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

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.