April is Critical for Some Minor Leaguers

The Minnesota Twins and their full season minor league affiliates announced those affiliates’ initial rosters on Sunday and Monday this week and the one thing that stood out about almost every roster was the number of players returning to the same level where they finished their respective 2015 campaigns.

The Cedar Rapids Kernels initial roster, for example, includes 16 players that also wore Kernels uniforms last season and many of them performed quite well in the Class A Midwest League – well enough that, in most years, they’d have been promoted this spring and challenged to prove themselves at the next level.

But this isn’t most years, not in the Twins organization, anyway.

Randy led the Kernels staff with 9 wins and posted a 3.03 ERA in 2015. He will be the Opening Day starter for Cedar Rapids in 2016. (Photo: SD Buhr)
Randy LeBlanc led the Kernels staff with 9 wins and posted a 3.03 ERA in 2015. He will be the Opening Day starter for Cedar Rapids in 2016. (Photo: SD Buhr)

The Big League club came to spring training with few roster spots to fill. The clear strategy to fill the few spots they did have – primarily back up spots in the outfield and at catcher, along with left handed bullpen arms – was to sign a number of potential candidates to minor league contracts with invitations to the Twins’ Major League spring training, allow them to compete with whatever internal options might be candidates and open the season with whoever makes the best impression in camp.

Not surprisingly, that left the Twins with a large number of extra minor leaguers left over after the big club’s Opening Day 25-man roster was announced.

As a result, the Triple-A affiliate Rochester Red Wings will start the season with a roster that includes, by my count, about 10 guys who were not members of the Twins’ organization at the end of the 2015 season and the Double-A Chattanooga Lookouts have maybe five more. Most of these newcomers were signed in the offseason as minor league free agents, but that isn’t the case with all of them. (Dan Palka, for example, was acquired via offseason trade.)

The result was inevitable.

Minor league baseball is a numbers game and it’s not all that difficult to figure out how it works for all but the hottest of an organization’s best prospects.

If you’re a minor league player at the low levels of the organization, you get a couple of years to figure out the game in short-season rookie ball and, if you show some level of competency or promise of competency, you move up to Class A, the first level of full-season professional baseball.

From that point on, each year, one of three things happens: The club determines that you’ve reached the level of competition at which you cannot compete and you’re released; you don’t put up stellar numbers, but you show enough promise that the club isn’t going to give up on you, so they send you back to the same level to start the next season; or you perform well enough for the club to want to see how you handle the challenge of the next level of competition and therefore get promoted to that next level.

Sam Gibbons posted a 2.89 ERA in 15 starts for the Kernels in 2015. He's back in Cedar Rapids to start 2016.(Photo: SD Buhr)
Sam Gibbons posted a 7-4 record and a 2.89 ERA in 15 starts for the Kernels in 2015. He’s back in Cedar Rapids to start 2016.(Photo: SD Buhr)

Of course, there are always exceptions and nuances. Players may get a mid-season or late-season promotion to a new level and then start the following year at the same level or may suffer an injury that results in a need to repeat a level. That’s why, typically, a community like Cedar Rapids will see a handful of familiar faces each spring when the new batch of Kernels arrives.

You don’t see 16 familiar faces, though.

It’s a safe bet that, among that 16, there are some players that feel pretty strongly that they did enough for the Kernels a year ago that they should be busing around the Sunshine State with the Fort Myers Miracle this month rather than wearing parkas in the Kernels’ dugout. And they’re right, they should be.

And I’m sure there are a similar numbers of guys in Fort Myers that think they should be in Chattanooga.

It’s pretty clear, from comments made by Kernels manager Jake Mauer and some of his players this week, that this is a subject that Mauer has addressed with his team.

Cedar Rapids Gazette reporter Jeff Johnson interviewed Mauer on Monday and among the manager’s comments was this:

“I’m not going to lie to you. There are a number of guys in our clubhouse that should probably be up, that either pitched or hit their way out of this league. But because of strength of organization, they are here. You try to convey to them that ‘You are here, don’t feel bad. You’ve got to go after it, you’ve got to put up numbers.’”

The trio of players – pitchers Randy LeBlanc and Sam Gibbons, along with infielder Chris Paul – that were fed to local media for a group interview on “Meet the Kernels” Night on Tuesday were asked by Johnson about the level of disappointment that players who played well for the Kernels last season were having to start this year back in Cedar Rapids.

LeBlanc, who has drawn the Opening Day start this week for the Kernels, was frank, but responded well.

“I’m not going to beat around the bush, it was pretty disappointing at first,” LeBlanc conceded. “Jake’s been kind of pounding into our head, since the rosters have been set, that you can’t go into it bitter. You’ve got to just play your way out of here. Just stay positive, just be happy you made a roster, stuff like that. I definitely think (several) of us did pretty well last year, but just go out there and do our best and see what happens.”

Gibbons then added, “As long as we’ve got a jersey, we’ve got an opportunity.”

Unlike LeBlanc and Gibbons, Paul was a relative late-comer to the Kernels last season, joining the team near the end of the season and contributing to the team’s postseason run which ultimately ended one win short of a Midwest League championship.

“It’s a little bit different for me. I came up a little bit late,” Paul said, on the subject at hand. “These guys spent the whole season – most of the season – here, so I think a lot of guys proved themselves, obviously, like Randy said. But like they said, we’ve still got an opportunity, so you’ve just got to continue to perform and prove that you should be somewhere else.”

It’s clear that the, “don’t let yourselves be bitter, be glad you have a roster spot and go out and prove you deserve to move up,” message has been delivered – and it’s a very important message.

You could argue that it’s not fair that many players in the Twins system didn’t get the promotions this spring that they earned with their hard work and performances last summer. But professional baseball often is not fair. (Players need only look at their paltry paychecks to be reminded of that.)

And this is not a permanent situation.

It’s understandable that the Twins would give most of the players they signed to minor league free agent contracts an opportunity to show what they can do in some regular season games and, while the organization is still widely heralded as having one of the best stocked minor league systems in baseball, that cycle won’t last forever.

