Meeting the 2014 Kernels

It was “Meet the Kernels Night” at Veterans Mermorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids Tuesday night, giving local fans and media a first look at the 2014 version of the Twins’ Class A Midwest League affiliate and giving the Kernels players their first look at chilly Iowa April temperatures.

After the media portion of the event, players and coaches mingled with fans on the concourse to chat and sign autographs. Then, they shed their parkas for a brief workout.

The cold temperatures meant a pretty small turnout from the public and that’s unfortunate, but understandable. The more unfortunate fact is that the weather forecast for Opening Night on Thursday (and Friday, for that matter) makes the proposition of actually getting baseball played a little dicey.

A year ago, it seemed like the weather was forcing doubleheaders every week for the first couple of months across the Midwest League and I wouldn’t be surprised if we start the season with a twin-bill (or two) over the weekend, as well.

Manager Jake Mauer, along with hitting coach Tommy Watkins and pitching coach Ivan Arteaga met with media for a few minutes, as did four members of the new Kernels roster: Kohl Stewart, Aaron Slegers, Mitch Garver and Chad Christensen. They all arrived in the media room wearing their newly-issued Cedar Rapids Kernels parkas.

Nothing says “play ball” like new team parkas and portable gas heaters in the dugout!

The field staff and players that met with the media had some interesting things to say and I’ll try to write a follow up story with quotes later this week, but for now you just get a little sense of flavor of the evening from a few pictures.

Left to Right: pitching coach Ivan Arteaga, hitting coach Tommy Watkins, manager Jake Mauer

Left to Right: pitching coach Ivan Arteaga, hitting coach Tommy Watkins, manager Jake Mauer

2013 1st round draft pick Kohl Stewart

Kohl Stewart

Aaron Slegers

Aaron Slegers

Mitch Garver

Mitch Garver

Chad Christensen

Chad Christensen

Jake Mauer

Jake Mauer

Kernels prepare for introductions

Kernels prepare for introductions

Kernels introduced

Kernels introduced

Final Twins Cuts: Much Ado About (Almost) Nothing

There seemed to be much consternation in some corners of the Twins blogosphere the last couple of days as the final roster decisions became evident.

Alex Presley began spring training as a competitor for the Twins centerfield job. He leaves spring training a member of the Astros after Houston claimed him from the Twins on waivers.

Lefty pitcher Scott Diamond and 1B/OF Chris Parmelee had inside lanes on roster spots entering camp, but neither made much of an impression on the Twins. In fact, they obviously didn’t make much of an impression on anyone else, either, since both players cleared waivers. Both are now members of the Rochester Red Wings (AAA).

Saturday, catcher Dan Rohlfing was sent to Rochester, as well, in a move that was generally expected.

It’s hard to make an argument that any of the players who didn’t stick with the Twins were unfairly deprived of their roster spots. In fact, almost immediately upon learning he’d been passed over in favor of Kyle Gibson for the fifth spot in the Twins rotation, Diamond told reporters he agreed with the Twins’ decision.

No, none of these players really impressed, so that’s not where the disagreements come from.

The problem many fans seem to have is with regard to a couple of players that DID make the Twins Opening Day roster; veterans Jason Kubel and Jason Bartlett.

Jason Bartlett

Jason Bartlett

The argument is that neither Jason put up spring training numbers that were any better than other, younger, players who were let go.

That’s a valid point. Kubel hit just .196 this spring and yet, remarkably, outhit Bartlett by over 100 points. Still, both were officially added to the Twins roster on Saturday.

I would agree with those who claim they didn’t “earn” their roster spots, but I’m not getting worked up over it because, frankly, nobody else earned those roster spots, either.

It’s not a case of Bartlett and Kubel being handed spots while young players who are likely to be significant parts of the next generation of competitive Twins teams are being blocked from getting valuable Major League experience. Diamond and Parmelee could yet become serviceable MLB players, but when you project the lineups/rotations of the next great Twins teams, neither are likely to be listed.

Likewise, while Presley certainly could contribute as a spare outfielder capable of playing some centerfield, losing him is not debilitating. By mid 2014, if the Twins decide another guy capable of playing CF would be nice to have, they’ll still have Darin Mastroianni around somewhere to call on. But, honestly, you know the Twins front office is silently hoping the next CF that joins the big league club is Byron Buxton.

The Twins candidly stated that Bartlett and Kubel are on the roster because nobody proved they were clearly better than those two guys, they have significant Major League experience with winning ballclubs, and it was clearly felt that the young players with the Twins could benefit from seeing how that kind of veteran conducts himself on and off the field.

That roster decisions are made based on such “intangibles” rubs some fans the wrong way. I understand that. But in the absence of tangible advantages demonstrated by someone else, I have no issue with going the route that provides some veteran leadership. And if having a couple more familiar names on the roster gives casual fans more reason to attend a game or two early in the season, too, that’s fine.

The young players that showed that they deserved to stick with the team to open the season are on the squad. Kyle Gibson, Sam Deduno, Josmil Pinto, Oswaldo Arcia and Aaron Hicks may all be part of the next great Twins teams and all of them earned their roster spots. If any of them had been held back to make room for Bartlett and Kubel, I’d have been disappointed.

But that’s not what happened.

