Double-A mines: Prospecting in New Britain

The allure of attending New Britain Rock Cats and minor league baseball games seems to slip past the majority of true baseball fans.

Whether the team wins or loses isn’t at the heart of the matter as it is for avid major league fans. Proving that point, the Rock Cats went 44-98 in 2010, but attracted 368,523, the most in franchise history.

It’s all about reasonably priced entertainment, a family-friendly atmosphere and, for those who need a more pronounced baseball-related incentive, the major-league prospects.

The list of players who have graduated from New Britain to play on big-league diamonds since the Twins replaced the Red Sox as local Double-A affiliates in 1995 is in the 200 neighborhood. Among them are David Ortiz and new Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski.

Playing baseball scout and marveling at the talent in the Eastern League can become a compelling pastime, one that can readily be accented by autographs and personal interaction, if you’re so inclined.

The Twins’ top prospect to come through last season was third baseman Miguel Sano, a 20-year-old, 6-foot-3, 195-pound man-child from that well-known infielder factory in the Dominican Republic, San Pedro de Macoris. Sano’s defense needs fine-tuning, but when he made contact, baseballs soared to the far reaches of Willow Brook Park.

Sano sustained an elbow injury playing in Winter Ball, but Twins’ minor league director Brad Steil provided a positive report at the Rock Cats’ Hot Stove Luncheon last Thursday.

“We shut him down for about six weeks with no throwing and since then he’s been doing a rehab program with some exercises,” Steil said. “He’s down in Fort Myers (the Twins’ spring training home) and everything’s headed in the right direction. He started throwing (January 15) and that went well so we’re crossing our fingers.” …

The next prodigy due to come through is center fielder Byron Buxton.

Buxton, a 6-2, 190-pound right-handed hitter, was the Twins’ first choice in the 2012 draft and considered the 10th best prospect in the game by Baseball America. Last year, he split his time at two Class A levels and produced the following numbers: .334 batting average, 12 homers, 77 RBI, 55 stolen bases in 125 games.

If Buxton, 20, is not on the Cats’ opening-day roster, he’s apt to arrive in June. Rock Cats manager Jeff Smith got a first-hand glimpse in the Arizona Fall League, which he defines as “close to a major league environment.”

“He’s a top prospect and that speaks to his tools – his speed, his arm, his [bat],” Smith said.

“He can beat you in about every way — a home run, a stolen base, robbing a ball in center field, a throw to home plate — but the thing that I see that separates him is his personality, work habits and how he carries himself.

“He’s one of the most respectful guys that I’ve been around in the minor leagues and a guy who comes to the ballpark and does the right things. Watching him play is a different type of feeling. When he comes up to the plate there’s a different type of buzz.” …

The Twins have dipped back in Rock Cats history to give three former New Britain stars another opportunity by inviting them to major league spring training camp.

Shortstop Jason Bartlett, outfielder Jason Kubel and right-handed pitcher Yohan Pino have had varying degrees of success since their New Britain days.

Bartlett, 34, acquired by the Twins in 2002 from San Diego for outfielder Brian Buchanan (one-time Yankees prospect and son-in-law of Celtics great John Havlicek), played nine seasons in the majors. He was a mainstay on the 2003 Rock Cats that featured Joe Mauer and went to the EL playoffs. A knee injury kept him out of action last season.

Kubel, 31, tore up the EL in 37 games with the Cats in early 2004 (.377-6-29). After six solid years with Minnesota, he was signed by the D-backs as a free agent in 2012, but his production tailed off badly. He was traded to Cleveland in late August.

Pino, 30, played parts of three seasons (2007-09) with the Cats. He was traded to Cleveland as the player to be named later in the deal that sent Southington pitcher Carl Pavano to the Twins in August of 2009. Pino has never made it to the majors. He was in the Cincinnati chain last year.

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