But neither will the opportunities being extended to these minor league free agents last forever. I give it a month.

By the middle of May, I believe we’ll see minor league affiliate rosters that look a lot more like what most of us – and, clearly, many of the organization’s players – thought we would see. I expect those free agents will get about a month to show the Twins’ evaluators why they should keep their roster spots in Rochester and Chattanooga over guys that have come up through the system and expected to be playing at the next level this spring.

Some of the new players will stick and that’s a good thing. Talent is talent, whether the player came up through the Twins’ system or somewhere else and minor league baseball is one of the purer forms of meritocracy you’ll find anywhere.

This little blip in the normal process makes it more critical than ever that players follow the advice being given to them to focus on their own performances and not give in to what must be a sometimes overwhelming urge to get angry to the point of distraction.

Because, just as sure as some of those minor league free agents will fail to impress and find themselves looking for other work, the same thing could happen to some players that finished strong with a Twins affiliate a year ago, but couldn’t back it up with a strong start to 2016.

Every year, observers of minor league teams like the Kernels see players move up and players move down and players move out. The team you finish a season with never resembles the team you started with. It’s the reason lower level minor leagues like the Midwest League have split seasons, with division standings reset after the mid-season All-Star break.

Most of the roster changes resulting from promotions and demotions don’t usually start becoming regular until June. This year, in the Twins organization, things could get interesting for many players much sooner.

-Steve

Cedar Rapids Welcomes the 2016 Kernels

A modest, but devoted, crowd of fans, staff and host parents greeted manager Jake Mauer, his field staff and 24 players to Veterans Memorial Stadium with applause and a handful of signs as they stepped off their bus from the Cedar Rapids airport early Monday evening.

It was upwards of 70 degrees in Florida when the team departed their Fort Myers spring training camp earlier in the day and many of the players were still sporting the short sleeve sport shirts that were more appropriate on departure than they were upon arrival at their new home, where temperatures hovered a degree or two on one side or the other of 40 degrees.

Mr Shucks spends some time with young Kernels fans while they wait for the team's bus to arrive.
Mr Shucks spends some time with young Kernels fans while they wait for the team’s bus to arrive.
Manager Jake Mauer steps off the bus to the applause of local fans. (Photo: SD Buhr)
Manager Jake Mauer steps off the bus to the applause of local fans. (Photo: SD Buhr)
Young Kernels fans greeting the arriving 2016 Kernels
Young Kernels fans greeting the arriving 2016 Kernels

After arriving and settling into his office, Mauer confirmed that pitcher Michael Cederoth, originally listed as a member of the initial Kernels roster, did not make the trip to Cedar Rapids with the team. The manager indicated that Cederoth has an issue with his back and that no final decision has yet been communicated concerning who will take his spot on the active roster.

The Kernels will get a formal welcome from media and fans on Tuesday evening, between 5:00 and 7:00, with an introduction of the players and a short workout open to the public beginning at 7:00, weather permitting.

The Quad Cities River Bandits will visit Cedar Rapids on Thursday to open the 2016 season. Game time is 6:35.

-Steve

Kernels’ Opening Day Roster Announced

The Cedar Rapids Kernels and their Major League affiliate, the Minnesota Twins, have announced the club’s Opening Day roster and there are a healthy number of players that should be familiar to Kernels fans as 16 of the 25 members spent time with the Kernels at some point during the 2015 season.

The Kernels will open with a 13-man pitching staff and, as has generally been the case since the Twins/Kernels affiliation began in 2013, they appear poised to utilize a 6-man starting pitching rotation.

Indications are that the rotation will include returning arms Michael Cederoth, Sam Clay, Sam Gibbons, Randy LeBlanc and Dereck Rodriguez, along with newcomer Andro Cutura.

Sam Gibbons (Photo: SD Buhr)
Sam Gibbons (Photo: SD Buhr)

The bullpen will have Nick Anderson, John Curtiss, CK Irby, Michael Theofanopolous and Zack Tillery returning to Cedar Rapids, while Kuo Hua Lo and Logan Lombana will be getting their first looks at the Midwest League.

Rafael Valera saw time in the Kernels’ infield a year ago and, since the end of last season has been learning a new position. He will be one of three catchers to open the season in Cedar Rapids and will be joined by new Kernels receivers Bryant Hayman and AJ Murray.

Like Valera, Jorge Fernandez returns to the Kernels to learn an new position. After primarily catching during his time with Cedar Rapids, Fernandez now will be manning an outfield spot. Max Murphy and LaMonte Wade will also be returning to the Kernels outfield and Chris Cavaness will be the lone newbie in Manager Jake Mauer’s outfield.

Sean Miller (Photo: SD Buhr)
Sean Miller (Photo: SD Buhr)

Infielders Sean Miller and Chris Paul saw time with the Kernels last season and will return in 2016, being joined in the infield by Zander Wiel, Luis Arraez and Jermaine Palacios.

Mauer will be returning for his fourth season at the Kernels’ helm. Mauer has had a different pitching coach in each of his seasons leading Cedar Rapids and that trend continues in 2016. JP Martinez will be the fourth Kernels pitching coach in as many years. Brian Dinkelman will serve his first year under Mauer as the Kernels’ hitting coach.

The Kernels are schedule to arrive in Cedar Rapids shortly after 6:00 pm Monday evening and the club is encouraging fans to join a welcome rally in the Veterans Memorial Stadium parking lot at 6:30.

The annual “Meet the Kernels” event for fans will be held on Tuesday evening, beginning at 5:15 pm. Fans will be able to meet and chat with players and staff on the concourse. At 7:00, Mauer will formally introduce the players fans after which the team will go through their first workout on Perfect Game Field, weather permitting.

The Kernels will open their 2016 season on Thursday, hosting the Quad Cities River Bandits.

 

Twins Moving to Cedar Rapids

For some time, now, I have been trying to find ways to spend my “retirement” years involved with professional baseball. I’ve finally found the answer and decided that April 1 was the perfect time to release the announcement.

