Kernels & Jake Mauer Focus on “Task at Hand”

With less than 40 games left in their 2017 campaign, the Cedar Rapids Kernels need a strong finish to clinch a Midwest League playoff spot, something they’ve accomplished every season since affiliating with the Minnesota Twins in 2013.

Kernels manager Jake Mauer and Manuel Guzman (SD Buhr)
Kernels manager Jake Mauer and infielder Manuel Guzman (Photo: SD Buhr)

The Peoria Chiefs and Clinton Lumberkings finished one and two in the Division’s first half standings, automatically qualifying them for the postseason. Their Division rivals with the two best records in the second half will join the Chiefs and Lumberkings in the playoffs.

If the season ended today (Monday), Clinton would have the best second half record in the West, while Cedar Rapids and Quad Cities (currently second and third in the Division) would fill out the Western half of the postseason bracket. However, Burlington and Wisconsin sit one game or less behind Quad Cities, so the race is likely to be tight over the final weeks of the season.

Jake Mauer has been at the helm of the Kernels from the beginning of the club’s affiliation with the Twins. His 292-226 record with the Kernels makes him Cedar Rapids’ winningest manager in the modern era (1949-present) and places him third all-time. He’ll catch up to Ollie Marquardt in the second spot with his next win, but Mauer’s going to have to stick around a very, very long time to top Belden Hill’s 831 wins.

While winning takes a back seat to player development in modern minor league baseball, the local fans definitely like to follow a winner and Mauer has given the locals plenty of success, beginning with a squad that was loaded with top prospects in the inaugural season of the Twins/Kernels relationship. That team made winning look easy – at least a lot easier than it has looked in the two-and-a-half seasons since.

2016 has, perhaps, been the most challenging of Mauer’s four years of wearing number 12 for the Kernels. This year’s group is short on players you would find among “top prospect” lists published by the likes of Baseball America, MLB.com or any other group in the business of tracking minor leaguers’ paths to the big leagues.

Nonetheless, in an interview late last week, Mauer was unwilling to say that the lack of blue chippers on his team makes this season his most challenging.

“Each year is different,” Mauer said. “If you have a lot of high-end (prospects), you’re expected to win and if you don’t have a lot of high-end guys, you’ve got to find ways to win. It’s all part of development, it’s all part of the process.

“The second year (2014), I thought we had a lot of challenges, they were comparing the ’13 team to the ’14 team and that wasn’t fair to that ’14 team.”

Winning is obviously a lot easier when you’ve got a lot of those high draft choices and big money international free agents. Several of them, including first round draft choice Byron Buxton and six-figure bonus international signee Max Kepler (both now playing the outfield for the Twins) spent much of their 2013 seasons in Cedar Rapids uniforms.

“You get blessed with years like ’13 where you have seven of them, eight of them. They’re all panning out at different speeds,” reflected Mauer. “You know, some of the clubs I had at Fort Myers I don’t think we had one. So it just depends on what you have.”

When you’ve got a team of projected stars, a manager in Mauer’s position will generally stick with a pretty consistent lineup. “Obviously, guys that are higher end guys as a player,” he said, “you’ve got to find out what they can and can’t do, that’s the nature of the beast.”

Not so this season.

“I wonder how many different lineups we’ve used,” Mauer pondered. “It’s probably been fifty or sixty of them, would be my guess.

“Clubs like this, some of these guys that aren’t necessarily Baseball America guys get an opportunity to kind of put themselves on the map. As you can see, there’s no way to get buried on our bench here. Everybody plays.

“Pitching’s a little bit different,” he conceded. “They earn (consistent playing time) a little bit more. They’re all going to get an opportunity, it’s just a matter of what they’re going to do with it.

“It’s all getting these guys to understand themselves, first, in order for us to do anything – in order for them to have any impact down the road. This is the league where we start to shake out the guys that aren’t as mentally tough as others. Find out who can play every day, find out who can do what it takes. So, they’re going to get tested, they’re going to get innings, they’re going to get at-bats, get all that stuff. Then we’ll kind of look back in September at how everything unfolded.”

(L-R) Cedar Rapids Kernels pitching coach JP Martinez, manager Jake Mauer and hitting coach Brian Dinkelman (behind screen) )Photo: SD Buhr)
(L-R) Cedar Rapids Kernels pitching coach JP Martinez, manager Jake Mauer and hitting coach Brian Dinkelman (behind screen) (Photo: SD Buhr)

Throughout most of the first half of the season, it looked like the Kernels would easily clinch an early playoff spot by finishing in one of the top two spots in the Western Division’s first-half race, but they faltered badly during the final couple of weeks before the midpoint and ended up in third place.

“You hate to say it,” Mauer commented on his squad’s late first half implosion, “but we scored the same amount of runs, but we lost two guys in the back end of the bullpen and lost probably the best starter in the league.

“We weren’t necessarily blowing the doors off of anybody in the first half. It takes you a while to figure out who can step up and take those roles.”

Mauer is starting to see some guys stepping up.

Last week, the Kernels went on one a six-game road trip over into the MWL Eastern Division territory and came away with a perfect 6-0 record against Lake County and Fort Wayne.

“We swung the bats really well,” he said of their Eastern sweep. “We rode (Luis) Arraez, (Zander) Wiel and (Jaylin) Davis, really. Other guys chipped in here and there, but those guys had a monster week. You’re scoring 6, 7, 8 runs a night, it gives you a pretty good chance to win.

“(Wiel) can carry a team, which he did the last week. Jaylin Davis is probably in the same boat, he can carry a team. Arraez has been pretty consistent, but we kind of go where those three guys go. When the three of them are having a pretty good week, we’ve got a pretty good chance. If they’re not, it will be more difficult for us.”

Finding pitchers to fill the holes left following promotions has been more challenging for Mauer and pitching coach J.P. Martinez. “Pitching is still kind of up in the air who we’ve got,” the manager said.

“It’s so different,” Mauer said, of the Kernels’ bullpen situation. “We’re not as pitching-deep as we were last year. If we had a lead going into the fifth inning, we pretty much knew we were going to win last year. That’s not the case this year. You’ve got some guys that need to step up and take control. I’d say (Anthony) McIver has, to a point. We’ve got to find out about (Tom) Hackimer. But we still have several guys you don’t quite know what you’re going to get in given situations. We’ve got to find out.”

Mauer’s clearly also looking for some improvement among his starting rotation.

“(Cody) Stashak’s probably our number one (starting pitcher). (Lachlan) Wells has been good. Those two guys have been pretty good. If we can just get some of these (other) guys to take that next step, it would make the process better.”

Kernels pitcher Lachlan Wells strikes out Reds first round draft choice (2nd overall) Nick Senzel. (Photo SD Buhr)
Kernels pitcher Lachlan Wells strikes out Reds first round draft choice (2nd overall) Nick Senzel July 25. Catching is Rainis Silva. (Photo SD Buhr)

The season’s second half is shaping up to be at least a four-team dogfight with the Kernels, Burlington Bees, Wisconsin Timber Rattlers and Quad Cities River Bandits playing leapfrog with one another in the standings on virtually a daily basis as they jockey for one of the coveted second-half playoff spots.

“That’s our division,” said Mauer. “There really isn’t a team that’s head and shoulders above anybody. Anybody can beat anybody on a given night and I think you’re going to see that kind of as we go through. Things change, obviously, as these draftee guys (from the 2016 draft) starting to come and some of these first full season guys that tend to hit a wall a little bit.”

