The First (and Last?) Knuckleballs Podcast

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.

-Steve

When Can Twins Fans Say It Out Loud?

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?

Byron Buxton launched this home run in spring training – and has barely made contact with his bat since. (Photo: SD Buhr)

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.

Joe Mauer (Photo: SD Buhr)

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.

Twins Brass Setting Molitor Up to Fail?

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.

Twins GM That Levine

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.

Molitor has certainly not set the world on fir in his first two seasons as a manager. In this interview with the Pioneer Press’ Brian Murphy, Molitor even admits that, “Learning to run the bullpen has been a work in progress.”

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.

Are You Ready For Some Baseball?

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.

Fort Myers Beach – yes there is something other than baseball to do on a mid 80s March day in Florida.
IF Aaron Whitefield and C Ben Rortvedt
Tyler Beardsley should be returning to Cedar Rapids
Ariel Montesino makes a bare handed play as Wander Javier looks on.
Byron Buxton goes deep in the first inning against the Orioles.
Jorge Polanco gets congratulated after a grand slam home run.

 

Kernels Hot Stove/Twins Caravan Reception

The Minnesota Twins once again included Cedar Rapids, the home of their Class A affiliate Kernels, in their Twins Winter Caravan tour and last night’s event was entertaining and about as enjoyable as any such event put on by a 100+ loss big league organization could be.

Kris Atteberry emcees the panel of Trevor May, Byron Buxton, Tommy Watkins, Thad Levine and Brian Dinkelman

The venue was one of several new aspects of this year’s Kernels Hot Stove event, the primary fundraiser for the organization’s charitable foundation.

Rather than using a large hotel ballroom to hold a sit-down dinner, the Kernels hosted a reception at the New Bo City Market, a showplace for a variety of local food merchants. All food, beer and wine available at the event was provided by New Bo vendors, giving the event a distinctively local flavor.

Broadcaster Kris Atteberry did a terrific job as the emcee for the Twins Caravan portion of the program, doling out opportunities to address the gathering to five members of the Twins organization gathered on stage. They included a pair of Twins players, pitcher Trevor May and outfielder Byron Buxton, newly announced Kernels manager Tommy Watkins, new Twins General Manager Thad Levine and Brian Dinkelman, who served as the Kernels hitting coach in 2016 and, while no official announcement has been made as yet, is presumed to be serving in that capacity this summer, as well.

In addition to responding to Atteberry’s prepared questions from the podium and answering questions from the crowd, the Caravan participants also were available for media interviews.

Here are a few highlights from one-on-one interviews, as well as the public portion of the program.

Early in January, the Twins and Kernels announced that Watkins, who served as the Kernels hitting coach, under former manager Jake Mauer, from 2013 through 2015 and in the same capacity for Class AA Chattanooga last season, will get his first opportunity as a minor league manager in 2017 when he takes the Kernels’ reins.

Watkins said that he and farm director Brad Steil had discussed the possibility of Watkins getting a managing opportunity for the past couple of years, but no such position had opened up until last year’s Fort Myers Miracle manager Jeff Smith got promoted to a coaching position with the Twins this offseason. Still, Watkins said, “I didn’t know if I would get it or not.”

Trevor May and Tommy Watkins react to Byron Buxton explaining how he “noodled” a catfish

Once the assignment was officially offered, Watkins was very happy to accept. “It was just like the news I got when I was going to the big leagues. I was happy, I was nervous, I was scared, I didn’t want to go. So it was a lot of things. I cried, I laughed, I called my family and told them. It was exciting news.”

Asked by Atteberry to tell the gathering what went into the front office’s decision to offer the job to Watkins, Levine led off with tongue firmly planted in cheek. “I’ve got to be honest with you, I have no idea how this came to pass. This is news to me. I’ll try to adjust on the fly.”

Levine then turned serious – and very complimentary toward the new Kernels manager.

“I think that one thing you guys always hear about is that we’re trying to develop players, there’s a development track. But I think the other thing that we’re trying to develop concurrently is staff members. Guys who have a chance, on the scouting side, to influence decision making and, on the coaching side, a chance to be Major League coaches.

