Kernels Hitting a Stride

Heading into their four-game series with Midwest League Western Division leaders Kane County on Thursday, the Cedar Rapids Kernels were one game under .500, trailed the Cougars by two games in the standings and were tied for second place in their division.

After trouncing Kane County 11-2 in the series finale on Sunday to earn a split of the four-game series, Cedar Rapids was one game over .500 (at 9-8), trail the Cougars by two games in the standings and are tied for second place in their division.

That sounds more mediocre than it was, in reality.

Kane County, the MWL affiliate of the Diamondbacks, have some game and the rest of the division will be challenged to keep up with the Cougars if they continue playing at early-season levels, so getting that split was hard work.

Still, it could have been better.

The Kernels had a 3-2 lead heading to the ninth inning on Thursday, but gave up three runs to the Cougars in the ninth and fell 5-3. On Saturday, The teams were tied 3-3 headed to the final stanza, where Kane County scored the winning run.

In fact, in five of their eight losses this season, Cedar Rapids has surrendered the winning run in their opponent’s final inning at the plate.

All those close losses don’t have manager Tommy Watkins concerned, however.

“The good thing is, after all those games, we responded afterwards,” Watkins said on Saturday. “We’ve lost a couple of games in the ninth inning, but it happens. We’ve got a young team. We’re going to take some bumps and bruises, but I think things have been pretty good to start the season.”

In fact, Watkins said his team has pretty much performed at expected levels.

“I didn’t have any concerns with either side of the ball. Pitching or hitting. Like I said at the beginning of the season, this is a fun team to watch up and down the lineup – pitching, defense, offense, running the bases. We’ve got some guys that can steal some bases. I really enjoy having these guys here.”

One player that’s certainly been as much fun to watch as any position player in the league has been Jermaine Palacios.

“Palacios has been swinging a hot bat and giving us a real boost at the leadoff spot,” Watkins said, of his shortstop. “He’s being aggressive to balls in a zone.”

Indeed he is.

The 20-year-old native of Venezuela is hitting .406 through Sunday and he hasn’t been just slapping the ball, either. Palacios has three doubles, two triples and added his first home run of the season in Sunday’s win over the Cougars.

He’s leading the MWL in batting average and his 1.012 OPS is ninth best in the league, but not good enough to lead his own team.

That honor goes to Mitchell Kranson. His six doubles, one triple and two dingers have propelled him to a 1.045 OPS.

By and large, the pitching staff has been solid, as well. There have been a couple of games where, as one Kernels pitcher told me, “none of us could miss a barrel.” But those instances have been rare.

Cedar Rapids continues their current homestand with a three game series against the Burlington Bees (Angels) before traveling to Peoria (Cardinals) for four games with the Chiefs beginning Thursday.

I’ll wrap up with a couple dozen pictures from the games on Saturday and Sunday at Veterans Memorial Stadium, as well as the traditional Sunday post-game autograph session.

(All photos by SD Buhr)

Kernels manager Tommy Watkins hitting infield practice
Hitting coach Brian Dinkelman tossing batting practice
Domenick Carlini warms up under the watchful eyes of Kernels pitching coach JP Martinez
Lewin Diaz (48) and Ariel Montesino (21)
Domenick Carlini
Andrew Vasquez
Mitchell Kranson playing first base on Saturday
Mitchell Kranson took his turn behind the plate on Sunday
Aaron Whitefield coming in low, and safely, to 3B
Andrew Vasquez, Max Cordy and Colton Davis (L to R)
Ben Rortvedt
Ariel Montesino (21) takes a toss from Jermaine Palacios (4) to turn a double play on Sunday
Aaron Whitefield
Lewin Diaz signing an autograph on Sunday.
Jermaine Palacios got this ball out of the park on Sunday.
Clark Beeker
Shane Carrier
Christian Cavaness signing an autograph after Sunday’s game.
Lewin Diaz
Hector Lujan
Clark Beeker with a pick-off move to first baseman Lewin Diaz
Jermaine Palacios
Mitchell Kranson beats a throw into 3B
Brandon Lopez
Jaylin Davis scoring as Kane County catcher can’t handle a throw from the outfield.
Caleb Hamilton launching a home run on Sunday
Christian Caveness
Travis Blankenhorn (7) and Aaron Whitefield signing autographs.
Jaylin Davis

The First (and Last?) Knuckleballs Podcast

For some time now, my son Ryan and I have been tossing around the idea of doing a podcast.

The two of us (and occasionally along with other family members and friends of the family) get together rather regularly at our favorite watering hole, Bushwood Sports Bar & Grill in Cedar Rapids.

As difficult as it may be to believe, when Ryan and I get together for a beer (or to golf or to go to a ballgame), our conversations become heavily (though not exclusively) sports related.

Anyway, Thursday over happy hour, Ryan and I had a beer or two at Bushwood after he got off work and we turned the mics on for a little over half an hour.

In retrospect, recording at happy hour in a bar may have been a questionable decision and I have to own that decision, myself. Ryan had doubts.

There’s a fair amount of background noise (no, we aren’t using fancy mixing equipment that allows us to dial that stuff down), but, hey, just pretend you were with us at the bar, ok?

