Yes, it has been a while since I posted anything, so I’ll be surprised if anyone still remembers we have this blog, but I’m back home after a couple of weeks in Florida and it’s almost time for the baseball season to begin. So, let’s fire up the blog again and see whether we, as Twins fans, have enough this season to even be worth talking about.
We are not off to a great start.
First of all, the new Twins front office did virtually nothing in their first offseason on the job to improve the team. I was asked during a brief radio interview on KMRY in Cedar Rapids this week what I felt about the Twins’ fortunes in 2017 after spending time at their spring training site in March. I’ll say the same thing here that I said in response during that interview.
The Twins did nothing to improve their team in the offseason, so any improvement will have to come from further development of their existing young roster, guys like Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, et al.
The good news is that there is every reason to believe that Buck, Max and friends like Miguel Sano, Jorge Polanco and Eddie Rosario should indeed mature and see their games improve.
The bad news is that none of those guys can pitch. (Well, Buxton probably COULD, but it ain’t happening.)
This morning, many of the final roster moves were announced and we found out that the Twins will start the season with 13 pitchers and without the player that perhaps had the best spring training of anyone in camp, Byung ho Park, who was sent down and will apparently start his season in Rochester.
That leaves the Twins with just three bench bats and none of them are guys you would want to see come to the plate even as a pinch hitter.
The bottom line, it seems to me, is that the new front office is scared to death of their pitching staff. I understand that because I think most of us have been afraid of this pitching staff for a long time. But they had all offseason to address their obvious pitching needs and did virtually nothing to improve it.
So, to tell us they sent Park down because they felt they ended up needing more pitchers is really an indictment on their poor work in obtaining pitching during the offseason. Fans should not let them off the hook easily if this all blows up.
Now that I have that rant out of the way, let me just pass on some observations I had down in Fort Myers.
As always, I spent a fair amount of time on the minor league side of the complex watching past and future Cedar Rapids Kernels work out.
My sense, as I shared Tuesday on the MN Sports Weekly podcast, as well as the KMRY interview, is that the Kernels will have a better offensive lineup this season than they had a year ago and it appears that at least half of the team’s pitching rotation that finished the 2016 season will be returning to start 2017.
Lewin Diaz and Shane Carrier should add pop to the middle of the order and, for now anyway, it appears that Travis Blankenhorn and Jaylin Davis will return to start the new season in CR. That group could produce some runs if other guys can get on base with regularity.
It doesn’t look like slugger Amourys Minier will break camp with the Kernels at this point, but he should help out when he arrives later in the season, as could other bats such as Trey Cabbage and Wander Javier.
Jermaine Palacios will return and be among a large group of middle infielders worthy of getting opportunities in Cedar Rapids during the season.
Let’s wrap up with a few pictures from my time in Fort Myers.
Here I am
On the road again
There I am
Up on the stage
Here I go
Playin’ star(s) again
There I go
Turn the page
It has got to be lonely being Paul Molitor these days. About the only thing separating him from the tortured Bob Seger that penned “Turn the Page” back in 1972 is that he isn’t subjected to riding a bus somewhere east of Omaha with locals at truck stops making snide remarks about his long hair.
I’m not sure what he envisioned his life would be like as the manager of the Minnesota Twins when he signed on for the gig after Ron Gardenhire was let go following the 2014 season, but I’d bet every cent I have that he wasn’t expecting this. After all, his Twins are on pace to finish with one of the worst records in Major League Baseball history. Not Twins history, not franchise history, not American League history, but in all of MLB history.
This is taking place after a season, in 2015, that many people thought saw the Twins, under Molitor in his first season as a manager at any level, take a significant step forward in terms of competitiveness.
Sure, everyone knew there were candidates for regression on the club’s roster and nobody knew what to expect of their imported Korean designated hitter, but there were also players that we felt had reasonable chances to improve their performance levels over what we saw in 2015. Even the most pessimistic among us could not have reasonably expected this to happen.
But it has happened. The Twins are 15-37 as they return home to face the Tampa Bay Rays, themselves sitting at the bottom of the American League East standings at the moment.
There has been plenty written in the Twins community about what’s gone wrong and what should be done about it. Some of the suggestions have been reasonable, many have not.
You can’t trade players for whom there is no market and you can’t really flat out release most of them, either.
Most teams won’t fire their manager and/or their general manager during the first two months of the season, especially when that manager is only in his second season at the helm and the general manager has been around forever and is credited with rebuilding a farm system that is acknowledged to be among the best in the game.
