MWL All-Star Game Photos

Since it was so late when I got home after last night’s Midwest League All-Star Game, I was too tired to get all of the photos included in my ASG post that I would have liked to. (Sure, the margarita or 5 that I had at the game MIGHT have had something to do with my drowsiness, but there’s no hard evidence of that, so I’m going with ‘I was just tired.’)

Anyway, I decided to post several more pictures from the ASG festivities over the past couple of days in Cedar Rapids.

Now, here’s the thing: I discovered, after taking the first couple of pictures with my camera Tuesday night, that my carmera’s battery was nearly kaput (that’s a technical photojournalist term, I think), so for many of the pictures I wanted, I had to use my phone’s camera.

Now, here’s the other thing: Because I used an app on my phone to provide yardage estimates when I was golfing earlier in the day, my phone’s battery was pretty much kaput, too. Fortunately, the Kernels have one of those charging stations where I was able to pump a little extra charge into the phone midway through the game (and where I had a nice chat with a Lumberkings fan who found himself in the same predicament.)

In the end, photos were taken and here are a few of them:

Upon arriving at the free Fanfest on Monday afternoon and pulling out my camera, I was almost immediately attacked by a cougar. He was either anxious to have his picture taken or very angry that I was taking it. I quickly snapped this shot and moved away before I could find out which was the case.
Upon arriving at the free Fanfest on Monday afternoon and pulling out my camera, I was almost immediately attacked by a cougar. He was either anxious to have his picture taken or very angry that I was taking it. I quickly snapped this shot and moved away before I could find out which was the case.
A young fan takes his cuts at one of the games during Fanfest
A young fan takes his cuts at one of the games during Fanfest
The thing about royalty is, they always seem to think they're above the rest of us somehow. The Clinton Lumber Kings mascot is, apparently, no exception.
The thing about royalty is, they always seem to think they’re above the rest of us somehow. The Clinton Lumber Kings mascot is, apparently, no exception.
More than half of the Midwest League's team mascots made the trip to Cedar Rapids. My daughter commented afterwards, "It was like Mr Shucks had a party and got to invite all his friends." I should probably add that my daughter is 26 years old. However, she is an elementary school teacher, which, I believe, adds to her appreciation for all things mascot-ish.
More than half of the Midwest League’s team mascots made the trip to Cedar Rapids. This gathering is just a few of those mascots on Monday. My daughter commented after the game Monday night, “It was like Mr Shucks had a party and got to invite all his friends.” I should probably add that my daughter is 26 years old. However, she is an elementary school teacher, which, I believe, adds to her appreciation for all things mascot-ish.
You think it's easy being a sports columnist? Just TRY to get a decent interview out of a mascot.
You think it’s easy being a sports columnist? Just TRY to get a decent interview out of a mascot like the Gazette’s Mike Hlas appears to be attempting to get from the Burlington Bees’ mascot on Monday.
Before Tuesday's game, Players were available for autographs on the concourse.
Before Tuesday’s game, Players were available for autographs on the concourse.
Kernels All-Stars Luis Arraez, LaMonte Wade and AJ Murray at the autograph table before the ASG on Tuesday
Kernels All-Stars Luis Arraez, LaMonte Wade and AJ Murray at the autograph table before the ASG on Tuesday
On Monday evening, the Kernels hosted players, team officials, various VIPs and guests of all of the above at a social event at Cedar Ridge Vineyard & Distillery. I got my first look at the ASG card set at displays there.
On Monday evening, the Kernels hosted players, team officials, various VIPs and guests of all of the above at a social event at Cedar Ridge Vineyard & Distillery. I got my first look at the ASG card set at displays there.
I'm not sure this chocolate fountain at the Monday social event was on the sanctioned diet list for players, but then I didn't witness a single player eating the chocolate. That's my story & I'm sticking with it.
I’m not sure this chocolate fountain at the Monday social event was on the sanctioned diet list for players, but then I didn’t witness a single player eating the chocolate. That’s my story & I’m sticking with it.
Kernels catcher AJ Murray got his cuts in during the HR Derby before the game on Tuesday. He didn't win, but we don't hold grudges for things like that in CR.
Kernels catcher AJ Murray got his cuts in during the HR Derby before the game on Tuesday. He didn’t win, but we don’t hold grudges for things like that in CR. BTW, that’s my view from my season ticket seats this year, from which I’m always willing to help the umpires out with fair/foul calls down the LF line.
Bowling Green's Brett Sullivan was the winner of the HR Derby
Bowling Green’s Brett Sullivan was the winner of the HR Derby
The starting lineups for the ASG.
The starting lineups for the ASG.
As the manager of the Western Division Champions from a year ago, Kernels manager Jake Mauer was at the helm for the Western Division All-Stars
As the manager of the Western Division Champions from a year ago, Kernels manager Jake Mauer was at the helm for the Western Division All-Stars. Considering the MWL generally uses just 2 umpires for their games, seeing 6 of them out there just looked weird.
Kernels pitcher Sam Clay worked a perfect first inning for the West squad.
Kernels pitcher Sam Clay worked a perfect first inning for the West squad.
Kernels 2Bled off the bottom of the 1st inning for the West stars with this single down the left field line.
Kernels 2Bled off the bottom of the 1st inning for the West stars with this single down the left field line.
Luis Arraez had a pair of hits for the West squad. Here he's fist-bumped by Kernels coach Brian Dinkelman.
Luis Arraez had a pair of hits for the West squad. Here he’s fist-bumped by Kernels coach Brian Dinkelman.
LaMonte Wade had one hit in two at bats and was hit by a pitch. This single drove in a pair of runs for the West.
LaMonte Wade had one hit in two at bats and was hit by a pitch. This single drove in a pair of runs for the West.
AJ Murray might not have won the HR Derby, but he went deep when it mattered. Here he strokes a 2-run home run for the West stars in the 7th inning.
AJ Murray might not have won the HR Derby, but he went deep when it mattered. Here he strokes a 2-run home run for the West stars in the 7th inning.
It wasn't a sellout crowd, but the 4,500+ who showed up sure made it look close to being full and the weather was just about perfect.
It wasn’t a sellout crowd, but the 4,500+ who showed up sure made it look close to being full and the weather was just about perfect.
If you've been to the Kernels' ballpark in prior years, you may recall the "stars" on the concourse floor honoring many of the CR baseball club alumni from John McGraw to Mike Trout. The stars are no longer on the floor, but have now been placed along the fencing along the concourse, such as this star for Chili Davis, who was with the Cedar Rapids Giants during my first season of watching minor league ball in CR, 1978.
If you’ve been to the Kernels’ ballpark in prior years, you may recall the “stars” on the concourse floor honoring many of the CR baseball club alumni from John McGraw to Mike Trout. The stars are no longer on the floor, but have now been placed along the fencing along the concourse, such as this star for Chili Davis, who was with the Cedar Rapids Giants during my first season of watching minor league ball in CR, 1978.
I confess that I did not just remain in my seat throughout the game. In addition to an occasional trip to the concourse for a margarita refill, I also found the sweet corn stand. This stuff might be just about the best thing about summer in Iowa that's not related to baseball, so I couldn't pass up the chance to combine them at the same time.
I confess that I did not just remain in my seat throughout the game. In addition to an occasional trip to the concourse for a margarita refill, I also found the sweet corn stand. This stuff might be just about the best thing about summer in Iowa that’s not related to baseball, so I couldn’t pass up the chance to combine them at the same time.
Eloy JImenez, of the South Bend Cubs, was presented with the Top Star Award for the game. (Yes, I mistakenly identified him as Francisco Meija in a Tweet at the time. That's what happens when you have multiple players wearing the same jersey number. My bad.)
Eloy JImenez, of the South Bend Cubs, was presented with the Top Star Award for the game. (Yes, I mistakenly identified him as Francisco Meija in a Tweet at the time. That’s what happens when you have multiple players wearing the same jersey number. My bad.)
No, it's not the greatest picture in the world, but the postgame fireworks were outstanding. Here, AJ Murray and Sam Clay take them in along with Kernels staff members gathered in the home dugout.
No, it’s not the greatest picture in the world, but the postgame fireworks were outstanding. Here, AJ Murray and Sam Clay take them in along with Kernels staff members gathered in the home dugout.

