PP Report: Mauer’s Concussion Symptoms Continue

In an article posted early Friday afternoon, Brian Murphy of the St. Paul Pioneer-Press reported that Minnesota Twins catcher-turned-first baseman Joe Mauer has continued to suffer from concussion symptoms, including blurred vision, over the past two seasons. (Click here to read the article)

This is some scary stuff.

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Joe Mauer (Photo: SD Buhr)

The Mauer story has been beaten to death, so I won’t rehash everything here. Suffice to say, Mauer was on a near-certain Hall of Fame catching career arc before the beatings he took behind the plate led to multiple concussions and, ultimately, a move to first base.

The hope was that the position move would allow him to play more games and, not inconsequentially, give him a much better chance of living out the rest of his life without dealing with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).

While Mauer has never played more games or made more plate appearances in a season than he did in 2015, he has not hit baseballs in the manner that made him a three-time American League batting champion and 2009 AL MVP. Now, perhaps, we know why.

Murphy included a number of interesting (some would say troubling) quotes from Mauer, including the following two statements concerning the vision problems he would occasionally deal with.

“It could be a lot of things,” Mauer continued. “There are so many different symptoms. For me it was lighting, I couldn’t really pick up the ball. It was blurry at times.”

And:

“If you’re just a little off, you’re fouling off pitches you should be driving into the gap,” he said. “In the big leagues, you don’t get too many more opportunities to see good ones to hit.”

This is certainly a true statement. Major League pitchers throw fastballs that run between 90 and 100 miles per hour and mix them with offspeed pitches that prevent even the best hitters (those with perfect vision) from being able to react with perfect timing. Given that Mauer has apparently not benefited from perfect vision, it’s not surprising that he has fallen from the ranks of the game’s best hitters.

But that was not my first reaction to reading the Mauer quote.

I can’t be the only person whose first thought was that, if blurred vision causes Mauer to be, “just a little off,” the last situation into which he should place himself is standing 60 feet away from a man throwing a baseball 95 miles per hour.

Joe Mauer is a professional athlete who has competed at the highest level of his profession and, while he famously may not have a reputation for demonstrating it outwardly in a manner recognizable to fans, he has a competitive nature that no doubt causes him to think first and foremost about how factors influence his ability to perform at levels he has become accustomed to.

It’s easy to see, from the other statements he made to Murphy, that the desire to regain his game and help his team to succeed has resulted in him not only continuing to take the field in spite of continued concussion symptoms, but also be less than 100% forthcoming with his manager and others in the organization about those ongoing symptoms.

I haven’t read much of the social media reaction to this article yet, but I’m sure there will be a lot of criticism of Mauer. After all, criticism of Mauer has almost surpassed drilling holes in the ice and pretending to fish while you  drink excessive volumes of bad beer as the favorite pastime of a certain segment of the Minnesota population.

Personally, I’ve made enough poor life decisions in my nearly six decades of time on this planet that I try to refrain from criticizing the decisions others make concerning how they lead their lives.

I’m not concerned right now about whether Mauer’s continued presence in the Twins lineup is a positive or negative for the short, middle or long term success of my favorite MLB team.

I simply do not want to see Mauer’s career end in a frightful manner.

According to the article, Mauer says he has been more asymptomatic during his offseason workouts this year and that he’ll be trying new exercises and even wearing sunglasses this spring to try to keep the vision issues at bay and regain his productivity at the plate.

I hope he’s successful. I hope that this summer, finally, he will be symptom-free and will hit baseballs in a manner that will remind all of us, himself included, of the Joe Mauer we watched before the concussion problems surfaced.

However, if he finds himself unable to see clearly every pitch thrown in his direction at a dangerously high rate of speed, I hope he’ll realize that continuing to expose himself to that kind of risk is not in his best future interests – nor that of his family.

-JC

The Prospects of Top Prospects

I haven’t published a “Twins Top 15 Prospects List” this offseason, yet. There are plenty of other writers who do and many of them probably have better insight into who the top names should be than I do.

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

I didn’t really make a conscious decision not to do a list this year. I just didn’t get around to it, until now.

So I’m going to provide my list today, but I’m not going to focus a lot on the players individually. Instead, I’m just going to share some thoughts on the Twins’ organizational depth, as a whole, and a few players that I’m anxious to follow in 2016, for a variety of reasons.

So, here’s my list, with the levels each player played at last season, as well as their ranking, in parens, from my personal rankings a year ago.