If you’d like to listen to us discuss the respective starts of the Twins and Orioles (Ryan’s favorite MLB team) and a bit about the Kernels and the upcoming June draft, feel free to click here and give it a listen.

The big mystery, now, is whether this is something we will ever try to do again.

-Steve

When Can Twins Fans Say It Out Loud?

We’ve all been thinking it. We’ve tried to rationalize, in our minds and even in our public statements.

But privately, every one of us in Twinsville has been thinking it.

Yes, the season is still young, with only 12 games in the book and 150 still ahead.

Yes, the Twins, as a whole, have been surprisingly competitive, thanks to better than expected pitching being backed up by defense that’s superior to pretty much anything we’ve seen in Twins uniforms during the Target Field era.

Still, nobody who has watched this team can claim that the Twins engine is hitting on all cylinders.

So let’s just put it out there.

What the hell is wrong with Byron Buxton and Joe Mauer? And when is someone going to do something about it?

Byron Buxton launched this home run in spring training – and has barely made contact with his bat since. (Photo: SD Buhr)

The Twins’ Opening Day lineup had Buxton in the number three spot and Mauer batting cleanup. Obviously, manager Paul Molitor and the other decision makers were expecting some pretty decent productivity at the plate out of both guys.

To say that hasn’t happened would be an understatement of near-epic proportions.

Through Sunday’s game, Buxton is hitting just .093 and Mauer’s batting average is not much more impressive.

Mauer’s .190 BA is bad enough, but his .434 OPS has to be embarrassing for a guy that should be justifiably proud of a .391 career on-base percentage, alone.

I’ll grant that both guys have made contributions to the Twins’ surprisingly strong start, but those contributions have come almost exclusively with their gloves.

Buxton has made multiple highlight-reel catches in centerfield and Mauer has been impressive at first base.

If there’s been a weakness in the Twins’ defense, so far, it has been on the left side of their infield where Miguel Sano and Jorge Polanco have been a little erratic at times and Mauer has looked awfully good to me at picking their throws out of the dirt at first base.

Still, with the Twins sitting at 7-5 through their first dozen games of the season, we can’t help but ask ourselves just how good this team could be looking if Buxton and Mauer were just performing at a level we might grudgingly call “okay” at the plate.

I’m not going to suggest that Molitor should go off the deep end and bench either of these players after just two weeks. That would be an overreaction. After all, Buxton has had just 46 plate appearances and Mauer only 45.

By the end of the season, Joe Mauer is going to be hitting .260. He’ll show limited power, but will have his share of doubles. It’s what Joe Mauer does. It’s not ideal, especially for a first baseman, but with ByungHo Park on the shelf with a bad hamstring at the moment, it’s not likely that the Twins would consider a change at first base any time soon (though we might want to make note that Ben Paulsen has three home runs and is sporting a 1.051 OPS in Rochester already).

As for Buxton, we have to keep in mind that, not withstanding their early record, the Twins are still in a rebuilding process and Byron Buxton is still very likely to be a major cog in the machine that we all hope will eventually bring postseason baseball back to Target Field.

Joe Mauer (Photo: SD Buhr)

That being the case, you do whatever you think is necessary to get him straightened out at the plate, no matter how long it takes.

I don’t think sending him to AAA would do much good and sitting him on the bench won’t improve his plate appearances. The only chance he has of learning to hit big league pitching, at this point, is to keep facing big league pitching.

And here’s something else worth keeping in mind: Perhaps the best thing that could happen in terms of accelerating the Twins’ return to September significance would be to see pitchers such as Ervin Santana and Hector Santiago put up stats strong enough to induce bidding wars among teams in need of pitching at midseason.

There is no doubt that having Buxton in centerfield makes the stat lines of every pitcher that takes the mound look better. You could possibly make the same argument for Mauer at first base, for that matter.

So Mauer and Buxton aren’t going anywhere and they’re going to be penciled into the lineup by Molitor almost every day. We can resign ourselves to that and hope their bats wake up.

Still, nobody can be blamed for openly wondering how many more games this Twins team, as currently constructed, could be winning if Buxton and Mauer were carrying their own weight… or at least hitting their weight.

Kernels Home Opener in Photos

The Cedar Rapids Kernels jumped to an early 6-1 lead in their home opener against the Beloit Snappers on Saturday evening, but by the end of the night, only the bean counters in Cedar Rapids could call the night a success.

Thanks to a large walk-up, certainly helped by 76 degree temperatures, the Kernels set a franchise record for attendance at a home opener, but the Snappers played spoiler by rallying three runs in the visitors’ half of the ninth inning to top the Kernels 7-6.

Kernels starter Sean Poppen worked seven solid innings, surrendering three runs (only two of the earned run variety), while striking out seven Snappers without a walk.

The offense was led by DH Travis Blankenhorn who doubled and added a three-run home run.

Shane Carrier also homered while Jaylin Davis and Caleb Hamilton added triples.

Davis may have contributed the defensive play of the game, gunning down Beloit’s Nate Mondou at the plate,

In fact, let’s start our photo set with a series of shots showing catcher Ben Rortvedt’s tag of Mondou.

(All photos by SD Buhr)

All of that in the first inning before the Kernels even came to the plate!

Now, let’s back up to pregame activities.