(All photos: SD Buhr)

After the game, the players and their guests gathered at the Newbo City Market for a postgame party that was open to the public, as well (for a nominal charge, of course). I didn’t make that event (one party per week is pretty much my maximum these days), but I’m sure it was a great time.

Again, you just don’t appreciate, sometimes, how much work goes into putting on an event like this. I’ve had an opportunity this summer to get a small glimpse at all the preparations the Kernels staff have made, from the flowers/landscaping done outside the stadium to all of the meticulous field preparation, event planning and concession work, as well. I’m clearly biased, but I thought the staff put on a terrific event.

Now we move on to the second half of the MWL schedule, with all teams starting over with a 0-0 record and the Kernels needing to finish among the top two teams in the Western Division (among those who haven’t already qualified for the postseason) to reach the playoffs for their 4th consecutive season.

MWL All-Star Game Events

The Cedar Rapids Kernels and the city of Cedar Rapids hosted this year’s Midwest League All-Star Game festivities and all four Kernels players on the Western Division roster played big roles before the festivities concluded.

The Eastern Division stars notched a come-from-behind 11-10 victory in what could only be described as an entertaining ballgame.

Kernels pitcher Sam Clay got the start for the West stars and notched a 1-2-3 inning in the first inning, completing it with a strikeout.

Cedar Rapids’ second baseman Luis Arraez led off the bottom of the second with a single and team mate LaMonte Wade reached on a hit-by-pitch to start the home half of the first. Both players came around to score, giving the West the first two runs of the game.

Kernels catcher AJ Murray, who participated in the pregame Home Run Derby, entered the game about halfway through the contest and went to the opposite field for a two-run blast that put his team up 10-7 in the bottom of the seventh inning.

That’s probably all you need to know about the game itself, but I’ll add a number of pictures from the festivities on Monday and Tuesday.

A lot of work goes into putting on one of these events and big time kudos go out to the entire Kernels staff (augmented with staff from the Northwoods League’s Waterloo Bucks front office) for putting on a first class show.

More than half of the Midwest League's team mascots made the trip to Cedar Rapids. My daughter commented afterwards, "It was like Mr Shucks had a party and got to invite all his friends."
More than half of the Midwest League’s team mascots made the trip to Cedar Rapids. My daughter commented afterwards, “It was like Mr Shucks had a party and got to invite all his friends.”
Kernels All-Stars Luis Arraez, LaMonte Wade and AJ Murray at the autograph table before the ASG on Tuesday
Kernels All-Stars Luis Arraez, LaMonte Wade and AJ Murray at the autograph table before the ASG on Tuesday
As the manager of the Western Division Champions from a year ago, Kernels manager Jake Mauer was at the helm for the Western Division All-Stars
As the manager of the Western Division Champions from a year ago, Kernels manager Jake Mauer was at the helm for the Western Division All-Stars
Kernels pitcher Sam Clay worked a perfect first inning for the West squad.
Kernels pitcher Sam Clay worked a perfect first inning for the West squad.
Luis Arraez had a pair of hits for the West squad. Here he's fist-bumped by Kernels coach Brian Dinkelman.
Luis Arraez had a pair of hits for the West squad. Here he’s fist-bumped by Kernels coach Brian Dinkelman.
LaMonte Wade had one hit in two at bats and was hit by a pitch.
LaMonte Wade had one hit in two at bats and was hit by a pitch.
AJ Murray strokes a 2-run home run for the West stars in the 7th inning.
AJ Murray strokes a 2-run home run for the West stars in the 7th inning.

