The big leaguers at Twins’ spring training had the day off on Thursday, but the minor leaguers were hard at work on the back fields this morning. It gave me an excuse to bring out the camera as I watched past, present and future Cedar Rapids Kernels get in their workouts.
Wednesday night, the Cedar Rapids Kernels and their Major League partner, the Minnesota Twins, combined to put on a terrific program for eastern Iowa baseball fans as the Twins once again included a stop in Cedar Rapids for their annual Winter Caravan in conjunction with the Kernels’ annual Hot Stove Banquet.
The Eastbank Venue & Lounge, along the banks of the Cedar River in downtown Cedar Rapids, was a new venue for the event and was a great choice (despite the predominantly purplish lighting, which resulted in a heavy blue hue in virtually every photograph I took at the event, with or without a flash).
There was no shortage of both familiar and less familiar faces among the Winter Caravan panel the Twins sent to town for the evening.
The program was emceed by Twins radio broadcaster Kris Atteberry, who distributed questions to the panel.
Two new faces shared the stage with three that were more familiar to local fans.
New Kernels manager Toby Gardenhire (son of Ron Gardenhire, the longtime manager of the Twins who will be taking the reins in the Detroit Tigers dugout this season) was in attendance, as was his new boss, Jeremy Zoll. The 27-year-old Zoll enters his first season as the Twins’ Director of Minor League Operations.
Atteberry may have had the best line of the night, telling the crowd that his first question for Zoll was going to be the same question the bartender had asked Zoll, “Can I see your ID?”
Kernels hitting coach Brian Dinkelman, who returns to the Kernels again in 2018, was joined by two other familiar faces: former Kernels Mitch Garver and Zack Granite. Both players have now made their big league debuts, finishing the 2017 season with the Twins, and will be going to spring training intent on earning spots on the Twins’ opening day roster.
The featured guests were made available to the media for interviews for a few minutes before the event kicked off and I had the opportunity to speak to Garver and Granite about the paths their careers had taken since their days with the Kernels.
Garver played in 120 games for the 2014 version of the Kernels and hit for a .298 average. His career has steadily progressed each year since.
Granite’s time in Cedar Rapids was cut short by injury in 2014, but he returned in 2015 and immediately hit so well that he earned a quick promotion to Class A Advanced Fort Myers.
Wanting to make the most of what time I had with each player, I asked them both the same question to kick off the interviews.
If you could go back in time, knowing what you know now, and give the Cedar Rapids Kernels version of yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?
“I would say relax,” answered Garver.
“Because when I was at this level, I put a lot of pressure on myself to succeed. Being a senior sign, kind of having that rope get a little bit shorter as my age goes up. It’s like, man, I need to get promoted. I need to prove well at every level. I need to do this and that and I need to do it quickly. And I think that kind of took a toll on me.
“I did have a really good learning process while I was (in Cedar Rapids), but if I could have just told myself, ‘just trust the process, you’re going to get there. Believe in yourself.’ It would have gone a lot smoother.”
But would he have been concerned that might have caused his younger self to relax too much?
“No, I don’t think so. I’ve always been pedal to the metal. I want to do the best I can at everything I do.
“So if I’d have known all that back then, I’d have had the same thought process, going about my work and improving, but I could have gotten (to the Major Leagues) with a little more sleep maybe.”
And what would today’s Zack Granite tell his younger self to do?
“Probably to grow up,” he said.
“I was probably a little immature, took too many at-bats too seriously.
“It’s a long season. I kind of didn’t really know that yet. I’d never played a full season (of professional baseball) yet. There’s so many at-bats in a season and if you get out or make a mistake, it’s on to the next one. That’s how you’ve got to be.
“I feel like that’s the only way to be successful, to clear your mind. Every at-bat is different and don’t take one at-bat into the next. I did that when I was younger. I’ve kind of grown out of that and that’s helped me along the way.”
Was that a tough adjustment for Granite to make, after years where you get so many fewer opportunities to bat in a season?
“It took some time for me to get used to that. Even when I was at Elizabethton, it’s a short season. I never really played a full season until I got to here.
“My first season (in Cedar Rapids) I got hurt, so I didn’t play too much. Then I came back and did pretty well and went to Fort Myers. But even in that short time I was here, I was kind of taking at-bats into the next one.
“I think if I would have done that at an earlier age, took every at-bat separately, I think I would have been more successful.”
The Twins and Kernels will enter their sixth season as affiliates this spring. Seeing young players like Mitch Garver and Zack Granite realize the big league dream they were working so hard to achieve when they were busing around the Midwest League, then come back to town as Major Leaguers, has been one of the best aspects of the Kernels/Twins relationship.
P.S. Once again, apologies for the “blue-tinted” photos. I suppose I could have spent a bunch of time editing the color out, but frankly, I just didn’t feel like devoting the time necessary to do that. So let’s just pretend I did it all on purpose, as an homage to the Vikings’ playoff run. 🙂
If you’re a Minnesota Twins fan, you’re probably already well aware of the allegations that independent photographer Betsy Bissen went public via Twitter a couple days ago with her #MeToo experience involving Twins star Miguel Sano. I won’t go into all the details but you can easily find them with a quick browser search.
In a nutshell, Betsy’s account is that, following an autograph session at a memorabilia store in 2015, Sano forcibly attempted to pull her into a restroom. The struggle, from which she ultimately extricated herself, lasted several terrifying minutes.
