I spent my final afternoon in the Phoenix area watching baseball this afternoon as Surprise (with 7 Twins prospects and pitching coach Ivan Arteaga) traveled to Mesa.
I thought a good way to put a wrap on this trip would be a post that includes several photos of each Twins participant along with some basic perceptions of what I saw from that player in admittedly limited action in the games I watched.
Let’s do this in reverse alphabetical order, shall we?
That means we start with lefty reliever Randy Rosario, a 22-year old from the Dominican Republic. I saw Randy twice, pitching two innings in each game. He gave up a couple hits, a walk and a run in the first outing on Monday, but struck out three in two hitless innings on Friday. Only one stadium in the AFL circuit shows pitch speed on the scoreboard (or “talent meter”, I’m told the pitchers call it), so I have no idea what kind of velocity Randy (or anyone else) had, but his fastball certainly was good enough to make some guys look silly with his off-speed stuff.
Next up would be another southpaw bullpen arm, Mason Melotakis. When I last saw Melo in action in a Kernels uniform in 2013, the Twins were trying to see if he could be converted to a starting pitcher. A couple of years (and one TJ surgery) later, he’s mowing batters down as a reliever. Melotakis was almost untouchable in his two 1-inning appearances this week, striking out 3 in a couple of 1-2-3 innings. He has given up just one hit in 10 innings. He has a 11/1 strikeout/walk ratio.
I was glad to hear the Twins were sending shortstop Nick Gordon to Arizona, not necessarily because I thought he was near being ready for the big leagues, but because I was anxious to see how he would fare against better pitching than he’s likely seen thus far in his career. If his AFL performance is any indication, he could really move up quickly. Gordon was 4-11 in three games this week (though he went hitless in the “Fall Stars Game” Saturday night) and had a double and a triple. He’s hitting .344 for the fall with an .875 OPS. He’s been successful in 3 of 4 stolen base attempts.
I only got to see one start from Stephen Gonsalves and it wasn’t what he, or anyone, was hoping for. Gonsalves has been dealing with a back/shoulder strain that caused him to miss most of the AFL season. He threw 2 innings in his return last Friday and managed to get just two outs in his start on Wednesday. His velocity was obviously way down and he struggled with control, leading to being charged with 4 runs on 3 hits and 3 walks. The Twins don’t give me a vote on these things, but I’d shut him down and just let him rest that tired arm. He should only have one more start scheduled in the AFL season anyway.
Catcher Mitch Garver is completing his second stint in the AFL after playing here last fall, as well. Garver was just 3-13 in games I saw this week, with one double, but he was hitting a lot of pitches right on the screws. I’d love to know what the exit velocity was on the balls he hit, especially in the first two games I watched. Seven of Mitch’s 14 hits this fall have been for extra bases, four of which have left the park on the fly. Today (Friday), he also threw out three of four runners trying to steal second base on him.
If the Twins sent outfielder Tanner English to Arizona to find out if his success at AAA in the five games he spent with Rochester this year was a mirage, they’re getting their answer. No, English isn’t batting over .300, but he’s making good contact. I saw him strike out just once in 11 plate appearances this week and, technically, he DID bat .300 (3-10 exactly) in the games I saw. English also covers a lot of ground in the outfield and I saw a couple instances where he cut off a ball in a gap to hold the hitter at first base, rather than give up a double.
Righthanded reliever John Curtiss started the 2016 season with the Cedar Rapids Kernels, so I’m guessing not many would have predicted he’d be finishing the year in the Arizona Fall League. But Curtiss tore through Midwest League hitters and got a quick promotion. The 6′ 4″ 23-year-old has shrugged off a tough first appearance in the AFL to have an excellent fall. He has struck out 16 while walking just 3 in 10 2/3 innings. In the two single-inning appearances I saw this week, he gave up just one hit, walked none and struck out two (both in today’s appearance).
I also enjoyed getting a chance to catch up with Ivan Arteaga, who served as the Kernels’ pitching coach in 2014 and is filling that capacity with Surprise this fall. I’ve always enjoyed talking pitching, baseball and life, in general, with Ivan and this week was no exception,.
This was my first trip to the AFL where all members of the Twins’ contingent had come through Cedar Rapids with the Kernels and I got a chance to at least say a quick ‘hi” to all of them. It’s just really enjoyable to see the way the players have matured as ballplayers now that they are so close to realizing their dream of playing Major League baseball.
(All photos are the property of S D Buhr and may not be used without permission. That said, permission is REALLY easy to get. Just ask.)
