GameChat – Mariners @ Twins, 7:10

I have to be honest, I’m not sure I could name 5 guys on the Mariners’ roster this year without looking at their posted line up.

Fortunately, I have that line up right here.

Seattle @ Minnesota
Jones, J, CF Dozier, 2B
Saunders, M, RF Mauer, 1B
Cano, 2B Plouffe, 3B
Hart, DH Parmelee, RF
Smoak, 1B Suzuki, K, C
Seager, 3B Kubel, LF
Ackley, LF Pinto, DH
Zunino, C Hicks, CF
Miller, B, SS Escobar, E, SS
  Young, Cr, P   Gibson, P
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
Seattle 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 3 0 4 9 1
Minnesota 0 0 2 1 1 1 0 0 x 5 12 0

I didn’t get to listen to a lot of the game, but it sure seemed like a good, solid team effort.

Kyle Gibson worked a very nice seven innings. Glen Perkins closed with a nicely un-dramatic ninth inning.

Six different hitters had doubles, two had home runs. One guy, Brian Dozier, had one of each so he gets our BOD award. – JC

Brian Dozier

Brian Dozier

When baseball gods get angry

Everyone who has ever played the game knows you simply do not anger the baseball gods.

The baseball gods are a vengeful lot. Any kind of slight, whether real or perceived, can cause them to rain down bad karma on players, coaches, teams and even, apparently, entire organizations.

Someone in the Minnesota Twins organization must have really ticked off those baseball gods back during spring training, because the Twins have had one calamity after another since March. That’s when arguably the top power-hitting prospect in the game, Miguel Sano, was lost for the season with a torn ulnar collateral ligament (UCL), requiring Tommy John surgery.

A couple of weeks later, the consensus top minor league prospect in baseball, Byron Buxton, injured his wrist in the outfield on one of the back fields of the Twins’ training complex in Fort Myers FL. In fact, the baseball gods must really have it in for Buxton because just days after he was activated by Fort Myers, they zapped his wrist again, sending him back to the DL.

The Twins have had so many injuries at the Major League level that they’ve routinely been sending out career infielders like Eduardo Escobar to play in the outfield over the past week. The Twins currently have four players on a Disabled List of one kind or another. Others, including $23 million a year man Joe Mauer, have missed stretches of games with injuries despite avoiding a trip to the DL.

However, the wrath of the baseball gods has perhaps been visited hardest upon the Twins’ Class A Midwest League affiliate, the Cedar Rapids Kernels.

Randy Rosario

Randy Rosario – on the DL

Cedar Rapids’ uniforms don’t have players names sewn on the back of their jerseys above the number. That’s probably a good thing this season, because the club may have needed to retain a seamstress full time just to keep up with the roster changes already during 2014.

Roster turnover is not unusual in the minor leagues, of course. Players are promoted, demoted and even released at various points during the season, making it not at all unusual to see close to 50 different players take the field in a Kernels uniform at some point during the summer. A year ago, 49 different players (including Twins pitcher Mike Pelfrey on an injury rehabilitation assignment) put in time with the Kernels.

But this year’s Cedar Rapids club is getting an unwelcome jump on the roster musical chairs game.

Jeremias Pineda

Jeremias Pineda – on the DL

On Tuesday, less than six weeks in to the new season, pitcher Jared Wilson became the 34th player to wear a Kernels uniform this year.

Before the end of the first game of the Kernels’ doubleheader Tuesday night, shortstop Engelb Vielma had been pulled from the game after coming up lame as he left the batters box in the second inning and center fielder Jason Kanzler had been injured on a collision in the outfield.

(UPDATE: After the 2nd game, Kernels manager Jake Mauer confirmed Vielma injured his hamstring and Kanzler likely has a concussion. Mauer said he expects both players to be placed on the Disabled List and hopes to have replacements up from extended spring training in time for Wednesday night’s doubleheader.)

Of the 25 players who arrived in Cedar Rapids from spring training to start the current campaign, pitcher Brandon Peterson has earned a promotion to Class high-A Fort Myers, pitcher Miguel Sulbaran has been traded, pitcher Christian Powell has been released and seven original 2014 Kernels have spent some time on the club’s Disabled List. If Vielma’s name is added to that list, he would be the eighth.

Centerfielder Zack Granite was hitting .313 for the Kernels just four games in to the season when the baseball gods struck him down with a rotator cuff strain.

Zack Larson

Zack Larson – on the DL

About ten days later, catcher Michael Quesada fell to a right wrist contusion.

Less than a week after Quesada was felled, outfielder Jeremias Pineda broke his wrist and pitcher Randy Rosario hit the Disabled List with a left flexor mass strain.

The game’s mystic guardians finally looked in other directions for almost two weeks before returning their attention to the Kernels with a vengeance and sidelining infielders Tanner Vavra (right ankle sprain) and Logan Wade (dislocated left shoulder), as well as outfielder Zack Larson (right hamstring strain) all during the first ten days of May.

That’s an average of better than one player a week that manager Jake Mauer and his coaching staff have had to replace due to injury.

Logan Wade

Logan Wade – on the DL

So far, the nine players added to the Kernels’ roster as replacements from extended spring training have managed to avoid the DL, though Kanzler would break that string if he lands on the DL following his injury Tuesday. One replacement, Jonatan Hinojosa, was with the team only long enough to play in one game before finding himself suspended by Major League Baseball for having tested positive for a PED.

Michael Quesada

Michael Quesada – back from the DL

Twins farm director Brad Steil must cringe every time his phone rings and he sees Jake Mauer’s name on the caller ID.

Perhaps remarkably, Mauer has patched together line ups that have managed to win more games than they’ve lost. In fact, with five weeks left in the Midwest League’s first-half race, the Kernels are right in the thick of the race for second place in the league’s Western Division and the automatic postseason spot that would come with it.

The Kernels struggled through a tough six-game road trip during which they won just two of six games and they play just seven of their next 17 games at home, but both Quesada and Vavra have returned from their injuries.

Even Quesada’s return, however, poses a peculiar challenge for his manager. The Kernels’ current active roster includes 13 pitchers and 12 position players, four of which are catchers. Of course, at this level, it’s not unusual for catchers to play some first base. Which is good, because the Kernels’ regular first baseman of late, Chad Christensen, is likely going to be needed in the outfield.