Over the past few weeks and months, we’ve seen victim after victim of male abuse of power/position come to light, most predominantly in the Hollywood, political and corporate environments. However, to my limited knowledge, this is perhaps the first allegation against a major league professional athlete, at least since the #MeToo movement came to prominence.
Given the historically misogynistic world of professional sports, the only surprising thing is that it took this long for experiences such as Betsy’s to become public. Her allegation may or may not have been the first involving a MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL player, but I think we can be pretty certain it won’t be the last.
MLB is beginning an investigation into the allegations regarding Sano, as is their responsibility and duty, apparently, under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement with the MLB Players Association. It is proper, I know, for those who know neither Sano nor Bissen personally, to decide they want to hold off on judgement until MLB does it’s investigation thing.
Most of us who know Betsy at all (I consider myself her friend, though we are not what either of us, I’m sure, would consider to be close friends) are not generally feeling compelled to wait out an investigation before expressing our unequivocal support for her.
In fact, since she went public, she has received what would at least be considered public corroborative support from various parties who have, in the past, been at least somewhat familiar with Mr. Sano’s treatment of women in manners not inconsistent with what Betsy described.
One person, Mike Holmdahl, recounted via Twitter that he had observed Sano making a female usher in Chattanooga uncomfortable during Sano’s playing days with the Lookouts earlier in the same season that the event involving Bissen took place. That person was told by a senior usher there that they were so aware of Sano’s activities with regard to female ushers that they had made an effort to avoid posting females near the home dugout. (You can find Holmdahl’s full recounting as part of Brandon Warne’s excellent piece at Zone Coverage.)
Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports wrote that he had been told by, “five people, including teammates, ex-teammates and confidants, with whom he has spent time,” that they characterized Sano as someone who, “saw the pursuit of women as sport,” One of them called Sano “a ticking time bomb.”
Jeff Goldklang, a member of the ownership group that currently owns the St. Paul Saints (for whom Bissen does some photography work) and previously owned the Twins’ class high-A Ft. Myers Miracle related via Twitter that, “I’ve seen enough of both people to have absolutely no doubts in this story’s veracity. I’ve personally seen Sano act inappropriately towards a woman- while in uniform, no less.”
In fact, given these statements of at least partial corroboration, it does lead one to wonder what the Twins’ front office knew about Sano’s issues with women and when they knew it. But that’s a question for another day and, if the MLB and the media do their jobs, we’ll possibly get some answers some day.
All of this is just by way of saying that it would appear that Betsy Bissen is worthy of the support that her friends and many others are giving her.
But I’m not writing this to say I support her. She deserves more than that.
I’m writing to say, “Thank you,” to Betsy for having the courage to speak out, knowing that the result would not be 100% supportive – that there would be a significant – and very vocal – segment of the population of Twins Territory who would demonize her for speaking out (conveniently hiding behind anonymous social media pseudonyms in most cases, of course}.
I will admit that Betsy’s public allegations made me uncomfortable, just as the whole #MeToo movement has made me uncomfortable. But you know what? It’s SUPPOSED to make me uncomfortable.
It’s supposed to make me take stock of my own views and treatment of women – past, present and, in particular, future. And it has done just that.
I’m a 61 year old man. And while I certainly have never behaved toward any woman the way that Betsy related that Sano behaved toward her, I’m absolutely certain my words and actions toward women at various points in my life would not stand up to the spotlight that #MeToo is shining on us today.
I’m not naive enough to think #MeToo and people like Betsy Bissen are going to quickly and dramatically change the way we view and treat women in our society, especially, perhaps, in an era where our country has elected an openly misogynist President, sending a signal to a considerable segment of our population that it’s OK to behave similarly toward our wives, girlfriends, sisters, daughters and granddaughters.
In fact, I doubt we’ll see the kind of change that is needed take hold fully during my lifetime.
But, thanks to people like Betsy and others possessing similar courage, I have hope that my two grandsons (ages 2 and 4) will grow up in a world where they don’t even question whether it’s appropriate to treat girls and women with respect and, frankly, just common decency.
More importantly yet, I have hope that my not-quite-yet born granddaughter will grow up in such a world.
I have hope that she will grow up knowing that, if she aspires to be a sports photographer (or an actress or a political aide or a corporate executive), she shouldn’t have to accept that being subject to what Betsy Bissen went through (or much worse) is considered just the price of admission into her chosen profession or avocation.
So, on behalf of my granddaughter and myself, let me just say it.
Thank you, Betsy.
Note: I’m not interested in a debate of this matter within the comments section of our site, so I won’t be opening this post for comments. If that bothers you, I’m sorry (but not very). I’ve seen enough of the hate being cast toward Betsy elsewhere. There’s no shortage of places you can go to make those sorts of comments, but this won’t be one of them. – Steve
A whole LOT of sports stuff has been going on over the past week or so.
Whether you’re a Twins fan, a Vikings fan, a college football fan or a fan of one a team in one of those sports leagues I don’t really give a crap about like the NBA and NHL, there’s been so much stuff happening, that you could spend almost all day reading stories on every major sports site, just to try to understand all of it.
Who has time for that?
Well, I do, of course. I have time for pretty much anything. For me it’s just motivation that’s lacking. I just don’t WANT to read all that crap.
But I’ve read enough that I’m going to perform a public service and cut through all the bullshit and tell you what you really need to know about the things we care about. So let’s get started.
Since the focus of this site has been baseball related and, specifically, Twins baseball related, let’s start with Twins stuff.
