What Are the Twins Doing… and Why?

It has been a weird offseason for the Twins, hasn’t it?

I’m not complaining. mind you. It’s refreshing to see General Manager Terry Ryan being aggressive in the free agent market to address the team’s starting pitching needs. Signing Ricky Nolasco to a four-year contract with a fifth year vesting option was more than a little out of character for the Twins.Adding Phil Hughes on a three-year deal two days later was almost downright giggle inducing.

Terry Ryan (Photo:Jim Crikket/Knuckleballs)

Terry Ryan (Photo:Jim Crikket/Knuckleballs)

I mean, not only did Ryan go sign a couple of guys that were clearly in demand elsewhere, but the organization obviously looked beyond just wins, losses and ERA in determining who to target. That’s just not normal for this front office.

But the thing is, Ryan’s apparently not even close to being done with his offseason shopping. Based on media reports, Ryan has also been actively looking to upgrade his roster at other positions, most notably at catcher and in the outfield. And despite a number of assumptions to the contrary, he’s also apparently not done trying to land starting pitcher Bronson Arroyo.

Like most Twins fans, I would imagine, my first reaction to all of this activity has been, “Great! It’s about time!” But, at the risk of looking a gift horse in the mouth, my second reaction has been to wonder why this is happening all of a sudden.

I suppose, if you were inclined to take the comments made by the Twins ownership and front office management at face value, none of this should surprise us. I think owner Jim Pohlad, team president Dave St. Peter and GM Terry Ryan have all pretty consistently told any reporter inclined to ask that they were not happy with recent results on the field and they understood that the roster had to be improved.

But after three consecutive 95+ loss seasons, they’d have sounded pretty out of touch with reality to say anything else. They all said pretty similar stuff a year ago and, probably, a year before that.

So, again you ask yourself, why has the approach apparently changed so dramatically this offseason?

Obviously, I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t have some theories to share.

New MLB Media Money

The Twins, like every MLB team, have a big chunk of new annual national media rights money coming in starting this year. Reports estimate it at $25 million per club, though the MLB offices have tried to downplay that a bit by pointing out that, while the new overall money divided by the number of teams might be $25 million, part of the money is retained by Major League Baseball itself. I guess to pay for Bud Selig’s platinum parachute, maybe.

Regardless, it’s a bunch of new money and it’s essentially “found money” because it doesn’t come with a nickel’s worth of corresponding expenses. In theory, it could (and arguably should) be dedicated wholly to improving the talent being put on the field at the Major League and minor league levels. That is to say, there’s no reason that only half the money should go to payroll, which is the portion of revenues that the Twins have claimed in the past that they earmark for payroll.

The bottom line is that, between the new money, the $40 million or so of payroll space the Twins would have had even without the new money and the lack of any significant long term commitments for anyone not named Joe Mauer, money honestly is no object for the Twins this offseason. That’s a concept that is almost impossible for most Twins fans to grasp, but it’s true.

The 2014 All-Star Game

During the fourth season in their new stadium, the Twins hosted the MLB All-Star game. They put on a good show, but the game itself was not all that exciting and the Twins, in the midst of yet another generally poor season and sitting 11 games out of first place at the break, had only the minimum allowable one reserve player named to the American League roster.

No, I didn’t slip in to my DeLorean and zap in to the future for that information. Rather, that’s a recap of the 1985 All-Star Game that the Twins hosted at the HHH Metrodome.

I don’t think Jim Pohlad likes the fact that most Twins fans in Minnesota (and a few of us in Iowa and the Dakotas, too) wonder why, with that beautiful taxpayer-funded ballpark, he won’t spend the money necessary to put a decent team on the field to watch. If that’s true, he’s probably even less enthralled with the idea of every baseball fan in America asking the same question during All-Star week next July.

If the Twins are going to suck in 2014 – and they certainly may – I don’t think Pohlad will let it be because he’s seen as having pocketed all of the new stadium and national media revenues, rather than spending some of that money on real Major League ballplayers.

Peer Pressure

When you own a Major League baseball team, you run with a pretty fast – if somewhat conservative – crowd. And I’m not talking about your fellow owners.

Your peer group includes owners and CEOs of other big time businesses and, while I certainly have no personal experience to back this up, I have to imagine that such a peer group tends to keep score.

If you can run your baseball organization at a good profit, see your organizational value (which is reported on annually in business magazines such as Forbes) climb and do it all while making customers/fans happy by winning consistently, your fellow local billionaires are going to look on you, personally, as a winner.

But if you, say, lose 95+ games a season for, I don’t know, maybe three years in a row and you see attendance start to dwindle and your fans are all talking about how cheap you are now that they have paid for your new stadium, those peers (some of which are probably paying premium prices to advertise at your stadium) may start to ask some of the same questions your fans are asking. Like, for example, “do you really need TWO AAA teams, one in Rochester NY and one here in Minnesota?” That’s embarrassing.

So…

Looking back at a number of interviews with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, I think there are two quotes, one each from Pohlad and Ryan, that give pretty good clues as to what’s gotten in to the Twins.

The first, from the owner, I included in an earlier post. In an interview with Adam Platt of Twins Cities Business, Pohlad acknowledged that roster changes were needed and that improvements would necessitate spending money on free agents. He finished with, “I’m not encouraging him (Ryan) to wait.”

Was that just an owner saying what he thought fans wanted to hear? Was it a not-so-veiled statement that, if money wasn’t spent, it wasn’t because he told his GM he couldn’t spend it? Or was it a hint that perhaps he had given his GM direct instructions to, “use the damn ladder to get out of that hole,” and spend some money to put real ballplayers on the field?

We don’t know.