Mauer’s working with a pair of coaches, in his fourth season with the Kernels, that he hasn’t been teamed with before. Martinez and hitting coach Brian Dinkelman are in their first seasons by Mauer’s side after coaching with the Twins’ Gulf Coast League team, where games are played on back fields at the organization’s spring training complex in front of few, if any, fans.

But the manager says things are going, “good,” on that count.

“(Martinez and Dinkelman) have been real good. Their first ‘real baseball’ compared to that ‘complex ball’ that’s a lot different. They’ve done a good job. For them, their first year, this is unusual to have so many different guys coming through.”

Forty-nine players have already worn a Kernels jersey in 2016. It’s not unusual for fewer players than that to suit up for Cedar Rapids in an entire season.

“What’s nice is that these guys know most of the kids that have come up,” Mauer added. “They’ve had them, they know what makes them tick, the things to do with them, what they need to work on.”

High roster turnover, few top prospects, new assistant coaches. Those things, on their own, might make a manager’s job challenging, but last week the Twins added a little something extra to the load that Mauer and his staff have to carry. Long-time General Manager Terry Ryan was fired by the Twins ownership.

“It’s unfortunate,” Mauer said of Ryan’s dismissal. “Obviously, he’s a great baseball man. He’s all I’ve ever known as a GM, other than Bill Smith, but Terry wasn’t far away (during Smith’s tenure as GM). I think it came as a shock, the timing of it, to everybody. He’s done so much for us and for our organization and whoever comes in after him is going to have big shoes to fill.”

As a result, Mauer and his coaches now are essentially lame ducks, uncertain whether the new GM will choose to retain them going forward. How’s that for adding a little anxiety to the manager’s life?

But, as Mauer observed, the anxiety goes well beyond just he and his coaches.

“It could be for scouts, all the way down to the athletic training guys and strength guys. You don’t know what’s going to happen, we don’t know who is the next guy, if they have somebody in mind, if they don’t. So, we’ll see. I’m sure they’ve got a game plan up there for what they’re going to do.

“But, if you’re confident in what you’re doing and you do a good job, you can’t control that,” Mauer concluded. “This is just like we tell the players, if they look at what’s going on ahead of them or who’s doing what behind them, they can’t control that. Same with us, (we can’t) worry about who’s coming in and fret about it, and not do the task at hand. We’ve got to do the task at hand first of all and see what shakes out.”

The “task at hand” for the manager and his charges is to finish the final six weeks of the season strong. How does Mauer see the remainder of the season shaping up?

“We’ll see. I wish I could answer that, honestly. I have no idea. We look like a million bucks for three or four days, then we have a tough time for three or four days. It’s just kind of how it is. We talk extensively about, we need leaders to step up and to lead and to be our guys so you kind of know what you’re going to get day in and day out.

“They’ll keep playing hard and they’ll keep competing and we’ll just see how it ends up.”

Twins Moving in the Right – and Wrong – Direction?

The Minnesota Twins’ top brass set off shockwaves across Twinsville on Monday, announcing that General Manager Terry Ryan had been relieved of his duties.

There’s not much point to discussing why Ryan lost his job. This quote says it all. “The reason for this change, I think it’s safe to say, the last couple years we have not won enough games. That’s what it comes down to. It’s nothing more, nothing less than that.”

If you don’t recall reading that quote yesterday, it’s because you have to go back much further than that – 22 months further. It’s what Ryan told the media when he announced Ron Gardenhire was being let go as the club’s manager.

What’s good for the goose, etc.

Terry Ryan is a class individual who knows a lot about baseball. I can say that from first-hand experience, having spoken with him several times, both in formal interviews and informally. I enjoyed every minute I had with him.

But the Twins rosters he has assembled have not been winning for far too long and, as Gardenhire conceded at the time of his firing, “I’m gone, I’m outta here because we didn’t win. That’s what it gets down to in baseball. That’s what it should get down to.”

And he was right. In major professional sports, it’s about winning and the Twins haven’t done enough of that for some time.

So there’s not much point in debating whether Ryan deserved to be let go. Instead, let’s focus on what comes next.

If you were one of the significant (and growing) number of Twins fans who wanted to see someone else be given the keys to Ryan’s office, you got to spend an hour or so smiling on Monday. But if you heard or read the quotes coming out of the mouths of the people who will be making the decision concerning who will be getting that office next, your smile didn’t last long.

I’m sure there could be worse ways for an ownership group and team president to handle the dismissal of their GM than what the Pohlads and Dave St. Peter did on Monday, but it’s kind of hard to imagine how it could have been worse.

To begin with, the bungling of this situation didn’t start on Monday; it started last month when, according to Jim Pohlad, he notified Ryan that he would not be retained after the end of the current season.

Reports indicate that Ryan and Pohlad had differences over how to improve the team. Ryan had made several public comments indicating he planned to be very active on the trade market. If Pohlad did not support that approach, it would be one indication he deserves his reputation for not possessing a terribly astute baseball mind.

But to essentially give his top baseball executive four months’ notice of his intent to fire him also would indicate Pohlad doesn’t have the greatest business mind, either. How, exactly, was that supposed to work?

At best, Ryan would have limited motivation to take actions necessary to improve the club and probably would have limited authority to make deals without ownership approval. At worst, word would leak out around MLB that he was a lame duck GM, totally undermining his negotiating position with his peers.

So, bungle number 1 was telling Ryan he was going to be fired four months in advance.

Bungle number 2 came right on the heels of number 1, though, when Pohlad left it to Ryan to determine how to handle the timing and announcement.

Really? In what kind of business does that make sense?

It’s one thing to cut back some middle management staff, ask them to stick around through a transition, and leave it to them whether to tell people it was “early retirement.” It’s quite another thing to do that for the guy who is essentially running every aspect of your baseball organization short of hiring the beer vendors.

The result is that Ryan waited until just two weeks before the non-waiver trade deadline before telling Pohlad it was time to make the announcement, leaving his assistant (and interim GM) Rob Antony in a very difficult position.

Bungle number 3 is actually more like number 3a through 3(something way down the alphabet from b). Almost every word spoken by Pohlad and St. Peter on Monday reflected an organization totally unprepared for what comes next.

It was made clear that Paul Molitor will be manage the Twins in 2017 and any GM candidate who didn’t like that need not apply. How many potential candidates will that rule out, unnecessarily?

But, hey, Pohlad has been preparing for this search by familiarizing himself with how other MLB clubs are structured – by looking through their Media Guides.

Not to worry, though, because the Twins “may” utilize a professional search firm to recruit qualified candidates. They may. Of course that also means that they “may not.”

How can these people not at least have some clue as to how their peers around the league are organizing their front offices? No matter. Now would be a really good time to look into that. Maybe one of those search firms could help.

Pohlad also indicated that St. Peter will play a major role in the GM-hiring process and that the new GM will report to the Twins president.

Sigh.

To my mind, the man at the top of the organizational ladder needs to be a Chief Executive Officer (or whatever alternative, more baseball-like, title you want to give to the CEO-type) who understand both the baseball AND business sides of running a big league organization. That is not Dave St. Peter, so St. Peter should be reporting to the new hire, not the other way around.

