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.

Change is a Challenge Tyler Grimes Has Embraced

A number of this year’s Cedar Rapids Kernels have had to make an adjustment to wearing a Kernels uniform this summer after playing last season for the Beloit Snappers, who were the Minnesota Twins Midwest League affiliate during the eight prior years. It no doubt felt a little odd to some of them.

But to Tyler Grimes, who was the Snappers primary shortstop much of last season, the change in geographic location was far from the most drastic of the adjustments he’s had to make.

Tyler Grimes (9) shares a light moment in the on deck circle with Kernels team mate Niko Goodrum

Tyler Grimes (9) shares a light moment in the on deck circle with Kernels team mate Niko Goodrum

A couple of weeks before the Snappers’ season ended, Grimes was informed by the Twins minor league field coordinator, Joel Lepel, that the organization intended to convert him to catcher during the fall instructional league. Grimes said he hadn’t caught since Little League.

“At first, I didn’t know how to take it,” Grimes said during an interview on Saturday. “There was a lot of things going through my head. I just didn’t know how I was going to approach it when I got down there, at first.

“I got down there and everything started working out and I started to like it more and more. But it was tough, don’t get me wrong.”

And now, how does Grimes feel after spending dozens of games behind the plate in the catchers’ gear that ballplayers have long dubbed, ‘the tools if ignorance?’

“It’s been a tough transition, but here in July I can honestly say I enjoy going out there each night that I catch and I’m having fun with it. It’s like a new love for the game. I’ve got a new challenge and I’m always up for a challenge.”

That challenge has had some down sides, of course.

“My body, I’ve got to take care of it differently. I wasn’t used to taking ice baths, but I’ve been in the ice bath a lot,” Grimes said with a bit of a smile.

As a shortstop, Grimes had some responsibility for communicating with his fellow infielders, but he’s learned those responsibilities pale in comparison to what he’s had to take on as a catcher. Being the team’s “quarterback” behind the plate hasn’t always come naturally to him.

“Yeah, it was a little mind-boggling for me at first,” Grimes admitted. “(Lepel) is always on me, ‘hey you need to be more talkative and let those guys know.’ I wasn’t used to that. I’m not really like that. I’m not too loud out there on the field. I kind of let my game play itself and keep my mouth shut.”

But Grimes feels that part of his game is progressing. “That’s coming more in to everything now, I think. At first, it was position for blocking and other mechanics. Now I’m getting used to that more and more. I’ve still got a lot to work on and I do every day. But the talking side of it, and getting to know your pitchers, is starting to come more and more.”

Grimes literally takes a very professional approach to his new responsibilities.

“It’s a tough thing when (pitchers) aren’t hitting their locations or not hitting the vicinity that you think it’s going to be. You’re trying to call a curve ball and those guys are trying to throw it for a strike and it’s in the dirt.

It’s your job to block the ball. At these levels, now, you need to block the ball. We’re not in college or high school, this is our job, this is what we’re paid to do. So I take a lot of pride in blocking now. Even if it looks bad or weird, I’m going to do whatever I can to throw my body at it.”

His manager, Jake Mauer, likes the progress Grimes has made this season.

“He’s progressing pretty good, starting to receive the ball better, throws great,” said the manager. “His game-calling has gotten better. If we can get him to receive a little bit better on the low pitch, which a lot of catchers have trouble with.”

“He’s come a long ways,” added Mauer. “He wants to catch, which is a good thing. He wants to be good at it, which is better.”

Tyler Grimes

Tyler Grimes

One aspect of the game that Grimes has had considerable success at this season is controlling the running game of the Kernels’ opponents. He has thrown out about 44 percent of opposing baserunners that have attempted to steal a base against him. That’s a percentage most Major League catchers would love to have.

“It always feels good when you throw somebody out,” admitted Grimes. “You can block a ball and everything like that, but once you throw somebody out, it’s kind of like, ‘ok, I’m starting to like this more and more,’ you know?”

Still, it takes a certain kind of fearlessness for a player to willingly adjust from playing a position that’s a relatively safe 100 feet or more away from the hitter to being the guy setting up right behind the hitter. As it turns out, Grimes comes by that trait naturally. He played hockey until a series of concussions forced him to give up that game and focus on baseball.

That’s a fact he may regret letting Joel Lepel in on.

“(Lepel) likes to get on me, which is fine, because I can take it,” Grimes said, smiling. “Ever since then, he’s been like, ‘we’re going to be on you about it because if you’re a hockey player, you’re not scared of nothing.’

“But it is my mentality, catching is my mentality. I just had to get used to it and, like I said, I’m loving it now.”

He may be loving catching now, but there’s little question about which sport was Grimes’ favorite growing up – and it wasn’t baseball.

“We traveled in hockey from Houston to Canada,” Grimes related, concerning his time as a teenage hockey player. “Every spring break we’d go to Calgary and Toronto. Being from Kansas, a lot of people wouldn’t expect that. We actually had a good group of guys and we traveled all over and had fun with it.

“I tell you what, if I didn’t have the concussions that I have, then I probably wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you, to this day,” Grimes admitted.

Shortly after arriving in Cedar Rapids, Grimes had an opportunity to attend a Cedar Rapids RoughRiders United States Hockey League game. Did watching the RoughRiders make him feel like grabbing a stick?

“Oh man,” Grimes responded with a head shake. “I called my dad and said, ‘I’m going to have to leave.’ I ended up leaving because I can’t watch it. I haven’t put on a pair of skates since I was 17 years old.”

The teenage Grimes “retired” from hockey after a championship game.

“My friend actually passed away this past year and they had a little get-together skate and I couldn’t even go to that,” recalled Grimes. “I showed up to the funeral but I couldn’t go to (the skate) because I can’t put on another pair of skates or I’ll be done with baseball and that’s no lie.”

Grimes’ demeanor turns serious when asked about his family and how they keep up with how he’s doing during the season.

“I’m a big family guy. My dad’s my best friend. I’ve got four little sisters and my mom, so it’s a big deal to me,” said Grimes. “I’m really tight with my little sisters. I went to Wichita State and played there and the reason I why I chose there was because I wanted to watch my sisters grow up. Not only do I play for myself, but I play for them and I play for our last name. I take a lot of pride in that.”

Obviously, the Grimes are a tight-knit family.

“I can sit here and tell you everything about my family and tell you how tight we are, but there’s really no words to describe how me and my family are,” Grimes explained. “It’s about being real and that’s how my personality is. I think that’s why I like catching, because if a pitcher needs to hear something or a pitcher needs to tell me something, I’m not going to be afraid to say anything and that’s how I look at it. But yeah, my family is my everything.”

Tyler Grimes

Tyler Grimes

Grimes also is enjoying the time he’s spending with his Kernels baseball family this season, but he’s also quite philosophical about the life of a minor league ballplayer that he’s leading.