 

AJ Murray (left) and Sam Clay (11) take in the postgame fireworks with the rest of the crowd.
AJ Murray (left) and Sam Clay (11) take in the postgame fireworks with the rest of the crowd.

(all photos: SD Buhr)

Three Kernels Named All-Stars

The Midwest League All-Star Game is drawing near and this week three Cedar Rapids Kernels were named to the team, assuring that Kernels fans will have some familiar faces to cheer for when Cedar Rapids hosts the annual event on Tuesday, June 21.

Luis Arraez
Luis Arraez

Kernels starting pitcher Sam Clay, second baseman Luis Arraez and outfielder LaMonte May were all named as MWL All-Stars. Arraez and Wade were selected as starters for the West All-Stars by the league’s managers and Clay was named as a reserve.

Clay, a lefty starter from Buford, Georgia, by way of Georgia Tech, has put together a 4-2 record in the season’s first half to go with a 2.43 ERA over 10 starts.

19-year-old Arraez was signed by the Twins as an International Free Agent out of San Filipe, Venezuela. He has posted a .315 batting average, including 11 doubles, a triple and a pair of home runs. He’s also walked 17 times, fueling his .380 on-base percentage.

LaMonte Wade
LaMonte Wade

Wade is a former Maryland Terrapin from Baltimore who has consistently hit above .300 all year and currently sits at .318. He also has six doubles, three triples and four home runs, which have contributed to his .891 OPS. He has also put up a 38/22 walk/K ratio, assembling a .438 OBP.

You might have thought that, with the Kernels holding a thin lead atop the Western Division standings, more of their players would have earned All-Star roster spots, but the recent promotions of starting pitcher Randy LeBlanc and closer Nick Anderson likely reduced the number of players the local club put on the team.

(LeBlanc, by the way, was named by the league as its MWL Player of the Month for the month of May, during which the righthander notched a 0.24 ERA and a 4-0 record over five starts before being promoted to Ft. Myers.)

Sam Clay
Sam Clay

In addition, players named to the All-Star squad two weeks before the game is played often turn out to not be available to play, due to injury or promotion, by the time the game is played. It’s not uncommon for players from the host team to be named as replacements for such players, so the Kernels could still see additional local favorites named to the West squad.

Regardless of whether additional Kernels players are ultimately named to the team, there will be no shortage of Cedar Rapids uniforms on the field and in the home team dugout as manager Jake Mauer and coaches Brian Dinkelman & JP Martinez will be coaching the West squad.

Yellow Jacket Battery Boosts Kernels

Most of the work that Sam Clay and AJ Murray did together during their shared time at Georgia Tech was confined to the bullpen, but this season the pair of former Yellow Jackets have played critical roles together for the Midwest League Western Division-leading Cedar Rapids Kernels.

Clay, a lefty who was the Minnesota Twins’ fourth round draft pick in 2014, carries a 3-1 record and a 1.10 ERA into his Wednesday night start at Burlington. He has averaged more than a strikeout per inning in his seven starts.

Murray, selected by the Twins in the 14th round of last year’s draft, is carrying a .285/.394/.489 (.883 OPS) slash line as the Kernels’ primary catcher. He’s hit 11 doubles, one triple and five home runs while batting in the middle of the Cedar Rapids lineup and has thrown out 35% of runners attempting to steal a base.

AJ Murray
AJ Murray

That’s not bad for a guy who spent almost no time behind the plate during his college career, despite performing well enough in high school that Houston selected him late in the 2011 draft.

“I caught all through high school,” Murray explained. “Then when I got to college, they converted me to a first baseman because we had Zane Evans (who was ultimately drafted by the Royals in the 4th round of the 2013 draft), who was a lot better than I was at the time. So I learned first base, but I also got to play a little bit in the outfield. It kind of made me more versatile as a player in college.”

Murray certainly wasn’t disappointed when he was told the Twins had drafted him as a catcher, however. Quite the opposite.

“When they drafted me as a catcher, I was very happy because I thought that was my most comfortable position and I could be the biggest asset to the team,” he recalled. “I think it’s the best position on the field, besides pitching, because you’re in every pitch. You pretty much control the game as far as being a leader out there. I love catching every day and it’s definitely a learning process.”

AJ Murray
AJ Murray

After seeing limited time on the field behind the plate during his college career, Murray has certainly had a lot to learn about playing the position at the professional level.

“I think the biggest adjustment has been calling your own game. That’s kind of been a lost art in baseball,” he said. “I called my own game in high school, but when you get to college, a lot of the pitching coaches like to call the pitches. So that’s been the biggest adjustment.”

The biggest adjustment maybe, but not the only thing that differentiates catching in the pros from what he has done in the past.

“Learning to read hitters, learning to look at the stat sheet, look for tendencies, then fill in the game plans, which is fun actually,” he added. “JP (Martinez, the Kernels’ pitching coach) does a great job of giving us stats, getting the pitchers together, talking over game plans, hitters’ approaches and how we’re going to transfer that over to the game, so he’s the main driver in getting us ready.”

His work behind the plate hasn’t gone unnoticed by fellow Yellow Jacket Clay.

“As soon as he got to Elizabethton, he was far and away a much better catcher than he was at Georgia Tech,” Clay said of his battery mate. “He became unbelievable behind the plate and I love throwing to him.”

Murray and his fellow Kernels went through a stretch earlier in the season when they struggled offensively. Runs were rare and that put a lot of pressure on the pitching staff. They’ve pulled out of that rut over the past few weeks and Murray’s bat has been a big reason. He is hitting .333 in May and has a .986 OPS for the month.

