A Week of Baseball in Arizona – in Photos

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.

While they wait for their turn to take the mound, relievers take turns playing catch with the right fielder between innings. This was Rosario's turn.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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,.

gonsalvesarteagaafl16bThis 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.)

Images from Arizona Fall League

For the third year, I’ve made the trip top the Phoenix area to watch a little November baseball in the Arizona Fall League and, while I have no pearls of wisdom to pass along, I thought the least I could do is share a few photos during the week.

The AFL consists of six teams that each use one of the Phoenix area MLB spring training sites and each big league team sends six or seven minor league prospects to participate. Representing the Twins this fall are pitchers Stephen Gonsalves, Randy Rosario, Mason Melotakis and John Curtiss, as well as shortstop Nick Gordon, outfielder Tanner English and catcher Mitch Garver.

As a bonus, for the first time, every Twins representative in the AFL is also a Cedar Rapids Kernels alum.

In addition, Ivan Arteaga is serving as the Surprise pitching coach this fall. Arteaga was the Kernels’ pitching coach in 2014.

After landing a bit late at the Mesa airport on Saturday, I missed the first half-inning of the AFL’s “Fall Stars” game on Saturday night, but it wasn’t a huge deal since Nick Gordon was the only representative in the game from the Twins organization.

After the league’s day off on Sunday, I got my first look at the Surprise Saguaros on Monday afternoon.

Garver, Gordon and English were all in the Surprise lineup on Monday and reliever Randy Rosario worked a pair of solid innings on the mound.

Now, here’s the photographic evidence of my attendance at the game!

Tanner English throwing a runner out at second base
Tanner English throwing a runner out at second base
Mitch Garver
Mitch Garver
Nick Gordon
Nick Gordon
Randy Rosario
Randy Rosario
Tanner English
Tanner English
Nick Gordon
Nick Gordon
Mitch Garver
Mitch Garver
Randy Rosario
Randy Rosario
Tanner English
Tanner English
Nick Gordon
Nick Gordon
Mitch Garver
Mitch Garver
Andy Ibanez (Rangers) awaits a throw from Garver as Brett Phillips (Brewers) slides. No, the picture doesn't involve any Twins prospects, but I just really liked the way the picture turned out! :)
Andy Ibanez (Rangers) awaits a throw from Garver as Brett Phillips (Brewers) slides. No, the picture doesn’t involve any Twins prospects, but I just really liked the way the picture turned out! 🙂

All photos are the property of S D Buhr. Use without permission is prohibited.

The Prospects of Top Prospects

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.

This should be the last year that Byron Buxton's name shows up on any "Top Prospect" list.
This should be the last year that Byron Buxton’s name shows up on any “Top Prospect” list.

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.

Nick Gordon sits atop a deep list of middle infield prospects in the Twins organization.
Nick Gordon sits atop a deep list of middle infield prospects in the Twins organization.

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.

-JC

Arizona Fall League Photos

I made it home from Arizona without a hitch, but since I had to get up by 4:00 am this morning, it already feels like I’ve put in a full day.

I uploaded over 400 pictures I took with my camera over the course of the three games I saw Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

I had more opportunities to get pictures of some guys than others. With the pitchers, I also shot video of some of their work (which you can find in the prior two posts from this week), which means fewer still shots of some of those guys. Also, since Taylor Rogers started a game the night before I arrived, I didn’t get any opportunity to get photos of Rogers.

Enjoy.

