What a Terrific Start!

It’s pretty hard to imagine this baseball season getting off to a better start, isn’t it? I mean, even the most optimistic of us probably wouldn’t have predicted a .789 winning percentage through the first week of games! This looks like it could be a fun summer of baseball!

What’s that? You say the Twins are languishing with a 1-6 record? Who cares? I’m talking about their full-season minor league affiliates! That’s where the action (and literally ALL of the fun) is!

The AAA Rochester Red Wings are 3-1.

The newest Twins affiliate, the AA-level Chattanooga Lookouts (with arguably one of the most loaded rosters in all of minor league baseball) are sitting at 4-1.

The Class A Advanced Fort Myers Miracle are 3-2 (pending the outcome of their Tuesday game – what’s up with these morning start times, anyway?).

And last, but certainly not least, the Class A Cedar Rapids Kernels are still on pace to be a perfect 140-0 at the end of the year after winning their first five games of the season.

That means that the four minor league affiliates, combined, are 15-4 through Monday night and have lost two fewer games than the Twins have managed to drop all by themselves.

Does this represent the Twins' pitching woes or their farm clubs' hitting prowess? Take your pick.

Does this represent the Twins’ pitching woes or their farm clubs’ hitting prowess? Take your pick.

Of course, it’s early. You don’t want to read too much in to the small sample size of a week’s worth of games. After all, will even the Twins continue losing at their current pace to finish the year with a 27-135 record? Of course they won’t. Well – probably not, anyway.

But while those of you who insist on following only the big leaguers continue to wonder why you’re paying big league prices to watch what even Torii Hunter has admitted to essentially being “Bad News Bears” baseball, here’s a small sample of what you’ve been missing on the farm:

  • The Red Wings have three guys, all deemed by Twins management to be unworthy of a spot with the Twins, with an OPS over 1.000. Two of them, Danny Ortiz and Aaron Hicks, would likely improve the Twins’ outfield defense if they weren’t wearing Rochester uniforms. The third, Josmil Pinto, probably deserves an entire post dedicated to discussing why he should or shouldn’t be in Minnesota.
  • The consensus top two Twins prospects, Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, both are in the Lookouts’ everyday lineup, so it’s not surprising that Chattanooga also has three guys with above-1.000 OPS numbers. Then again, none of those three guys are named Buxton or Sano. Stephen Wickens, DJ Hicks and Travis Harrison are bringing the lumber, so far, for the Lookouts. They aren’t the only productive hitters, however. That lineup is stacked, as expected. Their TEAM OPS is .829. Oh, and their pitchers are striking out almost 1.3 batters per inning, too.
  • Niko Goodrum is a .400 hitter, going in to Tuesday’s game, for the Miracle, who also had two starting pitchers, Aaron Slegers and Ryan Eades, who each tossed six shutout innings in their initial starts of the season.
  • No less than five Kernels hitters have put up 1.000+ OPS numbers through the first five games. As a TEAM, the Kernels have put up a .316/.380/.471 (.851 OPS) slash line. That Midwest League-leading team batting average is a full 47 points over the next highest team in the league. Not to be outdone, the pitching staff has put up a 1.80 ERA, so far, and have struck out 57 batters in a combined 45 innings of work.

Conversely, the Twins have put up a team OPS of .530 on the season, which is the worst in Major League Baseball. Their team ERA is 6.52, which is also dead last among the 30 big league teams. Not coincidentally, their 35 staff strikeouts is also good for dead last.

All of this might be more understandable if the Twins had made clear that, for the good of the franchise, they were going to punt on 2015 – that the plan would be to plug journeymen “replacement level” players in to fill every perceived gap in their big league roster, in order to give their much-heralded minor league prospects more time to become adequately seasoned on the farm.

But that’s not what they did. Every public comment from everyone in the organization from the end of 2014’s fourth consecutive 90+ loss season through the final days of spring training expressed the company line that they were expecting significant improvement this season.

That’s not really surprising. Twins fans generally hear that refrain every offseason.

The truth is that the Twins have been hoping that fans would be patient, because there really is a ton of young talent approaching the Major League team’s doorstep. From the sounds coming from Target Field on Monday, it seems that ‘patient’ is not exactly what much of the fan base is feeling.

I don’t think it had to be this way.