“Now that I’m here, you’ve got to enjoy these guys, got to enjoy the clubhouse, because you never know when your last day is going to be,” said Grimes. “Two of my friends just got released last week. It just happens that quick.

“All these fans that come out and support us would do anything to be in our position. You know what, sometimes as players, we get away from how we have it. Minor league baseball is a grind, but at the same time, if it pays off and you get (to the Major Leagues), you’re going to be accepting a pretty good check every two weeks.”

Whether he achieves his goal of playing Big League ball or not, Grimes feels his time in the minor leagues is preparing him for life after baseball.

“You meet guys in the clubhouse that you don’t like or you dislike or you love, you have to find a way to get along with everybody,” Grimes went on to explain, “because that’s what’s going to take our team to a winning team or a losing team or a mediocre team. You just never know.”

Grimes believes the Twins organization does a very good job of finding players with character.

“I don’t know how deep (the Twins) go in to background checks, but everybody in our organization is a classy guy. Everybody gets along,” said Grimes. “The friendships that you build, it’s not just towards baseball. You never know if  JD Williams is going to own a business or if Joel Licon’s going to be the owner of a hotel and you get put on with him and you guys just keep in touch. It’s just good because it’s more than baseball.

“As much time as we spend together and as much as we get on each others’ nerves, you can’t explain the minor league life to the outsiders. It’s just impossible.”

One thing Grimes could explain, however, was his feelings about playing baseball in Cedar Rapids this season.

“I called my dad after about the first two weeks, and said, ‘I don’t know what the Big Leagues feels like, but this feels like the Big Leagues to me,” Grimes recalled, adding that the host family program was another aspect he appreciates about his Cedar Rapids experience.

Talking about the fan turnout for Kernels games, compared to other places he’s played, Grimes was effusive in his praise for the local support the Kernels fans have shown the team.

“To be able to play in front of an atmosphere like we go out in front of every night, it makes us enjoy what we’re doing,” said Grimes. “I actually feel like a professional baseball player here.”

Kernels: Q & A with Steve Gruver

It’s the top of the seventh inning and his team is leading by two runs. There are two outs, but the bases are loaded with opposing base runners.

It’s the kind of situation the best relief pitchers almost seem to relish coming in to face.

Kernels relief pitchers Tyler Jones (35) and Steve Gruver (R)

Kernels relief pitchers Tyler Jones (35) and Steve Gruver (R)

Lefty Steve Gruver and right-hander Tyler Jones have been among the most reliable bullpen arms in the Midwest League this season and have presented a formidable lefty-righty combination out of the Kernels bullpen.

Gruver was one of eight Kernels named to the Midwest League All-Star Game in June and on Friday night it was Gruver who entered the game with two outs and the bases loaded, determined to protect that two-run Kernels lead.

Gruver would like to forget the moments that followed, as Tyrone Taylor launched a grand slam home run off a pitch that found its way too close to the middle of the plate and put the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers up by an 8-6 score.

Gruver finished the final 2 1/3 innings of the game for Cedar Rapids and the Kernels scored once in the eighth inning, but it wasn’t enough, as they lost to Wisconsin 8-7.

The next day, on Saturday afternoon, before the Kernels took on the Lumber Kings in Clinton, Gruver, who was drafted by the Twins out of the University of Tennessee in the seventh round of the 2011 First Year Player Draft, talked about the life of a professional relief pitcher.

Jim Crikket: Steve, this is your second year in the Midwest League and you spent time in Beloit last year both as a part of their starting rotation and pitching out of the bullpen, correct?

Steve Gruver: Most of the year, I started and then toward the end of the year, actually right around this time, I went to the bullpen.

JC: Was that primarily to limit the number of innings on your arm? I know they had a few guys that pitched in both roles last year.

Gruver: There were a few, but mainly for me, my velocity started dropping a little bit and I had a few bad outings in a row. So I was just trying to get back in to not thinking and just trying to throw hard and get my velocity back up a little.

JC: Coming in to this year, did the Twins tell you that this is your role, working out of the bullpen, or did they tell you to be prepared for anything again?

Gruver: It was kind of be prepared for anything. They don’t really let you know too much. They want you to be prepared for anything. They want you to be able to be versatile and come out in any role so I’ve kind of kept it open and like there was a chance to do anything really.

JC: Do you have a particular preference, now that you’ve done both? Is there one role you prefer over the other?

Gruver: I enjoy both. I’m not too picky, as long as I’m pitching. I try to treat every inning as just one inning at a time, whether I’m trying to go six or seven that day or just one. I try and look at it the same, whether I’m starting or relieving.

JC: The preparation between games has to be a little different, though, right?

Gruver: There’s differences in the preparation between the two and I try and keep that the limit of the differences. But there are definitely differences there.

Starting, you have four or five days in between each start, so it’s a little bit more logistical, I guess, in how you prepare. You have a little bit more of a plan going through each day, on what you do each day in your bullpens in between when you pitch.

When you’re in the pen, you kind of have to let it fly. You never know. You could pitch two, three days in a row sometimes. So you don’t have those days in between to throw pens and work out as much. You kind of have to have somewhat of a loose routine when you’re coming out of the pen, compared to a starter routine, which would be very strict and kind of a more day-to-day basis.

JC: As a starter, your pitching coach can work with you in between starts, maybe work on a new grip for one of your pitches. How do you go about making those sorts of adjustments as a reliever when you don’t know whether you’re going to have to pitch that night or not?

Gruver: You have to limit your pitches. You have to really be diligent in what you do and every pitch has to matter when you’re in a relief role.

When you’re trying to get that extra work in, you have to use every pitch. I may only throw 10 pitches in my bullpen when I go out, but I try and make sure every pitch counts and I have a plan for each pitch so that every time I throw, I’m getting something out of it.

JC: What about the mental approach to relieving, as opposed to starting? Out of the bullpen, you have to be prepared to go in either to start an inning or with guys on base.

Gruver: I enjoy that. I enjoy having that excitement, especially when you come in with guys on base. It’s a do or die situation and it kind of gets you focused, it gets you excited and it kind of gets your heart rate up a little bit.

Starting is different. Starting, you have to be a little bit more under control. You’re starting the game and you know that you’re the one the team is counting on to get through the long innings.

There are different approaches to it, but both are exciting in their own way.

JC: Which leads us to last (Friday) night. Bases loaded, you come in and second pitch didn’t go where you wanted it to go. At least it didn’t end up where you wanted it to end up.

Gruver: No, it didn’t. The pitch didn’t go where I wanted it to go, either.

I made a bad pitch and he got the best of me on that one.

As a relief pitcher, that’s got to just disappear from your mind, because tonight they may call on you again in the same situation and you can’t go in there thinking about what happened last time.

