Yes, it has been a while since I posted anything, so I’ll be surprised if anyone still remembers we have this blog, but I’m back home after a couple of weeks in Florida and it’s almost time for the baseball season to begin. So, let’s fire up the blog again and see whether we, as Twins fans, have enough this season to even be worth talking about.
We are not off to a great start.
First of all, the new Twins front office did virtually nothing in their first offseason on the job to improve the team. I was asked during a brief radio interview on KMRY in Cedar Rapids this week what I felt about the Twins’ fortunes in 2017 after spending time at their spring training site in March. I’ll say the same thing here that I said in response during that interview.
The Twins did nothing to improve their team in the offseason, so any improvement will have to come from further development of their existing young roster, guys like Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, et al.
The good news is that there is every reason to believe that Buck, Max and friends like Miguel Sano, Jorge Polanco and Eddie Rosario should indeed mature and see their games improve.
The bad news is that none of those guys can pitch. (Well, Buxton probably COULD, but it ain’t happening.)
This morning, many of the final roster moves were announced and we found out that the Twins will start the season with 13 pitchers and without the player that perhaps had the best spring training of anyone in camp, Byung ho Park, who was sent down and will apparently start his season in Rochester.
That leaves the Twins with just three bench bats and none of them are guys you would want to see come to the plate even as a pinch hitter.
The bottom line, it seems to me, is that the new front office is scared to death of their pitching staff. I understand that because I think most of us have been afraid of this pitching staff for a long time. But they had all offseason to address their obvious pitching needs and did virtually nothing to improve it.
So, to tell us they sent Park down because they felt they ended up needing more pitchers is really an indictment on their poor work in obtaining pitching during the offseason. Fans should not let them off the hook easily if this all blows up.
Now that I have that rant out of the way, let me just pass on some observations I had down in Fort Myers.
As always, I spent a fair amount of time on the minor league side of the complex watching past and future Cedar Rapids Kernels work out.
My sense, as I shared Tuesday on the MN Sports Weekly podcast, as well as the KMRY interview, is that the Kernels will have a better offensive lineup this season than they had a year ago and it appears that at least half of the team’s pitching rotation that finished the 2016 season will be returning to start 2017.
Lewin Diaz and Shane Carrier should add pop to the middle of the order and, for now anyway, it appears that Travis Blankenhorn and Jaylin Davis will return to start the new season in CR. That group could produce some runs if other guys can get on base with regularity.
It doesn’t look like slugger Amourys Minier will break camp with the Kernels at this point, but he should help out when he arrives later in the season, as could other bats such as Trey Cabbage and Wander Javier.
Jermaine Palacios will return and be among a large group of middle infielders worthy of getting opportunities in Cedar Rapids during the season.
Let’s wrap up with a few pictures from my time in Fort Myers.
The Minnesota Twins once again included Cedar Rapids, the home of their Class A affiliate Kernels, in their Twins Winter Caravan tour and last night’s event was entertaining and about as enjoyable as any such event put on by a 100+ loss big league organization could be.
The venue was one of several new aspects of this year’s Kernels Hot Stove event, the primary fundraiser for the organization’s charitable foundation.
Rather than using a large hotel ballroom to hold a sit-down dinner, the Kernels hosted a reception at the New Bo City Market, a showplace for a variety of local food merchants. All food, beer and wine available at the event was provided by New Bo vendors, giving the event a distinctively local flavor.
Broadcaster Kris Atteberry did a terrific job as the emcee for the Twins Caravan portion of the program, doling out opportunities to address the gathering to five members of the Twins organization gathered on stage. They included a pair of Twins players, pitcher Trevor May and outfielder Byron Buxton, newly announced Kernels manager Tommy Watkins, new Twins General Manager Thad Levine and Brian Dinkelman, who served as the Kernels hitting coach in 2016 and, while no official announcement has been made as yet, is presumed to be serving in that capacity this summer, as well.
In addition to responding to Atteberry’s prepared questions from the podium and answering questions from the crowd, the Caravan participants also were available for media interviews.
Here are a few highlights from one-on-one interviews, as well as the public portion of the program.
Early in January, the Twins and Kernels announced that Watkins, who served as the Kernels hitting coach, under former manager Jake Mauer, from 2013 through 2015 and in the same capacity for Class AA Chattanooga last season, will get his first opportunity as a minor league manager in 2017 when he takes the Kernels’ reins.
Watkins said that he and farm director Brad Steil had discussed the possibility of Watkins getting a managing opportunity for the past couple of years, but no such position had opened up until last year’s Fort Myers Miracle manager Jeff Smith got promoted to a coaching position with the Twins this offseason. Still, Watkins said, “I didn’t know if I would get it or not.”
Once the assignment was officially offered, Watkins was very happy to accept. “It was just like the news I got when I was going to the big leagues. I was happy, I was nervous, I was scared, I didn’t want to go. So it was a lot of things. I cried, I laughed, I called my family and told them. It was exciting news.”
Asked by Atteberry to tell the gathering what went into the front office’s decision to offer the job to Watkins, Levine led off with tongue firmly planted in cheek. “I’ve got to be honest with you, I have no idea how this came to pass. This is news to me. I’ll try to adjust on the fly.”
Levine then turned serious – and very complimentary toward the new Kernels manager.
“I think that one thing you guys always hear about is that we’re trying to develop players, there’s a development track. But I think the other thing that we’re trying to develop concurrently is staff members. Guys who have a chance, on the scouting side, to influence decision making and, on the coaching side, a chance to be Major League coaches.