I have come to an agreement to purchase the Minnesota Twins from the Pohlad family and yes, I will be moving the club to Cedar Rapids. (I mean, it was either that or I had to move to Minnesota and, no offense, but I’ve lived there already. Pass.)

New Twins owner - me.
New Twins owner – me.

I’ve always wanted to own a Major League team and, like pretty much every Twins fan (or at least all of them who have access to the internet), I have always believed I could run the team better than anyone who actually was responsible for doing so.

As part of the agreement, the Twins’ Class A affiliation will be in Minneapolis, giving Target Field a tenant for at least as long as the original agreement required when taxpayers paid for construction.

Twins President (for now), Dave St. Peter, was pleased with this development.

“I’ve often said in the past that it would be nice to be able to watch the Twins’ young minor league talent play in the Twin Cities,” St. Peter said. “This agreement brings that dream to reality.”

I have scheduled a meeting with Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett to discuss how we can best go about adding an additional 35,000 seats to Veterans Memorial Stadium. I see no insurmountable issues there, as long as the city is willing to cough up the money for the renovations.

As for staff decisions, all positions will be posted at corridorcareers.com. All current Twins employees from St. Peter to every usher and beer vendor, will be invited to apply for their current positions (or any other job they might think they’d be good at). I learned in my experience in the professional world that is is the way progressive companies do things these days.

There is one exception to this policy. General Manager Terry Ryan will be retained.

I’ve made this decision for two reasons. First, I genuinely respect Mr. Ryan and, though I don’t always agree with his decisions, I believe he is very good at his job. Even if I didn’t feel that way about the GM, I’d keep him anyway, just because I know how much it’s going to piss off Twins bloggers/fans/commenters/know-it-alls all over Twins Territory.

There will be some pretty noticeable changes, however. For example, because of my fondness for the Iowa Hawkeyes, much of my wardrobe is black and gold. After paying for the Twins, I’m not going to also go out and buy a new wardrobe. The Twins’ colors will instead become black and gold.

Finally, while I will not be lifting the MLB.tv blackout policy from covering the entire state of Iowa, at least that blackout policy will finally make some sense.

I look forward to meeting all of the new Twins fans when the team opens the 2017 in Cedar Rapids. I hope those of you in the Twin Cities enjoy your final season of watching the Twins and I’m sure you will enjoy watching Midwest League games in the future.

-Steve

Spring Training Photos, the Finale

Today was my last day hanging around the Twins spring training site. Tuesday is a beach day and we hit the road to head back to Iowa on Wednesday morning.

Today was a bittersweet day at the complex as several minor leaguers were given their release early in the morning, including several former Kernels that we’ve gotten to know over the past couple of seasons. I wish them all the best of luck in whatever comes next in their lives, whether with baseball or otherwise.

I spent my afternoon on the minor league side of the complex, once again watching the future Kernels and future Miracle take on their Red Sox counterparts, followed by a stop for some local craft brews to take home and dinner near the Fort Myers Beach pier.

That’s enough writing. Here are a few final photos from this year’s trip.

Eddie Del Rosario
Eddie Del Rosario
Bryant Hayman
Bryant Hayman
Daniel Kihle
Daniel Kihle
Logan Lombana
Logan Lombana
AJ Murray
AJ Murray
Brian Olson
Brian Olson

 

Spring Training Photos, Part Deux

Today will likely be my final day at the Twins’ spring training complex for this season and even that will fall into the “weather permitting” category.

I’m sure those of you who woke up to sub-freezing temperatures this morning won’t be feeling sorry for us down here, but the forecast for today is temperatures just in the 60s and winds strong enough to make the “wind chill” feel several degrees cooler than that.

Still, the plan is to try to catch one more afternoon of minor league baseball so I’ll endeavor to carry on through the day.

Tomorrow is the last full day of the trip to Florida before packing up to start the drive home on Wednesday and it seems like a day in the upper 70s means one last day hanging out on and near the beach would be appropriate.

Before I head to the ballpark today, I thought I would post one more set of photos from the last couple of days, which included time both on the minor league side and also within Hammond Stadium watching the Twins fall to a team of Evil Empire wannabes on Sunday afternoon.

First a few players looking to spend time in a Kernels uniform either this year or, possibly, the next. Some have already spent a little time in Cedar Rapids, while others would be getting their first taste of full season minor league ball.

Potential Kernels 3B Travis Blankenhorn
Travis Blankenhorn
Manuel Guzman
Manuel Guzman
Kuo Hua Lo
Kuo Hua Lo
Amaurys Minier
Amaurys Minier
Miles Nordgren
Miles Nordgren
Jermaine Polacios
Jermaine Polacios
Fernando Romero
Fernando Romero
Lamonte Wade
Lamonte Wade
Zander Wiel
Zander Wiel
Trey Cabbage
Trey Cabbage
Ruar Verkerk
Ruar Verkerk
Luis Arraez
Luis Arraez
Nelson Molina
Nelson Molina

Now, a few old friends who have already passed through Cedar Rapids on their way up the Twins’ organizational ladder.

Jose Berrios
Jose Berrios
Byron Buxton
Byron Buxton
Chad Christensen
Chad Christensen
Mitch Garver (I have no idea what he and the umpire were looking at, but I'm sure it was interesting)
Mitch Garver (I have no idea what he and the umpire were looking at, but I’m sure it was interesting)
Randy LeBlanc
Randy LeBlanc
Alex Real
Alex Real
Let's not forget, Twins likely Opening Day starting pitcher Ervin Santana was a Kernel as he worked his way up in the Angels organization.
Let’s not forget, Twins likely Opening Day starting pitcher Ervin Santana was a Kernel as he worked his way up in the Angels organization.

The 2016 Kernels field staff

Left to right, pitching coach JP Martinez, hitting coach Brian Dinkelman and manager Jake Mauer
Left to right, pitching coach JP Martinez, hitting coach Brian Dinkelman and manager Jake Mauer

Finally, a few current Twins who did not have the privilege of spending time in a Kernels jersey on their way up to the big leagues model their new red jerseys.

