If you had to quickly guess, just off the top of your head, which college has the most player in the Twins system, who would you pick? Most would say the University of Minnesota, and that wouldn’t be inaccurate, but it’s actually tied, at five, with the University of Kentucky. The Gophers are Glen Perkins, Nate Hanson, AJ Pettersen, Kyle Knudson, and Mike Kvasnicka. The players from Kentucky include Andrew Albers, Logan Darnell, Lance Ray, Alex Meyer and Taylor Rogers. Since each has a good basketball program, maybe we should set up a 5-on-5 hoops contest between these players for organization supremacy?
Recently, I had the great opportunity to talk with the head coach of the Wildcats, Gary Henderson. He was instrumental in the development of each of the players that came through his program. He was kind enough to share his thoughts on the players he met as 16 or 17 year old recruits and the development he saw in these young men over their time in college. There certainly appears to be a trend or two that developed as he talked about these five players, these five people.
Gary Henderson has had a tremendous college coaching career. He began as a JV coach at San Diego State in 1988. He was an assistant coach at Cal State Fullerton, Riverside Community College, Chapman, Pepperdine, Florida and Oregon State from 1989 through the 2002 season. (While at Oregon State, Henderson recruited Jacoby Ellsbury who played three years for the Beavers.) In 2003, he took over as the pitching coach at Kentucky, a position he held until 2008. Since 2009, he has been the head coach of the Wildcats. In 2012, he was the SEC’s coach of the year when his team went 45-18 (including 18-12 in the conference).
In the soon-to-be-released Minnesota Twins Prospect Handbook 2014, I wrote a story on my choice for Twins Minor League Starting Pitcher of the Year, Taylor Rogers. In it, he talked a little about Coach Henderson. “From the first day I met Coach Henderson, I knew I wanted to go there (to Kentucky).” He continued, “He talked pitching in an accelerated fashion and yet it was easy to comprehend. There are not enough good words to describe the influence Coach Henderson had on me as a person and a baseball player.”
Henderson told me a little about his philosophy. “The thing that we try to do is get them convinced that they’re going to get better, not just with hard work in the weight room, or on the field, or in the bullpen, or with long toss or running, but get them to commit themselves to the process of playing baseball. The very basic ‘One Pitch at a Time’ and what that really means. Not only just hearing the cliché, but really committing yourself to that process. Boy, is it easier said than done! You and I can sit and watch a Major League Baseball game, and it becomes obvious to see when some guy has gotten away from that process, either on the mound or in the batter’s box. We talk a lot about that. The ability to understand and the willingness to give yourself to the process of playing One Pitch at a Time. Not playing against the scoreboard. Not playing against the other dugout. It’s just making good pitches. It sounds so simple, but it’s a challenge. It’s what allowed David Eckstein to be in the big leagues. It’s what allowed Andrew Albers to have the summer he did. It’s just completely getting immersed into playing the game at a high level.”
And, the four Twins minor league pitchers that threw for Coach Henderson at Kentucky each too strides in 2013. Taylor Rogers was my choice for Starting Pitcher of the Year. Andrew Albers was his runner-up in my opinion while the Twins chose him as their Minor League Pitcher of the Year. Logan Darnell was recently added to the 40 man roster after a strong showing in AA and AAA this year. Despite missing two months with a shoulder issue, Alex Meyer solidified himself as the Twins top pitching prospect. He really took an impressive step in the Arizona Fall League. Outfielder Lance Ray was hobbled with injury most of the 2013 season, but he was the top home run hitter in Ft. Myers in 2012.
Henderson was kind enough to tell us a little more about the players that he coached and influenced.
Rogers was the Twins 11th round pick in 2012 from Kentucky. He split 2013 between Cedar Rapids (where he was the Opening Day starter) and the Ft. Myers Miracle.
Rogers grew up in Colorado, but Henderson was able to get him to Kentucky. “He had really good arm action. He threw strikes. He looked like he would fill out and get better. He had a really good frame. Most impressive about him were his work ethic, drive and honesty. The character issues with him were outstanding.”
