Wednesday night, the Cedar Rapids Kernels and their Major League partner, the Minnesota Twins, combined to put on a terrific program for eastern Iowa baseball fans as the Twins once again included a stop in Cedar Rapids for their annual Winter Caravan in conjunction with the Kernels’ annual Hot Stove Banquet.
The Eastbank Venue & Lounge, along the banks of the Cedar River in downtown Cedar Rapids, was a new venue for the event and was a great choice (despite the predominantly purplish lighting, which resulted in a heavy blue hue in virtually every photograph I took at the event, with or without a flash).
There was no shortage of both familiar and less familiar faces among the Winter Caravan panel the Twins sent to town for the evening.
The program was emceed by Twins radio broadcaster Kris Atteberry, who distributed questions to the panel.
Two new faces shared the stage with three that were more familiar to local fans.
New Kernels manager Toby Gardenhire (son of Ron Gardenhire, the longtime manager of the Twins who will be taking the reins in the Detroit Tigers dugout this season) was in attendance, as was his new boss, Jeremy Zoll. The 27-year-old Zoll enters his first season as the Twins’ Director of Minor League Operations.
Atteberry may have had the best line of the night, telling the crowd that his first question for Zoll was going to be the same question the bartender had asked Zoll, “Can I see your ID?”
Kernels hitting coach Brian Dinkelman, who returns to the Kernels again in 2018, was joined by two other familiar faces: former Kernels Mitch Garver and Zack Granite. Both players have now made their big league debuts, finishing the 2017 season with the Twins, and will be going to spring training intent on earning spots on the Twins’ opening day roster.
The featured guests were made available to the media for interviews for a few minutes before the event kicked off and I had the opportunity to speak to Garver and Granite about the paths their careers had taken since their days with the Kernels.
Garver played in 120 games for the 2014 version of the Kernels and hit for a .298 average. His career has steadily progressed each year since.
Granite’s time in Cedar Rapids was cut short by injury in 2014, but he returned in 2015 and immediately hit so well that he earned a quick promotion to Class A Advanced Fort Myers.
Wanting to make the most of what time I had with each player, I asked them both the same question to kick off the interviews.
If you could go back in time, knowing what you know now, and give the Cedar Rapids Kernels version of yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?
“I would say relax,” answered Garver.
“Because when I was at this level, I put a lot of pressure on myself to succeed. Being a senior sign, kind of having that rope get a little bit shorter as my age goes up. It’s like, man, I need to get promoted. I need to prove well at every level. I need to do this and that and I need to do it quickly. And I think that kind of took a toll on me.
“I did have a really good learning process while I was (in Cedar Rapids), but if I could have just told myself, ‘just trust the process, you’re going to get there. Believe in yourself.’ It would have gone a lot smoother.”
But would he have been concerned that might have caused his younger self to relax too much?
“No, I don’t think so. I’ve always been pedal to the metal. I want to do the best I can at everything I do.
“So if I’d have known all that back then, I’d have had the same thought process, going about my work and improving, but I could have gotten (to the Major Leagues) with a little more sleep maybe.”
And what would today’s Zack Granite tell his younger self to do?
“Probably to grow up,” he said.
“I was probably a little immature, took too many at-bats too seriously.
“It’s a long season. I kind of didn’t really know that yet. I’d never played a full season (of professional baseball) yet. There’s so many at-bats in a season and if you get out or make a mistake, it’s on to the next one. That’s how you’ve got to be.
“I feel like that’s the only way to be successful, to clear your mind. Every at-bat is different and don’t take one at-bat into the next. I did that when I was younger. I’ve kind of grown out of that and that’s helped me along the way.”
Was that a tough adjustment for Granite to make, after years where you get so many fewer opportunities to bat in a season?
“It took some time for me to get used to that. Even when I was at Elizabethton, it’s a short season. I never really played a full season until I got to here.
“My first season (in Cedar Rapids) I got hurt, so I didn’t play too much. Then I came back and did pretty well and went to Fort Myers. But even in that short time I was here, I was kind of taking at-bats into the next one.
“I think if I would have done that at an earlier age, took every at-bat separately, I think I would have been more successful.”
The Twins and Kernels will enter their sixth season as affiliates this spring. Seeing young players like Mitch Garver and Zack Granite realize the big league dream they were working so hard to achieve when they were busing around the Midwest League, then come back to town as Major Leaguers, has been one of the best aspects of the Kernels/Twins relationship.
P.S. Once again, apologies for the “blue-tinted” photos. I suppose I could have spent a bunch of time editing the color out, but frankly, I just didn’t feel like devoting the time necessary to do that. So let’s just pretend I did it all on purpose, as an homage to the Vikings’ playoff run. 🙂
It’s too early to be looking at which of the hundreds of minor leaguers currently a part of the Minnesota Twins organization might take the field at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids this summer.
It’s definitely too early to get excited about the possibility of seeing the most promising group of prospects in Cedar Rapids since, perhaps, the class of 2013 (which included Buxton, Kepler, Polanco, Berrios and more) in the first year of the Kernels/Twins affiliation era.
Still, since it’s been minus-10 degrees or so all day and I’ve had nothing else to do but watch a bunch of bowl games I generally don’t care about at all, I’m going to share my excitement here anyway.
Even as the 2017 was winding down, I found myself taking mental inventory of which members of the playoff-bound Kernels might be starting 2018 in Cedar Rapids, as well. Then I started looking at the talent that was on the field for Elizabethton’s Appalachian League champion club and projecting a few that were likely to get their first exposure to full-season minor league ball with the Kernels in 2018
All of that informal mental note-making left me feeling pretty optimistic that the Twins would send a pretty competitive group to Cedar Rapids this spring.
The Kernels have qualified for the Midwest League postseason in each of the five seasons that Cedar Rapids has been affiliated with the Twins and it was fine to feel pretty good about that streak continuing in 2018.
