|Rock Cats' Manager Jeff Smith.|
Courtesy of Richard Messina, Hartford Courant
I've heard it stated that the Twins control everything on the field, and the Rock Cats control everything else. I wouldn't call that a 100% accurate statement, but you get the general idea. Put yourself in the seat of a (relatively) small business owner -- a MiLB affiliate owner, to be precise -- for just a second: it's difficult to imagine giving away control over the on-the-field product, while retaining control only over the relatively ancillary things, such as ticket prices and promotions (granted, of course, that ticket prices and concession prices go a long way in determining profitability). If I was the Rock Cats' owner, I'd certainly want a large say in the roster, but that's not the way that the system works. In fact, if Terry Ryan calls New Britain and says that Angel Morales is going to play every inning of every game for the next week because he's going to be the "minor league part" of a trade, well, that's the way it's going to be.
Since I've been following the Rock Cats, it's been up-and-down. They will not make the playoffs this year, and fell just short the two prior years. Meanwhile, the Twins minor league system, as a whole, continues to ascend the organizational rankings. As I write this, the overall consensus is that the Twins have a Top-5, and probably even higher, minor league system. Why, then, haven't the Rock Cats been more successful?
I'm not about to place a large amount of blame on the coaches. Looking at this season only as an example: Alex Meyer (best pitching prospect on the roster) was injured half the season; Trevor May (second best pitching prospect on the roster) under-performed; and Sano and Rosario were only in New Britain half the season. The majority of the rest of the roster (excepting maybe half a dozen guys) are unlikely to play major league baseball for more than the proverbial cup of coffee. In other words, although there were Top Prospects, the deeper levels of talent might not have been there. Having a few good guys on paper does not a post-season team make.
But back to the managing. Jeff Smith is in his third year managing in New Britain, after working his way up from Beloit and Ft. Myers. He spent a lot of time in New Britain as a minor leaguer, but never made the majors. I have yet to hear anything on-the-record concerning his managerial skills -- and I actually do believe that he had the full support of the Twins' organization when he benched Sano last month -- but I'm not sure what role the Smith has in the organizational future, and I'm honestly not sure in what regard the current players hold him. Without any particular knowledge base, I'd put both Jake Mauer and Doug Mientkiewicz (today named as manager of the year for the FSL) above Smith. I do believe that the Twins are going to go a different direction this off-season with Ron Gardenhire. And I also believe that a Gardenhire decision will have a significant trickle-down effect on the affiliates.
Much in the same way, I'm not sure what the future holds for pitching coach Stu Cliburn (longtime member of the organization) and new hitting coach Chad Allen. Yep, Chad Allen, the same former Twins player who was named in the Mitchell Report, and who was never a great hitter (not that that is a prerequisite, necessarily, to be able to teach hitting). In short, it's a very interesting mix of young and old that converged this season to coach the Rock Cats. Far be it from me -- or probably anyone reading this -- to speculate with any accuracy whether they did or did not do their jobs, but I can guess that the effect of 3 Twins seasons of 90+ losses is likely to have a very direct effect on the New Britain coaching staff.
I want to end with this: Is there is something to be said for the fact that Cedar Rapids (definitely), Ft. Myers (definitely) and Rochester (likely) are all likely headed to the playoffs this season, but the Rock Cats are not. Is it simply bad timing on the Rock Cats' part, or is there something more?
Coaching is very difficult to judge. I generally agree with the sentiment that managers get too much credit on winning teams, and too much blame on crappy teams. But at the same time, I do think that, in almost any business, change is necessary after a protracted period of losses -- whether that be earnings per share in a Fortune 500 company or a win-loss record in a professional sport. I will be curious to see what happens this off-season. Even if Gardy keeps his job, I expect some change in the Twins' AA ranks.
Thanks, as always, for reading. I welcome any comments.