Hendriks vs Trout… I’ve Seen This Before

Barring something unforeseen happening, when Twins starting pitcher Liam Hendriks toes the rubber Wednesday night, he’ll be staring down Angels’ top prospect Mike Trout, who’s been hitting in the leadoff spot for the Halos since being promoted a few days ago.

Talk about déjà vu flashbacks.

Liam Hendriks

Just over two years ago, the Beloit Snappers opened their season against the Angels’ Midwest League affiliate, the Cedar Rapids Kernels, and I sat through a 10-inning 1-0 Snappers win in 37 degree temperatures. You can read all about it and see how photo-happy I was in those days by clicking here to go back to a Knuckleballs post I put up after the game.

You’ll note from the story that Liam Hendriks started that game for the Snappers and pitched five strong innings. What you won’t read in that story, because I focused so much on the Snappers, is that Mike Trout was the starting centerfielder for the Kernels.

Mike Trout

By the way, I’ve already started gathering my Mike Trout collectables… I’ve got a pack of Kernels baseball cards from 2010 with Trout’s card right up there on top and the Kernels gave away Mike Trout bobbleheads at their home opener this season. Yes, I made sure I was there early enough to be one of the first 1,000 in the gate (which I needn’t have done… they were still handing them out to people who came through the turnstiles at game time).

So, yes, I’ve seen Liam Hendriks face Mike Trout already.

If you regularly attend minor league games, you become accustomed to seeing a fortunate few of these kids eventually wear Major League uniforms, but I have to admit that seeing two of them rise to become Big Leaguers in just two years after playing here in Cedar Rapids seems rare. As it turns out, though, maybe it’s not as rare as I think. Three of Trout’s team mates on that 2010 Kernels team have already made their MLB debuts. Trout’s the only position player, but pitchers David Carpenter, Garrett Richards and Patrick Corbin have all already made appearances for the Angels or, in Corbin’s case, the D’Backs.

That Snappers line up on Opening Day 2010 was nothing to sneeze at either. Hendriks is the only 2010 Snapper to make the Big Leagues (unless you count JJ Hardy, who rehabbed with Beloit for three games that season), but it won’t be that way for long. Check out the picture I posted of my scorecard from that game in April, 2010.

See any familiar names? How about… Brian Dozier at SS. He’s still in Rochester, but it shouldn’t be long before he joins his former Snapper team mate Hendriks in Minnesota.

Aaron Hicks and James Beresford were in the line up that day… both have reached AA New Britain now. So has pitcher Dakota Watts, who also was with Beloit at the start of 2010. BJ Hermsen pitched in Beloit that year, as well, but I don’t believe he even began the year there. Now, he’s also a Rock Cat after being promoted recently.

You’ll also see names like Angel Morales, Michael Gonzales, Danny Rams and Anderson Hidalgo on that scorecard. While their former team mate Hendriks is in The Show, they’ve progressed just one rung up the ladder to High-A Ft. Myers since that Opening Day two years ago. But they’re still chasing that dream.

Wednesday night (and likely Thursday and Friday, as well), I’ll be out at Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids again… watching this year’s Beloit Snappers face the current Cedar Rapids Kernels. I’ll have my eyes on the “big names” like Miguel Sano and Eddie Rosario, arguably the Twins two top prospects, but who else will stand out? Which of these “kids” will have a chance to live the fairy tale some day and wear a Big League uniform for the Twins or Angels… or maybe another organization if that should be their fate?

For about $10, you can get the best seat in the house at a minor league ballpark like the one we have here in Cedar Rapids. For that price, you get to watch future Major League ballplayers play baseball. How can you beat that?

Man, I love this game.

– JC

Greatness Must Be More Than a Tradition

Perhaps my favorite quote is one that has been attributed to Charles Lindbergh and it goes something like this: “A great tradition may be inherited, but true greatness must be achieved.”