“I’m definitely feeling more comfortable at the plate and focusing on having consistent at-bats,” Murray said, of his recent success at the plate. He’s quick to point out, however, that he’s not the only hitter in the lineup that’s making a difference.

“I think a lot of it has to do with others guys on the team hitting around me. You look at our stats the last couple of weeks, we’ve put up a lot of runs. Everyone’s been hitting well, so I think it’s contagious. When you’re getting on base, it puts pressure on the pitcher, and then hitting in the middle of the lineup, hitting behind LaMonte (Wade), (Luis) Arraez, guys like that getting on base a lot.”

Like Murray, Clay has also had to make some adjustments to the professional game.

In college, Clay worked out of the bullpen and, in fact, he began the 2015 season as a member of the Kernels’ relief corps. Things didn’t go terribly well for Clay, however, in his first tour with Cedar Rapids, and he was sent down to Elizabethton.

Sam Clay
Sam Clay

“Last year was a little bit of a struggle,” Clay recalled. “I started off up here in the bullpen and I had a lot of trouble finding the plate, so they kind of pigeon-holed me into throwing basically strictly fastballs and one off-speed (pitch), whichever was working for me that day, so hitters were looking for one of two pitches.

“Once I got sent down, I had one or two weeks in the bullpen and then they turned me into a starter when one of our guys went down. It gave me a chance to get up there and throw all of my pitches and really learn how to pitch instead of just going up there and throwing the ball.”

Clay has taken to the conversion to a starting pitcher very well. He and righthander Randy LeBlanc have combined to form a powerful left-right combination at the top of the Kernels’ rotation. Combined, the two have made 15 starts and evenly split just 10 combined earned runs surrendered. Neither pitcher has given up a home run this season.

Making the switch to starting pitcher did mean some adjustments for Clay in the offseason.

“They pretty much had me being a starter, so I knew that going into the offseason, what I needed to work on conditioning-wise and weight training wise,” he said. “So I really kind of got after it this offseason and just worked harder than I probably ever have.

“I lived with my parents in the offseason and I would probably lift weights four times a week. I didn’t really pick up a ball, because I threw a lot of innings last year compared to what I usually would as a reliever. So I didn’t really pick up a ball until probably January and January in Georgia is pretty cold.

“It probably got me ready for the first month here (in Iowa),” Clay added, with a smile.

Once he was ready to start throwing, however, Clay still had challenges to overcome – such as finding someone to throw with.

“Probably the first two or three weeks I was throwing I didn’t have anybody to throw with, so I was throwing long toss into a screen. Not very fun,” he remembered. “But I was lucky, I had one of my friends from high school, Jake Burnette, he’s playing for the Pirates organization (7th round pick in 2011), I got together with him and was able to throw with him for the rest of the offseason.”

As minor league seasons approach their midpoints toward mid-to-late June, it would be understandable for players performing as well as Murray and Clay to start peeking at the next rung on their organizational ladder and wondering what more they need to prove to earn a promotion.

Sam Clay
Sam Clay

Clay, however, says he knew coming into the season that he had work to do at this level and he’s not going to let his focus get drawn away from his business at hand.

“I knew that I was coming back here as soon as I got to spring training because I didn’t perform that well here when I was here. So I knew I had to come out and really show what I could do – show that I could be a starter, that I could throw against these hitters.

“All the Fort Myers starters are doing really well right now so it will be really tough for us to move up, but we can’t really think about them. We have to focus on ourselves.”

For now, Clay, Murray and their Cedar Rapids team mates are sitting atop the Midwest League’s Western Division standings and they have four more weeks of work to do in the season’s first half. The top two teams in each division during the first half qualify for the MWL playoffs in September and earning that berth early takes a lot of pressure off for the remainder of the season.

Kernels Getting Strong Pitching, Little Else

Twenty games into their 2016 season, the Cedar Rapids Kernels find themselves right in the thick of the chase for the Midwest League’s Western Division first-half title race with an 11-9 record. They sit just one-half game behind Division co-leaders Kane County and Clinton.

The Kernels are a combined 4-7 against the front-running Cougars and Lumberkings.

If you look strictly at the club’s offensive numbers, you’d be hard pressed to figure out how the Kernels have managed to keep aloft in the standings. They’re batting just .229 as a team, which is better than just four other MWL clubs.

What’s been the secret? It’s no secret, really. It’s been all about the pitching, so far.

“Pitching and defense is what you preach and try to be the most consistent at,” explained Kernels manager Jake Mauer this week, adding, “hitting tends to be more volatile.”

Jake Mauer
Jake Mauer

Mauer, who will notch his 250th win as Kernels manager with the next Cedar Rapids victory, doesn’t have to reach any further for an example of what he’s referring to than the team’s recent weekend series in Clinton.

After being rained out on Thursday night, the Kernels dropped a 3-1 game on Friday, mustering just five hits.

On Saturday, the two clubs had a pair of seven-inning games scheduled to make up for the rainout, but game one ran 18 innings, with the Kernels falling 2-1. They were then shutout 3-0 in game two.

On Sunday, the bats woke up and the Kernels put a 9-0 thumping on the Lumberkings to salvage their lone win in the series, despite outscoring Clinton 11-10 across the four games (and 43 innings).

Consistent pitching and defense, volatile hitting.

“We haven’t clicked very well offensively,” Mauer admitted. “We had the big outburst opening night (12 runs on 15 hits against Quad Cities) and we scored nine the last day in Clinton, but really in between that, we really haven’t done too much.”

Ah, but the pitching, that’s a different story.

The Kernels opened the season with 15 players on their roster who saw time in Cedar Rapids last season and some of those guys are playing key roles on the mound.

Sam Clay
Sam Clay

Returning pitchers Randy LeBlanc and Sam Clay have led the rotation. LeBlanc has a 1.50 ERA and a WHIP of 0.83 through his four starts, while Clay’s put up a 0.53 ERA in his three starts. He has struck out 19 batters in 17 innings pitched.

