Twinsfest Weekend: a Photo Journal

I don’t go to Twinsfest every year, but try to get up to the Twin Cities to attend the Minnesota Twins’ winter fan event every couple of years, anyway.

I was there two years ago for the first such event held at Target Field and I wasn’t terribly impressed. Maybe my expectations have adjusted or maybe the Twins have learned how to do it all a little bit better, but for whatever reason, I enjoyed the event more this year than I did two years ago.

I should make clear that I don’t go all three days. I go one day – and I don’t stay all that long. I’m not big into autographs, so after a couple of hours of wandering around and seeing what there is to see, I start to feel anxious to move on to something else.

I always run into a few people I know and it’s great to catch up with friends and I enjoy the public interviews that are conducted with players and front office management. I particularly enjoy seeing some of our former Cedar Rapids Kernels getting their turns to interact with Twins fans.

Then, of course, there’s the TwinsDaily.com “Winter Meltdown” that’s held by the TD guys in conjunction with Twinsfest every year and that’s always a great time. I always enjoy the opportunity to catch up with friends at this event and meet a few new people each year, as well. I appreciate TwinsDaily continuing to invite this old guy to attend.

One of the things the Twins did right was having all the players wear their new red “Friday night” alternate jerseys. When they were first announced, I was lukewarm on them, but after seeing the players wearing them around all day, they’ve really grown on me. Yes, I even like the Kasota Gold in the trim.

I’m not going to write a whole lot about my experience this weekend, instead I decided to just post a whole bunch of pictures (some good, some not so good) to give you a sense of how I spent my weekend. Enjoy. – JC

(All photos by SD Buhr)

On the light rail headed to Target Field, I got a new look at the Vikings' future home.
On the light rail headed to Target Field, I got a new look at the Vikings’ future home.
Each of the Twins' full season minor league affiliates had a booth set up. Good to see the familiar faces of Ryne Georage and Scott Wilson from the Kernels.
Each of the Twins’ full season minor league affiliates had a booth set up. Good to see the familiar faces of Community Relations Director Ryne George and General Manager Scott Wilson from the Kernels.
Jose Berrios on stage
Jose Berrios on stage
Byron Buxton preparing for his stage interview
Byron Buxton preparing for his stage interview
Nick Burdi gives an autograph after his turn on the interview stage
Nick Burdi gives an autograph after his turn on the interview stage
Brian Dozier playing some Tic Tax Toe with a young fan
Brian Dozier playing some Tic Tax Toe with a young fan
Trevor Hildenberger and Terry Ryan pose after participating in some fan games in the Champions Club
Trevor Hildenberger and Terry Ryan pose after participating in some fan games in the Champions Club
A "Celebrate Diversity" panel included Danny Santana, Miguel Sano and Tony Oliva.
A “Celebrate Diversity” panel included Danny Santana, Miguel Sano and Tony Oliva.
My big (only) purchase of the day, from the "Twins Yard Sale," was this Autograph Station sign from Friday night's autograph session, featuring the autographs of all five participants: Tony Oliva, Casey Fien, Adam Bret Walker II, Mitch Garver and Stephen Gonsalves
My big (only) purchase of the day, from the “Twins Yard Sale,” was this Autograph Station sign from Friday night’s autograph session, featuring the autographs of all five participants:  Twins Great Tony Oliva, current Twins reliever Casey Fien and future Twins (& former Kernels) Adam Brett Walker II, Mitch Garver and Stephen Gonsalves.
Paul Lambert (L) and John Bonnes (R) interview former Twins catcher Tim Laudner (center)
Paul Lambert (L) and John Bonnes (R) interview former Twins catcher Tim Laudner (center)
Paul Lambert, Aaron Gleeman, John Bonnes, Nick Nelson and Seth Stohs on stage (clearly, Paul and Seth are intensely interested in what John is saying, as evidenced by their focus on their phones)
Paul Lambert, Aaron Gleeman, John Bonnes, Nick Nelson and Seth Stohs on stage (clearly, Paul and Seth are intensely interested in what John is saying, as evidenced by their focus on their phones)

Berrios Headlines Kernels’ Hot Stove Banquet

Jose Berrios has shot up the national “top prospect” rankings based on his performance the past couple of years in the Minnesota Twins organization and on Wednesday night, Berrios joined his former manager with the Cedar Rapids Kernels, Jake Mauer, and Twins farm director Brad Steil to participate in a “roundtable” discussion at the Kernels’ annual Hot Stove Banquet.

Jake Mauer, Brad Steil and Jose Berrios talk baseball at the Kernels Hot Stove Banquet
Jake Mauer, Brad Steil and Jose Berrios talk baseball at the Kernels Hot Stove Banquet

Before the banquet got underway, all three men were available for media interviews.

It was the first time Berrios had been back to Cedar Rapids since he was part of a 2013 Kernels squad that was loaded with potential big leaguers, including Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, Tyler Duffey, Adam Brett Walker and many others.

Berrios said he was enjoying the homecoming.

“Coming here today in the afternoon, I saw things and thought, ‘I remember that.’ It’s different because now, you’ve got a lot of snow, but I remember some things. My host family, Abby (Pumroy) is coming tonight and I’m excited about that. This is where I played my first full season and I enjoyed it. My family came for my birthday in May. I enjoyed all of my year in 2013 in Cedar Rapids.”

Pumroy, his host mother during his stay with the Kernels (as she is every summer for many of the Latin-American players), not only came to see Berrios at the banquet, but joined him on the stage during the roundtable to serve as interpreter, if necessary.

That service wasn’t needed often. Berrios has made a lot of improvements since his time with the Kernels and that would include his command of English.

In truth, his season with the Kernels was Berrios’ worst as a minor leaguer. He didn’t turn 19 until the second month of the season and notched a 7-7 record and 3.99 ERA and gave up, on average, just over one hit per inning. He struck out “just” 8.7 batters per nine innings. That’s certainly not bad, but 2013 is the only season of his young career in which he failed to top the 9 Ks per inning mark.

Maturity on the mound was an issue for Berrios at times that season. There were times when an inning would start out with an error or two or maybe a couple of hits and the young right-hander would appear to lose his composure a bit, leading to crooked numbers going on the scoreboard that inning for the opponent.

That’s not unusual, of course, especially in the lower levels of the minor leagues, as Mauer pointed out while talking about the progress that Berrios has made since their time together with the Kernels.

“He was pretty young, obviously, when he was here,” Mauer recalled. “He came up late (in April). One thing he would do is he would always compete. Really it was probably the first time he had been hit in his life. He had struck everybody out.

“Kohl Stewart went through some of that, when he was here, too. Some of those guys, that’s what they learn to do here – they start to learn how to pitch, learn how to overcome adversity. Sometimes you get yourself out of innings that maybe your defense created for you. Do I just roll over or do I compete and get through it? I think both of those guys are starting to figure that out pretty good.”

Jose Berrios
Jose Berrios

Berrios, who will still be just 21 years old when the 2016 season opens, agreed that he has developed a more mature approach to his craft.

“I’ve matured every year,” he said. “You have to be under control in every situation. That’s what I work on every year and that’s what I’ve learned.

This is the second year that Berrios has been invited by the Twins to open Spring Training with the big club in Fort Myers. A year ago, he wasn’t shy about telling people his goal was to open the season in the Twins’ rotation.

That didn’t happen, of course, and Berrios ended up throwing all 166 1/3 of his innings in the minors, split between AA Chattanooga and AAA Rochester.

His goals going into 2016 have not been tempered from his experience last year, however. If anything, he has taken them up a notch.

“Yeah, I’m keeping the same goals,” he confirmed. “Trying to make the 25 man roster in April with the Minnesota Twins. Then keep going, work to be selected for the All-Star Game in July and then at the end of the season, maybe the Rookie of the Year.

“That’s my goal, that’s what I’m preparing myself for, to make that goal. Be ready for spring training this year. I’m excited about that.”

There may still be snow on the ground, but Berrios said he’s ready to get the new season underway.

“Yeah, there’s too much offseason, I want to play a game.”

Steil, voicing the views of the Twins front office, wasn’t prepared to predict a Rookie of the Year award for his young prospect, but he clearly is looking for good things from Berrios in 2016.

“We’re looking for him to keep improving, which he’s done a nice job at every level he’s been through in our system, Steil said. “Last year, when he went from AA to AAA, he was a little shaky to start with at AAA, which is to be expected.

“I think once you saw him get settled in and get comfortable, he made some adjustments and really pitched well the last month of the season. So he’s going to give some guys at spring training a run for their money when it comes to competing for a roster spot there.”

While it’s too early to make any firm predictions about the Kernels’ 2016 roster, Steil did talk about what he’s expecting at this early point in time.