But then it happened.
A box arrived in the mail over this past weekend and inside was the 2018 Minnesota Twins Prospect Handbook.(Click here to get your copy.)
I should have just glanced through it to make sure my name was spelled correctly everywhere I was given a photo credit, then set it aside for a few weeks until we were at least getting closer to the date when pitchers and catchers report for spring training in Florida (which is the date I unofficially consider the baseball season to begin each year).
But knowing how much work the authors – Seth Stohs, Cody Christie and Tom Froemming – put into writing the Handbook and how packed with great content about every Twins minor league affiliate and literally every minor league player currently under contract to the Twins, well, just giving the book a glance through was something I couldn’t limit myself to.
So I started reading. The authors have some great articles in there, reflecting not only their knowledge of the Twins organization, but their writing skills, as well. I probably should have just read those feature articles and, perhaps, about their selections for Twins Minor League Hitter, Starting Pitcher and Relief Pitcher of the Year Awards. (All three are Kernels alums, by the way.)
But that wasn’t enough. Not when we’re in the middle of a several-day stretch of sub-zero temperatures.
I give myself some credit, though. I didn’t read EVERY one of the player features in their entirety. It’s far too early in the year to do that.
No, I only read the features of those players that the authors suggested have some chance of playing ball for the Kernels in 2018.
I think there were about 60 of them. That may seem like a lot, given teams are limited to a 25-man roster, but it’s really only a little bit more than the 50 or so that you might typically see come through any MWL roster in any given season.
Still, not all of them will wear Kernels uniforms this season. They mentioned 28, I think, that have played for the Kernels already that may return. That would be unusual. Some of those will start the season with a promotion to Ft. Myers, some could be injured or traded during spring training and some, unfortunately, could be released by the Twins before the season starts. That’s just the harsh reality of professional baseball.
But many of the players who WILL be coming to Cedar Rapids, either to start the season or as replacements during the course of the summer, have some very impressive backgrounds and credentials.
The Kernels could feature not one, but two first-round draft choices.
Shortstop Royce Lewis, who was the first overall pick of the 2017 MLB amateur draft, spent most of the last month of the 2017 season with the Kernels and likely will start the 2018 season in Cedar Rapids as well. He could well be joined by the Twins’ 2016 first round pick, outfielder Alex Kirilloff, who had been expected to spend time with the Kernels last year, but missed the entire 2017 season following elbow surgery.
Of course, both Lewis and Kirilloff got big signing bonuses as top draft picks, but they aren’t likely to be the only million+ dollar bonus babies to put on Kernels uniforms in 2018.
While Lewis is likely to see a mid-season promotion if his play develops as we’d expect it to, the Twins have another millionaire shortstop ready to step into his shoes – and position – with the Kernels. Wander Javier got $4 million to sign as an International Free Agent in 2015.
A couple of teenaged pitchers could eventually find their ways to Cedar Rapids, though are perhaps less likely to start the season there. The Twins’ 2017 second and third round draft picks, Blayne Enlow and Landon Leach, each got bonuses in excess of a million dollars to sign with the Twins, rather than play college ball.
While he didn’t get it from the Twins, catcher David Banuelos also got a million dollars to sign with the Mariners as their 2017 third round pick. He was acquired by the Twins in December.
If Banuelos is assigned to Cedar Rapids, the Kernels could potentially have quite an impressive 1-2 punch behind the plate, since it would not be surprising to see Ben Rortvedt (who signed for $900,000 as the Twins’ 2nd round pick in 2016) also return to start the season.
In addition to Rortvedt, seven additional likely (or at least potential) 2018 Kernels pulled down signing bonuses of between $400,000 and $900,000, Those include some pretty heralded prospects such as outfielder Akil Baddoo and infielder Jose Miranda, both of which were “Compensation B” round (between 2nd and 3rd rounds) selections by the Twins in 2016.
Of course, signing bonuses aren’t what matter the most once these guys get on the field. No matter what you got paid, what matters is what you do between the lines when you get a chance. Still, when you’re looking at young players with limited professional experience to base judgements on, bonus money and draft position are simple means of projecting the level of talent any particular roster might consist of.
In addition to those already listed, the 2018 Kernels roster could include, at some point:
Two 4th round picks (pitcher Charlie Barnes – 2017, and third baseman/outfielder Trey Cabbage – 2015, both of whom spent time with the Kernels in 2017) and a 5th rounder (third baseman Andrew Bechtold).
Six-figure International Free Agent signees like pitcher Jose Martinez ($340K in 2013) and catcher Robert Molina ($300K in 2013)
Nine additional players drafted by the Twins in the top 10 rounds of drafts between 2014 and 2017,
That is a lot of potential. And it doesn’t even include Edwar Colina, who was the Appalachian League Pitcher of the Year last season.
Are you beginning to see why I’m getting excited for the season to start already? I mean, if you’re Toby Gardenhire, the recently announced new manager for the Kernels, you have to feel pretty good about the talent level that you’re going to have to work with in your first year as a manager in professional baseball, don’t you?
Of course, the fun thing is that, even with all of these “prospects” on their way to Cedar Rapids, we know that there will be several guys not found on anyone’s “prospect lists” that will grab hold of their opportunity to play baseball for a few dollars and show everyone they can play the game every bit as well as the guys getting all the attention… and money.
It happens every season and it will happen this year, too.
Cedar Rapids hasn’t won a Midwest League title since Bengie Molina caught 45 games for the 1994 Kernels. No, that’s not as long as the drought the Twins have endured since their 1991 World Series championship, but it’s long enough.
So pardon me if I get spend a few of these cold January days daring to get excited about Kernels baseball in 2018.
If that’s wrong, just blame Seth, Cody and Tom. That’s what I usually do.
Congratulations to Twins Manager Paul Molitor for being honored as the American League Manager of the Year for 2017!
