Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

I didn’t rush right out to post reactions to the Twins’ coaching changes as the information came out on Thursday, which is probably a good thing.

StarTribune beat reporter LaVelle E. Neal III was obviously wired in to the situation at Target Field and started the ball rolling by announcing that bullpen coach Rick Stelmaszek had been advised his contract was not being renewed. My immediate reaction, via Twitter, was something to the effect that blaming the Twins’ problems on Stelly was comparable to blaming the Titanic’s problems on the guy who painted the hull of the ship. Based on what I read of others’ comments, I wasn’t the only fan who felt that way.

But, as we now know, the Twins gave more of the coaching staff similar messages. Jerry White and Steve Liddle were also not renewed while Scott Ullger and Joe Vavra were assigned instructional duties. Only Rick Anderson survived the purge and Andy got just a one-year reprieve. Of course, Ron Gardenhire himself has one more year on his contract and he’s being allowed to continue in his role, at least for now.

While the media was initially assuming (or at least speculating) that Ullger and Vavra would remain on the Major League staff, both coaches were listed as minor league instructors on the Twins’ official website. Their situations have been clarified apparently and both will remain with the Major League club, which disappoints me a bit. I don’t necessarily think Vavra has done a bad job as the Twins’ hitting coach, but how easy will it be for a new coach to establish himself with the hitters with Vavra still in the clubhouse?

What this all means is that the Twins have three open coaching positions to fill in their Major League dugout and while the Twins haven’t announced who would be filling those positions, it’s pretty clear who will be making the decisions. While most MLB managers are given a great deal of latitude in terms of assembling their own coaching staffs, clearly Gardenhire is not the primary decision maker this time around. He was on record recently as saying he wanted to keep all of his coaches, but General Manager (without the “interim”) Terry Ryan pretty much put an abrupt end to that possibility.

Instead, Gardenhire and Anderson will have three new faces surrounding them next season and two of those new faces are likely to be Gene Glynn and Bobby Cuellar, who are very definitely potential replacements for Gardy and Andy should the team’s performance once again fall below expectations in 2013.

Will these two be seeing more of one another in 2013? (photo: Jim Crikket)

The purge also could make room on the Major League staff for former Twins star Tom Brunansky. Bruno was hired to coach hitting for the Twins Gulf Coast League rookie team in July of 2010. A year later, he was the hitting coach at AA New Britain and this past season he moved up to AAA Rochester. His coaching abilities have not gone unnoticed, obviously, and apparently they’ve been noticed beyond just the Twins organization. Speculation has been that if the Twins don’t find a way to promote him, other organizations will and the Twins are likely lose him.

Ryan has indicated a desire to add a Spanish-speaking coach to their Big League staff since a number of MLB-ready players do not speak much English. That might bode well for Cuellar’s chances, but one has to wonder just how much help he’d be with communication issues during ballgames from his perch in the bullpen. Personally, I’d like to see AA hitting coach Rudy Hernandez considered for one of the openings. I’ve heard that players coming through New Britain speak very highly of Hernandez. Promoting him to the Twins would allow them to give Brunansky an opportunity to actually manage a year in the minor leagues, which might not be a terrible idea.

I’ve heard a lot of comments about how it isn’t fair that the “lesser coaches” got the boot while Gardenhire, Anderson and even Ullger and Vavra (since they’ll still be with the Twins) survived. Frankly, that’s true. It isn’t fair. But this isn’t about “fair.”

Baseball coaches at the professional level all know that their jobs are only as safe as the team’s performance on the field. They work under relatively short term contracts and they all know those contracts are subject to not being renewed for any reason. In this case, the primary reason Stelly, White and Liddle didn’t have their contracts renewed was more about Terry Ryan’s desire to bring a new group of coaches in to the clubhouse than any real or perceived performance issues on those coaches’ parts. I think it’s safe to say Jerry White didn’t cost the Twins too many games this season. Ryan needed to create three vacancies to create room for his guys, pure and simple.

I’m fine with these moves, both with the coaching changes and with retaining Gardenhire and Anderson, for now. But my being fine with them is conditioned on these moves not being the last bold moves Ryan makes this offseason. In fact, if March rolls around and the coaching changes are considered to be even close to the biggest moves he’s made, I’ll be well beyond just very disappointed.

