PP Report: Mauer’s Concussion Symptoms Continue

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.

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Joe Mauer (Photo: SD Buhr)

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.”

And:

“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.

-JC

The Prospects of Top Prospects

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.

This should be the last year that Byron Buxton's name shows up on any "Top Prospect" list.
This should be the last year that Byron Buxton’s name shows up on any “Top Prospect” list.

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.

Nick Gordon sits atop a deep list of middle infield prospects in the Twins organization.
Nick Gordon sits atop a deep list of middle infield prospects in the Twins organization.

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.

-JC

Twinsfest Weekend: a Photo Journal

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

(All photos by SD Buhr)

On the light rail headed to Target Field, I got a new look at the Vikings' future home.
On the light rail headed to Target Field, I got a new look at the Vikings’ future home.
Each of the Twins' full season minor league affiliates had a booth set up. Good to see the familiar faces of Ryne Georage and Scott Wilson from the Kernels.
Each of the Twins’ full season minor league affiliates had a booth set up. Good to see the familiar faces of Community Relations Director Ryne George and General Manager Scott Wilson from the Kernels.
Jose Berrios on stage
Jose Berrios on stage
Byron Buxton preparing for his stage interview
Byron Buxton preparing for his stage interview
Nick Burdi gives an autograph after his turn on the interview stage
Nick Burdi gives an autograph after his turn on the interview stage
Brian Dozier playing some Tic Tax Toe with a young fan
Brian Dozier playing some Tic Tax Toe with a young fan
Trevor Hildenberger and Terry Ryan pose after participating in some fan games in the Champions Club
Trevor Hildenberger and Terry Ryan pose after participating in some fan games in the Champions Club
A "Celebrate Diversity" panel included Danny Santana, Miguel Sano and Tony Oliva.
A “Celebrate Diversity” panel included Danny Santana, Miguel Sano and Tony Oliva.
My big (only) purchase of the day, from the "Twins Yard Sale," was this Autograph Station sign from Friday night's autograph session, featuring the autographs of all five participants: Tony Oliva, Casey Fien, Adam Bret Walker II, Mitch Garver and Stephen Gonsalves
My big (only) purchase of the day, from the “Twins Yard Sale,” was this Autograph Station sign from Friday night’s autograph session, featuring the autographs of all five participants:  Twins Great Tony Oliva, current Twins reliever Casey Fien and future Twins (& former Kernels) Adam Brett Walker II, Mitch Garver and Stephen Gonsalves.
Paul Lambert (L) and John Bonnes (R) interview former Twins catcher Tim Laudner (center)
Paul Lambert (L) and John Bonnes (R) interview former Twins catcher Tim Laudner (center)
Paul Lambert, Aaron Gleeman, John Bonnes, Nick Nelson and Seth Stohs on stage (clearly, Paul and Seth are intensely interested in what John is saying, as evidenced by their focus on their phones)
Paul Lambert, Aaron Gleeman, John Bonnes, Nick Nelson and Seth Stohs on stage (clearly, Paul and Seth are intensely interested in what John is saying, as evidenced by their focus on their phones)

Berrios Headlines Kernels’ Hot Stove Banquet

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.

Jake Mauer, Brad Steil and Jose Berrios talk baseball at the Kernels Hot Stove Banquet
Jake Mauer, Brad Steil and Jose Berrios talk baseball at the Kernels 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.”

Jose Berrios
Jose Berrios

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.”

Brad Steil and Jake Mauer chat before the Kernels Hot Stove Banquet with former big leaguer Tom Lawless, who was inducted into Cedar Rapids' baseball hall of fame Wednesday. Lawless managed the last Kernels team to win A MWL championship.
Brad Steil and Jake Mauer chat before the Kernels Hot Stove Banquet with former big leaguer Tom Lawless, who was inducted into Cedar Rapids’ baseball hall of fame Wednesday. Lawless managed the last Kernels team to win A MWL championship.

-JC

Everything Old is New Again

Today, I want to revisit something I wrote in a prior post. The subject (as so many things written by so many people has been) was centered around what the Twins should do with regard to Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton.

Maybe you take them aside and say, “Guys, if you’re healthy in April, you’re going to be Minnesota Twins. You may perform like Kennys Vargas or you may look more like Aaron Hicks, but you’re going to stay in Minnesota. You will not be sent back to the minors. From this point forward, you are Major League baseball players. Now get to work and act like it.”

