Stewart, Harrison Quieting Critics?

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

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

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

I wrapped up my article in February with the following:

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

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

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

Travis Harrison
Travis Harrison (Photo: Steve Buhr)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fixing the Twins Isn’t That Complicated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miguel Sano
Miguel Sano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alas, the bats aren’t the worst problems.

Kyle Gibson
Kyle Gibson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

J.T. Chargois
J.T. Chargois

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ballplayers as Commodities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tyler Duffey
Tyler Duffey

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

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

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

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

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

None. Until now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kernels Getting Strong Pitching, Little Else

Twenty games into their 2016 season, the Cedar Rapids Kernels find themselves right in the thick of the chase for the Midwest League’s Western Division first-half title race with an 11-9 record. They sit just one-half game behind Division co-leaders Kane County and Clinton.

The Kernels are a combined 4-7 against the front-running Cougars and Lumberkings.

If you look strictly at the club’s offensive numbers, you’d be hard pressed to figure out how the Kernels have managed to keep aloft in the standings. They’re batting just .229 as a team, which is better than just four other MWL clubs.

What’s been the secret? It’s no secret, really. It’s been all about the pitching, so far.

“Pitching and defense is what you preach and try to be the most consistent at,” explained Kernels manager Jake Mauer this week, adding, “hitting tends to be more volatile.”

Jake Mauer
Jake Mauer

Mauer, who will notch his 250th win as Kernels manager with the next Cedar Rapids victory, doesn’t have to reach any further for an example of what he’s referring to than the team’s recent weekend series in Clinton.

After being rained out on Thursday night, the Kernels dropped a 3-1 game on Friday, mustering just five hits.

On Saturday, the two clubs had a pair of seven-inning games scheduled to make up for the rainout, but game one ran 18 innings, with the Kernels falling 2-1. They were then shutout 3-0 in game two.

On Sunday, the bats woke up and the Kernels put a 9-0 thumping on the Lumberkings to salvage their lone win in the series, despite outscoring Clinton 11-10 across the four games (and 43 innings).

Consistent pitching and defense, volatile hitting.

“We haven’t clicked very well offensively,” Mauer admitted. “We had the big outburst opening night (12 runs on 15 hits against Quad Cities) and we scored nine the last day in Clinton, but really in between that, we really haven’t done too much.”

Ah, but the pitching, that’s a different story.

The Kernels opened the season with 15 players on their roster who saw time in Cedar Rapids last season and some of those guys are playing key roles on the mound.

Sam Clay
Sam Clay

Returning pitchers Randy LeBlanc and Sam Clay have led the rotation. LeBlanc has a 1.50 ERA and a WHIP of 0.83 through his four starts, while Clay’s put up a 0.53 ERA in his three starts. He has struck out 19 batters in 17 innings pitched.

Cody Stashak, who was promoted to Cedar Rapids a couple weeks ago, has made two starts, winning both games and notching a 1.13 ERA and a 0.75 WHIP.

The bullpen has been stellar, as well.

John Curtiss and CK Irby have each made six appearances this season and neither has allowed an earned run. Irby has struck out 10 in 9 2/3 innings of work, while Curtiss has averaged more than two strikeouts in every inning he’s worked, amassing 17 Ks in 8 innings. Nick Anderson has also struck out more than one hitter per inning out of the pen.

“LaBlanc’s a guy returning and Curtiss is a guy returning, they’ve both been outstanding,” Mauer observed. “We’ve gotten big innings from Irby. Anderson has done fine. Clay has been really good. He looks like a different animal than he was last year.”

Like LeBlanc, Curtiss, Anderson and Irby, Clay put in time with the Kernels in 2016. He posted a 0-3 record and allowed 1.86 runners to reach base for each inning he pitched for Cedar Rapids, resulting in a trip back to the Twins’ rookie-level club in Elizabethton.

“It’s a testament to what (Elizabethton pitching coach) Luis Ramirez did down there at Etown and that staff,” Mauer said, referring to Clay’s significant improvement. “It was the same with Felix Jorge a year ago. “For whatever reason they didn’t do so well here, they went down there and got right, came back and now they’re on their way.”

Curtiss spent time in the Kernels’ rotation last season, but suffered some shoulder issues. He was a reliever at the University of Texas and his return to the bullpen now appears to be permanent and Mauer thinks that could help the righthander move quickly up the organizational ladder.