Volunteers with the American flag prior to the game.
Kernels manager Tommy Watkins meets with the umpires and Snappers manager.
A record Home Opener crowd of 3,508 watches leadoff hitter Aaron Whitefield step into the batters box.
Starting pitcher Sean Poppen

Now let’s look through the Kernels’ staring lineup.

CF Aaron Whitefield
SS Ariel Montesino
DH Travis Blankenhorn
1B Lewin Diaz
RF Jaylin Davis
C Ben Rortvedt
LF Shane Carrier (watching his 2nd inning home run sail toward the wall)
Caleb Hamilton
2B Brandon Lopez

 

Kernels Expect a Fun Season

There were differing opinions concerning who won the dance contest held in the Kernels’ clubhouse prior to “Meet the Kernels Night” in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, but the players and coaches who were brought in to talk to the media were in agreement on one thing. They all expect the 2017 Kernels season to be fun.

Kernels players meeting fans on “Meet the Kernels Night” in Cedar Rapids. (photo: SD Buhr)

In fact, almost all of the players and coaches who endured media interrogation before moving on to the stadium concourse to meet the fans who showed up for the event used the word “fun” in at least one of their responses to media questions.

That shouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone who has spent time with the Kernels’ new manager, Tommy Watkins. If you see Watkins at a ballpark without a smile on his face, snap a picture quick. It would be a rarity.

Early during the media session, Watkins was asked what sort of mood he likes to see in his team’s clubhouse.

“Probably like a somber mood,” Watkins deadpanned.

“No, a lot of energy,” he continued, after the laughter in the room faded. “We just had fun down in the clubhouse before we came up, so it was a lot of fun. Get the guys moving around a little bit. Everybody danced a little. I think we like to bring a lot of energy and like to have fun. Play the game the right way.”

His coaches, Brian Dinkelman and J.P. Martinez, claimed Tommy won the dance contest and Tommy claimed the two coaches had been the winners. Later, pitcher Sean Poppen would claim that he’d been the true winner.

Whether or not there was an actual winner of that contest, there was no question that Watkins, his coaches and his players all are looking forward to having a fun season – and winning some baseball games along the way.

“I’m excited about all of these guys,” Watkins said of the players making up the first roster of his minor league managing career.

“They were fun to watch in spring training. Good group of guys, they all got along well. Up and down the lineup I think you’ll see a lot of energy, you’ll see a lot of guys play the game hard. I think they’ll be fun to watch this year. Same thing from the pitching side. We’ve got guys who can throw it over. We’ve got guys that throw hard, got some off-speed stuff. From both sides of the ball, these guys will be fun to watch.”

Hitting coach Brian Dinkelman, Manager Tommy Watkins and Pitching coach JP Martinez (photo: SD Buhr)

While last year’s opening day roster was composed largely of returning players from the 2015 Kernels roster, only eight of this year’s group wore a Cedar Rapids jersey at some point last year. Most of the group, including many of the returning players, played together at Elizabethton in the Appalachian League, during a season that did not see the sort of success on the field that E-town fans have come to expect.

Pitching coach J.P. Martinez said he things this group is hungry for success, as a result.

“I think in Cedar Rapids, in particular, we’ve set the bar pretty high,” Martinez said, recounting the success the Kernels have had, including making the playoffs in each of the four seasons since the inception of the affiliation agreement with the Twins.

“I think (these players) are eager to prove that they belong at this level, maybe partly because they didn’t really have the success they wanted last year, but they’re a really, really talented group. A really close-knit group and so we’re hoping that we can kind of steer them in the right direction. They are the future of the franchise.”

Brian Dinkelman, the hitting coach, also thinks there’s a lot of potential in this group of Kernels.

“Yeah, we’ve got some guys that can definitely swing the bat,” he said of the hitters he’ll be working with. “We’ve got a lot of young guys. We’ve got (Lewin) Diaz and (Jermaine) Palacios and (Ben) Rortvedt – guys that are still in their teens. But we’ve got some guys who can swing the bat and do some damage, so looking forward to the season. A lot of guys to work with. Hope we can develop them and move on to the next level.

Ben Rortvedt, Sean Poppen and Travis Blankenhorn (photo: SD Buhr)

One of the guys the hitting coach mentioned, Rortvedt, is among the players who will be getting their first taste of full-season professional experience this season in Cedar Rapids.

“Wonderful. A bit of an upgrade with the stadium from Elizabethton and the Florida GCL,” the Wisconsin native responded, when asked for his initial impressions.”I played here growing up a couple of times and it was fantastic. I mean, it wasn’t full bleachers, but I’ve seen pictures of you guys filling up the stadium, so I’m really excited.

“I played with a bunch of the guys last year and we’ve bonded pretty well, so it’s going to be a fun season.”

There’s that word, “fun” again, along with another common theme of the day, team chemistry.

Pitcher Sean Poppen and infielder/DH Travis Blankenhorn expressed similar expectations.

“(Tommy) is great. I think he’s really going to develop team chemistry and that’s pretty important,” Poppen said, of his manager.

“We had Tommy in instructs (fall instructional league) and spring training,” Blankenhorn added. “He just keeps the game fun. It’s fun to play for him. He keeps it fun for all of us. It makes baseball a lot better when you’re having fun.”