We do know, however, that about a week or two later, Nolasco and Hughes had deals with the Twins.

This past Monday, Terry Ryan was quoted by Star-Tribune beat reporter LaVelle E. Neal III as saying the following concerning the Twins’ own homegrown talent: “If they take a step forward, they will answer some of our problems and questions. A step backwards is going to be concerning not only for us but for their careers. We have given opportunities to guys here the last two years. And it hasn’t gone so well. So now we may have to look out for ourselves here a little bit more.” (Emphasis added)

I found that quote to be about as interesting as anything the Twins GM has uttered publicly in years.

The Twins – and Terry Ryan specifically – have been famously adherent to a process of building from within. They focus on the draft and international signings. They work hard to develop players and promote them deliberately through the minor leagues. When those players are ready, they use them as their primary source of talent to replace players that have aged and/or been judged too expensive to retain. That’s all part of the Twins Way.

Ryan’s quote is a shot across the bow of Chris Parmelee, Kyle Gibson, Aaron Hicks, Trevor Plouffe and any other young player who might be inclined to think that, having survived several years of development in the Twins organization, they now are enetitled to roster spots with the Twins. And just in case any of those players didn’t grasp the meaning of Ryan’s statement, they can now ask Liam Hendriks, who has been Designated for Assignment, for an interpretation.

Why is Terry Ryan talking to free agent catchers and free agent outfielders when he has Josmil Pinto, Chris Herrmann, Aaron Hicks and Oswaldo Arcia?

Ryan answered that question pretty clearly, in another part of Neal’s posting Monday.

“We have all kinds of areas that could be upgraded,” Ryan said. “We’ve got people where, if I told you the positions you would say, ‘Well, this guy is going to be there.’ But some of those guys we need to take a step forward. We can always upgrade any spot anywhere. So if something came to our attention and it looks like an upgrade, we should probably pursue it.”

When Ryan said, “we may have to look out for ourselves,” I’m not sure if he was referring to the Twins, generally, or to himself.

But I wouldn’t be feeling too comfortable if I were any player on the Twins 40-man roster not named Mauer or Perkins, because I think Terry Ryan means what he’s saying right now.

And I like that.

- JC

Santa Came Early for Twins Fans

Yes, Santa Clause showed up early for Twins fans this year – and he brought presents.

Terry Ryan’s reputation among Twins fans has historically been more Ebeneezer Scrooge than Santa Clause over the years. Whether he’s been visited by apparitions who have shown him the errors of his ways or merely by an owner who has grown weary of being blamed by fans for being miserly, Ryan has been doing his holiday shopping early this year and he’s delivered a couple of early gifts to Twins fans.

Terry Ryan (Photo Jim Crikket/Knuckleballs)

Terry Ryan (Photo Jim Crikket/Knuckleballs)

More than a week before the traditional baseball flea market that is the sport’s Winter Meetings, Ryan has signed two of the more in-demand starting pitchers on the market in Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes.

Nolasco and Hughes are not “aces,” so of course there’s a certain faction of Twins fans that are not happy with the additions. Some of those fans remind me of kids who, despite finding some cool presents under the tree on Christmas morning, simply pout because they didn’t get the pony they asked Santa for.

There’s absolutely no downside to these additions and plenty to like about them.

First, the obvious: Nothing short of an injury should keep both of these two pitchers from outperforming the 2013 levels of every starting pitcher who toed the rubber in a Twins uniform this past season.

Neither pitcher will cost the Twins a draft choice next June. Nolasco’s mid-season trade to the Dodgers was a blessing for the pitcher and the Twins.

Some have questioned the Twins for giving arguably generous multi-year deals to the two arms. That thinking simply doesn’t take in to account the Twins’ situation. There are teams who rightfully are interested only in signing free agent pitchers to one or two year deals. The Twins are not one of those teams.

Whether or not it was by design, the Twins have an enormous amount of “payroll flexability.” That’s shorthand for, “they have cut payroll to an obscenely low level, so there is literally nobody on the market they can’t afford.”

Almost everyone believes the Twins have no shot at being competitive for the postseason in 2014. (I don’t necessarily agree, but that’s a discussion for another day.) The consensus thinking is that the Twins have hitters either on the roster now or likely to arrive by 2015 or 2016 that will be good enough to score runs. There’s much less confidence concerning the pitching situation.

So, the Twins need veteran starting pitchers that have a likelihood of being at least legitimate middle-of-the-rotation pitchers, not just in 2014, but for a number of seasons beyond that. That is exactly what Nolasco and Hughes are.

Are they sure-things? No. Are they potential aces? Nope, not likely at all. A week ago, the pitcher most likely to become a true ace in a Twins uniform was prospect Alex Meyer. That remains true today.

But here’s something that wasn’t true a week ago: Before the Nolasco and Hughes signings, the agents for next off-season’s top-tier free agents did not see the Twins as players in the free agent market for their clients’ services. Now, as long as the Twins show some notable improvement this season, you can bet they’ll take a call from Terry Ryan next November and they’ll listen closely to what Ryan has to say.

In that way, the Twins demonstrating a willingness to pay what some might argue is above market value for good free agent talent could work in their favor down the road.

In fact, the Twins may not have to wait until next year for this benefit to kick in. Media reports are that the team is still actively looking to add another starting pitcher, as well as a veteran starting catcher. I’d be willing to bet there are players on the market (and their agents) much more interested in talking to the Twins today than they were a week ago.

Terry Ryan has made a statement. The Twins are intent on improving right now, not at some indefinite time in the future. And it’s a statement being made with actions – and money- not words.

I’m certain that current members of the Twins are excited to see indications the club is committed to winning more games in 2014. I am, too.

