Ricky Nolasco? Really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s fine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Steve

Spring Training Photos, the Finale

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

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

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

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

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

 

Spring Training Photos, Part Deux

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 2016 Kernels field staff

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

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

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

 

Twins Spring Training Through the Lens

I’ve been down in Fort Myers, Florida, for five days now, so I decided it was time to post an update on my activities here this week.

A week ago, we spent the first night on the road in Nashville and took in the Grand Ole Opry. I’m not a big country music fan, but you don’t need to be to enjoy the Opry show.

We arrived in Fort Myers Monday afternoon and, checking into our Fort Myers Beach apartment and having a great dinner at the Salty Crab (formerly Nemo’s) on the beach.

I was on the Twins’ campus Tuesday morning to take in the minor leaguers’ morning workouts. I stuck around for an afternoon of intrasquad games on the minor league fields.

Wednesday afternoon, it was the AA and AAA Twins squads taking on their Oriole counterparts in the afternoon and the Twins hosting the Red Sox in the evening.

I had the opportunity to interview Cedar Rapids native Ryan Sweeney on Wednesday to discuss how his attempt to win an outfield role with the Twins is going. You can read that article over at MetroSportsReport.com by clicking here.

(As an aside, that article will likely be my last work for MSR. Unfortunately, the owner of that site, Jim Ecker, has decided to close up shop at MSR. I have helped MSR cover the Cedar Rapids Kernels for the past three seasons and will always be thankful to Jim for giving me the opportunity to write for his site.)

Thursday, I caught the two Class A squads facing off with the Rays’ A level players in the afternoon followed by a trip up to Sarasota where the Twins traveled to play the Orioles.

Friday was a non-baseball day, with a couple of hours spent turning my flesh red on Fort Myers Beach before heading to Ron Dao’s Pizzeria and Sports Bar to watch the Hawkeyes hoops team claim an overtime win over Temple in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

I’m about to head back over to the Twins’ camp this afternoon (Saturday) to watch the Class A teams again. Sunday will see the Yankees invading Hammond Stadium to take on the Twins in the afternoon.

With all of that as background, here’s just a few of the hundreds of pictures I’ve already taken. Enjoy.

ST16b
Minor leaguers getting their morning stretches in
Tom Kelly giving instructions to a group of Class A first basemen, as Doug Mientkiewicz and Tommy Watkins listen in, as well.
Tom Kelly giving instructions to a group of Class A first basemen, as Doug Mientkiewicz and Tommy Watkins listen in, as well.
Jose Berrios
Jose Berrios
Cam Booser
Cam Booser
JT Chargois
JT Chargois
Andro Cutura
Andro Cutura
New Kernels hitting coach Brian Dinkelman
New Kernels hitting coach Brian Dinkelman
New Kernels pitching coach JP Martinez
New Kernels pitching coach JP Martinez
Jermaine Palacios
Jermaine Palacios
Mike Strong
Mike Strong
Lamonte Wade
Lamonte Wade
Ryan Sweeney waits out a Red Sox pitching change
Ryan Sweeney waits out a Red Sox pitching change
Trey Cabbage
Trey Cabbage
Sam Clay
Sam Clay
Phil Hughes getting some work in a minor league game
Phil Hughes getting some work in a minor league game
Jorge Polanco
Jorge Polanco
Taylor Rogers
Taylor Rogers
Miguel Sano
Miguel Sano

 

Park Set as Twins’ Opening Day DH – Or Is He?

The pitchers and catchers for the Minnesota Twins have finally reported to Spring Training and position players are already filtering into the Fort Myers camp in advance of their mandatory reporting day later this week. The Twins will open their season in Baltimore on April 4, but from all that’s being written about the Twins, it appears there are only minor questions about the composition of the Opening Day roster and even less question about the Opening Day lineup.

Manager Paul Molitor has stated that Kurt Suzuki will open the season as his club’s starting catcher.

Joe Mauer will be the first baseman.