Yeah, I really should have looked at the Surprise Saguaros’ schedule before I reserved my hotel for this trip. After Saturday night’s Fall Stars Game and Monday afternoon’s Surprise game, the Saguaros (for whom all of the Minnesota Twins AFP prospects play this fall) have no more home games while I’m in town.
The game today was the first of four games that Surprise is playing in some other distant part of the Phoenix area. Just means I’ll be doing a lot of driving between now and Friday. Live & learn, I suppose.
The Saguaros dropped a 10-7 decision to the Mesa Solar Sox this afternoon (Tuesday). It was interesting, in that Mesa scored four runs in each of the first two innings and when the score stood 8-5 after three and a half innings, this was looking like it had the makings of a four-hour game.
In the end, it wrapped up in two hours and forty-six minutes. It is not a coincidence that they use the pitch clock in this league. It really does keep the game moving.
It also didn’t hurt that the only two Twins prospects to take the field for Surprise, relief pitchers Mason Melotakis and John Curtiss, each worked a clean 1-2-3 inning when their turns came to toe the rubber.
Tomorrow afternoon, it’s over to Scottsdale. With any luck, some of the Twins’ position players will be back in the lineup and maybe I’ll even get to see Stephen Gonsalves get a start against Tim Tebow and the Scorpions.
As always (or almost always, anyway), here are a few pictures of Twins in action today.
All photos by S D Buhr and may not be used without permission.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Last week, Minnesota Twins General Manager Terry Ryan went back-to-back-to-back making three deals in three days in an effort to improve his club, winning the bidding for the right to negotiate with Korean slugging first baseman/DH Byung-ho Park, trading backup catcher Chris Herrmann for a prospect, which cleared the way for catcher John Ryan Murphy to be added via trade.
It has been almost a week since the last of those deals was announced, so the question has become, “Now what?”
I felt the catching situation was the most glaring need that had to be addressed this offseason and Ryan & Co. appear to have resolved that situation with the addition of Murphy.
Now, where should the GM turn his focus?
Given the state of the Twins the past four offseasons, it seems odd to say it, but I think Ryan’s offseason work should be about done already.
Let’s take a position-by-position look at where the Twins stand right at this moment, with some thoughts as to how they could still be improved.
Between incumbent catcher Kurt Suzuki and the newly-acquired Murphy, the position appears to be set. If Ryan could find a taker for Suzuki, they could just hand the starting job to Murphy and look for another backup, but that seems highly unlikely.
Joe Mauer is at first base and isn’t going anywhere. The Twins added another first baseman in Park, which was surprising to most of us, so the odds are stacked high against seeing another one added. Kennys Vargas remains on the periphery of the 1B/DH mix and now we’re seeing reports that he could make a good sized payday in Korea or Japan if the Twins are willing to sell his contract.
Brian Dozier will play second base. If the Twins get an offer they can’t refuse for Dozier, Jorge Polanco would likely get his shot at a permanent promotion to the big leagues. It’s hard to imagine the Twins adding someone else to the mix. James Beresford performed well in Rochester, but he’s a minor league free agent again this year and is at least an even bet to sign elsewhere after the Twins didn’t even give him a look in September.
Eduardo Escobar did everything anyone could ask of him at shortstop in 2015 and appears to have given the Twins the stability they’ve lacked at the position since the ill-advised trade of J.J. Hardy to the Orioles. The Twins will also have Danny Santana around as a utility player, should Escobar falter. It’s unlikely the Twins will go looking for another shortstop.
Everyone seems to think that third base is already crowded. Trevor Plouffe is still manning the hot corner, but is looking over his shoulder at the hulking figure of Miguel Sano. This has led many to recommend that the Twins trade Plouffe this offseason and hand the position to Sano.
While that might make sense, providing that Ryan could get fair value for Plouffe on the market (I’m not all that certain would be the case, but it’s possible), making that deal would mean putting all of the club’s third base “eggs” in the Sano basket. That makes me nervous.
Maybe Sano can play third base competently every day, but that’s hardly a certainty. If Plouffe is sent packing, Ryan had better have a reliable Plan B ready to step into the position. With Plouffe gone, who would that be?
There are few internal options that manager Paul Molitor could plug in. Do we want to see Eduardo Núñez as the Twins’ starting third baseman? Polanco and Santana have rarely played the position, even in minor league ball, but maybe one or both could do it.
Could a Plouffe trade be followed by the acquisition of a stop-gap type? Conceivably, yes. The Twins Daily Offseason Handbook projects 37-year-old Juan Uribe to sign a one-year deal for $3 million. That sounds a little high, to me, for Uribe, but if it’s in that neighborhood, it wouldn’t be a bad price for this particular situation.
