A year ago, Cedar Rapids Kernels starting pitcher Michael Cederoth was neither a Minnesota Twins prospect, nor was he a starting pitcher. But times change.
Cederoth was wrapping up his college career at San Diego State in May of 2014, looking forward to entering the June amateur player draft and getting his professional career started. The 6’ 6” tall pitcher spent his junior season as the team’s closer and his 20 saves tied the Aztecs’ school record.
A year later, he’s a starting pitcher in the Kernels’ rotation with a 1-2 record, a 3,75 ERA and 24 strikeouts in the same number of innings pitched over five starts. On Saturday, he threw six innings, giving up just two runs, in the Kernels’ 5-2 win over Beloit in the first game of their doubleheader sweep over the Beloit Snappers.
Cederoth was the Twins’ 2014 third round draft pick last June and soon after found himself in the starting rotation for the Twins’ rookie-level team in Elizabethton, Tennessee.
At San Diego State, Cederoth pitched for the late Tony Gwynn, who lost his battle with cancer last year. His face lights up when asked about playing for the Hall of Famer.
“Wow. I mean, imagine playing for any HOF baseball player. It’s something that every kid wants to be when they grow up and to have that as a coach at the college level is a great opportunity. I was blessed with the fact that he gave me the opportunity to play underneath him and I’ll never forget all the memories I got with him and playing underneath him.”
What can a pitcher learn from a guy who made his fame and fortune swinging a bat, rather than throwing the ball? Plenty, according to Cederoth.
“We definitely picked his brain. You’ve got one of the best hitters in baseball ever to play the game. Of course you’re going to want to know what’s in the hitter’s mind, so it really helps having that as a pitcher. Because we know what we’re doing out there – we want to know what (hitters) are thinking and he’s the best guy to ask.”
Cederoth had a reputation with scouts as being a hard-thrower (occasionally hitting 100 mph on the radar gun) who could be a fast riser with the right organization. One national prospects writer even projected him to have the potential to reach the big leagues as a bullpen arm by the end of 2015.
Instead, Cederoth is spending 2015 in the class A Midwest League with the Kernels as the Twins attempt to make a starting pitcher out of him.
And that’s just fine with Cederoth.
“He wants to do it,” Kernels pitching coach Henry Bonilla said, of Cederoth. “He definitely wants to be a starter. I think he enjoys the nuances that go with it. He has to prepare every day for that one day that he gets his day (to pitch).”
When you ask Cederoth, he makes it clear he’s dedicated to whatever role the Twins see as the best fit for him within the organization.
“Growing up, I’ve always been however I’m needed, that’s what I’m going to do,” he said.
“If they want me to be a starter, then I’m going to do my best to be a starter. If tomorrow they tell me they want me to be relief, then I’m going to do my best to be a reliever,” he added. “They’re giving me this opportunity so I’m going to show them, ‘OK, If you want me to be a starter, I’m going to try my best to be the best starter I can be.’”
It’s not like the starting pitcher role is totally foreign to Cederoth, after all.
Cederoth was a successful starting pitcher his first two years at San Diego State and converted to the bullpen for his final year on the Aztecs’ staff.
The Twins have made a practice, in recent years, of drafting strong-armed college relievers and giving them experience in a starting rotation, at least at the lower minor league levels.
Bonilla admitted that helping a pitcher make that transition isn’t always easy.
“It’s a problem if the kid doesn’t want to do it,” he said. “It’s a little harder when you try to make a guy a starter and he wants to be a 1-2 innings blowout kind of guy.”
Bonilla also provided some insight in to the organization’s thinking when they consider whether to try to turn a successful college reliever in to a professional starter.
“A lot of times you’ll see a guy and you’ll go, ‘ok, at worst, he’s going to be a reliever. Let’s see what we’ve got.’”
Bonilla thinks Cederoth definitely has the potential to make it as a starter because he not only has the high-velocity fastball in his arsenal, but is developing other quality pitches, as well.
“He’s got a mix (of pitches) to him. He can spin the ball. He’s got both the curveball and slider and with that velo, can he maintain it?”
And if, later, it turns out Cederoth returns to the bullpen, the effort has not been in vain, according to the pitching coach.