“I think that’s the right call, keep him in the bullpen,” Mauer said. “He’s got a chance to be a pretty fast mover, I think. It can happen pretty fast for those college relief guys.

“(Irby) is another one that could move quick. Anderson, same situation. There’s three guys right there that, if they’re rested and we can set the game up the way we want, we like our chances with the lead going with those three guys.”

Of course, that involves a couple of pretty big “ifs.” It assumes you can generate enough offense to get an early lead and also that those arms will stay in Kernels uniforms for at least a while longer.

The parent Minnesota Twins have had some pitching issues already during the first month of their season, both in terms of injuries and ineffectiveness. That could lead to some early adjustments to pitching assignments, not only at the big league level, but also all the way through the system.

“We’re three weeks in, I’m sure there’s going to be some movement here, probably sooner than later,” Mauer said.

He can’t do anything about it if Twins Farm Director Brad Steil decides his pitchers should be promoted, so the manager’s focus is on getting wins any way he can.

“Pitching has been really our key and now we’re starting to play better infield defense, getting a little more settled in the infield. Hopefully we don’t have any more of those 18 inning games.

“We played 18 innings (in game 1 Saturday), then played seven more (in game 2), and only scored one run. That’s pretty frustrating, especially with all the opportunities we had, including runners at third with nobody out and one out. Guys let the moment get too big and try to do too much instead of just doing what they can. We’ve been a little better at that starting Sunday.”

Outfielder LaMonte Wade has been the most consistent offensive contributor, hitting .344 with six doubles, two triples and a home run. Unfortunately, Wade has been on the shelf for a few games while nursing a sore hamstring.

Chris Paul was batting .346 when he was promoted to the Fort Myers Miracle and infielder Luis Arraez has come on to hit .395 and put up an OPS of 1.083 in 11 games, doing most of his damage after Paul’s departure (he’s hit .483 in his last eight games).

“Arraez has been a shot in the arm for us,” his manager said. “He played in the big leagues down there in Venezuela in their winter league, so he’s not intimidated by anything that’s going on here, that’s for sure. He’s a hitter, really, He knows where the barrel is, works counts, not a strikeout guy, just puts together good at-bats.”

On the other end of the spectrum, the Kernels have seven players who currently are batting below the .200 mark.

“Really, it’s been LaMonte and Chris Paul, before he left, and Arraez that have been our only offense,” Mauer confirmed. “(Zander) Wiel looks like he’s starting to come around a bit, which is good. Get him going and then (Jermaine) Palacios had a better week last week, he’s hitting the ball better. We need to get some of these guys to get going here so we don’t have to rely on the pitchers.”

In the meantime, Mauer looks for things he can do to put his team in the best position to win a game, even when the crucial hits aren’t coming.

“We’re struggling a little bit when we’re in scoring position and we’ve got to get better at it,” he explained. “That’s why we played the infield in (Tuesday) in the fourth inning with nobody out. Runs are hard to come by for us. Same thing with Arraez trying to score (from third base) on a 180-foot fly ball. Kid made a good throw – we were kind of hoping that he would throw it away or something – try to force the issue a little bit. We’ve got to do things like that to try to create something. We don’t get many opportunities.”

Wade is expected to return to the Kernels lineup within the next day or two and the manager is hoping his return, along with some improvement among the others in his lineup, will help put a few more runs on the board.

If not, the manager is mindful that changes can be made.

“We left a couple college guys that are down there (in Extended Spring Training) that could probably help us. Sometimes you just need a break or a movement situation.”

Kernels Off to Solid Start

As the Cedar Rapids Kernels begin a stretch of seven consecutive “commuter” games (those where they bus to the away game and back home again after the game each day/night) this week, they are off to a 7-4 start to their Midwest League Season, good enough for second place in the MWL’s West Division, a half-game behind Kane County.

Early on, the Kernels’ offense was riding on the shoulders of LaMonte Wade and Chris Paul. Paul was promoted to Ft. Myers, but Wade has continued to rake, hitting an even .400 on the season and putting up a 1.119 OPS. The 22-year-old former Maryland Terrapin has hit safely in each of Cedar Rapids’ 11 games this season.