Unless Ryan is really wowed by an offer for Plouffe, however, I think he’s better off keeping the status quo. Let’s see how Sano handles the position (and how he handles his sophomore season at the plate) before running the risk of turning the third sack back into the black hole it was between the departure of Corey Koskie and the arrival of Plouffe.
Likewise, the outfield appears pretty full, even with the departure of Aaron Hicks to the Yankees in the Murphy deal.
Eddie Rosario will be in one corner and the Twins are hoping Byron Buxton claims centerfield right out of spring training. They’ve expressed their intention to teach Sano to play a corner outfield spot, especially now that Park seems likely to get most of the DH at-bats. Oswaldo Arcia is another internal outfield option, but the Twins won’t (or shouldn’t, anyway) consider any option that results in Arcia and Sano sharing the same outfield, no matter how good the man in centerfield is. Max Kepler earned the opportunity to impress coaches and the front office enough in spring training to claim an Opening Day roster spot, but I suspect they’ll start him in Rochester, especially if the alternative is a fourth-outfielder role with the Twins.
And then there’s the pitching staff.
The predominant theory seems to be that the Twins have plenty of internal options to fill out their rotation, but need to look to the free agent and/or trade market to improve their bullpen.
I disagree. Not that the bullpen wasn’t bad (it was), but I disagree with that approach to fixing it. I would prefer to fix the bullpen by improving the rotation even more.
There are four pitchers that you have to figure should be locks to open in the Twins’ rotation. Ervin Santana, Tyler Duffey, Kyle Gibson and Phil Hughes will, unless traded or injured before then, open the year as Twins starters.
Trevor May, Alex Meyer, Tommy Milone, Jose Berrios and Ricky Nolasco all have starter pedigrees, in the minors and/or Major Leagues, and any of the five could earn the Twins’ fifth rotation spot. But if the Twins are set on being more than just a borderline contender in the American League Central Division, you have to ask yourself whether they could do better than those five pitchers in that final rotation opening.
Now, I’m a Zack Greinke fan from way back. After the 2010 season, I advocated here for the Twins to engineer a trade with the Royals to acquire Greinke. Five years later, I’d still love to have him at the top of the Twins’ rotation, but the Twins are not going to shell out the $25+ million per year over 5+ years that is being projected as being what it will take to sign the free agent – alas, nor should they.
Likewise, you can pretty much rule out names like Price, Cueto, Samardzija and Zimmerman, all of which are likely to garner $100+ million/5+ year deals on the open market. That’s an awful big commitment to make to pitchers who, in each case, come with some significant question marks about their abilities to perform at “ace” levels for the next half-decade. Only Price, in my view, is worth that kind of money. Unfortunately, he won’t be had for that kind of money – it will likely take over $200 million to get him. Ouch.
Berrios is a future Twins starter. May and Meyer could very well be future rotation fixtures, as well. The big unknown, in each case, is the definite arrival time of that future. We just don’t know. It could be April, 2016, and if it is, for just one of those pitchers, then the rotation question is asked and answered.
However, like the situation with Sano as a full time third baseman, relying on any of the five possible fifth starters currently on the roster to be good enough to help propel the Twins into an elite-level team in 2016 is pretty risky.
If Ryan decides to take that risk, it’s fine with me, but I wouldn’t mind seeing the Twins take a one-year flyer on Doug Fister, who certainly will be looking for a make-good contract to rebuild his value with an eye on trying free agency again next year. Two years ago, Fister was traded to Washington after 2 ½ successful years in a Tigers uniform. Had he been a free agent a year ago after notching a 2.31 ERA over 25 starts for the Nationals, he’d have undoubtedly been near the top of every team’s free agent starting pitcher wish-list.
But he was Washington property for another year and he did not live up to expectations in 2015, to put it mildly. He lost his starting rotation spot as the dysfunctional Nationals faltered and he finished the season working out of the bullpen.
Could a return to the familiar AL Central spur a revival of Fister’s starting career? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t mind if the Twins spent $10-15 million or so to find out. At that price, they can afford the risk. If it works out, he’s more than just another fifth starter. If it doesn’t work, all they’ve lost is a few bucks and they move on with whoever is looking the best from among the internal options.
With a rotation of Santana, Duffey, Gibson, Hughes and Fister, you are left with a lot of pretty strong options to improve your bullpen.
Glen Perkins and Kevin Jepsen will be there. You have to be concerned with the way Perkins pitched the last half of 2015 and I’m not certain Jepsen is really as good as he looked after being acquired from the Rays, but those two will be cornerstones of the 2016 relief corps, if they’re healthy.
