It took until the final day of the first half of the Midwest League season, but the Cedar Rapids Kernels claimed a playoff berth on Sunday with a 16-3 rout of the Clinton Lumber Kings.
With the win, Cedar Rapids locked up second place in the MWL West Division standings. Division champions and runners-up in both the first and second halves of the league’s season qualify for the post-season.
This will be the fifth consecutive post-season appearance for the Kernels, a record for a Cedar Rapids professional franchise that has a history well over 100 years old.
Also of significance, the Kernels have now qualified for the post-season in each of the five years that the club has been the Class A affiliate of the Minnesota Twins.
Manager Tommy Watkins’ team had to rally their way into the playoff spot after entering Saturday night’s game in third place.
The key play of that weekend rally came in the eighth inning Saturday night.
Travis Blankenhorn reached on an error and moved to second on a ground ball. That’s when things got interesting.
Blankenhorn tagged at second base and advanced to third on a line drive to right field, barely beating the throw to avoid committing a prime baseball sin of making the third out of an inning at the third sack.
It turned out to be a risk well worth taking.
Two walks later, Brandon Lopez stepped to the plate and, on a 1-2 count, with the Clinton third baseman playing well off the line, giving Blankenhorn opportunities to get a walking lead off the bag, this happened:
Watkins had noticed that Clinton sidearm pitcher Jack Anderson’s delivery was very deliberate and, combined with the large lead Blankenhorn was able to get, presented an opportunity to make something good happen.
Blankenhorn executed the straight steal perfectly and an inning later, the Kernels had the win that kept their playoff hopes alive.
Less than an hour later, Quad Cities fell to Beloit in extra innings and the Kernels were left needing a win on Sunday or a QC loss to nail down their playoff spot.
The Kernels would need to earn a win off of a MWL All-Star pitcher to avoid needing to rely on another QC loss. Lefty Danny Garcia will represent the Lumber Kings in Tuesday night’s MWL All-Star game, but he couldn’t record a single out in the first inning against the Kernels.
Cedar Rapids came out swinging on Sunday and hung a nine-spot on Clinton in the first inning on their way to their 16-3 triumph.
On a side note, Clinton manager Pat Shine has been relieved of his duties as manager of the Lumber Kings by their parent club, the Mariners.
The Kernels earned post-season spots the previous four years under manager Jake Mauer (who continued his personal run of managing playoff teams when his Chattanooga Lookouts club won their division’s Southern League first half title) and Watkins was pleased after the game Sunday to have his club continue that legacy.
“I had big shoes to fill with Jake Mauer leaving,” Watkins said.
The manager was also effusive in his praise for his players on Sunday. “It’s a great group of guys and just for them to come out and play like that in the first inning, it set the tone .I think a lot of it started with the game (Saturday) night.”
The Kernels are off for the MWL All-Star break until Thursday when the open the second half of the season at Quad Cities.
The half-way point is also when parent clubs traditionally make a number of roster moves, so the team that takes the field in the second half could be quite different than the club that earned the playoff spot,
Position players like Jermaine Palacios, Jaylin Davis and others could be deemed ready for promotion, as could a number of the pitchers on the staff.
Heading into their four-game series with Midwest League Western Division leaders Kane County on Thursday, the Cedar Rapids Kernels were one game under .500, trailed the Cougars by two games in the standings and were tied for second place in their division.
After trouncing Kane County 11-2 in the series finale on Sunday to earn a split of the four-game series, Cedar Rapids was one game over .500 (at 9-8), trail the Cougars by two games in the standings and are tied for second place in their division.
That sounds more mediocre than it was, in reality.
Kane County, the MWL affiliate of the Diamondbacks, have some game and the rest of the division will be challenged to keep up with the Cougars if they continue playing at early-season levels, so getting that split was hard work.
Still, it could have been better.
The Kernels had a 3-2 lead heading to the ninth inning on Thursday, but gave up three runs to the Cougars in the ninth and fell 5-3. On Saturday, The teams were tied 3-3 headed to the final stanza, where Kane County scored the winning run.
In fact, in five of their eight losses this season, Cedar Rapids has surrendered the winning run in their opponent’s final inning at the plate.
All those close losses don’t have manager Tommy Watkins concerned, however.
“The good thing is, after all those games, we responded afterwards,” Watkins said on Saturday. “We’ve lost a couple of games in the ninth inning, but it happens. We’ve got a young team. We’re going to take some bumps and bruises, but I think things have been pretty good to start the season.”
In fact, Watkins said his team has pretty much performed at expected levels.