“One of the things that I heard when I first joined the Minnesota Twins was about the man to my right, Tommy, and I think the universal feeling was that he had a chance to be a really good hitting coach, but he had the chance to be special as a manager. So when the opportunity presented itself to give him an opportunity to pursue his career as a manager, I think everybody in the organization really endorsed him because we felt as if that’s where he’s going to be a difference maker.

“We think he’s going to have a chance to be a Major League coach down the road. We think in the short term, he has a chance to really influence our minor league players, and as a manager we think his impact could be even greater than it was as a hitting coach.

“He’s a special man. He’s very charismatic. He knows the game of baseball. He’s still trying to learn every single day. Each time I’ve been around him, I feel as if I’ve gotten to know him a little bit better. This guy’s a very dynamic man. He’s going to be a leader in our organization for a long time to come and he’s just scratching the surface of his potential.”

TC Bear made the trip to Cedar Rapids with the rest of the Twins Caravan crew

Watkins said before the event that he’s looking forward to his return to the Kernels. “It feels good. I had a bunch of different emotions but I’m excited. It feels like I’ve been gone for a lot longer than just a year, but it’s good to be back. I enjoyed my time here and I’m looking forward to it.”

Asked by Atteberry to set the line on how many times Watkins will be ejected by umpires in 2017, Brian Dinkelman didn’t hesitate before saying. “I set it at 3 1/2.”

Buxton said he’s been feeling good since his hot finish to last season in September. “I’ve been hitting since late November, working on a few things and getting some stuff kinked out, but other than that, I feel great.

“I’m just focusing a little bit more on hitting, being a little bit more consistent, using my legs, staying down through the ball, keeping my head down. Just small things to help me out in the long run.”

He said he didn’t think there was any major change in his game that led to his strong finish to the 2016 season.

“Just stop thinking. Just run out there and play baseball. Have fun, going out there and have fun with teammates. We competed, September was different for everybody, not just including me. We went out there with a different mindset to finish the season strong and carry that over into spring training and this season.”

Looking back at his time in Cedar Rapids as a teenager barely out of high school, he said the dream of playing big league ball has turned out to be everything he hoped for, “and more.”

“Not many people are able to make it up there to the bigs, so I’m very blessed and thankful to get up there. Just being able to play beside Trevor when he’s up there pitching, not many people can say you’ve been in a big league uniform and you’ve been behind a pitcher like him that gives it his all and you’re right there giving it your all and trying to compete for a World Series ring.”

For his part, May also indicated he’s feeling good after having  some trouble staying healthy in 2016.

“I’m feeling good,” said May. “I had some patterns I needed to break. In the past, I’ve always thought four months was enough to heal from everything in the offseason. But I’ve come to the realization that breaking down a muscle and building it back up again to where you want it to work just takes time.”

He said even little things such as posture, while standing or sitting, have been items he’s focused on this offseason, with an emphasis on workouts that increase his flexibility, like Pilates and yoga, rather than weight training.

“I was doing a bunch of stuff that was just exacerbating the problem 24 hours a day. Changing all those things has been a lot of work, but I’m excited to just keep doing what I’m doing into the season.

“I threw a bullpen today. If I threw a bullpen when my back was tight back there, I would definitely feel some stiffness right now after I threw and I don’t feel stiff at all, so I’m just taking that as a really good sign.”

May wasn’t just trying new things in regard to his offseason workout regimen. While he did some DJing again this year, as he has in the past, he also expanded his horizons.

“I actually have a new hobby,” he explained. “I broadcast video games, which has been really fun. It’s like having your own radio show in which you talk and play video games. I really enjoy it. I’m going to try to do it once a month on an offday during the season. I’m going to host tournaments of games I play for viewers.”

Asked to evaluate the state of the Twins’ farm system, now that many of their previous top prospects have broken into the big leagues, new GM Levine said that the Twins front office doesn’t necessarily look at the organization strictly in terms of players that have exhausted their eligibility for Rookie of the Year awards and those that have not.