The thing is, you can’t wait until spring training to make this decision. It wouldn’t be fair to Trevor Plouffe.

If Sano is going to step in as your primary third baseman, Plouffe needs to spend some time this winter learning to play left field. Maybe he and Joe Mauer could learn together.

For that matter, I’d tell Sano to go out there and shag some fly balls, too, because I’m not convinced the Twins won’t discover they’re better off defensively with Sano in the outfield and Plouffe at the hot corner.

What’s that? You say you’re one of the five or so people who have read everything I’ve posted this offseason and you don’t recall reading any of that? Well, you’re absolutely correct.

I offered those recommendations in October – of 2014.

Byron Buxton
Byron Buxton (Photo: SD Buhr)

That just demonstrates that I’m never wrong with my ideas, just occasionally ahead of the curve! Eventually, conventional wisdom (and that of the Twins’ front office) comes around to my way of thinking. They really should just listen to me in the first place, right?

So was I prescient or premature? Based on the reactions I received to these suggestions 14 months ago, most would say I was premature – that it was simply too soon for Sano and Buxton to be plugged into the Twins starting lineup right out of the gate in 2015.

Maybe. But, with the benefit of hindsight, I’d say I’d still like to have seen what kind of results the Twins would have had if they had benefited from a full season of Sano-Buxton, rather than half a season of Sano and only enough Buxton to show eventual flashes of his potential at the end of the season.

Of course, based on the reactions we see to the Twins trading Aaron Hicks and their statements concerning plans to use Sano in the outfield in 2016, a lot of fans would say I was neither prescient nor premature, but I was simply wrong then and wrong now.

I’ve been critical of front office decisions with some regularity over the past few years (but then, who hasn’t?), but I’m on board with both the trade of Hicks to fill a definite need at catcher and the plan to give Sano a look in the outfield.

Maybe Hicks will become another Carlos Gomez, emerging as an All-Star performer in another organization’s outfield after escaping Minnesota. But, for me, Buxton remains far more likely to become that All-Star outfielder and he’s not going to reach that level by spending more time in Rochester. He needs to be told he’s the Opening Day centerfielder and neither he nor the Twins should waffle from that decision, even if he opens the year a little slow. He won’t disappoint.

As a minor leaguer in spring training, Miguel Sano wore no. 24. Will he replace the player currently wearing that jersey with the Twins? (photo: SD Buhr)
As a minor leaguer in spring training, Miguel Sano wore no. 24. Will he replace the player currently wearing that jersey with the Twins? (photo: SD Buhr)

A lot of people make a big deal of Sano’s size, doubting that a guy weighing in at nearly 270 pounds has any business playing the outfield. Ordinarily, I might agree. But Miguel Sano is not your ordinary 270-pound athlete. If he can learn to take at least decent routes to fly balls and, obviously, catch the balls he gets to, I think he’ll impress us. Of course, it’s not a given that he’ll be able to do those things. We have nothing to go on, positive or negative, to judge at this point whether he can do those things. But anyone thinking he’ll be another plodding outfielder in the mold of Young, Willingham or Arcia are, I believe, going to be proven wrong.

As I wrote a year ago, it wouldn’t hurt for Plouffe (and perhaps even Mauer) to shag some fly balls, as well. If it does turn out that Sano simply can’t field the position, there will be a need for Plan B. If Byung Ho Park transitions well from Korea to the American League, the Twins are going to need to find another way to keep the bats of both Park and Sano in the lineup every day. It seems unlikely that MLB will grant manager Paul Molitor special dispensation to use two designated hitters.

There’s a lot of uncertainty in all of this, but there are two things we and the Twins do know – Trevor Plouffe can play a solid third base and Joe Mauer can do the same at first base. We don’t know if Sano and Park can do the same. I suspect we’ll all know a lot more about who is capable of doing what by June, but for now, I’m okay with what the Twins appear to be planning to do – let the guys who have demonstrated an ability to play infield defense do so and bet on Sano’s athleticism being good enough to fill the third outfield spot along with Eddie Rosario and Byron Buxton.

General Manager Terry Ryan has a few things left to do this offseason to finalize his roster and if he gets overwhelmed with an offer for Plouffe, he can accept it. However, based on what we’re seeing of the third base market, that seems unlikely to happen and he shouldn’t give Plouffe away for a handful of magic beans.

