Kernels Media Night Highlights

The tarp covering the infield in Cedar Rapids was wet from a mix of rain and snow flurries over the past couple of days, but fortunately the only “work” that this year’s Cedar Rapids Kernels had to do on Tuesday was do a meet and greet with fans on the concourse and, for a select few, survive a brief media inquisition.

L to R: pitching coach Cibney Bello, manager Toby Gardenhire, hitting coach Brian Dinkelman, pitching coach Justin Willard (Photo: SD Buhr)

As has almost become a tradition in Cedar Rapids, the weather for “Meet the Kernels Night” at the ballpark was cold and damp. The forecast for their Opening Day in Davenport on Thursday is for a mix of rain and snow with a high during the day around 50 degrees.

The good news is that it’s supposed to be sunny in Cedar Rapids for the home opener on Saturday. The less-good news is that the high temperature that day is projected to be 37 degrees.

Welcome to Midwest League baseball in April.

But let’s worry about the weather later. For now, how about some snippets from the Kernels’ introductory press conference?

To start things off, manager Toby Gardenhire and coaches Brian Dinkelman, Cibney Bello and Justin Willard fielded questions from local media.

One of those questions pertained to the evident shift in philosophies being ingrained by the Twins front office with regard to greater collection and use of analytical data at all levels of the organization.

“We have definitely dug into the analytical part of baseball now,” said Dinkelman.. “We’re definitely taking the next step trying to keep up with the game of baseball. Any information we can receive is good information. We try to just filter out what’s good and what’s bad and provide it to the players as necessary.”

Gardenhire concurred with his hitting coach.

“I would say we’re definitely diving into the more analytical way of doing things. the less old-school way of doing things, than we ever have before, with the new front office. They hired a lot of new people this year and a lot of those people are analytical-type people.

“What happens with the analytical side of it is you get a whole bunch of information. All of these things that Dink was just saying, they give you a lot of information and how you deal with that information is going to be different with every organization. We have all that information now, so we’re on the cutting edge.”

A lot has justifiably been made of the fact that the Kernels will have not just one first round draft choice, but a pair of them, in their everyday lineup. Royce Lewis was the first overall selection of 2017’s draft class and Alex Kirilloff was the Twins’ first round selection the year before.

Dinkelman was asked about his impressions of the highly touted pair during spring training.

“Royce got stronger since last year. One of the first things that I thought of when he came back hitting BP is that the ball is coming off his bat harder than it was last year. Alex, it was the first time I got to really look at him in spring training, but he looks good. He’s a hitter first. He plays defense well. So it will be exciting to have both those guys on the team.”

One thing that’s new within the Twins minor league system this year is that two pitching coaches have been assigned to minor league affiliates. In Cedar Rapids, Bello and Willard will fill those roles.

“Two sets of eyes are always better than one,” Willard explained. “And the theory is that the manager is usually a hitting guy and then you’ve got the hitting coach. You’ve got half the team that’s pitchers, why not have another set of eyes on those guys? I’m excited to work with Cibney, for sure.”

While the lineup in Cedar Rapids is going to be full of high draft picks and highly regarded international prospects, Bello expressed confidence that his pitching staff would hold up their end of things, as well, despite perhaps being less heralded than their position-player team mates.

“We have a few guys that are maybe not mentioned a lot, but it’s going to be fun to see them pitching in the games,” Bello said. “They’re not afraid. They have good stuff, too. Maybe they were not drafted as a higher pick, but we’re going to be fine. We’re going to battle. We’re going to compete and we’re going to make people have fun.”

Next up, it was catcher Ben Rortvedt and pitcher Blayne Enlow at the table. Rortvedt is returning to Cedar Rapids for the second season while Enlow will be seeing his first “full season” in professional ball and is scheduled to pitch the home opener on Saturday.