“I think, looking at it right now, a rough idea of what kind of team we’re going to start with, I think it will be another strong pitching staff, similar to last year,” he offered. “I think as the season goes on, some of the younger hitters will get better and I think we’ve got a chance to have a better lineup than we did last year, just because of the talent that some of these guys have that are coming here.

“Jermaine Palacios, a shortstop that was in the GCL and Elizabethton last year, is one of those guys. I expect LaMonte Wade will be back here to start the season. Chris Paul is another guy that will probably be back to start the season. So I think we’re going to have a few guys that can swing the bat. We should have a little bit more of a threat in the middle of the lineup than they maybe did last year.”

Steil also talked about a couple of pitchers that Kernels fans saw a little of two years ago, Lewis Thorpe and Fernando Romero.

Regarding Thorpe, Steil said the 20-year-old Australian lefty is, “doing very well.”

“He’s probably not going to be ready to go to start the season, so he’ll probably start in extended and get stretched out and build up his arm strength.

“Fernando Romero is in a similar situation,” Steil added. “A guy that pitched here briefly two years ago. He’s got a really good arm. He’ll touch 97, 98 (mph). He’s doing really well. He’s a little ahead of Thorpe, so he may be ready to go at the beginning of the year.”

The Twins assigned each of the managers in their system to the same teams they led in 2015, but the departure of a couple of coaches at the AAA level meant wholesale coaching changes among most of the minor league staffs. As a result, Henry Bonilla, the Kernels pitching coach last season, is moving up to handle the Miracle’s pitching staff and Tommy Watkins, who has coached Kernels hitters for three seasons, will be in Chattanooga with the Lookouts.

Mauer will be welcoming J.P Martinez and Brian Dinkelman to his staff in Cedar Rapids this season as pitching and hitting coaches, respectively.

While Mauer had known Bonilla and Watkins going back to the days that they were teammates in the Twins organization, he said he doesn’t have a similar background with Martinez and Dinkelman. As Mauer was moving through the organization as a player, Martinez and Dinkelman were always a rung or two below him on the ladder. By the time they were reaching the upper levels as players, Mauer had begun his coaching career back in rookie ball.

“I missed being a teammate with them, but I remember them in Spring Training and being around them last year a little bit. They’re both competitors and they both have a lot of information. They’re both really good personalities as far as they’re hard workers and they’re excited.

“This is more ‘real baseball’ than what extended and Gulf Coast League are. They’ve heard a lot of the positive things that are going on up here and both played in this league. I spoke to both of them right around Christmas time. They’re both heading down to Florida early to get down there and get around some of our boys a little sooner.”

Mauer indicated that one benefit of the coaching changes is that Martinez and Dinkelman have already worked some with many of the players likely to pull on a Kernels jersey this summer.

“To be honest, I don’t know many of the guys,” Mauer admitted. “I’ll probably rely on JP and Brian quite a bit. They had them in instructional league and some of them in extended, so they have a feel for them. We’ll shake it out in spring training and figure out who can do what and where they all fit.”

Mauer has set the expectations bar high for next season after leading Cedar Rapids to within one game of a Midwest League championship. On Wednesday, his boss expressed how impressed he has been with the Kernels’ skipper.

“He and Tommy and the pitching coaches here have done a great job in our three years here, advancing a level deeper into the playoffs the last two years,” Steil said. “Especially last year, they did a great job as a coaching staff.

“I don’t think that team was as talented as the first two years we were here. But they did a really good job and those players battled and they never gave up. They played good, sound baseball. They didn’t beat themselves and that was a credit to Jake and Tommy and Henry.”

Brad Steil and Jake Mauer chat before the Kernels Hot Stove Banquet with former big leaguer Tom Lawless, who was inducted into Cedar Rapids' baseball hall of fame Wednesday. Lawless managed the last Kernels team to win A MWL championship.
Brad Steil and Jake Mauer chat before the Kernels Hot Stove Banquet with former big leaguer Tom Lawless, who was inducted into Cedar Rapids’ baseball hall of fame Wednesday. Lawless managed the last Kernels team to win A MWL championship.

-JC

Another Year of Hall of Fame Silliness

Later today, we will find out who voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America will have determined is worthy of enshrinement in baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. More specifically, we will find out who, in addition to Ken Griffey, Jr., will be so blessed by the BBWAA, because Griffey, in his first year of eligibility, is a lock.

I’ve written, in the past, about my feelings toward the BBWAA, as the great guardians of morality in baseball (I think they’re just about the last group we should want judging others’ moral worthiness) and the whole HoF voting process, in general. I won’t go off on that subject again, but you can get a sense of those feelings by clicking here to read an article I posted a couple of years ago.

Baseball-Hall-Of-FameThe Hall made some changes this year in the voting process, most notably by culling the electorate by about 20% by eliminating any writer that has not actively covered baseball in the past ten years. That’s a good change, in my view. However,  still believe that, as long as there’s some sort of “morality clause” involved with the voting, the writers should not be determining who gets into the Hall and who doesn’t.

The BBWAA also attempted to get the Hall to allow them to vote for 12 players, rather than ten. I understand that, since the current ballot has a lot of potentially worthy players on it. But I’m OK with the Hall rejecting that request, because this stacked ballot results directly from so many writers insisting on serving as the morality police when it comes to voting against anyone known to use (or in some cases just being suspected of using) Performance Enhancing Drugs.

If the writers had simply voted for Bonds, Roger Clemens and others when they should have, those players would no longer be clogging the ballot and nobody would be having a problem limiting their ballots to ten players now.

Another way that this problem could have been addressed would have been for the Hall to provide some guidance to the voters concerning how to apply the infamous character clause that allows writers to anoint themselves to be the Hall’s guardians of morality. But the Hall has continued to refuse to do so. Only players who have been banned from the game (e.g. Pete Rose, Joe Jackson, etc.) are deemed ineligible to be enshrined by the voters. Since baseball has never taken the step of banning PED users, we are left with BBWAA voters as determinants of moral worthiness.

What the Hall has done, however, is significantly reduce the number of years a player will be included on the ballot. Previously, as Bert Blyleven can attest, players would remain on the ballot for 15 years, as long as they continue to be listed on at least the minimum percentage of returned ballots. That term of eligibility is now limited to ten years on the ballot (though some players have been “grandfathered” to allow them to remain for 15 years).

The bottom line is that these changes will likely have the following effects:

  • Fewer borderline players will be elected. Those, like Blyleven, who would garner late support in their 12th, 13th and 14th years of eligibility will not get that opportunity (though it’s likely that fans of some of these players will simply attempt to rally support for their favorites beginning in year six or seven, instead of waiting another five years).
  • Some worthy players will not be enshrined. The ballots will continue to be clogged by known/suspected PED users, resulting in some writers having to choose between voting for great players who used PEDs or very good players who don’t have that stigma attached to them. This issue won’t be going away soon. Not only will Bonds, Clemens and others remain on the ballot for several more years, but even when they drop off, they will be replaced by Alex Rodriguez, David Ortiz and others who will (or should, if the writers are consistent in their moral judgements) be similarly excluded from consideration.
  • It is possible that a truly great player with no suspicion of PED use could eventually finally be named on 100% of returned ballots. Griffey is expected to set a new record for support when results are announced tonight, but I doubt that even he will get 100%. However, many of the “nobody should get elected in their first year” club of voters were among the 20% who lost their vote and, presumably, even more of them will drop from the voter rolls as they reach ten years since actively covering the game, so the chances of someone eventually appearing on every ballot may continue to increase over time.

How would I vote? I think I could make a case for 13 players: Bagwell, Bonds, Clemens, Griffey, Hoffman, Martinez, Mussina, Piazza, Raines, Schilling, Smith, Sosa and Trammell.

Cutting to ten wouldn’t be difficult for me. First, I would eliminate the relief pitchers. I would never say that bullpen arms should not be considered for enshrinement, but they would have to meet a higher level of excellence to get my vote and, if it comes down to having to make tough choices, relievers will probably be cut. Hoffman and Smith had terrific careers, but they don’t come close to being guys I would feel guilty about not voting for this year.

Of the remaining 11, Schilling would be my 11th guy and be dropped from my ballot this year to make room for the other ten.

Tonight, I suspect we will find out that Griffey, Bagwell and Piazza have been elected. Raines, unfortunately, will probably fall short again.

While I celebrate the results, every year I pay less and less attention to this process because of all the complaining that voting writers do. They complain about PED users. They complain about lack of guidance from the Hall. They complain about being limited to ten players on their ballots. They even complain about the pressure to make their ballots public influencing their votes.

That last point drives me nuts. This isn’t you and me voting for President. This is a group of elites who are, essentially, given the honor of voting on behalf of all baseball fans. If you want a parallel, imagine if our Congressional representatives could cast secret ballots on bills before Congress. There would be absolutely NO accountability – just as there is no accountability in the HoF voting process.

