Your place for Minnesota Twins and New Britain Rock Cats coverage, analysis and opinion.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Minnesota's Own Nate Hanson

Nate Hanson getting a Spring Training at-bat
Last season, Twins fans (and minor league geeks like me) hung on Miguel Sano's and Byron Buxton's every at-bat. In fact, the night I covered (and live-tweeted) Sano's New Britain Rock Cats' debut, I gained something like 200 Twitter followers. Sure, Sano is exciting -- a kid with game-changing power and an electric personality. But behind every Sano or Buxton are hundreds of players that never get the recognition they deserve.

Since I've been following the New Britain Rock Cats, my two favorite players to watch have been James Beresford and Nate Hanson. Nope, not Sano, not Eddie Rosario, not Josmil Pinto. Beresford, a superb defender, made the move midway last season to AAA, and hasn't looked back. In fact, he's been one of the Rochester Wings' best hitters in 2014. Hanson, however, was again assigned to New Britain to begin 2014. This -- along with A.J. Achter's assignment to New Britain (he since moved up to AAA) -- really surprised me, for several reasons.

Hanson, 27, is experiencing his third April in New Britain (he played the final 60 games of 2011 for the Rock Cats, and had a very brief 20-game stint in Rochester in 2013 -- otherwise it's all been Hard Hittin' New Britain since 2012). He has been the definition of a utility player, a go-to guy, a gamer, and a teammate who doesn't whine. You can pick your sports cliches, but Hanson (and Berseford, too) is an example that sometimes cliches are used for a reason. One of Hanson's best attributes is his attitude. When I asked about starting 2014 in New Britain, again, instead of Rochester, Hanson said that it was a result of the talent in the system, "and it was just how the rosters played out. I saw it as an opportunity to play every day and get my at-bats while being one of the leaders on the team." To be sure, at-bats, regardless of the level of competition, are the most important thing: no one ever gets bumped up a level because they were good in a pinch-hit situation.  

Although a natural third baseman, Hanson has seen time at first base, left field, DH, and most recently, second base. He's in the lineup every night. He does his job -- and is capable of fielding any of those positions. Regarding his super-utility status, Hanson said that "versatility is my strongest asset, and I pride myself on being a very good defender regardless of the position." As I'm writing this, I'm realizing that Hanson reminds me a bit of Michael Cuddyer, with less power. For as much as some people complained at the prospect of Cuddyer playing second base or first base, or even pitching an inning, keep in mind, the Twins needed someone to occupy those positions, and Cuddy did it, even when it took him out of his comfort zone. There's huge value to an organization in a guy who can cover several positions in a pinch and not embarrass with the bat. There's huge value to an organization when it can get through a couple games using versatile players, without having to make a roster move.

Hanson, though, is no slouch offensively. He's off to a hot start this year. In fact, he was 2-for-6 in this evening's game with a home run and a walk. In 15 games this season, Hanson has a .311 average with the homer, 5 doubles and 9 RBIs. Hanson said that he's "typically a slow starter, but feels good at the plate thus far." He also has the benefit of having "faced some familiar pitchers, so I have an idea of what they're trying to do on the mound."

So after all is said and done, what is Hanson's path to the Twins? I'm not exactly sure. One the one hand, the Twins hope that Sano quickly recovers from Tommy John surgery and is able to travel through AA, AAA an become the Twins' starting third baseman at some point in 2015. So it seems like Hanson may be blocked at third base in the long run. On the other hand, though, there are so many paths for a guy that can play 4 defensive positions. First things first, though: Hanson deserves an extended opportunity to play every day in Rochester. I hope it's sooner than later, but it is warranted.

If Hanson hits AAA pitching, I think he's a great candidate for a Twins' bench role. As the MLB season drags on, injuries always mount for the big club. So often, the Twins' bench options have either been defensive specialists with no bat, or guys that can hit but cannot field (Jim Thome 2011 comes to mind -- loved the guy, but it was always a tough situation when he'd come off the bench in a big situation, draw a walk, then have to be taken out for a pinch runner because he couldn't run or field). A player like Hanson (or even Beresford) bridges the gap between a typical "defensive specialist" and a limited "bench bat." Whatever his future, though, Nate Hanson will continue to conduct himself as a professional. In fact, the Rock Cats awarded him their annual "10th Player Award" at the end of last season.  Minnesotans should be proud to say that Nate Hanson is "one of their own."

Monday, April 14, 2014

Rock Cats Report 2014.1

Nate Hanson celebrating a home run.
Courtesy of McClelland Miscellanea.
As of this writing, the New Britain Rock Cats sit at 4-6. It's important before reading this piece -- or really any piece related to baseball -- that we all realize that we're only 10 games (or so) into the season. Everything anyone says should be couched with the "small sample size" caveat. Still, though, it is worthwhile to start to look at how Twins' prospects are beginning to perform against what we, the fans, expect to see this season.