You may have heard that the Twins have a real shot at landing Japanese star Shohei Ohtani.
He’s the guy that would become the next Harmon Killebrew AND the next Johan Santana rolled into one if the Twins could sign him.
That is BS, of course, but it doesn’t matter because the Twins won’t land this big fish.
I can just hear you now. “But Thad Levine said on the radio…”
I know. That was BS, too.
Listen, no matter what you hear about all the stuff that Minnesota could offer Ohtani from his supposed “list” of things important to him, remember this: The New York Yankees can offer all of it, too. All of it.
I figure the Twins are expressing interest to drive up the price and make sure the Yankees have to pay every nickel possible, up to and including having to cough up some bodies from their heralded farm system to get more international bonus money to make sure they get Ohtani.
Come to think of it, the Twins have a bunch of international bonus money that could be made available in a trade.
Say… you don’t suppose that’s what Levine had in mind when he went on about how serious the Twins are about Ohtanom do you? No, of course not.
Anyway, Ohtani will be a Yankee, so that’s all you really need to know.
Part of the Ohtani chatter also involved speculation that the Twins would also go after starting pitcher Yu Darvish.
Yeah, that isn’t happening, either. Not because they can’t afford it (they can), but because they’re the Twins.
The Twins don’t sign premier free agents and premier free agents don’t have interest in signing with the Twins. Don’t waste your time hoping that will change.
The Vikings have a similar amount of BS swirling through their fanbase. Seems they have won football games week after week after week… to the point where they have the second best record in their conference.
This has people excited. Not so excited that they aren’t willing to toss the quarterback who led the team to all those wins overboard for a guy who hasn’t taken a snap in forever, but excited nonetheless.
But real Vikings fans know we can cut through the BS because we know what’s going to happen. We’ve been here before. Doesn’t matter the QB or the coach or the stadium. We know how this ends.
When it matters… when it REALLY matters… a kick will sail wide of the uprights and the Vikings’ season will be over.
If you accept that inevitability right now and just enjoy the ride until that happens, it will make life so much easier.
I’d write something about the Wild or the Timberwolves if I really cared, but I don’t.
I’m not really sure anyone in Minnesota cares, either. All I hear about the Wild is that they suck. Always. But at least fans are consistent on the Wild, I keep hearing how the T-Wolves are great – or suck – or are great – or suck – except when they’re great.
Bottom line for both teams is, when they show signs they can win something, someone let the rest of us know, so we can start paying attention. And since nothing matters less in pro sports than what happens in the NHL and NBA regular seasons, don’t bother talking about it until the playoffs or the offseason, whichever comes first for these two organizations.
That leaves major college football.
I know it really isn’t fair to talk about big time college football when I’ve just said the NHL and NBA are irrelevant for these purposes, since both the Wild and T-Pups have been relevant since the last time the same could be said about Gophers football.
However, since so many of the best Minnesota high school football players are on rosters in Wisconsin or other locations where football IS relevant (like North Dakota, for instance), it’s understandable that Minnesotans still pay attention to the goings-on in the Big Ten Conference and elsewhere.
If you haven’t paid attention since back when the Gophers mattered, you may not be aware that the National Champion in football is no longer decided by who finishes first in the polls.
Years ago, something called the BCS was formed to match up the top two teams in the nation and that evolved into the current “final four” playoff system for it’s major college programs.
There’s a committee whose responsibility it is to decide who the top four teams are and then those teams play a mini-tournament in January to determine the National Champion.
Or that’s how it’s supposed to work.
Here’s what really happens: the Committee gives one of the four spots to Alabama, one to the ACC Champion and one to the B1G Champion, then picks the one other team that they think have the best chance to give Alabama a game.
You may have heard that the teams the committee ranks at the top keeps losing the following week. This is true. In fact the top two teams lost this weekend and one of those teams was Alabama.
Now everyone is talking and writing about how the Tide won’t even be in the SEC Championship Game, so is unlikely to be in the playoffs.
Don’t believe that BS.
There are few things more certain in life than Alabama being in the college football playoffs.
There have been three playoffs since the current system replaced the old BCS “one vs two” system. Alabama has been in all three. They were also in three of the last five BCS Championship games. That’s the next best thing to a sure thing.
The SEC Champion has been in the playoffs in each of the past 11 years – the final eight years of the BCS and first three years of the current playoff system. The inclusion of the SEC Champion is damn near the very definition of a “sure thing.”
Of course, that won’t be Alabama this year. But before you think for a moment that it means Nick Saban’s team will get left out of the party, keep in mind that the Tide didn’t win the SEC in 2011, either, but that didn’t stop the powers-that-be from matching them up in the BCS Championship game against LSU, the team that DID win the SEC title.
Yes, even though they could select only TWO teams, they chose Alabama over the champions of every other conference in the country. And you think that now, with four spots available, they won’t plug in Alabama over… well… pretty much anyone else? Fat chance.
When the teams are announced, here’s what you can be pretty certain will happen: The four teams will be the SEC Champion, the ACC Champion, the B1G Champion and… Alabama.
When it comes to Alabama being selected, it will happen for one reason: It always happens. Always.
Just like how the Vikings will always break your heart and any free agent that the Twins and Yankees both want will always sign with the Yankees.
Until one of those things doesn’t happen, we should just assume that anyone who tries to tell us otherwise is feeding us bullshit.
Congratulations to Twins Manager Paul Molitor for being honored as the American League Manager of the Year for 2017!