In his honor, I thought this might be a fun time to take a an encore look at this post from June of 2013 when Molitor, who was then a roving minor league instructor for the Twins organization, visited Cedar Rapids and was generous enough to sit with me for an interview.
As a reminder, 2013 was the season when current Twins Byron Buxton and Jorge Polanco were wearing Kernels uniforms.
Hope you enjoy this look back. – JC
Hall of Famer Paul Molitor was in Cedar Rapids over the course of most of the past homestand in his capacity with the Twins organization.
Molitor was gracious enough to answer some questions last Thursday, the first day of his stay in Cedar Rapids, as well as a few follow-up questions Monday afternoon after the final game of the Kernels’ homestand.
I used several excerpts from the Thursday interview in an article posted at MetroSportsReport.com last week, but there was so much good material that I couldn’t fit in to that article. So, I’m sharing all of Molitor’s comments here.
First off, I asked Molitor to describe his formal role these days with the Twins organization.
Molitor: Titles are overrated a little bit. Technically, part of the player development team. I’m the Minor League Coordinator for Baserunning and Infield Play. It’s an opportunity for me to travel around the system and help try to teach, along with the staff on each club and I do focus on those two areas but invariably get involved with some of the hitting aspects.
Our hitting coordinator for minor leagues does an incredible job, considering you have to try to put a hit plan together for about 200 guys.
One of the things I enjoy, in addition to the teaching is that a lot of these guys are transitioning from wherever their roots have brought them from and it’s a process of evolving from sometimes teenagers in to men and so there’s mentoring involved, too. Just how to help these guys develop an understanding of the professional life style. We try to do what we can to try to help them progress in those areas, too.
I mentioned that a lot is made about players having to transition to using wood bats and asked Molitor if he thought that was toughest thing about transitioning to the professional game for young players.
Molitor: Some of the collegiate kids have had a chance to play in wood bat leagues in the summer time.
A lot of times it’s a big transition just from maybe never having left home, particularly maybe never left your country and you have to try to claw your way in to professional ball and learn a system that a particular organization teaches.
We don’t try to overwhelm them. We let them play a little bit in the beginning til we kind of get a feel for who they are and what they do, what they do well and what we need to improve on. But the transition can be tough, depending on the guy’s experience.
The college guys are usually better at understanding how to carry themselves and how to go about their business day to day.
Another change is that very few of these kids have played in seasons where there’s 140 games so it’s understanding how to maintain and prepare yourself to withstand the rigors of a professional season.
I asked if playing baseball in the upper midwest in April was difficult for players entering their first season of “full season” professional baseball.
Molitor: The guys from warm climates, whether its Florida, California, Texas or the Dominican or Puerto Rico, you throw them up here in April and it’s not only a culture shock, but the weather is something they really never had to play in those type of conditions.
So that’s a process. We see a lot of guys that haven’t had that experience start a little bit slower, just adapting to the weather itself.
I jokingly pointed out that Byron Buxton is a southern guy that didn’t seem to take long to adjust.
Molitor: He’s just a rare individual with a skill set that’s off the charts.
I saw him last year in instructional ball for a little bit and you could see the rawness of a high school kid, but somehow this winter I think he put a lot of time in to conditioning and preparation. He was much more advanced this spring than I expected him to be and he’s been able to carry it undoubtedly in to the first 9-10 weeks of the season.
You know, he’s got things to work on I’m sure. I’m looking forward to seeing him now compared to even two months ago. Over the next five days. I’ll be watching particularly how he handles himself on the basepaths.
On a professional grading scale of 2-8, he’s an 8 runner and I haven’t for the past three decades seen many players that can compete with him in terms of just raw speed. Now how he can translate that in to base stealing is going to be the key.
Obviously, this year he’s had over 30 attempts. He’s been caught some, but he’s been fairly successful for a young guy and probably in some ways, in this league, he’s been outrunning the ball.
There’s two parts of base stealing: The mechanical, finding the best way to get your body to accelerate from a standstill position; and then there’s the mental side of understanding how they’re trying to slow you down and picking good pitches, good counts, reading pitchers pick-off moves, all those type of things.
A lot of times, when you get caught is when you should learn the most. Whether you didn’t get a good jump or you ran on a pitch out or you didn’t anticipate the guy going home or you were tentative. There’s a lot of ways to learn to get better. So it’s a process. The more you do it, the better you get at it.
We’re glad to see he’s out running. At least not having fear in athat area to this point.
I asked Molitor for his thoughts on Kernels third baseman Travis Harrison, who is still somewhat learning the position.
Molitor: Ive been around him some, mostly spring traning and instructional ball. I’m sure there’s some adaption for him going on.
He has relatively good hands. I think his footwork is something that needs to be improved. Being so close in proximity to home plate, you don’t have a lot of time to react to get your body in position to catch the ball. The better he can get control of his feet and be in the right spot, his hands are going to be OK.
Throwing, he’s had some issues at times with consistency. He’s a little bit mechanical, but I think he’s learning that if he doesn’t try to guide the ball and throws it, he’s better off.
So those are areas where we expect young kids to make errors and just like the baserunning, when you make mistakes, you figure out why and hopefully you can make adjustments.
I asked for Molitor’s thoughts concerning the defensive progress at third base of Harrison, as compared to Miguel Sano (this was a couple of days prior to Sano’s promotion to AA).
Molitor: I think that’s a fair question.
We’re all hoping that Sano, who’s a little farther along in the organization and in growth, in terms of getting close to the Major Leagues. Not unexpectedly, he made a ton of errors last year, his first year of being a third baseman in a full season and it was a plethora of mistakes.
It was misreading balls, it was rushing balls, it was throwing balls he shouldn’t have thrown. Trying to force an out when it wasn’t there.
But having seen him twice already this year, he’s made maybe a dozen errors so far and a lot of them are similar things.
But he’s been very diligent and asking for extra work and trying to correct mistakes.