Brian Dozier
Brian Dozier
Eduardo Escobar
Eduardo Escobar
Joe Mauer
Joe Mauer
John Ryan Murphy
John Ryan Murphy
Eddie Rosario
Eddie Rosario
Miguel Sano
Miguel Sano

 

Berrios Headlines Kernels’ Hot Stove Banquet

Jose Berrios has shot up the national “top prospect” rankings based on his performance the past couple of years in the Minnesota Twins organization and on Wednesday night, Berrios joined his former manager with the Cedar Rapids Kernels, Jake Mauer, and Twins farm director Brad Steil to participate in a “roundtable” discussion at the Kernels’ annual Hot Stove Banquet.

Jake Mauer, Brad Steil and Jose Berrios talk baseball at the Kernels Hot Stove Banquet
Jake Mauer, Brad Steil and Jose Berrios talk baseball at the Kernels Hot Stove Banquet

Before the banquet got underway, all three men were available for media interviews.

It was the first time Berrios had been back to Cedar Rapids since he was part of a 2013 Kernels squad that was loaded with potential big leaguers, including Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, Tyler Duffey, Adam Brett Walker and many others.

Berrios said he was enjoying the homecoming.

“Coming here today in the afternoon, I saw things and thought, ‘I remember that.’ It’s different because now, you’ve got a lot of snow, but I remember some things. My host family, Abby (Pumroy) is coming tonight and I’m excited about that. This is where I played my first full season and I enjoyed it. My family came for my birthday in May. I enjoyed all of my year in 2013 in Cedar Rapids.”

Pumroy, his host mother during his stay with the Kernels (as she is every summer for many of the Latin-American players), not only came to see Berrios at the banquet, but joined him on the stage during the roundtable to serve as interpreter, if necessary.

That service wasn’t needed often. Berrios has made a lot of improvements since his time with the Kernels and that would include his command of English.

In truth, his season with the Kernels was Berrios’ worst as a minor leaguer. He didn’t turn 19 until the second month of the season and notched a 7-7 record and 3.99 ERA and gave up, on average, just over one hit per inning. He struck out “just” 8.7 batters per nine innings. That’s certainly not bad, but 2013 is the only season of his young career in which he failed to top the 9 Ks per inning mark.

Maturity on the mound was an issue for Berrios at times that season. There were times when an inning would start out with an error or two or maybe a couple of hits and the young right-hander would appear to lose his composure a bit, leading to crooked numbers going on the scoreboard that inning for the opponent.

That’s not unusual, of course, especially in the lower levels of the minor leagues, as Mauer pointed out while talking about the progress that Berrios has made since their time together with the Kernels.

“He was pretty young, obviously, when he was here,” Mauer recalled. “He came up late (in April). One thing he would do is he would always compete. Really it was probably the first time he had been hit in his life. He had struck everybody out.

“Kohl Stewart went through some of that, when he was here, too. Some of those guys, that’s what they learn to do here – they start to learn how to pitch, learn how to overcome adversity. Sometimes you get yourself out of innings that maybe your defense created for you. Do I just roll over or do I compete and get through it? I think both of those guys are starting to figure that out pretty good.”

Jose Berrios
Jose Berrios

Berrios, who will still be just 21 years old when the 2016 season opens, agreed that he has developed a more mature approach to his craft.

“I’ve matured every year,” he said. “You have to be under control in every situation. That’s what I work on every year and that’s what I’ve learned.

This is the second year that Berrios has been invited by the Twins to open Spring Training with the big club in Fort Myers. A year ago, he wasn’t shy about telling people his goal was to open the season in the Twins’ rotation.

That didn’t happen, of course, and Berrios ended up throwing all 166 1/3 of his innings in the minors, split between AA Chattanooga and AAA Rochester.

His goals going into 2016 have not been tempered from his experience last year, however. If anything, he has taken them up a notch.

“Yeah, I’m keeping the same goals,” he confirmed. “Trying to make the 25 man roster in April with the Minnesota Twins. Then keep going, work to be selected for the All-Star Game in July and then at the end of the season, maybe the Rookie of the Year.

“That’s my goal, that’s what I’m preparing myself for, to make that goal. Be ready for spring training this year. I’m excited about that.”

There may still be snow on the ground, but Berrios said he’s ready to get the new season underway.

“Yeah, there’s too much offseason, I want to play a game.”

Steil, voicing the views of the Twins front office, wasn’t prepared to predict a Rookie of the Year award for his young prospect, but he clearly is looking for good things from Berrios in 2016.

“We’re looking for him to keep improving, which he’s done a nice job at every level he’s been through in our system, Steil said. “Last year, when he went from AA to AAA, he was a little shaky to start with at AAA, which is to be expected.

“I think once you saw him get settled in and get comfortable, he made some adjustments and really pitched well the last month of the season. So he’s going to give some guys at spring training a run for their money when it comes to competing for a roster spot there.”

While it’s too early to make any firm predictions about the Kernels’ 2016 roster, Steil did talk about what he’s expecting at this early point in time.

“I think, looking at it right now, a rough idea of what kind of team we’re going to start with, I think it will be another strong pitching staff, similar to last year,” he offered. “I think as the season goes on, some of the younger hitters will get better and I think we’ve got a chance to have a better lineup than we did last year, just because of the talent that some of these guys have that are coming here.

“Jermaine Palacios, a shortstop that was in the GCL and Elizabethton last year, is one of those guys. I expect LaMonte Wade will be back here to start the season. Chris Paul is another guy that will probably be back to start the season. So I think we’re going to have a few guys that can swing the bat. We should have a little bit more of a threat in the middle of the lineup than they maybe did last year.”

Steil also talked about a couple of pitchers that Kernels fans saw a little of two years ago, Lewis Thorpe and Fernando Romero.

Regarding Thorpe, Steil said the 20-year-old Australian lefty is, “doing very well.”

“He’s probably not going to be ready to go to start the season, so he’ll probably start in extended and get stretched out and build up his arm strength.

“Fernando Romero is in a similar situation,” Steil added. “A guy that pitched here briefly two years ago. He’s got a really good arm. He’ll touch 97, 98 (mph). He’s doing really well. He’s a little ahead of Thorpe, so he may be ready to go at the beginning of the year.”