You could say these are the sorts of moves Ryan should have been making last year or even the year before that. You’d be absolutely right. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t appreciate that it’s happening now.

Christmas came early for Twins fans this year. Enjoy it. You’re not going to get the pony – this year. But what you’re getting is a lot better than the chunks of coal Santa left in your stockings last year!

- JC

Pohlad: “We took our eye off the ball”

With a hat tip to Twins Daily’s Parker Hageman (@OverTheBaggy) for sending the link out via Twitter, I found this interview with Twins owner Jim Pohlad by Adam Platt of Twin Cities Business to be another indication that Pohlad is not looking for this offseason to be “business as usual” for Twins President Dave St. Peter, General Manager Terry Ryan and the rest of the Twins front office.

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

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

Certainly there’s plenty in Pohlad’s words that skeptics (and really, who in the Twins fan base is NOT a skeptic at this point?) might roll their eyes at. But for me, I’m seeing more evidence that St. Peter, Ryan and their group have different – and quite specific – marching orders this winter.

The Twins owner wants a better product on the field and he doesn’t want to sit around and wait through another miserable season before he gets what he wants.

Platt asked Pohlad if losing hurts the bottom line, to which the owner replied: “Poor performance will always be out ahead of poor financial performance. 2010 was the best year in our ownership history. It’s been declining ever since, and if we don’t improve it will decline next year.”

Pohlad pointed out that success among some organizations is cyclical, while others are able to win consistently. The Twins want to be among the latter group going forward and are doing some analysis to determine what differentiates one group from the other. Platt asked Pohlad if ownership had a role in the current down cycle. “I was probably not pushing enough in the good years. We became self-satisfied. We took our eye off the ball,” Pohlad admitted.

His further responses would seem to indicate his eye is back on the ball – and on the people who work for him.

One of the more insightful exchanges came as Platt asked Pohlad about the organization’s perceived insular nature. The Twins have a reputation for almost exclusively promoting from within to fill leadership roles when they open up, rather than looking to bring in people who have come up through other organizational cultures.

Said Pohlad, “Well, in order to have the ‘Twins way’ be successful, you have to have a methodology, but you also need players. We do embrace new perspectives. Loyalty and low turnover can inhibit that, I admit. We need to always be asking ourselves if we have the right mix of people, policies, and procedures to develop the right players.”

Platt followed up by asking if Terry Ryan is open to that and Pohlad responded, “We’re pressing him on it. I’m not saying Terry isn’t somewhat old-fashioned. He is. But he wants to win.”

For those of us hoping to see the Twins jump in to the deep end of the free agent pool this winter (or at the very least, venture out of the kiddie pool of the free agency marketplace), Pohlad responded in this way when asked specifically what could be done to fix the team’s problems in 2014: “We have a lot of prospects, but most aren’t quite ready. We don’t have a lot of trading inventory. We have to go into the marketplace. Terry knows that. I’m not encouraging him to wait.(emphasis added)

There’s nothing in this interview that indicates Jim Pohlad has lost confidence in Terry Ryan. I believe he genuinely likes Ryan and believes he’s among the best in the business at evaluating baseball talent. However, he also admits at one point that, “The toughest thing for an owner is patience and avoidance of meddling…”

I encourage you to read the entire interview and come to your own conclusions, but I get the distinct impression that Pohlad’s patience is not unlimited. In fact, his patience is being tested every bit as much as is ours in the fanbase.

I also get the feeling that, if things don’t change soon, the days of ownership not “meddling” may come to an abrupt end. Pohlad does not come across to me as an owner who is content to let his front office stubbornly stick to old-fashioned approaches indefinitely, especially once they start to cost him real money.

At one point, Pohlad also says, “There’s not one bit of truth that you can make money and lose consistently. Long-term losing destroys your brand.(emphasis added) I don’t believe you can make money and lose indefinitely.”

That sounds like a man who is tired of losing.

- JC

JC’s Top 15 Twins Prospects – 2014

If it’s November, it must be “Top Prospect List” season.

Last year, I waited until the end of December to publish my personal “Twins Top 15 Prospects” list, which allowed me to include pitchers Alex Meyer and Trevor May after they were acquired by Twins General Manager Terry Ryan in off-season trades. Waiting also allowed me to get a look at a number of lists published by “experts” far smarter than I am.

All things considered, I should probably wait until closer to year end to put my list out there again. But I’m not going to do that.

If there are deals made that bring in new prospects or send away players on this list, so be it. I feel like writing and throwing a Top Prospects list out here seems to be a better use of my time than trying to come up with an off-season blueprint. And, honestly, it’s a lot easier to rank some prospects than try to figure out how to fix all the problems Terry Ryan’s facing with rebuilding the Twins’ roster.

A year ago, I came down on the side of ranking Byron Buxton as the Twins’ number 1 prospect over Miguel Sano.

I had the good fortune of getting to watch Buxton play almost every home game he suited up for with Cedar Rapids before his promotion to Fort Myers, as well as a number of his road games with the Kernels. I believe he was better than any other ballplayer I’ve seen in a Cedar Rapids uniform and that includes Mike Trout.

So, naturally, I’ll have to rank him ahead of Sano in the number 1 spot again this year, right?

Well… yes and no.

What I wrote last year still holds true for me today. Buxton’s potential to play an extraordinary centerfield defensively makes him a better prospect to me than Sano. Centerfield is just about the most critical position on the field (especially on Target Field) and Buxton is simply an amazing outfielder. In fact, the only position in baseball more important than centerfield is probably that of starting pitcher.

