Twins Organizational Meeting To-Do’s: Players

This is Part 2 of 2, concerning the work to be done this week by the Minnesota Twins staff at their “organizational meetings” in Fort Myers this week.

Reports have estimated that as many as 100 members of the Twins staff may participate in the meetings this week. That’s a lot of people, but then it’s a big job.

In Part 1, we covered the manager and coaching staffing issues. In Part 2, we look at roster matters at the Major League and minor league levels.

As indicated in Part 1, over the coming days, weeks and months, the Twins need to

  • Hire a new manager for the first time in over a decade.
  • Work with said new manager to assemble a seven-person big league level coaching staff.
  • Assign manager and coaching duties to every level of minor league affiliate.
  • Determine which, if any, of their minor league free agents to attempt to retain.
  • Determine at which minor league level to place a significant number of their top young prospects to start 2015.
  • Determine whether to offer arbitration to a few members of their current big league roster.
  • Identify potential MLB level free agents and/or trade targets to pursue once the World Series is completed.

ToDo ListSome of the items on that to-do list are not common tasks for this organization, but even for some of those that are on the list every postseason, the stakes this year have risen significantly.

Concurrently with their efforts to identify and put in place big league and farm system managers and coaches, the Twins also have some work to do on the player front.

Filling out the roster(s)

When the subject of filling out the 2015 roster comes up among most Twins fans, the discussion generally focuses on which of the current Twins will/should be back with the club and who potential acquisitions might be that Terry Ryan should seek in the free agent and/or trade market.

Granted, those are important considerations.

But, given that 2015 is looking more like a bridge to the next era of competitive baseball at Target Field than it is a destination itself, the make-up of the organization’s minor league rosters may be equally important to that of the big league roster, if not more so.

For the past couple of years, as the farm system has been being restocked, even the most optimistic fans of the organization have conceded that most of the Twins’ most promising prospects have been in the low minors, multiple years away from being of any help to the parent club.

Sure, it was fun to watch Byron Buxton put on a show for the Fox Sports North audience in 2013 when the cable network televised one of Buxton’s Cedar Rapids Kernels games. But while the distance between Cedar Rapids and Target Field can be traversed in less than five hours, the time it takes for a prospect to progress from the Class A Kernels to the Twins is much longer – frustratingly so, in some cases.

The 2012 Elizabethton Twins won the Appalachian League championship. In 2013, many of those same players made up a Cedar Rapids Kernels playoff team that went 88-50. This past season, largely the same crop of prospects contributed to Fort Myers’ Florida State League championship team.

In 2015, that group should largely fill out the roster for the first season of the Twins’ new AA affiliation with the Chattanooga Lookouts.

No problem, right? Move them up there. Challenge them. A player who masters Class AA is generally considered a candidate to skip AAA and move up to the Big Club if a need for someone at his position presents itself and that player is deemed to be a more promising solution than whoever fills that position in Rochester.

The thing is, you don’t have to stretch your imagination far to find 30 or more players who, arguably, should be starting their season at AA. That’s a problem when you’re only allowed 25 players on the Lookouts’ roster.

Jeremy Nygaard maintains an excellent database at Twins Daily that includes a variety of important information concerning every player in the Twins organization. For example, did you know that the Twins also have 23 minor leaguers in their system eligible for free agency this offseason – or that 21 of them are already at Class AA or higher?

They also have a similar number of players eligible to be selected by another organization in the Rule 5 draft if they aren’t added to the Twins’ 40-man MLB roster by December.

Granted, few of those potential free agents would be viewed as potential lynchpins on future Twins teams and even fewer of the Rule 5 eligibles are likely to be lost in that draft, but with the promising class set to move up to Chattanooga, the front office does have its work cut out for it this week when they sit down to fill out preliminary rosters for their AAA and AA clubs.

Finally, there’s the minor little project to assemble a Major League roster.

And, by “Major League roster,” I mean a roster of players who have either demonstrated that they possess a talent level worthy of being on a Major League roster or, at least, have shown potential to be elite big leaguers in the not-so-distant future.

Of course, this topic can (and certainly will) warrant entire articles devoted to it all on its own. For purposes of brevity here, suffice to say that the Twins need to identify big league talent to fill the following positions:

  • A starting pitcher worthy of being a #1 or #2 starter for a competitive big league team.
  • Multiple bullpen spots.
  • A Major League center fielder.
  • A Major League left fielder.
  • Any other position that may open up due to trades.

That’s a pretty substantial shopping list. Some of these needs may be filled from within the organization, some via trade and some via free agency. What they all have in common is that, at the end of 2014, the Twins did not have an incumbent that you would definitively declare to be a legitimate everyday Major League talent.

When you consider all the work to be accomplished this week – paring down the manager options, looking at coaching candidates for both big league and minor league positions, and assembling rosters at multiple organizational levels, not the least of which is for the Twins team itself, I’m not sure 100 people in Fort Myers is going to be enough.

Of course, I have some vacation time coming if Terry Ryan would like me to come down and offer some ideas. I’m just a phone call, email or Tweet away.

– JC

Twins Organizational Meeting To-Do’s: Management

The Minnesota Twins are holding their annual “organizational meetings” in Fort Myers this week. As newsworthy baseball stories go, that bit of information ranks quite a bit below the MLB postseason games and their seemingly nightly extra-inning games and walk-off finishes.

