Flirting With an Old Addiction

I did something recently that I hadn’t done in probably 15 years.

It used to be a habit. In fact, in retrospect, it may have actually become my very first true habit – something I came to feel I needed. Whether it was a good habit or a bad habit is probably open to debate, depending on one’s perspective.

carlinquote (2)The habit had its roots in my youth. My dad was a baseball coach, so I spent most of my spring and summer playing or watching baseball. I spent a lot of time around the high school players that my dad coached and wanted to do pretty much anything that would make me feel connected to real ballplayers.

I turned five years old during the Minnesota Twins’ first season of existence in 1961 and it was at least indirectly because of the way my friends and I followed that team in the early to mid-60s that we eventually began to spend an increasing percentage of our weekly allowances to feed our mutual habit (remember when kids got allowances that they had to learn to live within each week?).

My parents seemed to understand. They were baseball fans, after all, and didn’t want to discourage me from being one, too. Of course, had they known how much money I would eventually spend (arguably, “throw away” might be a more appropriate term) on the habit, they might have more closely supervised or restricted my activities. Then again, people did a lot of things in the 60s that, it turns out, weren’t exactly good ideas.

By the late 1980s, I was more heavily involved with the habit and I could see that my own young son was also taking it up. I was even more of an enabler than my own father had been with me. I didn’t even make my son spend his own money to get started on the habit, I covered a significant portion of the financial commitment necessary to get him hooked.

By the mid 1990s, my son and I were both putting money into buying baseball cards.

He graduated from high school in 2001 and I’m not sure how much he has continued to spend on the habit, but I’m certain he hasn’t kept up with the levels we did when he was younger.

Personally, I have picked up a pack once in a great while, but I hadn’t bought a full multi-pack hobby box of cards for a very long time – until now.

I don’t know what made me backslide. I could probably blame it on the idleness that comes with having retired from my day-job, leading me to spend too many of my cold (and not-so-cold) winter days in bored hibernation. But the honest truth is, I just wanted to do it.

I wanted to buy a box of cards and spend some time opening every pack, looking to see what superstars might emerge as I tore open the packs and thumbed my way through the individual cards – just the way I did when I was eight years old and hoping to find a Harmon Killebrew or Tony Oliva, while I combed past the checklists and the inevitable Bill Monbouquette card that seemed to be present in every pack.

And it felt good. Very good. Maybe dangerously good, for a guy who’s facing a future of living on a relatively fixed (and potentially decreasing) retirement income.

Nice card. Now if it had just been autographed by both of these guys...
Nice card. Now if it had just been autographed by both of these guys…

I’m not sure what caused me to backslide. I think perhaps a couple pictures of new cards found their way into my Twitter timeline, triggering a previously buried subliminal command that forced me to spend time entering various baseball card-related phrases into my search engine of choice that day. At least I’ll blame it on Twitter. I blame a lot of things on Twitter, after all.

In the end, I decided to order a box of 2012 Panini Extra Edition Elite cards. Honestly, until the day I ordered them, I hadn’t heard of Panini baseball cards. It turns out, though, that they issue sets of prospect cards each year and the fact that they supposedly included six autographed cards in each hobby box (20 packs with 5 cards per pack) was a selling point.

I figured the 2012 set might include some of the first three classes of Twins-affiliated Cedar Rapids Kernels that I’ve gotten to know during the past three seasons.

The box arrived Thursday morning. It was smaller than I envisioned it being, but I got past that. Alas, many things from the days of our youth seemed bigger than they really were, in retrospect.

I opened the box and gave some thought about how I wanted to proceed with opening the packs. I considered opening just three or four packs a day, spreading out the fun of opening them over the course of at least a few days.

Yeah, that didn’t happen. I opened the first 10 packs in just minutes, coming across four autographs and a handful of other special “numbered series” cards in the process. I paused at that point to get a drink and look up the names of a couple of the unfamiliar guys I now had autographs of.

I’m not too proud to admit there were a couple of well-regarded prospects in 2012 that I had no recollection of ever hearing about (but I’m also not going to open myself up to public humiliation by admitting exactly who they were).

After acquainting myself with those players, I ripped into the remaining 10 packs.

About the time this card was being released, Kyle Tucker was turning 15 years old. He later became the Astros' 2015 first round draft choice (5th overall).
About the time this card was being released, Kyle Tucker was turning 15 years old. Three years later he became the Astros’ 2015 first round draft choice (5th overall).

I ended up with seven autograph cards (one more than the promised six – bonus!) and my hopes concerning picking up a few former Kernels/Future Twins were also realized. Among them were Luke Bard, Adam (sans Brett) Walker, Mason Melotakis and J.O. (a.k.a. Jose) Berrios.

Twins pitching prospect J.T. Chargois showed up in a pack, as well, though he never had the honor of wearing a Kernels jersey.

None of the autograph cards were Twins prospects, but I did get a “Building Blocks” card featuring the Astros’ Carlos Correa and Twins uber-prospect Byron Buxton.

Maybe best of all, there wasn’t a Bill Monbouquette in the entire box. In fact, I only had a total of three duplicate cards. (if you’re a particular fan of Joe DeCarlo, Brett Mooneyham or Matt Price, let me know and I’ll hook you up with a card.)

As I write this, probably three hours or so after opening the last pack of the box, I’m left to wonder what this all means.

I want to convince myself that this was a one-time thing – that buying one box of cards doesn’t mean I’m destined to relapse into the full depths of another epoch of card-collecting. I’m just not sure that even I would believe that.

If you should hear that I’ve decided to take my 401(k) money in a single lump sum, please pray for me.


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.