So with the last two roster spots, the Twins decided to keep a couple of guys who have more past than futures on the field, yet provide a clubhouse presence that the organization thinks might be helpful in developing the aforementioned young players instead of a couple other guys who likely don’t have significant futures, either. I honestly can’t argue with that logic.

The critics point out that Ron Gardenhire may be relying on Bartlett to fill in as the fourth outfielder, despite having no outfield experience at any professional level. That’s a fair point, too. But I watched Bartlett play a few games in the outfield in Florida and I have to say he looked like he knew what he was doing out there. Enough so, anyway, for me not to get too worked up over the fact that he might see a little time out there occasionally.

Now, if you want to argue that Bartlett and Kubel are getting roster spots that woulda-coulda-shoulda gone to other players from outside the organization that would have provided more punch to what is clearly looking like another punchless Twins offense, I heartily agree. But the decision to bypass other external options was made weeks and months ago and I see that as a separate set of decisions than what we’re talking about here.

From what I’ve seen of the Twins pitching this spring, I think the rotation will be considerably improved over last year’s disaster. But the offense remains offensive and, at some point, I think the front office is going to realize they could have… and should have… done more to shore it up during the offseason.

But fretting over whether Bartlett and Kubel should have made the team over Presley and Parmelee? That’s the very definition of Much Ado About Nothing.

- JC

Kernels Roster Could Include Familiar Faces

The final week of spring training is a big week for the new batch of Kernels getting ready to head north to Cedar Rapids.

On Thursday, four days before the Kernels will break camp in Fort Myers and head north, the roster for the Kernels still included 29 names. That’s four more than the 25 players that will make up the club’s Opening Day roster.

That means at least four of the current group being managed by Jake Mauer on the back fields of the Lee County Sports Complex will be staying behind for Extended Spring Training in Fort Myers.

On top of that, each of the other levels in the Twins organization, from the Major League club through each of the three minor league levels above the Kernels, all also were a few players over their Opening Day limits. As players at higher levels get “sent down,” they can bump other players down to the next lower level, as well.

After Thursday’s game with the Red Sox’ Class A affiliate, I spoke briefly with a pair of potential Kernels who, while similar in age, demonstrate two different perspectives as they prepare to open the 2014 season.

Catcher Michael Quesada was drafted as a 20-year-old by the Twins in the 24th round of the 2010 Amateur Player Draft out of Sierra College in Rocklin, California. He played only three games in 2010 after signing with the Twins and has spent the past three years moving step-by-step up the organizational ladder.

Michael Quesada

Michael Quesada

Quesada spent most of the 2013 season with the Kernels, getting in to 62 games while sharing catching duties with a number of other backstops that passed through the Kernels roster during the year. He didn’t set the world on fire with the bat, but improved his game-calling behind the plate and showed off a strong arm.

A week ago, Quesada was getting an opportunity to work with the Twins’ Class AA group,. But as catchers on the Major League side of the camp were sent down, setting off the natural chain reaction at the minor league levels, Quesada was likewise destined to drop a rung.

However, instead of dropping one rung, to the Class high-A Miracle, Quesada was returned to the same Kernels roster he was part of last season and where it appears he’s likely to open the season alongside other returning players, such as infielder Joel Licon and pitcher Hudson Boyd, among others.

If the drop bothers Quesada, he doesn’t let it show. Rather, he talks of appreciating the opportunity to see how things are done at a higher level in the organization, while looking forward to starting another season with the Kernels.

“Yeah, it was a good experience just to see more mature players, how they handle themselves,” said Quesada. “I’m just coming back (to Cedar Rapids), looking to play as much as possible and get (at-bats). I had a great time in Cedar Rapids last year, so I’m real excited to come back. It’s going to be a good time.”

Despite being less than a year younger than Quesada, infielder/outfielder Chad Christensen has just started his professional career. Christensen was drafted by the Twins in the 25th round of last year’s Amateur Draft and played just 47 games for the Twins’ lowest rookie level team in the Gulf Coast League following the end of his senior season at the University of Nebraska.

Typically, a player like Christensen would be targeted to spend the next couple of months in Extended Spring Training before joining the Twins’ Appalachian League squad in Elizabethton, Tennessee. Then, depending upon performance, he could work his way up to the Kernels later in the summer.

But Christensen, who attended Washington High School in Cedar Rapids, is still a part of the Kernels group just four days before camp breaks and is squarely in the mix for one of the final spots on the Opening Day roster with the Kernels. That would mean spending 2014 playing before friends and family in his hometown.

Kernels manager Jake Mauer has said he’d like to have the flexibility that a player like Christensen brings to the table. Mauer indicated he’d have no qualms about playing Christensen at either corner outfield position, either corner infield position, or even at shortstop on occasion.

Nonetheless, Christensen is well aware that his roster spot with the Kernels is precarious and he’s still got work to do over the final few days of spring training in order to nail down that spot.

“I’m still trying to do what I can to make this team so that’s kind of where I’m at,” Christensen said on Thursday. “(Playing in Cedar Rapids) would be real exciting, I grew up there and everything. It would be a lot of fun to come home.”

Some athletes have been known to struggle with playing at the professional level in their hometown, but Christensen doesn’t believe he’ll feel an extra pressure from playing in Cedar Rapids, if and when that opportunity arises.

