TOLEDO, Ohio — Look back to the 2017 American League Wild Card game. The Minnesota Twins are at Yankee Stadium. Eddie Rosario blasts a first-inning, two-run homer off Luis Severino, and Doug Mientkiewicz is watching Minnesota intently from his seat along the third base line, thinking, “those are my guys.”
“It gave me chills,” Mientkiewicz said.
Much of the homegrown talent of those Twins was developed under the guidance of Mientkiewicz in the minor leagues, managing in High-A and Double-A from 2013-17. Now, the Twins are running away with the AL Central this season, holding a 10.5-game lead entering Monday.
With nearly all of the Detroit Tigers’ top prospects in the upper minors, the second-year Toledo Mud Hens manager is embracing another opportunity, one he said involves as much psychology as it does tactical coaching.
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“They’re putting the weight of the world on their shoulders,” Mientkiewicz said Saturday. “We’re not going to put any more pressure on them than they do on themselves to be successful. Stay hard on them, but let them breathe a little bit and let them know they’re not alone and better days are coming.”
The Tigers are in the midst of a rebuilding process, and Mientkiewicz, leading the Triple-A team, may be one of the most important people involved.
Twelve of MLB.com’s top 30 Tigers prospects — including Daz Cameron, Beau Burrows and Willi Castro — are with the Mud Hens, and more are on the way, with 10 in Double-A Erie.
More: Christopher Ilitch is obsessed with Tigers prospects, just like you
Mientkiewicz played 12 MLB seasons in , including parts of seven seasons under Ron Gardenhire with the Twins. Gardenhire, the current Tigers manager, saw coaching potential over a decade ago.
“We’ve had a lot of good arguments, a lot of great conversations,” Gardenhire said last week. “When he played for me, he was one of those headstrong guys who was fiery, and I had to calm him down a lot. I’m sure he’s the same way as a manger, he’s fired up and the guys love it.”
Mientkiewicz, whose final season in the majors was 2009, turned to coaching in 2012. He spent one season in the Los Angeles Dodgers system as the hitting coach with the Ogden Raptors, the organization’s Advanced Rookie League affiliate. It was there he guided two-time All-Star shortstop Corey Seager in his first year as a professional.
Then it was off to the Twins system in 2013, where Mientkiewicz took the helm of the Fort Myers Miracle for two years. He moved up to Double-A Chattanooga in 2015 before returning to Fort Myers in 2017. Despite a 385-299 record in five seasons in the Twins organization, Mientkiewicz was let go as part of an organizational overhaul after that season.
He caught on with the Tigers last season, taking over the Mud Hens. Tigers general manager Al Avila said Mientkiewicz was hired for many reasons.
“When we hired him, we liked him because of his baseball experience, as a player and as a coach,” Avila said Friday. “Whether it be defensive position or baserunning, he’s able to translate to the player, if they did something wrong there, OK, how that’s going to affect you at the big leagues, that’s going to get you back down to the minor leagues.”
A history of rapid player development
Right-hander Jose Berrios earned his first All-Star nod last year, but the 25-year-old is not far removed from excelling through the Twins farm system.
Berrios remembers an incident with Fort Myers where he cruised through the first inning but didn’t record an out in the second frame.
Mientkiewicz dug into him.
“He had a meeting and told me, ‘You need to be a professional,’ ” Berrios said last week, when the Twins played the Tigers at Comerica Park. “After that day, I learned to always go out there and give my 100%.”
It was moments like those, Berrios and Twins outfielder Max Kepler said, that Mientkiewicz taught them to become “a man.”
Kepler remembers Mientkiewicz barely playing him in Fort Myers when they first met. The outfielder wanted to hit to the opposite field for contact, and Mientkiewicz saw a left-handed swing with potential for power from the pull side.
“He got to me in a good way, he kind of made me mad,” Kepler said last week. “Doug figured me out.”
Mientkiewicz felt great responsibility to develop what is now Minnesota’s core. He concedes that he was demanding and tough.