(all photos are by, and the property of, S D Buhr)

Nick Burdi
Nick Burdi
Nick Burdi
Nick Burdi
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Nick Burdi
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Nick Burdi
Mitch Garver
Mitch Garver
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Mitch Garver
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Mitch Garver
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Mitch Garver
Mitch Garver
Mitch Garver
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Mitch Garver
Mitch Garver
Mitch Garver
Trevor Hildenberger
Trevor Hildenberger
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Trevor Hildenberger
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Trevor Hildenberger
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Trevor Hildenberger
Jake Reed
Jake Reed
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Jake Reed
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Jake Reed
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Jake Reed
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Jake Reed
Stuart Turner
Stuart Turner
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Stuart Turner
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Stuart Turner
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Stuart Turner
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Stuart Turner
Adam Brett Walker
Adam Brett Walker
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Adam Brett Walker
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Adam Brett Walker
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I tried to get a picture of the Hooters sign and Walker kept getting in my way!
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Adam Brett Walker
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Adam Brett Walker
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Adam Brett Walker
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Adam Brett Walker watches his solo home run disappear over several levels of fences.
Since Taylor Rogers didn't pitch while I was there, this is the best picture I have of him (at least it kind of looks like a blurry version of him).
Since Taylor Rogers didn’t pitch while I was there, this is the best picture I have of him (at least it kind of looks like a blurry version of him).

Again, you can find other pictures I took with my phone, as well as video clips of Garver, Hildenberger, Reed, Burdi and Turner in the prior two posts at Knuckleballs.

Now, I guess I have to go in to baseball hibernation until spring training.

-JC

Wednesday and Thursday in Scottsdale

A not-so-funny thing happened Tuesday night.
CrackedSurface Yeah. It’s bad enough that the screen to my Surface smashed when it fell off the worktable in my hotel room, but I haven’t been able to get the cursor to remain steady enough to do anything with it, either.

Now, this was a 3-year old Surfac, one of the original models, so it was due to be updated soon, but honestly, it did pretty much everything I needed this kind of device to do, so I wasn’t planning on spending the money on a replacement quite yet. Plans change, though, I guess. So, now I have a new Surface.

I’m writing this at a place called Duke’s Sports Bar and Grill in Scottsdale on Thursday night. My flight home leaves at 6:45 in the morning, so this may be quick.

As I posted Tuesday night, I don’t have a cable with me to upload pictures from my camera, so I’ll try to post a bunch of those pictures Friday after I get home.

Wednesday, I made about a 45 minute drive to the other side of Phoenix to the Peoria Sports Complex (spring training home to the Padres) to watch Scottsdale play there. Adam Brett Walker II was in left field for the Scorpions and Mitch Garver DH’d. Scottsdale jumped out early and never looked back, winning 8-2.

Garver had another nice day. He was 1 for 2, with an RBI double, and worked three walks. He now is sporting a .423 batting average and a 1.224 OPS in seven AFL games.

Adam Brett Walker II hit what I’m pretty sure was the longest home run I’ve seen this season. He launched a solo shot over the left field fence, over the bullpen behind the left field fence and over a couple more fences that were well beyond the bullpen. For good measure he added a triple to the opposite field later in the game. Walker is hitting .283 with a .998 OPS in 12 games.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t shooting video when Walker launched his blast. I’m pretty sure I got a picture of his HR swing with my camera, but you’ll have to wait for the next post to see that.

Adam Brett Walker II before Wednesday's game
Adam Brett Walker II before Wednesday’s game

On Thursday, the same two teams played again, this time at Scottsdale Stadium. The results were similar, with Scottsdale winning 5-2.

The only member of the Minnesota Twins contingent in the starting lineup was catcher Stuart Turner. He contributed an RBI single in two at-bats and added a pair of walks. He also scored a run. Turner is hitting .231 in six games for the Scorpions.

Here’s a video of his RBI single.

I also got a look at relief pitcher Nick Burdi, who pitched the 7th inning for Scottsdale. He needed only 12 pitches (9 of which were strikes) to strike out all three batters he faced.

I had Burdi with six fastballs among his pitches. According to the radar gun I was sitting behind, he notched one at 97 mph, four at 98 and one at 99 (the strikeout pitch to the second batter he faced).

Here’s some video I shot of Burdi’s inning (does not include every pitch, unfortunately).