True, many voters do make their ballots public. Or at least they show us something that looks like their completed ballot. That’s admirable and I appreciate them doing so. But, even with those voters, do we really KNOW that they voted the way they claim they did? I don’t know what benefit there would be to lying about how you vote and it’s not my intent to cast aspersions on the integrity of any particular writer, but until we have formal public disclosure of all votes, we won’t know for sure how anyone voted. There is absolutely no legitimate justification for a secret ballot for the Hall of Fame.

Tonight, I will silently congratulate Griffey and any others who are elected into the Hall. It’s a crowning achievement for careers of players who, without exception, dedicated themselves to being great and brought a great deal of enjoyment to us, as baseball fans, during their careers.

I just wish the voting process wasn’t so silly.

-JC

Seeing Into the Future (and not liking it much)

Make a list of the top three things you think are wrong with professional baseball today. In fact, make it five things, if you wish.

A year from now, the landscape regarding those issues is likely to be quite different than it is today. Things may be better, from your point of view, or they may be worse.

I take that back. Unless you’re a Major League ballplayer, they’re almost certainly going to be worse.

Major League Baseball and the players’ union (MLBPA) are about to begin hammering out a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) and the result is likely to have a direct or indirect effect on just about every aspect of professional baseball that any of us care about in the least.

Yes, this is going to be that big.

mlb and union600The thing is, we already know which side is going to win. It will be the players. We just don’t know the final score, yet.

There will also be more than one loser. It won’t be just the owners, though they will certainly be losers, some of them much more than others (that would be you, Minnesota Twins).

Owners/operators of some minor league teams are also possible losers (some of them potentially big losers).

Minor league players will be losers (as they always are in these CBAs).

Amateur ballplayers, in the United States and elsewhere, will be losers.

On the other hand, I’ve looked into my crystal ball and the future looks very, very bright – if you’re Mike Trout. In fact, the future also looks pretty good if you’re swimming anywhere in the top half of the MLB player talent pool.

For the rest of us, though, it could be a very bumpy ride.

In the early 2000s, estimates placed the percentage of MLB revenues paid out in Major League salaries at about 55%. Current estimates have been reported at something close to 43%. The players are clearly going to want to see those numbers project closer to 50% in the new CBA and they have enough leverage this time to get what they want.

You always want to be cautious about speaking ill of the dead, but the former head of the players union, Michael Weiner, who passed away in 2013, arguably gave away the farm to Bud Selig and the owners in his first, and only, CBA negotiation back in 2011.

In his defense, he wasn’t exactly dealt a strong hand going into those negotiations. Players’ reputations were continuing to be tarnished by the image among fans that they had all built their careers on Performance Enhancing Drugs, making it certain that any work stoppage resulting from a failed CBA negotiation would be blamed on the players. Regardless of the reasons, though, the final result was a contract in which the owners got most everything they wanted.

Current MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark, the first former player to lead the union, should carry a much stronger bargaining position into this round of negotiations.

As a group, baseball’s owners are making money by the boatload, thanks to incredible increases in local television revenues in many markets. That’s a double-edged sword, however, when it comes to negotiating a new CBA.

It makes it impossible for baseball to contend that they can’t afford to give a bigger share of the financial pie to the players, yet those revenues are anything but evenly distributed. As a result, increasing salaries across the board would adversely affect the competitiveness of teams who have not been able to cash in on the local TV bonanza (see: Twins, Minnesota).

On top of that, the owners with those huge TV deals stand to lose a lot of money in the event of a strike or lockout that results in games not being played, as do owners who rely on revenue sharing from those teams. Wide public awareness of the enormous revenues also makes it likely that ownership will be viewed by fans as being primarily at fault for any such work stoppage, should it occur.

The result is a players’ union with a very strong negotiating position and plenty of motivation to take advantage of it.

Here’s how the union could attempt to go about increasing the share of revenues that go to players’ salaries:

Significantly increase the minimum salary for Major League players

The minimum player’s salary was $507,500 in 2015. That may not immediately increase to $1 million in 2017, but it won’t be surprising if it’s closer to that number than where it currently sits.

This is important to the union because significantly increasing the minimum would potentially result in fewer players signing early team-friendly extensions that buy out arbitration years and, in some cases, free agency years. These extensions are viewed by the union as a drag on average player salaries.

Elimination of the Qualifying Offer/draft pick compensation system for teams that stand to lose free agents

Despite changes that have been made to lessen the market-dampening effect for many free agents, the players still hate this system. It’s seen as being particularly hard on the union’s “upper-middle class” of players – those who aren’t in the elite category, but for whom having to settle for merely $15 million or so on a one year contract is “unfair.”

Significantly reducing the number of years a player is “under team control”

This refers to the total number of years that a club can restrict a player’s ability to shop his services to the highest bidder on the free agent market. It consists of a three-year (usually) period of essential “serfdom,” during which the player has no alternative but to accept whatever salary (subject to the Major League minimum) the team offers and another three-year period of years during which the team must decide whether to offer the player binding arbitration or grant him unconditional release.

The result is a total of six years (in most cases) of team control before a player can become a free agent, meaning that currently a player who makes his MLB debut on or after turning 24 years old will be at least 30 by the time he’s eligible to file for free agency if his team exercises every year of control they have over the player.

In combination with the increased minimum salary, reducing the number of years of team control could make it far more likely that players would forego the additional security of an early team-friendly contract extension, in favor of playing out their arbitration years to reach free agency as soon as possible. It could also make it much more likely that young superstars hit free agency right at their peak, in terms of productivity, rather than somewhere at the beginning of the downside of that curve.

More time off for players

The MLB schedule is a gauntlet. Between the day games after night games and, perhaps worse, the night games followed by cross-country overnight travel to begin another series the next day, the 162-game schedule is more than merely grueling and players want more than the three or so days off each month they currently get. The problem is that, with the extra postseason games resulting from the Wild Card era, the season already is starting and finishing during time periods where no sane person should be trying to play meaningful baseball in many northern big league cities.

One idea often floated to address this problem is to cut the schedule back to the 154 game levels that existed before the leagues expanded from eight to ten teams in the early 1960s. This would result in each team losing four home dates, however, and that would cut into revenues, not only with regard to attendance, but also in programming for those local TV partners that are shelling out big bucks to show the games.

Another possibility would be to expand active rosters. If you have 27 players, for example, instead of 25, it would be easier to give everyone an extra day off occasionally. It probably sounds better in theory than it would work in practice, however. Still, it would increase union membership by 8%, so don’t be shocked if the union pushes the idea pretty hard. In a worst case scenario, it gives them something they can “give up” when it comes time to finding a way to allow the owners to save some face.

Each of these would have the net effect of increasing the share of MLB revenues that go into the pockets of the players, collectively. Since the owners really cannot afford a work stoppage, if the MLBPA is willing to play hardball, we shouldn’t bet money against the players’ chances of getting some version of these changes. All of them.

What the owners will get

Of course, the owners won’t just cave on those issues while getting nothing in return – and that’s where things can turn bad for the rest of us.

The owners might get more drug testing. After all, the union has gone down this path already, so what’s the big deal about going a bit further? On the other hand, this “give” doesn’t put even a dime in the pockets of the owners, so they aren’t likely to push too hard for it.

The owners want an international draft, to further dampen costs of acquiring new talent. Since giving in on this issue costs the union membership absolutely nothing, they may posture about how unfair it is, but they will capitulate to the owners.

If the owners want further restrictions on bonuses paid to players subject to the draft, both foreign and domestic, the union can give on that issue, too. Again, it doesn’t cost their membership anything, so why not?

Of course, at a time when fewer parents are allowing their sons to play football, giving MLB an ideal opportunity to come up with ways to attract kids back to baseball, this is exactly the time when MLB should be adopting a system that encourages the best athletes in this country and around the world to choose baseball as a potential career over other sports, not discourage it.

But that might cost money and owners, by the time this subject gets addressed at the negotiating table, are probably going to be ticked off about the extra money they’re having to shell out to players already in the big leagues, so we shouldn’t expect logic to win the day.

Indirect side effects on the rest of us

Unfortunately, none of the ownership “wins” are going to even come close to making up for the money the owners are going to lose to their players in this deal, so they’re going to end up looking elsewhere to recoup some of those bucks.

This is where minor league players, teams and fans should start feeling nervous.

Minor league players, you can forget about seeing your pay go up to anything close to a living wage. Consider yourselves lucky if they don’t lower your base pay. After all, neither the union nor the owners are looking out for your interests in this negotiation.

You might find yourself with less competition for that low paying minor league roster spot you’ve got, though.

