Good-bye and Good Luck, Mr. Hicks

Aaron Hicks’ trade to the New York Yankees on Wednesday brings to a close one of the more frustrating eras for a young Twins player in some time. Frustrating for those of us who closely follow Twins prospects, frustrating for the Twins’ front office and, I’m certain, frustrating for the player, himself.

The methods that Major League Baseball employ to bring new talent into professional baseball in the United States amount to the biggest crapshoot in professional sports. A 40-round amateur draft for domestic players, combined with a process for signing international talent at the age of 16, feeds at least a half-dozen tiers of development leagues. The result is a meat-grinder of a system that chews up and spits out young players by the hundreds every year, with only the strongest, most durable (and luckiest) few of the group even getting a taste of big league life, much less having a significant MLB career.

International players that garner multi-million dollar deals at the age of 16, like Miguel Sano, and top-of-the-first-round draft choices, like Byron Buxton, are better bets, of course, but the road is also littered with players in those categories that, whether due to injury or any number of other reasons, never lived their Major League dreams.

A then-18 year old Aaron Hicks was the Twins’ first round draft choice in 2008, the 14th pick of the draft, and immediately was penciled in as the next-generation fixture in the middle of the Twins’ outfield of the future.

Beloit Snappers CF Aaron Hicks leads off 1B during a game in Cedar Rapids in June 2010
Beloit Snappers CF Aaron Hicks leads off 1B during a game in Cedar Rapids in June 2010

It took 4 1/2 years for Hicks to get to the big leagues which, at the time, seemed like forever for a first round draft pick. Yet, when he did debut, after winning the starting centerfield job out of spring training in 2013, it felt to many like he was rushed. As things turned out, he almost certainly could have used more development time, rather than skipping directly from AA in 2012 to The Show to open 2013.

Hicks got off to a very good start with the Gulf Coast League Twins after signing in 2008, hitting .318 with a .900 OPS, in just over 200 plate appearances. From there, though, the path became more challenging.

He was targeted to start 2009 with Elizabethton, but by mid-June of that year, the Beloit Snappers needed outfield help and Hicks was sent there, instead. He struggled a bit at the plate, requiring him to repeat that level in 2010. His numbers improved in 2010 and, given that he was still just 20 years old, his prospect status jumped, as well.

Hicks’ 2011 at advanced-A Fort Myers was nothing to write home about, again costing him some prospect-status points. The Twins sent him to the Arizona Fall League that year for some more work and he excelled in Arizona, hitting .294 and racking up a huge .959 OPS, albeit in just 30 games. That was enough to get fans excited about Hicks’ potential again, heading in to the following spring.

He didn’t disappoint at AA New Britain, having the quintessential “break out year” with the Rock Cats, hitting .286 with 13 home runs.

That performance emboldened Twins General Manager Terry Ryan, who saw Hicks as being so Major League ready that he traded away both of the Twins’ incumbent centerfielders, Denard Span and Ben Revere, during the offseason leading up to 2013. Again, the enthusiasm turned out to be a bit premature, as Hicks struggled not only with the Twins, for whom he hit below the Mendoza-line level, but also at AAA Rochester, where he continued to struggle at the plate.

Hicks lasted less than a month into the 2014 season before literally “hitting a wall.” He suffered a concussion after slamming into the centerfield wall at Target Field in a game against the Dodgers. He ended up spending time at AA, where he once again excelled in 43 games, and at AAA Rochester, where he certainly held his own. After getting a September call-up, he totaled 69 games with the Twins during the season, hitting just .215 in his time with the big club.

Justified or not, Hicks earned a reputation within the Twins organization as having a less-than-professional approach to his game. Reports came out that at times he didn’t even know who the opponent’s starting pitcher was. Struggling from the left side of the plate, he announced he would give up on switch-hitting (a decision he later reversed, after a chat with Rod Carew).

The Twins did not bring Hicks north with them to open the 2015 season, opting instead to start him at AAA Rochester. To his credit, Hicks immediately set about earning another chance with the Twins. He hit .342 with the Red Wings and put up a .948 OPS.

With the Twins, Hicks was respectable at the plate for the first time in his big league career, batting .256 and hitting 11 home runs in 97 appearances. In addition, his defense in centerfield was a critical contribution to the Twins’ surprising (to many) 83-win season, despite struggling with a hamstring issue.

That’s the history with the Twins that Aaron Hicks carried into this postseason. Given all of that, it certainly could not have come as a surprise to anyone that General Manager Terry Ryan was willing to listen when the Yankees’ Brian Cashman approached him about a possible deal involving Hicks.

Reports have surfaced that there was interest in Hicks previously on the part of other teams, but the Twins were unwilling to let him go. That’s not surprising, since any overture before the 2015 season would have almost certainly been a low-ball offer.

We’ve also read that Cashman got a lukewarm response from Ryan to his first suggestion of a trade involving Hicks for Yanks catcher John Ryan Murphy, but Ryan became much more interested in the idea after the Twins learned they had won the right to negotiate with Korean slugger Byung Ho Park.

Adding Park to the mix at first base and designated hitter meant the idea of Miguel Sano getting regular time in the Twins outfield in 2016 went from just a casual option to a much more real possibility. Inserting Sano into the outfield mix with Hicks, Eddie Rosario and, sooner rather than later, Byron Buxton and Max Kepler, left Ryan with an abundance of outfielders.

It may be risky to assume (1) that Sano can play a passable outfield and (2) that Buxton and/or Kepler will be successful big league hitters in 2016. We also can’t rule out the possibility that third baseman Trevor Plouffe could yet be dealt by the Twins, opening up that position for Sano and taking him out of the outfield mix again.

On the flip side, however, given Hicks’ roller-coaster performance record, Ryan had to figure that now might be the best time to maximize Hicks’ trade value. The Twins needed a catcher capable of at least challenging Kurt Suzuki for the starting job behind the plate immediately. The Yankees had such a catcher available in Murphy and they were willing to part with him in return for Hicks, so Ryan pulled the trigger.

I’d like to say I wish Aaron Hicks the best of luck and I do – to a point.

If he had been traded to any team I either have some kind of affection for or at least have no feelings toward whatsoever, my wish for good fortune would be unconditional. He seems like a good guy and I truly appreciate the challenges he overcame to eventually be a significant contributor to the Twins at the Major League level.

But he’s going to the Yankees.

So the best I can do is wish Hicks all the personal good luck in the world in the future, while stopping short of being able to wish him good fortune in conjunction with his new team. I just can’t wish the Yankees anything close to good luck.

As for Murphy, I don’t know much about him, but all reports indicate that he has grown from a “bat first” catcher into a guy who is at least a legitimate MLB talent behind the plate. If he can perform in that manner and hit the way he has done historically, he’ll amount to a significant upgrade for the Twins at the position.

I believe that the Twins have multiple legitimate big league catching prospects in their organization. I believe that Stuart Turner, Mitch Garver and Brian Navarreto, to name just three, will someday catch at the MLB level, either with the Twins or elsewhere. They have different strengths and weaknesses and whether they become regulars or backups will depend on how they improve on those weaknesses, but they’ll get their shots.

It takes time, however, for most to develop into a regular big league catcher and it will be more than a couple of years before any of those prospects is ready to be “the guy” behind the plate for what, by then, should be a MLB contender.