1. Byron Buxton OF – AA, AAA, MLB (2)
2. Jose Berrios SP – AA, AAA (4)
3. Max Kepler OF/1B – High A, AA, MLB (11)
4. Byung Ho Park 1B/DH – Korea (NR – late 2015 FA sign)
5. Tyler Jay SP/RP – High A (NR – 2015 draft)
6. Stephen Gonsalves SP – Low A, High A (12)
7. Nick Gordon SS – Low A (9)
8. Jorge Polanco 2B/SS – AA, AAA, MLB (6)
9. Engelb Vielma – SS High A (NR)
10. Taylor Rogers SP – AAA (NR)
11. Lewis Thorpe – SP Injured (NR)
12. Nick Burdi – RP High A, AA (10)
13. Jake Reed – RP High A, AA (NR)
14. Kohl Stewart – SP High A (8)
15. J.T. Chargois – RP High A. AA (NR)

As always, there are a few players that, in retrospect, I can’t believe there wasn’t room for on this list. For example, the Twins have three catching prospects that I’m certain would easily find themselves on the Top 15 list of a number of other organizations. Stewart Turner, Mitch Garver and Brian Navarreto all have legitimate shots to become MLB starting catchers. How many other teams have three catchers you can say that about that are rising up through the ranks in consecutive levels?

I don’t typically put many relief pitchers on my list, but the crew of outstanding young bullpen arms that has risen to the Major League threshold has forced me to include Burdi, Reed and Chargois. Even Jay and Rogers could end up pen arms, but their rankings are based on projections as starters, especially with regard to Jay. In fact, however, as I’ll explain below, this list doesn’t even include every young relief arm that has a legitimate chance to establish himself as a big leaguer this season.

This is all one way of saying that I think that all of the concern out there about the Twins not acquiring relief pitching on the free agent or trade market is going to turn out to be much ado about nothing. These guys are the real deal.

The case of Adam Brett Walker probably deserves an entire post of its own. He’s another guy that would easily be in the Top 15 of many, if not most, teams. He probably should be in this one, too, and certainly would be if there weren’t so many outstanding relief pitchers that are literally on the big league club’s doorstep. The strikeouts are a huge red flag, but I’m a Walker fan. I believe he will be a Major League ballplayer one day and probably a good one.

Generally, you probably won’t notice a lot of difference between my top 15 and anyone else’s, but there’s one name on the list that I think I’m higher on than most and that’s shortstop Engelb Vielma, who spent his 2015 entirely with the Fort Myers Miracle in the High A Florida State League.

A lot of conversations about the Twins’ shortstop position go something like this: “It’s great that Eduardo Escobar has established himself as a legitimate starting shortstop so he can hold down the position until Nick Gordon is ready.”

Occasionally, someone will point out that Jorge Polanco is ready to hit big league pitching right now and might be ready to claim the shortstop position soon. Others opine that Polanco will never have the arm to be a full time MLB shortstop.

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

Most shortstop discussions will go on for a long time before anyone brings up Vielma (if his name comes up at all). That’s understandable. He wasn’t a first round draft pick like Gordon or a $750,000 international free agent signing like Polanco. At 5′ 11″ and MAYBE 150 pounds (if he weighs in immediately after a good meal), you could be forgiven for mistaking Vielma for his team’s batboy – until you see him virtually inhale any ground ball hit remotely close to him and throw rockets to first base.

If baseball was an offense/defense platoon game, like football is, there’s a good chance Engelb Vielma would already be the Twins’ shortstop. He’s that good in the field. The question has always been, “will he hit?”

Well, guess what? He hit .268 in Cedar Rapids in 2014 and followed that up with a .270 clip in Fort Myers. Both Polanco and Gordon are projected to hit a bit better and both will generate more power, but if you ask me who is most likely to eventually succeed Escobar as the Twins’ starting shortstop, I’ll put my money on Vielma. If Gordon continues to progress, as well, Vielma will make a terrific utility infielder (or a valuable trade chip).

Much has been written about how deep the Twins’ minor league organization remains, despite the graduations of players like Miguel Sano and Eddie Rosario in 2015 and the likely graduations of Buxton, Berrios and, perhaps, others in 2016. Indeed, half (or more) of my Top 15 this year could spend significant time with the Twins this season.

General Manager Terry Ryan made reference to the excitement of finally seeing some of these prospects graduate into being productive Twins during a Q&A session with fans during Twinsfest this past weekend. He was quick to add that he was aware that fans are tired of hearing about prospects.

One couldn’t help but notice the quiet, yet pronounced, nod in agreement from the man sitting to Ryan’s left on the stage – owner Jim Pohlad.

Pohlad has patiently watched his GM trade away fan favorites (and, according the owner, many of his own personal favorite players) and trusted that his patience will be rewarded as the club’s best prospects begin to arrive. This may be the year that his patience is rewarded.

In fact, it may be the first of many rewarding seasons, because the “graduating class” this season won’t necessarily be limited to the names on anyone’s top prospect list.

Alex Meyer’s name has fallen off this list, but he will almost certainly finally make his MLB debut, either in the Twins rotation or (more likely) in the bullpen.

Another bullpen option not listed is lefty Mason Melotakis. When we last saw him, he was throwing his mid-90s fastball past AA hitters in 2014. He had Tommy John surgery in October of that year and the Twins were so impressed with his recovery that they felt the need to add him to their 40-man roster this offseason, rather than risk losing him to another team in the Rule 5 draft. If he’s as good in March as the reports about him were in November, he could compete with the higher ranked relievers to be the first among the group to debut with the Twins.

