What a Terrific Start!

It’s pretty hard to imagine this baseball season getting off to a better start, isn’t it? I mean, even the most optimistic of us probably wouldn’t have predicted a .789 winning percentage through the first week of games! This looks like it could be a fun summer of baseball!

What’s that? You say the Twins are languishing with a 1-6 record? Who cares? I’m talking about their full-season minor league affiliates! That’s where the action (and literally ALL of the fun) is!

The AAA Rochester Red Wings are 3-1.

The newest Twins affiliate, the AA-level Chattanooga Lookouts (with arguably one of the most loaded rosters in all of minor league baseball) are sitting at 4-1.

The Class A Advanced Fort Myers Miracle are 3-2 (pending the outcome of their Tuesday game – what’s up with these morning start times, anyway?).

And last, but certainly not least, the Class A Cedar Rapids Kernels are still on pace to be a perfect 140-0 at the end of the year after winning their first five games of the season.

That means that the four minor league affiliates, combined, are 15-4 through Monday night and have lost two fewer games than the Twins have managed to drop all by themselves.

Does this represent the Twins' pitching woes or their farm clubs' hitting prowess? Take your pick.

Does this represent the Twins’ pitching woes or their farm clubs’ hitting prowess? Take your pick.

Of course, it’s early. You don’t want to read too much in to the small sample size of a week’s worth of games. After all, will even the Twins continue losing at their current pace to finish the year with a 27-135 record? Of course they won’t. Well – probably not, anyway.

But while those of you who insist on following only the big leaguers continue to wonder why you’re paying big league prices to watch what even Torii Hunter has admitted to essentially being “Bad News Bears” baseball, here’s a small sample of what you’ve been missing on the farm:

  • The Red Wings have three guys, all deemed by Twins management to be unworthy of a spot with the Twins, with an OPS over 1.000. Two of them, Danny Ortiz and Aaron Hicks, would likely improve the Twins’ outfield defense if they weren’t wearing Rochester uniforms. The third, Josmil Pinto, probably deserves an entire post dedicated to discussing why he should or shouldn’t be in Minnesota.
  • The consensus top two Twins prospects, Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, both are in the Lookouts’ everyday lineup, so it’s not surprising that Chattanooga also has three guys with above-1.000 OPS numbers. Then again, none of those three guys are named Buxton or Sano. Stephen Wickens, DJ Hicks and Travis Harrison are bringing the lumber, so far, for the Lookouts. They aren’t the only productive hitters, however. That lineup is stacked, as expected. Their TEAM OPS is .829. Oh, and their pitchers are striking out almost 1.3 batters per inning, too.
  • Niko Goodrum is a .400 hitter, going in to Tuesday’s game, for the Miracle, who also had two starting pitchers, Aaron Slegers and Ryan Eades, who each tossed six shutout innings in their initial starts of the season.
  • No less than five Kernels hitters have put up 1.000+ OPS numbers through the first five games. As a TEAM, the Kernels have put up a .316/.380/.471 (.851 OPS) slash line. That Midwest League-leading team batting average is a full 47 points over the next highest team in the league. Not to be outdone, the pitching staff has put up a 1.80 ERA, so far, and have struck out 57 batters in a combined 45 innings of work.

Conversely, the Twins have put up a team OPS of .530 on the season, which is the worst in Major League Baseball. Their team ERA is 6.52, which is also dead last among the 30 big league teams. Not coincidentally, their 35 staff strikeouts is also good for dead last.

All of this might be more understandable if the Twins had made clear that, for the good of the franchise, they were going to punt on 2015 – that the plan would be to plug journeymen “replacement level” players in to fill every perceived gap in their big league roster, in order to give their much-heralded minor league prospects more time to become adequately seasoned on the farm.

But that’s not what they did. Every public comment from everyone in the organization from the end of 2014’s fourth consecutive 90+ loss season through the final days of spring training expressed the company line that they were expecting significant improvement this season.

That’s not really surprising. Twins fans generally hear that refrain every offseason.

The truth is that the Twins have been hoping that fans would be patient, because there really is a ton of young talent approaching the Major League team’s doorstep. From the sounds coming from Target Field on Monday, it seems that ‘patient’ is not exactly what much of the fan base is feeling.

I don’t think it had to be this way.

Back in early October, I wrote that I thought it was time for the Twins to adjust their model, when it comes to promoting their prospects. I suggested that, despite both guys losing virtually their entire seasons a year ago to injury, the Twins should consider simply promoting Buxton and Sano and letting them learn their craft on the big stage.

I argued that, yes they would struggle, but they’re likely to struggle a while whenever they are finally promoted and both young men have demonstrated that they learn, adapt and, ultimately, dominate, very quickly as each new challenge is presented.

I also argued for either signing one of the top free agent starting pitchers or simply getting Alex Meyer and Trevor May in to the rotation from the start and setting up Jose Berrios for a debut not too deep in to the season.

I didn’t discuss the bullpen, at the time, but if I’d known what the Opening Day bullpen was going to look like, I’d have argued pretty forcefully for an immediate youth movement there, too.

Instead, the Twins have assembled a cast at the big league level that deflated and discouraged its fan base (warm welcome-home ovation for Torii Hunter, notwithstanding) virtually before the Home Opener was finished.

The future does look bright. There is an embarrassment of riches in terms of baseball talent in the Twins organization.

Unfortunately, the Twins have decided that you won’t see a lot of it at Target Field for a while.

That’s bad news for fans in Minnesota, but Twins fans in New York, Florida, Tennessee and Iowa look to be in for a lot of fun this summer.

– JC

JC’s Spring Training Report

I’ve been down here in Fort Myers, Florida, for several days now and I’ve been very slow about posting anything here. My bad.

Century Link Field, Spring Training home of the Twins

Century Link Field, Spring Training home of the Twins

The newly remodeled stadium at the Twins’ complex (now named “Century Link Field”) is very nice. Much wider concourses and a lot of variety of seating options. I’ve seen parts of a couple games at the new place, as well as a game against the Phillies at their Clearwater home. I plan to also see the Twins take on the Orioles up in Sarasota on Sunday.

But I’ve spent the lion’s share of my time over on the back fields watching the minor leaguers, in particular the two Class A groups. One of them made up of guys who were Cedar Rapids Kernels last year and are likely to play for the Fort Myers Miracle this season, the other made up of players likely ticketed to start this season in Cedar Rapids.

I’ve taken quite a few pictures and maybe I’ll work at getting them downloaded and posted here once I get back to Cedar Rapids next week.

For now, I’m going to share three separate articles I wrote for MetroSportsReport.com in Cedar Rapids. Since I don’t have space concerns here, I’m just going to combine them all in this one blog post. Enjoy.

Gonsalves Will Have a New Pitch When He Returns to Cedar Rapids

Ask Minnesota Twins pitching prospect Stephen Gonsalves about his offseason and the first thing he may mention is his vacation to Australia with fellow Twins pitching prospects Lewis Thorpe and Sam Gibbons.

“It was Sam’s 21st birthday so we made a little vacation out of it,” Gonsalves explained on Friday, while watching his Cedar Rapids Kernels teammates take on a group of Tampa Bay Rays Class A prospects.

Stephen Gonsalves

Stephen Gonsalves

But hanging out with Aussies Thorpe and Gibbons down-under for a couple of weeks was just one small part of Gonsalves’ winter.

The 20-year-old lefty starting pitcher played a crucial role in the playoff drive the Kernels put together during the second half of the 2014 season. He notched a 3.19 Earned Run Average while striking out 44 batters in just 36.2 innings of work over eight starts with Cedar Rapids.

Some young pitchers might have felt satisfied with those numbers and focused their offseason workouts on simply adding some muscle or improving their conditioning, but not Gonsalves.

The young Californian combined a 90 mph fastball with an effective slow curve and an equally effective change up to solidify his ranking as a consensus top 20 prospect within the Twins’ organization heading in to 2015.

Rather than being satisfied with that, Gonsalves went home after participating in fall instructional league and went to work on broadening his arsenal of pitching weapons.

“Right after instructs, I went home and started working out that next week,” Gonsalves said.

“Home” for Gonsalves is San Diego, California, and he wasn’t working out alone there. He worked out with a couple of other well-credentialed pitchers with San Diego ties.