Mr. Ryan, you have gotten our attention. Now show us what you do for an encore… and it had better be good.

- JC

News To Start Off The Post Season

Sad News:

with Gehrig John Neshek, born 10/2/12, died 10/3/12

The first thing I’d like to share came out late in the night – asking for all your thoughts and prayers to be extended toward Pat Neshek & his wife, Stephanee, and their families. Their newborn son died in his sleep in his mother’s arms suddenly and with no obvious cause of death. Little Gehrig hadn’t even finished his first full day – not that that would have made it any better. Both Pat & Stephanee have expressed their grief, confusion and pain to those on Twitter. I simply can’t imagine their feelings right now. I hope that they are able to find some closure and peace in whatever form it comes as they learn more in the next few days and months. I’m simply heart-broken for them. So many of their fans and baseball colleagues have reached out to them already. I hope they are able to gain strength from those who surround them.

 Happy News:

In better and more baseball-related news, an event happened today that has not occurred since 1967. We have a triple crown winner: leading in all three categories of Batting average, RBI, and Home Runs is Miguel Cabrera. It’s an immense accomplishment and something to be honored no matter who he plays for. Congratulations Miguel! If someone had to beat Mauer for the batting title, it’s almost worth it that you were able to do it with admirable flair!

 

BIG TWINS NEWS!

Additionally, in current Twins news, it was announced this morning that some turnover in the Twins coaching staff has already begun. Rick Stelmaszek has been let go. I have to admit that I doubt ANYONE expected them to start with the longest tenured coach in Twins history. I seriously doubt it will be the last change to take place before next spring but it really wasn’t a change that was high on my list – so they must have their own list. We’ll see what happens next!

[UPDATE] Steve Liddle has also been let go and Joe Vavra has been reassigned so the coaching shakeup has only just begun. According to LaVelle E Neal III at the Strib:

Pitching coach Rick Anderson was scheduled to meet with Ryan around noon. Bench coach Scott Ullger was to meet with Ryan at 1 p.m. and Jerry White was expected to meet with Ryan at 2 p.m.

Class AAA Rochester manager Gene Glynn and Rochester hitting coach Tom Brunansky could be in line for promotions. So could Rochester pitching coach Bobby Cuellar.

I will continue to add updates to this post as we get more information so stay tuned!

[UPDATE 2] news on a couple more members of the staff from a couple different sources: Rick Anderson will be staying AS pitching coach. Jerry White however is an additional casualty of the turnover. Head Trainer Rick McWane is also gone. According to Rhett Bolinger, Scott Ullger will oversee outfield instruction while Joe Vavra will oversee infield instruction.

It was also noted by several beat writers that Gardenhire has one year left on his contract – it may be a situation where he’s been informed or will be that it will not be renewed unless there are dramatic changes in results. I believe the same is true for every person who is still under contract with the Twins.

This is the final list of departing staff from the Twins as presented by LEN III and Phil Mackey. No word yet on who will be taking on most of the open spots for sure but as you will read, there is a lot of speculation that the AAA staff will be moving up.

ALSO: Target Field is getting another facelift - this time in the RF bleachers.

If a Change Must Be Made…

I think most Twins fans had limited expectations for 2012, but this is getting ridiculous.

The theory was… with the health of Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer, Denard Span and Scott Baker uncertain, we had to keep expectations in check. But if all of those players proved healthy, the team could surprise some people. Of course, not all of those players proved healthy as Scott Baker never made it to the starting gate before undergoing season-ending surgery. But the others have not only been healthy, but quite productive, thank-you-very-much.

The pitching has been a disaster, plain and simple.

In situations like this, it’s tough to come up with reasonable solutions. As manager Ron Gardenhire told the media the other day, it’s not like they can just go out and buy more pitching at this point. They have to hope the guys they have do a better job.

But the Twins’ problems on the field are starting to have an effect off the field… in particular, in the stands. Target Field has about 40,000 seats and this week barely 3/4 of those seats have had fans’ butts in them. That means not only lower ticket sales, but fewer hot dogs, beers and jerseys being sold. That’s not good news when it happens toward the end of a season that doesn’t go particularly well. When it happens before May Day, it’s got the potential to be disastrous for an organization.

If there are no reasonable solutions, however, what’s a front office to do? It really only leaves one option… consider UNreasonable solutions.