For now, at least, Murphy seems like a very good cost-controlled addition to the roster and the price paid was reasonable.

-JC

 

 

 

Twins May Get a New ‘Park’

No, not THAT kind of “park.” The Twins will continue to call Target Field their home for the foreseeable future.

byung-ho-park
Byung Ho Park

On Monday, it was announced that the Minnesota Twins had submitted the winning $12.85 million bid to secure the rights to negotiate with Korean Baseball’s slugger Byung Ho Park. The Twins now have 30 days to work out a contract with the 29-year-old first baseman/designated hitter who slashed .343/.436/.714 with a 1.150 OPS for the Nexen Heros. He hit 52 and 53 home runs the past two seasons, respectively. He also has over 300 strikeouts combined over the past two years.

As Major League Baseball’s General Manager Meetings get underway in Florida this week, the GMs walking the halls must be just shaking their heads and saying, “That Terry Ryan is just so unpredictable, you never know what that crazy SOB is going to do next!”

I suppose the first thing we will need to learn, if the Twins do sign him, is how to write his name. I’ve seen Byung-ho Park, Byung ho Park, Byung Ho Park and Park Byung ho. I have no idea what’s correct, but I hope someone will check into that and let us all know.

Park is listed at 6′ 1″ and 195 pounds, so he’s certainly not a massive physical specimen, but there are plenty of videos available on YouTube that include compilations of his home runs. He has hit a lot of deep home runs and has mastered a variety of bat-flips, as well.

(This is a LONG montage of Park home runs, so I’m not suggesting you watch the whole thing. I didn’t.)

Reports have emerged, however, that Park will be toning down his bat-flipping in recognition that it’s not as “acceptable” in MLB as it is in Korea, where flipping the bat has become essentially an art form.

I’m not sure how I feel about that. I admit that I have been a bit old school in my views about bat-flipping. I’m willing to acknowledge, however, that those views may have been affected by the fact that the Twins haven’t had many guys lately who had the ability to do anything worthy of flipping a bat. With the arrival of Miguel Sano, potentially Kennys Vargas and, now, Park, maybe I’m not so anti-flip as I used to be.

I’m happy to discover that the Twins have put their Tsuyoshi Nishioka experience in their rear view mirror and not allowed it to sour them completely on risking some money in the Asian market.

You have to be careful about comparisons involving small numbers, but it probably didn’t hurt that the Pirates had success with third baseman Jung Ho Kang, who put up similar stat lines to Park a year ago in Korea. Kang hit .287/.355/.461 as a 28-year-old rookie in 2015.

With the technology available today to measure bat speed, velocity of the ball off the bat, etc., we can hope that scouting is a bit more precise than when the Twins took an ultimately ill-advised flyer on Nishioka. Still, conventional belief is that Park hasn’t faced anything near MLB-level pitching, either in velocity or breaking balls, so it would be premature to celebrate too much.

I do think it’s interesting that the Twins (and presumably other bidders for Park’s services) were willing to overlook his strikeout rate, given the concerns everyone seems  have with Twins outfield prospect Adam Brett Walker II, who likewise has shown impressive power and excessive strikeout rates.

I’m not sure if that indicates the Twins might be more likely to give Walker a big league shot in the near future or simply that Walker, in a worst case scenario, could make some big bucks playing in Korea, but I find it interesting.

If the Twins sign Park, it also opens up questions about where he would fit in Paul Molitor’s lineup. This guy named Joe Mauer has been viewed as having pretty much a lock on first base. I saw a report that Park was working some at third base during his Korean team’s spring training this past year, but I’ve seen nothing to indicate he actually played that position during the season. In any event, the Twins already could have one too many third basemen in Trevor Plouffe and Miguel Sano.

The Twins have asked Sano to play outfield during winter ball, so that could open up the (perhaps most likely) possibility of simply having Mauer and Park split 1B/DH duties, but I’m having trouble imagining Sano going from full time DH in 2015 to full time right fielder in 2016. I think Sano will DH a lot next summer. I also have become irreversibly attached to the idea of a future four-man outfield rotation consisting of top-notch defenders Byron Buxton, Eddie Rosario, Aaron Hicks and Max Kepler.

I have to believe Trevor Plouffe is on the trade block. I wouldn’t give him away, however, and I’m just not convinced other teams value him enough to give up much of value in return. Of course, any of the four outfielders mentioned above, other than Buxton, would also be potential trade bait and one or two could bring more of a return than Plouffe.

For two years, I have made fun of anyone who claimed Mauer should return to catching. The man stopped catching for a good reason. He had brain injuries that resulted in his doctors telling him he needed to stop taking 100 mph foul tips off his head.

If his doctors still feel that way, then I still feel Mauer should not catch. Period. It’s simply not worth the risk to his future health.

Is it possible, however, that given his relative lack of additional concussion issues since moving out from behind home plate a couple years ago, that he has received medical clearance to return to the position? This is pure speculation, of course, but if so, a lot of pieces suddenly start falling into place. It seems highly unlikely, bordering on impossible, but stranger things have happened.

For example, did you hear the Minnesota Twins outbid everyone for Korean slugger Byung-ho Park?

-JC

 

Walker 195/51

Rebooting

Welcome back, Knuckleballs readers. Long time-no see.

My contributions here have been sparse, at best, lately. I’m hoping that’s about to change.

I took a little time off, for a couple of reasons. I think they were good reasons, but then I’m biased, obviously.

After completing my third season of covering the Cedar Rapids Kernels for MetroSportsReport.com and contributing articles to TwinsDaily.com, I simply needed time away from writing on a regular basis.

Oh, I also lost my “day job,” so that’s taken a bit of getting used to, too.

RebootI got a decent “separation pay” deal from my employer and by officially “retiring,” I’m also able to keep most of the most important benefits (health insurance, etc.), so there are certainly worse ways to lose your job.

I’m not looking for sympathy here. I was ready to move on and, as it turns out, my employer was ready enough to have me move on that they’re willing to pay me for quite some time NOT to work for them. Not a bad situation, at all.

Still, it leaves me in a position to essentially reboot my life, or at least significant aspects of my future. I make a lot of “old man” jokes at my own expense, but I’m really not all that old. I haven’t reached the big six-oh yet, though I’m certainly closing in on it. The point is, I feel like it’s far too early for me to simply do nothing with my day.

The nice thing is that my financial situation allows me to take some time to examine my options and find something that I feel I’ll really enjoy doing with my time going forward. That will be a nice change.

In the meantime, I think I’m ready to get back at the keyboard on a more regular basis. For now, that means, hopefully, posting more frequently here. I realize that, when you take the kind of hiatus I’ve taken, it will be difficult (and, possibly, impossible) to get readership levels back to what they used to be.

That’s OK (for now, anyway).

I couldn’t decide on one topic to write about today, so I’m going to just touch on a number of issues.

World Series Game 1

Wow. How are they going to top that?

Game 1 had all the usual stuff (good pitching, good defense, good hitting) and then some:

  • Human interest (Volquez pitching after his father passed away earlier in the day)
  • Network difficulties (What the hell, FOX?)
  • A totally unexpected defensive lapse that threatened to cost the Royals the game.
  • A deep home run in the 9th inning off a shut-down closer to tie the game.
  • Five extra innings, before the guy who made the aforementioned error drove in the walk-off run with a sacrifice fly.