The Twins assigned each of the managers in their system to the same teams they led in 2015, but the departure of a couple of coaches at the AAA level meant wholesale coaching changes among most of the minor league staffs. As a result, Henry Bonilla, the Kernels pitching coach last season, is moving up to handle the Miracle’s pitching staff and Tommy Watkins, who has coached Kernels hitters for three seasons, will be in Chattanooga with the Lookouts.

Mauer will be welcoming J.P Martinez and Brian Dinkelman to his staff in Cedar Rapids this season as pitching and hitting coaches, respectively.

While Mauer had known Bonilla and Watkins going back to the days that they were teammates in the Twins organization, he said he doesn’t have a similar background with Martinez and Dinkelman. As Mauer was moving through the organization as a player, Martinez and Dinkelman were always a rung or two below him on the ladder. By the time they were reaching the upper levels as players, Mauer had begun his coaching career back in rookie ball.

“I missed being a teammate with them, but I remember them in Spring Training and being around them last year a little bit. They’re both competitors and they both have a lot of information. They’re both really good personalities as far as they’re hard workers and they’re excited.

“This is more ‘real baseball’ than what extended and Gulf Coast League are. They’ve heard a lot of the positive things that are going on up here and both played in this league. I spoke to both of them right around Christmas time. They’re both heading down to Florida early to get down there and get around some of our boys a little sooner.”

Mauer indicated that one benefit of the coaching changes is that Martinez and Dinkelman have already worked some with many of the players likely to pull on a Kernels jersey this summer.

“To be honest, I don’t know many of the guys,” Mauer admitted. “I’ll probably rely on JP and Brian quite a bit. They had them in instructional league and some of them in extended, so they have a feel for them. We’ll shake it out in spring training and figure out who can do what and where they all fit.”

Mauer has set the expectations bar high for next season after leading Cedar Rapids to within one game of a Midwest League championship. On Wednesday, his boss expressed how impressed he has been with the Kernels’ skipper.

“He and Tommy and the pitching coaches here have done a great job in our three years here, advancing a level deeper into the playoffs the last two years,” Steil said. “Especially last year, they did a great job as a coaching staff.

“I don’t think that team was as talented as the first two years we were here. But they did a really good job and those players battled and they never gave up. They played good, sound baseball. They didn’t beat themselves and that was a credit to Jake and Tommy and Henry.”

Brad Steil and Jake Mauer chat before the Kernels Hot Stove Banquet with former big leaguer Tom Lawless, who was inducted into Cedar Rapids' baseball hall of fame Wednesday. Lawless managed the last Kernels team to win A MWL championship.
Brad Steil and Jake Mauer chat before the Kernels Hot Stove Banquet with former big leaguer Tom Lawless, who was inducted into Cedar Rapids’ baseball hall of fame Wednesday. Lawless managed the last Kernels team to win A MWL championship.

-JC

Kernels’ Sean Miller is Moving Up Fast

If you go to the web site of the baseball program at the University of South Carolina-Aiken, you’ll find a link listing all of the Pacer ballplayers who are playing professional baseball.

Well, not quite all of them.

Sean Miller (Photo: SD Buhr)
Sean Miller (Photo: SD Buhr)

Cedar Rapids Kernels infielder Sean Miller spent three years in a Pacers uniform and he’s now played for two minor league teams, but South Carolina-Aiken’s webmaster hasn’t updated the list since last September and Miller just wrapped up his college career this past spring.

Miller, the first of the Minnesota Twins’ 2015 draft class to suit up for the Kernels this season (Chris Paul joined Cedar Rapids later), was a “young junior,” to use Kernels manager Jake Mauer’s words. He was just 20 years old throughout his junior year of college and won’t turn 21 until after the current season ends.

That may have been one factor that the Twins found attractive about Miller, whom they selected in the 10th round of the 2015 draft. The Twins sent the middle infielder to their Appalachian League affiliate in Elizabethton, Tennessee, just about a four hour drive north of his college campus in Aiken, immediately after signing him to a contract that included a reported $125,000 bonus.

It was a short stay for Miller in Tennessee. On July 11, he was promoted to the Kernels.

The quick promotion caught Miller a bit by surprise.

“Actually, it did. Kind of a lot,” Miller admitted. “Because I was only in Etown for two or three weeks, I guess. I played in 12 or 13 games (it was officially 11 games). So it was definitely surprising, but it was really exciting.

“I was playing good defense there and I was hitting okay. I was hitting balls hard but I didn’t have a great average or numbers, like that.”

Short as it was, Miller said he enjoyed getting his first taste of professional ball in Elizabethton.

“It was exactly what I was expecting. It was awesome to get a chance to play and be on your own and just get the whole experience of it.”

In truth, Miller was hitting just .209 in Elizabethton when he was promoted to Cedar Rapids. But his numbers since joining the Kernels have been much more encouraging. He’s not showing a lot of power, but he carried a .303 batting average with the Kernels through this past weekend.

“Sean’s put the ball in play and gives us a little bit of speed that, obviously with (Tanner) English gone, we’ve been lacking a little bit,” Mauer said of Miller.

Miller played high school ball in Maryland for his father, Steve Miller, who had his own five-year minor league career after being the 13th round pick of the San Francisco Giants in the 1983 June Amateur Draft.

Having a dad with that kind of background comes with both advantages and disadvantages.

“It’s always hard with him being your dad,” Miller conceded. “You don’t want to listen to him, but you have to because you know he’s been there. He’s been through the same stuff you’re going through.

“It’s definitely (a battle), always arguing about something, but you’ve just got to realize that he knows more than you do.”

Sean Miller (Photo: SD Buhr)
Sean Miller (Photo: SD Buhr)

The elder Miller has made two trips to see his son in his first minor league season, one to Tennessee and the other to Cedar Rapids.

The Kernels infielder said his dad’s advice has remained on the practical side from the beginning.

