JC’s Spring Training Report

I’ve been down here in Fort Myers, Florida, for several days now and I’ve been very slow about posting anything here. My bad.

Century Link Field, Spring Training home of the Twins

Century Link Field, Spring Training home of the Twins

The newly remodeled stadium at the Twins’ complex (now named “Century Link Field”) is very nice. Much wider concourses and a lot of variety of seating options. I’ve seen parts of a couple games at the new place, as well as a game against the Phillies at their Clearwater home. I plan to also see the Twins take on the Orioles up in Sarasota on Sunday.

But I’ve spent the lion’s share of my time over on the back fields watching the minor leaguers, in particular the two Class A groups. One of them made up of guys who were Cedar Rapids Kernels last year and are likely to play for the Fort Myers Miracle this season, the other made up of players likely ticketed to start this season in Cedar Rapids.

I’ve taken quite a few pictures and maybe I’ll work at getting them downloaded and posted here once I get back to Cedar Rapids next week.

For now, I’m going to share three separate articles I wrote for MetroSportsReport.com in Cedar Rapids. Since I don’t have space concerns here, I’m just going to combine them all in this one blog post. Enjoy.

Gonsalves Will Have a New Pitch When He Returns to Cedar Rapids

Ask Minnesota Twins pitching prospect Stephen Gonsalves about his offseason and the first thing he may mention is his vacation to Australia with fellow Twins pitching prospects Lewis Thorpe and Sam Gibbons.

“It was Sam’s 21st birthday so we made a little vacation out of it,” Gonsalves explained on Friday, while watching his Cedar Rapids Kernels teammates take on a group of Tampa Bay Rays Class A prospects.

Stephen Gonsalves

Stephen Gonsalves

But hanging out with Aussies Thorpe and Gibbons down-under for a couple of weeks was just one small part of Gonsalves’ winter.

The 20-year-old lefty starting pitcher played a crucial role in the playoff drive the Kernels put together during the second half of the 2014 season. He notched a 3.19 Earned Run Average while striking out 44 batters in just 36.2 innings of work over eight starts with Cedar Rapids.

Some young pitchers might have felt satisfied with those numbers and focused their offseason workouts on simply adding some muscle or improving their conditioning, but not Gonsalves.

The young Californian combined a 90 mph fastball with an effective slow curve and an equally effective change up to solidify his ranking as a consensus top 20 prospect within the Twins’ organization heading in to 2015.

Rather than being satisfied with that, Gonsalves went home after participating in fall instructional league and went to work on broadening his arsenal of pitching weapons.

“Right after instructs, I went home and started working out that next week,” Gonsalves said.

“Home” for Gonsalves is San Diego, California, and he wasn’t working out alone there. He worked out with a couple of other well-credentialed pitchers with San Diego ties.

“I was able to work out with Stephen Strasburg this whole offseason, got to pick his brain a lot,” Gonsalves recalled. “James Shields was there, also. So I got to mix in a lot with those guys and kind of pick their brains the entire offseason. Helped me out a little mechanically on the hill, also.”

Strasburg and Shields were both rotation leaders for Major League postseason participants last year, Strasburg with the Washington Nationals and Shields with the Kansas City Royals. Shields inked a new deal as a free agent this offseason with the San Diego Padres.

“I was working on a slider,” said Gonsalves. “That’s what Shields is known for, his slider, so I got to work with him for about a month just specifically on that pitch for a while. It’s coming along nicely. The Twins are starting to like it.”

So far this spring, the results seem to be positive. He’s been in Ft. Myers since March 1, well before the minor leaguers began playing games. He’s made three solid appearances, building up his pitch count and getting ready to head north to Cedar Rapids when camp breaks the first full week of April.

Gonsalves acknowledged that he’s likely to be one of just a small number of 2014 Kernels returning to open the new campaign in Cedar Rapids, but he’s looking forward to opening the year with the new crew of Kernels.

“We’re going to have a whole new team, pretty much, (but) we’re going to have a good little squad together. It’s going to be fun. We’re going to be a little scrappy team.”

Chad Christensen Hoping His Time Playing Before Hometown Fans is Over

Almost a year ago, Cedar Rapids Washington grad Chad Christensen got the word he would be making his full-season pro baseball debut with his hometown club, the Cedar Rapids Kernels. This spring, the Minnesota Twins farm hand is hoping to avoid a return trip to Cedar Rapids.

You can’t blame a guy for preferring a promotion up the Twins’ minor league ladder over another summer living at home.

Chad Christensen & Jason Kanzler going through early morning stretching exercises

Chad Christensen & Jason Kanzler going through early morning stretching exercises

In fact, hitting .272 for the Kernels last season,Christensen left Cedar Rapids, just like his Kernels teammates.

“I went back to Lincoln and lived there,” Christensen explained. “A lot of guys that are in pro ball are back there so we kind ofwork out together and use the (University of Nebraska) facilities andeverything. That’s where I was doing my workouts.

