It was a minor story this week. Minnesota Twins (and former Cedar Rapids Kernels) pitcher Tyler Duffey was one of a handful of Major League ballplayers that have come to agreements with a firm by the name of Fantex to “sell” a share of their future earnings in return for an immediate sum of money.
The concept of exchanging an immediate known sum of money for some future undetermined, yet theoretically predictable, amounts is hardly new. Commercials for companies willing to “buy” your annuity payments are not infrequent. You can even find organizations willing to buy your life insurance policies and essentially gamble that you’ll die soon enough that they’ll make more money on the policy than they pay you for it.
Fantex also is making similar investments in a few professional golfers. That’s really nothing new, either. A lot of aspiring golf professionals get their early funding to travel around the country competing in tournaments from others who are willing to buy a share of their future winnings.
But this is a new thing for baseball. You don’t find anyone doing any direct investment in ballplayers (outside of Latin America, anyway).
Before we go further with this, let’s be clear about one thing. This kind of financial instrument is likely one of the more speculative (read: risky) you’re likely to find. Seldom would the cliché “buyer beware” be more applicable than to investing with Fantex on a venture like this. That said, it’s interesting to look at how such an initiative, should it become commonplace, could effect the financial underpinnings of the game.
Duffey and the other players involved have agreed to relinquish a percentage (generally about 10%) of their future on-field and off-field income to Fantex in return for a substantial immediate payment. (Duffey’s $2.23 million is the lowest among the ballplayers).
Duffey was a fifth round draft pick by the Twins in 2012 and reportedly received a signing bonus of about $267,000. Minor league salaries are notoriously low. For example, Duffey would have been getting something in the neighborhood of $1100 per month during his days with the Kernels in 2013.
While on the Twins’ Major League roster, he’s making $525,000 this season, which is slightly above the big league minimum salary. He won’t be eligible for salary arbitration for at least another three years, which means that, in the interim, the Twins are unlikely to offer him contracts much higher than what he’s currently making.
With the way MLB teams currently operate, if Duffey were to perform very well for the Twins in the next year or two, it is likely that their front office would offer him a multi-year contract that would cover at least much of his arbitration-eligible years and possibly extend into his free-agency era. This gives the player some insurance against injury and/or poor performance and, in turn, the team controls their salary costs for an extended period.
More often than not, these agreements are viewed as “team friendly” and not only save the club money, in the long run, but improve the players’ value on the trade market.
A lot of players in Duffey’s situation readily accept those deals (unless their agent is Scot Boras, who routinely recommends that his clients bet on themselves and go through the arbitration and free-agency process as soon as possible).
It’s easy to understand why a player would take the deal. Sure, you may cost yourself some money down the road, but you get security and you are still probably assured of seeing more money than anyone in your family has ever seen. And, after all, what other choice do you have if you do value some level of financial security?
None. Until now.
Even after his agent and the government get their share, Duffey is likely to pocket $1 million from his deal with Fantex, if it goes through (If Fantex can’t raise the $2.23 million to pay Duffey from investors, the deal is cancelled). That’s likely going to give his agent a much better negotiating posture if and when the Twins decide they want to talk about an extension. Duffey would no longer be solely reliant on the Twins for financial security.
If this concept takes hold and becomes wide-spread, the whole process by which teams deal with their middle-to-lower tier of players could be affected. Currently, teams balance their payrolls between those they have to overpay (relative to their actual performance) by millions of dollars either on the free agent market or to preclude them from leaving to test free agency and those who they can underpay because they’re still making close to the league minimum or they’re still playing under extensions they signed early in their careers.
If a concept such as Fantex gives players another option for attaining some level of financial security without having to agree to give up (or at least postpone) their big future paydays, that could have a challenging effect on clubs’ payroll management.
Officially, MLB has stated that these arrangements do not violate any MLB rules and the MLB Players Association has an agreement with Fantex that allows them to approach players. It will be interesting, however, to see if the subject finds its way onto the negotiating table this year as the two sides try to hammer out a new Collective Bargaining Agreement.
In the meantime, if you’re a believer in the future of Tyler Duffey as a big league pitcher, you may have a new – more substantive – way to express that confidence.
It’s too bad we couldn’t come up with a way to spread this concept into the minor leagues. I doubt we’d have to look too far to find some guys in Cedar Rapids or Fort Myers who would be happy to offer a couple percent of their future earnings in return for enough money to afford a pizza once in a while.
Entering the spring, there appeared to be eight pitchers contending for the five rotation spots on the Twins’ Opening Day roster. I thought that constituted more depth than at any time in the past several years.
Absent injuries (or, as we learned last season, lengthy suspensions for PED use), Ervin Santana, Kyle Gibson and Phil Hughes were going to be starting games in their Twins uniforms. Tyler Duffey, to me, had showed enough in 2015 that he shouldn’t be too concerned about his roster spot.
That left one rotation spot up for grabs between Tommy Milone (the lone lefty in the group), Trevor May, Jose Berrios and Nolasco.
With those four options, how did we end up with Ricky Nolasco opening the season as the Twins’ fifth starter?
May was told early in March that he’d be opening the season in the bullpen, ending his participation in the rotation sweepstakes.
Berrios was informed that he isn’t ready for prime time and will open his season at Triple-A Rochester.
Milone had a good spring, assuring that the Twins will have one southpaw in their rotation, but instead of claiming the final starting spot, he essentially claimed the fourth spot and bumped Duffey down into a one-on-one face-off with Nolasco for the final spot.
Let’s be clear about one thing – Duffey didn’t pitch particularly well this spring. That’s something he readily admitted himself when interviewed following his demotion to Rochester this week. Nolasco hasn’t been terrific, either, but he has had somewhat better stats than Duffey (though much of Nolasco’s work was against minor league hitters on the back fields of the Twins’ complex).
