everything I want is now available with a couple of keystrokes.

Of course, I still like to read about local sports. Fortunately, the Gazette has an online site where I can find the latest game stories and columns about the Iowa Hawkeyes and the Cedar Rapids Kernels and the Hawkeyes and, pretty much every day, several more stories about the Hawkeyes.

And I don’t pay a nickel for any of it. On the Gazette site, I read the work of Jeff Johnson, Marc Morehouse, Mike Hlas and Scott Dochterman regularly and they don’t see a cent from me.

Sure, I have to answer a survey (or at least indicate I choose not to answer a survey) to read the story I want, but I don’t mind that.

I read the St. Paul Pioneer Press coverage of the Twins and Vikings regularly and I don’t pay anything for that. Sorry, Mike Berardino, you’re getting none of my money, either.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune started charging a few bucks for full access to their online site a few years ago. I’m sure they experienced resistance to that policy, but not from me. I pay the monthly charge because I value their coverage of the Twins and Vikings enough that it’s worth it, to me. I guess that means that Phil Miller, LaVelle E. Neal, Howard Sinker and Matt Vensel are taking a couple pennies out of my pocket, but I think I’m getting good value for those pennies.

I read recently that one of the original Twins bloggers, Aaron Gleeman, lost his writing job with NBCSports.com. I paid nothing to find that information out. I read that information free on Twitter. I paid exactly that same amount to read Aaron’s writing work with NBC and, I suspect, that’s a big reason why Gleeman is looking for a new gig now.

We all know the various ways that organizations, big and small, have been trying to monetize online content. The surveys I mentioned the Gazette using are common. MSR tried (ultimately unsuccessfully) to rely on local advertising sales of static ads for each section/page of the site. TwinsDaily.com, where many of us in the Twins fan community spend a good chunk of our time, has used video ads in addition to the static ads. They also publish sponsored content.

Some online advertising is flat out annoying. I don’t care how much I enjoy your content, if you have ads that blast commercials at me any time my mouse happens to roll over the wrong point on your site, I’m not going to spend much, if any, time at your site.

The annoying ads are coming back to bite the online publishers, however. They led to what should have been seen as the inevitable development of “ad blocker” programs. I don’t use such a program, but my understanding is that they not only block the annoying ads, but even the unobtrusive ads. That’s a problem for anyone trying to make a living from publishing news online.

Some of the “big boys” in the business (NY Times, Wall Street Journal, etc.) have fought back and will not allow users of ad blocking applications to access their sites. They can afford to do that. Most others are going to have to find another way to continue making some amount of money from their online content.

By now, if you’re still reading this, you are probably wondering why this is so interesting to me that I’m writing about it. The answer is pretty simple. Have I mentioned that I’ve lost two jobs now in the past few months?

I’m much more fortunate than most of my fellow suddenly unemployed writers. I’ve got a pension and retirement account sufficient to assure I’ll have a roof and food and I’ve reached the age where I can tap those accounts without tax penalties.

I’ll survive. But I’d like to do more than just survive. I’d like to continue generating a little income from any time I spend somewhere other than on the golf course (I’m sure as heck not going to make any money ON the golf course, with my game).

When you “retire,” as I have, you get one consistent piece of advice: “Now you can look for ways to earn some money doing the things you enjoy doing.” What’s often, but not always, left unspoken is the last phrase of that sentence, which would go something like, “… instead of spending 50-60 hours a week enduring the soul-poisoning BS you’ve been putting up with at your job all those years.”

There’s certainly some truth to that sentiment in my case. I haven’t missed my old day job for one second since the day I walked out of the office. Missed some of the people, but not the job itself for a single moment.

But I’m still dealing somewhat with the, “what do I do now?” thing.

I’ve got one particular project lined up that I’m really looking forward to. For now, anyway, that would fall into the “volunteer work” category more so than “gainful employment.” If it goes well, that could eventually change, however, and it will definitely be something I’ll enjoy doing.

But I really do enjoy writing and it would be nice to at least make enough money from it to support my developing craft beer consumption habit and, just maybe, a bit more than that, so that my retirement income sources stretch a bit longer. Is that too much to ask?

Ordinarily, it wouldn’t be. But my interest, in this case, happens to coincide with an environment in which people who are much more experienced and talented at the work are losing their jobs every day because the people who pay them can’t figure out how to get consumers to pay them enough to support the costs of providing content. And that sucks.

