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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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,.
This 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.)
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.
All photos by S D Buhr and may not be used without permission.
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!
All photos are the property of S D Buhr. Use without permission is prohibited.
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.
I 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
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.
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.
Today was such a day.
I was fortunate enough to get to be part of a fivesome that included Kernels relief pitcher Max Cordy.
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.
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.
With less than 40 games left in their 2017 campaign, the Cedar Rapids Kernels need a strong finish to clinch a Midwest League playoff spot, something they’ve accomplished every season since affiliating with the Minnesota Twins in 2013.
The Peoria Chiefs and Clinton Lumberkings finished one and two in the Division’s first half standings, automatically qualifying them for the postseason. Their Division rivals with the two best records in the second half will join the Chiefs and Lumberkings in the playoffs.
If the season ended today (Monday), Clinton would have the best second half record in the West, while Cedar Rapids and Quad Cities (currently second and third in the Division) would fill out the Western half of the postseason bracket. However, Burlington and Wisconsin sit one game or less behind Quad Cities, so the race is likely to be tight over the final weeks of the season.
Jake Mauer has been at the helm of the Kernels from the beginning of the club’s affiliation with the Twins. His 292-226 record with the Kernels makes him Cedar Rapids’ winningest manager in the modern era (1949-present) and places him third all-time. He’ll catch up to Ollie Marquardt in the second spot with his next win, but Mauer’s going to have to stick around a very, very long time to top Belden Hill’s 831 wins.
While winning takes a back seat to player development in modern minor league baseball, the local fans definitely like to follow a winner and Mauer has given the locals plenty of success, beginning with a squad that was loaded with top prospects in the inaugural season of the Twins/Kernels relationship. That team made winning look easy – at least a lot easier than it has looked in the two-and-a-half seasons since.
2016 has, perhaps, been the most challenging of Mauer’s four years of wearing number 12 for the Kernels. This year’s group is short on players you would find among “top prospect” lists published by the likes of Baseball America, MLB.com or any other group in the business of tracking minor leaguers’ paths to the big leagues.
Nonetheless, in an interview late last week, Mauer was unwilling to say that the lack of blue chippers on his team makes this season his most challenging.
“Each year is different,” Mauer said. “If you have a lot of high-end (prospects), you’re expected to win and if you don’t have a lot of high-end guys, you’ve got to find ways to win. It’s all part of development, it’s all part of the process.
“The second year (2014), I thought we had a lot of challenges, they were comparing the ’13 team to the ’14 team and that wasn’t fair to that ’14 team.”
Winning is obviously a lot easier when you’ve got a lot of those high draft choices and big money international free agents. Several of them, including first round draft choice Byron Buxton and six-figure bonus international signee Max Kepler (both now playing the outfield for the Twins) spent much of their 2013 seasons in Cedar Rapids uniforms.
“You get blessed with years like ’13 where you have seven of them, eight of them. They’re all panning out at different speeds,” reflected Mauer. “You know, some of the clubs I had at Fort Myers I don’t think we had one. So it just depends on what you have.”
When you’ve got a team of projected stars, a manager in Mauer’s position will generally stick with a pretty consistent lineup. “Obviously, guys that are higher end guys as a player,” he said, “you’ve got to find out what they can and can’t do, that’s the nature of the beast.”
Not so this season.
“I wonder how many different lineups we’ve used,” Mauer pondered. “It’s probably been fifty or sixty of them, would be my guess.
“Clubs like this, some of these guys that aren’t necessarily Baseball America guys get an opportunity to kind of put themselves on the map. As you can see, there’s no way to get buried on our bench here. Everybody plays.
“Pitching’s a little bit different,” he conceded. “They earn (consistent playing time) a little bit more. They’re all going to get an opportunity, it’s just a matter of what they’re going to do with it.
“It’s all getting these guys to understand themselves, first, in order for us to do anything – in order for them to have any impact down the road. This is the league where we start to shake out the guys that aren’t as mentally tough as others. Find out who can play every day, find out who can do what it takes. So, they’re going to get tested, they’re going to get innings, they’re going to get at-bats, get all that stuff. Then we’ll kind of look back in September at how everything unfolded.”
Throughout most of the first half of the season, it looked like the Kernels would easily clinch an early playoff spot by finishing in one of the top two spots in the Western Division’s first-half race, but they faltered badly during the final couple of weeks before the midpoint and ended up in third place.
“You hate to say it,” Mauer commented on his squad’s late first half implosion, “but we scored the same amount of runs, but we lost two guys in the back end of the bullpen and lost probably the best starter in the league.
“We weren’t necessarily blowing the doors off of anybody in the first half. It takes you a while to figure out who can step up and take those roles.”
Mauer is starting to see some guys stepping up.
Last week, the Kernels went on one a six-game road trip over into the MWL Eastern Division territory and came away with a perfect 6-0 record against Lake County and Fort Wayne.