“He always kind of told me it’s not as glamorous as everyone makes it out to be. It’s more of a job than a game now. And it’s kind of how he described it. He was pretty right on it.”

Miller is finding that to be true as he nears the end of a year that began in the Peach Belt Conference and is concluding in the Class A Midwest League. He’s found there’s a pretty significant difference in the quality of the pitchers he’s now facing.

“It’s definitely a lot better, more consistent” Miller acknowledged.  “Night in, night out, you face guys that are definitely a lot better. Position players, too. A lot of the outfielders, if they get a chance, they’re going to run it down and catch it. They’re not going to allow a hit there. It takes some getting used to.”

As you’d expect, Miller is happy with the success he’s had thus far with the Kernels.

“Definitely,” he confirmed. “I’m just trying to come in every day and have fun and just play ball.”

So far, Miller has found the biggest challenge in pro ball to be just maintaining an even keel over the course of a long season.

Sean Miller
Sean Miller (Photo: SD Buhr)

“I think getting too high, sometimes you have a good game and you’re kind of up here,” Miller said, lifting his hand toward the top of his head. “And you come up the next night and go 0 for 4 or something like that. I mean it sucks, but you’ve got to find a happy medium there and kind of stay consistent with your attitude. Can’t get too excited when you have a good game and can’t get too upset about a bad game.”

His manager concurs, but feels the Miller is off to a good start.

“He’s handled himself good,” Mauer added, of Miller. “He needs to learn what it takes to play every day and maintain his strength. It’s going to be a big offseason for him to get bigger and stronger and continue to improve his speed, but he’s been very good for us.

“He’s been doing a pretty nice job in the middle of the infield, mostly just shortstop is all that he’s played. He’s learning how to play second and handled himself pretty good there.”

Off the field, you are likely to find Miller on a golf course.

“I like to play golf,” he said. “I haven’t really got a chance to play too much, lately, but hopefully I’ll get a chance in the offseason.”

Miller said he’ll make South Carolina his primary home once the season ends.

“I’ll be back and forth between Maryland and South Carolina, but I just kind of wanted to get started and be on my own a little bit.”

Doe and White: To the Miracle and Back Again

Every minor leaguer’s goal entering the season is to develop his game to the point where he earns a promotion to the next higher level in the system.

Sometimes, that call comes when a player has dominated play within their league. Other times, circumstances align to create an opportunity for players to move up the organizational ladder, at least temporarily.

Such circumstances allowed Cedar Rapids Kernels third baseman TJ White and catcher/first baseman Brett Doe to spend a few weeks each in the middle of this summer wearing the uniform of the Fort Myers Miracle, the Minnesota Twins’ Class high-A affiliate, one level above the Class A Kernels.

Brett Doe and JT White (Photo: SD Buhr)
Brett Doe and TJ White (Photo: SD Buhr)

White and Doe both got their promotion opportunities in part due to some misfortune of others, as the Miracle began to rack up injuries among their early-season regulars at the corner infield positions. Both players had been holding their own in the Midwest League when their calls came, but both were also aware that their stays in Fort Myers might be short-lived.

“Yeah, Jake pretty much let us know,” White recalled last week. “He said it could be four to five days, it could be two weeks or it could be the whole the season. So we were looking to just go play and have fun with it.”

For Doe, who wasn’t on the Kernels’ original roster out of spring training, it wasn’t the first time this season that he’s lived with uncertainty concerning how long he’d be on a roster.

“That’s kind of what I came up here (to Cedar Rapids) with, when (Jorge) Fernandez got hurt,” Doe recounted. “Once I got up here, it took me about a month and a half to unpack my bag, to actually unpack everything. So when I got there (to Fort Myers), I didn’t unpack.”

At least players in a situation like what Doe and White found themselves in don’t have to try to find a short-term place to live during their time with the Miracle. Fort Myers doesn’t have a host family program similar to what exists in Cedar Rapids, but they do have an on-site Players Academy with dormitory-like housing.

JT White (Photo: SD Buhr)
TJ White (Photo: SD Buhr)

“We both stayed at the Academy,” confirmed White. “They set it up pretty much that way. We could have found a place to live, but with our situation, the Academy was a lot easier for us.

“It’s nice. They’ve got the pool tables and ping-pong tables and everything. And they feed us, so it’s not bad.”

The food and lodging might be nice, but maybe the biggest benefit to having even a temporary promotion to the next higher level of minor league ball is the exposure the players got to the Class high-A game. Both Doe and White noticed significant differences in the quality of the game played in the Florida State League.

“For me, we see the same velocity and stuff like that up there, but guys have a plan to get you out and they can execute that plan a little bit better,” observed Doe. “They didn’t miss as many spots – not saying guys here miss spots, but you just didn’t get as many pitches to hit. When you’re up there, I felt like, you can’t miss that pitch. If you get a pitch to hit, you can’t miss it.”

“We kind of talked about it jokingly, because guys can locate their off-speed (pitches) so much more, which makes it so much more dangerous,” White agreed. “You might not see a fastball again after that first pitch, because they can control it so much better. Here, you’ll probably most likely get another fastball or two before the end of the at-bat.”

Doe, who is attempting to learn the catching trade this season, after primarily being an infielder at the college level, didn’t get much time behind the plate in Fort Myers. But he’s not complaining.

Brett Doe (Photo: SD Buhr)

“I was first base, every game,” he said. “I worked with the bullpen, to stay sharp for me, catching. But once the game rolled around, I was at first base pretty much every day, which was nice. I went from being a third string catcher here (in Cedar Rapids) at the beginning of the year to playing first base every day at high-A.”

The experience did cement one thing in to the minds of both players. They want to earn spots on the Fort Myers roster full time next season and getting some time there this year gives them some idea what they need to do to make that happen.

“For next year, yeah I think it did,” White confirmed. “Just showed us a little bit, gave us a little taste of it and hopefully, we’ll both be starting there next year. I think that’s our plan. But just seeing the pitchers and a little bigger ballpark, so we kind of know how to approach that, as well.”