“No, I’m not so concerned about that,” he said. “Just trying to keep focused on the field and separate the baseball from the friends and family. I’ll be excited about it.”

A year ago, the Kernels were at or near the top of the Midwest League in almost every offensive category. But the hitters that made up the heart of the batting order a year ago have all moved up at least one level entering the new season and Quesada allowed that this year’s Kernels will take a different approach to win games.

“We’re not really trying to match (the 2013 Kernels hitters),” acknowledged Quesada. “We’re just trying to put more runs up on the board (than the opponent) that day. Maybe it’s two, maybe it’s one. But no, we don’t have the offense of last year, but our pitching is going to win us ballgames.”

The Kernels pitching corps is expected to include a number of the Twins organization’s top young arms during the course of the 2014 season and Quesada is clearly impressed with the pitchers he’s been working with.

“The pitching staff is going to be less experienced, but with way better stuff. They’re going to have live arms, young guys that are learning how to pitch. It’s our job, myself and (fellow catchers) Mitch Garver, Bo Altobelli and (pitching coach) Ivan Arteaga to teach them. They’re definitely good throwers right now, but they have a big opportunity to turn in to some serious pitchers. I’m really excited to work with them.”

Quesada’s work this spring extends beyond the field, as a number of those young pitchers are from Latin America, which can present a communication challenge for a catcher.

“I’m working with Ivan right now to get my Spanish a little better to where I can go out to the mound and talk to them, so they’re comfortable. I’m trying to make their lives as easy as possible because it’s going to be a fun pitching staff to work with.”

Thursday was likely my final look at the Kernels in spring training. I’m planning to go to the Twins/Red Sox game on Friday afternoon and, alas, my flight home from not-so-sunny-but-warmer-than-home Florida is early Saturday morning.

- JC

Kernels Roster Taking Shape

There was no rain in Fort Myers on Wednesday. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it was pretty breezy and high temperatures for the day barely, if at all, reached 70 degrees.

I know that sounds good to a lot of people, but I had to wear long sleeves much of the day at the ballpark and was a bit chilly eating dinner outdoors tonight!

But I toughed it out, because I know my readers expect me to do whatever it takes to get the story.

Today, that story comes from the minor league side of the Twins organization. Rather than watch the Twins and Pirates at Hammond Stadium, I fought the Daniels Parkway traffic toward the Red Sox complex to watch the Twins’ Class A groups take on their Sox counterparts.

After the game, Kernels manager Jake Mauer shared some thoughts about the way his club is shaping up as they enter the final few days of camp. Mauer indicated that just a handful of roster spots are still unresolved.

One player still “on the bubble” with the Kernels as final decisions are being made is Chad Christensen, who prepped at Cedar Rapids Washington High School before playing ball for the University of Nebraska. Christensen was drafted by the Twins last June and played last summer for the Twins’ Gulf Coast League rookie level affiliate in Fort Myers.

Chad Christensen

Chad Christensen

It sounds like the Kernels’ manager would like to bring Christiansen to Cedar Rapids next week.

“Chad’s been working real hard and he’s somebody that gives us some flexibility. He’s played both (corner) outfield positions and both corner infield positions and I wouldn’t be afraid to put him at shortstop once in a while,” said Mauer. “We’ve got about six or seven guys we’ve got to make decisions on and he’s in that mix, but there’s no doubt that he’s somebody we’d like to take north with us.”

Mauer knows his squad of Kernels is going to have to take a different approach than last year’s team, now that last year’s power hitters have moved up the organizational ladder.

“We’re going to have to be real good at the small things right away,” the manager acknowledged. “We’re going to have to run the bases well. We’re going to have to be able to execute the small game, hit and runs, getting bunts down, doing things like that. Try to create runs that way.”

According to Mauer, there should be five or six familiar faces for Kernels fans to welcome back to Cedar Rapids.

Among the likely returnees are catchers Michael Quesada and Bo Altobelli.  Said Mauer, “We plan on taking both those guys north, along with (Mitchell) Garver. We’re probably going to take three (catchers) to start, at least.”

That means flexibility will be key among other position players because, according to the skipper, he expects the final roster to contain just 12 position players, allowing 13 roster spots for the pitching staff that will once again utilize a six-man starting rotation.

It’s that pitching staff that many in the Twins organization, as well as their fans, are anxious to see.

“I think we’ll be starter-heavy. We should have some quality arms, starting-wise,” said Mauer. “We’ve got a lot of young, quality arms. It just depends on how many we decide to bring up with us.”

In particular, there are a number of pitchers that will push their fastballs consistently in to the middle-to-upper 90s on the speed gun, including young Dominican pitchers Yorman Landa, who was hitting 96  mph in Wednesday’s game, and Randy Rosario. In addition, the Twins’ first round pick in 2013 (and second pick overall) Kohl Stewart is a hard throwing 19 year old who is still on the Kernels roster as camp is drawing to a close.

As Kernels fans know, however, the team’s success is not solely determined by the players that start the season with the club. Between injuries and promotions, it’s equally important to have talented players at the lower levels of the organization preparing to join the Kernels as the season develops.

According to Mauer, there’s plenty of potential mid-season help available, as well. “You know we’ve got some young boys down there, too, (Lewis) Thorpe and (Stephen) Gonsalves. Kids that have some pretty good arms that we’ll probably see at some point throughout the year.”

