Saturday, March 12, 2005

Pitchers & Catchers Report

Some places have the first robin of spring. Here in Fort Myers, we have Popa Goose. He drives down from California so pitcher Joe "Goose" Gault can have the use of his truck while he's here.

"(Mike Radcliffe) tells me he's going to be on a real team next year," he says of his son. "I'm not sure what he means by that."

Cliburn explains a drillI said I think that means one where they charge admission and actually have people in the stands. Joe pitched fairly well in the Gulf Coast League last year, where the highest crowd we had was 35.

That mean's Goose will likely have to drive his truck to Tennessee, but I'm sure that a 19 hour haul is a piece of cake after tooling over from California.

Like every other pitcher and catcher in the Twins minor league system, Goose was here for the start of minor league spring training. While one might compare MLB Spring Training to a three ring circus, minor league training is more like...

Honestly, I'm not sure there's a comparison. There are flocks of pitchers spread out all over the four fields, plus the training areas that comprise the Twins training facilites. Each field has one - and sometimes two - flocks on it working on various drills and the flocks move around from station to station.

"Hey! You guys do this yet?" Stan Cliburn yells at a group of pitchers dressing in red, many of which pitched in for the Fort Myers Miracle last season, who were lounging about in front of the new training facilities. They hadn't, and Stan waives them over.

There is some order. The players are color coded: dark blue is both the AAA players and the High A players, red is the AA players, grey is the single A players and white is the rookies. These aren't promises of things to come, but just and easy way to tell the work groups apart.

Position players report tomorrow, and the Twins will make their first cuts on Monday. A training camp roster should be available on Tuesday.

Koskie?  Is that you?The Twins were using some new training camp tools as well as the new fitness facility. These including the instructional pitching charts set up behind the bull pen area. Yellow ropes were strung to mark the strike zone in the bullpen area.

Teaching is a high priority during the minor league camp. If someone does a drill wrong, they will likely have a coach show them the correct way, and then have to do it all over again.

Kyle Gieger shows off the strike zone."I want to see all of you throw strikes" coach Gary Lucas tells them before one drill. One player throws a little to high to catcher Greg Najac. "That's a ball," Lucas points out. "Try again, throw a strike."

On another field, the position players that have arrived are taking fielding drills, although several middle infielders are helping out the coaching staff including Tommy Watkins who played last season for the New Britain Rock Cats.

In the back behind the bullpens, Eric Rasmussen is explaining positioning of pitches to another group, and behind that yet another group works through a set of obsticals in fitness drills.

Everyone gets a bullpen session, making the catchers the hardest working of the group in camp.

There are more catchers in camp than I expected. While Bryan Kennedy and Jose Morales wear Red Wings blue, it's still a bit decieving at this point as the actually catchers that will report for the Red Wings are still up in major league camp. They will likely switch to Rock Cats red by the end of the week, a color which the two Kyles (Geiger and Phillips) are currently wearing.

Some of the pitchers will move around as well, once cuts get made, but it's not as easy to predict where the pitchers will end up at this point.

As the pitchers and fielders get through all the stations, they vanish into the locker rooms and re-appear, garbed for running. They go in two huge groups for a run around the outside of the Sportsplex facitilies, while the catchers finally catch a break of crouching and take in some batting practice.

Suger"Wait, wait, wait," Floyd "Sugerbear" Rayford stops them all from milling around. How many groups do I have here?"

Kennedy converses with several of the other catchers and they arrive at the number three. Group one is to report to the batting cage, the other two groups to the outfield.

The catchers mill around and look at each other. Sugerbear sighs and pulls out a piece of paper. "Group one: Kennedy, Johnson, Daigle, Morales..."

And they tell me catching is a mental position.

Rayford makes for a very amusing pitcher for batting practice however. "Look at this! I still got it!" The former Orioles third baseman tells them as he hurls balls at this chosen targets. "I just can't get my arm over my head anymore!"

Work outs start between 9 and 9:30 each morning over by the "Big White Building" on the Lee County Sportsplex. So if you're in town for spring training, take a walk over from the fields by the stadium, and have a look at the players that comprise the future of the Minnesota Twins.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Rounding Third

Sometimes, I Don't Know really WAS on third!

I bet you thought I was going to cover second base tonight. Hah! Tricked you. I hit a triple this outing.

Actually third base is one of the biggest controversial subjects this spring (the other being short stop). Is Mike Cuddyer the answer? What about Eric Munson? Who is Terry Tiffee?

And Why, Oh Why didn't they keep Corey Koskie.

Let's start at the beginning. Basically, it's Cuddyer's job to lose. And I don't think he's doing that. Munson's chances of making the roster are slim, in part because it's so hard to knock out an incumbant, and in part because Koskie has given Cuddy his blessing and Cuddy's seening a lot more work at 3rd than Munson is in Spring Training.

So in my endlessly optimistic state of mind, I'm going to ignore Munson's bid as a 3rd base candidate and I'm also going to believe he will choose free agency over Rochester, NY. Sorry Munson fans. Ditto for Andy Fox.

So, our next top candidate for third is in fact on the 40-man roster and will the the player most likely called up if Cuddy gets hurt or can't do his job.

That would be Terry Tiffee. A 6'3" switch hitter from Little Rock Arkansas, he is one of those guys who came in kind of low under the radar, especially after a slow start in Class A Quad Cities.

He progressed steadily, but one of the things that really helped him was an increase in his athleticism. That was part of the knock against him in High A. New Britain went better, a .315 batting average and a trip to the All Star game. But it wasn't until he hit Rochester that he became a serious prospect for the Twins. He rather redefined himself and his talent.