But I have no problem with him betting on Buxton and Sano making him look smart a year from now. After all, not many people have gone wrong betting on the ability of those two men to do just about anything on a baseball field.

-JC

Let the Sano-Buxton-Park Era Begin

The Minnesota Twins held a press conference Wednesday morning to introduce their newest addition to the family, Korean slugger Byung Ho Park. The hope is that Park can approach the level of production he showed in Korea and, if so, join potential stars Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton as cornerstones in a Twins everyday lineup being built to contend for the postseason for years to come.

Park press conferenceBy now, everyone knows how he came to be a member of the Twins. His Korean team posted him, the Twins won the bidding for the exclusive rights to negotiate with him, they came to an agreement on a multi-year deal and, on Wednesday, he and the Twins’ brass spoke to the media about the whole thing.

The assembled media asked a lot of good questions. How will park adjust to facing better pitchers who throw better breaking balls and faster fastballs? How will he adjust to being a full-time designated hitter? What kind of fielder is he, in the event he needs to use his glove more frequently than is currently envisioned? How will he adjust to living and working in the United States?

The media got very few good answers to those questions, however.

That’s not the fault of Park, GM Terry Ryan or anyone else on that dias, really. The fact is, there are no good answers to most of the questions, yet. Park will need to answer those questions on the field, in the clubhouse and out and about in the greater Twins Territory community.

Ryan told the media that he feels his team needs to add offense and that he expects Park to replace Torii Hunter’s offensive production.

My goodness, I certainly hope he can do better than that. After all, while Hunter made significant critical contributions to the turnaround of the 2015 Twins, not a lot of those contributions were with his bat. If Park doesn’t exceed Hunter’s 2015 production, he may well be getting acquainted with upstate New York or south central Tennessee at some point.

It sounds like expectations are measured, which is good. Everyone with the club has indicated they expect Park to struggle a little bit as he adjusts to Major League pitching, but that he is also expected to successfully make those adjustments. I wonder how well those limited expectations will be remembered when the strikeouts come, especially if wins don’t come as quickly for this team as we think they should.

I’m looking forward to a full season of Park and Miguel Sano in the lineup. That’s a lot of long-ball potential that wasn’t there on Opening Day, 2015. It’s also a lot of strikeout potential, of course.

Ryan was asked if he expects to make more roster moves, obviously alluding to the possibility of trading incumbent third baseman Trevor Plouffe. His response seemed unequivocal, stating that he did not expect to make additional changes to the regular lineup. “We’re going to go with what we’ve got,” he said. He added, “We’re going to move Sano to the outfield.”

Things change, of course. Baseball’s Winter Meetings are coming up and it’s reasonable to expect that Ryan will get some inquiries about the availability of some of his players, including Plouffe. Maybe his unambiguous statements today are just part of a posture he’s taking to send a message to his peers that they should not expect to get Plouffe (or anyone) for peanuts.

But, to me, he certainly sounded and looked like a man who believes his everyday lineup is just about set in stone.

The additional power is good. It’s very good. I just don’t think it’s so good that it will, by itself, push the Twins over hump and propel them into the postseason. I believe that this team also needs more hitters who can get on base and contribute some extra-base hits with regularity.

For that to happen, Miguel Sano cannot afford a sophomore slump. He needs to not only continue to pepper the outfield bleachers with 400-foot home run balls, he needs to continue adding 30 or 40 doubles and get on base 38% of the time. In short, he needs to be a fixture in the cleanup spot for the Twins that strikes fear into the minds of opposing pitchers and catchers.

He needs to be that guy right out of the gate in 2016.

Byron Buxton also needs to arrive in 2016. And by “arrive,” I mean he needs to, as Nuke LaLoosh put it, announce his presence with authority.

If Buxton and Sano take control of the leadoff and cleanup spots, respectively, on Opening Day and both show the talent they have demonstrated at every minor league level (and that Sano demonstrated in half a season with the Twins this year), it will allow the rest of the lineup to easily fall into place.

Byron Buxton
Byron Buxton

Mauer and Dozier become the everyday number 2 and 3 hitters. Plouffe, Park and either Rosario or Arcia (whichever claims the third outfield spot) easily slot into the 5-7 spots, while Escobar and the catcher du jour, Suzuki or Murphy, pull up the rear.

