Jim Crikket in Fort Myers: Improvising

I know most of the people reading this are in the Minnesota/Iowa region and have been dealing with late March snowfalls, so I don’t want to whine too much, but with that said, I did NOT fly all the way to Fort Myers, Florida, to get rained on all day! And what’s worse, it certainly appears that Monday wasn’t the last day this week we’ll be getting wet down here.

Hammond Stadium, Ft. Myers

Hammond Stadium, Ft. Myers

The good news is that I wasn’t planning on attending the Twins/Rays game Monday afternoon, so the fact that it got rained out didn’t affect my plans at all. The bad news is that I WAS planning on driving up to Port Charlotte to watch the current Kernels and Miracle groups play games against their Rays counterparts and those games got rained out, as well. Fortunately, I made plans to drop in on the Twins’ complex about 9:00 am Monday morning to see if anyone was putting in an early workout. It was fortunate because, when I got there, Kernels coach Tommy Watkins let me know they had already canceled that afternoon’s minor league games and the Kernels and Miracle were going to face off head-to-head for a couple of hours in the morning before the rain was expected to get serious. Brett Lee was on the mound for the Kernels and Jose Berrios was his counterpart for the Miracle. On an adjacent field, the AAA and AA groups were also facing one another. There was a steady light rain falling through much of the time the players were on the field but it was fun to watch some of last year’s Kernels, as well as many of the players expected to head north to Cedar Rapids when camp breaks on March 31. Watching Jorge Polanco and Adam Brett Walker rip back to back doubles brought back memories of last season early on. Later, I got perhaps a sneak preview in to the Kernels upcoming season when the centerfielder for the Kernels group, Jason Kanzler, throw a perfect bullet to third base to cut down Polanco, who was attempting to go from first base around to third on a base hit. Weather permitting, I’m hoping to see the Twins take on the Orioles on Tuesday and then drive up the road to the Red Sox facility on Wednesday afternoon to watch the Kernels take on their Red Sox Class A counterparts. Thursday and Friday will be “play it by ear” days, depending on how wet the next two days are.

Twins visiting the Phillies at their Bright House Field home in Clearwater

Twins visiting the Phillies at their Bright House Field home in Clearwater

The trip hasn’t been a total washout. I flew down from Iowa to St. Petersburg on Saturday night (only about four hours later than originally planned) and stayed overnight there so I could watch the Twins take on the Phillies on Sunday in Clearwater before making the drive down I-75 to Fort Myers. The Twins lost, scoring only one run in the process. It’s probably my imagination, but it seems to me they score one run just about every game. That should be no problem, however, since the Twins pitching staff will probably hurl shutouts at least half the time anyway, right? But the weather Sunday was beautiful, I remembered to use sunscreen on every exposed area (except my arms, apparently) and the beer was cold, so I really didn’t care much about the outcome. There wasn’t a snowflake in sight and that’s about all I needed to be happy that day. If it rains for the next four days, I may be a bit less philosophical about the weather thing, however. JC UPDATE: Still haven’t got the video uploaded but I did manage to get some pictures added:

Something you don't see happen often: A Twins pitcher hitting. Or, in this case, Phil Hughes attempting to put down a bunt.

Something you don’t see happen often: A Twins pitcher hitting. Or, in this case, Phil Hughes attempting to put down a bunt.

Manager Jake Mauer (in helmet) amongst some of the 2014 Kernels during spring training

Manager Jake Mauer (in helmet) amongst some of the 2014 Kernels during spring training

Under construction: The new Twins Baseball Academy on their Fort Myers campus

Under construction: The new Twins Baseball Academy on their Fort Myers campus

 

Sickels’ “Twins Top 20″ Features Past/Future Kernels

The 2013 season was, by almost all measures, a successful maiden season for the affiliation between the Cedar Rapids Kernels and their new Major League parent, the Minnesota Twins. Now, fall is bringing out the first of what will be many published organizational “top prospect” lists, signaling that it’s not too early to begin looking at what kind of talent the Twins will be sending to Cedar Rapids in 2014.

John Sickels publishes The Baseball Prospect Book yearly and is one of the more respected minor league experts in the business. This week, he released his list of the Twins’ Top Twenty Prospects at his minorleagueball.com website.

A peek at that list not only confirms for Kernels fans that they had the opportunity to watch a number of future Major Leaguers on Perfect Game Field this year, but also gives a clue as to what Cedar Rapids fans can expect to see next summer.

Sickels wrote that the “Twins system is among the elite in the game,” and a number of recent Kernels are among the reasons for that high praise. He also believes that, “there are some lively arms of promise at the lower levels,” in the Twins organization, which should tip off Kernels fans to what they can expect to see in 2014.

Sickels uses a grading system (A, B, C, etc.) to rank the prospect status of minor leaguers and he is not an easy grader. As he writes, “Grade C+ is actually good praise, and some C+ prospects (especially at lower levels) turn out very well indeed.” Of the hundreds of minor league players in the Twins organization, 24 attained that C+ grade, or better, from Sickels this fall. That may not sound like many, but it’s actually a high number for one organization.

Byron Buxton, who patrolled centerfield for the Kernels during the first half of the 2013 campaign, was one of two Twins prospects (along with Class AA slugger Miguel Sano) to attain Grade A prospect status from Sickels. Wrote Sickels, “Few organizations can boast a pair of potential superstar Grade A talents like Buxton and Sano, and the Twins have good depth beyond them…”

Byron Buxton

Byron Buxton

Buxton ranks as the number one prospect in the organization, on Sickels’ list, but five other Kernels alumni also rank in his Top Twenty.

Right handed pitcher Jose Berrios gets a B grade from Sickels and ranks sixth among Twins prospects. Both infielder Jorge Polanco (B) and outfielder/first baseman Max Kepler (B) make the organizational Top Ten, coming in at numbers nine and ten, respectively, in Sickels’ rankings.

Third baseman Travis Harrison earns a B-/C+ from Sickels and the number 11 ranking, while outfielder Adam Brett Walker’s C+/B- grade placed him at number 13.