“I didn’t have any concerns with either side of the ball. Pitching or hitting. Like I said at the beginning of the season, this is a fun team to watch up and down the lineup – pitching, defense, offense, running the bases. We’ve got some guys that can steal some bases. I really enjoy having these guys here.”
One player that’s certainly been as much fun to watch as any position player in the league has been Jermaine Palacios.
“Palacios has been swinging a hot bat and giving us a real boost at the leadoff spot,” Watkins said, of his shortstop. “He’s being aggressive to balls in a zone.”
Indeed he is.
The 20-year-old native of Venezuela is hitting .406 through Sunday and he hasn’t been just slapping the ball, either. Palacios has three doubles, two triples and added his first home run of the season in Sunday’s win over the Cougars.
He’s leading the MWL in batting average and his 1.012 OPS is ninth best in the league, but not good enough to lead his own team.
That honor goes to Mitchell Kranson. His six doubles, one triple and two dingers have propelled him to a 1.045 OPS.
By and large, the pitching staff has been solid, as well. There have been a couple of games where, as one Kernels pitcher told me, “none of us could miss a barrel.” But those instances have been rare.
Cedar Rapids continues their current homestand with a three game series against the Burlington Bees (Angels) before traveling to Peoria (Cardinals) for four games with the Chiefs beginning Thursday.
I’ll wrap up with a couple dozen pictures from the games on Saturday and Sunday at Veterans Memorial Stadium, as well as the traditional Sunday post-game autograph session.
The Cedar Rapids Kernels jumped to an early 6-1 lead in their home opener against the Beloit Snappers on Saturday evening, but by the end of the night, only the bean counters in Cedar Rapids could call the night a success.
Thanks to a large walk-up, certainly helped by 76 degree temperatures, the Kernels set a franchise record for attendance at a home opener, but the Snappers played spoiler by rallying three runs in the visitors’ half of the ninth inning to top the Kernels 7-6.
Kernels starter Sean Poppen worked seven solid innings, surrendering three runs (only two of the earned run variety), while striking out seven Snappers without a walk.
The offense was led by DH Travis Blankenhorn who doubled and added a three-run home run.
Shane Carrier also homered while Jaylin Davis and Caleb Hamilton added triples.
Davis may have contributed the defensive play of the game, gunning down Beloit’s Nate Mondou at the plate,
In fact, let’s start our photo set with a series of shots showing catcher Ben Rortvedt’s tag of Mondou.
(All photos by SD Buhr)
All of that in the first inning before the Kernels even came to the plate!
Now, let’s back up to pregame activities.
Now let’s look through the Kernels’ staring lineup.
There were differing opinions concerning who won the dance contest held in the Kernels’ clubhouse prior to “Meet the Kernels Night” in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, but the players and coaches who were brought in to talk to the media were in agreement on one thing. They all expect the 2017 Kernels season to be fun.
In fact, almost all of the players and coaches who endured media interrogation before moving on to the stadium concourse to meet the fans who showed up for the event used the word “fun” in at least one of their responses to media questions.
That shouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone who has spent time with the Kernels’ new manager, Tommy Watkins. If you see Watkins at a ballpark without a smile on his face, snap a picture quick. It would be a rarity.
Early during the media session, Watkins was asked what sort of mood he likes to see in his team’s clubhouse.
“Probably like a somber mood,” Watkins deadpanned.
“No, a lot of energy,” he continued, after the laughter in the room faded. “We just had fun down in the clubhouse before we came up, so it was a lot of fun. Get the guys moving around a little bit. Everybody danced a little. I think we like to bring a lot of energy and like to have fun. Play the game the right way.”
His coaches, Brian Dinkelman and J.P. Martinez, claimed Tommy won the dance contest and Tommy claimed the two coaches had been the winners. Later, pitcher Sean Poppen would claim that he’d been the true winner.
Whether or not there was an actual winner of that contest, there was no question that Watkins, his coaches and his players all are looking forward to having a fun season – and winning some baseball games along the way.
“I’m excited about all of these guys,” Watkins said of the players making up the first roster of his minor league managing career.
“They were fun to watch in spring training. Good group of guys, they all got along well. Up and down the lineup I think you’ll see a lot of energy, you’ll see a lot of guys play the game hard. I think they’ll be fun to watch this year. Same thing from the pitching side. We’ve got guys who can throw it over. We’ve got guys that throw hard, got some off-speed stuff. From both sides of the ball, these guys will be fun to watch.”