I’ve been thinking about that lately, in the context of the Minnesota Twins. It’s not that I believe the current roster is great or really even has much of a chance of achieving greatness. They certainly haven’t given us reason to expect greatness in their first handful of games this season.

I wonder, though, how many members of this team understand what it takes to acheive greatness… or even a level approaching the near-greatness that the Twins class of 2002 that was honored Monday arguably captured. Not to understate the talent of the group, as a whole, but it seems like they had a spirit that drove them to at least strive for greatness.

They never really reached their goal… which, of course, was to win a World Series in Minnesota. They did, however, restore respectability to the organization and win a lot of baseball games, including a number of Division titles, in the process. They may not have achieved greatness, but they certainly achieved very-goodness… and the current crop of Twins have inherited that legacy.

Do they know what to do with that legacy, though? Do they recognize the need to achieve greatness for themselves or do they think that they should just be very good because the Twins teams that preceded them for most of the past decade have been very good?

It’s difficult to maintain greatness in pretty much any organization. Most consistently successful companies have formal or informal “succession planning” programs that assure continuity of purpose and philosophy. It’s not something that’s easy to do, even in the most conducive of corporate environments. Trying to develop such a philosophy in a Major League clubhouse where today’s team mate is tomorrow’s opponent and the hot-hitting rookie is a threat to take away a veteran’s livelihood is probably all but impossible.

Some mentoring goes on, of course. Not every veteran ballplayer has the, “it’s all about me and screw the guy coming up behind me,” mentality (let’s call that the Bret Favre mentality, shall we?). Kirby Puckett supposedly mentored Torii Hunter and Hunter supposedly did likewise with Denard Span. It happens, but it happens so seldom that it tends to gets elevated to mythical proportions when it does happen.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this, but it occurs to me that this group of Twins… from the front office management to the on-field management to the veteran players to the rookies… have not achieved anything close to greatness. I suppose an argument can be made that Carl Pavano has acheived greatness, at least briefly, in his younger days with the Marlins. Ron Gardenhire and Terry Ryan deserve some credit for guiding that class of 2002 through their period of very-goodness.

What the Twins have in their clubhouse is an combination of a couple of very good baseball players who inherited the near-great tradition of the teams led by guys like Torii Hunter, Johan Santana and Corey Koskie, along with a few decent new players who, frankly, came from organizations that haven’t even had the kind of tradition the Twins have had, and a bunch of young players that really haven’t experienced anything approaching greatness in their professional careers.

When the Yankees or Red Sox or even the Braves start out a season by getting swept in their first series, there’s no cause for ledge jumping. Those teams have players who know what it takes to be great and are confident in their abilities to achieve greatness once again, despite a temporary set back. Who in the Twins’ clubhouse has that experience to fall back on, much less the ability to share it with team mates in a manner that instills confidence?

It’s difficult for a young player to step in to such a role. Most of them are too busy pinching themselves over the realization they’re Major League ballplayers playing a game in front of 40,000 people to think beyond the moment. But once they settle in to the routine, do any of them have the drive necessary to lead a team to achieve greatness? I hope so.

And what of management? Where will the next great leader of this organization come from? I doubt Ron Gardenhire’s job is in immediate jeopardy, but it’s almost impossible for me to imagine him leading the team through the next generation of ballplayers. Who will Terry Ryan and the Pohlads charge with the responsibility of leading the team of Joe Benson, Miguel Sano, Eddie Rosario and Kyle Gibson to a level of greatness not achieved in over two decades?

How will the current Twins and those coming up behind them learn to achieve greatness? In the absence of credible mentors to learn from, it will take someone (or better yet, multiple someones) with incredible leadership skills to build a winning mentality back nearly from scratch.

Ron Gardenhire and Tom Brunansky (photo: Jim Crikket)

I’m nowhere near knowledgeable enough about the Twins organization to predict who will step up to provide that kind of leadership or when it might arrive. Outside of watching the Beloit Snappers a few times a year and spending a week or so at the Twins’ spring training site every March, I have little to base an opinion on. Maybe players like Benson, Brian Dozier, Aaron Hicks and Liam Hendriks will eventually fill leadership roles on the field and in a future Twins clubhouse, but the guy I expect to see eventually establish a presence with the Big Club is former Twin Tom Brunansky.