And that’s why my number 1 ranked prospect this year is…

  1. Alex Meyer (RHP) – Meyer had a good first year in the Twins organization after coming over from the Nationals in the trade for Denard Span a year ago, but he has appeared to really step up his game in the Arizona Fall League. His fastball is touching 100 mph and averaging between 97 and 98 on the gun. He’s missing bats. He’s dominating some good hitters. He has the potential to be not only a top of the rotation starting pitcher within the next couple of years for the Twins, but to be a legitimate ace. He looks to be to the pitching staff what Buxton could be to the batting order, but he’s a level higher in the organization and thus, arguably, closer to actually realizing that potential than Buxton is.
  2. Byron Buxton

    Byron Buxton

    Byron Buxton (CF) – Buxton is the real deal, folks. There’s nothing he can’t do on a baseball field. In fact, I honestly believe if you wanted to make him a pitcher, he could give the Twins one heck of a 1-2 rotation punch, with Meyer, for years to come. But he’s just too dang good at everything else to consider that option. When he learns to read pitchers a little better on the bases, he will be almost impossible to keep out of scoring position. That’s good news for guys looking to drive in a lot of runs, like, for example…

  3. Miguel Sano (3B) – The best news of 2013 for Twins fans regarding Sano might have been the reviews of his improvements defensively at the hot corner. Let’s face it, a guy who hits like Sano is going to be in the heart of your batting order. But if he can also play a passable third base, that frees a GM and manager up to put other talented hitters who aren’t strong defensively in the corner outfield spots, at first base and/or at designated hitter. Think about this: if Sano sticks at 3B and Mauer can remain behind the plate most of the time, in a year or two, the Twins three best hitters may be their catcher, centerfielder and third baseman. And there’s no shortage of above average hitting prospects in the pipeline to fill the corner OF, 1B and DH spots.
  4. Eddie Rosario (2B/OF) – Speaking of getting outstanding offensive production out of traditionally unexpected positions, if Rosario remains a second baseman, that’s yet another potentially productive bat from a middle infielder. Of course, with Brian Dozier having a solid year at 2B for the Twins, there’s talk of either moving Rosario back to the outfield or possibly even dangling him as trade bait for much-needed pitching help.
  5. Kohl Stewart (RHP) – As has often been said, it’s risky to rank a prospect this high who hasn’t even played his first year of full-season professional ball. Then again, that didn’t seem to keep any of us from ranking Buxton at or near the top of our prospect lists a year ago and he hasn’t made us regret the faith we placed in him. I tend to think that most first round draft picks warrant a high ranking if they show the expected promise in their first taste of short-season ball. If Stewart dominates Class A hitters in 2014, he’ll be a top 3 prospect next year.
  6. Jose Berrios

    Jose Berrios

    Jose Berrios (RHP) – It was cool to be able to watch Berrios strike out Robinson Cano in the WBC tournament last spring, but part of me wonders what his season might have been like if he hadn’t spent that time in the bullpen of Team Puerto Rico. He had some very impressive starts for Cedar Rapids, but he also had some clunkers. He certainly appeared to tire toward the end of the season. However, I also felt he showed more maturity on the mound as the summer went on.

  7. Josmil Pinto (C) – Pinto has one thing that none of the other guys on this list have and that’s a Major League resume. In fact, none of the other players on this list have even played AAA ball yet. Pinto produced at AA, AAA and in the Big Leagues during his September call-up and he plays a critical defensive position. He’s not a finished product behind the dish, by any means, but the season he had in 2013 has to make him a Top 10 prospect for the Twins. He’s the guy that makes us feel a bit better about the potential move to first base by Joe Mauer.
  8. Jorge Polanco (INF) – While I’m not sure Polanco has the tools to be a starting shortstop at the Major League level, his bat has shown two consecutive years of consistent productivity. He hits the ball hard and if he can turn some of those line drives in to something with a bit more loft, he will hit more home runs. I think his long term position is second base and, that said, if the Twins don’t deal Dozier and don’t move Rosario to the outfield, Polanco could be a guy the Twins start getting some calls about.
  9. Max Kepler gets a secondary lead off first base

    Max Kepler gets a secondary lead off first base

    Max Kepler (OF/1B) – I’ll admit that Kepler’s continued top-10 ranking is, for me, more reflective of his athleticism than of his on-field performance and that makes me uncomfortable. He killed right handed pitching but struggled against lefties. His defense in the outfield was inconsistent and I just don’t think his throwing elbow was ever 100% in Cedar Rapids. That’s a concern, as well. I thought he did a nice job at first base for a guy who hadn’t played there a ton and with all of the outfield prospects the Twins have, 1B could be Kepler’s ultimate position if he stays in the Twins organization. He hasn’t been on fire in his Arizona Fall League work, but it sounds like he hasn’t been completely overmatched, either, and that’s encouraging.

  10. Adam Brett Walker lines a home run vs Clinton on September 2

    Adam Brett Walker lines a home run vs Clinton on September 2

    Adam Brett Walker (OF) – Honestly, in my mind, the Twins have a definite “Top 9” prospects and then seven guys that are all pretty equal that fill out a Top “16” list. I’m giving Walker the nod in to the Top 10 because I saw the way Tony Oliva’s eyes lit up watching him play. When Oliva made an appearance in Cedar Rapids this summer, I found myself in the pressbox alone with him for an inning or so. He wanted to talk about Walker. I told him I thought Walker needed to learn to take that outside pitch to the opposite field and Oliva’s response was something along the lines of, “Noooo, why?! Let him pull the ball!” And you could just see in his eyes and his smile that he really liked Walker as a hitter. With that kind of endorsement, how could I not include Walker in the Top 10?