Brian Dozier will hold down second base.

Trevor Plouffe will man the hot corner at third base.

Eduardo Escobar has earned the right to call the shortstop spot his own.

Eddie Rosario will be the Twins’ left fielder and Miguel Sano will man the opposite corner in right field.

Centerfield is Byron Buxton’s to lose. Yes, there’s a chance the club will decide Buxton needs a month or so in Rochester to fine tune his approach at the plate, giving an opportunity for Danny Santana, Ryan Sweeney, Darin Mastroianni or Joe Benson to serve as a short-term placeholder for Buxton.

And then there’s the designator hitter position, which will belong to Byung Ho Park, the Korean slugger that represents the primary (some would say only) significant free agent addition added to the Twins this offseason.

Most of that makes perfect sense to me. I think Buxton should go north with the club in April as the centerfielder, but if he doesn’t, I’ll understand the decision (probably) and I’ve actually been on-board with the decision to give Sano an outfielder’s glove and see what he can do with it. I felt that way even before the Twins got Park’s autograph on a contract.

But here’s something I don’t quite understand. Why is virtually everyone so certain that Park will immediately adapt to Major League pitching well enough to be penciled into the middle of the Twins’ batting order right from the start of the new season?

Certainly, I’m not alone in feeling that either Oswaldo Arcia or Kennys Vargas is likely to demonstrate in March that he is better prepared to generate runs for the Twins on Opening Day than newcomer Park might be. Why do many prognosticators seem so certain that Park will be an effective big league hitter on Opening Day while being less convinced that Buxton will?

Oswaldo Arcia
Oswaldo Arcia (Photo by SD Buhr)

I want to see Park succeed as much as any Twins fan but maybe I’m suffering from residual Nishioka flashbacks, because I’m simply not convinced that a player that struck out a lot against Korean Baseball Organization pitching will have immediate success against Major Leaguers.

Does the KBO compare favorably to American AA or AAA levels? Maybe. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that it does. If Park had struck out 303 times at any minor league level over the past two combined seasons, would we be writing his name in ink into the Twins’ Opening Day lineup now?

If you forced me to bet an amount of money that it would genuinely hurt me to lose, I would bet that Park’s first regular season professional baseball uniform will have “Red Wings” (or even “Lookouts”) emblazoned across the front of it – and I would not consider that to necessarily mean his acquisition was a mistake. It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone if it takes Park a few weeks or more to earn a spot in the Twins’ lineup.

Arcia and Vargas both must be coming to Fort Myers aware that their respective futures with the Twins are hanging in the balance. I expect that one of them is more likely to be found in Molitor’s first lineup card of the season than Park is.

Finally, what happens if the Sano experiment doesn’t develop the way that the Twins hope it will? That would immediately make Sano the likely Day 1 designated hitter and force the Twins into a Plan B for right field. That would be a Plan B that the front office has not admitted even exists yet.

In that eventuality, again Arcia becomes a likely candidate for reinsertion into the club’s plans as the right fielder.

Park has a better than fair chance of finding his way up to Target Field with the Twins at some point during the 2016 season, but I’m not at all convinced he’ll start the season with the big club.

Here’s my pre-camp projection for the Twins’ Opening Day starting lineup:

1. Buxton CF
2. Dozier 2B
3. Mauer 1B
4. Sano RF/DH
5. Arcia DH/RF
6. Plouffe 3B
7. Rosario LF
8. Escobar SS
9. Suzuki C
SP Santana

Typically, we have to be cautious about reading too much into strong spring training offensive performances. There are too many at-bats against less-than-MLB-level pitchers, especially during the first couple of weeks of spring training games, to get a true reading of just how well prepared a hot hitter might be for a Major League regular’s role.

But there are a number of position players who can’t afford to give poor showings during the first few weeks of spring training games and Park, Arcia and Vargas would be among those whose chances could be damaged by early struggles at the plate.