What exactly are the organizational meetings? Well, in Hollywood’s version of Moneyball, you may remember seeing Brad Pitt as Oakland General Manager Billy Beane gathering a few guys around a table in a room and tossing out names of players they might want to pursue acquiring for the following season. That may have fit screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s needs, but it doesn’t come close to meeting the needs of a real life professional baseball organization.

ToDoListReports have estimated that as many as 100 members of the Twins staff may participate in the meetings this week. That may seem like a lot of people, but the Twins have a lot of work to do.

The Twins hold these meetings every October, but this year’s gathering could be the most critical such gathering in years.

Over the coming days, weeks and months, the Twins need to

  • Hire a new manager for the first time in over a decade.
  • Work with said new manager to assemble a seven-person big league level coaching staff.
  • Assign manager and coaching duties to every level of minor league affiliate.
  • Determine which, if any, of their minor league free agents to attempt to retain.
  • Determine at which minor league level to place a significant number of their top young prospects to start 2015.
  • Determine whether to offer arbitration to a few members of their current big league roster.
  • Identify potential MLB level free agents and/or trade targets to pursue once the World Series is completed.

Some of the items on that to-do list are not common tasks for this organization, but even for some of those that are on the list every postseason, the stakes this year have risen significantly.

First order of business: Identify and hire a new manager

When it comes to deciding who should manage the Twins in 2015 and beyond, a seeming significant majority of fans agreed on one thing – it shouldn’t be Ron Gardenhire. OK, that group (which included me) got their wish. Gardenhire will not manage the Twins going forward.

There is far less of a consensus concerning who SHOULD manage the Twins and, obviously, that’s a far more important question than simply coming to an agreement on who should not.

A fair number of fans seem to feel that anyone the Twins could pick would be better than Gardy. I beg to differ.

Say what you will about the man who managed the Twins for the past 13 years, every year there were MLB managers who were worse at their job than was Ron Gardenhire. Some of those managers were newly hired by their organization. Some were getting their first opportunity to manage at the big league level.

Of all of the confirmed candidates, both internal and external to the Twins organization, that have been identified by the media, exactly one of them would not be making his MLB managing debut on Opening Day 2015 if he is hired by the Twins.

The Twins have had just two managers since Ronald Reagan second term as the US President wrapped up. That can lead fans to feel a certain level of complacency, as if it’s unlikely or even impossible for the Twins to make a bad hire. But they can and they have. Ray Miller, who preceded Tom Kelly in the job, managed just 239 games for the Twins before being axed.

As was the case when Miller was hired back in 1985, the Twins are widely viewed as being on the cusp of a new era of competitiveness, with a number of highly touted young prospects nearing completion of their minor league apprenticeships. Making a bad hire could dangerously impede the club’s reemergence in to relevancy in the American League Central Division.

I agree with Terry Ryan. It’s not important if the new manager comes from within the organization or from the outside; whether he has prior experience or not; whether he is multi-lingual or struggles just to speak coherent English.

What matters is that the choice is the right choice. Unfortunately, there’s no way to know with certainty whether that’s the case immediately (though I think we can pretty much be certain that a significant – and vocal – segment of the fan base will think it is not the right choice, regardless of the final decision).

Assembling a big league coaching staff

While not as highly visible as their selection of a manager, the final make-up of the Twins’ MLB coaching staff is arguably as important. The manager has to run the clubhouse and make out the line-up card and deal with the media and be the public face of the team. But it’s his coaching staff that will spend far more time working with directly with the next generation of Twins players.

When you look at the names of the players likely to wear Twins uniforms for the next several years, it’s not hard to project that as many as one-third of them in any given year will be Latin American natives. Some of them speak passable English. Many do not. It’s easy to say, “they should be learning English,” and – over time – they will. But even above the obvious need for coaches who can communicate with these players in their own language, it’s equally important to have coaches familiar with the culture from which those players have come.

I hope the next Twins manager is more open to using advanced metrics in his game-day decisions (or at the very least, is far less openly dismissive of the idea). But let’s be honest, no manager has the time to pour over all of the information that’s going to be available to him and determine which is helpful how to apply it every day.

That makes it just as critical to have coaches who have experience doing exactly that and, where they don’t have such experience, they have minds open to learning and applying new things.

Finally, Tom Brunansky certainly appears to have done a good job as hitting coach and if the Twins don’t move quickly to retain him, I think they risk losing him to another organization. I would hate to see that happen.

Minor league assignments

For the past few years, the Twins have pretty much nibbled at the edges when it comes to making adjustments to their staff of minor league managers and coaches. They’ve moved a couple guys around every year, but largely there has been a fair amount of consistency at every level, from non-complex rookie ball at Elizabethton through AAA in Rochester.

That’s normal when you have stability among the big league staff and, given the highly acclaimed status of the Twins minor league organization, you would perhaps like to see such stability continue.

But when there are eight spots at the big league level open, it’s hard to imagine we won’t see some of those openings filled from within the current minor league managing/coaching ranks.