Finally, there are two players I want to focus some special attention on, because the Twins’ front office certainly will be focusing on them as the new season gets underway.

The careers of pitcher Kohl Stewart and outfielder Travis Harrison could be approaching crossroads.

Stewart was the Twins’ first round pick (5th overall) in 2013 and Harrison was a compensation round pick (50th overall) in 2011. Both were high schoolers, so you wouldn’t say that the fact that they aren’t being mentioned as potential big leaguers in 2016 is necessarily a big red flag, but both players have spent time higher on “top prospect” lists than where you will find them this year.

Stewart has more breathing room than Harrison simply because he was chosen 46 spots higher (and paid about $3.5 million more in bonus money) than Harrison and is two years younger than the outfielder.

Still, in an era where the strikeout is king, Stewart has not missed bats at the rate that scouts (and fans) would like to see. He struck out fewer than five batters per nine innings for the Miracle in 2015. As has often been pointed out, Stewart didn’t focus on baseball until after graduating from high school. Before that, he spent as much time, if not more, honing his quarterbacking skills as he did his pitching mechanics.

Stewart’s 129 1/3 innings of work in 2015 was far and away the most time he has ever spent on a pitcher’s mound in one year. At just 21 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to begin to wow the organization with his stuff and move closer to realizing his enormous potential. But it might be a good idea to begin doing that in 2016 because another year of, “what’s wrong with Stewart?” talk among fans – and scouts – might not be a positive thing for his career.

Similarly, it’s hard to believe that Harrison is still just 23 years old, because it feels like we’ve been discussing him forever.

After signing late in 2011, Harrison debuted with Elizabethton in 2012 and has made progress one step at a time ever since. He played full seasons in Cedar Rapids (2013), Fort Myers (2014) and Chattanooga (2015), always against competition that was at least a year or two older than he was.

So, if he has made steady progress up the organizational ladder and is still relatively young, why should we consider Harrison’s career to be approaching a crossroads? It’s not a matter of him showing signs of failure. Like Stewart, it comes down to the player not yet having met certain expectations.

Harrison launched 15 home runs for Cedar Rapids in 2013 (16, if you count one walk-off “single” that left the park but wasn’t credited as a home run because one of the runners on base abandoned his trip around the bases to join the team’s celebration on the field) and it appeared that the Twins had found themselves a future power hitter. However, his home run totals have dropped to three and five round-trippers in the two seasons since leaving Cedar Rapids.

He’s very strong and has been among his team’s leaders in doubles virtually every season, so it’s quite possible that those doubles will begin finding the extra few feet of distance to clear the fences. If so, Harrison could quickly enter any conversation about the Twins’ “outfield of the future.” But the clock is ticking, because he’ll be a minor league free agent after 2017 and because, let’s face it, there are already a few pretty good young outfielders in the process of arriving at Target Field ahead of him.

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

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

-JC

Twinsfest Weekend: a Photo Journal

I don’t go to Twinsfest every year, but try to get up to the Twin Cities to attend the Minnesota Twins’ winter fan event every couple of years, anyway.

I was there two years ago for the first such event held at Target Field and I wasn’t terribly impressed. Maybe my expectations have adjusted or maybe the Twins have learned how to do it all a little bit better, but for whatever reason, I enjoyed the event more this year than I did two years ago.

I should make clear that I don’t go all three days. I go one day – and I don’t stay all that long. I’m not big into autographs, so after a couple of hours of wandering around and seeing what there is to see, I start to feel anxious to move on to something else.

I always run into a few people I know and it’s great to catch up with friends and I enjoy the public interviews that are conducted with players and front office management. I particularly enjoy seeing some of our former Cedar Rapids Kernels getting their turns to interact with Twins fans.

Then, of course, there’s the TwinsDaily.com “Winter Meltdown” that’s held by the TD guys in conjunction with Twinsfest every year and that’s always a great time. I always enjoy the opportunity to catch up with friends at this event and meet a few new people each year, as well. I appreciate TwinsDaily continuing to invite this old guy to attend.

One of the things the Twins did right was having all the players wear their new red “Friday night” alternate jerseys. When they were first announced, I was lukewarm on them, but after seeing the players wearing them around all day, they’ve really grown on me. Yes, I even like the Kasota Gold in the trim.

I’m not going to write a whole lot about my experience this weekend, instead I decided to just post a whole bunch of pictures (some good, some not so good) to give you a sense of how I spent my weekend. Enjoy. – JC

(All photos by SD Buhr)

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

Berrios Headlines Kernels’ Hot Stove Banquet

Jose Berrios has shot up the national “top prospect” rankings based on his performance the past couple of years in the Minnesota Twins organization and on Wednesday night, Berrios joined his former manager with the Cedar Rapids Kernels, Jake Mauer, and Twins farm director Brad Steil to participate in a “roundtable” discussion at the Kernels’ annual Hot Stove Banquet.

