A Tale of Two Catchers

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Granted, it probably wasn’t anywhere near the “worst of times” for Stuart Turner and Mitch Garver, but the excitement of learning they had been drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the June, 2013 Amateur Draft had to have been at least slightly dampened with the realization that the Twins had drafted both of them.

Mitch Garver
Mitch Garver (Photo: SD Buhr)

Going into that draft, the Twins knew they needed catching. They didn’t yet know just how desperately they needed catching.

The Twins had allowed their organization to become thin at a critical (if not THE most critical) defensive position. And it was understandable, to a degree. After all, they had the reigning American League Most Valuable Player behind the plate. Catcher Joe Mauer was not only good for a .300 batting average and .400 on-base percentage every season, but he had only just turned 30 years old a few weeks earlier.

What the Twins’ brass didn’t know – and couldn’t know – as they gathered in their offices for the June 2013 Amateur Player Draft, was that Mauer would never get behind the plate to catch another big league game after the 2013 season, due to persistent concussion problems.

Still, to their credit, they identified the catching position as one that warranted some focus in the 2013 draft.

And focus they did.

The Twins used three of their top 10 picks in 2013 on catchers and added another in the 22nd round.

After selecting pitchers Kohl Stewart and Ryan Eades in rounds one and two, Minnesota picked Ole Miss catcher Stuart Turner in the third round. He was the 2013 Johnny Bench award winner, presented to the top NCAA Division I catcher.

In the sixth round, the Twins grabbed a high school catcher, Brian Navarreto.

New Mexico Lobo catcher Mitch Garver was selected by the Twins in the ninth round. Garver was one of three finalists for the Johnny Bench award that Turner won. In fact, it was the second year that Garver was a Bench Award finalist.

The Twins added Alex Swim out of Elon (NC) University in the 22nd round, to complete the 2013 catching class.

Adding that many catchers to the organization at one time required a bit of roster manipulation on the part of the Twins farm director Brad Steil and his group. You obviously can’t just start the entire group at the same level and still get everyone enough work behind the plate to develop them.

Navarreto, being a few years younger than the others, was easy to plug into the rookie league programs.

Fair or not, as a lower round pick, there would be less emphasis on getting Swim adequate opportunities to show what he could do behind the plate.

By the end of the 2013 season, of course, the Twins pretty much knew Mauer’s career as a catcher was effectively over and suddenly the club and its fans became much more interested in the catchers coming up through the farm system, particularly in Turner and Garver.

Stuart Turner (PhotoL SD Buhr)
Stuart Turner (Photo: SD Buhr)

The Twins don’t make a habit of starting many of their young players at the Advanced Class A level in Ft. Myers, but it was important that both Turner and Garver get as much time working with pitchers from behind the plate as possible. That could only be accomplished by splitting the two catchers up in their first full season of professional ball. To accomplish that, Turner was assigned to Ft. Myers, while Garver spent 2014 at Class A Cedar Rapids.

A year later, Turner and Garver remained one level apart as Turner was promoted to AA Chattanooga and Garver moved up to Ft. Myers.

In fact, the first time the two became teammates wasn’t even technically with a Twins affiliate.

The Twins sent both catchers to the Arizona Fall League in October, 2015. Both caught 11 games and DH’d in one for AFL champion Scottsdale. Garver hit .317 for the Scorpions, while Turner hit just .171.

That set up a 2016 season where Garver and Turner would both begin the year at Chattanooga.

While the two had been effectively competing with one another for some kind of mythical “Twins top catching prospect” designation since that 2013 draft day, this was the first time Garver and Turner were set up to go side-by-side into a regular season at the same professional level.

That dynamic continued into the second week of August, when the Twins had a spot for a catcher open up at their AAA affiliate in Rochester and the call went out to Chattanooga for someone to finish out the season with the Red Wings.

Since Turner was about to finish his second Class AA season with the Lookouts and Garver was still in his first tour through the Southern League, you might have thought that Turner would get the promotion – but you would have been wrong.