For now, I’m going to continue writing, even if my material only appears here at Knuckleballs and, possibly, also over at Twins Daily, at least occasionally.

We at Knuckleballs have never received a cent of revenue from the site. We don’t include advertising of any kind and we have rejected all offers of sponsored content. Our content has remained the very essence of free content. That may continue or it may not.

I believe that it is (or should be) reasonable for us, as consumers, to expect to pay something for the information, opinions and other content we want to enjoy. People who go to the effort to provide that content, even an old part-timer like me, should rightfully expect to receive some form of remuneration for the work put in if the content we provide is deemed worthy of being read.

Unfortunately, smarter people than I have failed, thus far, to come up with a reliable system that accomplishes that.

A small operation like Knuckleballs, in the hands of someone who has some financial flexibility, might be able to experiment a bit with new options.

Ironically, that would require a lot more research and work on my part, for which I would continue to be uncompensated.

It’s a vicious circle, I tell you. Maybe I need to go to my favorite neighborhood bar while I contemplate things. Anyone want to buy me a beer?

-Steve

Spring Training Photos, the Finale

Today was my last day hanging around the Twins spring training site. Tuesday is a beach day and we hit the road to head back to Iowa on Wednesday morning.

Today was a bittersweet day at the complex as several minor leaguers were given their release early in the morning, including several former Kernels that we’ve gotten to know over the past couple of seasons. I wish them all the best of luck in whatever comes next in their lives, whether with baseball or otherwise.

I spent my afternoon on the minor league side of the complex, once again watching the future Kernels and future Miracle take on their Red Sox counterparts, followed by a stop for some local craft brews to take home and dinner near the Fort Myers Beach pier.

That’s enough writing. Here are a few final photos from this year’s trip.

Eddie Del Rosario
Eddie Del Rosario
Bryant Hayman
Bryant Hayman
Daniel Kihle
Daniel Kihle
Logan Lombana
Logan Lombana
AJ Murray
AJ Murray
Brian Olson
Brian Olson

 

Spring Training Photos, Part Deux

Today will likely be my final day at the Twins’ spring training complex for this season and even that will fall into the “weather permitting” category.

I’m sure those of you who woke up to sub-freezing temperatures this morning won’t be feeling sorry for us down here, but the forecast for today is temperatures just in the 60s and winds strong enough to make the “wind chill” feel several degrees cooler than that.

Still, the plan is to try to catch one more afternoon of minor league baseball so I’ll endeavor to carry on through the day.

Tomorrow is the last full day of the trip to Florida before packing up to start the drive home on Wednesday and it seems like a day in the upper 70s means one last day hanging out on and near the beach would be appropriate.

Before I head to the ballpark today, I thought I would post one more set of photos from the last couple of days, which included time both on the minor league side and also within Hammond Stadium watching the Twins fall to a team of Evil Empire wannabes on Sunday afternoon.

First a few players looking to spend time in a Kernels uniform either this year or, possibly, the next. Some have already spent a little time in Cedar Rapids, while others would be getting their first taste of full season minor league ball.

Potential Kernels 3B Travis Blankenhorn
Travis Blankenhorn
Manuel Guzman
Manuel Guzman
Kuo Hua Lo
Kuo Hua Lo
Amaurys Minier
Amaurys Minier
Miles Nordgren
Miles Nordgren
Jermaine Polacios
Jermaine Polacios
Fernando Romero
Fernando Romero
Lamonte Wade
Lamonte Wade
Zander Wiel
Zander Wiel
Trey Cabbage
Trey Cabbage
Ruar Verkerk
Ruar Verkerk
Luis Arraez
Luis Arraez
Nelson Molina
Nelson Molina

Now, a few old friends who have already passed through Cedar Rapids on their way up the Twins’ organizational ladder.

Jose Berrios
Jose Berrios
Byron Buxton
Byron Buxton
Chad Christensen
Chad Christensen
Mitch Garver (I have no idea what he and the umpire were looking at, but I'm sure it was interesting)
Mitch Garver (I have no idea what he and the umpire were looking at, but I’m sure it was interesting)
Randy LeBlanc
Randy LeBlanc
Alex Real
Alex Real
Let's not forget, Twins likely Opening Day starting pitcher Ervin Santana was a Kernel as he worked his way up in the Angels organization.
Let’s not forget, Twins likely Opening Day starting pitcher Ervin Santana was a Kernel as he worked his way up in the Angels organization.

