Who Are These Guys?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hudson Boyd

Hudson Boyd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That approach is showing up in the offensive statistics.

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

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

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

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

Mitch Garver

Mitch Garver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- JC

Meet the Kernels’ Catchers

The Cedar Rapids Kernels opened their 2014 season with a split of their four-game series with the Clinton Lumber Kings. The weather over the weekend was tolerable, with highs in the mid 50s to around 60 degrees, but Thursday’s Opening Night was far from delightful, with temperatures in the 30s and occasional rain. On Friday, the weather forced the season’s first postponement.

On Monday, the team boarded their bus for their first road trip. They’ll play six games in Michigan before returning Monday, April 13.

Before they left town with their team mates, the Kernels’ three-man catching corps sat down for an interview.

Kernels catching corps, from left to right: Bo Altobelli, Michael Quesada and Mitch Garver

Kernels catching corps, from left to right: Bo Altobelli, Michael Quesada and Mitch Garver

Bo Altobelli, Michael Quesada and Mitch Garver have several things in common. They are similar in age and each played some college baseball before starting their professional careers with the Twins.

In addition, each of the three hails from areas of the country that you would assume allows baseball to be played in more moderate weather than what welcomed them to Cedar Rapids last week. Altobelli’s from Texas, Quesada went to school in California and Garver in New Mexico.

They were asked over the weekend if they had any prior experience playing ball in conditions comparable to what they faced in their first week of Midwest League play this season.

Bo Altobelli: It’s a little different, especially coming from Florida up here, so that’s the major change. But it does get cold in Texas. We have played games in sleet and snow before, so I’m a little bit used to it. Of course, you prefer the Florida weather, which hopefully will come here soon.

Michael Quesada: Being from California, this is as cold as I’ve had to play in, but it’s a learning experience. You go up and down the (organizational) ladder, there’s cold places.

Minnesota, for example. You’re not going to complain when you’re up there, are you? You might as well get used to it now.

We’re not the only ones who are cold, everyone else is cold, too. So it’s something you’ve got to work through it and experiment with ways to stay warm.

Mitch Garver: It’’s very similar (in New Mexico). We get a lot of wind. We don’t get a lot of moisture. There’s no snow and sleet and rain, but when it does rain, there’s always going to be wind to accompany it. So the cold is familiar, but you can never really get used to it.  You’re always going to be playing in cold, so the first few months of the season, there’s an adjustment.

A year ago, Garver was finishing up his college career at New Mexico. He was asked what differences he’s noticed as he enters his first year of full season professional baseball.

Garver: It’s just different doing this every day. You have to learn how to maintain your body and how you prepare each day is based off how you feel. If you’re feeling a little down one day, you might have to do something a little bit extra to get going.

It’s different from college because really baseball is the only thing you have to worry about. You have to worry about keeping your body in shape, showing up to the field on time, doing what you’ve got to do to prepare.

Whereas in college, you had to take care of your social life, your emotional life, your school work and other factors that go in to it. It’s a more independent way of living and the competition obviously is better.

So does that mean you have no social life or anything like that when you’re playing professional baseball?

Garver: You’ve really got to balance things. In pro baseball, your social life is within the team. It’s kind of who you hang out with 24/7.

Both Quesada and Altobelli spent time in Cedar Rapids a season ago. They were asked whether they were adjusting their approaches this year as they return to open the season with the Kernels, but clearly hope to be getting considered for possible promotions to the next level.

Quesada: My adjustment is not worrying about it. I think I worried too much last year, putting pressure on myself with what to do. It’s a marathon, like Mitch said, it’s every day. I think I played pitch by pitch every day like it was my last pitch and I think you have to pace yourself a little bit.

That’s the adjustment I’m making this year is pacing myself throughout the year. I understand it’s 140-some odd games, plus spring training. I’m treating my body a little differently, adjusting that way.

That’s really the difference that I feel. After my first full season, I caught a lot last year and this year I’m trying to treat it as a marathon and not a sprint.

Altobelli: Similar to what they said, you can’t worry about it because the moment you think you’ve got it figured out, you’ll find out you’ve got no idea what’s going on as far as what they think you’re going to do and what you think yourself you’re going to do.

So you can’t think about it. You’ve just got to go out there and play. Play how you want to play and the rest will take care of itself.

If the team wins, everyone’s going to be happy and, more likely, people will move up if you win. So just focus on winning and the rest will take care of itself.

The Kernels roster includes 13 pitchers, leaving room for just 12 position players. Three of those spots are held by these catchers. That means Kernels manager Jake Mauer has to ration out innings behind the plate among the three backstops. They were asked how it works out, splitting time among the three of them.

Altobelli: Every year of pro ball, we’ve had three catchers where I’m at, so it’s nothing new to me. But being here, we know Jake’s going to help us out the best that he can, DHing us, maybe getting time at first base, who knows.