“I was able to work out with Stephen Strasburg this whole offseason, got to pick his brain a lot,” Gonsalves recalled. “James Shields was there, also. So I got to mix in a lot with those guys and kind of pick their brains the entire offseason. Helped me out a little mechanically on the hill, also.”

Strasburg and Shields were both rotation leaders for Major League postseason participants last year, Strasburg with the Washington Nationals and Shields with the Kansas City Royals. Shields inked a new deal as a free agent this offseason with the San Diego Padres.

“I was working on a slider,” said Gonsalves. “That’s what Shields is known for, his slider, so I got to work with him for about a month just specifically on that pitch for a while. It’s coming along nicely. The Twins are starting to like it.”

So far this spring, the results seem to be positive. He’s been in Ft. Myers since March 1, well before the minor leaguers began playing games. He’s made three solid appearances, building up his pitch count and getting ready to head north to Cedar Rapids when camp breaks the first full week of April.

Gonsalves acknowledged that he’s likely to be one of just a small number of 2014 Kernels returning to open the new campaign in Cedar Rapids, but he’s looking forward to opening the year with the new crew of Kernels.

“We’re going to have a whole new team, pretty much, (but) we’re going to have a good little squad together. It’s going to be fun. We’re going to be a little scrappy team.”

Chad Christensen Hoping His Time Playing Before Hometown Fans is Over

Almost a year ago, Cedar Rapids Washington grad Chad Christensen got the word he would be making his full-season pro baseball debut with his hometown club, the Cedar Rapids Kernels. This spring, the Minnesota Twins farm hand is hoping to avoid a return trip to Cedar Rapids.

You can’t blame a guy for preferring a promotion up the Twins’ minor league ladder over another summer living at home.

Chad Christensen & Jason Kanzler going through early morning stretching exercises

Chad Christensen & Jason Kanzler going through early morning stretching exercises

In fact, hitting .272 for the Kernels last season,Christensen left Cedar Rapids, just like his Kernels teammates.

“I went back to Lincoln and lived there,” Christensen explained. “A lot of guys that are in pro ball are back there so we kind ofwork out together and use the (University of Nebraska) facilities andeverything. That’s where I was doing my workouts.

“I came home (to Cedar Rapids) for a couple of weeks before I came here (Fort Myers). I got down here a little early, February 23rd, to get outside, get out of the cold and get back to baseball.”

With about two weeks of spring training left, his ultimate assignment is primarily just speculation, at this point, but every player in camp is hoping for a promotion and, for Christensen, that would mean a spot on the roster of the Twins’ class high-A affiliate, the Fort Myers Miracle.

“I’m not positive,” Christensen said, when asked about whether he’d heard anything about where he would open the 2015 season. “I would think probably down here (in Fort Myers). But I’m just playing, it’s not up tome. I’m just trying to play every day and stay healthy and get back in the swing of things.”

For Christensen, playing every day last summer meant spending time playing all around the diamond defensively for the Kernels. Christensen played all over the outfield, but also logged 90 games at firstbase. He also played 27 games at third base for Elizabethton in 2013.

Versatility is a benefit for players trying to get noticed in a professional baseball organization and Christensen will be continuing to demonstrate his willingness and ability to move around the field. During spring training, however, it’s clear the Twins are wanting to see him in the outfield as much as possible.

“I’ve been playing all outfield – all three outfield spots,”said Christensen. “Obviously, if I’m needed to go in to the infield again, Ican go in the infield, but I’ve been in the outfield down here, so far.”

An assignment with the Miracle would keep Christensen with alot of last summer’s Kernels. Of the thirty or so players currently listed onthe Miracle’s spring training roster, over 25 spent time in Cedar Rapids last season. Christensen likes the idea of sticking with that group.

“Yeah, we have a good group. Guys come ready to go every day, that’s what makes it fun,” said Christensen. “We’re looking forward to getting the season going.”

Christensen isn’t the only one ready to get the season rolling. Kernels hitting coach Tommy Watkins indicated he is more than ready to head to Cedar Rapids. “This is like Groundhog Day,” Watkins said, alluding to the day-after-day repetitive nature of the spring training routine.

Christensen indicated the players are starting to feel the same way.

“Yeah, we’re starting to get kind of anxious this time of year.”

Jake Mauer Hopes to Have His Roster Set Soon

In less than two weeks, Cedar Rapids Kernels manager Jake Mauer will be bringing a fresh crop of 25 ballplayers north from their spring training home in Fort Myers, Florida. The exact constitution of that roster, however, is still somewhat of work in progress.

Mauer said he’d like to get things finalized soon, however.

“Ideally we’d like to have who we’re going to take to Cedar Rapids that last week of spring training,” Mauer explained on Thursday, just before his squad took on a Class A group of Boston Red Sox prospects.

“You can do different things and put in different signs, things we’re going to use throughout the year. Make sure we get all the kinks out before we start up there at Kane County (where the Kernels open their season on April 9).”

Mauer will be entering his third season as manager of the Kernels. In fact, among all of the Twins organization’s full-season teams, he’s the only manager assigned to the same club he led a year ago.

Jake Mauer and Tommy Watkins with early morning instructions

Jake Mauer and Tommy Watkins with early morning instructions

The Twins hired Hall of Famer Paul Molitor to manage the big league team this season and former Chicago Cubs manager Mike Quade is taking over the AAA Rochester Red Wings. Jeff Smith and Doug Mientkiewicz swapped their assignments this year, with Mientkiewicz managing AA Chattanooga and Smith taking over high-A Fort Myers.

Mauer indicated, though, that he wasn’t surprised to be assigned to Cedar Rapids again.

“No, I wouldn’t say surprised,” he said. “Obviously, Cedar Rapids is a pretty good fit for me on a personal level, family-wise. Professional-wise, baseball is baseball, wherever you’re at and at the level I’m at, I really enjoy being around the young guys and teaching every day.”

Kernels fans may recognize the team’s manager this season, but they are going to want to pick up a program early on their first trip to the ballpark and study it closely, because they aren’t likely to see many familiar names or faces among the 2015 Kernels players

Starting pitchers Stephen Gonsalves and Mat Batts are looking likely to return to start their new season with the Kernels and both have been, “throwing it well,” according to their manager.

John Curtiss, who joined the Kernels to make a start during their playoff run a year ago, is also likely to start his summer with the Kernels.

“As far as those starters, folks in CR have seen those guys a little bit, but our bullpen is going to be pretty much all new guys from what it looks like,” Mauer said.

“As far as position players, I don’t think we’ll have too many guys that were there last year. Maybe a few guys that were there for a portion of the year, we may get back,” he added.

Outfielders Zack Larson and Max Murphy are the only position players with time in a Kernels uniform who have been assigned to the most recent Kernels spring training working group.

Mauer was quick to point out that the roster is not set, however.

“It will depend with, obviously Molitor running the big league club, who he likes, who he wants to keep.”

The parent Twins are still about 10 players over their opening day roster limit, so as the big club makes further cuts, there could be additions and/or subtractions from the current group of prospective Kernels.

Once the season gets underway, Mauer indicated he felt the team may be relying on their starting pitching early on.

“I think we’ll have some starting pitchers with a little bit of experience that I think we’ll lean on, especially early in the year. They’ll need to go out there and set the tone.”

Offensively, the Kernels are going to be relying on a lot of players with little or no experience above rookie-level short season ball at Elizabethton last season.

“We’re still trying to kind of get to know these guys a little bit,” Mauer said, of his position players. “As far as team speed, I don’t know if we’re going to have a lot of it. We’re going to have some guys that put up decent numbers in E’Town. Obviously, we all know it’s different going in to the Midwest League, facing a little different caliber of pitching.”

A number of players are having strong springs, but Mauer was philosophical about his expectations for the Kernels once they leave the mid-80 degree temperatures of Fort Myers behind and head north.

“We may go through some growing pains, but hopefully it’ll all shake out. We’ll see how we react when it’s thirty degrees out.”

Mitch Garver’s Big League Spring

Almost exactly 11 months ago, Mitch Garver arrived in Cedar Rapids to get started on his first full season of professional baseball in the Minnesota Twins organization. This spring, he’s a big league catcher – for now, anyway.