I wasn’t expecting any of the rest of the Twins’ farmhands to appear, but Jake Reed came out of the bullpen to work the ninth inning (he had also thrown Tuesday, though he only threw six pitches that afternoon).

Like Burdi, Reed had a perfect 1-2-3 inning. It took him seven pitches to get his first out (a strikeout) Thursday, but only four more pitches to finish his work – a one-pitch line out to left field and three straight strikes to record his second K of the inning. The gun I saw had him with one 93 mph fastball, one at 94 and three at 95.

Again, you can see the results for yourself.

I didn’t take a lot of pictures with my phone, so most of the pictures will be in Friday’s post, but here’s a couple I snapped with the phone.

Peoria Sports Complex
Peoria Sports Complex
Mitch Garver doing the autograph thing before Thursday;s game.
Mitch Garver doing the autograph thing before Thursday;s game.
Jake Reed signing for fans before Thursday's game.
Jake Reed signing for fans before Thursday’s game.

That’s it for me from Arizona. I should be back in Cedar Rapids by noon. I’ll try to get the photos uploaded and posted sometime in the afternoon.

-JC

Tuesday Afternoon in Scottsdale

I never make a list of everything I want to pack when I travel. I should, but I don’t.

I usually remember pretty much everything and I remembered pretty much everything I intended to take with me to Arizona for my little Arizona Fall League adventure this week. Pretty much.

What I did not remember was the cable to upload photos from my camera to my computer. If I had, you would all be enjoying some pictures of the Twins prospects that saw action in today’s Scottsdale Scorpions 4-0 loss. The best I can do is share a couple pictures I took with my phone and three short videos I shot with said phone.

Before I get to those, though, let me just say that I don’t care that the temperatures in Cedar Rapids this week are roughly the same as what I’m experiencing in Scottsdale. Really. I’m happy for my friends and family back home.

I’m getting to watch more baseball and I wouldn’t be able to do that in Cedar Rapids this week – and you’re not.

The only Twins prospect in the Scottsdale lineup today was catcher Mitch Garver. Fellow catcher Stuaart Turner and outfielder Adam Brett Walker had the day off and I missed starting pitcher Taylor Rogers’ start by one day. He threw four good innings on Monday, so I won’t get to see him while I’m here this week.

Garver caught all nine innings and had one hit (a double) in two official at-bats. He walked twice and struck out once. He’s hitting .417 for Scottsdale with three doubles and one home run among his 10 hits in 24 at-bats this fall.

Twins relief pitching prospects Trevor Hildenberger and Jake Reed both worked one inning on Tuesday afternoon. Hildenberger gave up one run on two hits in his inning, with the run coming on a solo home run off the bat of Royals prospect Bubba Starling. Reed worked a perfect 1-2-3 inning, striking out one.

Reed has yet to give up a run in the AFL this fall and has not given up a run in his 5.1 innings. He’s struck out 4 and walked 3 in his five appearances.

Arizona apparently agrees with Reed. He gave up just one run in 12.2 innings of relief work for Salt River during the 2014 Arizona Fall League and has been equally effective this fall.

Hildenberger carried a 3.68 ERA out of Tuesday’s game. He’s thrown 7.1 innings over five games, surrendering 10 hits and striking out five batters. He has not given up a walk this fall.season.

Hildenberger pitched for the Cedar Rapids Kernels this past summer, while Reed and Gaver were teammates in Cedar Rapids during the 2014 season.

After I get home on Friday, I’ll upload all the pictures I take with my camera this week and post a photo-heavy final article. For now, if you’ll pardon the questionable quality, here’s what I can give you from Arizona.

Here’s a picture of Scottsdale Stadium

Scottsdale Stadium

The backdrop behind the batters eye is not quite the same thing we see in Cedar Rapids.

Backdrop

I got to speak briefly with Garver while he was stretching prior to the game and took this after we caught up.

GarverStretchingHere’s Garver’s double to right-center.

And a few pitches from Hildenberger.