Typically, you give the guys you left spring training with a couple of months to come around before you go about making significant changes. Your options are limited in April and May, anyway, because few teams are going to be interested in adding noteworthy pieces to their rosters that early, even if you are ready to turn the page sooner than that.
But we’re into June now and while most teams still won’t be prepared to make many deals at least until later in the month, it’s time to start initiating those discussions.
It is also time to start looking at what you want your roster to look like on Opening Day 2017. If there’s a silver lining to a miserable start like this, it’s that you don’t have to wait until spring training next March to start evaluating your options. You don’t even have to wait until the traditional “September call up” portion of the season. You’ve got a full four months to look at what you’ve got before you have to make decisions about which positions you will need to fill from outside your organization during the offseason.
The Twins are likely to lose over 100 games this season. It could be more. It could be a few less, but not a lot less.
It’s time to turn the page.
Listen, I like Trevor Plouffe. He has, in my view, turned himself into a more-than-adequate third baseman after nearly playing himself out of baseball at shortstop. He also hits enough that there’s nothing wrong with him being a regular in a Major League lineup.
I like Brian Dozier even more. He came to Cedar Rapids in January, 2013, with the first Twins Caravan after the Twins announced they would be affiliating with the local Kernels Class A team and did a great job on the dais. With the personality he showed that night, it came as no surprise to me that he eventually became a fan favorite in the Twin Cities. Like Plouffe, he turned out not to be the answer for the Twins at shortstop, but he transitioned to second base where he has done an excellent job.
When Joe Nathan departed, many of us were nervous about whether the Twins would find someone capable of holding down the closer role out of the bullpen. Enter Glen Perkins and the problem was solved.
Joe Mauer’s situation would command a full article itself, but his contract and no-trade rights make it a waste of time to even discuss his future with the team for the next couple of seasons.
These players, along with a few others perhaps, have had good rides as members of the Twins and they have earned every bit of fan loyalty they get. But the hard truth is that few, if any, of them are going to be part of the next run of winning seasons at Target Field.
Already this season, injuries have created opportunities to look at some young players. In most cases, those opportunities were wasted as players like Jorge Polanco and Max Kepler rode the pine during their time filling in for banged up regulars.
Maybe “playin’ stars again” was defensible early in the season when you were still trying to make something of your season, but no longer. It’s time to turn the page.
As Ted over at Off the Baggy pointed out this week, with Kepler being promoted again (this time to fill in for the injured Miguel Sano), it’s time to plug Kepler and the also-recently-recalled Byron Buxton into the lineup and let them run.
Sano’s hamstring will eventually heal and he’ll return. I find myself agreeing with Howard Sinker of the Star-Tribune who tweeted earlier this week, “Friends, I was less skeptical on it than most of you, but it’s time for the Sano-in-right field thing to end. Make something work, #MNTwins.”
I really had no issue with putting Sano in the outfield. He’s athletic enough that he should be able to play a passable right field and he has improved out there. But I’ve pulled a hamstring before and I know that, once you do that, it’s pretty easy to do it again. I don’t think putting him back out there when he comes back makes a lot of sense when it’s pretty obvious that it is not going to be his position long-term (and by long-term, we are probably now including 2017).
The Twins need to decide where they envision Sano fitting in. Wherever that is, whether it’s third base, first base or simply as their full-time designated hitter, I would just plug him in there when he gets back and move on to the next decision.
Bouncing Buxton, Kepler and Polanco up and down between Minneapolis and Rochester should end. Buxton is your center fielder, Kepler is in a corner and Polanco is in the middle of your infield somewhere.
I’ve seen others opine that Byung Ho Park should be sent down to Rochester, perhaps to make room for Sano when he comes back. I disagree, unless the Twins are prematurely giving up on him. He will hit AAA pitching, just as he hit Korean pro ball pitching. He needs to learn to hit MLB pitching and if the Twins plan on keeping him, he should stay in the Twins’ lineup until he proves that he can (or can’t).
I don’t know if Oswaldo Arcia will be in the Twins outfield for the next few years, but I know Danny Santana and Eduardo Nunez won’t, so Arcia should get more time out there with Buxton and Kepler (unless the Twins decide someone like Adam Bret Walker should get a long look).
The same situation exists behind the plate. Kurt Suzuki’s time with the Twins is nearing an end. I don’t know who will take over, but now is the time for the Twins to get extended looks at their internal candidates.