Garver, the Twins’ ninth round draft choice in 2013 out of New Mexico, spent all of last season with the Cedar Rapids Kernels, not only playing a leadership role behind the plate but at the plate, as well. He hit .298, led Cedar Rapids with 79 RBI and was voted the Midwest League’s post-season all-star catcher.

Garver reported to the Twins’ spring training facility in Fort Myers, Florida, with the other Twins major league pitchers and catchers in February and he’s been putting on a big league uniform every day since.

Major League teams invite a limited number of their minor league catchers to big league camp every spring in order to have enough catchers to handle catching duties for all of the pitchers that need to work out their kinks during the first four weeks or so of spring training and Garver got one of those coveted invitations to big league camp this year. (Tyler Grimes, who caught for the 2013 Kernels, also is getting a taste of big league life with the Twins this spring.)

On Friday, Garver talked about his experience this spring in the Minnesota Twins’ major league camp.

Mitch Garver (photo: Minnesota Twins)

Mitch Garver (photo: Minnesota Twins)

After Garver and the Kernels wrapped up their 2014 season back in September, he spent a little time in Minnesota and Florida getting checked out physically, including a CT scan due to late season concussion issues.

“No issues there, everything came back clean,” Garver assured. “It was just an experience for me to make sure everything was OK. I got to see Target Field and everything around there. They wanted to make sure I was healthy enough to go back to Albuquerque to work out, so I was in (fall instructional league in Fort Myers) for a month to kind of iron some things out.”

Garver split the next couple of months between time with his fiancé in Corvallis, Oregon, and with his family in New Mexico.

It was while in New Mexico that he woke up one morning, about a week before Christmas, to find he had a missed call on his phone.

“It was at like eight or nine in the morning and I didn’t know what the number was,” Garver recalled. “So I called it back.”

It was a good decision. The call turned out to have been from Twins General Manager Terry Ryan.

“He asked me how my health was and made sure everything was good with my hips and with my brain and everything. I told him I was doing great, having a great offseason. Then he invited me to spring training.” That’s major league spring training, with the big league Twins.

“It was really exciting. Very cool,” added Garver.

Garver has been in camp since February 20 and, as you might expect, walking in to a big league clubhouse as a player for the first time was special.

“It’s very different because you walk in and you find your locker and you turn around and there’s five clubhouse guys behind you. Five clubbies, asking you if there’s anything you need, anything they can do for you at that moment in time. You’re just being bombarded with love, it seems like. It’s a cool experience. It’s just fun to be here.”

He’s not just there for the cool experience, of course. Garver is there to work. He’s rooming with fellow Twins catching prospect Stuart Turner at the new baseball academy that the Twins have built on-site at their complex in Fort Myers.and, according to Garver, their days get off to a pretty early start.

“I wake up at 6:30, we leave the academy about 6:40 and get over to the field. I like to get there a little bit early. They have breakfast for us over there in the new, renovated locker room and kitchen. And the weight room is right there as well. Sometimes you work out in the morning, sometimes you go hit in the morning or you do both.

“And then team meetings around 9:00. After that, we head out to different fields and do PFPs (pitchers’ fielding practice), bullpens, live batting practice, baserunning, bunt defense. There’s a defensive station every day. So either we’re catching bullpens or we’re doing something catching-related. For that particular day, it could be blocking or the next day it could be catching pop flies or anything like that. But most of the time, it’s bullpens and we get all of our work in during the bullpens.

“When it’s all said and done, it’s probably around 1:00 or 2:00 in the afternoon and you go have lunch and then you call it a day.”

The time Garver and other young players get on the field with major league players and coaching staff is valuable, of course, but it’s not the only aspect his first big league spring training that Garver is taking advantage of.

“It’s nice to get to know these guys (the major leaguers). You kind of want to get associated with them and learn what kind of people they are off the field, because you already know what they can do on the field. It’s fun to talk with them and converse about different things, finding out where people are from and all of these different stories they have, baseball related or not.

“Torii Hunter has some really different stories about everything. It’s fun to listen to him talk. It’s just a good experience overall.”

The experience also has made Garver even more aware of just how close he could be to realizing his dreams of being a major league ballplayer.

“It’s surreal. You’re playing with superstars and if you put it in perspective, you’re not that far off,” Garver observed. “Just a hop, skip and a jump away from being in the big leagues, whatever level you’re at.”

Garver got his first taste of big league game experience on Thursday night, as a pinch hitter, in the Twins first spring training game. It was memorable on multiple levels for Garver.

“I was sitting in the dugout (Thursday) night and we were playing the Boston Red Sox. People that I’ve only ever seen on TV, or only ever imagined playing against are in the other dugout,” he recounted.

“And in the other dugout is one of my best friends from Albuquerque, Blake Swihart. He’s one of the best catching prospects in the game and it’s just surreal seeing him over there. Then he’s catching when I’m batting and I’m facing a big leaguer (Boston reliever Matt Barnes). It’s kind of weird to think about it, but it’s right there in front of me. I’ve just gotta go get it.”

As exciting as the experience has been and continues to be, Garver is realistic and knows his time in the major league clubhouse is going to come to an end (for this season, anyway) shortly.

Mitch Garver as a Kernel

Mitch Garver as a Kernel

Minor leaguers begin reporting to spring training in a few days and eventually Garver will be joining them at the minor league complex across the parking lot from the Twins’ big league facility.

Garver is OK with that.

“Yeah, it’s coming. I know it is. Everybody knows it is. I think the 15th will be our last day and the 16th is the day we’re sent back.

“But you know what, that’s fine with me,” said Garver, in a tone of voice that certainly sounded genuine.

“I’ve come, I’ve seen, I’ve learned a lot of things thus far. And I think being sent down to the minor leagues is going to be a good thing because I’ll get to play every day. I can prepare myself for the season, as opposed to helping major leaguers prepare for their season, because I’m just kind of helping out right now.”

Asked whether he’d like to add a couple of points to his batting average in 2015, to get it up to the magic .300 mark, Garver laughed and said that was, indeed, one his goals. But then that’s not new.

“I want to hit .300, I want to make the All-Star team and I want to have the most RBIs on the team. There you go. Those are my goals. The same as last year and the year before.”

Twins Caravan Stops in Cedar Rapids

As has become the custom since the Minnesota Twins and Cedar Rapids Kernels became affiliates, the Twins’ Caravan made a stop in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday night, in conjunction with the Kernels’ annual Hot Stove Banquet.

CaravanHotStove2015

(L to R) Gene Glynn, Brad Steil, Jake Mauer, Kris Atteberry, Glen Perkins, Paul Molitor

Combining the banquet, which includes induction ceremonies for the most recent class of Cedar Rapids Baseball Hall of Fame members, with the Caravan does make for a rather long evening, but that didn’t stop the event from being sold out. The banquet is a primary fundraiser for the Kernels’ charitable foundation.

The Caravan was emceed very well by Kris Atteberry and included manager Paul Molitor, coach Gene Glynn, farm director Brad Steil, Twins closer Glen Perkins and returning Kernels manager Jake Mauer.

The CR Baseball Hall of Fame inductees included former CR minor leaguers Nick Adenhart and Chili Davis, as well as Lanny Peterson, who has been the driving force behind the Kernels’ top-notch host family program, and broadcaster Bert Wilson, who worked in Cedar Rapids before going on to broadcast Cubs games in the 1940s and 50s.

The Adenhart induction was particularly moving as his step-father was present to accept the award on behalf of the Adenhart family. The family continues to help fund an annual scholarship awarded by the Kernels Foundation each year in Nick’s name.

The Caravan portion of the program had, as would be expected, largely a positive tone from all involved.  There were two particular highlights (for me anyway).

"Floyd" and Glen Perkins, Paul Molitor

“Floyd” and Glen Perkins, Paul Molitor

University of Minnesota alum Perkins produced a “replica” (using that term generously) Floyd of Rosedale trophy from under the table in front of him so that Hawkeye fans in the crowd could get a good look at the “trophy” currently possessed by the Gophers. The faux Floyd was given away at the end of the evening during the door prize giveaway session. It was actually won by someone who told Perkins he was a Badger fan. Perkins admitted they didn’t have an axe to give him and alluded to the fact that they haven’t seen Paul Bunyan’s Axe in Minnesota for a while.