“We swung the bats really well,” he said of their Eastern sweep. “We rode (Luis) Arraez, (Zander) Wiel and (Jaylin) Davis, really. Other guys chipped in here and there, but those guys had a monster week. You’re scoring 6, 7, 8 runs a night, it gives you a pretty good chance to win.
“(Wiel) can carry a team, which he did the last week. Jaylin Davis is probably in the same boat, he can carry a team. Arraez has been pretty consistent, but we kind of go where those three guys go. When the three of them are having a pretty good week, we’ve got a pretty good chance. If they’re not, it will be more difficult for us.”
Finding pitchers to fill the holes left following promotions has been more challenging for Mauer and pitching coach J.P. Martinez. “Pitching is still kind of up in the air who we’ve got,” the manager said.
“It’s so different,” Mauer said, of the Kernels’ bullpen situation. “We’re not as pitching-deep as we were last year. If we had a lead going into the fifth inning, we pretty much knew we were going to win last year. That’s not the case this year. You’ve got some guys that need to step up and take control. I’d say (Anthony) McIver has, to a point. We’ve got to find out about (Tom) Hackimer. But we still have several guys you don’t quite know what you’re going to get in given situations. We’ve got to find out.”
Mauer’s clearly also looking for some improvement among his starting rotation.
“(Cody) Stashak’s probably our number one (starting pitcher). (Lachlan) Wells has been good. Those two guys have been pretty good. If we can just get some of these (other) guys to take that next step, it would make the process better.”
The season’s second half is shaping up to be at least a four-team dogfight with the Kernels, Burlington Bees, Wisconsin Timber Rattlers and Quad Cities River Bandits playing leapfrog with one another in the standings on virtually a daily basis as they jockey for one of the coveted second-half playoff spots.
“That’s our division,” said Mauer. “There really isn’t a team that’s head and shoulders above anybody. Anybody can beat anybody on a given night and I think you’re going to see that kind of as we go through. Things change, obviously, as these draftee guys (from the 2016 draft) starting to come and some of these first full season guys that tend to hit a wall a little bit.”
Mauer’s working with a pair of coaches, in his fourth season with the Kernels, that he hasn’t been teamed with before. Martinez and hitting coach Brian Dinkelman are in their first seasons by Mauer’s side after coaching with the Twins’ Gulf Coast League team, where games are played on back fields at the organization’s spring training complex in front of few, if any, fans.
But the manager says things are going, “good,” on that count.
“(Martinez and Dinkelman) have been real good. Their first ‘real baseball’ compared to that ‘complex ball’ that’s a lot different. They’ve done a good job. For them, their first year, this is unusual to have so many different guys coming through.”
Forty-nine players have already worn a Kernels jersey in 2016. It’s not unusual for fewer players than that to suit up for Cedar Rapids in an entire season.
“What’s nice is that these guys know most of the kids that have come up,” Mauer added. “They’ve had them, they know what makes them tick, the things to do with them, what they need to work on.”
High roster turnover, few top prospects, new assistant coaches. Those things, on their own, might make a manager’s job challenging, but last week the Twins added a little something extra to the load that Mauer and his staff have to carry. Long-time General Manager Terry Ryan was fired by the Twins ownership.
“It’s unfortunate,” Mauer said of Ryan’s dismissal. “Obviously, he’s a great baseball man. He’s all I’ve ever known as a GM, other than Bill Smith, but Terry wasn’t far away (during Smith’s tenure as GM). I think it came as a shock, the timing of it, to everybody. He’s done so much for us and for our organization and whoever comes in after him is going to have big shoes to fill.”
As a result, Mauer and his coaches now are essentially lame ducks, uncertain whether the new GM will choose to retain them going forward. How’s that for adding a little anxiety to the manager’s life?
But, as Mauer observed, the anxiety goes well beyond just he and his coaches.
“It could be for scouts, all the way down to the athletic training guys and strength guys. You don’t know what’s going to happen, we don’t know who is the next guy, if they have somebody in mind, if they don’t. So, we’ll see. I’m sure they’ve got a game plan up there for what they’re going to do.
“But, if you’re confident in what you’re doing and you do a good job, you can’t control that,” Mauer concluded. “This is just like we tell the players, if they look at what’s going on ahead of them or who’s doing what behind them, they can’t control that. Same with us, (we can’t) worry about who’s coming in and fret about it, and not do the task at hand. We’ve got to do the task at hand first of all and see what shakes out.”
The “task at hand” for the manager and his charges is to finish the final six weeks of the season strong. How does Mauer see the remainder of the season shaping up?
“We’ll see. I wish I could answer that, honestly. I have no idea. We look like a million bucks for three or four days, then we have a tough time for three or four days. It’s just kind of how it is. We talk extensively about, we need leaders to step up and to lead and to be our guys so you kind of know what you’re going to get day in and day out.
“They’ll keep playing hard and they’ll keep competing and we’ll just see how it ends up.”