You could make similar cases for an overhaul of the pitching staff, but I’d be more patient with promoting the young pitchers, unless you get good offers for some of your existing staff members. I just see less urgency there.
Finally, there’s the Molitor question and that is tethered to the Terry Ryan question. Will either, or both, be back in 2017 and beyond?
Molitor will be entering the final year of his existing contract in 2017. Typically, no manager likes being a “lame duck” manager. He wants an extension in place before the start of the final year of his deal or he risks losing his clubhouse as players begin to tune his message out as they assume he won’t be around long.
Say what you will about the infamous Jim Pohlad patience with his front office, but I think Ryan would have a tough time convincing even Pohlad that Molitor should be rewarded for his work in 2016 with an extension.
Of course, that assumes that Ryan will even be around to make that pitch to Pohlad.
It’s almost impossible for me to envision Pohlad announcing publicly that he has dismissed Terry Ryan. It is not difficult at all, however, for me to envision an announcement that Terry Ryan has decided that, as the person responsible for assembling the roster, he is ultimately responsible for the results and that he is holding himself accountable and stepping down as GM of the Twins.
That public announcement would be identical, by the way, regardless of whether the decision truly is Ryan’s or whether Pohlad makes the decision that it’s time for a change. If you’re looking for public executions, you’re going to be disappointed.
If Ryan is contemplating that this may be his last season in the GM chair, he’s not likely to make a managerial change during the season. If he’s planning on being around a while longer, then yes, he could (and should) be considering whether there’s someone besides Molitor in the organization that he now believes would be a better fit to manage the new group of young players coming up.
If indeed Ryan is replaced as the General Manager, it would be much more likely that Molitor also would be replaced following the end of this season. The new GM would want, and should get, his own man to run the team he assembles.
Whether these changes in management are made or not should depend solely on whether ownership envisions the current leadership being the right people to guide the team through the next era of competitiveness.
Regardless, it is time to begin turning the page. Some of the changes can wait as things play out over the rest of this season and the subsequent offseason, but seeing names like Buxton, Kepler and Polanco consistently in the Twins’ lineup should start now.
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.
In 2015, Twins outfield prospect Max Kepler had his long-awaited breakout season, primarily with the Class AA Chattanooga Lookouts. He was the Southern League Player of the Year and, immediately after his Lookouts team won the Southern League Championship, Kepler was on his way to join the Twins for the remainder of the 2016 season.
Kepler had an injury-plagued season in 2013, not being able to even join the Cedar Rapids Kernels until mid-June due to an arm injury. In 2014, he made progress with the Fort Myers Miracle, but still wasn’t wowing the supposed “experts.” He had a very good stint in the Arizona Fall League in 2014, however, setting the stage for his outstanding 2015 season.
This has led to some conjecture as to what his role might/could/should be in 2016. The topic became the subject of a Twitter exchange I participated in on Monday but making a thoughtful argument on a matter like this in 140 character bites is all but impossible.
Fortunately, I have a blog that has no such limit.
I don’t recall how the topic was originally raised, but in essence, I believe the question of Kepler perhaps being utilized as the Twins’ fourth outfielder in 2016 was posed.
The immediate reaction, from informed persons with considerable experience and knowledge on such matters, was that Kepler would not and should not open the season with the Twins if he’s not going to be one of the three starting outfielders. In that case, he should begin the year on the farm where he’ll be an everyday player, preparing for a possible mid-season promotion.
This is a reasoned and logical view. It’s a view I would have shared a year ago. It’s a view I wouldn’t necessarily criticize the Twins’ front office for taking this spring, either.
But I don’t necessarily agree it would be the correct approach in 2016.
I don’t think we can rely too much on one very impressive season out of Kepler (or any prospect) and we can’t assume that he’s going to pick up in March right where he left off in Septermber, though he will get an opportunity to impress coaches and the front office during the Twins’ spring training. He may struggle against what passes for big league pitching in the initial spring training games and, if so, the only decision to be made will be whether he opens 2016 in Rochester or back in Chattanooga.
Just for the sake of argument, though, let’s assume he opens strong and is successful against the March versions of Major League pitching he faces, but not to the extent that he forces his way into one of the top three outfield spots with the Twins.
Now, what do you do?
Option one, of course, is that you still send him to the minors where he’ll play every day.