  11. Lewis Thorpe (LHP) – Not only has Thorpe not had a year of full-season professional ball yet, he hasn’t even made it out of the Gulf Coast League. But a 17 year old lefty who can throw 95 mph and drop a pretty good hammer, as well, is impossible to ignore. The Aussie struck out 64 hitters in just 44 GCL innings in 2013. I know they say you have to ignore GCL stats, but I can’t ignore that one.
  12. Trevor May (RHP) – May, who came over from the Phillies organization a year ago in the Ben Revere trade, missed some time in 2013 and again during the Arizona Fall League. The Twins probably still aren’t sure if he’ll end up in the rotation or bullpen, so he needs a healthy 2014 season to really impress.
  13. Travis Harrison

    Travis Harrison

    Travis Harrison (3B/OF) – I’m wondering if the organization might move Harrison back to his natural corner OF position now that they seem confident Sano can stick as a third baseman. Harrison can hit a baseball very hard. Whether he moves up or down this list by next year will depend somewhat on whether the Twins find a defensive position he can potentially play at the MLB level.

  14. Stephen Gonsalves (LHP) – Ordinarily, you wouldn’t see a 4th round pick from the prior year in your Top 15 list, but Gonsalves was reportedly on track to be a 1st round pick before a disciplinary issue arose during his senior year of HS, allowing the Twins to get a potential steal. If he can add some bulk to his 6’ 5” frame and a couple of ticks on his fastball, he could become very good very quickly.
  15. Miguel Sulbaran (LHP) – Sulbaran largely is flying under the radar among the Twins prospects. Maybe it’s his 5’ 10” stature. Maybe it’s that he only spent a few weeks in the organization after coming over from the Dodgers. Maybe it’s that he was obtained for Drew Butera. Sulbaran may not be tall, but he’s got a pitcher’s lower body and he uses it to get good drive off the mound. He struck out over eight batters per nine innings in 2013 and he has something a lot of other pitchers at his level don’t: an out pitch. His change-up is the real thing.

That final spot was a tough one to decide on as shortstop Danny Santana arguably should be on this list somewhere. In the end, I decided he just made too many errors to project as a defense-first shortstop and didn’t get on base often enough to project as a top of the order hitter. This is going to be a make or break year for Santana, I think.

So that’s my list. I’d like to see a few more guys that are closer to being “Major League-ready,” but I just don’t see a ton of high ceiling guys in the high-minors of the Twins organization right now and high ceilings are what I tend to look for in my rankings.

- JC

Molitor is a Good Addition to Twins Staff

The Twins used the off-day today before the 2013 World Series gets going and MLB reimposes its “don’t make news on any day we play a post-season game” gag order to announce that Hall of Famer Paul Molitor has been added to manager Ron Gardenhire’s coaching staff.

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

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

MLB has begun allowing teams to dress seven coaches and while the Twins did not take advantage of that option in 2013, Gardy will have a full contingent of coaches in the dugout next season.

When the Twins announced a year ago that some of the coaching staff would not be retained, Molitor told the media he’d be open to interviewing for a coaching job with the big league staff. However, at that time, General Manager Terry Ryan said, “At this time he is not going to be a fit. I’ve talked to him about it. We had the discussion. And I know he has interest.”

What a difference a year (and another 96 losses) makes, apparently.

But what exactly has changed?

I think we can begin and end that discussion with the obvious: A year ago, the Twins had announced that Gardenhire would not be getting what had become a near-automatic contract extension and would therefore be managing through 2013 without any assurance he’d be around beyond that.

Paul Molitor (4) observing CR Kernels batting practice

Paul Molitor (4) observing CR Kernels batting practice

Having Molitor lurking in the dugout would arguably just feed media and fan speculation that Gardy’s replacement was already on board and looking over his shoulder if (when) the Twins started losing.

Now, however, the manager has a new two-year extension so, in theory, there should be no speculation about Gardenhire being inevitably replaced by his high-profile coach.

I think that theory held for all of about 20 seconds after the announcement of Molitor’s hiring. The speculation will become even louder the first time the Twins get swept in a 2014 series (which shouldn’t take long next season unless the roster gets an uncharacteristic off-season overhaul).

Personally, I don’t think Molitor is the heir apparent as Twins manager. I have another favorite in that race, but I certainly could see Molitor serving as an “interim manager” in a worst-case scenario involving a mid-season change at the top. Then again, every worst-case scenario involving the Twins these days seems to come to pass, so don’t bet against this one.

Despite the drama it will inevitably lead to next summer, I like the hiring of Molitor. I would have been fine with the Twins bringing in someone with no prior ties to the organization, too. I’d have liked it even more if they had added a qualified Latin American coach.

But having someone with Molitor’s baseball IQ in the dugout certainly is not a bad thing.

I had some opportunities to talk to Molitor this summer when he spent the better part of a week in Cedar Rapids working with Kernels playes in his role as a roving minor league instructor focusing on baserunning and infield play (you can click here for my interview Molitor) I came away with a very positive impression of him personally, but more importantly, as someone who knows the game and knows how to communicate that knowledge.

Molitor has established coach/pupil relationships with most of the players the Twins will be relying on to bring the franchise back to relevancy. he has worked with Byron Buxton on baserunning. He’s worked with Miguel Sano and virtually every other minor league infielder on improving their defensive skills.

And, oh yeah, he’s someone who knows a little something about winning.

Rochester Red Wings (AAA) manager Gene Glynn was rumored to be another leading candidate for the coaching job with the Twins. With Molitor getting that gig, it would seem likely that Glynn will be assigned to manage the Red Wings again in 2014.

Had Glynn joined the Twins’ staff, we may have seen some shifting in assignments among the other minor league managers in the organization. Now, it would seem logical to assume that Jeff Smith will return to AA New Britain, Doug Mientkiewicz to high-A Fort Myers and Jake Mauer to Class A Cedar Rapids.