“One of the things that I heard when I first joined the Minnesota Twins was about the man to my right, Tommy, and I think the universal feeling was that he had a chance to be a really good hitting coach, but he had the chance to be special as a manager. So when the opportunity presented itself to give him an opportunity to pursue his career as a manager, I think everybody in the organization really endorsed him because we felt as if that’s where he’s going to be a difference maker.
“We think he’s going to have a chance to be a Major League coach down the road. We think in the short term, he has a chance to really influence our minor league players, and as a manager we think his impact could be even greater than it was as a hitting coach.
“He’s a special man. He’s very charismatic. He knows the game of baseball. He’s still trying to learn every single day. Each time I’ve been around him, I feel as if I’ve gotten to know him a little bit better. This guy’s a very dynamic man. He’s going to be a leader in our organization for a long time to come and he’s just scratching the surface of his potential.”
Watkins said before the event that he’s looking forward to his return to the Kernels. “It feels good. I had a bunch of different emotions but I’m excited. It feels like I’ve been gone for a lot longer than just a year, but it’s good to be back. I enjoyed my time here and I’m looking forward to it.”
Asked by Atteberry to set the line on how many times Watkins will be ejected by umpires in 2017, Brian Dinkelman didn’t hesitate before saying. “I set it at 3 1/2.”
Buxton said he’s been feeling good since his hot finish to last season in September. “I’ve been hitting since late November, working on a few things and getting some stuff kinked out, but other than that, I feel great.
“I’m just focusing a little bit more on hitting, being a little bit more consistent, using my legs, staying down through the ball, keeping my head down. Just small things to help me out in the long run.”
He said he didn’t think there was any major change in his game that led to his strong finish to the 2016 season.
“Just stop thinking. Just run out there and play baseball. Have fun, going out there and have fun with teammates. We competed, September was different for everybody, not just including me. We went out there with a different mindset to finish the season strong and carry that over into spring training and this season.”
Looking back at his time in Cedar Rapids as a teenager barely out of high school, he said the dream of playing big league ball has turned out to be everything he hoped for, “and more.”
“Not many people are able to make it up there to the bigs, so I’m very blessed and thankful to get up there. Just being able to play beside Trevor when he’s up there pitching, not many people can say you’ve been in a big league uniform and you’ve been behind a pitcher like him that gives it his all and you’re right there giving it your all and trying to compete for a World Series ring.”
For his part, May also indicated he’s feeling good after having some trouble staying healthy in 2016.
“I’m feeling good,” said May. “I had some patterns I needed to break. In the past, I’ve always thought four months was enough to heal from everything in the offseason. But I’ve come to the realization that breaking down a muscle and building it back up again to where you want it to work just takes time.”
He said even little things such as posture, while standing or sitting, have been items he’s focused on this offseason, with an emphasis on workouts that increase his flexibility, like Pilates and yoga, rather than weight training.
“I was doing a bunch of stuff that was just exacerbating the problem 24 hours a day. Changing all those things has been a lot of work, but I’m excited to just keep doing what I’m doing into the season.
“I threw a bullpen today. If I threw a bullpen when my back was tight back there, I would definitely feel some stiffness right now after I threw and I don’t feel stiff at all, so I’m just taking that as a really good sign.”
May wasn’t just trying new things in regard to his offseason workout regimen. While he did some DJing again this year, as he has in the past, he also expanded his horizons.
“I actually have a new hobby,” he explained. “I broadcast video games, which has been really fun. It’s like having your own radio show in which you talk and play video games. I really enjoy it. I’m going to try to do it once a month on an offday during the season. I’m going to host tournaments of games I play for viewers.”
Asked to evaluate the state of the Twins’ farm system, now that many of their previous top prospects have broken into the big leagues, new GM Levine said that the Twins front office doesn’t necessarily look at the organization strictly in terms of players that have exhausted their eligibility for Rookie of the Year awards and those that have not.
“I think we look at the farm system as an extension to the Major Leagues, so any guy in the Major Leagues who has two or fewer years of service is part of that next wave, that core,” he said. “So I think when you include those players with your minor league players, you can really see the waves of players coming.
“There’s a wave in the big leagues right now, there’s a wave right behind them, there’s a wave that will be playing at Cedar Rapids this year. I think we’re excited about the depth throughout our system, inclusive of the Major Leagues and I think if you include that young group in the Major Leagues all the way down, you could see that the future is very bright.
“For a team that has the payroll that we will have, you’re looking at having as many young players who can impact the game as possible and I think you’ve got to look at the guys who have matriculated to the big leagues when you’re factoring that.”
The subject of the relatively public flirtation with trading second baseman Brian Dozier came up both in the interview setting and during the public Question & Answer session.
Levine indicated that, while it certainly appears that Dozier will be opening the season with the Twins, he wouldn’t say the door was completely closed on the possibility of moving Dozier, or any other player for that matter.
“I don’t know that we would talk specifically about any one trade negotiation, but I think the way Derek (Falvey) and I are going to operate is that we’re not closing doors at any juncture. At that point, you are not doing your job to the fullest. Any time you close off opportunities to improve the team, I think you’re doing the franchise a disservice.”
During the public session, Levine was asked specifically what he expected Dozier’s future was with the Twins.
“I think we think his future is going to be glorious with the franchise,” he responded. “He’s been the consummate professional throughout this process. We always approached this from the mindset of, the best the Minnesota Twins could be would be with Brian Dozier. If someone wants to blow our socks off, we’ll consider talking about him. But for that fact, we see him as part of this franchise moving forward.”
Atteberry asked Levine to address the “stats vs scouting” issue that comes up in almost any conversation about thenew front office management. Again, the new GM mixed humor into his more thoughtful response.