But, as Thoma reminds us in his post, Duffey wasn’t told, entering spring training, that he needed to have better statistics than the other contenders to earn a rotation spot. In fact, he was told to work on his change up, which he did. That work didn’t go particularly well as he and his developing change up got knocked around quite a bit.
If Duffey had been told he needed to put up better stats than Ricky Nolasco to go north with the Twins, last year’s experience would suggest to us that he’d have had little trouble besting Nolasco simply by using his existing repertoire of two fastballs and two breaking balls.
However, the change up is pitching coach Neil Allen’s baby. Since being hired to Molitor’s staff, the one thing written about Allen more than anything else is his devotion to the change up. Since Duffey used his change up all of about 2% of the time during his 2015 time with the Twins, it’s not surprising that Allen would be pushing him to improve that pitch.
But Duffey, without a change up, wasn’t a borderline fifth starter for the Twins at the end of 2015. He was arguably the most effective starting pitcher they had.
Would an effective change up be helpful to Duffey? Certainly. But even without one, he was pretty damn good last summer. Certainly better than almost anyone would reasonably expect Nolasco to be at this point.
Did Duffey’s focus on his change up this spring, in lieu of spending the time sharpening his existing pitches to prepare for the season, cost him a rotation spot that was his to lose entering spring camp? If so, did he really lose his spot or did a Neil Allen obsession with the pitch cost Duffey that spot and, by extension, cost the Twins games Nolasco eventually loses that Duffey, sans change up, would have won?
Allen’s predecessor as Twins pitching coach, Rick Anderson, became famous – or, more accurately, infamous – for implementing a system-wide “pitch to contact” philosophy that de-emphasized strike outs. That philosophy was adopted at every level of the Twins’ system and it was rare (to say the least) to see pitching prospects who did not embrace that philosophy rise to the big league level with the Twins.
We will never know how different the Twins’ fortunes might have been had they put more emphasis on missing bats throughout the organization during Anderson’s term with the Twins. What we do know is that, during the latter years of Anderson’s era, while he was enforcing his obsession, other teams were developing pitchers with better velocity and winning more games than Anderson’s staffs of comparative soft-tossers were.
I’m hoping we are not witnessing something similar with regard to Allen and his love for the change up, but if Duffey’s spring is any indication, it’s something we should keep an eye on.
Just as it was perfectly fine for Anderson to expound on the advantages of developing sufficient command and control to find spots where hitters are most likely to make weak contact, it’s also perfectly fine for Allen to preach the benefits of a good change up.
The problem comes when those sermons become absolute dogma that is forced upon every pitcher in the organization to the point where it is made clear they have no future in the organization without following it.
Heading into spring training, we are always told over and over again that we shouldn’t read too much into spring stats. Pitchers are often focusing on particular pitches, which hitters figure out pretty quickly during a spring game, so we shouldn’t get too excited about, or too down on, particular players based simply on stat lines.
So, if we throw out the stats, explain to me again why Tyler Duffey and Jose Berrios are going to be wearing jerseys with Red Wings on the chest in April, while Ricky Nolasco is taking the mound for the Twins every fifth game.
I can’t think of any reasons for that, other than that Duffey was told he needed to spend his spring focused on developing a change up, which he arguably has demonstrated he did not need to effectively retire Major League hitters, and that the Twins can retain control over Berrios for an extra year if he spends a couple of months in Rochester to open the season.
OK, that’s not really true. I can think of about 25 million other reasons. But I hope that the Twins have reached the point where money isn’t the primary factor behind roster decisions.
The only thing that should matter to the Twins is, “who can get out big league hitters better?”
I’m sorry, but there is no way I can look at the group of May, Berrios, Duffey and Nolasco and be convinced that the best option for the Twins’ fifth rotation spot is Ricky Nolasco.
Whether the reason Nolasco is in this rotation is because the front office didn’t improve their bullpen enough to allow May to move into the rotation or because they want to keep Berrios’ big league service clock from starting until June or because Duffey was told to focus his spring on a pitch he doesn’t need or because the Twins don’t want to throw the $25 million they still owe Nolasco down the toilet, the result is that the Twins are likely to lose more games in 2016 than they would have with one of the other three pitchers opening in the rotation instead of Nolasco.
The Twins may have pulled themselves out of the ranks of the irrelevant in 2015, but they won’t be contenders again until the first and only factor determining the make-up of their roster is winning baseball games and the last I knew, games won or lost in April count exactly the same as those in June, July, August and September.
Last week, Minnesota Twins General Manager Terry Ryan went back-to-back-to-back making three deals in three days in an effort to improve his club, winning the bidding for the right to negotiate with Korean slugging first baseman/DH Byung-ho Park, trading backup catcher Chris Herrmann for a prospect, which cleared the way for catcher John Ryan Murphy to be added via trade.
It has been almost a week since the last of those deals was announced, so the question has become, “Now what?”
I felt the catching situation was the most glaring need that had to be addressed this offseason and Ryan & Co. appear to have resolved that situation with the addition of Murphy.
Now, where should the GM turn his focus?
Given the state of the Twins the past four offseasons, it seems odd to say it, but I think Ryan’s offseason work should be about done already.
Let’s take a position-by-position look at where the Twins stand right at this moment, with some thoughts as to how they could still be improved.
Between incumbent catcher Kurt Suzuki and the newly-acquired Murphy, the position appears to be set. If Ryan could find a taker for Suzuki, they could just hand the starting job to Murphy and look for another backup, but that seems highly unlikely.
Joe Mauer is at first base and isn’t going anywhere. The Twins added another first baseman in Park, which was surprising to most of us, so the odds are stacked high against seeing another one added. Kennys Vargas remains on the periphery of the 1B/DH mix and now we’re seeing reports that he could make a good sized payday in Korea or Japan if the Twins are willing to sell his contract.