Back in early October, I wrote that I thought it was time for the Twins to adjust their model, when it comes to promoting their prospects. I suggested that, despite both guys losing virtually their entire seasons a year ago to injury, the Twins should consider simply promoting Buxton and Sano and letting them learn their craft on the big stage.

I argued that, yes they would struggle, but they’re likely to struggle a while whenever they are finally promoted and both young men have demonstrated that they learn, adapt and, ultimately, dominate, very quickly as each new challenge is presented.

I also argued for either signing one of the top free agent starting pitchers or simply getting Alex Meyer and Trevor May in to the rotation from the start and setting up Jose Berrios for a debut not too deep in to the season.

I didn’t discuss the bullpen, at the time, but if I’d known what the Opening Day bullpen was going to look like, I’d have argued pretty forcefully for an immediate youth movement there, too.

Instead, the Twins have assembled a cast at the big league level that deflated and discouraged its fan base (warm welcome-home ovation for Torii Hunter, notwithstanding) virtually before the Home Opener was finished.

The future does look bright. There is an embarrassment of riches in terms of baseball talent in the Twins organization.

Unfortunately, the Twins have decided that you won’t see a lot of it at Target Field for a while.

That’s bad news for fans in Minnesota, but Twins fans in New York, Florida, Tennessee and Iowa look to be in for a lot of fun this summer.

– JC

Prospects and Projects – Projecting the 2013 Kernels, Part 3

In preparation for the first season of the new affiliation between the Twins and my hometown Cedar Rapids Kernels, I’ve embarked on a series of “get to know them” posts. The intention is to give my fellow Kernels fans a little bit of information about the Twins prospects we may be seeing in Kernels uniforms over the course of the summer, understanding full well that it’s impossible to know exactly who will fill the Kernels’ roster  several months before Opening Day.

(Image: Kernels.com)

(Image: Kernels.com)

In Part 1 of the series, I looked at catchers and in Part 2, I covered corner infielders. In this post, we’ll look at middle infielders that could spend all or part of their summer in Cedar Rapids.

While I had a little trouble identifying corner infielders likely to wear Kernels uniforms in 2013, I had almost exactly the opposite problem when I looked over the list of potential middle infielders. If anything, I found too many guys who could see time in Cedar Rapids this season.

Adam (A.J.) Pettersen – Age 24 – Bats R/Throws R

2012: Beloit (Class A – MWL)

93 368 .248 .632 53 28 13 2 2
AJ Pettersen

AJ Pettersen

My first thought was that Pettersen should move up to high-A Fort Myers to start the season and I still think that’s the most likely scenario. However, when I started to look at all of the other middle infielders who could/should play at the high-A level, it occurred to me that, depending on what happens with all of those guys, there simply may not be room for Pettersen with the Miracle.

AJ was drafted in the 25th round of the 2011 draft out of the University of Minnesota and after just a few games with Elizabethton at the end of the 2011 season, Pettersen spent the entire 2012 season in Beloit. He was the epitome of a “utility player” with the Snappers, playing 2B, 3B, SS, LF and DH. In fact, he even pitched an inning. His offensive stat line would indicate to me that spending a few more weeks at Class A while he waits for things to shake out a bit in the middle infield further up the organizational ladder wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for Pettersen (though I suspect he might not agree).

If Pettersen does start the season in Cedar Rapids, get to know him quickly because his versatility and experience could make him among the first position players promoted to Fort Myers during the season.

Stephen Wickens – Age 23 – Bats R/Throws R

2012: Beloit (Class A – MWL) and Elizabethton (Rookie – Appy)

59 252 .307 .841 32 34 12 2 2

Wickens was drafted a few rounds behind Pettersen in the 2011 amateur draft out of Florida Gulf Coast University and will turn 24 years old before Opening Day. Unlike Pettersen, Wickens stayed behind in extended spring training to start the 2012 season and played 10 games with Elizabethton before getting a promotion to Beloit. While in E’town, Wickens hit .424 and put up a 1.106 OPS (small sample size warning).

Wickens found the MWL to be more of a challenge, though he still hit .286 at that level and got on base at a .411 clip while serving as the Snappers’ primary shortstop through the second half of their season. He made 11 errors in 159 chances at that position. He also played several games at second base.

If Wickens impresses early, his age would also make him a candidate for promotion by mid year.

