Talking Minor Leaguers With Paul Molitor

Hall of Famer Paul Molitor was in Cedar Rapids over the course of most of the past homestand in his capacity with the Twins organization.

Molitor was gracious enough to answer some questions last Thursday, the first day of his stay in Cedar Rapids, as well as a few follow-up questions Monday afternoon after the final game of the Kernels’ homestand.

I used several excerpts from the Thursday interview in an article posted at MetroSportsReport.com last week, but there was so much good material that I couldn’t fit in to that article. So, I’m sharing all of Molitor’s comments here.

First off, I asked Molitor to describe his formal role these days with the Twins organization.

Molitor: Titles are overrated a little bit. Technically, part of the player development team. I’m the Minor League Coordinator for Baserunning and Infield Play. It’s an opportunity for me to travel around the system and help try to teach, along with the staff on each club and I do focus on those two areas but invariably get involved with some of the hitting aspects.

Our hitting coordinator for minor leagues does an incredible job, considering you have to try to put a hit plan together for about 200 guys.

One of the things I enjoy, in addition to the teaching is that a lot of these guys are transitioning from wherever their roots have brought them from and it’s a process of evolving from sometimes teenagers in to men and so there’s mentoring involved, too. Just how to help these guys develop an understanding of the professional life style. We try to do what we can to try to help them progress in those areas, too.

Paul Molitor (4) observing Kernels C Jhonatan Arias (23) take batting practice

Paul Molitor (4) observing Kernels C Jhonatan Arias (23) take batting practice

I mentioned that a lot is made about players having to transition to using wood bats and asked Molitor if he thought that was toughest thing about transitioning to the professional game for young players.

Molitor: Some of the collegiate kids have had a chance to play in wood bat leagues in the summer time.

A lot of times it’s a big transition just from maybe never having left home, particularly maybe never left your country and you have to try to claw your way in to professional ball and learn a system that particular organization teaches.

We don’t try to overwhelm them. We let them play a little bit in the beginning til we kind of get a feel for who they are and what they do, what they do well and what we need to improve on. But the transition can be tough, depending on the guy’s experience.

The college guys are usually better at understanding how to carry themselves and how to go about their business day to day.

Another change is that very few of these kids have played in seasons where there’s 140 games so it’s understanding how to maintain and prepare yourself to withstand the rigors of a professional season.

I asked if playing baseball in the upper midwest in April was difficult for players entering their first season of “full season” professional baseball.

Molitor: The guys from warm climates, whether its Florida, California, Texas or the Dominican or Puerto Rico, you throw them up here in April and it’s not only a culture shock, but the weather is something they really never had to play in those type of conditions.

So that’s a process. We see a lot of guys that haven’t had that experience start a little bit slower, just adapting to the weather itself.

I jokingly pointed out that Byron Buxton is a southern guy that didn’t seem to take long to adjust.

Molitor: He’s just a rare individual with a skill set that’s off the charts.

I saw him last year in instructional ball for a little bit and you could see the rawness of a high school kid, but somehow this winter I think he put a lot of time in to conditioning and preparation. He was much more advanced this spring than I expected him to be and he’s been able to carry it undoubtedly in to the first 9-10 weeks of the season.

You know, he’s got things to work on I’m sure. I’m looking forward to seeing him now compared to even two months ago. Over the next five days. I’ll be watching particularly how he handles himself on the basepaths.

On a professional grading scale of 2-8, he’s an 8 runner and I haven’t for the past three decades seen many players that can compete with him in terms of just raw speed. Now how he can translate that in to base stealing is going to be the key.

Obviously, this year he’s had over 30 attempts. He’s been caught some, but he’s been fairly successful for a young guy and probably in some ways, in this league, he’s been outrunning the ball.

There’s two parts of base stealing: The mechanical, finding the best way to get your body to accelerate from a standstill position; and then there’s the mental side of understanding how they’re trying to slow you down and picking good pitches, good counts, reading pitchers pick-off moves, all those type of things.

A lot of times, when you get caught is when you should learn the most. Whether you didn’t get a good jump or you ran on a pitch out or you didn’t anticipate the guy going home or you were tentative. There’s a lot of ways to learn to get better. So it’s a process. The more you do it, the better you get at it.

We’re glad to see he’s out running. At least not having fear in athat area to this point.

Paul Molitor hitting ground balls to Kernels 3B Travis Harrison

Paul Molitor hitting ground balls to Kernels 3B Travis Harrison

I asked Molitor for his thoughts on Kernels third baseman Travis Harrison, who is still somewhat learning the position.

Molitor: Ive been around him some, mostly spring traning and instructional ball. I’m sure there’s some adaption for him going on.

