I’ve been down in Fort Myers, Florida, for five days now, so I decided it was time to post an update on my activities here this week.
A week ago, we spent the first night on the road in Nashville and took in the Grand Ole Opry. I’m not a big country music fan, but you don’t need to be to enjoy the Opry show.
We arrived in Fort Myers Monday afternoon and, checking into our Fort Myers Beach apartment and having a great dinner at the Salty Crab (formerly Nemo’s) on the beach.
I was on the Twins’ campus Tuesday morning to take in the minor leaguers’ morning workouts. I stuck around for an afternoon of intrasquad games on the minor league fields.
Wednesday afternoon, it was the AA and AAA Twins squads taking on their Oriole counterparts in the afternoon and the Twins hosting the Red Sox in the evening.
I had the opportunity to interview Cedar Rapids native Ryan Sweeney on Wednesday to discuss how his attempt to win an outfield role with the Twins is going. You can read that article over at MetroSportsReport.com by clicking here.
(As an aside, that article will likely be my last work for MSR. Unfortunately, the owner of that site, Jim Ecker, has decided to close up shop at MSR. I have helped MSR cover the Cedar Rapids Kernels for the past three seasons and will always be thankful to Jim for giving me the opportunity to write for his site.)
Thursday, I caught the two Class A squads facing off with the Rays’ A level players in the afternoon followed by a trip up to Sarasota where the Twins traveled to play the Orioles.
Friday was a non-baseball day, with a couple of hours spent turning my flesh red on Fort Myers Beach before heading to Ron Dao’s Pizzeria and Sports Bar to watch the Hawkeyes hoops team claim an overtime win over Temple in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
I’m about to head back over to the Twins’ camp this afternoon (Saturday) to watch the Class A teams again. Sunday will see the Yankees invading Hammond Stadium to take on the Twins in the afternoon.
With all of that as background, here’s just a few of the hundreds of pictures I’ve already taken. Enjoy.
That question, framed in one manner or another, is being posed incessantly by baseball media’s talking heads as Major League Baseball prepares to kick off the 2016 season.
There’s no question that teams like the Washington Nationals, Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs have emerged from prolonged periods of ineptitude to become not only competitive, but, in the case of the Cubs, the odds-on preseason favorite to win the 2016 World Series.
The focus of most discussions seems to be on trying to differentiate between “tanking” – that is, intentionally designing your Major League roster in such a way that it will be all but impossible to lose fewer than 90 games (and likely considerably more) – and “rebuilding,” which is simply attempting to do whatever is deemed necessary, within the rules of the game, to improve talent levels to the point where your team can realistically compete for a championship.
It is, seemingly, a distinction without a difference. Yet, “rebuilding” is almost always viewed as simply a necessary process teams having a bad season or two must undergo, while “tanking” is portrayed as a serious threat to the competitive balance of Major League Baseball.
Tanking, I suppose, is arguably just one method at a general manager’s disposal to accomplish a rebuild. If so, it is quite possibly the most effective method available to teams that are considered middle or small market organizations, without the necessary financial resources to fill every critical roster gap with a top-tier free agent.
While the Astros, Nationals and Cubs have been raised as examples of teams that have tanked their way back into competitiveness, the Oakland Athletics are often cited as an organization that takes a more noble tact. As ESPN’s Buster Olney wrote recently, “Oakland has never taken (the tanking) route since general manager Billy Beane took over the franchise. The Athletics just don’t quit.”
Here’s something else that the Oakland Athletics have never done under Beane’s leadership over the past two decades: win a World Series.
That’s a trait that the A’s share with Theo Epstein’s Cubs, Jeff Luhnow’s Astros and Mike Rizzo’s Nationals, though those GMs took over their respective teams far more recently than Beane took over the helm in Oakland.
It’s also an aspect that each of those teams share with the Minnesota Twins.
If it seems like forever for Twins fans since their team held up a championship trophy at the end of the 1991 season, there’s some small solace to be taken from the fact that Minnesota’s 1991’s success is more recent than anything the other four organizations have experienced.
The Athletics last won it all in the 1989 “Earthquake Series,” and the Cubs last took home the hardware in 1908. Astros fans have never celebrated a World Series title in the club’s fifty-plus years of existence, nor have Nationals fans (even those that can claim allegiance going back to the club’s days as the Montreal Expos).
There seems to be no doubt that the Nationals, Cubs and Astros tanked their way back in to baseball relevance. They fielded teams that were designed to lose so many games that they would consistently benefit from high draft picks and inflated international spending allowances.
Oakland, however, was really never bad enough to fall below middle-of-the-pack status for more than a year at a time. Beane couldn’t retain his big-money stars, so he often traded them for something of current MLB-level value before they would be lost to free agency. His now-famous “moneyball” strategies sought to unearth players with enough hidden value to allow his team to at least be competitive almost every season.