Option two is that you bring him north to Minnesota to open the season as the Twins’ fourth outfielder.
With a prospect of his caliber, conventional wisdom is that you don’t want him rotting on the big league team’s bench. You want him honing his craft in the upper minors by getting daily looks at quality pitching (though, clearly, not MLB level “quality”).
I’m not prepared to just blindly follow conventional wisdom, in this case, however. It may be conventional, but I’m not convinced it’s wise.
As things currently stand, the Twins’ starting outfield is likely to be some three-man combination of the following four players: Eddie Rosario, Oswaldo Arcia, Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano. If Trevor Plouffe remains the Twins’ starting third baseman on Opening Day, it’s quite possible that all four of the aforementioned men are with the Twins, making Arcia the likely “fourth outfielder.”
But, again, for the sake of argument, let’s assume Plouffe, Rosario or Arcia is not with the organization, Buxton struggles in spring training or the Sano-as-outfielder experiment goes bust.
In our “what if” scenario, then, the Twins are left with the choice of adding a replacement level fourth outfielder in the Shane Robinson mold or making Keper that fourth outfielder.
If the Twins were still in the midst of a run of 95-loss season futility, Kepler would be farmed out. If you have little hope of competing for the postseason, you give your top prospects all kinds of time to develop in the minors, even if they might make your big league club marginally better. You’re planning and playing for the future, when you can contend.
But the Twins of 2016 are no longer rebuilding. To my mind, every roster decision they make coming out of spring training should answer only one question – who gives us the best chance to win games at the MLB level?
I simply don’t buy the argument that Kepler’s development would be damaged by being the Twins’ fourth outfielder, as opposed to being a regular in Rochester if – BIG IF – he demonstrates that he is not overwhelmed by big league pitching.
Given the likely composition of the Twins’ starting outfield (and the fact that Paul Molitor, not Ron Gardenhire, is the Twins’ manager), Kepler would not rot on the bench. Most starting outfielders get one game off each week, either entirely off or where they serve as the designated hitter. That would potentially give Kepler three starts every week. At worst, he would start twice and pinch hit a time or two.
Together, Shane Robinson and Jordan Schafer averaged over ten plate appearances per week for the Twins in 2015 and they were not the only reserves who saw time in the Twins outfield.
Reynaldo Rodriguez led the Red Wings, playing in 132 of Rochester’s 140 games in 2015. He averaged about 25 plate appearances per week. If you subscribe to the “promote Kepler at mid-season” philosophy, he’s not going to come anywhere close to that number, anyway.
If the Twins can find a dozen plate appearances for Kepler each week at the big league level and if he demonstrates he is not overmatched in those opportunities, I would rather he learn to hit MLB pitching in the Major Leagues, not simply continue to show a proficiency for hitting good minor league pitching.
But that’s not really the point, anyway.
The point is that these Twins should be doing absolutely everything within their power to win Major League games. They found out in 2015 just how important every single win is and that a win in September is no more important than a win in April.
For that reason, if the Twins believe that Max Kepler’s presence, whether it’s his defense, his baserunning, his pinch-hitting or his ability to ably fill in as a starting outfielder two or three times a week, is likely to result in more wins over the course of the season than whoever else they might alternatively utilize in that role, then that’s all that really matters. You keep Kepler in April, period, even if that means Kepler doesn’t reach his full potential as a big leaguer for another year.
The Twins – and their fans – need to stop thinking like an organization still “waiting until next year.” Next year is now and the Twins should need to begin acting like they plan to compete with the Kansas City Royals for dominance of the American League Central Division and do so beginning in 2016.
That means you bring your best 25 players to Minnesota with you in April. If that includes Max Kepler (and/or Byron Buxton and/or Jose Berrios), then so be it.
Aaron Hicks’ trade to the New York Yankees on Wednesday brings to a close one of the more frustrating eras for a young Twins player in some time. Frustrating for those of us who closely follow Twins prospects, frustrating for the Twins’ front office and, I’m certain, frustrating for the player, himself.
The methods that Major League Baseball employ to bring new talent into professional baseball in the United States amount to the biggest crapshoot in professional sports. A 40-round amateur draft for domestic players, combined with a process for signing international talent at the age of 16, feeds at least a half-dozen tiers of development leagues. The result is a meat-grinder of a system that chews up and spits out young players by the hundreds every year, with only the strongest, most durable (and luckiest) few of the group even getting a taste of big league life, much less having a significant MLB career.