Brian Dozier will play second base. If the Twins get an offer they can’t refuse for Dozier, Jorge Polanco would likely get his shot at a permanent promotion to the big leagues. It’s hard to imagine the Twins adding someone else to the mix. James Beresford performed well in Rochester, but he’s a minor league free agent again this year and is at least an even bet to sign elsewhere after the Twins didn’t even give him a look in September.
Eduardo Escobar did everything anyone could ask of him at shortstop in 2015 and appears to have given the Twins the stability they’ve lacked at the position since the ill-advised trade of J.J. Hardy to the Orioles. The Twins will also have Danny Santana around as a utility player, should Escobar falter. It’s unlikely the Twins will go looking for another shortstop.
Everyone seems to think that third base is already crowded. Trevor Plouffe is still manning the hot corner, but is looking over his shoulder at the hulking figure of Miguel Sano. This has led many to recommend that the Twins trade Plouffe this offseason and hand the position to Sano.
While that might make sense, providing that Ryan could get fair value for Plouffe on the market (I’m not all that certain would be the case, but it’s possible), making that deal would mean putting all of the club’s third base “eggs” in the Sano basket. That makes me nervous.
Maybe Sano can play third base competently every day, but that’s hardly a certainty. If Plouffe is sent packing, Ryan had better have a reliable Plan B ready to step into the position. With Plouffe gone, who would that be?
There are few internal options that manager Paul Molitor could plug in. Do we want to see Eduardo Núñez as the Twins’ starting third baseman? Polanco and Santana have rarely played the position, even in minor league ball, but maybe one or both could do it.
Could a Plouffe trade be followed by the acquisition of a stop-gap type? Conceivably, yes. The Twins Daily Offseason Handbook projects 37-year-old Juan Uribe to sign a one-year deal for $3 million. That sounds a little high, to me, for Uribe, but if it’s in that neighborhood, it wouldn’t be a bad price for this particular situation.
Unless Ryan is really wowed by an offer for Plouffe, however, I think he’s better off keeping the status quo. Let’s see how Sano handles the position (and how he handles his sophomore season at the plate) before running the risk of turning the third sack back into the black hole it was between the departure of Corey Koskie and the arrival of Plouffe.
Likewise, the outfield appears pretty full, even with the departure of Aaron Hicks to the Yankees in the Murphy deal.
Eddie Rosario will be in one corner and the Twins are hoping Byron Buxton claims centerfield right out of spring training. They’ve expressed their intention to teach Sano to play a corner outfield spot, especially now that Park seems likely to get most of the DH at-bats. Oswaldo Arcia is another internal outfield option, but the Twins won’t (or shouldn’t, anyway) consider any option that results in Arcia and Sano sharing the same outfield, no matter how good the man in centerfield is. Max Kepler earned the opportunity to impress coaches and the front office enough in spring training to claim an Opening Day roster spot, but I suspect they’ll start him in Rochester, especially if the alternative is a fourth-outfielder role with the Twins.
And then there’s the pitching staff.
The predominant theory seems to be that the Twins have plenty of internal options to fill out their rotation, but need to look to the free agent and/or trade market to improve their bullpen.
I disagree. Not that the bullpen wasn’t bad (it was), but I disagree with that approach to fixing it. I would prefer to fix the bullpen by improving the rotation even more.
There are four pitchers that you have to figure should be locks to open in the Twins’ rotation. Ervin Santana, Tyler Duffey, Kyle Gibson and Phil Hughes will, unless traded or injured before then, open the year as Twins starters.
Trevor May, Alex Meyer, Tommy Milone, Jose Berrios and Ricky Nolasco all have starter pedigrees, in the minors and/or Major Leagues, and any of the five could earn the Twins’ fifth rotation spot. But if the Twins are set on being more than just a borderline contender in the American League Central Division, you have to ask yourself whether they could do better than those five pitchers in that final rotation opening.
Now, I’m a Zack Greinke fan from way back. After the 2010 season, I advocated here for the Twins to engineer a trade with the Royals to acquire Greinke. Five years later, I’d still love to have him at the top of the Twins’ rotation, but the Twins are not going to shell out the $25+ million per year over 5+ years that is being projected as being what it will take to sign the free agent – alas, nor should they.
Likewise, you can pretty much rule out names like Price, Cueto, Samardzija and Zimmerman, all of which are likely to garner $100+ million/5+ year deals on the open market. That’s an awful big commitment to make to pitchers who, in each case, come with some significant question marks about their abilities to perform at “ace” levels for the next half-decade. Only Price, in my view, is worth that kind of money. Unfortunately, he won’t be had for that kind of money – it will likely take over $200 million to get him. Ouch.
Berrios is a future Twins starter. May and Meyer could very well be future rotation fixtures, as well. The big unknown, in each case, is the definite arrival time of that future. We just don’t know. It could be April, 2016, and if it is, for just one of those pitchers, then the rotation question is asked and answered.
However, like the situation with Sano as a full time third baseman, relying on any of the five possible fifth starters currently on the roster to be good enough to help propel the Twins into an elite-level team in 2016 is pretty risky.
If Ryan decides to take that risk, it’s fine with me, but I wouldn’t mind seeing the Twins take a one-year flyer on Doug Fister, who certainly will be looking for a make-good contract to rebuild his value with an eye on trying free agency again next year. Two years ago, Fister was traded to Washington after 2 ½ successful years in a Tigers uniform. Had he been a free agent a year ago after notching a 2.31 ERA over 25 starts for the Nationals, he’d have undoubtedly been near the top of every team’s free agent starting pitcher wish-list.
But he was Washington property for another year and he did not live up to expectations in 2015, to put it mildly. He lost his starting rotation spot as the dysfunctional Nationals faltered and he finished the season working out of the bullpen.
Could a return to the familiar AL Central spur a revival of Fister’s starting career? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t mind if the Twins spent $10-15 million or so to find out. At that price, they can afford the risk. If it works out, he’s more than just another fifth starter. If it doesn’t work, all they’ve lost is a few bucks and they move on with whoever is looking the best from among the internal options.