“I think we look at the farm system as an extension to the Major Leagues, so any guy in the Major Leagues who has two or fewer years of service is part of that next wave, that core,” he said. “So I think when you include those players with your minor league players, you can really see the waves of players coming.

“There’s a wave in the big leagues right now, there’s a wave right behind them, there’s a wave that will be playing at Cedar Rapids this year. I think we’re excited about the depth throughout our system, inclusive of the Major Leagues and I think if you include that young group in the Major Leagues all the way down, you could see that the future is very bright.

“For a team that has the payroll that we will have, you’re looking at having as many young players who can impact the game as possible and I think you’ve got to look at the guys who have matriculated to the big leagues when you’re factoring that.”

The subject of the relatively public flirtation with trading second baseman Brian Dozier came up both in the interview setting and during the public Question & Answer session.

Levine indicated that, while it certainly appears that Dozier will be opening the season with the Twins, he wouldn’t say the door was completely closed on the possibility of moving Dozier, or any other player for that matter.

“I don’t know that we would talk specifically about any one trade negotiation, but I think the way Derek (Falvey) and I are going to operate is that we’re not closing doors at any juncture. At that point, you are not doing your job to the fullest. Any time you close off opportunities to improve the team, I think you’re doing the franchise a disservice.”

Buxton and May did the autograph thing after the Twins Caravan program

During the public session, Levine was asked specifically what he expected Dozier’s future was with the Twins.

“I think we think his future is going to be glorious with the franchise,” he responded. “He’s been the consummate professional throughout this process. We always approached this from the mindset of, the best the Minnesota Twins could be would be with Brian Dozier. If someone wants to blow our socks off, we’ll consider talking about him. But for that fact, we see him as part of this franchise moving forward.”

Atteberry asked Levine to address the “stats vs scouting” issue that comes up in almost any conversation about thenew front office management. Again, the new GM mixed humor into his more thoughtful response.

“When the movie Moneyball came out, everybody who was below a certain age – at that time, I would say 35, now I would say 45, just conveniently (Levine celebrated his 45th birthday in November) – you were viewed to be more of a formulaic-based decision making group vs if you were older, you were more of a scouts guy. And I think it’s a bit of a misconception.

“Derek and I are both guys who are going to have analytics and scouting and player development factor into every decision that we make. We’re not going to focus singularly on any sort of formula to spit out a decision we’re going to make.

“The other big misconception I think about that movie is that anybody working in a front office looks at all like Brad Pitt. We really don’t. Honestly.

“So the movie did some disservices across the board, but I do think analytics plays a role in decision making, but that’s all it is. It’s a piece of the pie. It’s not something that is going to drive us to make any singular decision. It will be something we weigh in, we factor in, but it’s not going to drive our decision making.”

Also during the public session, Atteberry challenged Levine to demonstrate how much he knew about the two players he was sharing a stage with. Atteberry presented a few bits of trivia and asked Levine to guess which player, May or Buxton, the fact pertained to.

The questions were: Which player DJ’d at his own wedding? Which one of them has the highest vertical jump and is the fastest runner in his family (and which is not)? Which has successfully noodled a catfish? And which one has a mother that kept a mountain lion as a pet for four years?

The answers: May (obviously), Buxton is NOT the fastest runner or best jumper in his family (he said his dad jumps higher, his brother is faster and he has a 13-year old sister that may eventually pass them all), but Buxton did noodle a catfish. It was May’s mother who kept a mountain lion as a pet.

And Levine nailed every answer correctly.

Two members of the “Knuckleballs” table took home door prizes. A May & Buxton signed jersey and a Twins stocking cap

The final question from the audience asked Watkins and Buxton to relate the funniest thing that happened to them during their time with the Kernels.

Suffice to say that you won’t find Buxton playing baseball with ping pong balls in the clubhouse again any time soon and Watkins’ days of shaving his head are over.

Who’ll Stop the Rain?

