Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

I didn’t rush right out to post reactions to the Twins’ coaching changes as the information came out on Thursday, which is probably a good thing.

StarTribune beat reporter LaVelle E. Neal III was obviously wired in to the situation at Target Field and started the ball rolling by announcing that bullpen coach Rick Stelmaszek had been advised his contract was not being renewed. My immediate reaction, via Twitter, was something to the effect that blaming the Twins’ problems on Stelly was comparable to blaming the Titanic’s problems on the guy who painted the hull of the ship. Based on what I read of others’ comments, I wasn’t the only fan who felt that way.

But, as we now know, the Twins gave more of the coaching staff similar messages. Jerry White and Steve Liddle were also not renewed while Scott Ullger and Joe Vavra were assigned instructional duties. Only Rick Anderson survived the purge and Andy got just a one-year reprieve. Of course, Ron Gardenhire himself has one more year on his contract and he’s being allowed to continue in his role, at least for now.

While the media was initially assuming (or at least speculating) that Ullger and Vavra would remain on the Major League staff, both coaches were listed as minor league instructors on the Twins’ official website. Their situations have been clarified apparently and both will remain with the Major League club, which disappoints me a bit. I don’t necessarily think Vavra has done a bad job as the Twins’ hitting coach, but how easy will it be for a new coach to establish himself with the hitters with Vavra still in the clubhouse?

What this all means is that the Twins have three open coaching positions to fill in their Major League dugout and while the Twins haven’t announced who would be filling those positions, it’s pretty clear who will be making the decisions. While most MLB managers are given a great deal of latitude in terms of assembling their own coaching staffs, clearly Gardenhire is not the primary decision maker this time around. He was on record recently as saying he wanted to keep all of his coaches, but General Manager (without the “interim”) Terry Ryan pretty much put an abrupt end to that possibility.

Instead, Gardenhire and Anderson will have three new faces surrounding them next season and two of those new faces are likely to be Gene Glynn and Bobby Cuellar, who are very definitely potential replacements for Gardy and Andy should the team’s performance once again fall below expectations in 2013.

Will these two be seeing more of one another in 2013? (photo: Jim Crikket)

The purge also could make room on the Major League staff for former Twins star Tom Brunansky. Bruno was hired to coach hitting for the Twins Gulf Coast League rookie team in July of 2010. A year later, he was the hitting coach at AA New Britain and this past season he moved up to AAA Rochester. His coaching abilities have not gone unnoticed, obviously, and apparently they’ve been noticed beyond just the Twins organization. Speculation has been that if the Twins don’t find a way to promote him, other organizations will and the Twins are likely lose him.

Ryan has indicated a desire to add a Spanish-speaking coach to their Big League staff since a number of MLB-ready players do not speak much English. That might bode well for Cuellar’s chances, but one has to wonder just how much help he’d be with communication issues during ballgames from his perch in the bullpen. Personally, I’d like to see AA hitting coach Rudy Hernandez considered for one of the openings. I’ve heard that players coming through New Britain speak very highly of Hernandez. Promoting him to the Twins would allow them to give Brunansky an opportunity to actually manage a year in the minor leagues, which might not be a terrible idea.

I’ve heard a lot of comments about how it isn’t fair that the “lesser coaches” got the boot while Gardenhire, Anderson and even Ullger and Vavra (since they’ll still be with the Twins) survived. Frankly, that’s true. It isn’t fair. But this isn’t about “fair.”

Baseball coaches at the professional level all know that their jobs are only as safe as the team’s performance on the field. They work under relatively short term contracts and they all know those contracts are subject to not being renewed for any reason. In this case, the primary reason Stelly, White and Liddle didn’t have their contracts renewed was more about Terry Ryan’s desire to bring a new group of coaches in to the clubhouse than any real or perceived performance issues on those coaches’ parts. I think it’s safe to say Jerry White didn’t cost the Twins too many games this season. Ryan needed to create three vacancies to create room for his guys, pure and simple.

I’m fine with these moves, both with the coaching changes and with retaining Gardenhire and Anderson, for now. But my being fine with them is conditioned on these moves not being the last bold moves Ryan makes this offseason. In fact, if March rolls around and the coaching changes are considered to be even close to the biggest moves he’s made, I’ll be well beyond just very disappointed.

Mr. Ryan, you have gotten our attention. Now show us what you do for an encore… and it had better be good.

