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

Thursday, September 6, 2012

New Britain Rock Cats: Moments & Anecdotes from 2012

Emerging prospect Oswaldo Arcia batting
late in the 2012 season
For the second consecutive season, the Rock Cats made it to the final game with a chance to make the playoffs. For the second consecutive season, they fell just short. They ended the season with a respectable record of 75-67, winning each of their last 6 games in a push for the playoffs. Playoffs in the minor leagues are interesting. On the one hand, the guys are competitors and want to earn a ring -- and we, as fans, want them to win, even in the minor leagues, where the focus should be predominately on player development. On the other hand, there's no significant financial incentive to play more games, and we're talking about young men that have been away from home for half a year, living out of suitcases and traveling almost exclusively on buses. So it's an interesting dichotomy. On that topic, here's a minor league anecdote for you: Most of the Rockcats' players leases were set to expire on the last day of the regular season. I was talking to a few of them, and here's what their schedule was like for 1 particular 24 hour period --- day game after a night game; go back to apartment, pack and clean it out so that landlord can conduct walk-through; sleep somewhere; play final game of season (which, if they won, they would have had to immediately board a bus to Reading, PA). Moreso than the slash lines, gym time, and bullpen sessions, that is the life of a minor leaguer. For every Aaron Hicks who has received a sizable signing bonus, there are dozens of Nathan Hansons and Chris Colabellos -- guys fighting, paycheck to paycheck, to defy the odds and keep advancing through the minor leagues. That's minor league baseball.

It was a very solid season for New Britain. Two players in particular -- Oswaldo Arcia and Aaron Hicks -- surpassed expectations, and will each rank somewhere in the top 5 on my list of Twins prospects going into 2013. Chris Herrmann demonstrated to me that he can handle the job of back-up catcher at least as well as Drew Butera. Chris Colabello -- a 28 year old depth signing -- set the franchise record for RBIs. Even Deibinson Romero, too old to be a legitimate prospect, hit 19 home runs and was named a season-ending All-Star. You'll notice that I'm not focusing too much on pitching. As I've written before, most pitchers with even decent stats were sent very quickly to AAA. Additionally, aside from B.J. Hermsen (who had a very solid season, going 11-6 with a 3.22 ERA and a 1-to-3 walk-to-strikeout ratio), I didn't see too much from the starters that really registered with me. Bruce Pugh, out of the bullpen, throws pretty hard, so that is encouraging. If you follow the Twins, though, it won't be surprising for you to hear that there is a dearth of top shelf pitching talent at this level of the minors.

There were some very memorable moments this season, as well. My "season" covering the Rock Cats actually started in January, well before Spring Training, when I attended the team's Hot Stove Luncheon, where former GM Bill Smith was the keynote speaker. Probably most important happening, for me personally this season, was when the Twins and the Rock Cats announced that they had extended their player development contract through the 2014 season, so I will have Twins-related baseball to follow, just down the road, for at least another couple years. With respect to on-the-field action, there was plenty. Arcia hit a walk-off home run shortly after being promoted. Colabello did the same -- his was a majestic opposite-field shot that glanced off a light tower. On several occasions this team came back in the final innings -- one time plating multiple runs when they were down to their final out -- to win outright, or at the very least, to push the contest to extra innings. Herrmann had 4 hits in consecutive games. Arcia had multiple hits in each of his last 8 games this season, and looked darn close to a major league hitter in my opinion. He was twice named Eastern League player of the week, and was the Eastern League player of the month in July. Hicks had 5 hits in a game, and has excellent speed. In fact, Hicks' ascension up the Twins prospect rankings might make an off-season trade of either Denard Span or Ben Revere more probable.