Finally, a look at a few of Reed’s tosses.

Mitch Garver’s Big League Spring

Almost exactly 11 months ago, Mitch Garver arrived in Cedar Rapids to get started on his first full season of professional baseball in the Minnesota Twins organization. This spring, he’s a big league catcher – for now, anyway.

Garver, the Twins’ ninth round draft choice in 2013 out of New Mexico, spent all of last season with the Cedar Rapids Kernels, not only playing a leadership role behind the plate but at the plate, as well. He hit .298, led Cedar Rapids with 79 RBI and was voted the Midwest League’s post-season all-star catcher.

Garver reported to the Twins’ spring training facility in Fort Myers, Florida, with the other Twins major league pitchers and catchers in February and he’s been putting on a big league uniform every day since.

Major League teams invite a limited number of their minor league catchers to big league camp every spring in order to have enough catchers to handle catching duties for all of the pitchers that need to work out their kinks during the first four weeks or so of spring training and Garver got one of those coveted invitations to big league camp this year. (Tyler Grimes, who caught for the 2013 Kernels, also is getting a taste of big league life with the Twins this spring.)

On Friday, Garver talked about his experience this spring in the Minnesota Twins’ major league camp.

Mitch Garver (photo: Minnesota Twins)
Mitch Garver (photo: Minnesota Twins)

After Garver and the Kernels wrapped up their 2014 season back in September, he spent a little time in Minnesota and Florida getting checked out physically, including a CT scan due to late season concussion issues.

“No issues there, everything came back clean,” Garver assured. “It was just an experience for me to make sure everything was OK. I got to see Target Field and everything around there. They wanted to make sure I was healthy enough to go back to Albuquerque to work out, so I was in (fall instructional league in Fort Myers) for a month to kind of iron some things out.”

Garver split the next couple of months between time with his fiancé in Corvallis, Oregon, and with his family in New Mexico.

It was while in New Mexico that he woke up one morning, about a week before Christmas, to find he had a missed call on his phone.

“It was at like eight or nine in the morning and I didn’t know what the number was,” Garver recalled. “So I called it back.”

It was a good decision. The call turned out to have been from Twins General Manager Terry Ryan.

“He asked me how my health was and made sure everything was good with my hips and with my brain and everything. I told him I was doing great, having a great offseason. Then he invited me to spring training.” That’s major league spring training, with the big league Twins.

“It was really exciting. Very cool,” added Garver.

Garver has been in camp since February 20 and, as you might expect, walking in to a big league clubhouse as a player for the first time was special.

“It’s very different because you walk in and you find your locker and you turn around and there’s five clubhouse guys behind you. Five clubbies, asking you if there’s anything you need, anything they can do for you at that moment in time. You’re just being bombarded with love, it seems like. It’s a cool experience. It’s just fun to be here.”

He’s not just there for the cool experience, of course. Garver is there to work. He’s rooming with fellow Twins catching prospect Stuart Turner at the new baseball academy that the Twins have built on-site at their complex in Fort Myers.and, according to Garver, their days get off to a pretty early start.

“I wake up at 6:30, we leave the academy about 6:40 and get over to the field. I like to get there a little bit early. They have breakfast for us over there in the new, renovated locker room and kitchen. And the weight room is right there as well. Sometimes you work out in the morning, sometimes you go hit in the morning or you do both.

“And then team meetings around 9:00. After that, we head out to different fields and do PFPs (pitchers’ fielding practice), bullpens, live batting practice, baserunning, bunt defense. There’s a defensive station every day. So either we’re catching bullpens or we’re doing something catching-related. For that particular day, it could be blocking or the next day it could be catching pop flies or anything like that. But most of the time, it’s bullpens and we get all of our work in during the bullpens.

“When it’s all said and done, it’s probably around 1:00 or 2:00 in the afternoon and you go have lunch and then you call it a day.”