Cody Stashak, who was promoted to Cedar Rapids a couple weeks ago, has made two starts, winning both games and notching a 1.13 ERA and a 0.75 WHIP.

The bullpen has been stellar, as well.

John Curtiss and CK Irby have each made six appearances this season and neither has allowed an earned run. Irby has struck out 10 in 9 2/3 innings of work, while Curtiss has averaged more than two strikeouts in every inning he’s worked, amassing 17 Ks in 8 innings. Nick Anderson has also struck out more than one hitter per inning out of the pen.

“LaBlanc’s a guy returning and Curtiss is a guy returning, they’ve both been outstanding,” Mauer observed. “We’ve gotten big innings from Irby. Anderson has done fine. Clay has been really good. He looks like a different animal than he was last year.”

Like LeBlanc, Curtiss, Anderson and Irby, Clay put in time with the Kernels in 2016. He posted a 0-3 record and allowed 1.86 runners to reach base for each inning he pitched for Cedar Rapids, resulting in a trip back to the Twins’ rookie-level club in Elizabethton.

“It’s a testament to what (Elizabethton pitching coach) Luis Ramirez did down there at Etown and that staff,” Mauer said, referring to Clay’s significant improvement. “It was the same with Felix Jorge a year ago. “For whatever reason they didn’t do so well here, they went down there and got right, came back and now they’re on their way.”

Curtiss spent time in the Kernels’ rotation last season, but suffered some shoulder issues. He was a reliever at the University of Texas and his return to the bullpen now appears to be permanent and Mauer thinks that could help the righthander move quickly up the organizational ladder.

“I think that’s the right call, keep him in the bullpen,” Mauer said. “He’s got a chance to be a pretty fast mover, I think. It can happen pretty fast for those college relief guys.

“(Irby) is another one that could move quick. Anderson, same situation. There’s three guys right there that, if they’re rested and we can set the game up the way we want, we like our chances with the lead going with those three guys.”

Of course, that involves a couple of pretty big “ifs.” It assumes you can generate enough offense to get an early lead and also that those arms will stay in Kernels uniforms for at least a while longer.

The parent Minnesota Twins have had some pitching issues already during the first month of their season, both in terms of injuries and ineffectiveness. That could lead to some early adjustments to pitching assignments, not only at the big league level, but also all the way through the system.

“We’re three weeks in, I’m sure there’s going to be some movement here, probably sooner than later,” Mauer said.

He can’t do anything about it if Twins Farm Director Brad Steil decides his pitchers should be promoted, so the manager’s focus is on getting wins any way he can.

“Pitching has been really our key and now we’re starting to play better infield defense, getting a little more settled in the infield. Hopefully we don’t have any more of those 18 inning games.

“We played 18 innings (in game 1 Saturday), then played seven more (in game 2), and only scored one run. That’s pretty frustrating, especially with all the opportunities we had, including runners at third with nobody out and one out. Guys let the moment get too big and try to do too much instead of just doing what they can. We’ve been a little better at that starting Sunday.”

Outfielder LaMonte Wade has been the most consistent offensive contributor, hitting .344 with six doubles, two triples and a home run. Unfortunately, Wade has been on the shelf for a few games while nursing a sore hamstring.

Chris Paul was batting .346 when he was promoted to the Fort Myers Miracle and infielder Luis Arraez has come on to hit .395 and put up an OPS of 1.083 in 11 games, doing most of his damage after Paul’s departure (he’s hit .483 in his last eight games).

“Arraez has been a shot in the arm for us,” his manager said. “He played in the big leagues down there in Venezuela in their winter league, so he’s not intimidated by anything that’s going on here, that’s for sure. He’s a hitter, really, He knows where the barrel is, works counts, not a strikeout guy, just puts together good at-bats.”

On the other end of the spectrum, the Kernels have seven players who currently are batting below the .200 mark.

“Really, it’s been LaMonte and Chris Paul, before he left, and Arraez that have been our only offense,” Mauer confirmed. “(Zander) Wiel looks like he’s starting to come around a bit, which is good. Get him going and then (Jermaine) Palacios had a better week last week, he’s hitting the ball better. We need to get some of these guys to get going here so we don’t have to rely on the pitchers.”

In the meantime, Mauer looks for things he can do to put his team in the best position to win a game, even when the crucial hits aren’t coming.

“We’re struggling a little bit when we’re in scoring position and we’ve got to get better at it,” he explained. “That’s why we played the infield in (Tuesday) in the fourth inning with nobody out. Runs are hard to come by for us. Same thing with Arraez trying to score (from third base) on a 180-foot fly ball. Kid made a good throw – we were kind of hoping that he would throw it away or something – try to force the issue a little bit. We’ve got to do things like that to try to create something. We don’t get many opportunities.”

Wade is expected to return to the Kernels lineup within the next day or two and the manager is hoping his return, along with some improvement among the others in his lineup, will help put a few more runs on the board.

If not, the manager is mindful that changes can be made.

“We left a couple college guys that are down there (in Extended Spring Training) that could probably help us. Sometimes you just need a break or a movement situation.”

Kernels Off to Solid Start

As the Cedar Rapids Kernels begin a stretch of seven consecutive “commuter” games (those where they bus to the away game and back home again after the game each day/night) this week, they are off to a 7-4 start to their Midwest League Season, good enough for second place in the MWL’s West Division, a half-game behind Kane County.

Early on, the Kernels’ offense was riding on the shoulders of LaMonte Wade and Chris Paul. Paul was promoted to Ft. Myers, but Wade has continued to rake, hitting an even .400 on the season and putting up a 1.119 OPS. The 22-year-old former Maryland Terrapin has hit safely in each of Cedar Rapids’ 11 games this season.

