Constant player movement results in up and down season for Saints

Constant player movement results in up and down season for Saints

The final Monday of the season was a good one for the St. Paul Saints.

The club won that night, which happened less frequently this season than manager Toby Gardenhire and team officials would have liked. The crowd at CHS Field, announced as 5,845, left happy and entertained. And best of all, the probable starting pitcher, Simeon Woods Richardson, actually started the game, which wasn’t always the case with the Class AAA affiliate of the Twins.

If you’ve followed the Twins at all, you know how modern baseball works: Pitchers promoted from the minors on short notice, thrown into a game and then demoted afterward, often without regard to how well they pitched. On consecutive days in September, the Twins summoned Dereck Rodriguez and Ronny Henriquez the day before their scheduled starts for the Saints, forcing Gardenhire to scramble.

Rodriguez flew to Cleveland, pitched the last 3-2/3 innings of a 15-inning loss, then rejoined the Saints the next day. Henriquez remains with the Twins.

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“The pitching staff stuff is a day-to-day operation,” said Gardenhire, the son of former Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, in his sparsely-furnished office last week. “You plan things out for a week, and our pitching coaches do a really good job. We have to be cognizant there could be changes up there at any given time, so we have to have long (relievers) ready (to fill in as starters).”

Such is the life of a Class AAA affiliate, which the Saints became last season after 28 years as the irreverent standard-bearer for independent baseball. The Opening Day roster included highly-regarded Twins prospects Royce Lewis, Jose Miranda, Trevor Larnach, Gilberto Celestino and Jovani Moran, along with experienced major leaguers Jake Cave, Devin Smeltzer, Chi Chi Gonzalez and Rodriguez. It had the makings of a contender.

But the Twins’ litany of injuries and the never-ending need for fresh arms meant the Saints rarely had the same roster from one game to the next. If you include big leaguers on rehab assignments, a club record 89 players wore the Saints uniform this season, 49 of them pitchers. A season-ending five-game winning streak left the Saints (74-75) tied for fourth in the International League West Division and out of the playoffs.

“The first week of the season I looked on our roster and said, dang, we could be really good,” Gardenhire said. “We have a chance to win a lot of games if we can keep this lineup together. A week later, we had like half of those guys. We sent everyone else up to the big leagues.”

The turnover didn’t happen quite that fast, but you get the point. A summary of player transactions (257 in all) takes up two full pages in the Saints game notes, two columns per page, in smaller type than you’re reading now. Thirty-two Saints spent time with the Twins, with some, like pitcher Cole Sands, going up and down several times. Since the Saints only keep about 60 uniforms on hand, a few numbers cycled through multiple players.

Pitchers had it the worst. Take Rodriguez, the son of Hall of Famer Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez and a converted outfielder. Rodriguez, 30, is what’s known in baseball as a “4A” player – really good in AAA, but not quite good enough to stick on a major-league roster. He signed last winter with the Twins, the organization that originally drafted him, after three seasons shuttling between the big leagues and AAA with the Giants and another with Colorado’s AAA club in Albuquerque.

This season the Twins called him up twice, both one-appearance deals. Each time he was added to the 40-man roster, then designated for assignment, rejoining the Saints after clearing waivers. The second time Rodriguez caught a flight from here to Cleveland on about 90 minutes notice, clearing security only because he heeded his wife Ashley’s advice last winter and got TSA PreCheck.

“That’s part of the business now,” Rodriguez said, leaning against a wall outside the Saints’ clubhouse at CHS Field. “At first, it’s hard. It happened to me in the beginning in San Francisco, and it was a little tough to get used to. But this is something you’ve got to get used to.

“When my dad was playing, I would hear stories. Shawon Dunston (the former major-league shortstop and a Giants special assistant) told us that when he was called up, they handed him the ball and said, `Here you go, kid, this is going to be your position for the next 10 years.’ That was it. That’s how it used to be back then. Now you can be Rookie of the Year one year and be optioned the first month the next (season). That’s how it is.”

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Cave, who spent most of the season with the Saints before rejoining the Twins in August, sympathizes with the pitchers.

“They’re abused, I think, and that’s coming from a position player,” he said at Target Field last week. “A guy comes in and throws three innings, and after the game he’s shipped back. You see that stuff all the time, and that’s crazy. I don’t know what can be done about it or anything, but it (stinks) to see the pitchers abused like that.”

At least Rodriguez and Sands weren’t stuck with belongings in two cities, as often happens with frequent call-ups. Rodriguez, his wife and 14-month-old daughter Olivia lived in St. Paul, while Sands found a furnished apartment in downtown Minneapolis not far from Target Field.

“I’ve kind of experienced it all,” said Sands, recalled and optioned five times, the maximum allowed under Major League Baseball’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement. “I’ve been out of town and had to fly here for a home series, and vice versa. There were times where we were playing here and (the Twins) were playing (at Target Field) and I just had to drive across the street. It’s been an up and down year.”

Same for the Saints.

Though attendance wasn’t as robust as the peak independent seasons at CHS Field, the Saints averaged 6,582, seventh in the 20-team IL and 12th among all 120 affiliated minor league clubs. From mid-May until Labor Day – their traditional independent league season – the Saints averaged 7,462, slightly above CHS Field capacity of 7,210.

MLB’s standard player development agreement spells out who pays for what and how revenues are shared. The Twins are responsible for salaries, insurance and medical costs for uniformed personnel; the Saints pay for travel, uniforms and business operations. Travel is a major expense. The Saints rarely flew to away games as an independent, but the greater distances between International League clubs makes air travel a necessity.

Still, with revenue from 25 additional home dates, General Manager Derek Sharrer expects the Saints to be profitable this year. Good crowds in September – three exceeded 7,000 the final weekend of the season – helped make up for a wintery April that held down attendance.

“September has been significantly better than we expected, so we’ve been really pleased with that perspective of it,” Sharrer said. “We just have to figure out how to do a little bit more with April than we did this past year. We learned some lessons.”

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So did Gardenhire. Mainly, though, he wished his club could have won more.

“It’s tough to judge seasons by winning and losing when your team changes as much as it has,” Gardenhire said. “We’d had some guys go up (to the Twins) and play pretty well, do some good things. Just not enough, unfortunately. I don’t know. I’d call it a kind of a mediocre thing. Tough to call it a great success, but we did the best we could.”