International players that garner multi-million dollar deals at the age of 16, like Miguel Sano, and top-of-the-first-round draft choices, like Byron Buxton, are better bets, of course, but the road is also littered with players in those categories that, whether due to injury or any number of other reasons, never lived their Major League dreams.
A then-18 year old Aaron Hicks was the Twins’ first round draft choice in 2008, the 14th pick of the draft, and immediately was penciled in as the next-generation fixture in the middle of the Twins’ outfield of the future.
It took 4 1/2 years for Hicks to get to the big leagues which, at the time, seemed like forever for a first round draft pick. Yet, when he did debut, after winning the starting centerfield job out of spring training in 2013, it felt to many like he was rushed. As things turned out, he almost certainly could have used more development time, rather than skipping directly from AA in 2012 to The Show to open 2013.
Hicks got off to a very good start with the Gulf Coast League Twins after signing in 2008, hitting .318 with a .900 OPS, in just over 200 plate appearances. From there, though, the path became more challenging.
He was targeted to start 2009 with Elizabethton, but by mid-June of that year, the Beloit Snappers needed outfield help and Hicks was sent there, instead. He struggled a bit at the plate, requiring him to repeat that level in 2010. His numbers improved in 2010 and, given that he was still just 20 years old, his prospect status jumped, as well.
Hicks’ 2011 at advanced-A Fort Myers was nothing to write home about, again costing him some prospect-status points. The Twins sent him to the Arizona Fall League that year for some more work and he excelled in Arizona, hitting .294 and racking up a huge .959 OPS, albeit in just 30 games. That was enough to get fans excited about Hicks’ potential again, heading in to the following spring.
He didn’t disappoint at AA New Britain, having the quintessential “break out year” with the Rock Cats, hitting .286 with 13 home runs.
That performance emboldened Twins General Manager Terry Ryan, who saw Hicks as being so Major League ready that he traded away both of the Twins’ incumbent centerfielders, Denard Span and Ben Revere, during the offseason leading up to 2013. Again, the enthusiasm turned out to be a bit premature, as Hicks struggled not only with the Twins, for whom he hit below the Mendoza-line level, but also at AAA Rochester, where he continued to struggle at the plate.
Hicks lasted less than a month into the 2014 season before literally “hitting a wall.” He suffered a concussion after slamming into the centerfield wall at Target Field in a game against the Dodgers. He ended up spending time at AA, where he once again excelled in 43 games, and at AAA Rochester, where he certainly held his own. After getting a September call-up, he totaled 69 games with the Twins during the season, hitting just .215 in his time with the big club.
Justified or not, Hicks earned a reputation within the Twins organization as having a less-than-professional approach to his game. Reports came out that at times he didn’t even know who the opponent’s starting pitcher was. Struggling from the left side of the plate, he announced he would give up on switch-hitting (a decision he later reversed, after a chat with Rod Carew).
The Twins did not bring Hicks north with them to open the 2015 season, opting instead to start him at AAA Rochester. To his credit, Hicks immediately set about earning another chance with the Twins. He hit .342 with the Red Wings and put up a .948 OPS.
With the Twins, Hicks was respectable at the plate for the first time in his big league career, batting .256 and hitting 11 home runs in 97 appearances. In addition, his defense in centerfield was a critical contribution to the Twins’ surprising (to many) 83-win season, despite struggling with a hamstring issue.
That’s the history with the Twins that Aaron Hicks carried into this postseason. Given all of that, it certainly could not have come as a surprise to anyone that General Manager Terry Ryan was willing to listen when the Yankees’ Brian Cashman approached him about a possible deal involving Hicks.
Reports have surfaced that there was interest in Hicks previously on the part of other teams, but the Twins were unwilling to let him go. That’s not surprising, since any overture before the 2015 season would have almost certainly been a low-ball offer.
We’ve also read that Cashman got a lukewarm response from Ryan to his first suggestion of a trade involving Hicks for Yanks catcher John Ryan Murphy, but Ryan became much more interested in the idea after the Twins learned they had won the right to negotiate with Korean slugger Byung Ho Park.
Adding Park to the mix at first base and designated hitter meant the idea of Miguel Sano getting regular time in the Twins outfield in 2016 went from just a casual option to a much more real possibility. Inserting Sano into the outfield mix with Hicks, Eddie Rosario and, sooner rather than later, Byron Buxton and Max Kepler, left Ryan with an abundance of outfielders.