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

Before the banquet got underway, all three men were available for media interviews.

It was the first time Berrios had been back to Cedar Rapids since he was part of a 2013 Kernels squad that was loaded with potential big leaguers, including Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, Tyler Duffey, Adam Brett Walker and many others.

Berrios said he was enjoying the homecoming.

“Coming here today in the afternoon, I saw things and thought, ‘I remember that.’ It’s different because now, you’ve got a lot of snow, but I remember some things. My host family, Abby (Pumroy) is coming tonight and I’m excited about that. This is where I played my first full season and I enjoyed it. My family came for my birthday in May. I enjoyed all of my year in 2013 in Cedar Rapids.”

Pumroy, his host mother during his stay with the Kernels (as she is every summer for many of the Latin-American players), not only came to see Berrios at the banquet, but joined him on the stage during the roundtable to serve as interpreter, if necessary.

That service wasn’t needed often. Berrios has made a lot of improvements since his time with the Kernels and that would include his command of English.

In truth, his season with the Kernels was Berrios’ worst as a minor leaguer. He didn’t turn 19 until the second month of the season and notched a 7-7 record and 3.99 ERA and gave up, on average, just over one hit per inning. He struck out “just” 8.7 batters per nine innings. That’s certainly not bad, but 2013 is the only season of his young career in which he failed to top the 9 Ks per inning mark.

Maturity on the mound was an issue for Berrios at times that season. There were times when an inning would start out with an error or two or maybe a couple of hits and the young right-hander would appear to lose his composure a bit, leading to crooked numbers going on the scoreboard that inning for the opponent.

That’s not unusual, of course, especially in the lower levels of the minor leagues, as Mauer pointed out while talking about the progress that Berrios has made since their time together with the Kernels.

“He was pretty young, obviously, when he was here,” Mauer recalled. “He came up late (in April). One thing he would do is he would always compete. Really it was probably the first time he had been hit in his life. He had struck everybody out.

“Kohl Stewart went through some of that, when he was here, too. Some of those guys, that’s what they learn to do here – they start to learn how to pitch, learn how to overcome adversity. Sometimes you get yourself out of innings that maybe your defense created for you. Do I just roll over or do I compete and get through it? I think both of those guys are starting to figure that out pretty good.”

Jose Berrios
Jose Berrios

Berrios, who will still be just 21 years old when the 2016 season opens, agreed that he has developed a more mature approach to his craft.

“I’ve matured every year,” he said. “You have to be under control in every situation. That’s what I work on every year and that’s what I’ve learned.

This is the second year that Berrios has been invited by the Twins to open Spring Training with the big club in Fort Myers. A year ago, he wasn’t shy about telling people his goal was to open the season in the Twins’ rotation.

That didn’t happen, of course, and Berrios ended up throwing all 166 1/3 of his innings in the minors, split between AA Chattanooga and AAA Rochester.

His goals going into 2016 have not been tempered from his experience last year, however. If anything, he has taken them up a notch.

“Yeah, I’m keeping the same goals,” he confirmed. “Trying to make the 25 man roster in April with the Minnesota Twins. Then keep going, work to be selected for the All-Star Game in July and then at the end of the season, maybe the Rookie of the Year.

“That’s my goal, that’s what I’m preparing myself for, to make that goal. Be ready for spring training this year. I’m excited about that.”

There may still be snow on the ground, but Berrios said he’s ready to get the new season underway.

“Yeah, there’s too much offseason, I want to play a game.”

Steil, voicing the views of the Twins front office, wasn’t prepared to predict a Rookie of the Year award for his young prospect, but he clearly is looking for good things from Berrios in 2016.

“We’re looking for him to keep improving, which he’s done a nice job at every level he’s been through in our system, Steil said. “Last year, when he went from AA to AAA, he was a little shaky to start with at AAA, which is to be expected.

“I think once you saw him get settled in and get comfortable, he made some adjustments and really pitched well the last month of the season. So he’s going to give some guys at spring training a run for their money when it comes to competing for a roster spot there.”

While it’s too early to make any firm predictions about the Kernels’ 2016 roster, Steil did talk about what he’s expecting at this early point in time.

“I think, looking at it right now, a rough idea of what kind of team we’re going to start with, I think it will be another strong pitching staff, similar to last year,” he offered. “I think as the season goes on, some of the younger hitters will get better and I think we’ve got a chance to have a better lineup than we did last year, just because of the talent that some of these guys have that are coming here.

“Jermaine Palacios, a shortstop that was in the GCL and Elizabethton last year, is one of those guys. I expect LaMonte Wade will be back here to start the season. Chris Paul is another guy that will probably be back to start the season. So I think we’re going to have a few guys that can swing the bat. We should have a little bit more of a threat in the middle of the lineup than they maybe did last year.”