While last year’s opening day roster was composed largely of returning players from the 2015 Kernels roster, only eight of this year’s group wore a Cedar Rapids jersey at some point last year. Most of the group, including many of the returning players, played together at Elizabethton in the Appalachian League, during a season that did not see the sort of success on the field that E-town fans have come to expect.
Pitching coach J.P. Martinez said he things this group is hungry for success, as a result.
“I think in Cedar Rapids, in particular, we’ve set the bar pretty high,” Martinez said, recounting the success the Kernels have had, including making the playoffs in each of the four seasons since the inception of the affiliation agreement with the Twins.
“I think (these players) are eager to prove that they belong at this level, maybe partly because they didn’t really have the success they wanted last year, but they’re a really, really talented group. A really close-knit group and so we’re hoping that we can kind of steer them in the right direction. They are the future of the franchise.”
Brian Dinkelman, the hitting coach, also thinks there’s a lot of potential in this group of Kernels.
“Yeah, we’ve got some guys that can definitely swing the bat,” he said of the hitters he’ll be working with. “We’ve got a lot of young guys. We’ve got (Lewin) Diaz and (Jermaine) Palacios and (Ben) Rortvedt – guys that are still in their teens. But we’ve got some guys who can swing the bat and do some damage, so looking forward to the season. A lot of guys to work with. Hope we can develop them and move on to the next level.
One of the guys the hitting coach mentioned, Rortvedt, is among the players who will be getting their first taste of full-season professional experience this season in Cedar Rapids.
“Wonderful. A bit of an upgrade with the stadium from Elizabethton and the Florida GCL,” the Wisconsin native responded, when asked for his initial impressions.”I played here growing up a couple of times and it was fantastic. I mean, it wasn’t full bleachers, but I’ve seen pictures of you guys filling up the stadium, so I’m really excited.
“I played with a bunch of the guys last year and we’ve bonded pretty well, so it’s going to be a fun season.”
There’s that word, “fun” again, along with another common theme of the day, team chemistry.
Pitcher Sean Poppen and infielder/DH Travis Blankenhorn expressed similar expectations.
“(Tommy) is great. I think he’s really going to develop team chemistry and that’s pretty important,” Poppen said, of his manager.
“We had Tommy in instructs (fall instructional league) and spring training,” Blankenhorn added. “He just keeps the game fun. It’s fun to play for him. He keeps it fun for all of us. It makes baseball a lot better when you’re having fun.”
“Absolutely,” Rortvedt agreed. “I didn’t know Tommy going into instructs and he came in already cracking jokes at me, so he’s definitely going to keep us loose in the dugout.”
Fun and chemistry are important, but Poppen doesn’t think that’s all Watkins brings to his team.
“He’s a good coach. I’ve had some experiences with him that were very helpful and I feel like he’s going to help me – and help the team – get better.”
“I think we have a good team this year,” Blankenhorn concluded. “I think we have a bunch of pitchers that are going to throw strikes and go out there and put some zeros on the board. I think we have some good sticks in our lineup that are going to put the ball in play and puts some runs up and hopefully we can win some games.”
Having fun and winning games. Sounds like a pretty good combination.
Yes, it has been a while since I posted anything, so I’ll be surprised if anyone still remembers we have this blog, but I’m back home after a couple of weeks in Florida and it’s almost time for the baseball season to begin. So, let’s fire up the blog again and see whether we, as Twins fans, have enough this season to even be worth talking about.
We are not off to a great start.
First of all, the new Twins front office did virtually nothing in their first offseason on the job to improve the team. I was asked during a brief radio interview on KMRY in Cedar Rapids this week what I felt about the Twins’ fortunes in 2017 after spending time at their spring training site in March. I’ll say the same thing here that I said in response during that interview.
The Twins did nothing to improve their team in the offseason, so any improvement will have to come from further development of their existing young roster, guys like Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, et al.
The good news is that there is every reason to believe that Buck, Max and friends like Miguel Sano, Jorge Polanco and Eddie Rosario should indeed mature and see their games improve.
The bad news is that none of those guys can pitch. (Well, Buxton probably COULD, but it ain’t happening.)
This morning, many of the final roster moves were announced and we found out that the Twins will start the season with 13 pitchers and without the player that perhaps had the best spring training of anyone in camp, Byung ho Park, who was sent down and will apparently start his season in Rochester.
That leaves the Twins with just three bench bats and none of them are guys you would want to see come to the plate even as a pinch hitter.
The bottom line, it seems to me, is that the new front office is scared to death of their pitching staff. I understand that because I think most of us have been afraid of this pitching staff for a long time. But they had all offseason to address their obvious pitching needs and did virtually nothing to improve it.