On Twitter, I went on record as picking the Royals to win the Series in seven games.

That’s probably less of a prediction than it is a hope. I’m an American League guy so, as long as it’s not the Yankees in the Series, I’m almost always going to be pulling for the AL representative. Mostly, though, I just want to see a great Series and that would include a deciding seventh game.

Torii Hunter’s Retirement

Hunter made the right call. There’s no way to look at his work on the field this season and objectively say that it looks like he still has enough in the tank to be a regular contributor on a team that expects to be a contender and, let’s face it, Torii Hunter is not cut out to play a reserve role. It’s not in his personality.

I give credit where I believe it’s due, however. His presence on the team was a net-positive for the Twins and, without him, I do not believe they have as much success in 2015 as they did.

It sounds like he’ll get an opportunity to join the Twins’ front office in some capacity. I have mixed feelings about that and I suppose where I come down on the subject will depend on what role he’s given.

On the one hand, clearly Major League Baseball needs more African-Americans in front office positions and Torii Hunter has the background and personality that one would think might make him successful in some kind of front office role.

On the other hand, given some of Hunter’s stated views on certain social issues, I would have a difficult time trusting him to make any sort of personnel decisions that call for inclusion of staff from diverse backgrounds and beliefs.

In the end, nobody really should care all that much what a professional baseball player believes, with regard to racial, religious or any other social issue. I know I don’t. But if/when that player is being considered for a position in a professional business organization (which is what the front office is), now we can and should care about those views because they can impact who that team hires and how employees are treated in the workplace.

It will be interesting to see how this turns out. In the meantime, I would congratulate Hunter on a terrific Major League career and thank him for what he contributed to my enjoyment of Minnesota Twins baseball during his years in a Twins uniform.

Big Ten Football

Yeah, I know this has been primarily a baseball blog since we opened the doors here going on six years ago. It will probably stay that way, for the most part, but I do have interests outside of baseball, so sometimes I’m going to write about those things. This is one of those times.

I gave up my Iowa Hawkeyes football season tickets this season for a number of reasons. I’m not sorry I did so. Surprisingly, even though I now have a lot more free time on my hands, it would have been very difficult for me to make it to many games at Kinnick Stadium this year and the home schedule, frankly, was not something to get too excited about.

I'll be there Nov 14 when Floyd comes home.
I’ll be there Nov 14 when Floyd comes home.

Fortunately, the Hawkeyes have rewarded my lack of financial support by going 7-0 so far this season and, thanks to a pretty weak B1G West, they have a reasonable shot at being undefeated in the regular season and heading to Indianapolis for the conference Championship Game.

I have probably jinxed the Hawkeyes, however. I bought Championship Game tickets on Stubhub last week.

I also have tickets for the November 14 game against Minnesota.

That should be an interesting day, for a couple of reasons.

First, it’s a night game at Kinnick and that’s always a good time. The Hawkeyes and Gophers usually battle one another pretty hard, so it shapes up as being perhaps one of the few really good games left on the home schedule.

Iowa will also finally join the “alternate uniform” trend that night with all-black uniforms on tap for the game with the Gophers.

As a warm-up for the game, Hawkeye wrestling has a meet with Oklahoma State scheduled for 11 am that Saturday – in Kinnick Stadium. Yes, an outdoor college wrestling meet in Iowa in November. What could possibly go wrong?

The plan is to break the college wrestling meet attendance record set at Penn State last season. Based on initial demand for tickets, the old record won’t just be broken, it will be obliterated.

So on the 14th, I’ll need to get to Kinnick for wrestling by 11, then tailgate a few hours before the Hawks and Gophers tee it up at 7 pm. It’s quite possible that I’m too old for that, but we’ll see how it goes.

On a much less pleasant note, I think everyone who’s a fan of college football was sad to see Minnesota coach Jerry Kill step down from his job with the Gophers for health reasons. It’s impossible to watch the video of his press conference and not feel heartbroken for the man, his family and, by extension, the U of M Community.

Despite seeming to take a bit of step backwards this season, Kill appeared to have the Gopher football program moving in a positive direction, but regardless of what you feel about the program, he has always come across to me as a genuinely good man with his heart in the right place.

I’m confident he will successfully transition in to other roles that he will find fulfilling, eventually. I wish him all the best.

That’s it for today.

I’ll do my best to be back with more regular postings and you can look forward to on-site reports (and photos) next week from the Arizona Fall League in Phoenix. I’m looking forward to spending a few days down there because there are several Twins prospects (most of them also former Kernels) playing and – well – it’s Arizona in November.

JC

What if…?

Here we are in the final week of the 2015 MLB season and the Twins are still in contention for a playoff spot. All things considered, that’s pretty incredible. Virtually none of us expected this when the season began.

what if questionHoped for it? Sure. We all hope for it. We’ve hoped for it for the past four years, too, but show me someone who went on record in April that the Twins would have a .500 record locked down and still be pushing for a wild card berth, then I’ll believe someone actually expected this to happen.

The Twins front office, their manager and coaching staff, and particularly the players, deserve a lot of credit for putting the team in this unlikely circumstance. Twins fans should all appreciate the hard work that has produced the most encouraging Twins season in at least five years.

And yet…

It’s really hard for me not to play a little “what if?” game. If the Twins are not able to overcome both the Astros and Angels to capture the coveted final American League wild card spot, they’ll almost certainly finish within a couple of games of doing so.

A couple of games.

That makes it pretty easy to go back and look for opportunities that were lost to turn enough losses into wins to put the Twins in the playoffs.

The easy part is looking at late game leads that were blown by a failed relief pitching, by a late error, by a baserunning mistake or by failing to capitalize on runners in scoring position. Those examples are easy to come by.

Then again, you can say that about literally every team that finishes just short of the postseason, every year.

Similarly, though to a lesser extent, fans of any team that falls just short can come up with strategic managing/coaching decisions that failed and, ultimately, led to enough losses to make a difference. Not every decision made by a team’s manager is going to work and when a decision ends up in a loss, second-guessing is easy and, with Paul Molitor in his first season as a manager at any level, there have been plenty of second-guess-worthy decisions to choose from if you want to find a couple of games that could have had better outcomes.

And then there’s the front office.

On August 3, I wrote about my disappointment with the lack of results from the Twins at the non-waiver trade deadline.

To demonstrate that none of us are above being second-guessed, I obviously undervalued the addition of Kevin Jepsen at that time. Despite being underwhelmed with the Jepsen trade, my biggest problem wasn’t the trade itself or the prospects that were given up for the reliever. My problem with it was that it was the only deal made.

It seemed to me that either General Manager Terry Ryan should have acquired more help for his manager to take in to the final two months of the season than just an additional bullpen arm or he shouldn’t have bothered going out to get even that much.

Clearly, Jepsen has been a life-saver in light of the free-fall we’ve seen from closer Glen Perkins. Without Jepsen, the Twins would have almost certainly been eliminated before now, so kudos to the front office for that deal. I was wrong about Jepsen.

Terry Ryan must feel it's lonely at the top at times (Photo: SD Buhr)
Terry Ryan must feel it’s lonely at the top at times (Photo: SD Buhr)

I’m still playing coulda-shoulda-woulda, however, on the question of whether there might not have been one or two other deals that “coulda-shoulda” been made in July that “woulda” made more than a couple games’ difference in the Twins fortunes this year.