“I came home (to Cedar Rapids) for a couple of weeks before I came here (Fort Myers). I got down here a little early, February 23rd, to get outside, get out of the cold and get back to baseball.”

With about two weeks of spring training left, his ultimate assignment is primarily just speculation, at this point, but every player in camp is hoping for a promotion and, for Christensen, that would mean a spot on the roster of the Twins’ class high-A affiliate, the Fort Myers Miracle.

“I’m not positive,” Christensen said, when asked about whether he’d heard anything about where he would open the 2015 season. “I would think probably down here (in Fort Myers). But I’m just playing, it’s not up tome. I’m just trying to play every day and stay healthy and get back in the swing of things.”

For Christensen, playing every day last summer meant spending time playing all around the diamond defensively for the Kernels. Christensen played all over the outfield, but also logged 90 games at firstbase. He also played 27 games at third base for Elizabethton in 2013.

Versatility is a benefit for players trying to get noticed in a professional baseball organization and Christensen will be continuing to demonstrate his willingness and ability to move around the field. During spring training, however, it’s clear the Twins are wanting to see him in the outfield as much as possible.

“I’ve been playing all outfield – all three outfield spots,”said Christensen. “Obviously, if I’m needed to go in to the infield again, Ican go in the infield, but I’ve been in the outfield down here, so far.”

An assignment with the Miracle would keep Christensen with alot of last summer’s Kernels. Of the thirty or so players currently listed onthe Miracle’s spring training roster, over 25 spent time in Cedar Rapids last season. Christensen likes the idea of sticking with that group.

“Yeah, we have a good group. Guys come ready to go every day, that’s what makes it fun,” said Christensen. “We’re looking forward to getting the season going.”

Christensen isn’t the only one ready to get the season rolling. Kernels hitting coach Tommy Watkins indicated he is more than ready to head to Cedar Rapids. “This is like Groundhog Day,” Watkins said, alluding to the day-after-day repetitive nature of the spring training routine.

Christensen indicated the players are starting to feel the same way.

“Yeah, we’re starting to get kind of anxious this time of year.”

Jake Mauer Hopes to Have His Roster Set Soon

In less than two weeks, Cedar Rapids Kernels manager Jake Mauer will be bringing a fresh crop of 25 ballplayers north from their spring training home in Fort Myers, Florida. The exact constitution of that roster, however, is still somewhat of work in progress.

Mauer said he’d like to get things finalized soon, however.

“Ideally we’d like to have who we’re going to take to Cedar Rapids that last week of spring training,” Mauer explained on Thursday, just before his squad took on a Class A group of Boston Red Sox prospects.

“You can do different things and put in different signs, things we’re going to use throughout the year. Make sure we get all the kinks out before we start up there at Kane County (where the Kernels open their season on April 9).”

Mauer will be entering his third season as manager of the Kernels. In fact, among all of the Twins organization’s full-season teams, he’s the only manager assigned to the same club he led a year ago.

Jake Mauer and Tommy Watkins with early morning instructions

Jake Mauer and Tommy Watkins with early morning instructions

The Twins hired Hall of Famer Paul Molitor to manage the big league team this season and former Chicago Cubs manager Mike Quade is taking over the AAA Rochester Red Wings. Jeff Smith and Doug Mientkiewicz swapped their assignments this year, with Mientkiewicz managing AA Chattanooga and Smith taking over high-A Fort Myers.

Mauer indicated, though, that he wasn’t surprised to be assigned to Cedar Rapids again.

“No, I wouldn’t say surprised,” he said. “Obviously, Cedar Rapids is a pretty good fit for me on a personal level, family-wise. Professional-wise, baseball is baseball, wherever you’re at and at the level I’m at, I really enjoy being around the young guys and teaching every day.”

Kernels fans may recognize the team’s manager this season, but they are going to want to pick up a program early on their first trip to the ballpark and study it closely, because they aren’t likely to see many familiar names or faces among the 2015 Kernels players

Starting pitchers Stephen Gonsalves and Mat Batts are looking likely to return to start their new season with the Kernels and both have been, “throwing it well,” according to their manager.

John Curtiss, who joined the Kernels to make a start during their playoff run a year ago, is also likely to start his summer with the Kernels.

“As far as those starters, folks in CR have seen those guys a little bit, but our bullpen is going to be pretty much all new guys from what it looks like,” Mauer said.

“As far as position players, I don’t think we’ll have too many guys that were there last year. Maybe a few guys that were there for a portion of the year, we may get back,” he added.

Outfielders Zack Larson and Max Murphy are the only position players with time in a Kernels uniform who have been assigned to the most recent Kernels spring training working group.

Mauer was quick to point out that the roster is not set, however.

“It will depend with, obviously Molitor running the big league club, who he likes, who he wants to keep.”