The arrival of JD Williams from extended spring training, where he’d been recovering from his own spring training injury (a broken thumb) has certainly provided a spark at the top of the Cedar Rapids batting order.

Tanner Vavra

Tanner Vavra – back from the DL

After Monday night’s doubleheader against Peoria was washed out, the Kernels were scheduled to play back-to-back doubleheaders against the Chiefs Tuesday and Wednesday.

Going in to Tuesday night’s games, Peoria sat in second place in the MWL West, just a half game ahead of Cedar Rapids. There were four more teams, however, bunched tightly together behind the Kernels and all of them have their eyes on the second Western Division postseason spot.

- JC

(All photos: JC/Knuckleballs)

GameChat – Twins @ Tigers #3, 12:08

Happy Mothers’ Day to all you moms out there!

mothersdaybaseballSam Deduno takes the mound for today’s rubber contest against the Tigers. Joe Mauer reportedly showed up today saying his back felt pretty good, so he’s at least back in the lineup for the second consecutive day at DH.

I won’t be around for the game today. I’ll be spending the day with my mom and family having dinner at a casino :)

Let’s hope Deduno makes it a terrific Mothers Day for Twins fans.

Go Twins!

Minnesota @ Detroit
Dozier, 2B Kinsler, 2B
Mauer, DH Hunter, To, RF
Plouffe, 3B Cabrera, M, 1B
Colabello, 1B Martinez, V, DH
Pinto, C Kelly, D, 3B
Nunez, LF Jackson, A, CF
Parmelee, RF Avila, C
Hicks, CF Romine, A, SS
Escobar, E, SS Davis, R, LF
  Deduno, P   Ray, R, P
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
Minnesota 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 3 0 4 10 1
Detroit 1 0 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 3 7 1

I missed the entire game, so I have nothing but the box score to go on here, as far as naming a BOD.

Sam Deduno appears to have had a decent enough start. That’s great to see.

The two Eduardos, Nunez and Escobar, each had a couple of hits.

But I’m going to go with Josmil PInto as BOD for his two hits, two runs scored and a RBI.

Pinto2014ST5

Josmil PInto (photo: JC/Knuckleballs)

‘ZONING’ With Kernels Pitching Coach Ivan Arteaga

Ivan Arteaga is in his first year serving as the Cedar Rapids Kernels pitching coach, but he’s far from being a rookie when it comes to working with young pitchers in the Twins organization.

After bouncing around the minor leagues for much of the 1990s with the Expos,  Rockies and Mets organizations, the Venezuela native began coaching young pitchers for the Twins organization in 2001 and he’s been helping to develop the organization’s young arms ever since.

Arteaga spent several years as the pitching coordinator for the Twins’ Venezuelan Academy and coached at both Rookie League levels before serving as the pitching coach for the Class high-A Fort Myers Miracle a year ago. This season, he and Gary Lucas (the 2013 Kernels pitching coach) traded assignments, bringing Arteaga to Cedar Rapids.

Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and manager Jake Mauer share a light moment while watching a pair of Kernels pitchers work out. (Photo: JC/Knuckleballsblog.com)

Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and manager Jake Mauer share a light moment while watching a pair of Kernels pitchers work out. (Photo: JC/Knuckleballsblog.com)

Several hours before game time, you can find Arteaga, often sporting a shirt with the word “ZONING” across the back, working with his pitchers in the Kernels bullpen down the right field line at Veterans Memorial Stadium.

Recently, he agreed to sit down and talk about his work with the Kernels and the Twins organization.

First things first. What’s with the ZONING shirt?

“We’re trying to implement, as an organization, visualization, focus, concentration – actually throwing the ball to one spot without thinking how to throw the ball,” Arteaga answered.

The secret to doing that, according to the coach, is visualization.

“First, you know what you throw in certain situations and you know where you want to throw it, right? That should be how we pitch. Knowing your strengths and your weaknesses and how to apply that to the hitters’ tendencies.

Ivan Arteaga

Ivan Arteaga

“So zoning is basically, we’ve been working for the last couple of years on having the pitchers visualize the pitch before they throw it. OK I have an 0-0 count, I want to throw a breaking ball, I don’t want to throw it down in the dirt, I want to throw it for a strike. So I’ll visualize the pitch how I want to throw it.”

Arteaga was quick to point out, however, that it’s not a cookie-cutter approach to teaching pitching.

“Everybody’s doing it for the most part, (but) everybody has his own way of doing it. Getting in to the process of thinking about pitching, and throwing the ball; not thinking about the process of ‘how do I throw the ball? My mechanics are off, or this or that.’ You throw the way you throw and it’s kind of hard for us to change that.”

It’s not that pitchers don’t need to work on mechanics, of course, but those thoughts are ideally confined to the bullpen workout sessions. Pitchers can’t afford to be thinking about that kind of thing on the mound during games.

“You shouldn’t and if you’re doing that, then something’s wrong,” confirmed Arteaga.

While he’s an advocate for the Zoning philosophy, Arteaga doesn’t believe that simply subscribing to the approach will assure a young pitcher’s success.

“I don’t think that success will be dictated by the Zoning or by how you run or by how you lift or if you sleep enough or how heavy you are or how skinny you are,” said the coach.

“Success is a combination of all those factors, plus talent. Success is how you put together the whole package. Mental toughness and talent all together and you apply that in to the game.”

Arteaga has been entrusted this season with a number of the Twins organization’s top pitching prospects. Some were high draft choices, others highly coveted international signings, but the coach sees similarities in what each of the pitchers on his staff must overcome.

“Facing adversity,” Arteaga said. “Because that’s the main thing. The game is full of adversity. I’ve seen guys with a lot of talent, but they cannot get people out. And I’ve seen guys with lesser talent that are just great, because they’re mentally tough and they know how to apply their talent to the game and to the hitters’ tendencies.

“So, to say that the guys that are pitching well are doing the Zoning and the guys that are not are not doing it, I don’t think that would be very smart on my part. I think that everybody’s doing it, it’s just that this is a level where everybody’s so young and so inexperienced. There’s a lot of things they’re working on at the same time. Holding runners. Getting in a routine. Playing every day. Some of these guys just worked on Saturdays or Fridays. Now they come to the ballpark every day.”