Steil also talked about a couple of pitchers that Kernels fans saw a little of two years ago, Lewis Thorpe and Fernando Romero.

Regarding Thorpe, Steil said the 20-year-old Australian lefty is, “doing very well.”

“He’s probably not going to be ready to go to start the season, so he’ll probably start in extended and get stretched out and build up his arm strength.

“Fernando Romero is in a similar situation,” Steil added. “A guy that pitched here briefly two years ago. He’s got a really good arm. He’ll touch 97, 98 (mph). He’s doing really well. He’s a little ahead of Thorpe, so he may be ready to go at the beginning of the year.”

The Twins assigned each of the managers in their system to the same teams they led in 2015, but the departure of a couple of coaches at the AAA level meant wholesale coaching changes among most of the minor league staffs. As a result, Henry Bonilla, the Kernels pitching coach last season, is moving up to handle the Miracle’s pitching staff and Tommy Watkins, who has coached Kernels hitters for three seasons, will be in Chattanooga with the Lookouts.

Mauer will be welcoming J.P Martinez and Brian Dinkelman to his staff in Cedar Rapids this season as pitching and hitting coaches, respectively.

While Mauer had known Bonilla and Watkins going back to the days that they were teammates in the Twins organization, he said he doesn’t have a similar background with Martinez and Dinkelman. As Mauer was moving through the organization as a player, Martinez and Dinkelman were always a rung or two below him on the ladder. By the time they were reaching the upper levels as players, Mauer had begun his coaching career back in rookie ball.

“I missed being a teammate with them, but I remember them in Spring Training and being around them last year a little bit. They’re both competitors and they both have a lot of information. They’re both really good personalities as far as they’re hard workers and they’re excited.

“This is more ‘real baseball’ than what extended and Gulf Coast League are. They’ve heard a lot of the positive things that are going on up here and both played in this league. I spoke to both of them right around Christmas time. They’re both heading down to Florida early to get down there and get around some of our boys a little sooner.”

Mauer indicated that one benefit of the coaching changes is that Martinez and Dinkelman have already worked some with many of the players likely to pull on a Kernels jersey this summer.

“To be honest, I don’t know many of the guys,” Mauer admitted. “I’ll probably rely on JP and Brian quite a bit. They had them in instructional league and some of them in extended, so they have a feel for them. We’ll shake it out in spring training and figure out who can do what and where they all fit.”

Mauer has set the expectations bar high for next season after leading Cedar Rapids to within one game of a Midwest League championship. On Wednesday, his boss expressed how impressed he has been with the Kernels’ skipper.

“He and Tommy and the pitching coaches here have done a great job in our three years here, advancing a level deeper into the playoffs the last two years,” Steil said. “Especially last year, they did a great job as a coaching staff.

“I don’t think that team was as talented as the first two years we were here. But they did a really good job and those players battled and they never gave up. They played good, sound baseball. They didn’t beat themselves and that was a credit to Jake and Tommy and Henry.”

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

-JC

Sunday Morning Comic Relief

Yeah, this could very well be why I’m primarily a baseball fan…

Minnesota Vikings fans express their displeasure with a proposed domed stadium during a snowy NFL football game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Met Stadium in Bloomington, Minn. on Dec. 3, 1978. (Pioneer Press: Mark Morson)
Minnesota Vikings fans express their displeasure with a proposed domed stadium during a snowy NFL football game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Met Stadium in Bloomington, Minn. on Dec. 3, 1978. (Pioneer Press: Mark Morson)

yeah, it’s currently -14 degrees as I sit in my cozy warm house making cinnamon rolls.. -25 degree windchill. Of course, it’s supposed to warm up.. to +2, maybe, with -15 degree windchill.

Dear LORD why wouldn’t you just watch that on TV?!? but you know there will be devoted fans out there dressed warmly or stupidly, depending on their level of consumption, and hoping that the Vikings can do something against the Seahawks.. of course, this is NOT the Bud Grant Vikings of old.. I don’t think they have the same home field advantage in this cold because our boys don’t really play in this that often either. Entertainingly, they are using the U’s HOCKEY ARENA as a “warming house” for fans for today’s game.. seriously.. the place they keep ICE COLD. *shakes head*

But yes, I’ll be watching just like the rest of Minnesota because when you’re a Minnesota sports fan, you’re a glutton for punishment.. how else could I still be a Twins fan?! 😉 – BS

PS – there’s a fun write-up in the Pioneer Press about cold games – this one is likely to be in the top 10 coldest we have played here.. go figure.

PPS – Vikings Journal just posted this on facebook.. LOL

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Via KARE 11: It is so cold right now at TCF Bank Stadium that the Gjallarhorn has shattered.

PPPS – This is how Jim Crikket is preparing for today’s Vikings game – fireplace, recliner, Vikings blanket.  SKOL!

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Another Year of Hall of Fame Silliness

Later today, we will find out who voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America will have determined is worthy of enshrinement in baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. More specifically, we will find out who, in addition to Ken Griffey, Jr., will be so blessed by the BBWAA, because Griffey, in his first year of eligibility, is a lock.