With Paul no longer around, the club needed others to step up their games and Luis Arraez has done exactly that.

Arraez had back-to-back games this week in which he led off the bottom half of the first inning with a home run. That’s remarkable enough, but then consider that they were the first two round-trippers of the infielder’s career. He has raised his batting average to .346 and his OPS to 1.008.

As the starting pitchers complete their second time through the rotation, Sam Clay has led the crew with a perfect 0.00 ERA, while striking out 13 batters in 11 innings of work. Relievers C.K Irby and John Curtiss have equaled that perfect 0.00 ERA out of the bullpen. Curtiss had K’d 8 in 4 innings on the mound and Irby has set down 7 batters in 6 2/3 innings.

The first home series of the season last week was more than a little chilly, though that did make for a couple of interesting pictures. With a couple of sunny day games this past weekend, there were more opportunities for decent photo shooting. I wish I had at least one of every player, but I didn’t quite manage that. I’ll get there eventually.

Let’s start with a photo of Veterans Memorial Stadium, home of the Kernels.

Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids
Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids
Luis Arraez squeezes a pop fly
Luis Arraez squeezes a pop fly

With the kind of week Arraez had, he deserves a couple of pictures, don’t you think? Let’s add one of the infielder at the plate.

Luis Arraez
Luis Arraez
Christian Cavaness
Christian Cavaness
Sam Clay
Sam Clay
John Curtiss
John Curtiss
Andro Cutura
Andro Cutura
JJ Fernandez
JJ Fernandez
Sam GIbbons
Sam GIbbons
Manuel Guzman
Manuel Guzman
Bryant Hayman
Bryant Hayman

And, in case you’re now wondering whether Bryant actually made contact with that pitch, yes, yes he did.

Bryant Hayman
Bryant Hayman
Logan Lombana
Logan Lombana
Sean Miller
Sean Miller
Max Murphy
Max Murphy
AJ Murray
AJ Murray
Miles Nordgren
Miles Nordgren
Jermaine Palacios
Jermaine Palacios
Chris Paul (just because he's not currently with the Kernels doesn't mean we shouldn't see his picture!)
Chris Paul (just because he’s not currently with the Kernels doesn’t mean we shouldn’t see his picture!)
Dereck Rodriguez
Dereck Rodriguez
Rafael Valera - I'm not sure this is the fielding position they teach, but then the coaches don't typically assume you'll be trying to keep your throwing hand warm in 38 degree temps, either.
Rafael Valera – I’m not sure this is the fielding position they teach, but then the coaches don’t typically assume you’ll be trying to keep your throwing hand warm in 38 degree temps, either.
LaMonte Wade
LaMonte Wade

If anyone has earned getting two pictures in this post, it’s LaMonte Wade.

LaMonte Wade
LaMonte Wade
Zander Wiel models the cold weather hoodie most players made use of the first week.
Zander Wiel models the cold weather hoodie most players made use of the first week.

That’s what I’ve got uploaded so far. I thought I had a few more, but can’t put my fingers on them at the moment, anyway. I’ll load up some more next homestand.

-Steve

Things Will Get Better

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Steve

Under Reconstruction

Whether it is an update to WordPress 4.5 or to the latest update to our Theme, one or the other caused us to lose the ability to use our custom banner, so we’ve brought back our old, original theme, for now, just to be able to use a version of our banner. It’s kind of like wearing a throwback jersey. 🙂

We will be attempting to resolve this issue and/or looking for a new “look” for our blog. In the meantime, we will continue to post occasional articles, even if the site itself doesn’t look quite the way we would like it to.

Steve

 

April is Critical for Some Minor Leaguers

The Minnesota Twins and their full season minor league affiliates announced those affiliates’ initial rosters on Sunday and Monday this week and the one thing that stood out about almost every roster was the number of players returning to the same level where they finished their respective 2015 campaigns.

The Cedar Rapids Kernels initial roster, for example, includes 16 players that also wore Kernels uniforms last season and many of them performed quite well in the Class A Midwest League – well enough that, in most years, they’d have been promoted this spring and challenged to prove themselves at the next level.

But this isn’t most years, not in the Twins organization, anyway.