The parent Twins are still about 10 players over their opening day roster limit, so as the big club makes further cuts, there could be additions and/or subtractions from the current group of prospective Kernels.

Once the season gets underway, Mauer indicated he felt the team may be relying on their starting pitching early on.

“I think we’ll have some starting pitchers with a little bit of experience that I think we’ll lean on, especially early in the year. They’ll need to go out there and set the tone.”

Offensively, the Kernels are going to be relying on a lot of players with little or no experience above rookie-level short season ball at Elizabethton last season.

“We’re still trying to kind of get to know these guys a little bit,” Mauer said, of his position players. “As far as team speed, I don’t know if we’re going to have a lot of it. We’re going to have some guys that put up decent numbers in E’Town. Obviously, we all know it’s different going in to the Midwest League, facing a little different caliber of pitching.”

A number of players are having strong springs, but Mauer was philosophical about his expectations for the Kernels once they leave the mid-80 degree temperatures of Fort Myers behind and head north.

“We may go through some growing pains, but hopefully it’ll all shake out. We’ll see how we react when it’s thirty degrees out.”

Manfred Should End Outdated Selig Policies on Minor League Pay & Blackouts

In case you missed it, there’s a new Commissioner of Major League Baseball.

I know that, for many fans, that may come as a shock. There are fans that legally enjoy a brew or two at ballgames who have never attended a big league game that wasn’t played under rules dictated by Bud Selig. If it’s true that, “the exception proves the rule,” then that applies to Bud Selig’s role in “proving” the Peter Principle. There’s no other way to explain that man surviving 22 years as Commissioner of Baseball.

Rob Manfred, Bud Selig (Getty Images)

Rob Manfred, Bud Selig (Getty Images)

But today is not the day to trash Selig. Today we humbly beseech his replacement, Rob Manfred, to finally do something about a couple of the most outdated and ill-advised Selig policies. These are two issues that I have long felt were the dumbest, most indefensible of all MLB policies and yes, I’ve written here about both before – several times, in fact.

I’m referring to baseball’s policies concerning compensation for minor league players and their MLB.tv blackout policy.

These two issues are illogical, at best, and offensive, at worst, in the way that they reflect MLB’s low views of the value they place on two of the assets most critical to the game’s long-term viability – their future players and their current & future fan base.

FOX Sports writer Jon Paul Morosi posted an article recently that listed a number of issues that Morosi felt Manfred should focus on as he inherits Selig’s throne atop Major League Baseball. I may disagree with Morosi’s view concerning Selig’s legacy, but his list of topics where Manfred could make improvements included a number of valid possibilities.

Unfortunately, it did not include any mention of paying minor leaguers even minimum wage, much less a living wage, nor did Morosi mention the blackouts. I’m not surprised, of course. The next baseball writer from a major media outlet to properly and persistently shame baseball on either topic will be among the first.

I won’t go in to great detail concerning either topic. There are plenty of articles available with a simple Google search authored by far more knowledgeable and talented writers than yours truly.

But if you really want to read my take on the issues, you can find my thoughts on minor league pay by clicking here and on blackouts by clicking here (where I asked the Twins President why he didn’t want me to be a fan) … and here (where I attempted to start an “Alice’s Restaurant”-like movement)… and here (where I basically just trashed Selig for his inaction on the subject).

Most of these guys are among the lowest compensated people at the ballpark.

Most of these guys are among the lowest compensated people at the ballpark.

On the pay issue, suffice to say that, unless you are a US player drafted in the top couple of rounds or one of the very highest regarded international 16 year olds playing ball anywhere in the world, signing your name on a contract to play professional baseball in this country is a losing proposition. You’d almost certainly have a better shot at making a living off your competitive fire by taking up Texas Hold’em.

Wages for minor leaguers start in the neighborhood of $1,100 a month. That’s gross (in more ways than one). Uncle Sam is going to take his share and then there’s clubhouse dues, all of which leaves a typical player with a few hundred dollars a month to cover luxuries like housing, transportation and food.

Of course, the players only get their money while they are assigned to an actual minor league roster. No pay for offseason workouts or team-sponsored appearances. No pay for spring training.

You think there’s really little difference for a player who gets the final roster spot on a full season Class A roster coming out of spring training and the first guy left off who stays behind at extended spring training? Guess again. One guy gets paid a pitiful sum. The other guy doesn’t even get that.

In his article, Morosi did include this item on his recommended to-do list for Manfred: “Engaging young athletes, especially African-Americans.”

Here’s a thought, Mr. Manfred. Maybe if you actually paid young players working their way toward the big leagues a living wage, athletically gifted kids (of any ethnicity) wouldn’t laugh at you any time you suggest they put their talents to work at baseball instead of other sports, where at least they have a shot at becoming more famous indentured servants of major colleges.

The good news is that a lawsuit against baseball has been filed on behalf of minor leaguers, asking the courts to require teams to pay at least minimum wage salaries to players.

