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

Monday, July 21, 2014

Trade Glen Perkins

Glen Perkins
(Credit: Ben Garvin)
As July comes to a close, the inevitable discussion (at least in Twins Territory) turns to what assets the team could/should part with. This season, as the team slowly but surely heads to a 4th straight 90-loss campaign, names like Kurt Suzuki, Kendrys Morales, Josh Willingham, Kevin Correia and even Brian Dozier have surfaced. But there's another player -- a guy that not as many are discussing, but who has more value, perhaps, than all those other guys combined (save Dozier): Glen Perkins.
Let's get a couple things out of the way. First, I'm a big Glen Perkins fan. He's roughly my age, and he's from Stillwater, a short, short drive from my hometown of White Bear Lake. Except for the part where we didn't know each other, we could have been best friends. There's literally nothing to dislike about this guy. Even though I disagreed with him on twitter a few weeks ago (and he actually responded to me directly like a man), he's my favorite Twin. Second, he's an elite relief pitcher. I tend to think that closers (by definition and pay) are overrated, but by any stretch, he's one of the best in the game.

As such a valuable player and elite reliever, Perkins is likely the Twins' most valuable (meaning most value on the trade market) player. Is there any reason why Perkins should be "untouchable?" No.

Some more detail on Perkins. He recently signed a relatively team-friendly (if unnecessary) extension. Here's that how it plays out. Perkins will make $4.025 million this season; $4.65 million in 2015; $6.3 million in 2016; $6.5 million in 2017; and there is a team option for 2018 at $6.5 million. Perkins can select 3 teams each season in what is essentially a very limited no-trade clause. If you're curious about a Twins-comparison, they paid Joe Nathan $11.25 to close 2009-2011 (yes, the 2009 and 2010 teams were much better, but you get the point).

With Perkins' deal expiring in 2017 (or 2018 should the team exercise the option), it's fair at this point to question whether Perkins will every have the opportunity to save an important game for the Twins. What's "an important game?" For this purpose, it's a game in August or September when the Twins are winning and within striking distance of the postseason. It won't happen in 2015. Sorry. Essentially lost seasons for Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano have pushed back the clock on when the Twins will next be competitive. I used to think the team would be fighting for a playoff spot by the 2016 season, but I don't feel that way any longer. For that to happen, I think one or both of Buxton/Sano have to be up in a Twins uniform about now-ish. Here's my best guess: Glen Perkins won't be the closer for the next Twins playoff game. Why? Either his contract will have expired, or he will have aged to the point where there are better/cheaper options. I'm actually kind of confident on this point. Unless you think the Twins (and the front office) have what it takes to quickly go from 90 losses to 90 wins, it's not going to happen the next couple years. If you haven't realized it by now, we're in the midst of a long and mostly painful journey.

As it stands, the Twins area 90-loss team. A 90-loss team does not need a proven, established closer -- especially a budget-conscious team like the Twins. The Twins have, or will have, other qualified relievers to do that job at a fraction of the price. Specifically, Nick Burdi. Yes, he's a young prospect, and yes, he could never get out of Low-A. But I (and many others) am willing to bet that, by 2016 or 2017, Burdi could be a dominating back-end reliever closing games for the Twins. And, he could do it for 10% the price as Perkins. Burdi could be 90% as good as Perkins for 10% the price. Even if you don't care about the Twins' payroll, the Twins do.  

This organization has a tough time parting with home-grown talent. And I get it. They couldn't get rid of Michael Cuddyer or Joe Nathan (not homegrown technically, but still) when there would have been at least some return. But look what happened when they bit the bullet: Ben Revere (great guy, but marginal talent) netted Trevor May, who is in the midst of a very solid season and is on the verge of joining the Twins' rotation; Denard Span netted Alex Meyer (having a not fantastic season, but is the best chance this team has had for a true "ace" in a decade). Prospects are no sure thing, but if Revere and Span can net such solid prospects (not at the trade deadline when GM's are under the gun), I have to imagine that Perkins -- a better player at his position than Span or Revere, and a "proven closer" -- could net a very good return. Remember when some team traded for Matt Capps and gave up a very good catching prospect??