- JC

News To Start Off The Post Season

Sad News:

with Gehrig John Neshek, born 10/2/12, died 10/3/12

The first thing I’d like to share came out late in the night – asking for all your thoughts and prayers to be extended toward Pat Neshek & his wife, Stephanee, and their families. Their newborn son died in his sleep in his mother’s arms suddenly and with no obvious cause of death. Little Gehrig hadn’t even finished his first full day – not that that would have made it any better. Both Pat & Stephanee have expressed their grief, confusion and pain to those on Twitter. I simply can’t imagine their feelings right now. I hope that they are able to find some closure and peace in whatever form it comes as they learn more in the next few days and months. I’m simply heart-broken for them. So many of their fans and baseball colleagues have reached out to them already. I hope they are able to gain strength from those who surround them.

 Happy News:

In better and more baseball-related news, an event happened today that has not occurred since 1967. We have a triple crown winner: leading in all three categories of Batting average, RBI, and Home Runs is Miguel Cabrera. It’s an immense accomplishment and something to be honored no matter who he plays for. Congratulations Miguel! If someone had to beat Mauer for the batting title, it’s almost worth it that you were able to do it with admirable flair!

 

BIG TWINS NEWS!

Additionally, in current Twins news, it was announced this morning that some turnover in the Twins coaching staff has already begun. Rick Stelmaszek has been let go. I have to admit that I doubt ANYONE expected them to start with the longest tenured coach in Twins history. I seriously doubt it will be the last change to take place before next spring but it really wasn’t a change that was high on my list – so they must have their own list. We’ll see what happens next!

[UPDATE] Steve Liddle has also been let go and Joe Vavra has been reassigned so the coaching shakeup has only just begun. According to LaVelle E Neal III at the Strib:

Pitching coach Rick Anderson was scheduled to meet with Ryan around noon. Bench coach Scott Ullger was to meet with Ryan at 1 p.m. and Jerry White was expected to meet with Ryan at 2 p.m.

Class AAA Rochester manager Gene Glynn and Rochester hitting coach Tom Brunansky could be in line for promotions. So could Rochester pitching coach Bobby Cuellar.

I will continue to add updates to this post as we get more information so stay tuned!

[UPDATE 2] news on a couple more members of the staff from a couple different sources: Rick Anderson will be staying AS pitching coach. Jerry White however is an additional casualty of the turnover. Head Trainer Rick McWane is also gone. According to Rhett Bolinger, Scott Ullger will oversee outfield instruction while Joe Vavra will oversee infield instruction.

It was also noted by several beat writers that Gardenhire has one year left on his contract – it may be a situation where he’s been informed or will be that it will not be renewed unless there are dramatic changes in results. I believe the same is true for every person who is still under contract with the Twins.

This is the final list of departing staff from the Twins as presented by LEN III and Phil Mackey. No word yet on who will be taking on most of the open spots for sure but as you will read, there is a lot of speculation that the AAA staff will be moving up.

ALSO: Target Field is getting another facelift - this time in the RF bleachers.

It’s All Coming Together

I’m trying to restrain myself, but on days like this, it’s not easy. I think with good health and a little bit of luck, this Twins team could be something special.

As Joe Reardon, the fictional manager of the Durham Bulls so eloquently put it, “This is a simple game. You throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball.” On Saturday afternoon, the Twins did all of that and did it well.

This is what I came to Ft. Myers to see. Now I just hope everyone stays healthy and we see exactly this kind of performance all season long.

Nick Blackburn and Kevin Slowey both looked sharp. Blackburn gave up seven hits, but 2-3 of those were infield hits that I generally don’t mark against a pitcher’s performance. He did give up a 2-run home run, but since it was off the bat of a former Cedar Rapids Kernel (Casey Kotchman), I’m willing to let it slide. Slowey struck out three in his three innings and gave up only one hit.

Jim Hoey, who got one inning of work sandwiched in between Blackburn’s five and Slowey’s three, had another solid performance. That’s two appearances I’ve seen this week from Hoey and let me just say, this man can throw a baseball! He was in the upper 90s again today and he sure didn’t look like he was having any control issues to me.

Every starting position player except Jeff Bailey collected at least one hit. Delmon homered. Span and Nishioka doubled. Span, Casilla and Young all stole bases.

Speaking of Nishioka, I’ve been very impressed with his play at second base. He made three excellent defensive plays in today’s game, in addition to teaming with Casilla to turn a couple of double plays. Denard flashed some speed and leather, as well, tracking down a couple of gappers.

But my goal here today is to try to give you a bit of the flavor of a beautiful day at a ballpark. After all, you can read all you want to know about the performances on the field by checking out any of the great beat writers. Speaking of beat writers, mlb.com’s Kelly Thesier is moving on to greener pastures (quite literally, I suppose, since she’s going to work as communications director for the LPGA) and Sunday is her last day covering the Twins. I’ve enjoyed reading Kelly’s reports, her blog and her Tweets and I wish her all the success she deserves in her new job.