What is MLB’s reaction to that challenge, under Selig and, so far, Manfred? They’re trying to convince Congress to specifically categorize ballplayers as “seasonal workers,” akin to carnival workers. And they’re enlisting the help of their minor league affiliates to help lobby their elected representatives on baseball’s behalf, via not-so-thinly veiled threats of “contraction” of minor league teams if baseball is forced to increase pay to their future players.

Those are nice guys running big league baseball, huh?

Likewise, the issue of blackouts has been out there for years. Promises from MLB executives (including Mr. Selig, himself) to take a look at the issue go back at least to 2008 and probably further. But here we are, in 2015, and still cable TV subscribers in Iowa are blacked out from watching any game involving the Twins, Cubs, White Sox, Brewers, Cardinals or Royals, unless it’s a national network game. The blackout even applies to subscribers of MLB.tv.

blackoutmap

Look at all the pretty colors in Iowa and Nevada!

This has been frustrating to me and my fellow Twins fans in Iowa for years, but nobody in baseball or the media has really cared.

Now, however, thanks to WGN no longer broadcasting Cubs games on the national version of their network, a lot of Cubs fans outside of greater Chicago may suddenly discover the problem. Welcome to the club, folks. Maybe you can get the national media to notice the problem.

As with the minor league pay issue, there’s some news on this front. Baseball has indicated they are looking in to the matter and there may be changes to the policy forthcoming.

Hmmmm… I think we’ve heard that before.

Anyway, Mr. Manfred, if you want to convince me you are any different than your predecessor whatsoever, you can start by proving you give a damn about your fans and about just being fair to the thousands of young players who are feeding your talent pipeline by clinging to their dream of playing big league baseball.

Until then, a lot of us will continue to view you as nothing more than “Bud Light.”

– JC

JC’s Top 15 Twins Prospects: 2014-15

Ho Ho Ho. Tis the season for being merry and jolly and all that stuff.

It’s also the season for publishing “top prospect” lists. Actually, it’s a bit late in the season for doing this, but I just haven’t felt like doing a lot of writing lately. So sue me.

Miguel Sano

Miguel Sano

This is the fourth year that I’ve put out my own list. I’m not really sure WHY I do it. It’s not like we really need yet another such list and the other people who tout their lists know their stuff better than I do (in many cases, anyway). So let’s just say I do this for fun.

As I was preparing this list, I went back and looked at the lists I’ve put together previously. I did a Top 10 before the 2012 season and Top 15 lists before 2013 and 2014.

It’s interesting (to me anyway) that this is the third consecutive season that I’ve had the same three prospects ranked 1 through 3 in some order or another. They have swapped spots a bit between them, but Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton and Alex Meyer have been in my top 3 spots for three straight years.

It’s more than a little exciting to realize that all three have the potential to make their Major League debuts in 2015.

Without further ado, here’s the list:

  1. Miguel Sano – 3B – Why? I’m more optimistic that he won’t be a liability defensively than I have been previously, but more importantly, I believe his injury is highly unlikely to preclude him from reaching his ceiling.
  2. Byron Buxton – CF – Why? I have some (not a lot, but some) concern that his wrist injuries could become chronic wrist issues that certainly could affect his ceiling as an outfielder and as a hitter. It’s not a huge concern, for me, but it’s enough that I gave the top spot to Sano, who I have no such concerns about.
  3. Alex Meyer – SP – A lot of people are dropping Meyer and moving Berrios up ahead of him based on a year when Meyer didn’t break through as hoped and had some injury issues, while Berrios had a breakout year. I still think Meyer’s ceiling is a notch above Berrios’.
  4. Jose Berrios – SP – But, yeah, Berrios DID have a really good year. He’s a workout fiend and clearly is intent on getting the most out of his opportunity to pitch professionally, despite not being the prototypically tall athlete that is in vogue around the league.
  5. Eddie Rosario – OF – It was nearly a lost year for Rosario after his suspension and only getting half a season in during the summer, but he reclaimed his value with a strong Arizona Fall League. I’m probably a litte higher on him than most people.
  6. Jorge Polanco – MIF – Yes, his cup of coffee with the Twins was more a matter of convenience, since he was on the 40-man roster, than reflective of his current abilities, but he did have a very strong season.
  7. Trevor May – SP – His ceiling might be as a #3 starter, but he’ll seriously contend for a Twins rotation spot in spring training this season. That, in itself, warrants a spot in the top 10 prospects.
  8. Kohl Stewart – SP – Unlike May, Stewart is at least a couple of years away from even being considered for a spot with the Twins, but even though his strikeout rate in 2014 was lower than hoped for, he remains a top of the rotation prospect.
  9. Nick Gordon – SS – The 2014 first round pick had a very good short-season at Elizabethton. If he shows even more in a full season this year, he’ll move up this list quickly.
  10. Nick Burdi – RP – The 2014 2nd round pick has legitimate 100 mph potential and an unfair slider. Should pitch for the Twins at some point in 2015.
  11. Max Kepler – OF – We are seeing more flashes of promise on the potential that’s been talked about for years. He needs a breakout season in 2015.
  12. Stephen Gonsalves – SP – The lefty showed real talent against Midwest League hitters after joining Cedar Rapids and was very young for the level.
  13. Chih-Wei Hu – SP – I’m probably the only one you will find ranking Hu in the top 15, but he showed me more command  – of more pitches – and more mound maturity – than any other starting pitcher in Cedar Rapids in 2014, and that’s saying something.
  14. Travis Harrison – OF – Harrison is dropping out of the top 15 on some lists, seemingly due to his lack of home runs in 2014. I understand that, but I felt Harrison’s biggest need going in to last year was to cut his strikeouts down and develop more as a hitter who can deliver to all fields with some authority. He did both. The home runs will come, he didn’t get “weaker.”
  15. Stuart Turner – C – I have to say, it is very difficult to pick a #15 for this list. I’m going with Turner primarily because he skipped low-A and went to the Miracle and, after a slow start at the plate, he hit better later and reports are he was as good as advertised as a receiver.