While subscribing to the Zoning philosophy, in itself, won’t assure success, Arteaga believes there is one thing that a pitcher must develop.

“As a pitching coach, if I have to pinpoint to one thing that is going to make these guys succeed throughout the year, it’s mental toughness. Mental toughness is part of the Zoning. Mental toughness is part of who you are as a pitcher when adversity strikes. Adversity could be having a cold, you’re sick. Maybe homesick. That’s adversity. It’s just the way it is.”

It’s hard sometimes to imagine that such things can enter in to the mind of a professional ballplayer when he’s on the mound during a game but, said Arteaga, “It’ll be there. But how do you set your priorities straight, being able to put all that aside and go and perform?”

One thing you hear a lot about with pitchers spending their first year or two as professionals is that organizations try to limit the number of different pitches they work on in a given season. A pitcher who threw a variety of pitches in high school or college sometimes seems to focus on just a fastball and one variety of off-speed pitch early in his professional career.

Do the Twins or Arteaga take that approach with the Kernels’ pitchers?

There’s no one answer to that question, according to the coach. “Always depends on the player, always.”

Arteaga also doesn’t believe there’s a single right approach.

“If I tell you that there’s a philosophy out there that is successful, everybody would be doing it,” Arteaga said with a laugh.

“So everybody’s different and as a coach you have to fluctuate, not only man to man, player to player, but day by day. There are some days that will be cold, some days will be rainy. You have to learn to adjust to that and as a coach you have to let the guys pitch and learn.

“There are some days that the change up might not be there or the breaking balls won’t be there or they’re very good in the bullpen, but not so good on the mound. Or you see that they’ve had a bad week, headaches or something. And the day of the game, everything goes away and they have a great game.

“So this is baseball. There’s nothing set in stone. There’s nothing for you to do every day and you’re going to be successful. There’s no guidelines for that.”

Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and pitcher Aaron Slegers (photo: JC/Knuckleballsblog.com)

Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and pitcher Aaron Slegers (photo: JC/Knuckleballsblog.com)

For Arteaga, that means treating every player as an individual.

“As a coach, I’ve got to adjust to every single one of them and understand what they do and how they do it and how they can be successful by doing that.

“Now, yeah, we want to establish the fastball in and out, throw the ball down. We want them to have at least ten per cent change ups every day they throw, the starters, and about 15 per cent the sliders or curve. That’s what we do.

“It’s a very simple philosophy. Attack the hitters. Be athletic around the mound. Pitch inside. Throw the ball down and attack. Attack.”

Treating each player as an individual must be a challenge, given the widely varying backgrounds that pitchers at the Class A level have. Some were still pitching for their high schools a year ago, some were in college and some have been working their way up through a couple of years of short-season rookie leagues within the Twins organization.

Arteaga believes it’s important for him to demonstrate consistency in his approach, even as he works with players individually.

“Number one, I am the coach so I try to be the same every day, regardless of the score or regardless of what happened. I won’t panic. I won’t get too high or too low. If they see that in me, they understand that I am under control. I’m fine with what they’re doing.

“Now, if I pay enough attention, they will tell me what they need. Once I pay attention, and I get to know them and they get to know me, we establish a relationship. Then I can treat everybody in a different way.

“For the most part, yes, you have a standard. That’s who I am. I’m not going to be different to you than I’m going to be to them. That’s who I am.”

The individual approach enters during individual instruction, according to Arteaga.

“Now, how do I teach you? How do I approach the teaching part of it? That is different. You have different needs as a lefty than as a righty. Different needs as a starter than as a reliever. Different needs as a long reliever than as a closer. So, yes, I have to adjust to each and every one of them.”

Since Arteaga was working at the next level up in the organization, with the Miracle in Fort Myers, a year ago, he hadn’t had an opportunity to work much with this year’s crop of Kernels pitchers prior to spring training this year. That means they’ve had just a couple of months to get to know each other. Has that been enough time to establish those individual relationships?

“Yes, it’s all about paying attention. It’s all about spending the time with them. When you’re on the road, this is your family. You’re spending 14 hours on a bus ride in this class. You get to know them a little bit.

“I believe that they know me well. They know how I’m going to act and react and what I like and not only me, as a coach, but what the Twins want. I’m basically an extension of what the Twins philosophy is. Twins first, then yes, as a person, you put out your knowledge and experience and what you are and you try to teach them the way you teach.”

The speculation in the media and among others who follow the Twins minor leagues has been that the Twins had Arteaga and Lucas swap coaching assignments this season because the Twins knew they’d have a number of significant Latin American prospects on the Kernels’ staff and they may find  it helpful from a communication standpoint to have a Spanish-speaking pitching coach.

Arteaga isn’t certain that was really a significant factor, however.

“I don’t know if that’s the case,” observed Arteaga, concerning such speculation. “I guess that it’s got something to do with it. Obviously, the communication factor is important.

“Yeah, I think that helps, but at the same time, I think I have one half (of the pitching staff) that were born in the United States. They’re college guys, some of them are very good prospects. So I have to be able to teach baseball.

“Personally, I think that I can communicate with anyone. I’ve worked on my English for a long time and keep working on it. I prepare myself all the time to be able to communicate in both languages. Not only in baseball terms, but in life. Understand the culture, understand how Americans go about their everyday lives. I’ve spent half of my life learning that, because I was here, playing and coaching.”

Speaking of top prospects, his Kernels staff has a lot of them. Does he feel any additional pressure to make sure all of the high-priced pitching talent with the Kernels this summer progresses the way the Twins want?

“I feel motivation. I have a plan every day and I do my best every day so they can get better. I’m not pitching anymore, so I don’t have stress or sense of urgency because I do everything that I can every day to teach these guys how the game is, the game that we want them to pitch, the Minnesota Twins. So I have my own plan that I have learned over the last 14 years with the Twins.

“So to have guys, regardless of how much talent they have, to be able to coach them every day, that’s my motivation. If not, I wouldn’t be here. That’s what moves me every day, to have the motivation to teach somebody and to actually help them with the game and with life.”

Certainly, a coach like Arteaga must get a sense of satisfaction from seeing his pitchers succeed, though.