With a rotation of Santana, Duffey, Gibson, Hughes and Fister, you are left with a lot of pretty strong options to improve your bullpen.
Glen Perkins and Kevin Jepsen will be there. You have to be concerned with the way Perkins pitched the last half of 2015 and I’m not certain Jepsen is really as good as he looked after being acquired from the Rays, but those two will be cornerstones of the 2016 relief corps, if they’re healthy.
Now, just for fun, plug the following five arms into the bullpen: Trevor May, Alex Meyer, Tommy Milone, Jose Berrios and Ricky Nolasco.
Yes, that leaves just Perkins and Milone as lefty arms, so I’d like to see Logan Darnell make the team, meaning Nolasco is cut loose or one of Meyer/Berrios is kept in Rochester to stay stretched out in case there’s an early hole to plug in the rotation.
No team survives a season without running 7-10 pitchers through their rotation during the year and all five of these guys could work their way into starting roles either by their own performance or attrition among those who open the year as starters.
But the point remains that the Twins have pitching that is capable of bolstering their bullpen and I’d spend $10-15 million to take a chance on Fister improving the rotation. Then, as the dominoes fall, quality internal pitchers are pushed to the bullpen.
To me, that’s preferable to making multi-year commitments to one or more of the flavor-of-the-month relief arms available in free agency when the Twins have guys like Nick Burdi, Jake Reed, J.T. Chargois, Taylor Rogers, Zach Jones, Alex Wimmers and Mason Melotakis (to name just a few), any of which could become high-quality internal bullpen options before 2016 is over. Even 2015 top draft pick Tyler Jay, who will be given an opportunity to work in a minor league rotation somewhere to start the season, could be called on for a big league relief role, if needed at some point.
The best free agent bullpen arms will command large, multi-year deals, which the Twins should not invest in, and the next tier on the open market are no more likely to provide consistent quality relief innings than the Twins’ own internal options.
The bottom line, for me, is that Terry Ryan can get Park signed, make a deal with Fister, then go on vacation, as far as I’m concerned. If he can get someone to take Nolasco’s contract off his hands, terrific, but otherwise, I’d be content to head to spring training with that roster.
With just 40 games remaining in their regular season schedule, now seems like a good time to step back and take a look at the state of the Cedar Rapids Kernels.
It’s almost laughable to even question whether or not the affiliation switch from the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim to the Minnesota Twins has been good for Cedar Rapids. Of course it has, by pretty much every measurement.
The Kernels have already qualified for the Midwest League postseason by virtue of their second place finish in the first half of the season and fan interest is up.
Attendance is up some, but even more telling, the fans who show up for games are enthusiastically engaged in what’s happening on the field. That has not always been the case at Veterans Memorial Stadium the past few years.
It certainly didn’t hurt that one of the Twins’ top prospects, Byron Buxton, got off to such an incredible start this spring. He drew fan and media interest from well beyond the local community.
But even after the inevitable promotion of Buxton to the Twins’ Class high-A affiliate at Fort Myers in June, the Kernels have continued to win games. That may come as a surprise to those so blinded by Buxton’s aura that they didn’t notice the Kernels roster included a number of other very talented players.
Of course, Buxton isn’t the only Kernels player the Twins have rewarded with a bump up in playing level. The Kernels have seen about a dozen players, in total, promoted to Fort Myers already this season.
The Twins, as an organization, have a reputation for being conservative with their promotions. They historically have preferred to see most players spend at least an entire season, if not more, at most minor league levels.
No doubt, Kernels officials were hoping that trend would continue. In past seasons, the Angels seemingly couldn’t wait to promote players as soon as they demonstrated any level of productivity in a Kernels uniform.
Among position players, Buxton was the only key offensive contributor to be lost to promotion until J.D. Williams and Dalton Hicks were bumped up to Fort Myers about a week ago.
It’s not easy to replace players found in the top 10 of most Midwest League offensive statistical categories like Williams (on-base percentage, OPS), Hicks (home runs, RBI, slugging pct., OPS) and Buxton (almost everything), but players brought in to Cedar Rapids by the Twins to replace the departing hitters have done well.
Max Kepler joined the Kernels once he completed rehabilitating his injured elbow in Fort Myers. He arrived four days before Buxton was promoted and he has hit for a .263 average. Thirteen of his 31 hits have been for extra bases.
Jonathan Murphy is hitting .333 in the 17 games he’s played since his arrival at the beginning of July and Joel Licon has performed well in a utility infielder role since he joined the team in early June.
It’s too early to know for certain how well Mike Gonzales will fill in for the departed Hicks, but the big first baseman has four hits in his first eight at-bats as a Kernel. Gonzales hit .289 and stroked 15 home runs for the Beloit Snappers in 2011. He missed much of his 2012 season in Fort Myers and after starting this season again with the Miracle, a wrist injury has sidelined him for the past several weeks.
On the pitching front, the Kernels lost Taylor Rogers before most fans even got to know him. He made three unimpressive starts for the Kernels before being moved on to Fort Myers. Jose Berrios, a supplemental first round draft pick in the 2012 First Year Player Draft and one of the top pitching prospects in the Twins organization, essentially took Rogers’ spot in the Kernels rotation.
The subsequent promotion of Tyler Duffey in early June left a much more significant hole at the top of the Kernels’ rotation. Duffey carried a 2.78 ERA and a 0.943 WHIP through nine starts when he left Cedar Rapids.
Josue Montanez initially worked from the Kernels bullpen after his promotion to Cedar Rapids in June, but has shown some potential since joining the rotation about a month ago.
Perhaps even more critically, the Kernels have seen four important members of their bullpen earn promotions. Matt Tomshaw and Manuel Soliman had contributed a total of 59 innings of work over a combined 30 appearances before they were promoted. Last week, the Twins elevated Steve Gruver and Tyler Jones, who had combined to provide a formidable left-right relief combination late in games.