“When the movie Moneyball came out, everybody who was below a certain age – at that time, I would say 35, now I would say 45, just conveniently (Levine celebrated his 45th birthday in November) – you were viewed to be more of a formulaic-based decision making group vs if you were older, you were more of a scouts guy. And I think it’s a bit of a misconception.
“Derek and I are both guys who are going to have analytics and scouting and player development factor into every decision that we make. We’re not going to focus singularly on any sort of formula to spit out a decision we’re going to make.
“The other big misconception I think about that movie is that anybody working in a front office looks at all like Brad Pitt. We really don’t. Honestly.
“So the movie did some disservices across the board, but I do think analytics plays a role in decision making, but that’s all it is. It’s a piece of the pie. It’s not something that is going to drive us to make any singular decision. It will be something we weigh in, we factor in, but it’s not going to drive our decision making.”
Also during the public session, Atteberry challenged Levine to demonstrate how much he knew about the two players he was sharing a stage with. Atteberry presented a few bits of trivia and asked Levine to guess which player, May or Buxton, the fact pertained to.
The questions were: Which player DJ’d at his own wedding? Which one of them has the highest vertical jump and is the fastest runner in his family (and which is not)? Which has successfully noodled a catfish? And which one has a mother that kept a mountain lion as a pet for four years?
The answers: May (obviously), Buxton is NOT the fastest runner or best jumper in his family (he said his dad jumps higher, his brother is faster and he has a 13-year old sister that may eventually pass them all), but Buxton did noodle a catfish. It was May’s mother who kept a mountain lion as a pet.
And Levine nailed every answer correctly.
The final question from the audience asked Watkins and Buxton to relate the funniest thing that happened to them during their time with the Kernels.
Suffice to say that you won’t find Buxton playing baseball with ping pong balls in the clubhouse again any time soon and Watkins’ days of shaving his head are over.
Every year, a number of Cedar Rapids Kernels players and coaches spend one of their off-days sweating on a golf course with a bunch of people willing to shell out a couple dollars (actually a bit more) for the pleasure of sharing their company as they knock a little white ball about 6,000 yards around a local golf course to benefit the organization’s childrens’ reading program.
Today was such a day.
I was fortunate enough to get to be part of a fivesome that included Kernels relief pitcher Max Cordy.
Cordy is a 23-year-old righthander drafted by the Twins out of UC-Davis a year ago, made just three appearances at E’Town this year before being promoted to Cedar Rapids. He has a 2.00 in eight appearances for Cedar Rapids and is striking out about one batter per inning since arriving in Cedar Rapids.
Our group didn’t come close to winning anything in the 5-man best-shot competition, but that didn’t stop us from having a good time, despite enduring some heat (and even more humidity) as we made our way around Hunter’s Ridge Golf Course.
Kernels infielder Sean Miller was playing with the group ahead of us on the course and, despite our best efforts, we couldn’t even hit a decent shot into Miller’s group to make them nervous.
The golf outing is just one of several ways Twins minor leaguers participate in community relations activities in the Cedar Rapids area during the season.
I’d like to tell you everything Max and I talked about during our 4+ hours together, but what’s said on the golf course stays on the golf course. Plus, I might have had a beer or two during the round, so I probably wouldn’t relate anything we talked about accurately anyway.
With less than 40 games left in their 2017 campaign, the Cedar Rapids Kernels need a strong finish to clinch a Midwest League playoff spot, something they’ve accomplished every season since affiliating with the Minnesota Twins in 2013.
The Peoria Chiefs and Clinton Lumberkings finished one and two in the Division’s first half standings, automatically qualifying them for the postseason. Their Division rivals with the two best records in the second half will join the Chiefs and Lumberkings in the playoffs.
If the season ended today (Monday), Clinton would have the best second half record in the West, while Cedar Rapids and Quad Cities (currently second and third in the Division) would fill out the Western half of the postseason bracket. However, Burlington and Wisconsin sit one game or less behind Quad Cities, so the race is likely to be tight over the final weeks of the season.
Jake Mauer has been at the helm of the Kernels from the beginning of the club’s affiliation with the Twins. His 292-226 record with the Kernels makes him Cedar Rapids’ winningest manager in the modern era (1949-present) and places him third all-time. He’ll catch up to Ollie Marquardt in the second spot with his next win, but Mauer’s going to have to stick around a very, very long time to top Belden Hill’s 831 wins.
While winning takes a back seat to player development in modern minor league baseball, the local fans definitely like to follow a winner and Mauer has given the locals plenty of success, beginning with a squad that was loaded with top prospects in the inaugural season of the Twins/Kernels relationship. That team made winning look easy – at least a lot easier than it has looked in the two-and-a-half seasons since.
2016 has, perhaps, been the most challenging of Mauer’s four years of wearing number 12 for the Kernels. This year’s group is short on players you would find among “top prospect” lists published by the likes of Baseball America, MLB.com or any other group in the business of tracking minor leaguers’ paths to the big leagues.
Nonetheless, in an interview late last week, Mauer was unwilling to say that the lack of blue chippers on his team makes this season his most challenging.
“Each year is different,” Mauer said. “If you have a lot of high-end (prospects), you’re expected to win and if you don’t have a lot of high-end guys, you’ve got to find ways to win. It’s all part of development, it’s all part of the process.
“The second year (2014), I thought we had a lot of challenges, they were comparing the ’13 team to the ’14 team and that wasn’t fair to that ’14 team.”
Winning is obviously a lot easier when you’ve got a lot of those high draft choices and big money international free agents. Several of them, including first round draft choice Byron Buxton and six-figure bonus international signee Max Kepler (both now playing the outfield for the Twins) spent much of their 2013 seasons in Cedar Rapids uniforms.