With Garver hitting a respectable .257 (.753 OPS) at the time, while Turner was hovering around .210 (and an OPS around .650), it was Garver that was packing for Rochester.

But it wasn’t just his bat that appeared to have pushed Garver ahead of Turner on the Twins’ organizational depth chart. He threw out 52% of runners attempting to steal on him (23 of 44 attempts) in Chattanooga. Turner threw out 19 of 48 attempted base stealers for a 40% clip.

Admittedly, using “caught stealing” statistics as a measure for a catcher’s work behind the plate is iffy, at best. For one thing, runners steal bases off of pitchers as much as (if not more than) off catchers. However, in this case, that factor is largely mitigated since the two were catching members of the same Chattanooga pitching staff.

After the season, the Twins again sent Garver to get additional work in the Arizona Fall League, where he hit .229 and put up a .756 OPS, fueled by four home runs and four doubles in 70 at-bats for the AFL runner-up Surprise Saguaros.

Whether Garver will eventually hit and, perhaps more importantly, catch well enough to work his way into the Minnesota Twins lineup on a regular basis certainly remains an unknown. However, we do know the Twins like him enough that, as the AFL season wrapped up, they added him to their 40-man roster.

Meanwhile, Turner was not added to that roster, exposing him to Major League Baseball’s Rule 5 draft.

On Thursday, the Cincinnati Reds selected Turner from the Twins in said draft.

Ironically, while it’s clear that the Twins now value Garver’s big league potential over that of Turner, it’s Turner that very well could get to the big leagues ahead of Garver.

As a Rule 5 pick, the Reds will need to keep Turner on their big league club in 2017 or return him to the Twins (or offer the Twins some sort of additional compensation in return for being allowed to keep him at a minor league level).

At the same time, Garver will open spring training in the big league camp but has no guarantee in his pocket assuring him a spot with the Twins on Opening Day.

On draft day in June of 2013, Turner and Garver had to be wondering what the chances were that the two of them would somehow both work their way into a Minnesota Twins uniform. It seemed likely that, some day, the Twins were going to need to make a choice between them.

That day came and the Twins chose to cast their lot with Garver.

Fortunately for Turner, he’s getting a pretty good consolation prize, courtesy of the Cincinnati Reds.

Twins and Hawkeyes and Vikings, Oh My

I bet you’re shocked to find I’ve posted a new article here, aren’t you? If it seems like I’m never posting anything new any more, it’s only because I haven’t been posting anything new any more.

Why not? It’s pretty simple. I haven’t felt like writing anything. And if there is one thing I’ve figured out in my 15-ish months since retiring, it’s that retirement means you no longer have to do much of anything you don’t feel like doing.

But a few days ago, I wrote a new article (for which I had to actually get presentably dressed and go conduct a real interview!) and the process reminded me that I kind of enjoy writing.

(As for the article in question, you’re just going to have to wait until the 2017 Twins Prospect Handbook comes out to read it. I’m not sure when that will be, but I got my article submitted ahead of deadline, so if publication is delayed, it’s not my fault!)

Anyway, as I’ve reflected on the past few months, I’ve decided it’s time for me to speak out about some things, so let’s get on with it.

If you are familiar with my sports fandom at all, you probably are aware that I’m a devoted, if occasionally somewhat irrational, fan of the Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Vikings and Iowa Hawkeyes.

The mix is a result of spending my youth in the 1960s living in Minnesota and virtually the rest of my six decades on this planet in Iowa. I guess I also did spend brief periods in Arkansas and Wisconsin that were, at the same time memorable and forgettable, but I digress (this is about 2016, not my bizarre path through the mid 1970s).

Twins

Baseball is conducting their annual Winter Meetings at one of those giant Gaylord Resorts again, this time in suburban Washington, D.C. I’ve been there for conferences a couple of times, as I have to Gaylords in the Nashville, Orlando and Dallas areas.