The number of minor league teams with MLB affiliations hasn’t changed significantly in decades. The current working agreement between MLB and MiLB assures owners of current affiliated minor league teams of having a MLB affiliation every year, but that agreement expires after 2020. Renegotiation of that agreement is just one of many things that is waiting for the completion of the new CBA.

If owners decide they have been terribly abused under the new CBA, it shouldn’t be too surprising to see them propose elimination of some affiliated minor leagues.

That would mean fewer communities with affiliated minor league teams, fewer jobs for minor league staff, fewer spots for minor league players and fewer games for minor league fans to attend.

Is this a Doomsday scenario that can’t possibly happen? Maybe. But neither MLB nor the players’ union has ever been shy about screwing over minor leaguers in CBA negotiations. After all, minor league teams and players are not represented in those negotiating sessions, making it easy for both sides to sacrifice minor league interests if it means getting something of even moderate value in return. It’s not unlikely that minor league baseball could look a little bit different in 2021 than it does today if Major League owners determine it’s in their best financial interests to impose significant changes.

A year from now, we’ll likely know a lot more about the changes coming for professional baseball going forward. Unless you happen to be a big league ballplayer today, you have a right to feel very uneasy about those changes.

-JC

Everything Old is New Again

Today, I want to revisit something I wrote in a prior post. The subject (as so many things written by so many people has been) was centered around what the Twins should do with regard to Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton.

Maybe you take them aside and say, “Guys, if you’re healthy in April, you’re going to be Minnesota Twins. You may perform like Kennys Vargas or you may look more like Aaron Hicks, but you’re going to stay in Minnesota. You will not be sent back to the minors. From this point forward, you are Major League baseball players. Now get to work and act like it.”

The thing is, you can’t wait until spring training to make this decision. It wouldn’t be fair to Trevor Plouffe.

If Sano is going to step in as your primary third baseman, Plouffe needs to spend some time this winter learning to play left field. Maybe he and Joe Mauer could learn together.

For that matter, I’d tell Sano to go out there and shag some fly balls, too, because I’m not convinced the Twins won’t discover they’re better off defensively with Sano in the outfield and Plouffe at the hot corner.

What’s that? You say you’re one of the five or so people who have read everything I’ve posted this offseason and you don’t recall reading any of that? Well, you’re absolutely correct.

I offered those recommendations in October – of 2014.

Byron Buxton
Byron Buxton (Photo: SD Buhr)

That just demonstrates that I’m never wrong with my ideas, just occasionally ahead of the curve! Eventually, conventional wisdom (and that of the Twins’ front office) comes around to my way of thinking. They really should just listen to me in the first place, right?

So was I prescient or premature? Based on the reactions I received to these suggestions 14 months ago, most would say I was premature – that it was simply too soon for Sano and Buxton to be plugged into the Twins starting lineup right out of the gate in 2015.

Maybe. But, with the benefit of hindsight, I’d say I’d still like to have seen what kind of results the Twins would have had if they had benefited from a full season of Sano-Buxton, rather than half a season of Sano and only enough Buxton to show eventual flashes of his potential at the end of the season.

Of course, based on the reactions we see to the Twins trading Aaron Hicks and their statements concerning plans to use Sano in the outfield in 2016, a lot of fans would say I was neither prescient nor premature, but I was simply wrong then and wrong now.

I’ve been critical of front office decisions with some regularity over the past few years (but then, who hasn’t?), but I’m on board with both the trade of Hicks to fill a definite need at catcher and the plan to give Sano a look in the outfield.

Maybe Hicks will become another Carlos Gomez, emerging as an All-Star performer in another organization’s outfield after escaping Minnesota. But, for me, Buxton remains far more likely to become that All-Star outfielder and he’s not going to reach that level by spending more time in Rochester. He needs to be told he’s the Opening Day centerfielder and neither he nor the Twins should waffle from that decision, even if he opens the year a little slow. He won’t disappoint.

As a minor leaguer in spring training, Miguel Sano wore no. 24. Will he replace the player currently wearing that jersey with the Twins? (photo: SD Buhr)
As a minor leaguer in spring training, Miguel Sano wore no. 24. Will he replace the player currently wearing that jersey with the Twins? (photo: SD Buhr)

A lot of people make a big deal of Sano’s size, doubting that a guy weighing in at nearly 270 pounds has any business playing the outfield. Ordinarily, I might agree. But Miguel Sano is not your ordinary 270-pound athlete. If he can learn to take at least decent routes to fly balls and, obviously, catch the balls he gets to, I think he’ll impress us. Of course, it’s not a given that he’ll be able to do those things. We have nothing to go on, positive or negative, to judge at this point whether he can do those things. But anyone thinking he’ll be another plodding outfielder in the mold of Young, Willingham or Arcia are, I believe, going to be proven wrong.

As I wrote a year ago, it wouldn’t hurt for Plouffe (and perhaps even Mauer) to shag some fly balls, as well. If it does turn out that Sano simply can’t field the position, there will be a need for Plan B. If Byung Ho Park transitions well from Korea to the American League, the Twins are going to need to find another way to keep the bats of both Park and Sano in the lineup every day. It seems unlikely that MLB will grant manager Paul Molitor special dispensation to use two designated hitters.

There’s a lot of uncertainty in all of this, but there are two things we and the Twins do know – Trevor Plouffe can play a solid third base and Joe Mauer can do the same at first base. We don’t know if Sano and Park can do the same. I suspect we’ll all know a lot more about who is capable of doing what by June, but for now, I’m okay with what the Twins appear to be planning to do – let the guys who have demonstrated an ability to play infield defense do so and bet on Sano’s athleticism being good enough to fill the third outfield spot along with Eddie Rosario and Byron Buxton.

General Manager Terry Ryan has a few things left to do this offseason to finalize his roster and if he gets overwhelmed with an offer for Plouffe, he can accept it. However, based on what we’re seeing of the third base market, that seems unlikely to happen and he shouldn’t give Plouffe away for a handful of magic beans.

But I have no problem with him betting on Buxton and Sano making him look smart a year from now. After all, not many people have gone wrong betting on the ability of those two men to do just about anything on a baseball field.

-JC

Hawkeyes Fall Short at the B1G Championship Game

So the Big Ten Championship football game didn’t exactly end the way Iowa Hawkeye fans hoped it would, with Michigan State beating our Hawks 16-13 after completing a 22-play drive that ended with a Spartan touchdown (barely) with less than 30 seconds left in the ballgame.

It was a tough way to lose a championship game, but it was an incredibly exciting game between two very evenly matched teams. You can’t ask for more than that.

Apparently, the College Football Playoff Committee agreed, as they dropped Iowa just one position, from 4th to 5th in their final rankings. The result is that the Hawkeyes will be taking on Stanford in the Rose Bowl.  

20151205_183826_HDRMy son and I made the trip to Indianapolis for the game and while it made for a lot of driving over the course of about 30 hours, but it was well worth the effort, despite the disappointment of the loss, and I decided to share a bit about the trip here today.

I made one good decision several weeks ago. A week or two before Iowa even clinched the B1G West title and the berth in the championship game that goes with it, I went to StubHub and bought a pair of tickets in what’s called a “Club III” section of Lucas Oil Stadium. I was able to get those tickets for about 60% over face value, but from the research I did online, the section for our tickets is considered one of the best seats in the stadium for football.

By the week after Iowa officially clinched the B1G West title, prices for seats in the same area had more than doubled.

Booking a hotel room was a different story, however.

While I knew I’d be able to recover most of the cost of my tickets (or, more likely, show a decent profit) if Iowa had flopped down the stretch and not played in the championship game, it turned out that I would not have been so fortunate with hotel costs if I made those reservations at the same time. Downtown hotels were getting over $300 per night and requiring either a nonrefundable pre-payment or, at best, requiring cancellation a week or two before arrival.

I wasn’t going to take that risk, so I found a room along I-74 about 40 miles west of Indianapolis for a more normal rate and with full cancellation privileges right up to the day of arrival. We were able to check in on our way into Indianapolis, then made the easy 45 minute drive out to the hotel after the game. It also resulted in a somewhat shorter drive home on Sunday, so that worked out well.

On advice of a friend of my son’s, we used ParkWhiz to arrange parking, in advance, and thanks to a discount code, we parked for just $5 about four blocks from the stadium. Upon arrival, it looked like we had pulled into a Hawkeye tailgate lot at Kinnick Stadium!

20151205_150133_HDRWe left Cedar Rapids about 6:30 Saturday morning and, by the time we stopped to check into our hotel and have lunch in Crawfordsville, we made it to downtown Indianapolis by 2:15 or so (which was only 1:15 Central Time). We spent a pretty pointless hour or so wandering around downtown trying to find a bar we could get into to watch some early football, but every place was packed beyond anything the Fire Marshall could have been comfortable with.