Ray Smith has been managing at rookie level Elizabethton for 13 consecutive years (21 years overall) and is likely to continue there, but it would not be hard to imagine Gene Glynn (AAA), Jeff Smith (AA), Doug Mientkiewicz (hi-A) or Jake Mauer (A) in the Twins dugout next season. Two of them, Glynn and Mientkiewicz, have interviewed for the manager vacancy, an indication of how highly the Twins think of both men, while Smith and Mauer have each been managing in the Twins organization for longer than Glynn and Mientkiewicz, combined.

If the Twins hire a manager from outside the organization, that manager is likely to bring in a few additional outsiders with him. If the Twins hire from inside the organization, one might hope that they similarly insist that the new manager include some outside blood among his staff.

But in any event, given the Twins’ history of rewarding loyalty, it is almost impossible to imagine a Twins big league coaching staff without the presence of some number of coaches from within. That may well include one or more current minor league manager or coach, especially considering that they all will be familiar faces and voices to most of the Twins prospects due to arrive in the big leagues over the next couple of years.

By and large, most of the field managers and coaches in the minor league organization look to advance up the organizational ladder, just like the players do. When there are wholesale coaching changes made at the big league level, it would be at least mildly surprising if there were not similar adjustments to the minor league assignments.

Just as is the case with players, some of the staff may move up, some may look at the new landscape and decide their paths to the big leagues might be more open in another organization and, unfortunately, some will not be retained by the Twins, as minor league hitting coordinator Bill Springman and Fort Myers pitching coach Gary Lucas have already found out.

Some fans have become so disgruntled with the Twins’ lack of success at the big league level that they will be satisfied with nothing less than a clean sweep of every manager and coach in the Twins’ system.

That’s not going to happen, nor should it.

The Twins may indeed have become too insular and every organization benefits from adding quality people from the outside. Organizations also benefit from identifying and promoting quality people from within.

The Twins are in a unique situation this offseason in that they have room in the organization to do both.

– JC

Kernels Alums Closing in on FSL Title

While the current edition of the Cedar Rapids Kernels have been making their way through the Midwest League playoffs this week, a group of 20 Kernels alumni are on the verge of claiming the first Florida State League championship in franchise history for the Fort Myers Miracle.
Adam Brett Walker lines a home run vs Clinton on September 2, 2013. Walker led the FSL in HR and RBI this season for the Fort Myers Miracle

Adam Brett Walker lines a home run vs Clinton on September 2, 2013. Walker led the FSL in HR and RBI this season for the Fort Myers Miracle

Since their permanent home, Hammond Stadium, is undergoing major remodeling, the Miracle won the first two games of their best-of-five championship series with Daytona (Cubs) on Thursday and Friday in their temporary home park, JetBlue Stadium. They will need to win one of the next three games, all in Daytona, to claim the championship title.

Thirteen active members of the Miracle suited up for the Cedar Rapids Kernels in 2013, when the club put together an 88-50 overall record before getting bounced from the Midwest League playoffs by eventual MWL champion, Quad Cities. Two additional ‘13 Kernels are currently on the Miracle Disabled List. The Kernels can also claim Fort Myers pitching coach Gary Lucas as an alum. Lucas was the Kernels’ pitching coach a year ago.
Six current members of the Miracle (and one on their DL) were promoted to Fort Myers this season after spending time with the Kernels.
The recent addition of outfielder Jeremias Pineda to the Miracle roster from Elizabethton accounts for the 20th former Kernel on their roster. Pineda spent time on the Cedar Rapids roster in both 2013 and 2014.
Here’s a list of the Kernels alumni currently pursuing a FSL championship ring:

2013 (1 coach, 13 active, 2 DL)

Gary Lucas – pitching coach

Madison Boer P

Steven Gruver P

David Hurlbut P (DL)

Tyler Jones P

Zack Jones P

Brett Lee P

Tim Shibuya P (DL)

Matt Tomshaw P

Tyler Grimes C/IF

Jairo Rodriguez C

Niko Goodrum IF

Dalton Hicks IF

Travis Harrison OF

Max Kepler OF

Adam Brett Walker II OF

 

2014 (6 active, 1 DL)

Nick Burdi P

Ethan Mildren P

Alex Muren P (DL)

Brandon Peterson P

Todd Van Steensel P

Bryan Haar IF

Jason Kanzler OF

 

BOTH 2013 and 2014:

Jeremias Pineda OF

Episode 97: The Future of the Twins

 You can download the new Talk to Contact (@TalkToContact) episode via iTunes or by clicking here, and if you want to add the show to your non-iTunes podcast player, this is the RSS Feed.

The Twins scored a whole bunch of runs in the last week, and have one of the top five offenses in the American League, if only they had a pitching staff to match. This week we swoon over the future of the Twins, talk a little bit about the young players on the Twins roster, and Jay tries to troll Eric into going on another Paul Molitor rant (and fails, sort of).
Then the regular beer, baseball, and the news.
Enjoy the show.

You can follow Cody on Twitter (@NoDakTwinsFan) or read his writing at NoDakTwinsFan, and you can find Eric on Twitter (@ERolfPleiss) and read his writing at Knuckleballs, and you can find Jay Corn on twitter @Jay__Corn! If you enjoy our podcast, please take a couple extra minutes and rate and review us on iTunesRatings and reviews are the new Ice Bucket Challenge, tell your friends and GET A BUCKET!

Weekend Wrap Up: Kernels Clinch, Pub Crawl, MLB Blackouts

A lot of stuff has happened over the past few days.