Will a trade happen? Almost certainly not. Despite the fact that, as I write this, there are 14 teams within 3 games of their division lead (not to mention the additional teams within striking distance of the wild card), there seems to be no discussion about moving Perkins. Honestly, part of that blame lies with fans. We always clamor for the organization to do something, but when I brought this subject up on Twitter last night, there was some resistance. 

We as fans can't say, in the general sense, "I wish they (the Twins) would make big moves, but that's not their M.O."; and then say in the next breath, "but not Perkins. Gotta hang onto him." How about, instead: "Now is the time to break the mold that has helped contribute to what will be 4 straight 90-loss seasons from a once-proud franchise. Even though it's tough to part with good guys, I can see that this move helps with the future." It won't happen. But that doesn't mean it shouldn't.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Gardy -- He's Gotta Go

If you follow me on Twitter, you probably know that something clicked -- something changed -- last night. The most thorough and comprehensive Twins beat writer, Mike Berardino, tweeted a series of quotes from Twins' manager Ron Gardenhire on player injuries. And it set me off. In fact, it might be fair to say that I freaked out. I tweeted a bunch of things, but decided to wait a full 24 hours to write comprehensively on this. 

In that interim period, Mike published Gardy's full quotes. That's good and fair. Anyone can look really smart, or really stupid, in 140 characters. And I know that Gardy isn't stupid. He's been a ... good baseball manager on some very good teams. In fact, he did a very good job some years. I've never disliked the guy personally, but based solely -- yes, solely -- on his comments regarding pitcher injuries yesterday, he's gotta go.

I have to qualify what follows with a bunch of important factors. Please read these, because they are really important:

1) It is the player's responsibility to report injuries. There's no way trainers/coaches/manger can intuit that, absent glaring injuries that are visually apparent.
2) A manager does not have the time for or need a line of guys complaining every day about routine soreness. It's a long season and that's the way it works. Guys have to play through general soreness/routine injuries. They're premiere, professional athletes, and get paid as if they only will have a short career. Tough luck.
3) A team cannot control whether a player lies or covers for an injury. That team can observe and inquire, repeatedly, but that's about it until a medical exam is ordered.
4) This isn't about winning and losing, really. Firing Gardy won't cost this team wins or losses this year or next. And even if it does, the 2014 Twins were -- at best and fully healthy -- a .500 team. Few call Gardy a great "in-game" manager (like Joe Maddon is generally considered to be), but he's been dealt awful teams from 2011-now. Remember when Chris Parmelee played center field? Oh yea, that was last week. And it happened multiple times. Chris. Parmelee.

But here's where it gets serious:
5) Soreness/injuries to starting pitchers are no joke, and Tommy John surgeries are taking place in record numbers.
6) The Twins have had their fair share -- probably more -- of Tommy John victims. It costs a season of activity, and really more than that, because very few guys come back ready to go. Many never return to their former ability. Jeez, it even affects non-pitchers like Miguel Sano. It's an epidemic right now.
7) The Twins have had the among the worst pitching rotations in baseball much of 2011, 2012, and 2013. And although the 2014 rotation has been bolstered by good half-seasons from Phil Hughes and Kyle Gibson, and a decent performance from Kevin Correia, this is far from an "elite" starting corps.
8) Great starting pitching costs tons of money on the open market. For a true "ace," $20-30 million per season. Good starting pitching is in the double millions of digits. It's a hot commodity -- and I can see why: the teams that go far in the playoffs have 3, and sometimes 4, very good pitchers.

Now, let's get to the issue at hand. To begin, Ricky Nolasco has been awful this season. One of the worst starting pitchers in baseball. He's not missing bats, and he's given up the most hits in baseball. Why the hell would the Twins sign that guy to a 4 year, $49 million contract? Simple -- because he had been a good pitcher, and he was about to move to a pitchers' park. But he's not good now, and he struggled most of the season. That's not Gardy's fault. Nor is it his fault that Nolasco did not come forward timely with that injury information. But here's the exchange between Mike Berardino and Gardy that put me over the top:



Mike: "At this point I asked a follow-up about whether Gardenhire wants his pitchers to inform him and team trainers when they are dealing with something health-wise."


