From Kernel to Twin: Jorge Polanco

A little over a year ago, I sat in the Cedar Rapids Kernels dugout before a Sunday game and did an interview with then-Kernels infielder Jorge Polanco – the same Jorge Polanco that just spent the past weekend wearing number 11 for the Minnesota Twins.

I’d been told that, of the Kernels’ Latin American players, Polanco was one of those most familiar with the English language. Since the only familiarization I have with a foreign language comes from the two years of high school French class that I nearly flunked out of over 40 years ago, it seemed like a good idea to interview a player who knew my language better than I knew his.

Jorge Polanco as a Cedar Rapids Kernel

Jorge Polanco as a Cedar Rapids Kernel

Polanco was very accommodating. I approached him after the team worked out that day and asked if he had some time to talk. He said he did, but asked if we could do it after the brief chapel service players have on Sundays. After chapel, we met and sat in the dugout for the interview.

The interview didn’t go particularly well and, unfortunately, I didn’t feel I had enough material to turn it in to something I could post at the time.

I had only been covering the Kernels for a couple of months at that time and, frankly, my interviewing skills weren’t very strong. I’m not sure I’d say they’re particularly strong now, either, but I’m better at it than I was that Sunday afternoon with Polanco.

I asked him what he felt the biggest difference was between his experience at Elizabethton (TN) with the Twins’ short-season rookie level team the year before and his season in Cedar Rapids.

“More fans,” Polanco responded. “A lot of fans.”

Neither of us knew then, of course, that just over a year later, he’d be playing ball in front of a crowd ten times larger than what he was seeing in the Cedar Rapids stands.

Jorge Polanco

Jorge Polanco

We talked some about his home town, San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic. A “good town to live there,” according to Polanco, and about his favorite Major League player.

“Robinson Cano,” Polanco replied immediately. “I like the way he plays. I would like to be like him. He’s a good person.”

I also found out during the conversation that the then-19 year old spent his time away from the ballpark in much the same way other 19 year olds spend their idle time.

“I like to watch TV and play Playstation3 video games,” he said.

Then he added, “I like to play pool.”

Asked if he was any good at it, he smiled and simply said, “Yes.”

Unfortunately, he added that he had not yet found a place to play pool in Cedar Rapids. I imagine that probably didn’t change much during the summer, since it might be difficult for a 19 year old to get in to most public establishments with pool tables around here.

Toward the end of our conversation, we talked about the adjustments that he and other Latino players have to make to play ball in a place like Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

The food, he said, was probably one of the most difficult adjustments, but we also talked about the language barrier.

Polanco clearly was working hard on learning English and wanted to get better.

“I like it because all the people here – most all the people – speak English, so I try to do it.”

That’s when I made one of those off the cuff comments that I may come to regret.

I went back to the audio recording of the interview this weekend, with the hope that perhaps my memory of what I said next was not quite accurate.

I told Polanco I was starting to try to learn some Spanish. I should have left it at that.

But no, I continued with, “When you’re in Target Field with the Twins in a couple of years, I’m going to come to a Twins game and we’ll talk in your language. Is that a deal?”

He smiled and said, “Yes, alright.”

Last week, just about 13 months after my conversation with Polanco, he was called up to the Twins, who found themselves in need of a versatile infielder after a series of injuries to their infield corps. Fortunately, those games were all in Anaheim, California, and Arlington, Texas, and not in Target Field.

I’m using that technicality as an excuse to conclude I still have some time before making good on my poorly thought out promise to Polanco.

(I’ve learned my lesson, by the way. I’m NOT going to promise any of this year’s crop of Kernels players from “down under” that I’ll learn to speak Australian before they wear a Twins uniform.)

It turned out to be just four games in The Show for Polanco, including one start on Sunday against the Rangers, before infielders Eduardo Nunez and Trevor Plouffe came off the Disabled List on Monday and Polanco was sent back to the Fort Myers Miracle.

I don’t think anyone would have been surprised if Polanco had shown some jitters during his time with the Twins, but from all accounts, he looked like he belonged there.

He had two hits (a double and a triple) in five at-bats, he scored two runs and drove in three more. He turned three double plays and, yes, he had a mental lapse on defense in a rundown situation. He’s not the first Twins player to have a mental lapse in the field this season.

He also handled himself well with the media, as is clear from a video clip the St. Paul Pioneer-Press’ Mike Berardino posted over the weekend (click here to view) after Polanco recorded his first Major League hit.

Over the first season and a half of the affiliation between the Twins and Kernels, we’ve seen several players that have legitimate Major League potential and Polanco was no doubt one of those guys.

Fans in Cedar Rapids couldn’t be happier for Polanco, as the first Kernels player since the new affiliation agreement to reach the Big Leagues. Still, it’s unlikely that anyone thought he’d get even this kind of “cup of coffee” with the Twins this soon.

But as one of this year’s Kernels told me recently, “Baseball is a goofy game.”

Indeed it is.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think it’s time for my next Spanish lesson. It seems I may need to accelerate my learning curve a bit. – JC

Spanish

Few Silver Linings for Kernels

June has not been kind to the Cedar Rapids Kernels.

As a team, they’ve lost a dozen games this month and won just six. The first half of the season mercifully drew to a close a week ago, but the Kernels started off their second half season by dropping three of four road games to the Midwest League’s Western Division champions, the Kane County Cougars.

Silver linings are a little difficult to come by for a team that most people expected to be led by their pitching when the season opened, only to find themselves with the 15th ranked team ERA (4.83) in the 16-team Midwest League.

There are a handful of bright spots as the Kernels begin the race for a postseason spot that would come with finishing as one of the top two teams in the MWL Western Division among the six teams that have not already qualified for postseason play.

The brightest of those bright spots might be catcher Mitch Garver. So far in June, Garver is batting .364, has an on-base percentage of .500 and an OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) of 1.045.

Mitch Garver

Mitch Garver

According to TwinsDaily.com’s Seth Stohs, heading in to this week’s series in Peoria, Garver is among the Twins minor league organizational leaders in batting average (2nd), on-base percentage (1st), slugging percentage (3rd), OPS (2nd) and home runs (tied for 4th with teammate Bryan Haar).

Cedar Rapids native Chad Christensen has also shown he can handle Class A work. He is hitting .323 in June and has a .963 OPS. He’s had eight extra-base hits in the month, including four home runs.

Chad Christensen

Chad Christensen

Christensen’s .299 batting average ties him for fourth among all Twins minor leaguers.

But Garver and Christensen can’t win games by themselves. Most of the rest of the Kernels’ batting order have seen their hitting numbers drop considerably in June.

The Kernels could get some offensive help as some of the hitters that have been idled by injuries begin to return.

That process has begun already as outfielder J.D. Williams was activated from the Disabled List on Tuesday.

Zach Larson, Logan Wade and Jeremias Pineda remain on the club’s DL for now. Larson, in particular, could provide an offensive boost if he can get healthy and return to a level of productivity he demonstrated in April when he hit .307 for the Kernels.

Unless you’re a fan who worships gaudy strikeout numbers for pitchers, there has been nothing to complain about in starting pitcher Kohl Stewart’s performance thus far.

Kohl Stewart

Kohl Stewart

Stewart’s 2.44 ERA on the season would be good enough for fourth best in the league if he had enough innings to qualify (he’s one inning short, which should be more than met in his next scheduled start on Wednesday).

Stewart has continued to lead the rotation with a 1.13 ERA in three June starts, with batters putting up just a .236 batting average against him this month.

To find anything else resembling “bright” among the Cedar Rapids pitching corps, it’s necessary to turn to the bullpen, which has had its own share of ups and downs through the first half of the season.

Todd Van Steensel perhaps represents the best of the “ups” for the bullpen corps recently.