Four additional Kernels, infielder Niko Goodrum and pitchers Mason Melotakis, Taylor Rogers and Miguel Sulbaran pulled C+ grades from Sickels and fell just outside the Top Twenty. In essence, this means ten members of the 2013 Kernels are among Sickels’ Top 24 Twins Prospects going in to the offseason.

Travis Harrison and Niko Goodrum

Travis Harrison and Niko Goodrum

As for the future, grading recently signed or drafted ballplayers that haven’t yet competed in a full season of professional baseball is a tricky business, but Sickels placed five such Twins prospects among his organizational Top Twenty. All five are pitchers.

Kohl Stewart, a right hander who was the Twins top draft pick in last summer, leads that list with a B+ grade from Sickels and his number three ranking in the organization. Sickels’ wrote that Stewart, “was the best high school pitcher in the draft and showed good command of plus stuff in his pro debut.”

Lefty Lewis Thorpe, an Australian 17-year-old, reportedly grew an inch and added something close to 50 pounds and several miles per hour to his fastball this past summer. Sickels grades him at a B- and places him seventh among Twins’ prospects. Thorpe pitched in the Gulf Coast League (the lowest US rookie league team among Twins affiliates) in 2013 making it highly unlikely that he starts 2014 in Cedar Rapids and may not arrive until the following summer.

Felix Jorge (number 17), Stephen Gonsalves (19) and Ryan Eades (20) slip in to Sickels’ Top Twenty, as well, all with C+ grades.

Jorge is a righthander from the Dominican Republic who had a very good year for Elizabethton in 2013, striking out 72 hitters in just 61 innings covering his 12 starts.

Gonsalves, a lefty and the Twins’ fourth round pick last June, only threw 28 innings combined during time with both Twins rookie league teams in 2013 but was a strike out machine and posted a 0.95 Earned Run Average.

Eades, another righthander, was the Twins’ second round pick in 2013 out of LSU. He accumulated just 15 2/3 innings of work for Elizabethton this summer but will be 22 years old by opening day in 2014, making it possible the Twins would try to accelerate his movement through the organization.

It could be years before Cedar Rapids fans see another collection of hitters in Kernels uniforms the likes of the group that the Twins sent through town in 2013. Buxton could well be wearing a Minnesota Twins uniform and calling Target Field in Minneapolis his home by the end of the coming season. By 2016, several of his Kernels teammates could join him with the Twins.

While Kernels hitters in 2014 are not likely to measure up to what fans saw this year, a pitching staff that could include Stewart, Jorge, Gonsalves, Eades and, possibly by the end of the season Thorpe as well, has the potential to be among the best in the Midwest League.

– JC

Several Kernels Shooting for Two Rings in Two Years

In baseball’s postseason, “every single pitch is so important; every at-bat, no matter what inning.”

That was Cedar Rapids Kernels third baseman Travis Harrison talking after Monday’s regular season finale about the playoffs, which start for the Kernels Wednesday night in Davenport against the Quad Cities River Bandits.

Harrison knows what he’s talking about, too. He was a member of the rookie level Elizabethton Twins team that won the Appalachian League a year ago.

Travis Harrison and Niko Goodrum are going for back to back championships

Travis Harrison and Niko Goodrum are going for back to back championships

Elizabethton won two “best-of-three games” series to claim the league title last year, but Harrison and his teammates will need to do that much this year just to earn a berth in the Midwest League Championship Series as the representative of the league’s Western Division.

If they can best the River Bandits in the first best-of-three series, they’ll take on the survivor of a similar series between Clinton and Beloit in another best-of-three challenge. The Championship Series between the Eastern and Western Division representatives is a best-of-five games series that will decide who wears the Midwest League crown for 2013.

Cedar Rapids has not worn that crown since 1994 and has not qualified for the league Championship Series since 1997.

The Kernels finished the 2013 season with an 88-50 record overall. They secured a playoff spot with a second place finish in the first half of their season with a 40-28 record and then improved to a 48-22 record to finish first in the Western Division in the second half of the season.

Their 88 wins equals the most wins for a Cedar Rapids team since joining the Midwest League in 1962. To provide context, if applied to a Major League team’s 162 schedule, the Kernels’ winning percentage would have them on pace to win 103 games.

This playoff thing may be relatively new to Kernels fans, who haven’t seen their team play in the postseason since 2010, but almost half the Kernels’ current roster were with the Appalachian League Champions in Elizabethton a year ago.

In addition to Harrison, infielders Niko Goodrum and Jorge Polanco, outfielders Max Kepler and Adam Brett Walker, catcher Bo Altobelli and pitchers Brett Lee, Jose Berrios, and Hudson Boyd all saw playoff action with Elizabethton. Mason Melotakis, Dallas Gallant and Michael Quesada were also members of that Championship team during the course of the 2012 season.

Melotakis made two postseason appearances with the Beloit Snappers’ Midwest League playoff team at the end of 2012.

A number of other players that spent time with the Kernels this season, including Byron Buxton and Dalton Hicks, were also members of the champions from “E’town”. Hicks hit a walk-off grand slam home run in the 12th inning of the deciding game of the championship series.

Walker believes the postseason experience he and his teammates are getting is part of their development. “Going out there and having a series where everything’s on the line. I think it’s pretty important. It’s an exciting feeling to be able to get that experience.”

With a smile, Walker added, “I know if you get in the big leagues it’s going to be a little bit different.”

Adam Brett Walker lines a home run vs Clinton on September 2

Adam Brett Walker lines a HR vs Clinton on September 2

It has been a long season for the Kernels players, especially those such as Harrison and Walker, who have both been a part of the Kernels since Opening Day, 138 games ago.

That doesn’t matter, according to Harrison. “The playoffs are totally different. You just have to grind it out. If you’re sore, it just goes away. You’ve got so much adrenaline, you’re just ready to go. It’s a good time.”

Quesada believes the Kernels are ready. “We’ve got all the confidence in the world, especially after last year. We’ve got the pitching, got the hitting. It’s all ready to come together at one time.”