He has relatively good hands. I think his footwork is something that needs to be improved. Being so close in proximity to home plate, you don’t have a lot of time to react to get your body in position to catch the ball. The better he can get control of his feet and be in the right spot, his hands are going to be OK.

Throwing, he’s had some issues at times with consistency. He’s a little bit mechanical, but I think he’s learning that if he doesn’t try to guide the ball and throws it, he’s better off.

So those are areas where we expect young kids to make errors and just like the baserunning, when you make mistakes, you figure out why and hopefully you can make adjustments.

I asked for Molitor’s thoughts concerning the defensive progress at third base of Harrison, as compared to Miguel Sano (this was a couple of days prior to Sano’s promotion to AA).

Molitor: I think that’s a fair question.

We’re all hoping that Sano, who’s a little farther along in the organization and in growth, in terms of getting close to the Major Leagues. Not unexpectedly, he made a ton of errors last year, his first year of being a third baseman in a full season and it was a plethora of mistakes.

It was misreading balls, it was rushing balls, it was throwing balls he shouldn’t have thrown. Trying to force an out when it wasn’t there.

But having seen him twice already this year, he’s made maybe a dozen errors so far and a lot of them are similar things.

But he’s been very diligent and asking for extra work and trying to correct mistakes.

I’m hoping his future is as a third baseman.

Travis, it’s a little bit early to see how it pans out. A lot of times, you can play three or four years in the minor leagues and then you get to the Big Leagues and there’s no room in that position and all of a sudden you’ve got to maybe transition. So you kind of hope that you get these guys a little bit more well-rounded. As far as their strength position, you want to try to see them develop that the most.

After the game on Monday, a Kernels win that was broadcast back to the Twin Cities on Fox Sports North, I asked Molitor about his impressions after having spent five days with the Kernels in Cedar Rapids.

Molitor: Well it was good to see them bounce back after three tough losses.

I feel like we got some things accomplished with some of the infielders defensively.

It was good to see (Candido) Pimentel back out there today. He had a better day. He still had one play where he got a little anxious about turning his back to the runner and he didn’t keep his eye on the ball and that’s kind of one of the things he’s got to work on is just catching the ball and understanding the speed of the baserunners on the play.

And then with baserunning, we had some guys out working on their jumps today and they’ve been aggressive trying to steal, so I’m pleased with that.

But yeah, I had a lot of fun seeing these guys and kind of seeing where they’re at at this point in the season and hopefully I’ll get a chance to get back and see them again.

Since Molitor had indicated he would be working with Byron Buxton on his base stealing, I asked if we should blame him for Buxton being picked off first base during Monday’s game (yes, I was kidding).

Molitor: You can blame me for that if you want. The (pitcher) did a nice job of holding the ball. I think he kind of built a little tension. The longer the guy holds it, you really have to concentrate on staying relaxed and he might have given him a little bit of a balk move, but that’s, again, learning time.

A hitter can help your baserunner out when he’s holding the ball. Call a time out, things like that. But that’s how you learn.

I asked for Molitor’s impression of Jorge Polanco, specifically whether he thinks Polanco can stick at shortstop.

Molitor: You know, I’ve seen him a fair amount and his arm’s probably competent at short but I still think he probably profiles a little better at second base in the long run.

Working on his footwork a little bit. He can get a little false step on his breaks to the ball and it seems like balls you think he might have a chance to get he comes up a little bit short. So we’ll try to improve his range a little bit and give him a chance.

At 19, it’s certainly too early to close the book on any one position.

Offensively, he’s just getting a little bit stronger and he’s got nice loose hands at the plate and being a switch hitter is generally to his advantage.

But I keep trying to keep them versatile in the middle of the field and hopefully one of the positions will pan out. But I have a feeling probably second base in the long run.

Since we had discussed third baseman Travis Harrison earlier, I asked if he had any final impressions of Harrison.

Molitor: He’s got a great attitude about work ethic and he wants to get better.

I think the main thing for him is going to continue to work on his footwork so his range is competent to stay over there, too. But his throwing’s improved. He’s a lot more accurate. I think he’s comfortable over there.

He’s still feeling for positioning a little bit. Sometimes I catch him maybe not quite in the right spot. There’s a reason you are where you are on every pitch and I think he’s learning that and trying to take some pride in it.

It was a pleasure to talk a little baseball with Paul Molitor and I appreciate him taking the time to answer questions. I think the thought he put in to his comments clearly demonstrates just how seriously he takes his work with the Twins’ young players and how much he enjoys doing what he’s doing. – JC

Prospects and Projects – Projecting the 2013 Kernels. Part 1

Since we’ve officially turned the calendar to 2013, it means Spring Training gets underway in just a few weeks and before you know it, we’ll be getting ready for Opening Day!