Now, just for fun, plug the following five arms into the bullpen: Trevor May, Alex Meyer, Tommy Milone, Jose Berrios and Ricky Nolasco.
Yes, that leaves just Perkins and Milone as lefty arms, so I’d like to see Logan Darnell make the team, meaning Nolasco is cut loose or one of Meyer/Berrios is kept in Rochester to stay stretched out in case there’s an early hole to plug in the rotation.
No team survives a season without running 7-10 pitchers through their rotation during the year and all five of these guys could work their way into starting roles either by their own performance or attrition among those who open the year as starters.
But the point remains that the Twins have pitching that is capable of bolstering their bullpen and I’d spend $10-15 million to take a chance on Fister improving the rotation. Then, as the dominoes fall, quality internal pitchers are pushed to the bullpen.
To me, that’s preferable to making multi-year commitments to one or more of the flavor-of-the-month relief arms available in free agency when the Twins have guys like Nick Burdi, Jake Reed, J.T. Chargois, Taylor Rogers, Zach Jones, Alex Wimmers and Mason Melotakis (to name just a few), any of which could become high-quality internal bullpen options before 2016 is over. Even 2015 top draft pick Tyler Jay, who will be given an opportunity to work in a minor league rotation somewhere to start the season, could be called on for a big league relief role, if needed at some point.
The best free agent bullpen arms will command large, multi-year deals, which the Twins should not invest in, and the next tier on the open market are no more likely to provide consistent quality relief innings than the Twins’ own internal options.
The bottom line, for me, is that Terry Ryan can get Park signed, make a deal with Fister, then go on vacation, as far as I’m concerned. If he can get someone to take Nolasco’s contract off his hands, terrific, but otherwise, I’d be content to head to spring training with that roster.
The 2013 season was, by almost all measures, a successful maiden season for the affiliation between the Cedar Rapids Kernels and their new Major League parent, the Minnesota Twins. Now, fall is bringing out the first of what will be many published organizational “top prospect” lists, signaling that it’s not too early to begin looking at what kind of talent the Twins will be sending to Cedar Rapids in 2014.
A peek at that list not only confirms for Kernels fans that they had the opportunity to watch a number of future Major Leaguers on Perfect Game Field this year, but also gives a clue as to what Cedar Rapids fans can expect to see next summer.
Sickels wrote that the “Twins system is among the elite in the game,” and a number of recent Kernels are among the reasons for that high praise. He also believes that, “there are some lively arms of promise at the lower levels,” in the Twins organization, which should tip off Kernels fans to what they can expect to see in 2014.
Sickels uses a grading system (A, B, C, etc.) to rank the prospect status of minor leaguers and he is not an easy grader. As he writes, “Grade C+ is actually good praise, and some C+ prospects (especially at lower levels) turn out very well indeed.” Of the hundreds of minor league players in the Twins organization, 24 attained that C+ grade, or better, from Sickels this fall. That may not sound like many, but it’s actually a high number for one organization.
Byron Buxton, who patrolled centerfield for the Kernels during the first half of the 2013 campaign, was one of two Twins prospects (along with Class AA slugger Miguel Sano) to attain Grade A prospect status from Sickels. Wrote Sickels, “Few organizations can boast a pair of potential superstar Grade A talents like Buxton and Sano, and the Twins have good depth beyond them…”
Buxton ranks as the number one prospect in the organization, on Sickels’ list, but five other Kernels alumni also rank in his Top Twenty.
Right handed pitcher Jose Berrios gets a B grade from Sickels and ranks sixth among Twins prospects. Both infielder Jorge Polanco (B) and outfielder/first baseman Max Kepler (B) make the organizational Top Ten, coming in at numbers nine and ten, respectively, in Sickels’ rankings.
Third baseman Travis Harrison earns a B-/C+ from Sickels and the number 11 ranking, while outfielder Adam Brett Walker’s C+/B- grade placed him at number 13.
Four additional Kernels, infielder Niko Goodrum and pitchers Mason Melotakis, Taylor Rogers and Miguel Sulbaran pulled C+ grades from Sickels and fell just outside the Top Twenty. In essence, this means ten members of the 2013 Kernels are among Sickels’ Top 24 Twins Prospects going in to the offseason.
As for the future, grading recently signed or drafted ballplayers that haven’t yet competed in a full season of professional baseball is a tricky business, but Sickels placed five such Twins prospects among his organizational Top Twenty. All five are pitchers.