He hit .307 and was second on the team in RBIs to Jason Kubel.

The major question about Tiffee is his health, following first some back problems in Rochester and then a shoulder injury while playing for the Twins.

He will start the year in Rochester and have another year to refine his skills before the Twins have another look at him in the Fall when rosters expand again.

In New Britain, things become a little hairy. Stan Cliburn wanted his corners solidified, so he had Billy Munoz signed for first and Ryan Owens signed for third. Owens played 68 games for the Cats, going .204 with 33 RBIs. By June, the position was being platooned with utility infielder Tommy Watkins and and short stop Jake Mauer playing when Owens was not. This was in part due to Owens going up to cover third when Tiffee was out with a back injury. He played in 42 games up there, hitting .218. Following the end of the 2004 season, he was released.

The Twins signed both Glenn Williams and Brent Abernathy to minor league contracts. Both are AAA players and are likely to stay with the club in Rochester and both can play second or third. Whether either of these will go down to Rochester, or bump Tiffee down, remains to be seen.

Tommy Watkins is a local Fort Myers boy. What he lacks in skill he makes up for in heart. He did not want to leave Southwest Florida to go to New Britain, but once there he acquitted himself well, batting .267 with 47 RBIs. Watkins is a the ULTIMATE utility player, having played games at each position on the field except for catcher. He's even pitched a couple of games as a closer, with a 0.00 ERA and one strike out.

Watkins progress has been slow and steady. While he may never be considered a top prospect for the Twins, his work ethic may end up surprising everyone. He was stated he'd like to pursue a career in coaching, hopefully with the Twins organization, once he finishes playing professional baseball.

Jake Mauer lives in the limelight of his younger brother, Joe. A short stop by trade, he played a good deal of third as well. Jake played Divion III baseball for the University of St. Thomas. The major knock against him is his lack of batting power.

Jake hit .258 last season with two triples and 11 doubles in 283 plate appearances. He has never hit a home run in his professional career.

Still he's good on the basepaths and not bad defensively and can put the ball in play on a relatively consistent basis.

Jake will either repeat with the Rock Cats or be released and signed by the independent league St. Paul Saints who would kill to have a Mauer on their roster.

Ben Pattee: I had a dream mid-season that Pattee was called up to the Miracle. "Why Pattee?" Miracle trainer Larry Bennesse asked me. "He had a good training camp but..."

A week later, Michael Sandoval a prospect who never should have been playing third base was released by the Miracle and Pattee was called up. Another utility infielder, and primarily a second baseman, Pattee did a fairly decent job defensively for the Miracle. He will likely repeat in Fort Myers, but not as a third baseman.

(Just a side note, Sandoval signed with the independent, Brockton Rox as an outfield following his release from the Twins Organziation. I only found it interesting that he was released because of his lack of production at the plate, and not because he stunk at third.)

Omar Burgos started the year at third for Fort Myers but was sent down to Quad Cities after 32 games, in part for his .208 batting average and five errors.

His batting average did not improve with the Swing, as he only hit .206 there. But all is not bad. Baseball America did rate him as having the best infield arm in the Twins minor league system.

Matt Moses....Wait! what? I don't have a page for Moses? I though I did! Oh yeah, here we go...Matt Moses a former first round draft pick for the Minnesota Twins.

Who scouted his guy? First he shows up for the Gulf Coast League following his draft and is diagnosed with a hole in his heart. Minor surgery corrected this. Okay good. Last year, he suddenly has a bulging disk in his back, reportedly from a trampoline accident he suffered in Junior High. How do you miss these kinds of medical problems?

My understanding of scouting is your supposed to know EVERYTHING about the guy, down to how many holes he has in his socks, let alone is heart.

Hit .223 in 29 games in the Quad and is making people wonder if this is another bust first rounder.

Projected to start the season with the Snappers and should receive a promotion to Fort Myers mid-season if he can stay healthy.

David Winfree: I LOVE OPIE! I made some remark to Don about the lack of 3rd base talent on the Miracle. "You should go over to Field D someday and check out those kids," he said around his toothpick.

I replied that I had and they actually had someone who could play the position!

Batted .286 for Elizabethton in 59 games after a solid outing in extended spring training. He was a "second year" rookie, but only played 23 game for the GCL Twins in 2003.

Will likely start the season with the Snappers, spelling Moses on third.

There were no clear third baseman in the Gulf Coast League as the position was pretty much platooned between second year rookie Travis Kalin (.244, 11 RBIs, 1 HR), Jilmar Arratia (.320, 29 RBIs, 2 HR), Michael Lysaught (.186, 7 RBIs, 0 HR), and Juan Portes (.327, 31 RBIs, 8 HR).

Portes and Arratia will likely advance to Elizabethton. Lysaught will spend another year in the Gulf Coast League and as there really isn't such a thing as a "third year" rookie, I have no idea what will happen to the very likeable Kalin. Hopefully they will ship him to Elizabethton as well.

TOMORROW: Pitchers and Catchers report so we will interrupt our look at the Twins minor league system by position for news from pitchers and catchers camp.

A Show to be Named Later

If you're in the Twin Cities area, tune in to Channel 11 Saturday night at midnight following Saturday Night Live for "A Show to be Named Later".

Kind of like "A player to be named later" they tell be ("but nobody gets it"). They shot footage at Spring Training last Sunday, the day Joe Mauer pulled up lame. I know that they shot a segment which I was in, but I have no idea if it will make it to the air.

In any case, check it out, as it seemed like a fun crew and let me know how it goes.