Sweeney, Mastroianni and Benson similarly need good starts if they want to be viewed as contenders for the stop-gap centerfielder, should the Twins decide Buxton needs some early seasoning in Rochester.

Park, if he doesn’t make the Opening Day lineup, could see an early promotion, as could Max Kepler and Jorge Polanco, depending on their performances and those of the players that they might be looking to replace.

The Twins’ lineup is perhaps more settled going into spring training than it has been in most years, but there is some amount of intrigue that will make it worthwhile to pay attention to the box scores coming out of Fort Myers in March.

-JC

Twins’ Roster is Set (but don’t call it “final”)

With Thursday night’s announcement that Chris Herrmann would be heading north with the Minnesota Twins, their opening day roster appears to be set. The back up catcher spot was the final unresolved question of the spring.

A lot is made of the make up of the Twins’ roster as they open the 2015 season, but it really is of just mild interest to me, personally.

Yes, I like to see a guy like Herrmann rewarded for his hard work and persistence and JR Graham’s story as a Rule 5 pick up earning a spot in the bullpen is compelling.

Chris Herrmann (photo: SD BUhr)
Chris Herrmann (photo: SD Buhr)

But I’m a lot more curious, already, as to what the Twins roster will look like come mid to late July than I am concerning what it looks like when they travel to Detroit to open the season. And I suspect there will be at least a 33% turnover in the roster by the end of July.

That would be eight or nine spots on the 25-man roster that would be held down by someone not making the trip north out of spring training with the Twins – and I think that sounds about right. In fact, I could see the turnover being more than that.

JR Graham (photo: SD Buhr)
JR Graham (photo: SD Buhr)

I’m not making that prediction based purely on an expectation that the Twins will be clearly en route to a fifth straight 90+ loss season and find themselves in sell-off mode. In fact, I’m probably more optimistic about the Twins’ chances of remaining competitive beyond the All-Star break than I’ve been in a couple of years.

I think that, if they stay healthy, this line up will score plenty of runs and I think a lot of people are underestimating how improved the starting rotation may be with the addition of Ervin Santana and a healthier Ricky Nolasco.

Trevor May (photo: SD Buhr)
Trevor May (photo: SD Buhr)

My belief in the likelihood of significant turnover comes not so much from a lack of confidence in the team as initially constituted (though I do worry about that bullpen), but from a sense that there are simply so many talented young players at the higher levels of the organization minor leagues that are almost certain to force their way on to the Twins roster by mid-season.

To start with, if Josmil Pinto is healthy and still in the Twins organization, I have little doubt he’ll be wearing a Twins uniform by July.

Beyond that, does anyone not believe that Alex Meyer, Trevor May, Nick Burdi and Jake Reed will be pitching for the Twins by mid-year if they come out of the gate strong in their respective minor league assignments? Those are four pitchers that you could make an argument for putting on the roster right now. You might even be tempted to put Jose Berrios on that list, though I suspect he may be held down on the farm at least until later in the season.

Jose Berrios and Tony Oliva (photo: SD Buhr)
Jose Berrios and Tony Oliva (photo: SD Buhr)

Even if any/all of those arms fail to impress during the season’s first half, that doesn’t mean that all of the arms that are making up the Twins’ opening day pitching staff are likely to have performed well enough to keep their jobs. This pitching staff (especially among the relief corps), as initially constituted, is simply not strong enough to avoid the need for a significant make-over, whether via promotions or trades (or, perhaps most likely, some combination thereof).

And we haven’t even mentioned the organization’s consensus top pair of prospects, Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton. If they manage to shake off the rust that resulted from lost seasons a summer ago (and which clearly still existed during spring training), I expect they will both be Minnesota Twins by mid season. They could easily be joined by Eddie Rosario and, of course, nobody would be at all surprised to see Aaron Hicks rejoin the big league club.

Miguel Sano (photo: SD Buhr)
Miguel Sano (photo: SD Buhr)

In addition to the prospects that have become familiar to much of the Twins’ fan base, the AA Chattanooga Lookouts’ everyday line up is going to be literally full of players that are only a hot start and the ability to play a defensive position of need away from being called up.