I’m hoping his future is as a third baseman.
Travis, it’s a little bit early to see how it pans out. A lot of times, you can play three or four years in the minor leagues and then you get to the Big Leagues and there’s no room in that position and all of a sudden you’ve got to maybe transition. So you kind of hope that you get these guys a little bit more well-rounded. As far as their strength position, you want to try to see them develop that the most.
After the game on Monday, a Kernels win that was broadcast back to the Twin Cities on Fox Sports North, I asked Molitor about his impressions after having spent five days with the Kernels in Cedar Rapids.
Molitor: Well it was good to see them bounce back after three tough losses.
I feel like we got some things accomplished with some of the infielders defensively.
It was good to see (Candido) Pimentel back out there today. He had a better day. He still had one play where he got a little anxious about turning his back to the runner and he didn’t keep his eye on the ball and that’s kind of one of the things he’s got to work on is just catching the ball and understanding the speed of the baserunners on the play.
And then with baserunning, we had some guys out working on their jumps today and they’ve been aggressive trying to steal, so I’m pleased with that.
But yeah, I had a lot of fun seeing these guys and kind of seeing where they’re at at this point in the season and hopefully I’ll get a chance to get back and see them again.
Since Molitor had indicated he would be working with Byron Buxton on his base stealing, I asked if we should blame him for Buxton being picked off first base during Monday’s game (yes, I was kidding).
Molitor: You can blame me for that if you want. The (pitcher) did a nice job of holding the ball. I think he kind of built a little tension. The longer the guy holds it, you really have to concentrate on staying relaxed and he might have given him a little bit of a balk move, but that’s, again, learning time.
A hitter can help your baserunner out when he’s holding the ball. Call a time out, things like that. But that’s how you learn.
I asked for Molitor’s impression of Jorge Polanco, specifically whether he thinks Polanco can stick at shortstop.
Molitor: You know, I’ve seen him a fair amount and his arm’s probably competent at short but I still think he probably profiles a little better at second base in the long run.
Working on his footwork a little bit. He can get a little false step on his breaks to the ball and it seems like balls you think he might have a chance to get he comes up a little bit short. So we’ll try to improve his range a little bit and give him a chance.
At 19, it’s certainly too early to close the book on any one position.
Offensively, he’s just getting a little bit stronger and he’s got nice loose hands at the plate and being a switch hitter is generally to his advantage.
But I keep trying to keep them versatile in the middle of the field and hopefully one of the positions will pan out. But I have a feeling probably second base in the long run.
Since we had discussed third baseman Travis Harrison earlier, I asked if he had any final impressions of Harrison.
Molitor: He’s got a great attitude about work ethic and he wants to get better.
I think the main thing for him is going to continue to work on his footwork so his range is competent to stay over there, too. But his throwing’s improved. He’s a lot more accurate. I think he’s comfortable over there.
He’s still feeling for positioning a little bit. Sometimes I catch him maybe not quite in the right spot. There’s a reason you are where you are on every pitch and I think he’s learning that and trying to take some pride in it.
It was a pleasure to talk a little baseball with Paul Molitor and I appreciate him taking the time to answer questions. I think the thought he put in to his comments clearly demonstrates just how seriously he takes his work with the Twins’ young players and how much he enjoys doing what he’s doing. – JC
I’m not sure why I couldn’t bring myself to write over the past couple of months. Certainly, it wasn’t for a lack of Twins-related stuff to hash over, right? Since my last post, the Twins and Kernels BOTH qualified for their respective leagues’ postseasons. Not bad, right?
Neither of them lasted as long as we would have liked, with the Kernels winning their first round series over Kane County, but dropping two games out of three to Quad Cities in the Midwest League’s Western Division championship series and the Twins falling to the Evil Empire in the American League Wild Card game, but still, they capped off successful seasons.
Now we’re into baseball’s offseason. You remember the offseason? I know, if you’re a Twins fan, it’s understandable if you have no idea what that is. After all, the Twins haven’t historically done much but go into hibernation from November until pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training in February.
Already, this offseason, though, the Twins front office has: let go of Fort Myers Miracle manager (and fan-favorite former Twins first baseman) Doug Mientkiewicz, announced a three year extension for manager Paul Molitor, released their major league pitching coach and minor league pitching coordinator and hired John Manuel, the editor of Baseball America, into their pro scouting organization.
Of interest to Kernels fans (at least it should be), the Twins also promoted farm director Brad Steil to the director of professional scouting and hired a new director of minor league operations, Jeremy Zoll, out of the Dodgers organization.
That may not sound like a lot to some people, but for the Twins, that’s a lot of decisions coming down the pipeline before the World Series even gets started!
It seemed to me, though, that it was the Mientkiewicz news that got the biggest reaction out of Twinsville. He had been, after all, reported to have been a candidate for the Twins’ managerial job before Molitor was eventually given the gig. And it’s pretty hard, I think, to find a player that spent any time on one of his teams in Fort Myers or Chattanooga who didn’t speak highly of him.
But, from everything I’ve heard from former players and media, Dougie Baseball was a bit of a dinosaur, when it comes to his approach to managing a baseball team. He also had a history of, arguably, stretching pitch counts for some of his young pitchers.
If any of that is true, then his chances of ever landing a coaching spot (much less the manager’s seat) at the MLB level in a Twins organization run by Thad Levine and Derek Falvey were virtually nil. He’s better off looking for a better philosophical fit. His problem is going to be trying to find a front office that still values his way of thinking above more modern analytical approaches.
Modern analytics are no longer just theory. In fact, they are no longer just being applied to the Major League levels. Minor league managers and coaches, all the way down through the lower levels, are being provided the tools necessary to record and mine advanced data on their own players, as well as their opponents’. And this Twins front office is not going to accept any coach or manager who doesn’t embrace and utilize those tools.