The Rock Cats seem ... serviceable. But something is missing this spring. I've been fortunate, since I began closely following this team in 2012, to have had at least 1 Top 10 Twins prospect on this team at pretty much all times. Aaron Hicks; Oswaldo Arcia; Trevor May; Alex Meyer; Miguel Sano; Eddie Rosario. Take a look for a second at Baseball America's 2014 Twins Top 10 Prospects List. The talent on that list is all above AA, below AA, injured (Sano & Buxton), or just elsewhere (Rosario). This will change, for sure. Once Buxton's wrist heals and he gets back into playing shape, he'll likely spend the rest of 2014 in New Britain. And that's just what this team needs: a game-changer. Eddie Rosario will also be back in New Britain later this season, I hope. And Miguel Sano will log another stint in Connecticut on his way back up.

For now, though, New Britain needs to make do with their current roster. Indeed, there are bright spots, including some MiLB veterans who have been performing well. Offensively, New Britain veteran (really, a super-veteran) Nate Hanson has been leading the offense, hitting .350/.372/.475 with 5 doubles and 7 RBIs in 10 games. He's hit safely in 8 of the 10 games. Aderlin Mejia, shortstop, has a line of .375/.464/.417, but also has 4 errors in 8 games. Let's not forget emerging prospect Kennys Vargas. He only has a .216/.302/.405 line, but has 2 of the Rock Cats' 3 home runs, a double, and 6 RBIs. Additionally, after starting out 2-for-20, Vargas is 6 for his last 17 (which includes both homers and the double).

Pitching results have been mixed. Pat Dean has had the most success of the starters, going 2-0 with a 4.76 ERA. He's struck out 12 and walked only 2 in 11 1/3 innings. DJ Baxendale, a really nice guy, hasn't had as much luck. After 2 starts, he has a 5.91 ERA. He's simply given up too many hits -- 14 in 10 2/3 innings. Atlanta Braves pick-up Sean Gilmartin had 1 good, and 1 bad start. Out of the bullpen, AJ Achter is already gone to Rochester (where he should have started in the first place). BJ Hermsen was recently reassigned to extended spring training, and former Twins reliever Matt Guerrier is now a member of the Rock Cats. Kind of interesting, to say the least. Adrian Salcedo, who I was looking forward to watching, has had a rough start, giving up runs in 2 of his 4 outings, including a 6 run 1/3-of-an-inning performance that will really skew your stat line. Ryan O'Rourke has been another bright spot in relief, giving up only 1 run in 4 appearances (3 2/3 innings).

One of the things Rock Cats manager Jeff Smith stressed at the Annual Welcome Home Dinner was that he believed the 2014 Rock Cats would play as a team, as opposed to some minor league teams comprised of a few talented individuals who care more about individual stats. It's a nice thing to say, of course, but I do see what he was getting at. Let's not forget -- Smith doesn't choose his roster; he gets who he gets. This current team -- composed largely of MiLB vets and AA first-timers, with no Top Prospects -- will have to learn to play as a team.

Plan to hear more from me next Tuesday -- if not before. The Rock Cats are wrapping up a road trip, and I should get to the ballpark over the weekend. A few things to watch for in the meantime: does Kennys Vargas continue to warm up to AA; how do the starting pitchers fare as their pitch limit increases (most are at a 75-85 pitch limit this early in the spring); and who steps up offensively and defensively while the Twins (and their fans) wait for Buxton to come back?

One final note: I spent a lot of time covering/following Trevor May, James Beresford and Alex Meyer the last couple seasons. They are all off to strong starts at AAA. Christopher Fee is doing a great job covering the Red Wings for TwinsDaily, so be sure to check out his stuff. I wouldn't be surprised if all three ended up with the Twins in 2014.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

My Third Annual Rock Cats Welcome Home Dinner

The Rock Cats' Annual Welcome Home Dinner is one of my favorite events of the season. It's the first time the year's squad is assembled, it's a fun & truly minor league style event, and it never gets old watching the guys sign autographs for excited kids. This is my third such dinner. In 2012, Alex Wimmers sat at my table. Last spring, it was Jason Christian. Both have had, well, let's call it less than good luck since. Tonight it was D.J. Baxendale, the 23 year old Arkansas native who dominated the first half of 2013 in Ft. Myers, but struggled with the transition to AA. I'm looking for him to step up and lead the rotation this season.

I could go up and down the roster for you, but you can read that stuff elsewhere (and I can get another post out of that later). What's most interesting to me about this dinner -- and what I want to touch on -- is the moment of transition that we, the fans, catch the guys in at this point every year. Baxendale, for instance, was still in the process of figuring out his living arrangements. In fact, the team had just arrived in Connecticut on Monday (after a scrimmage Monday morning -- no time is wasted in Spring Training), with an off-day Tuesday to take care of rentals. A lot of the guys have cars shipped up from Florida. Well, most of the cars haven't arrived yet. So there they are, many seeing New Britain for the first time, with just a day or two to find lodging before the season -- and the grind -- starts. Sure, they're adults. But the older I get, the more they look like really large kids. Playing pro baseball is definitely a dream come true for each one of these guys, but it doesn't come without a bunch of sacrifices. Chief among them: certainty.