So, to tell us they sent Park down because they felt they ended up needing more pitchers is really an indictment on their poor work in obtaining pitching during the offseason. Fans should not let them off the hook easily if this all blows up.
Now that I have that rant out of the way, let me just pass on some observations I had down in Fort Myers.
As always, I spent a fair amount of time on the minor league side of the complex watching past and future Cedar Rapids Kernels work out.
My sense, as I shared Tuesday on the MN Sports Weekly podcast, as well as the KMRY interview, is that the Kernels will have a better offensive lineup this season than they had a year ago and it appears that at least half of the team’s pitching rotation that finished the 2016 season will be returning to start 2017.
Lewin Diaz and Shane Carrier should add pop to the middle of the order and, for now anyway, it appears that Travis Blankenhorn and Jaylin Davis will return to start the new season in CR. That group could produce some runs if other guys can get on base with regularity.
It doesn’t look like slugger Amourys Minier will break camp with the Kernels at this point, but he should help out when he arrives later in the season, as could other bats such as Trey Cabbage and Wander Javier.
Jermaine Palacios will return and be among a large group of middle infielders worthy of getting opportunities in Cedar Rapids during the season.
Let’s wrap up with a few pictures from my time in Fort Myers.
The Minnesota Twins once again included Cedar Rapids, the home of their Class A affiliate Kernels, in their Twins Winter Caravan tour and last night’s event was entertaining and about as enjoyable as any such event put on by a 100+ loss big league organization could be.
The venue was one of several new aspects of this year’s Kernels Hot Stove event, the primary fundraiser for the organization’s charitable foundation.
Rather than using a large hotel ballroom to hold a sit-down dinner, the Kernels hosted a reception at the New Bo City Market, a showplace for a variety of local food merchants. All food, beer and wine available at the event was provided by New Bo vendors, giving the event a distinctively local flavor.
Broadcaster Kris Atteberry did a terrific job as the emcee for the Twins Caravan portion of the program, doling out opportunities to address the gathering to five members of the Twins organization gathered on stage. They included a pair of Twins players, pitcher Trevor May and outfielder Byron Buxton, newly announced Kernels manager Tommy Watkins, new Twins General Manager Thad Levine and Brian Dinkelman, who served as the Kernels hitting coach in 2016 and, while no official announcement has been made as yet, is presumed to be serving in that capacity this summer, as well.
In addition to responding to Atteberry’s prepared questions from the podium and answering questions from the crowd, the Caravan participants also were available for media interviews.
Here are a few highlights from one-on-one interviews, as well as the public portion of the program.
Early in January, the Twins and Kernels announced that Watkins, who served as the Kernels hitting coach, under former manager Jake Mauer, from 2013 through 2015 and in the same capacity for Class AA Chattanooga last season, will get his first opportunity as a minor league manager in 2017 when he takes the Kernels’ reins.
Watkins said that he and farm director Brad Steil had discussed the possibility of Watkins getting a managing opportunity for the past couple of years, but no such position had opened up until last year’s Fort Myers Miracle manager Jeff Smith got promoted to a coaching position with the Twins this offseason. Still, Watkins said, “I didn’t know if I would get it or not.”
Once the assignment was officially offered, Watkins was very happy to accept. “It was just like the news I got when I was going to the big leagues. I was happy, I was nervous, I was scared, I didn’t want to go. So it was a lot of things. I cried, I laughed, I called my family and told them. It was exciting news.”
Asked by Atteberry to tell the gathering what went into the front office’s decision to offer the job to Watkins, Levine led off with tongue firmly planted in cheek. “I’ve got to be honest with you, I have no idea how this came to pass. This is news to me. I’ll try to adjust on the fly.”
Levine then turned serious – and very complimentary toward the new Kernels manager.
“I think that one thing you guys always hear about is that we’re trying to develop players, there’s a development track. But I think the other thing that we’re trying to develop concurrently is staff members. Guys who have a chance, on the scouting side, to influence decision making and, on the coaching side, a chance to be Major League coaches.
“One of the things that I heard when I first joined the Minnesota Twins was about the man to my right, Tommy, and I think the universal feeling was that he had a chance to be a really good hitting coach, but he had the chance to be special as a manager. So when the opportunity presented itself to give him an opportunity to pursue his career as a manager, I think everybody in the organization really endorsed him because we felt as if that’s where he’s going to be a difference maker.
