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.

Kernels & Jake Mauer Focus on “Task at Hand”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not so this season.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mauer is starting to see some guys stepping up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twins Moving in the Right – and Wrong – Direction?

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

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

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

What’s good for the goose, etc.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sigh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-JC

There I Go, Turn the Page

Paul Molitor
Paul Molitor (Photo: SD Buhr)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s time to turn the page.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yellow Jacket Battery Boosts Kernels

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

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

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

AJ Murray
AJ Murray

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

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

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

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

AJ Murray
AJ Murray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sam Clay
Sam Clay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sam Clay
Sam Clay

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

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

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

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

Eddie Rosario: Symptom or Solution?

The Minnesota Twins lost this afternoon.

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

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

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

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

Eddie Rosario
Eddie Rosario (Photo: SD Buhr)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stewart, Harrison Quieting Critics?

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

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

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

I wrapped up my article in February with the following:

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

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

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

Travis Harrison
Travis Harrison (Photo: Steve Buhr)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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