“Absolutely,” Rortvedt agreed. “I didn’t know Tommy going into instructs and he came in already cracking jokes at me, so he’s definitely going to keep us loose in the dugout.”

Fun and chemistry are important, but Poppen doesn’t think that’s all Watkins brings to his team.

“He’s a good coach. I’ve had some experiences with him that were very helpful and I feel like he’s going to help me – and help the team – get better.”

“I think we have a good team this year,” Blankenhorn concluded. “I think we have a bunch of pitchers that are going to throw strikes and go out there and put some zeros on the board. I think we have some good sticks in our lineup that are going to put the ball in play and puts some runs up and hopefully we can win some games.”

Having fun and winning games. Sounds like a pretty good combination.

Twins Brass Setting Molitor Up to Fail?

With the 2017 Minnesota Twins season set to open up on Monday, it’s finally time to try to predict what this team will do over the next 162 games.

Looking at the Opening Day roster and comparing it to what we saw a year ago, making a prediction that doesn’t have the Twins once again at least flirting with 100 losses takes a combination of considerable imagination and pure hope.

Twins GM That Levine

A 103-loss team a year ago, it’s pretty hard to see obvious reasons to project a significant improvement in that record.  The primary change (in fact, perhaps the only significant change) in the organization came in the front office and, no matter what you think of Derek Falvey and Thad Levine, the new Twins brass won’t pitch or hit the team to more wins.

This is a roster that cried out for pitching upgrades and I defy anyone to look at the Opening Day pitching staff and point out where significant improvement is going to come from. The decision-makers have determined that manager Paul Molitor will have 13 pitchers to choose from. I don’t think volume is going to automatically make the staff better, though.

What this roster does have, thanks to the extra pitching being carried, is a total lack of offense available off the bench. When Molitor looks down his bench for a pinch hitter, he’s going to be looking at Chris Gimenez, Eduardo Escobar and Danny Santana.

The only way he’ll see a viable pinch hitter in that dugout is if he has started Escobar at shortstop, leaving Jorge Polanco available.

Gimenez, the backup catcher, is also supposedly the backup first baseman behind Joe Mauer. That’s not ideal. I have to wonder if we won’t see Max Kepler at first base with some frequency. I don’t doubt he can handle the position (he did well enough there in Cedar Rapids back in 2013), but it’s a waste to put a guy with his range in the outfield at first base. It just makes you worse as a team, defensively, at both positions.

I don’t envy Molitor the task he has before him this season.

Owner Jim Pohlad made it clear at the end of 2016 that, regardless of who he hired to run his baseball operations, they were going to keep Molitor as their manager in 2017.

So Falvey and Levine knew they wouldn’t be able to hire the manager of their choice until the 2018 season.

But it’s almost as if they collectively decided that they weren’t going to go out of their way during the 2016-2017 offseason to improve the Twins’ roster and risk giving Molitor any chance to win enough games to make replacing him an unpopular thing to do, either with fans or with an owner who clearly likes the Hall-of-Famer, after his lame-duck season wraps up.

Molitor has certainly not set the world on fir in his first two seasons as a manager. In this interview with the Pioneer Press’ Brian Murphy, Molitor even admits that, “Learning to run the bullpen has been a work in progress.”

He’ll get no argument from most Twins fans on that point.

Molitor also conceded that his ability to produce more wins may be taken out of his hands as this season unfolds. After trying, and failing, to get what they considered fair market trade value out of veterans like Brian Dozier and Ervin Santana during the offseason, you have to assume that the Twins new front office would be quick to pull the trigger on mid-season trades of such players if they get off to good starts, driving up their trade values

With a front office so obviously focused on the future, such moves would have significant negative effects on the chances of Molitor leading his team to enough wins to save his job.

To his credit, it’s clear from the comments he made to Murphy that Molitor, while being aware of these circumstances, isn’t particularly concerned about them. Or at least he’s classy enough not to express any such concerns publicly.

Make no mistake, however, any ultimate failure of the 2017 Twins to substantially improve the results that fans see on the field would be a shared responsibility.

I won’t argue that Molitor would be blameless for a lack of success, but his front office did him no favors with its inactivity all offseason long. They had an obvious task – improve the pitching, both the rotation and the bullpen. They did almost nothing to address that need and that, in my view, would make them primarily responsible if a lack of pitching talent leads to another bad season.

I’m hoping that another year of development will mean significant improvements on the field from guys such as Kepler, Polanco, Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano.

I’m hoping Phil Hughes and Kyle Gibson have good years and that whatever mix is in that bullpen turns out able to do its job well.

I’m hoping that some of the organization’s young pitchers develop quickly enough to provide upgrades during the course of the season.

As a fan, hoping is all I have the ability to do.

Unfortunately, everything I’ve seen, heard and read about the new Twins front office indicates that they’re just hoping all those things happen, too.

Falvey and Levine, however, walked into their offices at Target Field with the absolute authority to reshape their roster and they did virtually nothing to give Molitor – and Twins fans – anything of substance to hang our hopes on for this season.

Are You Ready For Some Baseball?