It’s an impossible question to answer, of course. And, to be fair, you can’t just throw out a name and say, “if the Twins had gone out and gotten this guy, they’d be playoff bound by now.” There’s no way to know that.

The primary positions most people talked about upgrading were shortstop and catcher.

But would any of the shortstops available at the time done better at solidifying the position than Eduardo Escobar has? That’s a debate we could have, but it’s certainly not a given that any addition would have been a net-gain over Escobar for the Twins in the win column.

Kurt Suzuki has struggled to control opponents’ running games, but catching is about so much more than throw-out rates that I think it’s impossible to say whether a change at the starting catcher position would have had a positive effect on the team over the final two months. We simply don’t know what effects that would have had on the effectiveness of the pitching staff.

Could the Twins have added a starting pitcher at the deadline? Sure. But you have to ask who would have been the likely odd man out of the rotation to make room for a newcomer. It doesn’t take much imagination to consider that it might have been rookie Tyler Duffey. The same Tyler Duffey who has been arguably the most consistent starter in the rotation over the final two months.

If the Twins end up falling short of the playoffs this week, it will be almost impossible for us not to ask, “what if?” I know I’ll do plenty of that.

Sure, we can pretty much all agree that this Twins roster doesn’t look like it’s built for a deep playoff run this season, anyway. With the young talent in the pipeline, maybe 2016 or 2017 will be more likely seasons for legitimate title contention.

But, as Twins fans have learned, you can’t for granted any opportunity you get to qualify for the postseason. You can’t assume other opportunities are just around the corner. Stuff happens and that stuff isn’t always good stuff.

So I’ll continue to ask, “what if?” I’ll continue to maintain that more help should have been brought on in July; that Molitor was not given the tools to make a legitimate playoff run this season.

I’ll also acknowledge, however, that it wouldn’t have been easy and that there’s no assurance that any such additional “help” would have necessarily improved the results. I’m smart enough to know that any additional “help” that would have been brought in might have actually ended up resulting in fewer wins, rather than more (see: Nationals, Washington).

In the end, I’m glad it was Terry Ryan making those decisions in July, rather than me. Ryan may not have done everything right and he’s certainly accustomed to second-guessing from people like me. It all goes with the GM job.

And we are still paying attention to the Twins during the final two series of the season. I’d almost forgotten how much fun that is.

Kernels’ Gibbons Immune to the Dog Days of Summer

We’ve reached the end of the Dog Days of Summer, that period that stretches from 20 days before Sirius (the Dog Star) is precisely in conjunction with the sun until 20 days after those bodies are in alignment.

Sam Gibbons (Photo: SD Buhr)
Sam Gibbons (Photo: SD Buhr)

Those 40 or so days are typically the most cruelly hot of the summer and, coincidentally or not, the days when young professional baseball players often hit the proverbial “wall” during their first full season of pro ball. Players that are accustomed to playing anywhere from 40 to 70 games in a summer, find themselves having already eclipsed that mark by mid-June, with another 70 yet to play on the schedule.

It’s when bats become heavier in a hitter’s hands and pitchers often lose velocity or some sharpness to their breaking ball due to a “tired arm.”

DogDays
The Dog Days of Summer

Then again, the Dog Days of Summer really is a Northern Hemisphere phenomenon, so Cedar Rapids Kernels pitcher Sam Gibbons, who hails from Geelong, Victoria, in Australia, may well be immune to the Dog Day effects.

After a shaky start to his season, the 21-year-old Aussie didn’t really begin to hit his stride until the second week of July.

As Gibbons toed the rubber in Kane County on July 12 to begin his seventh start after joining the Kernels at the end of May, he shouldered an unimpressive 5.34 ERA after giving up 21 runs (19 of them earned) in his first six starts for Cedar Rapids.

The righthander gave up one run in the fourth inning of what would become a no-decision start against the Cougars that night and, from there, ran his scoreless inning streak up to 28 consecutive innings before giving up a pair of runs (one earned) in an 8-2 win over Bowling Green on Saturday night before a near-capacity home crowd.

Included in that stretch was a nine inning complete game shutout on the road at Kane County on August 1. It has been the only complete game shutout twirled by a Kernels pitcher this season and only the Kernels’ second complete game this year. (Mat Batts lost a 1-0 decision despite throwing a complete seven-inning game in the nightcap of a doubleheader at Peoria in May.)

Finishing the complete game meant Gibbons threw a few more pitches than normal.

“Last year, we were generally around the 80-90 (pitches) mark,” Gibbons explained, “but very rarely would we go over 85. Throwing 110 pitches (in the complete game), I was feeling it the last inning, but there’s no way I was going to give in.”

After that extended outing, Gibbons knew he was destined for a shorter night in his next start on Saturday.

“I think I was on some sort of pitch count (Saturday), but I was cruising through the middle three through six innings pretty well and then got two outs in the seventh. Then things got a bit sticky. But, you know, things happen. It’s OK and we ended up winning, so that’s the main thing.”

How has Gibbons gotten stronger as the summer heat has been at its most oppressive?

“You know, I wish I could bottle it and pass it around to other guys,” said Kernels pitching coach Henry Bonilla.

For his part, Gibbons said he does feel like he’s getting stronger, but doesn’t think his workload this season has been all that unusually heavy.

“The thing is, I pitch in the ABL (Australian Baseball League) every year, so I have at least 30 innings before I get to spring training on my belt,” Gibbons explained.” So I’m pretty used to having a fairly deep workload.”

We may not know what to credit for Gibbons’ improvement through the past several weeks, but he knew exactly who to blame for the scoreless streak coming to an end on Saturday.

“I spoke to my mom (after the game) and I told her it was all her fault for making me aware of it,” Gibbons related, with a smile.

Blaming mom? Wow. That’s harsh.

“I had to blame someone,” a laughing Gibbons reasoned.

Typically, Gibbons likes to take a bit of time off in the fall after the season winds up, but things didn’t work out that way for him this past offseason.

“My plan last year was to play after Christmas and the New Year,” he recounted. “Then I was asked to play on the under-23 Australian Team. so I went in November last year. That kind of interrupted things but any chance you get to play for your country is a great opportunity, so I definitely wanted to do that.”

Sam Gibbons (Photo: SD Buhr)
Sam Gibbons shows off his form, as well as Saturday’s “Jimmy Buffet Night” Kernels jersey (Photo: SD Buhr)

Perhaps taking the extra off-season work into account, the parent Minnesota Twins held Gibbons back in Extended Spring Training when the Kernels came north to start the season, then promoted him to Cedar Rapids on May 28. He made his Kernels debut May 31. His first four starts after arriving were not pretty. surrendering 16 runs in 20 innings of work covering that initial stretch.

“Obviously, I had a bit of a shaky start, but things are coming good now,” Gibbons understated.

“I think after the first month, I was struggling with fastball command a bit, and not being able to throw off-speed pitches in fastball counts, where I have been now. I’ve been attacking guys, but attacking with my off-speed pitches, which is something I’ve never been able to do, really.

“So, having command and just having faith that if I make a bad pitch, that I’m going to come back and make a better pitch to get weak contact or a swing and a miss. I feel that fastball command, knowing I can throw a fastball wherever I want and when I want is something that is pretty big and that will progress you through the ranks.”

Bonilla, his pitching coach, agrees.