Reliever Alex Muren has been relatively effective since arriving from extended spring training in early May, and the early returns from more recent additions Madison Boer, Dallas Gallant and Tim Shibuya are encouraging.
But the bottom line in baseball is all about wins and losses.
The Kernels were 44-28, for a .611 winning percentage, with Buxton on the roster. Since his promotion four games in to the second half schedule, the Kernels are 17-9 (.654) and they are leading the MWL West Division by three games over first half champion Beloit.
It’s certainly too soon to know what effect losing the four players promoted a week ago will have on the team’s fortunes. However, the Kernels have won five of the first six games played (all on the road) since Hicks, Williams, Jones and Gruver got their well-deserved promotions.
On Tuesday, the first member of the Twins’ draft class of 2013 was promoted to Cedar Rapids when seventh round pick Brian Gilbert was added to the Kernels’ roster.
Roster turnover is just a fact of life in minor league baseball. When the local team starts out winning a lot of games, it’s probably because a lot of players are performing very well and players that perform very well deserve promotions to the next level in the organization.
One way to measure the strength of an organization is to look at how a minor league team performs after a number of their best players are promoted. If the new players perform well and the team continues winning, that’s a very good sign.
So far, that’s what we’re seeing in Cedar Rapids. That bodes well, this season, for the Kernels and for the Twins in the long run.
Through May 21, the Cedar Rapids Kernels had built up an impressive 30-13 record and held a five game lead over their closest competition in the Western Division of the Midwest League.
They then left town for a quick three-game road trip to Beloit after taking three out of four games from Kane County. They had no clue at that time that they not only would get swept by the second place Snappers on that trip, but would also return home and drop all three games of a series against the last place Burlington Bees.
But that’s exactly what happened to the Kernels as almost every part of their game seemed to fall apart at the same time over the past week.
The defense not only started committing more errors than usual, but those errors seemed to come at precisely the worst possible time.
The timely hitting that had almost become a trademark of the team through the first six weeks of the season disappeared as they hit safely just 13 times in 54 opportunities with runners in scoring position during their losing streak and scored just three runs in four of the six games.
Perhaps most concerning, the Kernels’ starting pitching rotation averaged less than five innings of work per game over the six losses. The rotation arms gave up a whopping 45 hits and 33 runs (28 of them earned) in 29 2/3 innings during that stretch of games.
Kernels pitching coach Gary Lucas was asked what had gone wrong with the team’s starting pitching.
“I don’t know. These teams that begin with the letter B, Beloit and Burlington, took it to us,” conceded Lucas, after Tuesday night’s 9-4 win over Clinton.
“I can’t explain it. It’s been a little bit of everything here. It’s a bump in the road that all teams have, good and bad. Burlington’s turning some things around, Beloit’s turning some things around. We’ve got to overcome a losing streak and get back to our winning ways and hopefully this starts that process.”
Tuesday’s starting pitcher, Mason Melotakis, gave his team seven strong innings of work. That’s the first game a Kernels starting pitcher has worked seven innings since Tyler Duffey went 7 2/3 innings in a May 18 extra-inning win over Kane County.
Melotakis and Duffey are two of the Twins organization’s “conversion projects” this summer. Both were relief pitchers in college, but the Twins want to see if they are capable of playing a starting pitching role in the professional ranks.
To be successful, both pitchers will need to refine their secondary pitches – their breaking balls and change ups – rather than just rely on their ability to throw fastballs in excess of 90 miles per hour.
Melotakis feels the key for him is not letting hitters dig in against him. “I like to work in and out and make the hitters uncomfortable. I try to keep them uncomfortable and off balance in the box.”
Lucas feels that Melotakis is making progress in that area. “He is always going to attack with his fastball and he’s learning how to use it on both sides of the plate. The change up and the breaking ball are still a work in progress.”
“I think the fact that he’s using them over longer stretches, being a starter now and not a reliever, he’s got to do different things with those pitches,” Lucas added.
“He probably didn’t use a change up much as a reliever. In fact, I know when he was with us last year he didn’t. I think just staying on top of these kids and just developing touch/feel with their pitches. It’s a little inconsistent right now, but hopefully with innings, it’ll come. He (Melotakis) shows flashes of really being a consistent competitor with that fastball on both sides of the plate.”
In addition to developing other pitches, Duffey and Melotakis will also have to throw a lot more innings over the course of a season than they have in the past.
The Kernels are utilizing a six-man rotation that they hope will allow their starting pitchers to get through an entire season of rotation work without putting excessive wear and tear on their arms. It’s also hoped that doing so will make the conversion process easier for pitchers like Duffey and Melotakis.
But with the Kernels starting pitching struggling of late, could it be that some of these pitchers are tiring a bit as the team nears the half-way point of their season?
“It’s a good point. We should watch that to see at some point how they react and how their strength and how their stamina and their endurance (hold up).” Lucas said.
But Lucas isn’t ready to buy in to the theory already.
“Both Melotakis and Duffey, the key guys that used to be relievers and now are starters, they’ve got durability on their side. They’re strong. They’re hard workers. So I think they’ll be fine over the long haul. And they’re on a six man rotation so they usually get an extra day. We’re hoping that pays dividends as we move along.”
The Kernels added Hein Robb, a lefty from South Africa who just turned 21 on May 12, to their rotation this week. Robb replaced Matt Tomshaw, who was promoted to the Fort Myers Miracle.
Lucas indicated Robb would be inserted in to the rotation after Duffey, who is scheduled to pitch for the Kernels Wednesday night. That would mean Robb should make his Midwest League debut against Clinton on Thursday in Cedar Rapids.
I don’t know who to see about this, but the Twins and Kernels should NOT be allowed to have off-days on the same day! That’s what happened yesterday. So, without anything really “new” to write about either team, I’m posting the following article on the Kernels’ hot start. Under an agreement with MetroSportsReport.com, my alter ego, SD Buhr, writes a weekly “Kernels Update” for TwinsDaily.com. The following is a slightly updated version of what was posted yesterday on both sites and is republished here with permission of MSR. – JC
By SD Buhr
There is no shortage of great story lines through the first three weeks of the Cedar Rapids Kernels’ inaugural season as the Minnesota Twins Class A affiliate in the Midwest League.
