Twins 2013 Class A Affiliation Gets Muddied

These days, it’s not often that I go more than a couple of days without getting asked whether I think the Twins will be the Major League affiliate of my home town Cedar Rapids Kernels in 2013. When I’m not answering that question, I’m the one asking it of pretty much anyone I can think of who might have some insight.

At the beginning of August, I was telling people I thought it was about a 50-50 proposition. The Twins and Cedar Rapids make a lot of sense for a number of reasons on both sides. Then again, The Kernels have been affiliated with the Angels for 20 years and that’s a long relationship to walk away from. The Angels have been reported as having indicated a desire to keep the relationship going.

Between early August and a week ago, my hopes for a watching Twins prospects playing for my home town team kept going upward. In fact, just a week or so ago, I was 90% certain that the Twins would be sending their prospects through Cedar Rapids for the next several years.

I kept hearing that it was all but a lock. But I was remaining just cautiously optimistic because you just never know about these things. Weird stuff happens.

Sure enough, in the past week, weird stuff has happened. Stuff that is not good news for a potential Twins/Kernels relationship.

First, you need to understand a little bit about the baseball loyalties in the greater Cedar Rapids area. We sit less than a 5 hour drive from six MLB ballparks. The Twins, Brewers, Cubs, White Sox, Cardinals and Royals are all about the same distance from CR, but the local loyalties are not at all equal.

First, among the group, are the Cubs and it’s really not all that close. Behind the Cubs, come the Cardinals, White Sox and Twins. Which order they fall in would be open to debate, but there’s a pretty strong base of fans for each organization in this area. Next, would easily be the Brewers and an argument could be made that they should be considered near-equals with the three teams above them. Finally, far at the bottom, would be the Royals. To find Royals caps and jerseys around town, you really have to be looking for them.

The Kernels clearly seem to have decided to look in to the possibility of aligning with one of the six MLB teams that are nearby geographically and, if so, have likely already informed the Angels of such. That would be the honorable thing to do, allowing a partner you’ve had a good relationship with to begin thinking about what their options might be on September 16, when teams can start negotiating with potential new affiliates.

A month ago, in looking at the six geographic fits for a new CR affiliate, you would immediately eliminate the White Sox, whose current affiliation with Kannapolis in the South Atlantic League is not up for renewal until 2014 and there’s no indication they won’t remain there in the future. Likewise, the Brewers are signed with with the Wisconsin (Appleton) Timber Rattlers through 2016. The Cardinals and Quad Cities were believed to be happy with one another and an extension was expected. Similarly, Kane County (Geneva IL) was believed to have a solid relationship with the Royals. There were some who weren’t sure the Cubs and Peoria were all that solid, but most people seemed to think they would end up renewing for two more years anyway.

That left the Twins, among the six closest MLB teams, for Cedar Rapids to partner with. It’s a natural fit, beyond just geography. The Kernels are very big on community involvement by their players, with programs in place with local schools, etc. The Twins are also well known for emphasizing community work among their players. It seemed like a match that could last a very long time, which is what the Kernels certainly should be looking for.

Then last week, it all blew up.

On Wednesday, August 22, Chicago Sun-Times reporter Gordon Wittenmyer reported that the Cubs were, “in the process of working out a player development agreement with the Kane County Cougars.”

That little ditty certainly must have set off alarm bells in a number of Midwest League offices and MLB team offices, not to mention the office of the Commissioner of Baseball.

First of all, under MLB Rule 56, teams aren’t allowed to even hint at a new affiliation with any team except the one they are currently working with until September 16. No negotiating, no public comments, nothing. If, indeed the Cubs and Cougars have been “negotiating,” that could cost the Cubs $500,000 and the Cougars $100,000 in fines. In any event, that article apparently caught the Cubs’ current affiliate, the Peoria Chiefs, by surprise, as well as Kane County’s current affiliate, the Royals. Both of whom supposedly were expecting to renew their agreements with their current partners.