The 2016 Kernels field staff

Left to right, pitching coach JP Martinez, hitting coach Brian Dinkelman and manager Jake Mauer
Left to right, pitching coach JP Martinez, hitting coach Brian Dinkelman and manager Jake Mauer

Finally, a few current Twins who did not have the privilege of spending time in a Kernels jersey on their way up to the big leagues model their new red jerseys.

Brian Dozier
Brian Dozier
Eduardo Escobar
Eduardo Escobar
Joe Mauer
Joe Mauer
John Ryan Murphy
John Ryan Murphy
Eddie Rosario
Eddie Rosario
Miguel Sano
Miguel Sano

 

Twins Spring Training Through the Lens

I’ve been down in Fort Myers, Florida, for five days now, so I decided it was time to post an update on my activities here this week.

A week ago, we spent the first night on the road in Nashville and took in the Grand Ole Opry. I’m not a big country music fan, but you don’t need to be to enjoy the Opry show.

We arrived in Fort Myers Monday afternoon and, checking into our Fort Myers Beach apartment and having a great dinner at the Salty Crab (formerly Nemo’s) on the beach.

I was on the Twins’ campus Tuesday morning to take in the minor leaguers’ morning workouts. I stuck around for an afternoon of intrasquad games on the minor league fields.

Wednesday afternoon, it was the AA and AAA Twins squads taking on their Oriole counterparts in the afternoon and the Twins hosting the Red Sox in the evening.

I had the opportunity to interview Cedar Rapids native Ryan Sweeney on Wednesday to discuss how his attempt to win an outfield role with the Twins is going. You can read that article over at MetroSportsReport.com by clicking here.

(As an aside, that article will likely be my last work for MSR. Unfortunately, the owner of that site, Jim Ecker, has decided to close up shop at MSR. I have helped MSR cover the Cedar Rapids Kernels for the past three seasons and will always be thankful to Jim for giving me the opportunity to write for his site.)

Thursday, I caught the two Class A squads facing off with the Rays’ A level players in the afternoon followed by a trip up to Sarasota where the Twins traveled to play the Orioles.

Friday was a non-baseball day, with a couple of hours spent turning my flesh red on Fort Myers Beach before heading to Ron Dao’s Pizzeria and Sports Bar to watch the Hawkeyes hoops team claim an overtime win over Temple in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

I’m about to head back over to the Twins’ camp this afternoon (Saturday) to watch the Class A teams again. Sunday will see the Yankees invading Hammond Stadium to take on the Twins in the afternoon.

With all of that as background, here’s just a few of the hundreds of pictures I’ve already taken. Enjoy.

ST16b
Minor leaguers getting their morning stretches in
Tom Kelly giving instructions to a group of Class A first basemen, as Doug Mientkiewicz and Tommy Watkins listen in, as well.
Tom Kelly giving instructions to a group of Class A first basemen, as Doug Mientkiewicz and Tommy Watkins listen in, as well.
Jose Berrios
Jose Berrios
Cam Booser
Cam Booser
JT Chargois
JT Chargois
Andro Cutura
Andro Cutura
New Kernels hitting coach Brian Dinkelman
New Kernels hitting coach Brian Dinkelman
New Kernels pitching coach JP Martinez
New Kernels pitching coach JP Martinez
Jermaine Palacios
Jermaine Palacios
Mike Strong
Mike Strong
Lamonte Wade
Lamonte Wade
Ryan Sweeney waits out a Red Sox pitching change
Ryan Sweeney waits out a Red Sox pitching change
Trey Cabbage
Trey Cabbage
Sam Clay
Sam Clay
Phil Hughes getting some work in a minor league game
Phil Hughes getting some work in a minor league game
Jorge Polanco
Jorge Polanco
Taylor Rogers
Taylor Rogers
Miguel Sano
Miguel Sano

 

Did the Minnesota Twins Tank?

What is baseball going to do about teams tanking?

That question, framed in one manner or another, is being posed incessantly by baseball media’s talking heads as Major League Baseball prepares to kick off the 2016 season.

tanking2There’s no question that teams like the Washington Nationals, Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs have emerged from prolonged periods of ineptitude to become not only competitive, but, in the case of the Cubs, the odds-on preseason favorite to win the 2016 World Series.