To begin with, the Kernels (12-5) sit atop the MWL Western Division standings, with a one-game lead over the Quad City River Bandits (Astros). Cedar Rapids has had success both at home (5-2) and on the road (7-3).
The biggest story of the first three weeks of the MWL season has undoubtedly been the weather. The Kernels have played only 17 games at this point and that’s more than seven of the other 15 MWL teams have played. Yesterday (Wednesday, April 24) was supposed to be the first scheduled off-day of the Kernels’ season. With all of the weather-related postponements and cancellations, it was instead the seventh day Kernels players will have not played baseball since Opening Day.
Understandably, the early attention on the field has been focused on center fielder Byron Buxton, the Twins’ #1 draft pick a year ago. Buxton got off to an amazing start with the bat, but it was inevitable that he would cool off. He has just three hits in his last 15 At-Bats over the Kernels most recent four games. That’s dropped his Batting Average all the way down to… .404. He’s reached base at a .514 rate and has two doubles, two triples and two home runs to assemble a 1.128 On-Base Plus Slugging percentage (OPS). He also has seven stolen bases. If this is the worst “slump” Buxton has to go through, he’s going to have a fun season.
But Buxton isn’t the only Kernels hitter putting up impressive numbers.
First baseman Dalton Hicks has put together a pretty good start of his own, as well. His .310 Batting Average is backed up by seven doubles and a team-leading three home runs.
Drew Leachman went hitless in five At-Bats on on Opening Night and spent the next couple of weeks on the Disabled List after banging up his shoulder in that first game. Leachman has nine hits in 21 At-Bats for a .429 average since being reactivated, with a double, a triple and four RBI in five games. (Leachman received some congratulatory tweets from teammates late Tuesday night and early Wednesday indicating he may have gotten called up to Fort Myers. As of Wednesday afternoon, a source with the Kernels indicated they had not received any official word from the Twins on the move.)
In addition to Buxton, Hicks and Leachman, there are five additional Kernels hitting at .270 or better:
Niko Goodrum is hitting at a .288 clip with five doubles and a .383 On-Base Percentage (OBP).
Jorge Polanco has four doubles and a home run, along with 11 RBI, to go with his .281 Batting Average.
Adam Walker also has a .281 average and 11 RBI to go with his two doubles, one triple and two home runs.
Travis Harrison shares the team lead in doubles with Hicks at seven and has a pair of home runs, as well. He’s hitting .271 on the season.
J. D. Williams is hitting .270, but he’s parlayed three doubles and a pair of home runs, along with 11 walks, in to a .429 OBP and an OPS of .942. That’s some pretty good work, especially coming from the guy who’s held down the #9 spot in the batting order most of the young season.
Perhaps the biggest Kernels news this week was the debut of Jose Berrios, one of the top starting pitching prospects in the Twins organization. Berrios threw five innings on Monday night against the Burlington Bees. He struck out five Bees hitters, but also gave up seven hits and walked a pair.
If Berrios, who will still be just 18 years old for another month, was a bit over-excited for his first start, it would be understandable. He had trouble getting his fastball down in the strike zone the first couple of innings, but finished strong enough to be credited with the Win in the Kernels’ 8-4 win over Burlington.
Berrios’ fastball reportedly hit 96 mph early in the game, but one scout’s radar gun consistently recorded it at 91-93 mph during his last two innings of work. However, it’s possible that his breaking ball was more impressive. It had a late, sharp, break that buckled more than one set of Bees’ knees.
In the end, Berrios may turn out to be the biggest pitching story this season for the Kernels, but a number of his fellow pitchers are setting a pretty high standard for him to meet.
Tyler Duffey hasn’t been able to repeat the seven-perfect-innings performance of his first start of the season, but he’s continued to pitch well. Through 19.2 innings of work covering three starts, he’s put up a 2.29 ERA, striking out 17 while walking only three hitters. He’s also put up a 0.661 WHIP (Walks + Hits per Inning Pitched).
Mason Melotakis has put up a 2.84 ERA in his three starts, racking up 11 strikeouts in just 12. 2 innings of work and Hudson Boyd, while struggling with control at times, has also managed to miss bats. Boyd has struck out a dozen hitters in 14 innings during his three starts.
David Hurlbut appears to be the pitcher bumped from the rotation to the bullpen to make room for Berrios (though that could change with the promotion of Taylor Rogers to Fort Myers this week). Hurlbut has put up a 3.00 ERA and a 0.933 WHIP in 15 innings of work during four appearances (two of them starts).
The weather situation has left Brett Lee, who started the season penciled in as the Kernels sixth starting pitcher in a six-man rotation, with just one start in the first three weeks of the season. He’s made two other appearances in relief roles. Regardless of how he’s entered the game, however, Lee has kept his opponents from scoring. He’s sporting a perfect 0.00 ERA over eight innings of work, while striking out seven hitters without surrendering a walk.
Steven Gruver has posted a 0.64 ERA in his four appearances, three of which came out of the bullpen, while the other came as an emergency starter. That start was necessitated by weather forcing the Kernels to play seven games in a period of just four days. Gruver has struck out 16 hitters and walked just two in 14 innings.
Gruver, along with Tyler Jones, Tim Atherton, Manuel Soliman and Chris Mazza, have anchored a very effective Kernels bullpen. Gruver, Jones, Atherton and Mazza have all struck out more than a hitter per inning of work.
Manager Jake Mauer’s group of Kernels are off to a very good start, made even more impressive by the conditions in which they’ve had to play and the effect the weather has had on their schedule. It should be really interesting to see how things come together when the weather turns warm and the fans start to fill up the ballpark.