The time Garver and other young players get on the field with major league players and coaching staff is valuable, of course, but it’s not the only aspect his first big league spring training that Garver is taking advantage of.

“It’s nice to get to know these guys (the major leaguers). You kind of want to get associated with them and learn what kind of people they are off the field, because you already know what they can do on the field. It’s fun to talk with them and converse about different things, finding out where people are from and all of these different stories they have, baseball related or not.

“Torii Hunter has some really different stories about everything. It’s fun to listen to him talk. It’s just a good experience overall.”

The experience also has made Garver even more aware of just how close he could be to realizing his dreams of being a major league ballplayer.

“It’s surreal. You’re playing with superstars and if you put it in perspective, you’re not that far off,” Garver observed. “Just a hop, skip and a jump away from being in the big leagues, whatever level you’re at.”

Garver got his first taste of big league game experience on Thursday night, as a pinch hitter, in the Twins first spring training game. It was memorable on multiple levels for Garver.

“I was sitting in the dugout (Thursday) night and we were playing the Boston Red Sox. People that I’ve only ever seen on TV, or only ever imagined playing against are in the other dugout,” he recounted.

“And in the other dugout is one of my best friends from Albuquerque, Blake Swihart. He’s one of the best catching prospects in the game and it’s just surreal seeing him over there. Then he’s catching when I’m batting and I’m facing a big leaguer (Boston reliever Matt Barnes). It’s kind of weird to think about it, but it’s right there in front of me. I’ve just gotta go get it.”

As exciting as the experience has been and continues to be, Garver is realistic and knows his time in the major league clubhouse is going to come to an end (for this season, anyway) shortly.

Mitch Garver as a Kernel
Mitch Garver as a Kernel

Minor leaguers begin reporting to spring training in a few days and eventually Garver will be joining them at the minor league complex across the parking lot from the Twins’ big league facility.

Garver is OK with that.

“Yeah, it’s coming. I know it is. Everybody knows it is. I think the 15th will be our last day and the 16th is the day we’re sent back.

“But you know what, that’s fine with me,” said Garver, in a tone of voice that certainly sounded genuine.

“I’ve come, I’ve seen, I’ve learned a lot of things thus far. And I think being sent down to the minor leagues is going to be a good thing because I’ll get to play every day. I can prepare myself for the season, as opposed to helping major leaguers prepare for their season, because I’m just kind of helping out right now.”

Asked whether he’d like to add a couple of points to his batting average in 2015, to get it up to the magic .300 mark, Garver laughed and said that was, indeed, one his goals. But then that’s not new.

“I want to hit .300, I want to make the All-Star team and I want to have the most RBIs on the team. There you go. Those are my goals. The same as last year and the year before.”

JC’s Top 15 Twins Prospects: 2014-15

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.

Miguel Sano
Miguel Sano

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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’.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. Stephen Gonsalves – SP – The lefty showed real talent against Midwest League hitters after joining Cedar Rapids and was very young for the level.
  13. 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.
  14. 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.”
  15. 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.

The Twins have a damn good pipeline going.

JC

Video from Kernels Walk-off Win

Just a quick post with a couple of videos I took at the Kernels game Thursday night.

First, we have Jake Reed, who pitched the 9th and 10th innings for the Kernels. Here, we have video of his 9th inning.

With the game tied at 3-3 in the bottom of the 11th inning, Mitch Garver comes to the plate for the Kernels.

And here we have the climactic moment as Bryan Haar comes to the plate  with pinch runner Jon Murphy at second base, running for Garver.

Kernels in a Dogfight for MWL Postseason Spot

In mid-June, after a brutal first half to their Midwest League season, the Cedar Rapids Kernels limped in to the MWL’s All-Star break with a 31-39 record, not only 14 games behind Western Division leader Kane County, but also 7.5 games behind the Burlington Bees.

The latter is important because, in the world of Class A minor league baseball, seasons are split in to two halves, with the first and second place teams in each division, each half-season, earning berths in the postseason playoff series.