Kohl Stewart, a right hander who was the Twins top draft pick in last summer, leads that list with a B+ grade from Sickels and his number three ranking in the organization. Sickels’ wrote that Stewart, “was the best high school pitcher in the draft and showed good command of plus stuff in his pro debut.”
Lefty Lewis Thorpe, an Australian 17-year-old, reportedly grew an inch and added something close to 50 pounds and several miles per hour to his fastball this past summer. Sickels grades him at a B- and places him seventh among Twins’ prospects. Thorpe pitched in the Gulf Coast League (the lowest US rookie league team among Twins affiliates) in 2013 making it highly unlikely that he starts 2014 in Cedar Rapids and may not arrive until the following summer.
Felix Jorge (number 17), Stephen Gonsalves (19) and Ryan Eades (20) slip in to Sickels’ Top Twenty, as well, all with C+ grades.
Jorge is a righthander from the Dominican Republic who had a very good year for Elizabethton in 2013, striking out 72 hitters in just 61 innings covering his 12 starts.
Gonsalves, a lefty and the Twins’ fourth round pick last June, only threw 28 innings combined during time with both Twins rookie league teams in 2013 but was a strike out machine and posted a 0.95 Earned Run Average.
Eades, another righthander, was the Twins’ second round pick in 2013 out of LSU. He accumulated just 15 2/3 innings of work for Elizabethton this summer but will be 22 years old by opening day in 2014, making it possible the Twins would try to accelerate his movement through the organization.
It could be years before Cedar Rapids fans see another collection of hitters in Kernels uniforms the likes of the group that the Twins sent through town in 2013. Buxton could well be wearing a Minnesota Twins uniform and calling Target Field in Minneapolis his home by the end of the coming season. By 2016, several of his Kernels teammates could join him with the Twins.
While Kernels hitters in 2014 are not likely to measure up to what fans saw this year, a pitching staff that could include Stewart, Jorge, Gonsalves, Eades and, possibly by the end of the season Thorpe as well, has the potential to be among the best in the Midwest League.
In baseball’s postseason, “every single pitch is so important; every at-bat, no matter what inning.”
That was Cedar Rapids Kernels third baseman Travis Harrison talking after Monday’s regular season finale about the playoffs, which start for the Kernels Wednesday night in Davenport against the Quad Cities River Bandits.
Harrison knows what he’s talking about, too. He was a member of the rookie level Elizabethton Twins team that won the Appalachian League a year ago.
Elizabethton won two “best-of-three games” series to claim the league title last year, but Harrison and his teammates will need to do that much this year just to earn a berth in the Midwest League Championship Series as the representative of the league’s Western Division.
If they can best the River Bandits in the first best-of-three series, they’ll take on the survivor of a similar series between Clinton and Beloit in another best-of-three challenge. The Championship Series between the Eastern and Western Division representatives is a best-of-five games series that will decide who wears the Midwest League crown for 2013.
Cedar Rapids has not worn that crown since 1994 and has not qualified for the league Championship Series since 1997.
The Kernels finished the 2013 season with an 88-50 record overall. They secured a playoff spot with a second place finish in the first half of their season with a 40-28 record and then improved to a 48-22 record to finish first in the Western Division in the second half of the season.
Their 88 wins equals the most wins for a Cedar Rapids team since joining the Midwest League in 1962. To provide context, if applied to a Major League team’s 162 schedule, the Kernels’ winning percentage would have them on pace to win 103 games.
This playoff thing may be relatively new to Kernels fans, who haven’t seen their team play in the postseason since 2010, but almost half the Kernels’ current roster were with the Appalachian League Champions in Elizabethton a year ago.
In addition to Harrison, infielders Niko Goodrum and Jorge Polanco, outfielders Max Kepler and Adam Brett Walker, catcher Bo Altobelli and pitchers Brett Lee, Jose Berrios, and Hudson Boyd all saw playoff action with Elizabethton. Mason Melotakis, Dallas Gallant and Michael Quesada were also members of that Championship team during the course of the 2012 season.
Melotakis made two postseason appearances with the Beloit Snappers’ Midwest League playoff team at the end of 2012.
A number of other players that spent time with the Kernels this season, including Byron Buxton and Dalton Hicks, were also members of the champions from “E’town”. Hicks hit a walk-off grand slam home run in the 12th inning of the deciding game of the championship series.
Walker believes the postseason experience he and his teammates are getting is part of their development. “Going out there and having a series where everything’s on the line. I think it’s pretty important. It’s an exciting feeling to be able to get that experience.”
With a smile, Walker added, “I know if you get in the big leagues it’s going to be a little bit different.”