The Georgia Street Walkway in downtown Indianapolis was set up with food/beer vendors (including a Craft Beer truck with several local craft beers on tap), a large stage, a large video board and plenty of tables/chairs, so we stopped there and settled in to watch the SEC Championship game on the video board and listen to a really good cover band on the main stage.

20151205_170759_PanoBefore the band took the stage, however, they held a Iowa vs MSU shrimp eating contest on the stage. Two teams of four people ate shrimp from St. Elmo’s Steakhouse with their famous “very spicy” cocktail sauce. From what I’ve heard, “very spicy” doesn’t come close to describing it. The Spartan team jumped to a quick lead, but the #3 eater for the Hawkeyes virtually inhaled his bowl of shrimp to close the gap. Unfortunately, the Iowans fell just short of a successful comeback.

20151205_152340_HDRThe only down side to that choice was that the venue was outdoors and it was chilly enough to see your breath (maybe 40 degrees), but they also had portable heaters set up and, frankly, we knew we’d likely be spending a few hours wandering around downtown before the game, so we dressed warmly enough to not be too uncomfortable.

20151205_160532_HDR

We met up with some friends, had a few good craft beers, watched some football and then walked about three blocks to Lucas Oil Stadium when the doors opened. (Any time I buy pricey tickets on the secondary market and take electronic delivery, I try to get into the stadium early, just in case some jerk decided to sell his tickets more than once. I’ve never had that issue with StubHub, but did not want the first time to be at this game, either.)

20151205_183648_HDR

The seats were every bit as good as advertised. Right on the 25 yard line in a small section of seats that came with access to a “Club” area with its own concession stand, restrooms and tables/chairs. Again, there were some craft beer options, but as this was a college game, no beer was allowed in the seating areas. I really don’t mind that rule. It allows you to have a beer before the game and one at halftime, but keeps the NFL-fan-type drunks from making everyone in seats around them miserable.

20151205_191548_HDR20151205_185836_HDR

I also have to mention the turnout of Iowa fans. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Hawkeye fans outnumbered MSU fans at least 3-1. I shot a video of the Iowa Marching Band’s pregame set and, toward the end of it, I panned the stadium. MSU fans are in one quadrant of the stadium. The other 3/4 of the sections are dominated by black & gold.

20151205_194640_Pano

20151205_201838_HDR20151205_201928_HDRYou probably know all you need to know about the game. If you’re a fan of 50-45 games with no defense, this wasn’t something you probably would enjoy. I still believe defense is a big part of football (or should be), so I thought the game was incredibly exciting.

We checked out of our hotel by 8:30 Sunday morning and got back to Cedar Rapids in time for me to get to a bar for most of the Vikings game against Seattle. Yeah, that was totally worth getting back early enough to see. #sarcasm

The bottom line is this: If your favorite B1G team ever gets a chance to play in the championship game and you’re wondering whether it’s worth the time, effort and expense to go, just do it. I don’t typically go to Iowa’s bowl games, but if they are anything like what we experienced in Indianapolis, I may have to start making some of those trips, too.

The results weren’t what we wanted to see and it would have been incredible to have Iowa in the College Football Playoffs, but I’m still extremely proud of this group of Hawkeyes and already looking forward to the Rose Bowl and the 2016 season.

EDIT: By Monday, we were seeing this photographic evidence make its way around Twitter which proves conclusively that Iowa got screwed by the officials on the so-called final MSU touchdown! Damn blind refs!

IowaMSUTD

Let the Sano-Buxton-Park Era Begin

The Minnesota Twins held a press conference Wednesday morning to introduce their newest addition to the family, Korean slugger Byung Ho Park. The hope is that Park can approach the level of production he showed in Korea and, if so, join potential stars Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton as cornerstones in a Twins everyday lineup being built to contend for the postseason for years to come.

Park press conferenceBy now, everyone knows how he came to be a member of the Twins. His Korean team posted him, the Twins won the bidding for the exclusive rights to negotiate with him, they came to an agreement on a multi-year deal and, on Wednesday, he and the Twins’ brass spoke to the media about the whole thing.

The assembled media asked a lot of good questions. How will park adjust to facing better pitchers who throw better breaking balls and faster fastballs? How will he adjust to being a full-time designated hitter? What kind of fielder is he, in the event he needs to use his glove more frequently than is currently envisioned? How will he adjust to living and working in the United States?

The media got very few good answers to those questions, however.

That’s not the fault of Park, GM Terry Ryan or anyone else on that dias, really. The fact is, there are no good answers to most of the questions, yet. Park will need to answer those questions on the field, in the clubhouse and out and about in the greater Twins Territory community.

Ryan told the media that he feels his team needs to add offense and that he expects Park to replace Torii Hunter’s offensive production.

My goodness, I certainly hope he can do better than that. After all, while Hunter made significant critical contributions to the turnaround of the 2015 Twins, not a lot of those contributions were with his bat. If Park doesn’t exceed Hunter’s 2015 production, he may well be getting acquainted with upstate New York or south central Tennessee at some point.

It sounds like expectations are measured, which is good. Everyone with the club has indicated they expect Park to struggle a little bit as he adjusts to Major League pitching, but that he is also expected to successfully make those adjustments. I wonder how well those limited expectations will be remembered when the strikeouts come, especially if wins don’t come as quickly for this team as we think they should.

I’m looking forward to a full season of Park and Miguel Sano in the lineup. That’s a lot of long-ball potential that wasn’t there on Opening Day, 2015. It’s also a lot of strikeout potential, of course.

Ryan was asked if he expects to make more roster moves, obviously alluding to the possibility of trading incumbent third baseman Trevor Plouffe. His response seemed unequivocal, stating that he did not expect to make additional changes to the regular lineup. “We’re going to go with what we’ve got,” he said. He added, “We’re going to move Sano to the outfield.”

Things change, of course. Baseball’s Winter Meetings are coming up and it’s reasonable to expect that Ryan will get some inquiries about the availability of some of his players, including Plouffe. Maybe his unambiguous statements today are just part of a posture he’s taking to send a message to his peers that they should not expect to get Plouffe (or anyone) for peanuts.

But, to me, he certainly sounded and looked like a man who believes his everyday lineup is just about set in stone.

The additional power is good. It’s very good. I just don’t think it’s so good that it will, by itself, push the Twins over hump and propel them into the postseason. I believe that this team also needs more hitters who can get on base and contribute some extra-base hits with regularity.

For that to happen, Miguel Sano cannot afford a sophomore slump. He needs to not only continue to pepper the outfield bleachers with 400-foot home run balls, he needs to continue adding 30 or 40 doubles and get on base 38% of the time. In short, he needs to be a fixture in the cleanup spot for the Twins that strikes fear into the minds of opposing pitchers and catchers.

He needs to be that guy right out of the gate in 2016.

Byron Buxton also needs to arrive in 2016. And by “arrive,” I mean he needs to, as Nuke LaLoosh put it, announce his presence with authority.

If Buxton and Sano take control of the leadoff and cleanup spots, respectively, on Opening Day and both show the talent they have demonstrated at every minor league level (and that Sano demonstrated in half a season with the Twins this year), it will allow the rest of the lineup to easily fall into place.

Byron Buxton
Byron Buxton

Mauer and Dozier become the everyday number 2 and 3 hitters. Plouffe, Park and either Rosario or Arcia (whichever claims the third outfield spot) easily slot into the 5-7 spots, while Escobar and the catcher du jour, Suzuki or Murphy, pull up the rear.

In that scenario, the Twins lineup has become much “longer,” to use the buzzword currently in favor that describes a team with dangerous hitters even far down the batting order. It also allows guys like Dozier, Mauer, Plouffe and Rosario to successfully fill roles they are most suited to fill, rather than try to be something they aren’t.

Yes, I would have defensive concerns with any outfield that includes both Sano and Arcia in the corners. That’s a disaster waiting to happen, but I’m pretty confident that Rosario will be the winner of that battle this spring, so I’m not too concerned about it.

But if Buxton can’t be Buxton at the top of that order or if Sano struggles to make consistent hard contact at cleanup, suddenly your “long” lineup isn’t really so long and you’ve got some guys hitting in spots they really aren’t best-suited for.

Your leadoff hitter needs to work the count, hit for average, draw walks, find some gaps and cause all sorts of anxiety for pitchers, catchers and defenses on the basepaths.

Your cleanup hitter needs to consistently drive in runs. He needs to hit home runs in bunches. He needs to be able to do more than make pitchers pay for mistakes. He needs to hit a pitcher’s best pitch for extra bases. He needs to avoid striking out so often that opposing teams don’t worry about seeing him step into the on-deck circle.

If Buxton isn’t an effective leadoff man, someone else has to do that job and there is nobody currently on this roster that you could honestly say, “leadoff is his best spot.” The same is true of Sano at cleanup.