Last year, it seems like the Twins waited until December to announce their minor league coaching assignments, but if things will remain pretty much the status quo, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to delay those announcements.

I suppose, though, that the Twins may, once again, wait until the World Series is over or at least for the next off-day in the Series rather than endure the “wrath of Bud” for breaking news on a World Series game day.

I’m not sure what the chances are that anyone who cares about the Twins minor league managing/coaching assignments still gives a damn about the Red Sox and Cardinals or whether those that do have minds that are incapable of absorbing Twins news AND remembering to watch World Series games, but who are we to question Bud’s edicts, right?

Anyway, this final thought concerning the Molitor hiring: The Twins won’t suddenly become champions because Paul Molitor has been added to their coaching staff unless they can run him through a time machine and put him in the batting order and on the field. But by adding him to two of last season’s coaching additions, Tom Brunansky and Terry Steinbach, does bring more credibility to the staff.

That may not translate in to immediate success in the win column, but I believe it will pay dividends long-term.

JC

Sickels’ “Twins Top 20″ Features Past/Future Kernels

The 2013 season was, by almost all measures, a successful maiden season for the affiliation between the Cedar Rapids Kernels and their new Major League parent, the Minnesota Twins. Now, fall is bringing out the first of what will be many published organizational “top prospect” lists, signaling that it’s not too early to begin looking at what kind of talent the Twins will be sending to Cedar Rapids in 2014.

John Sickels publishes The Baseball Prospect Book yearly and is one of the more respected minor league experts in the business. This week, he released his list of the Twins’ Top Twenty Prospects at his minorleagueball.com website.

A peek at that list not only confirms for Kernels fans that they had the opportunity to watch a number of future Major Leaguers on Perfect Game Field this year, but also gives a clue as to what Cedar Rapids fans can expect to see next summer.

Sickels wrote that the “Twins system is among the elite in the game,” and a number of recent Kernels are among the reasons for that high praise. He also believes that, “there are some lively arms of promise at the lower levels,” in the Twins organization, which should tip off Kernels fans to what they can expect to see in 2014.

Sickels uses a grading system (A, B, C, etc.) to rank the prospect status of minor leaguers and he is not an easy grader. As he writes, “Grade C+ is actually good praise, and some C+ prospects (especially at lower levels) turn out very well indeed.” Of the hundreds of minor league players in the Twins organization, 24 attained that C+ grade, or better, from Sickels this fall. That may not sound like many, but it’s actually a high number for one organization.

Byron Buxton, who patrolled centerfield for the Kernels during the first half of the 2013 campaign, was one of two Twins prospects (along with Class AA slugger Miguel Sano) to attain Grade A prospect status from Sickels. Wrote Sickels, “Few organizations can boast a pair of potential superstar Grade A talents like Buxton and Sano, and the Twins have good depth beyond them…”

Byron Buxton

Byron Buxton

Buxton ranks as the number one prospect in the organization, on Sickels’ list, but five other Kernels alumni also rank in his Top Twenty.

Right handed pitcher Jose Berrios gets a B grade from Sickels and ranks sixth among Twins prospects. Both infielder Jorge Polanco (B) and outfielder/first baseman Max Kepler (B) make the organizational Top Ten, coming in at numbers nine and ten, respectively, in Sickels’ rankings.

Third baseman Travis Harrison earns a B-/C+ from Sickels and the number 11 ranking, while outfielder Adam Brett Walker’s C+/B- grade placed him at number 13.

Four additional Kernels, infielder Niko Goodrum and pitchers Mason Melotakis, Taylor Rogers and Miguel Sulbaran pulled C+ grades from Sickels and fell just outside the Top Twenty. In essence, this means ten members of the 2013 Kernels are among Sickels’ Top 24 Twins Prospects going in to the offseason.

Travis Harrison and Niko Goodrum

Travis Harrison and Niko Goodrum

As for the future, grading recently signed or drafted ballplayers that haven’t yet competed in a full season of professional baseball is a tricky business, but Sickels placed five such Twins prospects among his organizational Top Twenty. All five are pitchers.

Kohl Stewart, a right hander who was the Twins top draft pick in last summer, leads that list with a B+ grade from Sickels and his number three ranking in the organization. Sickels’ wrote that Stewart, “was the best high school pitcher in the draft and showed good command of plus stuff in his pro debut.”

Lefty Lewis Thorpe, an Australian 17-year-old, reportedly grew an inch and added something close to 50 pounds and several miles per hour to his fastball this past summer. Sickels grades him at a B- and places him seventh among Twins’ prospects. Thorpe pitched in the Gulf Coast League (the lowest US rookie league team among Twins affiliates) in 2013 making it highly unlikely that he starts 2014 in Cedar Rapids and may not arrive until the following summer.

Felix Jorge (number 17), Stephen Gonsalves (19) and Ryan Eades (20) slip in to Sickels’ Top Twenty, as well, all with C+ grades.

Jorge is a righthander from the Dominican Republic who had a very good year for Elizabethton in 2013, striking out 72 hitters in just 61 innings covering his 12 starts.

Gonsalves, a lefty and the Twins’ fourth round pick last June, only threw 28 innings combined during time with both Twins rookie league teams in 2013 but was a strike out machine and posted a 0.95 Earned Run Average.

Eades, another righthander, was the Twins’ second round pick in 2013 out of LSU. He accumulated just 15 2/3 innings of work for Elizabethton this summer but will be 22 years old by opening day in 2014, making it possible the Twins would try to accelerate his movement through the organization.

