Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Minor Matters

I just want to muse a bit on the way the minor leagues work because it always seem to me that some fans just don't understand the system.

I recall making a comment last season about the lack of quality talent at some locations on the field and and the response was "Well, can't we trade them for better players?"

Obviously, the fan in question was not really knowledgable about baseball in the first place as how many times do you get to trade off poor players for really good ones?

The other item that set me off on this track was that John made a comment on how um...understocked shall we say?...the minor league system was in some positions and that it surprised him.

It doesn't really surprise me, but you have to understand how the minors work. So let's kind of start at the beginning.

Most -- although not all -- players come into the system via the draft. Trades play a part as well, as do free agent signings. But the draft is still the largest supplier of players.

In any baseball system, because you have more pitchers than any of the other players on the field, the draft will be pitcher heavy. But with the Twins, the focus has been on pitching, sometime to the exclusion of everything else.

For example, some teams will just draft the best available player when their turn comes up. The Twins on the other hand look for not just good player, but players that they believe will be willing to sign with them. After that they focus on pitching. They also like to take local boys from either Minnesota or Florida if they can get them.

This is especially true after the first round. This is why the Mauer vs. Prior arguement has always lacked merrit. Joe Mauer was willing to sign with the Twins and he was a local boy and a very talented player. Prior was never really an option for the Twins.

Glen Perkins is another example of a perfect draft pick for the Twins. He's a pitcher, he signed and he's a local Minnesota boy.

If the Twins draft heavy on the pitcher's end, they will then try to fill in the fielding positions through free agent signings in Australia and the Latin American countries.

Generally speaking, players drafted out of high school are assigned to the Gulf Coast League, players drafted out of College are assigned to Elizabethton for their first "short" year.

If a player is exceptional he might be promoted to Betsy part way through the season, but it's not a standard practice.

All prospects are graded and receive a report card. Basically it's the same numerical scale that the scouts use (which I am too lazy to look up right now) that rates a player from all-around altheletism to mechanics to their attitude. The high the number, the higher the ranking, with the largest number possible (it's like a six or an eight) means the player has Major League skill that ability.

After their first "short" year with the Twins, player report to minor league training camp the following year. If they are still going to play in a "short" season league, say repeating at the Gulf Coast League or progressing from Gulf Coast to Appalachian League, they will participate in what is refered to as "extended spring training" or what I also know as "spring instructional league".

Played in Fort Myers and pretty much with the same opponents as the GCL, and starting anywhere from 11 AM to 1 PM, and being a glutton for punishment, I try to make as many of these games as I can. (This ended up with me watching three baseball games in one day. With Terry Ryan. Who sat next to me. Eak!)

Generally speaking, a player must be recommended for advancement by seven different coaches. It's based on their report card with some subjective adjustment for special circumstances.

In the Rookie League, be it GCL or Appy, the player are out to make a good impression with their coaches, so they tend to swing at any old thing that comes their way. However, part of the training they recieve is to be more selective in their batting.

As a result, batting averages tend to fall a bit once they get to the Single A level. Both Low A and High A are known as "pitchers" leagues, in part because the players are adjusting to selective batting and in part due to other factors including the MLB sized facilities in the Florida State League and Florida's hot and humid air.

(Just a side note, there is a phenomina that happens to pitchers entering the Gulf Coast League. Basically they lose 3 to 5 mph off their pitches. No one is really quite sure why this happens but generally fatigue, playing under afternoon games and the hot, humid air of Florida in the late summer, are all considered to be factors. Yes, the pitchers get it back, but the drop off in speed is not unusual.)

The change in batting style really is necessary however, as the fielding gets better and even if the batter weren't being more selective, there'd be a drop off in batting average as the some of the garbage runs that the prospects got in the rookie leagues would be outs at the Single A level.
Some, but not all, of the prospects at this level will also play fall ball in what is called the Fall Instructional League. This is similar to the Spring Instructional League with the games in the middle of the day and the opponents being limited to the Red, Red Sox and Pirates.