Yes, it has been a while since I posted anything, so I’ll be surprised if anyone still remembers we have this blog, but I’m back home after a couple of weeks in Florida and it’s almost time for the baseball season to begin. So, let’s fire up the blog again and see whether we, as Twins fans, have enough this season to even be worth talking about.

We are not off to a great start.

First of all, the new Twins front office did virtually nothing in their first offseason on the job to improve the team. I was asked during a brief radio interview on KMRY in Cedar Rapids this week what I felt about the Twins’ fortunes in 2017 after spending time at their spring training site in March. I’ll say the same thing here that I said in response during that interview.

The Twins did nothing to improve their team in the offseason, so any improvement will have to come from further development of their existing young roster, guys like Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, et al.

The good news is that there is every reason to believe that Buck, Max and friends like Miguel Sano, Jorge Polanco and Eddie Rosario should indeed mature and see their games improve.

The bad news is that none of those guys can pitch. (Well, Buxton probably COULD, but it ain’t happening.)

This morning, many of the final roster moves were announced and we found out that the Twins will start the season with 13 pitchers and without the player that perhaps had the best spring training of anyone in camp, Byung ho Park, who was sent down and will apparently start his season in Rochester.

That leaves the Twins with just three bench bats and none of them are guys you would want to see come to the plate even as a pinch hitter.

The bottom line, it seems to me, is that the new front office is scared to death of their pitching staff. I understand that because I think most of us have been afraid of this pitching staff for a long time. But they had all offseason to address their obvious pitching needs and did virtually nothing to improve it.

So, to tell us they sent Park down because they felt they ended up needing more pitchers is really an indictment on their poor work in obtaining pitching during the offseason. Fans should not let them off the hook easily if this all blows up.

Now that I have that rant out of the way, let me just pass on some observations I had down in Fort Myers.

As always, I spent a fair amount of time on the minor league side of the complex watching past and future Cedar Rapids Kernels work out.

My sense, as I shared Tuesday on the MN Sports Weekly podcast, as well as the KMRY interview, is that the Kernels will have a better offensive lineup this season than they had a year ago and it appears that at least half of the team’s pitching rotation that finished the 2016 season will be returning to start 2017.

Lewin Diaz and Shane Carrier should add pop to the middle of the order and, for now anyway, it appears that Travis Blankenhorn and Jaylin Davis will return to start the new season in CR. That group could produce some runs if other guys can get on base with regularity.

It doesn’t look like slugger Amourys Minier will break camp with the Kernels at this point, but he should help out when he arrives later in the season, as could other bats such as Trey Cabbage and Wander Javier.

Jermaine Palacios will return and be among a large group of middle infielders worthy of getting opportunities in Cedar Rapids during the season.

Let’s wrap up with a few pictures from my time in Fort Myers.

Fort Myers Beach – yes there is something other than baseball to do on a mid 80s March day in Florida.
IF Aaron Whitefield and C Ben Rortvedt
Tyler Beardsley should be returning to Cedar Rapids
Ariel Montesino makes a bare handed play as Wander Javier looks on.
Byron Buxton goes deep in the first inning against the Orioles.
Jorge Polanco gets congratulated after a grand slam home run.

 

Kernels Hot Stove/Twins Caravan Reception

The Minnesota Twins once again included Cedar Rapids, the home of their Class A affiliate Kernels, in their Twins Winter Caravan tour and last night’s event was entertaining and about as enjoyable as any such event put on by a 100+ loss big league organization could be.

Kris Atteberry emcees the panel of Trevor May, Byron Buxton, Tommy Watkins, Thad Levine and Brian Dinkelman

The venue was one of several new aspects of this year’s Kernels Hot Stove event, the primary fundraiser for the organization’s charitable foundation.

Rather than using a large hotel ballroom to hold a sit-down dinner, the Kernels hosted a reception at the New Bo City Market, a showplace for a variety of local food merchants. All food, beer and wine available at the event was provided by New Bo vendors, giving the event a distinctively local flavor.

Broadcaster Kris Atteberry did a terrific job as the emcee for the Twins Caravan portion of the program, doling out opportunities to address the gathering to five members of the Twins organization gathered on stage. They included a pair of Twins players, pitcher Trevor May and outfielder Byron Buxton, newly announced Kernels manager Tommy Watkins, new Twins General Manager Thad Levine and Brian Dinkelman, who served as the Kernels hitting coach in 2016 and, while no official announcement has been made as yet, is presumed to be serving in that capacity this summer, as well.

In addition to responding to Atteberry’s prepared questions from the podium and answering questions from the crowd, the Caravan participants also were available for media interviews.

Here are a few highlights from one-on-one interviews, as well as the public portion of the program.

Early in January, the Twins and Kernels announced that Watkins, who served as the Kernels hitting coach, under former manager Jake Mauer, from 2013 through 2015 and in the same capacity for Class AA Chattanooga last season, will get his first opportunity as a minor league manager in 2017 when he takes the Kernels’ reins.

Watkins said that he and farm director Brad Steil had discussed the possibility of Watkins getting a managing opportunity for the past couple of years, but no such position had opened up until last year’s Fort Myers Miracle manager Jeff Smith got promoted to a coaching position with the Twins this offseason. Still, Watkins said, “I didn’t know if I would get it or not.”