It could be years before Cedar Rapids fans see another collection of hitters in Kernels uniforms the likes of the group that the Twins sent through town in 2013. Buxton could well be wearing a Minnesota Twins uniform and calling Target Field in Minneapolis his home by the end of the coming season. By 2016, several of his Kernels teammates could join him with the Twins.

While Kernels hitters in 2014 are not likely to measure up to what fans saw this year, a pitching staff that could include Stewart, Jorge, Gonsalves, Eades and, possibly by the end of the season Thorpe as well, has the potential to be among the best in the Midwest League.

- JC

Twins First “Game 7″: 48 Years Ago

It was October 14, 1965.

It was Game 7 of the 1965 World Series and the Los Angeles Dodgers sent Sandy Koufax to the mound to face the Minnesota Twins and Jim Kaat. Both pitchers were starting on two days’ rest.

That’s right. TWO days’s rest. The two pitchers had faced one another in Game 5 in Los Angeles.

Thanks to Jesse Lund of Twinkietown.com, I spent my late afternoon and early evening thoroughly enjoying a walk down memory lane while watching the video below. It’s the 1965 Game 7 in its entirety.

Ray Scott, who was one of the voices who brought the Twins in to my room so many nights as a child through the magic of a transistor radio, had the play-by-play of the first four and a half innings and Vin Scully took it from there. Scott returned for the bottom of the ninth as Scully made the trek to the Dodgers clubhouse for the postgame interviews. (You don’t want to miss his interview of Koufax after the game near the end of the video.)

A few interesting things I noticed as I watched that brought back so many memories of the games from my childhood. Some are things you certainly don’t see or hear any more, others are just interesting given the context of the times:

  • The voice of Twins PA announcer Bob Casey and the sound of jets flying low overhead at Metropolitan Stadium
  • “Around the horn” that features every infielder, including the catcher, involved.
  • Scott mentioning that Tony Oliva was not wearing a glove when he batted. Today, broadcasters mention that occasionally when the rare player comes to the plate without batting gloves. In Oliva’s case, it was notable because Oliva had become one of the first (if not the first) players to wear a glove on one hand when he hit because of his tendency to lose control of the bat and fling it down the first base line or even in to the crowd when he swung. In fact, Oliva would lose his bat twice in Game 7 without the glove.
  • The bats appear so big. Thick handles, with so many players choking up an inch or more.
  • Many players tossed aside their batting helmets once they reached base and just ran the bases wearing their caps.
  • Umpires occasionally would inspect the baseball, but seldom tossed it out. Almost the only outs or foul balls that didn’t get thrown back to the pitcher for continued use were balls hit in to the stands.
  • Check out the height of that pitchers mound. In 1965, the mound supposedly had a height limit of 15 inches. There’s an interesting comment from Dodgers manager Walt Alston about how the Dodgers mound at home had a steeper drop off. In fact, it was rumored that the Dodgers’ mound at the time was closer to 20 inches high. Beginning, I believe, in 1969, the height was reduced to 10 inches maximum and the grade was required to be a uniform 1 inch per foot from the rubber to the front of the mound.
  • The positioning of the umpires. Those guys got right on top of the call. Tony Oliva made a diving catch in the top of the first inning and the umpire ends up standing right in front of where he’s lying on the ground. Base umpires, similarly, are right on top of calls at first and second base.
  • In the top of the second inning, Scott mentions that Kaat does some radio broadcasting work locally during the offseason. Of course Kaat has gone on to a long, successful career in the broadcast booth, which continues today.
  • The mention, early in the game, that Koufax had thrown 336 innings in 1965, striking out 382 and walking just 77. Of course, Koufax would throw over 300 innings again in 1966 (making three times in a four year period) and retire with “arthritis” in his pitching elbow at the ripe old age of 30.
  • Twins Manager Sam Mele had two relief pitchers warming up at the very beginning of the first inning, just in case Kaat got in to early trouble.
  • A mention, when Kaat came to the plate for the first time, that he was “very fast,” and that Mele would occasionally use him as a pinch-runner and that Kaat liked to bunt for a base hit.
  • Al Worthington, the “Twins top reliever” (per Ray Scott), began warming up in the third inning and relieved Kaat with no outs in the fourth. I bet if you had suggested to Mele that he needed to save Worthington to “close” at the end of the game, he’d have thought you were nuts. By the way, it worked. Kaat gave up 2 runs before being relieved and Worthington came in with two on and no outs and didn’t let anyone score. The Twins bullpen shut out the Dodgers for the final six innings.
  • Kaat and other Twins pitchers waited on the mound until the relief pitcher walked in from the bullpen before walking off the mound to the dugout. We know this to be true because there were no commercial breaks during the pitching changes, only between innings.
  • Before the bottom of the third inning, Scott does an NBC promo for the network’s weekend slate of “American Football League” games, which, according to Scott, would be televised, “live, mostly in color.”
  • NBC had instant replay, but it obviously was very limited. There might have been five replays shown the entire game.
  • Finally, as a precursor of what was to come years later, even as a third base coach, Billy Martin couldn’t resist getting in to bit of a rhubarb with the plate umpire during the bottom of the third when he felt Koufax wasn’t coming to a complete stop from the stretch (and Martin was right, by the way).

Those are just a few of the things I found interesting.

For Twins fans of my generation, the video is two and a half hours well spent, despite the result of the game. Just getting to see Oliva and Killebrew at the plate again is pretty special.

For the rest of you, it’s still some history worth seeing one time.

- JC

Getting Out of a Hole (a Parable)

A guy falls in to an eight foot deep hole while at work. His boss comes along and the guy says, “hey boss can you get me out of here?”

The boss says, “Things are pretty tight around here so we can’t afford to buy a ladder, but we have this old shovel sitting around. I’ll throw it down and you can dig yourself out.”