Kernels are Playoff bound

First, the Cedar Rapids Kernels clinched a Midwest League playoff spot.

Whether they did this Saturday or Sunday is a bit hazy, but what’s certain is that the Kernels will be playing baseball beyond the scheduled end of the regular season on Labor Day. This makes the Kernels a perfect 2 for 2 qualifying for playoff work since affiliating with the Minnesota Twins.

Going strictly by “magic number,” the Kernels qualified for the playoffs on Sunday, when Peoria fell to Clinton. However, as Jim Ecker at MetroSportsReport.com pointed out, tie-breaking criteria favored the Kernels over Peoria, so in fact Cedar Rapids apears to have wrapped up their postseason spot late Saturday night.

Most likely, the Kernels will open the playoffs with a best of three series against Burlington. They would host Burlington on September 3 and then travel to Burlington for games 2 and 3 (if necessary) on September 4 and 5, respectively.

Unfortunately, I was not in attendance when the Kernels clinched, regardless of whether you consider that to have occurred Saturday or Sunday.

“Touch ‘em All”

Instead, I joined 100 or so Twins fans taking part in the second “Touch ‘em All Pub Crawl” sponsored by Twins Daily/Gleeman & the Geek.

The “Crawl” involved stopping at several establishments along the Twin Cities’ light rail line and ending with attendance at the Twins game Saturday night. It officially started at the Barrio Tequila Bar in St. Paul at noon, but since I was staying out in the southern ‘burbs and wanted to eat breakfast downtown at Hell’s Kitchen before getting started, I’d already spent at least 90 minutes on the rail before ever getting to the start of the official event over in St. Paul.

It was a great time, offering opportunities to renew friendships from prior TwinsDaily events and to meet even more fellow Twins fans for the first time. I’m always surprised how many people at these things have read the stuff I contributed to Knuckleballs and to TwinsDaily.

It was a great time with great people, all of whom just happen to be fans of a pretty poor baseball team. Despite that, the only real negative comment I heard was from Star Tribune Twins beat writer, Phil Miller, who thought the Kernels camo jersey I was wearing was ugly.

Hey, you can’t please everyone, right? And I enjoyed talking to Miller, once we moved away from fashion-related topics.

It really was a good time and I appreciate the TwinsDaily guys and Aaron Gleeman going to the effort to put it together. I always enjoy the events they organize.

Blackout News

Finally, some of you that have been reading Knuckleballs for a while may recall one (or more) of my rants concerning MLB’s TV blackout rules. Those rules result in Iowa residents being unable to watch games involving six diferent teams, the Twins, Brewers, Cubs, White Sox, Cardinals and Royals, online via MLB.tv.

Late last week, the Star Tribune posted a story quoting MLB’s head of online business, Bob Bowman,  as saying that baseball is nearing a solution that will allow people to watch their hometown teams online, if they are also subscribers to cable and/or satellite services.

That’s great for people in Minneapolis that want to watch the Twins on their mobile devices.

I’m guessing it’s still not good news for Iowans.

As crazy as it sounds, what seems most likely to happen is that MLB will broker a deal to allow people who already have access to Twins games via their local cable company to also have access online. Meanwhile, those of us in areas where FSN is not even an option via cable will continue to be blacked out.

I do understand the theory. We are supposed to individually get so up in arms over this that we all march on our local Mediacom office and demand that they pay FSN whatever they want for fees to get the regional sports channel added to our Eastern Iowa cable options.

That hasn’t happened yet, it’s not happening now and it won’t happen… ever.

However, given that MLB and the teams let the regional sports networks set whatever they want as the “home market” geographic footprint (because, after all, those rights fees are pretty much the major thing propping up MLB teams’ revenues), it’s pretty clear that any relief from the bizarre and antiquated blackout rules for places like Iowa, Las Vegas and North Carolina, which several teams claim as part of their “home market,” isn’t likely happening either.

Instead, what I expect is that we’ll see MLB, under their new Commissioner, Rob Manfred, address the online issue for fans who could already watch their favorite teams on TV. Then, they’ll claim they’ve “solved” this problem and ignore the fact that they’ve solved nothing for the fans in areas like Iowa.

Maybe I’m wrong and there will indeed be a solution for the rest of us. But, given the selection of a Commissioner who got the gig basically by promising to be “Bud Light,” I’m not expecting anything remotely close to real solutions to any of MLB’s biggest challenges.

I’d be really happy to be proven wrong, of course.

Finally, a few pictures from Saturday’s “Touch ‘em All Pub Crawl.”

The meeting spot, Barrio Tequila Bar, St. Paul

The meeting spot, Barrio Tequila Bar, St. Paul

Campus Pizza, which will be on my list for a return if/when I journey up for Hawkeyes/Gophers in the future. Friendly service, good thin crust pizza.

Campus Pizza, which will be on my list for a return if/when I journey up for Hawkeyes/Gophers in the future. Friendly service, good thin crust pizza.

BarZia in downtown Minneapolis. Met a number of the hard working moderators of TwinsDaily's forum section. I'm not sure what possesses these people to put in the work being moderators, but I'm sure glad they do it.

BarZia in downtown Minneapolis. Met a number of the hard working moderators of TwinsDaily’s forum section. I’m not sure what possesses these people to put in the work being moderators, but I’m sure glad they do it.