(Image: Kernels.com)

(Image: Kernels.com)

With this being the first year of the new Class A affiliation between the Twins and my hometown Cedar Rapids Kernels, I’m looking forward to the opportunity to bring more Kernels-centric writing to Knuckleballs and I figure there’s no time like the present to get started.

Over the coming days (or perhaps weeks), I’m going to try to introduce most, if not all, of the players that we may expect to see wearing Kernels uniforms this summer. Granted, there’s no way of knowing with any certainty who we’ll actually find on the Kernels’ roster to open the season, but we can certainly make some educated guesses… and if I run out of those, I’ll just pull a few wild names out of thin air and talk about those players, too!

The Opening Day roster will be limited to 25 players, but we’ll have no such limits here! It took almost no time at all for me to throw together a list of about 35 players in the Twins organization that look to me like reasonable bets to spend some time in Cedar Rapids this summer. Some will start the year in extended spring training and perhaps spend time with one of the Twins’ rookie league teams before, hopefully, getting promoted to Cedar Rapids. Others may open the season a rung higher on the organizational ladder with the High-A Fort Myers Miracle and miss out on being a Kernel altogether. But I’m relatively confident that most of the players we include in this series will wear a Kernels uniform at some point during the upcoming season.

For the benefit of those Kernels fans who are less familiar with the Twins organization, we should probably explain that the Twins have two “rookie level” short-season teams below the Class A Kernels. The lowest level is the Fort Myers team in the Gulf Coast League and the next level up is Elizabethton TN in the Appalachian League. Those Kernels who earn a promotion out of Cedar Rapids will find themselves with the Fort Myers Miracle in the “high-A” Florida State League.

Let’s kick off this series by looking at a group of catchers that Kernels fans might want to get to know. To my mind, the most likely catching options for Cedar Rapids to start the season would come from the trio of Jhonatan Arias, Tyler Grimes and Jairo Rodriguez. Here’s just a bit about them:

Jairo Rodriguez – Age 24 – Bats R/Throws R

2012: Beloit (Class A – MWL)

G PA BA OPS K BB 2B 3B HR
64 243 .265 .678 40 18 12  0 2
Jairo Rodriguez

Jairo Rodriguez

Outside of just six games at DH, Jairo made the rest of his starts behind the plate in 2012. He threw out 24 of 66 runners attempting to steal for a very respectable 36% throw-out rate.

Rodriguez was signed by the Twins out of Venezuela and spent his first three seasons in summer leagues in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. He spent 2010 and 2011 playing in US rookie leagues and the full 2012 season at Beloit. At 24 years old, Rodriguez would be older than most players in the Midwest League, so even if Rodriguez starts the year in Cedar Rapids, I could see the Twins pushing him up to Fort Myers at the first opportunity, assuming he performs at acceptable levels.

Tyler Grimes – Age 22 – Bats R/Throws R

2012: Beloit (Class A – MWL)

G PA BA OPS K BB 2B 3B HR
105 381 .202 .653 99 43 17 3 7
Tyler Grimes

Tyler Grimes

Grimes made 77 appearances at shortstop and 18 at second base (plus 1 at 3B and 7 as DH) in 2012.

Grimes was drafted by the Twins in the 5th round of the 2011 amateur draft out of Wichita State. He has not hit the ball real well in roughly a season and a half at Beloit, though at least he has shown a little power.

After the 2012 season, he spent time at the the Fall Instructional League learning the catcher position. Grimes could open the season with the Kernels, repeating Class A, or potentially be held back in extended spring training to work more on his catching skills with the Twins instructional staff in Fort Myers before starting his season. It will be very interesting to see how the catching experiment works out for Tyler.

Jhonatan Arias – Age 23 – Bats R/Throws R

2012: Elizabethton (Rookie – Appy League)

G PA BA OPS K BB 2B 3B HR
30 113 .301 .728 15 7 6 0 1

Jhonatan got in just 27 games behind the dish in 2012, but he threw out 11 of 30 attempted base stealers for a 37% rate. Of the three catchers I see as most likely to spend significant time in Cedar Rapids, he appears to have the most promising offensive skills.

Arias was signed out of the Dominican Republic and spent 2007 and 2008 playing in the Dominican Summer League. In 2009 he played for the Gulf Coast League Twins and in 2010 he moved up to Elizabethton. In 2011, he split time between E’town and Beloit, but struggled at the plate in his time with the Snappers. During the 2011 Fall Instructional League, Arias reportedly was tried out on the pitching mound, but he spent 2012 in Elizabethton back behind the plate.

If I had to bet, I’d expect the majority of the Kernels’ catching duties in 2013 will be shared by some combination of these three players, but there are a few younger catchers who spent time with one or both of the short-season teams in 2012 and could end up in Cedar Rapids at some point this season.

If the Twins do decide to bring in younger catchers, look to see Bo Altobelli, Kelly Cross and/or Bryan Santy.