The Kernels will break camp on Monday. There will be a “Meet the Kernels” event open to the public at no charge on April 1 at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids and Opening Day  is Thursday, April 3, when the Kernels host the Clinton Lumber Kings.

- JC

Jim Crikket in Fort Myers: Improvising

I know most of the people reading this are in the Minnesota/Iowa region and have been dealing with late March snowfalls, so I don’t want to whine too much, but with that said, I did NOT fly all the way to Fort Myers, Florida, to get rained on all day! And what’s worse, it certainly appears that Monday wasn’t the last day this week we’ll be getting wet down here.

Hammond Stadium, Ft. Myers

Hammond Stadium, Ft. Myers

The good news is that I wasn’t planning on attending the Twins/Rays game Monday afternoon, so the fact that it got rained out didn’t affect my plans at all. The bad news is that I WAS planning on driving up to Port Charlotte to watch the current Kernels and Miracle groups play games against their Rays counterparts and those games got rained out, as well. Fortunately, I made plans to drop in on the Twins’ complex about 9:00 am Monday morning to see if anyone was putting in an early workout. It was fortunate because, when I got there, Kernels coach Tommy Watkins let me know they had already canceled that afternoon’s minor league games and the Kernels and Miracle were going to face off head-to-head for a couple of hours in the morning before the rain was expected to get serious. Brett Lee was on the mound for the Kernels and Jose Berrios was his counterpart for the Miracle. On an adjacent field, the AAA and AA groups were also facing one another. There was a steady light rain falling through much of the time the players were on the field but it was fun to watch some of last year’s Kernels, as well as many of the players expected to head north to Cedar Rapids when camp breaks on March 31. Watching Jorge Polanco and Adam Brett Walker rip back to back doubles brought back memories of last season early on. Later, I got perhaps a sneak preview in to the Kernels upcoming season when the centerfielder for the Kernels group, Jason Kanzler, throw a perfect bullet to third base to cut down Polanco, who was attempting to go from first base around to third on a base hit. Weather permitting, I’m hoping to see the Twins take on the Orioles on Tuesday and then drive up the road to the Red Sox facility on Wednesday afternoon to watch the Kernels take on their Red Sox Class A counterparts. Thursday and Friday will be “play it by ear” days, depending on how wet the next two days are.

Twins visiting the Phillies at their Bright House Field home in Clearwater

Twins visiting the Phillies at their Bright House Field home in Clearwater

The trip hasn’t been a total washout. I flew down from Iowa to St. Petersburg on Saturday night (only about four hours later than originally planned) and stayed overnight there so I could watch the Twins take on the Phillies on Sunday in Clearwater before making the drive down I-75 to Fort Myers. The Twins lost, scoring only one run in the process. It’s probably my imagination, but it seems to me they score one run just about every game. That should be no problem, however, since the Twins pitching staff will probably hurl shutouts at least half the time anyway, right? But the weather Sunday was beautiful, I remembered to use sunscreen on every exposed area (except my arms, apparently) and the beer was cold, so I really didn’t care much about the outcome. There wasn’t a snowflake in sight and that’s about all I needed to be happy that day. If it rains for the next four days, I may be a bit less philosophical about the weather thing, however. JC UPDATE: Still haven’t got the video uploaded but I did manage to get some pictures added:

Something you don't see happen often: A Twins pitcher hitting. Or, in this case, Phil Hughes attempting to put down a bunt.

Something you don’t see happen often: A Twins pitcher hitting. Or, in this case, Phil Hughes attempting to put down a bunt.

Manager Jake Mauer (in helmet) amongst some of the 2014 Kernels during spring training

Manager Jake Mauer (in helmet) amongst some of the 2014 Kernels during spring training

Under construction: The new Twins Baseball Academy on their Fort Myers campus

Under construction: The new Twins Baseball Academy on their Fort Myers campus

 

GameChat – Marlins @ Twins, 12:05 pm, FSN/MLB.tv

With just two weeks left before Opening Day, it’s time for us here at Knuckleballs to have a little Spring Training of our own. Let’s find out if the GameChat widget is ready for the new season, shall we?

The Twins lineup today looks will be facing off against former Twins pitcher Kevin Slowey, who’s on the mound for Miami. I can’t say I recognize much of anyone else in the Marlins’ lineup. Maybe none of their regulars made the trip or maybe these are their regulars and I just have no idea who they are.

The Twins, on the other hand, are sending out a group that is perhaps pretty close to what we might see on Opening Day, with 2-3 possible exceptions.

With Darin Mastroianni sent to minor league camp this morning, I think the Twins signaled that Aaron Hicks will be their starting CF, rather than Alex Presley. But other than that, I think today’s lineup could easily be what we see when the Twins open up against the White Sox in Chicago.

I know people still think Jason Kubel hasn’t shown enough this spring to earn the DH job and I can’t argue that he has, but he’s going to get every opportunity to seal the deal over the next two weeks.

I’m sure the Twins are still hoping Pedro Florimon will be ready by Opening Day, but if he’s not, today’s shortstop, Eduardo Escobar, is likely to be the guy there.