“You get blessed with years like ’13 where you have seven of them, eight of them. They’re all panning out at different speeds,” reflected Mauer. “You know, some of the clubs I had at Fort Myers I don’t think we had one. So it just depends on what you have.”
When you’ve got a team of projected stars, a manager in Mauer’s position will generally stick with a pretty consistent lineup. “Obviously, guys that are higher end guys as a player,” he said, “you’ve got to find out what they can and can’t do, that’s the nature of the beast.”
Not so this season.
“I wonder how many different lineups we’ve used,” Mauer pondered. “It’s probably been fifty or sixty of them, would be my guess.
“Clubs like this, some of these guys that aren’t necessarily Baseball America guys get an opportunity to kind of put themselves on the map. As you can see, there’s no way to get buried on our bench here. Everybody plays.
“Pitching’s a little bit different,” he conceded. “They earn (consistent playing time) a little bit more. They’re all going to get an opportunity, it’s just a matter of what they’re going to do with it.
“It’s all getting these guys to understand themselves, first, in order for us to do anything – in order for them to have any impact down the road. This is the league where we start to shake out the guys that aren’t as mentally tough as others. Find out who can play every day, find out who can do what it takes. So, they’re going to get tested, they’re going to get innings, they’re going to get at-bats, get all that stuff. Then we’ll kind of look back in September at how everything unfolded.”
Throughout most of the first half of the season, it looked like the Kernels would easily clinch an early playoff spot by finishing in one of the top two spots in the Western Division’s first-half race, but they faltered badly during the final couple of weeks before the midpoint and ended up in third place.
“You hate to say it,” Mauer commented on his squad’s late first half implosion, “but we scored the same amount of runs, but we lost two guys in the back end of the bullpen and lost probably the best starter in the league.
“We weren’t necessarily blowing the doors off of anybody in the first half. It takes you a while to figure out who can step up and take those roles.”
Mauer is starting to see some guys stepping up.
Last week, the Kernels went on one a six-game road trip over into the MWL Eastern Division territory and came away with a perfect 6-0 record against Lake County and Fort Wayne.
“We swung the bats really well,” he said of their Eastern sweep. “We rode (Luis) Arraez, (Zander) Wiel and (Jaylin) Davis, really. Other guys chipped in here and there, but those guys had a monster week. You’re scoring 6, 7, 8 runs a night, it gives you a pretty good chance to win.
“(Wiel) can carry a team, which he did the last week. Jaylin Davis is probably in the same boat, he can carry a team. Arraez has been pretty consistent, but we kind of go where those three guys go. When the three of them are having a pretty good week, we’ve got a pretty good chance. If they’re not, it will be more difficult for us.”
Finding pitchers to fill the holes left following promotions has been more challenging for Mauer and pitching coach J.P. Martinez. “Pitching is still kind of up in the air who we’ve got,” the manager said.
“It’s so different,” Mauer said, of the Kernels’ bullpen situation. “We’re not as pitching-deep as we were last year. If we had a lead going into the fifth inning, we pretty much knew we were going to win last year. That’s not the case this year. You’ve got some guys that need to step up and take control. I’d say (Anthony) McIver has, to a point. We’ve got to find out about (Tom) Hackimer. But we still have several guys you don’t quite know what you’re going to get in given situations. We’ve got to find out.”
Mauer’s clearly also looking for some improvement among his starting rotation.
“(Cody) Stashak’s probably our number one (starting pitcher). (Lachlan) Wells has been good. Those two guys have been pretty good. If we can just get some of these (other) guys to take that next step, it would make the process better.”
The season’s second half is shaping up to be at least a four-team dogfight with the Kernels, Burlington Bees, Wisconsin Timber Rattlers and Quad Cities River Bandits playing leapfrog with one another in the standings on virtually a daily basis as they jockey for one of the coveted second-half playoff spots.
“That’s our division,” said Mauer. “There really isn’t a team that’s head and shoulders above anybody. Anybody can beat anybody on a given night and I think you’re going to see that kind of as we go through. Things change, obviously, as these draftee guys (from the 2016 draft) starting to come and some of these first full season guys that tend to hit a wall a little bit.”
Mauer’s working with a pair of coaches, in his fourth season with the Kernels, that he hasn’t been teamed with before. Martinez and hitting coach Brian Dinkelman are in their first seasons by Mauer’s side after coaching with the Twins’ Gulf Coast League team, where games are played on back fields at the organization’s spring training complex in front of few, if any, fans.
But the manager says things are going, “good,” on that count.
“(Martinez and Dinkelman) have been real good. Their first ‘real baseball’ compared to that ‘complex ball’ that’s a lot different. They’ve done a good job. For them, their first year, this is unusual to have so many different guys coming through.”
Forty-nine players have already worn a Kernels jersey in 2016. It’s not unusual for fewer players than that to suit up for Cedar Rapids in an entire season.
“What’s nice is that these guys know most of the kids that have come up,” Mauer added. “They’ve had them, they know what makes them tick, the things to do with them, what they need to work on.”
High roster turnover, few top prospects, new assistant coaches. Those things, on their own, might make a manager’s job challenging, but last week the Twins added a little something extra to the load that Mauer and his staff have to carry. Long-time General Manager Terry Ryan was fired by the Twins ownership.
“It’s unfortunate,” Mauer said of Ryan’s dismissal. “Obviously, he’s a great baseball man. He’s all I’ve ever known as a GM, other than Bill Smith, but Terry wasn’t far away (during Smith’s tenure as GM). I think it came as a shock, the timing of it, to everybody. He’s done so much for us and for our organization and whoever comes in after him is going to have big shoes to fill.”