In his honor, I thought this might be a fun time to take a an encore look at this post from June of 2013 when Molitor, who was then a roving minor league instructor for the Twins organization, visited Cedar Rapids and was generous enough to sit with me for an interview.
As a reminder, 2013 was the season when current Twins Byron Buxton and Jorge Polanco were wearing Kernels uniforms.
Hope you enjoy this look back. – JC
Hall of Famer Paul Molitor was in Cedar Rapids over the course of most of the past homestand in his capacity with the Twins organization.
Molitor was gracious enough to answer some questions last Thursday, the first day of his stay in Cedar Rapids, as well as a few follow-up questions Monday afternoon after the final game of the Kernels’ homestand.
I used several excerpts from the Thursday interview in an article posted at MetroSportsReport.com last week, but there was so much good material that I couldn’t fit in to that article. So, I’m sharing all of Molitor’s comments here.
First off, I asked Molitor to describe his formal role these days with the Twins organization.
Molitor: Titles are overrated a little bit. Technically, part of the player development team. I’m the Minor League Coordinator for Baserunning and Infield Play. It’s an opportunity for me to travel around the system and help try to teach, along with the staff on each club and I do focus on those two areas but invariably get involved with some of the hitting aspects.
Our hitting coordinator for minor leagues does an incredible job, considering you have to try to put a hit plan together for about 200 guys.
One of the things I enjoy, in addition to the teaching is that a lot of these guys are transitioning from wherever their roots have brought them from and it’s a process of evolving from sometimes teenagers in to men and so there’s mentoring involved, too. Just how to help these guys develop an understanding of the professional life style. We try to do what we can to try to help them progress in those areas, too.
I mentioned that a lot is made about players having to transition to using wood bats and asked Molitor if he thought that was toughest thing about transitioning to the professional game for young players.
Molitor: Some of the collegiate kids have had a chance to play in wood bat leagues in the summer time.
A lot of times it’s a big transition just from maybe never having left home, particularly maybe never left your country and you have to try to claw your way in to professional ball and learn a system that a particular organization teaches.
We don’t try to overwhelm them. We let them play a little bit in the beginning til we kind of get a feel for who they are and what they do, what they do well and what we need to improve on. But the transition can be tough, depending on the guy’s experience.
The college guys are usually better at understanding how to carry themselves and how to go about their business day to day.
Another change is that very few of these kids have played in seasons where there’s 140 games so it’s understanding how to maintain and prepare yourself to withstand the rigors of a professional season.
I asked if playing baseball in the upper midwest in April was difficult for players entering their first season of “full season” professional baseball.
Molitor: The guys from warm climates, whether its Florida, California, Texas or the Dominican or Puerto Rico, you throw them up here in April and it’s not only a culture shock, but the weather is something they really never had to play in those type of conditions.
So that’s a process. We see a lot of guys that haven’t had that experience start a little bit slower, just adapting to the weather itself.
I jokingly pointed out that Byron Buxton is a southern guy that didn’t seem to take long to adjust.
Molitor: He’s just a rare individual with a skill set that’s off the charts.
I saw him last year in instructional ball for a little bit and you could see the rawness of a high school kid, but somehow this winter I think he put a lot of time in to conditioning and preparation. He was much more advanced this spring than I expected him to be and he’s been able to carry it undoubtedly in to the first 9-10 weeks of the season.
You know, he’s got things to work on I’m sure. I’m looking forward to seeing him now compared to even two months ago. Over the next five days. I’ll be watching particularly how he handles himself on the basepaths.
On a professional grading scale of 2-8, he’s an 8 runner and I haven’t for the past three decades seen many players that can compete with him in terms of just raw speed. Now how he can translate that in to base stealing is going to be the key.
Obviously, this year he’s had over 30 attempts. He’s been caught some, but he’s been fairly successful for a young guy and probably in some ways, in this league, he’s been outrunning the ball.
There’s two parts of base stealing: The mechanical, finding the best way to get your body to accelerate from a standstill position; and then there’s the mental side of understanding how they’re trying to slow you down and picking good pitches, good counts, reading pitchers pick-off moves, all those type of things.
A lot of times, when you get caught is when you should learn the most. Whether you didn’t get a good jump or you ran on a pitch out or you didn’t anticipate the guy going home or you were tentative. There’s a lot of ways to learn to get better. So it’s a process. The more you do it, the better you get at it.
We’re glad to see he’s out running. At least not having fear in athat area to this point.
I asked Molitor for his thoughts on Kernels third baseman Travis Harrison, who is still somewhat learning the position.
Molitor: Ive been around him some, mostly spring traning and instructional ball. I’m sure there’s some adaption for him going on.
He has relatively good hands. I think his footwork is something that needs to be improved. Being so close in proximity to home plate, you don’t have a lot of time to react to get your body in position to catch the ball. The better he can get control of his feet and be in the right spot, his hands are going to be OK.
Throwing, he’s had some issues at times with consistency. He’s a little bit mechanical, but I think he’s learning that if he doesn’t try to guide the ball and throws it, he’s better off.
So those are areas where we expect young kids to make errors and just like the baserunning, when you make mistakes, you figure out why and hopefully you can make adjustments.
I asked for Molitor’s thoughts concerning the defensive progress at third base of Harrison, as compared to Miguel Sano (this was a couple of days prior to Sano’s promotion to AA).
Molitor: I think that’s a fair question.