“You do,” Arteaga confirmed. Yet it isn’t just seeing pitchers advance through the ranks that gives him satisfaction.

“I think I get most satisfied when we make eye contact, regardless of the situation, that’s the best communication you can have with a human being.”

“I can talk to you all day,” Arteaga continued, “but when you’re pitching and I’m coaching and you pitch a good inning or a bad inning or a bad at-bat or something, and you walk in to the dugout or I go to the mound and there’s eye contact, you should know what is what and how I feel. That’s the relationship thing you create with the player, regardless of whether he’s going to be here for one day or ten days or 25 years. Because you care.”

Ivan Arteaga having a between-innings chat with Aaron Slegers (photo: JC/Knuckleballs)

Ivan Arteaga having a between-innings chat with Aaron Slegers (photo: JC/Knuckleballs)

Arteaga understands that’s not an aspect of the game that many outsiders can appreciate.

“People don’t see that. Fans don’t see that. Journalists don’t see that. TV cameras don’t see that. TV cameras will look at emotions and what is exciting for everybody. But as a coach when, for whatever reason, your team gave up 14 runs that night, then you make eye contact and you’re able to assure those guys, ‘you know what, it’s okay, it’s going to be fine, we’ll work on it.’”

The night before Arteaga sat for the interview, two Kernels pitchers had been victimized for a combined 12 runs. Can he communicate that kind of assurance to those guys after that kind of night?

“Of course, because that’s baseball, It’s every day,” assured Arteaga.

“Because what if I overreact last night and I tell them that they’re not good enough? Maybe because I don’t feel well. That’s me, but it’s not about me. It’s about them. So what if I overreact and I tell them they’re not good? The next thing you know, I’ve lost all that the staff had for me because I overreacted. So maybe apologizing might not be enough after that.

“So, I’m with them every pitch. Yeah, we lost a game, fine. Then today is a different day and make no mistake, these guys are going to work today to get better so they can pitch well tomorrow. It’s a 142 game season.”

Through the first week or so of May, Arteaga’s work with the Kernels is beginning to pay off. Two Kernels starters (Aaron Slegers and Kohl Stewart) are among the top 10 Midwest League pitchers in WHIP, two (Slegers and Ryan Eades) are in the top 10 in strikeouts and two more among the top 10 in saves (Hudson Boyd and the recently promoted Brandon Peterson). Nine Kernels pitchers have ERAs of 3.00 or below.

Aaron Slegers: Standing Tall for the Kernels

The Cedar Rapids Kernels brought a highly heralded group of pitchers north out of spring training. The opening day pitching staff was littered with highly rated prospects obtained with high draft picks and big-money international free agency signings.

Even among top prospects, however, you’re never sure what kind of start you’ll get in a Midwest League season. Some of these pitchers are still teenagers. Some are a long way away from home for the first time. Some have seldom, if ever, pitched in front of a sizable crowd. Some have never experienced the kind of bone-chilling spring weather that is commonplace in Cedar Rapids and other MWL locations.

Any of those factors can cause a pitcher to get off to a slow start, but if you can find a guy who’s already spent a few years away from home, matured as a pitcher, pitched in high-pressure situations and is no stranger to cold weather, he just might have a chance to impress early.

But where could you possibly find such a pitcher? Maybe a guy whose spent the last three years away from home at college, pitching in front of big crowds in big games, regularly played in cold weather, during his college years.

Meet Kernels starting pitcher Aaron Slegers.

Aaron Slegers

Aaron Slegers (photo: JC/Knuckleballs)

The 21 year-old Slegers, who was selected by the Minnesota Twins in the fifth round of the 2013 Major League June Amateur Draft out of the University of Indiana, is 3-0 for the Kernels and carries a 2.52 ERA after six starts. He’s struck out 33 batters in 35.2 innings, while walking just six.

Slegers threw seven shutout innings on Saturday night against the Peoria Chiefs and sat down for an interview the following morning.

Slegers is mature and converses his way through an interview easily, despite the fact that he must know, by now, that the first question every interviewer is going to start with will be about his height. At 6′ 10”, it’s impossible to overlook the obvious.

Aaron Slegers

Aaron Slegers (photo: JC/Knuckleballs)

As he told a group of Kernels boosters at the club’s welcome dinner the day before the season started, he’s not even the tallest member of his family.

“My dad’s seven feet tall,” he said on Sunday, just as he told the gathering a month ago.

So there was never much doubt that the pitcher would be long in the frame.

“Yeah, there’s a funny story about that,” offered Slegers. “In the Big Ten Tournament at Target Field, my mom was interviewed by the Big Ten Network and the sideline reporter asked her, ‘when did you know Aaron was going to be so tall?’ She thought to herself, ‘I guess when I married a seven foot guy.’ I don’t think she said that to the reporter, though.”

Too bad. It’s the kind of line reporters love.

He also has an older sister, in New York City. “She’s about six foot, 6’ 1”. She played volleyball in college,” said Slegers.

Height can be an advantage for a pitcher, but it can also come with certain challenges, including additional levels of stress and strain on important joints.

Slegers fought through a number of injuries in college, but he doesn’t feel they were related to his height.

“The injuries were kind of freak, they weren’t really related to growing or anything,” Slegers explained. “I took a line drive my freshman year in an intrasquad the first week of the season. The first pitch I threw to our starting shortstop that year was a fastball right down the middle and he hit it right back at me off my throwing wrist. That broke my wrist and I was out for the year on a medical redshirt.

“The next year, was a little more my fault, but I showed up a minute late for the bus that was leaving the hotel for the field and the punishment for that was running the entire batting practice. Because of that, I got shinsplints in my right shin. It hurt to walk and, again, out for the year after seven innings my sophomore year.

“It was a tough little stretch there when I was in Indiana the first couple of years. It was a tough go on the injuries.”

Things got better before he left Bloomington, however.Slegers and his Indiana teammates made it all the way to the College World Series in Omaha last year. Slegers threw a complete game in his final appearance as a Hoosier, but lost to Oregon State 1-0.

Despite the way it ended, the trip made all of the early challenges at Indiana worthwhile.

“A hundred percent, exactly right,” Slegers agreed, smiling. “The College World Series makes everything OK.”