Todd Van Steensel

Todd Van Steensel

Van Steensel has put up a 1.67 ERA since joining the Kernels at the end of April. He has struck out 35 batters in 27 innings of work and opponents are hitting just .179 off the right hander.

Alex Muren has been among the team’s most consistent bullpen arms, assembling a 3.43 ERA on the year and a similar 3.48 ERA so far in June.

This month, hitters are batting just .171 against Muren. He’s thrown 10.1 innings in five June appearances. All four runs surrendered this month came in one forgettable appearance on June 15.

Alex Muren

Alex Muren

Brandon Bixler had two good months in April and May, but has been less consistent in June. He has a 3.13 ERA on the year and hitters have just a .201 batting average against him. He’s struck out 39 batters in 40.1 innings.

Jared Wilson’s year has been similar to Bixler’s. Since joining the Kernels in mid May, Wilson has put up a 2.49 ERA and a .197 BAA (batting average against), while striking out over one batter per inning pitched. He’s been somewhat inconsistent in June, with three outings where he was almost unhittable and three others where he gave up almost an earned run per inning.

The Kernels bullpen could be in for a boost, however.

On Tuesday, the Twins announced that they had signed Nick Burdi, their second round pick in the 2014 draft, and that Burdi will be joining Cedar Rapids on Friday.

Burdi, the closer for a University of Louisville squad that qualified for the College World Series, reportedly throws in the 96-98 mph range and is capable of regularly topping 100 mph with his fastball.

Expectations for the Kernels coming in to the season were modest, but a seventh place finish in the MWL Western Division first-half standings was a disappointment.

Garver and Christensen will need some of their teammates to step up their games and the Kernels rotation will need to start contributing more than three or four innings of solid pitching on a regular basis if the team expects to contend for a postseason berth in the second half of the year.

– JC

Twins Prez Interested in Move from Cedar Rapids to St. Paul?

In September of 2012, the Minnesota Twins announced a four-year affiliation agreement with the Cedar Rapids Kernels, with the Twins’ then-Senior Director of Minor Leagues Jim Rantz telling the media, “We are confident that this relationship will grow into one of the strongest affiliations in minor league baseball.”

Less than two years later, the Twins organization appears to be flirting with another minor league ownership group with an eye toward moving their Class A Midwest League affiliation to nearby St. Paul, Minnesota, and potentially leaving the Kernels to shop for another new Major League affiliate when their current Player Development Contract expires following the 2016 season.

According to a story Tuesday in the Business Journal, Minnesota Twins President Dave St. Peter and Derek Sharrer, the General Manager the St. Paul Saints, an independent minor league team, expressed mutual interest in a future affiliation agreement between the two teams.

Their comments were made at the Business Journal’s Business of Sports Power Breakfast Tuesday morning.

But what about 2017 and beyond? (Image: Kernels.com)

But what about 2017 and beyond? (Image: Kernels.com)

“Long-term, there are aspects that make a lot of sense,” St. Peter is quoted as telling the group. “Short-term, it’s more challenging. We have a tremendous partnership with Cedar Rapids and the Kernels. It’s been a home run for the Twins. It’s been strategic for the Twins relative to marketing in the state of Iowa.

“I think it’s something that will require some additional discussions and I’m guessing that dialogue will take place.”

The Twins President did point out that the potential arrangement comes with challenges.

“It’s a bus league, and when you’re in St. Paul and there are teams east of Cleveland, that’s a tough bus trip for your players,” St. Peter said. “Things like that need to be addressed long-term.”

The Saints are in the process of building a new 7.000 seat stadium in St. Paul that’s being built to meet or exceed standards required by baseball for Class AA and lower affiliated teams. The stadium is scheduled to open in 2015.

The Saints are owned by a group that recently agreed to sell the Twins’ Class high-A affiliate in Fort Myers, Florida.

“Our organization has a tremendous amount of respect for Derek and his team,” St. Peter said of the Twins’ relationship with the Saints organization. “We’ve worked very closely with the Saints’ ownership … for 20 years.”

As the Twins President alluded to, there are a number of obstacles that the Twins and Saints would need to overcome before placing an affiliate in St. Paul.

The most likely arrangement would be for the Twins to place their Class A Midwest League affiliate in St. Paul. There are no high-A or AA leagues located in the Midwest and the new Saints stadium is not being built up to AAA standards.

However, putting a Midwest League team in St. Paul would not be a simple matter, either.

For the Twins and Saints to make the plan work, they would need to either seek to have the Midwest League expand by two teams (to keep the number of league teams at an even number for scheduling purposes) or acquire an existing MWL team and move it to St. Paul.

Every Major League team already has a full season Class A affiliate, which would seem to make expansion unlikely.

Acquiring a team and moving it would only be somewhat easier.

Under the current Professional Baseball Agreement between the Major and Minor League governing bodies, every current affiliated minor league team is guaranteed an affiliation. Baseball can’t just tell an existing affiliated team that they’re being kicked out of affiliated minor league baseball.

The Saints ownership would likely need to acquire an existing Midwest League team and relocate it to St. Paul, rather than looking to acquire a team currently competing in another Class A league.

While it would not be totally unheard of for a team to move from one minor league to another, the same scheduling issues that affect expansion would also require any movement between leagues to result in each affected league retaining an even number of teams.

With the eastward migration of Midwest League teams over the past two decades, virtually every club in the Eastern Division of the league is playing in relatively new ballparks and before generally larger crowds than is the case among their Western Division brethren. This would make it much more likely that a current Western Division club would be targeted.

With relatively new or recently renovated ballparks in Appleton WI, Kane County IL, Peoria IL and Iowa clubs in the Quad Cities and Cedar Rapids, it would be unlikely that the teams in those communities would go on the sale block.

That leaves Beloit WI, Clinton IA and Burlington IA, three teams with, perhaps, the most difficult stadium situations left among potential MWL targets.

However, all three of those teams are, like the Kernels, long-time MWL members. More importantly, also like the Kernels, all three clubs are community owned. Prying ownership away from those communities would likely be no easy task.

Finally, even if an existing ownership group were made an offer they can’t refuse, the team would need approval of the other members of the MWL to relocate. That hurdle might not be so easy to overcome, either.

St. Paul is well outside the current MWL footprint. Cedar Rapids is the closest current league city and it’s a good 250 miles from the Twin Cities. Every other MWL community, except Appleton (270 miles) is at least 300 miles from St. Paul.

South Bend IN, at 495 miles, would be the only MWL Eastern Division location less than 500 miles away.

That’s an important consideration for the league, too, because under the terms of the Professional Baseball Agreement rules, players must be given an off day any time they are bused 500 miles or more. Having a team that far outside the league’s current footprint could present a nightmare for MWL schedule-makers.

It also would increase travel costs, not only for the team that relocates, but for every other team in the league that would have to send teams to St. Paul on road trips. Those travel costs are primarily the responsibility of the local team, not their Big League affiliate.

St. Peter is certainly correct in cautioning Twin Cities fans that putting an affiliate in St. Paul would be difficult to arrange, but if the Twins were to decide to make such a move a priority, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that they could throw enough weight around to get what they want. It remains to be seen whether the Twins and Saints are truly interested enough in a marriage to overcome the obstacles.

The agreement between the Kernels and Twins will have young Twins prospects calling Cedar Rapids their summer home for two more years after the current season.

Nevertheless, it’s no doubt disappointing to Twins fans in Eastern Iowa to learn that at least one Twins executive may no longer be interested in seeing the relationship between the Twins and Kernels, “grow into one of the strongest affiliations in minor league baseball.”

Kernels General Manager Doug Nelson, reached Tuesday afternoon while in Comstock Park MI for the Midwest League All-Star game, was asked for his reaction to St. Peter’s statements to the Business Journal.