“That and then just us playing, what is it today, 122 games?” added Doe. “We’ve learned a lot from that, too. We’ve learned a lot in our first full season – how to get through and be ready for next season.”

Enduring the number of games in a full minor league season is no small factor for a player’s development, as White pointed out.

“Last year, me and Brett both only played about 15 games, I think, all season. So this year we’re grinding through, but it’s gone well so far.

On the subject of “grinding through,” the Kernels clinched their playoff spot in June by finishing second in the MWL’s Western Division during the first half of the season. The two players talked some about whether that’s made it harder or easier to maintain focus, as a team, in the season’s final few weeks.

“I think as far as preparation, it can be tempting for us to sit back, as a team, and kind of be like, ‘we’re in the playoffs,’” conceded Doe. “But once the lights come on and the game starts, no one is thinking, ‘we’re in the playoffs so we don’t have to play hard.’”

Doe, White and their Kernels team mates are already getting the message from their manager, Jake Mauer, that now is not the time to ease up on the throttle.

“Jake kind of told us, ‘hey, we want to finish strong. All these games are going to be close.’ He said they’re going to be close ballgames and we want to be hot rolling into playoffs, not kind of stumbling in getting started.”

While both Doe and White would obviously prefer to have finished out their 2015 season in Fort Myers, returning to Cedar Rapids does bring with it one benefit. While the Kernels are preparing for postseason play, the Miracle are on the verge of elimination from playoff contention.

So, while those on the Miracle roster will likely be playing their final game of the season on September 6, Doe and White will be with the Kernels as they begin their quest for MWL championship rings on September 8.

Kernels’ Gibbons Immune to the Dog Days of Summer

We’ve reached the end of the Dog Days of Summer, that period that stretches from 20 days before Sirius (the Dog Star) is precisely in conjunction with the sun until 20 days after those bodies are in alignment.

Sam Gibbons (Photo: SD Buhr)
Sam Gibbons (Photo: SD Buhr)

Those 40 or so days are typically the most cruelly hot of the summer and, coincidentally or not, the days when young professional baseball players often hit the proverbial “wall” during their first full season of pro ball. Players that are accustomed to playing anywhere from 40 to 70 games in a summer, find themselves having already eclipsed that mark by mid-June, with another 70 yet to play on the schedule.

It’s when bats become heavier in a hitter’s hands and pitchers often lose velocity or some sharpness to their breaking ball due to a “tired arm.”

DogDays
The Dog Days of Summer

Then again, the Dog Days of Summer really is a Northern Hemisphere phenomenon, so Cedar Rapids Kernels pitcher Sam Gibbons, who hails from Geelong, Victoria, in Australia, may well be immune to the Dog Day effects.

After a shaky start to his season, the 21-year-old Aussie didn’t really begin to hit his stride until the second week of July.

As Gibbons toed the rubber in Kane County on July 12 to begin his seventh start after joining the Kernels at the end of May, he shouldered an unimpressive 5.34 ERA after giving up 21 runs (19 of them earned) in his first six starts for Cedar Rapids.

The righthander gave up one run in the fourth inning of what would become a no-decision start against the Cougars that night and, from there, ran his scoreless inning streak up to 28 consecutive innings before giving up a pair of runs (one earned) in an 8-2 win over Bowling Green on Saturday night before a near-capacity home crowd.

Included in that stretch was a nine inning complete game shutout on the road at Kane County on August 1. It has been the only complete game shutout twirled by a Kernels pitcher this season and only the Kernels’ second complete game this year. (Mat Batts lost a 1-0 decision despite throwing a complete seven-inning game in the nightcap of a doubleheader at Peoria in May.)

Finishing the complete game meant Gibbons threw a few more pitches than normal.

“Last year, we were generally around the 80-90 (pitches) mark,” Gibbons explained, “but very rarely would we go over 85. Throwing 110 pitches (in the complete game), I was feeling it the last inning, but there’s no way I was going to give in.”

After that extended outing, Gibbons knew he was destined for a shorter night in his next start on Saturday.

“I think I was on some sort of pitch count (Saturday), but I was cruising through the middle three through six innings pretty well and then got two outs in the seventh. Then things got a bit sticky. But, you know, things happen. It’s OK and we ended up winning, so that’s the main thing.”

How has Gibbons gotten stronger as the summer heat has been at its most oppressive?

“You know, I wish I could bottle it and pass it around to other guys,” said Kernels pitching coach Henry Bonilla.

For his part, Gibbons said he does feel like he’s getting stronger, but doesn’t think his workload this season has been all that unusually heavy.

“The thing is, I pitch in the ABL (Australian Baseball League) every year, so I have at least 30 innings before I get to spring training on my belt,” Gibbons explained.” So I’m pretty used to having a fairly deep workload.”

We may not know what to credit for Gibbons’ improvement through the past several weeks, but he knew exactly who to blame for the scoreless streak coming to an end on Saturday.

“I spoke to my mom (after the game) and I told her it was all her fault for making me aware of it,” Gibbons related, with a smile.

Blaming mom? Wow. That’s harsh.

“I had to blame someone,” a laughing Gibbons reasoned.

Typically, Gibbons likes to take a bit of time off in the fall after the season winds up, but things didn’t work out that way for him this past offseason.

“My plan last year was to play after Christmas and the New Year,” he recounted. “Then I was asked to play on the under-23 Australian Team. so I went in November last year. That kind of interrupted things but any chance you get to play for your country is a great opportunity, so I definitely wanted to do that.”

Sam Gibbons (Photo: SD Buhr)
Sam Gibbons shows off his form, as well as Saturday’s “Jimmy Buffet Night” Kernels jersey (Photo: SD Buhr)

Perhaps taking the extra off-season work into account, the parent Minnesota Twins held Gibbons back in Extended Spring Training when the Kernels came north to start the season, then promoted him to Cedar Rapids on May 28. He made his Kernels debut May 31. His first four starts after arriving were not pretty. surrendering 16 runs in 20 innings of work covering that initial stretch.

“Obviously, I had a bit of a shaky start, but things are coming good now,” Gibbons understated.