The sight of a 6′ 10” pitcher on the mound brings to mind memories of Randy Johnson, the certain future Hall of Fame pitcher who’s fastball periodically clocked in excess of 100 miles per hour.

But that’s not Slegers’ style. His fastball regularly sits in the low 90s, which is good, but not considered overpowering.

The big righthander isn’t concerned about his velocity, however.

“Velocity’s always nice, but that’s sort of something that comes secondary,” explained Slegers.

The primary thing, according to Slegers, is getting the preparation work done and preparing to compete.

Aaron Slegers having a between-innings conversation with pitching coach Ivan Arteaga

Aaron Slegers having a between-innings conversation with pitching coach Ivan Arteaga (photo: JC/Knuckleballs)

“Working in the bullpen, working on your mechanics, long-toss. When you go out and compete, you’re doing exactly that. Going out and competing, trying to repeat (the delivery) and throw strikes and throw all your pitches for strikes. Velocity’s just sort of one of those things that happens.”

So you won’t see Slegers turning around to check his pitch speed on the Kernels’ video board after every pitch.

“That’s something they’re trying to steer us away from,” Slegers agreed, smiling.

Slegers saw a lot of success in college, but he realizes he’s working at a new level now and that requires work to improve, even if he’s not focused on adding velocity to his fastball right now.

“I’m throwing my slider and change up more since I got in pro ball; trying to keep the hitters off balance. You can’t just keep pumping in fastballs over and over. They’re pretty good at learning those pitches. I’m kind of moving the baseball more than in college.”

One thing Slegers hasn’t had to do is adjust to pitching in cold Midwestern weather. His time pitching in the Big Ten assured he’d be prepared for that aspect of his first full season of professional ball.

“Oh yeah, oh yeah,” said a smiling Slegers. “We would go down south the whole month of February, but when we’d come up to school, if it was above 35, we were out on the field practicing and trying to hit BP So, yeah, I’m more than accustomed to it. And those late March home games will toughen you up in a hurry, in terms of the weather.”

Being accustomed to cold weather doesn’t mean he spends any more time in it than he has to, however.

Slegers may have gone to school in Indiana, but he and his family live in Arizona and that’s where he spends his offseason.

Slegers stays active both in the offseason and, to the degree possible, during off days during the season.

“I like to fish and golf, primarily,” Slegers said, concerning his off-the-field interests. “I like to golf as much as possible. In terms of exercising, I like cycling, road biking. That always takes up my time when I want a good cardio workout. It’s kind of unusual for a guy my size to ride a road bike, but mostly golf and fishing are my relaxing offday hobbies.”

- JC

GameChat – Dodgers @ Twins #1, 7:10

It sounds like it may be a pretty damp evening at Target Field and it will be interesting to see how many fans show up, given the weather. I guess there’s some kind of hockey game on TV that a few Minnesotans are interested in later tonight, too.

Kris Johnson, who was acquired from the Pirates in a round-about way for Justin Morneau (more accurately for a guy the Twins got for Morneau but decided they didn’t want so much, after all), has been promoted to be their allowed “26th player” for tomorrow’s scheduled doubleheader with the Dodgers. Johnson’s scheduled Rochester start earlier this week was rained out so he’s rested and got the call to pitch game 2 Thursday.

I’m sure MLB will do whatever it can to get tonight’s game in, since rescheduling later in the year would be a major league pain in the butt. But if the Twins want to win tonight, I strongly suggest they get an early lead and hang on because I could see this game ending as soon as the requisite innings have been played to make the game official. It won’t be easy, though, since they’re facing former Royal Zack Greinke, who hasn’t given up more than 2 runs in a start in something just short of forever.

So, tonight we welcome back former Twin Drew Butera, who will be catching Greinke for the Dodgers.

Los Angeles
@ Minnesota
Gordon, D, 2B Dozier, 2B
Puig, RF Mauer, 1B
Ramirez, H, SS Plouffe, 3B
Gonzalez, Ad, 1B Colabello, RF
JKemp, CF Kubel, LF
Ethier, DH Pinto, DH
Uribe, 3B Suzuki, K, C
Butera, C Fuld, CF
Crawford, C, LF Escobar, E, SS
  Greinke, P   Gibson, P
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
LA Dodgers 0 0 2 0 0 0 3 1 0 6 12 0
Minnesota 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 3 4 12 1

The good news is the Twins scored the first run of the game and the last three runs of the game. The bad news is the Dodgers racked up six runs in between.

The Twins managed just one run off Greinke and while Gibson’s night was arguably not as bad as his final stat line looks, it still wasn’t good enough.
iopj

Meeting the Kernels: Tanner Vavra and Zack Larson

Heading in to the 2014 season, everyone pretty much had expectations in check with regard to the Cedar Rapids Kernels. The team’s fortunes would likely turn on the performance of a staff of young, highly heralded pitching prospects. The offense, meanwhile, could very well struggle to score enough runs to keep the Minnesota Twins’ Midwest League affiliate competitive.

As they near the end of the first month of the season, however, the Kernels are two games above .500 with a 13-11 record and the hitting is at least as responsible for that success as the pitching staff is.

Infielder Tanner Vavra and outfielder Zack Larson are just two of the Cedar Rapids players making major contributions with their bats. Before Tuesday night’s game with Kane County, Vavra and Larson talked about their season thus far.

Zack Larson and Tanner Vavra

Zack Larson and Tanner Vavra

Vavra, the son of Twins coach Joe Vavra, spent a few days recently at the very top of the Midwest League’s leader board in batting average and still leads his team with a .344 average. He’s also reaching base at a .391 rate and carries an .829 OPS through Tuesday’s games.

While most fans may not have expected that kind of production out of Vavra, neither he nor his manager seem terribly surprised, either.

“He’s a guy that really obviously has been around the game his whole life, with his dad being a professional baseball guy,” said Jake Mauer of his second baseman. “He’s got a lot of baseball instincts. He knows himself as a player. He knows what he needs to do and he plays to his strengths. He’s a guy that puts together good at-bats. He makes the routine plays. He’s definitely earned his playing time.”

“I’m just trying to put good swings on (the ball) and help the team win,” said Vavra of his hot start to the season. “I’m just trying to stay with the same approach and kind of just get my pitch and get on base for guys like Larson here to drive me in.”