The focus of most discussions seems to be on trying to differentiate between “tanking” – that is, intentionally designing your Major League roster in such a way that it will be all but impossible to lose fewer than 90 games (and likely considerably more) – and “rebuilding,” which is simply attempting to do whatever is deemed necessary, within the rules of the game, to improve talent levels to the point where your team can realistically compete for a championship.

It is, seemingly, a distinction without a difference. Yet, “rebuilding” is almost always viewed as simply a necessary process teams having a bad season or two must undergo, while “tanking” is portrayed as a serious threat to the competitive balance of Major League Baseball.

Tanking, I suppose, is arguably just one method at a general manager’s disposal to accomplish a rebuild. If so, it is quite possibly the most effective method available to teams that are considered middle or small market organizations, without the necessary financial resources to fill every critical roster gap with a top-tier free agent.

While the Astros, Nationals and Cubs have been raised as examples of teams that have tanked their way back into competitiveness, the Oakland Athletics are often cited as an organization that takes a more noble tact. As ESPN’s Buster Olney wrote recently, “Oakland has never taken (the tanking) route since general manager Billy Beane took over the franchise. The Athletics just don’t quit.”

Here’s something else that the Oakland Athletics have never done under Beane’s leadership over the past two decades: win a World Series.

That’s a trait that the A’s share with Theo Epstein’s Cubs, Jeff Luhnow’s Astros and Mike Rizzo’s Nationals, though those GMs took over their respective teams far more recently than Beane took over the helm in Oakland.

It’s also an aspect that each of those teams share with the Minnesota Twins.

If it seems like forever for Twins fans since their team held up a championship trophy at the end of the 1991 season, there’s some small solace to be taken from the fact that Minnesota’s 1991’s success is more recent than anything the other four organizations have experienced.

The Athletics last won it all in the 1989 “Earthquake Series,” and the Cubs last took home the hardware in 1908. Astros fans have never celebrated a World Series title in the club’s fifty-plus years of existence, nor have Nationals fans (even those that can claim allegiance going back to the club’s days as the Montreal Expos).

There seems to be no doubt that the Nationals, Cubs and Astros tanked their way back in to baseball relevance. They fielded teams that were designed to lose so many games that they would consistently benefit from high draft picks and inflated international spending allowances.

Oakland, however, was really never bad enough to fall below middle-of-the-pack status for more than a year at a time. Beane couldn’t retain his big-money stars, so he often traded them for something of current MLB-level value before they would be lost to free agency. His now-famous “moneyball” strategies sought to unearth players with enough hidden value to allow his team to at least be competitive almost every season.

Who did it right? Baseball purists may claim that tanking is ethically wrong and others will claim Beane’s approach does little but perpetuate mediocrity.

However, based on what arguably is the most important criteria, World Series Championships won, it would be difficult to declare one strategy more successful than the other. Then again, the Nationals, Cubs and Astros are all projected to fare much better than the Athletics in 2016, so maybe this will be the year that tanking’s advantage becomes apparent.

But what about the Twins? What exactly was their strategy?

Regardless of what they were thinking at any particular point in time, there’s no question that the Twins have benefited from the high draft positioning that resulted from four consecutive seasons of winning 70 or fewer games (a benefit that could be negated considerably in the future if the anti-tanking crowd gets some of the rule changes they propose).

Byron Buxton
Byron Buxton

Miguel Sano was signed out of the Dominican Republic toward the end of the team’s run of qualifying for six postseasons within nine years, but both their top hitting prospect (Byron Buxton) and top pitching prospect (Jose Berrios) were available to be selected by the Twins because their 99 losses in 2011 allowed them to pick in the second position in the 2012 amateur draft. Buxton was chosen with the second overall pick and Berrios with the first pick of the supplemental first round.

Over the following several years, the Twins added a number of highly touted young players due to consistently picking at the top end of the draft. Kohl Stewart, Nick Gordon and Tyler Jay, the team’s first round picks over the following three years, all sit comfortably among the top rated prospects in the Twins organization and each has been ranked among the top 100 prospects in the game at one time or another.

Of course, the Twins also held picks at the top of each successive round of those drafts, enabling them to select from among the cream of the non-elite crop of young players, as well. The fact that the Twins continue to have one of the top rated minor league organizations is due, in no small part, to their draft position over the past four drafts.

Jose Berrios
Jose Berrios

In the end, whether by design or otherwise, the Twins have positioned themselves much the same way that the Nationals, Cubs and Astros have. By losing a lot of games for several consecutive seasons, they have amassed considerable young baseball talent, much of which is now positioned to arrive and contribute at the Major League level.