As a result, Mauer and his coaches now are essentially lame ducks, uncertain whether the new GM will choose to retain them going forward. How’s that for adding a little anxiety to the manager’s life?
But, as Mauer observed, the anxiety goes well beyond just he and his coaches.
“It could be for scouts, all the way down to the athletic training guys and strength guys. You don’t know what’s going to happen, we don’t know who is the next guy, if they have somebody in mind, if they don’t. So, we’ll see. I’m sure they’ve got a game plan up there for what they’re going to do.
“But, if you’re confident in what you’re doing and you do a good job, you can’t control that,” Mauer concluded. “This is just like we tell the players, if they look at what’s going on ahead of them or who’s doing what behind them, they can’t control that. Same with us, (we can’t) worry about who’s coming in and fret about it, and not do the task at hand. We’ve got to do the task at hand first of all and see what shakes out.”
The “task at hand” for the manager and his charges is to finish the final six weeks of the season strong. How does Mauer see the remainder of the season shaping up?
“We’ll see. I wish I could answer that, honestly. I have no idea. We look like a million bucks for three or four days, then we have a tough time for three or four days. It’s just kind of how it is. We talk extensively about, we need leaders to step up and to lead and to be our guys so you kind of know what you’re going to get day in and day out.
“They’ll keep playing hard and they’ll keep competing and we’ll just see how it ends up.”
Since it was so late when I got home after last night’s Midwest League All-Star Game, I was too tired to get all of the photos included in my ASG post that I would have liked to. (Sure, the margarita or 5 that I had at the game MIGHT have had something to do with my drowsiness, but there’s no hard evidence of that, so I’m going with ‘I was just tired.’)
Anyway, I decided to post several more pictures from the ASG festivities over the past couple of days in Cedar Rapids.
Now, here’s the thing: I discovered, after taking the first couple of pictures with my camera Tuesday night, that my carmera’s battery was nearly kaput (that’s a technical photojournalist term, I think), so for many of the pictures I wanted, I had to use my phone’s camera.
Now, here’s the other thing: Because I used an app on my phone to provide yardage estimates when I was golfing earlier in the day, my phone’s battery was pretty much kaput, too. Fortunately, the Kernels have one of those charging stations where I was able to pump a little extra charge into the phone midway through the game (and where I had a nice chat with a Lumberkings fan who found himself in the same predicament.)
In the end, photos were taken and here are a few of them:
(All photos: SD Buhr)
After the game, the players and their guests gathered at the Newbo City Market for a postgame party that was open to the public, as well (for a nominal charge, of course). I didn’t make that event (one party per week is pretty much my maximum these days), but I’m sure it was a great time.
Again, you just don’t appreciate, sometimes, how much work goes into putting on an event like this. I’ve had an opportunity this summer to get a small glimpse at all the preparations the Kernels staff have made, from the flowers/landscaping done outside the stadium to all of the meticulous field preparation, event planning and concession work, as well. I’m clearly biased, but I thought the staff put on a terrific event.
Now we move on to the second half of the MWL schedule, with all teams starting over with a 0-0 record and the Kernels needing to finish among the top two teams in the Western Division (among those who haven’t already qualified for the postseason) to reach the playoffs for their 4th consecutive season.
The Cedar Rapids Kernels and the city of Cedar Rapids hosted this year’s Midwest League All-Star Game festivities and all four Kernels players on the Western Division roster played big roles before the festivities concluded.
The Eastern Division stars notched a come-from-behind 11-10 victory in what could only be described as an entertaining ballgame.
Kernels pitcher Sam Clay got the start for the West stars and notched a 1-2-3 inning in the first inning, completing it with a strikeout.
Cedar Rapids’ second baseman Luis Arraez led off the bottom of the second with a single and team mate LaMonte Wade reached on a hit-by-pitch to start the home half of the first. Both players came around to score, giving the West the first two runs of the game.
Kernels catcher AJ Murray, who participated in the pregame Home Run Derby, entered the game about halfway through the contest and went to the opposite field for a two-run blast that put his team up 10-7 in the bottom of the seventh inning.
That’s probably all you need to know about the game itself, but I’ll add a number of pictures from the festivities on Monday and Tuesday.
A lot of work goes into putting on one of these events and big time kudos go out to the entire Kernels staff (augmented with staff from the Northwoods League’s Waterloo Bucks front office) for putting on a first class show.
The Midwest League All-Star Game is drawing near and this week three Cedar Rapids Kernels were named to the team, assuring that Kernels fans will have some familiar faces to cheer for when Cedar Rapids hosts the annual event on Tuesday, June 21.
Kernels starting pitcher Sam Clay, second baseman Luis Arraez and outfielder LaMonte May were all named as MWL All-Stars. Arraez and Wade were selected as starters for the West All-Stars by the league’s managers and Clay was named as a reserve.
Clay, a lefty starter from Buford, Georgia, by way of Georgia Tech, has put together a 4-2 record in the season’s first half to go with a 2.43 ERA over 10 starts.
19-year-old Arraez was signed by the Twins as an International Free Agent out of San Filipe, Venezuela. He has posted a .315 batting average, including 11 doubles, a triple and a pair of home runs. He’s also walked 17 times, fueling his .380 on-base percentage.
Wade is a former Maryland Terrapin from Baltimore who has consistently hit above .300 all year and currently sits at .318. He also has six doubles, three triples and four home runs, which have contributed to his .891 OPS. He has also put up a 38/22 walk/K ratio, assembling a .438 OBP.