Walker remembers that championship feeling and is ready for more. “We know what it feels like. It’s a really great feeling to be able to go out there and win a championship.”

Harrison perhaps summed up the feelings best. “First two years, two rings. That would be pretty cool.”

- JC

Ghost of Twins Past Haunts the Twins’ Future

Scott Baker, Kane County Cougar

Scott Baker, Kane County Cougar

Almost exactly six years ago, I sat several rows up from home plate as Scott Baker took a perfect game in to the ninth inning against the Kansas City Royals. While he didn’t complete his date with immortality, it was the closest I’ve ever come to seeing a Major League no-hitter in person.

On Wednesday night, I watched Baker continue to try to work his way back to the Big Leagues with the Chicago Cubs with a rehabilitation start for the Kane County Cougars against the future Twins suiting up for the Cedar Rapids Kernels.

I never saw Baker get above 86 mph on the scoreboard, so even giving him an extra tick or two due to the Cedar Rapids scoreboard’s reputation for being slightly slower than the speed guns of the scouts who perch directly behind home plate most nights, the former Twins pitcher never hit any higher than 88 mph and he didn’t mix in more than a couple of off-speed pitches each inning.

But on this night, that was good enough to handcuff the Kernels as only a fifth inning infield single by Adam Brett Walker kept Baker from completing five perfect innings. Jorge Polanco and Travis Harrison each reached the warning track off of Baker in their first plate appearances of the night, but that was the closest anyone came to doing any damage to the former Twins star.

Jose Berrios

Jose Berrios

Jose Berrios, the 19-year-old that Twins fans hope will be one of the anchors of a future Twins rotation, fared far worse.

Berrios has been tabbed as the starting pitcher in the first game of the Kernels’ postseason next Wednesday, but tonight he struggled with his control. Berrios walked three hitters and gave up five hits, including two home runs, as the Kernels fell 9-1 to Baker’s Kane County Cougars.

Kernels Profile: Hudson Boyd

One of the unique things about Class A minor league baseball is that the season is divided in to two halves. The format allows teams, such as the Kernels, that have strong first halves of the season to qualify for postseason play at the mid-point of the season. It also gives teams that struggle early a chance to start over with a clean slate for the second half.

The format benefits teams that experience significant roster turnover that’s common among Class A affiliated teams.

Sometimes, it also allows players that get off to a slow start to start over and salvage their seasons, not to mention their prospect status in the eyes of the organizational scouts that will largely determine their futures in professional baseball.

Cedar Rapids Kernels pitcher Hudson Boyd is one such player who has benefited from the chance to demonstrate improvement and versatility in the second half of the Kernels’ 2013 season.

Boyd2Boyd was selected in 2011 by the Minnesota Twins as a supplemental first round pick (55th pick overall) in the First Year Player Draft following his senior year of high school at Bishop Verot High School in Fort Myers, Florida.

He had a scholarship offer to play baseball at the University of Florida, but ultimately signed with the Twins for a reported $1 million bonus and reported for his first season of professional baseball in 2012 at the Twins’ spring training facility in his home town of Fort Myers.

The right-hander weighed 275 pounds the summer after graduating from high school in 2011, according to one Fort Myers media report. The Twins made no secret of their feelings that Boyd would need to work himself in to better shape to survive the long seasons inherent in professional baseball and Boyd had already trimmed several pounds by the time he was pitching for Elizabethton a year ago for the Twins’ Rookie level team there.

This spring, Boyd was listed at just 225 pounds spread over his 6’ 2” frame when he opened the season in the Kernels’ starting rotation.

The new look didn’t translate in to instant success, however.

In the first half of the season, Boyd posted a 1-4 record for the Kernels in twelve starts, with a 6.56 ERA. Hitters knocked Boyd around to the tune of a .284 batting average.

“Yeah, I think I got a little too obsessed with (dropping weight),” Boyd said in an interview over the past weekend. “I think I was a little too light. I noticed my fastball (velocity) starting to drop.”

In his first start of the second half of the season, on the road against the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, Boyd went just five innings, giving up five earned runs on eight hits, while walking six batters and striking out just one. While Boyd was credited with the win as the Kernels topped Wisconsin 13-9, he was pulled from the rotation after that game and began working out of the Cedar Rapids bullpen.

Since that time, in eleven relief appearances covering 21 1/3 innings of work, Boyd has thrown to a 1.69 ERA out of the bullpen, while striking out 16 hitters and holding batters to a .208 batting average.

That turnaround alone would be quite a story, but the story doesn’t end there.

With several of the Kernels’ starting pitchers nearing innings limits imposed by the Twins organization, the club’s pitching coach, Gary Lucas, has been faced with a need to pull some of the those pitchers from the rotation as the regular season winds to a close. That meant Lucas would need some members of his bullpen to replace those starters in the rotation.

Boyd got the news a couple of weeks ago that he was going to be re-inserted in to the starting rotation. The news came as a bit of a surprise, according to Lucas, but Boyd has taken the switch in stride.

“Whatever gives us the best chance to win,” Boyd said, “I was down with that.”

His first game back in the rotation was a forgettable effort where he failed to survive the third inning, but since that game, he’s steadily improved.

On Friday, Boyd threw seven strong innings against the Quad Cities River Bandits, the team the Kernels will be facing in the first round of the Midwest League Playoffs beginning Wednesday, September 4. Boyd gave up just three runs on four hits and a pair of walks on the night, while striking out four.

Boyd seemed more comfortable than he was during most of his early-season starts.

“I was able to get through seven, which was nice. Just trying to throw a lot more strikes than I was early in the year,” said Boyd.

Boyd indicated he has also made some adjustments to his preparation process. “Being in the bullpen, I think I learned some things I didn’t really need to do. I kind of have a better routine and it hasn’t been that big of an adjustment to get back in to it.”

Boyd1Boyd has been on the Kernels’ roster since Opening Day in April and, as has been the case with most of his team mates, he was quick to praise the local fan base.

“It’s been pretty nice. The fans up here are great,” said Boyd. “They’ve been really supportive of our team all year, so it’s been pretty fun to see the big packed crowds we get. I’ve definitely pitched in front of more people up here than I ever have in my life. So it’s been a fun year.”