Meanwhile, Larson’s also got a pretty impressive early-season slash line, as well with a .307 batting average, a .351 on-base percentage and an .806 OPS. That’s not a bad start for a 20 year-old in his first year with a full-season affiliate.

“He’s really come on for a younger guy and made some adjustments.” his manager said of Larson. “He was having a little hard time with offspeed pitches, but that’s not the case any more. He’s doing a nice job out in right field. He’s going to hit in the middle of our order and he’s getting even better in the outfield and that’s pretty encouraging to see.”

Larson’s just as humble as Vavra when asked about his contributions, too.

“Like Tanner, I’m just trying to put good swings on it,” said Larson. “That’s my main focus, put a good swing on the ball and hopefully good things happen.”

Both hitters have been particularly productive at the plate with team mates on the bases. In fact, both Vavra and Larson are hitting at a .400 clip with runners on base.

Neither man claims they do anything special in those situations, though.

“I don’t like to get out, so I try to take the same approach with runners on or runners not.” said Vavra, laughing.

Added Larson, “Just barrel it up and put a good swing on it. I try to do that every at-bat; stay focused.”

The two team mates may be making similar contributions to their team’s cause this season, but they come at their tasks from very different backgrounds.

Zack Larson

Zack Larson

Larson was drafted by the Twins in the 20th round of the 2012 First Year Player Draft out of his Bradenton, Florida high school.

A 24 year-old from Wisconsin, Vavra played college ball at Valparaiso University before being drafted by the Twins in the 30th round of last June’s draft.

A year ago, top Twins prospects Jorge Polanco and Adam Brett Walker were manning the positions that Vavra and Larson are holding down this season. Both guys just smile when asked about trying to live up to the offensive legacy of last year’s Kernels.

“I think we all knew it was going to be tough to follow in the footsteps of the team from last year and we were never trying to do that,” said Vavra. “We’re never trying to live up to what they did last year, because, let’s face it, that’s pretty special what everybody got to see with the number 1 prospect in all of baseball playing (in Cedar Rapids).”

“With that being said, our goal is still the same,” Vavra added, “to get to the playoffs and put good seasons together individually and have a great team season. Hopefully take it one step farther and get that ring.”

And maybe do enough to get a promotion to the next level in the organization?

“Everyone wants that,” acknowledged Larson, “but you can’t control that. You can only control what you do. Can’t worry about that.”

Larson shares the Midwest League lead with 10 doubles already this season, just one shy of his total two-baggers during his 55 games a year ago at both rookie league levels combined. Then again, he had five home runs last season and has just one as a Kernel.

But don’t expect Larson to feel disappointed with his results so far.

“I’m not disappointed at all,” Larson explained. “I’m not worried about hitting home runs. I’m just worried about helping the team win and putting good swings on the ball and if I hit a home run, it’s cool. Whatever I can do to help the team.”

“He’s young.” chimed in Vavra, about his team mate. “He’s still got a lot of manpower to come his way. This is his first full season. You never know, he might catch hot in July once the weather warms up and you’re going to see big things out of him.”

Tanner Vavra

Tanner Vavra

Vavra’s complete story can’t be told without mentioning that he’s blind in his right eye, the result of a fishing accident at age three and a subsequent injury suffered playing football several years later.

His ability to play baseball at a professional level with that limitation inevitably comes up during interviews. That could give a player a bit of a chip on his shoulder, but Vavra said questions about his eyesight don’t bother him much anymore.

“It’s kind of came and gone. That used to be the biggest concern.” said Vavra. “People doubted me.”

“It irritated me for a while and it’s still a little chip,” Vavra continued, “but I’m just trying trying to get rid of the whole, ‘You’re here because of your dad,’ type deal.”

“I haven’t gotten anything like that from the players, they’ve all been great. I haven’t heard that once. It’s from bloggers and those people that somehow send a letter to your house and tell you that you don’t belong. That’s my chip right now. The eye thing is always going to be there, but that’s my new chip.”

While it’s understandable that Vavra would be sensitive to suggestions that he hasn’t earned his place in pro ball, having a father in the game has its benefits.

“This offseason, I got to work with him for 5-6 months. That’s incredible. Going from usually working with him for three or four weeks over Christmas break to five months. It was definitely helpful.”

While Vavra was spending his offseason working out indoors in Wisconsin with his dad, Larson was wintering in a much warmer climate.

“Down in Bradenton, I give lessons at an indoor batting facility and my hitting coach is also there,” said Larson, of his offseason. “I hit with him and work out, try to get in the best shape I can before the season starts. Every day, hitting cage, doing something with baseball.”

Larson arguably seemed to have an edge on non-baseball related activities.

“I go to the beach. Beach is a big thing in Florida,” said Larson. “Just hang out with my friends. I don’t see them that often. They’re in college when I’m back at home.”

Vavra, on the other hand, “did a lot of hunting and fishing. Different fishing though, dropping a line through the ice.”

The look on Larson’s face, hearing that, gave the impression he wasn’t inclined to trade offseasons with his team mate.

- JC

Getting to Know the Kernels’ Bryan Haar

The Cedar Rapids Kernels sported a 9-7 record as they departed for Peoria Monday for the first of seven road games before returning to Veterans Memorial Stadium on Monday, April 28. They enter the week just two games behind Kane County in the Midwest League’s Western Division standings.

One reason for the success they’ve had thus far has been a power surge in the heart of their batting order.

The Kernels lead the MWL in slugging percentage entering this week’s games largely due to power generated by catcher Mitch Garver and infielder Bryan Haar. Garver leads the league in home runs, with five, and Haar is right on his heals with four round-trippers.

Over the weekend, Haar shared his perspectives on the start to the season that he and his team mates have had, as well as some thoughts about his own experiences moving from college ball, through two levels of Rookie level professional baseball and on to his first month with the Class A level Kernels.

Though Garver and Haar have provided much of the power early on for Cedar Rapids, Haar insists that their offensive success has been a team effort.

“When our team got hot and went on a little winning streak, I think we were all hitting pretty well so that helps,” said Haar. “Hitting is contagious. So I think we all contributed to the good start.”

While the Kernels have kept their record above .500, they haven’t exactly had it easy thus far.