What it all means is that the Twins roster in July, August and September should include far more players that are likely to be part of the next generation of Twins capable of contending for future postseasons than the roster we are discussing in April.

It’s not easy being patient, but most of these young players will benefit from getting a little more minor league seasoning. The good news is that we are no longer talking about it being several years before we see these promising prospects at Target Field, but, hopefully, merely several weeks.

– JC

JC’s Spring Training Report

I’ve been down here in Fort Myers, Florida, for several days now and I’ve been very slow about posting anything here. My bad.

Century Link Field, Spring Training home of the Twins
Century Link Field, Spring Training home of the Twins

The newly remodeled stadium at the Twins’ complex (now named “Century Link Field”) is very nice. Much wider concourses and a lot of variety of seating options. I’ve seen parts of a couple games at the new place, as well as a game against the Phillies at their Clearwater home. I plan to also see the Twins take on the Orioles up in Sarasota on Sunday.

But I’ve spent the lion’s share of my time over on the back fields watching the minor leaguers, in particular the two Class A groups. One of them made up of guys who were Cedar Rapids Kernels last year and are likely to play for the Fort Myers Miracle this season, the other made up of players likely ticketed to start this season in Cedar Rapids.

I’ve taken quite a few pictures and maybe I’ll work at getting them downloaded and posted here once I get back to Cedar Rapids next week.

For now, I’m going to share three separate articles I wrote for MetroSportsReport.com in Cedar Rapids. Since I don’t have space concerns here, I’m just going to combine them all in this one blog post. Enjoy.

Gonsalves Will Have a New Pitch When He Returns to Cedar Rapids

Ask Minnesota Twins pitching prospect Stephen Gonsalves about his offseason and the first thing he may mention is his vacation to Australia with fellow Twins pitching prospects Lewis Thorpe and Sam Gibbons.

“It was Sam’s 21st birthday so we made a little vacation out of it,” Gonsalves explained on Friday, while watching his Cedar Rapids Kernels teammates take on a group of Tampa Bay Rays Class A prospects.

Stephen Gonsalves
Stephen Gonsalves

But hanging out with Aussies Thorpe and Gibbons down-under for a couple of weeks was just one small part of Gonsalves’ winter.

The 20-year-old lefty starting pitcher played a crucial role in the playoff drive the Kernels put together during the second half of the 2014 season. He notched a 3.19 Earned Run Average while striking out 44 batters in just 36.2 innings of work over eight starts with Cedar Rapids.

Some young pitchers might have felt satisfied with those numbers and focused their offseason workouts on simply adding some muscle or improving their conditioning, but not Gonsalves.

The young Californian combined a 90 mph fastball with an effective slow curve and an equally effective change up to solidify his ranking as a consensus top 20 prospect within the Twins’ organization heading in to 2015.

Rather than being satisfied with that, Gonsalves went home after participating in fall instructional league and went to work on broadening his arsenal of pitching weapons.

“Right after instructs, I went home and started working out that next week,” Gonsalves said.

“Home” for Gonsalves is San Diego, California, and he wasn’t working out alone there. He worked out with a couple of other well-credentialed pitchers with San Diego ties.

“I was able to work out with Stephen Strasburg this whole offseason, got to pick his brain a lot,” Gonsalves recalled. “James Shields was there, also. So I got to mix in a lot with those guys and kind of pick their brains the entire offseason. Helped me out a little mechanically on the hill, also.”

Strasburg and Shields were both rotation leaders for Major League postseason participants last year, Strasburg with the Washington Nationals and Shields with the Kansas City Royals. Shields inked a new deal as a free agent this offseason with the San Diego Padres.

“I was working on a slider,” said Gonsalves. “That’s what Shields is known for, his slider, so I got to work with him for about a month just specifically on that pitch for a while. It’s coming along nicely. The Twins are starting to like it.”