Here are today’s lineups:

MARLINS

@

TWINS
Solano, D, SS Presley, CF
Brantly, C Dozier, 2B
Baker, Je, 3B Mauer, 1B
Ozuna, LF Willingham, LF
Wigginton, 1B Kubel, DH
Bogusevic, CF Plouffe, 3B
Johnson, R, RF Arcia, O, RF
Riddle, DH Suzuki, K, C
Harbin, 2B Escobar, E, SS
_Slowey, P   _Nolasco, P
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
Miami 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 8 1
Minnesota 0 0 1 0 1 0 2 0 x 4 9 0

Nice win for the Twins.

Ricky Nolasco had to work a bit too hard to get through five innings, maybe, but his last couple innings were efficient enough and all of the relief pitchers (Thielbar, Perkins, Burton and Guerra) looked good.

Trevor Plouffe and Oswaldo Arcia each had a pair of hits to lead the offense. It still looks far from potent, but they outscored the other guys and that’s what the game is about.

Monday is a night game against the Orioles up in Sarasota.

Things Are Coming Together

It’s Sunday morning and that usually means a “Sunday Morning Comic Relief” post from CapitalBabs, but Babs is otherwise occupied this weekend.

It seems we have a new member of the Knuckleballs family. I got an email from Babs on Friday announcing that she had given birth to a seven pound, 15 ounce, baby girl!

Margaret Ann Smith 3/14/14, 6:46 am 7 lbs 15 oz 19.5 inches long


Margaret Ann Smith
3/14/14, 6:46 am
7 lbs 15 oz
19.5 inches long

"Kirbee" circa 2035

“Kirbee” circa 2035

Babs and her hubby may feel otherwise, but I think it’s obvious that, given she shares a birthday with a certain Twins Hall of Fame outfielder, little Margaret Ann should hereafter be referred to here at Knuckleballs as “Kirbee”.

Please join us here in congratulating Babs and Andrew.

In Twins news, another round of roster moves were made this morning. Eight more players were moved across the parking lot to the minor league clubhouse, leaving 40 guys still in big league camp.

Pitchers Kris Johnson and Sean Gilmartin were never really expected to stick on the Twins staff, though either or both could see time with the Twins during the season. The same would be true of outfielder Jermaine Mitchell and infilelders James Beresford and Brandon Waring. It wasn’t a shock to see that fivesome moved to the minor league camp.

The three other demotions were perhaps a bit more surprising to some.

Shortstop Danny Santana has been hitting well (though fielding not nearly so well) and, with Pedro Florimon still working his way back from an appendectomy, Santana has been getting a long look. But Florimon is ready to return and he’s going to need all the innings he can get to be ready by Opening Day. Santana was never going to make the Twins roster out of camp and he really needs to get innings in the field every day.

Darin Mastroianni has been competing for the centerfield job, but also got his walking papers. That would appear to mean Aaron Hicks will be the starting outfielder for the Twins, with Alex Presley as the club’s fourth outfielder. The Twins will want Hicks playing every day, so if he was not going to be starting for them, he’d probably have been the guy walking across the parking lot.

The Twins also pared down the competition at catcher, sending down Eric Fryer. That leaves Josmil Pinto and Chris Herrmann continuing to fight for a spot, along with Kurt Suzuki, among the Twins’ backstop corps. There had been speculation that Fryer would be kept as Suzuki’s backup, while Pinto refined his trade in Rochester.

Today’s game against the Marlins is on TV, I believe, so perhaps we’ll open up a GameChat window, if anyone feels like stopping by. Ricky Nolasco is starting for the Twins and old friend Kevin Slowey will be on the mound for Miami. The posted Twins lineup looks a lot like what we might expect to see on Opening Day.

JC

Twins Win a Little and Lose a Lot

After beating the Red Sox for the second straight day, the Twins are 2-0 in the young 2014 Spring Training season. They topped the Sox 6-2 on Saturday with a three-run Chris Parmelee blast providing the biggest offensive blow. That’s the good news.

But the good news of a virtually meaningless exhibition win pales compared to the bad news that came out of the Twins’ camp in Fort Myers Saturday morning.

Miguel Sano, perhaps the top power hitting prospect in all of baseball, will undergo “Tommy John” surgery to reconstruct his ulnar collateral ligament in his right (throwing arm) elbow. Mike Berardino of the Pioneer Press posted a number of videos Saturday where you can hear from Twins Assistant GM Rob Antony and, if your heart can stand it, from Sano himself.

Miguel Sano as a Beloit Snapper

Miguel Sano as a Beloit Snapper

Judging from the way Twitter blew up after the announcement, Twins fans are clearly disappointed and frustrated. That’s understandable. But, obviously, nobody is more disappointed than Sano, himself (although manager Ron Gardenhire no doubt has cause to feel a fair amount of disappointment, as well).

As you’d probably expect, a number of fans were looking for someone to blame. Whenever stuff happens that disappoints a fan base, especially a fan base as frustrated as Twins fans have become after three years of dreadful results on the field, the immediate reaction is to identify people to blame. The Twins’ front office and their medical staff are catching most of the flack over Sano’s misfortune.

On the one hand, that’s understandable. You don’t have to go back many years to come up with any number of examples where injuries and other medical conditions were arguably initially misdiagnosed and players ended up missing more playing time than they probably should have. In fact, the Twins did make some changes to their medical/training staff going in to last season.