If you spend any time hanging out around the minor league fields during spring training, you can tell which coaches tend to attract an audience when they speak. Two men have stood out to me as guys that always seem to have the attention of any player within earshot of them: Paul Molitor and Brunansky. Molitor serves in an instructional capacity every spring and it seems he’s pretty satisfied with that limited role, but Bruno has been moving up the organizational ranks as a hitting coach and is with the AAA team in Rochester this year.

I know there are people who feel Brunansky could or even should be promoted to the Twins’ hitting coach position to replace Joe Vavra. Personally, I think he’s fine right where he is… teaching the next generation of Twins how to play baseball. He’s the kind of coach… and, potentially, the kind of manager… that could bring credibility to a field management job if and when he gets his opportunity in Minnesota.

For now, this is admitedly all just idle conjecture. Then again, until the current Twins start winning some ball games and give us something else to focus on, idle conjecture is likely to lead to more interesting discussions than anything going on between the white lines.

– JC

 

A Spring Training Tale of Two Sites

I really like having the Red Sox being just down the road a bit from where the Twins train. Sunday, I was able to spend the morning watching the Twins’ minor leaguers play intrasquad games (low A vs. high A on one field, AAA vs. AA on another field and “rookie” teams on yet a third field) and then drive 15 minutes east to watch the Twins take on the Red Sox at the Saux brand new JetBlue Park in the afternoon.

BJ Hermsen

It was great getting to watch fellow Iowan B.J Hermsen take the mound to start for the high A club against the lineup likely to be fielded by the Beloit Snappers, including uber-prospects Miguel Sano and Eddie Rosario. Hermsen struck out both Rosario and Sano in the first inning, but Sano did get a measure of revenge with a double off of Hermsen later on, leading to a run.

Beloit manager Nelson Prada chats with Eddie Rosario, Miguel Sano and Daniel Ortiz

Max Kepler hitting, Drew Butera catching

 

I also spent some time watching the older minor leaguers, where prospect Max Kepler and his AA team mates were taking on a AAA team filled with a number of players, such as Drew Butera, Mike Holliman and Casey Fien who were still in the Major League clubhouse up until just a few days ago.

I really didn’t pay attention to the scores and I didn’t stick around to see the games to their completion, but it was a lot of fun not only watching both games, but watching far more important observers, like General Manager Terry Ryan, who was also turning his attention back and forth between the fields.

The game with the Red Sox wasn’t so interesting, but it was good to see Chris Parmelee celebrate the news that he’s made the Big League roster to start the season by giving the Twins a brief 1-0 lead over the Sox with a towering home run to right field. Carl Pavano cruised through five innings of work before he started getting knocked around a bit in the sixth. Alex Burnett didn’t fare nearly as well in relief.

I thought I’d share a few pictures of the game, as well as a few I took of the new ballpark itself. In case you weren’t aware, JetBlue Park was built with the same dimensions as Fenway Park, right down to a “green monster” in left field.

JetBlue Park from behind home plate

Infield prospects James Beresford and Estarlin De Los Santos got their opportunities to play in front of the big crowd and the Big League coaches

Newcomer Sean Burroughs manned 1B for the Twins

The "Green Monster" at JetBlue Park

The view from atop JetBlue's green monster

JetBlue Park from the outside

 

Twins Prospects: What a Difference a Week Makes

UPDATE (2/13/2012): We have yet another prospect list to include in the discussion… Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus has released his “Top 101″ list and while he apparently thinks more of Miguel Sano (#12) than either Mayo or Law do, he has only one other Twin, Rosario (#87) on his list. Twins that dropped off his list since last year include Hicks (#51 in 2011), Gibson (#55 in 2011) and Revere (#62 in 2011… perhaps Revere no longer meets his criteria for “prospect” status). – JC

It almost goes without saying, but if you need more evidence that judging an organization’s minor leaguers is an inexact science, at best, all you need to do is compare prospect rankings of even the most reputable sources.

