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

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Terry Ryan: Still Employed. Me: A Little Pissed

Terry Ryan and I back in 2012.
I might have different comments for him now.
Kevin Correia. 23 starts. 4.94 ERA.
Johan Pino. 11 starts. 5.07 ERA.
Sam Deduno. 8 starts. 4.6 ERA.
Anthony Swarzak. 4 starts. 4.6 ERA.
Logan Darnell. 4 starts. 7.13 ERA.
Mike Pelfrey. 5 starts. 7.99 ERA.
Tommy Milone. 5 starts. 7.03 ERA.
Kris Johnson. 3 starts. 4.73 ERA.

Mike Pelfrey. 29 starts. 5.19 ERA.
Scott Diamond. 24 starts. 5.43 ERA.
Pedro Hernandez. 12 starts. 6.83 ERA.
Liam Hendriks. 8 starts. 6.85 ERA.
PJ Walters. 8 starts. 5.95 ERA.
Cole De Vries. 2 starts. 10.80 ERA.

Nick Blackburn. 19 starts. 7.39 ERA.
Liam Hendriks. 16 starts. 5.59 ERA.
Anthony Swarzak. 5 starts. 5.03 ERA.
Carl Pavano. 11 starts. 6.00 ERA.
PJ Walters. 12 starts. 5.69 ERA.
Jason Marquis. 7 starts. 8.47 ERA.
Esmerling Vasquez. 6 starts. 5.68 ERA.

Ron Gardenhire took the fall yesterday for 4 seasons of disgusting baseball. That decision was correct. Baseball is a business. And lately, business hasn't been good for the Twins. After the press conference, I was left thinking, "well, that was pretty good as far as those things go. Very Minnesotan, really. But why the hell does Terry Ryan still have a job?" And it's still bothering me today.

As Gardy and Ryan both noted, the reason the manager got canned is because the team didn't win enough games. For sure, Gardy was a contributor to that. Guys were played out of position, he refuses to platoon players, the Twins are among the least likely teams to shift defensively, he uses his closer in a very limited, sometimes non-sensical role, and I have huge concerns about his ability to handle player injuries. Those are just a few things, though. Sure, maybe those decisions cost the Twins 3, 4, 5 games a year. Maybe more. Maybe less. Tough to tell. But the point is, a manager's role in the playing of the game itself is limited.

I keep going back to Terry Ryan. Gardy's job was not to set the roster; it was to play the players on the roster. A "field manager." Take a look at the motley crew of pitchers, games started, and ERAs that I listed above (note: for guys that both started and relieved, I just used their combined ERA -- but you get the picture; note also, I didn't include guys like Trevor May or Ricky Nolasco, who were bad this season but should improve -- there's a difference between a prospect like May learning the big leagues, or a veteran like Nolasco having a career-awful year, and Cole De Vries.). For 2012, that list accounts for 76/162 starts; for 2013 it was 83 starts; and for 2014 it was 63 starts. Those are huge chunks of the season where the Twins were trotting out starting pitchers (sometimes relievers masked as starters) who gave the team little chance to win. That failure is not on Ron Gardenhire. There's no way that Gardy said, after a bunch of awful starts, "Terry, I just know Jason Marquis is gonna turn the corner. Give him more time." Or, "Pedro Hernandez -- I need that guy starting right now!" Are you kidding?!?! I'm sure Gardy lost tons of sleep over his team's pathetic starting pitching, which, incidentally, continually wore down what may have been decent bullpens. Yes, Gardy defends his players publicly, but what manager wouldn't want great starting pitching? What manager wouldn't beg his general manager for help as his team gets shelled every night?

I know what you're thinking: I've completely forgotten the part of the narrative where Bill Smith ruined the organization and Terry Ryan is rebuilding it, and where Ryan is one of the best baseball minds out there. But if there's one thing Ryan can be faulted for, it's failing to draft/develop/acquire better-than-average starting pitching -- and this goes back quite some time, long before Bill Smith. A team can either draft, trade for (other otherwise acquire through the Rule 5 draft, for instance), or sign players as free agents. The Twins have always needed better starting pitching. For the love of God, Brian Duensing started playoff games! Ryan, by and large, has failed to get his manager good pitching. The team, understandably, is reluctant to part with prospects, the best prospects are just now beginning to get to the majors (note that the Twins did not draft May or Alex Meyer), and it wasn't until last off-season that Ryan went out on the free agent market to spend real money. Too little. Too late. For Gardy, at least.

Look again at that list. 76 starts. 83 starts. 63 starts. Just for fun, imagine that, in just 20 of those starts each year, the Twins had a starting pitcher who could go 6 innings and give you a 3.5 or 4.0 ERA. I'm not even talking about a superstar. Just a better-than-average pitcher. Might the Twins win half those games? Perhaps. Imagine what another 10 wins would have made you think about the Twins' 2014 season. 80 wins and 82 losses sounds a hell of a lot better than 70-92.