I’ve said many times that I believe baseball managers, like football and basketball coaches, get too much credit for their teams’ success and too much blame for the failures. It’s a basic truth of professional and major college sports. Another truth in big time sports is that, whether right or wrong, it’s easier to make a change in management than it is to make all the roster changes that are called for.

Would Terry Ryan really do it though? Would he fire Ron Gardenhire?

He may have no choice.

Ron Gardenhire and Tom Brunansky (photo: Jim Crikket)

Gardy has his supporters and his detractors. Many people question his strategies… his fondness for (some might call it an obsession with) “scrappy” ballplayers who “get after it.” Others point to the success his Twins teams have had over the past decade… the Division titles won with arguably marginal talent. Others point to the postseason failures.

But none of that really matters right now. This decision… if it’s to be made… would not be about Ron Gardenhire’s basebally smarts or lack thereof. At this point, it would be a business decision for Terry Ryan and the Twins ownership, pure and simple.

The Twins front office wants to win, of course. They are competitive, by nature, and that means they want to beat the competition. But does that mean winning baseball games or making more money? Some people seem to think that Twins ownership only cares about the latter, but that’s absurd. Even if that’s true, now that they have their new stadium, the two are intractably intertwined. The Twins can’t beat the competition in the financial competition if they don’t also beat them on the field.

Fans are telling the Twins, loud and clear, that as nice as Target Field is, they won’t fill the stadium to watch bad baseball… frustrating baseball… consistently losing baseball. If that’s the kind of baseball the Twins are going to play, changes must be made… and probably sooner rather than later. If only 30,000 fans are coming to games at the end of April, how many are going to be coming through the turnstiles in August and September?

But would a change in the manager’s office mean more wins? Maybe… maybe not… but it would do one thing for certain and that’s generate discussion… generate renewed interest. Whether they agree or disagree with the decision, fans would pay attention… they’d tune in to see IF it makes a difference.

And that’s a factor Terry Ryan may not be able to ignore much longer. Major League Baseball history is littered with fired managers who didn’t suddenly get stupid, but found themselves fired… or “reassigned other duties”… anyway. It’s a cruel fact of Big League life that Ron Gardenhire may be on the brink of finding out about first hand.

All of which begs the question, if Gardy’s days are becoming numbered with the Twins, who would… or should… Terry Ryan replace him with?

When a manager loses his gig mid season, often the replacement is someone within the organization… usually the bench coach or maybe whoever is managing the organization’s AAA affiliate. But if this really would be primarily a business decision, would putting Steve Liddle or Gene Glynn in charge fire up the fan base enough to keep their interest? I have my doubts.

Who would make people start paying attention again, even if the chances of the Twins climbing back in to contention are all but gone?

I’ve had a hunch that the Twins have been kind of grooming Tom Brunansky to take over down the road at some point, but he hasn’t even managed a full-season minor league affiliate yet (he’s Rochester’s hitting coach this season). He would be someone the fans would recognize and would have credibility in the clubhouse, but it’s hard for me to imagine the Twins trusting him in the manager’s chair this soon.

So who would they hire?

I don’t have any answers to that question, yet. But it’s probably time to start sorting through potential candidates.

It’s a good bet that Terry Ryan has already started doing just that.

- JC

Of Snappers and Kernels and Other Minor (League) Stuff

I’m probably not going to be seeing much of the Twins games this weekend. It’s not because I’m frustrated by their lack of hitting (though I am), but rather because the Beloit Snappers (the Twins Low A affiliate) are in town starting tonight for a four-game series… their final visit to Cedar Rapids of the year.

This is the third trip this season that the Snappers have made to Cedar Rapids this season and I’ve managed to get out to watch over half of the games they’ve played here. The last couple of years, Beloit’s only made the trip down here one or two times, so I’m enjoying getting to see so many games featuring these future Twins.

I don’t know how many of you ever attend minor league games or even live in a community that has a local team. I can only speak for myself, but there really aren’t many more enjoyable ways to spend a summer evening (or afternoon, for that matter) and do so on a budget.