The CEO level might not be necessary if anyone in the ownership group had some level of baseball savvy, but that is not the case with the Twins. It’s time for the Pohlads to not only admit that (which they’ve essentially done already), but to also structure their business accordingly.

Once the CEO is hired, that CEO should get to hire a GM. And, oh, by the way, that GM should get to hire the manager of her/his choice, too.

I like Molitor and I don’t disagree that, had Ryan been retained, he should have been given another year to manage the team. But if you handcuff your new GM before you even get any applicants for the opening, you aren’t likely to even get the best candidates to come in for an interview.

These issues don’t have to be resolved immediately. A thorough (and professionally organized) recruitment of qualified candidates should take place. Ideally, this would all take place toward the end of the season, but bungles 1, 2 and 3 have already set the wheels in motion.

Mistakes have already been made, but there’s still time to do the rest of this thing right and get a competent, forward-thinking executive to run the baseball operations.

Unfortunately, early indications don’t give me much hope that will happen.

-JC

There I Go, Turn the Page

Paul Molitor
Paul Molitor (Photo: SD Buhr)

Here I am
On the road again
There I am
Up on the stage
Here I go
Playin’ star(s) again
There I go
Turn the page

It has got to be lonely being Paul Molitor these days. About the only thing separating him from the tortured Bob Seger that penned “Turn the Page” back in 1972 is that he isn’t subjected to riding a bus somewhere east of Omaha with locals at truck stops making snide remarks about his long hair.

I’m not sure what he envisioned his life would be like as the manager of the Minnesota Twins when he signed on for the gig after Ron Gardenhire was let go following the 2014 season, but I’d bet every cent I have that he wasn’t expecting this. After all, his Twins are on pace to finish with one of the worst records in Major League Baseball history. Not Twins history, not franchise history, not American League history, but in all of MLB history.

This is taking place after a season, in 2015, that many people thought saw the Twins, under Molitor in his first season as a manager at any level, take a significant step forward in terms of competitiveness.

Sure, everyone knew there were candidates for regression on the club’s roster and nobody knew what to expect of their imported Korean designated hitter, but there were also players that we felt had reasonable chances to improve their performance levels over what we saw in 2015. Even the most pessimistic among us could not have reasonably expected this to happen.

But it has happened. The Twins are 15-37 as they return home to face the Tampa Bay Rays, themselves sitting at the bottom of the American League East standings at the moment.

There has been plenty written in the Twins community about what’s gone wrong and what should be done about it. Some of the suggestions have been reasonable, many have not.

You can’t trade players for whom there is no market and you can’t really flat out release most of them, either.

Most teams won’t fire their manager and/or their general manager during the first two months of the season, especially when that manager is only in his second season at the helm and the general manager has been around forever and is credited with rebuilding a farm system that is acknowledged to be among the best in the game.

Typically, you give the guys you left spring training with a couple of months to come around before you go about making significant changes. Your options are limited in April and May, anyway, because few teams are going to be interested in adding noteworthy pieces to their rosters that early, even if you are ready to turn the page sooner than that.

But we’re into June now and while most teams still won’t be prepared to make many deals at least until later in the month, it’s time to start initiating those discussions.

It is also time to start looking at what you want your roster to look like on Opening Day 2017. If there’s a silver lining to a miserable start like this, it’s that you don’t have to wait until spring training next March to start evaluating your options. You don’t even have to wait until the traditional “September call up” portion of the season. You’ve got a full four months to look at what you’ve got before you have to make decisions about which positions you will need to fill from outside your organization during the offseason.

The Twins are likely to lose over 100 games this season. It could be more. It could be a few less, but not a lot less.

It’s time to turn the page.

Listen, I like Trevor Plouffe. He has, in my view, turned himself into a more-than-adequate third baseman after nearly playing himself out of baseball at shortstop. He also hits enough that there’s nothing wrong with him being a regular in a Major League lineup.

I like Brian Dozier even more. He came to Cedar Rapids in January, 2013, with the first Twins Caravan after the Twins announced they would be affiliating with the local Kernels Class A team and did a great job on the dais. With the personality he showed that night, it came as no surprise to me that he eventually became a fan favorite in the Twin Cities. Like Plouffe, he turned out not to be the answer for the Twins at shortstop, but he transitioned to second base where he has done an excellent job.

When Joe Nathan departed, many of us were nervous about whether the Twins would find someone capable of holding down the closer role out of the bullpen. Enter Glen Perkins and the problem was solved.

Joe Mauer’s situation would command a full article itself, but his contract and no-trade rights make it a waste of time to even discuss his future with the team for the next couple of seasons.

These players, along with a few others perhaps, have had good rides as members of the Twins and they have earned every bit of fan loyalty they get. But the hard truth is that few, if any, of them are going to be part of the next run of winning seasons at Target Field.

Already this season, injuries have created opportunities to look at some young players. In most cases, those opportunities were wasted as players like Jorge Polanco and Max Kepler rode the pine during their time filling in for banged up regulars.

Byron Buxton (Photo: SD Buhr)
Byron Buxton (Photo: SD Buhr)

Maybe “playin’ stars again” was defensible early in the season when you were still trying to make something of your season, but no longer. It’s time to turn the page.

As Ted over at Off the Baggy pointed out this week, with Kepler being promoted again (this time to fill in for the injured Miguel Sano), it’s time to plug Kepler and the also-recently-recalled Byron Buxton into the lineup and let them run.

Sano’s hamstring will eventually heal and he’ll return. I find myself agreeing with Howard Sinker of the Star-Tribune who tweeted earlier this week, “Friends, I was less skeptical on it than most of you, but it’s time for the Sano-in-right field thing to end. Make something work, #MNTwins.”

I really had no issue with putting Sano in the outfield. He’s athletic enough that he should be able to play a passable right field and he has improved out there. But I’ve pulled a hamstring before and I know that, once you do that, it’s pretty easy to do it again. I don’t think putting him back out there when he comes back makes a lot of sense when it’s pretty obvious that it is not going to be his position long-term (and by long-term, we are probably now including 2017).

The Twins need to decide where they envision Sano fitting in. Wherever that is, whether it’s third base, first base or simply as their full-time designated hitter, I would just plug him in there when he gets back and move on to the next decision.

Bouncing Buxton, Kepler and Polanco up and down between Minneapolis and Rochester should end. Buxton is your center fielder, Kepler is in a corner and Polanco is in the middle of your infield somewhere.

I’ve seen others opine that Byung Ho Park should be sent down to Rochester, perhaps to make room for Sano when he comes back. I disagree, unless the Twins are prematurely giving up on him. He will hit AAA pitching, just as he hit Korean pro ball pitching. He needs to learn to hit MLB pitching and if the Twins plan on keeping him, he should stay in the Twins’ lineup until he proves that he can (or can’t).

I don’t know if Oswaldo Arcia will be in the Twins outfield for the next few years, but I know Danny Santana and Eduardo Nunez won’t, so Arcia should get more time out there with Buxton and Kepler (unless the Twins decide someone like Adam Bret Walker should get a long look).

The same situation exists behind the plate. Kurt Suzuki’s time with the Twins is nearing an end. I don’t know who will take over, but now is the time for the Twins to get extended looks at their internal candidates.

You could make similar cases for an overhaul of the pitching staff, but I’d be more patient with promoting the young pitchers, unless you get good offers for some of your existing staff members. I just see less urgency there.