You might have thought that, with the Kernels holding a thin lead atop the Western Division standings, more of their players would have earned All-Star roster spots, but the recent promotions of starting pitcher Randy LeBlanc and closer Nick Anderson likely reduced the number of players the local club put on the team.
(LeBlanc, by the way, was named by the league as its MWL Player of the Month for the month of May, during which the righthander notched a 0.24 ERA and a 4-0 record over five starts before being promoted to Ft. Myers.)
In addition, players named to the All-Star squad two weeks before the game is played often turn out to not be available to play, due to injury or promotion, by the time the game is played. It’s not uncommon for players from the host team to be named as replacements for such players, so the Kernels could still see additional local favorites named to the West squad.
Regardless of whether additional Kernels players are ultimately named to the team, there will be no shortage of Cedar Rapids uniforms on the field and in the home team dugout as manager Jake Mauer and coaches Brian Dinkelman & JP Martinez will be coaching the West squad.
Most of the work that Sam Clay and AJ Murray did together during their shared time at Georgia Tech was confined to the bullpen, but this season the pair of former Yellow Jackets have played critical roles together for the Midwest League Western Division-leading Cedar Rapids Kernels.
Clay, a lefty who was the Minnesota Twins’ fourth round draft pick in 2014, carries a 3-1 record and a 1.10 ERA into his Wednesday night start at Burlington. He has averaged more than a strikeout per inning in his seven starts.
Murray, selected by the Twins in the 14th round of last year’s draft, is carrying a .285/.394/.489 (.883 OPS) slash line as the Kernels’ primary catcher. He’s hit 11 doubles, one triple and five home runs while batting in the middle of the Cedar Rapids lineup and has thrown out 35% of runners attempting to steal a base.
That’s not bad for a guy who spent almost no time behind the plate during his college career, despite performing well enough in high school that Houston selected him late in the 2011 draft.
“I caught all through high school,” Murray explained. “Then when I got to college, they converted me to a first baseman because we had Zane Evans (who was ultimately drafted by the Royals in the 4th round of the 2013 draft), who was a lot better than I was at the time. So I learned first base, but I also got to play a little bit in the outfield. It kind of made me more versatile as a player in college.”
Murray certainly wasn’t disappointed when he was told the Twins had drafted him as a catcher, however. Quite the opposite.
“When they drafted me as a catcher, I was very happy because I thought that was my most comfortable position and I could be the biggest asset to the team,” he recalled. “I think it’s the best position on the field, besides pitching, because you’re in every pitch. You pretty much control the game as far as being a leader out there. I love catching every day and it’s definitely a learning process.”
After seeing limited time on the field behind the plate during his college career, Murray has certainly had a lot to learn about playing the position at the professional level.
“I think the biggest adjustment has been calling your own game. That’s kind of been a lost art in baseball,” he said. “I called my own game in high school, but when you get to college, a lot of the pitching coaches like to call the pitches. So that’s been the biggest adjustment.”
The biggest adjustment maybe, but not the only thing that differentiates catching in the pros from what he has done in the past.
“Learning to read hitters, learning to look at the stat sheet, look for tendencies, then fill in the game plans, which is fun actually,” he added. “JP (Martinez, the Kernels’ pitching coach) does a great job of giving us stats, getting the pitchers together, talking over game plans, hitters’ approaches and how we’re going to transfer that over to the game, so he’s the main driver in getting us ready.”
His work behind the plate hasn’t gone unnoticed by fellow Yellow Jacket Clay.
“As soon as he got to Elizabethton, he was far and away a much better catcher than he was at Georgia Tech,” Clay said of his battery mate. “He became unbelievable behind the plate and I love throwing to him.”
Murray and his fellow Kernels went through a stretch earlier in the season when they struggled offensively. Runs were rare and that put a lot of pressure on the pitching staff. They’ve pulled out of that rut over the past few weeks and Murray’s bat has been a big reason. He is hitting .333 in May and has a .986 OPS for the month.
“I’m definitely feeling more comfortable at the plate and focusing on having consistent at-bats,” Murray said, of his recent success at the plate. He’s quick to point out, however, that he’s not the only hitter in the lineup that’s making a difference.
“I think a lot of it has to do with others guys on the team hitting around me. You look at our stats the last couple of weeks, we’ve put up a lot of runs. Everyone’s been hitting well, so I think it’s contagious. When you’re getting on base, it puts pressure on the pitcher, and then hitting in the middle of the lineup, hitting behind LaMonte (Wade), (Luis) Arraez, guys like that getting on base a lot.”
Like Murray, Clay has also had to make some adjustments to the professional game.
In college, Clay worked out of the bullpen and, in fact, he began the 2015 season as a member of the Kernels’ relief corps. Things didn’t go terribly well for Clay, however, in his first tour with Cedar Rapids, and he was sent down to Elizabethton.
“Last year was a little bit of a struggle,” Clay recalled. “I started off up here in the bullpen and I had a lot of trouble finding the plate, so they kind of pigeon-holed me into throwing basically strictly fastballs and one off-speed (pitch), whichever was working for me that day, so hitters were looking for one of two pitches.
“Once I got sent down, I had one or two weeks in the bullpen and then they turned me into a starter when one of our guys went down. It gave me a chance to get up there and throw all of my pitches and really learn how to pitch instead of just going up there and throwing the ball.”
Clay has taken to the conversion to a starting pitcher very well. He and righthander Randy LeBlanc have combined to form a powerful left-right combination at the top of the Kernels’ rotation. Combined, the two have made 15 starts and evenly split just 10 combined earned runs surrendered. Neither pitcher has given up a home run this season.