A young fan asked Jake Mauer whether he gets himself thrown out of games by umpires at times to fire up his team. The question got a lot of smiles from the dias, including from Mauer himself, who handled the question very well, explaining that sometimes players and coaches get emotional and that sometimes you just disagree with one another.

The discussion turned to one particular ejection during the 2014 season, while Jake’s brother Joe was with the Kernels on a rehabilitation assignment. Jake related a couple of additional facts from that particular night’s ejection.

Apparently Joe wasn’t the only visitor from Minnesota in attendance for that game. A group of 10-year-olds that Jake works with, including, naturally, lessons on the need to treat umpires with respect, had also made the trip and were in attendance that evening. #awkward

Jake also told the crowd that, after he was ejected that night, brother Joe came up to Jake’s office between innings and said, “That was awesome!”

In all, it was a great evening and a welcome distraction from the cold winter – an opportunity to hear some preseason optimism from the Twins organization and talk baseball with fellow fans. The Kernels’ staff, as always, did a first-rate job putting on the event.

Joe Mauer's autographed Kernels jersey, Byron Buxton's autographed 2013 Batting Practice Jersey and a Metrodome seatback autographed by Joe Mauer were among the biggest ticket silent auction items

Joe Mauer’s autographed Kernels jersey, Byron Buxton’s autographed 2013 Batting Practice Jersey and a Metrodome seatback autographed by Joe Mauer were among the biggest ticket silent auction items

As a bonus, I didn’t even get the wallet damaged too badly in the silent auction. At one point near the end of the silent auction, I had top bid on a number of items totaling several hundred dollars. In the end I got outbid on everything but a Tony Oliva autographed baseball, so maybe I’ll be able to afford that spring training trip in March, after all!

– JC

P.S. You can click the following links to find stories from Jeff Johnson of the Gazette and Jim Ecker of MetroSportsReport.com focused on Perkins and Molitor, respectively.

Glen Perkins, Gene Glynn and Paul Molitor doing the autograph line thing

Glen Perkins, Gene Glynn and Paul Molitor doing the autograph line thing

The view of the proceedings from my "Bob Uecker" seats

The view of the proceedings from my “Bob Uecker” seats

AFL Interviews: Max Kepler and Taylor Rogers

The Salt River Rafters made the trip across to the west side of the Phoenix area to Surprise, Arizona, on Wednesday to take on the Surprise Saguaros and, prior to the game, Twins prospects Max Kepler and Tyler Rogers took the time to answer a few questions.

Kepler takes a .289/.385/.422 slash line in to Thursday night’s game in Salt River, which is respectable for any hitter in the Arizona Fall League, but is perhaps even more impressive for a 21-year-old with no experience above the Class A level.

Max Kepler

Max Kepler

He’s happy with his performance, so far.

“I think I’m playing consistent ball,” Kepler said. “I’m playing solid outfield defense. Yeah, doing everything I can right now.”

Players in this league have been playing ball since minor league spring training started at the beginning of March, and Kepler confirmed that the wear and tear on the body starts to catch up with them this time of year.

“Yeah, it has (been a long year),” Kepler admitted, but he quickly added, “It’s been an awesome year, though.”

This is Kepler’s second year in the Arizona Fall League and he said he’s definitely seeing a difference in his game this time around.

“I’m more confident. I feel more confident against the pitchers,” Kepler reflected. “Last year, coming out of low-A ball, I just felt like all these big names were throwing at me and I was just a little guy in the big ocean. (They were) big dudes. Now I just feel like I can handle it.”

Kepler has been part of two minor league championship teams in his past three years of minor league ball, winning titles with Elizabethton in 2012 and in Fort Myers this past season.

Max Kepler diving back in to first base on an attempted pick off

Max Kepler diving back in to first base on an attempted pick off

In between those championship seasons, Kepler spent 2013 split between rehabbing an elbow injury during the first half of the season and spending the second half of the year with the Cedar Rapids Kernels.

He had some good moments with Cedar Rapids, including an opposite field home run in his first home game as a Kernel, that stands out in Kepler’s memory (“I remember that short porch really helped me out that first game”), but his thoughts on that season are admittedly mixed.

“The fans are unbelievable (in Cedar Rapids),” Kepler said. But at the same time, recalling his efforts to overcome the injury, he added, “It was rough, but I’m glad I got to stick with that good group of guys and I hope we can move up together because we’ve got chemistry on that team.”

That “good group of guys” that Kepler played with in Cedar Rapids formed the core of this year’s Florida State League championship team. That team was managed by Doug Mientkiewicz, the former Twins first baseman who has been prominently mentioned as a finalist for the Twins’ managerial job this fall.

The speculation has been that, should Mientkiewicz not get the Twins job, he may move up to manage the Class AA team that will be playing their first season in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

“That would be awesome,” said Kepler, of the possibility of playing a second year for Mientkiewicz.

Kepler also provided some insight in to what it’s like to play for Mientkiewicz.

“He’s wild,” Kepler said, while laughing. “I’d say he’s a little unorthodox, but it sure worked for us. We kind of went through a lot of ups and downs this year, but when we won, we won a bunch. And then when we lost one game, Doug would get on us, and I mean hard. But when he did, he fixed it and it worked for us. But, yeah, he sure was tough on us when we weren’t doing well and weren’t focused, but the rest of the year, he was a fun guy to be around. He was just like one of us. Yeah, I loved him.”

Once the AFL season wraps up, Kepler will take a little time off then begin getting ready for 2015.

“The offseasons are getting shorter and shorter,” he said. “But I’ll do as much as I can with my three months of workout.

“I’ll travel the states for a little, go to Texas for Thanksgiving,” Kepler said of his immediate plans after AFL finishes. “I’ll be going home (to Germany) for Christmas and the holidays.”

While Kepler has been playing several days each week in Arizona, pitcher Taylor Rogers has been not much more than a spectator during the games.

Rogers, a 23-year-old lefty who pitched at Class AA New Britain in 2014, was injured in the third inning of his first AFL game when a batted ball was lined off his shoulder.

Rogers1

Taylor Rogers

Since then, he’s been sitting.

Taylor said Wednesday that he’s hoping that’s about to change.

Rogers said that he is, “finally getting back to square one almost – back to where I can toss a little bit. Hopefully I can get a few more innings in here before the season ends.

“It’s something I want to do. You sign the contract to play here so I want to finish this thing out and see what I can do. We’ll probably going to see how these bullpens go.”

Rogers, along with Kepler, Byron Buxton and Jake Reed, is a Cedar Rapids Kernels alum.

Though, unlike the others, Rogers’ time in Cedar Rapids barely was long enough to register on his minor league stats line. He struggled a bit during his three games for the Kernels in a very cold April of 2013 before being promoted to Fort Myers, where he had a very good season for the Miracle.

“Yeah, you know what, funny what warm weather can do for you,” Rogers said, with a smile, then added, “No, it was fun those 14 days or so. It was nice to get out of the cold, but I’m sure if I would have stayed in Cedar Rapids, it would have been a fun year.”

The weather in Cedar Rapids may have been chilly, but Rogers recalls the warm greeting he and his team mates got upon arrival.

“I thought it was really cool how that was the first year of the Twins being there (as an affiliate). What I remember was the fans really welcoming us. That was just really nice to see. Something like that you don’t see very often. They were excited to have us there and we felt very welcomed.”

AFL Interview: Jake Reed

A year ago, Jake Reed was beginning intrasquad workouts in Eugene, Oregon, as he prepared for his junior year at the University of Oregon. In the subsequent 12 months, the Twins’ prospect has seen a lot of the U.S.A. while pitching for the Ducks, then the Twins Rookie level team in Elizabethton, Tennessee, followed by the Cedar Rapids Kernels, and a trip to Fort Myers for instructional league. Now, he’s a member of the Salt River Rafters in the Arizona Fall League.

Reed was the Twins’ fifth round draft pick back in June, which means you won’t find him on any of last offseason’s “Top Twins Prospects” lists. You won’t likely have to look too far down this year’s lists to find his name, however.

JakeReed1

Jake Reed

After signing with the Twins, he made four appearances in Elizabethton before being promoted to Cedar Rapids. Between the two stops, he put up a 0.29 ERA over 20 relief appearances. He struck out 39 batters, while walking just three.