Even closer to the situation, I had to go two more innings afterward. I had to get out of that situation and tell myself we can still come back. I have to be able to put that behind me and keep going through the game, just in case we score.

We were only down two and still had a chance to come back. If that was still on my mind, I could have given up two or three more runs the next innings and really blown it.

You have to have a very short memory in those situations.

JC: You said you enjoy that aspect of being a relief pitcher, of always being ready. Is that part of it, too, knowing there’s a little bit of a mental challenge to have that short memory?

Gruver: Yeah, that’s definitely something that’s tough for a lot of guys, but it is exciting. When you can push through that, you feel good even in a bad situation like that. You feel good coming out of it, knowing that you got through it.

You really tell yourself it’s not the end of the world. So next time, you might come in a little bit more relaxed and get out of that situation.

JC: There are some who believe that it takes greater mental fortitude to be a late-inning reliever, as opposed to a middle reliever. Do you look at it that way or does it really not matter when you go in to a game?

Gruver: I try not to make it matter. I try and take every inning as the same. Really, you can break it down in to one pitch at a time, even less than an inning. I’m trying to throw that one pitch, whether you’re up five or down five, you’re trying to make that one pitch at a time.

If you’re coming in during the fourth inning, you tend to be either up a lot or down a lot, so there is a little bit less pressure sometimes. You can come in and try to pound the zone a little more, knowing that even if you give up one or two that you’re still going to be in the game or you’re not inherently affecting the game, where coming in in the eighth or ninth, a lot of times the game’s on the line.

But, overall, you try and look at it the same way.

JC: There’s a perception that it may take a guy less time to reach the Big Leagues as a relief pitcher than as a starting pitcher, particularly for a lefty. Does that influence your preference as far as your role or do you even think about that kind of thing?

Gruver: It’s not my decision. I do what they tell me and I’m happy to be in whatever role, as long as I’m still playing. And If I’m moving up, it doesn’t really matter to me what role I’m in.

JC: Tell me a bit about how you’re finding the Cedar Rapids experience this year. Is there anything in particular about playing in Cedar Rapids that stands out to you?

Gruver: I really enjoy the fans. They get behind us a lot. The games are always exciting in that way. It’s always loud and the fans get in to it. When we’re playing well, the fans let us know. It’s fun to hear a loud crowd. When you’re on the field and something good happens, the fans get in to it just as much as you do.

JC: Off the field, do you have hobbies or other interests? What do you enjoy doing when you’re not at the ballpark?

Gruver: I enjoy some movies. I enjoy being outside a lot. Anything I can. Playing other sports, but I really can’t do that in the season. In the season, in the time I’m not at the field, I enjoy some movies.

I enjoy reading a lot, especially with all the road trips we have and all the time on buses, I’m really getting in to some books. I enjoy that a lot.

JC: Do you have a favorite movie?

Gruver: One of my favorites is “Shawshank Redemption.” It’s a classic favorite.


Speaking of redemption…

On Monday night in Clinton, In Gruver’s first appearance since Friday’s tough loss, Gruver entered the game in the fifth inning with the Kernels trailing Clinton 3-1.

He threw three shutout innings, giving up just two hits and one walk, while striking out three Lumber Kings hitters, while his team mates came back to take a lead and earning Gruver his fifth win of the season.

– JC

Meet Kernels Hitting Coach Tommy Watkins

Cedar Rapids Kernels hitting coach Tommy Watkins knows his way around a minor league field, having spent parts of 11 seasons as a player in the Minnesota Twins minor league system. Toward the end of the 2007 season, he got to live the dream of every player who ever put on a minor league uniform when he was called up to the Big Leagues by the Twins.

Tommy Watkins hitting ground balls to third baseman Travis Harrison

Tommy Watkins hitting ground balls to third baseman Travis Harrison

Since 2009, Watkins has been coaching in the Twins minor league organization and this season is his fourth as the hitting coach for the Twins’ Class A affiliate in the Midwest League (the first three coming with the Twins’ then-affiliate, the Beloit Snappers).

Watkins recently sat down and talked about his role with the Kernels and more.

Jim Crikket: This is the first year in Cedar Rapids for you and the team after spending a few years in Beloit. How do you feel things are going here?

Tommy Watkins: Things are going great here. The people are amazing, just like the people in Beloit were pretty amazing. But things have jumped off here pretty well.

The facility is one of the best in the league, especially in our division. In the other division, you’ve got a lot of the newer parks, but we’ve got one of the best parks in our division and we get a lot of Twins fans, which is fun.

For me, the (batting) cage is right outside the clubhouse so if the guys want to get some extra work, we can go right out and get right to it. It’s been fun.

JC: Describe the work you do as the hitting coach. I’ve been told the organization puts a plan together for all the players in the minor leagues. How do you go about implementing that plan with the hitters?

Watkins: Everybody’s different. We have a hit plan that we stick to throughout the organization, but each guy is different with the drills they like to do or things they need to work on. So, like I said, we’ve got a hit plan over the whole minor leagues. Bill Springman (Twins Minor League Hitting Coordinator) put that together for everybody. And then we go through and we get individual hit plans for each guy.

JC: That sounds like a lot of work.

Watkins: It’s a lot of work, but I’m only dealing with twelve or thirteen guys at a time, so it’s not too bad.

JC: I understand the Twins have implemented some kind of “balance” program for the players in Cedar Rapids and Fort Myers. A program Jim Dwyer (the hitting coach for the Fort Myers Miracle, the next level up the Twins organizational chain) recommended. How’s that going?

Watkins: I think it’s good. The guys all take it pretty serious. I just think it’s training your brain. Just like we go out and take BP every day, they get on that balance board to train their brain. It helps with a lot of things, concentration being one of them I think, for me. I’ve even heard a couple guys talk about getting on it to help their golf game to focus and train your brain.

Jimmy (Dwyer), he got in to it big time last year. Just to see the guys do those exercises, he saw a change in their on-field stuff. It’s just like anything, you’ve got to train your body and you’ve got to use your brain to play and I think it helps you focus more.

We’ve even had guys in the dugout doing it during Batting Practice.

JC: I’ve heard that you sometimes serve as a translator for some of the guys from Latin America. I’d think it must be tough as a coach to communicate with players that don’t speak English. Are you bilingual?

Kernels Hitting Coach Tommy Watkins

Kernels Hitting Coach Tommy Watkins

Watkins: I like to call it Spanglish. It’s not really Spanish. It’s English mixed with Spanish. All of our guys speak (English) enough. The Twins do a good job of giving the guys classes during spring training and instructional league.

I went down to the Dominican and we had an English teacher down there. So, the Twins do a really good job of trying to help these guys learn English. I think it’s a big part of development and making it to the Big Leagues is learning how to speak the language.