I’ve written, in the past, about my feelings toward the BBWAA, as the great guardians of morality in baseball (I think they’re just about the last group we should want judging others’ moral worthiness) and the whole HoF voting process, in general. I won’t go off on that subject again, but you can get a sense of those feelings by clicking here to read an article I posted a couple of years ago.

Baseball-Hall-Of-FameThe Hall made some changes this year in the voting process, most notably by culling the electorate by about 20% by eliminating any writer that has not actively covered baseball in the past ten years. That’s a good change, in my view. However,  still believe that, as long as there’s some sort of “morality clause” involved with the voting, the writers should not be determining who gets into the Hall and who doesn’t.

The BBWAA also attempted to get the Hall to allow them to vote for 12 players, rather than ten. I understand that, since the current ballot has a lot of potentially worthy players on it. But I’m OK with the Hall rejecting that request, because this stacked ballot results directly from so many writers insisting on serving as the morality police when it comes to voting against anyone known to use (or in some cases just being suspected of using) Performance Enhancing Drugs.

If the writers had simply voted for Bonds, Roger Clemens and others when they should have, those players would no longer be clogging the ballot and nobody would be having a problem limiting their ballots to ten players now.

Another way that this problem could have been addressed would have been for the Hall to provide some guidance to the voters concerning how to apply the infamous character clause that allows writers to anoint themselves to be the Hall’s guardians of morality. But the Hall has continued to refuse to do so. Only players who have been banned from the game (e.g. Pete Rose, Joe Jackson, etc.) are deemed ineligible to be enshrined by the voters. Since baseball has never taken the step of banning PED users, we are left with BBWAA voters as determinants of moral worthiness.

What the Hall has done, however, is significantly reduce the number of years a player will be included on the ballot. Previously, as Bert Blyleven can attest, players would remain on the ballot for 15 years, as long as they continue to be listed on at least the minimum percentage of returned ballots. That term of eligibility is now limited to ten years on the ballot (though some players have been “grandfathered” to allow them to remain for 15 years).

The bottom line is that these changes will likely have the following effects:

  • Fewer borderline players will be elected. Those, like Blyleven, who would garner late support in their 12th, 13th and 14th years of eligibility will not get that opportunity (though it’s likely that fans of some of these players will simply attempt to rally support for their favorites beginning in year six or seven, instead of waiting another five years).
  • Some worthy players will not be enshrined. The ballots will continue to be clogged by known/suspected PED users, resulting in some writers having to choose between voting for great players who used PEDs or very good players who don’t have that stigma attached to them. This issue won’t be going away soon. Not only will Bonds, Clemens and others remain on the ballot for several more years, but even when they drop off, they will be replaced by Alex Rodriguez, David Ortiz and others who will (or should, if the writers are consistent in their moral judgements) be similarly excluded from consideration.
  • It is possible that a truly great player with no suspicion of PED use could eventually finally be named on 100% of returned ballots. Griffey is expected to set a new record for support when results are announced tonight, but I doubt that even he will get 100%. However, many of the “nobody should get elected in their first year” club of voters were among the 20% who lost their vote and, presumably, even more of them will drop from the voter rolls as they reach ten years since actively covering the game, so the chances of someone eventually appearing on every ballot may continue to increase over time.

How would I vote? I think I could make a case for 13 players: Bagwell, Bonds, Clemens, Griffey, Hoffman, Martinez, Mussina, Piazza, Raines, Schilling, Smith, Sosa and Trammell.

Cutting to ten wouldn’t be difficult for me. First, I would eliminate the relief pitchers. I would never say that bullpen arms should not be considered for enshrinement, but they would have to meet a higher level of excellence to get my vote and, if it comes down to having to make tough choices, relievers will probably be cut. Hoffman and Smith had terrific careers, but they don’t come close to being guys I would feel guilty about not voting for this year.

Of the remaining 11, Schilling would be my 11th guy and be dropped from my ballot this year to make room for the other ten.

Tonight, I suspect we will find out that Griffey, Bagwell and Piazza have been elected. Raines, unfortunately, will probably fall short again.

While I celebrate the results, every year I pay less and less attention to this process because of all the complaining that voting writers do. They complain about PED users. They complain about lack of guidance from the Hall. They complain about being limited to ten players on their ballots. They even complain about the pressure to make their ballots public influencing their votes.

That last point drives me nuts. This isn’t you and me voting for President. This is a group of elites who are, essentially, given the honor of voting on behalf of all baseball fans. If you want a parallel, imagine if our Congressional representatives could cast secret ballots on bills before Congress. There would be absolutely NO accountability – just as there is no accountability in the HoF voting process.