“The Kernels view our affiliation with the Twins as a long term partnership,” stated Nelson via email.

It is less clear whether the Twins continue to share that view.

– JC

Kernels’ Jason Kanzler Keeps Proving Himself

Go ahead and underestimate Cedar Rapids Kernels outfielder Jason Kanzler. He’s used to it. Having to show people they’re wrong about him is nothing new.

”I think I’ve done that my whole life, pretty much,” Kanzler said. “I was never really at the top on anyone’s priority list. I wasn’t recruited out of high school. I tried to walk on at Northeastern University and I was cut after two weeks.

Jason Kanzler

Jason Kanzler

“Then I went to Buffalo as kind of a recruited walk-on and I didn’t play. I guess my red-shirt freshman year, I got 10 at-bats.Then I platooned a little in left and right my sophomore year.”

That’s not exactly the kind of start to a college baseball career that you’d expect for a guy with hopes of playing ball professionally.

Things turned around for Kanzler his next two seasons at the University of Buffalo, however.

“I started in center field my junior and senior year and won two gold gloves so I kind of shoved it up in everyone’s faces.”

If you think it sounds like Kanzler has a little chip on his shoulder over people underestimating him, you would be correct.

Kanzler spent spring training with the Class A group, but got the word the last week of camp that he would not be heading north to Cedar Rapids with the others.

Asked how he felt about being one of the final cuts to the Kernels’ roster as spring training drew to a close in March, he quickly corrected the questioner and didn’t hesitate to say exactly how he felt about it.

”I was the last guy,” he said. And he said it without a trace of a smile.

“I was angry, I was really angry,” he admitted. “The coaches down in extended (spring training) told me to cool it and I’ll get my chance eventually.”

You get the sense from Kanzler that “cooling it” isn’t something that comes very natural to him on a baseball field. In fact, in the game the evening after giving the interview, Kanzler was ejected for arguing a called third strike late in the game.

In any event, he didn’t have to cool it for very long this spring before he was given a plane ticket for Cedar Rapids. Four games in to the season, Kernels center fielder Zack Granite was injured and Kanzler got the call.

Jason Kanzler

Jason Kanzler

Granite rejoined the Kernels last week, but it wasn’t Kanzler’s roster spot he took. Instead, Ivory Thomas was given his unconditional release by the Twins to make room for Granite and Kanzler in the same outfield.

At the Midwest League’s All-Star break, the halfway point of the Kernels’ season, Kanzler is hitting .293 with an .813 OPS. He has five doubles, five triples and one night after his ejection he hit his seventh home run of the year. He has also stolen 10 bases.

Kanzler was utilized as a top-of-the order hitter when he first arrived in Cedar Rapids, but the power he’s demonstrated has resulted in a move toward the middle of the lineup.

How could power go unnoticed?

“I’m not a ‘guy’ really. Just an ‘extended guy’,” Kanzler explained. “I was hurt for 14 days during spring training with a hamstring, so I really only got to play like ten spring training games.”

The pop in his bat may have surprised others, but not Kanzler. “I knew I had it. I think it makes me even more mad that no one else really knew,” he said.

Kanzler has let his play convince others he’s more than just a defensive specialist and slap hitter.

“I guess I could show it off in BP a little bit,” he said, “but they kind of figured I was just a speed guy with good defense and once you get pigeon-holed, it’s hard to kind of climb your way out.”

Kernels hitting coach Tommy Watkins knows Kanzler has a bit of a chip on his shoulder and that the player uses it to his advantage.

“I think that’s one thing that motivated him, being the last guy left off the team,” Watkins said. “From talking to him since he’s been here and in spring training, I think he’s been a guy that people have always told him he couldn’t do it, so he set himself out to prove everybody wrong.

“If you tell him he can’t do it, he’s going to work 10 times harder to prove you wrong.”

Asked about his goals for this season before the year started and whether they have changed at all with his performance in Cedar Rapids, Kanzler was thoughtful with his responses.

“I think my goals are just to play my game,” he responded initially. “I think if I play my game, everything will kind of work itself out. I guess my main goal is to play excellent defense and kind of be a spark plug. I kind of like to do a little bit of everything. So whether it’s hit a home run or steal a base or make a diving catch, I just like to play the game hard.”

Watkins thinks Kanzler’s on the right track with that goal.

“I think for him just to work on his overall game,” Watkins said. “He’s a guy that has tremendous tools, all of them. He can hit, hit with power, he can run, he can throw. He’s got all the tools, it’s just fine-tuning all of them and have them show in the game.”

Of course, Kanzler has longer term goals, too. “My goal is to get to the Big Leagues, but that’s more like a dream than a goal right now. Still a few too many steps away to be a goal yet.”

A native of upstate New York, Kanzler added another potential goal before he reaches the Big Leagues, “Fill up the Red Wings’ stadium.”

“Maybe my (short term) goal would be to make a post-season all-star team and help the Kernels win the second half and get in the playoffs and win the playoffs.

“I like that. I like to win.”

Jason Kanzler breaking up a double play

Jason Kanzler goes in hard to break up a double play

Kanzler and his team mates aren’t accustomed to looking at the standings and seeing their team near the bottom. They don’t like it much.

“Yeah, I think especially because we have, I think, a lot more talent than a lot of the teams that are above us. We have so many games where we can’t put everything together. One or two things go right instead of all three.”

As intense as Kanzler can be on the field, he’s capable of relaxing and enjoying his time away from the ballpark.

Recently, that included a trip to a local music store with team mate and Cedar Rapids native Chad Christensen.

“He (Christensen) bought a guitar and I bought a ukulele,” Kanzler related. “So I’ve been practicing my ukulele a little bit. Ryan Walker has a banjo and it’s amazing, It’s an instrument I’d like to learn.”

How’s that ukulele coming and does it sound good with Christensen’s guitar?

“No we haven’t tried that. The guitar is too loud and they don’t collaborate well I don’t think.

“Chad’s been learning mostly country songs and I’ve been learning video game songs, like Mario and Zelda. That’s my kind of thing. Just fun little stuff.”

You get the feeling that all it would take for Kanzler to become the best ukulele player ever would be for someone to tell him he can’t do it.

– JC

Thorpe, Romero Make Kernels Debuts

As the Cedar Rapids Kernels wrap up the final stretch of the first half of their 2014 Midwest League season, the parent Minnesota Twins sent them some needed starting pitching help in the form of two teenage pitching prospects.

Australian 18-year old lefty Lewis Thorpe and right-hander Fernando Romero, a 19-year old out of the Dominican Republic joined the Kernels from extended spring training last week and both were immediately inserted in to the starting rotation by manager Jake Mauer and pitching coach Ivan Arteaga.

Lewis Thorpe

Lewis Thorpe

Thorpe was the 6th ranked prospect in the Twins organization by MLB.com during the offseason and #7 on Baseball America’s list of Twins top prospects.

Romero was also among the organization’s top 15 prospects by both organizations coming in to the year.

Romero was the first of the pair to debut, getting a start on Thursday on the road in Appleton WI against the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers. The righty went five full innings, giving up a pair of earned runs on seven hits and one walk. He struck out six Rattler batters. The Kernels lost the game 7-4 but Romero got a no-decision, leaving the game with the score tied at 2-2.

Thorpe had less luck in his first start with the Kernels, picking up a loss in Kane County on Saturday as the Kernels fell to the Cougars, 5-2. All five runs were charged to Thorpe and all were earned. He gave up six hits, walked three and struck out just one batter in 4.2 innings.

It makes for an ugly stat line for Thorpe, but that’s more than a little misleading.

One very close pitch at the knees being called ball four instead of strike three was the difference between escaping the fifth inning relatively unscathed and getting the hook. He left the game with two runs across and bases loaded in the home half of the fifth inning, but all three baserunners came around to score after he departed.