It is almost impossible for me to believe that I’ve created a Top 15 Twins Prospects list that does not include Lewis Thorpe, Jake Reed, Mitch Garver, Adam Brett Walker and Taylor Rogers.

I want to see Thorpe recover from his elbow issue without requiring surgery before I give him a spot in the top 15 which he otherwise deserves and I want to see Walker be successful against pitchers at least one level higher, given his issues with the strikeouts.

With Reed, Garver and Rogers, though, it was simply a case of running out of room. If they stay healthy, I expect every one of those guys to play Major League baseball (hopefully for the Twins). If you have an organization where those guys are not among your top 15 prospects, you’ve got a damn good pipeline going.

The Twins have a damn good pipeline going.

JC

Episode 108: Mikton Troutshaw Wins the MVP

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.
MVPs
On the one-hundred and eighth episode of Talk to Contact, the boys were joined by Nick Nelson (@NNelson9) from TwinsDaily to talk about the movement of bloggers from their mothers’ basements to the mainstream in the past several years. We also talk about Paul Molitor‘s coaching staff, and what we think about Gene Glynn at third base and Rudy Hernandez as the assistant hitting coach.
Of course our hosts are drinking beer, and they spend the last segment on the podcast discussing Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw winning the AL and NL MVP awards. We even wonder who would win the MLB MVP award if we had to combine things all into one.
Thanks for listening and enjoy our show.

If you enjoy our podcast, please tell your friends about us and take a couple extra minutes and rate and review us on iTunes. By voting for Talk to Contact on iTunes you’re helping to ensure the future generation of baseball fans are less educated than their elders.

Arizona Fall League – Pictures

A couple days ago, I posted several videos I shot at the Arizona Fall League games I attended last week. Today, you get still pictures. I wish I had had an opportunity to get more pictures of Jones, Adam and Rogers, but I only saw Jones pitch once and chose to shoot a video rather than try to get pictures through the netting, Adam didn’t pitch at all in the games I saw and Rogers, of course, is injured and did not pitch.

Salt River Field - Home of the Rafters and the D'Backs/Rockies spring training site

Salt River Field – Home of the Rafters and the D’Backs/Rockies spring training site

Salt River Field Batters Eye - Wonder if the hitters complain about it like the trees at Target Field

Salt River Field Batters Eye – Wonder if the hitters complain about it like the trees at Target Field

Eddie Rosario

Eddie Rosario

Jake Reed

Jake Reed

Max Kepler

Max Kepler

Taylor Rogers

Taylor Rogers

(L to R) In the bullpen, Jason Adam, Zack Jones, Taylor Rogers

(L to R) In the bullpen, Jason Adam, Zack Jones, Taylor Rogers

Eddie Rosario

Eddie Rosario

Max Kepler

Max Kepler

Jake Reed

Jake Reed

Eddie Rosario

Eddie Rosario

Max Kepler and base coach Darin Everson (Rockies)

Max Kepler and base coach Darin Everson (Rockies)

Jake Reed

Jake Reed

Eddie Rosario

Eddie Rosario

Max Kepler diving back in to first base on an attempted pick off

Max Kepler diving back in to first base on an attempted pick off

Jake Reed signing autographs

Jake Reed signing autographs

Max Kepler signing autographs

Max Kepler signing autographs

Arizona Fall League – Videos

I took a lot of pictures and shot several videos during my trip to Arizona to catch a few AFL games last week, so I figured I would put up a post to share some of them. I’ll split things up a little bit and start with the videos in this post.

I saw Eddie Rosario, Max Kepler, Jake Reed and Zach Jones in game action during the three games I saw in Arizona.