What do you get from me when it’s three degrees outside and I have no desire to even look outside, much less go there, and I have nothing interesting to do inside? You get Creedence Clearwater Revival, that’s what you get.

Long as I remember the rain been comin’ down
Clouds of mystery pourin’ confusion on the ground.
Good men through the ages tryin’ to find the sun.
And I wonder still I wonder who’ll stop the rain.

I’ve been a Twins fan ever since the first day there were Minnesota Twins to be a fan of so, as far as the Twins’ history is concerned, I have quite literally seen it all.

There have been some good times.

Sandy Koufax broke my heart in 1965, but the Twins team that took Koufax and Don Drysdale seven games in that World Series will quite likely remain my favorite group of Twins forever.

The Championship teams of 1987 and 1991 were special, as well. And while they never quite lived up to our expectations, the teams of the 2000s were a lot of fun to watch. Many of those players were at least indirectly responsible for the Twins avoiding possible contraction. Without them, there might be no Minnesota Twins today.

Still, there’s probably no song lyric that could describe my feeling toward the Twins of the past decade-and-a-half than, “clouds of mystery pourin’ confusion on the ground.”

When the Twins used the first pick in the 2001 draft to select local high school catcher Joe Mauer, they were also celebrating the 10th Anniversary of their most recent trip the World Series.

The hope was that Mauer would join an evolving young group of players, including pitcher Brad Radke and the outfield’s “soul patrol” of Torii Hunter, Jacque Jones and Matt Lawton, to help Minnesota fans put the bitter memories of contraction, Kirby Puckett’s forced retirement and the general confusion that tainted the final years of manager Tom Kelly’s tenure behind them.

We almost took for granted that General Manager Terry Ryan and manager Ron Gardenhire would blend Mauer, along with the likes of Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer and Johan Santana, into a group that would ultimately bring new World Series memories to another generation of Twins fans.

I could never figure out why Gardenhire, Ryan and the players who were perennial American League Central champions so consistently fell short of the World Series, especially since, once you fall short a couple of times, you really should have a pretty solid idea of what you need to do to take that final step the next time.

Whatever the reasons, the job didn’t get done.

I went down Virginia seekin’ shelter from the storm
Caught up in the fable I watched the tower grow
Five year plans and new deals wrapped in golden chains.
And I wonder still I wonder who’ll stop the rain.

Despite the lack of postseason success, nobody wanted to totally break up the band.

One reason they couldn’t get over that hump, we were told, was that the Twins were stuck playing in an oversized pillow built for football. The Twins had a bad lease at the Metrodome and couldn’t fiscally afford to even keep their own top players, much less attract free agents from elsewhere.

The prospect of losing most, if not all, of the core players that seemed to have the club on the verge of bringing another World Series to the Twin Cities, was agonizingly familiar to fans of my generation.

We had, after all, lived through the Calvin Griffith era where, during the early years of free agency, Griffith would trade away any star player that even approached being moderately expensive to retain. The guy alienated and traded away Rod Carew, for crying out loud!

So, I was happy when, despite the questionable fiscal wisdom of public funding for sports venues, the good people of the Twin Cities (or at least a couple of influential politicians among the populace) built the Twins a beautiful new ballpark, ostensibly assuring that the club would be able to afford to retain the best of their home grown talent long enough to see them raise more World Series banners.

Suddenly, the Twins were swimming in new revenue. Certainly a World Series was just beyond the horizon.

Heard the singers playin’, how we cheered for more.
The crowd had rushed together tryin’ to keep warm.
Still the rain kept pourin’, fallin’ on my ears
And I wonder, still I wonder who’ll stop the rain.

Target field brought record attendance, but the fortunes of the Twins in the won-loss column did not improve. Quite the opposite, in fact.

That didn’t keep us from enjoying Target Field, of course, even during chilly, damp early-season games. We were finally watching baseball outdoors again – the way it was intended to be – and Mauer, Morneau and Cuddyer, joined for a while by former nemesis Jim Thome, gave us plenty of excitement in the first couple years of the new ballpark

Eventually, however, the promising “young” players got old and moved on, leaving only an aging Mauer to serve as a veteran presence in the clubhouse for the next generation.