A couple of weeks ago, Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com released his “Top 100″ prospects list and it wasn’t good news for the Minnesota Twins. Only two players in their organization, consensus top Twins prospect Miguel Sano (#23) and Aaron Hicks (#72) made the list. Since there are 30 MLB teams, logic would tell you that to be considered as having an “average” number of highly ranked prospects an organization should have at least three players among any “Top 100″ list.

Predictably, there were a few articles popping up within both mainstream media and social media that discussed the sad state of the Twins minor league talent levels.

Fast forward to yesterday morning and we had a new “Top 100″ list from ESPN’s Keith Law (Insider subcription required). Surprise! The Twins post FOUR players on Law’s list, with Eddie Rosario (#50) and Oswaldo Arcia (#85) joining Sano (#28) and Hicks (#80). Placing four in Law’s “Top 100″ might indicate the Twins organization is a bit above average. Funny how an organization can improve so much over the course of a couple of winter weeks without playing a single game, isn’t it?

So which is it? Is the Twins organization straggling behind the competition when it comes to developing high end prospects or are they a bit above the norm? I suppose we could await Baseball America’s “Top 100″ list to break the tie, but that’s really not necessary. The answer is “yes.”

Aaron Hicks

What’s that you say… that wasn’t a “yes or no” question? I know that. After all I posed the question. But the answer really is that the Twins organization is both a bit below and a bit above the competition.

Why below? Because three of the four players Law thinks highly of are at least two years (and more likely at least three years) away from being Big Leaguers, and the fourth (Hicks) fell like a rock in Law’s rankings from 10th in 2011 to 80th in 2012. Not exactly cause to be optimistic that he’ll be leading the Twins to the playoffs any time real soon.

In addition, in an era when top-end starting pitching has become obscenely expensive on the open market, making “growing your own” an absolute necessity, the Twins have zero pitchers in any “Top 100″ list released to date this year. Sure, they had a bit of bad luck with Kyle Gibson’s injury a year ago, but you don’t get extra points for bad luck.

On the other hand, the Twins obviously intended for this imbalance to occur. While you never can be 100% sure how any 16-21 year old will mature, mentally or physically, there’s usually a reason top draft picks and international signees get big bucks… they are the most likely to become top prospects and, ideally, star players. And the Twins have been focusing on position players above pitchers in the high rounds of the draft and in their international scouting.

So now four of those players appear to be among the top prospects in baseball, which should indicate that the organization’s plans are working out roughly the way they hoped. How comfortable fans should feel about that conclusion is, I suppose, another topic for reasonable debate.

The Twins had some bad luck and some bad drafts a few years back (as the Strib’s LaVelle E. Neal III has done a good job of reviewing on his blog). So unless you count Gibson, there simply isn’t a “big impact” player in the organization that’s going to be stepping in to a leadership role with the Twins this year or even in 2013… maybe not even by 2014 unless Hicks gets things turned around.

The bottom line is that there is reason for some optimism that help is on the way, but it’s tempered by the fact that such help is likely on the distant horizon, rather than anything imminent. There’s a solid group of young players with the potential to be productive Major League ballplayers making their way up in the organizational ranks and that includes a lot of players over and above the guys you see on any “top prospect” list.

For now, and likely for the next couple of seasons, the Twins will need to continue filling out their Major League roster with mid-level free agents and other teams’ cast-offs. But if Twins fans can be patient, there is the potential for the next wave of stars to be very good.

I know… Twins fans being patient? Not likely.

– JC

P.S. If you want to know more about the Twins prospects mentioned above and about 150 others in the organization, it’s not too late to order your Minnesota Twins 2012 Prospect Handbook. Head on over to SethSpeaks.net for the link and order your copy. I’ve got four copies myself, so what are YOU waiting for?