“We think he’s going to have a chance to be a Major League coach down the road. We think in the short term, he has a chance to really influence our minor league players, and as a manager we think his impact could be even greater than it was as a hitting coach.
“He’s a special man. He’s very charismatic. He knows the game of baseball. He’s still trying to learn every single day. Each time I’ve been around him, I feel as if I’ve gotten to know him a little bit better. This guy’s a very dynamic man. He’s going to be a leader in our organization for a long time to come and he’s just scratching the surface of his potential.”
Watkins said before the event that he’s looking forward to his return to the Kernels. “It feels good. I had a bunch of different emotions but I’m excited. It feels like I’ve been gone for a lot longer than just a year, but it’s good to be back. I enjoyed my time here and I’m looking forward to it.”
Asked by Atteberry to set the line on how many times Watkins will be ejected by umpires in 2017, Brian Dinkelman didn’t hesitate before saying. “I set it at 3 1/2.”
Buxton said he’s been feeling good since his hot finish to last season in September. “I’ve been hitting since late November, working on a few things and getting some stuff kinked out, but other than that, I feel great.
“I’m just focusing a little bit more on hitting, being a little bit more consistent, using my legs, staying down through the ball, keeping my head down. Just small things to help me out in the long run.”
He said he didn’t think there was any major change in his game that led to his strong finish to the 2016 season.
“Just stop thinking. Just run out there and play baseball. Have fun, going out there and have fun with teammates. We competed, September was different for everybody, not just including me. We went out there with a different mindset to finish the season strong and carry that over into spring training and this season.”
Looking back at his time in Cedar Rapids as a teenager barely out of high school, he said the dream of playing big league ball has turned out to be everything he hoped for, “and more.”
“Not many people are able to make it up there to the bigs, so I’m very blessed and thankful to get up there. Just being able to play beside Trevor when he’s up there pitching, not many people can say you’ve been in a big league uniform and you’ve been behind a pitcher like him that gives it his all and you’re right there giving it your all and trying to compete for a World Series ring.”
For his part, May also indicated he’s feeling good after having some trouble staying healthy in 2016.
“I’m feeling good,” said May. “I had some patterns I needed to break. In the past, I’ve always thought four months was enough to heal from everything in the offseason. But I’ve come to the realization that breaking down a muscle and building it back up again to where you want it to work just takes time.”
He said even little things such as posture, while standing or sitting, have been items he’s focused on this offseason, with an emphasis on workouts that increase his flexibility, like Pilates and yoga, rather than weight training.
“I was doing a bunch of stuff that was just exacerbating the problem 24 hours a day. Changing all those things has been a lot of work, but I’m excited to just keep doing what I’m doing into the season.
“I threw a bullpen today. If I threw a bullpen when my back was tight back there, I would definitely feel some stiffness right now after I threw and I don’t feel stiff at all, so I’m just taking that as a really good sign.”
May wasn’t just trying new things in regard to his offseason workout regimen. While he did some DJing again this year, as he has in the past, he also expanded his horizons.
“I actually have a new hobby,” he explained. “I broadcast video games, which has been really fun. It’s like having your own radio show in which you talk and play video games. I really enjoy it. I’m going to try to do it once a month on an offday during the season. I’m going to host tournaments of games I play for viewers.”
Asked to evaluate the state of the Twins’ farm system, now that many of their previous top prospects have broken into the big leagues, new GM Levine said that the Twins front office doesn’t necessarily look at the organization strictly in terms of players that have exhausted their eligibility for Rookie of the Year awards and those that have not.
“I think we look at the farm system as an extension to the Major Leagues, so any guy in the Major Leagues who has two or fewer years of service is part of that next wave, that core,” he said. “So I think when you include those players with your minor league players, you can really see the waves of players coming.
“There’s a wave in the big leagues right now, there’s a wave right behind them, there’s a wave that will be playing at Cedar Rapids this year. I think we’re excited about the depth throughout our system, inclusive of the Major Leagues and I think if you include that young group in the Major Leagues all the way down, you could see that the future is very bright.
“For a team that has the payroll that we will have, you’re looking at having as many young players who can impact the game as possible and I think you’ve got to look at the guys who have matriculated to the big leagues when you’re factoring that.”
The subject of the relatively public flirtation with trading second baseman Brian Dozier came up both in the interview setting and during the public Question & Answer session.
Levine indicated that, while it certainly appears that Dozier will be opening the season with the Twins, he wouldn’t say the door was completely closed on the possibility of moving Dozier, or any other player for that matter.