I also wanted to touch on the professionalism. I've said it before, but it's true: the Twins do a very good job, up and down the organization, of teaching their players to be respectful and friendly to fans. Believe me -- not every organization in baseball acts this way. The guys all signed autographs before the dinner, during, and even after as they were leaving. I watched them goof around with kids who were elated to be sitting next to pro ballplayers. Nate Hanson and A.J. Achter come to mind this year. By all accounts, both should have started the season in AAA, and I'm sure they are upset to be back in New Britain. Hanson, for instance, has been a Rock Cats player since the summer of 2011 (excepting 20 games in Rochester last season). I mean, the guy could be 3 years into a mortgage on a nice little piece of land in Connecticut. But there he was, saying hi to the people he recognized, signing autographs, and (on the surface) ignoring the fact that this was his third such dinner in New Britain.

I think this year's team will be solid. Yes, Buxton and Vargas need to drive the offense. But I'm looking forward to watching some quality pitching this season. I sense some good, low-scoring games in 2015.

Finally, I won a nice hooded sweatshirt. So it was a good night.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Trevor May and First Pitch Strikes

Trevor May
Courtesy of Kevin Pataky
Last season in New Britain, I watched 4 or 5 of Trevor May's starts. I'm still higher on him than most people are, because a few things became apparent to me after watching him -- all of which are fixable (to a degree, anyway): 1) the defense behind him was sometimes lousy (I'm looking specifically at the left side of the infield -- Danny Santana and Miguel Sano), leading to extra pitches made and extra batters faced to get the job done; 2) control issues plagued May, despite the fact that his walks/9 decreased somewhat; and 3) it seemed like he didn't get ahead of batters often enough, thus forcing him to work from behind in the count too often. It's that last item that I want to focus on in this post.

Unfortunately, there's no data tracking first pitch strikes for minor league pitchers, like there is for major leaguers (If you find a website that aggregates this in a searchable way for minor leaguers, do not send it to me. I spent too much time doing this on my own to realize now that there's a website that's done the work for me). But because this interested me, I decided to go through May's starts, game-by-game using Gameday so I could view what happened in each at-bat. This took a while, as you can imagine. I'm pretty confident that I didn't make any errors, but even if I did, I ended up with around 150 innings worth of data, so 1 mistake wouldn't make much a difference. Trevor May started 27 games for the Rock Cats in 2013. There's no first-pitch strike data for 2 games -- a 5 inning, 4 earned run performance; and a 2 and 2/3 inning, 8 earned run performance. Accordingly, I compiled data the remaining 25 games. Here are my findings:

Trevor May threw a first-pitch strike to 52.9% of batters he faced for New Britain in 2013. Yes, good that it's over 50%, but it is by no means an encouraging number.

What's an average first pitch strike percentage in the majors? 59 or 60 percent. May, then, is well below. But why does that matter? Well, here's some interesting data compiled from over 15,000 MLB plate appearances in the 2013 season (same source as previous link): Hitters that get ahead 1-0 have a .269/.383./.442 slash line, while hitters that fall behind 0-1 have a .221/.261/.341 slash line. That ends up being a pretty huge difference over the course of a single game, let alone an entire season. Now, I'm not suggesting that May (or any other pitcher) should just groove the first pitch of every at-bat, but it's also important to note that only 7.3 percent of those first pitch strikes turned into hits.

Because it's not as simple as "hey, throw strikes all the time on the first pitch, Trevor," let's look at May's first pitch strike percentages in some more depth. May had 11 quality starts in 2013 (meaning at least 6 innings pitched and 3 or fewer earned runs). Of those 11 starts, May had 50% or higher first pitch strikes in 9 of those games.

Here's a rough breakdown of May's 2013 season with respect to first pitch strikes. There were 2 games with first pitch strike percentages in the 30s; 6 games with first pitch strike percentages in the 40s; 13 games with first pitch strike percentages in the 50s; and 4 games with first pitch strike percentages in the 60s.

But there's not necessarily a magic correlation for May between first pitch strikes and dominant performances. May's most efficient performance -- in terms of first pitch strikes -- 67.8%, was in a 5 inning, 4 earned run performance in which he gave up 5 hits and walked 3 batters, proving that strike 1 isn't always effective when you are very hitable on the night and are still walking batters.

And how about his least efficient night? May had a 36.8 first pitch strike percentage night in a 4 inning, 2 run performance where he walked 3 and struck out 7. As you can see, although the strikeouts were there, the control issues, and the inability to get ahead in the count, cost him the ability to stay in the game.