It has been a long season for the Kernels players, especially those such as Harrison and Walker, who have both been a part of the Kernels since Opening Day, 138 games ago.
That doesn’t matter, according to Harrison. “The playoffs are totally different. You just have to grind it out. If you’re sore, it just goes away. You’ve got so much adrenaline, you’re just ready to go. It’s a good time.”
Quesada believes the Kernels are ready. “We’ve got all the confidence in the world, especially after last year. We’ve got the pitching, got the hitting. It’s all ready to come together at one time.”
Walker remembers that championship feeling and is ready for more. “We know what it feels like. It’s a really great feeling to be able to go out there and win a championship.”
Harrison perhaps summed up the feelings best. “First two years, two rings. That would be pretty cool.”
Cedar Rapids Kernels pitcher Mason Melotakis and first baseman Dalton (DJ) Hicks are roommates this summer, sharing the same host family during their stay in Cedar Rapids. Both players played major roles with the Kernels as the team qualified for the Midwest League Playoffs by finishing second in the league’s Western Division during the first half of the season and both could be candidates for promotion at some point this summer.
Melotakis leads the Kernels pitching staff in wins with six and in innings pitched with 64 2/3 innings. Those six wins are good for the fourth spot among Midwest League pitchers. The lefty has been perhaps the most consistently reliable member of the Kernels’ rotation in recent weeks.
Hicks has been one of the biggest power hitting threats in the Midwest League. He leads the Midwest League with 63 RBI in 66 games played for the Kernels and is third in the League with 12 home runs (just one home run behind co-leaders Renato Nunez of Beloit and Rock Shoulders of Kane County). Hicks is one of eight Kernels named to the Midwest League’s Western Division All-Star Team.
Melotakis was drafted in the second round of the 2012 First-year Player Draft by the Twins out of Northwestern State University. Hicks was the Twins’ 17th round draft choice the same year out of the University of Central Florida.
On the final Saturday before the end of the first half of their Midwest League season, Hicks and Melotakis both sat down for interviews and reflected on their seasons, so far. (The interviews were conducted separately, but since similar questions were asked of each player, we’ve combined their responses here.)
Jim Crikket: DJ, How do you feel the first couple of months in Cedar Rapids have gone for you personally?
DJ Hicks: I feel good. You know, baseball is a tough game. You’re obviously going to have some ups and downs. The thing is, you’ve got to be the same person day in and day out and I think that’s the key to success is not to get too high or too low, just stay the same.
JC: Mason, you’re one of the pitchers the Twins organization is looking at converting to a starting pitching role after spending most of your time prior to this season working out of the bullpen. How do you think things have gone with that so far?
Mason Melotakis: I think it’s going well. I mean every day is a new day and every outing is a new outing. Different stuff is working for me on that day. It’s a lot of learning how to pitch and how to adjust as the game goes on versus as a reliever, you’d better have your good stuff right then and there. As a starter, you can kind of turn it on later on.
Early in the year, I struggled in the first inning or early in the game, then it seemed like I settled in. Now I’m adjusting to starting off strong and continuing strong.
JC: DJ, you profile as a first baseman/designated hitter. That’s a similar profile to a couple other guys in the organization ahead of you, such as Kennys Vargas, for example. Do you pay attention to what other guys at your position are doing?
Hicks: No idea, because that’s something I can’t control. I can’t control what they do. I wish them the best, especially a guy like Vargas. He’s an awesome guy. I got to work with him in spring training, great guy. But that’s out of my hands. I can only control how I play.
JC: Mason, the ‘book’ on you coming in to the year was ‘hard throwing lefty, nice slider, needs work on the change up. Needs to develop his secondary pitches.’ Is that what you’ve been working on the past couple months?
JC: How do you feel that’s gone?
Melotakis: I don’t think I’m ever going to stop working on that, honestly, because you can always get better and better. But we are completely doing it all over again. I’m throwing a new change up grip and a new slider grip. We’re going back to square one. It’s all about throwing strikes and keeping them (hitters) off balance.
JC: Are you doing that because what you were doing before wasn’t working or is it just a new idea, trying a couple of different things?
Melotakis: It’s more of a better feel. When I was throwing my change up in a game, it seemed like I was not having a good feel for it. Same with the curve ball, I couldn’t really throw it for a strike. So, if you can’t throw whatever for a strike, then they’re not going to swing at it. So you’ve got to keep them off balance and be able to throw it for a strike.
I really wasn’t throwing (the change up) for strikes or even close sometimes. As for my slider, this one I have a good feel for, so I’m going to throw it for a strike. You know, who knows? It could be two lethal weapons now versus just throwing them out there.