I worked up the nerve to introduce myself to both Kelly and the Strib’s LaVelle E. Neal III on Thursday over at the minor league complex when several Twins were getting some extra work in over there. They were both very gracious (meaning neither of them yelled at me for bothering them) and I appreciated that.

So let me tell you about my terrific day and share a few pictures (I took 257 of them today… I get carried away sometimes).

I slept in a bit after the late night on Friday. I didn’t get back to Ft. Myers from Sarasota until nearly midnight and by the time I uploaded pictures and posted on the blog, it was after 2:00 before I get to sleep. I’m too old to get by on very little sleep, so I decided that the three days I’ve spent over on the practice fields this trip will have to suffice.

I pulled in to the stadium parking lot about 11:00am and spent a little time dickering with some of the ticket brokers there, before finding one with a single seat available in the section I was hoping to sit in today… the area behind the Twins dugout. Around noon, I entered the stadium and wandered around, watching a few Twins wrap up their workouts. As I was enjoying a beverage, I looked out over the now-deserted Twins practice field and saw a solitary figure in workout clothes, wayyyyy down the far left field line, signing autographs for fans who handed him things to sign over the fence.

At first, I couldn’t tell who it was, but I suspected it might be one of today’s cut victims, getting every last moment he can out of his allotted time with the Big League club before moving over to the minor league complex. I thought he would probably sign for a few people, like the players generally do, and then go about his day.

I was wrong on both counts.

Joe Nathan accommodated every autograph request

The player turned out to be Twins closer Joe Nathan and he just kept signing… and signing… and signing. I watched him sign anything that people stuck over the fence to him for close to half an hour, until he had literally signed for everyone who asked. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Major League player anywhere near Nathan’s level sign autographs until there’s nobody left to sign for.

In fact, he signed two more autographs when he finally did reach the fence that connects the practice field to the stadium. It takes a lot for professional athletes to impress me when it comes to interacting with fans, but I was impressed. That earned Joe my “good guy award” today.

All that signing may have tired Joe out...

... but it didn't stop him from signing more

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shortly before game time, I grabbed some food and another beverage and found my seat. Before I could even sit down, someone a few seats away recognized me as Jim Crikket from the  Knuckleballs blog. Seriously. I’ve never had that happen before. Thank God he didn’t ask for my autograph… I haven’t given any thought whatsoever to what I should charge for that kind of thing yet.

This was my last visit to Hammond Stadium this spring. I’m going to two more games before heading home Tuesday, but both games are on the road. Sunday is up in Dunedin against the Jays and Monday is in Bradenton against the Pirates. I’ve never been to the Jays’ ballpark, so I’m looking forward to seeing that. It’s been a couple of years since I was at the ballpark in Bradenton, but it’s one of my favorites, just because it’s an old-school neighborhood setting that reminds me of the ballparks you used to find in small and medium sized towns across Iowa and Minnesota back in the 1960s.

With that, here are a few more pictures from my day at Hammond Stadium:

Hammond Stadium brats are some of the best I've had... well worth the wait

Grab food and beer, then check the lineup board

Newbie Luke Hughes with Michael Cuddyer and Joe Nathan

Casey Kotchman and Joe Mauer, just prior to Kotchman's launch

Picture quality doesn't do justice to this Nishioka web gem

Coach Steve Liddle "communicating" with Nishioka

Coach Jerry White and Jason Kubel (for our Jerry White fan club)

It's all good fun when TC Bear breaks out the super-soaker...

... until he's looking straight at you!

So long, Hammond Stadium... see ya next year!

 

JC in Spring Training: Focus on Communication

Yes, I know the big news at the Twins Spring Training site on Wednesday was the long-awaited debut of Joe Mauer in their game with the Mets, but what is there really to say about that? He hit a line drive up the middle in his first plate appearance off of Mets starting pitcher Mike Pelfrey. In fact, Pelfrey himself might have said all that needs to be said about Mauer’s debut. “I threw a slider in, and he hit a rocker right up the middle,” he was quoted as saying after the game. “He’s obviously Joe Mauer for a reason…” Indeed.

But for those of you who don’t believe what you don’t see, here’s the evidence I captured at the game.

For me, though, I’m a bit of a people watcher and today, I was interested in watching people just talk… communicate.

Not the greatest picture, but it was entertaining to watch... and listen to

One of the more humorous bits of “communication” was the bantering between Manager Ron Gardenhire and the fans surrounding the backstop of the Twins’ practice field during batting practice. Just before the last player (Jim Thome) finished getting his cuts, Gardy himself picked up a bat and stepped in the cage. From that point on, the only “communication” coming from Gardy was the word “ouch!” after each swing.