In the end, Gardy had to go. He was past his prime, the Twins have a bunch of young guys coming up, and sometimes change for the sake of change is reason enough. But I can't get over the feeling that Ryan somehow is coming off unscathed in this mess, as if he has lifetime tenure, when in reality the Twins' record is as much a reflection on him as it is on Gardy.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

So ... That Happened

You've probably heard the news by now that the Twins are out, and the Colorado Rockies are in, as New Britain's class AA affiliate. It's been a strange few months here in Connecticut on the baseball and political fronts, culminating with yesterday's news.

Back in June, Rock Cats managing partner Josh Solomon triumphantly (and surprisingly) announced from the steps of Hartford City Hall that the Rock Cats would be moving from their longtime home of New Britain to a brand new stadium in Hartford, effective for the 2016 season. That announcement shocked many, including the entire New Britain community, who apparently had been left in the dark and were at no point appraised of the fact that the new Rock Cats owners were negotiating with other parties with the goal of leaving Hardware City. I'll be honest -- I would go so far as to call Solomon's behavior arrogant. But the plans for the stadium were nice, and if you accept the fact that the team's owners were going to leave Connecticut for another city if they could not get a deal in Hartford (I don't), well, then I guess it's better to keep AA baseball in Connecticut than to let it go. When Solomon made this announcement, he indicated on the radio that the Twins were aware of and supported the move, though they had no part in the negotiations. My, how things changed in 3 months.

The new stadium deal, however, has become a disastrous headache, and was not, as Hartford's mayor stated during that initial press conference, a "done deal." Hartford, like many other cities, doesn't have much money to spare. So when news broke that the city of Hartford would be financing part of the stadium through about $60 million in bonds, many bristled at that idea. Solomon and Hartford's mayor had a lot of explaining to do -- not just for the financing of the stadium, but for their purported secret negotiations to get out of New Britain. Here's a good read on that subject.

Now, we're at the end of September, and there still is no stadium deal in Hartford. After a request for proposal process, the mayor's office reviewed 3 different stadium plans, and selected 1 plan to forward to Hartford's city council. That plan is interesting in that it includes much more than just a ballpark. Specifically, a brewery (with brewpub and outdoor patio), a grocery store, and commercial and residential development are all part of this comprehensive plan. The financing is very complicated, so I'll condense it to one sentence: the city of Hartford still will be paying millions of dollars to partially finance this project -- it just is not bonding the money. In fact, when all is said and done, it could be just as expensive as that initial $60 million figure that was floated under the original proposal. The new proposal has not yet been fully vetted by the council, and I have no indication that it will be approved any time in the near future.

So where does that leave the Twins? Well, you know by know that it left them in Chattanooga, Tennessee. A minor league player development contract (PDC) is for a minimum of 2 years. 2015 is the last season under the Rock Cats' lease with the city of New Britain (the city owns the ballpark), but 2016 is, as you get by now, uncertain. I'm not sure how the Twins could have signed a 2 year deal for a facility that hasn't been built, and the details of which haven't even been agreed upon. I can hardly blame the Twins for exercising some caution. As you can read here, the Twins also reportedly had concerns about the quality of the playing field in New Britain (not the first time I had heard that) and the team's travel schedule. The Colorado Rockies, however, were apparently happy to come to Connecticut.

So where does his leave the Rock Cats? Well, they're lucky to have a team. There's no real penalty possible -- if no one voluntarily affiliated with them, baseball would have assigned them a team. But I think Colorado could be a good fit. They're similar organizationally to the Twins, and of course we'll get to see Justin Morneau or Michael Cuddyer on a rehab assignment next season (hopefully not, actually). But here's my sneaking suspicion, which I have long harbored: the Rock Cats' owners eventually want a local team. The New York Mets' affiliation in Binghamton is up after the 2016 season. If that doesn't get renewed, I look for the Rock Cats to team up with the Mets. It makes tons of sense. Perhaps that's why the Rock Cats-Rockies deal is only 2 years.

Most importantly, where does this leave me? First, a little disappointed. The Rock Cats were a great tie to Minnesota for me. The Rock Cats were my niche. The Rock Cats were my hobby. The Rock Cats grew to comprise probably 75% of this blog at times. I'm especially bummed I won't get to see Buxton, Sano (again), and several others come up next season. But, as you know, I've had a tough time writing on the team this past season. Between work and life, I couldn't get out to the ballpark nearly as much as I wanted to. I'll still go to Rock Cats games now and then. I'll be excited if they open a new stadium in Hartford. But that's about it. As of today, I think I'll still cover the Chattanooga Lookouts "from afar" to the best of my ability. We'll see what I can come up with.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Baseball & Business: The Twins and Timing

Source: NBC Hardball Talk (Aaron Gleeman)
Last season, I'm sure you remember the Twins' ill-fated attempt to charge a select group of fans to watch the Twins take batting practice at home games. To be fair, fans currently don't get to watch the Twins take BP at Target Field, and several teams have a similar program in place, so this idea was not at all unfounded. But the reaction was crazy. People railed against the team such that, only a few hours after the team released the announcement, it was retracted. I didn't blog about this at the time, because it was covered everywhere. But to me, this was an example of really poor timing -- not a poor idea. The team was bad and fielding rather pathetic lineups. The idea that fans would pay extra to watch players like Wilkin Ramirez or Pedro Florimon take BP -- players that would be in AAA on a good team -- suggested to me that the organization was out of touch with a large portion of its fan base.