Who did it right? Baseball purists may claim that tanking is ethically wrong and others will claim Beane’s approach does little but perpetuate mediocrity.
However, based on what arguably is the most important criteria, World Series Championships won, it would be difficult to declare one strategy more successful than the other. Then again, the Nationals, Cubs and Astros are all projected to fare much better than the Athletics in 2016, so maybe this will be the year that tanking’s advantage becomes apparent.
But what about the Twins? What exactly was their strategy?
Regardless of what they were thinking at any particular point in time, there’s no question that the Twins have benefited from the high draft positioning that resulted from four consecutive seasons of winning 70 or fewer games (a benefit that could be negated considerably in the future if the anti-tanking crowd gets some of the rule changes they propose).
Miguel Sano was signed out of the Dominican Republic toward the end of the team’s run of qualifying for six postseasons within nine years, but both their top hitting prospect (Byron Buxton) and top pitching prospect (Jose Berrios) were available to be selected by the Twins because their 99 losses in 2011 allowed them to pick in the second position in the 2012 amateur draft. Buxton was chosen with the second overall pick and Berrios with the first pick of the supplemental first round.
Over the following several years, the Twins added a number of highly touted young players due to consistently picking at the top end of the draft. Kohl Stewart, Nick Gordon and Tyler Jay, the team’s first round picks over the following three years, all sit comfortably among the top rated prospects in the Twins organization and each has been ranked among the top 100 prospects in the game at one time or another.
Of course, the Twins also held picks at the top of each successive round of those drafts, enabling them to select from among the cream of the non-elite crop of young players, as well. The fact that the Twins continue to have one of the top rated minor league organizations is due, in no small part, to their draft position over the past four drafts.
In the end, whether by design or otherwise, the Twins have positioned themselves much the same way that the Nationals, Cubs and Astros have. By losing a lot of games for several consecutive seasons, they have amassed considerable young baseball talent, much of which is now positioned to arrive and contribute at the Major League level.
Yet you seldom, if ever, see the Twins mentioned in articles bemoaning (or praising) the practice of tanking.
Of course, you also won’t see writers praising the Twins as an organization that has consistently found ways to rebuild on the fly – remaining competitive, as the Athletics have, even after star players move on via trade or free agency.
The result is that General Manager Terry Ryan and the Twins front office get neither the credit (blame?) for being at the forefront of the tanking strategy that Epstein, Luhnow and Rizzo embody, nor the commendations that Beane continues to get for trying to rebuild while continuing to put a teams on the field that are at least close to being worth the price of a Major League ticket to watch.
So did the Twins really tank, and just do a better job of camouflaging it than other teams did, or was Ryan trying to employ the stay-competitive strategy that Beane did, and simply wasn’t as effective at identifying and acquiring new talent as his counterpart in Oakland was?
It would be a stretch to say that the Twins were tanking in 2011. They were coming off of an American League Central title season and most of the core players from that team were returning. There’s little doubt that then-GM Bill Smith thought he was creating a roster to contend again that season.
Then came the Tsuyoshi Nishioka disaster and very limited game time from Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Denard Span in 2011. The result was a 99-loss team.
Another result was that 2011 also saw the return to Ryan to the GM’s office after the season.
Arguably, Ryan followed the Beane approach in his first partial postseason back on the job as General Manager. While his evaluation process was certainly more scout-based and less analytics-based than Beane’s, his addition of players like Josh Willingham and Ryan Doumit indicated he was trying to add veterans with value, as Beane does, rather than tear the club down and build it back up from scratch.
Whatever he was trying to do, it didn’t work. 2012 was, once again, a disaster on the field. This led to a consistent, “there isn’t any shortcut,” line of quotes out of Ryan the following offseason.
It also led to the trading of two thirds of the Twins’ starting outfield, Denard Span and Ben Revere, for three pitchers, only one of which had any big league experience at all. Was that indicative of Ryan having decided to go the tanking route?
Even if so, you would never have gotten the GM to admit it then, and probably couldn’t drag it out of him now.
Target Field was still relatively new and so were the taxes being imposed in Hennepin County to pay for it. Joe Mauer, though coming off a challenging season, was still in the early stages of an eight-year mega-million contract. It would have been professional suicide for anyone in the Twins front office to come right out and declare an intent to tank.
Can you imagine Ryan telling the media, “We looked at the draft class we were able to put together after losing 99 games in 2011 and, given that we had so many things go wrong in 2012, we should expect to select a similarly strong class this year. We’ve come to realize that if we continue to lose more than 90 games a while longer, as well, we could really put together an organization that would be poised to field very good teams for a decade or more. So we’re not going to try too hard to win for the next couple of years.”