“I think after the first month, I was struggling with fastball command a bit, and not being able to throw off-speed pitches in fastball counts, where I have been now. I’ve been attacking guys, but attacking with my off-speed pitches, which is something I’ve never been able to do, really.

“So, having command and just having faith that if I make a bad pitch, that I’m going to come back and make a better pitch to get weak contact or a swing and a miss. I feel that fastball command, knowing I can throw a fastball wherever I want and when I want is something that is pretty big and that will progress you through the ranks.”

Bonilla, his pitching coach, agrees.

“He just came up and he’s been a strike thrower,” the coach observed. “He’s always been a strike thrower, he’s going to throw it over and I think that’s to his credit and also to his detriment. He didn’t really locate. He just said basically, ‘somebody’s going to hit a ball at a guy. If I throw a strike, I’ll be ok.’

“It worked for a while with some of the younger hitters that don’t really drive the ball, but some of these guys are prospects, they can hit the ball, or some of them are grown men. Some are 24- 25 year old men that can hit the ball far. He’s learned that the hard way.

“The first couple outings he got kind of hit around. To his credit, he’s allowed himself to change. He’s going to the corners a little bit more, he’s attacking down in the zone, being more aggressive by not throwing so many strikes. He’s throwing ‘quality misses,’ is what we call it.”

According to Bonilla, a lot of Gibbons improvement has come from his mentality, as much as any improvement he’s shown with his mechanics or pitch selection.

“He’s trusting it,” Bonilla said. “I think one of the biggest things for him is his confidence. He’s out there confident that he can make pitches. He does it and he does it with a purpose with all of his pitches.”

The coach also conceded that sometimes a little early failure greases the skids a bit for quicker improvement.

“It’s hard to go away from success on the field,” he explained. “If a (hitter) is hitting .300 and we’re telling him, ‘hey, it’s not going to work when you get to the big leagues,’ he’s going to be like, ‘well, I’m hitting .300.’ If a (pitcher) is getting outs here, he’s like, ‘what do you mean it’s not going to work?’

“So it’s hard for them to get themselves out of immediate success and look at four years down the future. To their credit, the ones that do are the ones that kind of take their lumps early, but you can see them kind of turn it around and stay with it and go good. And he’s one of those guys that’s been doing that. So he’s done a great job, I’m very happy with him.”

Gibbons was signed by the Twins as a 17-year-old in July, 2011, but continued to play in his home country for a while and didn’t make his first appearance for a Twins affiliate in the States until the following year.

“Our school (in Australia) works a bit differently, so I was actually halfway through my senior year of high school, so it was a bit different to how things are out here. It was a big thing for my mom to make sure that I finished high school.”

There’s that “blame mom” thing again. How dare she do something like wanting him to finish high school before moving thousands of miles away to play baseball for a living?

“I look back on it and I wanted to get over here as soon as possible,” Gibbons recalled, “but it was a slight decision, finishing high school at least.”

In the end, mom won out – as moms are prone to doing.

“So, I made sure I did that (finish high school) and then came over the following (extended spring training). The Twins don’t tend to like to bring Aussies over here for spring training their first year,” he explained. “Trying to wet their feet a bit, I guess, by just coming to extended and seeing how things work and then their second year, bring them over for spring training.”

Sam Gibbons (Photo: SD Buhr)
Sam Gibbons (Photo: SD Buhr)

Gibbons played two years for the Twins Gulf Coast League team in Fort Myers, then moved up to Elizabethton for the 2014 short season, where he teamed with many of the same guys he’s sharing the Kernels clubhouse with this season. That’s not an insignificant factor in his recent success, according to the pitcher.

“I feel that the (catchers) we have on our team, they really take notice of what pitches you have and what works well for the situation. Having (Brett) Doe, Navi (Brian Navarreto) and (Alex) Real behind there, it’s pretty good,” Gibbons offered. “All three of the catchers on this team now were in E-town last year and the majority of our pitching group is the same from last year, so everyone has a good idea of what we throw and when you want to throw it.”

All three Kernels catchers have been successful at controlling the opponents’ running games. Navarreto, for example, has thrown out over half of the runners attempting to steal off of him. That’s a factor Gibbons appreciates.

“Having Navi behind the plate the last couple of outings has been exceptional. We’ve played together for three years now, so he’s known me pretty well. I’m pretty lucky to have him behind there pitch calling and his defensive work is immaculate.”

Gibbons doesn’t appear to be exactly a high-maintenance pitcher for his catchers to have to deal with. If you find him sitting alone for a couple of hours before each start, he’s probably watching a movie or listening to music, not focused on envisioning every pitch that’s about to come out of his hand.

“No, no, not at all,” he admitted.” I don’t really do that until I’m out on the mound going, ‘ok, let’s go and see how this goes.’”

As the season winds down, Gibbons stands to play a critical role in the postseason for the Kernels. He’s thrown just over 64 innings since joining Cedar Rapids, so there shouldn’t be any concerns about the front office limiting his work just when the team needs him the most in the playoffs.

When his year in Cedar Rapids wraps up, Gibbons will be headed back “down under” for the off-season. For him, that means beach time.

“Back home, I live about 15 minutes from the beach,” he said. “I’m always going down there with buddies or just hanging out and kicking back. I play club ball sometimes or I practice and train with my brother. (Club ball) is like a mens’ league sort of thing that I just go down and I have some fun with my brother and my buddies that I grew up playing with.”

He’s going to take a bit more time off this year before starting the real training for his 2016 season.

“Definitely take off a fair chunk of the offseason and come back in mid-January at some point, I guess,” Gibbons said of his plans. “Play a bit of ABL and get a couple of starts before spring training.

“I have to be in contact with (Twins farm director Brad Steil). Henry (Bonilla) and I will sit down before the season finishes and see where the innings are at and see what they want – a pitch count or innings limit sort of restriction.”

Those limits will then be communicated to Gibbons’ ABL coaching staff.

“They’re happy to have me pitch whatever that is,” he added.

It’s good that the ABL coaches are so easy to work with. At least that’s one less thing Gibbons should have to blame his mom for.

– JC