Afterward, Arteaga agreed that Thorpe looked much better than his stat line would indicate.

“He got through two outs in the fifth inning, but just ran out of gas, unfortunately,” said Arteaga. “I think he deserved better. His line doesn’t say what he actually looked like. One thing is his line, but another thing is what he actually did and how he looked.

“He had poise. Obviously he needs a little work with the breaking ball but his fastball (command) isn’t going to be a problem. He throws the ball well. Being the first time and all, I think that I’m very pleased with what I saw.”

Arteaga was also happy with his first look at Romero since spring training in March.

Fernando Romero

Fernando Romero

“He’s got one of those arms that make you go, ‘wow,’ Arteaga said, adding that Romero throws, “94 to 99 (mph). He was able to throw a hard slider and a couple of them were sharp, especially against right-handed hitters. Coming over for the first time, I thought he looked really good.”

Arteaga, whose rotation has struggled at times through much of the season, was heartened by his first look at the new additions.

“It’s very encouraging, to have those two guys join the rotation – very encouraging for everybody because they showed that they will compete. They will throw it over and they’re going to be just fine, as advertised.

“I saw Romero and Thorpe during spring training. It was just basically a matter of time before they were going to join us and the time has come. They’re here and they’re doing really well.”

Pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and pitcher Ethan Mildren

Pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and pitcher Ethan Mildren

Thorpe and Romero will form one-third of the Kernels’ six-man rotation going forward, joining four pitchers selected by the Twins in the 2013 First Year Player Draft: Kohl Stewart (1st round), Ryan Eades (2nd round), Aaron Slegers (5th round) and Ethan Mildren (12th round).

The Kernels, who sat in seventh place in the eight-team Western Division of the MWL coming out of the weekend, will get a chance to start over with a clean slate as the league divides their season in to two halves with the second half starting on Thursday, June 19, after next week’s MWL All-Star Game. – JC

Interview with Twins GM Terry Ryan – Part 2

Minnesota Twins General Manager Terry Ryan had surgery for squamous cell carcinoma in February and has undergone radiation treatment as well. In the meantime, Assistant General Manager Rob Antony has filled in as the interim GM for the Twins, though Ryan has been in regular contact with Antony and others in the Twins front office.

During the past Cedar Rapids Kernels homestand, Ryan was in town observing the Twins’ young Class A prospects and sat down Sunday for an interview that covered a range of topics.

In Part 1, we covered his return to work, his view of the current state of the Twins at the big league level and his thoughts concerning the upcoming MLB First Year Player Draft.

Today, Ryan shares some thoughts and observations concerning the Cedar Rapids Kernels, the Twins’ Class A affiliate in the Midwest League.

Like their parent club, the Kernels have hovered near the .500 mark most of the season. That’s been no small achievement given the number of injuries that manager Jake Mauer’s club has sustained. They currently have seven players on the Disabled List and have others who have been on the DL and come back already.

Terry Ryan

Terry Ryan

Ryan acknowledged that it’s a very different club than local fans saw a year ago when top prospects like Byron Buxton, Jorge Polanco, Adam Brett Walker and Travis Harrison were wearing Kernels colors.

“We had a very talented club here last year, you’d like to think we could supply this affiliate with that kind of talent every year, but it’s not going to happen. We’ve got a different looking club this year.

“We’ve got some pitching here. Don’t have the thump. Don’t have the type of line up we had last year, which was a very dangerous line up. We don’t have that type of size. We had monstrous guys here so yeah it’s different.

“But every year is going to be different no matter what you try to do or accomplish at a minor league affiliate. You’re looking for players, you’re trying to develop players. This is a little different lot.

“So you adjust. Jake and Tommy (Watkins, the hitting coach) and Ivan (Arteaga, the pitching coach) are going about their business. It’s a little bigger challenge this year because you don’t have a Buxton here, you don’t have a Walker. You don’t have a Polanco.

“But that comes with the territory. When you’re running a Class A club, you’re going to have different personnel every year. You’ll have a few repeats, but for the most part it’s a different club and a different atmosphere and different results.”

Asked for his observations on specific players, Ryan was reluctant to go in to much detail, given that he had seen just four Kernels games at the time of the interview.

“It’s a little dangerous when you start naming names.

“I haven’t seen Stewart (Kohl Stewart, the Twins first round draft pick a year ago), of course. He’s pitching today. But he’s the most recognizable name on this roster for a lot of reasons. He’s talented and he’s a big draft. I’ll be interested to see how he does today.

“He had a tough outing his last go, I understand, I didn’t see it. He went two or three innings and they had to go get him. I doubt very much that he’s experienced that in his life but this is the ideal spot (to experience that). Alright, let’s see how he handles this. We’ll see if he bounces back today and gets back to his normal self. If he doesn’t then I would be a little concerned. But if he does, which I would expect, it’s just a matter of growth.

For the record, Stewart did indeed bounce back under the watchful eyes of the GM. Stewart threw six innings Sunday, giving up just one earned run, in the Kernels’ win over Burlington.

“He’s an athlete, he’s confident,” continued Ryan. “He’s got the skills that you’re looking for. There’s a reason the guy was picked fourth in the (draft). He was picked up there because he’s got strength, he’s got a body, he’s got mechanics, he’s got stuff, he’s got competitiveness.

“He’s got the kind of mechanics and arm action that would be conducive to pounding strikes, which is good.”

Kernels fans are getting the opportunity to see a native Cedar Rapidian in action with the Kernels this season.

Chad Christensen, the Twins’ 25th round pick a year ago out of the University of Nebraska, played high school ball at Cedar Rapids Washington. He came north with the club out of spring training and is hitting .290 while playing all over the field for the injury-plagued Kernels.

“One of the things that I think we were impressed with when he came out of Nebraska was his ability to have some versatility for a club,” Ryan said of Christensen. “He’s got strength and he’s got speed. He’s got strength in his bat. He can play a number of spots, including centerfield, which is pretty good.

Twins GM Terry Ryan chats with members of the Cedar Rapids grounds crew

Twins GM Terry Ryan chats with members of the Cedar Rapids grounds crew

“When he showed up last year after signing, he made a good impression and then in spring training. He’s got the type of make-up that you want to have him on your club. I’m sure Jake was pleased when he did come here and I think he’s even more pleased with what he sees in the results.

“He’s just been a good player on this team, home town or not. That’s a little bit more pressure for a kid to come in here and play in front of your home town. He’s handled it quite well. In fact, he might be the most consistent guy we’ve had on this club. Not that I’ve been around much, but I read those things, the reports and that stuff.”

Ryan is aware that the Kernels have had more than their fair share of injuries, but doesn’t feel they should be keeping the team from performing well on the field.

“It’s no excuse. We’ve got other players.

“(Jason) Kanzler came in because of an injury to Zack Granite. So here comes Kanzler and he’s been quite good here. There are other people that we can go get and hopefully fill in for an injury.

“Now, we’re starting to get healthy. A bunch of these guys are going to get healthy here soon.

“Getting back on the diamond is important for a 21 year old, because they can’t afford to spend a lot of time on the Disabled List. You just can’t do anything with them. There’s no development time, they’re getting bypassed, stuff like that. They’ll get healthy and we’ll get them back here.

“We’ve got some kids with ability but so far it’s been a slow go for them. I’m not so sure the weather was too conducive to what they were trying to do. The thing is, you’re going to have to learn to do that. We play in Cedar Rapids, we play in New Britain (CT), we play in Rochester (NY) and we play in Minnesota. Minnesota is not too much different than Cedar Rapids.”