Given some of the comments that Twins owner Jim Pohlad has made the past couple of offseasons about being tired of losing, I’m not sure Ryan would have dared to express those thoughts to Pohlad, even in private.
Then again, maybe he did tell Pohlad that. In fact, maybe he told all of us that he was planning to engage that kind of strategy.
Ryan is a man of few words. He doesn’t believe in giving his competitors a free look into his thinking on any subject related to his strategy for roster building. He’ll answer fan and media questions, but often you need to read between the lines a little bit to decipher exactly what he’s saying.
I wonder if it’s possible that he actually did say, “We’ve come to realize that if we continue to lose 95 games a year for a while longer, we could really put together an organization that would be poised to field very good teams for a decade or more. So we’re not going to try too hard to win for the next couple of years.”
It’s just that, when he said it, all we heard was, “there isn’t any shortcut.”
Truth be told, I don’t believe the Twins intentionally tanked during any part of the past four years. After all, moves like spending several million dollars on the 2014 in-season signing of Kendrys Morales would not be consistent with intentionally trying to lose as many games as possible.
I think Ryan was simply trying to balance current competitiveness with future success. In other words, he was showing the ethical nobility of Beane’s approach, while realizing the same results as those teams who were intentionally assembling losing rosters.
In the end, all that matters is the results and the Twins have a significant number of talented young players about to arrive in the big leagues.
That said, it will be interesting to keep an eye on what anti-tanking steps MLB and/or the Players Union propose be built into the new Collective Bargaining Agreement next year. Specifically, what effect would those proposals have had on, not only teams that made no attempt to disguise their tanking strategies, but also the Twins.
The pitchers and catchers for the Minnesota Twins have finally reported to Spring Training and position players are already filtering into the Fort Myers camp in advance of their mandatory reporting day later this week. The Twins will open their season in Baltimore on April 4, but from all that’s being written about the Twins, it appears there are only minor questions about the composition of the Opening Day roster and even less question about the Opening Day lineup.
Manager Paul Molitor has stated that Kurt Suzuki will open the season as his club’s starting catcher.
Joe Mauer will be the first baseman.
Brian Dozier will hold down second base.
Trevor Plouffe will man the hot corner at third base.
Eduardo Escobar has earned the right to call the shortstop spot his own.
Eddie Rosario will be the Twins’ left fielder and Miguel Sano will man the opposite corner in right field.
Centerfield is Byron Buxton’s to lose. Yes, there’s a chance the club will decide Buxton needs a month or so in Rochester to fine tune his approach at the plate, giving an opportunity for Danny Santana, Ryan Sweeney, Darin Mastroianni or Joe Benson to serve as a short-term placeholder for Buxton.
And then there’s the designator hitter position, which will belong to Byung Ho Park, the Korean slugger that represents the primary (some would say only) significant free agent addition added to the Twins this offseason.
Most of that makes perfect sense to me. I think Buxton should go north with the club in April as the centerfielder, but if he doesn’t, I’ll understand the decision (probably) and I’ve actually been on-board with the decision to give Sano an outfielder’s glove and see what he can do with it. I felt that way even before the Twins got Park’s autograph on a contract.
But here’s something I don’t quite understand. Why is virtually everyone so certain that Park will immediately adapt to Major League pitching well enough to be penciled into the middle of the Twins’ batting order right from the start of the new season?
Certainly, I’m not alone in feeling that either Oswaldo Arcia or Kennys Vargas is likely to demonstrate in March that he is better prepared to generate runs for the Twins on Opening Day than newcomer Park might be. Why do many prognosticators seem so certain that Park will be an effective big league hitter on Opening Day while being less convinced that Buxton will?
I want to see Park succeed as much as any Twins fan but maybe I’m suffering from residual Nishioka flashbacks, because I’m simply not convinced that a player that struck out a lot against Korean Baseball Organization pitching will have immediate success against Major Leaguers.
Does the KBO compare favorably to American AA or AAA levels? Maybe. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that it does. If Park had struck out 303 times at any minor league level over the past two combined seasons, would we be writing his name in ink into the Twins’ Opening Day lineup now?
If you forced me to bet an amount of money that it would genuinely hurt me to lose, I would bet that Park’s first regular season professional baseball uniform will have “Red Wings” (or even “Lookouts”) emblazoned across the front of it – and I would not consider that to necessarily mean his acquisition was a mistake. It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone if it takes Park a few weeks or more to earn a spot in the Twins’ lineup.
Arcia and Vargas both must be coming to Fort Myers aware that their respective futures with the Twins are hanging in the balance. I expect that one of them is more likely to be found in Molitor’s first lineup card of the season than Park is.
