Yellow Jacket Battery Boosts Kernels

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

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

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

AJ Murray
AJ Murray

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

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

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

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

AJ Murray
AJ Murray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sam Clay
Sam Clay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sam Clay
Sam Clay

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

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

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

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

Eddie Rosario: Symptom or Solution?

The Minnesota Twins lost this afternoon.

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

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

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

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

Eddie Rosario
Eddie Rosario (Photo: SD Buhr)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stewart, Harrison Quieting Critics?

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

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

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

I wrapped up my article in February with the following:

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

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

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

Travis Harrison
Travis Harrison (Photo: Steve Buhr)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fixing the Twins Isn’t That Complicated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miguel Sano
Miguel Sano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alas, the bats aren’t the worst problems.

Kyle Gibson
Kyle Gibson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

J.T. Chargois
J.T. Chargois

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ballplayers as Commodities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tyler Duffey
Tyler Duffey

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

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

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

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

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

None. Until now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things Will Get Better

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Steve

Twins Moving to Cedar Rapids

For some time, now, I have been trying to find ways to spend my “retirement” years involved with professional baseball. I’ve finally found the answer and decided that April 1 was the perfect time to release the announcement.

I have come to an agreement to purchase the Minnesota Twins from the Pohlad family and yes, I will be moving the club to Cedar Rapids. (I mean, it was either that or I had to move to Minnesota and, no offense, but I’ve lived there already. Pass.)

New Twins owner - me.
New Twins owner – me.

I’ve always wanted to own a Major League team and, like pretty much every Twins fan (or at least all of them who have access to the internet), I have always believed I could run the team better than anyone who actually was responsible for doing so.

As part of the agreement, the Twins’ Class A affiliation will be in Minneapolis, giving Target Field a tenant for at least as long as the original agreement required when taxpayers paid for construction.

Twins President (for now), Dave St. Peter, was pleased with this development.

“I’ve often said in the past that it would be nice to be able to watch the Twins’ young minor league talent play in the Twin Cities,” St. Peter said. “This agreement brings that dream to reality.”

I have scheduled a meeting with Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett to discuss how we can best go about adding an additional 35,000 seats to Veterans Memorial Stadium. I see no insurmountable issues there, as long as the city is willing to cough up the money for the renovations.

As for staff decisions, all positions will be posted at corridorcareers.com. All current Twins employees from St. Peter to every usher and beer vendor, will be invited to apply for their current positions (or any other job they might think they’d be good at). I learned in my experience in the professional world that is is the way progressive companies do things these days.

There is one exception to this policy. General Manager Terry Ryan will be retained.

I’ve made this decision for two reasons. First, I genuinely respect Mr. Ryan and, though I don’t always agree with his decisions, I believe he is very good at his job. Even if I didn’t feel that way about the GM, I’d keep him anyway, just because I know how much it’s going to piss off Twins bloggers/fans/commenters/know-it-alls all over Twins Territory.

There will be some pretty noticeable changes, however. For example, because of my fondness for the Iowa Hawkeyes, much of my wardrobe is black and gold. After paying for the Twins, I’m not going to also go out and buy a new wardrobe. The Twins’ colors will instead become black and gold.

Finally, while I will not be lifting the MLB.tv blackout policy from covering the entire state of Iowa, at least that blackout policy will finally make some sense.

I look forward to meeting all of the new Twins fans when the team opens the 2017 in Cedar Rapids. I hope those of you in the Twin Cities enjoy your final season of watching the Twins and I’m sure you will enjoy watching Midwest League games in the future.

-Steve

Ricky Nolasco? Really?

Entering the spring, there appeared to be eight pitchers contending for the five rotation spots on the Twins’ Opening Day roster. I thought that constituted more depth than at any time in the past several years.

Absent injuries (or, as we learned last season, lengthy suspensions for PED use), Ervin Santana, Kyle Gibson and Phil Hughes were going to be starting games in their Twins uniforms. Tyler Duffey, to me, had showed enough in 2015 that he shouldn’t be too concerned about his roster spot.

That left one rotation spot up for grabs between Tommy Milone (the lone lefty in the group), Trevor May, Jose Berrios and Nolasco.

With those four options, how did we end up with Ricky Nolasco opening the season as the Twins’ fifth starter?

Ricky Nolasco (Photo: SD Buhr)
Ricky Nolasco (Photo: SD Buhr)

May was told early in March that he’d be opening the season in the bullpen, ending his participation in the rotation sweepstakes.

Berrios was informed that he isn’t ready for prime time and will open his season at Triple-A Rochester.