About a year ago, Twins top prospect Byron Buxton and others were promoted from the Kernels up to Class high-A Fort Myers shortly after the mid-June Midwest League All-Star break. Ryan’s visit shouldn’t be interpreted as a precursor to similar promotions, however.

“When I come in here, I don’t worry about that stuff. That’s Brad Steil (Twins minor league director) and that would be Jake and the minor league coordinators.

“If someone is dominating, as you know, we’ll move them. I don’t know if we’ve got any of that going on here. I don’t think we’re in that position quite yet.

“Although if somebody starts dominating this league in the next month or so and they put up numbers and you say, ‘what more do they have to do?’ That’s about the time you start saying ‘let’s move him up.’”

Ryan was asked for an update on the condition Buxton, who has missed almost the whole season so far with a wrist injury.

“We had him see a specialist with that wrist about two weeks ago and there was no alarm. He re-aggravated that thing and we’re taking our time. It’s getting better. I read that yesterday in a medical report. He’s still not ready to take the field.

“He’s not going to lose a whole year. Unfortunately, April and May are shot, but he certainly played pretty good in March (during spring training). With him going through Major League camp, it was a good experience. He handled himself pretty well. He handled himself with some class. He understood, he listened, was very coachable.

“We’ll get him back up there. We’ll salvage the year, I don’t think there’s any question that we’ll be able to do some things to get him at-bats.”

Kohl Stewart Reflects on His First Year as a Professional

The 2014 MLB First Year Amateur Player Draft is right around the corner and hundreds of high school and college ballplayers are counting the hours before the Houston Astros go on the clock with the first pick of the draft on Thursday, June 5.

One year ago, Kohl Stewart was an 18 year-old pitcher anxiously awaiting the draft. Today, Stewart, who was selected by the Minnesota Twins with the fourth overall pick of the first round, is a couple of months in to his first full year of professional baseball.

Kohl Stewart

Kohl Stewart

Stewart sat recently and reflected on the draft a year ago and his progress as a starting pitcher this season with the Cedar Rapids Kernels, the Twins’ Class A affiliate in the Midwest League.

“I think that this time last year, we had just lost in the state finals in baseball,” recalled Stewart. “Then I was graduating from school and the draft was coming up. I was spending hours with my agent talking about what I wanted to do. There were a million different scenarios playing over in my head. I remember thinking, ‘if this happens, if this guy goes here and if this guy goes here.’”

Those “scenarios” Stewart speaks of went beyond those of most of his peers. While all of the high school ballplayers likely to be selected near the top of the draft have the option of postponing their professional careers in favor of playing college baseball, Stewart had an additional option. He had a scholarship offer from Texas A&M football coach Kevin Sumlin to play quarterback for the Aggies.

Stewart and his agent certainly knew he’d be selected early on draft night. But that doesn’t mean he had made up his mind weeks before the draft that he’d be signing with whatever team chose him.

As draft day neared, however, things seemed to come more in to focus.

“I expected to go to A&M,” acknowledged Stewart. “A couple of days before the draft, I think, my agent I guess had kind of talked to some people and he kind of had an idea of what was going to happen and I even talked to Coach Sumlin a couple of days before it happened and he gave me his blessing. He wanted me to do what was best for me and that was another dynamic that I had to deal with, too. I kind of felt like I was letting him down. Having guys like that… he’s a really good coach for a reason. He had gone through that before. He definitely made the situation easier on me.”

Even having pretty much come to grips with the likelihood that he’d be signing a professional baseball contract rather than pursuing a major college football career didn’t make waiting any less stressful for Stewart.

“You kind of have that situation made up in your mind, but everything’s still got to happen. You’ve still got to sit there and the decision’s still got to be made,” said Stewart.

The anxiety of the wait didn’t mean Stewart and those closest to him didn’t enjoy the moment, however.

“I definitely enjoyed it. It was definitely a fun time for my family,” recalled Stewart. “I have a lot of friends that are really good baseball players that are playing in college right now. I got to experience what a lot of guys that I grew up playing ball with will probably be going through the same thing in a couple of years and to kind of share it with them was really special.

“But it was definitely really stressful. I would go to bed knowing I was going to have to make a really big choice and that was kind of hard. Every day it got closer to the draft, it was very apparent that I was going to have a very good opportunity with the Twins and I didn’t want to pass it up.”

Players do a lot of different things to relax on draft day. Some go hunting or fishing. Some play golf to take their minds off the draft and hope it passes the time more quickly.

Stewart4

Kohl Stewart

Stewart enjoys hunting and fishing in the offseason and also really enjoys golfing. But on draft day, he chose to pass the hours leading up to the draft with friends and family.

“I remember waking up. I slept in late,” Stewart recollected, smiling a bit. “I told myself I don’t want to get up and have to worry about it all day long. I wanted to sleep in as long as I could. I think that lasted until about 6:30 that morning.”

After breakfast, Stewart spent time with one of his Select Team coaches (“He was blowing it up, having a good time with it, kind of looking forward to the night”) and with an older brother. “We went to a place called Mel’s Diner. It’s a small little burger place. I went there, had a good meal with him. I remember he went and bought a bunch of champagne and put it in a cooler. Then we went back to my house and a bunch of people showed up and we turned on the TV.

“It was good. It was definitely a day I’ll never forget.”

Now, a year later, coming out of Memorial Day Weekend, Stewart has a 1-2 record and a 2.93 ERA as a member of the Kernels rotation. Stewart struggled in a loss to Beloit on Monday, but had given up just three earned runs in his previous five starts combined.

Nearly two months in to his first full season of pro ball, Stewart talked about what he has found to be the toughest things to adjust to in professional baseball life.

One, the adjustment to going to the ballpark every day either to play or work out between starts, is commonly mentioned by first-year pro ballplayers.

“I think that’s kind of a cliché that everybody says, ‘you’re not used to playing every day,’ and you hear that so much, but it’s true,” said Stewart. “I think that most of us guys that haven’t played a full year are still kind of getting used to this kind of animal of 140 games in a season.

“I think definitely that’s been the hardest thing for me. And then being away from my home. There’s some days I’ve just wanted to pick up my stuff and go home. I think every kid goes through that.

“I mean, I haven’t had a freshman year of college yet, so I didn’t get to experience that kind of homesick feeling first. But I’m learning. I’m learning how to be a professional, to come every day and figure out that I’ve got a job to do.”

The other challenging adjustment is probably a bit more unique to a pitcher in Stewart’s rather unique situation as a multi-sport star in high school.

“Going in to the season, I hadn’t thrown a lot of innings,” explained Stewart. “I threw in high school seasons but football kind of kept me from (throwing after the season).

“I think I underestimated the amount of throwing that I’m going to be doing. But I think that everybody probably goes through that, even coming out of college. I think the two bullpens between every start (a byproduct of the Kernels’ six-man rotation). Ive never been used to that. Or throwing a bullpen the second day after you pitch, that was a new animal for me.

Stewart3

Kohl Stewart

“I think that going in to a couple of starts, I felt like my arm was dead. I think that my arm was learning how to adjust to that feeling and I think that now my arm is starting to build on it. I think that now my arm is getting stronger and I’m kind of building back up to that strength that I was at.

“I think that those two things were probably the toughest for me, but I think that as time goes on, I’m getting more used to it every day, so I think I’m doing alright.”

As a result of Stewart’s limited work in high school, he and the Twins clearly had a plan for Stewart to follow heading in to the season. Not only pitch count limits and innings limits, which are commonplace for teenage pitching prospects, but also plans that focus on learning his craft.

Stewart explained the plan and assessed his progress so far.

“I’ve definitely had some good starts and I’ve had some bad starts. I think going in to the season, they hammered some things in to my head that they want me to get done, such as fast-ball command. They want me to pound the zone. They want me to be efficient. They want me to pitch. They don’t want me throwing a lot of pitches. There’s a pitch count on me for a reason. They want me to be able to go as deep as I can in to games without running my pitch count up.