Gardy: "If every pitcher told me every day when they were feeling something, they would all be lined up out that door. You understand? Guys pitch with it. We play every day. You can’t just say, ‘Well, he was sore. How did you not know that then?’ Shoot, I don’t know what they do. I don’t know when they go to the bathroom. I don’t know anything about them out there. Other than if they walk in here or the trainer walks in here and they say, `I can’t play.’"


This is where I lose it (not the part where he doesn't know when pitchers go to the bathroom). The part where the Twins' manager indicated that he (as Mike himself paraphrased), didn't want to be notified about injuries until they reached a certain level.

More precisely, there's something in-between a pitcher "feeling something" and a pitcher saying "I can't play." A big something. A something that a manger needs to be aware of firsthand.


In this instance with Nolasco, thankfully, it appears that his injury is not significant -- nothing that should require surgery. But Nolasco's fortunate medical outcome has no bearing on the larger point.


Here's where the rubber hits the road for me: if I'm a manger at any level of professional baseball, I need to know about my starting pitchers that are experiencing pain when they throw. It doesn't matter if it's mild discomfort or serious elbow pain. Anything more than "normal-in-between-starts-midseason pain" needs to be reported to me all season long, on a daily basis, even if it's a nuisance at times. In fact, I'll go a step further. If I'm Gardy, I want that same information on top prospects like Alex Meyer and Trevor May, guys who should be pitching at Target Field this August.


The fact that Gardy has the same attitude with respect to position player soreness as he does with pitching injuries is inexcusable in 2014. If we've learned anything, it's that pitchers generally shouldn't pitch through more than "normal" discomfort. Newsflash -- it always ends bad! And if -- and I mean "if," because no one reading this article knows firsthand -- there is a culture in the Twins' clubhouse promoting this attitude of pitchers throwing with more-than-normal discomfort, that also is inexcusable in 2014. So the problem isn't just player-related (that the athlete may not want to disclose an injury), it's also that the manager apparently is not receptive to hearing this news unless it reaches a certain level of severity. The "player" issue cannot be fixed overnight. The manager issue can. And the "manager issue" may very well be related to the "player issue" in this organization.


I'm not accusing Gardy of causing past or present pitching injuries. I'm not accusing him of being insensitive to injuries -- to his credit, he protected guys like Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer concerning their concussion issues (a relatively recent epidemic that some still don't understand the severity of) -- and I'm not accusing him of being an awful manager. I'm saying that it's 2014, we know more, and the Twins need better. If I was Terry Ryan, I wouldn't fire Gardy now. This team is going nowhere. And this will just set up a new manager to go 25-45 down the stretch. I would, however, terminate Gardy's contract following this season and let a new manager (Paul Molitor, someone else) take over fresh starting immediately after the World Series.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Rock Cats' Top Bats Scuffing

Spring turned to summer a couple weeks ago here in Connecticut. We're beginning a stretch of 90 degree weather and high humidity. Over the past couple weeks, the Rock Cats played great baseball, winning a franchise record 11 in a row. As you would expect, pretty much everything was clicking -- timely hitting, solid pitching, and it certainly didn't hurt that Eddie Rosario were getting comfortable with regular game action.

But, then, as happens in baseball, things caught up with New Britain. Tonight's loss made it 6 straight losses for the Rock Cats. Over those 6 losses, the Rock Cats scored a combined 10 runs -- just 1.66 runs a game. By contrast, in the 11 consecutive wins New Britain scored 73 runs -- over 6.5 runs a game.