I’m not a big fan of the Gaylords, but I can see why their ginormous size makes it an attractive venue for ginormous conferences, like the Winter Meetings. You can literally spend four days there, eating and drinking in a different place every night, without ever having to step out to breathe fresh air. I’m just not sure that should be considered a good thing (unless you happen to own a Gaylord, which I do not.)

targetfield
(Photo: SD Buhr)

Everyone involved with Twins baseball operations who is anyone is undoubtedly at the Winter Meetings, as are representatives from their minor league affiliate front offices. The dance cards of new Twins brass Derek Falvey and Thad Levine will be full, I’m sure. I hope they are a lot better at remembering the names of new people they are introduced to than I am.

If they struggle with remembering names, I would offer one piece of advice: Prioritize. Specifically, if the person you were just introduced to can throw a baseball well enough to miss a bat, THAT is someone you want to remember. You’re welcome.

A lot of speculation is circulating concerning the possible trade of Brian Dozier. If the chatter among Twitter feeds of people who should know about this kind of thing is accurate, there are several teams showing more than idle interest in obtaining Dozier and his team-friendly contract.

I like Brian Dozier and I wish the Twins were good enough that keeping him made sense, but they aren’t so it doesn’t.

Dozier’s value will never be higher, so Falvey and Levine (can we just call them “Falvine” until we figure out which of them is playing the bigger role in roster decisions?) need to make the best deal they can and hopefully that will include some high-ceiling near-MLB-ready pitching.

With all due respect to their signing of free agent catcher Jason Castro, fair or not, the return they negotiate for trading Dozier will establish their first impression approval ratings among a sizable contingent of Twins fans – and we all know how first impressions work in this organization. A bad first impression means you’re pedaling uphill to ever get respect from within the Twins community, while a good first impression could mean you’ll have a job for decades.

Good luck, guys. We’re all rooting for you. Until you screw up and we don’t root for you any more.

Hawkeyes (and, I guess, Vikings)

Let’s get this out of the way first – it’s going to be a very tough basketball season for the Hawkeyes.

The football team, however, is headed to Tampa to play the Florida Gators in the Outback Bowl on January 2.

If you had told me that was going to happen a few weeks ago after the Penn State debacle, I’d have said you were nuts. I wouldn’t have bet money the Hawkeyes would even end up being bowl eligible, much less finish 8-4 and going somewhere warm to ring in the new year.

(Photo: SD Buhr)
(Photo: SD Buhr)

What I forgot, as I tend to do almost every season, is that Iowa usually plays their best football in November.

Now, to be fair, that Penn State game was in November and it was a stinkbomb (that I fortunately did not witness, as I was attending the Arizona Fall League’s Fall-Stars Game that night), but the Hawkeyes used the following game against Illinois (which has come to be known as the “B1G West Division’s Second Bye Week”) to gear up to upset Michigan and destroy Nebraska in the season’s final weeks.

It has been an interesting football season for me. While Iowa was losing to North Dakota State and Northwestern, the Vikings were being inked into the NFL playoffs and even projected by some as a Super Bowl contender.

Wow, did that change in a hurry.

Ironically, it was an article on Nebraska football by Omaha World Herald columnist Tom Shatel that provided some clarity to me concerning the difference between the fortunes of the Hawkeyes and Vikings.

The point of Shatel’s column (to me, anyway) was that, while Husker fans tend to look down their noses at the “vanilla programs” at Wisconsin and Iowa, Nebraska needs to emulate the Badgers and Hawkeyes, putting their past Big 8/12 days behind them, and figure out how to establish a similar physical identity.

Shatel wrote, “Wisconsin and Iowa know who they are and like who they are and don’t care what you think of them. It works for them.”

That’s mostly true. Sure. many of us wish a Kirk Ferentz team would show a little bit of offensive imagination (or, really, ANY imagination), but we’re also smart enough to know that no coach is likely to recruit four-star (much less five-star) skill position high school studs to play football in Iowa City (while staying within NCAA rules, anyway).