With Paul no longer around, the club needed others to step up their games and Luis Arraez has done exactly that.

Arraez had back-to-back games this week in which he led off the bottom half of the first inning with a home run. That’s remarkable enough, but then consider that they were the first two round-trippers of the infielder’s career. He has raised his batting average to .346 and his OPS to 1.008.

As the starting pitchers complete their second time through the rotation, Sam Clay has led the crew with a perfect 0.00 ERA, while striking out 13 batters in 11 innings of work. Relievers C.K Irby and John Curtiss have equaled that perfect 0.00 ERA out of the bullpen. Curtiss had K’d 8 in 4 innings on the mound and Irby has set down 7 batters in 6 2/3 innings.

The first home series of the season last week was more than a little chilly, though that did make for a couple of interesting pictures. With a couple of sunny day games this past weekend, there were more opportunities for decent photo shooting. I wish I had at least one of every player, but I didn’t quite manage that. I’ll get there eventually.

Let’s start with a photo of Veterans Memorial Stadium, home of the Kernels.

Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids
Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids
Luis Arraez squeezes a pop fly
Luis Arraez squeezes a pop fly

With the kind of week Arraez had, he deserves a couple of pictures, don’t you think? Let’s add one of the infielder at the plate.

Luis Arraez
Luis Arraez
Christian Cavaness
Christian Cavaness
Sam Clay
Sam Clay
John Curtiss
John Curtiss
Andro Cutura
Andro Cutura
JJ Fernandez
JJ Fernandez
Sam GIbbons
Sam GIbbons
Manuel Guzman
Manuel Guzman
Bryant Hayman
Bryant Hayman

And, in case you’re now wondering whether Bryant actually made contact with that pitch, yes, yes he did.

Bryant Hayman
Bryant Hayman
Logan Lombana
Logan Lombana
Sean Miller
Sean Miller
Max Murphy
Max Murphy
AJ Murray
AJ Murray
Miles Nordgren
Miles Nordgren
Jermaine Palacios
Jermaine Palacios
Chris Paul (just because he's not currently with the Kernels doesn't mean we shouldn't see his picture!)
Chris Paul (just because he’s not currently with the Kernels doesn’t mean we shouldn’t see his picture!)
Dereck Rodriguez
Dereck Rodriguez
Rafael Valera - I'm not sure this is the fielding position they teach, but then the coaches don't typically assume you'll be trying to keep your throwing hand warm in 38 degree temps, either.
Rafael Valera – I’m not sure this is the fielding position they teach, but then the coaches don’t typically assume you’ll be trying to keep your throwing hand warm in 38 degree temps, either.
LaMonte Wade
LaMonte Wade

If anyone has earned getting two pictures in this post, it’s LaMonte Wade.

LaMonte Wade
LaMonte Wade
Zander Wiel models the cold weather hoodie most players made use of the first week.
Zander Wiel models the cold weather hoodie most players made use of the first week.

That’s what I’ve got uploaded so far. I thought I had a few more, but can’t put my fingers on them at the moment, anyway. I’ll load up some more next homestand.

-Steve

April is Critical for Some Minor Leaguers

The Minnesota Twins and their full season minor league affiliates announced those affiliates’ initial rosters on Sunday and Monday this week and the one thing that stood out about almost every roster was the number of players returning to the same level where they finished their respective 2015 campaigns.

The Cedar Rapids Kernels initial roster, for example, includes 16 players that also wore Kernels uniforms last season and many of them performed quite well in the Class A Midwest League – well enough that, in most years, they’d have been promoted this spring and challenged to prove themselves at the next level.

But this isn’t most years, not in the Twins organization, anyway.

Randy led the Kernels staff with 9 wins and posted a 3.03 ERA in 2015. He will be the Opening Day starter for Cedar Rapids in 2016. (Photo: SD Buhr)
Randy LeBlanc led the Kernels staff with 9 wins and posted a 3.03 ERA in 2015. He will be the Opening Day starter for Cedar Rapids in 2016. (Photo: SD Buhr)

The Big League club came to spring training with few roster spots to fill. The clear strategy to fill the few spots they did have – primarily back up spots in the outfield and at catcher, along with left handed bullpen arms – was to sign a number of potential candidates to minor league contracts with invitations to the Twins’ Major League spring training, allow them to compete with whatever internal options might be candidates and open the season with whoever makes the best impression in camp.

Not surprisingly, that left the Twins with a large number of extra minor leaguers left over after the big club’s Opening Day 25-man roster was announced.

As a result, the Triple-A affiliate Rochester Red Wings will start the season with a roster that includes, by my count, about 10 guys who were not members of the Twins’ organization at the end of the 2015 season and the Double-A Chattanooga Lookouts have maybe five more. Most of these newcomers were signed in the offseason as minor league free agents, but that isn’t the case with all of them. (Dan Palka, for example, was acquired via offseason trade.)

The result was inevitable.

Minor league baseball is a numbers game and it’s not all that difficult to figure out how it works for all but the hottest of an organization’s best prospects.

If you’re a minor league player at the low levels of the organization, you get a couple of years to figure out the game in short-season rookie ball and, if you show some level of competency or promise of competency, you move up to Class A, the first level of full-season professional baseball.

From that point on, each year, one of three things happens: The club determines that you’ve reached the level of competition at which you cannot compete and you’re released; you don’t put up stellar numbers, but you show enough promise that the club isn’t going to give up on you, so they send you back to the same level to start the next season; or you perform well enough for the club to want to see how you handle the challenge of the next level of competition and therefore get promoted to that next level.