Trevor May and Tommy Watkins react to Byron Buxton explaining how he “noodled” a catfish

Once the assignment was officially offered, Watkins was very happy to accept. “It was just like the news I got when I was going to the big leagues. I was happy, I was nervous, I was scared, I didn’t want to go. So it was a lot of things. I cried, I laughed, I called my family and told them. It was exciting news.”

Asked by Atteberry to tell the gathering what went into the front office’s decision to offer the job to Watkins, Levine led off with tongue firmly planted in cheek. “I’ve got to be honest with you, I have no idea how this came to pass. This is news to me. I’ll try to adjust on the fly.”

Levine then turned serious – and very complimentary toward the new Kernels manager.

“I think that one thing you guys always hear about is that we’re trying to develop players, there’s a development track. But I think the other thing that we’re trying to develop concurrently is staff members. Guys who have a chance, on the scouting side, to influence decision making and, on the coaching side, a chance to be Major League coaches.

“One of the things that I heard when I first joined the Minnesota Twins was about the man to my right, Tommy, and I think the universal feeling was that he had a chance to be a really good hitting coach, but he had the chance to be special as a manager. So when the opportunity presented itself to give him an opportunity to pursue his career as a manager, I think everybody in the organization really endorsed him because we felt as if that’s where he’s going to be a difference maker.

“We think he’s going to have a chance to be a Major League coach down the road. We think in the short term, he has a chance to really influence our minor league players, and as a manager we think his impact could be even greater than it was as a hitting coach.

“He’s a special man. He’s very charismatic. He knows the game of baseball. He’s still trying to learn every single day. Each time I’ve been around him, I feel as if I’ve gotten to know him a little bit better. This guy’s a very dynamic man. He’s going to be a leader in our organization for a long time to come and he’s just scratching the surface of his potential.”

TC Bear made the trip to Cedar Rapids with the rest of the Twins Caravan crew

Watkins said before the event that he’s looking forward to his return to the Kernels. “It feels good. I had a bunch of different emotions but I’m excited. It feels like I’ve been gone for a lot longer than just a year, but it’s good to be back. I enjoyed my time here and I’m looking forward to it.”

Asked by Atteberry to set the line on how many times Watkins will be ejected by umpires in 2017, Brian Dinkelman didn’t hesitate before saying. “I set it at 3 1/2.”

Buxton said he’s been feeling good since his hot finish to last season in September. “I’ve been hitting since late November, working on a few things and getting some stuff kinked out, but other than that, I feel great.

“I’m just focusing a little bit more on hitting, being a little bit more consistent, using my legs, staying down through the ball, keeping my head down. Just small things to help me out in the long run.”

He said he didn’t think there was any major change in his game that led to his strong finish to the 2016 season.

“Just stop thinking. Just run out there and play baseball. Have fun, going out there and have fun with teammates. We competed, September was different for everybody, not just including me. We went out there with a different mindset to finish the season strong and carry that over into spring training and this season.”

Looking back at his time in Cedar Rapids as a teenager barely out of high school, he said the dream of playing big league ball has turned out to be everything he hoped for, “and more.”

“Not many people are able to make it up there to the bigs, so I’m very blessed and thankful to get up there. Just being able to play beside Trevor when he’s up there pitching, not many people can say you’ve been in a big league uniform and you’ve been behind a pitcher like him that gives it his all and you’re right there giving it your all and trying to compete for a World Series ring.”

For his part, May also indicated he’s feeling good after having  some trouble staying healthy in 2016.

“I’m feeling good,” said May. “I had some patterns I needed to break. In the past, I’ve always thought four months was enough to heal from everything in the offseason. But I’ve come to the realization that breaking down a muscle and building it back up again to where you want it to work just takes time.”

He said even little things such as posture, while standing or sitting, have been items he’s focused on this offseason, with an emphasis on workouts that increase his flexibility, like Pilates and yoga, rather than weight training.

“I was doing a bunch of stuff that was just exacerbating the problem 24 hours a day. Changing all those things has been a lot of work, but I’m excited to just keep doing what I’m doing into the season.

“I threw a bullpen today. If I threw a bullpen when my back was tight back there, I would definitely feel some stiffness right now after I threw and I don’t feel stiff at all, so I’m just taking that as a really good sign.”

May wasn’t just trying new things in regard to his offseason workout regimen. While he did some DJing again this year, as he has in the past, he also expanded his horizons.

“I actually have a new hobby,” he explained. “I broadcast video games, which has been really fun. It’s like having your own radio show in which you talk and play video games. I really enjoy it. I’m going to try to do it once a month on an offday during the season. I’m going to host tournaments of games I play for viewers.”

Asked to evaluate the state of the Twins’ farm system, now that many of their previous top prospects have broken into the big leagues, new GM Levine said that the Twins front office doesn’t necessarily look at the organization strictly in terms of players that have exhausted their eligibility for Rookie of the Year awards and those that have not.

“I think we look at the farm system as an extension to the Major Leagues, so any guy in the Major Leagues who has two or fewer years of service is part of that next wave, that core,” he said. “So I think when you include those players with your minor league players, you can really see the waves of players coming.

“There’s a wave in the big leagues right now, there’s a wave right behind them, there’s a wave that will be playing at Cedar Rapids this year. I think we’re excited about the depth throughout our system, inclusive of the Major Leagues and I think if you include that young group in the Major Leagues all the way down, you could see that the future is very bright.