Still, nobody could fault Boyd for being anxious for a promotion to the Class high-A Fort Myers Miracle. Everyone likes the look of the next rung on the organizational ladder, but that’s particularly the case when the next rung means getting to play in your home town.

“Yeah, the next step up for us is where I’m from,” Boyd admitted. ”It’s where I live in the off-season. So, the next step up, I’ll just be going home.”

Don’t look for Boyd to drop more weight as he prepares for next year, however. In fact, Boyd may look to put back on some of the weight he shed a year ago.

If he does add weight, it will be, “good weight,” assured Boyd. “I’m more looking to put it on in my legs than anything – just trying to get a lot stronger in my legs.”

This has been the 20-year-old’s first exposure to a full season of professional baseball, giving Boyd a sense of what his body needs to be prepared to endure. “Now, I know what it feels like in August, so I have something to prepare for,” said Boyd.

It certainly has not been the kind of season a consensus top 20 Twins prospect might have been wishing for coming in to the season, but he’s accomplished at least one of his goals coming in to the year.

Boyd’s fastball has always been highly regarded and scouts have rated his breaking ball as potentially a “plus” pitch, but coming in to the year, Boyd was determined, in his words, “to have a better change-up than I did last year. I feel like I reached that one. I feel like I’ve got a pretty good change-up now.”

Adding an effective third pitch to his repertoire is important for any pitching prospect, but critically important for a pitcher with designs on being a future member of a Major League starting rotation.

Of course, there are some goals Boyd hasn’t attained. Coming in to the season, he hoped to throw about 130 innings during the year, “but I don’t think I’m going to get there,“ Boyd conceded.

“One of the goals I had was to throw a complete game,” added Boyd. “That’s still attainable.”

But then there’s the big goal.

“Hopefully, we’ll win the championship,” said Boyd. “That will be three rings in three years for me.”

Boyd is among a number of Kernels players this season that were part of the Appalachian League championship team at Elizabethton last year.

The year before that, Boyd’s high school team won the Florida state championship. Boyd pitched his team through the semi-final game and in to the championship. In the finals, Boyd found another way to contribute.

“Won it on a walk-off. I had the walk-off,” Boyd said with a smile.

So if fate found Boyd pitching for a National League team someday, would he look forward to an opportunity to swing the bat again?

“As long as they only throw fastballs. I wasn’t too fond of those curve balls.”

Boyd said he’d like to get a chance to start in the postseason, yet added, “but if they move me back to the bullpen, I’m comfortable doing that, too.”

The first two rounds of the Midwest League playoffs are only best two out of three games. That means that a number of the Kernels’ current rotation, including Boyd, won’t get opportunities to start unless the Kernels progress to at least the second round.

Jose Berrios and Brett Lee will start the Kernels’ first two postseason games and Tim Atherton will get the call if there’s a game three in the first round.

Boyd will be back to bullpen duty in round one, but could still get a start in the second round if the Kernels advance. – JC

Jake Mauer has Kernels Focused on Postseason

Cedar Rapids Kernels manager Jake Mauer has been in a unique situation for the past couple of months, since his Kernels nailed down a Midwest League postseason berth by finishing second in the MWL’s Western Division during the first half of the season.

Travis Harrison and Manager Jake Mauer

Travis Harrison and Manager Jake Mauer

Only in minor league baseball is a manager occasionally faced with the challenge of keeping his roster focused on winning games even after locking up a spot in the postseason with 70 games remaining on the regular season schedule.

Recently, Mauer talked about that challenge as well as the steps he and his coaching staff are taking to prepare for the Midwest League playoffs that begin for the Kernels on September 4.

“We’re a lot different team than we were at the beginning of the year,” Mauer pointed out. “Obviously, (Byron) Buxton and (Dalton) Hicks and (JD) Williams were a big part and they’ve moved up, along with some of our pitchers, (Steven) Gruver and (Tyler) Jones and (Tyler) Duffey. That’s kind of what happens and how the nature of the beast is.

“But you’re getting a chance to see (Max) Kepler a little more and you’re getting to see (Joel) Licon on an everyday basis. (Jonathan) Murphy’s another guy that came up and has been helping us. (Mike) Gonzales is kind of on the comeback trail a little bit here, but a guy with a little bit of experience. So we’ve been fortunate. When we’ve lost some guys, we’ve been able to get some pretty good guys to replace them.”

If you compare the final standings in the first half of the MWL season with the current standings, you’ll see what can happen as team rosters change over significantly.

The Beloit Snappers slipped past the Kernels in the final few days of the first half to claim first place in the league’s Western Division, but the Snappers now sit several games under .500 in the second half. Yet, the Snappers have fared far better than the Fort Wayne Tincaps, who won the Eastern Division in the first half. The Tincaps have been struggling to escape the cellar of their Division during the season’s second half.

While Mauer’s Kernels have had significant roster turnover, as well (only nine of the Opening Day Kernels remain on the current 25-man roster), Cedar Rapids has managed to continue competing at a high level. They have held or shared first place in the West for all but four days since the All-Star break reset.

Mauer believes much of the reason can be found on the pitcher’s mound.

“Really, our pitching has been the key this second half. The pitching has been way better. Guys are throwing the ball over the plate,” said the manager.

Mauer pointed out that, while his team lost several effective pitchers to promotion, the replacements have stepped right in and done the job.

“Adding a (Madison) Boer and a (Brian) Gilbert to the back end of the pen, that’s two pretty reliable guys. (Alex) Muren has been pretty steady the whole year,” said Mauer, adding, “Our starters are doing a pretty good job. (Tim) Atherton has done a wonderful job starting. (Josue) Montanez has been a lot better.”

Of course, talking about pitching brings up another topic rather unique to the world of a minor league coaching staff.

A number of the Kernels’ most reliable starting pitchers this season are putting more innings on their young arms than they ever have before. This is particularly true of guys who spent last season as relief pitchers or pitched in some combination of high school/college and short-season leagues. Pitchers such as Mason Melotakis, Brett Lee and Jose Berrios who have been cornerstones of the rotation much of the season are seeing their innings limited down the stretch.