Finally, there’s the Molitor question and that is tethered to the Terry Ryan question. Will either, or both, be back in 2017 and beyond?

Molitor will be entering the final year of his existing contract in 2017. Typically, no manager likes being a “lame duck” manager. He wants an extension in place before the start of the final year of his deal or he risks losing his clubhouse as players begin to tune his message out as they assume he won’t be around long.

Say what you will about the infamous Jim Pohlad patience with his front office, but I think Ryan would have a tough time convincing even Pohlad that Molitor should be rewarded for his work in 2016 with an extension.

Of course, that assumes that Ryan will even be around to make that pitch to Pohlad.

It’s almost impossible for me to envision Pohlad announcing publicly that he has dismissed Terry Ryan. It is not difficult at all, however, for me to envision an announcement that Terry Ryan has decided that, as the person responsible for assembling the roster, he is ultimately responsible for the results and that he is holding himself accountable and stepping down as GM of the Twins.

That public announcement would be identical, by the way, regardless of whether the decision truly is Ryan’s or whether Pohlad makes the decision that it’s time for a change. If you’re looking for public executions, you’re going to be disappointed.

If Ryan is contemplating that this may be his last season in the GM chair, he’s not likely to make a managerial change during the season. If he’s planning on being around a while longer, then yes, he could (and should) be considering whether there’s someone besides Molitor in the organization that he  now believes would be a better fit to manage the new group of young players coming up.

If indeed Ryan is replaced as the General Manager, it would be much more likely that Molitor also would be replaced following the end of this season. The new GM would want, and should get, his own man to run the team he assembles.

Whether these changes in management are made or not should depend solely on whether ownership envisions the current leadership being the right people to guide the team through the next era of competitiveness.

Regardless, it is time to begin turning the page. Some of the changes can wait as things play out over the rest of this season and the subsequent offseason, but seeing names like Buxton, Kepler and Polanco consistently in the Twins’ lineup should start now.

Yellow Jacket Battery Boosts Kernels

Most of the work that Sam Clay and AJ Murray did together during their shared time at Georgia Tech was confined to the bullpen, but this season the pair of former Yellow Jackets have played critical roles together for the Midwest League Western Division-leading Cedar Rapids Kernels.

Clay, a lefty who was the Minnesota Twins’ fourth round draft pick in 2014, carries a 3-1 record and a 1.10 ERA into his Wednesday night start at Burlington. He has averaged more than a strikeout per inning in his seven starts.

Murray, selected by the Twins in the 14th round of last year’s draft, is carrying a .285/.394/.489 (.883 OPS) slash line as the Kernels’ primary catcher. He’s hit 11 doubles, one triple and five home runs while batting in the middle of the Cedar Rapids lineup and has thrown out 35% of runners attempting to steal a base.

AJ Murray
AJ Murray

That’s not bad for a guy who spent almost no time behind the plate during his college career, despite performing well enough in high school that Houston selected him late in the 2011 draft.

“I caught all through high school,” Murray explained. “Then when I got to college, they converted me to a first baseman because we had Zane Evans (who was ultimately drafted by the Royals in the 4th round of the 2013 draft), who was a lot better than I was at the time. So I learned first base, but I also got to play a little bit in the outfield. It kind of made me more versatile as a player in college.”

Murray certainly wasn’t disappointed when he was told the Twins had drafted him as a catcher, however. Quite the opposite.

“When they drafted me as a catcher, I was very happy because I thought that was my most comfortable position and I could be the biggest asset to the team,” he recalled. “I think it’s the best position on the field, besides pitching, because you’re in every pitch. You pretty much control the game as far as being a leader out there. I love catching every day and it’s definitely a learning process.”

AJ Murray
AJ Murray

After seeing limited time on the field behind the plate during his college career, Murray has certainly had a lot to learn about playing the position at the professional level.

“I think the biggest adjustment has been calling your own game. That’s kind of been a lost art in baseball,” he said. “I called my own game in high school, but when you get to college, a lot of the pitching coaches like to call the pitches. So that’s been the biggest adjustment.”

The biggest adjustment maybe, but not the only thing that differentiates catching in the pros from what he has done in the past.

“Learning to read hitters, learning to look at the stat sheet, look for tendencies, then fill in the game plans, which is fun actually,” he added. “JP (Martinez, the Kernels’ pitching coach) does a great job of giving us stats, getting the pitchers together, talking over game plans, hitters’ approaches and how we’re going to transfer that over to the game, so he’s the main driver in getting us ready.”

His work behind the plate hasn’t gone unnoticed by fellow Yellow Jacket Clay.

“As soon as he got to Elizabethton, he was far and away a much better catcher than he was at Georgia Tech,” Clay said of his battery mate. “He became unbelievable behind the plate and I love throwing to him.”

Murray and his fellow Kernels went through a stretch earlier in the season when they struggled offensively. Runs were rare and that put a lot of pressure on the pitching staff. They’ve pulled out of that rut over the past few weeks and Murray’s bat has been a big reason. He is hitting .333 in May and has a .986 OPS for the month.

“I’m definitely feeling more comfortable at the plate and focusing on having consistent at-bats,” Murray said, of his recent success at the plate. He’s quick to point out, however, that he’s not the only hitter in the lineup that’s making a difference.

“I think a lot of it has to do with others guys on the team hitting around me. You look at our stats the last couple of weeks, we’ve put up a lot of runs. Everyone’s been hitting well, so I think it’s contagious. When you’re getting on base, it puts pressure on the pitcher, and then hitting in the middle of the lineup, hitting behind LaMonte (Wade), (Luis) Arraez, guys like that getting on base a lot.”

Like Murray, Clay has also had to make some adjustments to the professional game.

In college, Clay worked out of the bullpen and, in fact, he began the 2015 season as a member of the Kernels’ relief corps. Things didn’t go terribly well for Clay, however, in his first tour with Cedar Rapids, and he was sent down to Elizabethton.

Sam Clay
Sam Clay

“Last year was a little bit of a struggle,” Clay recalled. “I started off up here in the bullpen and I had a lot of trouble finding the plate, so they kind of pigeon-holed me into throwing basically strictly fastballs and one off-speed (pitch), whichever was working for me that day, so hitters were looking for one of two pitches.

“Once I got sent down, I had one or two weeks in the bullpen and then they turned me into a starter when one of our guys went down. It gave me a chance to get up there and throw all of my pitches and really learn how to pitch instead of just going up there and throwing the ball.”

Clay has taken to the conversion to a starting pitcher very well. He and righthander Randy LeBlanc have combined to form a powerful left-right combination at the top of the Kernels’ rotation. Combined, the two have made 15 starts and evenly split just 10 combined earned runs surrendered. Neither pitcher has given up a home run this season.

Making the switch to starting pitcher did mean some adjustments for Clay in the offseason.

“They pretty much had me being a starter, so I knew that going into the offseason, what I needed to work on conditioning-wise and weight training wise,” he said. “So I really kind of got after it this offseason and just worked harder than I probably ever have.

“I lived with my parents in the offseason and I would probably lift weights four times a week. I didn’t really pick up a ball, because I threw a lot of innings last year compared to what I usually would as a reliever. So I didn’t really pick up a ball until probably January and January in Georgia is pretty cold.

“It probably got me ready for the first month here (in Iowa),” Clay added, with a smile.