Generally speaking, you can expect a pick up in a prospect's batting average once they hit the AA league. You should see a noticable improvement towards the end of a prospects Single A stint. Sometimes that doesn't happen.

James Tomlin, for example, hit.303 in 2003 with the Miracle. He was promoted to the Rock Cats and hit .216 and was often frustrated at the plate. I honestly cannot offer an explaination on this one. Perhaps he needed to make an adjustment to the a higher level of pitching? Whatever the case, "J.T." is a tremedously gifted player, but he's going to have to rediscover his batting prowness if he's ever going to be a major league prospect in the outfield.

However, the jump from a "pitcher's league" at Single A to a "hitters league" in Double AA, helped a lot by the shorter parks the prospects play in, also helps explain why guys like Jason Kubel suddenly appear out of no where on the so called "radar". Kubel has been their all along. He was an All-Star in 2003 in the Florida State League and might have won the Home Run Derby if it hadn't have been rained out that year. But most didn't catch on to him until his 2004 season in AA and AAA.

Now up until you hit AA there's no such thing as signing a free agent to help shore up a position. That's why winning at the Single A level is probably the hardest thing a field manager can do. Additionally virtually every move a field manager makes is watched over by the major league club. If they don't like your line up for the night (and you have to phone it in before the game) they'll change it. If you make a substitution (and you have to call in after the game with a report), it's going to be questioned. Winning is not as important as making sure that certain prospects get playing time.

Needless to say, as a minor league fan at the Single A (Advanced) level, this can all be very um...frustrating. Especially if the team is NOT putting up winning numbers.

Oh sure, we try to make the best of bad situations, like sitting over the dugout and putting our rally caps on and doing rally chants as the Miracle got thumped 17 to nothing by the Tampa Yanks, but you know...we tried. We did our part as fans.

At the AA level, the field managers can request that the Twins sign a certain player for a certain postion on your team. Doesn't mean they'll do it, but you can at least ask, an option you don't have as a field manager at the Single A level. And yes, the Twins still scrutinze your line ups and ask questions about player substitutions. But it's not so tough.

And it's not so much teaching either. At the Single A level you have to be 75% teacher and 25% coach. By the time a player makes AA, he's pretty much set in his ways. You can make some adjustments, but it's hard to correct major problems.

Example: I had asked Jose Marzan about Jake Mauer's batting stance. He said - this being Single A High - all you could do was try to adjust it. You can't change it any more. The player is set in his ways. As a result, Jake may always drag around the tag of "No Power Mauer".

At the AAA you can finally do your own line ups. You can suggest trades, you can ask for free agents to be signed. Basically, by the AAA level, you're playing competative baseball. Up until then, you playing developmental baseball.

I'm not going to get into the AA verse AAA issue for callups. Frankly the Twins use a AAA system for promotions verses a AA call up system which some other teams use. Yes I'm sure they retire some prospect to the AAA (Marsters for example) until their tenure is up, but on the whole, being in Triple A means you are still as much of a prospect as if you are in Double A. Or maybe even more so.

Notes: Some players get to skip levels because they are good. Some players get to skip levels because they are expendable.

I hate to malign my buddy Bryan Kennedy, but Kennedy was promoted to Rochester in 2003 after a short stint with the Miracle. The reason, Greg Blum was proving to be more reliable behind the plate for the Miracle who were headed for the playoffs.

The Red Wings were out of the playoffs, so it didn't matter.

Granted, a lot more happened after that in terms of roster moves, but that's the "short" version.
And finally... The worst thing about being a minor league fan is having to welcome some guys back when you really wish they would be elsewhere. And yes, sometimes that second year will "do" it for them (Luis Maza for example has become a good prospect for the Twins), but sometimes You'd really like to see their backsides and hope that the incoming players prove better.

And of course it's the players that you'd most like to see the backsides off that most often show their front sides on your field again.

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