You’ve got to try and stay focused, take some extra BP if you need it. At least we’re catching bullpens if we’re not playing, so the ball’s still coming at us. So we’re still getting that feel down. It’s definitely difficult, but Jake does a good job of getting us in there and trying to keep us in a routine so credit to him for keeping us up to date with what’s going on.

Quesada: All of that’s out of our control. It’s up to Jake and the organization. It’s not anything we have any power over. All we can do is go out and play the best we can. If they’re going to play us more, then they do. Jake, as Bo said, does a really good job of finding ways to get us in there somehow. He’s not going to shortchange us.

Garver, on the other hand, was catching almost every game during his college season a year ago.

Garver: Yeah, that’s right. It’s a long season. It’s longer than most people might think. It’s my first full season, so I guess I probably don’t have a feel for it like these guys do, but 140 games is a long time and if you’re really only using one or two catchers, it’s going to break down toward the end of the year.

I think having three guys is going to be helpful. You can stay fresh. You can get some days off, get some at-bats at some different positions where you don’t normally play. It teaches you how to be a good baseball player. If you’re only playing one position, you’re not going to be as baseball savvy as you are if you can play multiple positions. They like to see how you can do at different positions and I think that’s a cool thing.

Meeting the 2014 Kernels

It was “Meet the Kernels Night” at Veterans Mermorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids Tuesday night, giving local fans and media a first look at the 2014 version of the Twins’ Class A Midwest League affiliate and giving the Kernels players their first look at chilly Iowa April temperatures.

After the media portion of the event, players and coaches mingled with fans on the concourse to chat and sign autographs. Then, they shed their parkas for a brief workout.

The cold temperatures meant a pretty small turnout from the public and that’s unfortunate, but understandable. The more unfortunate fact is that the weather forecast for Opening Night on Thursday (and Friday, for that matter) makes the proposition of actually getting baseball played a little dicey.

A year ago, it seemed like the weather was forcing doubleheaders every week for the first couple of months across the Midwest League and I wouldn’t be surprised if we start the season with a twin-bill (or two) over the weekend, as well.

Manager Jake Mauer, along with hitting coach Tommy Watkins and pitching coach Ivan Arteaga met with media for a few minutes, as did four members of the new Kernels roster: Kohl Stewart, Aaron Slegers, Mitch Garver and Chad Christensen. They all arrived in the media room wearing their newly-issued Cedar Rapids Kernels parkas.

Nothing says “play ball” like new team parkas and portable gas heaters in the dugout!

The field staff and players that met with the media had some interesting things to say and I’ll try to write a follow up story with quotes later this week, but for now you just get a little sense of flavor of the evening from a few pictures.

Left to Right: pitching coach Ivan Arteaga, hitting coach Tommy Watkins, manager Jake Mauer

Left to Right: pitching coach Ivan Arteaga, hitting coach Tommy Watkins, manager Jake Mauer

2013 1st round draft pick Kohl Stewart

Kohl Stewart

Aaron Slegers

Aaron Slegers

Mitch Garver

Mitch Garver

Chad Christensen

Chad Christensen

Jake Mauer

Jake Mauer

Kernels prepare for introductions

Kernels prepare for introductions

Kernels introduced

Kernels introduced

Kernels Roster Could Include Familiar Faces

The final week of spring training is a big week for the new batch of Kernels getting ready to head north to Cedar Rapids.

On Thursday, four days before the Kernels will break camp in Fort Myers and head north, the roster for the Kernels still included 29 names. That’s four more than the 25 players that will make up the club’s Opening Day roster.

That means at least four of the current group being managed by Jake Mauer on the back fields of the Lee County Sports Complex will be staying behind for Extended Spring Training in Fort Myers.

On top of that, each of the other levels in the Twins organization, from the Major League club through each of the three minor league levels above the Kernels, all also were a few players over their Opening Day limits. As players at higher levels get “sent down,” they can bump other players down to the next lower level, as well.

After Thursday’s game with the Red Sox’ Class A affiliate, I spoke briefly with a pair of potential Kernels who, while similar in age, demonstrate two different perspectives as they prepare to open the 2014 season.

Catcher Michael Quesada was drafted as a 20-year-old by the Twins in the 24th round of the 2010 Amateur Player Draft out of Sierra College in Rocklin, California. He played only three games in 2010 after signing with the Twins and has spent the past three years moving step-by-step up the organizational ladder.

Michael Quesada

Michael Quesada

Quesada spent most of the 2013 season with the Kernels, getting in to 62 games while sharing catching duties with a number of other backstops that passed through the Kernels roster during the year. He didn’t set the world on fire with the bat, but improved his game-calling behind the plate and showed off a strong arm.

A week ago, Quesada was getting an opportunity to work with the Twins’ Class AA group,. But as catchers on the Major League side of the camp were sent down, setting off the natural chain reaction at the minor league levels, Quesada was likewise destined to drop a rung.

However, instead of dropping one rung, to the Class high-A Miracle, Quesada was returned to the same Kernels roster he was part of last season and where it appears he’s likely to open the season alongside other returning players, such as infielder Joel Licon and pitcher Hudson Boyd, among others.

If the drop bothers Quesada, he doesn’t let it show. Rather, he talks of appreciating the opportunity to see how things are done at a higher level in the organization, while looking forward to starting another season with the Kernels.

“Yeah, it was a good experience just to see more mature players, how they handle themselves,” said Quesada. “I’m just coming back (to Cedar Rapids), looking to play as much as possible and get (at-bats). I had a great time in Cedar Rapids last year, so I’m real excited to come back. It’s going to be a good time.”

Despite being less than a year younger than Quesada, infielder/outfielder Chad Christensen has just started his professional career. Christensen was drafted by the Twins in the 25th round of last year’s Amateur Draft and played just 47 games for the Twins’ lowest rookie level team in the Gulf Coast League following the end of his senior season at the University of Nebraska.

Typically, a player like Christensen would be targeted to spend the next couple of months in Extended Spring Training before joining the Twins’ Appalachian League squad in Elizabethton, Tennessee. Then, depending upon performance, he could work his way up to the Kernels later in the summer.

But Christensen, who attended Washington High School in Cedar Rapids, is still a part of the Kernels group just four days before camp breaks and is squarely in the mix for one of the final spots on the Opening Day roster with the Kernels. That would mean spending 2014 playing before friends and family in his hometown.

Kernels manager Jake Mauer has said he’d like to have the flexibility that a player like Christensen brings to the table. Mauer indicated he’d have no qualms about playing Christensen at either corner outfield position, either corner infield position, or even at shortstop on occasion.

Nonetheless, Christensen is well aware that his roster spot with the Kernels is precarious and he’s still got work to do over the final few days of spring training in order to nail down that spot.

“I’m still trying to do what I can to make this team so that’s kind of where I’m at,” Christensen said on Thursday. “(Playing in Cedar Rapids) would be real exciting, I grew up there and everything. It would be a lot of fun to come home.”

Some athletes have been known to struggle with playing at the professional level in their hometown, but Christensen doesn’t believe he’ll feel an extra pressure from playing in Cedar Rapids, if and when that opportunity arises.

“No, I’m not so concerned about that,” he said. “Just trying to keep focused on the field and separate the baseball from the friends and family. I’ll be excited about it.”

A year ago, the Kernels were at or near the top of the Midwest League in almost every offensive category. But the hitters that made up the heart of the batting order a year ago have all moved up at least one level entering the new season and Quesada allowed that this year’s Kernels will take a different approach to win games.

“We’re not really trying to match (the 2013 Kernels hitters),” acknowledged Quesada. “We’re just trying to put more runs up on the board (than the opponent) that day. Maybe it’s two, maybe it’s one. But no, we don’t have the offense of last year, but our pitching is going to win us ballgames.”

The Kernels pitching corps is expected to include a number of the Twins organization’s top young arms during the course of the 2014 season and Quesada is clearly impressed with the pitchers he’s been working with.

“The pitching staff is going to be less experienced, but with way better stuff. They’re going to have live arms, young guys that are learning how to pitch. It’s our job, myself and (fellow catchers) Mitch Garver, Bo Altobelli and (pitching coach) Ivan Arteaga to teach them. They’re definitely good throwers right now, but they have a big opportunity to turn in to some serious pitchers. I’m really excited to work with them.”

Quesada’s work this spring extends beyond the field, as a number of those young pitchers are from Latin America, which can present a communication challenge for a catcher.

“I’m working with Ivan right now to get my Spanish a little better to where I can go out to the mound and talk to them, so they’re comfortable. I’m trying to make their lives as easy as possible because it’s going to be a fun pitching staff to work with.”

Thursday was likely my final look at the Kernels in spring training. I’m planning to go to the Twins/Red Sox game on Friday afternoon and, alas, my flight home from not-so-sunny-but-warmer-than-home Florida is early Saturday morning.

- JC

Kernels Roster Taking Shape

There was no rain in Fort Myers on Wednesday. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it was pretty breezy and high temperatures for the day barely, if at all, reached 70 degrees.

I know that sounds good to a lot of people, but I had to wear long sleeves much of the day at the ballpark and was a bit chilly eating dinner outdoors tonight!

But I toughed it out, because I know my readers expect me to do whatever it takes to get the story.

Today, that story comes from the minor league side of the Twins organization. Rather than watch the Twins and Pirates at Hammond Stadium, I fought the Daniels Parkway traffic toward the Red Sox complex to watch the Twins’ Class A groups take on their Sox counterparts.

After the game, Kernels manager Jake Mauer shared some thoughts about the way his club is shaping up as they enter the final few days of camp. Mauer indicated that just a handful of roster spots are still unresolved.

One player still “on the bubble” with the Kernels as final decisions are being made is Chad Christensen, who prepped at Cedar Rapids Washington High School before playing ball for the University of Nebraska. Christensen was drafted by the Twins last June and played last summer for the Twins’ Gulf Coast League rookie level affiliate in Fort Myers.

Chad Christensen

Chad Christensen

It sounds like the Kernels’ manager would like to bring Christiansen to Cedar Rapids next week.

“Chad’s been working real hard and he’s somebody that gives us some flexibility. He’s played both (corner) outfield positions and both corner infield positions and I wouldn’t be afraid to put him at shortstop once in a while,” said Mauer. “We’ve got about six or seven guys we’ve got to make decisions on and he’s in that mix, but there’s no doubt that he’s somebody we’d like to take north with us.”

Mauer knows his squad of Kernels is going to have to take a different approach than last year’s team, now that last year’s power hitters have moved up the organizational ladder.

“We’re going to have to be real good at the small things right away,” the manager acknowledged. “We’re going to have to run the bases well. We’re going to have to be able to execute the small game, hit and runs, getting bunts down, doing things like that. Try to create runs that way.”

According to Mauer, there should be five or six familiar faces for Kernels fans to welcome back to Cedar Rapids.

Among the likely returnees are catchers Michael Quesada and Bo Altobelli.  Said Mauer, “We plan on taking both those guys north, along with (Mitchell) Garver. We’re probably going to take three (catchers) to start, at least.”

That means flexibility will be key among other position players because, according to the skipper, he expects the final roster to contain just 12 position players, allowing 13 roster spots for the pitching staff that will once again utilize a six-man starting rotation.

It’s that pitching staff that many in the Twins organization, as well as their fans, are anxious to see.

“I think we’ll be starter-heavy. We should have some quality arms, starting-wise,” said Mauer. “We’ve got a lot of young, quality arms. It just depends on how many we decide to bring up with us.”

In particular, there are a number of pitchers that will push their fastballs consistently in to the middle-to-upper 90s on the speed gun, including young Dominican pitchers Yorman Landa, who was hitting 96  mph in Wednesday’s game, and Randy Rosario. In addition, the Twins’ first round pick in 2013 (and second pick overall) Kohl Stewart is a hard throwing 19 year old who is still on the Kernels roster as camp is drawing to a close.

As Kernels fans know, however, the team’s success is not solely determined by the players that start the season with the club. Between injuries and promotions, it’s equally important to have talented players at the lower levels of the organization preparing to join the Kernels as the season develops.

According to Mauer, there’s plenty of potential mid-season help available, as well. “You know we’ve got some young boys down there, too, (Lewis) Thorpe and (Stephen) Gonsalves. Kids that have some pretty good arms that we’ll probably see at some point throughout the year.”

The Kernels will break camp on Monday. There will be a “Meet the Kernels” event open to the public at no charge on April 1 at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids and Opening Day  is Thursday, April 3, when the Kernels host the Clinton Lumber Kings.

- JC

Jim Crikket in Fort Myers: Improvising

I know most of the people reading this are in the Minnesota/Iowa region and have been dealing with late March snowfalls, so I don’t want to whine too much, but with that said, I did NOT fly all the way to Fort Myers, Florida, to get rained on all day! And what’s worse, it certainly appears that Monday wasn’t the last day this week we’ll be getting wet down here.

Hammond Stadium, Ft. Myers

Hammond Stadium, Ft. Myers

The good news is that I wasn’t planning on attending the Twins/Rays game Monday afternoon, so the fact that it got rained out didn’t affect my plans at all. The bad news is that I WAS planning on driving up to Port Charlotte to watch the current Kernels and Miracle groups play games against their Rays counterparts and those games got rained out, as well. Fortunately, I made plans to drop in on the Twins’ complex about 9:00 am Monday morning to see if anyone was putting in an early workout. It was fortunate because, when I got there, Kernels coach Tommy Watkins let me know they had already canceled that afternoon’s minor league games and the Kernels and Miracle were going to face off head-to-head for a couple of hours in the morning before the rain was expected to get serious. Brett Lee was on the mound for the Kernels and Jose Berrios was his counterpart for the Miracle. On an adjacent field, the AAA and AA groups were also facing one another. There was a steady light rain falling through much of the time the players were on the field but it was fun to watch some of last year’s Kernels, as well as many of the players expected to head north to Cedar Rapids when camp breaks on March 31. Watching Jorge Polanco and Adam Brett Walker rip back to back doubles brought back memories of last season early on. Later, I got perhaps a sneak preview in to the Kernels upcoming season when the centerfielder for the Kernels group, Jason Kanzler, throw a perfect bullet to third base to cut down Polanco, who was attempting to go from first base around to third on a base hit. Weather permitting, I’m hoping to see the Twins take on the Orioles on Tuesday and then drive up the road to the Red Sox facility on Wednesday afternoon to watch the Kernels take on their Red Sox Class A counterparts. Thursday and Friday will be “play it by ear” days, depending on how wet the next two days are.

Twins visiting the Phillies at their Bright House Field home in Clearwater

Twins visiting the Phillies at their Bright House Field home in Clearwater

The trip hasn’t been a total washout. I flew down from Iowa to St. Petersburg on Saturday night (only about four hours later than originally planned) and stayed overnight there so I could watch the Twins take on the Phillies on Sunday in Clearwater before making the drive down I-75 to Fort Myers. The Twins lost, scoring only one run in the process. It’s probably my imagination, but it seems to me they score one run just about every game. That should be no problem, however, since the Twins pitching staff will probably hurl shutouts at least half the time anyway, right? But the weather Sunday was beautiful, I remembered to use sunscreen on every exposed area (except my arms, apparently) and the beer was cold, so I really didn’t care much about the outcome. There wasn’t a snowflake in sight and that’s about all I needed to be happy that day. If it rains for the next four days, I may be a bit less philosophical about the weather thing, however. JC UPDATE: Still haven’t got the video uploaded but I did manage to get some pictures added:

Something you don't see happen often: A Twins pitcher hitting. Or, in this case, Phil Hughes attempting to put down a bunt.

Something you don’t see happen often: A Twins pitcher hitting. Or, in this case, Phil Hughes attempting to put down a bunt.

Manager Jake Mauer (in helmet) amongst some of the 2014 Kernels during spring training

Manager Jake Mauer (in helmet) amongst some of the 2014 Kernels during spring training

Under construction: The new Twins Baseball Academy on their Fort Myers campus

Under construction: The new Twins Baseball Academy on their Fort Myers campus

 

Sickels’ “Twins Top 20″ Features Past/Future Kernels

The 2013 season was, by almost all measures, a successful maiden season for the affiliation between the Cedar Rapids Kernels and their new Major League parent, the Minnesota Twins. Now, fall is bringing out the first of what will be many published organizational “top prospect” lists, signaling that it’s not too early to begin looking at what kind of talent the Twins will be sending to Cedar Rapids in 2014.

John Sickels publishes The Baseball Prospect Book yearly and is one of the more respected minor league experts in the business. This week, he released his list of the Twins’ Top Twenty Prospects at his minorleagueball.com website.

A peek at that list not only confirms for Kernels fans that they had the opportunity to watch a number of future Major Leaguers on Perfect Game Field this year, but also gives a clue as to what Cedar Rapids fans can expect to see next summer.

Sickels wrote that the “Twins system is among the elite in the game,” and a number of recent Kernels are among the reasons for that high praise. He also believes that, “there are some lively arms of promise at the lower levels,” in the Twins organization, which should tip off Kernels fans to what they can expect to see in 2014.

Sickels uses a grading system (A, B, C, etc.) to rank the prospect status of minor leaguers and he is not an easy grader. As he writes, “Grade C+ is actually good praise, and some C+ prospects (especially at lower levels) turn out very well indeed.” Of the hundreds of minor league players in the Twins organization, 24 attained that C+ grade, or better, from Sickels this fall. That may not sound like many, but it’s actually a high number for one organization.

Byron Buxton, who patrolled centerfield for the Kernels during the first half of the 2013 campaign, was one of two Twins prospects (along with Class AA slugger Miguel Sano) to attain Grade A prospect status from Sickels. Wrote Sickels, “Few organizations can boast a pair of potential superstar Grade A talents like Buxton and Sano, and the Twins have good depth beyond them…”

Byron Buxton

Byron Buxton

Buxton ranks as the number one prospect in the organization, on Sickels’ list, but five other Kernels alumni also rank in his Top Twenty.

Right handed pitcher Jose Berrios gets a B grade from Sickels and ranks sixth among Twins prospects. Both infielder Jorge Polanco (B) and outfielder/first baseman Max Kepler (B) make the organizational Top Ten, coming in at numbers nine and ten, respectively, in Sickels’ rankings.

Third baseman Travis Harrison earns a B-/C+ from Sickels and the number 11 ranking, while outfielder Adam Brett Walker’s C+/B- grade placed him at number 13.

Four additional Kernels, infielder Niko Goodrum and pitchers Mason Melotakis, Taylor Rogers and Miguel Sulbaran pulled C+ grades from Sickels and fell just outside the Top Twenty. In essence, this means ten members of the 2013 Kernels are among Sickels’ Top 24 Twins Prospects going in to the offseason.

Travis Harrison and Niko Goodrum

Travis Harrison and Niko Goodrum

As for the future, grading recently signed or drafted ballplayers that haven’t yet competed in a full season of professional baseball is a tricky business, but Sickels placed five such Twins prospects among his organizational Top Twenty. All five are pitchers.

Kohl Stewart, a right hander who was the Twins top draft pick in last summer, leads that list with a B+ grade from Sickels and his number three ranking in the organization. Sickels’ wrote that Stewart, “was the best high school pitcher in the draft and showed good command of plus stuff in his pro debut.”

Lefty Lewis Thorpe, an Australian 17-year-old, reportedly grew an inch and added something close to 50 pounds and several miles per hour to his fastball this past summer. Sickels grades him at a B- and places him seventh among Twins’ prospects. Thorpe pitched in the Gulf Coast League (the lowest US rookie league team among Twins affiliates) in 2013 making it highly unlikely that he starts 2014 in Cedar Rapids and may not arrive until the following summer.

Felix Jorge (number 17), Stephen Gonsalves (19) and Ryan Eades (20) slip in to Sickels’ Top Twenty, as well, all with C+ grades.

Jorge is a righthander from the Dominican Republic who had a very good year for Elizabethton in 2013, striking out 72 hitters in just 61 innings covering his 12 starts.

Gonsalves, a lefty and the Twins’ fourth round pick last June, only threw 28 innings combined during time with both Twins rookie league teams in 2013 but was a strike out machine and posted a 0.95 Earned Run Average.

Eades, another righthander, was the Twins’ second round pick in 2013 out of LSU. He accumulated just 15 2/3 innings of work for Elizabethton this summer but will be 22 years old by opening day in 2014, making it possible the Twins would try to accelerate his movement through the organization.

It could be years before Cedar Rapids fans see another collection of hitters in Kernels uniforms the likes of the group that the Twins sent through town in 2013. Buxton could well be wearing a Minnesota Twins uniform and calling Target Field in Minneapolis his home by the end of the coming season. By 2016, several of his Kernels teammates could join him with the Twins.

While Kernels hitters in 2014 are not likely to measure up to what fans saw this year, a pitching staff that could include Stewart, Jorge, Gonsalves, Eades and, possibly by the end of the season Thorpe as well, has the potential to be among the best in the Midwest League.

- JC

Several Kernels Shooting for Two Rings in Two Years

In baseball’s postseason, “every single pitch is so important; every at-bat, no matter what inning.”

That was Cedar Rapids Kernels third baseman Travis Harrison talking after Monday’s regular season finale about the playoffs, which start for the Kernels Wednesday night in Davenport against the Quad Cities River Bandits.

Harrison knows what he’s talking about, too. He was a member of the rookie level Elizabethton Twins team that won the Appalachian League a year ago.

Travis Harrison and Niko Goodrum are going for back to back championships

Travis Harrison and Niko Goodrum are going for back to back championships

Elizabethton won two “best-of-three games” series to claim the league title last year, but Harrison and his teammates will need to do that much this year just to earn a berth in the Midwest League Championship Series as the representative of the league’s Western Division.

If they can best the River Bandits in the first best-of-three series, they’ll take on the survivor of a similar series between Clinton and Beloit in another best-of-three challenge. The Championship Series between the Eastern and Western Division representatives is a best-of-five games series that will decide who wears the Midwest League crown for 2013.

Cedar Rapids has not worn that crown since 1994 and has not qualified for the league Championship Series since 1997.

The Kernels finished the 2013 season with an 88-50 record overall. They secured a playoff spot with a second place finish in the first half of their season with a 40-28 record and then improved to a 48-22 record to finish first in the Western Division in the second half of the season.

Their 88 wins equals the most wins for a Cedar Rapids team since joining the Midwest League in 1962. To provide context, if applied to a Major League team’s 162 schedule, the Kernels’ winning percentage would have them on pace to win 103 games.

This playoff thing may be relatively new to Kernels fans, who haven’t seen their team play in the postseason since 2010, but almost half the Kernels’ current roster were with the Appalachian League Champions in Elizabethton a year ago.

In addition to Harrison, infielders Niko Goodrum and Jorge Polanco, outfielders Max Kepler and Adam Brett Walker, catcher Bo Altobelli and pitchers Brett Lee, Jose Berrios, and Hudson Boyd all saw playoff action with Elizabethton. Mason Melotakis, Dallas Gallant and Michael Quesada were also members of that Championship team during the course of the 2012 season.

Melotakis made two postseason appearances with the Beloit Snappers’ Midwest League playoff team at the end of 2012.

A number of other players that spent time with the Kernels this season, including Byron Buxton and Dalton Hicks, were also members of the champions from “E’town”. Hicks hit a walk-off grand slam home run in the 12th inning of the deciding game of the championship series.

Walker believes the postseason experience he and his teammates are getting is part of their development. “Going out there and having a series where everything’s on the line. I think it’s pretty important. It’s an exciting feeling to be able to get that experience.”

With a smile, Walker added, “I know if you get in the big leagues it’s going to be a little bit different.”

Adam Brett Walker lines a home run vs Clinton on September 2

Adam Brett Walker lines a HR vs Clinton on September 2

It has been a long season for the Kernels players, especially those such as Harrison and Walker, who have both been a part of the Kernels since Opening Day, 138 games ago.

That doesn’t matter, according to Harrison. “The playoffs are totally different. You just have to grind it out. If you’re sore, it just goes away. You’ve got so much adrenaline, you’re just ready to go. It’s a good time.”

Quesada believes the Kernels are ready. “We’ve got all the confidence in the world, especially after last year. We’ve got the pitching, got the hitting. It’s all ready to come together at one time.”

Walker remembers that championship feeling and is ready for more. “We know what it feels like. It’s a really great feeling to be able to go out there and win a championship.”

Harrison perhaps summed up the feelings best. “First two years, two rings. That would be pretty cool.”

- JC

Ghost of Twins Past Haunts the Twins’ Future

Scott Baker, Kane County Cougar

Scott Baker, Kane County Cougar

Almost exactly six years ago, I sat several rows up from home plate as Scott Baker took a perfect game in to the ninth inning against the Kansas City Royals. While he didn’t complete his date with immortality, it was the closest I’ve ever come to seeing a Major League no-hitter in person.

On Wednesday night, I watched Baker continue to try to work his way back to the Big Leagues with the Chicago Cubs with a rehabilitation start for the Kane County Cougars against the future Twins suiting up for the Cedar Rapids Kernels.

I never saw Baker get above 86 mph on the scoreboard, so even giving him an extra tick or two due to the Cedar Rapids scoreboard’s reputation for being slightly slower than the speed guns of the scouts who perch directly behind home plate most nights, the former Twins pitcher never hit any higher than 88 mph and he didn’t mix in more than a couple of off-speed pitches each inning.

But on this night, that was good enough to handcuff the Kernels as only a fifth inning infield single by Adam Brett Walker kept Baker from completing five perfect innings. Jorge Polanco and Travis Harrison each reached the warning track off of Baker in their first plate appearances of the night, but that was the closest anyone came to doing any damage to the former Twins star.

Jose Berrios

Jose Berrios

Jose Berrios, the 19-year-old that Twins fans hope will be one of the anchors of a future Twins rotation, fared far worse.

Berrios has been tabbed as the starting pitcher in the first game of the Kernels’ postseason next Wednesday, but tonight he struggled with his control. Berrios walked three hitters and gave up five hits, including two home runs, as the Kernels fell 9-1 to Baker’s Kane County Cougars.

Kernels Profile: Hudson Boyd

One of the unique things about Class A minor league baseball is that the season is divided in to two halves. The format allows teams, such as the Kernels, that have strong first halves of the season to qualify for postseason play at the mid-point of the season. It also gives teams that struggle early a chance to start over with a clean slate for the second half.

The format benefits teams that experience significant roster turnover that’s common among Class A affiliated teams.

Sometimes, it also allows players that get off to a slow start to start over and salvage their seasons, not to mention their prospect status in the eyes of the organizational scouts that will largely determine their futures in professional baseball.

Cedar Rapids Kernels pitcher Hudson Boyd is one such player who has benefited from the chance to demonstrate improvement and versatility in the second half of the Kernels’ 2013 season.

Boyd2Boyd was selected in 2011 by the Minnesota Twins as a supplemental first round pick (55th pick overall) in the First Year Player Draft following his senior year of high school at Bishop Verot High School in Fort Myers, Florida.

He had a scholarship offer to play baseball at the University of Florida, but ultimately signed with the Twins for a reported $1 million bonus and reported for his first season of professional baseball in 2012 at the Twins’ spring training facility in his home town of Fort Myers.

The right-hander weighed 275 pounds the summer after graduating from high school in 2011, according to one Fort Myers media report. The Twins made no secret of their feelings that Boyd would need to work himself in to better shape to survive the long seasons inherent in professional baseball and Boyd had already trimmed several pounds by the time he was pitching for Elizabethton a year ago for the Twins’ Rookie level team there.

This spring, Boyd was listed at just 225 pounds spread over his 6’ 2” frame when he opened the season in the Kernels’ starting rotation.

The new look didn’t translate in to instant success, however.

In the first half of the season, Boyd posted a 1-4 record for the Kernels in twelve starts, with a 6.56 ERA. Hitters knocked Boyd around to the tune of a .284 batting average.

“Yeah, I think I got a little too obsessed with (dropping weight),” Boyd said in an interview over the past weekend. “I think I was a little too light. I noticed my fastball (velocity) starting to drop.”

In his first start of the second half of the season, on the road against the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, Boyd went just five innings, giving up five earned runs on eight hits, while walking six batters and striking out just one. While Boyd was credited with the win as the Kernels topped Wisconsin 13-9, he was pulled from the rotation after that game and began working out of the Cedar Rapids bullpen.