Enjoy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

AFL Interviews: Max Kepler and Taylor Rogers

The Salt River Rafters made the trip across to the west side of the Phoenix area to Surprise, Arizona, on Wednesday to take on the Surprise Saguaros and, prior to the game, Twins prospects Max Kepler and Tyler Rogers took the time to answer a few questions.

Kepler takes a .289/.385/.422 slash line in to Thursday night’s game in Salt River, which is respectable for any hitter in the Arizona Fall League, but is perhaps even more impressive for a 21-year-old with no experience above the Class A level.

Max Kepler

Max Kepler

He’s happy with his performance, so far.

“I think I’m playing consistent ball,” Kepler said. “I’m playing solid outfield defense. Yeah, doing everything I can right now.”

Players in this league have been playing ball since minor league spring training started at the beginning of March, and Kepler confirmed that the wear and tear on the body starts to catch up with them this time of year.

“Yeah, it has (been a long year),” Kepler admitted, but he quickly added, “It’s been an awesome year, though.”

This is Kepler’s second year in the Arizona Fall League and he said he’s definitely seeing a difference in his game this time around.

“I’m more confident. I feel more confident against the pitchers,” Kepler reflected. “Last year, coming out of low-A ball, I just felt like all these big names were throwing at me and I was just a little guy in the big ocean. (They were) big dudes. Now I just feel like I can handle it.”

Kepler has been part of two minor league championship teams in his past three years of minor league ball, winning titles with Elizabethton in 2012 and in Fort Myers this past season.

Max Kepler diving back in to first base on an attempted pick off

Max Kepler diving back in to first base on an attempted pick off

In between those championship seasons, Kepler spent 2013 split between rehabbing an elbow injury during the first half of the season and spending the second half of the year with the Cedar Rapids Kernels.

He had some good moments with Cedar Rapids, including an opposite field home run in his first home game as a Kernel, that stands out in Kepler’s memory (“I remember that short porch really helped me out that first game”), but his thoughts on that season are admittedly mixed.

“The fans are unbelievable (in Cedar Rapids),” Kepler said. But at the same time, recalling his efforts to overcome the injury, he added, “It was rough, but I’m glad I got to stick with that good group of guys and I hope we can move up together because we’ve got chemistry on that team.”

That “good group of guys” that Kepler played with in Cedar Rapids formed the core of this year’s Florida State League championship team. That team was managed by Doug Mientkiewicz, the former Twins first baseman who has been prominently mentioned as a finalist for the Twins’ managerial job this fall.

The speculation has been that, should Mientkiewicz not get the Twins job, he may move up to manage the Class AA team that will be playing their first season in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

“That would be awesome,” said Kepler, of the possibility of playing a second year for Mientkiewicz.

Kepler also provided some insight in to what it’s like to play for Mientkiewicz.

“He’s wild,” Kepler said, while laughing. “I’d say he’s a little unorthodox, but it sure worked for us. We kind of went through a lot of ups and downs this year, but when we won, we won a bunch. And then when we lost one game, Doug would get on us, and I mean hard. But when he did, he fixed it and it worked for us. But, yeah, he sure was tough on us when we weren’t doing well and weren’t focused, but the rest of the year, he was a fun guy to be around. He was just like one of us. Yeah, I loved him.”

Once the AFL season wraps up, Kepler will take a little time off then begin getting ready for 2015.

“The offseasons are getting shorter and shorter,” he said. “But I’ll do as much as I can with my three months of workout.

“I’ll travel the states for a little, go to Texas for Thanksgiving,” Kepler said of his immediate plans after AFL finishes. “I’ll be going home (to Germany) for Christmas and the holidays.”

While Kepler has been playing several days each week in Arizona, pitcher Taylor Rogers has been not much more than a spectator during the games.

Rogers, a 23-year-old lefty who pitched at Class AA New Britain in 2014, was injured in the third inning of his first AFL game when a batted ball was lined off his shoulder.

Rogers1

Taylor Rogers

Since then, he’s been sitting.

Taylor said Wednesday that he’s hoping that’s about to change.

Rogers said that he is, “finally getting back to square one almost – back to where I can toss a little bit. Hopefully I can get a few more innings in here before the season ends.

“It’s something I want to do. You sign the contract to play here so I want to finish this thing out and see what I can do. We’ll probably going to see how these bullpens go.”

Rogers, along with Kepler, Byron Buxton and Jake Reed, is a Cedar Rapids Kernels alum.

Though, unlike the others, Rogers’ time in Cedar Rapids barely was long enough to register on his minor league stats line. He struggled a bit during his three games for the Kernels in a very cold April of 2013 before being promoted to Fort Myers, where he had a very good season for the Miracle.

“Yeah, you know what, funny what warm weather can do for you,” Rogers said, with a smile, then added, “No, it was fun those 14 days or so. It was nice to get out of the cold, but I’m sure if I would have stayed in Cedar Rapids, it would have been a fun year.”