I also wondered this: for May, is there a correlation between first pitch strikes and going deeper in ballgames? Short answer, "yes, but ...." For his 2 games with first pitch strikes in the 30s, May averaged 5 innings pitched; for the 6 games with first pitch strikes in the 40s, he averaged 5.6 innings pitched; for the 13 games with first pitch strikes in the 50s, May averaged 6 inning pitched; and for the 4 games with first pitch strikes in the 60s, he averaged 5.58 innings. In a general sense, then, May does do better the more he throws first pitch strikes, but only up to a certain level. All these numbers are interesting to me, but I think they're a little more meaningful when you look at what other pitchers do.

Fangraphs tracks the first pitch strikes in baseball. Here's the list for 2013 of the top first pitch strike hurlers. The Top 30 is by no means full of all-stars, but generally is a list of solid pitchers. Read the list for yourself, but just for fun here are the Top 5: Patrick Corbin (70.2); Cliff Lee (68.5); David Price (67.7); Jordan Zimmerman (66.9); Ervin Santana (65.9). Other notables in the Top 30 include Bronson Arroyo, Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, CC Sabathia, Adam Wainwright, Max Scherzer, Matt Harvey, John Lackey, Cole Hamels and Chris Sale. Those players are all over 62 percent.

Trevor May is an interesting case. Maybe he's at his best when he's throwing first pitch strikes somewhere in the 50s? Let's separate the high 50s from the low 50s, just for fun: When May throws first pitch strikes 55-59 percent of the time, he averages 6.57 innings pitched for those starts. That covered 46 innings. And in those games, by the way, he gave up 8 earned runs total, good for a 1.56 ERA. Now for the low 50s -- 50-54 percent first pitch strikes. In those starts, May averaged 5 and 1/3 innings pitched. That covered 42 innings. And in those games, he gave up 20 earned runs total, for a 4.29 ERA. Incidentally, in those games where he was at or above 60 percent first pitch strikes, May's ERA was 7.25. Admittedly, this was a really small sample size, particularly impacted by one game in which he gave up 8 earned runs. Even throwing out that game and the corresponding innings, the ERA for those high first pitch strike games still sits at 4.91.

All together, it's kind of interesting. May seemed at his best last year when he's got ahead of batters between 55 and 59 percent of the time, but he struggles below those numbers, and even had trouble when he was his "most efficient." I think there are 2 takeaways here. The first is that May needs to do a better job getting ahead of hitters. He's wasting pitches, is not maximizing his efficiency, and is allowing (approximately) 5-7 percent of batters to gain an unnecessary edge over him. The second is that perhaps, for May, having a first strike percentage of 65 or 70 percent of the time (like Corbin, Lee, or Price) isn't optimal. Every pitcher is different, and May has to find out what works for him. When he was grooving first pitch strikes last season, May was a little too hitable, too predictable perhaps.

I don't expect that Trevor May will be a 1 or 2 starter on the next Twins playoff team. I do, however, see him as a reliable starter that can strike out double digits in a game -- keep in mind he did lead the Eastern League in strikeouts last season. But in order to get to that level, I see reducing walks, putting hitters away, and getting ahead in the count more consistently as the 3 major (and interrelated) things standing in his May's way.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

A New Britain Travel Guide

This is where I generally sit
at Rock Cats games.
Come join me.
Every now and then, I'm asked by someone over Twitter or email about traveling to see a Rock Cats series. Usually the questions are pretty basic -- what airport do I fly in to, do I have to buy tickets in advance -- but sometimes the questions are more detailed. I'm always happy to give information, and in fact I've even met up with a couple "displaced" Twins fans at New Britain Stadium. I thought it might be helpful to give some information and provide links in the event that people reading this blog might want to see Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton, and the rest of the gang before they wear Twins uniforms. So what follows is a quick guide to seeing the Twins' AA team.

Getting There: First, I should tell you where New Britain is. It's roughly in the middle of Connecticut, approximately 10 miles southwest of Hartford (capital city), and 30 miles north of New Haven. If you're coming from Minnesota, you'll be flying. If New Britain is your only destination, you'll probably fly into Bradley International Airport, which is located north of Hartford. If you are planning a larger east coast trip, you can definitely fly into Boston or New York, and drive to Connecticut -- I'd say roughly 2 hours from New York or Boston. In addition to air travel, there is also the Metro North Railroad, a commuter train between New York and either New Haven or Hartford. It won't take you right to New Britain, so you'd have to rent a car, but it can get you pretty close. Finally, there are bus services, such as Peter Pan, that transport around New England.