Yes Dozier could lead off. Mauer and Escobar could do it, too. But all three of those players have holes in their offensive games that make them much better suited to hit someplace other than at the top of the Twins’ order.

It’s possible that Park will turn out to be a legitimate cleanup spot alternative to Sano. If so, that’s a bonus. But right now, the best the Twins show me is a few guys who could serve that role if they absolutely had to. That’s not good enough.

If you have to slide Dozier and Mauer up a spot in the order and/or do the same with Plouffe and Rosario, not to mention Escobar and your catcher, suddenly that lineup doesn’t look so “long,” after all. You no longer have a lineup set up to challenge the Kansas City Royals in the American League Central Division, much less make a deep postseason run.

I know that I’ve totally ignored the pitching situation and, obviously, that’s very important, too. I also am aware that the Twins will be likely be a better team with Buxton in centerfield every day, regardless of what he does with his bat.

But for the Twins to become the team we all want them to be, they need Byron Buxton to be an All-Star level leadoff hitter, they need Sano to be a beast in the cleanup spot and they need those things to happen closer to April than September. They also need Park to quickly make whatever adjustments need to be made to allow him to be a significant contributor to a big league contender.

No pressure, guys. Just become great and do it now.

Max Kepler’s 2016 Role

In 2015, Twins outfield prospect Max Kepler had his long-awaited breakout season, primarily with the Class AA Chattanooga Lookouts. He was the Southern League Player of the Year and, immediately after his Lookouts team won the Southern League Championship, Kepler was on his way to join the Twins for the remainder of the 2016 season.

Max Kepler
Max Kepler

Kepler had an injury-plagued season in 2013, not being able to even join the Cedar Rapids Kernels until mid-June due to an arm injury. In 2014, he made progress with the Fort Myers Miracle, but still wasn’t wowing the supposed “experts.” He had a very good stint in the Arizona Fall League in 2014, however, setting the stage for his outstanding 2015 season.

This has led to some conjecture as to what his role might/could/should be in 2016. The topic became the subject of a Twitter exchange I participated in on Monday but making a thoughtful argument on a matter like this in 140 character bites is all but impossible.

Fortunately, I have a blog that has no such limit.

I don’t recall how the topic was originally raised, but in essence, I believe the question of Kepler perhaps being utilized as the Twins’ fourth outfielder in 2016 was posed.

The immediate reaction, from informed persons with considerable experience and knowledge on such matters, was that Kepler would not and should not open the season with the Twins if he’s not going to be one of the three starting outfielders. In that case, he should begin the year on the farm where he’ll be an everyday player, preparing for a possible mid-season promotion.
This is a reasoned and logical view. It’s a view I would have shared a year ago. It’s a view I wouldn’t necessarily criticize the Twins’ front office for taking this spring, either.

But I don’t necessarily agree it would be the correct approach in 2016.

I don’t think we can rely too much on one very impressive season out of Kepler (or any prospect) and we can’t assume that he’s going to pick up in March right where he left off in Septermber, though he will get an opportunity to impress coaches and the front office during the Twins’ spring training. He may struggle against what passes for big league pitching in the initial spring training games and, if so, the only decision to be made will be whether he opens 2016 in Rochester or back in Chattanooga.

Just for the sake of argument, though, let’s assume he opens strong and is successful against the March versions of Major League pitching he faces, but not to the extent that he forces his way into one of the top three outfield spots with the Twins.
Now, what do you do?

Option one, of course, is that you still send him to the minors where he’ll play every day.

Option two is that you bring him north to Minnesota to open the season as the Twins’ fourth outfielder.

Max Kepler
Max Kepler

With a prospect of his caliber, conventional wisdom is that you don’t want him rotting on the big league team’s bench. You want him honing his craft in the upper minors by getting daily looks at quality pitching (though, clearly, not MLB level “quality”).

I’m not prepared to just blindly follow conventional wisdom, in this case, however. It may be conventional, but I’m not convinced it’s wise.

As things currently stand, the Twins’ starting outfield is likely to be some three-man combination of the following four players: Eddie Rosario, Oswaldo Arcia, Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano. If Trevor Plouffe remains the Twins’ starting third baseman on Opening Day, it’s quite possible that all four of the aforementioned men are with the Twins, making Arcia the likely “fourth outfielder.”

But, again, for the sake of argument, let’s assume Plouffe, Rosario or Arcia is not with the organization, Buxton struggles in spring training or the Sano-as-outfielder experiment goes bust.
In our “what if” scenario, then, the Twins are left with the choice of adding a replacement level fourth outfielder in the Shane Robinson mold or making Keper that fourth outfielder.

If the Twins were still in the midst of a run of 95-loss season futility, Kepler would be farmed out. If you have little hope of competing for the postseason, you give your top prospects all kinds of time to develop in the minors, even if they might make your big league club marginally better. You’re planning and playing for the future, when you can contend.

But the Twins of 2016 are no longer rebuilding. To my mind, every roster decision they make coming out of spring training should answer only one question – who gives us the best chance to win games at the MLB level?

I simply don’t buy the argument that Kepler’s development would be damaged by being the Twins’ fourth outfielder, as opposed to being a regular in Rochester if – BIG IF – he demonstrates that he is not overwhelmed by big league pitching.
Given the likely composition of the Twins’ starting outfield (and the fact that Paul Molitor, not Ron Gardenhire, is the Twins’ manager), Kepler would not rot on the bench. Most starting outfielders get one game off each week, either entirely off or where they serve as the designated hitter. That would potentially give Kepler three starts every week. At worst, he would start twice and pinch hit a time or two.

Together, Shane Robinson and Jordan Schafer averaged over ten plate appearances per week for the Twins in 2015 and they were not the only reserves who saw time in the Twins outfield.

Reynaldo Rodriguez led the Red Wings, playing in 132 of Rochester’s 140 games in 2015. He averaged about 25 plate appearances per week. If you subscribe to the “promote Kepler at mid-season” philosophy, he’s not going to come anywhere close to that number, anyway.

If the Twins can find a dozen plate appearances for Kepler each week at the big league level and if he demonstrates he is not overmatched in those opportunities, I would rather he learn to hit MLB pitching in the Major Leagues, not simply continue to show a proficiency for hitting good minor league pitching.

But that’s not really the point, anyway.

The point is that these Twins should be doing absolutely everything within their power to win Major League games. They found out in 2015 just how important every single win is and that a win in September is no more important than a win in April.

Max Kepler, in Arizona Fall League (2014)
Max Kepler, in Arizona Fall League (2014)

For that reason, if the Twins believe that Max Kepler’s presence, whether it’s his defense, his baserunning, his pinch-hitting or his ability to ably fill in as a starting outfielder two or three times a week, is likely to result in more wins over the course of the season than whoever else they might alternatively utilize in that role, then that’s all that really matters. You keep Kepler in April, period, even if that means Kepler doesn’t reach his full potential as a big leaguer for another year.

The Twins – and their fans – need to stop thinking like an organization still “waiting until next year.” Next year is now and the Twins should need to begin acting like they plan to compete with the Kansas City Royals for dominance of the American League Central Division and do so beginning in 2016.

That means you bring your best 25 players to Minnesota with you in April. If that includes Max Kepler (and/or Byron Buxton and/or Jose Berrios), then so be it.

Next for Twins Offseason? Hopefully Not Much

Last week, Minnesota Twins General Manager Terry Ryan went back-to-back-to-back making three deals in three days in an effort to improve his club, winning the bidding for the right to negotiate with Korean slugging first baseman/DH Byung-ho Park, trading backup catcher Chris Herrmann for a prospect, which cleared the way for catcher John Ryan Murphy to be added via trade.

After one or two more roster adjustments, Ryan should R-E-L-A-X. (Photo: SD Buhr)
After 1 or 2 more roster adjustments, Terry Ryan should R-E-L-A-X. (Photo: SD Buhr)

It has been almost a week since the last of those deals was announced, so the question has become, “Now what?”

I felt the catching situation was the most glaring need that had to be addressed this offseason and Ryan & Co. appear to have resolved that situation with the addition of Murphy.

Now, where should the GM turn his focus?

Given the state of the Twins the past four offseasons, it seems odd to say it, but I think Ryan’s offseason work should be about done already.

Let’s take a position-by-position look at where the Twins stand right at this moment, with some thoughts as to how they could still be improved.

Between incumbent catcher Kurt Suzuki and the newly-acquired Murphy, the position appears to be set. If Ryan could find a taker for Suzuki, they could just hand the starting job to Murphy and look for another backup, but that seems highly unlikely.

Joe Mauer is at first base and isn’t going anywhere. The Twins added another first baseman in Park, which was surprising to most of us, so the odds are stacked high against seeing another one added. Kennys Vargas remains on the periphery of the 1B/DH mix and now we’re seeing reports that he could make a good sized payday in Korea or Japan if the Twins are willing to sell his contract.