Sano’s UCL injury was originally identified after he felt twinges in his elbow last season and then was shut down after just a couple of winter league games. The Twins medical staff and Dr. James Andrews, perhaps the leading authority in the world with regard to UCL injuries, agreed in November that the best course of action at that time was rest and rehabilitation.

Of course, what the Twins SHOULD have done at the time was have their PR guys put out a poll on Twitter to get the advice of those fans who know better than the specialists when it comes to determining the best course of action for these things.

These injuries typically take pitchers a year to recover from, but position players can recover as soon as eight months, since they don’t contort their arms to spin the ball different directions when they throw it the way pitchers do. Sano should start being able to take swings in four months. Antony told the TV audience during Saturday’s game that Sano could possibly return in time to DH in some minor league games late this season, if that’s what the Twins choose to do.

Practically speaking, however, Sano’s 2014 season is going to be a wash. He should be fine to ramp up during next offseason and be ready to go all out during Spring Training 2015.

The Twitter experts, however, using perfect 20-20 hindsight, want to blame someone for not having the surgery done in November. If Sano’s injury had been a full UCL tear, that’s what they would have done. But it was only a partial tear and those injuries are less cut and dried. For position players, the real experts tell us that it’s possible to simply play through some partial tears with sufficient rest for the elbow.

Had Sano undergone surgery during the offseason, maybe he could have been cleared for full play in the field by August, in time for one month of minor league ball. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where he would finish the season with the Twins.

Either way, 2014 was going to be virtually a lost season if it turned out resting the elbow wouldn’t allow him to avoid surgery. And either way, he was going to be ready to challenge for the Twins 3B job in spring training 2015. So it was clearly worth a try to avoid surgery.

And even if it wasn’t clear to me that it was the right course of action, it was the recommendation of people with medical degrees who have actual experience treating UCL injuries, including the doctor who is the preeminent expert in the field.

The arrival of Sano with the Twins, at some point in 2014, was at least something to look forward to during what’s expected to be another pretty disappointing season. It’s natural for fans to be frustrated to learn that’s not going to happen. But if he’d had surgery earlier, he wouldn’t have arrived in Minnesota this year anyway.

It’s not easy, I know, but we’re all just going to have to wait to see number 24 launch balls in to the left field seats at Target Field. It will be worth the wait.

- JC

Minor Leaguers Deserve Better

I haven’t written much lately. Honestly, I haven’t even read much lately. Not about baseball, anyway. There just isn’t much going on that I’m particularly interested in. Sure, spring training has started, but they haven’t even started playing spring training games, yet, so there just isn’t much going on to capture my interest.

I’m pretty sure I’ll get more interested when the Grapefruit League games get underway. I guarantee I’ll be more than casually interested a month from now when I’ll be actually on site at the Twins’ training complex in Fort Myers.

However, for the past couple of weeks, it’s been really hard for anything baseball-related to capture my interest; difficult, but not impossible.

The story that broke a couple of weeks ago about three former minor league ballplayers filing suit against MLB, the office of the Commissioner, Commissioner Bug Selig and the three MLB organizations that owned their rights interests me.

There were several stories written about the filing, but if you didn’t happen to see any of them, this article from BleacherReport was one of the more thorough articles and former ballplayer (and author) Dirk Hayhurst had a pretty blunt take on the topic, as well.

JusticeBaseball400I know it’s hard for some of us to even fathom how guys who have the talent to play a game we love at a professional level… who have the opportunity to live a dream that so many of us can only imagine getting to live… could possibly not only complain about their working conditions, but even have the gall to file a lawsuit over those conditions.

It’s a cliché you hear often. “I loved baseball so much, I’d have played for free.” Given that so many fans feel that way, it’s pretty tough for us to empathize with these players who dare to clog our court system with a lawsuit that seemingly has little chance of success.

But saying you would have played the game for free and actually doing it for nearly exactly that amount of compensation are two very different things.

The attention fans play to their favorite team’s minor league organization seems to grow every season. Even so, the percentage of baseball fans who give minor leaguers even a casual thought during the summer is pretty small.

Those that do follow the minor leagues focus most of their attention on the early round draft picks and the big money international free agent signings. Those players get signing bonuses in the millions of dollars, so it would be pretty easy for us to just assume that most minor league ballplayers are pretty comfortable financially.

But we would be wrong.

Yes, if you’re among the first 50 or so players selected in the annual first year player draft, you’re likely to pocket a signing bonus upwards of a million dollars. But that’s not even the full first two rounds of a draft that goes on for a total of 40 rounds.

It’s pretty safe to say that most minor league ballplayers are not concerned about who is watching over their investment portfolios. Their “portfolio” can be stashed in to the trunk or back seat of a car they hope will keep running for another year.

Last year, the first year minor league player salary was $1,150 a month and that’s only for the handful of months during the year that they’re actually playing minor league baseball. That’s also before taxes, before food and housing costs. A player reaching AAA might double that salary. Whoopee, huh?

Just to be clear, it’s not the local minor league organization that pays the players, it’s the parent  MLB organization that is responsible for minor league payrolls. In fact, some minor league clubs (including the Twins’ Class A affiliate in Cedar Rapids) arrange host families for players to live with to eliminate the cost of housing during their time with the local ballclub. But not every player across the country has that option.