It may be risky to assume (1) that Sano can play a passable outfield and (2) that Buxton and/or Kepler will be successful big league hitters in 2016. We also can’t rule out the possibility that third baseman Trevor Plouffe could yet be dealt by the Twins, opening up that position for Sano and taking him out of the outfield mix again.
On the flip side, however, given Hicks’ roller-coaster performance record, Ryan had to figure that now might be the best time to maximize Hicks’ trade value. The Twins needed a catcher capable of at least challenging Kurt Suzuki for the starting job behind the plate immediately. The Yankees had such a catcher available in Murphy and they were willing to part with him in return for Hicks, so Ryan pulled the trigger.
I’d like to say I wish Aaron Hicks the best of luck and I do – to a point.
If he had been traded to any team I either have some kind of affection for or at least have no feelings toward whatsoever, my wish for good fortune would be unconditional. He seems like a good guy and I truly appreciate the challenges he overcame to eventually be a significant contributor to the Twins at the Major League level.
But he’s going to the Yankees.
So the best I can do is wish Hicks all the personal good luck in the world in the future, while stopping short of being able to wish him good fortune in conjunction with his new team. I just can’t wish the Yankees anything close to good luck.
As for Murphy, I don’t know much about him, but all reports indicate that he has grown from a “bat first” catcher into a guy who is at least a legitimate MLB talent behind the plate. If he can perform in that manner and hit the way he has done historically, he’ll amount to a significant upgrade for the Twins at the position.
I believe that the Twins have multiple legitimate big league catching prospects in their organization. I believe that Stuart Turner, Mitch Garver and Brian Navarreto, to name just three, will someday catch at the MLB level, either with the Twins or elsewhere. They have different strengths and weaknesses and whether they become regulars or backups will depend on how they improve on those weaknesses, but they’ll get their shots.
It takes time, however, for most to develop into a regular big league catcher and it will be more than a couple of years before any of those prospects is ready to be “the guy” behind the plate for what, by then, should be a MLB contender.
For now, at least, Murphy seems like a very good cost-controlled addition to the roster and the price paid was reasonable.
Ho Ho Ho. Tis the season for being merry and jolly and all that stuff.
It’s also the season for publishing “top prospect” lists. Actually, it’s a bit late in the season for doing this, but I just haven’t felt like doing a lot of writing lately. So sue me.
This is the fourth year that I’ve put out my own list. I’m not really sure WHY I do it. It’s not like we really need yet another such list and the other people who tout their lists know their stuff better than I do (in many cases, anyway). So let’s just say I do this for fun.
As I was preparing this list, I went back and looked at the lists I’ve put together previously. I did a Top 10 before the 2012 season and Top 15 lists before 2013 and 2014.
It’s interesting (to me anyway) that this is the third consecutive season that I’ve had the same three prospects ranked 1 through 3 in some order or another. They have swapped spots a bit between them, but Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton and Alex Meyer have been in my top 3 spots for three straight years.
It’s more than a little exciting to realize that all three have the potential to make their Major League debuts in 2015.
Without further ado, here’s the list:
Miguel Sano – 3B – Why? I’m more optimistic that he won’t be a liability defensively than I have been previously, but more importantly, I believe his injury is highly unlikely to preclude him from reaching his ceiling.
Byron Buxton – CF – Why? I have some (not a lot, but some) concern that his wrist injuries could become chronic wrist issues that certainly could affect his ceiling as an outfielder and as a hitter. It’s not a huge concern, for me, but it’s enough that I gave the top spot to Sano, who I have no such concerns about.
Alex Meyer – SP – A lot of people are dropping Meyer and moving Berrios up ahead of him based on a year when Meyer didn’t break through as hoped and had some injury issues, while Berrios had a breakout year. I still think Meyer’s ceiling is a notch above Berrios’.
Jose Berrios – SP – But, yeah, Berrios DID have a really good year. He’s a workout fiend and clearly is intent on getting the most out of his opportunity to pitch professionally, despite not being the prototypically tall athlete that is in vogue around the league.
Eddie Rosario – OF – It was nearly a lost year for Rosario after his suspension and only getting half a season in during the summer, but he reclaimed his value with a strong Arizona Fall League. I’m probably a litte higher on him than most people.
Jorge Polanco – MIF – Yes, his cup of coffee with the Twins was more a matter of convenience, since he was on the 40-man roster, than reflective of his current abilities, but he did have a very strong season.