Kane County and Burlington snatched the MWL West spots in the first half, leaving Cedar Rapids, Quad Cities, Clinton, Beloit, Peoria and Wisconsin to slug it out in the second half for two more spots, with each team starting with fresh 0-0 records on June 19.

With Peoria, Wisconsin and Quad Cities all assembling winning records in the first half, it was logical to assume that those three teams would contend for the Western Division’s two second-half playoff spots – and they have been doing just that.

Entering Wednesday, Peoria and Quad Cities were tied for second place in the Division’s second-half standings, trailing Kane County by just one game, and Wisconsin is two games back.

Clinton and Beloit have repeated their first-half fortunes, each at least 11 games under .500 and filling the final two spots in the standings, as they did in the first half.

And then there’s the Cedar Rapids Kernels.

Rather stealthily, manager Jake Mauer’s Kernels have turned around what, as recently as three weeks ago, looked likely to become a lost season.

There weren't a lot of reasons for Kernels manager Jake Mauer and pitching coach Ivan Arteaga to smile in the season's first half, but that's changing.
There weren’t a lot of reasons for Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and manager Jake Mauer to smile in the season’s first half, but that’s changing.

The Kernels lost four of their first five series to begin the second-half schedule and had compiled just a 6-11 second-half record through July 6.

They haven’t lost a series since.

Cedar Rapids has taken six consecutive series, against six different clubs, while putting together a 15-5 record in that time and launching themselves in to a second place tie with Peoria and Quad Cities, just one game behind Division leader Kane County in the MWL’s Western Division standings.

Since the Cougars and the Burlington Bees locked in their postseason spots in the first half, it doesn’t matter where they finish in the second-half standings so, from a practical standpoint, Cedar Rapids was tied entering Wednesday, with Quad Cities and Clinton, for the top available playoff spot, with Wisconsin trailing that group by one game.

The Kernels will face those three rivals 12 times in August and nine of those games will be on Perfect Game Field at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids, where the Kernels have accumulated an 11-5 home record in the season’s second half.

How have the Kernels propelled themselves in to a four-team dogfight for playoff spots entering the final month of the regular season? And can they keep it up?

The answer to the first question is pretty clear when you look at the numbers and there is no way to know the answer to the second.

In the first three series of their current six series winning streak, Cedar Rapids essentially bludgeoned the opposition. In those ten games, they scored 6.7 runs per game. It’s a good thing, too, because their pitching was allowing 4.2 runs per game.

The offense stepped up in those series, but since then, things have taken a pretty dramatic turn.

In the nine games covering the last three series of this stretch, the results have come from pitching. While Kernels hitters were averaging just 3.9 runs per game, themselves, the pitching was giving up only two runs per game.

Michael Quesada
Michael Quesada

Digging deeper, it’s tough to find much in the offensive statistics that indicate a significant turnaround.

About half the club’s current position players hit a bit better in July than they had been hitting and about half had fallen off a notch, perhaps.

Catcher/DH Michael Quesada appears to have found his stroke and is hitting .270 in July, with a pair of home runs, after a dreadful June in which he managed just .150 with no extra-base hits.

Fellow catcher (turned primary right fielder) Alex Swim is hitting .364 in July after posting a .267 mark in June.

Alex Swim
Alex Swim

But a number of their teammates, including Mitch Garver and Chad Christensen, who have been among the team’s offensive leaders all season, have seen some of their numbers fade slightly in July, too, so it’s hard to credit this turnaround strictly to the offense.

Perhaps the most important contribution the offense has made has been its consistency.

Before Tuesday’s game with the Burlington Bees, Mauer emphasized the importance of that consistency.

“Knock on wood, we’ve had a steady core group,” Mauer said. “Obviously, (Jason) Kanzler was (promoted), but we’ve had that set core group for about four weeks.

