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Minor League Report...New Britain Rock Cats

The Twins resigned three minor league players who were eligible to become six year free agents, Michael Holliman, Estarlin De Los Santos and Deibinson Romero. They also outrighted four players to Rochester, which makes them eligible for the Rule 5 draft. They are Rene Rivera, Matt Tolbert, Jason Repko and Anthony Slama. With the Twins targeting a backup catcher as a priority and more attractive options for reserve infield and outfield positions, it will be surprising to see any of the four return to the Twins next spring as they all are six year free agents eligible to sign elsewhere.

While everyone in Minnesota was celebrating with the Lynx, the Mesa Solar Sox had a celebration of their own. After dropping their first six, they beat Scottsdale on Tuesday, 3-2. Aaron Hicks played a role in the win, going 1-2 with two walks, a run scored and one batted in. Cole DeVries was the starter in Monday's 4-3 loss, pitching 3.1 innings with three hits, two earned runs, three strikeouts and a walk. Brett Jacobson and Bruce Pugh both made two appearances. Jacobson pitched two shutout innings while Pugh allowed three earned runs in 2.1 innings. Dakota Watts also appeared in two games, pitching 3.0 innings with two hits, one run, five striketouts and a walk.

Hicks was 3-15 with three walks and is now hitting .107 average. Brian Dozier saw action in four games, going 3-16 and is hitting .310 average. Chris Herrmann played in only two games, going 2-6 with a walk, double and two runs driven in. Herrmann is hitting .417 average.

The winter leagues also got started this week. As usual, many Twins are with the Aragua de Tigres in the Venezuelan league. Included on that roster is Joe Benson.

My season ending review of the New Britain follows the jump.

What a difference a year makes. After having one of the worst records (44-98) in professional baseball in 2010, the Rock Cats finished 2011 with a winning season (72-70) which is an improvement of 28 wins! Finishing in third place only five games out of first, they played meaningful baseball through the last game of the season when their loss combined with Reading's win saw them miss the playoffs by two games.

The Twins decision last winter to sign more minor league free agents and keep several top prospects at New Britain was a major factor in their winning season. Their decision to keep most of them in New Britain all year was equally responsible for the Rock Cats' success. Whereas Rochester used nearly sixty players this season, the Rocks Cats roster was relatively stable with forty-two players seeing action. And that total included five pitchers who played only one or two games.

Like all successful baseball teams, the foundation of the Rock Cats great start (they were 12-9 in April) was their starting staff. Steve Hirschfeld, Liam Hendriks and Bobby Lanigan were three of the better pitchers in the league prior to the all-star break when Hirschfeld was 6-5 with a 3.40 ERA and Lanigan was 5-7 with a 3.96 ERA. Toss in Hendriks' being one of the top pitchers in the league and you had a dominating 1-2-3 in their rotation. Hendriks moved on to Rochester so he didn't have the innings to qualify, however, his 2.70 ERA would have been third best in the league. Hendriks, who this week was named the Twins Pitcher of the Year, finished with a 8-2 record and 1.14 WHIP with 81 strikeouts in 90.0 innings. Hirschfeld finished with a 8-8 record and 3.73 ERA in 128.0 innings. Lanigan ended his season with a 8-9 record and a 4.45 ERA.

Had David Bromberg not missed most of the season with a broken arm, it is likely the Rock Cats would have made the playoffs and even taken a run at winning their division. Bromberg had a 1-1 record with a 3.63 ERA when he was hit by a line drive in his fourth start. With Bromberg out, they eventually moved reliever Brett Jacobson into their starting rotation. Jacobson, who was obtained from the Orioles in last winter's J. J. Hardy trade, had never started a professional game prior to this summer. Jacobson finished with a 5-6 record in 38 games (13 starts) with a 4.56 ERA, 80 strikeouts and 58 walks in 100.2 innings. Other pitchers who made several starts included Cuban Deinys Suarez, 1-6 record with a 5.48 ERA in twelve starts, Blake Martin, 2-4 record with a 5.77 ERA in ten starts and reliever Spencer Steedley, who was 1-3 with a 5.93 ERA in seven starts. The Cats didn't get any help from Ft. Myers until late in the season when Logan Darnell, Matt Schuld and Andrew Albers all moved up to make five starts each. Darnell was 1-1 with a 5.58 ERA, Schuld 2-2 with a 8.12 ERA and Albers 4-1 with an excellent 2.91 ERA. Combined with his performance at Ft. Myers, Albers had one of the better seasons of all pitchers in the organization and could be New Britain's opening day starter next April. Their fifth starter at the start of the season was Deolis Guerra. In his third season with the Rock Cats, Guerra struggled as a starter before dominating as a reliever when he struck out well over a batter an inning.

The Rock Cats closer was lefty Tyler Robertson, who was in his first season as a reliever. As he gained experience in his new role, Robertson saw his ERA drop to 2.29 following the all-star break compared with 4.47 prior to the break. Robertson led the Rock Cats with ten wins while being tagged with only three losses. He picked up sixteen saves while finishing with a 3.61 ERA, 88 strikeouts and 29 walks in 89.2 innings. Robertson isn't your classic closer, however, he is a ground ball machine that could be an excellent set-up man for the Twins beginning late next year. We will find out soon if the Twins agree as he is eligible for the Rule 5 draft if not added to their 40-man roster.

