Giving Opponents Ls in Fort Myers
Image courtesy of Steve Buhr (photos of Lewin Diaz, Royce Lewis and Trevor Larnach)Even with a roster about half full of organizational top prospects at his disposal, it’s pretty easy for the manager to pencil in two first-round draft picks sandwiched around a top-10 international signing in those top three spots in the batting order.
Royce Lewis, baseball’s first overall draft pick in 2017 generally leads off for Gardenhire’s club, followed by Lewin Diaz, who was MLB.com’s tenth-ranked international prospect in 2013 when he signed with the Twins as a 16-year-old. The third spot in the order is most often anchored by 2018 first round pick Trevor Larnach.
That’s over $10 million worth of talent if you measure that sort of thing by the size of their signing bonuses.
Of course, that’s not how you measure baseball talent once the players have to suit up and perform on the field, but all three of these players have shown why Twins fans have good reason to feel confident that, down the road, they’ll eventually fit very nicely onto a Twins roster seemingly poised to open an extended window of competitiveness among the American League’s top teams.
Lewin Diaz had four hits for the Miracle on Opening Day and hasn’t looked back. He hit in April. He hit in May. He’s hitting in June.
Heading into a scheduled double-header with Tampa on Tuesday evening, he leads the Florida State League in slugging percentage (.557) and OPS (.903). His 13 home runs rank him second in the league in that category. No player among the top 20 home run hitters in the FSL has fewer strikeouts than Diaz.
“He’s been probably the best hitter in the league,” Gardenhire said.
Already this season, Diaz has set a couple of Miracle franchise power records. On May 16, he became the first Miracle hitter to swat three home runs in a game. He also set a franchise record for home runs in a month. His ten dingers left former co-leaders Miguel Sano and Matt LeCroy one behind him in the record books.
From a guy who saw his OPS drop below the .600 mark by the end of the 2018 season, that’s a remarkable turn-around. You could almost say he’s a whole new man.
In fact, if you saw Diaz play last year in Fort Myers or even the season before in Cedar Rapids, you couldn’t be faulted for not recognizing him this season. The change hasn’t just been statistical, it’s physical as well.
“I have like 25 less pounds,” he said, with a smile, in an interview last week. “I just ate good food. Go work out.”
Described by one scouting service in 2013 as a “thickly built outfielder,” Diaz now looks absolutely svelte in uniform, but he’s lost none of his strength.
Through teammate/interpreter Hector Lujan, Diaz explained why he undertook the physical transformation.
Diaz said he, “just wanted to take the road of the new program. Try something different. See if it would work out for me. I feel it was the right choice for me. I feel a lot better. I move a lot better, feel stronger.”
Diaz said he told himself, “If I’m going to lose weight, I’ve got to keep my power, so I started lifting more weight, getting stronger because then you’ve got to substitute more strength for less weight. It’s working out for me.”
Diaz said he started the program during the offseason in his native Dominican Republic, then, in January, came back to Fort Myers and, “worked on it some more.”
While in the DR, Diaz said he, "worked on getting strength and not really focusing on losing weight.”
Once he got to Florida, he began his new program and, “continued losing weight and building more power. Coming here was a way easier transition because the food here that they provide for us is very healthy.”
So, no McDonalds?
“No, no McDonalds!”
Diaz also has made some perhaps subtle changes to his hitting approach.
Previously, Diaz said, he would, “always just tell myself, ‘I want to hit the ball up the middle hard.’”
Now he focuses on, “wherever the ball is pitched, that’s where I want to hit it hard, whether it’s left field, center or right field. I don’t just want to focus on one certain area of driving the ball. I want to be able to drive it everywhere.”
“Lewin’s doing a really good job,” Gardenhire said of Diaz. “He had a tough year last year, he had some injuries. It’s really good to see him come out this year and do the things he’s doing. He’s got a ton more confidence and he’s swinging the bat great.
“He’s very strong. You know he broke his wrist last year. When you break your wrist, you lose a lot of strength. You can’t do anything with your upper half. And he’s starting to gain that back a lot now. You can see how strong he is by how hard he hits the ball. It’s been pretty impressive to watch. I’m really happy for that kid.”
With the Major League draft just completed a week ago, it’s worthwhile to take note of the performance the Miracle are getting out of last year’s first round selection.
The Twins drafted college outfielder Trevor Larnach and, after signing, he split the rest of the summer between rookie level Elizabethton and Class A Cedar Rapids, hitting .303 combined between the two levels while hitting 13 doubles and five home runs.
Larnach got off to a bit of a slow start in April this season with the Miracle, but he’s more than made up for it with his performance in May and June. He’s leading the FSL in hitting at .308, sits third in on-base percentage (.381) and third in OPS (.855). He also has a league-leading 20 doubles to go with five home runs.