Trevor May – SP – His ceiling might be as a #3 starter, but he’ll seriously contend for a Twins rotation spot in spring training this season. That, in itself, warrants a spot in the top 10 prospects.
Kohl Stewart – SP – Unlike May, Stewart is at least a couple of years away from even being considered for a spot with the Twins, but even though his strikeout rate in 2014 was lower than hoped for, he remains a top of the rotation prospect.
Nick Gordon – SS – The 2014 first round pick had a very good short-season at Elizabethton. If he shows even more in a full season this year, he’ll move up this list quickly.
Nick Burdi – RP – The 2014 2nd round pick has legitimate 100 mph potential and an unfair slider. Should pitch for the Twins at some point in 2015.
Max Kepler – OF – We are seeing more flashes of promise on the potential that’s been talked about for years. He needs a breakout season in 2015.
Stephen Gonsalves – SP – The lefty showed real talent against Midwest League hitters after joining Cedar Rapids and was very young for the level.
Chih-Wei Hu – SP – I’m probably the only one you will find ranking Hu in the top 15, but he showed me more command – of more pitches – and more mound maturity – than any other starting pitcher in Cedar Rapids in 2014, and that’s saying something.
Travis Harrison – OF – Harrison is dropping out of the top 15 on some lists, seemingly due to his lack of home runs in 2014. I understand that, but I felt Harrison’s biggest need going in to last year was to cut his strikeouts down and develop more as a hitter who can deliver to all fields with some authority. He did both. The home runs will come, he didn’t get “weaker.”
Stuart Turner – C – I have to say, it is very difficult to pick a #15 for this list. I’m going with Turner primarily because he skipped low-A and went to the Miracle and, after a slow start at the plate, he hit better later and reports are he was as good as advertised as a receiver.
It is almost impossible for me to believe that I’ve created a Top 15 Twins Prospects list that does not include Lewis Thorpe, Jake Reed, Mitch Garver, Adam Brett Walker and Taylor Rogers.
I want to see Thorpe recover from his elbow issue without requiring surgery before I give him a spot in the top 15 which he otherwise deserves and I want to see Walker be successful against pitchers at least one level higher, given his issues with the strikeouts.
With Reed, Garver and Rogers, though, it was simply a case of running out of room. If they stay healthy, I expect every one of those guys to play Major League baseball (hopefully for the Twins). If you have an organization where those guys are not among your top 15 prospects, you’ve got a damn good pipeline going.
A couple days ago, I posted several videos I shot at the Arizona Fall League games I attended last week. Today, you get still pictures. I wish I had had an opportunity to get more pictures of Jones, Adam and Rogers, but I only saw Jones pitch once and chose to shoot a video rather than try to get pictures through the netting, Adam didn’t pitch at all in the games I saw and Rogers, of course, is injured and did not pitch.
I took a lot of pictures and shot several videos during my trip to Arizona to catch a few AFL games last week, so I figured I would put up a post to share some of them. I’ll split things up a little bit and start with the videos in this post.
I saw Eddie Rosario, Max Kepler, Jake Reed and Zach Jones in game action during the three games I saw in Arizona.
The Salt River Rafters made the trip across to the west side of the Phoenix area to Surprise, Arizona, on Wednesday to take on the Surprise Saguaros and, prior to the game, Twins prospects Max Kepler and Tyler Rogers took the time to answer a few questions.
Kepler takes a .289/.385/.422 slash line in to Thursday night’s game in Salt River, which is respectable for any hitter in the Arizona Fall League, but is perhaps even more impressive for a 21-year-old with no experience above the Class A level.
He’s happy with his performance, so far.
“I think I’m playing consistent ball,” Kepler said. “I’m playing solid outfield defense. Yeah, doing everything I can right now.”
Players in this league have been playing ball since minor league spring training started at the beginning of March, and Kepler confirmed that the wear and tear on the body starts to catch up with them this time of year.
“Yeah, it has (been a long year),” Kepler admitted, but he quickly added, “It’s been an awesome year, though.”
This is Kepler’s second year in the Arizona Fall League and he said he’s definitely seeing a difference in his game this time around.
“I’m more confident. I feel more confident against the pitchers,” Kepler reflected. “Last year, coming out of low-A ball, I just felt like all these big names were throwing at me and I was just a little guy in the big ocean. (They were) big dudes. Now I just feel like I can handle it.”