In that scenario, the Twins lineup has become much “longer,” to use the buzzword currently in favor that describes a team with dangerous hitters even far down the batting order. It also allows guys like Dozier, Mauer, Plouffe and Rosario to successfully fill roles they are most suited to fill, rather than try to be something they aren’t.

Yes, I would have defensive concerns with any outfield that includes both Sano and Arcia in the corners. That’s a disaster waiting to happen, but I’m pretty confident that Rosario will be the winner of that battle this spring, so I’m not too concerned about it.

But if Buxton can’t be Buxton at the top of that order or if Sano struggles to make consistent hard contact at cleanup, suddenly your “long” lineup isn’t really so long and you’ve got some guys hitting in spots they really aren’t best-suited for.

Your leadoff hitter needs to work the count, hit for average, draw walks, find some gaps and cause all sorts of anxiety for pitchers, catchers and defenses on the basepaths.

Your cleanup hitter needs to consistently drive in runs. He needs to hit home runs in bunches. He needs to be able to do more than make pitchers pay for mistakes. He needs to hit a pitcher’s best pitch for extra bases. He needs to avoid striking out so often that opposing teams don’t worry about seeing him step into the on-deck circle.

If Buxton isn’t an effective leadoff man, someone else has to do that job and there is nobody currently on this roster that you could honestly say, “leadoff is his best spot.” The same is true of Sano at cleanup.

Yes Dozier could lead off. Mauer and Escobar could do it, too. But all three of those players have holes in their offensive games that make them much better suited to hit someplace other than at the top of the Twins’ order.

It’s possible that Park will turn out to be a legitimate cleanup spot alternative to Sano. If so, that’s a bonus. But right now, the best the Twins show me is a few guys who could serve that role if they absolutely had to. That’s not good enough.

If you have to slide Dozier and Mauer up a spot in the order and/or do the same with Plouffe and Rosario, not to mention Escobar and your catcher, suddenly that lineup doesn’t look so “long,” after all. You no longer have a lineup set up to challenge the Kansas City Royals in the American League Central Division, much less make a deep postseason run.

I know that I’ve totally ignored the pitching situation and, obviously, that’s very important, too. I also am aware that the Twins will be likely be a better team with Buxton in centerfield every day, regardless of what he does with his bat.

But for the Twins to become the team we all want them to be, they need Byron Buxton to be an All-Star level leadoff hitter, they need Sano to be a beast in the cleanup spot and they need those things to happen closer to April than September. They also need Park to quickly make whatever adjustments need to be made to allow him to be a significant contributor to a big league contender.

No pressure, guys. Just become great and do it now.

Max Kepler’s 2016 Role

In 2015, Twins outfield prospect Max Kepler had his long-awaited breakout season, primarily with the Class AA Chattanooga Lookouts. He was the Southern League Player of the Year and, immediately after his Lookouts team won the Southern League Championship, Kepler was on his way to join the Twins for the remainder of the 2016 season.

Max Kepler
Max Kepler

Kepler had an injury-plagued season in 2013, not being able to even join the Cedar Rapids Kernels until mid-June due to an arm injury. In 2014, he made progress with the Fort Myers Miracle, but still wasn’t wowing the supposed “experts.” He had a very good stint in the Arizona Fall League in 2014, however, setting the stage for his outstanding 2015 season.

This has led to some conjecture as to what his role might/could/should be in 2016. The topic became the subject of a Twitter exchange I participated in on Monday but making a thoughtful argument on a matter like this in 140 character bites is all but impossible.

Fortunately, I have a blog that has no such limit.

I don’t recall how the topic was originally raised, but in essence, I believe the question of Kepler perhaps being utilized as the Twins’ fourth outfielder in 2016 was posed.

The immediate reaction, from informed persons with considerable experience and knowledge on such matters, was that Kepler would not and should not open the season with the Twins if he’s not going to be one of the three starting outfielders. In that case, he should begin the year on the farm where he’ll be an everyday player, preparing for a possible mid-season promotion.
This is a reasoned and logical view. It’s a view I would have shared a year ago. It’s a view I wouldn’t necessarily criticize the Twins’ front office for taking this spring, either.

But I don’t necessarily agree it would be the correct approach in 2016.