Lodging: Admittedly, I haven't really stayed at any of these places. I live about a half hour from Rock Cats Stadium, and am fortunate that my office is only about 10 minutes away from it. If your goal is to stay as close as possible to the stadium (we'll talk about that in the next paragraph), there is a La Quinta Inn 2 miles away from the stadium. If you don't have a car you can probably catch a ride with Byron Buxton or something.

I'm going to recommend that you stay in Hartford. Hartford isn't a magical city by any means, but it is small, there are great restaurants (see below), and it's only a 15 minute drive to New Britain. There are several good hotels -- The Marriott Downtown, The Hilton Hartford, and the Homewood Suites by Hilton, just to name a few of the reliable ones.

You could also stay in New Haven, which is closer to New York City and home to great pizza and Yale University, but that's a bit of a hike to New Britain.

Finally, it's also worth noting that there are several smaller hotels and B & Bs in the Hartford suburbs that are within a half hour of both Hartford and New Britain. If that's more your style, check out West Hartford, Farmington, Avon, and Simsbury (my town). If you're looking for an authentic "New England Weekend" experience, this is a good option.

Eating & Drinking: If you're at all like me, you like local food and drink when you're traveling. In and around Hartford, there is a great restaurant group called the Max Restaurant Group. Over the years, I've been to almost all of their restaurants. They are not cheap, but hey, you're on vacation and are "only" paying minor league ticket prices. All their restaurants are distinct, but I've never had a bad experience, and the food is always great. There is an authentic German restaurant right in New Britain, called East Side. I've never dined there, but have had their food multiple times at catered events -- and it's great. It seems like the kind of place where you'd have to really work to not have a fun time. Another place, just a half mile from the stadium, is Portofinos Italian Restaurant. I've never been there, so I can't recommend it, but maybe it's worth a try. Here are a few other Hartford restaurants I wholeheartedly recommend: Firebox; Salute; La Kerencya (Peruvian!); Franceso's. Honestly, for a small city, you can really find anything you want in/around Hartford. I have a bunch more spots that I enjoy, but this is a good beginning list.

Now on to the beer and wine. I'm lucky in that the greater Hartford area has a couple wonderful breweries/brew pubs, and wine bars. My favorite local brewery is the Thomas Hooker Brewery, located in Bloomfield, about 5 miles north of Hartford. Also in Bloomfield is a relatively new brewery, Back East Brewing Company. Both places offer tours and samples, but are strictly breweries -- no food/brewpub atmosphere. But if you are looking for brewpubs, I have two places -- City Steam (right in Hartford and basically connected to the Homewood Suites), and The Cambridge House, in Granby, CT (about a half hour away from Hartford, but worth it). If you like wine, like I do, I'd strongly recommend Bin 228, a very affordable wine bar right in Hartford. Also, Max Downtown has (arguably) the best wine list in Hartford.

Hey, What About Baseball?: Oh yea. You want to watch some baseball! I can help you there. New Britain Stadium, home of the Rock Cats, is easy to find. It's right off a pretty major highway (Route 9). Parking is $5, or $7 for VIP (right next to the stadium entrance). Cash only, of course.

The stadium itself is nice. Nothing too fancy, but it's not "old" by MiLB standards, having opened in 1996. The Rock Cats do a very good job there. The tickets are affordable. If you're going all the way out here, I'd spring for the good seats. In my opinion, those are the $17 "Club Seats" located right above the home and visitor dugouts. What I like about these seats is that they are so, so close to the action that you can hear the guys talking, but also you're not obscured by the netting that wraps around behind home plate. Bring a glove, though, or at least a friend you can use as a human shield if necessary. Most of the "Field Box" level seats are great, as well. And to be perfectly honest, there really isn't a bad seat -- there's only like 7,000 of them to begin with, and you can get in the gates for $8. My seat is above the home (first base) dugout. The plus is that I can hear and see the Rock Cats players during the game as they goof around. The negative part is that the first base side, in the summer, gets the evening sun, and can get uncomfortably hot. So if you need a little shade, I'd recommend the third base/left field side of the ballpark.

Food & Drink @ the Ballpark: I'd recommend the grill located in the upper deck behind third base. The hot dogs, sausages, etc., are better (even if a dollar or so more expensive) than the normal concessions. Additionally, every Thursday there is a Sam Adams Happy Hour before the game, where Sam Adams drafts are $1 off in that upper deck/left field part of the stadium. Otherwise, you can't go wrong with Long Trail drafts (in a concourse kiosk more or less behind home plate), and the basic hot dog/nachos/peanuts available everywhere. I'll admit to having had, and enjoyed, the chicken fingers and fries, in a pinch.

Autographs & Related Stuff: Because I have a press pass, I don't ask the players for autographs. But I can tell you, generally, that they are very accommodating. I saw Miguel Sano sign endlessly on one of his off days last summer. And as a rule, the Twins make sure that their minor leaguers treat fans well. Of course, they cannot sign during games, but I have seen fans catch the guys on the way back to their cars after the game is over.