Making the switch to starting pitcher did mean some adjustments for Clay in the offseason.
“They pretty much had me being a starter, so I knew that going into the offseason, what I needed to work on conditioning-wise and weight training wise,” he said. “So I really kind of got after it this offseason and just worked harder than I probably ever have.
“I lived with my parents in the offseason and I would probably lift weights four times a week. I didn’t really pick up a ball, because I threw a lot of innings last year compared to what I usually would as a reliever. So I didn’t really pick up a ball until probably January and January in Georgia is pretty cold.
“It probably got me ready for the first month here (in Iowa),” Clay added, with a smile.
Once he was ready to start throwing, however, Clay still had challenges to overcome – such as finding someone to throw with.
“Probably the first two or three weeks I was throwing I didn’t have anybody to throw with, so I was throwing long toss into a screen. Not very fun,” he remembered. “But I was lucky, I had one of my friends from high school, Jake Burnette, he’s playing for the Pirates organization (7th round pick in 2011), I got together with him and was able to throw with him for the rest of the offseason.”
As minor league seasons approach their midpoints toward mid-to-late June, it would be understandable for players performing as well as Murray and Clay to start peeking at the next rung on their organizational ladder and wondering what more they need to prove to earn a promotion.
Clay, however, says he knew coming into the season that he had work to do at this level and he’s not going to let his focus get drawn away from his business at hand.
“I knew that I was coming back here as soon as I got to spring training because I didn’t perform that well here when I was here. So I knew I had to come out and really show what I could do – show that I could be a starter, that I could throw against these hitters.
“All the Fort Myers starters are doing really well right now so it will be really tough for us to move up, but we can’t really think about them. We have to focus on ourselves.”
For now, Clay, Murray and their Cedar Rapids team mates are sitting atop the Midwest League’s Western Division standings and they have four more weeks of work to do in the season’s first half. The top two teams in each division during the first half qualify for the MWL playoffs in September and earning that berth early takes a lot of pressure off for the remainder of the season.
Twenty games into their 2016 season, the Cedar Rapids Kernels find themselves right in the thick of the chase for the Midwest League’s Western Division first-half title race with an 11-9 record. They sit just one-half game behind Division co-leaders Kane County and Clinton.
The Kernels are a combined 4-7 against the front-running Cougars and Lumberkings.
If you look strictly at the club’s offensive numbers, you’d be hard pressed to figure out how the Kernels have managed to keep aloft in the standings. They’re batting just .229 as a team, which is better than just four other MWL clubs.
What’s been the secret? It’s no secret, really. It’s been all about the pitching, so far.
“Pitching and defense is what you preach and try to be the most consistent at,” explained Kernels manager Jake Mauer this week, adding, “hitting tends to be more volatile.”
Mauer, who will notch his 250th win as Kernels manager with the next Cedar Rapids victory, doesn’t have to reach any further for an example of what he’s referring to than the team’s recent weekend series in Clinton.
After being rained out on Thursday night, the Kernels dropped a 3-1 game on Friday, mustering just five hits.
On Saturday, the two clubs had a pair of seven-inning games scheduled to make up for the rainout, but game one ran 18 innings, with the Kernels falling 2-1. They were then shutout 3-0 in game two.
On Sunday, the bats woke up and the Kernels put a 9-0 thumping on the Lumberkings to salvage their lone win in the series, despite outscoring Clinton 11-10 across the four games (and 43 innings).
Consistent pitching and defense, volatile hitting.
“We haven’t clicked very well offensively,” Mauer admitted. “We had the big outburst opening night (12 runs on 15 hits against Quad Cities) and we scored nine the last day in Clinton, but really in between that, we really haven’t done too much.”
Ah, but the pitching, that’s a different story.
The Kernels opened the season with 15 players on their roster who saw time in Cedar Rapids last season and some of those guys are playing key roles on the mound.
Returning pitchers Randy LeBlanc and Sam Clay have led the rotation. LeBlanc has a 1.50 ERA and a WHIP of 0.83 through his four starts, while Clay’s put up a 0.53 ERA in his three starts. He has struck out 19 batters in 17 innings pitched.
Cody Stashak, who was promoted to Cedar Rapids a couple weeks ago, has made two starts, winning both games and notching a 1.13 ERA and a 0.75 WHIP.
The bullpen has been stellar, as well.
John Curtiss and CK Irby have each made six appearances this season and neither has allowed an earned run. Irby has struck out 10 in 9 2/3 innings of work, while Curtiss has averaged more than two strikeouts in every inning he’s worked, amassing 17 Ks in 8 innings. Nick Anderson has also struck out more than one hitter per inning out of the pen.
“LaBlanc’s a guy returning and Curtiss is a guy returning, they’ve both been outstanding,” Mauer observed. “We’ve gotten big innings from Irby. Anderson has done fine. Clay has been really good. He looks like a different animal than he was last year.”
Like LeBlanc, Curtiss, Anderson and Irby, Clay put in time with the Kernels in 2016. He posted a 0-3 record and allowed 1.86 runners to reach base for each inning he pitched for Cedar Rapids, resulting in a trip back to the Twins’ rookie-level club in Elizabethton.
“It’s a testament to what (Elizabethton pitching coach) Luis Ramirez did down there at Etown and that staff,” Mauer said, referring to Clay’s significant improvement. “It was the same with Felix Jorge a year ago. “For whatever reason they didn’t do so well here, they went down there and got right, came back and now they’re on their way.”
Curtiss spent time in the Kernels’ rotation last season, but suffered some shoulder issues. He was a reliever at the University of Texas and his return to the bullpen now appears to be permanent and Mauer thinks that could help the righthander move quickly up the organizational ladder.
