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

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Miguel Sano Relegated to First Base Already? You Must be Joking.

Miguel Sano for the World team at the 2013 Futures Game.
Image courtesy of me.
Last night I had a brief, and sort of strange, Twitter exchange with Tom Powers of the Pioneer Press. He tweeted "I'm still waiting for the Twins organization to hand Miguel Sano a first baseman's mitt." I replied, "Why, his 3B defense is much improved." Powers added, "It had no place to go but up, and it's still not close to adequate." Finally, I stated, "He turned 20 in May. Feels a bit early to give up on, esp[ecially] with other in-house 1B options, and T. Plouffe underwhelming w/ bat." Here's the link to the first of the Tweets. This definitely wasn't a Twitter argument or war -- I try not to get into those really at all -- but it was still very confusing to me, and I still firmly believe I'm correct.

First, let's agree on one thing: Powers is correct that Sano's defense had nowhere to go but up. Improvement was expected, for sure. But let's look at the data: Sano currently has 21 errors on the season (in 111 games thus far); in 2012 he had 42 errors in 126 games. He's playing at higher levels in 2013 than in 2012, and his fielding percentage has increased from .884 to .932. In fact, he's likely to cut his errors almost in half. Yes, that's not deep analysis, but it's something. I've watched Sano in person about 10-12 games this summer. No, he is not going to be elite defensively. But I hope if you were fortunate to watch this past week's game on FSN, you saw Sano make a fantastic play coming in on a slow roller down the line. He fielded it expertly and made a strong throw to get the runner. Yes, he still makes bad plays, but fans who think he's some kind of stone-handed giant at the hot corner are simply wrong.

Yes, Sano's defense is not where it eventually needs to be -- just like his bat is not yet at the major league level. But would the Twins really move him, at age 20, to an "easy" defensive position and give up on him playing third base, which has been a position of need for this team for many years since I have been born (excepting the Gary Gaetti and Corey Koskie years)? In one word, that sounds foolish.

Moreover, here is a short list of guys who could play first base for the Twins in 2014 that are not Miguel Sano: Justin Morneau (if the Twins got him for a year cheap); Chris Colabello (will he get a shot at a long stint in the majors starting to see if he is better than a AAAA player?); Joe Mauer (he almost certainly will play fewer games behind the plate in 2014 than in 2013, but the team needs that bat in the lineup); and Chris Herrmann (Twins fans, please pay attention: he is arguably the most versatile player on this team). The Twins certainly don't need him at first base, and that's certainly not his only shot to the majors.

Let's talk about third base depth for just a minute. Trevor Plouffe, 27 years old, is hitting .231/.292./.386 for the Twins this season. He has 9 errors in 88 games at the hot corner, and his fielding percentage at third base is .959 this season. I'd be an idiot to state that his defense isn't better than Sano's -- of course it is. But is he that much better? Will he eventually be that much better on defense than Sano might? Open question, but I tend to think that the guy who is 20, a better prospect than Plouffe ever was, and -- let us not forget -- is still learning to play third base after growing up as a shortstop -- will eventually equal or surpass Plouffe defensively. Not to mention that Plouffe's hitting has been awful this season. Finally, I should mention Deibinson Romero for a second. I like him, and he has some pop in his bat. I watched him all last season at New Britain, and he's a fun guy to follow. This season, he has a .952 fielding percentage up at Rochester, to go with a .264/.369/.418 line. He'll turn 27 next month. I'd hardly call him a legitimate prospect, but it's possible he could see major league time. Hypothetically, though, if the Twins are going to invest time and innings (while the team is bad) in a prospect that needs to improve defensively (and offensively), wouldn't you rather Sano get the chance, than Romero? In fact, I'd rather Sano get the chance at some point in 2014 (assuming continued improvement in the minors) over Plouffe.

The bottom line is this: when the Twins are next competing for a division title, Miguel Sano -- and not Trevor Plouffe or Deibinson Romero -- is going to be playing a crucial role. To give up on him at third base now, when things honestly don't matter since the reset of the team is so bad, is incredibly short-sighted.