The Twins gave me Rosetta Stone in Spanish. I’ll use it on the bus. It’s pretty good. But I think you learn a lot more by actually dealing with people and talking to people.

JC: During a game, fans can see you motioning to players in the field, moving them around some. Do you have particular in-game responsibilities?

Watkins: I think me and Jake (manager Jake Mauer), we work together on moving the defense around, depending on the batter, depending on the pitcher. We keep a book on what they (opponents) do, so it kind of helps us plan for how we play them defensively. That’s one of the things I do with defense.

When it’s late in a game, we’ll play a guy back in “no doubles,” I’ll let them know that. Or throwing the ball to the cutoff man or whatnot. Just those kind of details.

Hitting wise, I just try to watch their at-bats and see if I can help them out with anything. With approach or maybe a swing they took. A lot of times just trying to see what they were thinking and just get some feedback from them.

The guys are good to work with, all of them. We just talk a lot about approach. I ask them what they see and tell them what I see and try to fix whatever it may be.

JC: Do you get video of your hitters’ at-bats to review with them?

Watkins: We get video of a couple guys every night. Maybe we’ve got a lefty pitching (against us) and we’ll get all the right handed hitters that day. We’ll put it on the video and guys can go back there and take a look at it, analyze it. I have my iPad and sometimes I like to get video on that. They’ve got the video any time they need it. I think they also send it out within the organization so they can see it, too.

JC: You made it to the Major Leagues for a bit as a player with the Twins. Now you’re in your next career as a coach. Is it your goal to work your way back up to that level?

Watkins: I love the coaching part of it and coaching in the Big Leagues is a goal of mine. That’s what I want to shoot for, whether it be managing, coaching third base, first base, whatever it may be. I would love to have a chance to get up there and coach in the Big Leagues.

JC: Just as an observer, the guys seem to really like working with you. It’s got to be easier to coach a guy that you have some sort of rapport with.

Watkins: Yeah it is. We’ve got a bunch of good guys on the team and they get along with each other just as well as they get along with the staff.

JC: They see how you turned Byron Buxton from a nobody in to a prospect like that. It really gives you instant credibility, right? (question posed with a smile and tongue firmly in cheek)

Watkins: (Laughing) Yeah, yeah, right.

JC: That has to give your resume a pretty good shot. “I was Byron Buxton’s hitting coach.”

Watkins: I thank him. He might be able to help me out a lot!

No, but Buxton’s got tremendous talent, as everyone can see. You know, I just tried not to mess him up. When he left, I was like “alright, good.” I was joking with Jim, “hey, Dwyer, don’t mess him up.”

He was a fun guy to watch, man. Easy to coach. You’d suggest something to him, he’d listen and try to work on it. What was good about him was that he could apply it.

A couple times, he’d go 0 for 2 and he’d say, “what am I doing?” I’d say, “you’re alright, you’re OK.” Then the next two he’d hit right up the middle by the pitcher.

I just try to keep all the guys happy and just try to make them feel comfortable. I think that’s the biggest thing. Being comfortable, confident and just trusting in your ability.

Q & A with Kernels Infielder Niko Goodrum

Cedar Rapids Kernels middle infielder Niko Goodrum was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the second round of the 2010 First Year Player Draft and spent the past two years playing for the Twins short season rookie league team in Elizabethton.

Niko Goodrum

Niko Goodrum

The 21 year old switch-hitter from Georgia got off to a good start with the Kernels, most often batting second in Manager Jake Mauer’s batting order, behind lead off hitter Byron Buxton. He was named to the Midwest League’s Western Division All-Star team.

On June 2, Goodrum collided with Kane County catcher Willson Contreras and came away with a concussion that sidelined him on the team’s Disabled List right up until the final day of the first half of the Midwest League season on June 16. His activation that day allowed him to participate in the MWL All-Star Game on June 18.

A few days ago, Goodrum talked about his season, so far, his injury and a number of other topics.

Jim Crikket: You’ve now played in about the same number of games you played in an entire year of rookie league ball. Have you been able to tell a difference in the full season of a Midwest League season, compared to the short season rookie leagues?

Niko Goodrum: You’ve got more games and if you’re in a slump, there’s no way to stretch it out (in short season). So that’s better. Body wise, there’s more on your body in a full season, but I don’t really feel a big difference between the rookie ball and the full season. They say it’s a big jump, but my body’s holding up well.

JC: You got of to a pretty good start to this season and then you had the issue over in Kane County. Exactly what happened there?

Goodrum: I was on first base and stole second base. Jorge Polanco was up and hit a line drive to left field. Jake (Manager Jake Mauer) rounded me around third base so I’m headed home. But then the catcher was up the line so it was either just stop or, if I try to slide, he’d probably end up dogging me or something. My first reaction was try to run him over.  He kind of punched me in my chin. I don’t remember contact at all. I didn’t feel anything. I was down. I woke up and I was just strapped on to a cart.

JC: How long after that did it take before you felt like you could be playing?

Goodrum: I had headaches for probably three days after I had the concussion. But after that, when I started back to activities, I felt like “I’m ready to play,” but it was just a long process they had to do with concussions. Sending paperwork up to Minnesota and MLB so they can clear it, so it was a long process but I felt like I could play after the headaches went away. I felt ready to go.

JC: I recall you were hoping to get cleared a day or two earlier than it actually happened.

Goodrum: They told me I was going to be cleared on Saturday so we were just waiting for Saturday to come and then they told me they didn’t hear anything back from them. Then once the game finally started, that’s when they ended up telling them I’m cleared to play. So I ended up getting cleared for Sunday.

JC: The team struggled a bit while you were out of the line up. That had to be kind of tough to sit and watch while the lead in the standings dropped from five games, four games and so on. And there was nothing you could do about it.

Niko Goodrum

Niko Goodrum

Goodrum: Yeah, it was. It was tough watching and knowing I can’t do anything to help them. Not even a chance I could get in to maybe play defense or pinch hit or run or something. There was nothing. So it was tough watching and seeing my team go down like that.

JC: Tell me about the All-Star Game experience.  That must have been a good time.

Goodrum: It was fun. Being around guys from other teams. The atmosphere. The home run derby was fun, watching that. Playing in front of ten thousand people was fun. Just the atmosphere. It was just great, a great time, I had a good time, yeah.

JC: With Byron Buxton’s promotion, your role has changed perhaps a little bit. You’ve had some opportunities to bat lead off. Do you take a different approach when you lead off or do you just try to get on base?

Goodrum: Yeah, just get on base. That’s all I’m worried about is trying to get on base.

JC: I know your father was in Cedar Rapids early in April. Has your family been back up to see you play? How do they follow how you’re doing with the Kernels?