The Minnesota Twins’ top brass set off shockwaves across Twinsville on Monday, announcing that General Manager Terry Ryan had been relieved of his duties.
There’s not much point to discussing why Ryan lost his job. This quote says it all. “The reason for this change, I think it’s safe to say, the last couple years we have not won enough games. That’s what it comes down to. It’s nothing more, nothing less than that.”
If you don’t recall reading that quote yesterday, it’s because you have to go back much further than that – 22 months further. It’s what Ryan told the media when he announced Ron Gardenhire was being let go as the club’s manager.
What’s good for the goose, etc.
Terry Ryan is a class individual who knows a lot about baseball. I can say that from first-hand experience, having spoken with him several times, both in formal interviews and informally. I enjoyed every minute I had with him.
But the Twins rosters he has assembled have not been winning for far too long and, as Gardenhire conceded at the time of his firing, “I’m gone, I’m outta here because we didn’t win. That’s what it gets down to in baseball. That’s what it should get down to.”
And he was right. In major professional sports, it’s about winning and the Twins haven’t done enough of that for some time.
So there’s not much point in debating whether Ryan deserved to be let go. Instead, let’s focus on what comes next.
If you were one of the significant (and growing) number of Twins fans who wanted to see someone else be given the keys to Ryan’s office, you got to spend an hour or so smiling on Monday. But if you heard or read the quotes coming out of the mouths of the people who will be making the decision concerning who will be getting that office next, your smile didn’t last long.
I’m sure there could be worse ways for an ownership group and team president to handle the dismissal of their GM than what the Pohlads and Dave St. Peter did on Monday, but it’s kind of hard to imagine how it could have been worse.
To begin with, the bungling of this situation didn’t start on Monday; it started last month when, according to Jim Pohlad, he notified Ryan that he would not be retained after the end of the current season.
But to essentially give his top baseball executive four months’ notice of his intent to fire him also would indicate Pohlad doesn’t have the greatest business mind, either. How, exactly, was that supposed to work?
At best, Ryan would have limited motivation to take actions necessary to improve the club and probably would have limited authority to make deals without ownership approval. At worst, word would leak out around MLB that he was a lame duck GM, totally undermining his negotiating position with his peers.
So, bungle number 1 was telling Ryan he was going to be fired four months in advance.
Bungle number 2 came right on the heels of number 1, though, when Pohlad left it to Ryan to determine how to handle the timing and announcement.
Really? In what kind of business does that make sense?
It’s one thing to cut back some middle management staff, ask them to stick around through a transition, and leave it to them whether to tell people it was “early retirement.” It’s quite another thing to do that for the guy who is essentially running every aspect of your baseball organization short of hiring the beer vendors.
The result is that Ryan waited until just two weeks before the non-waiver trade deadline before telling Pohlad it was time to make the announcement, leaving his assistant (and interim GM) Rob Antony in a very difficult position.
Bungle number 3 is actually more like number 3a through 3(something way down the alphabet from b). Almost every word spoken by Pohlad and St. Peter on Monday reflected an organization totally unprepared for what comes next.
It was made clear that Paul Molitor will be manage the Twins in 2017 and any GM candidate who didn’t like that need not apply. How many potential candidates will that rule out, unnecessarily?
But, hey, Pohlad has been preparing for this search by familiarizing himself with how other MLB clubs are structured – by looking through their Media Guides.
Not to worry, though, because the Twins “may” utilize a professional search firm to recruit qualified candidates. They may. Of course that also means that they “may not.”
How can these people not at least have some clue as to how their peers around the league are organizing their front offices? No matter. Now would be a really good time to look into that. Maybe one of those search firms could help.
Pohlad also indicated that St. Peter will play a major role in the GM-hiring process and that the new GM will report to the Twins president.
To my mind, the man at the top of the organizational ladder needs to be a Chief Executive Officer (or whatever alternative, more baseball-like, title you want to give to the CEO-type) who understand both the baseball AND business sides of running a big league organization. That is not Dave St. Peter, so St. Peter should be reporting to the new hire, not the other way around.
The CEO level might not be necessary if anyone in the ownership group had some level of baseball savvy, but that is not the case with the Twins. It’s time for the Pohlads to not only admit that (which they’ve essentially done already), but to also structure their business accordingly.
Once the CEO is hired, that CEO should get to hire a GM. And, oh, by the way, that GM should get to hire the manager of her/his choice, too.
I like Molitor and I don’t disagree that, had Ryan been retained, he should have been given another year to manage the team. But if you handcuff your new GM before you even get any applicants for the opening, you aren’t likely to even get the best candidates to come in for an interview.
These issues don’t have to be resolved immediately. A thorough (and professionally organized) recruitment of qualified candidates should take place. Ideally, this would all take place toward the end of the season, but bungles 1, 2 and 3 have already set the wheels in motion.
Mistakes have already been made, but there’s still time to do the rest of this thing right and get a competent, forward-thinking executive to run the baseball operations.
Unfortunately, early indications don’t give me much hope that will happen.