Summary: Connecticut probably isn't the coolest state in the Union, and Hartford is no Boston on San Francisco. But there is a lot going on here. I've neglected to mention that the entire New Haven area is on the ocean and full of beaches, that there is an area in Massachusetts (about an hour north of Hartford) that is comparable (though not as great IMO) as "Lake Country" in northern Minnesota, and that you could even make it to Philadelphia in 4 hours, give or take, to watch the aging Phillies demonstrate how to really ruin an organization. If you come for a Friday-Sunday Rock Cats series, there's plenty to do within 20 minutes. If you choose to spend a week here, you'll need to expand your horizons a little, but it really is a great part of the country.

If anyone reading this decides to travel to CT for a Rock Cats game or series, please drop me a line. If I'm around, I'm happy to meet up at the stadium. Beers on me!

Anyone who has been to New Britain, please comments for places I've neglected to mention!

(Please note: I don't do get any revenue from this blog, or from linking to or mentioning restaurants or other businesses. These links are just my own personal opinions, and I'm a normal paying customer at all of these places.)

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Prognosticating: 2014 Rock Cats Opening Day Lineup

There's a pretty good chance the next player added to this
wall of Rock Cats' alums will be suiting up for
them in 2014
It's one thing to predict an Opening Day lineup after things begin to shake out in Spring Training. It's another to do it a full month before pitchers and catchers arrive. So in the spirit of good fun, what follows is my January 26, 2014 prediction for the New Britain Rock Cats' Opening Day lineup. As you can see, the first several spots in my batting order pack a little punch. Between guys like Byron Buxton and Danny Santana that hit and have speed, and guys like Miguel Sano and Kennys Vargas (throw in C.J. Ziegler, too) with power, this is an offense that should score some runs. Danny Ortiz and Matt Koch are no slouches, either!

Predicting the Opening Day starter is more or less impossible. Part of me wants to say Alex Meyer. I don't think there's any way he's joining the Twins to begin 2014, but the real question is whether his injury-plagued 2013 regular season temporarily stunted him. In other words, I tend to think that both Meyer and Miguel Sano could start in New Britain, but would be eligible to be promoted after just a month or so. If he's in New Britain, Meyer should be the Opening Day starter. But I'm going to predict that Meyer will join Trevor May and start 2014 at AAA Rochester. Instead, I think D.J. Baxendale, who was unstoppable at High-A Ft. Myers, but struggled considerably in New Britain, will get the nod. This is a big year for him.

1. Byron Buxton (CF)
2. Danny Santana (SS)
3. Miguel Sano (3B)**
4. Kennys Vargas (DH)
5. C.J. Ziegler (1B)
6. Daniel Ortiz (LF)
7. Mike Kvasnicka (RF)
7. Matt Koch (C)
9. Levi Michael (2B)

Pitcher: D.J. Baxendale

**This particular pick involves a little of my own personal bias. Let me explain. Part of the bias is because I want to see him play a few more games at AA because, well, that's where I go see baseball games. The other part is my opinion (admittedly, not a scout's opinion) of his play last summer. There was still work to be done on defense, and I really want to see him become even more willing to take a walk (I recall several at-bats where he'd swing at a questionable -- not hitters -- 3-and-1 pitch, when it very likely would have been ball 4). Can he make those improvements during Spring Training and at AAA? Certainly. Is there a little less stress for him to do it in New Britain? Perhaps. Finally, his health is still a question. Yes, all indications are that his elbow is in much better shape, but I'm not ready to believe that until I see him in the field throwing bullets to first base without effort. I'll be happy with any decision, aside from sending him to Minnesota to begin the season.

In the end, I bet I'm about half right on the players. Buxton, Vargas, Ziegler, Ortiz, Koch, Michael, seem locks.

So, where do you think I was right, and where'd I go wrong?

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Podcasting: Rock Cats, Twins & More

I've only done a few podcasts in the couple years that I've had this blog, but it's a lot of fun to do. Last night, Travis Aune, keeper of Texas Twins Fan, was nice enough to invite me on his weekly podcast. We talked for almost an hour. You definitely have to listen to it, but topics ranged from the Yankees' signing of Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, to Twins' free agent signings, and a whole bunch of Rock Cats stuff. Check it out here:

Minnesota Sports Weekly 01/22 by The Odd Couple Talk Twins0 | Baseball Podcasts

One nice thing about doing this podcast was that it really got me thinking about the 2014 Rock Cats roster. I did an hour or so of prep work before (so I would sound like less of an idiot), and I have to say, I'm excited about this upcoming New Britain team. Yes, some of these predictions are more guesses than they are reasoned projections, but here's a short list of guys that are likely to see time in New Britain this coming season: Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Kennys Vargas, Danny Santana, Eddie Rosario, Levi Michael, B.J. Hermsen, D.J. Baxendale, Daniel Ortiz, Matthew Koch, Matt Summers, Ryan O'Rourke, Taylor Rogers, and here's one more -- Alex Wimmers. It's an impressive list of guys that should see some time in central Connecticut, either all or part of this season.
There's snow on the ground now in New Britain, but
Opening Day is just over 2 months away.