We’re all hoping that Sano, who’s a little farther along in the organization and in growth, in terms of getting close to the Major Leagues. Not unexpectedly, he made a ton of errors last year, his first year of being a third baseman in a full season and it was a plethora of mistakes.
It was misreading balls, it was rushing balls, it was throwing balls he shouldn’t have thrown. Trying to force an out when it wasn’t there.
But having seen him twice already this year, he’s made maybe a dozen errors so far and a lot of them are similar things.
But he’s been very diligent and asking for extra work and trying to correct mistakes.
I’m hoping his future is as a third baseman.
Travis, it’s a little bit early to see how it pans out. A lot of times, you can play three or four years in the minor leagues and then you get to the Big Leagues and there’s no room in that position and all of a sudden you’ve got to maybe transition. So you kind of hope that you get these guys a little bit more well-rounded. As far as their strength position, you want to try to see them develop that the most.
After the game on Monday, a Kernels win that was broadcast back to the Twin Cities on Fox Sports North, I asked Molitor about his impressions after having spent five days with the Kernels in Cedar Rapids.
Molitor: Well it was good to see them bounce back after three tough losses.
I feel like we got some things accomplished with some of the infielders defensively.
It was good to see (Candido) Pimentel back out there today. He had a better day. He still had one play where he got a little anxious about turning his back to the runner and he didn’t keep his eye on the ball and that’s kind of one of the things he’s got to work on is just catching the ball and understanding the speed of the baserunners on the play.
And then with baserunning, we had some guys out working on their jumps today and they’ve been aggressive trying to steal, so I’m pleased with that.
But yeah, I had a lot of fun seeing these guys and kind of seeing where they’re at at this point in the season and hopefully I’ll get a chance to get back and see them again.
Since Molitor had indicated he would be working with Byron Buxton on his base stealing, I asked if we should blame him for Buxton being picked off first base during Monday’s game (yes, I was kidding).
Molitor: You can blame me for that if you want. The (pitcher) did a nice job of holding the ball. I think he kind of built a little tension. The longer the guy holds it, you really have to concentrate on staying relaxed and he might have given him a little bit of a balk move, but that’s, again, learning time.
A hitter can help your baserunner out when he’s holding the ball. Call a time out, things like that. But that’s how you learn.
I asked for Molitor’s impression of Jorge Polanco, specifically whether he thinks Polanco can stick at shortstop.
Molitor: You know, I’ve seen him a fair amount and his arm’s probably competent at short but I still think he probably profiles a little better at second base in the long run.
Working on his footwork a little bit. He can get a little false step on his breaks to the ball and it seems like balls you think he might have a chance to get he comes up a little bit short. So we’ll try to improve his range a little bit and give him a chance.
At 19, it’s certainly too early to close the book on any one position.
Offensively, he’s just getting a little bit stronger and he’s got nice loose hands at the plate and being a switch hitter is generally to his advantage.
But I keep trying to keep them versatile in the middle of the field and hopefully one of the positions will pan out. But I have a feeling probably second base in the long run.
Since we had discussed third baseman Travis Harrison earlier, I asked if he had any final impressions of Harrison.
Molitor: He’s got a great attitude about work ethic and he wants to get better.
I think the main thing for him is going to continue to work on his footwork so his range is competent to stay over there, too. But his throwing’s improved. He’s a lot more accurate. I think he’s comfortable over there.
He’s still feeling for positioning a little bit. Sometimes I catch him maybe not quite in the right spot. There’s a reason you are where you are on every pitch and I think he’s learning that and trying to take some pride in it.
It was a pleasure to talk a little baseball with Paul Molitor and I appreciate him taking the time to answer questions. I think the thought he put in to his comments clearly demonstrates just how seriously he takes his work with the Twins’ young players and how much he enjoys doing what he’s doing. – JC
I’m not sure why I couldn’t bring myself to write over the past couple of months. Certainly, it wasn’t for a lack of Twins-related stuff to hash over, right? Since my last post, the Twins and Kernels BOTH qualified for their respective leagues’ postseasons. Not bad, right?
Neither of them lasted as long as we would have liked, with the Kernels winning their first round series over Kane County, but dropping two games out of three to Quad Cities in the Midwest League’s Western Division championship series and the Twins falling to the Evil Empire in the American League Wild Card game, but still, they capped off successful seasons.
Now we’re into baseball’s offseason. You remember the offseason? I know, if you’re a Twins fan, it’s understandable if you have no idea what that is. After all, the Twins haven’t historically done much but go into hibernation from November until pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training in February.
Already, this offseason, though, the Twins front office has: let go of Fort Myers Miracle manager (and fan-favorite former Twins first baseman) Doug Mientkiewicz, announced a three year extension for manager Paul Molitor, released their major league pitching coach and minor league pitching coordinator and hired John Manuel, the editor of Baseball America, into their pro scouting organization.
Of interest to Kernels fans (at least it should be), the Twins also promoted farm director Brad Steil to the director of professional scouting and hired a new director of minor league operations, Jeremy Zoll, out of the Dodgers organization.
That may not sound like a lot to some people, but for the Twins, that’s a lot of decisions coming down the pipeline before the World Series even gets started!
It seemed to me, though, that it was the Mientkiewicz news that got the biggest reaction out of Twinsville. He had been, after all, reported to have been a candidate for the Twins’ managerial job before Molitor was eventually given the gig. And it’s pretty hard, I think, to find a player that spent any time on one of his teams in Fort Myers or Chattanooga who didn’t speak highly of him.