Yet you seldom, if ever, see the Twins mentioned in articles bemoaning (or praising) the practice of tanking.

Of course, you also won’t see writers praising the Twins as an organization that has consistently found ways to rebuild on the fly – remaining competitive, as the Athletics have, even after star players move on via trade or free agency.

The result is that General Manager Terry Ryan and the Twins front office get neither the credit (blame?) for being at the forefront of the tanking strategy that Epstein, Luhnow and Rizzo embody, nor the commendations that Beane continues to get for trying to rebuild while continuing to put a teams on the field that are at least close to being worth the price of a Major League ticket to watch.

So did the Twins really tank, and just do a better job of camouflaging it than other teams did, or was Ryan trying to employ the stay-competitive strategy that Beane did, and simply wasn’t as effective at identifying and acquiring new talent as his counterpart in Oakland was?

It would be a stretch to say that the Twins were tanking in 2011. They were coming off of an American League Central title season and most of the core players from that team were returning. There’s little doubt that then-GM Bill Smith thought he was creating a roster to contend again that season.

Then came the Tsuyoshi Nishioka disaster and very limited game time from Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Denard Span in 2011. The result was a 99-loss team.

Another result was that 2011 also saw the return to Ryan to the GM’s office after the season.

Arguably, Ryan followed the Beane approach in his first partial postseason back on the job as General Manager. While his evaluation process was certainly more scout-based and less analytics-based than Beane’s, his addition of players like Josh Willingham and Ryan Doumit indicated he was trying to add veterans with value, as Beane does, rather than tear the club down and build it back up from scratch.

Whatever he was trying to do, it didn’t work. 2012 was, once again, a disaster on the field. This led to a consistent, “there isn’t any shortcut,” line of quotes out of Ryan the following offseason.

It also led to the trading of two thirds of the Twins’ starting outfield, Denard Span and Ben Revere, for three pitchers, only one of which had any big league experience at all. Was that indicative of Ryan having decided to go the tanking route?

Even if so, you would never have gotten the GM to admit it then, and probably couldn’t drag it out of him now.

Target Field was still relatively new and so were the taxes being imposed in Hennepin County to pay for it. Joe Mauer, though coming off a challenging season, was still in the early stages of an eight-year mega-million contract. It would have been professional suicide for anyone in the Twins front office to come right out and declare an intent to tank.

Can you imagine Ryan telling the media, “We looked at the draft class we were able to put together after losing 99 games in 2011 and, given that we had so many things go wrong in 2012, we should expect to select a similarly strong class this year. We’ve come to realize that if we continue to lose more than 90 games a while longer, as well, we could really put together an organization that would be poised to field very good teams for a decade or more. So we’re not going to try too hard to win for the next couple of years.”

Given some of the comments that Twins owner Jim Pohlad has made the past couple of offseasons about being tired of losing, I’m not sure Ryan would have dared to express those thoughts to Pohlad, even in private.

Then again, maybe he did tell Pohlad that. In fact, maybe he told all of us that he was planning to engage that kind of strategy.

Ryan is a man of few words. He doesn’t believe in giving his competitors a free look into his thinking on any subject related to his strategy for roster building. He’ll answer fan and media questions, but often you need to read between the lines a little bit to decipher exactly what he’s saying.

I wonder if it’s possible that he actually did say, “We’ve come to realize that if we continue to lose 95 games a year for a while longer, we could really put together an organization that would be poised to field very good teams for a decade or more. So we’re not going to try too hard to win for the next couple of years.”

It’s just that, when he said it, all we heard was, “there isn’t any shortcut.”

Truth be told, I don’t believe the Twins intentionally tanked during any part of the past four years. After all, moves like spending several million dollars on the 2014 in-season signing of Kendrys Morales would not be consistent with intentionally trying to lose as many games as possible.

I think Ryan was simply trying to balance current competitiveness with future success. In other words, he was showing the ethical nobility of Beane’s approach, while realizing the same results as those teams who were intentionally assembling losing rosters.

In the end, all that matters is the results and the Twins have a significant number of talented young players about to arrive in the big leagues.

That said, it will be interesting to keep an eye on what anti-tanking steps MLB and/or the Players Union propose be built into the new Collective Bargaining Agreement next year. Specifically, what effect would those proposals have had on, not only teams that made no attempt to disguise their tanking strategies, but also the Twins.

-JC