The weather in Cedar Rapids may have been chilly, but Rogers recalls the warm greeting he and his team mates got upon arrival.

“I thought it was really cool how that was the first year of the Twins being there (as an affiliate). What I remember was the fans really welcoming us. That was just really nice to see. Something like that you don’t see very often. They were excited to have us there and we felt very welcomed.”

AFL Interview: Jake Reed

A year ago, Jake Reed was beginning intrasquad workouts in Eugene, Oregon, as he prepared for his junior year at the University of Oregon. In the subsequent 12 months, the Twins’ prospect has seen a lot of the U.S.A. while pitching for the Ducks, then the Twins Rookie level team in Elizabethton, Tennessee, followed by the Cedar Rapids Kernels, and a trip to Fort Myers for instructional league. Now, he’s a member of the Salt River Rafters in the Arizona Fall League.

Reed was the Twins’ fifth round draft pick back in June, which means you won’t find him on any of last offseason’s “Top Twins Prospects” lists. You won’t likely have to look too far down this year’s lists to find his name, however.

JakeReed1

Jake Reed

After signing with the Twins, he made four appearances in Elizabethton before being promoted to Cedar Rapids. Between the two stops, he put up a 0.29 ERA over 20 relief appearances. He struck out 39 batters, while walking just three.

That kind of work earned him a coveted spot in the Arizona Fall League where, as difficult as it may be to believe, he’s actually improved his ERA to a perfect 0.00 in his first six appearances for the Rafters.

As you might expect, Reed is pretty happy with how his professional career has gone, thus far.

“It’s been just a great experience,” Reed said on Tuesday, before the Rafters beat up the Glendale Desert Dogs 14-2. “Just from the time I got drafted, with my parents there in Eugene with me, to sitting here now in Arizona. To still be playing in the fall, it’s pretty special. It’s been a great ride. I couldn’t have wished for a better first half-season.”

Reed was one of two Twins prospects, along with outfielder and top Twins prospect, Byron Buxton, who were named to represent their team in the AFL’s “Fall Stars Game” this Saturday. Not bad for a guy who was surprised when Kernels manager Jake Mauer and pitching coach Ivan Arteaga gave him the news that he was headed to Arizona this fall.

“When {Mauer) called me in, there was a couple weeks left in the season. I knew the Miracle were going to be in the playoffs, so I thought I was maybe going to be going up there to help them,” Reed recalled. “But they sat me down and originally Ivan kind of played a joke on me and asked if I wanted to go play (winter ball) for him in Venezuela. I was like, ‘oh yeah, make four grand a month,’ and I said, ‘absolutely.’ He said, ‘No we were just kidding. We’re sending you to fall league.'”

Most AFL players have at least reached Class AA, but organizations are allowed a very limited number of roster spots for players who have not reached beyond Class A ball. That says something about how the Twins view Reed.

Mauer and Arteaga told Reed that the Twins minor league director, Brad Steil, had contacted them and asked whether they thought Reed was ready for AFL, where he’d be facing a number of the top prospects in baseball.

“They thought I was,” said Reed. “They asked me if I wanted to and obviously I wasn’t going to turn that down.

“It was a big surprise for me. I was pretty shocked. I’m not saying I don’t think I deserved it, but with the guys that come out here normally, it’s the bigger prospects and it’s my first half season, so in that aspect, I didn’t expect it much.”

Jake Reed gives a helping hand to a grounds crew member who took a corner a bit sharp

Jake Reed gives a helping hand to a grounds crew member who took a corner a bit sharp

Often, organizations are cautious about sending pitchers to Arizona the year they were drafted due to the number of innings they’ve racked up on their arms, between their final college season in the spring and their first partial season of professional ball in the summer. That wasn’t an issue for Reed, however.

“I’d started my first two years of college so I was accustomed to going 100 innings a year and I threw 40 maybe in college and 30 in the summer, so I was only at 70. I had more in my tank. The inning limit hasn’t been an issue at all.”

It’s not like they overtax the arms in Arizona, anyway. Each club carries about 20 pitchers to make sure none of them are overworked. Even relievers, like Reed, typically will pitch an inning or two and then get a couple days off before their next appearance.

Fall League is an opportunity for Reed to show what he’s got in front of a large group of scouts from literally every organization in professional baseball, but it’s also a chance to hone his craft. Reed was told the Twins wanted him to work on his change up, on “tightening up” his breaking ball and on stopping the running game.

Of course, his 0.75 WHIP means he’s not getting many opportunities to work on controlling that running game this fall.

“I haven’t thrown a change up much,” Reed admitted, “but my breaking ball, at times, has been a lot better than it has been. I think the biggest thing, though, is just maintaining the command that I had all summer. Getting ahead of guys, not walking guys.

“As long as I keep throwing strikes, I think I’ll keep doing alright.”