But, from everything I’ve heard from former players and media, Dougie Baseball was a bit of a dinosaur, when it comes to his approach to managing a baseball team. He also had a history of, arguably, stretching pitch counts for some of his young pitchers.
If any of that is true, then his chances of ever landing a coaching spot (much less the manager’s seat) at the MLB level in a Twins organization run by Thad Levine and Derek Falvey were virtually nil. He’s better off looking for a better philosophical fit. His problem is going to be trying to find a front office that still values his way of thinking above more modern analytical approaches.
Modern analytics are no longer just theory. In fact, they are no longer just being applied to the Major League levels. Minor league managers and coaches, all the way down through the lower levels, are being provided the tools necessary to record and mine advanced data on their own players, as well as their opponents’. And this Twins front office is not going to accept any coach or manager who doesn’t embrace and utilize those tools.
From where I sat in Cedar Rapids this summer, manager Tommy Watkins and his coaches (Brian Dinkelman and JP Martinez) did embrace this new world. They and their players spent more time with video, they applied the data at their fingertips related to everything from lineup construction to defensive shifts and were very careful not to overwork the young arms they were responsible for developing.
And they did all that while also winning baseball games!
I have no first-hand knowledge of whether other managing/coaching staff members in the organization were as on board as the Kernels’ staff with those obvious changes from past practices, but if any of them dragged their feet, they really can’t be too surprised if the front office decides to find replacements who would be more enthusiastic about implementing their bosses’ philosophies.
Apparently, Molitor demonstrated well enough that he was capable of implementing the front office’s system to warrant being kept around.
Then again, we all know that Molitor is a favorite not only with a significant segment of the fan base but, more importantly, with owner Jim Pohlad.
Pohlad made retaining his manager for at least a year a prerequisite for anyone applying to replace former General Manager Terry Ryan, so his feelings about Molitor are obvious.
Reports indicated that Pohlad did not order his front office to offer an extension to the manager after this past season, but that, if they decided they wanted to go another way, he wanted to be involved in a conversation before any announcement was made. That conversation was never necessary, of course, but one can imagine how it might have gone if the brass had decided they wanted to move in another direction.
Pohlad: Let me get this straight. Molitor led our team to the most dramatic turnaround, record-wise, in our history. He did this after you guys gave up on the season and got rid of his closer and the starting pitcher you traded FOR just a week earlier. Now, you want to fire him? Why?
“Falvine”: We just want our own guy in that position.
Pohlad, after a long pause to consider whether he would rather keep Molitor or these two new guys he still hasn’t learned to tell apart: OK. You lived up to your end of the deal. You kept Paul for one year. But gentlemen, you’d better be right or a year from now, your choice for a manager will be back on the street… and he’ll have company.
No, they weren’t going to let Molitor go. The only question in my mind was whether, after a year of spreadsheets and exit velocities, he felt comfortable continuing to manage in the new baseball world.
It’s not like he needed the gig, right? But I suspect that the promise of what this team could become over the next three years was enough to make him want to be around for that ride and I think he has some genuine affinity for and with this group of players which refused to roll over even after their front office gave up on them.
Now Falvine can focus on getting some pitching.
If there’s one thing that watching the teams that are still alive in the postseason drives home to you, it’s the difference between the quality of the pitching staffs, in particular the starting rotations, between these teams and the Twins.
I will say that the Twins’ rotation has improved. Whenever Santana, Berrios and even Gibson took the mound to start a game in August and September, I felt like the Twins had a chance to win.
But teams like the Astros, Indians, Dodgers, Cubs and even the Yankees don’t just feel they have a chance to win when their top three (and sometimes more) starters are on the mound, they EXPECT to win those games.
That is a huge difference and the task of the Twins’ front office is to make that kind of thing happen in Minnesota and do it fast.
The window for winning with this current group of position players is now opening and those windows only last so long.
The Twins can’t afford to wait two or three or four years to develop a postseason-worth rotation. It has to happen sooner than that and it has to start in the next two months.
It has been a while since I felt inclined to support potentially trading top prospects for immediate help at the big league level, but I’m there now.
If it takes a couple of the organization’s top position player prospects to get legitimate starting pitching help (and not just #3 or #4 level arms), then get it done. Face it, there’s not a lot of room in this lineup right now for the guys coming up anyway and those guys might be better served to go somewhere that they aren’t blocked by guys like Buxton, Sano, Kepler and maybe even Polanco.
And the Twins can’t wait around to get pitching. Yes, let’s find out how good the top starting pitching prospects can be, but don’t let that stop you from getting pitchers that you can honestly EXPECT to win behind, not just have a chance to do so.
This should be the most interesting Twins offseason in the past couple of decades. If it’s not, then Levine and Falvey aren’t doing their jobs.
For some time now, my son Ryan and I have been tossing around the idea of doing a podcast.
The two of us (and occasionally along with other family members and friends of the family) get together rather regularly at our favorite watering hole, Bushwood Sports Bar & Grill in Cedar Rapids.
As difficult as it may be to believe, when Ryan and I get together for a beer (or to golf or to go to a ballgame), our conversations become heavily (though not exclusively) sports related.
Anyway, Thursday over happy hour, Ryan and I had a beer or two at Bushwood after he got off work and we turned the mics on for a little over half an hour.
In retrospect, recording at happy hour in a bar may have been a questionable decision and I have to own that decision, myself. Ryan had doubts.