“I don’t know that we would talk specifically about any one trade negotiation, but I think the way Derek (Falvey) and I are going to operate is that we’re not closing doors at any juncture. At that point, you are not doing your job to the fullest. Any time you close off opportunities to improve the team, I think you’re doing the franchise a disservice.”
During the public session, Levine was asked specifically what he expected Dozier’s future was with the Twins.
“I think we think his future is going to be glorious with the franchise,” he responded. “He’s been the consummate professional throughout this process. We always approached this from the mindset of, the best the Minnesota Twins could be would be with Brian Dozier. If someone wants to blow our socks off, we’ll consider talking about him. But for that fact, we see him as part of this franchise moving forward.”
Atteberry asked Levine to address the “stats vs scouting” issue that comes up in almost any conversation about thenew front office management. Again, the new GM mixed humor into his more thoughtful response.
“When the movie Moneyball came out, everybody who was below a certain age – at that time, I would say 35, now I would say 45, just conveniently (Levine celebrated his 45th birthday in November) – you were viewed to be more of a formulaic-based decision making group vs if you were older, you were more of a scouts guy. And I think it’s a bit of a misconception.
“Derek and I are both guys who are going to have analytics and scouting and player development factor into every decision that we make. We’re not going to focus singularly on any sort of formula to spit out a decision we’re going to make.
“The other big misconception I think about that movie is that anybody working in a front office looks at all like Brad Pitt. We really don’t. Honestly.
“So the movie did some disservices across the board, but I do think analytics plays a role in decision making, but that’s all it is. It’s a piece of the pie. It’s not something that is going to drive us to make any singular decision. It will be something we weigh in, we factor in, but it’s not going to drive our decision making.”
Also during the public session, Atteberry challenged Levine to demonstrate how much he knew about the two players he was sharing a stage with. Atteberry presented a few bits of trivia and asked Levine to guess which player, May or Buxton, the fact pertained to.
The questions were: Which player DJ’d at his own wedding? Which one of them has the highest vertical jump and is the fastest runner in his family (and which is not)? Which has successfully noodled a catfish? And which one has a mother that kept a mountain lion as a pet for four years?
The answers: May (obviously), Buxton is NOT the fastest runner or best jumper in his family (he said his dad jumps higher, his brother is faster and he has a 13-year old sister that may eventually pass them all), but Buxton did noodle a catfish. It was May’s mother who kept a mountain lion as a pet.
And Levine nailed every answer correctly.
The final question from the audience asked Watkins and Buxton to relate the funniest thing that happened to them during their time with the Kernels.
Suffice to say that you won’t find Buxton playing baseball with ping pong balls in the clubhouse again any time soon and Watkins’ days of shaving his head are over.
Every year, a number of Cedar Rapids Kernels players and coaches spend one of their off-days sweating on a golf course with a bunch of people willing to shell out a couple dollars (actually a bit more) for the pleasure of sharing their company as they knock a little white ball about 6,000 yards around a local golf course to benefit the organization’s childrens’ reading program.
Today was such a day.
I was fortunate enough to get to be part of a fivesome that included Kernels relief pitcher Max Cordy.
Cordy is a 23-year-old righthander drafted by the Twins out of UC-Davis a year ago, made just three appearances at E’Town this year before being promoted to Cedar Rapids. He has a 2.00 in eight appearances for Cedar Rapids and is striking out about one batter per inning since arriving in Cedar Rapids.
Our group didn’t come close to winning anything in the 5-man best-shot competition, but that didn’t stop us from having a good time, despite enduring some heat (and even more humidity) as we made our way around Hunter’s Ridge Golf Course.
Kernels infielder Sean Miller was playing with the group ahead of us on the course and, despite our best efforts, we couldn’t even hit a decent shot into Miller’s group to make them nervous.
The golf outing is just one of several ways Twins minor leaguers participate in community relations activities in the Cedar Rapids area during the season.
I’d like to tell you everything Max and I talked about during our 4+ hours together, but what’s said on the golf course stays on the golf course. Plus, I might have had a beer or two during the round, so I probably wouldn’t relate anything we talked about accurately anyway.
With less than 40 games left in their 2017 campaign, the Cedar Rapids Kernels need a strong finish to clinch a Midwest League playoff spot, something they’ve accomplished every season since affiliating with the Minnesota Twins in 2013.
The Peoria Chiefs and Clinton Lumberkings finished one and two in the Division’s first half standings, automatically qualifying them for the postseason. Their Division rivals with the two best records in the second half will join the Chiefs and Lumberkings in the playoffs.