Goodrum: Most of my family does it online, they look at the game play-by-play online. All my family came up to the All-Star Game to see me play.

My dad hasn’t been back up yet, but my mom and my brother and my girlfriend, they came up to CR to see me play. They’ve been up here a couple times.

JC: Tell me about your hobbies and interests off the field. What do you like to do away from the ballpark?

Niko Goodrum

Niko Goodrum

Goodrum: Sometimes I play video games, go to movies. Chill. I’m pretty much at Tyler Grimes’ house, me and JD (Williams) are pretty much over there hanging out. But we don’t really do too much.

JC: You’ve been in Cedar Rapids for over three months now. What’s been the best part of the Cedar Rapids experience so far?

Goodrum: New city, it’s always fun playing in front of new fans. It’s a great field, great stadium. A great coaching staff, so it’s always good.Overall, it’s a big jump from Elizabethton, city-wise, so all around, it’s good.

JC: Have you set any specific personal or team goals for the rest of the year?

Goodrum: Try to win a championship.

Kernels: Life After Buck and a Mike Pelfrey Appearance

Minnesota Twins super-prospect Byron Buxton led the Cedar Rapids Kernels through a pretty amazing first half of their Midwest League season. They led the league’s West Division almost from wire to wire.


But on Sunday, June 16, the Kernels gave up a late lead to the Peoria Chiefs and sealed their fate as the Division Runner-Up.

That was the last day that Buxton wore his Kernels home whites on Perfect Game Field at Veterans Memorial Stadium.

After returning from the MWL All-Star Game, Buxton boarded the team bus for the trip to Wisconsin. There, the team swept a four-game series with the Timber Rattlers and did so under the watchful eye of Twins General Manager Terry Ryan.

On that same bus, during the trip home to Cedar Rapids, Kernels Manager Jake Mauer got a phone call from the Twins front office and then told Byron Buxton he was being promoted to the Fort Myers Miracle.

You could understand if the Kernels, without the statistical leader of their offense, had needed to take a step back and regroup. Nobody would have been surprised if they had lost a few games as they searched for a new leadoff hitter and a new center fielder. After all, you can’t just replace a guy who many consider perhaps the top minor league prospect in baseball.

What the Kernels have done instead, however, is continue winning.

Since Buxton’s promotion, the Kernels have swept a four-game series with the Burlington Bees and a three-game series over the Peoria Chiefs. Heading in to Tuesday night’s game at Beloit, the Kernels are 11-0 in the second half of their MWL season.

Yes, it has been an eventful couple of weeks since that gut-wrenching meltdown during the final series of the season’s first half.

Max Kepler gets a secondary lead off first base

Max Kepler gets a secondary lead off first base

It certainly didn’t hurt that the Kernels finally welcomed outfielder Max Kepler to the roster to start the second half of the season.

Kepler, another of the Twins’ top prospects, had been slated to open the season with the Kernels but an elbow strain in March kept him in Fort Myers for extended spring training.

Kepler has only four singles in his 44 at-bats since joining the team. Then again, he also has five doubles, a triple and three home runs. That’s good enough for a .659 slugging percentage over an admittedly limited sample size.

The German native has also helped fill Buxton’s shoes defensively. He’s not likely to make the jaw-dropping defensive plays that Buxton seemed to make almost every other game in the outfield, but Kepler has the speed to cover plenty of outfield grass.

JD Williams

JD Williams

Niko Goodrum and JD Williams have both spent time filling Buxton’s shoes at the top of the Kernels’ batting order. Goodrum’s sporting a second-half on-base percentage (OBP) of .362, which isn’t bad, but check out Williams’ second half slash line: .462 BA/ .517 OBP/ .731 SLG/ 1.248 OPS.

Goodrum’s primary middle infield partner, Jorge Polanco, has hit .375 and put up an OPS of .969 since the All-Star break.

Dalton Hicks hasn’t homered yet in the second half, but he’s hitting .306 with five doubles.

Travis Harrison leads off third base

Travis Harrison leads off third base

Travis Harrison has a pair of home runs and six doubles since his All-Star Game appearance. He’s hitting .371 and has a 1.214 OPS.

Adam Brett Walker has a pair of home runs, as well, to go with his .303 batting average.

The second half success hasn’t been limited to the hitters, either.

The next earned run that Tyler Jones or Steve Gruver give up will be the first an opponent has put up against the two bullpen arms. In fact, opponents have a grand total of one hit off the two pitchers, combined, since the All-Star break.

Jose Berrios has made just one start since the break, but he went seven innings in that start and struck out nine hitters without a single walk, while giving up just five hits.

Brett Lee has struck out 12 over the 13 innings that have comprised his two starts this half.

Christian Powell is sporting a 2-0 record and a 0.69 ERA over the 13 innings he’s thrown during his first two starts of the second half.

And just in case the Kernels players needed a reminder of what it is they’re putting in all this work for, they got a visit this week from Twins starting pitcher Mike Pelfrey, who drove down from the Twin Cities with his family to make a rehab start for the Kernels on Monday night.

Mike Pelfrey warms up in the bullpen before his rehab start in CR

Mike Pelfrey warms up in the bullpen before his rehab start in CR

The plan was for Pelfrey to work five innings or throw 75 pitches, whichever came first.

But after throwing just 54 pitches through five innings, Pelfrey went back to the mound for the sixth.

“We got there in the fourth and the fifth and they said, ‘hey you’re done.’ I said, ‘hey I want to go back out for one more.’ I was just starting to get the command of my fastball back, which is very important to have to succeed, obviously, at the Big League level.”

As Pelfrey freely admitted in an interview before the game, his season didn’t get off to the kind of start he and the Twins hoped it would. But, as Kernels pitching coach Gary Lucas said after the game, “It was fun to watch him. Man, what a pro. What a good pro he is,” said Lucas. “To see how he handled himself and how he interacted with the guys on the bench. Pretty cool.”

It was a pretty cool night for the Kernels organization and their fans, as well.

Mike Pelfrey addresses the CR media (including a scruffy looking blogger in a faded ballcap)

Mike Pelfrey addresses the CR media (including a scruffy looking blogger in a faded ballcap)

According to Kernels General Manager Doug Nelson, a typical Monday crowd at this point in the season is about 1,500 fans. The Kernels drew 2,246 to see Pelfrey pitch, with a sizable portion of that total coming from “walk up” ticket sales. That extra 746 fans may not seem like a lot to those accustomed to seeing Major League attendance totals, but that’s several thousand dollars of extra revenue that the Kernels wouldn’t have had if the Twins hadn’t sent Pelfrey to Cedar Rapids for his rehab start.

Nelson indicated before the game that the topic of rehabilitation assignments had come up last September when the Twins and Kernels were discussing a possible affiliation agreement. While the Twins made no specific promises, they did tell the Kernels that they were comfortable with the facility in Cedar Rapids from a player-safety standpoint and that rehab assignments here would be simply a matter of schedules and timing working out.

With Pelfrey’s appearance, the Twins have now equaled the total number of rehab assignments that the prior Kernels affiliate, the Angels, sent to Cedar Rapids during the entire 20-year relationship between that organization and the Kernels. Angels pitcher Ken Hill joined the Kernels for a rehab stint in 1998.

The Kernels ballboy and the home plate umpire might have had the toughest challenge getting through Pelfrey’s appearance.

Plate umpire and Kernels ballboy switch out MLB balls for MWL balls between innings

Plate umpire and Kernels ballboy switch out MLB balls for MWL balls between innings

Pelfrey brought a supply of Major League baseballs with him to use in Cedar Rapids, which meant every half inning, the ballboy and plate umpire had to completely switch out the umpire’s supply of baseballs to allow Pelfrey to use Major League balls and the Peoria pitchers to use the Midwest League versions they are familiar with.

By winning their tenth straight game this past Sunday, the Kernels earned a free dinner from the team’s Board of Directors. By tradition, the Board treats the team to dinner at the Ox Yoke in the Amana Colonies whenever they reel off 10 straight wins. No date has been set yet, but it’s something the Kernels players are looking forward to.

That’s especially true of Kepler, the German native. The restaurant specializes in traditional German food, something Kepler said he hasn’t had in awhile.

While the team will have to wait for an evening they can fit a trip to the Amana Colonies in to their busy schedule to collect on that meal, they tasted the benefits of Pelfrey’s appearance immediately after the game.

According to Nelson, Pelfrey treated his temporary Kernels teammates to prime rib for their postgame meal in the clubhouse.

– JC

Kernels Post-Buxton Era Begins: Welcome Max Kepler

It may surprise some Twins and Kernels fans to learn that, even with the promotion of fan-favorite Byron Buxton on Sunday, the Kernels still have an outfielder in their line up that was ranked among the Top 10 prospects of the parent Minnesota Twins coming in to the season.

The reason for the surprise is that few fans have seen that prospect on the ball field yet this year.

Max Kepler was promoted to Cedar Rapids last week and arrived just in time to join the team for their trip to Appleton, Wisconsin to face the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers. He had five hits in the four-game series and three of those hits were doubles.

Max Kepler

Max Kepler

I ranked Kepler #9 on my list of top Twins prospects back on December 31, which was directly in between the #8 ranking he was given by and the #10 ranking by Baseball America before the season started. He was expected to open the 2013 season as a member of the Kernels’ outfield, but an elbow injury suffered during spring training resulted in Kepler being held back in extended spring training.

Kepler is a native of Berlin, Germany, and was given an $800,000 signing bonus by the Twins in 2009, the same off-season that the Twins signed Miguel Sano. That was the highest bonus ever given to a European player by a Major League organization. Kepler was just 16 years old at the time of his signing and moved to the United States shortly after signing with the Twins. He finished high school at the Fort Myers high school that adjoins the Twins’ spring training facility.

He has played for the Twins’ short season rookie league teams the past three years and was expected to begin his first full season of minor league ball with the Kernels in April.

I was covering the Kernels and Timber Rattlers series for Metro Sports Report over the weekend and I had an opportunity to interview Twins General Manager Terry Ryan before the Kernels game on Sunday. He shared some of his thoughts on Kepler.

“Yeah, he’s had a bad elbow and it’s been frustrating for all of us because we can’t figure out what the problem is. Now he’s playing and he’s playing the outfield. He can play left, center and right. He can play first. He’s got a lot of life in his bat. We’ll wait for him to get up to par here, because he’s way behind everybody. But I think you’re going to like what you see in Kepler as the summer progresses.”

You can read my entire interview with the Twins GM by clicking here.

Kernels Manager Jake Mauer concurred with his boss. Mauer told me over the weekend, “Kepler’s going to help us. He’s going to be a pretty good hitter.”

But just who is this young German outfielder?

I had the opportunity to sit down with Kepler before Sunday’s game in Wisconsin to ask some questions that may give fans some insight in to that question.

Jim Crikket: You were expected to open this season with the Kernels. Can you tell us what happened and what you’ve been doing the past couple of months?

Max Kepler: I’ve been rehabbing. I’ve been set back three times and it was due to an elbow strain that happened during spring training. I made a throw to home and it just didn’t feel good in my elbow and I was taken out of the game right then and there.

I got an MRI and got the results and it was said to be an elbow strain. We worked on it, but I’ve been set back a couple of times and that’s why I’ve been out for so long, which is unfortunate. But now I’m back!

JC: It had to be tough staying back in Florida while the guys you were training with and playing with in during spring training in March were going north to Cedar Rapids.

Kepler: You know, it happens.

Yeah, this is the same team we had back in E’town (Elizabethton, the Twins rookie league team that won the Appalachian League championship last season), so I missed leaving with them, but I’m glad to be back with them now.

Max Kepler and Caleb Brewer sign some autographs

Max Kepler and Caleb Brewer sign some autographs

JC: I have to ask, you were growing up as a kid in Germany – why baseball? It’s not exactly the German national sport, right?

Kepler: That’s true. I went to an international school and my mom’s from Texas, so she kind of got me in to baseball.

I was doing like four to five sports at the time and it came down to soccer and baseball and I had to make a decision between either one. I just chose to go with baseball. I wanted to go to the States, go abroad.

Soccer’s real big in Germany so I would have spent the rest of my life in Germany if I’d stuck to soccer. So, yeah, I went with baseball.

JC: You said you played four or five sports, what were the others that you were playing when you were younger?

Kepler: I played soccer, baseball, I had a scholarship in tennis, I swam, played basketball and some minor little sports on the side.

JC: For a lot of the international guys, the down side to playing minor league baseball is that the family doesn’t get to watch them play a whole lot. Does your family find a way to follow you or get to see you play at all?

Kepler: Yeah, you know the time zone is a lot different there so they’re up until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning just getting to see the first half of the game. But they love doing it and they’ll be down pretty soon, a couple weeks.

JC: I saw you in your first spring training with the Twins three years ago and I saw this skinny looking guy on one of the back fields. That’s not you anymore and the difference showed up a bit in your power numbers last year.

Kepler: Yep. I gained some weight (laughing). It happens.

I put on some weight and learned to pull the ball better in those couple of years and it paid off!

JC: Do you have a particular hitting philosophy? Do you see yourself as a power hitter or are you just concerned about driving the ball and if it goes over the fence, fine?

Kepler: I used to strictly see myself as a contact hitter. I came to the Twins as a contact hitter, just going (opposite field) all the time.

Now, basically, it’s just a start to a new season, first couple games, just see the ball right now and hit it. But when I’m in a groove, I like it to go far, the ball to go deep.

JC: Off the field, in your down time, what sort of things do you like to do when you’re not playing baseball?

Kepler: I like staying active. Last year, in E’town, we used to go out on lakes, go fishing. E’town didn’t have much to offer, but we found stuff to do.

JC: What about during the offseason?

Kepler: I love working out. Just getting back with friends and family. Spending a good time with family.

JC: Do you go back to Germany in the offseason?

Kepler: Yes, that’s very valuable to me. I only get like a month because they (the Twins) usually send you somewhere to play winter ball. I spend most of that time with family.

Kepler will make his home debut at 12:05 Tuesday afternoon when the Kernels open their first home series of the second half of the season against the Burlington Bees.

– JC

GameChat – White Sox @ Twins, 7:10

The Bitch Sox come to town for a three game series starting tonight and it gives the Twins an opportunity to start reversing the recent trend that’s seen the South Siders winning a heck of a lot more games at Target Field than they should be allowed to win. Oh and it’s also a chance to put a little distance between the Twins and the Sox, who are the only AL Central team the Twins can currently look down at in the standings.



De Aza, CF Thomas, C, CF
Ramirez, Al, SS Mauer, 1B
Rios, RF Doumit, C
Dunn, A, 1B Willingham, LF
Konerko, DH Morneau, DH
Gillaspie, 3B Arcia, RF
Viciedo, LF Plouffe, 3B
Beckham, G, 2B Dozier, 2B
Flowers, C Florimon, SS
  _Axelrod, P   _Pelfrey, P
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
Chi White Sox 0 2 0 0 1 0 1 1 0 5 11 1
Minnesota 4 0 0 0 0 1 0 2 x 7 13 1

So many potential heroes to choose from tonight. Joe Mauer with a first inning home run. Trevor Plouffe with a couple of ribbies. Mike Pelfrey with a Quality Start.

But when you come through in a tie game with a 2-RBI double with two out in the bottom of the eighth inning, that’s BOD material in my book. Ryan Doumit strikes again!

Ryan Doumit

Ryan Doumit

Hicks and Melotakis: Kernels Roommates on the Rise

Cedar Rapids Kernels pitcher Mason Melotakis and first baseman Dalton (DJ) Hicks are roommates this summer, sharing the same host family during their stay in Cedar Rapids. Both players played major roles with the Kernels as the team qualified for the Midwest League Playoffs by finishing second in the league’s Western Division during the first half of the season and both could be candidates for promotion at some point this summer.

Melotakis leads the Kernels pitching staff in wins with six and in innings pitched with 64 2/3 innings. Those six wins are good for the fourth spot among Midwest League pitchers. The lefty has been perhaps the most consistently reliable member of the Kernels’ rotation in recent weeks.

Hicks has been one of the biggest power hitting threats in the Midwest League. He leads the Midwest League with 63 RBI in 66 games played for the Kernels and is third in the League with 12 home runs (just one home run behind co-leaders Renato Nunez of Beloit and Rock Shoulders of Kane County). Hicks is one of eight Kernels named to the Midwest League’s Western Division All-Star Team.

Melotakis was drafted in the second round of the 2012 First-year Player Draft by the Twins out of Northwestern State University. Hicks was the Twins’ 17th round draft choice the same year out of the University of Central Florida.

On the final Saturday before the end of the first half of their Midwest League season, Hicks and Melotakis both sat down for interviews and reflected on their seasons, so far. (The interviews were conducted separately, but since similar questions were asked of each player, we’ve combined their responses here.)

Jim Crikket: DJ, How do you feel the first couple of months in Cedar Rapids have gone for you personally?

Dalton (DJ) Hicks

Dalton (DJ) Hicks

DJ Hicks: I feel good. You know, baseball is a tough game. You’re obviously going to have some ups and downs. The thing is, you’ve got to be the same person day in and day out and I think that’s the key to success is not to get too high or too low, just stay the same.

JC: Mason, you’re one of the pitchers the Twins organization is looking at converting to a starting pitching role after spending most of your time prior to this season working out of the bullpen. How do you think things have gone with that so far?

Mason Melotakis: I think it’s going well. I mean every day is a new day and every outing is a new outing. Different stuff is working for me on that day. It’s a lot of learning how to pitch and how to adjust as the game goes on versus as a reliever, you’d better have your good stuff right then and there. As a starter, you can kind of turn it on later on.

Early in the year, I struggled in the first inning or early in the game, then it seemed like I settled in. Now I’m adjusting to starting off strong and continuing strong.

JC: DJ, you profile as a first baseman/designated hitter. That’s a similar profile to a couple other guys in the organization ahead of you, such as Kennys Vargas, for example. Do you pay attention to what other guys at your position are doing?

Hicks: No idea, because that’s something I can’t control. I can’t control what they do. I wish them the best, especially a guy like Vargas. He’s an awesome guy. I got to work with him in spring training, great guy. But that’s out of my hands. I can only control how I play.

Mason Melotakis

Mason Melotakis

JC: Mason, the ‘book’ on you coming in to the year was ‘hard throwing lefty, nice slider, needs work on the change up. Needs to develop his secondary pitches.’ Is that what you’ve been working on the past couple months?

Melotakis: Absolutely.

JC: How do you feel that’s gone?

Melotakis: I don’t think I’m ever going to stop working on that, honestly, because you can always get better and better. But we are completely doing it all over again. I’m throwing a new change up grip and a new slider grip. We’re going back to square one. It’s all about throwing strikes and keeping them (hitters) off balance.

JC: Are you doing that because what you were doing before wasn’t working or is it just a new idea, trying a couple of different things?

Melotakis: It’s more of a better feel. When I was throwing my change up in a game, it seemed like I was not having a good feel for it. Same with the curve ball, I couldn’t really throw it for a strike. So, if you can’t throw whatever for a strike, then they’re not going to swing at it. So you’ve got to keep them off balance and be able to throw it for a strike.

I really wasn’t throwing (the change up) for strikes or even close sometimes. As for my slider, this one I have a good feel for, so I’m going to throw it for a strike. You know, who knows? It could be two lethal weapons now versus just throwing them out there.

JC: DJ, I understand a couple of years ago, you had some health issues you had to fight through. A collapsed lung, I believe. What happened there?

Hicks: I was in the Valley League the summer after my freshman year of college. I dove at first base. I think I hit the grass. I felt a little weird. The next at-bat I hit a double and was really out of breath, really fighting it.

The next morning, I couldn’t breathe on my right side, waking up. I just couldn’t breathe. So we thought I cracked a rib or something. So I took maybe a week or two weeks off in the league. Then the playoffs started so I finished maybe a couple of games in playoffs.