From where I sat in Cedar Rapids this summer, manager Tommy Watkins and his coaches (Brian Dinkelman and JP Martinez) did embrace this new world. They and their players spent more time with video, they applied the data at their fingertips related to everything from lineup construction to defensive shifts and were very careful not to overwork the young arms they were responsible for developing.
And they did all that while also winning baseball games!
I have no first-hand knowledge of whether other managing/coaching staff members in the organization were as on board as the Kernels’ staff with those obvious changes from past practices, but if any of them dragged their feet, they really can’t be too surprised if the front office decides to find replacements who would be more enthusiastic about implementing their bosses’ philosophies.
Apparently, Molitor demonstrated well enough that he was capable of implementing the front office’s system to warrant being kept around.
Then again, we all know that Molitor is a favorite not only with a significant segment of the fan base but, more importantly, with owner Jim Pohlad.
Pohlad made retaining his manager for at least a year a prerequisite for anyone applying to replace former General Manager Terry Ryan, so his feelings about Molitor are obvious.
Reports indicated that Pohlad did not order his front office to offer an extension to the manager after this past season, but that, if they decided they wanted to go another way, he wanted to be involved in a conversation before any announcement was made. That conversation was never necessary, of course, but one can imagine how it might have gone if the brass had decided they wanted to move in another direction.
Pohlad: Let me get this straight. Molitor led our team to the most dramatic turnaround, record-wise, in our history. He did this after you guys gave up on the season and got rid of his closer and the starting pitcher you traded FOR just a week earlier. Now, you want to fire him? Why?
“Falvine”: We just want our own guy in that position.
Pohlad, after a long pause to consider whether he would rather keep Molitor or these two new guys he still hasn’t learned to tell apart: OK. You lived up to your end of the deal. You kept Paul for one year. But gentlemen, you’d better be right or a year from now, your choice for a manager will be back on the street… and he’ll have company.
No, they weren’t going to let Molitor go. The only question in my mind was whether, after a year of spreadsheets and exit velocities, he felt comfortable continuing to manage in the new baseball world.
It’s not like he needed the gig, right? But I suspect that the promise of what this team could become over the next three years was enough to make him want to be around for that ride and I think he has some genuine affinity for and with this group of players which refused to roll over even after their front office gave up on them.
Now Falvine can focus on getting some pitching.
If there’s one thing that watching the teams that are still alive in the postseason drives home to you, it’s the difference between the quality of the pitching staffs, in particular the starting rotations, between these teams and the Twins.
I will say that the Twins’ rotation has improved. Whenever Santana, Berrios and even Gibson took the mound to start a game in August and September, I felt like the Twins had a chance to win.
But teams like the Astros, Indians, Dodgers, Cubs and even the Yankees don’t just feel they have a chance to win when their top three (and sometimes more) starters are on the mound, they EXPECT to win those games.
That is a huge difference and the task of the Twins’ front office is to make that kind of thing happen in Minnesota and do it fast.
The window for winning with this current group of position players is now opening and those windows only last so long.
The Twins can’t afford to wait two or three or four years to develop a postseason-worth rotation. It has to happen sooner than that and it has to start in the next two months.
It has been a while since I felt inclined to support potentially trading top prospects for immediate help at the big league level, but I’m there now.
If it takes a couple of the organization’s top position player prospects to get legitimate starting pitching help (and not just #3 or #4 level arms), then get it done. Face it, there’s not a lot of room in this lineup right now for the guys coming up anyway and those guys might be better served to go somewhere that they aren’t blocked by guys like Buxton, Sano, Kepler and maybe even Polanco.
And the Twins can’t wait around to get pitching. Yes, let’s find out how good the top starting pitching prospects can be, but don’t let that stop you from getting pitchers that you can honestly EXPECT to win behind, not just have a chance to do so.
This should be the most interesting Twins offseason in the past couple of decades. If it’s not, then Levine and Falvey aren’t doing their jobs.
What, you didn’t take Latin in school? That’s no excuse for not knowing the English translation of that phrase. After all, it played a pivotal role in an episode of the Aaron Sorkin political drama, “The West Wing,” only a couple of decades ago.
Fine, since most of you still probably have no clue, I’ll provide the translation. Loosely, it means, “After this, therefore because of this.”
The phrase refers to the generally inaccurate fallacy that just because a particular event occurred just prior to another event, the first event must have caused the second. Of course, that’s not always true. In fact, it seldom is.
So why am I telling you all of this here on a baseball blog?
Because I want to talk to you about Royce Lewis and the Cedar Rapids Kernels.
The Kernels qualified for the Midwest League Playoffs by finishing second in the league’s Western Division standings during the first half of the season, which concluded in mid-June.
About that time, the parent Minnesota Twins started promoting many of the players that played key roles in the first half.
Tom Hackimer, Andrew Vasquez, Jermaine Palacios, Jaylin Davis, Mitchell Kranson, Brandon Lopez, Sean Poppen and Alex Robinson all earned promotions between the end of May and early July.
While Cedar Rapids still had a pretty talented core of position players and several effective pitchers, the promotions took a toll and the results on the field reflected that toll.
The Kernels went 4-5 during second half games played in June and 13-15 in July games.
They followed that up by winning just four of their first ten August games, averaging just three runs per game in those contests. They scored two or fewer runs in eight of those ten games, getting shutout in three of them.
That left the Kernels with a 21-26 second-half record as they prepared to host Quad Cities for the third game in a four game home series on August 12.
On that morning, the Twins announced that 2017’s first-overall draft pick, Royce Lewis, was being promoted to Cedar Rapids from Elizabethton. Lewis made his Kernels debut that evening.
Since then, the Kernels have won 13 games and lost just five, as they prepare to head into the final few regular season games and get ready to host Kane County in game one of the first round of the playoffs on September 6.
In the first ten games of August, the Kernels averaged just three runs per game. Since August 12, they’ve averaged over five per game.
