My first trip to the Appalachian League brought me to two parks in Elizabethton and Greeneville which could not have been more different. Elizabethton, a small town outside of Johnson City, Tennessee housed the Twins at an older parks & recreation facility. Considering the high school football opener happening a couple of miles away, about a thousand people showing up for the ballgame was a solid crowd.
Two things about the Elizabethton Twins struck me as interesting. At a time when minor league baseball is big business, the franchise was still run by the city. The General Manager of the club was also the city Parks and Recreation Manager. Ron Swanson most certainly would have been proud!
The other unique aspect of Elizabethton worth mentioning is the fact people reserved pseudo-season tickets by leaving lawn chairs at the park all season. It was quite genius actually. Fans used bungee chords and black garbage bags to secure and protect the chairs from the elements, while staking out all the best spots at the park to watch a game. it’s not exactly your typical, “Select A Seat” season ticket promotion, but it’s obviously a big part of the culture of this particular town.
As for the games/players seen, game one featured the Elizabethton Twins against the Kingsport Mets. In terms of talent, the Twins had as much, if not more name talent on the roster than any team I’ve seen this season. In all, eight of the organization’s top-12 projected prospects were on hand including four in the starting lineup. The aforementioned Max Kepler did not play, but a a round of batting practice including an extended infield/outfield session is certainly better than nothing. Additionally, it’s always fun to uncover a sleeper or two worth discussing at some length.
D.J. Hicks – At 22, the 6-foot-5 Hicks is obviously old for the level, but no Elizabethton player had more natural power than the first baseman in batting practice. In game action, he belted a home run to right-centerfield off of a waist high fastball. It was a mistake pitch and Hicks made the pitcher pay. In subsequent at bats, Hicks was exposed a bit by breaking pitches which is likely responsible for his high strikeout totals. The Twins have found themselves a nice organizational player who should stick around for quite awhile with his combination of power and the ability to draw a walk. I wouldn’t label Hicks a prospect, but as a 17th rounder, a quality organizational piece would be a fine outcome.
Max Kepler – I couldn’t help but be impressed with Kepler’s power in batting practice as he repeatedly belted hard line drives with backspin I didn’t think would leave the park, but did. His hands were loose and explosive and Kepler has plenty of room to add size and strength as he matures. During defensive reps, he made the plays and throws, but Kepler did not strike me as a premium athlete in the class of a Byron Buxton or Niko Goodrum. It wouldn’t surprise me if the centerfielder lost his speed (it may already be leaving) and wound up in a corner outfield spot eventually, but the bat should play regardless.
Candido Pimentel – Listed as an outfielder, Pimentel took infield at second base and displayed poor hands and an extremely long throwing motion. At the plate and on the bases, Pimentel showed above average athleticism, but his swing was not as clean as his .330/.403/.422 line would indicate. At present, he’s more of a slap hitter benefiting from an advanced eye against generally poor pitching. As a position player, Pimentel is a bit of a sleeper, but I’d want to acquire him and convert him to a pitcher.
Why? Pimental had arm strength which would rank as at least a 70 on the 20-80 scale and he loved to show it off. In pre-game warm ups, Pimentel and third base prospect Travis Harrison ended their game of catch with a by playing the equivalent of arm strength chicken. From about 20 yards away, Pimentel’s winning throw featured big velocity and tailing action which forced Harrison to move his body out of the way. His feeble attempt to “ole” the ball was a clear indication the game was over and it left teammates buzzing about Pimentel’s arm strength. At present, I would not be surprised if Pimentel could touch 94 MPH on the mound.
Jorge Polanco – Had Polanco really been his listed height of 5-foot-11, I’d be referring to him as a legitimate prospect instead of an interesting sleeper. Instead, he’s closer to 5-foot-9. At second base, Polanco teamed up with shortstop Niko Goodrum and centerfielder Byron Buxton to form an athletic, up-the-middle trio which would have made the Texas Rangers proud.
At the plate, Polanco displayed surprising pop in batting practice from the right side launching a couple of long home runs. Left handed, his swing was not nearly as strong in BP, but the results have been impressive nonetheless (.323/.391/.496 in game action). This held true against Kingsport as Polanco had two hits — both off of right-handed pitchers.
Three top prospects — Byron Buxton, Niko Goodrum and Travis Harrison are obviously absent from this report. Instead of short blurbs, all three will receive a longer write up in the near future.