Milone had a good spring, assuring that the Twins will have one southpaw in their rotation, but instead of claiming the final starting spot, he essentially claimed the fourth spot and bumped Duffey down into a one-on-one face-off with Nolasco for the final spot.

As Edward Thoma writes in a very good piece over at his Baseball Outsider blog, the situation with Duffey is troubling on several levels.

Let’s be clear about one thing – Duffey didn’t pitch particularly well this spring. That’s something he readily admitted himself when interviewed following his demotion to Rochester this week. Nolasco hasn’t been terrific, either, but he has had somewhat better stats than Duffey (though much of Nolasco’s work was against minor league hitters on the back fields of the Twins’ complex).

But, as Thoma reminds us in his post, Duffey wasn’t told, entering spring training, that he needed to have better statistics than the other contenders to earn a rotation spot. In fact, he was told to work on his change up, which he did. That work didn’t go particularly well as he and his developing change up got knocked around quite a bit.

If Duffey had been told he needed to put up better stats than Ricky Nolasco to go north with the Twins, last year’s experience would suggest to us that he’d have had little trouble besting Nolasco simply by using his existing repertoire of two fastballs and two breaking balls.

Tyler Duffey (Photo: SD Buhr)
Tyler Duffey (Photo: SD Buhr)

However, the change up is pitching coach Neil Allen’s baby. Since being hired to Molitor’s staff, the one thing written about Allen more than anything else is his devotion to the change up. Since Duffey used his change up all of about 2% of the time during his 2015 time with the Twins, it’s not surprising that Allen would be pushing him to improve that pitch.

But Duffey, without a change up, wasn’t a borderline fifth starter for the Twins at the end of 2015. He was arguably the most effective starting pitcher they had.

Would an effective change up be helpful to Duffey? Certainly. But even without one, he was pretty damn good last summer. Certainly better than almost anyone would reasonably expect Nolasco to be at this point.

Did Duffey’s focus on his change up this spring, in lieu of spending the time sharpening his existing pitches to prepare for the season, cost him a rotation spot that was his to lose entering spring camp? If so, did he really lose his spot or did a Neil Allen obsession with the pitch cost Duffey that spot and, by extension, cost the Twins games Nolasco eventually loses that Duffey, sans change up, would have won?

Allen’s predecessor as Twins pitching coach, Rick Anderson, became famous – or, more accurately, infamous – for implementing a system-wide “pitch to contact” philosophy that de-emphasized strike outs. That philosophy was adopted at every level of the Twins’ system and it was rare (to say the least) to see pitching prospects who did not embrace that philosophy rise to the big league level with the Twins.

We will never know how different the Twins’ fortunes might have been had they put more emphasis on missing bats throughout the organization during Anderson’s term with the Twins. What we do know is that, during the latter years of Anderson’s era, while he was enforcing his obsession, other teams were developing pitchers with better velocity and winning more games than Anderson’s staffs of comparative soft-tossers were.

I’m hoping we are not witnessing something similar with regard to Allen and his love for the change up, but if Duffey’s spring is any indication, it’s something we should keep an eye on.

Just as it was perfectly fine for Anderson to expound on the advantages of developing sufficient command and control to find spots where hitters are most likely to make weak contact, it’s also perfectly fine for Allen to preach the benefits of a good change up.

The problem comes when those sermons become absolute dogma that is forced upon every pitcher in the organization to the point where it is made clear they have no future in the organization without following it.

Heading into spring training, we are always told over and over again that we shouldn’t read too much into spring stats. Pitchers are often focusing on particular pitches, which hitters figure out pretty quickly during a spring game, so we shouldn’t get too excited about, or too down on, particular players based simply on stat lines.

That’s fine.

So, if we throw out the stats, explain to me again why Tyler Duffey and Jose Berrios are going to be wearing jerseys with Red Wings on the chest in April, while Ricky Nolasco is taking the mound for the Twins every fifth game.

I can’t think of any reasons for that, other than that Duffey was told he needed to spend his spring focused on developing a change up, which he arguably has demonstrated he did not need to effectively retire Major League hitters, and that the Twins can retain control over Berrios for an extra year if he spends a couple of months in Rochester to open the season.

OK, that’s not really true. I can think of about 25 million other reasons. But I hope that the Twins have reached the point where money isn’t the primary factor behind roster decisions.

The only thing that should matter to the Twins is, “who can get out big league hitters better?”

I’m sorry, but there is no way I can look at the group of May, Berrios, Duffey and Nolasco and be convinced that the best option for the Twins’ fifth rotation spot is Ricky Nolasco.