That has required Mauer and pitching coach Gary Lucas to find other guys to plug in to the starting rotation and part of the Kernels’ continued success can be attributed to how those pitchers have performed.

Jose Berrios

Jose Berrios

“They’ve been real good,” said Mauer. “Atherton has been excellent, throwing more strikes and still striking guys out like he has been. Berrios has gotten better, Brett Lee’s been great. He had a little scare there with that elbow thing (Lee spent a week on the Disabled List after being struck on the elbow by a batted ball), but he seems to be OK. We’re going to have to keep an eye on him a little bit. I don’t think you’ll see a complete game until, hopefully, the fourth.”

Was that Mauer tipping his hand concerning his plans for the starting pitching assignment in the first playoff game on September 4?

Mauer would only admit that they’re starting to think about who will be starting those postseason games.

“Some of the things we have to start thinking about,” Mauer conceded, “Who are we going to use in the playoffs? Who’s going to be our starters? I think the young man we got, Sulbaran, is going to help us.” Miguel Sulbaran was obtained from the Dodgers organization in a trade recently.

“(Tim) Shibuya’s going to help us,” continued Mauer. “(Brandon) Bixler has done a nice job. Gilbert has been pretty dominant, thus far. Hopefully we can keep that going.”

Clearly, one ingredient a manager needs to keep his team competitive in both halves of a Class A season is talented replacements for the players promoted. But these are still young ballplayers, many just a year out of college or even high school, and a 140-game season can be a grind.

A couple of weeks ago, the Kernels went through a stretch where they lost six of eight games in series with Burlington and the Quad Cities. The club’s pitching, hitting and defense all seemed to collapse at the same time. Is it hard to keep a team focused when a postseason spot is locked up halfway through the year and some players are still wondering if/when they’ll be getting promoted?

The answer to that question is, “It shouldn’t be,” according to Mauer. “Every time you go out there, you should want to win the game. There’s a difference between wanting to win the game and doing things to help you win the game. In that stretch, Burlington and Quad Cities, they took it to us pretty good, but again we gave them a lot of opportunities, extending innings (with errors). That’s not going to do it.

“So you try to refocus. It shouldn’t have anything to do with whether you’re in (the postseason) or not, whether you’re playing for something or not. It should just have to do with you understanding what it takes to play every day and being a professional player.”

“When you get in the game, it’s time to (think about) we’ve got to win this game today,” continued Mauer. “We’ve got to win this inning, win this pitch. You can break it down as far as even pitch to pitch. If you do that, if you win every pitch, then you’re going to win just about every inning and you’re going to win a lot of your games and you’re going to get noticed and that’s how you get promoted. A lot of it is controlling what you can control.”

“There’s some guys in there (the clubhouse) that probably should be in Fort Myers,” Mauer acknowledged, “but they’re backlogged or whatever and they’re still here. Maybe they’re a little (ticked) and maybe they should be, but you’ve got to keep putting numbers up. You’ve got to keep doing your job and you’ve got to keep showing up every day.”

“It’s hard to tell,” what the specific problem was during that early August swoon, according to Mauer. “We just weren’t playing very good and it all just kept going downhill. It just kind of gets going that way and you’re going to go through phases throughout the year where you’re not going to be playing good and others where you’re going to be playing pretty good. What you try to do is you try to keep the focus be the same, whether you’re high or whether you’re low, it shouldn’t matter. Whether you’ve won eight in a row or lost eight in a row, your focus should be the same and that’s what you’re trying to teach.”

It’s not just the postseason success that the players are playing for, of course, and the manager acknowledged that fact, as well. The players and the Twins organization are already looking toward 2014.

“A lot of them are playing for a spot in Fort Myers next year and a lot of them are playing for a spot anywhere. That’s a reality,” said Mauer. “Those boys that are in (Elizabethton) and any guys that come in from (this year’s) draft generally are newer. They get a little more opportunity than some guys that have been around, where we’ve got a decent feeling of what they can and can’t do. We’re going to give these other guys some of those at-bats.

“You’re really playing for a job, whether it’s here (in Cedar Rapids), whether it’s in Fort Myers or wherever it might be. You’ve got to make an impact in these last two weeks.”

Mauer conceded that he’ll be managing the team a little differently headed in to the final couple of weeks of the regular season.

“I know we’re going to play some teams that are in the playoff chase, but we’ve got to get a little healthier for Wednesday, the fourth (of September – the first Kernels postseason game),” predicted Mauer. “The next week at Peoria and Quad Cities, we’ll probably rotate quite a few guys. When Peoria comes back here Sunday (August 25), we’ll try to get us cranked up again to where we’re getting ready and trying to get sharp again for the playoffs.

“I don’t like to sit my guys right before the playoffs. I’d like to do it this next week and then we can button some things up and hopefully, they’ve got enough rest and here we go.”

Evidence of the change has already become evident. For instance, Tyler Grimes, one of the Kernels’ catchers and a converted middle infielder had done nothing but catch and DH all season, until Friday night.

When Murphy left the game for precautionary reasons after being hit in the head by a pitch, second baseman Licon moved in to the outfield and Grimes entered the game as the new second baseman. The next night, Grimes started at second base, as well.

Tyler Grimes

Tyler Grimes

“(Grimes) is going to play some middle (infield) through these last two weeks here. He’s been an infielder his whole life, so he can still go out there. We’ll try to give some of our middle guys a little bit of a (rest),” said Mauer. “You’ll probably see guys like (Adam) Walker get another day off here. Kepler, (Niko) Goodrum, (Jorge) Polanco, guys like that, that have been playing a lot are going to get some rest. (Travis) Harrison is another one, too. Try to freshen them up and try to walk that delicate line between becoming stale and becoming fresh – sit guys for a maybe a day, maybe two days at the most, and get them back out there if you can.”

(NOTE: Polanco was placed on the 7-day Disabled list on Sunday, retroactive to Friday, August 16.)