Once he was ready to start throwing, however, Clay still had challenges to overcome – such as finding someone to throw with.

“Probably the first two or three weeks I was throwing I didn’t have anybody to throw with, so I was throwing long toss into a screen. Not very fun,” he remembered. “But I was lucky, I had one of my friends from high school, Jake Burnette, he’s playing for the Pirates organization (7th round pick in 2011), I got together with him and was able to throw with him for the rest of the offseason.”

As minor league seasons approach their midpoints toward mid-to-late June, it would be understandable for players performing as well as Murray and Clay to start peeking at the next rung on their organizational ladder and wondering what more they need to prove to earn a promotion.

Sam Clay
Sam Clay

Clay, however, says he knew coming into the season that he had work to do at this level and he’s not going to let his focus get drawn away from his business at hand.

“I knew that I was coming back here as soon as I got to spring training because I didn’t perform that well here when I was here. So I knew I had to come out and really show what I could do – show that I could be a starter, that I could throw against these hitters.

“All the Fort Myers starters are doing really well right now so it will be really tough for us to move up, but we can’t really think about them. We have to focus on ourselves.”

For now, Clay, Murray and their Cedar Rapids team mates are sitting atop the Midwest League’s Western Division standings and they have four more weeks of work to do in the season’s first half. The top two teams in each division during the first half qualify for the MWL playoffs in September and earning that berth early takes a lot of pressure off for the remainder of the season.

Eddie Rosario: Symptom or Solution?

The Minnesota Twins lost this afternoon.

Ordinarily, I’d say things have reached the point where another Twins loss falls into the “dog bites man” category. It’s not exactly news.

But this loss had a couple of things going for it that gave me cause to put pen to paper (figuratively, of course).

First of all, I actually watched the game on television. Between attending Kernels games and being blacked out by MLB’s “local market” television rights policy, I don’t see many Twins games these days. I did, however, grab lunch at my local hangout and watch them lose 6-3 to the Detroit Tigers.

Second, and more notably, was the day that Eddie Rosario had.

Eddie Rosario
Eddie Rosario (Photo: SD Buhr)

Rosario had a bad day. It started in the first inning when he threw to the wrong base and failed to keep a runner from advancing. He had his typical no-plate-discipline day with the bat, striking out twice, while looking bad. He failed to make a catch on a “tweener” that fell for a hit in shallow left field. And then came the top of the seventh inning.

Rosario grounded a single up the middle and, a couple of batters later, found himself at second base with two outs and the Twins trailing 5-1 with Joe Mauer at the plate. That’s when things got interesting.

The Tigers went into a modified shift, with their shortstop barely to the left of second base and their third baseman, Nick Castellanos, playing deep and at least 25 feet away from third base. As Justin Verlander went into his stretch, Rosario took a walking lead off second and then broke for third.

Verlander stepped back off the rubber and threw to third, but by the time Castellanos got to the bag and caught the throw, Rosario was there with relative ease.

The Tigers continued their shift against Mauer and, on the next pitch, Rosario took an extended lead down the third base line, prompting Verlander to step back again and, since there was literally no infielder remotely close to third base, all he could do was take a few running steps at Rosario to force him back to the bag.

Since Mauer ultimately struck out, it really didn’t matter where the Tigers placed their infielders, nor did it matter whether Rosario was on second or third base. And, I suppose, since the Twins only ultimately scored three runs in the game, while giving up six, I guess you could argue it wouldn’t have mattered if Rosario had managed to score.

But all of it did matter. Boy did it matter.

Because when the Twins took the field, Darin Mastroianni took Rosario’s spot in the outfield.

You see, whether you call it conventional wisdom or one of baseball’s unwritten rules, Rosario was not supposed to steal third base with his team down four runs in the seventh inning and the team’s best hitter at the plate. He would, the argument goes, have scored on a Mauer single just as easily from second base as he would from third and stealing third base in that situation represented a risk greater than the potential reward.

In his post-game comments to the media, manager Paul Molitor made it clear he wasn’t happy with Rosario.

According to a Tweet from Brian Murphy of the Pioneer-Press, Molitor remarked, “The risk 100 fold is greater than reward. Being safe doesn’t make it right. I wanted to get Eddie out of the game at that point.”

Now, let me just say that I’ve been slow to be overly critical of Paul Molitor. I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to the man personally and came away knowing with 100% certainty that he has “100 fold” more knowledge of baseball than I do.

With that said, I believe he was wrong in this situation. I realize that in Molitor’s mind (and that of many, many baseball traditionalists), stealing third base in that situation was not something a runner should do.

And maybe it wasn’t. But, while I’m open to that possibility, I don’t think it was as cut-and-dried as others (including Molitor, obviously) do.

First, forget the four run deficit. If we know anything, it’s that every run matters. If you have a chance to improve your chances of scoring a run, you should do it. It’s not like the Tigers haven’t coughed up a four run lead lately. They couldn’t protect a lead of twice that many runs just two nights earlier.

The steal (and subsequent excessive lead off third base) might have aggravated Verlander. But, I hope we can all agree that, even if it did, that doesn’t make what Rosario did wrong, in the least. If anything, aggravating the pitcher in that situation is what a runner SHOULD try to do.

In fact, if I were to criticize Rosario for anything in this sequence, it might be for not continuing to take such a huge lead down the third base line that Verlander and the Tigers couldn’t possibly ignore him. Hell, let him try to steal home there if they insist on playing their nearest infielder 30 feet away from the bag. But, in all likelihood, his third base coach was reigning him in at that point.

If Rosario had been MORE aggressive, rather than being wrangled in, maybe the Tigers would have been forced to abandon (or at least significantly modify) their shift against Mauer, and thus shifting the odds more in favor of him coming through with a hit to drive Rosario in.

But Mauer struck out and Rosario was benched for his efforts.

Now, maybe Molitor’s patience with Rosario had simply run out. After all, his poor throw in the first inning, his flailing at pitches and his allowing a ball to drop in the outfield were each arguably, by themselves, grounds for being yanked by his manager.

Rosario has been bad most of the year and chances are he’d already be back in Rochester if Byron Buxton had played well enough to keep a big league roster spot. But Molitor and the Twins need a couple of outfielders on the roster than can cover some ground if they’re going to let Oswaldo Arcia and Miguel Sano spend a lot of time out there. So he’s still around (for now).

I’m undoubtedly more of an “old-school” baseball fan than most Twins fans are, especially those fans who are active on social media. And I’m not a big Rosario fan. I’d have probably shipped him out, via trade, demotion or release, before now, even though part of me would love to see what the Twins could do with a Rosario-Buxton-Kepler outfield at some point.

He frustrates me and I do believe his play is one major reason the Twins have underperformed (but just one of many reasons).

But I loved what he did on the bases in the seventh inning and I think, by yanking him, Molitor sent a dangerous precedent with this team.

The Twins have won just 10 games. They aren’t going to improve by just trying to play baseball in traditional methods better than they have been. They need to shake things up and start aggressively doing things in ways that their opponents aren’t expecting – and that’s what Rosario was doing.

If your opponents don’t like that you’re stealing third base when they shift, that’s a good reason TO do it. Take chances. Manufacture runs. Be frigging aggressive in everything you do.

That might make some people uncomfortable and one of those people very possibly is a baseball traditionalist like Molitor.