I'll leave you with one more item (I mentioned it on twitter today): It's possible (perhaps not probable) that the first 4 hitters on New Britain's Opening Day lineup could be Byron Buxton, Danny Santana, Miguel Sano, and Kennys Vargas. Imagine for just a second if Eddie Rosario was active!

If you're a Twins or Rock Cats fan (well, you probably are since you've read this far), make sure you give Travis and I a listen tonight, tomorrow, or over the weekend as you go about your chores. Spring is right around the corner!

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Rock Cats Hot Stove Luncheon 2014

The cookie behind the program
was really good.
Here's some good trivia: In 2013, 9 former Rock Cats players made major league debuts: Caleb Theilbar; Josmil Pinto; Oswaldo Arcia; Aaron Hicks; Chris Colabello; Michael Tonkin; Kyle Gibson; Andrew Albers; and Brock Peterson. With the exception of Peterson, who saw some time with the Cardinals, the other 8 players wore Twins uniforms. I've been attending Rock Cats games for about 6 years, but only have been following them seriously for 3 years. That being said, I watched each of these guys play, and, of the guys on this list, have had good conversations with Colabello and Hicks. The truth is, when the major league club struggles, like the Twins have, there isn't much between AA and the major leagues. That was kind of the theme of today's Rock Cats Hot Stove Luncheon.

Brad Steil, Twins Director of Minor League Operations, was today's keynote speaker. He was . . . very Minnesotan. Kind, soft-spoken. For instance, describing the 2013 Twins starting rotation, he said (not deadpanning like Terry Ryan or Gardy might), "we struggled a little bit." Not surprisingly, he's big into Byron Buxton, promising Rock Cats' fans that they will see the promising prospect at some point in 2014. Steil also noted that many believe Buxton has the best arm in the entire Twins' system. That's pretty impressive, especially when coupled with all his other tools. Other players Rock Cats' fans should expect to see in 2014: Kennys Vargas; Taylor Rogers; Matt Summers; Ryan O'Rourke; Reynaldo Rodriguez. Steil mentioned that about half of the 2013 team likely is returning this upcoming season.

One thing Steil said that annoyed me -- and he basically opened up his keynote with this: "We're not a big market team. You're not gonna see us handing out a $100 million contract." True statement -- yes and no. The Twins aren't big market like the Yankees or the Red Sox, but they sure as hell aren't small market, and I simply hate that Metrodome Mindset (did I just coin that?). Steil's larger point  -- which is true -- is that the Twins' talent comes predominately from the farm system, and that New Britain is arguably the most important stop on the path to Target Field. Bill Smith said the same thing 2 years ago regarding the importance of New Britain. I think it's mostly true. On the other hand, it kind of reminds me of when you go to a concert, and the lead singer says something like, "We love you, North Dakota! Fargo is our favorite city to play!!"

I have some breaking Miguel Sano news to report: There will be a Miguel Sano bobblehead at Rock Cats Stadium in 2014. Oh. You were looking for actual news, like about Sano's elbow or where the Twins will have him start in 2014?? I don't have anything related to that. In fact, apart from raffling off a Sano autographed picture, he wasn't even mentioned in this luncheon. It's clear the entire organization is holding their cards close on this issue. I'm going to be 100% shocked, even if Sano has a great Spring Training, if he starts 2014 in Minnesota.

New Englander Chris Colabello
addressing the crowd
A couple small takeaways from today's event: First, I think the Rock Cats will be better in 2014 than they were in 2013. I expect several of last season's Ft. Myers Miracle roster to be up in New Britain for a good chunk of this season. Those guys put up some pretty good offensive numbers. As always, though, the other key is going to be pitching.

Second, I think the both organizations are happy with the relationship in New Britain. The player development contract (essentially, the agreement the Twins and the Rock Cats have to partner as affiliates) is set to expire after the 2014 season. In June, 2012, the parties agreed to this current extension, but only for 2 years -- the minimum possible number of years. In those couple seasons, Smith has done essentially what he is hired to do: prepare talent for the next level. Yes, Hicks, Gibson, Arcia and others have struggled at the major league level, but that can hardly be blamed on the AA coaching staff. "They sure looked good when they were here," I recall saying. The other question is whether New Britain is happy with the relationship, or has better options. As I've mentioned before, the other regional teams (Yankees, Red Sox, Mets) are all locked into long-term player development contracts. Yes, there are other openings (Cleveland, Baltimore, Detroit, Giants) after the 2014 season, but it's tough to imagine what any of those organizations would offer New Britain that Minnesota wouldn't. Additionally, the Twins are pretty good about sending talent (Sano, Buxton, Arcia, Meyer, etc.) to New Britain, including players once or twice a season on rehab assignments. I'm biased, of course. I enjoy writing this blog, and if the Rock Cats component vanishes, I don't know ....