Mason's, near Target Field, was the last stop. Gotta be honest, I wasn't impressed with Mason's this time. TD has used Mason's as a meeting place in prior events and I've always liked it. But this time, some of us got the sense from their people like we were imposing. They closed off two of their seating areas to us, requiring most in our group to stand. Not a big deal, perhaps, but I can tell you it cost them some food orders, not to mention general goodwill, among some of the people I was hanging with.

Mason’s, near Target Field, was the last stop. Gotta be honest, I wasn’t impressed with Mason’s this time. TD has used Mason’s as a meeting place in prior events and I’ve always liked it. But this time, some of us got the sense from their people like we were imposing. They closed off two of their seating areas to us, requiring most in our group to stand. Not a big deal, perhaps, but I can tell you it cost them some food orders, not to mention general goodwill, among some of the people I was hanging with.

The view from our Home Run Porch seats at Target Field were better than what this picture might indicate. First time I've watched a game from these left field seats and it really is not a bad place to watch a game from.

The view from our Home Run Porch seats at Target Field were better than what this picture might indicate. First time I’ve watched a game from these left field seats and it really is not a bad place to watch a game from.

Episode 96: Rob Neyer and Eric’s Potty Mouth

You can download the new Talk to Contact (@TalkToContact) episode via iTunes or by clicking here, and if you want to add the show to your non-iTunes podcast player, this is the RSS Feed.

pottymouth

This week on the podcast we are joined by the great Rob Neyer (@robneyerhttp://robneyer.com/,http://www.foxsports.com/mlb/just-a-bit-outside) a real baseball writing celebrity. Also on this episode is Eric’s potty mouth. You’ve been warned.

We discuss why we hate the teams we hate and then jump into all of the Twins news from the last week. Most of it involves pitchers, and most of those pitchers have been bad. But not Joe Mauer. Joe Mauer has been vintage Joe Mauer.
Enjoy the show.

You can follow Cody on Twitter (@NoDakTwinsFan) or read his writing at NoDakTwinsFan, and you can find Eric on Twitter (@ERolfPleiss) and read his writing at Knuckleballs, and you can find Jay Corn on twitter @Jay__Corn! If you enjoy our podcast, please take a couple extra minutes and rate and review us on iTunes

If you enjoy our podcast, please take a couple extra minutes and rate and review us on iTunes. Ratings and reviews make us feel better about ourselves, which balances out how bad the Twins make us feel.

Kernels Second Half Turnaround Almost Complete

Tuesday night’s Cedar Rapids Kernels come-from-behind win over the Quad Cities River Bandits was bittersweet.

On the one hand, they tallied three runs in the home half of the eighth inning and put away the Bandits for their eighth straight win. They swept three games in Beloit last week, three more from Peoria in Cedar Rapids over the weekend, and now the first two games of their series with the Bandits. The team also played to near-capacity home crowds on Friday and Saturday night.

On the other hand, Kohl Stewart, the Twins’ first round draft pick in 2013 and a key member of the Kernels’ rotation all season long, left the game during the second inning with an as-yet-undetermined ailment. Regardless of the ultimate cause, it’s a pretty safe bet Stewart has thrown his last pitch for this Cedar Rapids club in 2014.

Stewart was one of the few bright spots for the Kernels during a challenging first half of the season. He notched a 2.44 ERA over the course of a dozen starts prior to the Midwest League’s All-Star break in mid June.

The Kernels finished sixth among the MWL Western Division’s eight teams in the first half race with a 31-39 record, 14 games behind the first half West champion Kane County Cougars and 7.6 games behind second-place Burlington.

The Midwest League breaks their schedule in to two halves, with the top two teams in each division, in each half of the season, qualifying for the postseason.

The Kernels have certainly taken advantage of the split season arrangement by turning their season around 180 degrees in the second half.

With 13 games to play following Tuesday night’s win, the Kernels sit one game behind Kane County in the MWL West’s second-half standings.

Since the Cougars clinched their playoff spot in the first half, however, it doesn’t matter how the Kernels fare with them. What matters is that they finish among the top two teams in their Division who have not already qualified in the first half.

Going in to Wednesday’s series finale with Quad Cities, Cedar Rapids holds a six game lead over third place Wisconsin and a nine game lead over fourth place Peoria. That means their “magic number” for qualifying for the playoffs sits at 5.

How did this happen? How did a team go from a 31-39 first-half record to a 36-21 record, so far, in the second half? Certainly, not many fans gave the Kernels much chance of making the playoffs two months ago.

Their manager, Jake Mauer, and coaches Tommy Watkins and Ivan Arteaga, gave their thoughts on the subject on Sunday, which was three Kernels wins (and three Peoria losses) ago.

“Pitching is probably number 1,” said Mauer. “We’ve shaved a whole run off our (team) ERA. Obviously we’re a little different at the back end of the bullpen than we were early on.”

It hasn’t all been improved pitching, however. Mauer also was quick to mention some newcomers to the offense that have contributed.

“Some of the additions, obviously Logan Wade and (Alex) Swim have been huge. Max Murphy’s been a good addition,” added the manager.

Max Murphy

Max Murphy

The Kernels have lost some very good players, as well, of course. Several pitchers and position players have earned promotions to high-A Fort Myers, which is what led to the new players arriving in Cedar Rapids.