Iowa’s best chance of occasionally making noise on a national level is to bring in the biggest, baddest two-and-three-star linemen and linebackers it can find, spend a couple of years making them bigger and badder, then unleash them to terrorize the Nebraskas and Minnesotas, while battling Wisconsin for supremacy of the B1G West.

If you’re lucky, every once in a while, you’ll put together a group that will also give the big boys in the B1G East a challenge, too.

It’s seldom aesthetically pleasing to many of today’s college football fans, but Ferentz has taken 14 of his last 16 Hawkeye teams to bowl games and 11 of them were January bowl games (including two Orange Bowls and a Rose Bowl), so you can’t say it hasn’t worked.

Which makes me wonder if there’s a parallel between the Vikings and Cornhuskers.

Like many Vikes fans, I’ve been waiting for the next Culpepper-to-Moss combo to show up. Instead, we’ve watched as a parade of quarterbacks and receivers have failed to stretch NFL defenses, to the effect that almost the entire career of one of the most gifted running backs to grace an NFL field in decades has been wasted.

Yes, the Vikings lost the services of Adrian Peterson and Teddy Bridgewater before the 2016 season even got underway, but I can’t imagine any combination of skill players being successful behind the current offensive line. And I don’t want to hear about injuries to the O-line, either. Every team has linemen lose significant time to injury. Successful teams develop depth.

A moderately successful college program like Iowa, who must spend a couple years developing players to get a year or two of high-level contribution, can have its season derailed by critical injuries to upperclassmen linemen. But an NFL team that doesn’t have a constantly revolving recruiting cycle to contend with, should be able to develop and maintain enough depth to withstand some injuries on the line without seeing a promising season turn to crap the way Minnesota’s 2016 has.

The Hawkeyes will never be the Buckeyes, just as the Vikings are unlikely to ever become the Patriots. But if the Vikings will focus on developing beasts two-deep at each line position, and making that focus a part of their DNA going forward, maybe they’ll give the best the NFL has to offer a run for their money on a semi-regular basis.

Given the futility my fellow Vikings fans and I have endured the past couple of decades, I’d take that.

A Week of Baseball in Arizona – in Photos

I spent my final afternoon in the Phoenix area watching baseball this afternoon as Surprise (with 7 Twins prospects and pitching coach Ivan Arteaga) traveled to Mesa.

I thought a good way to put a wrap on this trip would be a post that includes several photos of each Twins participant along with some basic perceptions of what I saw from that player in admittedly limited action in the games I watched.

Let’s do this in reverse alphabetical order, shall we?

That means we start with lefty reliever Randy Rosario, a 22-year old from the Dominican Republic. I saw Randy twice, pitching two innings in each game. He gave up a couple hits, a walk and a run in the first outing on Monday, but struck out three in two hitless innings on Friday. Only one stadium in the AFL circuit shows pitch speed on the scoreboard (or “talent meter”, I’m told the pitchers call it), so I have no idea what kind of velocity Randy (or anyone else) had, but his fastball certainly was good enough to make some guys look silly with his off-speed stuff.

While they wait for their turn to take the mound, relievers take turns playing catch with the right fielder between innings. This was Rosario's turn.

rosarioafl16aa rosarioafl16ab rosarioafl16ad rosarioafl16ae

Next up would be another southpaw bullpen arm, Mason Melotakis. When I last saw Melo in action in a Kernels uniform in 2013, the Twins were trying to see if he could be converted to a starting pitcher. A couple of years (and one TJ surgery) later, he’s mowing batters down as a reliever. Melotakis was almost untouchable in his two 1-inning appearances this week, striking out 3 in a couple of 1-2-3 innings. He has given up just one hit in 10 innings. He has a 11/1 strikeout/walk ratio.

melotakisafl16ac melotakisafl16ad melotakisafl16af melotakisafl16ag melotakisafl16ah