While Reed and half a dozen other Twins farmhands have been toiling in the Arizona sun, Twins General Manager Terry Ryan has been looking for a new manager. Reed and the others are following that story closely, as you can imagine.

“Absolutely,” Reed confirmed. “Ultimately, that’s where we want to end up and ultimately, we want that to be our manager. Right now it seems kind of far-fetched, but hopefully, that’s the guy we’re going to be playing for eventually.

“Yeah, we all follow everybody on Twitter, so we all see what’s going on. We keep up with it. All the Twins are next to one another in the locker room. Whenever we see a new Tweet about another guy, we’re always talking about it. But you know what, we trust Terry (Ryan), we trust everybody else in our organization to get somebody that will turn this thing around for us. We hope to be a big part of that, especially the young guys in our organization.”

Jake Reed watching team mate Vincent Velasquez (Astros) warm up

Jake Reed watching team mate Vincent Velasquez (Astros) warm up

Reed and the others are getting a little taste of what it’s like to be treated like a big leaguer during their time in Arizona. Games are played at Major League spring training facilities and Salt River plays their games at the complex shared by the Diamondbacks and Rockies. The Rafters use the D’Backs’ big league clubhouse.

It didn’t take Reed long after arriving to figure out he was no longer at the Twins’ minor league facility in Fort Myers, where he had been working during his time in the postseason instructional league.

“The facilities in Ft. Myers are great, don’t get me wrong, but going from a big locker room with hundreds of lockers to the big league locker room at a big league facility, it honestly kind of took my breath away,” Reed said. “There’s twelve TVs in there, I mean everything you can imagine in a locker room. Unbelievable. Then obviously, getting to play here every day, it doesn’t get old, for sure.”

Reed had a chance earlier in the summer to get another glimpse of what it means to be a Major Leaguer. Joe Mauer and Rick Nolasco had concurrent rehabilitation assignments in Cedar Rapids and that experience stands out in Reed’s mind as a highlight of his time with the Kernels.

“When Joe and Ricky came, that was pretty special. Joe Mauer is such a great guy, and Ricky is, too, but just having him in the locker room was pretty special. Just seeing him go about his work and how he respected the game when he was playing and how he talked to other guys on the other team when they’d ask him questions. Just a great guy.

“On his way out, before he left, he went around the locker room and shook everybody’s hand. So that was unbelievable to me, a guy of that stature being able to take the time to shake every single person’s hand in the locker room was pretty special.”

The Twins are already showing signs that they may be rebuilding their big league bullpen in 2015. Reed’s performance at all levels this year has him in position to be fast-tracked by the organization if he can keep performing.

Reed’s success has even altered his own expectations of himself heading toward 2015.

“It’s definitely different now than it was when I signed and playing in Cedar Rapids,” he acknowledged. “I don’t know what’s out of the picture for next year, because I haven’t had the chance to talk to Terry or anybody else in the organization. They want to see guys excel in the minor leagues and prove that they’re ready for the big leagues, but I’m not sure. I’m sure I’ll have a better idea here pretty soon. We’ll see what happens. We’ll see where I go for spring training. There’s just a lot up in the air.”

Reed has not heard, yet, whether he’ll be getting an invitation to the Twins’ big league spring training camp.

“No, that’s the thing, too. I think I’ll have a better idea here pretty soon, because it’s kind of important when you want to get your body ready for a certain time, you want to be in shape for a certain time. So hopefully I find out soon.”

Reed started to say he would not be disappointed if he doesn’t get the invitation to the big league camp in February, but then smiled and corrected himself.

“I will be disappointed,” he admitted, “but I’ll understand. Ultimately, it’s not up to me, I just need to keep pitching well and hopefully it works out in my favor.”

But that’s a matter for another day. Right now, Reed has a couple more weeks of pitching in the Arizona heat and then a well-deserved break.

“I’ve literally been pitching for over a year straight,” Reed said, alluding to having started his workouts at Oregon a year ago. “I’m starting to kind of feel it now. A break off of throwing would be nice.”

Pitchers and catchers report to Fort Myers by mid February, so it may not be a very long break for Jake Reed.

Arizona Fall League Videos

I’m in Arizona this week catching a few Arizona Fall League games. This afternoon, I shot a couple of videos of Twins prospects Eddie Rosario and Max Kepler.

First, we have Eddie Rosario beating out a swinging bunt, followed by an RBI double.

Ignore the umpire calling Rosario out at second base. The call was overturned on appeal to video.

Here’s Max Kepler beating the Desert Dogs pitcher to 1B to reach on an E3. Kepler had a stand up triple later in the game but I was not shooting video at the time. There’s a picture after the video of his triple swing anyway.

Max Kepler triples for Salt River on October 28, 2014

Max Kepler triples for Salt River on October 28, 2014

Couple of other things.

Salt River won the game 14-2, yet the game was completed in less than three hours. We may not like to admit it, but the speed-of-play rules may be working.

– JC

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