“He just came up and he’s been a strike thrower,” the coach observed. “He’s always been a strike thrower, he’s going to throw it over and I think that’s to his credit and also to his detriment. He didn’t really locate. He just said basically, ‘somebody’s going to hit a ball at a guy. If I throw a strike, I’ll be ok.’

“It worked for a while with some of the younger hitters that don’t really drive the ball, but some of these guys are prospects, they can hit the ball, or some of them are grown men. Some are 24- 25 year old men that can hit the ball far. He’s learned that the hard way.

“The first couple outings he got kind of hit around. To his credit, he’s allowed himself to change. He’s going to the corners a little bit more, he’s attacking down in the zone, being more aggressive by not throwing so many strikes. He’s throwing ‘quality misses,’ is what we call it.”

According to Bonilla, a lot of Gibbons improvement has come from his mentality, as much as any improvement he’s shown with his mechanics or pitch selection.

“He’s trusting it,” Bonilla said. “I think one of the biggest things for him is his confidence. He’s out there confident that he can make pitches. He does it and he does it with a purpose with all of his pitches.”

The coach also conceded that sometimes a little early failure greases the skids a bit for quicker improvement.

“It’s hard to go away from success on the field,” he explained. “If a (hitter) is hitting .300 and we’re telling him, ‘hey, it’s not going to work when you get to the big leagues,’ he’s going to be like, ‘well, I’m hitting .300.’ If a (pitcher) is getting outs here, he’s like, ‘what do you mean it’s not going to work?’

“So it’s hard for them to get themselves out of immediate success and look at four years down the future. To their credit, the ones that do are the ones that kind of take their lumps early, but you can see them kind of turn it around and stay with it and go good. And he’s one of those guys that’s been doing that. So he’s done a great job, I’m very happy with him.”

Gibbons was signed by the Twins as a 17-year-old in July, 2011, but continued to play in his home country for a while and didn’t make his first appearance for a Twins affiliate in the States until the following year.

“Our school (in Australia) works a bit differently, so I was actually halfway through my senior year of high school, so it was a bit different to how things are out here. It was a big thing for my mom to make sure that I finished high school.”

There’s that “blame mom” thing again. How dare she do something like wanting him to finish high school before moving thousands of miles away to play baseball for a living?

“I look back on it and I wanted to get over here as soon as possible,” Gibbons recalled, “but it was a slight decision, finishing high school at least.”

In the end, mom won out – as moms are prone to doing.

“So, I made sure I did that (finish high school) and then came over the following (extended spring training). The Twins don’t tend to like to bring Aussies over here for spring training their first year,” he explained. “Trying to wet their feet a bit, I guess, by just coming to extended and seeing how things work and then their second year, bring them over for spring training.”

Sam Gibbons (Photo: SD Buhr)
Sam Gibbons (Photo: SD Buhr)

Gibbons played two years for the Twins Gulf Coast League team in Fort Myers, then moved up to Elizabethton for the 2014 short season, where he teamed with many of the same guys he’s sharing the Kernels clubhouse with this season. That’s not an insignificant factor in his recent success, according to the pitcher.

“I feel that the (catchers) we have on our team, they really take notice of what pitches you have and what works well for the situation. Having (Brett) Doe, Navi (Brian Navarreto) and (Alex) Real behind there, it’s pretty good,” Gibbons offered. “All three of the catchers on this team now were in E-town last year and the majority of our pitching group is the same from last year, so everyone has a good idea of what we throw and when you want to throw it.”

All three Kernels catchers have been successful at controlling the opponents’ running games. Navarreto, for example, has thrown out over half of the runners attempting to steal off of him. That’s a factor Gibbons appreciates.

“Having Navi behind the plate the last couple of outings has been exceptional. We’ve played together for three years now, so he’s known me pretty well. I’m pretty lucky to have him behind there pitch calling and his defensive work is immaculate.”

Gibbons doesn’t appear to be exactly a high-maintenance pitcher for his catchers to have to deal with. If you find him sitting alone for a couple of hours before each start, he’s probably watching a movie or listening to music, not focused on envisioning every pitch that’s about to come out of his hand.

“No, no, not at all,” he admitted.” I don’t really do that until I’m out on the mound going, ‘ok, let’s go and see how this goes.’”

As the season winds down, Gibbons stands to play a critical role in the postseason for the Kernels. He’s thrown just over 64 innings since joining Cedar Rapids, so there shouldn’t be any concerns about the front office limiting his work just when the team needs him the most in the playoffs.

When his year in Cedar Rapids wraps up, Gibbons will be headed back “down under” for the off-season. For him, that means beach time.

“Back home, I live about 15 minutes from the beach,” he said. “I’m always going down there with buddies or just hanging out and kicking back. I play club ball sometimes or I practice and train with my brother. (Club ball) is like a mens’ league sort of thing that I just go down and I have some fun with my brother and my buddies that I grew up playing with.”

He’s going to take a bit more time off this year before starting the real training for his 2016 season.

“Definitely take off a fair chunk of the offseason and come back in mid-January at some point, I guess,” Gibbons said of his plans. “Play a bit of ABL and get a couple of starts before spring training.

“I have to be in contact with (Twins farm director Brad Steil). Henry (Bonilla) and I will sit down before the season finishes and see where the innings are at and see what they want – a pitch count or innings limit sort of restriction.”

Those limits will then be communicated to Gibbons’ ABL coaching staff.

“They’re happy to have me pitch whatever that is,” he added.

It’s good that the ABL coaches are so easy to work with. At least that’s one less thing Gibbons should have to blame his mom for.

– JC

Responsibility

I suppose this is what we asked for, Twins fans. Our team is playing “meaningful games” in August. Technically, they even continue to possess the second American League wild card spot (for a few more hours anyway).

Entering the season, if someone had told us that our Twins would be right in the thick of the hunt for even a wild card postseason spot, I think most of us would have smiled and said, “thank you.”

TRyan2014dSome of us have had some elevated hopes for 2016 and even more would have projected 2017 as a reasonable goal to see the Twins contending for the postseason. But 2015? No, not really. There were just too many question marks and, frankly, calling some areas of the Twins Opening Day roster “question marks” would have been being generous.

So, given this unexpected bonus of meaningful play in August, why don’t I feel like celebrating?

To begin with, it’s not like the Twins’ hold on that final wild card spot is exactly something you’d call a death grip. OK, bad wording. Maybe that’s exactly what you would call it, as in, “they are about to lose that grip and see their season die.”

The Twins enter Monday with a one game lead over Baltimore and Toronto, a three game lead over Tampa and Texas, and a 3.5 game lead over Detroit and Chicago. That’s a lot of competition and it doesn’t even include the Angels, who currently hold the first wild card spot, just one game ahead of Minnesota.

Certainly, the front offices of some of those teams have already decided not to even try to compete for a spot in the league’s one-game, win or go home, wild card play-in game. Detroit and Tampa appear to be selling off parts. I’m not sure what the White Sox front office is doing, other than apparently trying to overcome the shock of discovering they’re actually not mathematically eliminated from the postseason yet.

Then again, as a Twins fan, I probably shouldn’t be too critical of another organization’s inertia in the face of unexpected contention for the postseason.

After all, while Chicago has only recently pulled themselves in to the hunt by winning a whole bunch of games in a row, the folks running the Twins have had an entire season to get acclimated to the fact that their guys actually have a shot at doing more than just playing meaningful games this late. And yet, the Twins front office gave no indication at the trading deadline that they had noticed.