In those first ten games this month, Kernels pitching and defense were combining to surrender 4.8 runs per game. Since then, they’ve been giving up just over three.
So the Kernels’ have clearly turned things around since Royce Lewis donned jersey number 30 for Cedar Rapids, but could he really be THE reason his team appears primed for the playoffs?
Lewis has hit .339 since taking over the leadoff spot in the order on August 12 and he’s made several impressive plays at shortstop, as well, so he’s clearly ONE reason for the Kernels’ recent success.
But to assume he’s the only reason would be inaccurate – and more than a little insulting to several of his teammates who have also dialed things up a few notches down the stretch, not to mention manager Tommy Watkins and his coaches.
In fact, as well as Lewis has played, Lewin Diaz has arguably outperformed the newbie during the same stretch of games. Diaz, who has been strong all season, has hit .351 with an OPS north of .900 since Lewis’ arrival.
Travis Blankenhorn struggled at the plate in July, but he’s popped a .947 OPS in August. He’s hit .319 since August 12 and has hit five home runs in that same stretch.
Shane Carrier was on the Kernels’ roster out of spring training, but struggled and was ultimately sent back to extended spring training. Since rejoining Cedar Rapids a week before Lewis’ arrival, he’s hit .280, clubbed five home runs and racked up an .885 OPS.
Shane Kennedy joined the Kernels on August 22 and has been getting on base at a .452 clip while putting up a .910 OPS.
Jimmy Kerrigan has been about a .270 hitter with the Kernels, but he’s hit .312 since August 12.
Trey Cabbage and Ben Rortvedt each sport batting averages around .225. But since August 12, they’ve each been hitting about 45 points higher at .270 or so.
The Kernels’ rotation has been in a state of near-constant flux this month and has been hit particularly hard by promotions.
Still, virtually every arm that manager Tommy Watkins and pitching coach J.P. Martinez have sent to the mound to start a game has at least given the team five solid innings before turning things over to what has been a consistently effective bullpen.
Reliever Hector Lujan hasn’t allowed an earned run in any of his eight appearances beginning August 8.
Eduardo Del Rosario, who pitched well enough as a starter for the Kernels to earn a late-July promotion to Fort Myers, returned to Cedar Rapids August 15 as a bullpen arm and hasn’t allowed an earned run in any of his five outings since.
Maybe it’s all a coincidence.
Maybe, as they approached the final three weeks of a long season, these guys were all poised to ratchet their games up a notch or two as they headed toward the postseason.
All we can say for certain is that Royce Lewis showed up on August 12 with his smile and his infectious energy… and he stroked base hits in each of his first four plate appearances that night.
And since then, this has been a very different Kernels team on the field than what we were seeing up to that point during the season’s second half.
This team is clearly having fun and they are definitely winning a lot of baseball games.
The first two rounds of the Midwest League playoffs are best two of three games, so advancing through those rounds is pretty much a crapshoot, but three weeks ago, not many people watching the Kernels on a regular basis would have given this team much of a chance to get through the initial round of the postseason.
Whatever the reasons, that has changed. This is a team that now looks like a legitimate postseason contender and likely everyone in that clubhouse deserves a share of the credit.
Ever since the Minnesota Twins used the first overall pick of the 2017 amateur draft to select California high school shortstop Royce Lewis, fans or the Kernels and/or Twins in Cedar Rapids have been wondering if and when we’d get a first-hand look at the athletic 18-year-old.
On Saturday, when the Twins and Kernels announced that Lewis was being promoted from the Gulf Coast League Twins up to Cedar Rapids, skipping the normal interim stop at Elizabethton, we got our answer.
Manager Tommy Watkins had Lewis’ name in the leadoff spot on his lineup card Saturday night and again Sunday afternoon, as his team finished up a four-game series with Midwest League Western Division second-half leading Quad Cities.
Neither the Kernels nor their highly heralded new arrival disappointed the locals.
In his Kernels debut on Saturday, Lewis singled in each of his first four at-bats, finishing the night 4 for 5 with an RBI and a pair of runs scored. He accounted for four of his team’s 11 hits as they topped the River Bandits 9-1.
On Sunday, Lewis led off the bottom of the first with another single, then came around to score when number two hitter Aaron Whitefield launched a home run.
The Kernels sent seven batters to the plate in the first, scoring three runs, then did almost nothing at the plate for the next seven innings. They trailed QC 6-3 heading to the home half of the ninth.
The Kernels still haven’t made an out in their half of that inning of Sunday’s game.
Jimmy Kerrigan led off with a single and Lewin Diaz followed with one of his own. Caleb Hamilton worked a walk and Shane Carrier made it a 6-4 game with a single.
Trey Cabbage came back from an 0-2 count to work a walk that plated Diaz to make it 6-5.
Joe Cronin shot the first pitch he saw up the middle, scoring Hamilton and pinch runner Christian Cavaness and setting off a celebration as Cronin’s teammates mobbed him in the infield.
The arrival of Lewis and the inspired efforts the his new teammates could prove to be just what the Kernels need as they prepare for the postseason. The club’s pitching has generally been good enough to win games lately, with particularly effective work coming from the bullpen, but the offense has often struggled to score runs.
With Lewis and Whitefield at the top of the order, Shane Carrier riding a hot streak, Lewin Diaz continuing to 100+ mph rockets off his bat and, hopefully, Travis Blankenhorn back soon from the Disabled List, a playoff run is not at all out of the question.
It’s something to look forward to watching.
In the mean time, a few pictures from the Sunday and, no, they aren’t ALL of Royce Lewis!
It took until the final day of the first half of the Midwest League season, but the Cedar Rapids Kernels claimed a playoff berth on Sunday with a 16-3 rout of the Clinton Lumber Kings.
With the win, Cedar Rapids locked up second place in the MWL West Division standings. Division champions and runners-up in both the first and second halves of the league’s season qualify for the post-season.
This will be the fifth consecutive post-season appearance for the Kernels, a record for a Cedar Rapids professional franchise that has a history well over 100 years old.
Also of significance, the Kernels have now qualified for the post-season in each of the five years that the club has been the Class A affiliate of the Minnesota Twins.
Manager Tommy Watkins’ team had to rally their way into the playoff spot after entering Saturday night’s game in third place.
The key play of that weekend rally came in the eighth inning Saturday night.
Travis Blankenhorn reached on an error and moved to second on a ground ball. That’s when things got interesting.
Blankenhorn tagged at second base and advanced to third on a line drive to right field, barely beating the throw to avoid committing a prime baseball sin of making the third out of an inning at the third sack.
It turned out to be a risk well worth taking.
Two walks later, Brandon Lopez stepped to the plate and, on a 1-2 count, with the Clinton third baseman playing well off the line, giving Blankenhorn opportunities to get a walking lead off the bag, this happened:
Watkins had noticed that Clinton sidearm pitcher Jack Anderson’s delivery was very deliberate and, combined with the large lead Blankenhorn was able to get, presented an opportunity to make something good happen.
Blankenhorn executed the straight steal perfectly and an inning later, the Kernels had the win that kept their playoff hopes alive.
Less than an hour later, Quad Cities fell to Beloit in extra innings and the Kernels were left needing a win on Sunday or a QC loss to nail down their playoff spot.
The Kernels would need to earn a win off of a MWL All-Star pitcher to avoid needing to rely on another QC loss. Lefty Danny Garcia will represent the Lumber Kings in Tuesday night’s MWL All-Star game, but he couldn’t record a single out in the first inning against the Kernels.
Cedar Rapids came out swinging on Sunday and hung a nine-spot on Clinton in the first inning on their way to their 16-3 triumph.
On a side note, Clinton manager Pat Shine has been relieved of his duties as manager of the Lumber Kings by their parent club, the Mariners.
The Kernels earned post-season spots the previous four years under manager Jake Mauer (who continued his personal run of managing playoff teams when his Chattanooga Lookouts club won their division’s Southern League first half title) and Watkins was pleased after the game Sunday to have his club continue that legacy.
“I had big shoes to fill with Jake Mauer leaving,” Watkins said.
The manager was also effusive in his praise for his players on Sunday. “It’s a great group of guys and just for them to come out and play like that in the first inning, it set the tone .I think a lot of it started with the game (Saturday) night.”
The Kernels are off for the MWL All-Star break until Thursday when the open the second half of the season at Quad Cities.
The half-way point is also when parent clubs traditionally make a number of roster moves, so the team that takes the field in the second half could be quite different than the club that earned the playoff spot,
Position players like Jermaine Palacios, Jaylin Davis and others could be deemed ready for promotion, as could a number of the pitchers on the staff.
Heading into their four-game series with Midwest League Western Division leaders Kane County on Thursday, the Cedar Rapids Kernels were one game under .500, trailed the Cougars by two games in the standings and were tied for second place in their division.
After trouncing Kane County 11-2 in the series finale on Sunday to earn a split of the four-game series, Cedar Rapids was one game over .500 (at 9-8), trail the Cougars by two games in the standings and are tied for second place in their division.
That sounds more mediocre than it was, in reality.
Kane County, the MWL affiliate of the Diamondbacks, have some game and the rest of the division will be challenged to keep up with the Cougars if they continue playing at early-season levels, so getting that split was hard work.
Still, it could have been better.
The Kernels had a 3-2 lead heading to the ninth inning on Thursday, but gave up three runs to the Cougars in the ninth and fell 5-3. On Saturday, The teams were tied 3-3 headed to the final stanza, where Kane County scored the winning run.
In fact, in five of their eight losses this season, Cedar Rapids has surrendered the winning run in their opponent’s final inning at the plate.
All those close losses don’t have manager Tommy Watkins concerned, however.
“The good thing is, after all those games, we responded afterwards,” Watkins said on Saturday. “We’ve lost a couple of games in the ninth inning, but it happens. We’ve got a young team. We’re going to take some bumps and bruises, but I think things have been pretty good to start the season.”
In fact, Watkins said his team has pretty much performed at expected levels.
“I didn’t have any concerns with either side of the ball. Pitching or hitting. Like I said at the beginning of the season, this is a fun team to watch up and down the lineup – pitching, defense, offense, running the bases. We’ve got some guys that can steal some bases. I really enjoy having these guys here.”
One player that’s certainly been as much fun to watch as any position player in the league has been Jermaine Palacios.
“Palacios has been swinging a hot bat and giving us a real boost at the leadoff spot,” Watkins said, of his shortstop. “He’s being aggressive to balls in a zone.”
Indeed he is.
The 20-year-old native of Venezuela is hitting .406 through Sunday and he hasn’t been just slapping the ball, either. Palacios has three doubles, two triples and added his first home run of the season in Sunday’s win over the Cougars.
He’s leading the MWL in batting average and his 1.012 OPS is ninth best in the league, but not good enough to lead his own team.
That honor goes to Mitchell Kranson. His six doubles, one triple and two dingers have propelled him to a 1.045 OPS.
By and large, the pitching staff has been solid, as well. There have been a couple of games where, as one Kernels pitcher told me, “none of us could miss a barrel.” But those instances have been rare.
Cedar Rapids continues their current homestand with a three game series against the Burlington Bees (Angels) before traveling to Peoria (Cardinals) for four games with the Chiefs beginning Thursday.
I’ll wrap up with a couple dozen pictures from the games on Saturday and Sunday at Veterans Memorial Stadium, as well as the traditional Sunday post-game autograph session.
The Cedar Rapids Kernels jumped to an early 6-1 lead in their home opener against the Beloit Snappers on Saturday evening, but by the end of the night, only the bean counters in Cedar Rapids could call the night a success.