JC’s Top 10 Twins Prospects List

Everyone else does it, so why shouldn’t Knuckleballs have our own Top 10 Twins Prospects list?

Well, the best reason NOT to do it would be that we don’t know nearly as much about the Twins minor leaguers as others who follow them almost religiously. But we’ve never let the fact that we’re not as smart as other people on a subject stop us from expressing our opinions, so why start now?

The first thing I note about this list (and just about every other list of top Twins prospects that I see elsewhere) is that there aren’t many players likely to be spending much time in a Minnesota Twins uniform in 2012. I actually hope that turns out to be the case, because it would mean the Twins stayed relatively healthy and maybe even in contention throughout the season.

In any event, here’s our Top 10 Twins Prospects as we head in to the 2012 season:

  1. Miguel Sano

    Miguel Sano – I suspect Sano will be the consensus top prospect. He was a boy in a man’s body the last couple of years in Spring Training and destroyed the pitchers he saw in the partial season minor leagues. This year, we’ll see how he fares in a full season of Class A ball, probably starting in Beloit. The Midwest League is infamous as a pitchers’ league, so if he gets anywhere within shouting distance of his Rookie League numbers, it will be impressive. Cross your fingers because Sano could be the only Twins prospect with legitimate superstar potential.

  2. Oswaldo Arcia – He’s a legitimate power hitting prospect who beat up on Low-A pitching, but didn’t have as much success after being promoted to High A Ft. Myers. Watch his walk rate. It dropped (along with pretty much every other offensive statistic) after the promotion and he’s going to need to regain it in order for his power to even matter as he rises up the ladder.
  3. Eddie Rosario – It’s going to be interesting to see if Rosario was able to develop any infield abilities at all during the fall instructional league where he got some time at 2B. He’s got enough offensive talent to be a regular contributor, but may not have enough to hold down a starting corner OF spot at the Major League level. But as a middle infielder? He could be very good.
  4. Aaron Hicks

    Aaron Hicks – It seems like Hicks has been a top-5 prospect for a decade. After seeing him a few times with Beloit a couple of years ago, I was less impressed with him than a lot of people. By last spring in Ft Myers, though, I thought he had matured in to his body well. This is a crucial year for Hicks.

  5. Joe Benson – He didn’t really impress in his cup of coffee with the Twins in 2011, but he didn’t look like he didn’t belong, either. This year we’ll see if he looks likely to be a long-term member of the organization.
  6. Levi Michael – The team’s first draft choice last year hasn’t yet “earned” this spot, but by virtue of his draft position, he probably gets a top 10 spot until he proves he’s NOT worthy of it. That may not be “right”, but it’s the way it is.
  7. Liam Hendriks

    Liam Hendriks – The Aussie shot up through the organization very quickly. Whether or not it was too quickly is something we’ll probably find out this season. If the Twins are going to get any rotation help from within their organization this season, there’s a good chance it would come from Hendriks.

  8. Kyle Gibson – It all comes down to how well he comes back from TJ surgery, but if he was worthy of being at the top of these lists in the past, he still belongs in the Top 10 until he demonstrates otherwise.
  9. Travis Harrison – I hesitate to put any guy on this list who hasn’t actually shown any more than Harrison has, but it’s pretty hard to ignore him completely. He’s got power, for sure, but reports are mixed a bit on whether he’ll be able to handle 3B or LF defensively.
  10. Chris Parmelee – He won’t be found on many other Top 10 lists, but there should be room on this list somewhere for a guy who has actually shown an indication that he is capable of hitting Major League pitching

If I was really ambitious, I’d have made this a “Top 25″ list, but that would reflect a degree of ambition (not to mention knowledge) that I simply do not have. One thing I can truthfully say, however, is that, with the exception of those players who will be attending their first Spring Training with the Twins organization, I’ve seen all of these players on the field with my own eyes during Spring Training and/or while suited up for the Beloit Snappers. I suspect that’s more than a lot of other “Top Prospects List” authors can say.

– JC