The Kernels open up a six game homestand tonight with a 6:35 game against the Dodgers’ MWL affiliate, the Great Lakes Loons.
The Cedar Rapids Kernels won three of four games over the Beloit Snappers in their first series of the 2013 season and there was no shortage of drama in the process.
The Kernels won their season opener 8-6, then recovered from a 2-1 ninth inning deficit to claim a walk-off 3-2 win in game 2 of the series. The Snappers managed to hold their 2-1 lead to completion in claiming the third game of the series. In the finale, three Kernels pitchers combined to throw a no-hitter at the visiting Snappers.
Outfielder Byron Buxton gave the locals a good look at what all the fuss is about as he hit .563 for the series, including plenty of power.
The game stories are widely available on the web, but this morning, I thought I’d share a few (OK, much more than a few) of the pictures I took over the course of the past week, since the Kernels arrived in Cedar Rapids.
If you didn’t see your favorite Kernels in these pictures, not to worry… we’ll be posting a lot more pictures over the course of the season.
This is the last of this six-part series examining the players in the Twins organization that likely will spend part of the upcoming summer in Cedar Rapids during the Kernels first year as the Twins Class A Midwest League affiliate.
In the first five parts, we’ve covered all of the position players and the pitchers most likely to fill starting pitching roles. We wrap things up now by looking at a rather lengthy list of relief pitchers.
In the 2012 amateur draft, the Twins had 15 picks in the first 12 rounds and they used nine of those picks to select college age relief pitchers. As a result, the organization starts 2013 with a lot of guys who have one year of rookie league level experience, but who are about 22 years old and therefore really need to get moving up the full season organizational ladder. That means a lot of the descriptions below will sound pretty similar.
The draft class of 2012 should be joined by some pretty talented pitchers that have already been in the organization a couple of years and, together, they should make the Kernels bullpen pretty darn good this season.
Luke Bard – Age 22 – Throws Right
2012: Fort Myers (Rookie – GCL) and Elizabethton (Rookie – Appy)
Bard, the brother of Red Sox pitcher Daniel Bard, was chosen by the Twins as a Supplemental 1st round pick (42nd pick overall) out of Georgia Tech. Like a number of others on this list, Bard was a relief pitcher in college who very possibly will get some opportunities to start in the Twins organization. Bard was a late signee and had a minor injury or two during the year. As a result, he got very little work in at the professional level in 2012, though he did make a handful of appearances at both Rookie League levels and actually pitched better at Elizabethton than he did during his time with the GCL Twins.
If the Twins do want to see what he can do as a starting pitcher, I could see them working with him on the transition in extended spring training and then getting a few starts at Elizabethton in June. He reportedly throws his fastball in the mid 90s, has a strong slider and decent change up, as well. If they’re as good as reported, he’ll be up with the Kernels in 2013, either in their bullpen or their rotation.
2012: Elizabethton (Rookie – Appy) and Beloit (Class A – MWL)
Melotakis was a 2nd round pick in 2012 out of Northwestern State University of Louisiana. He made 20 appearances (all in relief) for Elizabethton and Beloit, combined. Melotakis pretty much cut right through hitters at both levels of competition, though hitters had more success making contact off of him in Beloit.
Melotakis could justifiably start the season in Fort Myers, based on the way he dominated hitters at both Rookie and Class A levels in 2012. At the same time, he didn’t spend enough time in Class A to be 100% positive he’s ready to face high-A hitters.
If Melotakis does start the season with the Kernels, don’t expect him to be in town too long. I would guess he’ll be on a fast track with the organization, as long as he continues to dominate the way he has so far.
J.T. Chargois – Age 22 – Throws Right
2012: Elizabethton (Rookie – Appy)
Chargois was also a 2nd round pick of the Twins in the 2012 draft, coming out of Rice University. JT hits the mid 90s with his fastball and has a good slider to go with it.
Chargois was too much for Rookie league hitters to handle and while he could probably be held in extended spring training, I’d expect him to come north with Cedar Rapids unless there simply isn’t room for him on the roster. He has a lot of potential and I just think the Twins will want to challenge him with Midwest League hitting to see whether he could move up the ladder sooner rather than later.
Zack Jones – Age 22 – Throws Right
2012: Elizabethton (Rookie – Appy) and Beloit (Class A – MWL)
The Twins used their 4th round pick in the 2012 to draft Jones out of San Jose State University. At just 6’1”, Zack is not as big as many of the other relief pitchers the team drafted, but his stature doesn’t prevent him from hitting the upper 90s with his fastball.
Jones stayed in Elizabethton only long enough to pitch six innings and he left town with a perfect 0.00 ERA. The Midwest League was more challenging, in terms of giving up runs, but his strikeout rate actually increased at the higher level, where he struck out 16.1 hitters per nine innings. He does walk a few hitters, but if he can work on the control, Jones could fly up the organizational ladder. In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Twins decided he showed enough in Beloit to warrant starting 2013 at high-A in Fort Myers.
Tyler Duffey – Age 22 – Throws Right
2012: Elizabethton (Rookie – Appy)
Duffey was drafted by the Twins in the 5th round of the 2012 draft out of Rice University. Unlike many of the other relief pitchers drafted in the 2012 class, Duffey did not pitch at both Rookie league levels after signing. He got all of his regular season work with the GCL Twins in Fort Myers and certainly put up impressive numbers there. (See correction below.)
Tyler demonstrated terrific control, walking just two hitters over the course of his 19 innings of work. On the other hand, he struck out 27 hitters. Of course, as a college-age draftee, he was older than most of the hitters he faced, so we have to consider that factor in looking at his numbers.
Ordinarily, I’d say a guy like Duffey is likely to start the season in Cedar Rapids, but there’s room for only so many pitchers on the Kernels roster and there may just be too many guys ahead of him who did get work at Elizabethton last year. If that’s the case, Duffey would stay behind in extended spring training and go to E’town in June, but look for him to arrive in CR later in the summer.