JC: DJ, I understand a couple of years ago, you had some health issues you had to fight through. A collapsed lung, I believe. What happened there?
Hicks: I was in the Valley League the summer after my freshman year of college. I dove at first base. I think I hit the grass. I felt a little weird. The next at-bat I hit a double and was really out of breath, really fighting it.
The next morning, I couldn’t breathe on my right side, waking up. I just couldn’t breathe. So we thought I cracked a rib or something. So I took maybe a week or two weeks off in the league. Then the playoffs started so I finished maybe a couple of games in playoffs.
A month later, when I got to UCF, I felt a sharper pain again, so we saw a rib doctor, a specialist, and he said everything was fine. Then we saw just a regular doctor, they took an x-ray and they rushed me to the hospital.
JC: How much baseball time did you miss with that?
Hicks: A lot. I was in the hospital for like 16 days. I had to have a couple of different operations because the first one didn’t work. They kind of told me I was done (with baseball) from the beginning. Then they kind of said maybe like eight months to a year and a half, pushing two years.
I couldn’t do anything for the first three months, I couldn’t even hold a backpack. Nothing. But at five months, I thought I was good enough to play. I want to say I played a weekend series and by Sunday it was hard to breathe. It was just too much, so we kind of laid off. I took the rest of the year off. That was my red-shirt sophomore year.
I played a little bit in that summer, but it was still bothering me. Then when I came back, it was just trying to run again and get in shape again. That was definitely the hardest part. Trying to condition with the team and just the warm-ups and I was done.
JC: Mason, the perception is that, in many cases, for someone that can throw a mid-90s fastball, the path to the Big Leagues might be a little quicker for a relief pitcher than a starter, while a starting pitcher’s career could be more lucrative. Did any of that go through your mind when the Twins told you they wanted to make a starting pitcher out of you?
Melotakis: Absolutely. It’s a good career path to be a starter versus a reliever. Right now, we’re developing me in to a good pitcher, as in pitching and not just throwing. Having three pitches I can throw for strikes versus just having the two and just blowing by fastballs.
My fastball’s there, it’s ready, but it’s the other stuff I need to work on. Making me a starter will give me more innings and I’ll also have a chance to work with adversity, adjustments, learning to throw strikes.
It’s just all about development this year. Who knows what my path is? But right now I’m enjoying where I’m at.
JC: DJ, You’re on Twitter like a lot of the guys are. Are you active on Social Media sort of things? Do you go out and read what people write about you, about the team?
Hicks: Not at all, to be honest with you. I’m on Twitter. I like Twitter. I like to keep tabs on all my friends, former teammates, guys that aren’t playing any more. I use it for that.
Of course, you’re going to run in to stories and see your name and stuff like that, but I really do try to stay away from that stuff ‘cuz that stuff just gets in your head.
JC: Tell me a little about your interests and hobbies off the field. What do you like to do when you’re not playing baseball?
Hicks: I like to hang out with the family. I’m a big family guy. I’m definitely missing my nephews, my niece. My niece actually just beat cancer at nine months old so that was definitely a struggle. Obviously, we’ve been cheering ever since we heard the news. She’s a tough little girl.
But other than that, I like to play basketball. I’m a big basketball guy.
JC: Do they let you play basketball?
Hicks: No, not any more. Now I stick to video game basketball (laughing). Any kind of little activities, any kind of games. I like doing stuff. I hate sleeping in. Mason gets mad at me all the time, ‘cuz I’m always waking him up.
JC: Mason, what do you like to do when you’re not on the pitcher’s mound?
Melotakis: Honestly, I don’t really know, man. Whenever we have off days, we don’t do anything. We don’t know what to do with our lives (laughing). I work out, try to get better.
I don’t really do video games, I’ve never golfed. I’m going to golf for the first time on Monday over the All-Star break. We might see how that goes. I’m not a big video game guy. I watch movies, I guess. I’m a big movie guy.
JC: What’s your favorite movie?
Melotakis: My favorite movie’s got to be the Batmans. All the Batmans, even old Batmans. Those are the best, I grew up on that.
JC: Down the road, what do you think you’ll remember about playing in Cedar Rapids? Have there been particular highlights during your time here so far that you think will stand out?
Melotakis: Honestly, just the guys. We’re all a pretty tight-knit team. Being in first place the majority of the year. I’m going to really remember that, just us winning more than anything. Just enjoying our time here. But when you’re winning, everything seems to be a lot better.