Bryan Haar

Bryan Haar

Haar and many of his team mates have spent their lives playing ball in far warmer climates. Several of the Kernels’ games have been played with temperatures in the 30s and 40s, so they were glad to see things warm up a bit over the past weekend.

“Anything above 50 right now is good for us,” Haar said with a smile on Saturday. “If it’s not 35 and raining, we’re happy.”

You won’t yet find Haar’s name on many of the organizational “top prospect” lists published during the offseason, but the 24 year-old from San Diego is showing power that’s been largely missing to this point in his professional career.

Haar was drafted by the Twins in the 34th round of the 2012 MLB June Amateur Draft, following his senior year at the University of San Diego.

He hit only one home run in 44 games with the Gulf Coast League Twins in 2012 after signing with the Twins and went deep just six times in 60 games with the Twins’ short-season Appalachian League affiliate in Elizabethton last season.

Haar said it took some time for him to adjust from college pitchers, who generally threw a mix of pitches, to lower levels of professional ball, where he faced a lot of strong young arms who were looking to impress.

“In GCL that first summer, it was just fastballs all day,” recalled Haar. “I actually struggled a little bit because I forgot how to hit a fastball. It was new to me. They were blowing it by me.”

He had to continue working on being able to catch up with the heat a year ago in Elizabethton.

“In E’town, it was rookie ball, so there were a lot of 18 year old pitchers out of high school that maybe thought they threw 95 and really threw 91-92, trying to throw fastballs by me. I got more fastballs then. Jeff Reed (hitting coach at Elizabethton) is a great hitting coach, so he helped me out a lot.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean the pitching he faced in college was superior to what he saw his first two years in the pros, though.

“I’d say not better, but more command of their sliders,” Haar explained. “In E’town it was sliders in the dirt, sliders in the dirt. They never flipped one over for a strike. In college, it was slider for a strike, slider for a strike, now you’re down 0-2. But now (in the MWL), it’s more college guys so I’ve got to readjust to college pitching, I guess.”

Bryan Haar

Bryan Haar

Haar knows he’s largely been feasting on fastballs this season and said he already sees pitchers making adjustments.

“The first game of a series, usually I get some fastballs to hit. If I hit them well, then the next two or three games I get sliders and change-ups and curveballs. Just making that adjustment has been a little harder than I would have thought, but I’ve got to hit the fastball when I get it.”

Kernels hitting coach Tommy Watkins has been working with Haar to keep a step ahead of the adjustments the pitchers are making.

“They’re throwing me off-speed a lot, so I’ve got to start adjusting my swing a little bit towards that,” Haar said. “Tommy and I have been working on that the past couple of days. Not really trying to strike out less, but just put more balls in play hard.

“I’ve hit two home runs off sliders, but I think they were the only hits I’ve had off sliders. We were working on that (Saturday), just kind of letting the ball get a little deeper, seeing it deeper.”

At 24, Haar is a bit older than the average MWL position player, but he’s not feeling any extra anxiety about trying to advance quicker up the Twins organizational ladder because of that.

“I don’t really worry about that. I’m just having a good time in Low-A with my friends,” he said. ”I got drafted in 2012 and pretty much all the guys here were drafted in the 2012 draft, so it’s nice to move up with them, in a sense. I’m just letting my play speak for itself and doing what I can here.”

That includes being versatile in the field. Haar has played both corner infield positions for the Kernels already and that’s fine with him. Haar said he’d play anywhere, “as long as I’m in the lineup.”

Haar played some football and basketball in high school and said his interests include, “pretty much every sport with a ball.” But as a Southern Californian, his interests outside of baseball go beyond what local fans might consider the norm.

“I’m from San Diego, so I surf whenever I can. Usually in September I take some time off from baseball and I go surf. But when I get back in to workouts, I don’t have much time for that.”

There’s obviously neither time nor opportunity for surfing during the season, so Haar is looking for other things to do with his limited down time.

“I do enjoy fishing, so since we’re in Iowa, I’d like to get out and fish a little bit, but it’s tough. Getting back from a long road trip, you want to sleep in, and then you’re at the field.”

Of course, there’s always the standard fallback option for ballplayers: video games.

Haar and team mates Garver and Zach Larson, who live in close proximity to one another this season, “have a little FIFA battle on the X-Box. We’re on that quite a bit.”

Who Are These Guys?

The people who pay attention to such things during professional baseball’s offseason were pretty much in agreement in their expectations for this team coming out of spring training in Fort Myers.

The starting pitching should be quite improved, perhaps the best it has been in a few years. The bullpen should once again be sound. But when the topic turned to the offense, one question was nearly universal, “Where will the runs come from?”

Now, roughly two weeks in to the 2014 season, there have been a couple of surprises. First, the supposed much improved rotation was a little slow getting out of the gate, but now we’re seeing results that look much closer to what we had hoped we would see from some of the starting pitchers.

But the offense is not what was expected. Instead of struggling to score runs consistently, we’re seeing an offense that sits at or near the top of several offensive statistics. Granted, the season is still young, but the rate at which the team is scoring runs is certainly encouraging.

All of which begs the question, “Who are these guys?”

Coincidental or not, that question could be answered in either of two ways and both would be accurate.

We could certainly be talking about the Minnesota Twins, who came through the past weekend’s series sweep of their American League Central Division rival Kansas City Royals averaging 5.6 runs per game, good for a third place tie in all of Major League Baseball. All three of their starting pitchers in the Royals series chalked up quality starts (at least six innings, giving up three runs or less).

But we could equally be describing the Twins’ Class A Midwest League affiliate, the Cedar Rapids Kernels.

The Kernels are expected to have one of the top rotations in minor league baseball this season, staffed with several of the organization’s top prospects, including the Twins’ first and second round draft picks a year ago, Kohl Stewart and Ryan Eades, among others.

The Kernels’ pitching certainly has been showing glimpses of their talent and arguably have done a better job of living up to their pre-season expectations than their counterparts with the parent Twins.

Hudson Boyd

Hudson Boyd

Through Tuesday’s games, relievers Brandon Bixler, Josue Montanez, Brandon Peterson and Hudson Boyd have each averaged at least a strikeout per inning pitched and have given up just four earned runs combined, between the four of them.

