ST. PAUL — When Josh Donaldson made his way over to CHS Field in downtown St. Paul to get in some at-bats as he rehabbed his strained calf a couple weeks ago, Royce Lewis was sure he was about to watch the former MVP put on a power display.
“I figure, ‘Oh, he’s going to hit four or five home runs. He’s going to make it look easy,’” Lewis said.
Instead, the Twins’ top prospect watched, somewhat surprised, as Donaldson took an at-bat without so much as even swinging at a pitch. After that initial plate appearance, Lewis asked him about it, to which Donaldson replied he just wanted to see pitches before he returned to the big leagues so that he would be able to contribute again once he did.
Over at CHS Field, away from the eyes of fans and media, a group of Twins minor leaguers — including many of their top prospects — have been hard at work for months now, hoping for their chance to contribute. For some, that opportunity has come this year. For others, like Lewis, working in St. Paul offers more time to continue development during a summer in which the minor league season has been wiped out. It also affords prospects the opportunity to see and learn from major leaguers, like Donaldson, up close.
“Just to get those guys extended exposure to major league guys that have been successful and have had successful careers is always a boon for our group, and we’re excited about the fact that we’re able to do that,” Twins director of player development Alex Hassan said.
With their alternate site so close by, the Twins have been sending major leaguers over there to rehab. It’s also where Michael Pineda threw during his suspension to get himself built up for his return.
Players over in St. Paul use CHS Field to train during the mornings, as they share the facility with the Saints, who often play night games at the park. J.P. Martinez, the Twins’ assistant pitching coordinator, has been running the show since the start of summer camp, and Twins coaches and coordinators have been working on ways to keep things fresh as they try to simulate games and at-bats.
“I think it’s required some creative thinking and some stepping outside of what’s normal, but at the end of the day, we’ve gone through exercises like this in instructional league and things in the past,” Hassan said. “… They’ve done a really nice job trying to take some of the things that we’ve done and implement them here.”
A typical day, Lewis said, might start around 8 a.m. and usually wraps up around 1 or 1:30 p.m. Players are split into position groups for their work and the number of players both in the clubhouse and in the weight room is limited as they remain mindful of COVID-19 protocols. Players in St. Paul, like those in the majors, are tested frequently.
A day this week for the shortstop included about half an hour of cage work, on-field batting practice, a 45-minute lift and then defensive work with the infielders for about 25 minutes. The group will play anywhere from one to three games a week, Lewis said, if possible, but haven’t been able to play a nine-inning game yet because they don’t have enough pitchers. Position player depth can be stretched, too, when players are called up or join the Twins for road trips as part of the taxi squad.
The beginning of camp, Lewis said, was difficult for him knowing that he likely wasn’t there as a potential fill-in for the big league club and that he wouldn’t be training to play games consistently like a regular minor league season.
Then, after about a week, Lewis reframed his attitude, trying to understand his “why,” and how his time in St. Paul would continue to help him improve as a player, while also thinking about all of his friends and teammates who were at home, not afforded the same opportunity to continue their development this year in a structured environment and struggling to even find a partner to play catch with or a gym to work out in.
Once he figured those things out, he felt his game has started improving. Offensively, Lewis has been pleased with how he’s been driving the ball to the opposite field lately. He feels he’s been making defensive gains, too, and has started experimenting with fun things like behind-the-back glove flips, just because he can.
Most of the Twins’ top prospects are now training in St. Paul, and Hassan said this time has been used as a continuation of each player’s individualized development plan. For those minor leaguers who are not in St. Paul, Hassan said coaches are assigned to a group of players to make sure each player is getting some type of instruction during this time.
“To the coaches’ credit who are here and to the players’ credit, a lot of those guys have continued to make real strides. We push them hard in certain areas and the guys have really responded,” Hassan said. “So all things considered, I feel like we’ve had a productive period here.”
Lewis, Alex Kirilloff and Trevor Larnach are the organization’s top three prospects, and all are in St. Paul. Jordan Balazovic, the team’s top pitching prospect, was just added to the group. Other prospects there include Jhoan Duran, Matt Canterino, Gilberto Celestino, Edwar Colina, Travis Blankenhorn and Dakota Chalmers.
Both Ryan Jeffers (No. 6, according to MLB Pipeline) and Brent Rooker (No. 12) started the year there and are now currently with the major league team.
“That group over there is very similar to a minor-league team in that we all grind together every day,” Rooker said. “We all get through the workouts together. We play intrasquads together. We’re in the clubhouse together. Over the last two months, that group has basically become a minor-league team, just at a different site and different situation. It was really cool.”
Rooker was playing “Call of Duty,” with Lewis, Celestino and team photographer Brace Hemmelgarn last Thursday night when Hassan called around 10:15 p.m. to tell him the news of his promotion to the majors.
When the group isn’t at the field, video games are a popular activity. “Call of Duty,” is a near daily occurrence — Larnach is the best, Lewis said — though a PGA video game has made its way into the mix, too. Many players are staying at the same hotel, giving them plenty of bonding time.
“Being with the boys, being with your teammates and having a lot of fun and growing that camaraderie and chemistry together is a ton of fun,” Lewis said. “And not only are we playing baseball for three or four hours in the mornings together, but at the end of the day, we’re playing video games together, we’re eating together, we’re (doing) all these things.”
And while it may not be the same as a regular minor-league season, it’s better than the alternative.
“It was kind of like a select crowd that got to come up and play baseball and have a season this year,” Jeffers said. “I think for the most part, most people are pretty thankful that they’ve got that opportunity.”