Brian Dozier will play second base. If the Twins get an offer they can’t refuse for Dozier, Jorge Polanco would likely get his shot at a permanent promotion to the big leagues. It’s hard to imagine the Twins adding someone else to the mix. James Beresford performed well in Rochester, but he’s a minor league free agent again this year and is at least an even bet to sign elsewhere after the Twins didn’t even give him a look in September.

Eduardo Escobar did everything anyone could ask of him at shortstop in 2015 and appears to have given the Twins the stability they’ve lacked at the position since the ill-advised trade of J.J. Hardy to the Orioles. The Twins will also have Danny Santana around as a utility player, should Escobar falter. It’s unlikely the Twins will go looking for another shortstop.

Everyone seems to think that third base is already crowded. Trevor Plouffe is still manning the hot corner, but is looking over his shoulder at the hulking figure of Miguel Sano. This has led many to recommend that the Twins trade Plouffe this offseason and hand the position to Sano.

While that might make sense, providing that Ryan could get fair value for Plouffe on the market (I’m not all that certain would be the case, but it’s possible), making that deal would mean putting all of the club’s third base “eggs” in the Sano basket. That makes me nervous.

Maybe Sano can play third base competently every day, but that’s hardly a certainty. If Plouffe is sent packing, Ryan had better have a reliable Plan B ready to step into the position. With Plouffe gone, who would that be?

There are few internal options that manager Paul Molitor could plug in. Do we want to see Eduardo Núñez as the Twins’ starting third baseman? Polanco and Santana have rarely played the position, even in minor league ball, but maybe one or both could do it.

Could a Plouffe trade be followed by the acquisition of a stop-gap type? Conceivably, yes. The Twins Daily Offseason Handbook projects 37-year-old Juan Uribe to sign a one-year deal for $3 million. That sounds a little high, to me, for Uribe, but if it’s in that neighborhood, it wouldn’t be a bad price for this particular situation.

Trevor Plouffe in a Twins uniform, where he should stay, at least for now (Photo: SD Buhr)
Trevor Plouffe in a Twins uniform, where he should stay, at least for now (Photo: SD Buhr)

Unless Ryan is really wowed by an offer for Plouffe, however, I think he’s better off keeping the status quo. Let’s see how Sano handles the position (and how he handles his sophomore season at the plate) before running the risk of turning the third sack back into the black hole it was between the departure of Corey Koskie and the arrival of Plouffe.

Likewise, the outfield appears pretty full, even with the departure of Aaron Hicks to the Yankees in the Murphy deal.

Eddie Rosario will be in one corner and the Twins are hoping Byron Buxton claims centerfield right out of spring training. They’ve expressed their intention to teach Sano to play a corner outfield spot, especially now that Park seems likely to get most of the DH at-bats. Oswaldo Arcia is another internal outfield option, but the Twins won’t (or shouldn’t, anyway) consider any option that results in Arcia and Sano sharing the same outfield, no matter how good the man in centerfield is. Max Kepler earned the opportunity to impress coaches and the front office enough in spring training to claim an Opening Day roster spot, but I suspect they’ll start him in Rochester, especially if the alternative is a fourth-outfielder role with the Twins.

And then there’s the pitching staff.

The predominant theory seems to be that the Twins have plenty of internal options to fill out their rotation, but need to look to the free agent and/or trade market to improve their bullpen.

I disagree. Not that the bullpen wasn’t bad (it was), but I disagree with that approach to fixing it. I would prefer to fix the bullpen by improving the rotation even more.

There are four pitchers that you have to figure should be locks to open in the Twins’ rotation. Ervin Santana, Tyler Duffey, Kyle Gibson and Phil Hughes will, unless traded or injured before then, open the year as Twins starters.

Trevor May, Alex Meyer, Tommy Milone, Jose Berrios and Ricky Nolasco all have starter pedigrees, in the minors and/or Major Leagues, and any of the five could earn the Twins’ fifth rotation spot. But if the Twins are set on being more than just a borderline contender in the American League Central Division, you have to ask yourself whether they could do better than those five pitchers in that final rotation opening.

Now, I’m a Zack Greinke fan from way back. After the 2010 season, I advocated here for the Twins to engineer a trade with the Royals to acquire Greinke. Five years later, I’d still love to have him at the top of the Twins’ rotation, but the Twins are not going to shell out the $25+ million per year over 5+ years that is being projected as being what it will take to sign the free agent – alas, nor should they.

Likewise, you can pretty much rule out names like Price, Cueto, Samardzija and Zimmerman, all of which are likely to garner $100+ million/5+ year deals on the open market. That’s an awful big commitment to make to pitchers who, in each case, come with some significant question marks about their abilities to perform at “ace” levels for the next half-decade. Only Price, in my view, is worth that kind of money. Unfortunately, he won’t be had for that kind of money – it will likely take over $200 million to get him. Ouch.

Berrios is a future Twins starter. May and Meyer could very well be future rotation fixtures, as well. The big unknown, in each case, is the definite arrival time of that future. We just don’t know. It could be April, 2016, and if it is, for just one of those pitchers, then the rotation question is asked and answered.

Trevor May - Bullpen or rotation in 2015? Answer: yes (Photo: SD BUhr)
Trevor May – Bullpen or rotation in 2015? Answer: yes (Photo: SD BUhr)

However, like the situation with Sano as a full time third baseman, relying on any of the five possible fifth starters currently on the roster to be good enough to help propel the Twins into an elite-level team in 2016 is pretty risky.

If Ryan decides to take that risk, it’s fine with me, but I wouldn’t mind seeing the Twins take a one-year flyer on Doug Fister, who certainly will be looking for a make-good contract to rebuild his value with an eye on trying free agency again next year. Two years ago, Fister was traded to Washington after 2 ½ successful years in a Tigers uniform. Had he been a free agent a year ago after notching a 2.31 ERA over 25 starts for the Nationals, he’d have undoubtedly been near the top of every team’s free agent starting pitcher wish-list.

But he was Washington property for another year and he did not live up to expectations in 2015, to put it mildly. He lost his starting rotation spot as the dysfunctional Nationals faltered and he finished the season working out of the bullpen.

Could a return to the familiar AL Central spur a revival of Fister’s starting career? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t mind if the Twins spent $10-15 million or so to find out. At that price, they can afford the risk. If it works out, he’s more than just another fifth starter. If it doesn’t work, all they’ve lost is a few bucks and they move on with whoever is looking the best from among the internal options.

With a rotation of Santana, Duffey, Gibson, Hughes and Fister, you are left with a lot of pretty strong options to improve your bullpen.

Glen Perkins and Kevin Jepsen will be there. You have to be concerned with the way Perkins pitched the last half of 2015 and I’m not certain Jepsen is really as good as he looked after being acquired from the Rays, but those two will be cornerstones of the 2016 relief corps, if they’re healthy.

Now, just for fun, plug the following five arms into the bullpen: Trevor May, Alex Meyer, Tommy Milone, Jose Berrios and Ricky Nolasco.

Jose Berrios and Tony Oliva chatted during a spring training game in March. They should be able to have chats like this at Target Field in 2016 (Photo: SD Buhr)
Jose Berrios and Tony Oliva chatted during a spring training game in March. They should be able to have chats like this at Target Field in 2016 (Photo: SD Buhr)

Yes, that leaves just Perkins and Milone as lefty arms, so I’d like to see Logan Darnell make the team, meaning Nolasco is cut loose or one of Meyer/Berrios is kept in Rochester to stay stretched out in case there’s an early hole to plug in the rotation.

No team survives a season without running 7-10 pitchers through their rotation during the year and all five of these guys could work their way into starting roles either by their own performance or attrition among those who open the year as starters.

But the point remains that the Twins have pitching that is capable of bolstering their bullpen and I’d  spend $10-15 million to take a chance on Fister improving the rotation. Then, as the dominoes fall, quality internal pitchers are pushed to the bullpen.

To me, that’s preferable to making multi-year commitments to one or more of the flavor-of-the-month relief arms available in free agency when the Twins have guys like Nick Burdi, Jake Reed, J.T. Chargois, Taylor Rogers, Zach Jones, Alex Wimmers and Mason Melotakis (to name just a few), any of which could become high-quality internal bullpen options before 2016 is over. Even 2015 top draft pick Tyler Jay, who will be given an opportunity to work in a minor league rotation somewhere to start the season, could be called on for a big league relief role, if needed at some point.

The best free agent bullpen arms will command large, multi-year deals, which the Twins should not invest in, and the next tier on the open market are no more likely to provide consistent quality relief innings than the Twins’ own internal options.