There will be a few other, more subtle, changes that most fans won’t likely notice, as well, according to Mauer. “We probably won’t hit for as long or take infield as much, things like that. We’ll pick our spots with that. We’ll rest.”

The Kernels’ skipper was asked whether he thought there was an advantage entering the postseason, either to teams that qualified with their success in the first half of the season or with a playoff run at the end of the second half.

Mauer likened it to the NFL. “Those wildcard teams show up in the Super Bowl because you’re playing for your life every week. And that’s the intensity that you should have, even if you’re (already) in.”

Still, it’s nice to have the luxury of resting your players and setting up your pitching rotation the way you want it to start the postseason while the teams who have yet to qualify, as the manager puts it, “have to go pedal to the metal.”

“Each team is going to be different,” Mauer said. “You just try to feel the best you can. Gauge how you’re feeling health wise. Who’s doing what and who can help you. But you want to try and make sure you go in to September as ready as you can.”

At the end of the day, Mauer feels his group is going to be ready when the postseason begins.

“Yeah, we’re excited,” Mauer concluded, concerning his team’s chances in the playoffs. “We’ve got a good group and these kids have worked hard and the new additions have been doing a nice job. We’re happy with how we’re progressing and we’ll see how these last two weeks end up. Hopefully, we’re playing better two weeks from now, you don’t want to peak too soon. We want to be playing our best baseball in September.”

Kernels Video: Joel Licon’s Walk-off Single Tops Quad Cities

Heading in to Sunday afternoon’s game with the Quad Cities River Bandits, the Cedar Rapids Kernels held a slim 1/2 game lead over QC for the top spot in the Midwest League’s Western Division for the second half of the season.

Each team scored once in the first inning and the Bandits scored in the top of the ninth to take a 2-1 lead. Jorge Polanco singled with one out in the Kernels’ ninth and Adam Brett Walker followed with a single to CF. The Bandits’  center fielder let the ball get by him for a two-base error, allowing Polanco to score the tying run  and Walker to reach third base.

After a strike out, Joel Licon came to the plate with Walker on third base and the game tied 2-2. Which led to this:

Was it fair or was it foul? I’ll refrain from opining, but I will say this much: IF it was foul, it certainly wasn’t the first call this particular plate umpire blew in the game.

Kernels Manager Jake Mauer was ejected for pointing out a previous mistake by the same umpire, which is perhaps why it’s  hitting coach and acting manager Tommy Watkins (8) congratulating Licon (2) in front of the dugout.

– JC

Jonathan Murphy playing a big role in Cedar Rapids

A year ago, Jonathan Murphy was a 22-year old 19th round draft pick out of Jacksonville University just starting out his professional baseball career in the Minnesota Twins organization with the Twins’ complex-rookie level Gulf Coast League team in Fort Myers.

Today, Murphy is the primary leadoff hitter and centerfielder for the Cedar Rapids Kernels.

It’s not at all unusual for a second-year professional player drafted out of college to be spending time with the Kernels, but Murphy, the younger brother of New York Mets infielder Daniel Murphy, didn’t take the normal path to Cedar Rapids this season.

Jonathan Murphy

Jonathan Murphy

Murphy didn’t set the world on fire in his 52 games with the GCL Twins in 2012, hitting just .216 and reaching base at a .288 clip, so it’s probably safe to say that expectations for Murphy this season, based on last year’s results, were marginal, at best.

Murphy started 2013 at extended spring training in Fort Myers while awaiting news of which affiliate he would be sent to begin his season. The rookie league team in Elizabethton TN seemed logical or perhaps Class A Cedar Rapids would need an outfielder when Murphy was deemed ready to get his year started.

But neither place was where Murphy found himself assigned.

Instead, the Class high-A Fort Myers Miracle ran in to a bit of bad luck with injuries and Murphy was dispatched across the parking lot from the back fields where the GCL Twins play to Hammond Stadium, home of the Miracle.

“I was just in the right place at the right time. It had nothing to do with my own merit,” Murphy explained during an interview over the weekend. “It just had to do with (the Miracle) had a lot of injuries and I happened to be the oldest guy, I think, running around in (extended spring training) so they decided to ship me over there.”

Regardless of the circumstances, Murphy valued the experience.

“(Playing for the Miracle) was really a great opportunity for me. A great learning experience, too, just getting to go to a higher level like that and learn from some of those guys that have some experience and see what it’s like to be a professional, with this being my first (full) professional season.”

Murphy indicated he definitely noticed the higher level of competition he’d been thrown in to. “The game was moving pretty fast, but it was exciting. It was a challenge and an opportunity for me and I was appreciative of the organization for it.”

A few days after Twins top prospect Byron Buxton was promoted to Fort Myers, Murphy found himself assigned to the Kernels, essentially to replace Buxton in the Cedar Rapids outfield and, eventually, at the top of the Kernels’ batting order, as well.

Was Murphy worried about replacing perhaps the top rated minor leaguer in America?

“I was worried about him replacing me in Fort Myers,” Murphy responded, laughing.

“No, Byron’s a great guy and an unbelievable player. He’s got more talent than I’ll ever imagine having. To try to compare myself to him wouldn’t be real fair. He’s a great player and I’m just going to try to play the best that I can.”

Murphy certainly doesn’t see himself competing with Buxton. “Byron’s a Major League baseball player and I don’t think there’s a lot of doubt about that. He’s going to play in the Major Leagues. So, if I were to get caught up in trying to compare myself to him constantly, it would drive me crazy.

“Basically, all I can do is show up every day and whoever is pitching that day, it’s my job to compete against him and do the best I can. If I can do that every day and compete and be successful, then maybe I’ll look up in a couple of years and find myself in the Major Leagues, too.”

Murphy knows there’s no guarantee in his line of work, though. “Maybe (it will turn out) I’m not quite good enough. But all I can do is come out here and compete every day and as far as I’m concerned the pressure is taken off me. I have a job to do every day and however good I am and how much talent I have will dictate where I go as long as I put the effort forth.”

While not competing with Buxton, Murphy has filled in well for the departed star. Through the past weekend, Murphy was hitting .311 in his 23 games for the Kernels and had put up a .398 on-base percentage, while showing good range in the outfield.