I don’t think we can rely too much on one very impressive season out of Kepler (or any prospect) and we can’t assume that he’s going to pick up in March right where he left off in Septermber, though he will get an opportunity to impress coaches and the front office during the Twins’ spring training. He may struggle against what passes for big league pitching in the initial spring training games and, if so, the only decision to be made will be whether he opens 2016 in Rochester or back in Chattanooga.

Just for the sake of argument, though, let’s assume he opens strong and is successful against the March versions of Major League pitching he faces, but not to the extent that he forces his way into one of the top three outfield spots with the Twins.
Now, what do you do?

Option one, of course, is that you still send him to the minors where he’ll play every day.

Option two is that you bring him north to Minnesota to open the season as the Twins’ fourth outfielder.

Max Kepler
Max Kepler

With a prospect of his caliber, conventional wisdom is that you don’t want him rotting on the big league team’s bench. You want him honing his craft in the upper minors by getting daily looks at quality pitching (though, clearly, not MLB level “quality”).

I’m not prepared to just blindly follow conventional wisdom, in this case, however. It may be conventional, but I’m not convinced it’s wise.

As things currently stand, the Twins’ starting outfield is likely to be some three-man combination of the following four players: Eddie Rosario, Oswaldo Arcia, Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano. If Trevor Plouffe remains the Twins’ starting third baseman on Opening Day, it’s quite possible that all four of the aforementioned men are with the Twins, making Arcia the likely “fourth outfielder.”

But, again, for the sake of argument, let’s assume Plouffe, Rosario or Arcia is not with the organization, Buxton struggles in spring training or the Sano-as-outfielder experiment goes bust.
In our “what if” scenario, then, the Twins are left with the choice of adding a replacement level fourth outfielder in the Shane Robinson mold or making Keper that fourth outfielder.

If the Twins were still in the midst of a run of 95-loss season futility, Kepler would be farmed out. If you have little hope of competing for the postseason, you give your top prospects all kinds of time to develop in the minors, even if they might make your big league club marginally better. You’re planning and playing for the future, when you can contend.

But the Twins of 2016 are no longer rebuilding. To my mind, every roster decision they make coming out of spring training should answer only one question – who gives us the best chance to win games at the MLB level?

I simply don’t buy the argument that Kepler’s development would be damaged by being the Twins’ fourth outfielder, as opposed to being a regular in Rochester if – BIG IF – he demonstrates that he is not overwhelmed by big league pitching.
Given the likely composition of the Twins’ starting outfield (and the fact that Paul Molitor, not Ron Gardenhire, is the Twins’ manager), Kepler would not rot on the bench. Most starting outfielders get one game off each week, either entirely off or where they serve as the designated hitter. That would potentially give Kepler three starts every week. At worst, he would start twice and pinch hit a time or two.

Together, Shane Robinson and Jordan Schafer averaged over ten plate appearances per week for the Twins in 2015 and they were not the only reserves who saw time in the Twins outfield.

Reynaldo Rodriguez led the Red Wings, playing in 132 of Rochester’s 140 games in 2015. He averaged about 25 plate appearances per week. If you subscribe to the “promote Kepler at mid-season” philosophy, he’s not going to come anywhere close to that number, anyway.

If the Twins can find a dozen plate appearances for Kepler each week at the big league level and if he demonstrates he is not overmatched in those opportunities, I would rather he learn to hit MLB pitching in the Major Leagues, not simply continue to show a proficiency for hitting good minor league pitching.

But that’s not really the point, anyway.

The point is that these Twins should be doing absolutely everything within their power to win Major League games. They found out in 2015 just how important every single win is and that a win in September is no more important than a win in April.

Max Kepler, in Arizona Fall League (2014)
Max Kepler, in Arizona Fall League (2014)

For that reason, if the Twins believe that Max Kepler’s presence, whether it’s his defense, his baserunning, his pinch-hitting or his ability to ably fill in as a starting outfielder two or three times a week, is likely to result in more wins over the course of the season than whoever else they might alternatively utilize in that role, then that’s all that really matters. You keep Kepler in April, period, even if that means Kepler doesn’t reach his full potential as a big leaguer for another year.

The Twins – and their fans – need to stop thinking like an organization still “waiting until next year.” Next year is now and the Twins should need to begin acting like they plan to compete with the Kansas City Royals for dominance of the American League Central Division and do so beginning in 2016.

That means you bring your best 25 players to Minnesota with you in April. If that includes Max Kepler (and/or Byron Buxton and/or Jose Berrios), then so be it.