Yesterday, as I'm sure you've heard by now, the Twins released a "brand" survey to some fans, which included the question "[c]urrently, which one brand is the most similar to the Twins brand?" The answer choices were all automobiles: Taurus; Volvo; Mustang; Ford pick-up; Cadillac Escape; BMW; Mercedes; Mini Van; Dodge Viper; Prius Hybrid. Accompanying the car names were descriptors such as "fast and sporty," "quality and luxury," and "efficient and forward-thinking." Of course, none of these automobiles, and none of these descriptors, match the Twins. Maybe mini van comes the closest, but perhaps a more accurate descriptor for the current Twins brand -- "cruising" toward its 4th consecutive 90-loss season -- would be "my '97 Honda Civic after the CD player was stolen and there was a big hole so you could see almost into the engine."

Not surprisingly, this question became a laughingstock. How bad did it get? Keith Olbermann named the Twins' marketing department as his nightly "World's Worst." On national television.

Fast-forward nearly 24 hours later, and the Twins have yet to say anything publicly about this. Nothing on Twitter from the team, President Dave St. Peter or Mike Kennedy (Twins PR). Do they need to apologize? Of course not. It was a stupid little marketing brand question that went viral, and that seems to happen frequently these days as businesses realize the importance of social/digital marketing and venture into previously uncharted territory. But it did suggest that, perhaps, the organization hasn't learned much in the past year. If the front office really thinks that the Twins are anything like a BMW, or are "urban and street-wise" (how can that even translate into athletics???), or any of those other vehicles or descriptors, the front office is still very much out of touch with what is apparent to everyone else.

Social media and digital marketing failures happen all the time. And people get past them. But this is still an embarrassment for the Twins who, in my opinion, are usually pretty good with their ads and marketing stuff. To do nothing for 24 hours, especially after you've been taken down on national television, is just stupid. So what do I suggest? Think like a minor league team would. Do something outside the box. Just. Do. Something. I'm not just going to sit here and make fun of the team without suggesting alternatives. So here are 2 awful ideas.

1) Really own this failure and give away a mini van at the last home game of the season. Or donate one to one of the many deserving MN nonprofits. It can be from Mauer Chevrolet. 2) Have a Keith Olbermann day at the ballpark. Invite him to throw out the first pitch. Or ban him from the ballpark for life. Whatever. Free or discounted tickets to people with the legal name "Keith" or "Olbermann." If your birth name is "Keith Olbermann," you get Champions Club seats.

Now, I'm an attorney, and I rarely get involved on the creative side at my job. You can see why. But at least these ideas are something. It's better than silence. At the very least, Dave St. Peter should get on twitter (where he is very accessible and patient with fans), and say something funny to Olbermann. Maybe take him down a peg?? Again -- something. Like the batting practice thing, this will go away in a few days. But the team: a) demonstrated once again that it's out of touch with reality; and b) missed an opportunity to turn an embarrassing negative into something positive, or at least a little funny.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Glen Perkins: My Dead Horse

My article last week suggesting that the Twins trade Glen Perkins (for the right offer) is one of the most read things I've written. Although there were only a handful of comments on this site, over at TwinsDaily there are nearly 200 comments (most of them well thought out). MLBTradeRumors also linked to the article, and it ran in the Star Tribune. In other words, more than the usual 5 found this article.

I don't have anything to compare with for this week, so I'm going to beat the Glen Perkins horse until it's dead. Here are 7 more working titles about Perkins, all in various stages of completion. If you feel so inclined, submit your own titles and I will also consider writing about them.

1) "Demote Glen Perkins."

2) "Deport Glen Perkins."

3) "How Glen Perkins is Singlehandedly Keeping Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Trevor May and Alex Meyer in the Minors."

4) "Where was Glen Perkins when Dennis Martinez Hit Kirby Puckett with that Fastball in 1995? Oh That's Interesting No One Can Seem to Account for His Whereabouts."

5) "How Glen Perkins Almost Cost the Twins the '91 World Series: Part 1 of 47."

6) "Hey, Glen: Where's Your Birth Certificate? Are you Really Even `One of Us?'"

7) "Source: `The Neckbeard is Artificial.'"

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."

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.)