(Here, I must add, however, that if you’ve had all year to renew an agreement that you want to renew, but your business partner hasn’t done so… I think you probably shouldn’t be too surprised to find out he’s exploring other options.)

Here in Cedar Rapids, where a significant number of the BOD are rumored to be Cubs fans, the news signaled that, whether or not they end up in Kane County, the Cubs may very well be in play. If so, you’d think a large faction of the Board may be likely to want to explore a Cubs/Kernels affiliation.

Personally, I don’t think the Cubs would consider moving their MWL affiliate further away from Chicago. But even if we assume the Cubs do eventually move to the Chicago suburbs of Kane County, that would leave the Royals as another potential geographic fit for the Kernels, in addition to the Twins.

Still, the Board would be foolish to sign on with the Royals over the Twins, given the significantly larger local Twins fan base, right? Yes, except…

Did you happen to catch the news that St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman dropped during a radio appearance a few days ago? He indicated that he expected news of approval of a new minor league stadium in St. Paul within the next two weeks. But he didn’t stop there. In addition to being the home of the independent (no MLB affiliations) Northwoods League’s CORRECTION: American Association’s St. Paul Saints, Coleman announced the stadium, which could be ready in 2 years, would meet MLB standards for Class A affiliates and he believed it could be used for both the Saints AND a potential Class A affiliate of the Minnesota Twins.

St. Paul would fall a ways outside the existing MWL footprint and since existing MWL teams are guaranteed affiliations for as long as they maintain appropriate facilities and can stay financially viable, there are any number of reasons why a St. Paul MWL team might never happen. But it’s not impossible, so you’d better believe Mayor Coleman’s comments must have gotten the attention of people involved with the Kernels.

As demonstrated by their 20 year history with the Angels, Cedar Rapids is not likely to be interested in being any kind of two, or even four, year “stopgap” for the Twins before seeing them bolt for St. Paul. They should want another long-term relationship with an affiliate and, if so, you can be certain the Twins will be asked about their views on a potential move to St. Paul during their presentation in Cedar Rapids.

So how is this shaping up?

I still see the Cubs as a longshot in Cedar Rapids. They seem intent on moving closer to Chicago, not further away. Might they make a presentation to CR to deflect attention from their premature negotiations with Kane County? Sure. But if you’re a CR Board member I think you have to ask yourself if it’s a good fit. First, can you trust the Cubs not to go behind your back in a couple of years like they did with Peoria? Second, there are rumors that the Cubs require the local affiliate to pay their prospects for “community appearances.” That won’t fly in Cedar Rapids. Still… there may be people who would (foolishly, in my opinion) take the Cubs on any terms, even for just a couple of years.

I see the Twins as back to being a 50-50 proposition and maybe not that high. They are by far the best fit for Cedar Rapids, but if the Twins really are thinking that they would eventually like to place their MWL affiliate in St. Paul (and that may not be a bad decision on their part), I believe they are the kind of organization that would at least be honest with the Kernels in their presentation and admit that’s a reasonable possibility. If that is the case, I think that could chill interest on the part of the Kernels.

If the Cubs do move to Kane County, as it seems they’re intent on doing, and the Twins are not looking for a long-term partner, the Royals become the best bet for Cedar Rapids.

But if the Twins don’t land in Cedar Rapids, then where WOULD they set up shop in 2013?

If they think they’ve figured out a way to clear all the hurdles to get their team to St. Paul in two years, their best decision might be to stay in Beloit for a two-year extension. Otherwise, it sounds like Peoria might be the Twins only option, assuming they want to stay in the MWL’s Western Division. (I should note the Quad Cities and the Cardinals have not yet renewed, so QC could be in the mix, but the Twins relationship there did not end well eight years ago and new QC ownership may not be enough to interest the Twins in going back down that path.)