“The good thing about it, as a reliever he’ll get 1-2 innings of experience at a time. Here he’s getting 6 innings, 7 innings, 100 pitches at a time. It gets him out of his element. A lot of these guys, they’re comfortable doing one thing. When they’re uncomfortable, you see their true colors. So you’ll see him starting something new and he really has to adjust, you can see his mental capacity and what he really is.
“He (Cederoth) is doing a really good job of transferring to the starting position. It’s hard.”
For his part, Cederoth isn’t interested in even discussing any potential Plan B the organization might have.
“I really didn’t think about that,” he said. “I can’t think about that. They didn’t tell me that. Honestly, they told me they want me to be a starter and I’m really trying to be the best starter I can be. I’ve been working a lot and trying to hone my mechanics and my delivery.”
Having served in both roles in college, Cederoth is more prepared to make the switch than other college relievers who have seldom started a game above the high school level. He comes in to the process already aware of adjustments he has needed to make.
“A lot of it is routine, that’s really the similarity,” he explained. “But the difference is, what are the routines? So that is really what I had to transition with. I knew how to do a routine, I knew how to get in to a routine, but now it’s the routine as a starter.
“As a reliever, every day could be your day. So every day is kind of the same thing. As a starter, you have a routine. Every day is different, but it’s the same thing every week. The game you’re starting you throw 6 innings. The next day, what’s that day? And then the following day after that?
“As a reliever, you might have to pitch that day so you do everything you can to get ready to pitch that day. Did you pitch that day? Well you have to do the same thing the next day. If you pitched that day, well, you might have to pitch the next day. So, it’s the same thing every day. That’s really the physical part.”
There are differences in the mental approach, as well, according to Cederoth.
“As a reliever, your job is to come in there and get three, six, maybe nine outs. At most nine outs, hopefully. Because you want to throw the next day,” he explained.
“As a starter, you want to flip the lineup at least twice. It’s really a chess game. You’ve really got to plan out how you’re going to pitch. What did you give the guy his first at bat? What did he show you when you threw this pitch? You’ve got to keep that in the back of your head.
“It’s not just a bulldog mentality of go after him bang – bang – bang. You have to plan out what kind of game you’re going to go in to and what kind of hitters they have, unless you’re just gifted with the fact that you can just do the same thing over and over again and get guys out. If you’re on your game, then great, then you can do that. When you’re not always on your ‘A’ game, you’ve got to deal with what the day gives you.”
Tall pitchers, like Cederoth, often are challenged to develop consistent, repeatable deliveries and that’s something he’s working on with Bonilla this season. He’s also working to improve his secondary pitches.
“Curveball and change up right now. My curveball has come a long way,” Cederoth said, of the pitches he’s specifically working to integrate in to his game plans. “You’re facing guys twice. You go fastball – slider to one guy. Maybe the next time you face him, you throw a curveball at him. Completely change their whole game plan.”
Striking out batters has never been an issue for Cederoth and through five starts for the Kernels, he has averaged more than a strike out per inning. Ultimately, however, the ability to develop several effective pitches will likely determine whether Cederoth – or any starting pitcher – will have success in a big league rotation. He’s well aware of that.
“There’s some guys that can survive on just three pitches,” he said, adding, “I believe that I can get four good pitches. My change up is something that I’m really trying to get. If I can get that down, I can have more success getting early outs and dropping my pitch count. That’s been my problem, the pitch count. So getting that quick out, just getting a guy to roll over, is something I’m really trying to work on. Right now, it’s not totally ready, but it will be soon.”
Cederoth is also working on his mechanics with his pitching coach and he’s clearly pleased to be getting another opportunity to work with Bonilla, who had the same role for the Twins’ rookie level team at Elizabethton a year ago.
“Don’t get me wrong, I had amazing pitching coaches in college, but when I came to Elizabethton last year, I worked with Henry Bonilla. We had a great relationship in rookie ball.
“My problem has always been my balance in my drive leg. There’s so much going on in my wind up that it’s not always consistent. My body is leaning a different way every time instead of always going toward home. I’ve always had to try to adjust in mid pitch and that’s why I’ve been so inconsistent. So what we’ve focused on (is) the plant leg getting right and make sure everything is going towards home.
“So, yes, mechanically, I’m becoming a little more sound and I’m happy about it.”