His early collegiate numbers certainly don’t jump out on the screen, but it was clear that he was improving with each season. “He was a starting pitcher in our league as a freshman. He never shied away from that, never backed down. He was always interested in doing whatever it took to get better. His development was fairly standard. He worked very hard. As a freshman, he had a freshman curveball. By the time he was a junior, it was solid. It was good. The velocity got better each year. His ability to throw the changeup was better.”
Albers has been a great story since signing with the Twins before the 2011 season out of the independent Can-Am League. He is a Tommy John survivor (and now ‘Thriver!’) who was my choice for Twins Minor League Relief Pitcher of the Year that first season. He spent more time starting in 2012, and was a full-time starter in 2013 with the Rochester Red Wings before finally getting the call in August to make his major league debut. He exceeded all expectations and show great grit and intensity despite not having overpowering stuff.
“His story was a little different. He’s the same type of person (as Rogers). Work ethic is off the chart. Extremely good feel for pitching, which I thought was very unusual for a kid coming from a town of 5,000 people in Saskatchewan. Extremely good feel for the game, way above average. He was slender, obviously not as tall as Rogers, but he was 6-0, 165 pounds. I actually saw him when I was working at Oregon State. I saw him a year earlier, and I made up my mind that wherever I was coaching, he was going to school. At least, I was going to do everything I could to get him. He was a little advanced in terms of understanding and feel for competition. His stuff wasn’t. It was fine. In fact, it compared fairly well to Taylor, although he doesn’t have the velocity that Taylor has. His command was very good. His secondary stuff was below average as a freshman. Because of that feel for competition, and feel for the game, he understood really quickly that he was going to have to improve that secondary stuff.
As he has in the minor leagues, Albers pitched in different roles at Kentucky too.
“He started as a freshman and a junior. He relieved as a sophomore and a senior. We rotated him every year, not by design, but that’s just the way it happened.” Henderson continued, “(Albers is a) tremendous leader, not just of the pitching staff, but a leader on the club as well. Another kid whose makeup is A+, beyond A+, if there’s such a thing. Personal characteristics? Personal qualities? Outstanding. He was the type of guy that, when you’d introduce new contacts or new techniques, like Taylor, they embraced them fully. It was never about ‘It’s too hard’, or ‘Why are we doing this?’ They were in from the start, both those kids.”
Albers also had great support from his family. “That’s what the kid was when he was 16. His parents, they’re just impressive people. He’s an impressive kid. As you watched all summer, his stuff is not dominant. He’s going to get by because he has a lot of poise and a lot of confidence, and he can really concentrate. His stuff is fine. And he’s the first guy to tell you that.”
Darnell was the Twins 6th
round pick in 2010. He quickly moved up the system in 2011, from Beloit to Ft. Myers and to New Britain. He pitched in New Britain throughout the 2012 season and began there again in 2013. Shortly after midseason, he was promoted to Rochester. Following the season, the southpaw was added to the 40 man roster.
Regarding Darnell, Henderson said, “He is (a character guy). He was real aggressive early on. His secondary stuff was short, early on. When you’re looking at these guys, there’s a part of you that says that’s why you got them. If you’re left-handed, and you show any arm strength, and you have above average secondary stuff, then professional baseball can happen early. Logan was a very hard worker, very aggressive on the mound, willing to make adjustments, willing to learn. Made huge strides. He got better each year. He comes from a top-notch family. Really good people.
At this point, I began to notice a trend. Each has a very high character and a strong family foundation of support. It’s a theme that we hear often in the Minnesota Twins organization. I asked if character was something he focuses on with recruits.
“I think a couple of things. I think that the ones that don’t have it, you and I don’t talk about for obvious reasons. I think there’s also that saying about who you attract in the recruiting process. You tend to attract similar types of people. It’s certainly not an absolute by any stretch and there’s a lot of stuff that goes into it. The fact that these guys are having success is not surprising. You’re happy for it. We all understand the odds of making it in the big leagues and doing well, and they’re (the odds) are never good no matter how talented you are. But the fact that these people are having success, I’m not surprised. They’re really good people and they really work hard.
