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.

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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.

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