Whether the reason Nolasco is in this rotation is because the front office didn’t improve their bullpen enough to allow May to move into the rotation or because they want to keep Berrios’ big league service clock from starting until June or because Duffey was told to focus his spring on a pitch he doesn’t need or because the Twins don’t want to throw the $25 million they still owe Nolasco down the toilet, the result is that the Twins are likely to lose more games in 2016 than they would have with one of the other three pitchers opening in the rotation instead of Nolasco.

The Twins may have pulled themselves out of the ranks of the irrelevant in 2015, but they won’t be contenders again until the first and only factor determining the make-up of their roster is winning baseball games and the last I knew, games won or lost in April count exactly the same as those in June, July, August and September.

-Steve

Spring Training Photos, the Finale

Today was my last day hanging around the Twins spring training site. Tuesday is a beach day and we hit the road to head back to Iowa on Wednesday morning.

Today was a bittersweet day at the complex as several minor leaguers were given their release early in the morning, including several former Kernels that we’ve gotten to know over the past couple of seasons. I wish them all the best of luck in whatever comes next in their lives, whether with baseball or otherwise.

I spent my afternoon on the minor league side of the complex, once again watching the future Kernels and future Miracle take on their Red Sox counterparts, followed by a stop for some local craft brews to take home and dinner near the Fort Myers Beach pier.

That’s enough writing. Here are a few final photos from this year’s trip.

Eddie Del Rosario
Eddie Del Rosario
Bryant Hayman
Bryant Hayman
Daniel Kihle
Daniel Kihle
Logan Lombana
Logan Lombana
AJ Murray
AJ Murray
Brian Olson
Brian Olson

 

Spring Training Photos, Part Deux

Today will likely be my final day at the Twins’ spring training complex for this season and even that will fall into the “weather permitting” category.

I’m sure those of you who woke up to sub-freezing temperatures this morning won’t be feeling sorry for us down here, but the forecast for today is temperatures just in the 60s and winds strong enough to make the “wind chill” feel several degrees cooler than that.

Still, the plan is to try to catch one more afternoon of minor league baseball so I’ll endeavor to carry on through the day.

Tomorrow is the last full day of the trip to Florida before packing up to start the drive home on Wednesday and it seems like a day in the upper 70s means one last day hanging out on and near the beach would be appropriate.

Before I head to the ballpark today, I thought I would post one more set of photos from the last couple of days, which included time both on the minor league side and also within Hammond Stadium watching the Twins fall to a team of Evil Empire wannabes on Sunday afternoon.

First a few players looking to spend time in a Kernels uniform either this year or, possibly, the next. Some have already spent a little time in Cedar Rapids, while others would be getting their first taste of full season minor league ball.

Potential Kernels 3B Travis Blankenhorn
Travis Blankenhorn
Manuel Guzman
Manuel Guzman
Kuo Hua Lo
Kuo Hua Lo
Amaurys Minier
Amaurys Minier
Miles Nordgren
Miles Nordgren
Jermaine Polacios
Jermaine Polacios
Fernando Romero
Fernando Romero
Lamonte Wade
Lamonte Wade
Zander Wiel
Zander Wiel
Trey Cabbage
Trey Cabbage
Ruar Verkerk
Ruar Verkerk
Luis Arraez
Luis Arraez
Nelson Molina
Nelson Molina

Now, a few old friends who have already passed through Cedar Rapids on their way up the Twins’ organizational ladder.

Jose Berrios
Jose Berrios
Byron Buxton
Byron Buxton
Chad Christensen
Chad Christensen
Mitch Garver (I have no idea what he and the umpire were looking at, but I'm sure it was interesting)
Mitch Garver (I have no idea what he and the umpire were looking at, but I’m sure it was interesting)
Randy LeBlanc
Randy LeBlanc
Alex Real
Alex Real
Let's not forget, Twins likely Opening Day starting pitcher Ervin Santana was a Kernel as he worked his way up in the Angels organization.
Let’s not forget, Twins likely Opening Day starting pitcher Ervin Santana was a Kernel as he worked his way up in the Angels organization.

The 2016 Kernels field staff

Left to right, pitching coach JP Martinez, hitting coach Brian Dinkelman and manager Jake Mauer
Left to right, pitching coach JP Martinez, hitting coach Brian Dinkelman and manager Jake Mauer

Finally, a few current Twins who did not have the privilege of spending time in a Kernels jersey on their way up to the big leagues model their new red jerseys.

Brian Dozier
Brian Dozier
Eduardo Escobar
Eduardo Escobar
Joe Mauer
Joe Mauer
John Ryan Murphy
John Ryan Murphy
Eddie Rosario
Eddie Rosario
Miguel Sano
Miguel Sano