Since that time, in eleven relief appearances covering 21 1/3 innings of work, Boyd has thrown to a 1.69 ERA out of the bullpen, while striking out 16 hitters and holding batters to a .208 batting average.

That turnaround alone would be quite a story, but the story doesn’t end there.

With several of the Kernels’ starting pitchers nearing innings limits imposed by the Twins organization, the club’s pitching coach, Gary Lucas, has been faced with a need to pull some of the those pitchers from the rotation as the regular season winds to a close. That meant Lucas would need some members of his bullpen to replace those starters in the rotation.

Boyd got the news a couple of weeks ago that he was going to be re-inserted in to the starting rotation. The news came as a bit of a surprise, according to Lucas, but Boyd has taken the switch in stride.

“Whatever gives us the best chance to win,” Boyd said, “I was down with that.”

His first game back in the rotation was a forgettable effort where he failed to survive the third inning, but since that game, he’s steadily improved.

On Friday, Boyd threw seven strong innings against the Quad Cities River Bandits, the team the Kernels will be facing in the first round of the Midwest League Playoffs beginning Wednesday, September 4. Boyd gave up just three runs on four hits and a pair of walks on the night, while striking out four.

Boyd seemed more comfortable than he was during most of his early-season starts.

“I was able to get through seven, which was nice. Just trying to throw a lot more strikes than I was early in the year,” said Boyd.

Boyd indicated he has also made some adjustments to his preparation process. “Being in the bullpen, I think I learned some things I didn’t really need to do. I kind of have a better routine and it hasn’t been that big of an adjustment to get back in to it.”

Boyd1Boyd has been on the Kernels’ roster since Opening Day in April and, as has been the case with most of his team mates, he was quick to praise the local fan base.

“It’s been pretty nice. The fans up here are great,” said Boyd. “They’ve been really supportive of our team all year, so it’s been pretty fun to see the big packed crowds we get. I’ve definitely pitched in front of more people up here than I ever have in my life. So it’s been a fun year.”

Still, nobody could fault Boyd for being anxious for a promotion to the Class high-A Fort Myers Miracle. Everyone likes the look of the next rung on the organizational ladder, but that’s particularly the case when the next rung means getting to play in your home town.

“Yeah, the next step up for us is where I’m from,” Boyd admitted. ”It’s where I live in the off-season. So, the next step up, I’ll just be going home.”

Don’t look for Boyd to drop more weight as he prepares for next year, however. In fact, Boyd may look to put back on some of the weight he shed a year ago.

If he does add weight, it will be, “good weight,” assured Boyd. “I’m more looking to put it on in my legs than anything – just trying to get a lot stronger in my legs.”

This has been the 20-year-old’s first exposure to a full season of professional baseball, giving Boyd a sense of what his body needs to be prepared to endure. “Now, I know what it feels like in August, so I have something to prepare for,” said Boyd.

It certainly has not been the kind of season a consensus top 20 Twins prospect might have been wishing for coming in to the season, but he’s accomplished at least one of his goals coming in to the year.

Boyd’s fastball has always been highly regarded and scouts have rated his breaking ball as potentially a “plus” pitch, but coming in to the year, Boyd was determined, in his words, “to have a better change-up than I did last year. I feel like I reached that one. I feel like I’ve got a pretty good change-up now.”

Adding an effective third pitch to his repertoire is important for any pitching prospect, but critically important for a pitcher with designs on being a future member of a Major League starting rotation.

Of course, there are some goals Boyd hasn’t attained. Coming in to the season, he hoped to throw about 130 innings during the year, “but I don’t think I’m going to get there,“ Boyd conceded.

“One of the goals I had was to throw a complete game,” added Boyd. “That’s still attainable.”

But then there’s the big goal.

“Hopefully, we’ll win the championship,” said Boyd. “That will be three rings in three years for me.”

Boyd is among a number of Kernels players this season that were part of the Appalachian League championship team at Elizabethton last year.

The year before that, Boyd’s high school team won the Florida state championship. Boyd pitched his team through the semi-final game and in to the championship. In the finals, Boyd found another way to contribute.

“Won it on a walk-off. I had the walk-off,” Boyd said with a smile.

So if fate found Boyd pitching for a National League team someday, would he look forward to an opportunity to swing the bat again?

“As long as they only throw fastballs. I wasn’t too fond of those curve balls.”

Boyd said he’d like to get a chance to start in the postseason, yet added, “but if they move me back to the bullpen, I’m comfortable doing that, too.”

The first two rounds of the Midwest League playoffs are only best two out of three games. That means that a number of the Kernels’ current rotation, including Boyd, won’t get opportunities to start unless the Kernels progress to at least the second round.

Jose Berrios and Brett Lee will start the Kernels’ first two postseason games and Tim Atherton will get the call if there’s a game three in the first round.

Boyd will be back to bullpen duty in round one, but could still get a start in the second round if the Kernels advance. – JC