There’s a fair amount of background noise (no, we aren’t using fancy mixing equipment that allows us to dial that stuff down), but, hey, just pretend you were with us at the bar, ok?
If you’d like to listen to us discuss the respective starts of the Twins and Orioles (Ryan’s favorite MLB team) and a bit about the Kernels and the upcoming June draft, feel free to click here and give it a listen.
The big mystery, now, is whether this is something we will ever try to do again.
We’ve all been thinking it. We’ve tried to rationalize, in our minds and even in our public statements.
But privately, every one of us in Twinsville has been thinking it.
Yes, the season is still young, with only 12 games in the book and 150 still ahead.
Yes, the Twins, as a whole, have been surprisingly competitive, thanks to better than expected pitching being backed up by defense that’s superior to pretty much anything we’ve seen in Twins uniforms during the Target Field era.
Still, nobody who has watched this team can claim that the Twins engine is hitting on all cylinders.
So let’s just put it out there.
What the hell is wrong with Byron Buxton and Joe Mauer? And when is someone going to do something about it?
The Twins’ Opening Day lineup had Buxton in the number three spot and Mauer batting cleanup. Obviously, manager Paul Molitor and the other decision makers were expecting some pretty decent productivity at the plate out of both guys.
To say that hasn’t happened would be an understatement of near-epic proportions.
Through Sunday’s game, Buxton is hitting just .093 and Mauer’s batting average is not much more impressive.
Mauer’s .190 BA is bad enough, but his .434 OPS has to be embarrassing for a guy that should be justifiably proud of a .391 career on-base percentage, alone.
I’ll grant that both guys have made contributions to the Twins’ surprisingly strong start, but those contributions have come almost exclusively with their gloves.
Buxton has made multiple highlight-reel catches in centerfield and Mauer has been impressive at first base.
If there’s been a weakness in the Twins’ defense, so far, it has been on the left side of their infield where Miguel Sano and Jorge Polanco have been a little erratic at times and Mauer has looked awfully good to me at picking their throws out of the dirt at first base.
Still, with the Twins sitting at 7-5 through their first dozen games of the season, we can’t help but ask ourselves just how good this team could be looking if Buxton and Mauer were just performing at a level we might grudgingly call “okay” at the plate.
I’m not going to suggest that Molitor should go off the deep end and bench either of these players after just two weeks. That would be an overreaction. After all, Buxton has had just 46 plate appearances and Mauer only 45.
By the end of the season, Joe Mauer is going to be hitting .260. He’ll show limited power, but will have his share of doubles. It’s what Joe Mauer does. It’s not ideal, especially for a first baseman, but with ByungHo Park on the shelf with a bad hamstring at the moment, it’s not likely that the Twins would consider a change at first base any time soon (though we might want to make note that Ben Paulsen has three home runs and is sporting a 1.051 OPS in Rochester already).
As for Buxton, we have to keep in mind that, not withstanding their early record, the Twins are still in a rebuilding process and Byron Buxton is still very likely to be a major cog in the machine that we all hope will eventually bring postseason baseball back to Target Field.
That being the case, you do whatever you think is necessary to get him straightened out at the plate, no matter how long it takes.
I don’t think sending him to AAA would do much good and sitting him on the bench won’t improve his plate appearances. The only chance he has of learning to hit big league pitching, at this point, is to keep facing big league pitching.
And here’s something else worth keeping in mind: Perhaps the best thing that could happen in terms of accelerating the Twins’ return to September significance would be to see pitchers such as Ervin Santana and Hector Santiago put up stats strong enough to induce bidding wars among teams in need of pitching at midseason.
There is no doubt that having Buxton in centerfield makes the stat lines of every pitcher that takes the mound look better. You could possibly make the same argument for Mauer at first base, for that matter.
So Mauer and Buxton aren’t going anywhere and they’re going to be penciled into the lineup by Molitor almost every day. We can resign ourselves to that and hope their bats wake up.
Still, nobody can be blamed for openly wondering how many more games this Twins team, as currently constructed, could be winning if Buxton and Mauer were carrying their own weight… or at least hitting their weight.
With the 2017 Minnesota Twins season set to open up on Monday, it’s finally time to try to predict what this team will do over the next 162 games.
Looking at the Opening Day roster and comparing it to what we saw a year ago, making a prediction that doesn’t have the Twins once again at least flirting with 100 losses takes a combination of considerable imagination and pure hope.
A 103-loss team a year ago, it’s pretty hard to see obvious reasons to project a significant improvement in that record. The primary change (in fact, perhaps the only significant change) in the organization came in the front office and, no matter what you think of Derek Falvey and Thad Levine, the new Twins brass won’t pitch or hit the team to more wins.
This is a roster that cried out for pitching upgrades and I defy anyone to look at the Opening Day pitching staff and point out where significant improvement is going to come from. The decision-makers have determined that manager Paul Molitor will have 13 pitchers to choose from. I don’t think volume is going to automatically make the staff better, though.
What this roster does have, thanks to the extra pitching being carried, is a total lack of offense available off the bench. When Molitor looks down his bench for a pinch hitter, he’s going to be looking at Chris Gimenez, Eduardo Escobar and Danny Santana.
The only way he’ll see a viable pinch hitter in that dugout is if he has started Escobar at shortstop, leaving Jorge Polanco available.