Now, two years after Gardenhire was shown the door, Terry Ryan has followed him. As crowds at Target field have dwindled, the crowds of disenchanted fans with pitchforks calling for the heads of those in charge of the team grew in number and volume, ultimately (and understandably) costing both men their jobs.

The cheers heralding the arrival of the new Twins brass, Derek Falvey and Thad Levineis are impossible to miss. They seem like good choices to lead the Twins into the future. They have the pedigree teams are looking for – business and analytics backgrounds, along with some residual respect for old-school scouting.

David Laurila, over at Fangraphs, posted an interview he conducted with Falvey and Levine at the recent Winter Meetings in Washington and it’s hard, if not impossible, to argue with any of what they shared concerning their philosophies.

I like what I read and hear about both men and I’m putting a great deal of faith in them. I believe they will bring another World Series to Minnesota. I believe they will stop the rain. I have to believe that. I’ve only got a limited number of “rebuilds” left in me.

If Falvey and Levine fail, they’ll ultimately be replaced by some other combination of executives who will bring their unique talents and philosophies to the job. They’ll also get several years to rebuild the organization to suit those philosophies.

Maybe you can afford to wait through another long cycle of futility and rebuilding, but I may not have that option.

It has been 25 years since Jack Morris shut out the Braves to cap what was quite possibly the best World Series in history and, sure, I may be fortunate enough to have another 25 years to wait. Let’s be honest, though. The actuaries in your family wouldn’t allow you to bet much money on my chances. (By the way, if you have actuaries in your family, I’m really, really sorry. Just be thankful they aren’t lawyers.)

I felt the pouring rain Griffith allowed to fall on us through most of the 1970s and early 1980s, as well as the stale-aired rain that Carl Pohlad inexcusably allowed to permeate the Teflon roof of the Metrodome for a decade after the Twins’ last championship.

.Will Derek Falvey and Thad Levine finally stop the rain? I sure hope so… and I hope it’s soon.

A Tale of Two Catchers

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Granted, it probably wasn’t anywhere near the “worst of times” for Stuart Turner and Mitch Garver, but the excitement of learning they had been drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the June, 2013 Amateur Draft had to have been at least slightly dampened with the realization that the Twins had drafted both of them.

Mitch Garver
Mitch Garver (Photo: SD Buhr)

Going into that draft, the Twins knew they needed catching. They didn’t yet know just how desperately they needed catching.

The Twins had allowed their organization to become thin at a critical (if not THE most critical) defensive position. And it was understandable, to a degree. After all, they had the reigning American League Most Valuable Player behind the plate. Catcher Joe Mauer was not only good for a .300 batting average and .400 on-base percentage every season, but he had only just turned 30 years old a few weeks earlier.

What the Twins’ brass didn’t know – and couldn’t know – as they gathered in their offices for the June 2013 Amateur Player Draft, was that Mauer would never get behind the plate to catch another big league game after the 2013 season, due to persistent concussion problems.

Still, to their credit, they identified the catching position as one that warranted some focus in the 2013 draft.

And focus they did.

The Twins used three of their top 10 picks in 2013 on catchers and added another in the 22nd round.

After selecting pitchers Kohl Stewart and Ryan Eades in rounds one and two, Minnesota picked Ole Miss catcher Stuart Turner in the third round. He was the 2013 Johnny Bench award winner, presented to the top NCAA Division I catcher.

In the sixth round, the Twins grabbed a high school catcher, Brian Navarreto.

New Mexico Lobo catcher Mitch Garver was selected by the Twins in the ninth round. Garver was one of three finalists for the Johnny Bench award that Turner won. In fact, it was the second year that Garver was a Bench Award finalist.

The Twins added Alex Swim out of Elon (NC) University in the 22nd round, to complete the 2013 catching class.