Finally, what happens if the Sano experiment doesn’t develop the way that the Twins hope it will? That would immediately make Sano the likely Day 1 designated hitter and force the Twins into a Plan B for right field. That would be a Plan B that the front office has not admitted even exists yet.
In that eventuality, again Arcia becomes a likely candidate for reinsertion into the club’s plans as the right fielder.
Park has a better than fair chance of finding his way up to Target Field with the Twins at some point during the 2016 season, but I’m not at all convinced he’ll start the season with the big club.
Here’s my pre-camp projection for the Twins’ Opening Day starting lineup:
Typically, we have to be cautious about reading too much into strong spring training offensive performances. There are too many at-bats against less-than-MLB-level pitchers, especially during the first couple of weeks of spring training games, to get a true reading of just how well prepared a hot hitter might be for a Major League regular’s role.
But there are a number of position players who can’t afford to give poor showings during the first few weeks of spring training games and Park, Arcia and Vargas would be among those whose chances could be damaged by early struggles at the plate.
Sweeney, Mastroianni and Benson similarly need good starts if they want to be viewed as contenders for the stop-gap centerfielder, should the Twins decide Buxton needs some early seasoning in Rochester.
Park, if he doesn’t make the Opening Day lineup, could see an early promotion, as could Max Kepler and Jorge Polanco, depending on their performances and those of the players that they might be looking to replace.
The Twins’ lineup is perhaps more settled going into spring training than it has been in most years, but there is some amount of intrigue that will make it worthwhile to pay attention to the box scores coming out of Fort Myers in March.
In an article posted early Friday afternoon, Brian Murphy of the St. Paul Pioneer-Press reported that Minnesota Twins catcher-turned-first baseman Joe Mauer has continued to suffer from concussion symptoms, including blurred vision, over the past two seasons. (Click here to read the article)
This is some scary stuff.
The Mauer story has been beaten to death, so I won’t rehash everything here. Suffice to say, Mauer was on a near-certain Hall of Fame catching career arc before the beatings he took behind the plate led to multiple concussions and, ultimately, a move to first base.
The hope was that the position move would allow him to play more games and, not inconsequentially, give him a much better chance of living out the rest of his life without dealing with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).
While Mauer has never played more games or made more plate appearances in a season than he did in 2015, he has not hit baseballs in the manner that made him a three-time American League batting champion and 2009 AL MVP. Now, perhaps, we know why.
Murphy included a number of interesting (some would say troubling) quotes from Mauer, including the following two statements concerning the vision problems he would occasionally deal with.
“It could be a lot of things,” Mauer continued. “There are so many different symptoms. For me it was lighting, I couldn’t really pick up the ball. It was blurry at times.”
“If you’re just a little off, you’re fouling off pitches you should be driving into the gap,” he said. “In the big leagues, you don’t get too many more opportunities to see good ones to hit.”
This is certainly a true statement. Major League pitchers throw fastballs that run between 90 and 100 miles per hour and mix them with offspeed pitches that prevent even the best hitters (those with perfect vision) from being able to react with perfect timing. Given that Mauer has apparently not benefited from perfect vision, it’s not surprising that he has fallen from the ranks of the game’s best hitters.
But that was not my first reaction to reading the Mauer quote.
I can’t be the only person whose first thought was that, if blurred vision causes Mauer to be, “just a little off,” the last situation into which he should place himself is standing 60 feet away from a man throwing a baseball 95 miles per hour.
Joe Mauer is a professional athlete who has competed at the highest level of his profession and, while he famously may not have a reputation for demonstrating it outwardly in a manner recognizable to fans, he has a competitive nature that no doubt causes him to think first and foremost about how factors influence his ability to perform at levels he has become accustomed to.
It’s easy to see, from the other statements he made to Murphy, that the desire to regain his game and help his team to succeed has resulted in him not only continuing to take the field in spite of continued concussion symptoms, but also be less than 100% forthcoming with his manager and others in the organization about those ongoing symptoms.
I haven’t read much of the social media reaction to this article yet, but I’m sure there will be a lot of criticism of Mauer. After all, criticism of Mauer has almost surpassed drilling holes in the ice and pretending to fish while you drink excessive volumes of bad beer as the favorite pastime of a certain segment of the Minnesota population.
Personally, I’ve made enough poor life decisions in my nearly six decades of time on this planet that I try to refrain from criticizing the decisions others make concerning how they lead their lives.
I’m not concerned right now about whether Mauer’s continued presence in the Twins lineup is a positive or negative for the short, middle or long term success of my favorite MLB team.
I simply do not want to see Mauer’s career end in a frightful manner.
According to the article, Mauer says he has been more asymptomatic during his offseason workouts this year and that he’ll be trying new exercises and even wearing sunglasses this spring to try to keep the vision issues at bay and regain his productivity at the plate.
