There’s a chance, Paul Molitor said last week, that the Twins might send injured slugger Miguel Sano on a rehab assignment next week, even though minor league baseball’s regular season concludes on Monday.
“We’ll take him,” said Jake Mauer, manager of the Class AA Chattanooga Lookouts. “We can make room, no problem.”
Actually, the Twins will have a full menu of possible destinations, should they decide to plant a big-league ringer in the middle of an affiliate’s lineup. For the first time in the organization’s history, it appears that all seven of the Twins’ minor league affiliates, from one-step-from-the-majors Rochester to the teenagers on the Twins’ Dominican rookie-level team, will qualify for their leagues’ playoffs next week.
Hope they have stocked up on champagne. For the players who are old enough to drink, anyway.
“It’s really been a remarkable season,” said Mauer, who’s finishing up his 10th season as a manager in the Twins’ farm system. “The whole organization takes pride in it, starting from the scouts who [signed] these players, to the staffs at every level. … It comes down to everybody pulling in the same direction, and that’s what the Twins organization does.”
It’s never gelled at every level like this before, though. Five of the seven Twins’ minor league teams are in first place, the other two are in second, and only AAA Rochester and high-A Fort Myers had not clinched a postseason berth by Friday but needed only a couple of victories over the weekend to do so. Every team is at least 10 games above .500, led by Mauer’s 87-49 Lookouts, who clinched both halves of the split season on Friday, and the cumulative 433-300 record amounts to a .591 winning percentage, the best in baseball when all levels are included.
“We want our players to be part of a winning culture,” said Brad Steil, the Twins’ minor league director. “We’re getting some recognition because of all our teams qualifying, but really, if you look at our last five years, we’ve been in the top five every year.”
Playoff games provide an extra benefit, though, because the atmosphere changes — “The lose-or-go-home games, with something at stake, everything gets magnified and it really does give guys a chance to perform under pressure,” Mauer said — and because the goal changes, too. Minor leagues are about developing individual players for advancement, but winning a championship is a goal that pulls teams together.
“It helps you develop team concepts, getting players to come together to play for each other,” Steil said. “Players are not halfhearted about it, they want to win. It’s important to them. And that has to help them as they move up the system.”
You can see that on their faces. Chattanooga, then managed by Doug Mientkiewicz, won the system’s most recent title in 2015, beating Biloxi in the best-of-five Southern League finals 3-2, and in the victory photograph, Max Kepler is in the very front, beaming in delight.
Kepler was also part of the 2014 Fort Myers Miracle, also managed by Mientkiewicz, which won the Florida State League title, and the 2012 Elizabethton Twins, champions of the Appalachian League. And check out the other E-Twins who own rings from that season: Byron Buxton, Jorge Polanco, Jose Berrios, Tyler Duffey, Taylor Rogers, J.T. Chargois and the newly arrived Niko Goodrum.
“Getting eight guys to the big leagues off a rookie-level team is remarkable,” Steil said. “A culture of winning, setting expectations, is part of that.”
That’s why the Twins would like to deliver a title to Rochester; they haven’t won a AAA title since 2002, when they were affiliated with Edmonton. Or to Cedar Rapids, a level where the Twins’ last title came in Kenosha in 1985. Or the Gulf Coast League rookies, who have never won a GCL title.
And the players? If they win a championship, at any level, it comes with jewelry.
“It’s probably our funnest day of spring training, when we hand out the rings,” Steil said. “Fittingly, we do it in Champions Hall.”
The past week was a big one in regards to Central Division teams’ long-term futures. Here’s a look:
Cleveland: The Indians are pulling away in the division race but made a move toward their future by calling up Francisco Mejia, the top-rated catching prospect in baseball, from Class AA. Mejia may see some action if Cleveland keeps expanding its lead, but manager Terry Francona mostly wants the 21-year-old to watch and learn.
Kansas City: With postseason hopes dimming, the Royals made some hard choices. Reliever Neftali Feliz was released, and slump-ridden Alex Gordon was benched for a couple of days. They also learned that Ian Kennedy, 4-10 with a 5.47 ERA, has no intention of opting out of the three years and $49 million remaining on his contract.
Detroit: The Tigers finally gave up on winning a title with the nucleus that won four division titles, trading Jason Verlander and Justin Upton just before this week’s deadline. Moving Upton gives them salary relief, and Verlander brought an impressive package of prospects. The offseason question: Can they move Miguel Cabrera?
Chicago: The White Sox expunged the final veteran pitcher with any trade value, shipping Miguel Gonzalez to Texas for a 21-year-old infielder. With their midseason overhaul complete, only 30-year-old Jose Abreu is older than 26 among the players they intend to form their roster over the next two or three seasons.
Joe Nathan retired Friday with 377 career saves, including 260 with the Twins, the greatest relief pitcher in team history. Though he never started a game, and thus pitched just a fraction of the innings of a starter, he still ranks among top 10 Twins pitchers in Wins Above Replacement, which measures overall individual contribution:
49.3 Bert Blyleven
45.5 Brad Radke
35.4 Johan Santana
31.9 Jim Kaat
27.2 Frank Viola
26.1 Jim Perry
24.7 Dave Goltz
19.1 Kevin Tapani
18.4 Camilo Pascual
18.3 Joe Nathan
Nathan’s ninth-inning value shows up in Win Probability Added, which quantifies how much each batter faced adds to the probability of his team winning. He’s the Twins’ all-time leader among all pitchers (Johan Santana is second), and ranks fourth among relievers in major league history:
56.5 Mariano Rivera
34.1 Trevor Hoffman
32.1 Rich Gossage
30.6 Joe Nathan
28.8 Billy Wagner