Several other relievers saw a lot of action, including Spencer Steedley, who was 3-2 with a 3.47 ERA in 23 relief appearances and Tony Davis, who was 2-2 with a 2.57 ERA in seventeen games. Their top reliever was Cole DeVries who was the Twins pitcher of the month in April. DeVries, who appeared in fifteen games prior to moving up to Rochester, had a 2.28 ERA and 0.80 WHIP in fifteen games (27.2 innings) with 33 strikeouts and only five walks. Another reliever who had a solid season was Connecticut native Michael Tarsi. Tarsi, who stands 6'8", was 3-0 with a 4.22 ERA in 26 games (32.0 innings). Two highly thought of relievers moved back and forth between New Britain and Ft. Myers, Dakota Watts and Bruce Pugh. Both hard throwing relievers weren't successful while in AA. Watts had a 7.86 ERA in 23 games (34.1 innings) while Pugh had a 9.33 ERA in thirteen games (18.1 innings).

Several of the organization's top prospects spent their entire season with the Cats. We all got our first glimpse of Chris Parmelee and Joe Benson with the Twins this September. Yangervis Solarte may not be considered as the same level of prospect, however, wherever he is he hits and this year was no exception. This year's Player of the Year, Brian Dozier, was also in the Cats lineup for over half a season.

Parmelee, who was the Twins top pick in 2006, finished with the league's fifteenth best average (.287) and OPS (.801). He led the Rock Cats with 83 runs batted in which were third most in the league. Parmelee also was amongst the league leaders with 68 walks in 610 plate appearances. Benson, who saw his home runs drop to sixteen from twenty-nine last year, finished with the league's fourth best OPS (.883). Benson hit for a .285 average while posting a .388 on base percentage aided by taking 56 walks and being hit thirteen times in 472 plate appearances. Benson struck out to often, 109 times (23.1%), however, that was an improvement from 2010 when he struck out 115 times (27.2%) in 423 plate appearances. We all saw this September the type of hitter Parmelee can become and Benson's tremendous athleticism. Although they will likely begin next year at Rochester, both should be key members of future Twins teams beginning some time next year.

Yangervis Solarte hit as well as anyone in the league, finishing with the league's second best batting average (.329) and fifth most doubles (36). More important, he went the entire year without an extended slump as he hit .300 average or better every month of the season. Perhaps his biggest weakness is that he took only 24 walks in 497 plate appearances, however, he also struck out only 38 times (7.6%). In the past, he was moved all over the diamond as the Twins searched for his best position. He settled into second base early this summer and was solid, playing 89 games at second base. Brian Dozier continued his move up the Twins' ladder when he joined the Rock Cats late this spring. After hitting .322 average in Ft. Myers, he didn't have the normal drop off at AA where he hit for a .318 average and .885 OPS in 351 plate appearances. Dozier had eleven stolen bases while his seven triples were within three of the league leader. Dozier also walked infrequently, 24 times, while striking out only 46 times (13.1%). Where Solarte has searched for a position these past few years, Dozier was solid at shortstop with only four errors in sixty games with a .983 fielding percentage. Dozier also played fifteen games at second base where he had one error.

The Rock Cats had an excellent supporting cast. One valuable outfielder was Evan Bigley who hit for a .253 average with the league's ninth most doubles (34) in 487 at bats. Another player many of us have forgotten about since he was removed from the 40-man roster several years ago is Deibinson Romero. Romero had a .256 average with a .738 OPS in 414 at bats. The Twins just signed Romero which shows they still believe in his future. Minnesota State-Mankato alum Mark Dolenc joins Bigley as a lesser known player who was a key to the Cats' success. Dolenc hit .266 average in 418 at bats with five triples and seventeen stolen bases.

For several stretches, Daniel Rohlfing was the lone catcher on their roster with Danny Lehmann and Jair Fernandez both making brief stops in New Britain. Rohlfing had an excellent season behind the plate as well as hitting .247 average in 166 at bats. It was possible to carry only one catcher after Chris Herrmann was promoted from Ft. Myers. Herrmann is excellent defensively at catcher as well as in either corner outfield position. He hit a solid .258 average and a .771 OPS with fourteen doubles, five triples, seven home runs, forty-six runs driven in and nine stolen bases in 337 at bats. Herrmann also walked 64 times while striking out 68 times.

This past offseason, the Twins signed minor league free-agent Mike Hollimon. Although he hit for only a .223 average, Hollimon tied with Benson for the team lead with 16 home runs in 349 at bats. The Twins like his power and recently resigned him to a contract for 2012. Ray Chang (.270 average in 70 at bats) and Steve Singleton (.295 average) both played well before their early season promotions to Rochester and Singleton's subsequent release. Another player who had several key hits was first baseman Nate Hanson who hit for a .223 average in 202 at bats after his mid-season promotion. The final player who was a key member of this year's Cats squad was infielder Chris Cates. Cates hit .205 average in 200 at bats while being solid at several infield positions.

It is likely that Benson, Parmelee, Solarte and Dozier will all move on to Rochester next spring. If the Cats are to have another winning season, several of these support players will need to step forward and be the go to hitters in the 2012 Cats lineup.