I hope he’s successful. I hope that this summer, finally, he will be symptom-free and will hit baseballs in a manner that will remind all of us, himself included, of the Joe Mauer we watched before the concussion problems surfaced.
However, if he finds himself unable to see clearly every pitch thrown in his direction at a dangerously high rate of speed, I hope he’ll realize that continuing to expose himself to that kind of risk is not in his best future interests – nor that of his family.
I haven’t published a “Twins Top 15 Prospects List” this offseason, yet. There are plenty of other writers who do and many of them probably have better insight into who the top names should be than I do.
I didn’t really make a conscious decision not to do a list this year. I just didn’t get around to it, until now.
So I’m going to provide my list today, but I’m not going to focus a lot on the players individually. Instead, I’m just going to share some thoughts on the Twins’ organizational depth, as a whole, and a few players that I’m anxious to follow in 2016, for a variety of reasons.
So, here’s my list, with the levels each player played at last season, as well as their ranking, in parens, from my personal rankings a year ago.
1. Byron Buxton OF – AA, AAA, MLB (2)
2. Jose Berrios SP – AA, AAA (4)
3. Max Kepler OF/1B – High A, AA, MLB (11)
4. Byung Ho Park 1B/DH – Korea (NR – late 2015 FA sign)
5. Tyler Jay SP/RP – High A (NR – 2015 draft)
6. Stephen Gonsalves SP – Low A, High A (12)
7. Nick Gordon SS – Low A (9)
8. Jorge Polanco 2B/SS – AA, AAA, MLB (6)
9. Engelb Vielma – SS High A (NR)
10. Taylor Rogers SP – AAA (NR)
11. Lewis Thorpe – SP Injured (NR)
12. Nick Burdi – RP High A, AA (10)
13. Jake Reed – RP High A, AA (NR)
14. Kohl Stewart – SP High A (8)
15. J.T. Chargois – RP High A. AA (NR)
As always, there are a few players that, in retrospect, I can’t believe there wasn’t room for on this list. For example, the Twins have three catching prospects that I’m certain would easily find themselves on the Top 15 list of a number of other organizations. Stewart Turner, Mitch Garver and Brian Navarreto all have legitimate shots to become MLB starting catchers. How many other teams have three catchers you can say that about that are rising up through the ranks in consecutive levels?
I don’t typically put many relief pitchers on my list, but the crew of outstanding young bullpen arms that has risen to the Major League threshold has forced me to include Burdi, Reed and Chargois. Even Jay and Rogers could end up pen arms, but their rankings are based on projections as starters, especially with regard to Jay. In fact, however, as I’ll explain below, this list doesn’t even include every young relief arm that has a legitimate chance to establish himself as a big leaguer this season.
This is all one way of saying that I think that all of the concern out there about the Twins not acquiring relief pitching on the free agent or trade market is going to turn out to be much ado about nothing. These guys are the real deal.
The case of Adam Brett Walker probably deserves an entire post of its own. He’s another guy that would easily be in the Top 15 of many, if not most, teams. He probably should be in this one, too, and certainly would be if there weren’t so many outstanding relief pitchers that are literally on the big league club’s doorstep. The strikeouts are a huge red flag, but I’m a Walker fan. I believe he will be a Major League ballplayer one day and probably a good one.
Generally, you probably won’t notice a lot of difference between my top 15 and anyone else’s, but there’s one name on the list that I think I’m higher on than most and that’s shortstop Engelb Vielma, who spent his 2015 entirely with the Fort Myers Miracle in the High A Florida State League.
A lot of conversations about the Twins’ shortstop position go something like this: “It’s great that Eduardo Escobar has established himself as a legitimate starting shortstop so he can hold down the position until Nick Gordon is ready.”
Occasionally, someone will point out that Jorge Polanco is ready to hit big league pitching right now and might be ready to claim the shortstop position soon. Others opine that Polanco will never have the arm to be a full time MLB shortstop.
Most shortstop discussions will go on for a long time before anyone brings up Vielma (if his name comes up at all). That’s understandable. He wasn’t a first round draft pick like Gordon or a $750,000 international free agent signing like Polanco. At 5′ 11″ and MAYBE 150 pounds (if he weighs in immediately after a good meal), you could be forgiven for mistaking Vielma for his team’s batboy – until you see him virtually inhale any ground ball hit remotely close to him and throw rockets to first base.
If baseball was an offense/defense platoon game, like football is, there’s a good chance Engelb Vielma would already be the Twins’ shortstop. He’s that good in the field. The question has always been, “will he hit?”
Well, guess what? He hit .268 in Cedar Rapids in 2014 and followed that up with a .270 clip in Fort Myers. Both Polanco and Gordon are projected to hit a bit better and both will generate more power, but if you ask me who is most likely to eventually succeed Escobar as the Twins’ starting shortstop, I’ll put my money on Vielma. If Gordon continues to progress, as well, Vielma will make a terrific utility infielder (or a valuable trade chip).