That’s not really true, of course. Twins General Manager Terry Ryan did give such indications. He indicated to the media on more than one occasion last week that he intended be active in the trade market in an effort to improve his ballclub.

Then he did nothing.

And no, don’t even try to claim with a straight face that adding Kevin Jepsen, the relief pitcher they acquired from the Rays for two minor league pitchers, constitutes making a serious bid to improve the Twins.

Pioneer-Press Twins beat reporter Mike Berardino asked Ryan last week if the GM felt a responsibility to the current players to improve the roster. His reply:

“That’s correct,” Ryan said. “That would be very accurate. I know that. There’s nobody that’s more sensitive to that than me. I know they’ve done a hell of a job of getting to this point and we’re in a good position. Now it’s my responsibility to help the cause.”

Then Ryan went out and added Kevin Jepsen and – nothing else.

As a result, the Twins open a four-game series with one of the teams who is nipping at their heels in the wild card standings, the Blue Jays, without the benefit of any significant help from their front office.

Meanwhile, those Blue Jays have added Troy Tulowitzki, David Price and Ben Revere in the past few days. That’s a top of the rotation starting pitcher, a good-hitting veteran shortstop and a centerfielder who improves their club’s defense (and, therefore, their pitching as a whole).

Maybe this was never going to be the year the Twins made a postseason run. It certainly wouldn’t help their cause that Ervin Santana won’t be available to them in the postseason, even if they found themselves there as a team.

But Ryan was right. This collection of ballplayers has worked hard, exceeding everyone’s expectations, and he owed them a better result last week.

I’m not suggesting he should have traded away a bunch of top prospects for rental players. You don’t mortgage your entire future on a slim chance at the brass ring in 2015. But you don’t pay lip service and then try to convince the guys in your clubhouse that adding a middle inning reliever is all you could come up with to give them a boost while their nearest competitors are making serious improvements.

Making no deal at all – just saying right out loud that you don’t think this year’s club is built to not only get a wild card, but contend in the postseason once they get there – and explaining that you are not willing to give up any of your above average prospects at all in this environment would have been courageous. Likewise, making Toronto-sized mega deals that would have cost you some serious prospects would have been courageous.

Taking either road would have required some real stones, because either approach would have been controversial and would have met with loud criticism from the fan base. Yet either approach would have at least been defensible.

Dipping your toes in the water and giving up a couple of decent, but very young, pitching prospects for a middle reliever, but doing absolutely nothing else, is neither courageous nor defensible, in my opinion.

Of course, we know that the end of the non-waiver trade deadline in July does not necessarily constitute the end of all trade opportunities. Terry Ryan can still improve this year’s Twins roster in August via waiver trades. If he does, I’ll be among the first to applaud.

But waiting too long to provide that help is a real concern and making deals later this month certainly won’t help the Twins this week in Toronto.

Ryan is sending Paul Molitor in to Toronto this week to fend off one of his club’s closest challengers and Molitor’s club is seriously outmanned. The reason is as simple as it was preventable. Molitor’s club was not given the kind of boost that the Blue Jays got from their GM last week and that was, by his own admission, Terry Ryan’s responsibility.

– JC

Pat Kelly’s Baseball Career is a Family Affair

Pat Kelly
Pat Kelly (Photo: SD Buhr)

The first, last and most important job any minor league baseball player has is to work hard at improving his skills to move on up the organizational ladder to the next level. That said, when Cedar Rapids Kernels infielder Pat Kelly gets his next promotion, it may be bittersweet news for Pat and, more specifically, his family members that have been making frequent trips from Red Wing, Minnesota, to Cedar Rapids to watch Pat and the Kernels.

That could become a much more difficult trip to make as Kelly’s career carries him from Cedar Rapids to other stops on the Minnesota Twins affiliate list in Florida, Tennessee and New York.

According to Kelly’s father, Jim, who works in the Goodhue County (MN) Sheriff’s Office, the Kelly clan has made the trip to Cedar Rapids, “about every other weekend.”

“My schedule, I’m off every other weekend, Friday, Saturday, Sunday and this particular year, the Kernels have been home when I’ve been off pretty much,” the elder Kelly added. “When I first looked at it, I miscalculated and I thought, ‘I’ve got to work every weekend they’re home.’ But it turned out to be the opposite, so it worked out real good”

“There’s like 25 of them here,” Pat Kelly said Saturday. “My dad’s one of ten (siblings) so I have a lot of uncles. They’re all in Red Wing pretty much. I have an aunt up in Cottage Grove, Minnesota (about 35 miles from Red Wing), and that’s about the farthest they go.

Pat Kelly (in Minnesota Hero t-shirt) and some of his cheering section
Pat Kelly (in Minnesota Hero t-shirt) and some of his cheering section (Photo: SD Buhr)

“They love coming down and coming to some games. They did that every Easter at Nebraska (where Pat played college baseball for the Cornhuskers). We’d get about 50-60 family members, they’d all make the trip down to Lincoln for Easter. It’s quite the crew.”

The “crew” during the most recent Kernels weekend homestand included not only family, but Cornhusker Head Athletic Trainer, Jerry Weber, whose career at Nebraska has spanned the Kelly generations. He was there when Jim was on campus as a Husker football player, as well as during Pat’s baseball career there.

Despite his dad’s connection to “Big Red,” it was no sure thing that Pat would follow in his father’s footsteps to Lincoln. And there was no chance he’d follow those footsteps to the football field at Nebraska, or anywhere else.

“I grew up loving baseball, basketball and football, all three, (but) baseball was always my favorite growing up. I played football, it was probably my third favorite.

He said he wasn’t just playing football growing up out of some kind of obligation to his dad, either.

“No, I liked it, I really did.”

By his junior year of high school, however, football was left behind.

“In tenth grade I was playing like eight quarters of football every Friday night. I was playing tenth grade games and then the varsity needed players so I would go play cornerback, running back, quarterback, like every Friday night. Then come my junior year, it was just like, it’s going to be too much.

“I was doing a lot of baseball in the fall. So I gave up football. I didn’t even start my junior year. I just started doing a lot more baseball in the fall. I played basketball, I love basketball. But baseball’s always been my favorite.”

That focus on baseball began early, according to his father.

“All baseball,” Jim confirmed. “He never really gave me a break. We work 12 hour shifts (at the Sheriff’s Office). I go to work at six in the morning and get home at six at night and he would be sitting on the steps with a bucket of balls, his bat and his glove and I would get in the driveway, ‘Let’s go dad.’ So we’d just go down the street to a park and he’d hit for as long as I could throw balls to him.”

Jim recalled it wasn’t until Pat was in fifth or sixth grade that his son discovered, while looking through an old scrapbook, that his dad had played football for Nebraska. “He saw that and he said, ‘We should go to Nebraska sometime.’ I said, ‘sure.'”

“Sometime” turned out to be when Pat was a freshman in high school.

“He had a Nebraska schedule up and he said, ‘I want to go to watch Nebraska and Texas A&M,” the father recalled. “In whatever year that was, they were ranked 4th and 5th in the country, respectively and I said, ‘alright, we’ll go.’”