Larnach is, “just continuing to rake,” his manager said. “He’s very smart and he knows his swing really well.
“Going into the year, I kind of questioned whether he was going to be able to make adjustments because that’s always one of the biggest things. He can hit. You saw him hit in college. But in pro ball, you have to learn and you have to make adjustments as you go because (opponents) make adjustments on you.
“So, I knew they were going to make adjustments against him and he’s really done a good job of being able to make the adjustments that he needs to make to be able to hit pitchers that are making adjustments against him. That takes a special hitter to do it and he’s really been able to prove that he’s a special guy.
“With all the preparation, all the video, all the scouting that we have here, I mean we know everything about everybody now. To be able to go up there and hit when they know all your weaknesses and they know exactly how they’re planning to attack you, it’s hard and it takes a good hitter. And Larnach really knows how to (make) adjustments. He knows what they’re trying to do to him and he works on how he’s going to battle that. He’s pretty good.”
Larnach acknowledged that he got off to a bit of a slow start in April and had to adjust some, but says he’s a, “process guy,” and had confidence in his process.
“Yeah, my first month here, I was hitting the ball hard almost every game and some of it just didn’t seem to fall,” he said. “That’s just part of it. Baseball is all mental, really. Ninety per cent mental and ten per cent physical and in the back of my mind, I know that if I’m hitting the ball hard and I’m getting out, then they’ll come. You’ve just got to stick with it and you can’t get too down and you can’t get too up.”
Larnach talked about how goes about making adjustments, when necessary.
“I think, for me, personally, video has always been my go-to. That shows everything that the pitcher’s doing, it shows what he’s missing. Yeah, in statistics and analytics, you have spin rate and how much the pitch moves and all that stuff, but video is showing what he’s been doing.
“Video shows what the hitter’s been doing mechanically, all that kind of stuff. So that’s been one of my favorite things, is looking at video.”
Drafted just a year ago out after an NCAA National Championship run at Oregon State, memories of that draft day remain fresh in Larnach’s mind.
“Yeah, I remember I was nervous. I remember I was just really anxious to get picked,” he recalled. “I’ve worked my tail off my whole life and my parents have done that even more so for me. It’s kind of a really big deal for you and your life. It’s a changing stage and a new chapter. Everything that you’ve done pays off and now you have another step to go through.
“I was talking to all my college teammates and wishing them the best and congratulating them and all that, so I was happy for everyone that got picked and hopefully I’d see them at some point in the minors.”
Asked if there was any advice he’d like to go back in time a year to give himself on that day, Larnach paused briefly in thought before responding.
“I’m not sure it would be draft day because that’s kind of its own kind of category. That’s a day for celebration. But, when I was in college, yeah, there’s a lot I would say to myself. But those are the times that I’ve learned and have gotten me to the point where I am today.
“Take that into account sometimes, you see young guys in the system with you. You know, Royce is younger, Jose (Miranda) and there’s plenty of guys that are younger. You kind of just want to let them know that, hey, you’ve got 400 at bats, you don’t need to get too down on yourself, because there’s going to be 300 more coming.
“Just stuff like that. Helping mindset and mechanically and just little stuff. I don’t want to just look at myself and be ‘I wish I had told myself this.’ I want to kind of spread what I’ve learned to other guys, too.”
You need to look a little further down the leader boards to find Royce Lewis’ name in most offensive categories this year than has been the case in the past.
The 2017 first-overall draft pick is hitting just .221 with an OPS hovering just over the .600 mark.
You’ll find his name among the top ten in the Florida State League in doubles (13) and stolen bases (11 in 16 attempts), but this is a young player who has been accustomed to seeing hitting-related numbers much higher than he’s sporting currently.
His manager isn’t concerned about the numbers. He’s seeing progress in Lewis’ development and that’s the important thing, in particular for a player who just turned 20 years old earlier this month.
“Yeah, he’s doing a good job,” Gardenhire said, almost chuckling at the question concerning Lewis’ performance to-date. “You know, he’s a kid. He’s young, he’s still learning. He was only in high school two years ago. This is a league with a lot of older guys and it’s tough. It’s not an easy league, so Royce is trying to figure some things out with his swing. He’s figuring a lot of things out defensively. He’s doing a good job with everything he’s doing.
“I don’t have any thoughts in my mind that Royce isn’t going to be a big leaguer someday. He’s going to be a big leaguer. He’s got all the tools. It’s just a matter of figuring it out. Everyone figures it out at a different pace.”
The discussion turned to a play at shortstop that Lewis made a couple of nights earlier, laying all the way out to snag a sharp ground ball up the middle, then popping up and throwing a strike to Diaz at first base.