Much has been written about how deep the Twins’ minor league organization remains, despite the graduations of players like Miguel Sano and Eddie Rosario in 2015 and the likely graduations of Buxton, Berrios and, perhaps, others in 2016. Indeed, half (or more) of my Top 15 this year could spend significant time with the Twins this season.
General Manager Terry Ryan made reference to the excitement of finally seeing some of these prospects graduate into being productive Twins during a Q&A session with fans during Twinsfest this past weekend. He was quick to add that he was aware that fans are tired of hearing about prospects.
One couldn’t help but notice the quiet, yet pronounced, nod in agreement from the man sitting to Ryan’s left on the stage – owner Jim Pohlad.
Pohlad has patiently watched his GM trade away fan favorites (and, according the owner, many of his own personal favorite players) and trusted that his patience will be rewarded as the club’s best prospects begin to arrive. This may be the year that his patience is rewarded.
In fact, it may be the first of many rewarding seasons, because the “graduating class” this season won’t necessarily be limited to the names on anyone’s top prospect list.
Alex Meyer’s name has fallen off this list, but he will almost certainly finally make his MLB debut, either in the Twins rotation or (more likely) in the bullpen.
Another bullpen option not listed is lefty Mason Melotakis. When we last saw him, he was throwing his mid-90s fastball past AA hitters in 2014. He had Tommy John surgery in October of that year and the Twins were so impressed with his recovery that they felt the need to add him to their 40-man roster this offseason, rather than risk losing him to another team in the Rule 5 draft. If he’s as good in March as the reports about him were in November, he could compete with the higher ranked relievers to be the first among the group to debut with the Twins.
Finally, there are two players I want to focus some special attention on, because the Twins’ front office certainly will be focusing on them as the new season gets underway.
The careers of pitcher Kohl Stewart and outfielder Travis Harrison could be approaching crossroads.
Stewart was the Twins’ first round pick (5th overall) in 2013 and Harrison was a compensation round pick (50th overall) in 2011. Both were high schoolers, so you wouldn’t say that the fact that they aren’t being mentioned as potential big leaguers in 2016 is necessarily a big red flag, but both players have spent time higher on “top prospect” lists than where you will find them this year.
Stewart has more breathing room than Harrison simply because he was chosen 46 spots higher (and paid about $3.5 million more in bonus money) than Harrison and is two years younger than the outfielder.
Still, in an era where the strikeout is king, Stewart has not missed bats at the rate that scouts (and fans) would like to see. He struck out fewer than five batters per nine innings for the Miracle in 2015. As has often been pointed out, Stewart didn’t focus on baseball until after graduating from high school. Before that, he spent as much time, if not more, honing his quarterbacking skills as he did his pitching mechanics.
Stewart’s 129 1/3 innings of work in 2015 was far and away the most time he has ever spent on a pitcher’s mound in one year. At just 21 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to begin to wow the organization with his stuff and move closer to realizing his enormous potential. But it might be a good idea to begin doing that in 2016 because another year of, “what’s wrong with Stewart?” talk among fans – and scouts – might not be a positive thing for his career.
Similarly, it’s hard to believe that Harrison is still just 23 years old, because it feels like we’ve been discussing him forever.
After signing late in 2011, Harrison debuted with Elizabethton in 2012 and has made progress one step at a time ever since. He played full seasons in Cedar Rapids (2013), Fort Myers (2014) and Chattanooga (2015), always against competition that was at least a year or two older than he was.
So, if he has made steady progress up the organizational ladder and is still relatively young, why should we consider Harrison’s career to be approaching a crossroads? It’s not a matter of him showing signs of failure. Like Stewart, it comes down to the player not yet having met certain expectations.
Harrison launched 15 home runs for Cedar Rapids in 2013 (16, if you count one walk-off “single” that left the park but wasn’t credited as a home run because one of the runners on base abandoned his trip around the bases to join the team’s celebration on the field) and it appeared that the Twins had found themselves a future power hitter. However, his home run totals have dropped to three and five round-trippers in the two seasons since leaving Cedar Rapids.
He’s very strong and has been among his team’s leaders in doubles virtually every season, so it’s quite possible that those doubles will begin finding the extra few feet of distance to clear the fences. If so, Harrison could quickly enter any conversation about the Twins’ “outfield of the future.” But the clock is ticking, because he’ll be a minor league free agent after 2017 and because, let’s face it, there are already a few pretty good young outfielders in the process of arriving at Target Field ahead of him.
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.