For months, any time officials of any minor league or Major League team have been asked about possible new affiliates, they’ve refused to go on the record with any predictions (except the Cubs and/or Cougars, apparently). After all the speculation, it looks like we’re all just going to have to wait another month to see where all the chips fall.

However, I’m REALLY bad at waiting, so you shouldn’t be surprised if this is not the last time I post on this topic.

– JC

Twins Head to the Windy City

I spent the past weekend visiting friends in Chicago.  The drive to and from Chicago gave me an opportunity to indulge in one of my favorite guilty pleasures: Chicago Sports Talk Radio.  Neither the Cubs or the White Sox are performing well in 2012, an the hot heads calling into their favorite local radio station had plenty of extra fodder as the White Sox were on the north side for the first three game set of the Crosstown Classic.  One caller after the next called in to complain, what Alfonso Soriano is doing wrong, how Robin Ventura is mismanaging Chris Sale, and on and on,  about one wrong after another heaped down upon the ever faithful fans of Chicago baseball.  That lasted for two hours before the game, and after a brief interruption for a baseball game and a hat tip to Kerry Wood, the fans were back at it for another hour, blasting the Cubs in a loss, and the White Sox even in a win.  I suppose it could have went on longer, but the show had to end eventually.  If you know anything about sports talk radio in Chicago, you know that the next show picked up right where the last one left off, fans battling for a spot on the air to let listeners know what they would do if they were running the team.

The Twins are off today, but are already in Chicago, enjoying a day away from baseball before a three game series begins Tuesday night.  The Twins are scheduled to pitch P.J. Walters, Scott Diamond, and whoever is called up to replace Jason Marquis (assuming his shoulder inflammation is now behind him).  Never mind that when the Twins head back home to face Detroit on Thursdy that they’ll have to figure out how to deal with Jason Marquis‘ lack of performance (UPDATE: Designated for Assignment) and a hole in the rotation left from Nick Blackburn‘s current DL stint. Leave the starting pitching alone, it has been terrible, and without Diamond and Walters, it has been even worse than that.  Let’s look instead at the bullpen.  Below are 8 Chicago-Style thoughts on the current Minnesota Twins bullpen staff:

  1. Alex Burnett – At age 24 Alex Burnett still has plenty of upside, and thought his first 18 appearances of 2012 seems to be finally finding his stride, posting a 2.66 ERA, and a WHIP of just 1.3, both career marks.  But the reality is that while Burnett has cut down his walk rate to a career low, his strike out rate is almost HALF of what it was in 2010 (7.0 SO/9) at 3.8, and more than two strike outs per nine innings down from what it was even a year ago at 5.9.  Fangraphs FIP is a decent predictor of the pitcher Burnett actually is at 4.36, which is slightly lower than his career average.  Burnett is due for a regression, and despite his early success the Twins have remained hesitant to put him into high leverage situations (should the Twins actually have any).
  2. Jared Burton – Jared Burton seems like a guy who should be successful.  His BB/9 rate is 1.1 and his SO/9 rate is 9.2, his WHIP is a minuscule .702, and yet he’s sporting a 4.60 ERA, thanks in large part to 3 HRs in just 15.2 IP.  Burton is due for some regression to his career numbers as well, and he might even be a better pitcher than he is now, but if he continues to serve up the long ball he will not have a roster spot for long.
  3. Matt Capps – On Saturday I was listening to the Milwaukee Brewers radio broadcast and they announced that Capps had yet to blow a save.  I didn’t believe them at the time, but after the game was over, and Capps had picked up another save, I had the chance to look up his stats, and sure enough, despite having an 0-2 W/L record, Capps is a perfect 9/9 in save opportunities.  It turns out Capps has not really been that bad, sure giving up 1 run in the top of the 9th in tie games to the Red Sox and the Indians stick out in the minds of fans, but since starting the season with a couple poor performances, Capps has been pretty solid for the Twins, cutting his ERA down from 6.00 to 3.38 while quietly racking up saves in 9 of the Twins’ 14 victories.  But here’s the rub, Capps biggest strength in 2012 has been his ability to limit walks, giving up just 1 free pass so far this season.  That number is sure to go up, and when it does, Capps will be the same heart-attack inducing 9th inning guy that my brother so astutely refers to as “Cardiac Capps”.  Not exactly ideal for a closer, but the Twins do not have a ton of options.
  4. Brian Duensing – Duensing, along with Capps and Burnett is one of the few Twins relievers enjoying a successful start to the 2012 campaign.  Duesnsing owns an 0-2 record as a reliever this season, but he’s given up just 4 runs in 21 IP.  Duensing could be next in line for an opportunity in the starting rotation, depending on the team’s plans for Marquis and Swarzak, but Duensing has been most successful out of the bullpen over the course of his career, and the Twins need more than their share of bullpen arms capable of pitching 2+ innings to help bail out the starting rotation.  Duensing is really excelling at limiting base hits, giving up just 5.6 hits per 9 innings, the lowest rate of his career.  Fangraphs’ FIP back’s up Duensing’s performance at 2.59, so he should remain effective going forward, it will just be up to the Twins and Ron Gardenhire to figure out how to get one of their best relievers into games when it matters.
  5. Jeff Gray – Jeff Grey has 3 victories in 2012, two of them coming from just 3 pitches, and he has yet to be charged with a loss, but he certainly has not been a solid performer for the Twins.  His 4.50 ERA is the highest of the Twins’ most use relievers (Capps, Perkins, Gray, Duensing, Burnett) and his WHIP, Hits/9, and BB/9 are all the worst on the team among ANY relief pitcher.  Gray has 18 appearances already in 2012, and Gardenhire continues to send him out to the mound almost every other day!  Part of that has been the failure of the starting pitching staff which routinely forces the bullpen into extended action, but to give Gray the 3rd most appearances on the team is just plain ridiculous!  Jeff Gray should not have a spot on this team for much longer.
  6. Francisco Liriano in just 3.2 innings as a reliever Liriano has yet to give up a run, but he has as many strike outs as walks (4), and has been used just three times since being demoted, about every 3rd day.  He’s going to have to pitch a lot better, and limit his walks if he is going to become a valuable member of the Twins’ bullpen, and he’ll have to learn to adjust to hitters and his own nerves is he is going to end up back in the starting rotation.  At this point the Twins need to find a way to boost his value and flip him for anything they can get before the trade deadline.  Liriano is a lost cause in Minnesota and the sooner he realizes that and starts showing value to other teams, the better.
  7. Glen Perkins – Perkins signed a contact extension in Spring Training that makes him a Twin through at least the 2015 season, with a 4.5 million dollar team option for 2016.  While Perkins has continued to strike more than one hitter out per inning, his walk rate is crept up to its highest level since 2007, and his ERA is almost 2 runs higher than it was a year ago when Perkins was the most dominant reliever on the team.  This year Duensing, Capps, and Burnett all have lower ERAs than Perkins.  Despite his elevated ERA, Perkins should regress towards his career numbers, and with a FIP almost a full point lower than his current ERA Perkins can be the dominant reliever the Twins saw in the first half of 2011.
  8. Anthony Swarzak – Swarzak has started 3 games and made 9 relief appearances already this season.  His ERA currently sits at 4.73, and could be much worse if it wasn’t for an uncharacteristically low BABIP of just .253 (almost 40 points below his career average, and 30 points below the MLB average for 2012).  Swarzak does a great job handling mop-up duty when the Twins starters are blown out of a game, and that’s a fine roll for him as long as they don’t start trying to plug him in for more than the occasional spot start, because Swarzak has shown, in 2009 and 2011 (and most of his Minor League career), that he just is not cut out to be much more than the mop up guy he is now.

And those are the guys the Twins have AFTER the starting staff has made a mess of the game.

-ERolfPleiss