Pitching is serious business for the Minnesota Twins.
There’s nothing unusual there. Most pundits will say that pitching ranks anywhere from 75 to 90 percent of the game.
But the game’s most precious commodity is even more dear for a small-market club like the Twins, who can’t order from the non-contenders’ menu at midseason if their starters break down.
So pitching philosophy runs deep in New Britain, especially when veteran pitching coordinator Rick Knapp makes his semi-seasonal visit.
While in New Britain this season, Knapp can exchange pitching wisdom with two well-versed experts in manager Bobby Cuellar and pitching coach Steve Mintz.
Cuellar pitched professionally for nine years and has spent most of the last 26 as either a pitching or bullpen coach. Mintz, who led the New Britain Red Sox in ERA in 1993, pitched professionally for 12 seasons.
The Rock Cats clubhouse became quite the venue for pitching forums when Knapp came through last week.
“Having these guys here is a really good test for me because they’re gonna bounce around questions and thoughts, and it really makes me examine what we’re doing a little bit closer,” said Knapp, now in his 12th season as the Twins’ minor league pitching guru. “The thoughts and ideas they give me are a motivator for me. Everybody has their skew but we see eye to eye on things.”
The Rock Cats have been plagued by inefficiency at the back of their starting rotation. Rhode Island right-hander Jay Rainville (2-4, 10.01 ERA), just a year removed from shoulder surgery to correct a nerve problem that cost him the 2006 season, has struggled. So has right-hander Oswaldo Sosa (1-2, 7.06).
But fans always have to be reminded that winning isn’t everything in minor league baseball. Knapp is focused on development, and the organization prefers that prospects get in their work with statistics a secondary concern.
Rainville emerged from a pack of young hurlers in spring training to merit a promotion to New Britain for the start of the season.
“Some guys were scuffling and some guys were on track,” Knapp said. “Jay was pitching well although his delivery didn’t look great but you don’t want to get too deep in his head while he’s competing to make a club. It was one of those things where your eyes kind of deceive you a little bit. The numbers were what they were but the delivery wasn’t what you were hoping for.”
So Rainville’s Double-A struggle is far from a total surprise to Knapp.
“I kind of had an idea what it was coming in but until you watch you don’t know for sure,” he said. “It was something that was really a small technically that goes with our philosophy of pitching. We worked it a little, he felt more confident and he was throwing the ball harder.”
Rainville’s velocity is down for reasons the Twins cannot pinpoint, but recuperating from surgery can often take more than a year, so they remain patient.
“He hasn’t felt any weakness. (The effect of surgery) is all resolved, as far as we’re concerned, but there is still arm strengthening issues and mechanical issues that we’re trying to get to,” Knapp said.
He said that warmer weather may help.
“I think he will eventually throw harder. It’s a matter of let’s make sure we get his delivery right,” Knapp said. “Let’s sequence him properly and I think good things for in store for him.”
Knapp expects the young New Britain rotation – Anthony Swarzak, Ryan Mullins, Yohan Pino, Rainville and Sosa – to remain in tact, at least until the season’s midway point. Last year, he moved left-hander Brian Duensing and Nick Blackburn up early when injuries wracked the Twins’ staff.
“Last year we got lucky because I had Duensing and Blackburn ready to go to Triple-A,” Knapp said. “I don’t feel as good about sending Swarzak or Mullins or Rainville to Triple-A yet. Duensing had pitched a year in this league before. Blackburn had pitched a year and a half in this league. I felt OK sending them to Triple-A.”
Swarzak enjoyed an outstanding start but wasn’t as effective when Knapp got a first-hand look.
“During the course of the year you have struggles and his outing the other night wasn’t all that great. I come in here and see him one time and you see a small piece of the bigger picture,” Knapp said.
“Yeh, he seems to be on track. If we hadn’t made that (Santana) trade he’d probably be pitching in Triple-A although I don’t know that he’s ready for Triple-A. The trade we made worked out good for all parties concerned, mainly with our pitching because it gives us depth and allows our guys to stay where they’re supposed to stay.”
Acquiring ex-big leaguer Danny Graves, and keeping minor league veterans Jason Miller (25) and Jay Sawatski (26) strays a bit from the standard Twins strategy of moving ’em in, moving ’em up and moving ’em out. Again, uncertainty in Minnesota has altered the makeup of the Rock Cats.
“I don’t want to say that’s why we (retained) Miller and Sawatski, who have Triple-A experience as well, but those guys are (young),” Knapp said. “I wanted to make sure we had protection.”
The recent collapse of the Rock Cats starters will not force Knapp’s hand.
“The reason I’ve got some of the older guys here is that there are some players in Fort Myers I don’t want to send here yet,” Knapp said. “I want them to get a full season or even a half season under their belt before they come here. Triple-A’s got some really good arms. We’ve got some good arms here.”
Jeff Manship, 23, is a right-hander with college experience (Notre Dame) who was a Double-A candidate out of spring training and is pitching well at high-A Fort Myers (4-0, 3.23). Knapp is using experience as a yardstick.
“Manship is doing OK. It’s just one of those things that he pitched a half-season there last year and deserves another half season,” Knapp explained. “I don’t want to skip any steps. I want these guys to get their innings at their levels.
“Whether he pitches 100 or 150 innings in (high A), is that a positive for a college pitcher or a negative? I think the more that he pitches there the better off he’ll be when he gets here.”
The Twins generally make a major shift between New Britain and Fort Myers in mid-June. Along with Manship, St. John’s grad Rob Delaney (0.54 ERA, 8 saves), Anthony Slama (2-0, 0.47) and Danny Vais (4-0, 0.86) have been brilliant
“(Manship) and one of those relievers may get up here at the halfway mark but I’m not in any rush with any of them,” Knapp said. “If (Manship) pitches a full season in Fort Myers, that will be fine with me. It means the guys here will get the time they need here. I’m happy with the way things are going so far.”