So far this spring, the results seem to be positive. He’s been in Ft. Myers since March 1, well before the minor leaguers began playing games. He’s made three solid appearances, building up his pitch count and getting ready to head north to Cedar Rapids when camp breaks the first full week of April.

Gonsalves acknowledged that he’s likely to be one of just a small number of 2014 Kernels returning to open the new campaign in Cedar Rapids, but he’s looking forward to opening the year with the new crew of Kernels.

“We’re going to have a whole new team, pretty much, (but) we’re going to have a good little squad together. It’s going to be fun. We’re going to be a little scrappy team.”

Chad Christensen Hoping His Time Playing Before Hometown Fans is Over

Almost a year ago, Cedar Rapids Washington grad Chad Christensen got the word he would be making his full-season pro baseball debut with his hometown club, the Cedar Rapids Kernels. This spring, the Minnesota Twins farm hand is hoping to avoid a return trip to Cedar Rapids.

You can’t blame a guy for preferring a promotion up the Twins’ minor league ladder over another summer living at home.

Chad Christensen & Jason Kanzler going through early morning stretching exercises
Chad Christensen & Jason Kanzler going through early morning stretching exercises

In fact, hitting .272 for the Kernels last season,Christensen left Cedar Rapids, just like his Kernels teammates.

“I went back to Lincoln and lived there,” Christensen explained. “A lot of guys that are in pro ball are back there so we kind ofwork out together and use the (University of Nebraska) facilities andeverything. That’s where I was doing my workouts.

“I came home (to Cedar Rapids) for a couple of weeks before I came here (Fort Myers). I got down here a little early, February 23rd, to get outside, get out of the cold and get back to baseball.”

With about two weeks of spring training left, his ultimate assignment is primarily just speculation, at this point, but every player in camp is hoping for a promotion and, for Christensen, that would mean a spot on the roster of the Twins’ class high-A affiliate, the Fort Myers Miracle.

“I’m not positive,” Christensen said, when asked about whether he’d heard anything about where he would open the 2015 season. “I would think probably down here (in Fort Myers). But I’m just playing, it’s not up tome. I’m just trying to play every day and stay healthy and get back in the swing of things.”

For Christensen, playing every day last summer meant spending time playing all around the diamond defensively for the Kernels. Christensen played all over the outfield, but also logged 90 games at firstbase. He also played 27 games at third base for Elizabethton in 2013.

Versatility is a benefit for players trying to get noticed in a professional baseball organization and Christensen will be continuing to demonstrate his willingness and ability to move around the field. During spring training, however, it’s clear the Twins are wanting to see him in the outfield as much as possible.

“I’ve been playing all outfield – all three outfield spots,”said Christensen. “Obviously, if I’m needed to go in to the infield again, Ican go in the infield, but I’ve been in the outfield down here, so far.”

An assignment with the Miracle would keep Christensen with alot of last summer’s Kernels. Of the thirty or so players currently listed onthe Miracle’s spring training roster, over 25 spent time in Cedar Rapids last season. Christensen likes the idea of sticking with that group.

“Yeah, we have a good group. Guys come ready to go every day, that’s what makes it fun,” said Christensen. “We’re looking forward to getting the season going.”

Christensen isn’t the only one ready to get the season rolling. Kernels hitting coach Tommy Watkins indicated he is more than ready to head to Cedar Rapids. “This is like Groundhog Day,” Watkins said, alluding to the day-after-day repetitive nature of the spring training routine.

Christensen indicated the players are starting to feel the same way.

“Yeah, we’re starting to get kind of anxious this time of year.”

Jake Mauer Hopes to Have His Roster Set Soon

In less than two weeks, Cedar Rapids Kernels manager Jake Mauer will be bringing a fresh crop of 25 ballplayers north from their spring training home in Fort Myers, Florida. The exact constitution of that roster, however, is still somewhat of work in progress.

Mauer said he’d like to get things finalized soon, however.