The character trend continues when talking about Alex Meyer. The former first round draft pick of the Washington Nationals came to the Twins organization one year ago in a trade that send centerfielder Denard Span to the National League. At 6-9 and 250 pounds, and blessed with an arm that has the ability to throw a baseball 100 mph while showing good command and control of four pitches, makes Meyer the top pitching prospect of the Twins, but also one of the top pitching prospects in baseball.
Henderson recalls Meyer’s younger years. “He was a guy that made a lot of jumps in high school. He was a stereotypical guy who hadn’t yet grown into his body as a 16 or 17 year old. The older he got, he made really rapid jumps in terms of being able to control his body. That’s how it goes with those guys who are 6-6, 6-7, 6-8. They’re long and lean and haven’t yet developed the musculature to control their body on the mound and repeat their delivery. That’s kind of where Alex was.” He continues, “He is a really hard worker. His arm action was outstanding. The thing that was different about Alex, besides the arm strength, was that when he came in, he had a feel for a breaking ball. He did not have a changeup, but he had the feel for a breaking ball. That kind of put him into a different group. It was arm strength. It was feel. It wasn’t always a strike early on. He made the typical jumps. He wasn’t way ahead. He wasn’t way behind. His improvement was pretty standard in terms of being able to slow the game down which he did as a sophomore. He attacked the running game. That part of the game was much better as a sophomore. He’s a really hard worker. (He) comes from a top-notch family, very supportive people. I think the whole family understood and desired for him to have a college experience. I think they knew that was best for him and his development. I think that’s also what they wanted.”
So, does Henderson think that Alex Meyer has the stuff to be top of the line starter?
“Yep, and I think that’s going to happen. Nobody’s got a crystal ball, but I think that’s going to happen. I think he’s going to be a frontline guy. Just like everybody else, he will need to stay healthy, make normal progression, and I think he’s going to have a really nice career. No question.”
He spoke more of what makes Meyer special. “(He) really accepts responsibility, accountable for everything, works really hard. There’s nothing there that’s going to get in the way. Obviously, the talent is pretty good.”
The Twins used their ninth round pick in 2010 on the powerful left-handed outfielder/first baseman. Ray struggled in Beloit in 2011 to start the season, but was remarkable through the middle of the season. He was the Ft. Myers home run leader in 2012. Unfortunately, he was slowed by injuries throughout the 2013 season and hopes to get back to a healthy, productive 2014.
Henderson said, “He is a good guy. He has kind of traditionally been a slow starter, every place he’s been. If you look back at high school, or junior college, or Us, or professional ball, he’s gotten off to a slow start. I don’t know why that is, or what that is. He started slow for us at the plate as a junior. He played for a guy that I played for and a guy that I coached, a father and son in Vegas. That’s how we got on Lance. He started at a junior college in western Nevada. Early in March, about four weeks into our season, he was hitting below .200. Then he got on fire, and he was as good of a college hitter as you’ll see for the last six or seven weeks.”
So, what makes Ray a solid professional player? “(He has a) very good feel to hit, a good plan, good plate discipline. He was very good. Similar type kid. Good to have around, good teammate, very likable kid, a very good feel to hit. He just needs to get healthy.”
I really appreciate Coach Gary Henderson and the media relations group at the University of Kentucky for helping set this up. Coach Henderson was very gracious with his time, but it was clear that he really cares about his players during their time at Kentucky and as they move forward in life and in professional baseball.
He did tell me that he has a couple of players on his upcoming team who could be taken in the early rounds of the 2014 MLB Draft. And, one name to get to know in the Upper Midwest of that of Chippewa Falls (Wisconsin) native Kyle Cody. He was the 33rd
round draft choice of the Phillies in 2012 but went to Kentucky. He’s a big, 6-7, 230 pound kid who can throw in the mid-90s. Might be worth watching again in the 2014 MLB draft.
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