“For a team that has the payroll that we will have, you’re looking at having as many young players who can impact the game as possible and I think you’ve got to look at the guys who have matriculated to the big leagues when you’re factoring that.”

The subject of the relatively public flirtation with trading second baseman Brian Dozier came up both in the interview setting and during the public Question & Answer session.

Levine indicated that, while it certainly appears that Dozier will be opening the season with the Twins, he wouldn’t say the door was completely closed on the possibility of moving Dozier, or any other player for that matter.

“I don’t know that we would talk specifically about any one trade negotiation, but I think the way Derek (Falvey) and I are going to operate is that we’re not closing doors at any juncture. At that point, you are not doing your job to the fullest. Any time you close off opportunities to improve the team, I think you’re doing the franchise a disservice.”

Buxton and May did the autograph thing after the Twins Caravan program

During the public session, Levine was asked specifically what he expected Dozier’s future was with the Twins.

“I think we think his future is going to be glorious with the franchise,” he responded. “He’s been the consummate professional throughout this process. We always approached this from the mindset of, the best the Minnesota Twins could be would be with Brian Dozier. If someone wants to blow our socks off, we’ll consider talking about him. But for that fact, we see him as part of this franchise moving forward.”

Atteberry asked Levine to address the “stats vs scouting” issue that comes up in almost any conversation about thenew front office management. Again, the new GM mixed humor into his more thoughtful response.

“When the movie Moneyball came out, everybody who was below a certain age – at that time, I would say 35, now I would say 45, just conveniently (Levine celebrated his 45th birthday in November) – you were viewed to be more of a formulaic-based decision making group vs if you were older, you were more of a scouts guy. And I think it’s a bit of a misconception.

“Derek and I are both guys who are going to have analytics and scouting and player development factor into every decision that we make. We’re not going to focus singularly on any sort of formula to spit out a decision we’re going to make.

“The other big misconception I think about that movie is that anybody working in a front office looks at all like Brad Pitt. We really don’t. Honestly.

“So the movie did some disservices across the board, but I do think analytics plays a role in decision making, but that’s all it is. It’s a piece of the pie. It’s not something that is going to drive us to make any singular decision. It will be something we weigh in, we factor in, but it’s not going to drive our decision making.”

Also during the public session, Atteberry challenged Levine to demonstrate how much he knew about the two players he was sharing a stage with. Atteberry presented a few bits of trivia and asked Levine to guess which player, May or Buxton, the fact pertained to.

The questions were: Which player DJ’d at his own wedding? Which one of them has the highest vertical jump and is the fastest runner in his family (and which is not)? Which has successfully noodled a catfish? And which one has a mother that kept a mountain lion as a pet for four years?

The answers: May (obviously), Buxton is NOT the fastest runner or best jumper in his family (he said his dad jumps higher, his brother is faster and he has a 13-year old sister that may eventually pass them all), but Buxton did noodle a catfish. It was May’s mother who kept a mountain lion as a pet.

And Levine nailed every answer correctly.

Two members of the “Knuckleballs” table took home door prizes. A May & Buxton signed jersey and a Twins stocking cap

The final question from the audience asked Watkins and Buxton to relate the funniest thing that happened to them during their time with the Kernels.

Suffice to say that you won’t find Buxton playing baseball with ping pong balls in the clubhouse again any time soon and Watkins’ days of shaving his head are over.

Who’ll Stop the Rain?

What do you get from me when it’s three degrees outside and I have no desire to even look outside, much less go there, and I have nothing interesting to do inside? You get Creedence Clearwater Revival, that’s what you get.

Long as I remember the rain been comin’ down
Clouds of mystery pourin’ confusion on the ground.
Good men through the ages tryin’ to find the sun.
And I wonder still I wonder who’ll stop the rain.

I’ve been a Twins fan ever since the first day there were Minnesota Twins to be a fan of so, as far as the Twins’ history is concerned, I have quite literally seen it all.

There have been some good times.

Sandy Koufax broke my heart in 1965, but the Twins team that took Koufax and Don Drysdale seven games in that World Series will quite likely remain my favorite group of Twins forever.

The Championship teams of 1987 and 1991 were special, as well. And while they never quite lived up to our expectations, the teams of the 2000s were a lot of fun to watch. Many of those players were at least indirectly responsible for the Twins avoiding possible contraction. Without them, there might be no Minnesota Twins today.

Still, there’s probably no song lyric that could describe my feeling toward the Twins of the past decade-and-a-half than, “clouds of mystery pourin’ confusion on the ground.”

When the Twins used the first pick in the 2001 draft to select local high school catcher Joe Mauer, they were also celebrating the 10th Anniversary of their most recent trip the World Series.

The hope was that Mauer would join an evolving young group of players, including pitcher Brad Radke and the outfield’s “soul patrol” of Torii Hunter, Jacque Jones and Matt Lawton, to help Minnesota fans put the bitter memories of contraction, Kirby Puckett’s forced retirement and the general confusion that tainted the final years of manager Tom Kelly’s tenure behind them.