On a personal level, this was a fun year to follow the team. I had a tough time keeping up with the blog part of this summer, as work and life got in the way just a little, so I apologize for that. That being said, it's incredibly easy to get involved with team events and to meet the players. I probably went to 15 or so games, and blogged about most of them. I got to know a lot of the season ticket holders, who are all fantastic people -- and Twins fans! I attended a preseason team dinner, where I sat with Alex Wimmers for a few hours. Unfortunately, Wimmers made only one start for New Britain before an arm injury, which eventually required Tommy John surgery, sidelined him for the season. I purchased a game-worn and signed Oswaldo Arcia "Irish Pride Night" jersey to support the Rock Cats charitable foundation (and met Arcia). Not regretting that purchase at all. I went to another charity event at a local bar/grill, where Chris Herrmann, whom I previously had interviewed, was my waiter, and where I talked to Aaron Hicks -- one of the nicest athletes I have ever met -- for a good half hour. I was a guest of infielder James Beresford's family, who had traveled from Australia to watch their son play for a few weeks. A couple weeks ago, Terry Ryan was in attendance, so I introduced myself and tried to talk up Herrmann to him. Finally, I threw out a first pitch a few weeks ago, and am happy to report that, although the velocity is significantly down, the accuracy is still there -- in other words, I fit the Twins mold.

I'm already looking forward to next year. Although I've almost certainly seen the last of Hicks and Herrmann, and probably Arcia, I'm excited for the next wave of talent coming up -- perhaps not at the beginning of the season, but by next summer.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Twins Fan From Afar's 2012 Rock Cats MVP: Aaron Hicks

To think, just 5 months ago, I questioned whether Aaron Hicks had earned his promotion to AA. Of course, at that time, I was basing my concern on Hicks' less-than-impressive High-A slash line of .242/.354/.368 in 2011. Importantly, Hicks was repeating High-A that season, so I had reason to be suspicious.

Boy, was I wrong. Hicks unquestionably had a breakout season in 2012 that, at least for me, firmly places him in the top 5 of Twins prospects going into 2013. Let's look at his numbers from this past season: .286/.384/.460; 21 2B; 11 3B; 13 HR; 61 RBIs (he served as leadoff hitter the last half of the season); 79 BB; 116 K; 32 SB; 11 CS. He accumulated 472 at-bats and scored in even 100 runs.

Hicks led the Rock Cats in several offensive categories. Instead of focusing on that, however, I want to examine Hicks compared to Eastern League batting leaders. After all, he profiles as a future major league regular, so we should be comparing him to the best players in his division, not just on his team. His .286 average is good for 15th in the league. The 11 triples are tied for first in the league, and the 100 runs are solidly in first place in the entire league. Hicks tied for first in walks, was third in stolen bases, and eighth in on-base percentage. All of these numbers boil down to this: an incredibly solid season.

I was a little disappointed that Hicks did not receive a September call-up. Yes, I understand that the outfield is relatively full with Ben Revere, Josh Willingham, Chris Parmelee and Darin Mastroianni. I get it -- Hicks would not have received regular playing time, and it would cost the Twins money to have him sitting on the bench making major league minimum salary. But September call-ups can serve another function aside from helping to ensure that a team has enough healthy bodies at the end of the season: they can be a reward. And Hicks certainly was deserving of a reward. For the record, I also believe that at least one of Chris Colabello (fantastic story and hit the cover off of the ball), Oswaldo Arcia (professional hitter), or Chris Herrmann (catching depth) could have been selected for an extended look at Target Field this final month of the season. But Hicks, above all others, looked like he had earned a call-up in 2012.

One other thing about Hicks -- he is one of the most polite and well-spoken professional athletes that I have ever met. I spoke to him just a couple nights ago, and am not sure that I recall meeting an athlete as humble. I'm certain, of course, that I have seen the last of Hicks in New Britain. I suspect he'll open 2013 in Rochester as their every day center fielder, and will be in position for a call-up next season at this time, if not a little sooner (especially if either Denard Span or Revere is traded). Congratulations, Aaron, on a fantastic season, and good luck in the future.