“I wouldn’t let them breathe because I knew they were responsible for bringing respectful baseball back to that city,” Mientkiewicz said. “I always say, I don’t know if I’ll make you physically better, but I’ll make you mentally tougher, and that group was battle tested.”
In his half-decade with Minnesota’s organization, Mientkiewicz oversaw the development of Twins regulars Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano and Jorge Polanco, as well as Kepler, Rosario, Berrios and reliever Taylor Rogers.
For the players just beginning their professional careers, Mientkiewicz commanded attention from his successful playing past alone.
“Credibility is big,” Rogers said. “It went a long way.”
That group is helping the Twins run away with the division in early June. Even though Mientkiewicz is in a rival organization, the Twins greatly appreciate him for teaching them and establishing a winning culture.
“We always talk about how he managed, how he’d treat us,” Berrios said. “We learned a lot from him.”
The hardest job in the minors
Here’s what Mientkiewicz deals with as the Triple-A manager, among other things: prospects on the cusp of the major leagues, big leaguers optioned between the majors and minors in multiple seasons (think Zac Reininger or Harold Castro) and players designated for assignment and no longer on the 40-man roster (Mikie Mahtook or Drew VerHagen).
The Tigers need an emergency pitcher for a game that night? Mientkiewicz is down an arm.
“That’s probably the toughest managerial position in the minor leagues because guys are going up and down,” Avila said. “You’re going to deal with guys that could be angry, disappointed, things of that nature.”
In some organizations, top prospects may skip Triple-A entirely, but likely not with the Tigers. Mientkiewicz admits managing at this level is not quite the same as his experience grooming the Twins prospects.
“It’s hard to compare because they had some really good, good players. That’s no disrespect to these guys because I’m seeing them at a tougher level,” Mientkiewicz said. “That group I had, you’re looking at possibly six major league All-Stars. To compare them to this group I have, I don’t think it’s fair, but at that same token the goals are the same.”
The biggest difference managing Triple-A versus Class A is getting players later in development and helping them make the biggest jump, from the minor leagues to the show. They have to be ready.
“You don’t get a mulligan up there,” Mientkiewicz said. “It’s eat or be eaten.”
One of those finished products, Tigers outfielder Christin Stewart, played for Mientkiewicz last year. The power-hitting outfielder praised his former skipper’s ability to command the clubhouse with roster transactions and egos aplenty.
“He had a ton of feel when it came to guys bouncing up and down, knowing and understanding,” Stewart said. “He gets it.”
Winning matters, even in the minors
Mientkiewicz has managed his teams to two league championships. He’s never led a team to a losing season, and that makes a difference.
He tries to establish a winning environment in a setting where the main focus is grooming talent for the major leagues. But he also emphasizes personal growth.
The players love it.
“He did a really nice job of toeing the line between the two,” Rogers said.
Mientkiewicz shows a craving for winning with a unique care for his players.
“He shed some tears for us, which meant a lot to the guys that were playing for him,” Kepler said. “He had a lot of emotions, I don’t know if he liked to show them, but they showed and that definitely affected his players, and they wanted to grind for him.”
Before arriving in Detroit, Niko Goodrum’s first eight years in pro ball came with the Twins’ farm system, including two years playing for Mientkiewicz.
Then a young prospect, Goodrum remembers the manager’s propensity for tough love.
“He lets you learn the game, but he’ll get after you as well,” Goodrum said. “If you’re doing something wrong, he’ll get after you and let you know you need to be doing it right.
“If he sees it’s not happening, then boom, he’s not afraid to address it and get after you, challenge you to get better.”
Goodrum and Mientkiewicz still have a relationship and have great respect for one another.
“We (are) cool, we text from time to time,” Goodrum said. “He challenged you, he makes you be a man about this game because that’s what it is. You can’t be weak-minded.”
Those relationships fostered in Minnesota and now Detroit are just as important to the Tigers rebuild as anything else.
“He’s a dandy,” Gardenhire said.
Contact Greg Levinsky: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GregLevinsky.
Published at Tue, 11 Jun 2019 14:53:26 +0000