Adding that many catchers to the organization at one time required a bit of roster manipulation on the part of the Twins farm director Brad Steil and his group. You obviously can’t just start the entire group at the same level and still get everyone enough work behind the plate to develop them.

Navarreto, being a few years younger than the others, was easy to plug into the rookie league programs.

Fair or not, as a lower round pick, there would be less emphasis on getting Swim adequate opportunities to show what he could do behind the plate.

By the end of the 2013 season, of course, the Twins pretty much knew Mauer’s career as a catcher was effectively over and suddenly the club and its fans became much more interested in the catchers coming up through the farm system, particularly in Turner and Garver.

Stuart Turner (PhotoL SD Buhr)
Stuart Turner (Photo: SD Buhr)

The Twins don’t make a habit of starting many of their young players at the Advanced Class A level in Ft. Myers, but it was important that both Turner and Garver get as much time working with pitchers from behind the plate as possible. That could only be accomplished by splitting the two catchers up in their first full season of professional ball. To accomplish that, Turner was assigned to Ft. Myers, while Garver spent 2014 at Class A Cedar Rapids.

A year later, Turner and Garver remained one level apart as Turner was promoted to AA Chattanooga and Garver moved up to Ft. Myers.

In fact, the first time the two became teammates wasn’t even technically with a Twins affiliate.

The Twins sent both catchers to the Arizona Fall League in October, 2015. Both caught 11 games and DH’d in one for AFL champion Scottsdale. Garver hit .317 for the Scorpions, while Turner hit just .171.

That set up a 2016 season where Garver and Turner would both begin the year at Chattanooga.

While the two had been effectively competing with one another for some kind of mythical “Twins top catching prospect” designation since that 2013 draft day, this was the first time Garver and Turner were set up to go side-by-side into a regular season at the same professional level.

That dynamic continued into the second week of August, when the Twins had a spot for a catcher open up at their AAA affiliate in Rochester and the call went out to Chattanooga for someone to finish out the season with the Red Wings.

Since Turner was about to finish his second Class AA season with the Lookouts and Garver was still in his first tour through the Southern League, you might have thought that Turner would get the promotion – but you would have been wrong.

With Garver hitting a respectable .257 (.753 OPS) at the time, while Turner was hovering around .210 (and an OPS around .650), it was Garver that was packing for Rochester.

But it wasn’t just his bat that appeared to have pushed Garver ahead of Turner on the Twins’ organizational depth chart. He threw out 52% of runners attempting to steal on him (23 of 44 attempts) in Chattanooga. Turner threw out 19 of 48 attempted base stealers for a 40% clip.

Admittedly, using “caught stealing” statistics as a measure for a catcher’s work behind the plate is iffy, at best. For one thing, runners steal bases off of pitchers as much as (if not more than) off catchers. However, in this case, that factor is largely mitigated since the two were catching members of the same Chattanooga pitching staff.

After the season, the Twins again sent Garver to get additional work in the Arizona Fall League, where he hit .229 and put up a .756 OPS, fueled by four home runs and four doubles in 70 at-bats for the AFL runner-up Surprise Saguaros.

Whether Garver will eventually hit and, perhaps more importantly, catch well enough to work his way into the Minnesota Twins lineup on a regular basis certainly remains an unknown. However, we do know the Twins like him enough that, as the AFL season wrapped up, they added him to their 40-man roster.

Meanwhile, Turner was not added to that roster, exposing him to Major League Baseball’s Rule 5 draft.

On Thursday, the Cincinnati Reds selected Turner from the Twins in said draft.

Ironically, while it’s clear that the Twins now value Garver’s big league potential over that of Turner, it’s Turner that very well could get to the big leagues ahead of Garver.

As a Rule 5 pick, the Reds will need to keep Turner on their big league club in 2017 or return him to the Twins (or offer the Twins some sort of additional compensation in return for being allowed to keep him at a minor league level).

At the same time, Garver will open spring training in the big league camp but has no guarantee in his pocket assuring him a spot with the Twins on Opening Day.