Hicks: One, we have a great team. Obviously, when you win, that makes everything way better. When you’ve got guys like (Byron) Buxton bringing in crowds, just for him, that’s something special. You don’t see the kind of player he is every day. Guys like JD (Williams) , it’s been fun playing with him. He’s a different character.
It’s a great town, great host family. I can’t complain about anything in Cedar Rapids at all.
Through May 21, the Cedar Rapids Kernels had built up an impressive 30-13 record and held a five game lead over their closest competition in the Western Division of the Midwest League.
They then left town for a quick three-game road trip to Beloit after taking three out of four games from Kane County. They had no clue at that time that they not only would get swept by the second place Snappers on that trip, but would also return home and drop all three games of a series against the last place Burlington Bees.
But that’s exactly what happened to the Kernels as almost every part of their game seemed to fall apart at the same time over the past week.
The defense not only started committing more errors than usual, but those errors seemed to come at precisely the worst possible time.
The timely hitting that had almost become a trademark of the team through the first six weeks of the season disappeared as they hit safely just 13 times in 54 opportunities with runners in scoring position during their losing streak and scored just three runs in four of the six games.
Perhaps most concerning, the Kernels’ starting pitching rotation averaged less than five innings of work per game over the six losses. The rotation arms gave up a whopping 45 hits and 33 runs (28 of them earned) in 29 2/3 innings during that stretch of games.
Kernels pitching coach Gary Lucas was asked what had gone wrong with the team’s starting pitching.
“I don’t know. These teams that begin with the letter B, Beloit and Burlington, took it to us,” conceded Lucas, after Tuesday night’s 9-4 win over Clinton.
“I can’t explain it. It’s been a little bit of everything here. It’s a bump in the road that all teams have, good and bad. Burlington’s turning some things around, Beloit’s turning some things around. We’ve got to overcome a losing streak and get back to our winning ways and hopefully this starts that process.”
Tuesday’s starting pitcher, Mason Melotakis, gave his team seven strong innings of work. That’s the first game a Kernels starting pitcher has worked seven innings since Tyler Duffey went 7 2/3 innings in a May 18 extra-inning win over Kane County.
Melotakis and Duffey are two of the Twins organization’s “conversion projects” this summer. Both were relief pitchers in college, but the Twins want to see if they are capable of playing a starting pitching role in the professional ranks.
To be successful, both pitchers will need to refine their secondary pitches – their breaking balls and change ups – rather than just rely on their ability to throw fastballs in excess of 90 miles per hour.
Melotakis feels the key for him is not letting hitters dig in against him. “I like to work in and out and make the hitters uncomfortable. I try to keep them uncomfortable and off balance in the box.”
Lucas feels that Melotakis is making progress in that area. “He is always going to attack with his fastball and he’s learning how to use it on both sides of the plate. The change up and the breaking ball are still a work in progress.”
“I think the fact that he’s using them over longer stretches, being a starter now and not a reliever, he’s got to do different things with those pitches,” Lucas added.
“He probably didn’t use a change up much as a reliever. In fact, I know when he was with us last year he didn’t. I think just staying on top of these kids and just developing touch/feel with their pitches. It’s a little inconsistent right now, but hopefully with innings, it’ll come. He (Melotakis) shows flashes of really being a consistent competitor with that fastball on both sides of the plate.”
In addition to developing other pitches, Duffey and Melotakis will also have to throw a lot more innings over the course of a season than they have in the past.
The Kernels are utilizing a six-man rotation that they hope will allow their starting pitchers to get through an entire season of rotation work without putting excessive wear and tear on their arms. It’s also hoped that doing so will make the conversion process easier for pitchers like Duffey and Melotakis.
But with the Kernels starting pitching struggling of late, could it be that some of these pitchers are tiring a bit as the team nears the half-way point of their season?
“It’s a good point. We should watch that to see at some point how they react and how their strength and how their stamina and their endurance (hold up).” Lucas said.
But Lucas isn’t ready to buy in to the theory already.
“Both Melotakis and Duffey, the key guys that used to be relievers and now are starters, they’ve got durability on their side. They’re strong. They’re hard workers. So I think they’ll be fine over the long haul. And they’re on a six man rotation so they usually get an extra day. We’re hoping that pays dividends as we move along.”
The Kernels added Hein Robb, a lefty from South Africa who just turned 21 on May 12, to their rotation this week. Robb replaced Matt Tomshaw, who was promoted to the Fort Myers Miracle.
Lucas indicated Robb would be inserted in to the rotation after Duffey, who is scheduled to pitch for the Kernels Wednesday night. That would mean Robb should make his Midwest League debut against Clinton on Thursday in Cedar Rapids.