Pat Kelly gets pregame work in at third base under the watchful eye of Kernels manager Jake Mauer (Photo: SD Buhr)
Pat Kelly gets pregame work in at third base under the watchful eye of Kernels manager Jake Mauer (Photo: SD Buhr)

That baseball game made an impression on Pat.

“There was like nine or ten thousand people there. The game went like 16 innings long and not a fan left. Pretty cool. So from then on, I just felt like, ‘I really want to go to Nebraska.’ It ended up working out.”

It was the only basball game the Huskers and Aggies got in that weekend as rain washed out the scheduled Saturday and Sunday contests.

“We ended up leaving early on Sunday and I think we got as far as Omaha and he said, ‘I know where I want to go to college, dad. I’m going to go to Nebraska.’ I said, ‘oh, okay.’ You know it was so early yet, but you know, let the kid dream. Why not?”

Why not, indeed. Kelly ended up living his dream as a Cornhusker, earning 2nd team All-Big Ten honors his freshman year and was 1st team All-Big Ten in both his sophomore and junior seasons.

Not bad, considering he nearly never had the opportunity to attend his chosen school.

“It’s kind of funny though. Nebraska was one of my last recruiting letters,” Pat recollected. “I was just waiting for it, waiting for it. I’d always come home from school – I didn’t play football then, so my falls were open – so I’d come home early. I remember coming home and there were two letters, North Carolina and Nebraska, and I didn’t give a crap about the other one. I was pretty excited about that.”

“He called me at work and said, ‘dad, I got it!’ ‘You got what?’ ‘I got the letter.’ ‘OK, let me guess,’” Jim added.

“I had an amazing time at Nebraska,” Pat said. “Coach (Darin) Erstad is an unbelievable guy and a great coach and did a lot for me. Yeah, I love Nebraska. I can’t wait to go back there in the offseason and go to football games and hang out there.”

According to Pat, It wasn’t easy to leave a year early and begin his professional career. He knew it was time to move on, but it was a difficult decision to make.

“Yeah for me it was,” he recalled. “just because I loved Nebraska so much. It’s hard to leave those guys and the coaching staff.

“At the end of the day, every kid’s goal is to be a big leaguer. You just had to look at that and obviously I had no doubt if I go back to Nebraska, it would have been a great year and we probably would have had a great team, I mean they had a good team this year. But at the end of the day, you want to be a big leaguer and you want to get that going.”

For Pat, getting that going meant being signed by the Minnesota Twins as their 12th round selection in the 2014 draft and heading to Elizabethton, Tennessee, last summer to begin his professional career.

Nobody will confuse the environments for playing ball in Elizabethton with those in Lincoln, but Kelly didn’t mind the change.

“It was definitely a little bit of an eye-opener going down to E’town,” Pat said of his first impressions of the community where the Twins’ short-season Appalachian League affiliate is located. “I didn’t really have any expectations, to be honest. I just kind of went in with an open mind. It was fun, we made the playoffs and had a good season. Getting paid to play baseball, that’s a pretty good deal.”

Pat Kelly (Photo: SD Buhr)
Pat Kelly (Photo: SD Buhr)

This season, Kelly has been on the Kernels roster since Opening Day, making this his first year of enduring a full 140-game minor league schedule. Some players feel like they hit a wall, physically and/or mentally, at about this point in their first full season.

“Yeah it’s kind of funny. Around the all-star break, you get half way and you’re like, ‘alright, we’re doing that again. Same thing over,’” Kelly said. “But no, I haven’t really seemed to hit that wall yet. I’m still enjoying every day with the guys and just can’t really complain. Getting paid to play baseball.

“I think just the base adjustment from college to now is, here it’s every day, you play every day. In college, you didn’t play every day. You had class, you had other stuff. But now, every single day, this is your job. I think that’s just the biggest adjustment.

“Even if you’re not in the lineup, you have a full day. You’re at the park from 1:30 to 10 or 11 at night. You’re still doing your work. You’re in the cage, you’re doing stuff. You’re still drained at the end of the day and then the next day, you do it again. I think that’s just the biggest adjustment for me, just getting mentally ready every day to go to work and get better.”

With that mentality, it’s no wonder Kelly uses Florida Georgia Line’s “Every Night” as his walk-up song.

After Kelly hit .242 in 39 games, all at second base, for Elizabethton a season ago, he’s been running closer to .220 over the season for the Kernels. He played second base through most of the season, but has been spending more time at third base since TJ White’s promotion to Fort Myers.

Kelly’s also been faring better at the plate more recently, hitting .258 in his last ten games and carrying a four-game hitting streak into Thursday night’s contest with Clinton.

That stretch includes Kelly getting three hits, including a pair of doubles, in eight at-bats with his personal cheering section in the Cedar Rapids crowd last weekend.

This offseason, Kelly will return to Lincoln where he’ll live and work out with Cedar Rapids native (and 2014 Kernel) Chad Christensen, who is also a former Husker ballplayer.

“We lived together last offseason and we’re going to live together this offseason,” Kelly explained. “We do everything together and work out there.”

Lincoln is also much closer than Red Wing to his girlfriend’s home in Kansas City, but that’s probably just a coincidence.

No matter how far away from his home and family in Red Wing Kelly’s professional baseball career may take him, however, he’ll always carry something of his home with him.

Yes, the love of his family, certainly, but also the oil he uses to break in his gloves.

“I oil them with oil from Red Wing Shoes in Red Wing. I always use their boot oil for my gloves and it seems to work really well.”

– JC

Randy LeBlanc: From Big Easy to Cedar Rapids

When you ask ballplayers about their outside interests, it’s not unusual for them to express an interest in hunting. In that regard, Kernels’ pitcher Randy LeBlanc fits in with the crowd.

It’s when you ask what he hunts that LeBlanc begins to vary from the norm.

He’ll tell you he spent most of his offseason fishing and duck hunting, with a little deer hunting thrown in. Although, “my dad does more deer hunting than I do,” he says.

After a pause though, he adds the kicker.

“I’ve been gator hunting a few times. A couple of years ago, my cousin got a tag and we got one that was ten feet.“

Randy LeBlanc during a clubhouse card game (Photoa: SD Buhr)
Randy LeBlanc during a clubhouse card game (Photoa: SD Buhr)

LeBlanc hails from Covington, Louisiana, though while his offseason activities might be right in line with his Cajun heritage, you’d barely know it to speak to him.

“I’ve had people tell me up here that I don’t have any kind of accent,” he said. “People down south tell me I have an accent. It’s different than an Alabama accent. I’m definitely Cajun. My dad grew up in Cajun-land.”

You can take the boy out of Cajun-land, but it’s not so easy, apparently, to take the Cajun-land out of the boy.

In all the years the Minnesota Twins have been conducting spring training in Florida, they’ve certainly dealt with a wide variety of minor disciplinary issues with their ballplayers. Boys will be boys, after all.

But this spring, LeBlanc and fellow Louisiana native (and former Kernels pitcher) Ryan Eades may have been among the first Twins farmhands to get talked to about messing with the local alligators.

“Me and Ryan got in some trouble messing with some of the ones in Florida during spring training,” LeBlanc admitted with a small smile. “We had a meeting about it.”

“Everybody’s so scared of them,” he added, in a way that made it sound like he couldn’t quite grasp why that would be the case.

You can hardly blame the Twins, though, for discouraging LeBlanc from “messing with” alligators.