On draft day in June of 2013, Turner and Garver had to be wondering what the chances were that the two of them would somehow both work their way into a Minnesota Twins uniform. It seemed likely that, some day, the Twins were going to need to make a choice between them.

That day came and the Twins chose to cast their lot with Garver.

Fortunately for Turner, he’s getting a pretty good consolation prize, courtesy of the Cincinnati Reds.

Twins and Hawkeyes and Vikings, Oh My

I bet you’re shocked to find I’ve posted a new article here, aren’t you? If it seems like I’m never posting anything new any more, it’s only because I haven’t been posting anything new any more.

Why not? It’s pretty simple. I haven’t felt like writing anything. And if there is one thing I’ve figured out in my 15-ish months since retiring, it’s that retirement means you no longer have to do much of anything you don’t feel like doing.

But a few days ago, I wrote a new article (for which I had to actually get presentably dressed and go conduct a real interview!) and the process reminded me that I kind of enjoy writing.

(As for the article in question, you’re just going to have to wait until the 2017 Twins Prospect Handbook comes out to read it. I’m not sure when that will be, but I got my article submitted ahead of deadline, so if publication is delayed, it’s not my fault!)

Anyway, as I’ve reflected on the past few months, I’ve decided it’s time for me to speak out about some things, so let’s get on with it.

If you are familiar with my sports fandom at all, you probably are aware that I’m a devoted, if occasionally somewhat irrational, fan of the Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Vikings and Iowa Hawkeyes.

The mix is a result of spending my youth in the 1960s living in Minnesota and virtually the rest of my six decades on this planet in Iowa. I guess I also did spend brief periods in Arkansas and Wisconsin that were, at the same time memorable and forgettable, but I digress (this is about 2016, not my bizarre path through the mid 1970s).

Twins

Baseball is conducting their annual Winter Meetings at one of those giant Gaylord Resorts again, this time in suburban Washington, D.C. I’ve been there for conferences a couple of times, as I have to Gaylords in the Nashville, Orlando and Dallas areas.

I’m not a big fan of the Gaylords, but I can see why their ginormous size makes it an attractive venue for ginormous conferences, like the Winter Meetings. You can literally spend four days there, eating and drinking in a different place every night, without ever having to step out to breathe fresh air. I’m just not sure that should be considered a good thing (unless you happen to own a Gaylord, which I do not.)

targetfield
(Photo: SD Buhr)

Everyone involved with Twins baseball operations who is anyone is undoubtedly at the Winter Meetings, as are representatives from their minor league affiliate front offices. The dance cards of new Twins brass Derek Falvey and Thad Levine will be full, I’m sure. I hope they are a lot better at remembering the names of new people they are introduced to than I am.

If they struggle with remembering names, I would offer one piece of advice: Prioritize. Specifically, if the person you were just introduced to can throw a baseball well enough to miss a bat, THAT is someone you want to remember. You’re welcome.

A lot of speculation is circulating concerning the possible trade of Brian Dozier. If the chatter among Twitter feeds of people who should know about this kind of thing is accurate, there are several teams showing more than idle interest in obtaining Dozier and his team-friendly contract.

I like Brian Dozier and I wish the Twins were good enough that keeping him made sense, but they aren’t so it doesn’t.

Dozier’s value will never be higher, so Falvey and Levine (can we just call them “Falvine” until we figure out which of them is playing the bigger role in roster decisions?) need to make the best deal they can and hopefully that will include some high-ceiling near-MLB-ready pitching.

With all due respect to their signing of free agent catcher Jason Castro, fair or not, the return they negotiate for trading Dozier will establish their first impression approval ratings among a sizable contingent of Twins fans – and we all know how first impressions work in this organization. A bad first impression means you’re pedaling uphill to ever get respect from within the Twins community, while a good first impression could mean you’ll have a job for decades.

Good luck, guys. We’re all rooting for you. Until you screw up and we don’t root for you any more.

Hawkeyes (and, I guess, Vikings)

Let’s get this out of the way first – it’s going to be a very tough basketball season for the Hawkeyes.