Players coming and going is just part of minor league life.

Mauer pointed out another pretty major difference between his club’s first and second half fortunes.

“We’re keeping guys healthy, like (Mitch) Garver and (Engelb) Vielma and guys like that,” observed Mauer. “I think that really is the reason why we’re where we’re at.

Engelb Vielma (1)

Engelb Vielma (1)

“We went through a tough stretch there early. It seemed like somebody was going down every week. We’re still missing three of our top arms in our organization who are still down with surgery. Obviously, it gave a good opportunity to get up here to (Mat) Batts and (Chih-Wei) Hu and (Stephen) Gonsalves and (Lewis) Thorpe. They’ve really been holding down the majority of the big innings for us.”

Watkins, the Kernels hitting coach, echoes many of Mauer’s thoughts.

“I think we’ve stayed healthy, for the most part. It seemed like every other day we were losing somebody in the first half. But for the most part, outside of some minor bumps and bruises, we’ve been pretty healthy the second half.”

Watkins also sensed a change in the consistency of the team’s performance.

“In the beginning, we didn’t click on both sides. One day we would hit, we didn’t pitch. One day we would pitch, we didn’t hit,” Watkins added. “Now it seems like we’re getting timely hitting, pitching. The defense is making some plays.

“All the pitchers are doing well but we’ve got a few guys at the back end of that bullpen that have been pretty lights-out for us. We give those guys some leads and they’ve been pretty good lately.”

Watkins has seen a change in the clubhouse, as well as on the field.

“I just think the overall confidence right now, the guys are a lot better. The guys are loose, they’re having fun with each other. We came in here the other day, they were doing Kangaroo Court with each other. They’re just having fun right now. They’re winning baseball games, so it’s been a lot of fun.”

There’s little doubt that the biggest change in the Kernels’ fortunes in the second half has come on the pitcher’s mound. That being the case, it stands to reason that Arteaga, the Kernels pitching coach, would have a great deal of insight in to how those fortunes changed for the better in the season’s second half.

He summed up the reasons for the improvement in the club’s pitching in two words, “Experience and chemistry.”

“They go hand in hand,” he explained. “Early, we went through some growing pains, pitching wise.”

Arteaga noted that the team lost three highly rated young pitchers in the first half that the organization had been counting on to play big roles for the Kernels. Felix Jorge struggled and was sent back to extended spring training and, ultimately, to Elizabethton. Randy Rosario and Yorman Landa got hurt, ending their seasons.

Pitchers that remained in Cedar Rapids also went through some rough patches early.

“(Aaron) Slegers had a rough go for about a month,” added the coach. “He was working on some stuff. (Ryan) Eades was learning a lot of things about the league and about himself. Our relievers went through some growing pains. We had Hudson Boyd – early, he was very good. He had a rough go for about three or four outings.

Ryan Eades

Ryan Eades

“So everybody’s learning. Like I said when I first got here, it is a process. They get to learn the league. They get to learn the hitters. They get to learn themselves. Work on a different pitch, work on the delivery. Work on some stuff.

“It’s growing pains. Kids like Eades, you know, second round pick, he learned a lot this year. And you get a guy like Stewart – first round pick. He learned a lot this year. In the first half, you have a lot of learning to do. A lot of growing pains.

“And we didn’t do that bad. Not what we wanted to, but we weren’t that bad.”

In the second half, though, the pitching went from, “not bad,” to very, very good.

“Then we got the new boys. We got Thorpe, we got Hu, we had Gonsalves, Batts, Burdi, Reed, Gallant. They brought a different mindset and obviously we’ve been doing very well.”

Arteaga also agrees with Watkins’ observation that the success is reflected off the field as much as on.

“I think that the learning, gaining some experience and at the same time, we’re winning. You see a different atmosphere in there ( the clubhouse). It’s a different environment. It’s chemistry. They like each other. They talk to each other. When you get that, which is chemistry, it shows on the field.

“They come here every day with effort, with a purpose they have in mind. They know, they can feel the possibility of being in the playoffs – how great that’s going to be for the players to experience that. Some of them in their first year of full season. I hope that they actually embrace the possibility.”

If the players are excited about postseason possibilities, they aren’t alone. Arteaga is right there with them.

“Personally, I’m very excited by it because I went through a lot of things this year with these guys. To try to teach the pitchers the fundamentals of baseball, the fundamentals of pitching, pitch sequence, just the growing pains. And just the things you see, to me, it’s very rewarding.

Stephen Gonsalves

Stephen Gonsalves

“I guarantee you that there’s not a better feeling than seeing these guys playing every day and understanding the moment. And going out and playing the way they played Peoria and the way they played on the road (in Beloit).”

Of course, winning championships is great. But is winning really important for minor league affiliates?

It’s important, of course, to the local fans who want to see a winner. But some fans of the Major League affiliate see minor league games as little more than exhibition games, attaching little, if any, value to won-loss record.

Arteaga clearly feels winning is important, but not necessarily the most important thing.

“We (the Twins organization) have a philosophy. Basically, we want to develop winners. And the only way you can develop winners is by teaching the process, by teaching the fundamentals of baseball.

“Now, we are very careful with the amount of innings, the activities that we do. Teaching the game the right way, the Twins way.