Niko Goodrum – Age 20 – Bats: Both/Throws R

2012: Elizabethton (Rookie – Appy)

58 269 .242 .768 56 38 12 8 4

Goodrum was the Twins’ 2nd round draft choice in 2010 out of his Georgia high school. He got time in the GCL the summer he was drafted and has spent the past two seasons with Elizabethton. His batting average dipped a bit this past season, compared to 2011, but he apparently found more gaps as he increased his extra-base hits across the board. He also increased his number of walks, though he continued to strike out as often as he hit safely, which is something to work on.

At 6’3″, there’s been some question whether shortstop will ultimately remain Niko’s primary position, but he played 50 games at that position in 2012, as opposed to just 7 at third base, so the Twins appear to be giving him every chance to stick at shortstop. He cut his errors at short almost in half, compared to 2011, so there seems to be every reason for the Twins to keep sending him out to that position.

Many Twins fans already talk about Goodrum potentially being one shortstop in the organization with a chance of providing some long term stability at that position for the Twins in the future. That kind of optimism is evident as Goodrum’s name appears high on most published “Top Twins Prospects” lists for 2013. That makes him certainly a player for Kernels fans to watch closely during his time in Cedar Rapids.

Jorge Polanco – Age 19 – Bats: Both/Throws: R

2012: Elizabethton (Rookie – Appy)

51 204 .318 .903 26 20 15 2 5

Polanco was signed to a $700,000 bonus as a Dominican 16 year old back in 2009. He played several games in the Dominican Summer League in 2010 before moving up to the GCL Twins to finish the year. By then, he was already projected to be a top-tier defensive infielder that could also contribute offensively. He repeated the GCL in 2011 and then moved up to Elizabethton for 2012. Jorge showed steady improvement in his offensive game during his first couple of professional seasons, but really took a major leap offensively in 2012 as he showed some power for the first time.

Polanco played 35 games at shortstop and 15 at second base for Elizabethton, committing just eight errors in 233 chances. That’s not bad at all, especially considering that he’s reported to have excellent range and therefore gets to a lot of balls lesser infielders won’t.

Candido Pimentel – Age 22 – Bats: Both/Throws: R

2012: Elizabethton (Rookie – Appy)

56 247 .330 .824 42 26 10 3 1

Pimentel was signed as a free agent outfielder out of the Dominican Republic. He played in the Dominican Summer League in 2009, for the GCL Twins in 2010 and 2011 and for Elizabethon in the Appalachian League last summer. After being exclusively an outfielder for his first three years with the Twins organization, Pimentel actually played a few more games at second base for E’town than he did in the outfield.

That kind of flexibility could serve Pimentel well in Cedar Rapids, especially since learning the new position didn’t seem to negatively impact his bat skills. In fact, after seeing his offensive stats dip in 2011, he turned things around again a bit in 2012. In addition to hitting .330, Pimentel got on base at a .405 pace. That’s important, because once he gets on base, he’s a threat to steal.  He also found more gap power in 2012.

It certainly looks like the players listed above will be more than enough to adequately handle the middle infield for the Kernels in 2012, especially if Pettersen does start the season in Cedar Rapids.

The one other name that I believe bears mentioning is probably Aderlin Mejia. I covered Mejia in Part 2 when we looked at corner infielders and because the Twins organization appears to be a bit deeper at this level in the middle infield, I would imagine that if Mejia finds himself in Cedar Rapids at some point in 2013, it would be primarily at third base. That said, if a need for middle infield help does arise later in the season, Mejia could just as easily get a call to fill that role, too.

Next week, we’re going to look at the outfielders and pitchers… I think we’ll really like what we see!

– JC

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

Snappers Playoff Win – Photos

If Wednesday night’s Beloit Snappers/Clinton LumberKings game does indeed mark the final time I see a baseball game in person this year, it was a heckuva game to end the season on!

I don’t want to bury the lead, so let’s start by saying the Snappers came out on top in game one of their 3-game playoff series with Clinton, by a score of 8-6. But the score doesn’t begin to tell the story.

Clinton scored twice in the bottom of the first inning, but Beloit got one back in the top of the 2nd. Clinton 2B Dillon Hazlett got that run back for Clinton in the bottom of the 2nd with a solo HR. It wouldn’t be his only dinger.