(Correction: All of Duffey’s regular season numbers were put up in Elizabethton, not the GCL, and he got called up to Beloit for their playoff series and was actually credited with the W in their sole postseason win over Clinton. This clearly makes Duffey likely to be Cedar Rapids bound to start the season. Thanks for the correction in the comments section, Wild Rice.)
Christian Powell – Age 21 – Throws Right
2012: Elizabethton (Rookie – Appy)
The Twins selected the 6’5” Powell in the 8th round of the 2012 draft out of the College of Charlston and he made just 10 relief appearances for Elizabethton during the summer. Powell had limited success, giving up more than a hit per inning and not demonstrating terrific control. Christian did demonstrate his ability to miss bats, however, as he struck out 20 hitters in just 15.2 innings of work.
Powell could be held back in extended spring training, rather than coming north with the Kernels and could well start his season back in Elizabethton in June, but I’d guess he’s likely to make a Kernels debut before the end of the season.
D.J. Baxendale – Age 22 – Throws Right
2012: Elizabethton (Rookie – Appy) and Beloit (Class A – MWL)
Baxendale was drafted in the 10th round of the 2012 amateur draft out of the University of Arkansas and worked his way through two levels of the Twins system after signing his contract. He clearly outclassed the competition in Elizabethton, striking out more than two hitters per inning in his six appearances there. He gave up exactly one hit before being promoted to Beloit.
DJ pitched well with the Snappers, also, but hitters did make more consistent contact off him. In fact, Baxendale gave up more than a hit per inning while pitching for the Snappers. He continued to strike out a lot of hitters, however. He only walked one batter while in Beloit, which is one more batter than he allowed to hit a home run off him.
It’s possible the Twins could have him jump straight to high-A ball to start 2013 in Fort Myers, but he only pitched 18.2 innings total after signing with the Twins last season, so I would think he would start the year in Cedar Rapids. It’s also quite possible the Twins might consider seeing if Baxendale might be a candidate to convert to a starting pitcher and, if so, it would seem doing so in Class A would make the most sense.
Dallas Gallant – Age 23 – Throws Right
2012: Elizabethton (Rookie – Appy) and Beloit (Class A – MWL)
Gallant was selected by the Twins in the 23rd round of the 2010 draft out of Sam Houston State University and was sent to Elizabethton to finish out the summer of 2010 after signing. He pitched well in his handful of games there, striking out 15 batters in 13.1 innings. 2011 was a lost season to Dallas as he underwent Tommy John surgery that spring.
As you would expect, the Twins started Gallant off slowly in 2012, keeping him in extended spring training and giving him five appearances with Elizabethton, where he was fairly dominant (as a 23-year-old pitcher should be), before promoting him to Beloit for the rest of the summer. He also pitched well for the Snappers, striking out almost 12 batters per nine innings, but walked a few hitters, as well.
I hesitated to include Gallant on this list. Given the bottleneck of younger pitchers behind him, it just seems to me that he’s likely to start the season at high-A Fort Myers. He turns 24 years old later in January, so he’s a bit older than the other pitchers on this list, but given the year lost to injury and the Twins’ methodical approach to advancement, he certainly could at least start the season with the Kernels.
Joshua Burris – Age 21 – Throws Right
2012: Elizabethton (Rookie – Appy)
Considering that the Twins drafted Burris out of LSU-Eunice in the 17th round back in 2011, he’s actually relatively young and will be just 21 throughout the 2013 season. He didn’t sign in time to get any innings in the summer he was drafted, but averaged two innings per relief appearance for Elizabethton in 2012.
Josh’s name can be found in many Twins top prospects lists as he’s demonstrated both a solid mid 90s fastball and an effective curve. Like many of his peers at this level, he’s had no trouble striking out Rookie level hitters, but has also walked a few, too. Since he was routinely used for multiple innings last season, there is speculation that Burris could be considered for a switch to a starting pitcher role at some point this season.
Chris Mazza – Age 23 – Throws Right
2012: Fort Myers (Rookie – GCL) and Elizabethton (Rookie – Appy)
Mazza didn’t sign soon enough following being drafted by the Twins in the 27th round of the 2011 draft to get any work in that summer, but he did pitch at both Rookie league levels in 2012. At 6’4” and just 175 pounds, Mazza has plenty of room to grow in to his frame, but he did get off to a good start in his first professional season.
Chris split his innings almost equally between the GCL Twins and Elizabethton, with similar results. He did give up more runs at Elizabethton, but most importantly he maintained his outstanding strikeout/walk ratio (13.00 K/BB at FtM and 15.00 K/BB at E’town). Mazza has excellent control and misses bats and that’s a combination that will move him up the ladder with the Twins.
There are other pitchers that will likely spend time in Cedar Rapids this summer, though it’s hard to say right now what role(s) they may fill on the Kernels’ pitching staff.
Brett Lee is 22 and was drafted in the 10th round in 2011. He threw 43.2 innings for Elizabethton in 2012 over 16 games. Four of his 16 appearances were starts. He struck out 48 hitters and walked 12.
Andrew Ferreira is a 22 year-old lefty the Twins drafted in the 32nd round last year out of Harvard. He struck out 13 hitters and walked seven in his 10 innings of work for Elizabethton in 2012.
Kaleb Merck is also 22 and was drafted out of TCU by the Twins one round after Ferreira last year. Merck struck out 28 hitters in his 24.1 innings at Elizabethton. Obviously, both pitchers could easily spend time in Cedar Rapids this summer.
The 2013 Kernels bullpen should be a real strength and could easily include several future Big League pitchers. Some of these guys could be on fast tracks through the organization, however, so don’t be too surprised if they’re promoted relatively quickly.
That’s a wrap for this series. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about these young men and that you join me in looking forward to the 2013 season of the Cedar Rapids Kernels!
If you missed any of the first five parts of the series, you can click back via the links below: