Kernels Passing Their Mid-terms

The Cedar Rapids Kernels passed the midpoint of the first half of their 2015 season over the past weekend, making it an appropriate time to get manager Jake Mauer’s assessment of how their season is progressing.

There’s not a lot for the manager to complain loudly about, with his team vying for the second best record in the entire Midwest League. Then again, his guys have consistently remained several games behind Western Division leading Quad Cities in the standings, so there’s certainly room for improvement, too.

Kernels manager Jake Mauer

Kernels manager Jake Mauer

If the Kernels can maintain distance between themselves and the other Western Division challengers behind them, they’ll lock in a postseason spot as the Division’s first half runner-up, even if they can’t overtake Quad Cities by mid June.

In a conversation last weekend, Mauer quickly identified the primary reason for the Kernels’ success so far.

“Starting pitching has been good, for the most part,” Mauer said. “The bullpen’s been really good, for the most part and the defense has been good.”

It’s not a coincidence that those two aspects have led to wins on the scoreboard.

“It goes hand in hand,” Mauer explained. “The pitchers throw strikes and the boys get a chance to catch it. If (pitchers) don’t throw strikes and we’re standing for a while, when they do hit it, sometimes we’re not ready for it. It’s not an excuse but that’s what happens.

“Defense has been good, for the most part. We’re making the plays that we should and I think that’s the reason we’re pitching so well.”

Kernels shortstop Nick Gordon, the Twins’ first round draft pick a year ago, seconded his manager’s opinion on the value of the team’s defense this season.

“Pitchers like to throw strikes when they know they’ve got good defense behind them,” Gordon said on Saturday.

Nick Gordon

Nick Gordon

There’s one aspect of the pitching game that has surprised Mauer and it’s a component that defense has nothing to do with. More than half of the pitchers who have toed the rubber for the Kernels have averaged at least a strikeout for every inning pitched, led by reliever Cam Booser’s 1.75 strikeouts per inning.

“We’ve struck out a lot more guys than anticipated, which is probably a little bit of a surprise,” Mauer admitted. “We thought we’d have a couple of guys that would be able to strike guys out. Booser, obviously, and (Zach) Tillery, some of the guys that have some pretty good stuff. But for the most part, the pitching’s been what’s kept us going.”

He wouldn’t be a manager of young players if he couldn’t find room for improvement, of course.

“Still way too many walks,” Mauer said, concerning a few members of his staff. “We’re not taking that step forward, which is a little disappointing.”

Coincidence or not, since Mauer said those words, the Twins have sent several new pitchers to join the Kernels.

At least one case, of course, had nothing to do with a pitcher walking too many batters. Opening Day starting pitcher Mat Batts was rewarded for his strong work this spring with a promotion this week to Class high-A Fort Myers.

Matt Batts

Mat Batts

Pitching alone doesn’t win games, however. You need to score some runs, too, and the Kernels have outscored all but three teams in the Midwest League this year.

“The middle of our lineup is really starting to produce, which is huge,” Mauer observed, in regards to his lineup. “We’re starting to see some of the offensive guys hopefully get their legs underneath them and start going. We need some more contributions, especially from the bottom half of the order. I’d like to get our top half going again, but the middle’s been pretty good as of late.”

The “middle of the lineup” that Mauer referred to includes first baseman/outfielder Trey Vavra, who leads the Kernels in all three of the “Triple Crown” offensive categories, batting average (.353), home runs (6) and Runs Batted In (25), as well as almost every other offensive category that involves the use of his bat.

Trey Vavra

Trey Vavra

The Kernels haven’t faced any of the league’s Eastern Division teams yet, while seemingly matching up with the last two teams in the Western Division standings, Beloit and Wisconsin, at least every other week. Both of those clubs have younger rosters than many of their MWL competitors, including the Kernels.

That may have something to do with their early success, the manager will admit, but he’s not stepping up to volunteer to give back any of the wins against those teams, either.

“We’ve feasted on some of the pitchers we’ve needed to feast on, there’s no doubt about it,” Mauer observed. “We’re supposed to do that.”

But the manager doesn’t feel his guys have been bad against the better pitching they’ve faced, either.

“What we’re looking for is just a little more consistent approach at the plate.”

Gordon summed up the approach that he and his teammates are taking as they enter the final weeks of the season’s first-half.

“Our goal is to win so we’re out to compete and give our best,” the shortstop offered. “As for me, it’s been a learning experience for me to come out here and play against great competition every single night. You’ve got to make adjustments, you’ve got to learn. I feel as a team, we’re doing a pretty good job of that.”

– JC

Michael Cederoth Embracing Change

A year ago, Cedar Rapids Kernels starting pitcher Michael Cederoth was neither a Minnesota Twins prospect, nor was he a starting pitcher. But times change.

Cederoth was wrapping up his college career at San Diego State in May of 2014, looking forward to entering the June amateur player draft and getting his professional career started. The 6’ 6” tall pitcher spent his junior season as the team’s closer and his 20 saves tied the Aztecs’ school record.

A year later, he’s a starting pitcher in the Kernels’ rotation with a 1-2 record, a 3,75 ERA and 24 strikeouts in the same number of innings pitched over five starts. On Saturday, he threw six innings, giving up just two runs, in the Kernels’ 5-2 win over Beloit in the first game of their doubleheader sweep over the Beloit Snappers.

Michael Cederoth

Michael Cederoth

Cederoth was the Twins’ 2014 third round draft pick last June and soon after found himself in the starting rotation for the Twins’ rookie-level team in Elizabethton, Tennessee.

At San Diego State, Cederoth pitched for the late Tony Gwynn, who lost his battle with cancer last year. His face lights up when asked about playing for the Hall of Famer.

“Wow. I mean, imagine playing for any HOF baseball player. It’s something that every kid wants to be when they grow up and to have that as a coach at the college level is a great opportunity. I was blessed with the fact that he gave me the opportunity to play underneath him and I’ll never forget all the memories I got with him and playing underneath him.”

What can a pitcher learn from a guy who made his fame and fortune swinging a bat, rather than throwing the ball? Plenty, according to Cederoth.

“We definitely picked his brain. You’ve got one of the best hitters in baseball ever to play the game. Of course you’re going to want to know what’s in the hitter’s mind, so it really helps having that as a pitcher. Because we know what we’re doing out there – we want to know what (hitters) are thinking and he’s the best guy to ask.”

Cederoth had a reputation with scouts as being a hard-thrower (occasionally hitting 100 mph on the radar gun) who could be a fast riser with the right organization. One national prospects writer even projected him to have the potential to reach the big leagues as a bullpen arm by the end of 2015.

Instead, Cederoth is spending 2015 in the class A Midwest League with the Kernels as the Twins attempt to make a starting pitcher out of him.

And that’s just fine with Cederoth.

“He wants to do it,” Kernels pitching coach Henry Bonilla said, of Cederoth. “He definitely wants to be a starter. I think he enjoys the nuances that go with it. He has to prepare every day for that one day that he gets his day (to pitch).”

When you ask Cederoth, he makes it clear he’s dedicated to whatever role the Twins see as the best fit for him within the organization.

“Growing up, I’ve always been however I’m needed, that’s what I’m going to do,” he said.

“If they want me to be a starter, then I’m going to do my best to be a starter. If tomorrow they tell me they want me to be relief, then I’m going to do my best to be a reliever,” he added. “They’re giving me this opportunity so I’m going to show them, ‘OK, If you want me to be a starter, I’m going to try my best to be the best starter I can be.’”

It’s not like the starting pitcher role is totally foreign to Cederoth, after all.

Cederoth was a successful starting pitcher his first two years at San Diego State and converted to the bullpen for his final year on the Aztecs’ staff.

The Twins have made a practice, in recent years, of drafting strong-armed college relievers and giving them experience in a starting rotation, at least at the lower minor league levels.

Bonilla admitted that helping a pitcher make that transition isn’t always easy.

“It’s a problem if the kid doesn’t want to do it,” he said. “It’s a little harder when you try to make a guy a starter and he wants to be a 1-2 innings blowout kind of guy.”

Bonilla also provided some insight in to the organization’s thinking when they consider whether to try to turn a successful college reliever in to a professional starter.

“A lot of times you’ll see a guy and you’ll go, ‘ok, at worst, he’s going to be a reliever. Let’s see what we’ve got.’”

Bonilla thinks Cederoth definitely has the potential to make it as a starter because he not only has the high-velocity fastball in his arsenal, but is developing other quality pitches, as well.

“He’s got a mix (of pitches) to him. He can spin the ball. He’s got both the curveball and slider and with that velo, can he maintain it?”

And if, later, it turns out Cederoth returns to the bullpen, the effort has not been in vain, according to the pitching coach.

Michael Cederoth

Michael Cederoth

“The good thing about it, as a reliever he’ll get 1-2 innings of experience at a time. Here he’s getting 6 innings, 7 innings, 100 pitches at a time. It gets him out of his element. A lot of these guys, they’re comfortable doing one thing. When they’re uncomfortable, you see their true colors. So you’ll see him starting something new and he really has to adjust, you can see his mental capacity and what he really is.

“He (Cederoth) is doing a really good job of transferring to the starting position. It’s hard.”

For his part, Cederoth isn’t interested in even discussing any potential Plan B the organization might have.

“I really didn’t think about that,” he said. “I can’t think about that. They didn’t tell me that. Honestly, they told me they want me to be a starter and I’m really trying to be the best starter I can be. I’ve been working a lot and trying to hone my mechanics and my delivery.”

Having served in both roles in college, Cederoth is more prepared to make the switch than other college relievers who have seldom started a game above the high school level. He comes in to the process already aware of adjustments he has needed to make.

“A lot of it is routine, that’s really the similarity,” he explained. “But the difference is, what are the routines? So that is really what I had to transition with. I knew how to do a routine, I knew how to get in to a routine, but now it’s the routine as a starter.

“As a reliever, every day could be your day. So every day is kind of the same thing. As a starter, you have a routine. Every day is different, but it’s the same thing every week. The game you’re starting you throw 6 innings. The next day, what’s that day? And then the following day after that?

“As a reliever, you might have to pitch that day so you do everything you can to get ready to pitch that day. Did you pitch that day? Well you have to do the same thing the next day. If you pitched that day, well, you might have to pitch the next day. So, it’s the same thing every day. That’s really the physical part.”

There are differences in the mental approach, as well, according to Cederoth.

“As a reliever, your job is to come in there and get three, six, maybe nine outs. At most nine outs, hopefully. Because you want to throw the next day,” he explained.

“As a starter, you want to flip the lineup at least twice. It’s really a chess game. You’ve really got to plan out how you’re going to pitch. What did you give the guy his first at bat? What did he show you when you threw this pitch? You’ve got to keep that in the back of your head.

“It’s not just a bulldog mentality of go after him bang – bang – bang. You have to plan out what kind of game you’re going to go in to and what kind of hitters they have, unless you’re just gifted with the fact that you can just do the same thing over and over again and get guys out. If you’re on your game, then great, then you can do that. When you’re not always on your ‘A’ game, you’ve got to deal with what the day gives you.”

Tall pitchers, like Cederoth, often are challenged to develop consistent, repeatable deliveries and that’s something he’s working on with Bonilla this season. He’s also working to improve his secondary pitches.

“Curveball and change up right now. My curveball has come a long way,” Cederoth said, of the pitches he’s specifically working to integrate in to his game plans. “You’re facing guys twice. You go fastball – slider to one guy. Maybe the next time you face him, you throw a curveball at him. Completely change their whole game plan.”

Striking out batters has never been an issue for Cederoth and through five starts for the Kernels, he has averaged more than a strike out per inning. Ultimately, however, the ability to develop several effective pitches will likely determine whether Cederoth – or any starting pitcher – will have success in a big league rotation. He’s well aware of that.

Michael Cederoth

Michael Cederoth

“There’s some guys that can survive on just three pitches,” he said, adding, “I believe that I can get four good pitches. My change up is something that I’m really trying to get. If I can get that down, I can have more success getting early outs and dropping my pitch count. That’s been my problem, the pitch count. So getting that quick out, just getting a guy to roll over, is something I’m really trying to work on. Right now, it’s not totally ready, but it will be soon.”

Cederoth is also working on his mechanics with his pitching coach and he’s clearly pleased to be getting another opportunity to work with Bonilla, who had the same role for the Twins’ rookie level team at Elizabethton a year ago.

“Don’t get me wrong, I had amazing pitching coaches in college, but when I came to Elizabethton last year, I worked with Henry Bonilla. We had a great relationship in rookie ball.

“My problem has always been my balance in my drive leg. There’s so much going on in my wind up that it’s not always consistent. My body is leaning a different way every time instead of always going toward home. I’ve always had to try to adjust in mid pitch and that’s why I’ve been so inconsistent. So what we’ve focused on (is) the plant leg getting right and make sure everything is going towards home.

“So, yes, mechanically, I’m becoming a little more sound and I’m happy about it.”

– JC

Now Leading Off for the Kernels: Tanner English

You might not guess it just to look at him, as he patrols centerfield for the Cedar Rapids Kernels, but there’s a good chance that Tanner English is among the most athletic ballplayers on the roster.

Tanner English

Tanner English

Sure, he measures just 5’ 10” tall and is listed at just 160 pounds, but don’t let his size fool you. English has athletic skills.

For example, how many of his team mates do you think could do a standing back-flip in the middle of the field?

More to the point, how many do you think have actually DONE a standing back-flip in the middle of the field?

Now that he’s trying to earn a living playing ball, you might not see English repeating the feat, but, as this video proves, he has certainly demonstrated he’s capable of it.

Yes, you may have noticed that the back-flip wasn’t the only oddity in that video, from his time with the Harwich Mariners of the Cape Cod League in the summer of 2013. English also was the pitcher who recorded the final out of that game.

Neither pitching nor back-flips have been part of the 22-year-old’s repertoire since he signed with the Twins after being drafted in the 11th round last summer following a three year career at the University of South Carolina.

“No, the team we were playing that night in the Cape, that was their last game and we were going in to the playoffs,” English explained, while laughing. “Our bullpen was kind of spent and we had about a two-hour rain delay that night, so our coach was looking for people who could pitch. Me and another outfielder said, ‘hey, sign us up. We’ll do it.’ I just got up there for fun and threw some strikes.”

And the back-flip?

Again, the laugh, before the explanation from English.

“We were kind of messing around the whole game, playing rain-delay games and stuff. Then a whole bunch of the guys on the team bet me I wouldn’t do it (the back-flip). So I showed them that I would. I proved them wrong.”

English isn’t looking to make a name for himself as a pitcher – or a gymnast – at this point. Instead, he’s continuing to build his reputation on being a reliable center fielder who gets on base regularly and knows how to move along the basepaths once he does.

Tanner English (2) with a successful stolen base

Tanner English (2) with a successful stolen base

In fact, English is tied for the most stolen bases for the Kernels this season with seven swiped bases. He’s likely to pull in to the lead, too, since the player he’s tied with is Zach Granite, who was promoted to class high-A Fort Myers last week.

As for his skills in the field, English’s outfield defense has already landed him on ESPN’s “Top 10 Plays of the Day,” for the diving catch captured in this video:

“That was probably my number one goal, going to college,” he recalled. “’Man, I just want to get on ESPN’s Top 10 one time.’ I had a couple of opportunities to do that, so that was pretty cool.”

For some young players, playing in front of a few thousand people on a night that Cedar Rapids’ Veterans Memorial Stadium is packed is a new experience, but that’s nothing unusual for English.

South Carolina’s baseball program has been a big-time Division I program for years and English got to experience the thrill of playing in the finals of the 2012 College World Series with the Gamecocks as a freshman.

“That was probably one of the coolest experiences of my life,” English recalled, despite the fact that his club lost to Arizona in the finals. “Shoot, 30,000-plus fans at the game, everyone was going nuts. I know that every kid that plays college baseball, that’s their dream is to get there and I’m one of the rare few that can say that got to play there and play for a championship.”

With the promotion Granite to Fort Myers, English is likely to be the primary leadoff hitter for the Kernels. It’s a role he feels he’s ready for.

“I’ll hit wherever they want me to hit,” English said. But he’s aware his role is changing following Granite’s promotion and he’s working with Kernels hitting coach Tommy Watkins to be prepared to be the club’s table-setter at the top of the lineup.

“Really just trying to shorten things up, because I have a tendency to get a little bit long and try to hit the ball a lot further than I should, obviously, now as the leadoff hitter. That’s one of the big things I’ve been working on with Tommy and Jake (Mauer).”

Tanner English

Tanner English

Watkins believes English can handle the spot at the top of the Kernels’ batting order.

“Yeah, I think so. I’m a big fan of his. He’s got tools,” Watkins said, of English, over the weekend. “We’re trying to get him to trust himself – believe in his abilities. He can play baseball.”

“I think  there is a difference when you lead off,” Watkins added, “but just talking to Tanner about slowing things down a little bit and not using his body as much. He’s been doing a good job with that. Hopefully, he just keeps getting better – keep progressing on cutting the body down and using his hands a lot more.”

English acknowledged that he and his fellow position players are going to need to step up their games if the Kernels are going to be successful. Early in the season, the club’s pitching has largely been carrying the bulk of the load on the field, while the offense has been sporadic.

English is confident the hitting will come around.

“We probably need to stop missing our pitch, as a team. We have great hitters on the team, but I don’t think we’re hitting to our fullest potential right now. We just need to get to a point where everyone’s in that groove and feeling comfortable and getting to where we can barrel everything up.

“I know that baseball is hard, but just kind of do a better job in certain situations.”

If he and the Kernels can do that, the Kernels’ chances of competing for a third straight Midwest League Championship will improve significantly, but don’t expect to see English doing any celebratory back-flips on the field.

Then again, don’t bet him that he won’t do it.

– JC

Kernels Pitching is Hot Out of the Gate

It may not be what casual baseball fans want to see, but in most cases and at most levels of professional baseball, the teams with the best pitching win the most games. Sometimes, it really is that simple.

(L-R) Zack Larson, Stephen Gonsalves, Zach Granite and CK Irby sign autographs on the field after a Kernels game on April 26

(L-R) Zack Larson, Stephen Gonsalves, Zach Granite and CK Irby sign autographs on the field after a Kernels game on April 26

It arguably has been exactly that simple for the Cedar Rapids Kernels over the course of the first three weeks of their season.

The Kernels are 11-7 on the year and sitting in a second place tie behind the Quad Cities River Bandits in the Midwest League’s Western Division standings. They open their first series with the Bandits on Tuesday in Davenport.

Cedar Rapids’ offense has been, at best, a bit streaky. They sit at or near the middle of the MWL pack in most hitting categories, though they have managed to score the fourth-most runs in the league.

But, through the weekend’s games, Kernels pitchers lead the MWL in team ERA (2.27), strikeouts (187) and WHIP (1.09).

When you see team numbers like those, obviously it’s not just one or two guys carrying the load.

The Kernels are consistently getting quality work out of their starting rotation and their bullpen has been locking things down in the late innings.

Manager Jake Mauer and pitching coach Henry Bonilla have primarily used six pitchers in their rotation, so far. Stephen Gonsalves, Mat Batts, Felix Jorge, Michael Cederoth, John Curtiss and Jared Wilson have accounted for all but two of Cedar Rapids’ starts this year.

Zack Tillery has one spot start and Twins pitcher Ricky Nolasco started Sunday’s game on a rehabilitation assignment.

Michael Theofanopoulos

Michael Theofanopoulos

Gonsalves, Batts and Jorge each have ERAs at 1.50 or better, with Gonsalves leading the team at 0.90.

The success of Gonsalves and Batts is impressive, but not entirely unexpected. The two pitchers combined to make 13 starts for the Kernels last season and both were being counted on from the season’s onset to make strong contributions again in 2015.

Jorge’s success was far from a sure thing, however, at least in the minds of fans who only saw his work on the mound for Cedar Rapids early last year. In 2014, he put up a 2-5 record in 12 appearances (including eight starts) and amassed a 9.00 ERA before being sent back to Extended Spring Training by the Twins.

Jorge turned his year around with a solid season at rookie-level Elizabethton, but nobody was quite certain what to expect from the 21-year-old righthander during his second shot in the Midwest League.

“This was the Jorge we thought we were getting last year,” Mauer said recently. “It’s a lot of things. Here it was freezing cold, he probably didn’t get comfortable right away.

“He’s got a different look to him (this year). He’s way more confident. He’s worked really hard with Henry as far as his timing, when his hands break. he seems to be way more in rhythm than he was last year. If you can be way more in rhythm, you’re going to throw a lot more strikes.”

Bonilla, who was also Jorge’s pitching coach in Elizabethton last year, is happy to see the improved version of the pitcher this season.

“It’s good to see him get some good games under him early, especially with the cold,” Bonilla said over the weekend, of Jorge. “I think the cold kind of had him a little bit last year. But he’s kind of taken responsibility for that and he’s gone forward.

“Ultimately, at the end of the year, you can hopefully start seeing his (velocity) get back to where it was when he was a young kid and his delivery get down in the zone a little bit. His breaking balls are coming along pretty good.”

Bonilla thinks Jorge was primarily throwing an 88-89 mph fastball a year ago, which is not what the Twins were expecting when they gave the then-17-year-old Domincan a $250,000 signing bonus in early 2011.

“That’s not really what he is. I think he’s kind of getting back to it. We’re doing some stuff mechanically. Hopefully, by the end of the season, we’re talking more plan and location, instead of delivery, with him.”

Of course, the downside for Kernels fans to having pitchers get off to hot starts is that the fans may not get many more opportunities to watch those players in Cedar Rapids. They are all just a phone call away from a promotion to the class high-A Fort Myers Miracle.

Batts, at 23 years old, might be a guy the Twins want to push up a level as soon as he appears ready and, between the end of last season and his start to the current campaign, the Twins could be getting close to wanting to see what he can do against more mature hitters.

It may be likely that the parent club would want to see Jorge demonstrate more extended success in the Midwest League, given his false start at this level a year ago.

Gonsalves doesn’t turn 21 until July, but his manager feels the Twins’ fourth round pick in 2013 has already shown just about enough to move up a level.

“He’s getting close,” Mauer said recently, when asked if he thought Gonsalves might be ready for a promotion. “I’d like to see a little more shape on his breaking ball, but he’s dominated the teams that he’s thrown against. If he gets a breaking ball, he’s going to be really dangerous. Really, really dangerous.”

Gonsalves’ velocity on his fastball has ticked upward this season but his manager doesn’t think he’s topped out yet.

“I think it’s going to even get better. As he keeps maturing, I think he’s going to be a 94-95 (mph) guy. I really do. When he gets his ‘man-muscles,’ as they say. I think he’s really going to bring it.

“He’s thrown some better this year. Some breaking balls have had some shape, compared to last year. He gets bigger and stronger, that ball will have even more shape. He’s got a good change up. But I think he’s going to run it up there pretty good.”

The bullpen could be ripe for plucking by the Miracle, as well, if the need arises.

It’s a bullpen that even their manager had expressed some nervousness about at the onset of the season.

“We didn’t know who was going to step up,” Mauer recalled over the weekend, ”and they’ve been outstanding. Really, really good.”

The nine pitchers who have made relief appearances for the Kernels have put up a combined 1.92 ERA out of the pen.

Relievers Cameron Booser (1.13), Trevor Hildenberger (1.00) and Michael Theofanopoulos (1.74) are each sporting sub-2.00 ERAs for the Kernels.

Zack Tillery

Zack Tillery

This crew has brought some heat in April.

The only full-time reliever who hasn’t averaged a strikeout per inning is newcomer Miles Nordgren, who has made just two appearances since joining the Kernels as the replacement for Curtiss, who went on the disabled list with a concussion. And, while Nordgren hasn’t been a strikeout machine in those two appearances, he also hasn’t given up a run.

In that regard, he joins Tillery and Wilson, neither of which have surrendered an earned run in their relief appearances.

Bonilla is glad to see his staff get off to a good start, before the hitters start to catch up to them.

“They’re taking advantage of the cold and that’s a good thing,” the pitching coach explained, “because once it gets warm, the bats get hot, too. Those guys want to swing the lumber. It’s good numbers-wise. It’s a confidence boost a little bit.”

But Bonilla believes the hot start for his pitching corps is important for reasons that go beyond the obvious results on the field. He believes that early success also aids individual development.

“There’s some things each guy is working on – his own individual plan and the goals we have for him,” he explained. “It’s good to get off to a fast start because it builds confidence in the season and they’re more open to do things that maybe they werent – that they’re reluctant to do when they’re struggling.

“When you’re struggling, you want to get back to what you’re comfortable with. So we can maybe add a few things like maybe sink the ball a little bit more to certain guys – working on breaking balls. They’re a lot more open, when you’re having success, to do things. When you’re struggling, you’re just grinding away.”

If the Kernels can keep most of this pitching staff intact and the bats in the lineup can heat up as the weather warms up, Cedar Rapids could be a serious Midwest League contender in 2015.

– JC

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.

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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.

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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.