I was at most of tonight's game, and what I saw was tired, tardy at-bats, and very few hard-hit balls. Kennys Vargas has struggled lately. He looked sluggish. Over his last 10 games, he's hitting a mere .147/.256/.147 with no extra base hits and no RBIs. Aaron Hicks, looking to get things together -- and apparently now trying to switch hit again -- has hit a disappointing .143/.342/.286 with 4 hits in his last 10 games. A bright spot, though, is that he has 9 walks in that period. Eddie Rosario -- not any better. .105/.150/.105. 4 hits, none for extra bases. Just to generalize about these guys tonight: off-balance swings, fooled on breaking pitches. With those guys occupying 3 of the top 4 spots in the lineup and absolutely failing to produce, it's tough for the rest of the lineup -- generally regarded as non-prospects -- to produce.

Tonight's bright spot, and really a bright spot on the entire season, was Reynaldo Rodriguez. He hit his 13th and 14th home runs this evening, and is hitting a very solid .305 on the season. If you're asking who this stud is and why I don't talk or tweet about him very often, don't get too excited: he's 28 with limited defensive ability. But still, it's no reason to root against the guy, and he's shown marked improvement over last season, when he hit .231/.305/.482.

Going into the evening, I was most excited to see Taylor Rogers pitch. His start wasn't bad by any means, but it was one of his weaker starts in an otherwise great season. He made it 6 and 2/3 innings, but gave up 4 runs, striking out 3 and walking 2. He was stretched out to 106 pitches, which is good to see as we hit July. Aside from the rare strikeout, he didn't miss bats, and, generally speaking, the contact, even many of the outs, was pretty hard tonight.

What's the end result? Well, the minor league season is long. No planes, small apartments, bad food, low pay. Add in really hot weather and a long stretch of ballgames, and every team is bound to have ups and downs. Now, however, would be a good time for the guys we expect to be in the majors next year (Vargas & Rosario for sure, and hopefully Hicks) to show a little leadership for the rest of the team.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Twins & Rock Cats' Ownership: BFFs

I happened to catch an interview on WTIC radio with Rock Cats' owner Josh Solomon on my way home from work this evening. A few of Solomon's comments directly relate to other things I have written in the last couple weeks (and, really, this blog), so I wanted to pass along some of his words, insofar as they relate to the Twins-Rock Cats affiliation.

  • Not surprisingly, the Twins organization had no role in the negotiations to move the Rock Cats from New Britain to Hartford. The Twins were, however, aware of Solomon's intent, and supported it.
  • When asked about the Rock Cats' future with the Twins, Solomon stated that he would be looking to renew the player development contract. More than that, Solomon said that he envisioned having the Twins affiliate in the new ballpark, thus indicating an intent to keep the affiliation at least through the 2016 season (the first in the new stadium).
  • When Joe D'Ambrosio asked "what if the Twins tell you this summer that they want to move on, want to be closer to MN or Rochester," Solomon replied, "they'd have a tough fight on their hands" -- as in, a tough fight to sever the relationship.
So there you have it. No, nothing's set in stone yet. And if the last few days have taught me anything, it's that minor league baseball in Connecticut is a business first and foremost. That being said, it sounds like both sides -- the Twins and the Rock Cats' ownership group -- are happy with the current relationship. I'll pass along any other news either here on the blog, or on twitter.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

It's Official: Rock Cats to Relocate to Hartford. Where Does that Leave the Twins?

The first rendering of Hartford's new minor league baseball
stadium set to open in 2016.
(Courtesy of the City of Hartford)
Word of a potential deal to move the New Britain Rock Cats franchise to Hartford only broke on Monday, but today it became official: the Rock Cats will be leaving their longtime home of New Britain following the 2015 season, and relocating to nearby Hartford for Opening Day 2016. Twins fans, bear with me, as the first part of this story primarily is of interest to my Connecticut readers (all 3 of you). Here's what Connecticut-area people need to know:

  • The Rock Cats' (meaning the owners') deal with the City of New Britain expires after the end of the 2015 season, so there will be one more full season of Rock Cats baseball in New Britain. How enthusiastic the City will be about the facility, team and ownership -- well, that's to be determined.
  • A brand new, 10,000 seat baseball stadium will open in April, 2016, just north of Trumbull and Main Street in a currently undeveloped/underdeveloped area. The estimated $60 million cost will be financed by the city through bonds -- not the state, and not the team's owners. 
  • The stadium, according to a radio interview I heard with Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra, will not be baseball-only. I'm not sure what to make of that, but I'm guessing that just means it would be suitable for other athletic events and perhaps concerts. That would make sense, as there will only be minor league baseball there 71 or so days a year.
  • The future of professional baseball in New Britain is less certain. Due to territorial restrictions, another affiliated minor league team would not be able to open shop in New Britain (or so I've been told). That does not foreclose the possibility of, for example, and unaffiliated minor league team (similar to the Bridgeport Bluefish) setting up shop in the Hardware City.
  • The Rock Cats' owners have been intent on leaving New Britain for over a year. The choices were either Hartford, or Springfield, Mass. It sounds like Hartford was the only option to keep affiliated baseball in the greater Hartford area. They made absolutely no attempt to negotiate with New Britain.
  • This deal gives Hartford 2 affiliated minor league teams: the Hartford Wolfpack (affiliate of hockey's New York Rangers) and whatever team the Rock Cats affiliate with (more on that below). In my opinion, that's about the best a small-ish city like Hartford can do.
  • The Rock Cats' owners will very likely re-brand the team. So, no more lovable Rocky. 
  • I'm no expert, but I don't sense any litigation arising out of this; just hurt feelings. The team's owners wanted out, found (what they believe to be) their best deal, and are taking it, after their current contract with the City of New Britain expires. In other words, I can't imagine anything holding this up.
Where does this leave the Twins? Well, on that subject I'm a lot less certain. First, let's review the known information: The Rock Cats-Twins player development contract ("PDC"), the deal that creates the affiliation, expires after the 2014 season. So, regardless of whether it's Twins prospects I'm seeing, there will be one more season of Rock Cats baseball in New Britain before the Hartford transition.  

Everything I have read (this for example) suggests that PDC's are renewable every 2 years. The Twins and the Rock Cats are completing a 2 year deal, but the deal could have been for 4 or 6, or more, years. Therefore, the Rock Cats' owners will need to decide with whom they are going to affiliate for 2015 and beyond. As I wrote a couple weeks ago, I don't see any majorly attractive offers for the Rock Cats that open up this off-season. There is, however, one interesting hunch I have: The Mets' AA affiliation is currently in Binghamton, New York (about 200 miles away from Citi Field -- the Mets' home). That PDC expires following the 2016 season. I've heard more than once that Josh Solomon, the Rock Cats' owner,  is a Mets fan. Hartford to Citi Field is just over 100 miles away, and there are plenty of Mets fans in this area. Mets games are on TV with any normal cable package, and game recaps are part of news coverage out here. If I'm trying to fill a 10,000 seat stadium, a Mets affiliation is more of a draw Connecticut residents than is a Twins -- or most other -- affiliation. Aside from a Yankees or Red Sox affiliation, it's probably the next best thing.

If I'm the Twins, I'm interested in maintaining the Hartford affiliation, provided nothing better arises. The Twins should care first and foremost about the facilities insofar as they impact player development (things like adequate/maintained batting cages, bullpen space, and even the playing field conditions, are paramount). I would assume this new and expensive stadium would have what any parent club would want. 

Were I asked today to take my best guess as to what happens, here it is: The Twins and the Rock Cats agree to extend their PDC for 2 more years, covering the 2015 and 2016 seasons. After that, the Rock Cats enter into a longer-term agreement with the Mets. Again, all speculation.

It was a busy news day here. Feel free to comment with any questions, or to share any other information you've heard. Also, follow me on Twitter for more information as it develops.