It takes a long time, but after a lot of trial and error (sometimes even digging in the wrong place and making the hole deeper) our guy manages to dig himself out of the hole. And of course, he’s damn proud of himself for that accomplishment. It certainly wasn’t easy. He’s recognized far and wide for his perseverance.

The boss is so impressed that, not long after, the guy gets a promotion. And, while everyone thinks it’s a bit odd, the guy never goes anywhere without that old shovel.

A couple of years later, company revenues have grown significantly but, alas, holes still happen and one day the guy’s replacement in his old job falls into another eight foot hole. Sure enough, our guy is the first person to walk by and he hears, “Hey, can you get me out of here?”

Still holding on to that old shovel, the guy jumps down in to the hole, too.

“What the hell, man? Why didn’t you just reach down and pull me out?”

“Don’t worry,” our guy answers, “I’ve been down here before and I know how to dig us out.”

HoleLadderAfter a couple hours of digging, the boss comes by. He looks down in to the hole and shakes his head. “Hold on a minute, guys, we can afford a ladder now. I’ll be right back.” He walks in to a nearby hardware store and returns a few minutes later with an extension ladder and lowers it in to the hole.

The new guy climbs up the ladder and walks away.

But our guy looks distrustfully at the ladder and keeps on digging.

A couple of days later, the boss walks by the hole again and, to his surprise, the guy is still down there digging, only now the hole is 12 feet deep. The boss kind of shakes his head and laughs, but when customers question why the hole is getting deeper, he just tells them this guy has done this before and knows what he’s doing.

Days later, a crowd has gathered and they’re all exasperatedly trying to tell the guy that all he has to do is extend the ladder and climb out. Pretty soon, a reporter shows up and asks the guy why he won’t use the ladder.

“We’ve got a lot different revenue streams now,” says the guy, “but if you’ve got to try to get out using a ladder, you’re probably going to fall. It just doesn’t work.”

Soon after, the boss walks by again and he doesn’t seem as amused now. These people gathered around are all potential customers and the guy in the hole is making him and his company look foolish or like they’re too cheap to give the guy the right tools to get out of the hole.

The reporter asks the boss to comment on the guy digging in the hole and the boss replies, “We have to acknowledge we probably have to use that ladder to get out of that hole.  Our guy is committed to using the ladder. He can speak for himself, but I believe he’s enthusiastic about doing that.”

Of course, the guy continues to dig.

Eventually, the crowd turns angry because the hole just keeps getting bigger and the police have to clear the area until the only people left are the guy in the hole and his boss.

When he’s certain nobody but the guy in the hole can hear what he says, the boss looks down in to the hole and says firmly, “Enough with the digging. Use the damn ladder to get out of that hole. Now!”

Of course, since there was nobody else around to hear it, we can’t be 100% positive that’s what the boss finally said.

But I sure hope it is.

- JC

FOXsports Reports Gardy Will Be Back

FOX reporter Ken Rosenthal reported Monday morning via Twitter that the Twins will be announce later in the day that manager Ron Gardenhire will remain the club’s manager.

There was no immediate word concerning how much of his coaching staff would be returning in 2014 with him.

EDIT: Mike Berardino of the Pioneer-Press has Tweeted that source tells him Gardy’s entire coaching staff will be back, as well.

Earlier Monday, the Twins announced there would be a press conference at 2:30.

Rosenthal also stated, again via Twitter, “Gardenhire would not have stayed with #Twins on one-year deal. Presumably wanted assurances that team plans to increase payroll as well.”

Gardenhire1Hopefully, Gardy got that assurance and it didn’t just mean Ryan would pay the current collection of AAAA players more money.

Honestly, if I were Gardenhire, I would not have come back to the Twins. This team is not likely to be much, if any, better in 2014, which means he’s going to spend all of next summer catching the same grief he’s getting right now. Why would he want that?

I’ve contended since forever that Gardy got more credit for the winning years than he deserved and more blame for the losing years than is warranted. He’s not a baseball genius, but he handles a clubhouse pretty well and that’s a huge part of being a successful manager.

Had he walked away from the Twins, he’d have been unemployed about two weeks, if that long. He’d have been one of the most sought after managers on the open market and wherever he landed would have been a better situation than he finds himself in by staying with the Twins.

I hope he got the assurances he needed from Ryan concerning roster improvement and didn’t settle for a vague, “we’ve got talent in the pipeline.”

- JC

GameChat – Indians @ Twins #4, 1:10 pm

Bring the curtain down.

The Indians have closed strong and appear to be ready to move in to the do-or-die Wild Card phase of the postseason.

The Twins appear ready to move in to the managerial death-watch phase of the postseason. If you haven’t done so yet, go to the Poll we posted below and tell us who you think will be the Twins manager come Tuesday.

Now, there’s one more game to play and here are the lineups:

INDIANS

@

TWINS
Bourn, CF Presley, CF
Swisher, 1B Dozier, 2B
Kipnis, 2B Plouffe, 3B
Santana, C, DH Doumit, DH
Raburn, RF Parmelee, 1B
Cabrera, A, SS Herrmann, C, RF
Brantley, LF Thomas, C, LF
Gomes, Y, C Fryer, C
Aviles, 3B Florimon, SS
_Jimenez, U, P   _Diamond, P

 

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

R

H

E

Cleveland

2

0

0

0

0

2

1

0

0

5

10

0

Minnesota

0

0

0

0

0

0

1

0

0

1

5

3

and so it ends… I have a sneaking suspicion that we fans aren’t the only ones who are glad to put an end to this season so we can start putting it behind us and “dream” about what might be in 2014…