The players probably should splurge on some insurance, too, because they pretty much have no protection if they happen to incur an injury that precludes them from working. Good thing their work doesn’t often result in that kind of injury, right?

Obviously, they need to get other jobs during the offseason. Of course, for some of them, there is no offseason. Their teams want them playing winter baseball somewhere. They want them to show up for offseason workouts, “fanfests” and other events. At the very least, they have to work out daily to make sure they’re ready to compete for a roster spot in spring training (which, by the way, they don’t get paid for, either).

It takes a pretty understanding employer to hire a guy that has that many demands on his time and will just be leaving in a few months, anyway. But I’m sure there are plenty of those jobs available.

“But wait,” you say. “Don’t those professional baseball players have a union?”

Yes and no. For minor leaguers, it’s mostly no and they’d be better off if it was totally no.

There is a union; the Major League Baseball Players Association. However, the MLBPA’s sole use for minor leaguers appears to be to screw them over any time they can do so as a part of trade-offs to get something better for Major League players.

See, the MLBPA limits its membership to Major League ballplayers. But, for reasons that nobody has ever been able to explain to me in any way that makes sense, the MLBPA is allowed, as part of the collective bargaining process, to negotiate the compensation and working conditions of minor league players, as well.

Isn’t that convenient?

So, if the MLBPA can get a little bit more for the millionaires it represents by allowing teams to implement lower bonus allowances for new draft picks or control their minor leaguers an extra year before they are entitled to free agency, no problem.

Even the drug testing program is uneven, at best. For example, once you’re on a Big League roster, you can test positive for pot regularly and chances are nobody will ever know, because there are no real consequences. If you’re a minor leaguer when you test positive twice, however, plan on sitting out a couple of months’ worth of games… without even that meager minor league paycheck to buy those Pringles chips you have to live on.

But if conditions are so bad, why have minor leaguers never unionized?

The obvious reason is that minor league players all dream of being Major League players and doing anything to antagonize the people who decide which players will and won’t become big leaguers is probably not a wise career move. And if players with U.S. high school and college educations fear challenging baseball’s power, how likely is it that even younger men (boys, really) from impoverished regions of Latin America will do so?

No, since even the Major League players that endured the same conditions on their way to the big leagues have long ago decided they have no interest in making life the least bit easier for the younger players coming up behind them to challenge for their jobs, there’s almost no chance of minor leaguers ever benefiting from collective bargaining. The best they can hope for is for the courts to determine that they should at least not keep getting screwed over by someone else’s collective bargaining.

I’m not a labor lawyer (or a lawyer of any kind, for that matter), so I won’t opine about the chances of success for the plaintiff ballplayers in the suit they’ve filed in a Northern California court.

They claim teams are violating federal and state employment laws. I would imagine that players often work more than 50 hours a week and they are not paid overtime. At many minor league levels, the players are arguably being paid less than minimum wage on an hourly basis.

Logically, I think most of us know that these players are being exploited unfairly. We know the system is wrong. But the people who would benefit from righting that wrong have no power to change things and the people who do have that power benefit the most from keeping the status quo. And unless MLB concludes it is in their own financial best interests to make changes, changes may not happen for a very long time, if ever.

Things could be worse for these young men, though.

What if remarkable athletes like these players got paid nothing at all? What if they weren’t even allowed to accept help from host families and other fans? What if they weren’t allowed to work other jobs to make ends meet?

Those are silly questions, of course. If all of those things were true, these players wouldn’t be working under the rules of minor league professional baseball.

They’d be working under the rules of the NCAA.

But that’s another rant… and another legal matter (or matters)… for another day.

Of course, given the rediculous NCAA restrictions college ballplayers lived under, maybe it’s understandable if they think getting $5-6,000 a year to play minor league baseball is a good deal.

It doesn’t make it right, though.

- JC

Twins Caravan/Kernels Hot Stove

UPDATE: After publishing just the pictures last night and sending out a few quotes via Twitter, I’ve now updated this post with some additional observations and quotes from the Caravan participants. The updates are all in this cool blue color, so you can tell what’s been added. – JC

For the second straight year, the Cedar Rapids Kernels and Minnesota Twins joined forces Monday night, combining the Kernels’ annual Hot Stove Banquet with a stop on the Twins Caravan.

Pitchers Brian Duensing and Ryan Pressly joined new Twins coach Paul Molitor, Kernels manager Jake Mauer and, of course, TC Bear, in Cedar Rapids. The emcee for the evening was Twins broadcaster (and former Cedar Rapids sportscaster) Dick Bremer.

I had a chance to talk to Molitor, Duensing, Pressly and Mauer before the event got underway and, as is part of the Caravan routine, they all answered questions posed by Bremer as part of the program. They also answered a number of questions from members of the crowd.

Without a whole lot of thought, formatting or context, below are some of the comments from the Caravan participants during the evening.

Paul Molitor talked about his move from minor league roving instructor to full-time Major League coach with the Twins. Cedar Rapids Gazette reporter Jeff Johnson and I kind of double teamed Molitor during the media interview session before the night’s festivities. Rather than me typing a bunch of quotes out, you should just click here to go to Johnson’s story at the Gazette’s site and watch the video he recorded of Molitor talking about his new gig.

