Given the chance to learn to 'play for Gardy'

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 2, 2012 - 9:23 AM

It is at the Class AA level in New Britain, Conn., where Twins prospects often get the wakeup call that talent alone won't get them to the majors. Some catch on faster than others.

view larger photos


NEW BRITAIN, CONN. - Justin Morneau is everywhere.

Walk through the front gates at New Britain Stadium, and there he is, looming from the ceiling, twice life-size, swinging a bat. Take the elevator to the second level, and Morneau, 21 years old with long blonde curls, rides with you, crouching forward with his first baseman's glove. Meander down the concourse, and he's on the wall, looking hopeful about the future while posing in his Rock Cats uniform. Sit in the stands, and you're liable to share a row with someone wearing a decade-old No. 33 jersey.

In case you were wondering what the point of Class AA baseball is, the ubiquitous image of Twins first baseman Justin Morneau -- Rock Cats MVP in '02, American League MVP four years later -- is there to remind you. "They've had some great players come through here, and the experience you get at Double-A should get you ready to do some great things," said Rock Cats manager Jeff Smith. "Our job is to help develop your talent, so you can play for Gardy [Twins manager Ron Gardenhire], so you can be a winner up there."

He can't be certain whether there are any future Morneaus on his roster this year -- but there might be, Smith said. Just last week, for instance, in his first game at New Britain Stadium after being promoted from Fort Myers, 21-year-old Oswaldo Arcia clubbed a 400-foot home run into the trees beyond the right field wall, one of the longest home runs in the stadium's recent history. And Arcia is hardly the only intriguing hitter here.

The 2012 Rock Cats, only two seasons beyond a 98-loss disaster that foreshadowed the parent club's own crash, are an unusual mix, an intersection of young prospects headed up and a few wrong-way casualties trying to halt their descent. Three of the Twins' top five hitting prospects, as judged by Baseball America at the beginning of the season, are on the Rock Cats roster, led by Aaron Hicks, who was drafted with the 14th overall pick in 2008. New Britain also has above-average pitching, despite being thinned by the needs of the Twins and Class AAA Rochester Red Wings above them, and a couple of injured outfielders, Rene Tosoni and Joe Benson, who are trying to recapture the success that earned them short-lived tryouts in Minnesota last season.

All are spending the summer in this shady suburb of Hartford, Conn., hoping to develop their batting eye, their breaking pitch, their double-play pivot, their -- and this may be the most important quality -- maturity.

"I really think it's what separates guys at this level. Everybody has experience by the time they get here, everybody has talent," said Smith, a former minor league catcher who is in his seventh season as a manager in the Twins system. "But now you have to develop the mentality of a big-leaguer if you want to keep moving up. The mental toughness, that's what we're here to help you develop."

One thing all the Rock Cats have in common: They're eager to go somewhere else.

Well, everyone except Chris Colabello.

"Don't get me wrong, my goal is to play in the big leagues," said Colabello, who is "probably our first-half MVP," according to Smith. "But for the Twins to just let me in the organization, to give me this opportunity here, it's such a blessing. I try not to think about the future; my mind is just on enjoying the moment."

Spoken like a 28-year-old affiliated-ball rookie, a seven-year veteran of independent-league baseball who never hit below .300 yet could never attract the attention of major league scouts. After an offseason workout for Twins scouts earned him an invitation to spring training, he is getting his chance this year, and he has repaid the Twins for their confidence with a strong season.

And not only with his 13 home runs and Eastern League-leading 56 RBI, either.

"What he's done for the team off the field, in the clubhouse, has been just as important as what he's done with the bat," Smith said. "He's had to adjust to this level of competition, to facing this quality of pitching on a daily basis, and when it comes to energy, to putting in hours of extra work and leading by example, he's like a 20-year-old kid. You don't see many people with more passion."

It's rubbing off on his teammates, too. "He teaches me a lot when he doesn't even know it," said Hicks, the Twins' first-round pick in 2008. "He keeps everything so simple -- just have a plan, stick to your process and have fun."

It hasn't been much fun for Benson or Tosoni, a pair of outfielders who were thrust by Twins injuries into major league duty last season, probably before they were ready. Since experiencing the thrill of playing in Target Field last season, both outfielders have experienced the same free fall: Failed to impress in the majors, with Benson batting .239 and Tosoni .203, then couldn't make the Twins roster in the spring, then demoted to Class AA after a dismal start in Rochester, all topped off with an injury added to the insult.

Benson required surgery after breaking a bone in his wrist and hasn't played in more than a month; Tosoni pulled the trapezius muscle in his shoulder and has missed a week.

"Those guys, they just need at-bats to get it figured out again," Smith said. "They've proven they have the talent, but you scuffle a little bit, you get hurt, and things can snowball on you. They've just got to get healthy so they can start moving forward again."

Hicks has been moving inexorably forward since he was drafted, his rise through Minnesota's system steady and occasionally spectacular. Of course, "occasionally" is the problem; the switch-hitting center fielder has been afflicted with a streakiness that he can't seem to shake, hitting like Joe Mauer one week and Charlie Brown the next.

"Sometimes I'll have a week when I'll just go off, and the next week, not so great. It's a confusing game, that's for sure, but I think I've been better with my approach," said Hicks, whose 16 stolen bases lead all Twins, major league or minor, this year. (His 36 walks trail only Mauer and Beloit third baseman Miguel Sano.) "I feel like I'm getting close to [being more] consistent. I'm getting there."