That kind of work earned him a coveted spot in the Arizona Fall League where, as difficult as it may be to believe, he’s actually improved his ERA to a perfect 0.00 in his first six appearances for the Rafters.

As you might expect, Reed is pretty happy with how his professional career has gone, thus far.

“It’s been just a great experience,” Reed said on Tuesday, before the Rafters beat up the Glendale Desert Dogs 14-2. “Just from the time I got drafted, with my parents there in Eugene with me, to sitting here now in Arizona. To still be playing in the fall, it’s pretty special. It’s been a great ride. I couldn’t have wished for a better first half-season.”

Reed was one of two Twins prospects, along with outfielder and top Twins prospect, Byron Buxton, who were named to represent their team in the AFL’s “Fall Stars Game” this Saturday. Not bad for a guy who was surprised when Kernels manager Jake Mauer and pitching coach Ivan Arteaga gave him the news that he was headed to Arizona this fall.

“When {Mauer) called me in, there was a couple weeks left in the season. I knew the Miracle were going to be in the playoffs, so I thought I was maybe going to be going up there to help them,” Reed recalled. “But they sat me down and originally Ivan kind of played a joke on me and asked if I wanted to go play (winter ball) for him in Venezuela. I was like, ‘oh yeah, make four grand a month,’ and I said, ‘absolutely.’ He said, ‘No we were just kidding. We’re sending you to fall league.'”

Most AFL players have at least reached Class AA, but organizations are allowed a very limited number of roster spots for players who have not reached beyond Class A ball. That says something about how the Twins view Reed.

Mauer and Arteaga told Reed that the Twins minor league director, Brad Steil, had contacted them and asked whether they thought Reed was ready for AFL, where he’d be facing a number of the top prospects in baseball.

“They thought I was,” said Reed. “They asked me if I wanted to and obviously I wasn’t going to turn that down.

“It was a big surprise for me. I was pretty shocked. I’m not saying I don’t think I deserved it, but with the guys that come out here normally, it’s the bigger prospects and it’s my first half season, so in that aspect, I didn’t expect it much.”

Jake Reed gives a helping hand to a grounds crew member who took a corner a bit sharp

Jake Reed gives a helping hand to a grounds crew member who took a corner a bit sharp

Often, organizations are cautious about sending pitchers to Arizona the year they were drafted due to the number of innings they’ve racked up on their arms, between their final college season in the spring and their first partial season of professional ball in the summer. That wasn’t an issue for Reed, however.

“I’d started my first two years of college so I was accustomed to going 100 innings a year and I threw 40 maybe in college and 30 in the summer, so I was only at 70. I had more in my tank. The inning limit hasn’t been an issue at all.”

It’s not like they overtax the arms in Arizona, anyway. Each club carries about 20 pitchers to make sure none of them are overworked. Even relievers, like Reed, typically will pitch an inning or two and then get a couple days off before their next appearance.

Fall League is an opportunity for Reed to show what he’s got in front of a large group of scouts from literally every organization in professional baseball, but it’s also a chance to hone his craft. Reed was told the Twins wanted him to work on his change up, on “tightening up” his breaking ball and on stopping the running game.

Of course, his 0.75 WHIP means he’s not getting many opportunities to work on controlling that running game this fall.

“I haven’t thrown a change up much,” Reed admitted, “but my breaking ball, at times, has been a lot better than it has been. I think the biggest thing, though, is just maintaining the command that I had all summer. Getting ahead of guys, not walking guys.

“As long as I keep throwing strikes, I think I’ll keep doing alright.”

While Reed and half a dozen other Twins farmhands have been toiling in the Arizona sun, Twins General Manager Terry Ryan has been looking for a new manager. Reed and the others are following that story closely, as you can imagine.

“Absolutely,” Reed confirmed. “Ultimately, that’s where we want to end up and ultimately, we want that to be our manager. Right now it seems kind of far-fetched, but hopefully, that’s the guy we’re going to be playing for eventually.

“Yeah, we all follow everybody on Twitter, so we all see what’s going on. We keep up with it. All the Twins are next to one another in the locker room. Whenever we see a new Tweet about another guy, we’re always talking about it. But you know what, we trust Terry (Ryan), we trust everybody else in our organization to get somebody that will turn this thing around for us. We hope to be a big part of that, especially the young guys in our organization.”

Jake Reed watching team mate Vincent Velasquez (Astros) warm up

Jake Reed watching team mate Vincent Velasquez (Astros) warm up

Reed and the others are getting a little taste of what it’s like to be treated like a big leaguer during their time in Arizona. Games are played at Major League spring training facilities and Salt River plays their games at the complex shared by the Diamondbacks and Rockies. The Rafters use the D’Backs’ big league clubhouse.

It didn’t take Reed long after arriving to figure out he was no longer at the Twins’ minor league facility in Fort Myers, where he had been working during his time in the postseason instructional league.

“The facilities in Ft. Myers are great, don’t get me wrong, but going from a big locker room with hundreds of lockers to the big league locker room at a big league facility, it honestly kind of took my breath away,” Reed said. “There’s twelve TVs in there, I mean everything you can imagine in a locker room. Unbelievable. Then obviously, getting to play here every day, it doesn’t get old, for sure.”

Reed had a chance earlier in the summer to get another glimpse of what it means to be a Major Leaguer. Joe Mauer and Rick Nolasco had concurrent rehabilitation assignments in Cedar Rapids and that experience stands out in Reed’s mind as a highlight of his time with the Kernels.

“When Joe and Ricky came, that was pretty special. Joe Mauer is such a great guy, and Ricky is, too, but just having him in the locker room was pretty special. Just seeing him go about his work and how he respected the game when he was playing and how he talked to other guys on the other team when they’d ask him questions. Just a great guy.

“On his way out, before he left, he went around the locker room and shook everybody’s hand. So that was unbelievable to me, a guy of that stature being able to take the time to shake every single person’s hand in the locker room was pretty special.”

The Twins are already showing signs that they may be rebuilding their big league bullpen in 2015. Reed’s performance at all levels this year has him in position to be fast-tracked by the organization if he can keep performing.

Reed’s success has even altered his own expectations of himself heading toward 2015.

“It’s definitely different now than it was when I signed and playing in Cedar Rapids,” he acknowledged. “I don’t know what’s out of the picture for next year, because I haven’t had the chance to talk to Terry or anybody else in the organization. They want to see guys excel in the minor leagues and prove that they’re ready for the big leagues, but I’m not sure. I’m sure I’ll have a better idea here pretty soon. We’ll see what happens. We’ll see where I go for spring training. There’s just a lot up in the air.”

Reed has not heard, yet, whether he’ll be getting an invitation to the Twins’ big league spring training camp.

“No, that’s the thing, too. I think I’ll have a better idea here pretty soon, because it’s kind of important when you want to get your body ready for a certain time, you want to be in shape for a certain time. So hopefully I find out soon.”

Reed started to say he would not be disappointed if he doesn’t get the invitation to the big league camp in February, but then smiled and corrected himself.

“I will be disappointed,” he admitted, “but I’ll understand. Ultimately, it’s not up to me, I just need to keep pitching well and hopefully it works out in my favor.”

But that’s a matter for another day. Right now, Reed has a couple more weeks of pitching in the Arizona heat and then a well-deserved break.

“I’ve literally been pitching for over a year straight,” Reed said, alluding to having started his workouts at Oregon a year ago. “I’m starting to kind of feel it now. A break off of throwing would be nice.”

Pitchers and catchers report to Fort Myers by mid February, so it may not be a very long break for Jake Reed.

Kernels Alums Closing in on FSL Title

While the current edition of the Cedar Rapids Kernels have been making their way through the Midwest League playoffs this week, a group of 20 Kernels alumni are on the verge of claiming the first Florida State League championship in franchise history for the Fort Myers Miracle.
Adam Brett Walker lines a home run vs Clinton on September 2, 2013. Walker led the FSL in HR and RBI this season for the Fort Myers Miracle

Adam Brett Walker lines a home run vs Clinton on September 2, 2013. Walker led the FSL in HR and RBI this season for the Fort Myers Miracle

Since their permanent home, Hammond Stadium, is undergoing major remodeling, the Miracle won the first two games of their best-of-five championship series with Daytona (Cubs) on Thursday and Friday in their temporary home park, JetBlue Stadium. They will need to win one of the next three games, all in Daytona, to claim the championship title.