Monday, June 2, 2014

So Many Rock Cats Notes

I own this Kennys Vargas jersey.
If you can believe it, it's more
orange in person.
I'm going to wear it to a black tie event.
It's been a busy couple weeks in New Britain. I'll start out with a little breaking news. Late this afternoon, the Hartford Courant placed a story on its front page suggesting that the Rock Cats' owners may be moving the team to Hartford in 2016 (it's only about 10 miles away, but would be significant for many local reasons I won't get into now). Journalism is funny in the Internet age. The original title of the piece was "Rock Cats Close to Deal to Move to Hartford." It now reads, "Rock Cats in Talks to Move from New Britain to Hartford." All sides -- the City of Hartford, New Britain's Mayor, and the Rock Cats officials, haven't indicated that there's truth to this story. But the fact that it was written by, among other reporters, Hartford's Government Watch reporter (as opposed to a sportswriter, who might not have the political connections to piece together the story), suggests to me that the Courant was pretty confident in its report.

What does this mean for the Twins? Nothing, necessarily. Regardless of this deal, the Rock Cats will play 2014 and 2015 in New Britain. And the Twins and Rock Cats must decide this season whether to renew their player development contract. New Britain Stadium is owned and operated by the city -- not the team. I can't opine on this, as I have not seen other Eastern League ballparks, but it's been said to me more than once that the New Britain playing field, and perhaps the facilities, are not as good as they could be. Like I said, I have nothing to compare this to. But assuming that's true to an extent, a new ballpark would appeal to the Twins, or most any other team moving from a non-state-of-the-art-facility. It's way, way too early to speculate any more, though. When there are developments, follow me on twitter for the latest.

Kennys Vargas continues to hit. After missing a few games with a strange wrist injury (suffered in batting practice), Vargas hasn't missed a beat. 40 percent of the way through the minor league season, Vargas has a .323/.398/.508 line, which is good for a .906 OPS. He has 11 doubles, 8 home runs, 24 walks and 34 strikeouts. The .323 average is nearly identical to Vargas' career-best season -- 2010 in the Gulf Coast League. Something interesting has happened in the last couple weeks, though: Vargas isn't hitting for much power, but he is hitting for average. In fact, he hasn't homered in a couple weeks, and has only 1 double in that time frame. But in his last 10 games, he still has 14 hits, 8 RBIs, and a .378 average. So although the power has tapered a little (perhaps the wrist isn't 100%), Vargas is still extremely effective. If he makes it through June still hitting and reaching base at this rate, I'd like to see him promoted. Most important, however, is playing time. It makes no sense to Vargas to share at-bats with whoever's in Rochester (Colabello/Parmelee/Arcia -- you get the point). I was at last Saturday's game where Vargas had 2 hits. One thing that stood out to me was that he was comfortable taking what the pitcher gave him -- in that game it was 2 singles to opposite field. Neither was that well hit, but it's so much better than what many big guys do: roll over the outside pitch for a grounder to first or second.

Danny Ortiz was the Rock Cats' best hitter in the month of May. After hitting only .227 in April, Ortiz heated up with an amazing .388/.402/.660 line in May, including 4 homers, 2 triples and a whopping 12 doubles. In fact, New Britain Herald sportswriter Matt Straub noted that Ortiz, 24 years old this season, has been perhaps the team's most consistent player. I've always been pleasantly surprised with Ortiz' arm, but he's an under-the-radar guy, mostly due to a pretty low career average, and the fact that he simply doesn't walk. On the season, Ortiz has a respectable .324/.340/.500 line, but notice that on-base percentage. He's struck out 34 times, and walked only 3. Unless he can sustain a .330 average -- which he hasn't been able to -- that's problematic. But, it's great to see him hitting the ball hard. Perhaps plate discipline can come later for Ortiz?

Eddie Rosario is back! Or, he will be back. Soon, we hope. Working his way back up to New Britain, Rosario started off 1-for-11 with the Ft. Myers Miracle, but was 2-for-3 in Sunday's game with a walk, an RBI and a stolen base. I have no particular knowledge, but my guess would be that Rosario will put in another week, give or take, before he comes back to Connecticut -- provided he has good at-bats. I think they'll keep him in the outfield predominately. The Rock Cats' lineup could use more help at the top, and Rosario -- after foolish behavior cost him 50 games -- needs to put himself in a position to compete for a 2015 MLB position.