After struggling a little bit during the season’s chilly opening series at home, the rotation started to find their groove during last week’s eastern road trip, as well. Aaron Slegers has just a 1-0 record to show for his efforts, but he’s racked up 14 strikeouts in just 16 innings of work, while walking only a single batter.

Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga indicated Monday night that he was pleased with the work his starting pitching corps did during their recent 5-1 road trip.

“This early in the season, you hope they give a good effort every night, which they did,” Arteaga said of his rotation arms. “They pretty much took us where we wanted them to take us.”

Arteaga added, “We have a pitch limit, everybody knows that. It’s a team effort. The relievers are giving us a chance every night, we can’t ask for more than that. The bullpen’s doing a great job.”

That swing out east last week also seemed to wake up some of the Kernels’ bats, a fact not lost on hitting coach Tommy Watkins who, while praising catcher Mitch Garver for an outstanding road trip, also saw progress from others.

“It was different guys every night,” said Watkins. “The hitters did a good job having quality at-bats. The main thing is they had a pretty decent approach and they stuck to it.”

That approach is showing up in the offensive statistics.

After Tuesday’s game, the Kernels were second in the MWL in runs scored (60) and at the top of the league in both slugging percentage (.442) and OPS (.777).

Cedar Rapids hitters have notched 11 home runs, tying them for the MWL lead with Lake County and Wisconsin. They also rank fourth in the league in doubles (23) and sit atop the MWL list in triples (8).

The power surge wasn’t something that Kernels manager Jake Mauer expected to see at this point.

“That (the home runs) has been a surprise,” Mauer said Monday night. “We know Garver and (Bryan) Haar have some pop, without a doubt, but I’d say the frequency that they’ve hit them, to this point, has been surprising. But they’ve also had some pretty good at-bats with runners in scoring position and we’ve been able to keep that carousel moving. We were a little concerned early that we’d only be able to score one run (at a time), but we’ve found a way to score multiple runs and that’s encouraging.”

Mitch Garver

Mitch Garver

Garver, the Twins’ 9th round draft pick a year ago, has accounted for nine of the team’s extra-base hits. He has three doubles, a triple and is leading the MWL in home runs with five. The combination has lifted his slugging percentage to a league leading .825 and his OPS to 1.254, good enough for second highest in the league.

Garver and Haar also lead the Kernels with 10 RBI each.

As Watkins pointed out, however, the offensive contributions haven’t been limited to just a couple of guys.

Outfielder Zach Larson’s six doubles have him tied for the MWL lead in that category and, while seeing action in just seven of the Kernels’ 12 games, through Tuesday, infielder Tanner Vavra has made the most of his opportunities to get to the plate and leads the club with a .360 batting average, just a single point above Haar’s .359.

After Monday’s come-from-behind win over South Bend, Mauer summarized his team’s efforts thus far. “The pitching has been really good, really good. The defense, for the most part, has been pretty good. We’ve gotten some big hits. We’re proud of the boys. They really don’t give up.”

Mauer credits the work the hitters have been doing with their hitting coach for their offensive progress early in the year.

“I think that’s what Tommy Watkins has been doing with these guys, just learning how to trust their hands and try see the ball a little bit. He’s got a pretty good plan that I think the boys are starting to buy in to. Overall, the quality of the at-bats has been much better,” Mauer said on Monday.

The season is young and less than 10% of the Kernels’ regular season games are behind them, but if early hitting trends can be maintained and their pitching turns out to be as improved as it was expected to be, this Cedar Rapids club could turn out to be quite competitive.

Of course, you could perhaps say something similar about the Minnesota Twins.

- JC

GameChat – Royals @ Twins #3, 1:05

The Twins have a shot at an early season series sweep today against Kansas City.They’ve proven the last two games what their capable of if they get a bit of hitting AND some quality starting pitching in the same game.

Kyle Gibson and Ricky Nolasco both stepped up their games the past two games and today, it’s Kevin Correia’s turn to show what he’s capable of. The Royals send lefty Jason Vargas to the mound. Vargas is off to a hot start for KC, giving up just two earned runs in 15 innings over the course of his first two starts. Correia’s start has been somewhat less impressive.

FSN’s Tyler Mason pointed out that Twins sit at or near the top of three AL offensive stat categories two weeks in to the season. Brian Dozier is tied for the HR lead with four, Chris Colabello is tied for the RBI lead with 14 and Jason Kubel sits second in the AL in batting average with .405. Yeah, we all expected to see that, right?

Manager Ron Gardenhire is back with the club today.  How much you wanna bet that if the Twins trail early, we’ll see “send Gardy away again” tweets before the 7th inning stretch?

ROYALS

@

TWINS
Aoki, RF Dozier, 2B
Infante, 2B Mauer, 1B
Hosmer, 1B Plouffe, 3B
Butler, B, DH Colabello, RF
Gordon, A, LF Kubel, LF
Perez, S, C Pinto, DH
Moustakas, 3B Suzuki, K, C
Cain, L, CF Hicks, CF
Escobar, A, SS Florimon, SS
_Vargas, P   _Correia, P
A "Royal" blue sweep

A “Royal” blue sweep

It wasn’t the prettiest game, but what matters is that the Twins had more runs than the Royals when it was over. That means our guys are back up to .500 on the year AND it means a SWEEP of the Royals!

The Twins managed just five hits on the day and Joe Mauer was the only hitter with a pair of them. That might put him in contention for BOD honors, but we just can’t quite go there, given his strikeout in a clutch late-game situation.

Josmil Pinto’s two-run HR to open the scoring in the home half of the 7th certainly earns him consideration.

But, once again, if there’s one thing that stands out when you think about how the Twins managed to win all three games against the Landed Gentry of KC, it’s the starting pitching. Today it was Kevin Correia’s turn to step up his game. He was eventually tagged with all three Royals runs, but he put up seven innings of goose eggs before those runs came across in the 8th and let’s just say the Royals had a little help getting those runs across from a couple of Correia’s team mates.

We want to encourage this kind of work from our rotation and to that end, we are awarding our third straight BOD to the starting pitcher.

Kevin Correia (photo David Goldman/AP)

Kevin Correia (photo David Goldman/AP)

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