The bottom line, for me, is that Terry Ryan can get Park signed, make a deal with Fister, then go on vacation, as far as I’m concerned. If he can get someone to take Nolasco’s contract off his hands, terrific, but otherwise, I’d be content to head to spring training with that roster.

-JC

A Special Saturday at Kinnick Stadium

I put in about a 17-hour day on Saturday and I’m feeling it a day later, but I suspect there are a number of staff members within the University of Iowa Athletics Department who are every bit as worn down today as I am after putting on one of the most unique (and successful) days of Hawkeye sporting events at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.

At 11:00 a.m. Saturday, Iowa’s wrestlers, ranked fourth in the country, hosted top-ranked Oklahoma State – outdoors at Kinnick Stadium – in November. The Hawkeyes topped the Cowboys 18-16, with each side claiming five of the ten matches, but the result is not what people will remember about the event.

My son and I were among 42,287 that paid our $10 per ticket to be on hand to watch “Grapple on the Gridiron”, matching two wrestling programs that, between them, account for 57 national championships. Iowa organized the event with the intention of smashing the meet attendance record set by Penn State two years ago. Mission accomplished and then some. Penn State’s record was “only” 15,996.

Back in late summer, when Iowa announced plans for this event, I thought Athletic Director Gary Barta had finally gone off the deep end. I probably could have thought the same of wrestling coach Tom Brands, but I think we all know he’s been more than a little crazy his whole life, so nothing he does comes as a surprise. But Barta had to sign off on the nutso idea of holding a wrestling meet outdoors at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa in the middle of November.

Can you imagine what that would have been like if there was ANY kind of typical November weather issues? Wind, rain, sleet, snow or just plain really cold temperatures all had at least even odds of showing up. Sure, they had Carver-Hawkeye Arena to move the meet (and 15,000 of the ticket buyers) to, if necessary, but you don’t recover costs of staging by moving indoors.

No matter, though, because the weather was absolutely ideal. Calm winds, sunny and 60 degrees, and a perfect day for big walk-up ticket sales from fans showing up for a bit of early tailgating before the headline event of the day. That, of course, would be Iowa’s undefeated and 5th ranked football team Iowa hosting Minnesota in the battle for Floyd of Rosedale.

We did not tailgate for the 4+ hours we had to kill between wrestling meet and football game. Instead, a quick drive up to Red’s Ale House in North Liberty allowed us to kill the time watching afternoon football games, eating some really good food and enjoying a craft beer or four. (Red’s was featuring pours from Surly and Toppling Goliath. I won’t go in to my reviews of those beers here. That’s what the “Untappd” app is for, right?)

At 5:15 or so, it was time to head back to Kinnick Stadium. We caught the Hawkeye Express Train in Coralville and were in our 25-30 yard line seats a half-hour before kickoff.

The Hawkeyes came away with a 40-35 win over the Golden Gophers, to raise their record to 10-0 for the first time in Iowa football history, but it was a frustrating game from an Iowa fan’s perspective. Iowa never trailed and I thought it was pretty evident Iowa was the better team, but the damn Gophers just would not go away.

I’m not going to lie. Iowa needs big wins as they try to impress the folks who put together the College Football Playoff rankings, so I wanted the Hawks to just bury Minnesota and bury them deep. That didn’t happen at all, obviously.

My phone battery pretty much died by the time the football game started, so those of you who follow me on Twitter were spared having to put up with my frustration. Then again, the cell phone service in Kinnick (at least for Spring customers like me) is atrocious, so I probably wouldn’t have gotten anything out during the game anyway.

The other result of not having a working phone is that I didn’t see the final scores of all of the other night games across the country until I got home somewhere around 12:30 in the morning…

… which is my segue into discussion of the College Football Playoff rankings and Iowa’s place within that conversation.

You’re probably thinking I’m going to argue that Iowa should be ranked in the top four of the CFP rankings, in position to make the NCAA football playoffs. I’m not. Yet. But the results of some of the games yesterday are getting me closer to believing they should be.

One of the games I watched at Red’s yesterday was Clemson-Syracuse. I haven’t watched a lot of their games, but I wasn’t as impressed as I thought I would be. Still, they’re the team you have to rank at the top, despite an unimpressive win.

Ohio State is the defending National Champion, has almost everyone back from among the key contributors to that team, and hasn’t lost a game. They have to be in your top four right now. But I’ve watched them quite a bit and, honestly, it might be the same guys in the same uniforms, but they just haven’t looked all that terrific to me.

Through last week, I’d have had Oklahoma State in the top four. But another of the games I watched at Red’s Saturday was the Cowboys and Iowa State. We left before the game was over, so I didn’t see how Okie State won that game, but during every bit of that game I did watch, the Cowboys looked pretty bad. Still, they are undefeated and they beat TCU a week ago, so maybe you allow a little hangover. I’d have them in top four right now, too, but barely. I don’t think they’ll stay there.

I would reluctantly have Alabama filling out my top four. They’re playing very well now and you credit them for that. I don’t think that totally makes up for the fact that they do have a loss and that loss is to Mississippi, a team that hasn’t turned out to be anything all that special.

I would have Iowa somewhere in that next group of five teams. Where, exactly, isn’t all that important because it’s going to sort itself out over the next three weeks, anyway.

Oklahoma is coming on really strong, as their win over Baylor showed. Notre Dame has only lost to Clemson, so they certainly are in position to be considered to make the field if they win out.

By the way, is there a fan base more defensive than Notre Dame’s? I Tweeted out an observation that Notre Dame doesn’t play as tough a schedule as they used to before they became partially-affiliated with the ACC, yet still get residual credit in many corners for playing a difficult schedule. As a result, I got a bunch of irate responses from, I imagine, Irish fans. I didn’t say they have an “easy” schedule. But you don’t take Michigan and Northwestern off your schedule and replace them with teams like Virginia, Wake Forest and even Temple (which has been overrated all year, as we’re now seeing) and still get credit for an extremely difficult schedule. Not with me, anyway. I also don’t buy the, “we have the best loss,” argument that Mike Golic of ESPN keeps harping about. It’s a LOSS. You don’t get credit for playing somebody you lost to. You have to win the game for it to be a positive factor.

I think that’s basically it, now. The group of current legitimate contenders for the playoffs got whittled down this week. Stanford lost, essentially ending any chance that a Pac-12 team will be considered. Baylor lost to the Sooners, which is no disgrace, but the brilliant minds of the Big 12 decided to backload their schedule, assuring that any loss by their top teams will be “late losses,” and pretty much eliminate those teams from contention. Well done, Bob Bowlsby & company (I’m really glad he’s screwing up the Big 12 now and not still as Athletic Director at Iowa).

Could Michigan State run the table, beating Ohio State and then Iowa in the B1G Championship game, to work their way back into the playoff picture? Yes. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they did exactly that.

Florida should get some appreciation, I suppose. But they lead the SEC-East, which is just as questionable, in terms of top to bottom strength, as the B1G-West and you have to ask yourself: how much consideration would a 1-loss Iowa be getting? The answer is, “none,” and that’s exactly the amount I would give Florida.

Finally, Wisconsin puzzles me, in that I’m puzzled why they aren’t given a lot more respect than they’re getting. Like half a dozen teams ranked above them in this week’s AP Coaches’ Poll, they have two losses. Unlike any of the teams ranked above them, their two losses are to two teams with combined 19-1 records and both ranked in the top six teams in the country. Sure, their best win is over Nebraska, but it’s almost like Badger fans gave up on the season after the Iowa loss and the rest of the country decided, “hey if you think your team sucks, we’ll just agree with you and ignore them, too.”

If Bucky wins out against Northwestern and Minnesota, they’ll end up in a pretty nice bowl game. I wonder if anyone in Wisconsin will even notice, much less attend the game.

Enough words. Here are a few not-really-very-good photos from my day at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday:

GrappleOnTheGridiron

What does it look like to watch a wrestling meet in a football stadium? Something like this.
What does it look like to watch a wrestling meet in a football stadium? Something like this.
For perspective on the crowd. Attendance was officially 42,287
For perspective on the crowd. Attendance was officially 42,287
On the double-decker train, the Hawkeye Express, heading back to Kinnick for football.
On the double-decker train, the Hawkeye Express, heading back to Kinnick for football.
"Blackout" crowd watches the first play from scrimmage of Iowa vs Minnesota (technically, the Gophers got called for a procedure penalty before the snap, so this play never happened)
“Blackout” crowd watches the first play from scrimmage of Iowa vs Minnesota (technically, the Gophers got called for a procedure penalty before the snap, so this play never happened)

The Hawkeyes went to get Floyd of Rosedale from the Minnesota sideline in a calm, unified approach  – for a while, anyway.

Floyd of Rosedale is in there somewhere.
Floyd of Rosedale is in there somewhere.

-JC