So, after spending a couple of weeks facing the Class high-A pitching, apparently Murphy is finding Midwest League pitchers relatively easy to hit off, right?

That question pulls a laugh from Murphy. “Not at all! You must not have come to many of the games! Oh, my goodness, no. There are still plenty of talented arms and talented pitchers. It’s been exciting, though, to have the opportunity to come here and get to play every day.”

Jonathan Murphy goes through pregame baserunning drills as Jorge Polanco and Niko Goodrum wait their turns

Jonathan Murphy goes through pregame baserunning drills as Jorge Polanco and Niko Goodrum wait their turns

Murphy’s got one advantage that most minor league ballplayers don’t: an older brother who has already made it to the big leagues. Daniel Murphy is in his fifth season with the Mets and the two brothers are close.

“We encourage one another,” Murphy said. “We send each other texts. He had a day game yesterday and he had a real good day. I think he had like three or four hits. I (texted), ‘I think you win today, I don’t think I’m going to be able to match that.’

“Sometimes whenever we’re both going well, we’ll try to encourage one another like, ‘hey, you got two today, I’ll try to join the party,’” Murphy added. “Then when we’re struggling, it’s nice to have someone to bounce ideas off of and he’s always there for me when I need him. It’s a great tool and resource to have for baseball and for life. He’s just been a good role model for me.”

Asked what he likes to do away from the ballpark, Murphy gave an answer quite different than most ballplayers do.

“I just got engaged, so that takes up a lot of my free time, in a good way. We’ve been doing some wedding planning.” Murphy and his fiancé chose October 12 for their wedding. “Right after the season. Hopefully, the Mets won’t be in the World Series. I think we’ll be OK there.”

Picking that date was a little dicey with a brother playing Major League Baseball, where mid-October is right in the middle of the postseason. The Mets, however, are having just about as much success this season as the Twins are, which is to say, not much success at all.

The timing was questioned by at least one member of Murphy’s family, however.

“My dad sent me a text, ‘What if the Mets are in the World Series?’ I said, ‘I think this year we’ll be OK dad.’” Murphy then smiled and almost mumbled, “I might catch some heat for that one.”

But Murphy is clearly looking forward to the event as the culmination of an exciting year. “My family will be there, we’re going to have a nice small wedding. I’m really looking forward to it and excited that God’s really blessing both of us and it’s been an exciting time in my life.

Jonathan Murphy

Jonathan Murphy

“Getting to come out (to the ballpark) and do something I love every day and now I’ve found a wife I’m going to get to spend the rest of my life with. So, I’ve really been blessed here in the last few months.”

Kernels players who have spent prior years playing at lower levels in the organization or at Beloit during the last season or two of the Twins affiliation with the Snappers have expressed their enthusiasm for the facilities and environment in Cedar Rapids.

Murphy, however, has a different perspective, having arrived in town after playing at the next level up in the organization. The Fort Myers Miracle, after all, play their home games at Hammond Stadium, the spring training home of the parent Twins.

That said, Murphy’s assessment of the environment in Cedar Rapids is much the same as those who’ve moved up the ladder to reach the Kernels.  “It’s unbelievable. Fort Myers was good and it was exciting, but as far as crowds go and the fans, they’re way better here. Just numbers-wise and they seem to care a lot more,” said Murphy.

“When I go around town and I run in to someone and I say, ‘I play for the Kernels,’ almost every single person has said, ‘Oh, yeah, I went to a game last week,’ or ‘I love going to the Kernels games every once in a while.’” Murphy indicated that was not necessarily the case in Fort Myers.

“It’s definitely more of a community here. It’s been enjoyable and the fans really care a lot. It makes it a lot of fun to play in front of them. They’re passionate.” – JC

 

“Twins Weekend” in Cedar Rapids

Celebrating the affiliation agreement with the Minnesota Twins has been pretty much an “all season long” thing for the Cedar Rapids Kernels and their fans, but this weekend was the official Twins Weekend event in Cedar Rapids.

Guests of honor have included all-time Twins great Tony Oliva, Twins organist Sue Nelson and mascot TC Bear. All three made appearances at the Kernels’ game with visiting Peoria on Friday night.

Oliva signed autographs for a long line of fans before the game, Nelson treated fans to her talents on an electric organ during the game and TC teamed with Kernels mascot Mr. Shucks to entertain fans throughout the game.

On Saturday morning, all three joined several Kernels players and coaches, along with over 100 fans, for a breakfast event benefiting the Cedar Rapids Convention & Visitors Bureau.

As a fan who grew up in Minnesota in the 1960s watching Oliva play ball for the Twins at Metropolitan Stadium, I have to say it was a really big deal to me to have an opportunity to interview Oliva along with other local media Friday evening during the Kernels game.

It was even a bigger deal to find myself alone with Oliva in the pressbox for several minutes a short while after the formal media intervew and having the opportunity to just watch a ballgame and talk about a number of the young Twins prospects with Oliva.

On Saturday morning, during his remarks at the breakfast and in a “Q & A” session, Oliva shared a number of observations and anecdotes with the crowd.

If you’re interested in reading some of Oliva’s comments to the media from Friday night, click here to read my story for Metro Sports Report, which include Oliva’s thoughts on the current Major Leaguers from his native Cuba. Cedar Rapids Gazette reporter Jeff Johnson also has a story focusing on Oliva’s comments concerning PED usage in baseball.

Here are a few photos I took from the weekend’s events.

OlivaAutograph

Tony Oliva patiently signed autographs for about an hour before the game

Twins organist Sue Nelson

Twins organist Sue Nelson

TC Bear entertained fans and posed for pictures

TC Bear entertained fans and posed for pictures

OlivaMedia

Tony Oliva met with local media on Friday during the Kernels game

Kernels pitcher and Twins prospect Brett Lee answers a question during the breakfast event Saturday morning

Kernels pitcher and Twins prospect Brett Lee answers a question during the breakfast event Saturday morning as Niko Goodrum, Adam Brett Walker, Kernels broadcaster Morgan Hawk, Tony Oliva, Jake Mauer and Tommy Watkins look on.