Altobelli, who turns 22 in February, was drafted in the 21st round last June out of Texas Tech and signed with the Twins in time to get 18 games in behind the plate in Elizabethton. He hit just .230 and threw out just one of the 15 baserunners who attempted to steal against him.

Cross will turn 21 during Spring Training. He was drafted in the 26th round out of his Texas high school in 2010. He signed his contract just before the signing deadline and caught three games for the GCL Twins that summer. He also spent most of the past two seasons with the same GCL team. He caught just eight games for Elizabethton last season. He hasn’t seemed to figure out what to do with a bat in his hands, yet, hitting just .167 in his GCL and Appy games combined during 2012, but he did throw out an impressive 47% of attempted base stealers (15 of 32).

Santy played just 19 games for the GCL Twins in 2012 after the 22 year old was drafted in the 30th round out of the University of Washington. He not only threw out seven of the 16 runners who attempted to steal off him, but he also hit .296 and got on base at a .418 clip. Those are offensive numbers you won’t see in many other young Twins catching prospects. Of course, Santy was older than most of the pitchers he was likely facing in the GCL, which has me wondering whether the Twins might consider pushing him up a couple of levels over the course of 2013. If so, we might see him in CR.

Finally, there are two other catching prospects that I would consider long-shots to see in a Kernels uniform this season.

The Twins drafted Jorge Fernandez in the 7th round of the amateur draft last year, but Fernandez was drafted out of the International Baseball Academy in Puerto Rico and will just turn 19 in March. He caught 30 games for the GCL Twins last year with moderate success. I suspect he’ll spend all of 2013 in rookie leagues at either Fort Myers or Elizabethton, but I suppose there’s an outside chance he could find his way to Cedar Rapids late in the year.

One other catcher, Michael Quesada, contributed a bit at Elizabethton in 2012. Quesada was a low round draft pick in 2010 but as he was signed out of junior college, he’s older than Cross. Like some others on this list, Quesada has struggled a bit at the plate, but has had some success throwing out runners. Quesada, however, was suspended in August after failing a drug test, so he will start the season completing the remainder of a 50-game suspension. Unfortunately, since he was on the Elizabethton roster when he tested positive, the suspension doesn’t pick back up again until E’town’s short-season schedule resumes in June, so it will be August before he can suit up for any affiliate.

In my view, the Twins could stand to upgrade their catching at the low-minors level and I would not be disappointed to see them draft a college catcher or two in the top 10-15 rounds of the June amateur draft. With the accelerated signing period, I suppose that could result in Cedar Rapids seeing such a 2013 draftee behind the plate before the end of the season, but it’s not very likely.

Next up: Part 2: Corner infielders.

– JC

P.S. If you’d like to learn more about these and other potential Kernels, not to mention pretty much any other prospect in the Twins minor league organization, keep a watch out for Seth Stohs’ 2013 Minnesota Twins Prospect Handbook. Seth and his fellow writers annually provide statistics and write-ups on pretty much every Twins prospect at all levels of the organization. We’ll share the announcement when the 2013 Handbook becomes available, or you could just follow Seth at @SethTweets on Twitter or check in with him at TwinsDaily.com (which you really should be doing anyway).

 

Down On The Farm: Snappers Photos

The Beloit Snappers, Midwest League (low Class A) affiliate of the Twins, are making their last appearance of the season in Cedar Rapids this week with games Saturday night, Sunday afternoon and Monday afternoon, and as I’m prone to doing, I’ve been out at the ballpark getting a look-see at the young future Twins.

Snappers in the field in Cedar Rapids

I saw plenty of offense out of some of the Snappers on Saturday night and Iowan BJ Hermsen survived some early struggles to squeak out a “Quality Start” in front of a packed house that included a fair number of Hermsen fans. Beloit won the game 10-5.

Sunday, the results were less favorable for the Snappers, as they gave up three runs in the first inning to the Kernels en route to a 6-1 loss.

But enough about the games. The purpose of this post is simply to give Twins fans a glance at the names and faces of a few of the young players who are toiling in the farm system as they work toward their dreams of playing Major League baseball. They work hard and know they face long odds… and they deserve some recognition. – JC

Jhonatan Arias donned the catchers gear on Sunday

DH Michael Gonzales was the picture of intensity at the plate

SS Andy Leer takes his lead off 1B

LF Derek McCallum gets his cuts

RF Daniel Ortiz went deep with this swing... but foul

3B Jairo Perez rips a line drive

OF/1B Lance Ray checks signs before getting in the batters box

Starting pitcher Adrian Salcedo strides toward home

CF Daniel Santana watches a pitch sail wide of the plate

Relief pitcher Sam Spangler delivers to the plate

2B Reggie Williams readies on defense