Sam Gibbons posted a 2.89 ERA in 15 starts for the Kernels in 2015. He's back in Cedar Rapids to start 2016.(Photo: SD Buhr)
Sam Gibbons posted a 7-4 record and a 2.89 ERA in 15 starts for the Kernels in 2015. He’s back in Cedar Rapids to start 2016.(Photo: SD Buhr)

Of course, there are always exceptions and nuances. Players may get a mid-season or late-season promotion to a new level and then start the following year at the same level or may suffer an injury that results in a need to repeat a level. That’s why, typically, a community like Cedar Rapids will see a handful of familiar faces each spring when the new batch of Kernels arrives.

You don’t see 16 familiar faces, though.

It’s a safe bet that, among that 16, there are some players that feel pretty strongly that they did enough for the Kernels a year ago that they should be busing around the Sunshine State with the Fort Myers Miracle this month rather than wearing parkas in the Kernels’ dugout. And they’re right, they should be.

And I’m sure there are a similar numbers of guys in Fort Myers that think they should be in Chattanooga.

It’s pretty clear, from comments made by Kernels manager Jake Mauer and some of his players this week, that this is a subject that Mauer has addressed with his team.

Cedar Rapids Gazette reporter Jeff Johnson interviewed Mauer on Monday and among the manager’s comments was this:

“I’m not going to lie to you. There are a number of guys in our clubhouse that should probably be up, that either pitched or hit their way out of this league. But because of strength of organization, they are here. You try to convey to them that ‘You are here, don’t feel bad. You’ve got to go after it, you’ve got to put up numbers.’”

The trio of players – pitchers Randy LeBlanc and Sam Gibbons, along with infielder Chris Paul – that were fed to local media for a group interview on “Meet the Kernels” Night on Tuesday were asked by Johnson about the level of disappointment that players who played well for the Kernels last season were having to start this year back in Cedar Rapids.

LeBlanc, who has drawn the Opening Day start this week for the Kernels, was frank, but responded well.

“I’m not going to beat around the bush, it was pretty disappointing at first,” LeBlanc conceded. “Jake’s been kind of pounding into our head, since the rosters have been set, that you can’t go into it bitter. You’ve got to just play your way out of here. Just stay positive, just be happy you made a roster, stuff like that. I definitely think (several) of us did pretty well last year, but just go out there and do our best and see what happens.”

Gibbons then added, “As long as we’ve got a jersey, we’ve got an opportunity.”

Unlike LeBlanc and Gibbons, Paul was a relative late-comer to the Kernels last season, joining the team near the end of the season and contributing to the team’s postseason run which ultimately ended one win short of a Midwest League championship.

“It’s a little bit different for me. I came up a little bit late,” Paul said, on the subject at hand. “These guys spent the whole season – most of the season – here, so I think a lot of guys proved themselves, obviously, like Randy said. But like they said, we’ve still got an opportunity, so you’ve just got to continue to perform and prove that you should be somewhere else.”

It’s clear that the, “don’t let yourselves be bitter, be glad you have a roster spot and go out and prove you deserve to move up,” message has been delivered – and it’s a very important message.

You could argue that it’s not fair that many players in the Twins system didn’t get the promotions this spring that they earned with their hard work and performances last summer. But professional baseball often is not fair. (Players need only look at their paltry paychecks to be reminded of that.)

And this is not a permanent situation.

It’s understandable that the Twins would give most of the players they signed to minor league free agent contracts an opportunity to show what they can do in some regular season games and, while the organization is still widely heralded as having one of the best stocked minor league systems in baseball, that cycle won’t last forever.

But neither will the opportunities being extended to these minor league free agents last forever. I give it a month.

By the middle of May, I believe we’ll see minor league affiliate rosters that look a lot more like what most of us – and, clearly, many of the organization’s players – thought we would see. I expect those free agents will get about a month to show the Twins’ evaluators why they should keep their roster spots in Rochester and Chattanooga over guys that have come up through the system and expected to be playing at the next level this spring.

Some of the new players will stick and that’s a good thing. Talent is talent, whether the player came up through the Twins’ system or somewhere else and minor league baseball is one of the purer forms of meritocracy you’ll find anywhere.

This little blip in the normal process makes it more critical than ever that players follow the advice being given to them to focus on their own performances and not give in to what must be a sometimes overwhelming urge to get angry to the point of distraction.

Because, just as sure as some of those minor league free agents will fail to impress and find themselves looking for other work, the same thing could happen to some players that finished strong with a Twins affiliate a year ago, but couldn’t back it up with a strong start to 2016.

Every year, observers of minor league teams like the Kernels see players move up and players move down and players move out. The team you finish a season with never resembles the team you started with. It’s the reason lower level minor leagues like the Midwest League have split seasons, with division standings reset after the mid-season All-Star break.

Most of the roster changes resulting from promotions and demotions don’t usually start becoming regular until June. This year, in the Twins organization, things could get interesting for many players much sooner.

-Steve

Cedar Rapids Welcomes the 2016 Kernels

A modest, but devoted, crowd of fans, staff and host parents greeted manager Jake Mauer, his field staff and 24 players to Veterans Memorial Stadium with applause and a handful of signs as they stepped off their bus from the Cedar Rapids airport early Monday evening.

It was upwards of 70 degrees in Florida when the team departed their Fort Myers spring training camp earlier in the day and many of the players were still sporting the short sleeve sport shirts that were more appropriate on departure than they were upon arrival at their new home, where temperatures hovered a degree or two on one side or the other of 40 degrees.

Mr Shucks spends some time with young Kernels fans while they wait for the team's bus to arrive.
Mr Shucks spends some time with young Kernels fans while they wait for the team’s bus to arrive.
Manager Jake Mauer steps off the bus to the applause of local fans. (Photo: SD Buhr)
Manager Jake Mauer steps off the bus to the applause of local fans. (Photo: SD Buhr)
Young Kernels fans greeting the arriving 2016 Kernels
Young Kernels fans greeting the arriving 2016 Kernels

After arriving and settling into his office, Mauer confirmed that pitcher Michael Cederoth, originally listed as a member of the initial Kernels roster, did not make the trip to Cedar Rapids with the team. The manager indicated that Cederoth has an issue with his back and that no final decision has yet been communicated concerning who will take his spot on the active roster.