“I think that’s the right call, keep him in the bullpen,” Mauer said. “He’s got a chance to be a pretty fast mover, I think. It can happen pretty fast for those college relief guys.
“(Irby) is another one that could move quick. Anderson, same situation. There’s three guys right there that, if they’re rested and we can set the game up the way we want, we like our chances with the lead going with those three guys.”
Of course, that involves a couple of pretty big “ifs.” It assumes you can generate enough offense to get an early lead and also that those arms will stay in Kernels uniforms for at least a while longer.
The parent Minnesota Twins have had some pitching issues already during the first month of their season, both in terms of injuries and ineffectiveness. That could lead to some early adjustments to pitching assignments, not only at the big league level, but also all the way through the system.
“We’re three weeks in, I’m sure there’s going to be some movement here, probably sooner than later,” Mauer said.
He can’t do anything about it if Twins Farm Director Brad Steil decides his pitchers should be promoted, so the manager’s focus is on getting wins any way he can.
“Pitching has been really our key and now we’re starting to play better infield defense, getting a little more settled in the infield. Hopefully we don’t have any more of those 18 inning games.
“We played 18 innings (in game 1 Saturday), then played seven more (in game 2), and only scored one run. That’s pretty frustrating, especially with all the opportunities we had, including runners at third with nobody out and one out. Guys let the moment get too big and try to do too much instead of just doing what they can. We’ve been a little better at that starting Sunday.”
Outfielder LaMonte Wade has been the most consistent offensive contributor, hitting .344 with six doubles, two triples and a home run. Unfortunately, Wade has been on the shelf for a few games while nursing a sore hamstring.
Chris Paul was batting .346 when he was promoted to the Fort Myers Miracle and infielder Luis Arraez has come on to hit .395 and put up an OPS of 1.083 in 11 games, doing most of his damage after Paul’s departure (he’s hit .483 in his last eight games).
“Arraez has been a shot in the arm for us,” his manager said. “He played in the big leagues down there in Venezuela in their winter league, so he’s not intimidated by anything that’s going on here, that’s for sure. He’s a hitter, really, He knows where the barrel is, works counts, not a strikeout guy, just puts together good at-bats.”
On the other end of the spectrum, the Kernels have seven players who currently are batting below the .200 mark.
“Really, it’s been LaMonte and Chris Paul, before he left, and Arraez that have been our only offense,” Mauer confirmed. “(Zander) Wiel looks like he’s starting to come around a bit, which is good. Get him going and then (Jermaine) Palacios had a better week last week, he’s hitting the ball better. We need to get some of these guys to get going here so we don’t have to rely on the pitchers.”
In the meantime, Mauer looks for things he can do to put his team in the best position to win a game, even when the crucial hits aren’t coming.
“We’re struggling a little bit when we’re in scoring position and we’ve got to get better at it,” he explained. “That’s why we played the infield in (Tuesday) in the fourth inning with nobody out. Runs are hard to come by for us. Same thing with Arraez trying to score (from third base) on a 180-foot fly ball. Kid made a good throw – we were kind of hoping that he would throw it away or something – try to force the issue a little bit. We’ve got to do things like that to try to create something. We don’t get many opportunities.”
Wade is expected to return to the Kernels lineup within the next day or two and the manager is hoping his return, along with some improvement among the others in his lineup, will help put a few more runs on the board.
If not, the manager is mindful that changes can be made.
“We left a couple college guys that are down there (in Extended Spring Training) that could probably help us. Sometimes you just need a break or a movement situation.”
As the Cedar Rapids Kernels begin a stretch of seven consecutive “commuter” games (those where they bus to the away game and back home again after the game each day/night) this week, they are off to a 7-4 start to their Midwest League Season, good enough for second place in the MWL’s West Division, a half-game behind Kane County.
Early on, the Kernels’ offense was riding on the shoulders of LaMonte Wade and Chris Paul. Paul was promoted to Ft. Myers, but Wade has continued to rake, hitting an even .400 on the season and putting up a 1.119 OPS. The 22-year-old former Maryland Terrapin has hit safely in each of Cedar Rapids’ 11 games this season.
With Paul no longer around, the club needed others to step up their games and Luis Arraez has done exactly that.
Arraez had back-to-back games this week in which he led off the bottom half of the first inning with a home run. That’s remarkable enough, but then consider that they were the first two round-trippers of the infielder’s career. He has raised his batting average to .346 and his OPS to 1.008.
As the starting pitchers complete their second time through the rotation, Sam Clay has led the crew with a perfect 0.00 ERA, while striking out 13 batters in 11 innings of work. Relievers C.K Irby and John Curtiss have equaled that perfect 0.00 ERA out of the bullpen. Curtiss had K’d 8 in 4 innings on the mound and Irby has set down 7 batters in 6 2/3 innings.
The first home series of the season last week was more than a little chilly, though that did make for a couple of interesting pictures. With a couple of sunny day games this past weekend, there were more opportunities for decent photo shooting. I wish I had at least one of every player, but I didn’t quite manage that. I’ll get there eventually.
Let’s start with a photo of Veterans Memorial Stadium, home of the Kernels.
With the kind of week Arraez had, he deserves a couple of pictures, don’t you think? Let’s add one of the infielder at the plate.
And, in case you’re now wondering whether Bryant actually made contact with that pitch, yes, yes he did.
If anyone has earned getting two pictures in this post, it’s LaMonte Wade.
That’s what I’ve got uploaded so far. I thought I had a few more, but can’t put my fingers on them at the moment, anyway. I’ll load up some more next homestand.