“One thing that they really want me to do is fast ball command. They don’t want me to get behind in counts and then have to work from behind. So, I think that focusing on that stuff with Ivan (Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga) and our catchers, I think that’s really helped me a lot.

“So I think that getting these innings in and learning to get the change-up over. I hadn’t thrown very many change-ups and my change-up now is something that I go to a lot against lefties. And really, just getting ground balls and keeping the ball out of the air. I think I lived up in the zone in high school because I could. I used to just throw the ball as hard as I could and that’s not really pitching. I’ve had to learn to command the zone and not feel like I have to overpower everybody.

“Going in to the season, I’m trying to build on every start, but I think that the approach that I have right now that Ivan and Jake (manager Jake Mauer) and I have gone over, I think that the plan we have going in to every start is pretty good. I think that I like where things are headed, but I think that I have a lot of work to do.”

College football season doesn’t start for a couple of months, but Texas A&M and every other major program recently wrapped up their spring practices. Did that give Stewart an itch to get on the practice field and throw the football around?

“I didn’t have time for it,” replied the pitcher. “I was so busy figuring out what I was doing and stuff, just trying to get better.”

Not that football is forever banished from his mind, of course.

“Whenever I watch them on TV, I always get that itch,” admitted Stewart, “but I think everybody kind of enjoys watching those things on TV. I think when I go to the games, I feel like I’m there kind of part of the team. There’s always going to be a part of me that’s there. There’s always going to be that closeness that I have with those guys that are in that class.

“But they know that I’m doing what I love and I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else.”

**********

The Kernels return home to Cedar Rapids after Tuesday’s matinee series finale in Beloit. They’ll be home for six games (three vs Wisconsin and three vs Burlington). Friday night, May 30, is another special jersey promotion. It’s “Star Wars” night with white/black “storm trooper” themed jerseys that will be auctioned off via silent auction with proceeds going to a charity. The first 1,000 fans through the gates Friday also get a free Star Wars t-shirt.

Kernels Star Wars Jersey

Kernels Star Wars Jersey

 
Star Wars t-shirt giveaway

Star Wars t-shirt giveaway

 

 

 

 

 

– JC

(All photos: JC/Knuckleballs; jersey/t-shirt images: Kernels.com)

A Kernels Day in Photos

I’m traveling for work the first half of this week, so I won’t really have an opportunity to write a regular weekly update on the Cedar Rapids Kernels. Perhaps it’s just as well, though, because the Twins’ Midwest League affiliate did not have a real good week.

The Kernels dropped from the second spot in the MWL Western Division standings all the way to the cellar, as they endured an eight-game losing streak.

That losing streak ended Sunday in Burlington, however. Cedar Rapids topped the Bees 7-6. As a bonus, the win lifted the Kernels out of the MWL West basement.

Since I don’t have anything exciting to write about this week, I thought the least I could do is provide a few pictures of the game on Sunday. I had hoped to take more, but it turns out there are very few spots where you can take pictures at the Burlington ballpark that aren’t behind netting.

Some of the photos are a bit blurry. I hoped they just looked blurry on Sunday because I was having a few beers at the game, but no, they’re still a little blurry.

3B Bryan Haar and SP Ethan Mildren

3B Bryan Haar and SP Ethan Mildren

Manager Jake Mauer coaching 3B in the first inning. That's something he would not be doing by the 9th inning, however.

Manager Jake Mauer coaching 3B in the first inning. That’s something he would not be doing by the end of the game, however. Mauer was ejected in the 7th inning following a heated discussion with the umpires over a balk call.

Leadoff hitter JD Williams

Leadoff hitter JD Williams

Tanner Vavra pulling in to 2B with a double

Tanner Vavra pulling in to 2B with a double

Tanner Vavra chats with manager Jake Mauer. Vavra would ultimately be stranded at 3B.

Tanner Vavra chats with manager Jake Mauer. Vavra would ultimately be stranded at 3B.

Chad Christensen

Chad Christensen

Ivory Thomas

Ivory Thomas

Mitch Garver

Mitch Garver

Joel Licon

Joel Licon

Bryan Haar

Bryan Haar

Bo Altobelli

Bo Altobelli

Michael Quesada

Michael Quesada

Ethan Mildren

Ethan Mildren

Tommy Watkins took over 3B coaching duties following Mauer's ejection.

Tommy Watkins took over 3B coaching duties following Mauer’s ejection. Two runs scored in the 9th inning with Watkins and his bubble gum in charge.

Tommy Watkins gets a close-up look as Chad Christensen tags up and scores on a sac fly for the Kernels' final run.

Tommy Watkins gets a close-up look as Chad Christensen tags up and scores on a sac fly for the Kernels’ final run.

 

When baseball gods get angry

Everyone who has ever played the game knows you simply do not anger the baseball gods.

The baseball gods are a vengeful lot. Any kind of slight, whether real or perceived, can cause them to rain down bad karma on players, coaches, teams and even, apparently, entire organizations.

Someone in the Minnesota Twins organization must have really ticked off those baseball gods back during spring training, because the Twins have had one calamity after another since March. That’s when arguably the top power-hitting prospect in the game, Miguel Sano, was lost for the season with a torn ulnar collateral ligament (UCL), requiring Tommy John surgery.

A couple of weeks later, the consensus top minor league prospect in baseball, Byron Buxton, injured his wrist in the outfield on one of the back fields of the Twins’ training complex in Fort Myers FL. In fact, the baseball gods must really have it in for Buxton because just days after he was activated by Fort Myers, they zapped his wrist again, sending him back to the DL.

The Twins have had so many injuries at the Major League level that they’ve routinely been sending out career infielders like Eduardo Escobar to play in the outfield over the past week. The Twins currently have four players on a Disabled List of one kind or another. Others, including $23 million a year man Joe Mauer, have missed stretches of games with injuries despite avoiding a trip to the DL.

However, the wrath of the baseball gods has perhaps been visited hardest upon the Twins’ Class A Midwest League affiliate, the Cedar Rapids Kernels.

Randy Rosario

Randy Rosario – on the DL

Cedar Rapids’ uniforms don’t have players names sewn on the back of their jerseys above the number. That’s probably a good thing this season, because the club may have needed to retain a seamstress full time just to keep up with the roster changes already during 2014.

Roster turnover is not unusual in the minor leagues, of course. Players are promoted, demoted and even released at various points during the season, making it not at all unusual to see close to 50 different players take the field in a Kernels uniform at some point during the summer. A year ago, 49 different players (including Twins pitcher Mike Pelfrey on an injury rehabilitation assignment) put in time with the Kernels.

But this year’s Cedar Rapids club is getting an unwelcome jump on the roster musical chairs game.

Jeremias Pineda

Jeremias Pineda – on the DL

On Tuesday, less than six weeks in to the new season, pitcher Jared Wilson became the 34th player to wear a Kernels uniform this year.

Before the end of the first game of the Kernels’ doubleheader Tuesday night, shortstop Engelb Vielma had been pulled from the game after coming up lame as he left the batters box in the second inning and center fielder Jason Kanzler had been injured on a collision in the outfield.

(UPDATE: After the 2nd game, Kernels manager Jake Mauer confirmed Vielma injured his hamstring and Kanzler likely has a concussion. Mauer said he expects both players to be placed on the Disabled List and hopes to have replacements up from extended spring training in time for Wednesday night’s doubleheader.)

Of the 25 players who arrived in Cedar Rapids from spring training to start the current campaign, pitcher Brandon Peterson has earned a promotion to Class high-A Fort Myers, pitcher Miguel Sulbaran has been traded, pitcher Christian Powell has been released and seven original 2014 Kernels have spent some time on the club’s Disabled List. If Vielma’s name is added to that list, he would be the eighth.