The Kernels will get a formal welcome from media and fans on Tuesday evening, between 5:00 and 7:00, with an introduction of the players and a short workout open to the public beginning at 7:00, weather permitting.

The Quad Cities River Bandits will visit Cedar Rapids on Thursday to open the 2016 season. Game time is 6:35.

-Steve

Kernels’ Opening Day Roster Announced

The Cedar Rapids Kernels and their Major League affiliate, the Minnesota Twins, have announced the club’s Opening Day roster and there are a healthy number of players that should be familiar to Kernels fans as 16 of the 25 members spent time with the Kernels at some point during the 2015 season.

The Kernels will open with a 13-man pitching staff and, as has generally been the case since the Twins/Kernels affiliation began in 2013, they appear poised to utilize a 6-man starting pitching rotation.

Indications are that the rotation will include returning arms Michael Cederoth, Sam Clay, Sam Gibbons, Randy LeBlanc and Dereck Rodriguez, along with newcomer Andro Cutura.

Sam Gibbons (Photo: SD Buhr)
Sam Gibbons (Photo: SD Buhr)

The bullpen will have Nick Anderson, John Curtiss, CK Irby, Michael Theofanopolous and Zack Tillery returning to Cedar Rapids, while Kuo Hua Lo and Logan Lombana will be getting their first looks at the Midwest League.

Rafael Valera saw time in the Kernels’ infield a year ago and, since the end of last season has been learning a new position. He will be one of three catchers to open the season in Cedar Rapids and will be joined by new Kernels receivers Bryant Hayman and AJ Murray.

Like Valera, Jorge Fernandez returns to the Kernels to learn an new position. After primarily catching during his time with Cedar Rapids, Fernandez now will be manning an outfield spot. Max Murphy and LaMonte Wade will also be returning to the Kernels outfield and Chris Cavaness will be the lone newbie in Manager Jake Mauer’s outfield.

Sean Miller (Photo: SD Buhr)
Sean Miller (Photo: SD Buhr)

Infielders Sean Miller and Chris Paul saw time with the Kernels last season and will return in 2016, being joined in the infield by Zander Wiel, Luis Arraez and Jermaine Palacios.

Mauer will be returning for his fourth season at the Kernels’ helm. Mauer has had a different pitching coach in each of his seasons leading Cedar Rapids and that trend continues in 2016. JP Martinez will be the fourth Kernels pitching coach in as many years. Brian Dinkelman will serve his first year under Mauer as the Kernels’ hitting coach.

The Kernels are schedule to arrive in Cedar Rapids shortly after 6:00 pm Monday evening and the club is encouraging fans to join a welcome rally in the Veterans Memorial Stadium parking lot at 6:30.

The annual “Meet the Kernels” event for fans will be held on Tuesday evening, beginning at 5:15 pm. Fans will be able to meet and chat with players and staff on the concourse. At 7:00, Mauer will formally introduce the players fans after which the team will go through their first workout on Perfect Game Field, weather permitting.

The Kernels will open their 2016 season on Thursday, hosting the Quad Cities River Bandits.

 

Twins Moving to Cedar Rapids

For some time, now, I have been trying to find ways to spend my “retirement” years involved with professional baseball. I’ve finally found the answer and decided that April 1 was the perfect time to release the announcement.

I have come to an agreement to purchase the Minnesota Twins from the Pohlad family and yes, I will be moving the club to Cedar Rapids. (I mean, it was either that or I had to move to Minnesota and, no offense, but I’ve lived there already. Pass.)

New Twins owner - me.
New Twins owner – me.

I’ve always wanted to own a Major League team and, like pretty much every Twins fan (or at least all of them who have access to the internet), I have always believed I could run the team better than anyone who actually was responsible for doing so.

As part of the agreement, the Twins’ Class A affiliation will be in Minneapolis, giving Target Field a tenant for at least as long as the original agreement required when taxpayers paid for construction.

Twins President (for now), Dave St. Peter, was pleased with this development.

“I’ve often said in the past that it would be nice to be able to watch the Twins’ young minor league talent play in the Twin Cities,” St. Peter said. “This agreement brings that dream to reality.”

I have scheduled a meeting with Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett to discuss how we can best go about adding an additional 35,000 seats to Veterans Memorial Stadium. I see no insurmountable issues there, as long as the city is willing to cough up the money for the renovations.

As for staff decisions, all positions will be posted at corridorcareers.com. All current Twins employees from St. Peter to every usher and beer vendor, will be invited to apply for their current positions (or any other job they might think they’d be good at). I learned in my experience in the professional world that is is the way progressive companies do things these days.

There is one exception to this policy. General Manager Terry Ryan will be retained.

I’ve made this decision for two reasons. First, I genuinely respect Mr. Ryan and, though I don’t always agree with his decisions, I believe he is very good at his job. Even if I didn’t feel that way about the GM, I’d keep him anyway, just because I know how much it’s going to piss off Twins bloggers/fans/commenters/know-it-alls all over Twins Territory.

There will be some pretty noticeable changes, however. For example, because of my fondness for the Iowa Hawkeyes, much of my wardrobe is black and gold. After paying for the Twins, I’m not going to also go out and buy a new wardrobe. The Twins’ colors will instead become black and gold.

Finally, while I will not be lifting the MLB.tv blackout policy from covering the entire state of Iowa, at least that blackout policy will finally make some sense.

I look forward to meeting all of the new Twins fans when the team opens the 2017 in Cedar Rapids. I hope those of you in the Twin Cities enjoy your final season of watching the Twins and I’m sure you will enjoy watching Midwest League games in the future.

-Steve