Mark Hamburger is back! The former major leaguer, former St. Paul Saint, is in New Britain, hoping to make his way up to the Twins' bullpen. I saw his only appearance thus far -- a 2 inning, 2 hit, 2 strikeout, 1 walk outing. He was all right. Nothing much more to report on him now, except for wishing him good luck and hoping he can revive his career and resist the temptations that got him in a little trouble in the past.

Finally, I tend to focus so much on the individual players (or, perhaps only a couple individual players), that I lose sight of the team's win-loss record. But baseball is a team game, and even in the minor leagues -- where player development is primary -- I want these guys to learn winning baseball at every level. The Rock Cats had a better May, and currently stand at 25-29, riding a 3-game win streak. What they could use: better starting pitching; more offensive threats.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Twins-Rock Cats Affiliation

Close to two years ago, the Minnesota Twins and the New Britain Rock Cats extended their Player Development Contract -- the agreement that really is the "affiliation" between New Britain and the Twins, whereby the Twins send players and staff (and provide other things we don't really know about), which all takes place in New Britain. The agreement could have been for varying lengths of time, with 2 seasons being the minimum. For whatever reasons, the parties settled on the minimum 2 years. Now, here we are again, in basically the same position, wondering whether the Twins and the Rock Cats will again choose to extend their (seemingly) successful business partnership. 

For the Rock Cats, I could see them potentially wanting to make a move at some point. There's a really good resource -- here -- for tracking player development contracts across all levels of the minor leagues. A quick look tells me that, in the Eastern League (where New Britain plays), there several player development contracts set to expire after this season: Cleveland; Baltimore; Detroit; San Francisco; and Minnesota. The first question -- do any of those franchises offer anything to New Britain that the Twins couldn't? Arguably Baltimore is somewhat close geographically, but I think they have a good thing going in Bowie, MD. The rest of the organizations are pretty much just as far away from the parent club as is Minnesota from central Connecticut.

As I mentioned a couple years ago, I think the story might be different if the Yankees, Red Sox or Mets had an opening. But that isn't the case right now. The Binghamton Mets (not surprisingly affiliated with the New York Mets) are locked up through 2016; the Portland Sea Dogs (Red Sox AA affiliate who happen to play in basically a replica of Fenway) are signed through 2018; and the Yankees for all intents and purposes own the Trenton Thunder (signed through 2022). In short, I'm not sure a substantially better partner exists for New Britain than the known entity they've been dealing with for a long time.

How about for the Twins? Why the hell do they want to stay in central Connecticut? Quite frankly, unless they want to relocate their AA team to a southern city (potential 2014 openings include Chattanooga, Huntsville, Jacksonville, Arkansas, San Antonio, and more), they're probably just as well off in New Britain. Though, it's fair to wonder if the organization sees any benefit to having High-A and Double-A in the same state, namely, Florida. It's not as if Jacksonville and Ft. Myers are neighbors -- it's about a 5 hour drive -- but there could be something to having half of the full-season teams within a reasonable drive.

Even if the relationship is extended (and I suspect it will be), I do think the Twins could do a better job at a few things. First, I'd like to see them occasionally send a legitimate player here on a rehab assignment (I'm not talking about Jason Marquis or Matt Guerrier). You'd be shocked at what it does for ticket sales and buzz, especially early in the season when drawing a big crowd can be tough. Naturally, most guys on rehab assignments go to Rochester, but once a season, just a few games in New Britain by a Willingham/Kubel/Arcia/Mauer would be great. Second, I'd like to see the Twins send a former player to New Britain every now and then for an appearance. The Rochester Red Wings do this, and I think it's a great idea (truth be told, I don't know who finances this -- the parent club or the affiliate -- but my point is the same). For example, a guy like Doug Mientkiewicz, a Rock Cats and Red Sox alum, could come for an evening (forget his day job for a minute). In short, I think there are opportunities for better cross-promotion that could be mutually beneficial.