Beloit scored again in the top of the 3rd to make the score 3-2 Clinton, but the LumberKings tallied another run in the 4th to go back up by 2 runs again. The Snappers closed to within 1 with an Eddie Rosario RBI double. However, when Miguel Sano flied to CF, Rosario tried to advance to third base, but was called out for having left 2nd too soon. Again the LumberKings immediately got that run back in the bottom of the 5th to reclaim a 2-run margin, 5-3.

Rosario struck again with runners on 2nd and 3rd in the 7th with a single to LF. Clinton left fielder Guillermo Pimentel bobbled the ball, allowing the tying run to score, but Rosario was thrown out at 2B by the cut-off man. Still, the game stood tied at 5 runs each.

Kennys Vargas started out the 8th with a double to the LCF wall. JD Williams pinch ran for Vargas and eventually scored on Stephen Wickens RBI single up the middle through a drawn in infield. But in the bottom of the 8th, Hazlett struck again with his second solo HR of the night and the game was tied yet again, 6-6.

In the 9th, the Snappers parlayed an AJ Petterson lead-off single, a Nate Roberts sacrifice bunt, a Clinton error, a couple of wild pitches and an infield grounder in to two more runs. Mason Melotakis gave up a lead-off double in the bottom of the ninth and nearly threw a comeback grounder over the head of Miguel Sano, who had shifted over to play 1B after Vargas’ departure. But Melotakis settled down to get the final out on a fly ball to RF to secure the 8-6 win.

They head home now for game 2 Thursday night and, if necessary, game 3 on Friday.

I was a little disappointed in the size of the crowd at Clinton, but I can’t say enough about how friendly everyone I talked to was. I started the game sitting with a family from Beloit, including a young lady who, it turns out, is one of the Snappers’ batgirls at their home games. Later in the game, I moved out to a picnic area down the left field line and the Clinton fans down there pretty much adopted me for two innings, despite my Twins gear clearly making my allegiances clear.

Clinton’s ballpark is another one of the older stadiums in the Midwest League, but Clinton has at least made obvious attempts to upgrade their facilities. I REALLY enjoyed the old school organ music between and during innings. I didn’t realize how much I missed that kind of thing until I heard it in Clinton!

Let’s wrap with a few pictures and wish the Snappers the best of luck the rest of the playoffs!

– JC

Outside Ashford University Field in Clinton

Pitching coach Gary Lucas looks on as starting pitcher Jason Wheeler warms up with catcher Matt Koch

Teams are introduced before the playoff game starts

Manager Nelson Prada and runner Kennys Vargas at 3B

Runner Drew Leachman, who had 3 hits on the night, held on by Clinton SS Bryan Brito

Jason Wheeler pitching with Miguel Sano at 3B

Kennys Vargas at 1B and AJ Petterson at 2B

View from the left field picnic area of Ashford University Field in Clinton


A Long Weekend With the Snappers & Kernels

It seemed to me like the first game of this Snappers/Kernels series on Saturday night was a long one… and it was. The game took three hours and twenty minutes to play and since the Snappers pretty much dominated the entire game, on their way to a 13-2 rout of their hosts, there really wasn’t enough excitement to make the game feel like it was moving along.

Fortunately, I was in the “all you can eat and drink” picnic area, so I managed to stay well fed and well lubricated.

UPDATE: I also had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Horrorpants and his brother-in-law, who were down from the Twin Cities to check out the Snappers. You should go check out his Twins Daily blog post and his pictures from the night by clicking here.

Nate Roberts went 3-6 on Saturday night and three different Snappers (JD Williams, Tyler Grimes and Drew Leachman) hit home runs. Amazingly, Beloit scored 13 runs while their number 3 and 4 hitters, Eddie Rosario and Kennys Vargas, combined to go 0 for 10 on the night. Cole Johnson gave up 2 runs in his 5 innings of work. Corey Williams threw 3 shutout innings and DJ Baxendale finished off the night with a scoreless inning, as well.

Twins uber-prospect Miguel Sano was not in the lineup Saturday night, but he seemed healthy during pregame workouts, so there seemed little cause for concern. Sure enough, Sano returned to his spot at third base for the game Sunday afternoon.

I’ve been looking forward to seeing Sano and Eddie Rosario in the field during the series to gauge how much they’ve progressed defensively. Through the first two games, however, Rosario hasn’t taken the field. He DH’d  on Saturday night and was not in the lineup Sunday.