True, many voters do make their ballots public. Or at least they show us something that looks like their completed ballot. That’s admirable and I appreciate them doing so. But, even with those voters, do we really KNOW that they voted the way they claim they did? I don’t know what benefit there would be to lying about how you vote and it’s not my intent to cast aspersions on the integrity of any particular writer, but until we have formal public disclosure of all votes, we won’t know for sure how anyone voted. There is absolutely no legitimate justification for a secret ballot for the Hall of Fame.

Tonight, I will silently congratulate Griffey and any others who are elected into the Hall. It’s a crowning achievement for careers of players who, without exception, dedicated themselves to being great and brought a great deal of enjoyment to us, as baseball fans, during their careers.

I just wish the voting process wasn’t so silly.

-JC

Seeing Into the Future (and not liking it much)

Make a list of the top three things you think are wrong with professional baseball today. In fact, make it five things, if you wish.

A year from now, the landscape regarding those issues is likely to be quite different than it is today. Things may be better, from your point of view, or they may be worse.

I take that back. Unless you’re a Major League ballplayer, they’re almost certainly going to be worse.

Major League Baseball and the players’ union (MLBPA) are about to begin hammering out a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) and the result is likely to have a direct or indirect effect on just about every aspect of professional baseball that any of us care about in the least.

Yes, this is going to be that big.

mlb and union600The thing is, we already know which side is going to win. It will be the players. We just don’t know the final score, yet.

There will also be more than one loser. It won’t be just the owners, though they will certainly be losers, some of them much more than others (that would be you, Minnesota Twins).

Owners/operators of some minor league teams are also possible losers (some of them potentially big losers).

Minor league players will be losers (as they always are in these CBAs).

Amateur ballplayers, in the United States and elsewhere, will be losers.

On the other hand, I’ve looked into my crystal ball and the future looks very, very bright – if you’re Mike Trout. In fact, the future also looks pretty good if you’re swimming anywhere in the top half of the MLB player talent pool.

For the rest of us, though, it could be a very bumpy ride.

In the early 2000s, estimates placed the percentage of MLB revenues paid out in Major League salaries at about 55%. Current estimates have been reported at something close to 43%. The players are clearly going to want to see those numbers project closer to 50% in the new CBA and they have enough leverage this time to get what they want.

You always want to be cautious about speaking ill of the dead, but the former head of the players union, Michael Weiner, who passed away in 2013, arguably gave away the farm to Bud Selig and the owners in his first, and only, CBA negotiation back in 2011.

In his defense, he wasn’t exactly dealt a strong hand going into those negotiations. Players’ reputations were continuing to be tarnished by the image among fans that they had all built their careers on Performance Enhancing Drugs, making it certain that any work stoppage resulting from a failed CBA negotiation would be blamed on the players. Regardless of the reasons, though, the final result was a contract in which the owners got most everything they wanted.

Current MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark, the first former player to lead the union, should carry a much stronger bargaining position into this round of negotiations.

As a group, baseball’s owners are making money by the boatload, thanks to incredible increases in local television revenues in many markets. That’s a double-edged sword, however, when it comes to negotiating a new CBA.

It makes it impossible for baseball to contend that they can’t afford to give a bigger share of the financial pie to the players, yet those revenues are anything but evenly distributed. As a result, increasing salaries across the board would adversely affect the competitiveness of teams who have not been able to cash in on the local TV bonanza (see: Twins, Minnesota).

On top of that, the owners with those huge TV deals stand to lose a lot of money in the event of a strike or lockout that results in games not being played, as do owners who rely on revenue sharing from those teams. Wide public awareness of the enormous revenues also makes it likely that ownership will be viewed by fans as being primarily at fault for any such work stoppage, should it occur.

The result is a players’ union with a very strong negotiating position and plenty of motivation to take advantage of it.

Here’s how the union could attempt to go about increasing the share of revenues that go to players’ salaries:

Significantly increase the minimum salary for Major League players

The minimum player’s salary was $507,500 in 2015. That may not immediately increase to $1 million in 2017, but it won’t be surprising if it’s closer to that number than where it currently sits.

This is important to the union because significantly increasing the minimum would potentially result in fewer players signing early team-friendly extensions that buy out arbitration years and, in some cases, free agency years. These extensions are viewed by the union as a drag on average player salaries.

Elimination of the Qualifying Offer/draft pick compensation system for teams that stand to lose free agents

Despite changes that have been made to lessen the market-dampening effect for many free agents, the players still hate this system. It’s seen as being particularly hard on the union’s “upper-middle class” of players – those who aren’t in the elite category, but for whom having to settle for merely $15 million or so on a one year contract is “unfair.”

Significantly reducing the number of years a player is “under team control”

This refers to the total number of years that a club can restrict a player’s ability to shop his services to the highest bidder on the free agent market. It consists of a three-year (usually) period of essential “serfdom,” during which the player has no alternative but to accept whatever salary (subject to the Major League minimum) the team offers and another three-year period of years during which the team must decide whether to offer the player binding arbitration or grant him unconditional release.