Finally, Chris Colabello. He drove down from Massachusetts (as did Ryan O'Rourke) to speak to the crowd. Both were funny, sincere and professional speakers. Colabello's speech reminded me how great his story was. 7 years in independent baseball. 7 years! He was 29 when he made his debut, and it took a perfect storm of success in the Independent League, a need in the Twins' system for organizational depth, Colabello's own dominance at AA and AAA, and a struggling big league team, for it to happen. Obviously, with Joe Mauer expected to play "150-160 games" at first base this season according to Steil, Colabello's future in Minnesota is uncertain, at best. But you know what? I'm not ready to write him off yet. He has come this far. For every Byron Buxton or Miguel Sano, there are literally hundreds of Chris Colabellos. And that might be the best part of minor league baseball. You just never know.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

I Wonder If I Would Have Taken PEDs

Let's make this clear from the start: I was never great at sports. Hockey -- I think I scored one goal in the couple years I played, and I quit right before checking started. Football and basketball -- just no. Soccer, I played goalie for the most part. I wasn't bad, but wasn't great, either. Long story short, if you don't like distance running, your options are limited in soccer. That left baseball as my best sport. I played VFW, Legion and JV, but was cut from the varsity team (Still an "ouch" moment for me -- thanks White Bear Lake Area High School baseball coaches for those lasting scars. And the team my senior wasn't even any good. OK, that was cathartic; I feel better. Thanks.). With respect to baseball, I was a periphery player, a guy right on the cusp. Never going to be a star, but a guy that wasn't bad and had some ability and a good grasp of the fundamentals. For a guy that was 5 feet 8 inches tall, and probably 145 pounds, I worked with what I had.

So many thousands of professional baseball players fall into that category -- guys right on the cusp, but that are unable to make it due to the amazingly high level of competition. AAA or AAAA-type players. Most of them never make the major leagues anyway, because that's just how the numbers work. But some do. Many (I gather), over the years, used some or other PED, but flew under the radar and were never formally accused or implicated. Others, like Mark McGwire or Barry Bonds, were implicated in a formal manner, and either confessed or did not. It's a huge mess. I'll tell you that, if I had a vote for the Baseball Hall of Fame, I would not vote for a Bonds or McGwire. I certainly know the strengths and weaknesses of such a stance, and it's really a huge mess. But I just can't vote for known juicers.

That stance, however, doesn't mean I don't sympathize. My profession -- an attorney -- requires some degree of intelligence (insert joke here), but nothing special. There's nothing you can do, apart from being a genius, going to Harvard, and clerking for a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, that will really set you up for certain success. In other words, if you're a moderately successful attorney on the "periphery," there's probably nothing more you can do than work your contacts in order to get to that next level. Baseball, though, is a little different. If you need to rebound from an injury quicker, or need to decrease the amount of time between muscle-building workouts, there are substances for that. Some are legal; many are not. If you're already a star with a gigantic guaranteed contract, like Joe Mauer for example, there's no real benefit for you. If you're a AAAA-type player, though, the situation might very well be different.

And I wonder what I would have done. Let's imagine -- just for a second because it's so ridiculous -- that I was good enough to get drafted in the later rounds of MLB's amateur draft. I'm small and a lefty, so that means I can only pitch. Let's also say I could throw 85. If someone told me that I could get an extra 3 or 4 miles on my fastball by taking a banned substance and continuing my workout regimen, I wonder what my response would have been? It'd be foolish to say "yes," but one can also see how it'd be foolish to say "no." I know I'm a good and moral guy in general, but the difference between having your career work out, and having it stall at High-A, is astronomical. I wonder if, given the opportunity and the apparent necessity, I would have taken PEDs? I still say no. But if you personalize the argument, it becomes much less "Player A committed a wrong and cheated," than it does, "Chuck Knoblauch, aging, took a banned substance to either speed his recovery from an injury or increase his chances of keeping a roster spot being threatened by a younger, cheaper player." Like anything else worth reading about, it's much more complex than black and white.

Luckily, baseball seems to be progressing from the PED era. Yes, there are still problems (Eddie Rosario recently testing positive for a banned substance, for instance). But things are much better now. My only real point here is that it's very, very easy and convenient to sit "on high" and judge players that have violated rules. And it's even easier to say, "no, they don't deserve a Hall of Fame vote." It's tougher, and perhaps fairer, to think about the individuals, and the profession in which they work. In the end, I still wouldn't vote for Bonds or McGwire for the Hall of Fame. And I really feel no sympathy for them. But that doesn't mean, though, that the PED issue isn't much more complex, and personal.