But the Twins do a great job of keeping their top prospects in New Britain for a relatively long time. Aaron Hicks, Oswaldo Arcia, Miguel Sano, Eddie Rosario, Trevor May, Alex Meyer -- all come to mind. I'd even throw in to that discussion Kennys Vargas, who's on pace for close to 30 home runs this season. And guess what -- Sano, Rosario (both for the second time), and soon-to-be-AA-player and consensus #1 prospect Byron Buxton, will all be Rock Cats players in the near future. And the pipeline is rich -- guys like Jose Berrios, Kohl Stewart, Niko Goodrum, etc., are on the way up. If the Rock Cats choose to terminate their relationship with the Twins, it won't be because of minor league talent. In the end, I envision New Britain and the Twins agreeing to extend their agreement. It makes sense, I don't see other, better alternatives, and the parties seem to have a good working relationship.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Emergence of Kennys Vargas

Kennys Vargas, courtesy of Scott Blanchette
Without a doubt, the New Britain Rock Cats' most valuable offensive player this season has been Kennys Vargas. Vargas, a 23 year-old switch-hitting first baseman (destined to be a designated hitter), has been on our radar for some time, but has always been considered a work-in-progress. Yes, the raw power was always there, but the limited defensive ability, large strikeout totals and inconsistent spells kept Vargas off of some Twins top prospect lists.

After a brief adjustment period, Vargas seems to have figured out AA hitting. He boasts an impressive .304/.380/.528 line (a .908 OPS), with 7 home runs, 7 doubles and 22 RBIs in 142 plate appearances. More importantly, though, he has 23 strikeouts and 15 walks. Last season, Vargas struck out 105 times in 520 plate appearances (a 20.2 strikeout percentage). This season, the 23 Ks in 142 plate appearances constitute a 16.2 strikeout percentage. Yes, we are still in the part of the season where some may attribute this to a small sample size -- and perhaps that's somewhat warranted -- but Vargas' decreasing strikeouts are noteworthy. Over his last 10 games -- to make that sample size even smaller -- I calculate a 13.6 strikeout percentage. Vargas' walk rate -- 10.6% this season -- is up just a tic from last season (9.6%). Long story short, Vargas is putting more balls in play because he's striking out less often, while walking at roughly the same pace. As Brad Steil, Twins' Director of Minor League Operations recently said -- with the requisite Twins modesty -- "Vargas has come on the last couple weeks."

And those balls in play -- well, let's just say that Vargas' power tool is well defined. One thing that impresses me about Vargas is that he can hold his own from the both sides of the plate. This season, for example, he has 4 doubles and 2 homers from the right side of the plate (43 at-bats), coupled with 3 doubles and 5 homers from the left side (82 at-bats). So often, switch hitters are much, much better from one side, and merely adequate from their less dominant side. Can Vargas eventually bring to the Twins a power threat from both sides of the plate? If that's Vargas' ceiling, count me as a fan.

What impresses me most about Vargas' production this season is that he's doing it in a lineup that's largely barren of threats. Yes, Reynaldo Rodriguez, Danny Ortiz, Nate Hanson and Matt Koch have been dependable, but for other portions of his career, Vargas has batted in the same lineup with the likes of Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton and Eddie Rosario. In other words, he's missing another power threat, and guys with elite on-base and hitting skills. So what Vargas has done thus far in 2014, he's doing without tons of assistance. Vargas will likely play all of 2014 in New Britain. I'm excited to see what happens in a few weeks when Buxton joins the team, and then a little later, when Rosario is eligible to play. What has been a somewhat drab lineup suddenly will become exciting again. And I believe that there's tremendous value to having those 3 key players hit in the same lineup together in the minors.

A few things to keep an eye on this season for Vargas: Can he keep those strikeouts down? A change in the right direction of 4-5 percent is huge. Can he keep that average near .300? 2013 was his first season since 2009 where he batted under .300 -- .267, in fact. Finally, can he demonstrate the ability to hit good pitching from both sides of the plate?

Time will tell, but 2014 has been encouraging thus far for Vargas.

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."