Centerfielder Zack Granite was hitting .313 for the Kernels just four games in to the season when the baseball gods struck him down with a rotator cuff strain.

Zack Larson

Zack Larson – on the DL

About ten days later, catcher Michael Quesada fell to a right wrist contusion.

Less than a week after Quesada was felled, outfielder Jeremias Pineda broke his wrist and pitcher Randy Rosario hit the Disabled List with a left flexor mass strain.

The game’s mystic guardians finally looked in other directions for almost two weeks before returning their attention to the Kernels with a vengeance and sidelining infielders Tanner Vavra (right ankle sprain) and Logan Wade (dislocated left shoulder), as well as outfielder Zack Larson (right hamstring strain) all during the first ten days of May.

That’s an average of better than one player a week that manager Jake Mauer and his coaching staff have had to replace due to injury.

Logan Wade

Logan Wade – on the DL

So far, the nine players added to the Kernels’ roster as replacements from extended spring training have managed to avoid the DL, though Kanzler would break that string if he lands on the DL following his injury Tuesday. One replacement, Jonatan Hinojosa, was with the team only long enough to play in one game before finding himself suspended by Major League Baseball for having tested positive for a PED.

Michael Quesada

Michael Quesada – back from the DL

Twins farm director Brad Steil must cringe every time his phone rings and he sees Jake Mauer’s name on the caller ID.

Perhaps remarkably, Mauer has patched together line ups that have managed to win more games than they’ve lost. In fact, with five weeks left in the Midwest League’s first-half race, the Kernels are right in the thick of the race for second place in the league’s Western Division and the automatic postseason spot that would come with it.

The Kernels struggled through a tough six-game road trip during which they won just two of six games and they play just seven of their next 17 games at home, but both Quesada and Vavra have returned from their injuries.

Even Quesada’s return, however, poses a peculiar challenge for his manager. The Kernels’ current active roster includes 13 pitchers and 12 position players, four of which are catchers. Of course, at this level, it’s not unusual for catchers to play some first base. Which is good, because the Kernels’ regular first baseman of late, Chad Christensen, is likely going to be needed in the outfield.

The arrival of JD Williams from extended spring training, where he’d been recovering from his own spring training injury (a broken thumb) has certainly provided a spark at the top of the Cedar Rapids batting order.

Tanner Vavra

Tanner Vavra – back from the DL

After Monday night’s doubleheader against Peoria was washed out, the Kernels were scheduled to play back-to-back doubleheaders against the Chiefs Tuesday and Wednesday.

Going in to Tuesday night’s games, Peoria sat in second place in the MWL West, just a half game ahead of Cedar Rapids. There were four more teams, however, bunched tightly together behind the Kernels and all of them have their eyes on the second Western Division postseason spot.

– JC

(All photos: JC/Knuckleballs)

‘ZONING’ With Kernels Pitching Coach Ivan Arteaga

Ivan Arteaga is in his first year serving as the Cedar Rapids Kernels pitching coach, but he’s far from being a rookie when it comes to working with young pitchers in the Twins organization.

After bouncing around the minor leagues for much of the 1990s with the Expos,  Rockies and Mets organizations, the Venezuela native began coaching young pitchers for the Twins organization in 2001 and he’s been helping to develop the organization’s young arms ever since.

Arteaga spent several years as the pitching coordinator for the Twins’ Venezuelan Academy and coached at both Rookie League levels before serving as the pitching coach for the Class high-A Fort Myers Miracle a year ago. This season, he and Gary Lucas (the 2013 Kernels pitching coach) traded assignments, bringing Arteaga to Cedar Rapids.

Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and manager Jake Mauer share a light moment while watching a pair of Kernels pitchers work out. (Photo: JC/Knuckleballsblog.com)

Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and manager Jake Mauer share a light moment while watching a pair of Kernels pitchers work out. (Photo: JC/Knuckleballsblog.com)

Several hours before game time, you can find Arteaga, often sporting a shirt with the word “ZONING” across the back, working with his pitchers in the Kernels bullpen down the right field line at Veterans Memorial Stadium.

Recently, he agreed to sit down and talk about his work with the Kernels and the Twins organization.

First things first. What’s with the ZONING shirt?

“We’re trying to implement, as an organization, visualization, focus, concentration – actually throwing the ball to one spot without thinking how to throw the ball,” Arteaga answered.

The secret to doing that, according to the coach, is visualization.

“First, you know what you throw in certain situations and you know where you want to throw it, right? That should be how we pitch. Knowing your strengths and your weaknesses and how to apply that to the hitters’ tendencies.

Ivan Arteaga

Ivan Arteaga

“So zoning is basically, we’ve been working for the last couple of years on having the pitchers visualize the pitch before they throw it. OK I have an 0-0 count, I want to throw a breaking ball, I don’t want to throw it down in the dirt, I want to throw it for a strike. So I’ll visualize the pitch how I want to throw it.”

Arteaga was quick to point out, however, that it’s not a cookie-cutter approach to teaching pitching.

“Everybody’s doing it for the most part, (but) everybody has his own way of doing it. Getting in to the process of thinking about pitching, and throwing the ball; not thinking about the process of ‘how do I throw the ball? My mechanics are off, or this or that.’ You throw the way you throw and it’s kind of hard for us to change that.”

It’s not that pitchers don’t need to work on mechanics, of course, but those thoughts are ideally confined to the bullpen workout sessions. Pitchers can’t afford to be thinking about that kind of thing on the mound during games.

“You shouldn’t and if you’re doing that, then something’s wrong,” confirmed Arteaga.

While he’s an advocate for the Zoning philosophy, Arteaga doesn’t believe that simply subscribing to the approach will assure a young pitcher’s success.

“I don’t think that success will be dictated by the Zoning or by how you run or by how you lift or if you sleep enough or how heavy you are or how skinny you are,” said the coach.

“Success is a combination of all those factors, plus talent. Success is how you put together the whole package. Mental toughness and talent all together and you apply that in to the game.”

Arteaga has been entrusted this season with a number of the Twins organization’s top pitching prospects. Some were high draft choices, others highly coveted international signings, but the coach sees similarities in what each of the pitchers on his staff must overcome.

“Facing adversity,” Arteaga said. “Because that’s the main thing. The game is full of adversity. I’ve seen guys with a lot of talent, but they cannot get people out. And I’ve seen guys with lesser talent that are just great, because they’re mentally tough and they know how to apply their talent to the game and to the hitters’ tendencies.

“So, to say that the guys that are pitching well are doing the Zoning and the guys that are not are not doing it, I don’t think that would be very smart on my part. I think that everybody’s doing it, it’s just that this is a level where everybody’s so young and so inexperienced. There’s a lot of things they’re working on at the same time. Holding runners. Getting in a routine. Playing every day. Some of these guys just worked on Saturdays or Fridays. Now they come to the ballpark every day.”

While subscribing to the Zoning philosophy, in itself, won’t assure success, Arteaga believes there is one thing that a pitcher must develop.

“As a pitching coach, if I have to pinpoint to one thing that is going to make these guys succeed throughout the year, it’s mental toughness. Mental toughness is part of the Zoning. Mental toughness is part of who you are as a pitcher when adversity strikes. Adversity could be having a cold, you’re sick. Maybe homesick. That’s adversity. It’s just the way it is.”

It’s hard sometimes to imagine that such things can enter in to the mind of a professional ballplayer when he’s on the mound during a game but, said Arteaga, “It’ll be there. But how do you set your priorities straight, being able to put all that aside and go and perform?”