If the season ended today (Monday), Clinton would have the best second half record in the West, while Cedar Rapids and Quad Cities (currently second and third in the Division) would fill out the Western half of the postseason bracket. However, Burlington and Wisconsin sit one game or less behind Quad Cities, so the race is likely to be tight over the final weeks of the season.
Jake Mauer has been at the helm of the Kernels from the beginning of the club’s affiliation with the Twins. His 292-226 record with the Kernels makes him Cedar Rapids’ winningest manager in the modern era (1949-present) and places him third all-time. He’ll catch up to Ollie Marquardt in the second spot with his next win, but Mauer’s going to have to stick around a very, very long time to top Belden Hill’s 831 wins.
While winning takes a back seat to player development in modern minor league baseball, the local fans definitely like to follow a winner and Mauer has given the locals plenty of success, beginning with a squad that was loaded with top prospects in the inaugural season of the Twins/Kernels relationship. That team made winning look easy – at least a lot easier than it has looked in the two-and-a-half seasons since.
2016 has, perhaps, been the most challenging of Mauer’s four years of wearing number 12 for the Kernels. This year’s group is short on players you would find among “top prospect” lists published by the likes of Baseball America, MLB.com or any other group in the business of tracking minor leaguers’ paths to the big leagues.
Nonetheless, in an interview late last week, Mauer was unwilling to say that the lack of blue chippers on his team makes this season his most challenging.
“Each year is different,” Mauer said. “If you have a lot of high-end (prospects), you’re expected to win and if you don’t have a lot of high-end guys, you’ve got to find ways to win. It’s all part of development, it’s all part of the process.
“The second year (2014), I thought we had a lot of challenges, they were comparing the ’13 team to the ’14 team and that wasn’t fair to that ’14 team.”
Winning is obviously a lot easier when you’ve got a lot of those high draft choices and big money international free agents. Several of them, including first round draft choice Byron Buxton and six-figure bonus international signee Max Kepler (both now playing the outfield for the Twins) spent much of their 2013 seasons in Cedar Rapids uniforms.
“You get blessed with years like ’13 where you have seven of them, eight of them. They’re all panning out at different speeds,” reflected Mauer. “You know, some of the clubs I had at Fort Myers I don’t think we had one. So it just depends on what you have.”
When you’ve got a team of projected stars, a manager in Mauer’s position will generally stick with a pretty consistent lineup. “Obviously, guys that are higher end guys as a player,” he said, “you’ve got to find out what they can and can’t do, that’s the nature of the beast.”
Not so this season.
“I wonder how many different lineups we’ve used,” Mauer pondered. “It’s probably been fifty or sixty of them, would be my guess.
“Clubs like this, some of these guys that aren’t necessarily Baseball America guys get an opportunity to kind of put themselves on the map. As you can see, there’s no way to get buried on our bench here. Everybody plays.
“Pitching’s a little bit different,” he conceded. “They earn (consistent playing time) a little bit more. They’re all going to get an opportunity, it’s just a matter of what they’re going to do with it.
“It’s all getting these guys to understand themselves, first, in order for us to do anything – in order for them to have any impact down the road. This is the league where we start to shake out the guys that aren’t as mentally tough as others. Find out who can play every day, find out who can do what it takes. So, they’re going to get tested, they’re going to get innings, they’re going to get at-bats, get all that stuff. Then we’ll kind of look back in September at how everything unfolded.”
Throughout most of the first half of the season, it looked like the Kernels would easily clinch an early playoff spot by finishing in one of the top two spots in the Western Division’s first-half race, but they faltered badly during the final couple of weeks before the midpoint and ended up in third place.
“You hate to say it,” Mauer commented on his squad’s late first half implosion, “but we scored the same amount of runs, but we lost two guys in the back end of the bullpen and lost probably the best starter in the league.
“We weren’t necessarily blowing the doors off of anybody in the first half. It takes you a while to figure out who can step up and take those roles.”
Mauer is starting to see some guys stepping up.
Last week, the Kernels went on one a six-game road trip over into the MWL Eastern Division territory and came away with a perfect 6-0 record against Lake County and Fort Wayne.
“We swung the bats really well,” he said of their Eastern sweep. “We rode (Luis) Arraez, (Zander) Wiel and (Jaylin) Davis, really. Other guys chipped in here and there, but those guys had a monster week. You’re scoring 6, 7, 8 runs a night, it gives you a pretty good chance to win.