Thirteen active members of the Miracle suited up for the Cedar Rapids Kernels in 2013, when the club put together an 88-50 overall record before getting bounced from the Midwest League playoffs by eventual MWL champion, Quad Cities. Two additional ‘13 Kernels are currently on the Miracle Disabled List. The Kernels can also claim Fort Myers pitching coach Gary Lucas as an alum. Lucas was the Kernels’ pitching coach a year ago.
Six current members of the Miracle (and one on their DL) were promoted to Fort Myers this season after spending time with the Kernels.
The recent addition of outfielder Jeremias Pineda to the Miracle roster from Elizabethton accounts for the 20th former Kernel on their roster. Pineda spent time on the Cedar Rapids roster in both 2013 and 2014.
Here’s a list of the Kernels alumni currently pursuing a FSL championship ring:

2013 (1 coach, 13 active, 2 DL)

Gary Lucas – pitching coach

Madison Boer P

Steven Gruver P

David Hurlbut P (DL)

Tyler Jones P

Zack Jones P

Brett Lee P

Tim Shibuya P (DL)

Matt Tomshaw P

Tyler Grimes C/IF

Jairo Rodriguez C

Niko Goodrum IF

Dalton Hicks IF

Travis Harrison OF

Max Kepler OF

Adam Brett Walker II OF

 

2014 (6 active, 1 DL)

Nick Burdi P

Ethan Mildren P

Alex Muren P (DL)

Brandon Peterson P

Todd Van Steensel P

Bryan Haar IF

Jason Kanzler OF

 

BOTH 2013 and 2014:

Jeremias Pineda OF

Weekend Wrap Up: Kernels Clinch, Pub Crawl, MLB Blackouts

A lot of stuff has happened over the past few days.

Kernels are Playoff bound

First, the Cedar Rapids Kernels clinched a Midwest League playoff spot.

Whether they did this Saturday or Sunday is a bit hazy, but what’s certain is that the Kernels will be playing baseball beyond the scheduled end of the regular season on Labor Day. This makes the Kernels a perfect 2 for 2 qualifying for playoff work since affiliating with the Minnesota Twins.

Going strictly by “magic number,” the Kernels qualified for the playoffs on Sunday, when Peoria fell to Clinton. However, as Jim Ecker at MetroSportsReport.com pointed out, tie-breaking criteria favored the Kernels over Peoria, so in fact Cedar Rapids apears to have wrapped up their postseason spot late Saturday night.

Most likely, the Kernels will open the playoffs with a best of three series against Burlington. They would host Burlington on September 3 and then travel to Burlington for games 2 and 3 (if necessary) on September 4 and 5, respectively.

Unfortunately, I was not in attendance when the Kernels clinched, regardless of whether you consider that to have occurred Saturday or Sunday.

“Touch ’em All”

Instead, I joined 100 or so Twins fans taking part in the second “Touch ’em All Pub Crawl” sponsored by Twins Daily/Gleeman & the Geek.

The “Crawl” involved stopping at several establishments along the Twin Cities’ light rail line and ending with attendance at the Twins game Saturday night. It officially started at the Barrio Tequila Bar in St. Paul at noon, but since I was staying out in the southern ‘burbs and wanted to eat breakfast downtown at Hell’s Kitchen before getting started, I’d already spent at least 90 minutes on the rail before ever getting to the start of the official event over in St. Paul.

It was a great time, offering opportunities to renew friendships from prior TwinsDaily events and to meet even more fellow Twins fans for the first time. I’m always surprised how many people at these things have read the stuff I contributed to Knuckleballs and to TwinsDaily.

It was a great time with great people, all of whom just happen to be fans of a pretty poor baseball team. Despite that, the only real negative comment I heard was from Star Tribune Twins beat writer, Phil Miller, who thought the Kernels camo jersey I was wearing was ugly.

Hey, you can’t please everyone, right? And I enjoyed talking to Miller, once we moved away from fashion-related topics.

It really was a good time and I appreciate the TwinsDaily guys and Aaron Gleeman going to the effort to put it together. I always enjoy the events they organize.

Blackout News

Finally, some of you that have been reading Knuckleballs for a while may recall one (or more) of my rants concerning MLB’s TV blackout rules. Those rules result in Iowa residents being unable to watch games involving six diferent teams, the Twins, Brewers, Cubs, White Sox, Cardinals and Royals, online via MLB.tv.

Late last week, the Star Tribune posted a story quoting MLB’s head of online business, Bob Bowman,  as saying that baseball is nearing a solution that will allow people to watch their hometown teams online, if they are also subscribers to cable and/or satellite services.

That’s great for people in Minneapolis that want to watch the Twins on their mobile devices.

I’m guessing it’s still not good news for Iowans.

As crazy as it sounds, what seems most likely to happen is that MLB will broker a deal to allow people who already have access to Twins games via their local cable company to also have access online. Meanwhile, those of us in areas where FSN is not even an option via cable will continue to be blacked out.

I do understand the theory. We are supposed to individually get so up in arms over this that we all march on our local Mediacom office and demand that they pay FSN whatever they want for fees to get the regional sports channel added to our Eastern Iowa cable options.

That hasn’t happened yet, it’s not happening now and it won’t happen… ever.

However, given that MLB and the teams let the regional sports networks set whatever they want as the “home market” geographic footprint (because, after all, those rights fees are pretty much the major thing propping up MLB teams’ revenues), it’s pretty clear that any relief from the bizarre and antiquated blackout rules for places like Iowa, Las Vegas and North Carolina, which several teams claim as part of their “home market,” isn’t likely happening either.

Instead, what I expect is that we’ll see MLB, under their new Commissioner, Rob Manfred, address the online issue for fans who could already watch their favorite teams on TV. Then, they’ll claim they’ve “solved” this problem and ignore the fact that they’ve solved nothing for the fans in areas like Iowa.

Maybe I’m wrong and there will indeed be a solution for the rest of us. But, given the selection of a Commissioner who got the gig basically by promising to be “Bud Light,” I’m not expecting anything remotely close to real solutions to any of MLB’s biggest challenges.

I’d be really happy to be proven wrong, of course.

Finally, a few pictures from Saturday’s “Touch ’em All Pub Crawl.”

The meeting spot, Barrio Tequila Bar, St. Paul

The meeting spot, Barrio Tequila Bar, St. Paul

Campus Pizza, which will be on my list for a return if/when I journey up for Hawkeyes/Gophers in the future. Friendly service, good thin crust pizza.

Campus Pizza, which will be on my list for a return if/when I journey up for Hawkeyes/Gophers in the future. Friendly service, good thin crust pizza.

BarZia in downtown Minneapolis. Met a number of the hard working moderators of TwinsDaily's forum section. I'm not sure what possesses these people to put in the work being moderators, but I'm sure glad they do it.

BarZia in downtown Minneapolis. Met a number of the hard working moderators of TwinsDaily’s forum section. I’m not sure what possesses these people to put in the work being moderators, but I’m sure glad they do it.

Mason's, near Target Field, was the last stop. Gotta be honest, I wasn't impressed with Mason's this time. TD has used Mason's as a meeting place in prior events and I've always liked it. But this time, some of us got the sense from their people like we were imposing. They closed off two of their seating areas to us, requiring most in our group to stand. Not a big deal, perhaps, but I can tell you it cost them some food orders, not to mention general goodwill, among some of the people I was hanging with.

Mason’s, near Target Field, was the last stop. Gotta be honest, I wasn’t impressed with Mason’s this time. TD has used Mason’s as a meeting place in prior events and I’ve always liked it. But this time, some of us got the sense from their people like we were imposing. They closed off two of their seating areas to us, requiring most in our group to stand. Not a big deal, perhaps, but I can tell you it cost them some food orders, not to mention general goodwill, among some of the people I was hanging with.

The view from our Home Run Porch seats at Target Field were better than what this picture might indicate. First time I've watched a game from these left field seats and it really is not a bad place to watch a game from.

The view from our Home Run Porch seats at Target Field were better than what this picture might indicate. First time I’ve watched a game from these left field seats and it really is not a bad place to watch a game from.