I don’t go to Twinsfest every year, but try to get up to the Twin Cities to attend the Minnesota Twins’ winter fan event every couple of years, anyway.
I was there two years ago for the first such event held at Target Field and I wasn’t terribly impressed. Maybe my expectations have adjusted or maybe the Twins have learned how to do it all a little bit better, but for whatever reason, I enjoyed the event more this year than I did two years ago.
I should make clear that I don’t go all three days. I go one day – and I don’t stay all that long. I’m not big into autographs, so after a couple of hours of wandering around and seeing what there is to see, I start to feel anxious to move on to something else.
I always run into a few people I know and it’s great to catch up with friends and I enjoy the public interviews that are conducted with players and front office management. I particularly enjoy seeing some of our former Cedar Rapids Kernels getting their turns to interact with Twins fans.
Then, of course, there’s the TwinsDaily.com “Winter Meltdown” that’s held by the TD guys in conjunction with Twinsfest every year and that’s always a great time. I always enjoy the opportunity to catch up with friends at this event and meet a few new people each year, as well. I appreciate TwinsDaily continuing to invite this old guy to attend.
One of the things the Twins did right was having all the players wear their new red “Friday night” alternate jerseys. When they were first announced, I was lukewarm on them, but after seeing the players wearing them around all day, they’ve really grown on me. Yes, I even like the Kasota Gold in the trim.
I’m not going to write a whole lot about my experience this weekend, instead I decided to just post a whole bunch of pictures (some good, some not so good) to give you a sense of how I spent my weekend. Enjoy. – JC
Jose Berrios has shot up the national “top prospect” rankings based on his performance the past couple of years in the Minnesota Twins organization and on Wednesday night, Berrios joined his former manager with the Cedar Rapids Kernels, Jake Mauer, and Twins farm director Brad Steil to participate in a “roundtable” discussion at the Kernels’ annual Hot Stove Banquet.
Before the banquet got underway, all three men were available for media interviews.
It was the first time Berrios had been back to Cedar Rapids since he was part of a 2013 Kernels squad that was loaded with potential big leaguers, including Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, Tyler Duffey, Adam Brett Walker and many others.
Berrios said he was enjoying the homecoming.
“Coming here today in the afternoon, I saw things and thought, ‘I remember that.’ It’s different because now, you’ve got a lot of snow, but I remember some things. My host family, Abby (Pumroy) is coming tonight and I’m excited about that. This is where I played my first full season and I enjoyed it. My family came for my birthday in May. I enjoyed all of my year in 2013 in Cedar Rapids.”
Pumroy, his host mother during his stay with the Kernels (as she is every summer for many of the Latin-American players), not only came to see Berrios at the banquet, but joined him on the stage during the roundtable to serve as interpreter, if necessary.
That service wasn’t needed often. Berrios has made a lot of improvements since his time with the Kernels and that would include his command of English.
In truth, his season with the Kernels was Berrios’ worst as a minor leaguer. He didn’t turn 19 until the second month of the season and notched a 7-7 record and 3.99 ERA and gave up, on average, just over one hit per inning. He struck out “just” 8.7 batters per nine innings. That’s certainly not bad, but 2013 is the only season of his young career in which he failed to top the 9 Ks per inning mark.
Maturity on the mound was an issue for Berrios at times that season. There were times when an inning would start out with an error or two or maybe a couple of hits and the young right-hander would appear to lose his composure a bit, leading to crooked numbers going on the scoreboard that inning for the opponent.
That’s not unusual, of course, especially in the lower levels of the minor leagues, as Mauer pointed out while talking about the progress that Berrios has made since their time together with the Kernels.
“He was pretty young, obviously, when he was here,” Mauer recalled. “He came up late (in April). One thing he would do is he would always compete. Really it was probably the first time he had been hit in his life. He had struck everybody out.
“Kohl Stewart went through some of that, when he was here, too. Some of those guys, that’s what they learn to do here – they start to learn how to pitch, learn how to overcome adversity. Sometimes you get yourself out of innings that maybe your defense created for you. Do I just roll over or do I compete and get through it? I think both of those guys are starting to figure that out pretty good.”
Berrios, who will still be just 21 years old when the 2016 season opens, agreed that he has developed a more mature approach to his craft.
“I’ve matured every year,” he said. “You have to be under control in every situation. That’s what I work on every year and that’s what I’ve learned.
This is the second year that Berrios has been invited by the Twins to open Spring Training with the big club in Fort Myers. A year ago, he wasn’t shy about telling people his goal was to open the season in the Twins’ rotation.
That didn’t happen, of course, and Berrios ended up throwing all 166 1/3 of his innings in the minors, split between AA Chattanooga and AAA Rochester.
His goals going into 2016 have not been tempered from his experience last year, however. If anything, he has taken them up a notch.