“(Wiel) can carry a team, which he did the last week. Jaylin Davis is probably in the same boat, he can carry a team. Arraez has been pretty consistent, but we kind of go where those three guys go. When the three of them are having a pretty good week, we’ve got a pretty good chance. If they’re not, it will be more difficult for us.”
Finding pitchers to fill the holes left following promotions has been more challenging for Mauer and pitching coach J.P. Martinez. “Pitching is still kind of up in the air who we’ve got,” the manager said.
“It’s so different,” Mauer said, of the Kernels’ bullpen situation. “We’re not as pitching-deep as we were last year. If we had a lead going into the fifth inning, we pretty much knew we were going to win last year. That’s not the case this year. You’ve got some guys that need to step up and take control. I’d say (Anthony) McIver has, to a point. We’ve got to find out about (Tom) Hackimer. But we still have several guys you don’t quite know what you’re going to get in given situations. We’ve got to find out.”
Mauer’s clearly also looking for some improvement among his starting rotation.
“(Cody) Stashak’s probably our number one (starting pitcher). (Lachlan) Wells has been good. Those two guys have been pretty good. If we can just get some of these (other) guys to take that next step, it would make the process better.”
The season’s second half is shaping up to be at least a four-team dogfight with the Kernels, Burlington Bees, Wisconsin Timber Rattlers and Quad Cities River Bandits playing leapfrog with one another in the standings on virtually a daily basis as they jockey for one of the coveted second-half playoff spots.
“That’s our division,” said Mauer. “There really isn’t a team that’s head and shoulders above anybody. Anybody can beat anybody on a given night and I think you’re going to see that kind of as we go through. Things change, obviously, as these draftee guys (from the 2016 draft) starting to come and some of these first full season guys that tend to hit a wall a little bit.”
Mauer’s working with a pair of coaches, in his fourth season with the Kernels, that he hasn’t been teamed with before. Martinez and hitting coach Brian Dinkelman are in their first seasons by Mauer’s side after coaching with the Twins’ Gulf Coast League team, where games are played on back fields at the organization’s spring training complex in front of few, if any, fans.
But the manager says things are going, “good,” on that count.
“(Martinez and Dinkelman) have been real good. Their first ‘real baseball’ compared to that ‘complex ball’ that’s a lot different. They’ve done a good job. For them, their first year, this is unusual to have so many different guys coming through.”
Forty-nine players have already worn a Kernels jersey in 2016. It’s not unusual for fewer players than that to suit up for Cedar Rapids in an entire season.
“What’s nice is that these guys know most of the kids that have come up,” Mauer added. “They’ve had them, they know what makes them tick, the things to do with them, what they need to work on.”
High roster turnover, few top prospects, new assistant coaches. Those things, on their own, might make a manager’s job challenging, but last week the Twins added a little something extra to the load that Mauer and his staff have to carry. Long-time General Manager Terry Ryan was fired by the Twins ownership.
“It’s unfortunate,” Mauer said of Ryan’s dismissal. “Obviously, he’s a great baseball man. He’s all I’ve ever known as a GM, other than Bill Smith, but Terry wasn’t far away (during Smith’s tenure as GM). I think it came as a shock, the timing of it, to everybody. He’s done so much for us and for our organization and whoever comes in after him is going to have big shoes to fill.”
As a result, Mauer and his coaches now are essentially lame ducks, uncertain whether the new GM will choose to retain them going forward. How’s that for adding a little anxiety to the manager’s life?
But, as Mauer observed, the anxiety goes well beyond just he and his coaches.
“It could be for scouts, all the way down to the athletic training guys and strength guys. You don’t know what’s going to happen, we don’t know who is the next guy, if they have somebody in mind, if they don’t. So, we’ll see. I’m sure they’ve got a game plan up there for what they’re going to do.
“But, if you’re confident in what you’re doing and you do a good job, you can’t control that,” Mauer concluded. “This is just like we tell the players, if they look at what’s going on ahead of them or who’s doing what behind them, they can’t control that. Same with us, (we can’t) worry about who’s coming in and fret about it, and not do the task at hand. We’ve got to do the task at hand first of all and see what shakes out.”
The “task at hand” for the manager and his charges is to finish the final six weeks of the season strong. How does Mauer see the remainder of the season shaping up?
“We’ll see. I wish I could answer that, honestly. I have no idea. We look like a million bucks for three or four days, then we have a tough time for three or four days. It’s just kind of how it is. We talk extensively about, we need leaders to step up and to lead and to be our guys so you kind of know what you’re going to get day in and day out.
“They’ll keep playing hard and they’ll keep competing and we’ll just see how it ends up.”
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:
(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.
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.