Tony Oliva speaking to fans at the Breakfast event Saturday

Tony Oliva speaking to fans at the Breakfast event Saturday

Kernels outfielder and Twins prospect Adam Brett Walker answers fan questions during Saturday's breakfast

Kernels outfielder and Twins prospect Adam Brett Walker answers fan questions during Saturday’s breakfast

From left to right: Mike Gonzales, Dallas Gallant, Morgan Hawk (standing), Niko Goodrum, Brett Lee, Adam Brett Walker, Tony Oliva, Jake Mauer and Tommy Watkins

From left to right: Mike Gonzales, Dallas Gallant, Morgan Hawk (standing), Niko Goodrum, Brett Lee, Adam Brett Walker, Tony Oliva, Jake Mauer and Tommy Watkins

Kernels roster changes but results don’t

With just 40 games remaining in their regular season schedule, now seems like a good time to step back and take a look at the state of the Cedar Rapids Kernels.

It’s almost laughable to even question whether or not the affiliation switch from the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim to the Minnesota Twins has been good for Cedar Rapids. Of course it has, by pretty much every measurement.

The Kernels have already qualified for the Midwest League postseason by virtue of their second place finish in the first half of the season and fan interest is up.

Attendance is up some, but even more telling, the fans who show up for games are enthusiastically engaged in what’s happening on the field. That has not always been the case at Veterans Memorial Stadium the past few years.

It certainly didn’t hurt that one of the Twins’ top prospects, Byron Buxton, got off to such an incredible start this spring. He drew fan and media interest from well beyond the local community.

But even after the inevitable promotion of Buxton to the Twins’ Class high-A affiliate at Fort Myers in June, the Kernels have continued to win games. That may come as a surprise to those so blinded by Buxton’s aura that they didn’t notice the Kernels roster included a number of other very talented players.

Jonathan Murphy

Jonathan Murphy

Of course, Buxton isn’t the only Kernels player the Twins have rewarded with a bump up in playing  level. The Kernels have seen about a dozen players, in total, promoted to Fort Myers already this season.

The Twins, as an organization, have a reputation for being conservative with their promotions. They historically have preferred to see most players spend at least an entire season, if not more, at most minor league levels.

No doubt, Kernels officials were hoping that trend would continue. In past seasons, the Angels seemingly couldn’t wait to promote players as soon as they demonstrated any level of productivity in a Kernels uniform.

Among position players, Buxton was the only key offensive contributor to be lost to promotion until J.D. Williams and Dalton Hicks were bumped up to Fort Myers about a week ago.

It’s not easy to replace players found in the top 10 of most Midwest League offensive statistical categories like Williams (on-base percentage, OPS), Hicks (home runs, RBI, slugging pct., OPS) and Buxton (almost everything), but players brought in to Cedar Rapids by the Twins to replace the departing hitters have done well.

Max Kepler

Max Kepler

Max Kepler joined the Kernels once he completed rehabilitating his injured elbow in Fort Myers. He arrived four days before Buxton was promoted and he has hit for a .263 average. Thirteen of his 31 hits have been for extra bases.

Jonathan Murphy is hitting .333 in the 17 games he’s played since his arrival at the beginning of July and Joel Licon has performed well in a utility infielder role since he joined the team in early June.

It’s too early to know for certain how well Mike Gonzales will fill in for the departed Hicks, but the big first baseman has four hits in his first eight at-bats as a Kernel. Gonzales hit .289 and stroked 15 home runs for the Beloit Snappers in 2011. He missed much of his 2012 season in Fort Myers and after starting this season again with the Miracle, a wrist injury has sidelined him for the past several weeks.

On the pitching front, the Kernels lost Taylor Rogers before most fans even got to know him. He made three unimpressive starts for the Kernels before being moved on to Fort Myers. Jose Berrios, a supplemental first round draft pick in the 2012 First Year Player Draft and one of the top pitching prospects in the Twins organization, essentially took Rogers’ spot in the Kernels rotation.

The subsequent promotion of Tyler Duffey in early June left a much more significant hole at the top of the Kernels’ rotation. Duffey carried a 2.78 ERA and a 0.943 WHIP through nine starts when he left Cedar Rapids.

Josue Montanez initially worked from the Kernels bullpen after his promotion to Cedar Rapids in June, but has shown some potential since joining the rotation about a month ago.

Perhaps even more critically, the Kernels have seen four important members of their bullpen earn promotions. Matt Tomshaw and Manuel Soliman had contributed a total of 59 innings of work over a combined 30 appearances before they were promoted. Last week, the Twins elevated Steve Gruver and Tyler Jones, who had combined to provide a formidable left-right relief combination late in games.

Reliever Alex Muren has been relatively effective since arriving from extended spring training in early May, and the early returns from more recent additions Madison Boer, Dallas Gallant and Tim Shibuya are encouraging.

But the bottom line in baseball is all about wins and losses.

The Kernels were 44-28, for a .611 winning percentage, with Buxton on the roster. Since his promotion four games in to the second half schedule, the Kernels are 17-9 (.654) and they are leading the MWL West Division by three games over first half champion Beloit.

It’s certainly too soon to know what effect losing the four players promoted a week ago will have on the team’s fortunes. However, the Kernels have won five of the first six games played (all on the road) since Hicks, Williams, Jones and Gruver got their well-deserved promotions.

On Tuesday, the first member of the Twins’ draft class of 2013 was promoted to Cedar Rapids when seventh round pick Brian Gilbert was added to the Kernels’ roster.

Roster turnover is just a fact of life in minor league baseball. When the local team starts out winning a lot of games, it’s probably because a lot of players are performing very well and players that perform very well deserve promotions to the next level in the organization.

One way to measure the strength of an organization is to look at how a minor league team performs after a number of their best players are promoted. If the new players perform well and the team continues winning, that’s a very good sign.

So far, that’s what we’re seeing in Cedar Rapids. That bodes well, this season, for the Kernels and for the Twins in the long run.