Say what you will about Rosario and we could say plenty. Say he swings at too many bad pitches. Say he tries to throw lead runners out when he should keep force plays in effect. Say he takes unwise chances on the basepaths.

But at least Rosario is trying to DO something different and when you’ve lost three quarters of your first 40-ish games of the season, maybe “different” is good.

If the Twins are going to begin the transition to a roster of new young players, and take some lumps in the process, how about they at least instill a culture of aggressiveness while doing it. It may not prevent the Twins from losing 90 games (or even 100 games) this season, but it would at least be more fun to watch, wouldn’t it?

Stewart, Harrison Quieting Critics?

There’s nothing like having a really bad product at the Major League level to focus fans’ attention on prospects in an organization’s minor league system and that’s exactly what has happened in Twinsville over the past several years.

Many Twins fans that have turned their primary attention to the club’s prospects have, for the past couple of years, been somewhat underwhelmed by the stat lines of pitcher Kohl Stewart and outfielder Travis Harrison, to the point where I mentioned in my offseason “top prospects” article that both players were approaching career crossroads.

The criticisms of Stewart were almost entirely centered on his low strikeout rates and Harrison wasn’t living up to some peoples’ expectations offensively, especially with regard to power numbers.

I wrapped up my article in February with the following:

Both of these young players undoubtedly know they’ve reached the point where they need to show everyone just why the Twins scouts liked them enough to use very high draft picks on them as they were coming out of high school. They’re both hard workers.

Don’t be surprised if, a year from now, we are all talking about how they both had breakout seasons and wondering how the Twins are going to find big league spots for them in the near future.

Well, we aren’t anywhere close to a year down the road, as the minor league season is just under 25% complete, but it’s worth checking in on the early returns for both players, each of which is, for the first time in their respective careers, repeating a level of minor league ball; Stewart at advanced-A Fort Myers and Harrison at AA Chattanooga.

Travis Harrison
Travis Harrison (Photo: Steve Buhr)

Harrison still hasn’t shown pronounced home run power, though he does have two home runs for the Lookouts. That would project to eight for the season, which would be his highest total since smacking 15 for Class A Cedar Rapids in 2013, but still might be considered lower than some would have expected. Still, he is just 23 years old, so there’s plenty of time to see more power develop and home runs are just about the only thing he’s not hitting this season.

Harrison is hitting .297 in 29 games for Chattanooga, which is 57 points higher than his .240 average in 2015 and he’s slugging almost 50 points higher, as well. He’s also in the midst of an impressive stretch of offensive production, hitting .405 in his last ten games, during which he’s had six multi-hit games. He’s still striking out more than you’d like to see, but on balance, you’d have to be encouraged by his 2016 season to-date.

In 2015, Stewart threw by far more innings (129.1) than he had ever thrown since he passed on a scholarship to play quarterback for Texas A&M to sign with the Twins as their 2014 first round draft choice, but he continued to strike out barely one batter for every couple of innings he toed the mound.

Kohl Stewart (Photo: Steve Buhr)
Kohl Stewart (Photo: Steve Buhr)

He’s on pace to throw about 140 innings in 2016 (and could be more if he’s promoted to AA, where the Twins are less inclined to utilize a 6-man starting rotation than they are at the Class A levels). More importantly (to many, anyway) Stewart is also on pace to strike out over 130 batters, which would nearly double his K total from a season ago.

Stewart has managed to pick up his strikeout rate without suffering in other areas. He’s carrying a 2.08 ERA through his first six starts and has given up just one home run on the year.

As with Harrison, we tend to forget just how young Stewart is because we’ve been watching and talking about him for years, but he’ll still be just 21 years old when the minor league seasons wrap up in September. Even if he doesn’t maintain his early strikeout rate (which is certainly possible, especially if he’s eventually promoted to AA this summer), he has demonstrated that he’s capable of sitting batters down.   For a 21-year-old, that’s enough to satisfy me for now.

It’s certainly premature to project certain big league stardom for either Harrison or Stewart, but I predicted we would see breakout seasons from both in 2016 and I certainly like the way they’ve started out.

Fixing the Twins Isn’t That Complicated

So this season has certainly de-escalated quickly, hasn’t it Twins fans?

Ask any group of Twins fans what went wrong and you’ll get a wide variety of responses. Of course, there’s no shortage of I-told-you-so’s going around out there, either. Haters gonna hate and nothing makes haters happier than when things go badly and they can loudly proclaim how smart they were to hate in the first place.

FacepalmThe thing is, I don’t think anyone is (or at least they shouldn’t be) shocked by what’s happening with the Twins. Was an 8-20 start “expected”? No, not by most of us. But I’m more disappointed than surprised and I would imagine that I’m not alone in feeling that way.

General Manager Terry Ryan clearly made the decision during the offseason that 2016 was going to be the year he would push the first wave of young potential stars into the big league fray. He wasn’t interested in adding any free agent that might block a significant young talent. His only big move was the addition of Korean slugger Byung Ho Park and that particular move is looking very good.

To appreciate why Ryan was relatively passive during the offseason, you have to start with the understanding that, all along, 2016 was going to be another season in the longer rebuilding process. I think most of us recognized that.

It would be the first full season of big league ball for Miguel Sano, Eddie Rosario and Tyler Duffey.

It would, hopefully, be a near-full season of Byron Buxton and Jose Berrios.

Miguel Sano
Miguel Sano

We would also likely see significant Major League playing time for several more building blocks for what, at some point, could be the next great Twins team. That group might include Max Kepler, Jorge Polanco, Alex Meyer and perhaps several other highly touted bullpen arms.

That’s a lot of youth and it’s probably unrealistic to expect all of those guys to perform well enough to propel the club into serious contention for a postseason spot.

Still, the Twins came real close to nabbing a wild card spot last year, so was it really unrealistic to expect them to improve the following season? Maybe, maybe not.

It’s not unrealistic to believe it’s POSSIBLE to improve on their prior season’s results, but you could argue that it was unrealistic to EXPECT so many young players to step up in one season, without any of them finding themselves overmatched, at least temporarily, by Major League competition.

Many of the challenges we foresaw occurring this season have become reality.

The Twins strike out a lot. Only the Astros and Blue Jays hitters have K’d more than the Twins so far in 2016. We knew this would happen and there was no shortage of warnings uttered before the season that it could be disastrous.

Miguel Sano has been a bad outfielder. We knew he wouldn’t win any gold gloves out there, but I’m not sure he’s been any worse than anyone would have expected. He’s actually shown some of his athleticism at times, even while also clearly not being confident that he can field the position well.

The hope was that Byron Buxton’s presence in center field would somewhat minimize the damage done while Sano learns right field on the fly. Then Buxton failed to get on track with the bat and had to be sat down and, eventually, demoted.

That problem was exacerbated by Eddie Rosario’s significant regression at the plate. While Oswaldo Arcia’s bat has perhaps made up for Rosario’s poor start, that also left the Twins with the prospect of having Arcia and Sano constitute two-thirds of the defensive outfield. That’s not optimal, by any means.

Yet, to me, if the worst problems this team had were on the offensive side, I wouldn’t be too worried.

They aren’t ripping through opposing pitchers, but there’s enough good stuff going on (Joe Mauer, Byung Ho Park, Sano, Arcia and surprising production from Eduardo Nunez and Danny Santana) that there would be time to get guys like Dozier, Buxton and Rosario on track (or replaced) and still have a very nice season.