Gimenez, the backup catcher, is also supposedly the backup first baseman behind Joe Mauer. That’s not ideal. I have to wonder if we won’t see Max Kepler at first base with some frequency. I don’t doubt he can handle the position (he did well enough there in Cedar Rapids back in 2013), but it’s a waste to put a guy with his range in the outfield at first base. It just makes you worse as a team, defensively, at both positions.
I don’t envy Molitor the task he has before him this season.
Owner Jim Pohlad made it clear at the end of 2016 that, regardless of who he hired to run his baseball operations, they were going to keep Molitor as their manager in 2017.
So Falvey and Levine knew they wouldn’t be able to hire the manager of their choice until the 2018 season.
But it’s almost as if they collectively decided that they weren’t going to go out of their way during the 2016-2017 offseason to improve the Twins’ roster and risk giving Molitor any chance to win enough games to make replacing him an unpopular thing to do, either with fans or with an owner who clearly likes the Hall-of-Famer, after his lame-duck season wraps up.
He’ll get no argument from most Twins fans on that point.
Molitor also conceded that his ability to produce more wins may be taken out of his hands as this season unfolds. After trying, and failing, to get what they considered fair market trade value out of veterans like Brian Dozier and Ervin Santana during the offseason, you have to assume that the Twins new front office would be quick to pull the trigger on mid-season trades of such players if they get off to good starts, driving up their trade values
With a front office so obviously focused on the future, such moves would have significant negative effects on the chances of Molitor leading his team to enough wins to save his job.
To his credit, it’s clear from the comments he made to Murphy that Molitor, while being aware of these circumstances, isn’t particularly concerned about them. Or at least he’s classy enough not to express any such concerns publicly.
Make no mistake, however, any ultimate failure of the 2017 Twins to substantially improve the results that fans see on the field would be a shared responsibility.
I won’t argue that Molitor would be blameless for a lack of success, but his front office did him no favors with its inactivity all offseason long. They had an obvious task – improve the pitching, both the rotation and the bullpen. They did almost nothing to address that need and that, in my view, would make them primarily responsible if a lack of pitching talent leads to another bad season.
I’m hoping that another year of development will mean significant improvements on the field from guys such as Kepler, Polanco, Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano.
I’m hoping Phil Hughes and Kyle Gibson have good years and that whatever mix is in that bullpen turns out able to do its job well.
I’m hoping that some of the organization’s young pitchers develop quickly enough to provide upgrades during the course of the season.
As a fan, hoping is all I have the ability to do.
Unfortunately, everything I’ve seen, heard and read about the new Twins front office indicates that they’re just hoping all those things happen, too.
Falvey and Levine, however, walked into their offices at Target Field with the absolute authority to reshape their roster and they did virtually nothing to give Molitor – and Twins fans – anything of substance to hang our hopes on for this season.
Yes, it has been a while since I posted anything, so I’ll be surprised if anyone still remembers we have this blog, but I’m back home after a couple of weeks in Florida and it’s almost time for the baseball season to begin. So, let’s fire up the blog again and see whether we, as Twins fans, have enough this season to even be worth talking about.
We are not off to a great start.
First of all, the new Twins front office did virtually nothing in their first offseason on the job to improve the team. I was asked during a brief radio interview on KMRY in Cedar Rapids this week what I felt about the Twins’ fortunes in 2017 after spending time at their spring training site in March. I’ll say the same thing here that I said in response during that interview.
The Twins did nothing to improve their team in the offseason, so any improvement will have to come from further development of their existing young roster, guys like Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, et al.
The good news is that there is every reason to believe that Buck, Max and friends like Miguel Sano, Jorge Polanco and Eddie Rosario should indeed mature and see their games improve.
The bad news is that none of those guys can pitch. (Well, Buxton probably COULD, but it ain’t happening.)
This morning, many of the final roster moves were announced and we found out that the Twins will start the season with 13 pitchers and without the player that perhaps had the best spring training of anyone in camp, Byung ho Park, who was sent down and will apparently start his season in Rochester.
That leaves the Twins with just three bench bats and none of them are guys you would want to see come to the plate even as a pinch hitter.
The bottom line, it seems to me, is that the new front office is scared to death of their pitching staff. I understand that because I think most of us have been afraid of this pitching staff for a long time. But they had all offseason to address their obvious pitching needs and did virtually nothing to improve it.
So, to tell us they sent Park down because they felt they ended up needing more pitchers is really an indictment on their poor work in obtaining pitching during the offseason. Fans should not let them off the hook easily if this all blows up.
Now that I have that rant out of the way, let me just pass on some observations I had down in Fort Myers.
As always, I spent a fair amount of time on the minor league side of the complex watching past and future Cedar Rapids Kernels work out.
My sense, as I shared Tuesday on the MN Sports Weekly podcast, as well as the KMRY interview, is that the Kernels will have a better offensive lineup this season than they had a year ago and it appears that at least half of the team’s pitching rotation that finished the 2016 season will be returning to start 2017.
Lewin Diaz and Shane Carrier should add pop to the middle of the order and, for now anyway, it appears that Travis Blankenhorn and Jaylin Davis will return to start the new season in CR. That group could produce some runs if other guys can get on base with regularity.
It doesn’t look like slugger Amourys Minier will break camp with the Kernels at this point, but he should help out when he arrives later in the season, as could other bats such as Trey Cabbage and Wander Javier.
Jermaine Palacios will return and be among a large group of middle infielders worthy of getting opportunities in Cedar Rapids during the season.
Let’s wrap up with a few pictures from my time in Fort Myers.