“Yeah, I’m keeping the same goals,” he confirmed. “Trying to make the 25 man roster in April with the Minnesota Twins. Then keep going, work to be selected for the All-Star Game in July and then at the end of the season, maybe the Rookie of the Year.
“That’s my goal, that’s what I’m preparing myself for, to make that goal. Be ready for spring training this year. I’m excited about that.”
There may still be snow on the ground, but Berrios said he’s ready to get the new season underway.
“Yeah, there’s too much offseason, I want to play a game.”
Steil, voicing the views of the Twins front office, wasn’t prepared to predict a Rookie of the Year award for his young prospect, but he clearly is looking for good things from Berrios in 2016.
“We’re looking for him to keep improving, which he’s done a nice job at every level he’s been through in our system, Steil said. “Last year, when he went from AA to AAA, he was a little shaky to start with at AAA, which is to be expected.
“I think once you saw him get settled in and get comfortable, he made some adjustments and really pitched well the last month of the season. So he’s going to give some guys at spring training a run for their money when it comes to competing for a roster spot there.”
While it’s too early to make any firm predictions about the Kernels’ 2016 roster, Steil did talk about what he’s expecting at this early point in time.
“I think, looking at it right now, a rough idea of what kind of team we’re going to start with, I think it will be another strong pitching staff, similar to last year,” he offered. “I think as the season goes on, some of the younger hitters will get better and I think we’ve got a chance to have a better lineup than we did last year, just because of the talent that some of these guys have that are coming here.
“Jermaine Palacios, a shortstop that was in the GCL and Elizabethton last year, is one of those guys. I expect LaMonte Wade will be back here to start the season. Chris Paul is another guy that will probably be back to start the season. So I think we’re going to have a few guys that can swing the bat. We should have a little bit more of a threat in the middle of the lineup than they maybe did last year.”
Steil also talked about a couple of pitchers that Kernels fans saw a little of two years ago, Lewis Thorpe and Fernando Romero.
Regarding Thorpe, Steil said the 20-year-old Australian lefty is, “doing very well.”
“He’s probably not going to be ready to go to start the season, so he’ll probably start in extended and get stretched out and build up his arm strength.
“Fernando Romero is in a similar situation,” Steil added. “A guy that pitched here briefly two years ago. He’s got a really good arm. He’ll touch 97, 98 (mph). He’s doing really well. He’s a little ahead of Thorpe, so he may be ready to go at the beginning of the year.”
The Twins assigned each of the managers in their system to the same teams they led in 2015, but the departure of a couple of coaches at the AAA level meant wholesale coaching changes among most of the minor league staffs. As a result, Henry Bonilla, the Kernels pitching coach last season, is moving up to handle the Miracle’s pitching staff and Tommy Watkins, who has coached Kernels hitters for three seasons, will be in Chattanooga with the Lookouts.
Mauer will be welcoming J.P Martinez and Brian Dinkelman to his staff in Cedar Rapids this season as pitching and hitting coaches, respectively.
While Mauer had known Bonilla and Watkins going back to the days that they were teammates in the Twins organization, he said he doesn’t have a similar background with Martinez and Dinkelman. As Mauer was moving through the organization as a player, Martinez and Dinkelman were always a rung or two below him on the ladder. By the time they were reaching the upper levels as players, Mauer had begun his coaching career back in rookie ball.
“I missed being a teammate with them, but I remember them in Spring Training and being around them last year a little bit. They’re both competitors and they both have a lot of information. They’re both really good personalities as far as they’re hard workers and they’re excited.
“This is more ‘real baseball’ than what extended and Gulf Coast League are. They’ve heard a lot of the positive things that are going on up here and both played in this league. I spoke to both of them right around Christmas time. They’re both heading down to Florida early to get down there and get around some of our boys a little sooner.”
Mauer indicated that one benefit of the coaching changes is that Martinez and Dinkelman have already worked some with many of the players likely to pull on a Kernels jersey this summer.
“To be honest, I don’t know many of the guys,” Mauer admitted. “I’ll probably rely on JP and Brian quite a bit. They had them in instructional league and some of them in extended, so they have a feel for them. We’ll shake it out in spring training and figure out who can do what and where they all fit.”
Mauer has set the expectations bar high for next season after leading Cedar Rapids to within one game of a Midwest League championship. On Wednesday, his boss expressed how impressed he has been with the Kernels’ skipper.
“He and Tommy and the pitching coaches here have done a great job in our three years here, advancing a level deeper into the playoffs the last two years,” Steil said. “Especially last year, they did a great job as a coaching staff.
“I don’t think that team was as talented as the first two years we were here. But they did a really good job and those players battled and they never gave up. They played good, sound baseball. They didn’t beat themselves and that was a credit to Jake and Tommy and Henry.”