The idea that the Twins -- headed for their third straight 90 loss season -- would give up on their second best prospect, who just turned 20, at a position of defensive importance for the franchise -- is preposterous. Perhaps Powers was trying to drum up conversation or say something provocative, but I think it came off as crazy. Yes, maybe someday, if Sano doesn't continue to improve defensively, he will become a right fielder (he does have a good arm) or a first baseman. But that day won't occur in 2013. In fact, I'd be shocked if it came before the end of the 2015 season.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The New Britain Coaching Situation

Rock Cats' Manager Jeff Smith.
Courtesy of Richard Messina, Hartford Courant
I've been spoiled. This summer, I've been able to watch Miguel Sano and Eddie Rosario, from right over the home dugout, for $15 a ticket. You might think that having Sano and Rosario on the same minor league team, at the same time, is an affiliate's dream come true. To be sure, I'm confident that ticket sales increased after Sano and Rosario arrived, but the life of an affiliate is much more complicated.

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.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Trevor May: Still Hopeful

It's been a consistently inconsistent season for Trevor May
Tonight's game was a laugher. No real offense to speak of for New Britain until the game was well out of hand. In fact, it's not even worth discussing Sano or Rosario (on offense, at least, where they were non-factors). Let's get right to what's worth covering tonight: Trevor May, and New Britain's defense.

I think I've seen Trevor May pitch probably 3 or 4 times this season. I'd be lying if I said that May hasn't been frustrating, or that the Twins really pulled one over on the Phillies. Don't get me wrong -- May has been OK -- but not fantastic any means. Control problems have plagued him. Tonight, though, was not a bad outing, despite what the box score will tell you. May started off the game hitting 92-94 on his fastball, 83ish with the change-up, and upper 70s or lower 80s with a nice curve.

May lasted 5 and 2/3 innings and gave up 4 runs on 10 hits; he took the loss. He also struck out 9 and walked only 1 -- the last hitter he faced. On the night, he threw 107 pitches, 75 of them for strikes. In fact, perhaps he was a little too accurate, or threw too many strikes, leading to the 10 hits? He threw strike 1 to the majority of batters, consistently working ahead in the count. He changed speeds, and got a fair number of weakly hit pitches that were either choppers or pop-outs. In short, he did what you would coach any pitcher to do. The results just weren't there. But there's more to the story than that.

New Hampshire's first run of the game, in the second inning, came partially as the result of an infield chopper up the middle that died behind the mound. The next batter hit a well struck opposite field double to right center. Just like that, 1-0 New Hampshire. In the third inning, a 2-out, 2-strike opposite field solo homer may have rattled May, as he gave up a single past Sano to the next batter, but then worked out of the jam.

Aside from these hiccups and despite the runs allowed, May pitched to, generally, what his ceiling should be: low/no walks; the ability to strike guys out; and the ability to induce weakly hit balls by changing speeds. Of the hits he gave up, probably 5 were well struck, 3 were extremely weak (i.e., choppers or flares), and a couple were average.

The fateful 6th inning started with a pop-up behind second base that went for a single (good argument for the "team error" category) after Eddie Rosario and Danny Santana either didn't communicate, or miscommunicated. Thereafter, a clean single, an out (a fantastic diving play by Miguel Sano), a double that Jordan Parraz just missed in CF (which then rolled to the wall) scored 2 more runs. And that was it for May.

That pop-up behind second base felt worse than a lead-off walk. It was deflating, in fact. You just knew that it was going to be the death knell for May, who already was tiring.

May deserved better this evening. Was he perfect? No. But it's important to note that 2 of the 4 runs were partially a result of infield singles -- one of which was really a "team error" type of play. And there was no offensive support, either. Sure, you can't take away infield singles, and sure, team errors happen, but I only count 2 things that went May's way this evening (Daniel Ortiz making a great play to throw out a runner headed to second, and Miguel Sano making a nice diving stop and strong throw to save a hit), while a few things definitely went the other way. It was 4 earned runs. It easily could (should?) have been 2 or 3, and May could (should?) have been able to complete 6 innings. Honestly, it's a strange, strange start to strike out 9 and walk 1 and not be able to make it through 6 innings.

I hope people aren't ready to relegate May to the bullpen for his career. Look at tonight's start: 100+ pitches, still hitting 92 on the gun on his fastball when he came out. 9 Ks; 1 walk (on his last batter when he was gassed). The ERA doesn't support it, but I would absolutely argue that May has been better this year than last. Sure, it's not ideal that he's repeating -- and not dominating -- AA, but there has been improvement. His walks per 9 innings have decreased about .5 walks per game; Ks per 9 are consistent; HRs allowed per 9 have decreased a little; but hits per 9 have increased. Kyle Gibson, who just debuted a couple months ago, is 25. May is still 23 for another month. Let's not talk about May as if he's a Chris Colabello-esque journeyman. Sure, Gibson was delayed as a result of Tommy John surgery and recovery, but my point is only that May isn't "old," even if he is repeating AA. I'm still hopeful that he can figure it out; it just May take a little while longer than Twins fans would prefer.