I’ll say this about Sano, however. He made several plays in the field on Sunday that I don’t believe he would have been capable of making when I saw him here in Cedar Rapids back in April. He may never be another Brooks Robinson at third base, but he has improved this season. If he works hard and continues to improve every season, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of him sticking at the hot corner by the time he’s playing ball at Target Field.

Sano was certainly an offensive star of the game on Sunday. He had four hits in six at-bats, including two doubles and his 27th home run. Vargas and Stephen Wickens both homered in the game, as well.

The game itself was one of the better games I’ve seen in person this season… and I arrived too late to see the first highlight of the afternoon. I was late getting to the ballpark and arrived during the top of the second inning. Moments before I arrived, Vargas got the Snappers on the board with a solo home run that cleared the top of the Kernels’ video board in right center field. I haven’t seen that done in the 11 years the Kernels have been playing in this version of Veterans Memorial Stadium.

The Snappers put up three runs off of Kernels starter Cam Bedrosian and continued to nick a string of relief pitchers. Snappers pitcher Jason Wheeler gave up four runs in his six innings of work before Mason Melotakis came on to throw 1.2 hitless innings. Melotakis was consistently hitting 94 mph according to the scoreboard speed sign. That sign has a reputation for being a bit over 1 mph slower than scouts’ speedguns. Zach Jones came on to relieve Melotakis and three a couple mph harder. Unfortunately for the Snappers, he lacked Melotakis’ control and ended up giving up three runs and sending the game in to extra innings.

Taylor Rogers went 2.1 innings without giving up a run to the Kernels as neither team could push a run across the plate in the 10th, 11th or 12th inning. In the 13th, Wickens lifted a fly ball to the outfield with Nate Roberts on third base. That’s when things got interesting. The throw was on target and beat Roberts to the plate, where Kernels catcher Zach Wright was blocking Roberts’ path… but the ball came out of Wright’s glove… but Roberts went over the top of Wright and never touched the plate… but it took a moment for Wright to get the ball back. Wright and Roberts did a little dance together as Wright attempted to tag Roberts and Roberts attempted to get a toe on the plate. In the end, umpire Dustin Klinghagen declared Roberts safe and the Snappers had the lead.

The weirdness that inning did not stop there. With JD Williams at 3B, the Kernels pitched around Sano, walking him to bring up Kennys Vargas. On a full count, Sano broke for 2B, Vargas struck out and Wright threw to second, attempting to throw Sano out. Williams broke for home, the throw to 2B was cut off and thrown home, nailing Williams at the plate, for one of the more peculiar “strike em out, throw em out” double play I’ve ever seen.

In the 13th inning Tim Atherton  walked Wright to start the inning and then threw two wild pitches, moving Wright to 3B. One out later, Drew Martinez singled in the tying run and stole second base. From there, he scored on an Alex Yarbrough walk-off single, giving the Kernels the 9-8 win.

The game, which started a half hour late due to rain, took 4:19 to play.

Quite a game… quite a weekend. And there are two more games left in this series.

With that, I leave you with a few pictures from my weekend at the ballpark.

Some of the Snappers indulge a game of “pepper” prior to Saturday night’s game.

Perfect Game Field at Veterans Memorial Stadium from the left field picnic area

Pitcher Jason Wheeler and third baseman Miguel Sano

Kernels pitcher Cam Bedrosian, son of former MLB pitcher Steve Bedrosian

Jason Wheeler

Snappers first baseman Drew Leachman

On Sunday, Eddie Rosario got a day off, but did coach first base.

Snappers relief pitcher Mason Melotakis

JD Williams in left field

Shortstop Stephen Wickens flashes a sign to his middle infield partner

Zach Jones was hitting 96 mph

Leadoff hitter Nate Roberts

Catcher Jairo Rodriguez

Relief pitcher Taylor Rogers

Miguel Sano looks more comfortable at 3B to me.

Kennys Vargas went very, very deep in the 2nd inning.

The scoreboard tells the story at the end. Oh… and Vargas’ home run cleared the “Perfect Game Field” sign at the top of the scoreboard, which is set several feet behind the 390 ft wall.

I also had a few conversations this weekend with various, “sources close to the Kernels,” as they say in the trade, about the upcoming discussions between the Kernels and various potential MLB affiliates. But we’ll talk about all of that in another post, another time. :)

– JC