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

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.