During the question and answer segment of the Caravan program, Molitor was asked from the crowd for his feelings concerning expanded use of instant replay in Major League Baseball. He’s clearly not a fan.

“I don’t like it. I had trouble with the home runs, originally. I understand why they want to do it, because of football leading the way and we have the technology. I’ve already gotten emails from Terry Ryan about this list of what you can contend against and what you can’t and you can throw the flag once before the sixth inning and twice after the seventh inning. I don’t know where it’s going to go, but I, I don’t like it.”

Molitor was also asked what other moves he thought the Twins might still make before the season starts to add more offense to the lineup.

“I know Terry is still out there looking at the free agent list. Some of the better hitters remaining, Morales and (Cruz), have a draft choice attached and really aren’t very good fits for our club. There’s some potential trades out there, but Terry’s very protective of the players in our minor league system. He’s not going to give up some of our top guys to improve our offense.”

“Last year was a rough year offensively. We struck out too much. We didn’t hit the ball over the fence enough. Baserunning wasn’t very good. There’s a lot of room for improvement. But that doesn’t mean the guys who are coming back won’t have a chance to improve in some of those areas, either, through experience, through whatever it takes for them to get better. We have to find a way to score more runs, that’s the bottom line.”

After you check out the Molitor video and while you’re clicking, go on over to MetroSportsReport.com and read through Jim Ecker’s story on Jake Mauer. Jake and his wife, Rachel, are due to have a baby on February 4 and Mauer said all’s going well on that front.

During the question and answer segment, Mauer was asked whether he thought the addition of starting pitching via free agents might potentially block some of the young pitchers moving up through the organization.

“I think having too much pitching is a pretty good problem to have. I think I speak for everybody (saying) we would definitely love to have that problem. The cream kind of always rises to the top and sometimes it’s not a guy that you expect. It’s always good to go in to spring training with competition. If pitching’s one of those competitions, that just makes the ballclub a lot better.”

Mauer’s best line of the night may have come during the question and answer segment when a member of the crowd asked if he thought his brother Joe might return to his MVP form with the move from catcher to first base.

“I hope so. He’s a lot easier to deal with when he’s on the field, I can tell you that. He’s an ornery guy when he’s not playing.” The crowd laughed, appreciating the candor.

“I think the move to first base will be a very good one for him. I know the concussion that he had last year, plain and simple, scared him.”

“I think he still feels he’s a catcher and he still feels he can be a very good catcher. But I think he understands what could happen if he gets dinged in the noggin again. That’s probably my fault from beating on him when he was a little kid.”

“I think it will be good for him. Not to say he doesn’t like first base, but I think he’s going to fall in love with it in August and September when his body feels pretty good and the bat speed is still there. I know he’s looking forward to getting back on the field with these guys and hopefully making something good happen.”

I talked to Brian Duensing and Ryan Pressly about their impressions of the moves Terry Ryan has been making in the offseason to add a number of pitchers to the roster (and the relative lack of moves to shore up the offense) and about the number of pitchers who will be in the Twins’ spring training camp when it opens.

Duensing: “It’s tough. I think the situation we’re going to be in, it’s got to be heavy one way or the other, in order for us to get back (where we want to be). We need to focus on more or less one spot and then try to fill the bats back in. I think Terry Ryan’s up to going with starting pitching. That’s our most important aspect we need to improve on and then we’ll find hitting as we get confidence going deep in to games. I think that’s maybe how we’re going about it. As relievers, I think we’re excited about it.”

“Unfortunately, our starters kind of struggled last year so we got worked pretty good. Maybe if we get a little deeper in to games, we can be even better.”

I brought up the fact that, although the new pitchers being added thus far are rotation help, there are a number of pitchers who started last year who are out of options going in to 2014 and they could find themselves competing with last season’s relief corps for spots in the bullpen.

Pressly: “You’ve got to love competition. I look forward to going to spring training and seeing what everyone’s been working on in the offseason. But yeah, not having a lot of options I guess can kind of hurt you in the long run.”

Duensing: “Unfortunately, it’s part of the business. A lot of these guys coming in to camp that don’t have options are our friends. We hang out with them a lot. Unfortunately, it’s the nature of the beast. But competition doesn’t hurt anybody.”

I asked Pressly for his thoughts on the Rule 5 draft experience last year:

Pressly: “It all kind of sparked in the Arizona Fall League. I went out and threw really well there and the Twins picked me up in the Rule 5. I came to spring training and it just kind of carried over to that. It was an awsome feeling having Gardy tell me, especially at the Red Sox facility, ‘hey you made our team.’ I didn’t even get one step in to the dugout and he told me, so it was pretty fun.”

Finally, pictures from the festivities:

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Ryan Pressly (standing) answers questions from Dick Bremer, as Brian Duensing (seated) waits his turn

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Jake Mauer talks about his expectations for 2014

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The full dias with TC Bear, Brian Duensing, Ryan Pressly, Dick Bremer (standing), Paul Molitor and Jake Mauer

The autograph line in Cedar Rapids (from top down): Mauer, Pressly, Duensing, Molitor and TC

The autograph line in Cedar Rapids (from top down): Mauer, Pressly, Duensing, Molitor and TC