I was glad to hear the Twins were sending shortstop Nick Gordon to Arizona, not necessarily because I thought he was near being ready for the big leagues, but because I was anxious to see how he would fare against better pitching than he’s likely seen thus far in his career. If his AFL performance is any indication, he could really move up quickly. Gordon was 4-11 in three games this week (though he went hitless in the “Fall Stars Game” Saturday night) and had a double and a triple. He’s hitting .344 for the fall with an .875 OPS. He’s been successful in 3 of 4 stolen base attempts.

gordonafl16ae gordonafl16af gordonafl16ah gordonafl16auto gordonafl16buntb

I only got to see one start from Stephen Gonsalves and it wasn’t what he, or anyone, was hoping for. Gonsalves has been dealing with a back/shoulder strain that caused him to miss most of the AFL season. He threw 2 innings in his return last Friday and managed to get just two outs in his start on Wednesday. His velocity was obviously way down and he struggled with control, leading to being charged with 4 runs on 3 hits and 3 walks. The Twins don’t give me a vote on these things, but I’d shut him down and just let him rest that tired arm. He should only have one more start scheduled in the AFL season anyway.

gonsalvesafl16aa gonsalvesafl16ab gonsalvesafl16ac gonsalvesafl16ad gonsalvesafl16ae

Catcher Mitch Garver is completing his second stint in the AFL after playing here last fall, as well. Garver was just 3-13 in games I saw this week, with one double, but he was hitting a lot of pitches right on the screws. I’d love to know what the exit velocity was on the balls he hit, especially in the first two games I watched. Seven of Mitch’s 14 hits this fall have been for extra bases, four of which have left the park on the fly. Today (Friday), he also threw out three of four runners trying to steal second base on him.

garverafl16ae garverafl16af garverafl16ah garveraflthrow2

garverthrow3

If the Twins sent outfielder Tanner English to Arizona to find out if his success at AAA in the five games he spent with Rochester this year was a mirage, they’re getting their answer. No, English isn’t batting over .300, but he’s making good contact. I saw him strike out just once in 11 plate appearances this week and, technically, he DID bat .300 (3-10 exactly) in the games I saw. English also covers a lot of ground in the outfield and I saw a couple instances where he cut off a ball in a gap to hold the hitter at first base, rather than give up a double.

englishafl16ah englishafl16am englishafl16an englishafl16au englishaflauto

Righthanded reliever John Curtiss started the 2016 season with the Cedar Rapids Kernels, so I’m guessing not many would have predicted he’d be finishing the year in the Arizona Fall League. But Curtiss tore through Midwest League hitters and got a quick promotion. The 6′ 4″ 23-year-old has shrugged off a tough first appearance in the AFL to have an excellent fall. He has struck out 16 while walking just 3 in 10 2/3 innings. In the two single-inning appearances I saw this week, he gave up just one hit, walked none and struck out two (both in today’s appearance).

curtissafl16ab curtissafl16ad curtissafl16af curtissafl16ag curtissaflaa

I also enjoyed getting a chance to catch up with Ivan Arteaga, who served as the Kernels’ pitching coach in 2014 and is filling that capacity with Surprise this fall. I’ve always enjoyed talking pitching, baseball and life, in general, with Ivan and this week was no exception,.

gonsalvesarteagaafl16bThis was my first trip to the AFL where all members of the Twins’ contingent had come through Cedar Rapids with the Kernels and I got a chance to at least say a quick ‘hi” to all of them. It’s just really enjoyable to see the way the players have matured as ballplayers now that they are so close to realizing their dream of playing Major League baseball.

(All photos are the property of S D Buhr and may not be used without permission. That said, permission is REALLY easy to get. Just ask.)

Images From Arizona Fall League – Day 2

Yeah, I really should have looked at the Surprise Saguaros’ schedule before I reserved my hotel for this trip. After Saturday night’s Fall Stars Game and Monday afternoon’s Surprise game, the Saguaros (for whom all of the Minnesota Twins AFP prospects play this fall) have no more home games while I’m in town.

The game today was the first of four games that Surprise is playing in some other distant part of the Phoenix area. Just means I’ll be doing a lot of driving between now and Friday. Live & learn, I suppose.