Kernels Second Half Turnaround Almost Complete

Tuesday night’s Cedar Rapids Kernels come-from-behind win over the Quad Cities River Bandits was bittersweet.

On the one hand, they tallied three runs in the home half of the eighth inning and put away the Bandits for their eighth straight win. They swept three games in Beloit last week, three more from Peoria in Cedar Rapids over the weekend, and now the first two games of their series with the Bandits. The team also played to near-capacity home crowds on Friday and Saturday night.

On the other hand, Kohl Stewart, the Twins’ first round draft pick in 2013 and a key member of the Kernels’ rotation all season long, left the game during the second inning with an as-yet-undetermined ailment. Regardless of the ultimate cause, it’s a pretty safe bet Stewart has thrown his last pitch for this Cedar Rapids club in 2014.

Stewart was one of the few bright spots for the Kernels during a challenging first half of the season. He notched a 2.44 ERA over the course of a dozen starts prior to the Midwest League’s All-Star break in mid June.

The Kernels finished sixth among the MWL Western Division’s eight teams in the first half race with a 31-39 record, 14 games behind the first half West champion Kane County Cougars and 7.6 games behind second-place Burlington.

The Midwest League breaks their schedule in to two halves, with the top two teams in each division, in each half of the season, qualifying for the postseason.

The Kernels have certainly taken advantage of the split season arrangement by turning their season around 180 degrees in the second half.

With 13 games to play following Tuesday night’s win, the Kernels sit one game behind Kane County in the MWL West’s second-half standings.

Since the Cougars clinched their playoff spot in the first half, however, it doesn’t matter how the Kernels fare with them. What matters is that they finish among the top two teams in their Division who have not already qualified in the first half.

Going in to Wednesday’s series finale with Quad Cities, Cedar Rapids holds a six game lead over third place Wisconsin and a nine game lead over fourth place Peoria. That means their “magic number” for qualifying for the playoffs sits at 5.

How did this happen? How did a team go from a 31-39 first-half record to a 36-21 record, so far, in the second half? Certainly, not many fans gave the Kernels much chance of making the playoffs two months ago.

Their manager, Jake Mauer, and coaches Tommy Watkins and Ivan Arteaga, gave their thoughts on the subject on Sunday, which was three Kernels wins (and three Peoria losses) ago.

“Pitching is probably number 1,” said Mauer. “We’ve shaved a whole run off our (team) ERA. Obviously we’re a little different at the back end of the bullpen than we were early on.”

It hasn’t all been improved pitching, however. Mauer also was quick to mention some newcomers to the offense that have contributed.

“Some of the additions, obviously Logan Wade and (Alex) Swim have been huge. Max Murphy’s been a good addition,” added the manager.

Max Murphy

Max Murphy

The Kernels have lost some very good players, as well, of course. Several pitchers and position players have earned promotions to high-A Fort Myers, which is what led to the new players arriving in Cedar Rapids.

Players coming and going is just part of minor league life.

Mauer pointed out another pretty major difference between his club’s first and second half fortunes.

“We’re keeping guys healthy, like (Mitch) Garver and (Engelb) Vielma and guys like that,” observed Mauer. “I think that really is the reason why we’re where we’re at.

Engelb Vielma (1)

Engelb Vielma (1)

“We went through a tough stretch there early. It seemed like somebody was going down every week. We’re still missing three of our top arms in our organization who are still down with surgery. Obviously, it gave a good opportunity to get up here to (Mat) Batts and (Chih-Wei) Hu and (Stephen) Gonsalves and (Lewis) Thorpe. They’ve really been holding down the majority of the big innings for us.”

Watkins, the Kernels hitting coach, echoes many of Mauer’s thoughts.

“I think we’ve stayed healthy, for the most part. It seemed like every other day we were losing somebody in the first half. But for the most part, outside of some minor bumps and bruises, we’ve been pretty healthy the second half.”

Watkins also sensed a change in the consistency of the team’s performance.

“In the beginning, we didn’t click on both sides. One day we would hit, we didn’t pitch. One day we would pitch, we didn’t hit,” Watkins added. “Now it seems like we’re getting timely hitting, pitching. The defense is making some plays.

“All the pitchers are doing well but we’ve got a few guys at the back end of that bullpen that have been pretty lights-out for us. We give those guys some leads and they’ve been pretty good lately.”

Watkins has seen a change in the clubhouse, as well as on the field.

“I just think the overall confidence right now, the guys are a lot better. The guys are loose, they’re having fun with each other. We came in here the other day, they were doing Kangaroo Court with each other. They’re just having fun right now. They’re winning baseball games, so it’s been a lot of fun.”

There’s little doubt that the biggest change in the Kernels’ fortunes in the second half has come on the pitcher’s mound. That being the case, it stands to reason that Arteaga, the Kernels pitching coach, would have a great deal of insight in to how those fortunes changed for the better in the season’s second half.

He summed up the reasons for the improvement in the club’s pitching in two words, “Experience and chemistry.”

“They go hand in hand,” he explained. “Early, we went through some growing pains, pitching wise.”

Arteaga noted that the team lost three highly rated young pitchers in the first half that the organization had been counting on to play big roles for the Kernels. Felix Jorge struggled and was sent back to extended spring training and, ultimately, to Elizabethton. Randy Rosario and Yorman Landa got hurt, ending their seasons.

Pitchers that remained in Cedar Rapids also went through some rough patches early.

“(Aaron) Slegers had a rough go for about a month,” added the coach. “He was working on some stuff. (Ryan) Eades was learning a lot of things about the league and about himself. Our relievers went through some growing pains. We had Hudson Boyd – early, he was very good. He had a rough go for about three or four outings.

Ryan Eades

Ryan Eades

“So everybody’s learning. Like I said when I first got here, it is a process. They get to learn the league. They get to learn the hitters. They get to learn themselves. Work on a different pitch, work on the delivery. Work on some stuff.

“It’s growing pains. Kids like Eades, you know, second round pick, he learned a lot this year. And you get a guy like Stewart – first round pick. He learned a lot this year. In the first half, you have a lot of learning to do. A lot of growing pains.

“And we didn’t do that bad. Not what we wanted to, but we weren’t that bad.”

In the second half, though, the pitching went from, “not bad,” to very, very good.

“Then we got the new boys. We got Thorpe, we got Hu, we had Gonsalves, Batts, Burdi, Reed, Gallant. They brought a different mindset and obviously we’ve been doing very well.”

Arteaga also agrees with Watkins’ observation that the success is reflected off the field as much as on.

“I think that the learning, gaining some experience and at the same time, we’re winning. You see a different atmosphere in there ( the clubhouse). It’s a different environment. It’s chemistry. They like each other. They talk to each other. When you get that, which is chemistry, it shows on the field.

“They come here every day with effort, with a purpose they have in mind. They know, they can feel the possibility of being in the playoffs – how great that’s going to be for the players to experience that. Some of them in their first year of full season. I hope that they actually embrace the possibility.”

If the players are excited about postseason possibilities, they aren’t alone. Arteaga is right there with them.

“Personally, I’m very excited by it because I went through a lot of things this year with these guys. To try to teach the pitchers the fundamentals of baseball, the fundamentals of pitching, pitch sequence, just the growing pains. And just the things you see, to me, it’s very rewarding.

Stephen Gonsalves

Stephen Gonsalves

“I guarantee you that there’s not a better feeling than seeing these guys playing every day and understanding the moment. And going out and playing the way they played Peoria and the way they played on the road (in Beloit).”

Of course, winning championships is great. But is winning really important for minor league affiliates?

It’s important, of course, to the local fans who want to see a winner. But some fans of the Major League affiliate see minor league games as little more than exhibition games, attaching little, if any, value to won-loss record.

Arteaga clearly feels winning is important, but not necessarily the most important thing.

“We (the Twins organization) have a philosophy. Basically, we want to develop winners. And the only way you can develop winners is by teaching the process, by teaching the fundamentals of baseball.

“Now, we are very careful with the amount of innings, the activities that we do. Teaching the game the right way, the Twins way.

“But one thing that we don’t do, is to go the extra mile to try to win. We want these guys to win, but I won’t pitch my guys two days in a row. I won’t pitch my guy 125 pitches because I want to win one game. We won’t do that. We have a program. That program works. It’s good. We stick to it. It is our job as coaches to teach these guys how to win. To motivate these guys every day.”