Randy led the Kernels staff with 9 wins and posted a 3.03 ERA in 2015. He will be the Opening Day starter for Cedar Rapids in 2016. (Photo: SD Buhr)
Randy LeBlanc led the Kernels staff with 9 wins and posted a 3.03 ERA in 2015. He will be the Opening Day starter for Cedar Rapids in 2016. (Photo: SD Buhr)

The Big League club came to spring training with few roster spots to fill. The clear strategy to fill the few spots they did have – primarily back up spots in the outfield and at catcher, along with left handed bullpen arms – was to sign a number of potential candidates to minor league contracts with invitations to the Twins’ Major League spring training, allow them to compete with whatever internal options might be candidates and open the season with whoever makes the best impression in camp.

Not surprisingly, that left the Twins with a large number of extra minor leaguers left over after the big club’s Opening Day 25-man roster was announced.

As a result, the Triple-A affiliate Rochester Red Wings will start the season with a roster that includes, by my count, about 10 guys who were not members of the Twins’ organization at the end of the 2015 season and the Double-A Chattanooga Lookouts have maybe five more. Most of these newcomers were signed in the offseason as minor league free agents, but that isn’t the case with all of them. (Dan Palka, for example, was acquired via offseason trade.)

The result was inevitable.

Minor league baseball is a numbers game and it’s not all that difficult to figure out how it works for all but the hottest of an organization’s best prospects.

If you’re a minor league player at the low levels of the organization, you get a couple of years to figure out the game in short-season rookie ball and, if you show some level of competency or promise of competency, you move up to Class A, the first level of full-season professional baseball.

From that point on, each year, one of three things happens: The club determines that you’ve reached the level of competition at which you cannot compete and you’re released; you don’t put up stellar numbers, but you show enough promise that the club isn’t going to give up on you, so they send you back to the same level to start the next season; or you perform well enough for the club to want to see how you handle the challenge of the next level of competition and therefore get promoted to that next level.

Sam Gibbons posted a 2.89 ERA in 15 starts for the Kernels in 2015. He's back in Cedar Rapids to start 2016.(Photo: SD Buhr)
Sam Gibbons posted a 7-4 record and a 2.89 ERA in 15 starts for the Kernels in 2015. He’s back in Cedar Rapids to start 2016.(Photo: SD Buhr)

Of course, there are always exceptions and nuances. Players may get a mid-season or late-season promotion to a new level and then start the following year at the same level or may suffer an injury that results in a need to repeat a level. That’s why, typically, a community like Cedar Rapids will see a handful of familiar faces each spring when the new batch of Kernels arrives.

You don’t see 16 familiar faces, though.

It’s a safe bet that, among that 16, there are some players that feel pretty strongly that they did enough for the Kernels a year ago that they should be busing around the Sunshine State with the Fort Myers Miracle this month rather than wearing parkas in the Kernels’ dugout. And they’re right, they should be.

And I’m sure there are a similar numbers of guys in Fort Myers that think they should be in Chattanooga.

It’s pretty clear, from comments made by Kernels manager Jake Mauer and some of his players this week, that this is a subject that Mauer has addressed with his team.

Cedar Rapids Gazette reporter Jeff Johnson interviewed Mauer on Monday and among the manager’s comments was this:

“I’m not going to lie to you. There are a number of guys in our clubhouse that should probably be up, that either pitched or hit their way out of this league. But because of strength of organization, they are here. You try to convey to them that ‘You are here, don’t feel bad. You’ve got to go after it, you’ve got to put up numbers.’”

The trio of players – pitchers Randy LeBlanc and Sam Gibbons, along with infielder Chris Paul – that were fed to local media for a group interview on “Meet the Kernels” Night on Tuesday were asked by Johnson about the level of disappointment that players who played well for the Kernels last season were having to start this year back in Cedar Rapids.

LeBlanc, who has drawn the Opening Day start this week for the Kernels, was frank, but responded well.

“I’m not going to beat around the bush, it was pretty disappointing at first,” LeBlanc conceded. “Jake’s been kind of pounding into our head, since the rosters have been set, that you can’t go into it bitter. You’ve got to just play your way out of here. Just stay positive, just be happy you made a roster, stuff like that. I definitely think (several) of us did pretty well last year, but just go out there and do our best and see what happens.”

Gibbons then added, “As long as we’ve got a jersey, we’ve got an opportunity.”