The Saguaros dropped a 10-7 decision to the Mesa Solar Sox this afternoon (Tuesday). It was interesting, in that Mesa scored four runs in each of the first two innings and when the score stood 8-5 after three and a half innings, this was looking like it had the makings of a four-hour game.

In the end, it wrapped up in two hours and forty-six minutes. It is not a coincidence that they use the pitch clock in this league. It really does keep the game moving.

It also didn’t hurt that the only two Twins prospects to take the field for Surprise, relief pitchers Mason Melotakis and John Curtiss, each worked a clean 1-2-3 inning when their turns came to toe the rubber.

Tomorrow afternoon, it’s over to Scottsdale. With any luck, some of the Twins’ position players will be back in the lineup and maybe I’ll even get to see Stephen Gonsalves get a start against Tim Tebow and the Scorpions.

As always (or almost always, anyway), here are a few pictures of Twins in action today.

Ivan Arteaga
Ivan Arteaga
Mason Melotakis
Mason Melotakis
Mason Melotakis covering first base on a ground ball to the first baseman
Mason Melotakis covering first base on a ground ball to the first baseman
Mason Melotakis
Mason Melotakis
John Curtiss
John Curtiss
John Curtiss
John Curtiss
John Curtiss
John Curtiss

All photos by S D Buhr and may not be used without permission.

Images from Arizona Fall League

For the third year, I’ve made the trip top the Phoenix area to watch a little November baseball in the Arizona Fall League and, while I have no pearls of wisdom to pass along, I thought the least I could do is share a few photos during the week.

The AFL consists of six teams that each use one of the Phoenix area MLB spring training sites and each big league team sends six or seven minor league prospects to participate. Representing the Twins this fall are pitchers Stephen Gonsalves, Randy Rosario, Mason Melotakis and John Curtiss, as well as shortstop Nick Gordon, outfielder Tanner English and catcher Mitch Garver.

As a bonus, for the first time, every Twins representative in the AFL is also a Cedar Rapids Kernels alum.

In addition, Ivan Arteaga is serving as the Surprise pitching coach this fall. Arteaga was the Kernels’ pitching coach in 2014.

After landing a bit late at the Mesa airport on Saturday, I missed the first half-inning of the AFL’s “Fall Stars” game on Saturday night, but it wasn’t a huge deal since Nick Gordon was the only representative in the game from the Twins organization.

After the league’s day off on Sunday, I got my first look at the Surprise Saguaros on Monday afternoon.

Garver, Gordon and English were all in the Surprise lineup on Monday and reliever Randy Rosario worked a pair of solid innings on the mound.

Now, here’s the photographic evidence of my attendance at the game!

Tanner English throwing a runner out at second base
Tanner English throwing a runner out at second base
Mitch Garver
Mitch Garver
Nick Gordon
Nick Gordon
Randy Rosario
Randy Rosario
Tanner English
Tanner English
Nick Gordon
Nick Gordon
Mitch Garver
Mitch Garver
Randy Rosario
Randy Rosario
Tanner English
Tanner English
Nick Gordon
Nick Gordon
Mitch Garver
Mitch Garver
Andy Ibanez (Rangers) awaits a throw from Garver as Brett Phillips (Brewers) slides. No, the picture doesn't involve any Twins prospects, but I just really liked the way the picture turned out! :)
Andy Ibanez (Rangers) awaits a throw from Garver as Brett Phillips (Brewers) slides. No, the picture doesn’t involve any Twins prospects, but I just really liked the way the picture turned out! 🙂

All photos are the property of S D Buhr. Use without permission is prohibited.

World Series Game 7 – Apocalypse Nigh

So there is much discussion about tonight’s improbable story conclusion of the World Series matchup between the perennially excluded teams of the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago Cubs.

incredible-thome-photo2In fact, there was a very funny post about the Second Coming of Christ.

However, the most interesting news I have heard about tonight’s game – which I will be watching – is the designee to throw out the ceremonial first pitch:

None other than our own Mr. Incredible – Jim Thome!!!