Physically, he might be there already, Colabello said. "Aaron could run out in center field in Minnesota tomorrow and nobody would know the difference, because he can run, he can throw with anybody. He could play outfield in the big leagues right now," he said. "You can see that the process of being ready is more a mental thing, a growth in maturity. I see him maturing every day."

Hey, that's exactly what Smith is looking for, too. "You definitely don't want to lose sight of Aaron Hicks. I see with my own eyes the way he's maturing, the way he's working on cutting down the strikeouts and improving his on-base percentage, the way he's hitting the ball all over the field," the manager said. "The past six weeks, we're really starting to get excited about how quickly he's improving."

Maybe someday all those Morneau photos will be joined by portraits of Hicks.

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions


Team Irvin 32 FINAL
Team Carter 28
Miami 96 FINAL
Chicago 84
Oklahoma City 98 FINAL
Cleveland 108
Dallas 106 FINAL
New Orleans 109
Indiana 106 FINAL
Orlando 99
LA Clippers 120 FINAL
Phoenix 100
Minnesota 100 FINAL
Atlanta 112
Detroit 110 FINAL
Toronto 114
Milwaukee 95 FINAL
San Antonio 101
Boston 111 FINAL
Golden State 114
Washington 117 FINAL
Denver 115
Houston 99 FINAL
LA Lakers 87
Team Toews 17 FINAL
Team Foligno 12
South Florida 53 FINAL
Connecticut 66
Boston College 64 FINAL
Georgia Tech 62
Virginia 50 FINAL
Virginia Tech 47
Indiana 70 FINAL
Ohio State 82
Stony Brook 61 FINAL
Binghamton 54
Cincinnati 56 FINAL
UCF 46
Maine 70 FINAL
Hartford 61
Monmouth 64 FINAL
Manhattan 71
Fairfield 67 FINAL
Marist 73
Rowan 48 FINAL
Princeton 96
St Bonaventure 48 FINAL
Rhode Island 53
Duke 77 FINAL
St Johns 68
Saint Peters 69 FINAL
Siena 55
Drake 40 FINAL
Wichita State 74
Vermont 61 FINAL
UMass Lowell 50
Seton Hall 57 FINAL
Butler 77
South Alabama 55
Northern Iowa 54 FINAL
Illinois State 53
Louisville 80 FINAL
Pittsburgh 68
Albany 69
Niagara 64 FINAL
Iona 87
Notre Dame 81 FINAL
NC State 78
Belmont 63 FINAL
Tennessee St 55
Creighton 50 FINAL
Villanova 71
Northwestern 67 FINAL
Maryland 68
Washington 56 FINAL
Utah 77
Senior-North 34 FINAL
Senior-South 13
Seton Hall 99 FINAL
Georgetown 85
St Johns 69 FINAL
Villanova 81
Arkansas 58 FINAL
Florida 72
Maine 56 FINAL
Vanderbilt 55 FINAL
Alabama 52
Lafayette 60 FINAL
Lehigh 65
SMU 57
Utah 51 FINAL
Washington 63
James Madison 73 FINAL
Coll of Charleston 53
Delaware 56 FINAL
Drexel 61
Hofstra 56 FINAL
William & Mary 57
Hartford 58 FINAL
Albany 82
Binghamton 54 FINAL
Stony Brook 67
Towson 63 FINAL
UNC-Wilmington 71
Wake Forest 80 FINAL
(17) Florida State 110
Georgia Tech 68 FINAL
Virginia 62
(22) Georgia 51 FINAL
(5) Tennessee 59
Drake 79 FINAL
Evansville 62
Iona 80 FINAL
Canisius 62
Fairfield 33 FINAL
Monmouth 59
Northwestern 75 FINAL
Penn State 76
Wisconsin 71 FINAL
Michigan State 77
Ohio State 79 FINAL
Purdue 71
Northern Iowa 57 FINAL
Indiana State 55
Butler 58 FINAL
Xavier 54
Creighton 93 FINAL
Marquette 75
Providence 42 FINAL
DePaul 90
Northeastern 77 FINAL
Elon 80
(2) Connecticut 96 FINAL
Cincinnati 31
Oregon 78 FINAL
Arizona 81
Bradley 46 FINAL
Loyola-Chicago 45
NC State 49 FINAL
(23) Syracuse 66
(7) Maryland 84 FINAL
Indiana 74
Illinois State 35 FINAL
Missouri State 58
Colorado 68 FINAL
Washington St 73
Tulane 45 FINAL
South Florida 64
(14) Kentucky 83 FINAL
Missouri 69
(9) Oregon State 68 FINAL
(13) Arizona State 57
Vermont 63 FINAL
UMass Lowell 72
Iowa State 58 FINAL
(8) Texas 57
Southern Ill 61 FINAL
Wichita State 80
(15) Duke 74 FINAL
(12) North Carolina 67
Miami-Florida 55 FINAL
(4) Louisville 68
(21) Minnesota 61 FINAL
(25) Rutgers 66
California 72 FINAL
(11) Stanford 71 FINAL
USC 60
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters





question of the day

Poll: How optimistic are you about the 2015 Twins?

Weekly Question