Kepler has been part of two minor league championship teams in his past three years of minor league ball, winning titles with Elizabethton in 2012 and in Fort Myers this past season.
In between those championship seasons, Kepler spent 2013 split between rehabbing an elbow injury during the first half of the season and spending the second half of the year with the Cedar Rapids Kernels.
He had some good moments with Cedar Rapids, including an opposite field home run in his first home game as a Kernel, that stands out in Kepler’s memory (“I remember that short porch really helped me out that first game”), but his thoughts on that season are admittedly mixed.
“The fans are unbelievable (in Cedar Rapids),” Kepler said. But at the same time, recalling his efforts to overcome the injury, he added, “It was rough, but I’m glad I got to stick with that good group of guys and I hope we can move up together because we’ve got chemistry on that team.”
That “good group of guys” that Kepler played with in Cedar Rapids formed the core of this year’s Florida State League championship team. That team was managed by Doug Mientkiewicz, the former Twins first baseman who has been prominently mentioned as a finalist for the Twins’ managerial job this fall.
The speculation has been that, should Mientkiewicz not get the Twins job, he may move up to manage the Class AA team that will be playing their first season in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
“That would be awesome,” said Kepler, of the possibility of playing a second year for Mientkiewicz.
Kepler also provided some insight in to what it’s like to play for Mientkiewicz.
“He’s wild,” Kepler said, while laughing. “I’d say he’s a little unorthodox, but it sure worked for us. We kind of went through a lot of ups and downs this year, but when we won, we won a bunch. And then when we lost one game, Doug would get on us, and I mean hard. But when he did, he fixed it and it worked for us. But, yeah, he sure was tough on us when we weren’t doing well and weren’t focused, but the rest of the year, he was a fun guy to be around. He was just like one of us. Yeah, I loved him.”
Once the AFL season wraps up, Kepler will take a little time off then begin getting ready for 2015.
“The offseasons are getting shorter and shorter,” he said. “But I’ll do as much as I can with my three months of workout.
“I’ll travel the states for a little, go to Texas for Thanksgiving,” Kepler said of his immediate plans after AFL finishes. “I’ll be going home (to Germany) for Christmas and the holidays.”
While Kepler has been playing several days each week in Arizona, pitcher Taylor Rogers has been not much more than a spectator during the games.
Rogers, a 23-year-old lefty who pitched at Class AA New Britain in 2014, was injured in the third inning of his first AFL game when a batted ball was lined off his shoulder.
Since then, he’s been sitting.
Taylor said Wednesday that he’s hoping that’s about to change.
Rogers said that he is, “finally getting back to square one almost – back to where I can toss a little bit. Hopefully I can get a few more innings in here before the season ends.
“It’s something I want to do. You sign the contract to play here so I want to finish this thing out and see what I can do. We’ll probably going to see how these bullpens go.”
Rogers, along with Kepler, Byron Buxton and Jake Reed, is a Cedar Rapids Kernels alum.
Though, unlike the others, Rogers’ time in Cedar Rapids barely was long enough to register on his minor league stats line. He struggled a bit during his three games for the Kernels in a very cold April of 2013 before being promoted to Fort Myers, where he had a very good season for the Miracle.
“Yeah, you know what, funny what warm weather can do for you,” Rogers said, with a smile, then added, “No, it was fun those 14 days or so. It was nice to get out of the cold, but I’m sure if I would have stayed in Cedar Rapids, it would have been a fun year.”
The weather in Cedar Rapids may have been chilly, but Rogers recalls the warm greeting he and his team mates got upon arrival.
“I thought it was really cool how that was the first year of the Twins being there (as an affiliate). What I remember was the fans really welcoming us. That was just really nice to see. Something like that you don’t see very often. They were excited to have us there and we felt very welcomed.”
I’m in Arizona this week catching a few Arizona Fall League games. This afternoon, I shot a couple of videos of Twins prospects Eddie Rosario and Max Kepler.
First, we have Eddie Rosario beating out a swinging bunt, followed by an RBI double.
Ignore the umpire calling Rosario out at second base. The call was overturned on appeal to video.
Here’s Max Kepler beating the Desert Dogs pitcher to 1B to reach on an E3. Kepler had a stand up triple later in the game but I was not shooting video at the time. There’s a picture after the video of his triple swing anyway.
Couple of other things.
Salt River won the game 14-2, yet the game was completed in less than three hours. We may not like to admit it, but the speed-of-play rules may be working.