The result is a total of six years (in most cases) of team control before a player can become a free agent, meaning that currently a player who makes his MLB debut on or after turning 24 years old will be at least 30 by the time he’s eligible to file for free agency if his team exercises every year of control they have over the player.

In combination with the increased minimum salary, reducing the number of years of team control could make it far more likely that players would forego the additional security of an early team-friendly contract extension, in favor of playing out their arbitration years to reach free agency as soon as possible. It could also make it much more likely that young superstars hit free agency right at their peak, in terms of productivity, rather than somewhere at the beginning of the downside of that curve.

More time off for players

The MLB schedule is a gauntlet. Between the day games after night games and, perhaps worse, the night games followed by cross-country overnight travel to begin another series the next day, the 162-game schedule is more than merely grueling and players want more than the three or so days off each month they currently get. The problem is that, with the extra postseason games resulting from the Wild Card era, the season already is starting and finishing during time periods where no sane person should be trying to play meaningful baseball in many northern big league cities.

One idea often floated to address this problem is to cut the schedule back to the 154 game levels that existed before the leagues expanded from eight to ten teams in the early 1960s. This would result in each team losing four home dates, however, and that would cut into revenues, not only with regard to attendance, but also in programming for those local TV partners that are shelling out big bucks to show the games.

Another possibility would be to expand active rosters. If you have 27 players, for example, instead of 25, it would be easier to give everyone an extra day off occasionally. It probably sounds better in theory than it would work in practice, however. Still, it would increase union membership by 8%, so don’t be shocked if the union pushes the idea pretty hard. In a worst case scenario, it gives them something they can “give up” when it comes time to finding a way to allow the owners to save some face.

Each of these would have the net effect of increasing the share of MLB revenues that go into the pockets of the players, collectively. Since the owners really cannot afford a work stoppage, if the MLBPA is willing to play hardball, we shouldn’t bet money against the players’ chances of getting some version of these changes. All of them.

What the owners will get

Of course, the owners won’t just cave on those issues while getting nothing in return – and that’s where things can turn bad for the rest of us.

The owners might get more drug testing. After all, the union has gone down this path already, so what’s the big deal about going a bit further? On the other hand, this “give” doesn’t put even a dime in the pockets of the owners, so they aren’t likely to push too hard for it.

The owners want an international draft, to further dampen costs of acquiring new talent. Since giving in on this issue costs the union membership absolutely nothing, they may posture about how unfair it is, but they will capitulate to the owners.

If the owners want further restrictions on bonuses paid to players subject to the draft, both foreign and domestic, the union can give on that issue, too. Again, it doesn’t cost their membership anything, so why not?

Of course, at a time when fewer parents are allowing their sons to play football, giving MLB an ideal opportunity to come up with ways to attract kids back to baseball, this is exactly the time when MLB should be adopting a system that encourages the best athletes in this country and around the world to choose baseball as a potential career over other sports, not discourage it.

But that might cost money and owners, by the time this subject gets addressed at the negotiating table, are probably going to be ticked off about the extra money they’re having to shell out to players already in the big leagues, so we shouldn’t expect logic to win the day.

Indirect side effects on the rest of us

Unfortunately, none of the ownership “wins” are going to even come close to making up for the money the owners are going to lose to their players in this deal, so they’re going to end up looking elsewhere to recoup some of those bucks.

This is where minor league players, teams and fans should start feeling nervous.

Minor league players, you can forget about seeing your pay go up to anything close to a living wage. Consider yourselves lucky if they don’t lower your base pay. After all, neither the union nor the owners are looking out for your interests in this negotiation.

You might find yourself with less competition for that low paying minor league roster spot you’ve got, though.

The number of minor league teams with MLB affiliations hasn’t changed significantly in decades. The current working agreement between MLB and MiLB assures owners of current affiliated minor league teams of having a MLB affiliation every year, but that agreement expires after 2020. Renegotiation of that agreement is just one of many things that is waiting for the completion of the new CBA.

If owners decide they have been terribly abused under the new CBA, it shouldn’t be too surprising to see them propose elimination of some affiliated minor leagues.

That would mean fewer communities with affiliated minor league teams, fewer jobs for minor league staff, fewer spots for minor league players and fewer games for minor league fans to attend.

Is this a Doomsday scenario that can’t possibly happen? Maybe. But neither MLB nor the players’ union has ever been shy about screwing over minor leaguers in CBA negotiations. After all, minor league teams and players are not represented in those negotiating sessions, making it easy for both sides to sacrifice minor league interests if it means getting something of even moderate value in return. It’s not unlikely that minor league baseball could look a little bit different in 2021 than it does today if Major League owners determine it’s in their best financial interests to impose significant changes.

A year from now, we’ll likely know a lot more about the changes coming for professional baseball going forward. Unless you happen to be a big league ballplayer today, you have a right to feel very uneasy about those changes.

-JC

Everything Old is New Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

I offered those recommendations in October – of 2014.

Byron Buxton
Byron Buxton (Photo: SD Buhr)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-JC