We almost took for granted that General Manager Terry Ryan and manager Ron Gardenhire would blend Mauer, along with the likes of Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer and Johan Santana, into a group that would ultimately bring new World Series memories to another generation of Twins fans.

I could never figure out why Gardenhire, Ryan and the players who were perennial American League Central champions so consistently fell short of the World Series, especially since, once you fall short a couple of times, you really should have a pretty solid idea of what you need to do to take that final step the next time.

Whatever the reasons, the job didn’t get done.

I went down Virginia seekin’ shelter from the storm
Caught up in the fable I watched the tower grow
Five year plans and new deals wrapped in golden chains.
And I wonder still I wonder who’ll stop the rain.

Despite the lack of postseason success, nobody wanted to totally break up the band.

One reason they couldn’t get over that hump, we were told, was that the Twins were stuck playing in an oversized pillow built for football. The Twins had a bad lease at the Metrodome and couldn’t fiscally afford to even keep their own top players, much less attract free agents from elsewhere.

The prospect of losing most, if not all, of the core players that seemed to have the club on the verge of bringing another World Series to the Twin Cities, was agonizingly familiar to fans of my generation.

We had, after all, lived through the Calvin Griffith era where, during the early years of free agency, Griffith would trade away any star player that even approached being moderately expensive to retain. The guy alienated and traded away Rod Carew, for crying out loud!

So, I was happy when, despite the questionable fiscal wisdom of public funding for sports venues, the good people of the Twin Cities (or at least a couple of influential politicians among the populace) built the Twins a beautiful new ballpark, ostensibly assuring that the club would be able to afford to retain the best of their home grown talent long enough to see them raise more World Series banners.

Suddenly, the Twins were swimming in new revenue. Certainly a World Series was just beyond the horizon.

Heard the singers playin’, how we cheered for more.
The crowd had rushed together tryin’ to keep warm.
Still the rain kept pourin’, fallin’ on my ears
And I wonder, still I wonder who’ll stop the rain.

Target field brought record attendance, but the fortunes of the Twins in the won-loss column did not improve. Quite the opposite, in fact.

That didn’t keep us from enjoying Target Field, of course, even during chilly, damp early-season games. We were finally watching baseball outdoors again – the way it was intended to be – and Mauer, Morneau and Cuddyer, joined for a while by former nemesis Jim Thome, gave us plenty of excitement in the first couple years of the new ballpark

Eventually, however, the promising “young” players got old and moved on, leaving only an aging Mauer to serve as a veteran presence in the clubhouse for the next generation.

Now, two years after Gardenhire was shown the door, Terry Ryan has followed him. As crowds at Target field have dwindled, the crowds of disenchanted fans with pitchforks calling for the heads of those in charge of the team grew in number and volume, ultimately (and understandably) costing both men their jobs.

The cheers heralding the arrival of the new Twins brass, Derek Falvey and Thad Levineis are impossible to miss. They seem like good choices to lead the Twins into the future. They have the pedigree teams are looking for – business and analytics backgrounds, along with some residual respect for old-school scouting.

David Laurila, over at Fangraphs, posted an interview he conducted with Falvey and Levine at the recent Winter Meetings in Washington and it’s hard, if not impossible, to argue with any of what they shared concerning their philosophies.

I like what I read and hear about both men and I’m putting a great deal of faith in them. I believe they will bring another World Series to Minnesota. I believe they will stop the rain. I have to believe that. I’ve only got a limited number of “rebuilds” left in me.

If Falvey and Levine fail, they’ll ultimately be replaced by some other combination of executives who will bring their unique talents and philosophies to the job. They’ll also get several years to rebuild the organization to suit those philosophies.

Maybe you can afford to wait through another long cycle of futility and rebuilding, but I may not have that option.

It has been 25 years since Jack Morris shut out the Braves to cap what was quite possibly the best World Series in history and, sure, I may be fortunate enough to have another 25 years to wait. Let’s be honest, though. The actuaries in your family wouldn’t allow you to bet much money on my chances. (By the way, if you have actuaries in your family, I’m really, really sorry. Just be thankful they aren’t lawyers.)

I felt the pouring rain Griffith allowed to fall on us through most of the 1970s and early 1980s, as well as the stale-aired rain that Carl Pohlad inexcusably allowed to permeate the Teflon roof of the Metrodome for a decade after the Twins’ last championship.

.Will Derek Falvey and Thad Levine finally stop the rain? I sure hope so… and I hope it’s soon.

RIP Yorman Landa

It’s always so sad to see a young, happy life taken away far too soon, but that was the news that greeted us this morning when we learned that Twins pitching prospect Yorman Landa had lost his life in an auto accident overnight.

Landa, who pitched for the Cedar Rapids Kernels during parts of the 2014 and 2015 season, was reportedly a passenger in a car driven by his father on a rainy night in Venezuela when the vehicle collided with a fallen tree on a dark stretch of road.

Landa didn’t speak much English during his time in Cedar Rapids, but he was quick with a smile and, as borne out by the abundance of social media messages from teammates, managers and coaches, he was beloved in the clubhouse.

Click here for the Star Tribune story.

Please remember his family, friends, teammates and coaches in your prayers.

Rest in Peace, Yorman.

Yorman Landa 1994-2016 (Photo: Cedar Rapids Kernels)