Unlike LeBlanc and Gibbons, Paul was a relative late-comer to the Kernels last season, joining the team near the end of the season and contributing to the team’s postseason run which ultimately ended one win short of a Midwest League championship.

“It’s a little bit different for me. I came up a little bit late,” Paul said, on the subject at hand. “These guys spent the whole season – most of the season – here, so I think a lot of guys proved themselves, obviously, like Randy said. But like they said, we’ve still got an opportunity, so you’ve just got to continue to perform and prove that you should be somewhere else.”

It’s clear that the, “don’t let yourselves be bitter, be glad you have a roster spot and go out and prove you deserve to move up,” message has been delivered – and it’s a very important message.

You could argue that it’s not fair that many players in the Twins system didn’t get the promotions this spring that they earned with their hard work and performances last summer. But professional baseball often is not fair. (Players need only look at their paltry paychecks to be reminded of that.)

And this is not a permanent situation.

It’s understandable that the Twins would give most of the players they signed to minor league free agent contracts an opportunity to show what they can do in some regular season games and, while the organization is still widely heralded as having one of the best stocked minor league systems in baseball, that cycle won’t last forever.

But neither will the opportunities being extended to these minor league free agents last forever. I give it a month.

By the middle of May, I believe we’ll see minor league affiliate rosters that look a lot more like what most of us – and, clearly, many of the organization’s players – thought we would see. I expect those free agents will get about a month to show the Twins’ evaluators why they should keep their roster spots in Rochester and Chattanooga over guys that have come up through the system and expected to be playing at the next level this spring.

Some of the new players will stick and that’s a good thing. Talent is talent, whether the player came up through the Twins’ system or somewhere else and minor league baseball is one of the purer forms of meritocracy you’ll find anywhere.

This little blip in the normal process makes it more critical than ever that players follow the advice being given to them to focus on their own performances and not give in to what must be a sometimes overwhelming urge to get angry to the point of distraction.

Because, just as sure as some of those minor league free agents will fail to impress and find themselves looking for other work, the same thing could happen to some players that finished strong with a Twins affiliate a year ago, but couldn’t back it up with a strong start to 2016.

Every year, observers of minor league teams like the Kernels see players move up and players move down and players move out. The team you finish a season with never resembles the team you started with. It’s the reason lower level minor leagues like the Midwest League have split seasons, with division standings reset after the mid-season All-Star break.

Most of the roster changes resulting from promotions and demotions don’t usually start becoming regular until June. This year, in the Twins organization, things could get interesting for many players much sooner.

-Steve

Cedar Rapids Welcomes the 2016 Kernels

A modest, but devoted, crowd of fans, staff and host parents greeted manager Jake Mauer, his field staff and 24 players to Veterans Memorial Stadium with applause and a handful of signs as they stepped off their bus from the Cedar Rapids airport early Monday evening.

It was upwards of 70 degrees in Florida when the team departed their Fort Myers spring training camp earlier in the day and many of the players were still sporting the short sleeve sport shirts that were more appropriate on departure than they were upon arrival at their new home, where temperatures hovered a degree or two on one side or the other of 40 degrees.

Mr Shucks spends some time with young Kernels fans while they wait for the team's bus to arrive.
Mr Shucks spends some time with young Kernels fans while they wait for the team’s bus to arrive.
Manager Jake Mauer steps off the bus to the applause of local fans. (Photo: SD Buhr)
Manager Jake Mauer steps off the bus to the applause of local fans. (Photo: SD Buhr)
Young Kernels fans greeting the arriving 2016 Kernels
Young Kernels fans greeting the arriving 2016 Kernels

After arriving and settling into his office, Mauer confirmed that pitcher Michael Cederoth, originally listed as a member of the initial Kernels roster, did not make the trip to Cedar Rapids with the team. The manager indicated that Cederoth has an issue with his back and that no final decision has yet been communicated concerning who will take his spot on the active roster.

The Kernels will get a formal welcome from media and fans on Tuesday evening, between 5:00 and 7:00, with an introduction of the players and a short workout open to the public beginning at 7:00, weather permitting.

The Quad Cities River Bandits will visit Cedar Rapids on Thursday to open the 2016 season. Game time is 6:35.

-Steve