“Position player wise, we haven’t really changed much. It’s pretty much the same group of guys other than Swim and Wade playing a bigger part. Christensen, Garver, Haar, 3-4-5, have been that way since about May.”

The pitching side of the ledger tells a slightly different story, however.

As the Kernels’ manager observed, “The starting pitching’s been good, bullpen’s been outstanding.”

Indeed.

Of the ten pitchers currently on the Kernels roster who made appearances in June and July for Cedar Rapids, nine dropped his ERA in July, as compared to June.

The tenth, reliever Dallas Gallant, couldn’t cut his. He had a 0.00 ERA in his three June appearances and has exactly the same 0.00 ERA through eight trips to the mound in July.

Fellow bullpen arm Jake Reed also has a perfect 0.00 ERA in his six appearances in July after posting a 4.50 mark in June.

Chris Mazza hasn’t been that perfect in relief. His July ERA is 0.69. It was 2.25 in June.

Jared Wilson has slashed his ERA from 4.60 in June to 1.84 in July.

Hudson Boyd did the same. He had a 10.00 in June and a 1.13 in July. (Boyd, however, was suspended on Tuesday for an unspecified period of time for violating team rules.)

The sharpest drop, however, has to be Nick Burdi, the Twins’ second round draft pick in June of this year. How can you beat a drop from infinity to 2.25?

Burdi made one infamous appearance upon joining the Kernels at the end of June in which he walked all four batters he faced and all four came around to score. In July, he has allowed just a pair of earned runs. He has also struck out 16 batters in his eight July innings, while walking just three.

The rotation arms are getting in to the act, as well.

Aaron Slegers, who leads the Kernels with 113.1 innings pitched this season, struggled in June to a 7.97 ERA in four starts. It sits at 1.96 through six starts in July.

Aaron Slegers
Aaron Slegers

18 year old Lewis Thorpe posted a 6.50 ERA in his four June starts, but he’s cut that to 3.51 in his six starts this month.

Kohl Stewart, Minnesota’s top draft pick in 2013, had an ERA of 2.16 in June. That’s pretty good. In fact, it was better than Stewart posted in April or May. But he’s bettered that in July, posting at 1.32.

Stewart, unfortunately, finds himself on the 7-day Disabled List at the moment, with a sore shoulder.

His replacement in the rotation is Stephen Gonsalves, freshly arrived from the Twins’ Appalachian League affiliate in Elizabethton.

Gonsalves has made just one appearance for the Kernels since arriving, but the lefty threw six shutout innings against Dayton on Sunday.

Chih-Wei Hu, the 20 year old from Taiwan, wasn’t with the Kernels in June, but he’s posted a 1.50 ERA in four July starts for Cedar Rapids.

Chih-Wei Hu
Chih-Wei Hu

Earned Run Average is not the only important pitching statistic. Arguably, it’s not even the most important, especially among relief pitchers.

But when your entire pitching staff is slashing their ERA from one month to the next, that’s a sign that good things are happening for your team.

The Kernels have put themselves in to contention for postseason play, but they’re going to need to overcome some challenges over the final month to earn one of those final MWL playoff spots.

They may need Stewart to come back from his DL stint healthy and effective.

They lost their center fielder, Jason Kanzler, who was contributing with his bat and his glove, to promotion this week. He has been replaced by Max Murphy, who was tearing up the Appy League to the tune of a .371 batting average and nine home runs.

Murphy, however, got off to an inauspicious start, going 0-4 with three strikeouts and a walk in his Kernels debut on Tuesday.

The Twins’ high-A affiliate in Fort Myers is already postseason-bound, having clinched a spot in the first half of their Florida State League season. There’s certainly no assurance the Twins won’t tab more Kernels for promotion to aide the Miracle’s own playoff preparations. In fact, with the way some of the players in Cedar Rapids are performing this month, you can probably count on it.

However, right at this moment, the Kernels are in serious contention for the postseason and that’s not something many fans would have envisioned just three weeks ago.