“But one thing that we don’t do, is to go the extra mile to try to win. We want these guys to win, but I won’t pitch my guys two days in a row. I won’t pitch my guy 125 pitches because I want to win one game. We won’t do that. We have a program. That program works. It’s good. We stick to it. It is our job as coaches to teach these guys how to win. To motivate these guys every day.”

Make no mistake, though, talking about a playoff run brings a smile to the coach’s face.

“When you go to the postseason, there’s a difference,” Arteaga concluded. “That’s what we want these guys to experience. When it’s only you. There’s nobody else playing, just you playing. (Others) going home. They’re going on American Airlines somewhere. You’re not. You’re still playing. That’s the beauty of postseason. You’re sending somebody else home and you’re playing. So that’s good.”

******

Finally, various members of the Kernels’ players and front office accepted the ALS ice bucket challenge on Monday this week.

KernelsIce1 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Episode 95: May Day and a New Commish

We made a new podcast just for your ears. I know, you’re excited too. Thanks for stopping by. You can download the new Talk to Contact (@TalkToContact) episode via iTunes or by clicking here.
escrowbar

The podcast returns, a day late, but a dollar better, and with a full suite of podcast hosts. We discuss Trevor May‘s debut, the departure of Josh Willingham and Kevin Correia and what those moves mean for the organization and the youth movement happening in Minnesota.

We’re joined by Brad Swanson (@Bridman77) from the Twins blog Kevin Slowey was Framed (http://smartpitcher.blogspot.com/) to talk about Eduardo Escobar and Twins players heads photo-shopped onto animal bodies (WHAT?! YES!).

We finally get around to answering the expansion draft question submitted last week by former listener of the week, John. Which 15 players would you protect? Send us your list to talktocontact@gmail.com.

We wrap things up by going around the league to talk about the 1st place Royals, everyone being injured, and what the 1994 season might have given us had it not been for the strike.

Enjoy the show.

You can follow Cody on Twitter (@NoDakTwinsFan) or read his writing at NoDakTwinsFan, and you can find Eric on Twitter (@ERolfPleiss) and read his writing at Knuckleballs, and you can find Jay Corn on twitter @Jay__Corn! If you enjoy our podcast, please take a couple extra minutes and rate and review us on iTunes. If you enjoy our podcast, please take a couple extra minutes and rate and review us on iTunes. Ratings and reviews are pretty cool, you guys.

Ivan Arteaga on Change ups, Sliders and Curves

There’s much about the game of baseball that never changes. Three strikes and you’re out. Bases are 90 feet apart.

Then again, some aspects of the game are constantly adjusting to the times. Witness the amount of defensive shifting going on in Major League Baseball this season.

You could say that one thing that never changes is that pitchers try to throw fastballs by opposing hitters.

But the arsenal of pitches the pitchers use beyond the fastball seems to differ from one era to another.

Pitchers in the first part of the 20th century could – and did – legally throw a spitball.

Even after the spitter was outlawed, pitchers continued to do whatever they could get away with to gain an advantage over the batter. Roughing up the ball became popular.

Now umpires toss baseballs out of the game the moment there’s the slightest scuff noticed on the surface of the sphere.

Even legal pitches have come in to, and fallen out of, favor among professional pitchers.

Recently, writer Pat Jordan posted an article at SportsOnEarth.com entitled, The Decline of the Curve. Jordan talked to a number of big league pitching coaches about why fewer pitchers are throwing a curveball than was the case in previous eras.

Some of the coaches he talked to indicated that their organizations dissuade pitchers from throwing the traditional curve and others indicated that they don’t teach the pitch to their pitchers.

Since I’ve observed a number of Cedar Rapids Kernels pitchers throwing curveballs, I was curious about whether the Twins organization and, in particular, Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga, have any established policy aimed at dissuading use of the curve or any other pitch.

Over the past weekend, Arteaga graciously agreed to talk to me about the subject.

I started out by asking whether the Twins have any kind of established policy concerning the subject of Jordan’s article, the curveball.

“We actually encourage it,” Arteaga said. “We believe in having a complete mix. I believe, this is my opinion, mix creates value.

“For example, I’ve got (Ricky) Nolasco this week here. He’s got five different pitches. Throws a slider, he throws a curve, he throws a split, he throws a straight change up, he’s got a two-seemer. And he throws low-90s.

“We were having a conversation and one thing we agreed on was that pitchers in the big leagues actually have to reinvent themselves time and time again.

“So that being said, the curve is a pitch that is high-to-low, 12-to-6, you name it. It’ll give you depth. It’ll make your fastball better. It’ll save your arm a little bit.

“So we encourage it. If you have the curve, great. If you don’t, we’ll try to teach you one. Hopefully, you can get it.”

Ivan Arteaga

Ivan Arteaga

Some of the coaches that talked to Jordan blamed the shrinking strike zone for the demise of the curveball. Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan could throw fastballs at the letters and get them called strikes, which set up their devastating curveballs.

Umpires today won’t call that high pitch a strike and Arteaga agrees that the strike zone getting smaller has had an effect on the choices pitchers have made when it comes to their arsenal.

“Over time, pitchers started to throw the change up more, moving back and forth,” Arteaga observed. “I remember in the 80s and 90s, the split finger fastball was the pitch to learn and then came the slider. That’s the pitch these days being taught.