“He does things that other people can’t do out there,” the manager said. “When you have guys that can do that, it’s pretty special. It’s fun to watch. It’s fun for me to just see him improve and keep getting better and better because you know someday, you’re going to see him on TV and he’s going to be doing those things in front of everybody.”
For his part, Lewis doesn’t come across concerned, either, that he’s not hitting the way that his performance over the first two years of his professional career have conditioned fans to expect. He’s never going to hit .425, after all.
“If I could hit .425, that would be a miracle,” Lewis said, with the smile that seemingly never leaves his face when you’re talking baseball with him. “I’m just happy to be on the Miracle team and on a winning team and making that playoff push early in the first half. It’s different than a full year (pennant race), you’ve got first half and second half. We might be able to win and make a playoff push for that first half spot already.”
Watching him hit for a week, it did appear he was squaring up a lot of balls that just weren’t all falling in for hits. He and his teammates (not to mention opposing batters) had a lot of balls seeming to come up just short of the Hammond Stadium outfield wall.
“It’s like that every day, pretty much,” he concurred. “Every day we’re sitting there saying either someone on the opposing team or on our team hit a ball to the track where most likely it’s a home run anywhere else. At the same time, you learn to hit here.
“I think it’s just a tough league. A lot of our guys, we’ve been barreling the ball up as a team. You know, we’ve got a lot of good hitters on this team, so it’s fun to be a part of this lineup. As long as we’re always consistently barreling the ball up, that’s what turns into wins.”
As with his manager, Lewis feels he’s making the progress developmentally he needs to be focusing on.
“Yeah, it’s a long minor league career. You don’t expect to go straight to the big leagues out of high school or out of college. When that happens, it’s pretty spectacular and you hear a lot about it because it’s so rare. So, to me, it’s just a long process. Just the whole compound effect of each and every day I put in the grind and the work is going to end up making me a better player.”
Lewis received a non-roster invitation to participate in the Twins’ big league spring training before this season and is enjoying watching the parent club’s success this year. He also feels some of that Twins chemistry is rubbing off on the minor league teams.
“For sure. I mean every year the goal is to win, and to see them winning and having fun up there is really cool. To me, it all started in spring training, the chemistry they all started to grow. Being lucky enough to be in the dugout and watch that was pretty special. And I feel like for all of us minor leaguers that were in the dugout and participated and were watching that, being a part of that, we brought that to all of our teams and as you can see in the minor leagues, we’re all pretty much doing good and at the top of our divisions.”
(Note that stats were before playing on Tuesday, June 11)
Beyond Diaz, Larnach and Lewis, there’s no shortage of star-level performances happening with the Miracle this season, offensively and on the mound.
Not surprisingly, the Miracle have outpaced the league in home runs, with 51 on the season. They also have the top slugging percentage (.383) and sit third in OPS as a team (.696).
Catcher Ryan Jeffers is sporting a .782 OPS with nine doubles and six home runs.
Aaron Whitefield’s 19 stolen bases is good enough for the second spot on the Florida State League leaderboard in that category.
On the pitching side of the ledger, the team ERA of 3.03 is second best in the FSL, they have the best WHIP (1.17) and the second highest number of strikeouts (588), averaging 1.07 Ks per inning, as a staff.
The back of the Miracle bullpen has been virtually lights-out:
Alex Phillips has put up a 0.34 ERA in 15 appearances covering 26 1/3 innings, striking out 36 and walking seven. His WHIP is just 0.65. Phillips has allowed earned runs in just three of his 15 appearances.
Hector Lujan has a 2.04 ERA in 20 relief appearances over 39 2/3 innings. He’s K’d 35 and walked seven while posting a 0.96 WHIP. He allowed earned runs in four of his 20 appearances, including a string of 12 straight games without an ER that was snapped on June 5.
There’s been plenty of talent on display in the Miracle rotation, as well.
Jordan Balazovic is 4-0 and has a 2.03 ERA over six starts since his promotion, striking out 42 and walking 6 in 31 innings.
Blayne Enlow’s record in his three starts since being promoted is 2-1, while posting a 1.50 ERA over 18 innings. He’s struck out 13 and walked four.
Edwar Colina started the season on the Injured List and has made just six starts for the Miracle. The last five, however, have been of the Quality Start variety, holding opponents to three or fewer earned runs and completing at least six innings on the mound.
The workhorses of the rotation this season have been Tyler Watson and Jhoan Duran, who have ten starts each and have thrown 56 and 49 1/3 innings, respectively. Duran struggled some in early to mid May, but is now working on a three-start Quality Start streak which began on May 26 with a 14 K/2 BB effort.
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