The football team, however, is headed to Tampa to play the Florida Gators in the Outback Bowl on January 2.

If you had told me that was going to happen a few weeks ago after the Penn State debacle, I’d have said you were nuts. I wouldn’t have bet money the Hawkeyes would even end up being bowl eligible, much less finish 8-4 and going somewhere warm to ring in the new year.

(Photo: SD Buhr)
(Photo: SD Buhr)

What I forgot, as I tend to do almost every season, is that Iowa usually plays their best football in November.

Now, to be fair, that Penn State game was in November and it was a stinkbomb (that I fortunately did not witness, as I was attending the Arizona Fall League’s Fall-Stars Game that night), but the Hawkeyes used the following game against Illinois (which has come to be known as the “B1G West Division’s Second Bye Week”) to gear up to upset Michigan and destroy Nebraska in the season’s final weeks.

It has been an interesting football season for me. While Iowa was losing to North Dakota State and Northwestern, the Vikings were being inked into the NFL playoffs and even projected by some as a Super Bowl contender.

Wow, did that change in a hurry.

Ironically, it was an article on Nebraska football by Omaha World Herald columnist Tom Shatel that provided some clarity to me concerning the difference between the fortunes of the Hawkeyes and Vikings.

The point of Shatel’s column (to me, anyway) was that, while Husker fans tend to look down their noses at the “vanilla programs” at Wisconsin and Iowa, Nebraska needs to emulate the Badgers and Hawkeyes, putting their past Big 8/12 days behind them, and figure out how to establish a similar physical identity.

Shatel wrote, “Wisconsin and Iowa know who they are and like who they are and don’t care what you think of them. It works for them.”

That’s mostly true. Sure. many of us wish a Kirk Ferentz team would show a little bit of offensive imagination (or, really, ANY imagination), but we’re also smart enough to know that no coach is likely to recruit four-star (much less five-star) skill position high school studs to play football in Iowa City (while staying within NCAA rules, anyway).

Iowa’s best chance of occasionally making noise on a national level is to bring in the biggest, baddest two-and-three-star linemen and linebackers it can find, spend a couple of years making them bigger and badder, then unleash them to terrorize the Nebraskas and Minnesotas, while battling Wisconsin for supremacy of the B1G West.

If you’re lucky, every once in a while, you’ll put together a group that will also give the big boys in the B1G East a challenge, too.

It’s seldom aesthetically pleasing to many of today’s college football fans, but Ferentz has taken 14 of his last 16 Hawkeye teams to bowl games and 11 of them were January bowl games (including two Orange Bowls and a Rose Bowl), so you can’t say it hasn’t worked.

Which makes me wonder if there’s a parallel between the Vikings and Cornhuskers.

Like many Vikes fans, I’ve been waiting for the next Culpepper-to-Moss combo to show up. Instead, we’ve watched as a parade of quarterbacks and receivers have failed to stretch NFL defenses, to the effect that almost the entire career of one of the most gifted running backs to grace an NFL field in decades has been wasted.

Yes, the Vikings lost the services of Adrian Peterson and Teddy Bridgewater before the 2016 season even got underway, but I can’t imagine any combination of skill players being successful behind the current offensive line. And I don’t want to hear about injuries to the O-line, either. Every team has linemen lose significant time to injury. Successful teams develop depth.

A moderately successful college program like Iowa, who must spend a couple years developing players to get a year or two of high-level contribution, can have its season derailed by critical injuries to upperclassmen linemen. But an NFL team that doesn’t have a constantly revolving recruiting cycle to contend with, should be able to develop and maintain enough depth to withstand some injuries on the line without seeing a promising season turn to crap the way Minnesota’s 2016 has.

The Hawkeyes will never be the Buckeyes, just as the Vikings are unlikely to ever become the Patriots. But if the Vikings will focus on developing beasts two-deep at each line position, and making that focus a part of their DNA going forward, maybe they’ll give the best the NFL has to offer a run for their money on a semi-regular basis.

Given the futility my fellow Vikings fans and I have endured the past couple of decades, I’d take that.