“Those pitches are basically strike zone down, strike zone right or strike zone left. The curve actually starts up away from the strike zone and it gets in to the strike zone at the end with some depth.

“So if you have that pitch, the hitters are so used to looking for pitches in the strike zone, that once they see the ball go up, they give up on it. And then once they give up on it, it’s hard for them to actually make an adjustment and hit it. So they give up on it and you get some weak swings.

Arteaga has a theory, beyond those that the coaches Jordan interviewed expressed, concerning why you see fewer pitchers throwing a curveball today.

“This goes beyond professional baseball. Because in college, you get big programs, the same way you get big programs in Venezuela, Dominican and Puerto Rico, and so forth and so on. What creates value? The fastball.

“Thirty-five or forty years ago you had to mix, you learned how to pitch. These days, you get kids that are 17-18 years old, they’re just fastball throwers. If they throw something else, it will be a change up and it will be a slider, because it’s easier to throw. But at the same time, it creates more stress on the shoulder and in the elbow.”

Jordan, in his article, claimed that the curveball actually is easier on the pitcher’s arm than other pitches, which goes against some conventional wisdom in the game. Arteaga agrees, however.

“It’s less stressful. It’s not as stressful as the slider.” Arteaga explained. “What happens with the slider is, there’s some kids who believe the slider should be lateral – should be either right or left – it’s more sidewise than it is up and down. And for them to create that, they have to actually drag their arms a little bit.

“So when they drag their arm a little, they get a lower angle. Once you want to make that ball spin, the elbow suffers a lot. So you get tight. Once you get tight, those muscles start to pull against those tendons. That’s when you get all the injuries.”

Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and then-Kernels pitcher Ethan Mildren

Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and then-Kernels pitcher Ethan Mildren

There has been talk among the fan base about the Twins limiting the number of sliders and similar pitches that some of their youngest pitching prospects throw in a game. The coach’s next comment perhaps sheds some light on that philosophy.

“If you ask an 18-19 year old to pitch at a level like this,” Arteaga observed, “where he understands he has to come up with something more than the fastball, then he’ll throw the slider more than he should. He might not be ready to throw it, because he needs to mix.“

Arteaga doesn’t necessarily see the curveball as the hardest pitch for his young pitchers to master.

“The change up to me is like the last pitch to come in an arsenal,” Arteaga said.
“There’s not many guys that have the feel for the change up and the repeatability for the change up. And so it’s easier to throw fastball-slider-fastball-cutter than become a fastball-slider-change up guy. So the change up is like the last pitch to come in to the arsenal.

“It’s hard to repeat, because there’s a couple of things that come in to play,” he explained. “One is the grip. You have to find the perfect grip. And number two, you have to find a repeatable delivery, the same as the fastball. So you can get that extension out in front and the pronation to actually make the ball fade a little bit or go down as much as you can.

“So you need to repeat it a lot. Almost as much as your fastball. You need to repeat it so you can get that same feeling, every time, of extension, pronation and arm speed.

“Because if you ask any guy what they fear the most, it is to leave a fastball or change up or breaking ball up in the zone. They say, ‘I don’t want to do that,’ so what do they do? They develop a sinker, they develop a slider; anything they can do to make it go down.“

Arteaga was asked about that split-fingered fastball that he acknowledged was all the rage 20 or so years ago. Does he, or do the Twins, teach splitter?

“No, we don’t,” he answered quickly. “If you have one out of college or whatever and you can throw it, yeah, we’ll let you throw it. Why not? But we don’t encourage that.

“We believe the less stress you put on the arm, the better it is. If you see the games on TV, in the big leagues, you don’t get that many guys throw the split finger fastballs any more. Maybe a few, but not what it used to be.

“And it really has to be a good one for you to throw it in the big leagues, because they can see the seams. If it looks like a fastball, yes, you’ve got an advantage. Make it look like a fastball, in and out of the strike zone, you’re OK.”

As Arteaga alluded to earlier, Nolasco spent the better part of a week in Cedar Rapids, getting a pair of rehabilitation starts in with the Kernels. The interview came before Nolasco’s final Kernels appearance Sunday, but the coach liked what he saw of Nolasco leading up to that point.

“He threw everything he’s got in the first outing so I expect the same in this one too. He got in to a jam a little bit there, and struck out a couple of guys. He looked like a big leaguer. Throwing his pitches down, making it go right, left, down.

“Like Joe (Mauer) was saying, he’ll make it tough on hitters, when he’s right, he’ll make it tough because everything goes different directions and it’s the same motion.

“Just seeing him throw in the bullpen, he’s got command, he’s got control. And he’s healthy, so hopefully he’ll be OK.“

And did Arteaga’s young Kernels pitchers watch the way Nolasco went about his business?

“Oh yeah. That’s the way it should be. They’re paying attention.“

Video from Kernels Walk-off Win

Just a quick post with a couple of videos I took at the Kernels game Thursday night.

First, we have Jake Reed, who pitched the 9th and 10th innings for the Kernels. Here, we have video of his 9th inning.

With the game tied at 3-3 in the bottom of the 11th inning, Mitch Garver comes to the plate for the Kernels.

And here we have the climactic moment as Bryan Haar comes to the plate  with pinch runner Jon Murphy at second base, running for Garver.