“Ideally we’d like to have who we’re going to take to Cedar Rapids that last week of spring training,” Mauer explained on Thursday, just before his squad took on a Class A group of Boston Red Sox prospects.

“You can do different things and put in different signs, things we’re going to use throughout the year. Make sure we get all the kinks out before we start up there at Kane County (where the Kernels open their season on April 9).”

Mauer will be entering his third season as manager of the Kernels. In fact, among all of the Twins organization’s full-season teams, he’s the only manager assigned to the same club he led a year ago.

Jake Mauer and Tommy Watkins with early morning instructions
Jake Mauer and Tommy Watkins with early morning instructions

The Twins hired Hall of Famer Paul Molitor to manage the big league team this season and former Chicago Cubs manager Mike Quade is taking over the AAA Rochester Red Wings. Jeff Smith and Doug Mientkiewicz swapped their assignments this year, with Mientkiewicz managing AA Chattanooga and Smith taking over high-A Fort Myers.

Mauer indicated, though, that he wasn’t surprised to be assigned to Cedar Rapids again.

“No, I wouldn’t say surprised,” he said. “Obviously, Cedar Rapids is a pretty good fit for me on a personal level, family-wise. Professional-wise, baseball is baseball, wherever you’re at and at the level I’m at, I really enjoy being around the young guys and teaching every day.”

Kernels fans may recognize the team’s manager this season, but they are going to want to pick up a program early on their first trip to the ballpark and study it closely, because they aren’t likely to see many familiar names or faces among the 2015 Kernels players

Starting pitchers Stephen Gonsalves and Mat Batts are looking likely to return to start their new season with the Kernels and both have been, “throwing it well,” according to their manager.

John Curtiss, who joined the Kernels to make a start during their playoff run a year ago, is also likely to start his summer with the Kernels.

“As far as those starters, folks in CR have seen those guys a little bit, but our bullpen is going to be pretty much all new guys from what it looks like,” Mauer said.

“As far as position players, I don’t think we’ll have too many guys that were there last year. Maybe a few guys that were there for a portion of the year, we may get back,” he added.

Outfielders Zack Larson and Max Murphy are the only position players with time in a Kernels uniform who have been assigned to the most recent Kernels spring training working group.

Mauer was quick to point out that the roster is not set, however.

“It will depend with, obviously Molitor running the big league club, who he likes, who he wants to keep.”

The parent Twins are still about 10 players over their opening day roster limit, so as the big club makes further cuts, there could be additions and/or subtractions from the current group of prospective Kernels.

Once the season gets underway, Mauer indicated he felt the team may be relying on their starting pitching early on.

“I think we’ll have some starting pitchers with a little bit of experience that I think we’ll lean on, especially early in the year. They’ll need to go out there and set the tone.”

Offensively, the Kernels are going to be relying on a lot of players with little or no experience above rookie-level short season ball at Elizabethton last season.

“We’re still trying to kind of get to know these guys a little bit,” Mauer said, of his position players. “As far as team speed, I don’t know if we’re going to have a lot of it. We’re going to have some guys that put up decent numbers in E’Town. Obviously, we all know it’s different going in to the Midwest League, facing a little different caliber of pitching.”

A number of players are having strong springs, but Mauer was philosophical about his expectations for the Kernels once they leave the mid-80 degree temperatures of Fort Myers behind and head north.

“We may go through some growing pains, but hopefully it’ll all shake out. We’ll see how we react when it’s thirty degrees out.”

Knuckleballs Fantasy Baseball!

yahoo fantasy imageOk, folks, it’s that time of year again! Knuckleballs (more precisely, me) runs an EZ League each year. We have 4 open slots for teams to join up.

It’s a FREE Yahoo head-to-head league with an autodraft so you don’t HAVE to know anything in advance but you still have the option to preset your draft rankings according to your own wishes too. Use the “contact us” link above to let me know if you want to join in!

You have until Saturday to let me know – feel free to spread the word if you want a buddy to join you!