One final note. I'm having a Twitter contest to win a Rock Cats Joe Mauer bobblehead that was just given away in New Britain a few weeks ago. Of course, you have to be on Twitter and following me to enter.
Go here for details.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Excellence in Broadcasting: Podcasting with Travis Aune

I was recently invited to join Texas Twins Fan, a/k/a Travis Aune, on his weekly podcast.

I had a blast, as I always do whenever I'm asked to talk about the Rock Cats. Among other items, we discussed Miguel Sano and his suspension, Trevor May and Alex Meyer, Eddie Rosario, and (in our opinion) the Twins' need for Latin American coaches in their farm system and at the major league level.

If you haven't yet, take a listen here.

Thanks again, Travis, for having me on!

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Sano Quandary

If you can't tell, Miguel Sano is a kid.
Also, I own this jersey :)
If I told you that there was a Twins prospect at AA New Britain batting .243, you probably wouldn't blink an eye. If I told you he had some pop in his bat, and a good arm from the left side of the infield, maybe you'd express mild interest. But if I told you that the prospect was Miguel Sano, and that he had a combined 26 HRs and 80 RBIs in early August, playing in 2 pitchers' leagues, you'd probably be interested.

Anyone who is reading this piece probably knows what Miguel Sano might -- or could -- mean to this franchise: without exaggeration, he probably is the best power-hitting Twins prospect in the past 30 years.

He just turned 20, and he's holding his own at AA, which is generally considered the largest jump a hitter will make before reaching the major leagues.

The purpose here isn't so much to cast opinion (to be sure, I have one, but I'm trying not to let it play out), but rather to to present arguments in favor of, and against, the idea of Sano finishing the season at Target Field as a member of the Twins. Without further ado, let's go through the pros and cons.

Call Him Up!!!

1. Sano is the best power hitting prospect the Twins have had in . . . well, forever. The Twins need power. Joshn Willingham and Justin Morneau are probably gone, and in any event they have largely been ineffective in 2013; Trevor Plouffe is sporadic. Right now, this club needs a middle-of-the-order bat that can do damage for the next several years. Anyone have a better in-house option than Sano?

2. Yea, his AA batting average isn't great, but look at that OPS (.915). When he is getting on base and making contact, he's doing big, big damage. He has performed in the clutch this season with the Ft. Myers Mircale and the New Britain Rock Cats, and absolutely nothing suggests he won't continue that trend.

3. Twins fans have been really screwed over these past few years. Sweet Lord: Tsuyoshi Nishioka, Jason Marquis, a billion injuries, shredded payroll. Come on, Pohlad Family and Terry Ryan, we really, really need a glimpse of the future, even if he's only 80% ready. You can't sell All-Star tickets on mere promises. Or maybe you can, but good luck filling those seats for the 81 non-All-Star games next season.

People, Let's Be Prudent

1. There is no rush with any prospect in this organization. The Twins need to be taking a long look -- this is a team that needs to be set up to win in 2015-2018. Forget the last month of 2013. And look at his maturity issues. This is a guy that needs to be taught "the process," taught humility, and then brought up when he's ready.

2. Miguel Sano is not dominating AA. Let's not talk about this as if he's tearing the cover off the ball. The guy has 42 strike-outs in 41 games. Yea, he can, and does, hit the ball out of the park, but there's much more to being a major league player than that. And how about his defense. Yes, it's undoubtedly improved, but there's work to be done.

3.  A jump to the big leagues from AA isn't always in the player's best interest. Look at Oswaldo Arcia: a great hitting AA prospect, called up before he was ready. And it messed with his head. Let's not do that with Sano. Let's make sure he's ready, even if that means finishing this season in AA, or even starting 2014 in AAA. Sano is a rare, rare commodity. And the Twins can't screw this up.

In short, this is a great dilemma. Again, Miguel Sano is 20 years old. And tearing the cover off the ball.Yet, even the biggest Sano supporter should concede that he's far from a perfect prospect. For me, going into the second week of August, I'm almost 50/50 as to whether Sano should spend September with the Twins. I'd love to hear you comments -- and arguments both in support and against -- Sano spending the last month of this season in Minneapolis.