Make no mistake, though, talking about a playoff run brings a smile to the coach’s face.

“When you go to the postseason, there’s a difference,” Arteaga concluded. “That’s what we want these guys to experience. When it’s only you. There’s nobody else playing, just you playing. (Others) going home. They’re going on American Airlines somewhere. You’re not. You’re still playing. That’s the beauty of postseason. You’re sending somebody else home and you’re playing. So that’s good.”

******

Finally, various members of the Kernels’ players and front office accepted the ALS ice bucket challenge on Monday this week.

KernelsIce1 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Ivan Arteaga on Change ups, Sliders and Curves

There’s much about the game of baseball that never changes. Three strikes and you’re out. Bases are 90 feet apart.

Then again, some aspects of the game are constantly adjusting to the times. Witness the amount of defensive shifting going on in Major League Baseball this season.

You could say that one thing that never changes is that pitchers try to throw fastballs by opposing hitters.

But the arsenal of pitches the pitchers use beyond the fastball seems to differ from one era to another.

Pitchers in the first part of the 20th century could – and did – legally throw a spitball.

Even after the spitter was outlawed, pitchers continued to do whatever they could get away with to gain an advantage over the batter. Roughing up the ball became popular.

Now umpires toss baseballs out of the game the moment there’s the slightest scuff noticed on the surface of the sphere.

Even legal pitches have come in to, and fallen out of, favor among professional pitchers.

Recently, writer Pat Jordan posted an article at SportsOnEarth.com entitled, The Decline of the Curve. Jordan talked to a number of big league pitching coaches about why fewer pitchers are throwing a curveball than was the case in previous eras.

Some of the coaches he talked to indicated that their organizations dissuade pitchers from throwing the traditional curve and others indicated that they don’t teach the pitch to their pitchers.

Since I’ve observed a number of Cedar Rapids Kernels pitchers throwing curveballs, I was curious about whether the Twins organization and, in particular, Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga, have any established policy aimed at dissuading use of the curve or any other pitch.

Over the past weekend, Arteaga graciously agreed to talk to me about the subject.

I started out by asking whether the Twins have any kind of established policy concerning the subject of Jordan’s article, the curveball.

“We actually encourage it,” Arteaga said. “We believe in having a complete mix. I believe, this is my opinion, mix creates value.

“For example, I’ve got (Ricky) Nolasco this week here. He’s got five different pitches. Throws a slider, he throws a curve, he throws a split, he throws a straight change up, he’s got a two-seemer. And he throws low-90s.

“We were having a conversation and one thing we agreed on was that pitchers in the big leagues actually have to reinvent themselves time and time again.

“So that being said, the curve is a pitch that is high-to-low, 12-to-6, you name it. It’ll give you depth. It’ll make your fastball better. It’ll save your arm a little bit.

“So we encourage it. If you have the curve, great. If you don’t, we’ll try to teach you one. Hopefully, you can get it.”

Ivan Arteaga

Ivan Arteaga

Some of the coaches that talked to Jordan blamed the shrinking strike zone for the demise of the curveball. Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan could throw fastballs at the letters and get them called strikes, which set up their devastating curveballs.

Umpires today won’t call that high pitch a strike and Arteaga agrees that the strike zone getting smaller has had an effect on the choices pitchers have made when it comes to their arsenal.

“Over time, pitchers started to throw the change up more, moving back and forth,” Arteaga observed. “I remember in the 80s and 90s, the split finger fastball was the pitch to learn and then came the slider. That’s the pitch these days being taught.

“Those pitches are basically strike zone down, strike zone right or strike zone left. The curve actually starts up away from the strike zone and it gets in to the strike zone at the end with some depth.

“So if you have that pitch, the hitters are so used to looking for pitches in the strike zone, that once they see the ball go up, they give up on it. And then once they give up on it, it’s hard for them to actually make an adjustment and hit it. So they give up on it and you get some weak swings.

Arteaga has a theory, beyond those that the coaches Jordan interviewed expressed, concerning why you see fewer pitchers throwing a curveball today.

“This goes beyond professional baseball. Because in college, you get big programs, the same way you get big programs in Venezuela, Dominican and Puerto Rico, and so forth and so on. What creates value? The fastball.

“Thirty-five or forty years ago you had to mix, you learned how to pitch. These days, you get kids that are 17-18 years old, they’re just fastball throwers. If they throw something else, it will be a change up and it will be a slider, because it’s easier to throw. But at the same time, it creates more stress on the shoulder and in the elbow.”

Jordan, in his article, claimed that the curveball actually is easier on the pitcher’s arm than other pitches, which goes against some conventional wisdom in the game. Arteaga agrees, however.

“It’s less stressful. It’s not as stressful as the slider.” Arteaga explained. “What happens with the slider is, there’s some kids who believe the slider should be lateral – should be either right or left – it’s more sidewise than it is up and down. And for them to create that, they have to actually drag their arms a little bit.

“So when they drag their arm a little, they get a lower angle. Once you want to make that ball spin, the elbow suffers a lot. So you get tight. Once you get tight, those muscles start to pull against those tendons. That’s when you get all the injuries.”

Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and then-Kernels pitcher Ethan Mildren

Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and then-Kernels pitcher Ethan Mildren

There has been talk among the fan base about the Twins limiting the number of sliders and similar pitches that some of their youngest pitching prospects throw in a game. The coach’s next comment perhaps sheds some light on that philosophy.

“If you ask an 18-19 year old to pitch at a level like this,” Arteaga observed, “where he understands he has to come up with something more than the fastball, then he’ll throw the slider more than he should. He might not be ready to throw it, because he needs to mix.“

Arteaga doesn’t necessarily see the curveball as the hardest pitch for his young pitchers to master.

“The change up to me is like the last pitch to come in an arsenal,” Arteaga said.
“There’s not many guys that have the feel for the change up and the repeatability for the change up. And so it’s easier to throw fastball-slider-fastball-cutter than become a fastball-slider-change up guy. So the change up is like the last pitch to come in to the arsenal.

“It’s hard to repeat, because there’s a couple of things that come in to play,” he explained. “One is the grip. You have to find the perfect grip. And number two, you have to find a repeatable delivery, the same as the fastball. So you can get that extension out in front and the pronation to actually make the ball fade a little bit or go down as much as you can.

“So you need to repeat it a lot. Almost as much as your fastball. You need to repeat it so you can get that same feeling, every time, of extension, pronation and arm speed.

“Because if you ask any guy what they fear the most, it is to leave a fastball or change up or breaking ball up in the zone. They say, ‘I don’t want to do that,’ so what do they do? They develop a sinker, they develop a slider; anything they can do to make it go down.“

Arteaga was asked about that split-fingered fastball that he acknowledged was all the rage 20 or so years ago. Does he, or do the Twins, teach splitter?

“No, we don’t,” he answered quickly. “If you have one out of college or whatever and you can throw it, yeah, we’ll let you throw it. Why not? But we don’t encourage that.

“We believe the less stress you put on the arm, the better it is. If you see the games on TV, in the big leagues, you don’t get that many guys throw the split finger fastballs any more. Maybe a few, but not what it used to be.

“And it really has to be a good one for you to throw it in the big leagues, because they can see the seams. If it looks like a fastball, yes, you’ve got an advantage. Make it look like a fastball, in and out of the strike zone, you’re OK.”

As Arteaga alluded to earlier, Nolasco spent the better part of a week in Cedar Rapids, getting a pair of rehabilitation starts in with the Kernels. The interview came before Nolasco’s final Kernels appearance Sunday, but the coach liked what he saw of Nolasco leading up to that point.

“He threw everything he’s got in the first outing so I expect the same in this one too. He got in to a jam a little bit there, and struck out a couple of guys. He looked like a big leaguer. Throwing his pitches down, making it go right, left, down.

“Like Joe (Mauer) was saying, he’ll make it tough on hitters, when he’s right, he’ll make it tough because everything goes different directions and it’s the same motion.

“Just seeing him throw in the bullpen, he’s got command, he’s got control. And he’s healthy, so hopefully he’ll be OK.“

And did Arteaga’s young Kernels pitchers watch the way Nolasco went about his business?

“Oh yeah. That’s the way it should be. They’re paying attention.“