Perfect Game Field at Memorial Stadium, Cedar Rapids

I’ve attended minor league games in Florida (High A) and Arkansas (AA), in addition to Iowa and I don’t believe I’ve ever spent more than $10 for a ticket… and usually a bit less. The highest priced ticket at Memorial Stadium here in Cedar Rapids is $10. It will get you a front row seat by the dugout or pretty much anywhere in the first few rows behind home plate from dugout to dugout. $7 gets you and your blanket in to stretch out on the grassy Lawn Seating area next to the visitors bullpen area. My favorite food is a ribeye sandwich that is grilled in a tent right behind the Lawn Seating area. I think they hit me up for about $6 for that and it’s probably about the most expensive food item in the ballpark.

Of course if you really want to live well, you can rent one of the available sky suites for you and a few of your closest friends. That will run you $500 plus food. I know that sounds like a lot, but I’m checking out StubHub for tickets for the Twins/Angels series in a couple of weeks at Target Field and I’ll easily spend $500 for some pretty mediocre seats for my family. So I guess it’s all relative.

Angels #3 Prospect Mike Trout

As for the baseball itself, the Kernels are usually pretty competitive and that’s the case this season as well. Their CF the first half of the season was Mike Trout, the Angels #3 prospect (according to Baseball America’s preseason rankings) who performed well in the Futures All Star Game last month and is already doing very well with his High-A team since being promoted. He’ll be arriving in Anaheim Stadium perhaps as early as September 2011.

The Kernels best pitcher, Tyler Skaggs, is a talented lefty who was also one of the Angels top 10 prospects. I say “was” because he signed his first contract with the Angels one year ago today… and by tomorrow he’ll be announced as the “player to be named later” heading to the D’Backs organization to finalize the trade that sent Dan Haren to the Angels. Trust me, that deal wasn’t nearly as one-sided in favor of the Angels as the ‘talking heads’ have made it out to be.

Alexi Casilla rehabbed as a Beloit Snapper

But this is a Twins blog, so let me just mention a few of the Twins prospects I’ve been able to catch on their trips to Cedar Rapids in just the past couple of years. In fact, let me start with the guy in the picture at the right, Alexi Casilla. Lexi played two rehab assignment games for the Snappers here in Cedar Rapids in 2008 before rejoining the Twins. But that wasn’t the first time we saw Casilla here. He was a member of the Kernels for a few games at the end of the 2004 season and for the first half of the 2005 season, before being promoted to AA. (He was traded from the Angels to the Twins after the 2005 season for J.C. Romero.) You might say he was a local favorite.

Twins #6 and #41 Prospects, Angel Morales and Anderson Hidalgo

Over the past two seasons, when the Snappers have visited Cedar Rapids, I’ve had the pleasure watching pitchers Steven Blevins, Liam Hendriks (14), B.J. Hermsen (15), Brad Stillings, Tom Stuifbergen (22), Daniel Osterbrock and Billy Bullock (28) pitch against the Kernels. I’ve seen position prospects Danny Rams (33), James Beresford (40), Anderson Hidalgo (41), Steve Liddle (47), Micahel Gonzales, Angel Morales (6) and Aaron Hicks (2) get their swings in. (Those numbers in parens indicate the player’s ranking in Seth Stohs’ “Top 50 Twins Prospects” list this past June.)

Cards #1 Prospect Shelby Miller

Of course, I don’t just go to games when the Snappers come to town. For example, a week or so ago, I went out to catch a game with the Cardinals’ affiliate, the Quad Cities River Bandits. While Trout is no longer with the Kernels, I did get to watch the Cardinals’ #1 prospect (according to Baseball America) Shelby Miller pitch against the Kernels. His catcher that day was the Cards’ #10 prospect, Robert Stock.

The Kernels play in a nice stadium and the Angels consistently send enough of their top prospects to CR to assure that the team is at least competitive. In fact, they won the first half division title this year so they’re already assured of a spot in the Midwest League playoffs next month.

In a couple of weeks, I’ll probably spend close to $1,000 for tickets, parking, food, hotel rooms and gas to take my family up to Minneapolis for the Twins’ weekend series with the Angels at Target Field (not to mention some time at the Renaissance Festival). I’ll have a great time, I’m sure.  But tonight and tomorrow, I’ll watch future Twins face off with future Angels about 2 miles from where I live and even after ticket, parking (which is free), food and a couple of beers, I probably won’t spend over $20 either day.

How can you beat that? – JC