Alas, the bats aren’t the worst problems.

Kyle Gibson
Kyle Gibson

The worst problems are exactly where they have been for years – on the pitchers’ mound.

We were uneasy about the bullpen going in. Maybe – MAYBE – Glen Perkins, Kevin Jepsen and Trevor May would hold down the back end of the bullpen, but starting the season with essentially the same mediocre (or worse) middle and long relief from a year ago was scary.

Then Perkins went on the Disabled List and Jepsen has been ineffective. Newcomer Fernando Abad and Michael Tonkin have looked good, but they’ve seemed to largely be used in situations where the Twins have already fallen behind, virtually wasting their effectiveness.

Ryan Pressly and Casey Fien have been awful and Ryan O’Rourke, since being promoted, hasn’t fared any better.

I’ve read comments that the starting pitching has been better than some expected. I don’t understand that at all.

Yes, we’re all very pleasantly surprised that Ricky Nolasco has made the decision to hand him the fifth rotation spot look extremely wise and Ervin Santana hasn’t been awful most of the time, but outside of that, I just don’t see why anyone thinks the starting pitching has been anything but a train wreck.

Phil Hughes and Kyle Gibson have been awful and Tommy Milone has been bad enough that he was the guy who eventually lost his rotation spot.

There’s some potential for improvement, perhaps. Jose Berrios has shown the filthy stuff he has in his two starts and, if he’s given time to settle into a routine, he could quickly become an effective big league starting pitcher. Tyler Duffey will never be confused with Berrios in terms of his stuff or velocity, but Duffey still looks better than at least 60% of the guys who opened the season in the Twins’ rotation.

The conclusion I’ve drawn from this is that “fixing” the Twins right now isn’t that complicated – or at least it doesn’t have to be.

I wouldn’t touch the offense right now. Let things play out a while and do what you have to do to get guys like Buxton, Kepler and Polanco raking in Rochester so they’re ready to come back up in a month or two and stick.

If you insist on making some kind of change, fine. Bring up catcher Juan Centeno from Rochester. At this point, I wouldn’t even care whether it was John Ryan Murphy or Kurt Suzuki that you replaced. Neither of them should figure in the long term plans for the Twins, anyway, and it might be time to promote either Stuart Turner or Mitch Garver from Chattanooga up to Rochester so they can both get regular innings behind the plate.

While you don’t want to read too much into one month of work, I don’t think there’s much risk in replacing Pressly, Fien and O’Rourke in the bullpen. I’d see what J.T. Chargois and Buddy Boshers have to offer.

J.T. Chargois
J.T. Chargois

My rotation, for now, would be Nolasco, Santana, Hughes, Berrios and Duffey. The stint on the DL that Gibson is doing gives the Twins some time to get good looks at Berrios and Duffey. I like continuing to see Meyer start at Rochester, until he proves once and for all that he’s best suited for bullpen work.

If Hughes doesn’t get it together, the Twins will need to figure out what “injury” he has and let him work through that while on the DL for a while, too.

The limited roster changes I’ve described would be a good start, but it shouldn’t be the end of the transition.

If the club is still wallowing toward the bottom of the standings a month from now (which seems almost certain at this point), it will be time to start dealing away those players who have some market value and likely aren’t part of the next generation of competitive Twins teams.

There’s no longer a reason to try to blend young players into a veteran clubhouse. Frankly, many of the young players coming up have won at Elizabethton, Cedar Rapids, Ft. Myers and Chattanooga over the past four years and they’re probably more equipped to create a “winning clubhouse atmosphere” at Target Field than the Twins’ veterans are.

I am not going to hold out much hope that the Twins will recover from their disastrous start to fight their way back into contention for even a wild card spot, but that doesn’t mean the season is over or that there shouldn’t/couldn’t be something well worth watching over the rest of the season.

It may not always be pretty and there will certainly be plenty for the haters to hate on, but it doesn’t have to be boring or meaningless – unless the front office allows it to become so.

Ballplayers as Commodities

It was a minor story this week. Minnesota Twins (and former Cedar Rapids Kernels) pitcher Tyler Duffey was one of a handful of Major League ballplayers that have come to agreements with a firm by the name of Fantex to “sell” a share of their future earnings in return for an immediate sum of money.

You can read the AP story here and, for a description of how the investments in the players actually works, you can click this link to a year-old Fortune article.

baseballMoneyThe concept of exchanging an immediate known sum of money for some future undetermined, yet theoretically predictable, amounts is hardly new. Commercials for companies willing to “buy” your annuity payments are not infrequent. You can even find organizations willing to buy your life insurance policies and essentially gamble that you’ll die soon enough that they’ll make more money on the policy than they pay you for it.

Fantex also is making similar investments in a few professional golfers. That’s really nothing new, either. A lot of aspiring golf professionals get their early funding to travel around the country competing in tournaments from others who are willing to buy a share of their future winnings.

But this is a new thing for baseball. You don’t find anyone doing any direct investment in ballplayers (outside of Latin America, anyway).

Before we go further with this, let’s be clear about one thing. This kind of financial instrument is likely one of the more speculative (read: risky) you’re likely to find. Seldom would the cliché “buyer beware” be more applicable than to investing with Fantex on a venture like this. That said, it’s interesting to look at how such an initiative, should it become commonplace, could effect the financial underpinnings of the game.

Duffey and the other players involved have agreed to relinquish a percentage (generally about 10%) of their future on-field and off-field income to Fantex in return for a substantial immediate payment. (Duffey’s $2.23 million is the lowest among the ballplayers).

Duffey was a fifth round draft pick by the Twins in 2012 and reportedly received a signing bonus of about $267,000. Minor league salaries are notoriously low. For example, Duffey would have been getting something in the neighborhood of $1100 per month during his days with the Kernels in 2013.

Tyler Duffey
Tyler Duffey

While on the Twins’ Major League roster, he’s making $525,000 this season, which is slightly above the big league minimum salary. He won’t be eligible for salary arbitration for at least another three years, which means that, in the interim, the Twins are unlikely to offer him contracts much higher than what he’s currently making.

With the way MLB teams currently operate, if Duffey were to perform very well for the Twins in the next year or two, it is likely that their front office would offer him a multi-year contract that would cover at least much of his arbitration-eligible years and possibly extend into his free-agency era. This gives the player some insurance against injury and/or poor performance and, in turn, the team controls their salary costs for an extended period.

More often than not, these agreements are viewed as “team friendly” and not only save the club money, in the long run, but improve the players’ value on the trade market.

A lot of players in Duffey’s situation readily accept those deals (unless their agent is Scot Boras, who routinely recommends that his clients bet on themselves and go through the arbitration and free-agency process as soon as possible).

It’s easy to understand why a player would take the deal. Sure, you may cost yourself some money down the road, but you get security and you are still probably assured of seeing more money than anyone in your family has ever seen. And, after all, what other choice do you have if you do value some level of financial security?

None. Until now.

Even after his agent and the government get their share, Duffey is likely to pocket $1 million from his deal with Fantex, if it goes through (If Fantex can’t raise the $2.23 million to pay Duffey from investors, the deal is cancelled). That’s likely going to give his agent a much better negotiating posture if and when the Twins decide they want to talk about an extension. Duffey would no longer be solely reliant on the Twins for financial security.