Despite being relegated to the often anonymous role of middle relief pitcher, LeBlanc is opening eyes this summer with the Kernels. He took a string of 26 consecutive scoreless innings of relief work in to the tenth inning of Friday night’s game against the Quad Cities River Bandits, a team high for the season that he shared with one of the Kernels’ closers, Trevor Hildenberger.

That string might have extended to 27 games, but for a line drive in to the outfield that was a single misplayed in to a triple. The result was LeBlanc’s first loss of the season, as Cedar Rapids fell to Quad Cities 4-3 in ten innings.

As rare as the loss was for LeBlanc, almost as rare was the fact that LeBlanc worked just one inning in the game.

The 6’ 4” right hander has made 19 appearances this season for Cedar Rapids and all but two of them have involved more than one inning of mound work. His 42 and 1/3 innings leads all non-starters for the Kernels.

The Twins drafted LeBlanc out of Tulane University in New Orleans with their tenth round pick in the 2014 draft.

Those who follow the Twins minor league organization closely know that they’ve had a pattern of drafting hard throwing college relievers with the intention of trying to turn them in to starting pitchers.

The Twins have seemingly done just the opposite with LeBlanc, who was almost exclusively a starting pitcher during his college career at Tulane, but has been used only in relief roles since signing with the Twins.

“I made a couple of relief appearances (in college), but other than that, I started my entire life,” he said. “I’d never done any relief, not consistent relief. Last year (at rookie level Elizabethton) was definitely the first time I’ve done that. But I was fine doing it, comfortable doing it. Whatever the Twins feel is my best role is what I want to do.”

LeBlanc was drafted in the 16th round of the 2010 draft by the Florida Marlins after his senior year of high school, but chose to attend Tulane, rather than sign with the Marlins.

“They made me a pretty big offer. That was before the slotting stuff,” he recalled. “It was definitely a big decision to turn down the money and go to school, but I don’t regret that for the world. I enjoyed my four years of college. It was definitely a lot of fun. New Orleans is a great city. I love it.”

That’s easier for LeBlanc to say now than it might have been after his first season of college ball.

Randy LeBlanc (15) in a pregame ritual game of flip with other Kernels pitchers (Photo: SD Buhr)
Randy LeBlanc (15) in a pregame ritual game of flip with other Kernels pitchers (Photo: SD Buhr)

“I had Tommy John (elbow ligament surgery) my freshman year of college. I actually tore it in my third start. I ended up having surgery a week later and was out the rest of the year.

“Came back the next year and struggled a little bit, just didn’t have quite the same stuff. I say I struggled, but it definitely could have been worse, don’t get me wrong.

“Did a little better my junior year, went undrafted after that year. Had a couple of phone calls with some offers, but went back to school. I had a really good red-shirt junior year and got drafted by the Twins.”

So, after four years in Big Easy, LeBlanc found himself in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in April.

New Orleans and Cedar Rapids – pretty much the same thing, right? No, not so much.

“When I flew up to Minneapolis to sign last year, that was the farthest I had ever been north in my life,” a smiling LeBlanc recalled.  “I would assume this (Cedar Rapids) is probably the second farthest.

“The games this year in Appleton, when it was snowing for two days, I’d never seen snow before. It was the first snow I’d ever seen. It’s been a trip. That was the coldest I’d ever pitched in, for sure. Man, it was cold. The wind was just howling the whole time. It was miserable.

“I do a lot of hunting and fishing in the offseason, so I’m used to being out in the cold, but not snow cold, not like that.”

The climate may not be familiar to LeBlanc, but if his performance this season is any indication, he’ll have no problem adjusting to pitching in Target Field someday.

LeBlanc has notched a 1.70 ERA in 42 and 1/3 innings over 19 appearances for the Kernels.

“I had a really good first month of April,” he recalled.”Then we started May and I kind of had a little rough stretch for about two weeks. Ever since then, I’ve had a little better command up and down in the zone and I think that’s the biggest thing.

“I’ve been throwing well. A couple times, I guess, during this little streak or whatever, I haven’t had my best stuff at all. Basically, I’ve just made pitches when I’ve had to, able to get out of jams, that’s the best way to describe it. I’m not out there just dominating everybody and striking everybody out. Just making pitches when I have to.”

LeBlanc is also quick to point out that he and his fellow Kernels pitchers have benefited this season from some pretty solid defensive efforts behind them.

“We’ve played a ton of defense. TJ (White) and Nick (Gordon) and the whole left side of the infield, that’s where the majority of my balls go, to that side. So they’ve done an incredible job and Pat (Kelly) has done a great job up the middle.

“We’ve had guys mixing all over the place at first base. Brett (Doe) has never played first base in his life and he finds himself over there and he’s doing a really good job. It definitely helps having good defense behind us.”

LeBlanc uses a three-pitch mix on the mound and, like a lot of young pitchers, he came in to the season with an agenda.

“Originally, coming up here, I was working on the breaking ball. It’s gotten much better. I’m throwing a slider, It’s kind of a slider or a slurve, I guess. I’ve gotten a lot of swings and misses with it.

“But, I mean, I’m a sinkerball guy. I throw sinkers down and in to most people. That’s probably my best pitch; that or my change up. My change up’s my out pitch. If I need a swing and a miss, I go to my change up. But most of my success is just getting ground balls.”

Randy LeBlanc
Randy LeBlanc

While LeBlanc isn’t unhappy with his middle relief role, he wouldn’t exactly be opposed to getting a shot at a rotation spot at some point, either.

His Kernels pitching coach, Henry Bonilla, is in LeBlanc’s corner on that issue, too.

“I’ve been pulling for it,” Bonilla said. “I’ve been putting that thought in their (the front office) heads that he can start, he wants to start.”

His success out of the pen may be working against the righty’s chances of changing roles, however. Sometimes you don’t mess with what’s going well.

“I just think he’s having so much success right now,” Bonilla added, “that you just kind of say, ‘just keep going.’”

LeBlanc says all the right things when he’s asked about his role now and in the future.

“I think that Henry has talked about it a little bit to some of the guys up above us making the decisions. But I’m not sure what they’re doing. I told them at the beginning of the year I’ll do whatever they want me to do that’s going to help me to move up. Whatever will get me to the big leagues, I want to do. Whatever, starting, closing, throwing relief, long relief, whatever it is. So whatever they feel comfortable with me doing, I’ll do.

“They might ask me to start here in three weeks, I have no idea. I’d be fine doing that, though, I’ve started my whole life.”

Many starting pitchers pick up a few miles per hour on their fastballs when they start working out of the bullpen, but LeBlanc said that’s not historically been the case with him.

“It’s actually the other way around,” he said. “I threw harder as a starter. I threw harder as the games went on in college.”

He has no explanation for why that might be the case.

“I have no idea. It was like that in high school and it was like that in college. I don’t know, that’s the weirdest thing.

“When I was getting drafted, (scouts) were like, ‘so if you threw in relief, you could throw a couple miles per hour harder,’ and I’m like, ‘yeah!’ I figured it would be around the same. Definitely not going to tell them, ‘no’.”

Whatever his role may be during the second half of the Kernels’ season, he’s been a major contributor to the Kernels’ success, so far, and his pitching coach recognizes that.

“He’s been doing everything we ask,” Bonilla said. “He’s been a big glue to the middle innings right now.”

– JC