Catcher Ben Rortvedt and pitcher Blayne Enlow (Photo: SD Buhr)

After pitching only for the Gulf Coast League Twins after being drafted in the third round last June, Enlow didn’t enter spring training with any assurance that he’d be skipping the higher rookie league level in Elizabethton to open the year with the Kernels. Of course, that also means opening the season in temperatures that are likely to be well below anything he dealt with while playing high school ball in his native Louisiana.

“I think spring went really good,” Enlow said, “but still it’s like you’re unsure where you’re going to go. When they finally told us, of course I was excited. And then they’re like, ‘it’s cold.’ I was like, ‘it can’t be that bad.’ Yeah, it is. Yeah, it is. But you’ve just got to get through it. It’s just a new challenge. Just got to try to keep on pitching, keep on filling up with strikes, get people out and just win games.”

Rortvedt will be largely splitting the Kernels catching duties with David Banuelos. Ben Rodriguez, who has been a catcher by trade in previous seasons, is being converted to first base, though he likely will continue to get a few opportunities behind the plate.

“I think me and David are going to split time pretty much the whole way this season,” Rortvedt explained, while also mentioning that Rodriguez has been a successful catcher and will be filling the role of the team’s third catcher. “(Banuelos) was very good back there in college at Long Beach State. So, yeah, I’ve been looking forward to it, just learning from each other and talking baseball, talking catching. So yeah it’ll be fun.”

Rortvedt also spoke glowingly of some of the changes in the Twins’ minor league operation.

“There’s a lot of new management with the Twins. We’ve got a new farm director and a lot of new people. There’s a lot of younger faces now and a lot of people are very approachable, which I really enjoy. We’ve got a new catching rover, which we never had in the past, which is just amazing for the catchers, working one-on-one with us.”

Shortstop Royce Lewis and outfielder Alex Kirilloff (Photo: SD Buhr)

Finally, the Minnesota Twins’ first-round draft picks from 2016 and 2017, Alex Kirilloff and Royce Lewis, took their turns addressing media questions.

Lewis was asked how he felt he was different now than what he was as a player at the end of last season in Cedar Rapids.

“To start, I’ve already gained 15-20 pounds, so that’s a big step in my power,” he answered. “And just the mental side of it, more relaxed and kind of know how to play the game of baseball a bit more. Knowing the surroundings in Cedar Rapids around here just makes me feel calm and relaxed.”

Kirilloff talked about the challenges he had to face as he sat out all of the 2017 season after elbow surgery.

“Definitely never the news you want to hear,” he conceded. “I got it around spring training (last year) where my arm wasn’t feeling the way it should and the best option was to get surgery, so to get that news was tough.

“For me, there’s two ways you can look at it. You can harp on it and get down on yourself or you can take it as a challenge and try to make yourself better from it. I tried to do that. I got a lot stronger. Tried to pick up on things that maybe I wouldn’t have if I was playing throughout the year. I think you’ve just got to try to make the best of it and come back better.”

Both players acknowledged that the roster they’re a part of to start the season in Cedar Rapids includes an exceptional number of highly regarded hitting prospects, while also noting that the group can’t just show up and expect to be successful on the field.

“Yeah, it’s like we’re the Yankees on paper. That’s what I’d say, for sure,” said Lewis. “I mean, they’ve got the Bronx bombers, you’ve got a lot of home run hitters in this lineup.

“A couple of people were joking back in spring training, there’s a lot of money you’ve got involved with this team. Which is kind of funny, but it’s kind of true. But as for being prospects, we’re just going to have fun and we’re a good young team. I’m excited and we’re going to work as hard as we can to win all those games.”

“There’s a lot of exciting players with the group and good people, as well,” Kirilloff concurred. “I’m happy to be a part of the group. It’s one thing to look at the paper and be impressed by it, but we’ve still got to go out and do our job and play hard every day.”

Weather permitting, the Kernels will open their season Thursday evening in Davenport against the Quad Cities River Bandits (Astros affiliate).

The home opener is scheduled for Saturday in Cedar Rapids.