Thanks to a large walk-up, certainly helped by 76 degree temperatures, the Kernels set a franchise record for attendance at a home opener, but the Snappers played spoiler by rallying three runs in the visitors’ half of the ninth inning to top the Kernels 7-6.
Kernels starter Sean Poppen worked seven solid innings, surrendering three runs (only two of the earned run variety), while striking out seven Snappers without a walk.
The offense was led by DH Travis Blankenhorn who doubled and added a three-run home run.
Shane Carrier also homered while Jaylin Davis and Caleb Hamilton added triples.
Davis may have contributed the defensive play of the game, gunning down Beloit’s Nate Mondou at the plate,
In fact, let’s start our photo set with a series of shots showing catcher Ben Rortvedt’s tag of Mondou.
(All photos by SD Buhr)
All of that in the first inning before the Kernels even came to the plate!
Now, let’s back up to pregame activities.
Now let’s look through the Kernels’ staring lineup.
There were differing opinions concerning who won the dance contest held in the Kernels’ clubhouse prior to “Meet the Kernels Night” in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, but the players and coaches who were brought in to talk to the media were in agreement on one thing. They all expect the 2017 Kernels season to be fun.
In fact, almost all of the players and coaches who endured media interrogation before moving on to the stadium concourse to meet the fans who showed up for the event used the word “fun” in at least one of their responses to media questions.
That shouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone who has spent time with the Kernels’ new manager, Tommy Watkins. If you see Watkins at a ballpark without a smile on his face, snap a picture quick. It would be a rarity.
Early during the media session, Watkins was asked what sort of mood he likes to see in his team’s clubhouse.
“Probably like a somber mood,” Watkins deadpanned.
“No, a lot of energy,” he continued, after the laughter in the room faded. “We just had fun down in the clubhouse before we came up, so it was a lot of fun. Get the guys moving around a little bit. Everybody danced a little. I think we like to bring a lot of energy and like to have fun. Play the game the right way.”
His coaches, Brian Dinkelman and J.P. Martinez, claimed Tommy won the dance contest and Tommy claimed the two coaches had been the winners. Later, pitcher Sean Poppen would claim that he’d been the true winner.
Whether or not there was an actual winner of that contest, there was no question that Watkins, his coaches and his players all are looking forward to having a fun season – and winning some baseball games along the way.
“I’m excited about all of these guys,” Watkins said of the players making up the first roster of his minor league managing career.
“They were fun to watch in spring training. Good group of guys, they all got along well. Up and down the lineup I think you’ll see a lot of energy, you’ll see a lot of guys play the game hard. I think they’ll be fun to watch this year. Same thing from the pitching side. We’ve got guys who can throw it over. We’ve got guys that throw hard, got some off-speed stuff. From both sides of the ball, these guys will be fun to watch.”
While last year’s opening day roster was composed largely of returning players from the 2015 Kernels roster, only eight of this year’s group wore a Cedar Rapids jersey at some point last year. Most of the group, including many of the returning players, played together at Elizabethton in the Appalachian League, during a season that did not see the sort of success on the field that E-town fans have come to expect.
Pitching coach J.P. Martinez said he things this group is hungry for success, as a result.
“I think in Cedar Rapids, in particular, we’ve set the bar pretty high,” Martinez said, recounting the success the Kernels have had, including making the playoffs in each of the four seasons since the inception of the affiliation agreement with the Twins.
“I think (these players) are eager to prove that they belong at this level, maybe partly because they didn’t really have the success they wanted last year, but they’re a really, really talented group. A really close-knit group and so we’re hoping that we can kind of steer them in the right direction. They are the future of the franchise.”
Brian Dinkelman, the hitting coach, also thinks there’s a lot of potential in this group of Kernels.
“Yeah, we’ve got some guys that can definitely swing the bat,” he said of the hitters he’ll be working with. “We’ve got a lot of young guys. We’ve got (Lewin) Diaz and (Jermaine) Palacios and (Ben) Rortvedt – guys that are still in their teens. But we’ve got some guys who can swing the bat and do some damage, so looking forward to the season. A lot of guys to work with. Hope we can develop them and move on to the next level.
One of the guys the hitting coach mentioned, Rortvedt, is among the players who will be getting their first taste of full-season professional experience this season in Cedar Rapids.
“Wonderful. A bit of an upgrade with the stadium from Elizabethton and the Florida GCL,” the Wisconsin native responded, when asked for his initial impressions.”I played here growing up a couple of times and it was fantastic. I mean, it wasn’t full bleachers, but I’ve seen pictures of you guys filling up the stadium, so I’m really excited.
“I played with a bunch of the guys last year and we’ve bonded pretty well, so it’s going to be a fun season.”
There’s that word, “fun” again, along with another common theme of the day, team chemistry.
Pitcher Sean Poppen and infielder/DH Travis Blankenhorn expressed similar expectations.
“(Tommy) is great. I think he’s really going to develop team chemistry and that’s pretty important,” Poppen said, of his manager.
“We had Tommy in instructs (fall instructional league) and spring training,” Blankenhorn added. “He just keeps the game fun. It’s fun to play for him. He keeps it fun for all of us. It makes baseball a lot better when you’re having fun.”
“Absolutely,” Rortvedt agreed. “I didn’t know Tommy going into instructs and he came in already cracking jokes at me, so he’s definitely going to keep us loose in the dugout.”
Fun and chemistry are important, but Poppen doesn’t think that’s all Watkins brings to his team.
“He’s a good coach. I’ve had some experiences with him that were very helpful and I feel like he’s going to help me – and help the team – get better.”
“I think we have a good team this year,” Blankenhorn concluded. “I think we have a bunch of pitchers that are going to throw strikes and go out there and put some zeros on the board. I think we have some good sticks in our lineup that are going to put the ball in play and puts some runs up and hopefully we can win some games.”
Having fun and winning games. Sounds like a pretty good combination.