Not long after I settled in to watch some batting practice on the field where the AA level minor leaguers were getting their swings in, a group of today’s cuts from the Major League camp showed up. Rene Tosoni, Joe Benson and Chris Parmalee were not going to be going north with the Twins and today was the day they got the official word and joined their minor league brethren… and the coaches working with those young players. Among the coaches and instructors on this particular field were former Twins outfielder Tom Brunansky, who’s now a coach in the Twins organization, and Hall of Famer Paul Molitor. I just hope all of these guys know enough to take advantage of the advice available from the guys who the Twins have around this camp.

Chris Parmelee and Paul Molitor have a chat around the cage

Before heading in to Hammond Stadium for the game, I stopped along the “autograph fence” that runs between the Twins practice field and the stadium. This is where players often pause on their way to the stadium after practice to interact with fans. I found two players doing exactly that, pitcher Scott Diamond and Mr. Incredible, Jim Thome. Diamond certainly seemed popular with the young ladies.

Scott Diamond poses for a picture

Jim Thome signing autographs

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once inside the stadium, I spotted a few people having conversations that I would have been interested to listen in on… like these:

I couldn't help but wonder what Morneau and Nishioka were talking about during warm ups

Morneau and Jason Bay chatted before the game. Bay, Like Morneau, missed the second half of the 2010 season with a concussion

I'm not sure if Nishioka understood anything 1B coach Jerry White was saying, but he nodded a lot.

Nishioka didn't seem to have any trouble understanding what TC Bear was communicating

After coming out of the game, Alexi Casilla and Nishioka got some running... and talking... in, out along the LF wall

What’s that you say? Wasn’t there an actual game going on today?

Why yes, there was. In fact, the Twins won the game with a walk off hit in the bottom of the ninth inning. After Matt Brown opened the inning with a double to the RCF gap, Danny Lehmann followed up with a hit that drove in Brown and saved his team mates from having to endure the most hated thing among ballplayers… a spring training extra-inning ballgame. Here, below, are a few more of the 250 or so pictures I took today, beginning with a shot of Lehmann’s game winning hit.

Lehmann drives in the winning run in the 9th

Brain Duensing had another effective start

Jim Hoey hit 99 mph with a fastball on the Hammond speed gun while striking out two Mets

Finally, while Johan Santana is still on the shelf, the Twins did reunite for the day with a couple of former team mates. Jason Pridie started in centerfield and Luis Castillo started at second base for the mets.

Jason Pridie

Luis Castillo

 

 

 

 

 

 

That’s a wrap for today. I’m not sure whether I’m going to make the trip up to Lakeland for the Tigers game Thursday or stick around Ft. Myers. Media reports are that Carl Pavano, Drew Butera, Matt Capps, and Joe Mauer are going to be playing in a minor league game at the Twins’ complex and Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew is reportedly going to be arriving at the complex Thursday as well.

If you want to read a bit more about my time at the Twins complex, check in periodically with Howard Sinker’s “A Fan’s View from Section 219” over at the StarTribune site. I’ll be sending periodic reports to Howard which he may be posting.

Of course, I’ll be trying to post something daily here at Knuckleballs, as well.

-JC

Spring Training Vacation Wrap Up

I’m heading out bright and early Thursday morning, but before I call it a night, I wanted to post one final “Spring Training Report.” (OK, it might not be the final one published, depending on whether a final ‘Jim Crikket Report’ makes an appearance in Howard Sinker’s “A Fan’s View From Section 219″ blog Thursday).

I can’t recommend highly enough this kind of spring vacation, if you’re a Twins fan or a fan of Major League Baseball at all. I’m sure Target Field will be terrific, but you don’t get opportunities to watch talent of this level as “up close and personal” anywhere but during spring training. And the opportunity to check out the Twins’ “future stars” on the minor league complex is a huge bonus, in my opinion.

With that, I’ll leave you with a few images from my last day at Twins 2010 Spring Training.

Outside Hammond Stadium, Spring Training home of your Minnesota Twins!

2008 first round pick Carlos Gutierrez gets some help with his change-up grip

Michael Cuddyer doing his Nick Punto impression... and he's SAFE!

Jim Thome and Jerry White doing... something... I don't think I wanna know what.

Anthony Slama... closer of the future?

Ben Revere. His time is coming... soon.

Hammond Stadium Mens Room... with "Take Me Out to The Ball Game" murals

TC Bear with a SuperSoaker... coming soon to an outdoor stadium near you!