One thing you hear a lot about with pitchers spending their first year or two as professionals is that organizations try to limit the number of different pitches they work on in a given season. A pitcher who threw a variety of pitches in high school or college sometimes seems to focus on just a fastball and one variety of off-speed pitch early in his professional career.

Do the Twins or Arteaga take that approach with the Kernels’ pitchers?

There’s no one answer to that question, according to the coach. “Always depends on the player, always.”

Arteaga also doesn’t believe there’s a single right approach.

“If I tell you that there’s a philosophy out there that is successful, everybody would be doing it,” Arteaga said with a laugh.

“So everybody’s different and as a coach you have to fluctuate, not only man to man, player to player, but day by day. There are some days that will be cold, some days will be rainy. You have to learn to adjust to that and as a coach you have to let the guys pitch and learn.

“There are some days that the change up might not be there or the breaking balls won’t be there or they’re very good in the bullpen, but not so good on the mound. Or you see that they’ve had a bad week, headaches or something. And the day of the game, everything goes away and they have a great game.

“So this is baseball. There’s nothing set in stone. There’s nothing for you to do every day and you’re going to be successful. There’s no guidelines for that.”

Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and pitcher Aaron Slegers (photo: JC/Knuckleballsblog.com)

Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and pitcher Aaron Slegers (photo: JC/Knuckleballsblog.com)

For Arteaga, that means treating every player as an individual.

“As a coach, I’ve got to adjust to every single one of them and understand what they do and how they do it and how they can be successful by doing that.

“Now, yeah, we want to establish the fastball in and out, throw the ball down. We want them to have at least ten per cent change ups every day they throw, the starters, and about 15 per cent the sliders or curve. That’s what we do.

“It’s a very simple philosophy. Attack the hitters. Be athletic around the mound. Pitch inside. Throw the ball down and attack. Attack.”

Treating each player as an individual must be a challenge, given the widely varying backgrounds that pitchers at the Class A level have. Some were still pitching for their high schools a year ago, some were in college and some have been working their way up through a couple of years of short-season rookie leagues within the Twins organization.

Arteaga believes it’s important for him to demonstrate consistency in his approach, even as he works with players individually.

“Number one, I am the coach so I try to be the same every day, regardless of the score or regardless of what happened. I won’t panic. I won’t get too high or too low. If they see that in me, they understand that I am under control. I’m fine with what they’re doing.

“Now, if I pay enough attention, they will tell me what they need. Once I pay attention, and I get to know them and they get to know me, we establish a relationship. Then I can treat everybody in a different way.

“For the most part, yes, you have a standard. That’s who I am. I’m not going to be different to you than I’m going to be to them. That’s who I am.”

The individual approach enters during individual instruction, according to Arteaga.

“Now, how do I teach you? How do I approach the teaching part of it? That is different. You have different needs as a lefty than as a righty. Different needs as a starter than as a reliever. Different needs as a long reliever than as a closer. So, yes, I have to adjust to each and every one of them.”

Since Arteaga was working at the next level up in the organization, with the Miracle in Fort Myers, a year ago, he hadn’t had an opportunity to work much with this year’s crop of Kernels pitchers prior to spring training this year. That means they’ve had just a couple of months to get to know each other. Has that been enough time to establish those individual relationships?

“Yes, it’s all about paying attention. It’s all about spending the time with them. When you’re on the road, this is your family. You’re spending 14 hours on a bus ride in this class. You get to know them a little bit.

“I believe that they know me well. They know how I’m going to act and react and what I like and not only me, as a coach, but what the Twins want. I’m basically an extension of what the Twins philosophy is. Twins first, then yes, as a person, you put out your knowledge and experience and what you are and you try to teach them the way you teach.”

The speculation in the media and among others who follow the Twins minor leagues has been that the Twins had Arteaga and Lucas swap coaching assignments this season because the Twins knew they’d have a number of significant Latin American prospects on the Kernels’ staff and they may find  it helpful from a communication standpoint to have a Spanish-speaking pitching coach.

Arteaga isn’t certain that was really a significant factor, however.

“I don’t know if that’s the case,” observed Arteaga, concerning such speculation. “I guess that it’s got something to do with it. Obviously, the communication factor is important.

“Yeah, I think that helps, but at the same time, I think I have one half (of the pitching staff) that were born in the United States. They’re college guys, some of them are very good prospects. So I have to be able to teach baseball.

“Personally, I think that I can communicate with anyone. I’ve worked on my English for a long time and keep working on it. I prepare myself all the time to be able to communicate in both languages. Not only in baseball terms, but in life. Understand the culture, understand how Americans go about their everyday lives. I’ve spent half of my life learning that, because I was here, playing and coaching.”

Speaking of top prospects, his Kernels staff has a lot of them. Does he feel any additional pressure to make sure all of the high-priced pitching talent with the Kernels this summer progresses the way the Twins want?

“I feel motivation. I have a plan every day and I do my best every day so they can get better. I’m not pitching anymore, so I don’t have stress or sense of urgency because I do everything that I can every day to teach these guys how the game is, the game that we want them to pitch, the Minnesota Twins. So I have my own plan that I have learned over the last 14 years with the Twins.

“So to have guys, regardless of how much talent they have, to be able to coach them every day, that’s my motivation. If not, I wouldn’t be here. That’s what moves me every day, to have the motivation to teach somebody and to actually help them with the game and with life.”

Certainly, a coach like Arteaga must get a sense of satisfaction from seeing his pitchers succeed, though.

“You do,” Arteaga confirmed. Yet it isn’t just seeing pitchers advance through the ranks that gives him satisfaction.

“I think I get most satisfied when we make eye contact, regardless of the situation, that’s the best communication you can have with a human being.”

“I can talk to you all day,” Arteaga continued, “but when you’re pitching and I’m coaching and you pitch a good inning or a bad inning or a bad at-bat or something, and you walk in to the dugout or I go to the mound and there’s eye contact, you should know what is what and how I feel. That’s the relationship thing you create with the player, regardless of whether he’s going to be here for one day or ten days or 25 years. Because you care.”

Ivan Arteaga having a between-innings chat with Aaron Slegers (photo: JC/Knuckleballs)

Ivan Arteaga having a between-innings chat with Aaron Slegers (photo: JC/Knuckleballs)

Arteaga understands that’s not an aspect of the game that many outsiders can appreciate.

“People don’t see that. Fans don’t see that. Journalists don’t see that. TV cameras don’t see that. TV cameras will look at emotions and what is exciting for everybody. But as a coach when, for whatever reason, your team gave up 14 runs that night, then you make eye contact and you’re able to assure those guys, ‘you know what, it’s okay, it’s going to be fine, we’ll work on it.’”

The night before Arteaga sat for the interview, two Kernels pitchers had been victimized for a combined 12 runs. Can he communicate that kind of assurance to those guys after that kind of night?

“Of course, because that’s baseball, It’s every day,” assured Arteaga.

“Because what if I overreact last night and I tell them that they’re not good enough? Maybe because I don’t feel well. That’s me, but it’s not about me. It’s about them. So what if I overreact and I tell them they’re not good? The next thing you know, I’ve lost all that the staff had for me because I overreacted. So maybe apologizing might not be enough after that.

“So, I’m with them every pitch. Yeah, we lost a game, fine. Then today is a different day and make no mistake, these guys are going to work today to get better so they can pitch well tomorrow. It’s a 142 game season.”

Through the first week or so of May, Arteaga’s work with the Kernels is beginning to pay off. Two Kernels starters (Aaron Slegers and Kohl Stewart) are among the top 10 Midwest League pitchers in WHIP, two (Slegers and Ryan Eades) are in the top 10 in strikeouts and two more among the top 10 in saves (Hudson Boyd and the recently promoted Brandon Peterson). Nine Kernels pitchers have ERAs of 3.00 or below.