If this concept takes hold and becomes wide-spread, the whole process by which teams deal with their middle-to-lower tier of players could be affected. Currently, teams balance their payrolls between those they have to overpay (relative to their actual performance) by millions of dollars either on the free agent market or to preclude them from leaving to test free agency and those who they can underpay because they’re still making close to the league minimum or they’re still playing under extensions they signed early in their careers.

If a concept such as Fantex gives players another option for attaining some level of financial security without having to agree to give up (or at least postpone) their big future paydays, that could have a challenging effect on clubs’ payroll management.

Officially, MLB has stated that these arrangements do not violate any MLB rules and the MLB Players Association has an agreement with Fantex that allows them to approach players. It will be interesting, however, to see if the subject finds its way onto the negotiating table this year as the two sides try to hammer out a new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

In the meantime, if you’re a believer in the future of Tyler Duffey as a big league pitcher, you may have a new – more substantive – way to express that confidence.

It’s too bad we couldn’t come up with a way to spread this concept into the minor leagues. I doubt we’d have to look too far to find some guys in Cedar Rapids or Fort Myers who would be happy to offer a couple percent of their future earnings in return for enough money to afford a pizza once in a while.

Things Will Get Better

I had planned to wait to write something about the Minnesota Twins’ ugly start to the 2016 until there was something – anything – positive to write about, but I finally decided that leaving things that open-ended could mean a very long hiatus from blogging.

The Twins have completed their third three-game series of the season and they have yet to record a win, currently sitting with an 0-9 record. On top of that, the team’s top young prospect, Byron Buxton, was been pulled from today’s game after getting hit on the hand by a pitch.

whatmeworryOf course, it’s also not good that the team’s closer, Glen Perkins, is on the shelf, having been placed on the Disabled List with a strain in his throwing shoulder. Then again, one could argue that a winless team has little need of a closer, anyway.

It would be nice to be able to say that the Twins’ losing streak is due to such injuries, but it would also be very inaccurate.

If you had told me as Spring Training closed that the Twins would be winless this late in the season, I’d have probably shook my head and assumed that my fears about the potential ineffectiveness of their pitching staff probably had been realized quicker than expected. That, too, would have been inaccurate.

As a group, the starting rotation is performing fine – in fact probably better than even the more optimistic of us had any reason to expect. The relief corps has been about what I expected, which is to say it’s been inconsistent, at best. Still, the bullpen is not primarily responsible for the goose egg the Twins have continued to carry in the Win column.

It has all been about the offense – or, rather, the lack thereof.

It would be unkind to say that Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton, Byung Ho Park, Eddie Rosario, Kurt Suzuki, Brian Dozier and Trevor Plouffe have all sucked at the plate. Unkind, yes, but it would not be erroneous. Through the first nine games, none of those seven starters are hitting even .200.

I don’t care what you feel about the relative validity of Batting Average as an indicator of offensive productivity, failing to reach the Mendoza line means you aren’t doing your job with a bat in your hands and the Twins have seven regulars in their batting order who are wallowing in that level of ineptitude right now.

Joe Mauer and Eduardo Escobar are raking, with each of them hitting north of .350 and with an OPS above .900. Alas, those efforts, as encouraging as they may be, are being totally wasted.

No team has ever lost so many games to begin a season and still recovered to qualify for the postseason.

Given all of that, it’s not surprising that Twins Territory is not a particularly happy place these days. Everybody is looking for someone to blame and there are plenty of candidates to choose from. Those seven hitters (if you feel generous enough to call them that) mentioned above certainly share some responsibility.

Likewise, whenever a team is losing, the Manager and General Manager will take some heat and both Paul Molitor and Terry Ryan are getting their share. That’s expected and not altogether unwarranted. After all, they assembled this roster.

You could say that last season’s stronger-than-expected finish raised our expectations to a level that makes this kind of inept start is impossible for fans to tolerate. But, really, if the Twins had lost over 90 games again last season, would any of us be more tolerant of a team going this long without notching their first win? I doubt it.

Losing sucks. It just does. And when your guys are striking out at rates that could obliterate a number of team and league records if the trends continue, it’s not too difficult to zero in the problem.

The question, though, is what do you do about that problem? As almost always, finding answers is far from easy.

One thing the Twins can’t do is panic. There will be plenty of that from among the fan base, but the players, coaches, manager and GM can’t do it.  That doesn’t mean you don’t make some adjustments, of course.

Back away from the panic button
Back away from the panic button

We’ve already seen a pair of rookies summoned from Rochester. Pitcher Taylor Rogers and outfielder Max Kepler have been brought in to replace Perkins and Danny Santana, respectively, until they can recover from the injuries that put them each on the Disabled List.

Kepler is a promising talent and Rogers has potential to be an effective bullpen arm, but they will not, by themselves, get the Twins turned around. Those two are simply getting early opportunities to impress and make cases for why someone else should be sent down, rather than them, when Perkins and Santana are ready to return.

If the Twins had started the season on a winning streak and had half of their lineup putting up an OPS north of .900 like, say, the Baltimore Orioles, we’d all be enjoying the season much more than we are now, but most of us would also be urging restraint of too much enthusiasm because it would be highly unlikely that those sorts of numbers could be maintained for long.

It stands to reason, then, that we should also remind ourselves that it is highly unlikely that seven-ninths of the Twins’ lineup will continue to fail to hit their weight – not all of them anyway.

I get as frustrated as any fan watching the games and, in particular, watching the flat out awful at-bats that we’re seeing from Twins batters. But I keep reminding myself that, at least for me, this presents a win-win situation for me.

Despite the awful start, this Twins season is going to go one of two ways and I know I’ll find things to enjoy watching as the season goes on, regardless of which fork in the road their season follows.

If the early season ineptness reverses course, there’s still plenty of talent (and plenty of time left in the season) to drive the club back into contention for at least a wild card spot. The starting pitching has been plenty competitive and we’re seeing an early indication that the predictions of the demise of Joe Mauer may have been premature.

If the Twins continue to flounder and show no signs of competitiveness over the next couple of months, there will be no reason for GM Ryan not to clean house and give the organization’s talented young players the better part of a full season to get accustomed to facing Major League competition.

If I’m watching Adam Walker, Jorge Polanco, Jose Berrios, Tyler Duffey, Nick Burdi, Jake Reed, Alex Meyer along with current young Twins like Buxton, Sano, May and Kepler, I’m sure I won’t be seeing a ton of victories, but I’ll be having a good time watching them mature at the big league level.

I expected the Twins to compete for a playoff spot in 2016 and I’m not yet writing off that possibility, but I also know that the next golden age of Twins baseball is probably a couple of years away. Young future stars need to go through trials by fire to prepare themselves for that era and there are a couple of ways to accomplish that.

Ideally, a limited number of prospects are shuffled into the roster every year and they learn to win by playing with legitimate MLB-level ballplayers. But if that fails, the other way is to just throw them all in together and let them learn by getting their butts kicked pretty regularly as they learn what it takes to be a big league ballplayer.

The first method is more fun to watch because it comes with more wins. But if that fails, we simply need to remind ourselves that the long term goal is the same, either way – prepare to win a World Series before the end of this decade.

Of course, I may need to continue to remind myself of that frequently – like, about 162 times this season, at the current pace. But don’t worry, that pace won’t continue. The Twins will win, eventually, and things will get better.

-Steve