A month later, when I got to UCF, I felt a sharper pain again, so we saw a rib doctor, a specialist, and he said everything was fine. Then we saw just a regular doctor, they took an x-ray and they rushed me to the hospital.

Dalton (DJ) Hicks

Dalton (DJ) Hicks

JC: How much baseball time did you miss with that?

Hicks: A lot. I was in the hospital for like 16 days. I had to have a couple of different operations because the first one didn’t work. They kind of told me I was done (with baseball) from the beginning. Then they kind of said maybe like eight months to a year and a half, pushing two years.

I couldn’t do anything for the first three months, I couldn’t even hold a backpack. Nothing. But at five months, I thought I was good enough to play. I want to say I played a weekend series and by Sunday it was hard to breathe. It was just too much, so we kind of laid off. I took the rest of the year off. That was my red-shirt sophomore year.

I played a little bit in that summer, but it was still bothering me. Then when I came back, it was just trying to run again and get in shape again. That was definitely the hardest part. Trying to condition with the team and just the warm-ups and I was done.

JC: Mason, the perception is that, in many cases, for someone that can throw a mid-90s fastball, the path to the Big Leagues might be a little quicker for a relief pitcher than a starter, while a starting pitcher’s career could be more lucrative. Did any of that go through your mind when the Twins told you they wanted to make a starting pitcher out of you?

Melotakis: Absolutely. It’s a good career path to be a starter versus a reliever. Right now, we’re developing me in to a good pitcher, as in pitching and not just throwing. Having three pitches I can throw for strikes versus just having the two and just blowing by fastballs.

My fastball’s there, it’s ready, but it’s the other stuff I need to work on. Making me a starter will give me more innings and I’ll also have a chance to work with adversity, adjustments, learning to throw strikes.

It’s just all about development this year. Who knows what my path is? But right now I’m enjoying where I’m at.

JC: DJ, You’re on Twitter like a lot of the guys are. Are you active on Social Media sort of things? Do you go out and read what people write about you, about the team?

Hicks: Not at all, to be honest with you. I’m on Twitter. I like Twitter. I like to keep tabs on all my friends, former teammates, guys that aren’t playing any more. I use it for that.

Of course, you’re going to run in to stories and see your name and stuff like that, but I really do try to stay away from that stuff ‘cuz that stuff just gets in your head.

JC: Tell me a little about your interests and hobbies off the field. What do you like to do when you’re not playing baseball?

Hicks: I like to hang out with the family. I’m a big family guy. I’m definitely missing my nephews, my niece. My niece actually just beat cancer at nine months old so that was definitely a struggle. Obviously, we’ve been cheering ever since we heard the news. She’s a tough little girl.

But other than that, I like to play basketball. I’m a big basketball guy.

JC: Do they let you play basketball?

Hicks: No, not any more. Now I stick to video game basketball (laughing). Any kind of little activities, any kind of games. I like doing stuff. I hate sleeping in. Mason gets mad at me all the time, ‘cuz I’m always waking him up.

Mason Melotakis

Mason Melotakis

JC: Mason, what do you like to do when you’re not on the pitcher’s mound?

Melotakis: Honestly, I don’t really know, man. Whenever we have off days, we don’t do anything. We don’t know what to do with our lives (laughing). I work out, try to get better.

I don’t really do video games, I’ve never golfed. I’m going to golf for the first time on Monday over the All-Star break. We might see how that goes. I’m not a big video game guy. I watch movies, I guess. I’m a big movie guy.

JC: What’s your favorite movie?

Melotakis: My favorite movie’s got to be the Batmans. All the Batmans, even old Batmans. Those are the best, I grew up on that.

JC: Down the road, what do you think you’ll remember about playing in Cedar Rapids? Have there been particular highlights during your time here so far that you think will stand out?

Melotakis: Honestly, just the guys. We’re all a pretty tight-knit team. Being in first place the majority of the year. I’m going to really remember that, just us winning more than anything. Just enjoying our time here. But when you’re winning, everything seems to be a lot better.

Hicks: One, we have a great team. Obviously, when you win, that makes everything way better. When you’ve got guys like (Byron) Buxton bringing in crowds, just for him, that’s something special. You don’t see the kind of player he is every day. Guys like JD (Williams) , it’s been fun playing with him. He’s a different character.

It’s a great town, great host family. I can’t complain about anything in Cedar Rapids at all.

Talking Minor Leaguers With Paul Molitor

Hall of Famer Paul Molitor was in Cedar Rapids over the course of most of the past homestand in his capacity with the Twins organization.

Molitor was gracious enough to answer some questions last Thursday, the first day of his stay in Cedar Rapids, as well as a few follow-up questions Monday afternoon after the final game of the Kernels’ homestand.

I used several excerpts from the Thursday interview in an article posted at last week, but there was so much good material that I couldn’t fit in to that article. So, I’m sharing all of Molitor’s comments here.

First off, I asked Molitor to describe his formal role these days with the Twins organization.

Molitor: Titles are overrated a little bit. Technically, part of the player development team. I’m the Minor League Coordinator for Baserunning and Infield Play. It’s an opportunity for me to travel around the system and help try to teach, along with the staff on each club and I do focus on those two areas but invariably get involved with some of the hitting aspects.

Our hitting coordinator for minor leagues does an incredible job, considering you have to try to put a hit plan together for about 200 guys.

One of the things I enjoy, in addition to the teaching is that a lot of these guys are transitioning from wherever their roots have brought them from and it’s a process of evolving from sometimes teenagers in to men and so there’s mentoring involved, too. Just how to help these guys develop an understanding of the professional life style. We try to do what we can to try to help them progress in those areas, too.

Paul Molitor (4) observing Kernels C Jhonatan Arias (23) take batting practice

Paul Molitor (4) observing Kernels C Jhonatan Arias (23) take batting practice

I mentioned that a lot is made about players having to transition to using wood bats and asked Molitor if he thought that was toughest thing about transitioning to the professional game for young players.

Molitor: Some of the collegiate kids have had a chance to play in wood bat leagues in the summer time.

A lot of times it’s a big transition just from maybe never having left home, particularly maybe never left your country and you have to try to claw your way in to professional ball and learn a system that particular organization teaches.

We don’t try to overwhelm them. We let them play a little bit in the beginning til we kind of get a feel for who they are and what they do, what they do well and what we need to improve on. But the transition can be tough, depending on the guy’s experience.

The college guys are usually better at understanding how to carry themselves and how to go about their business day to day.

Another change is that very few of these kids have played in seasons where there’s 140 games so it’s understanding how to maintain and prepare yourself to withstand the rigors of a professional season.

I asked if playing baseball in the upper midwest in April was difficult for players entering their first season of “full season” professional baseball.

Molitor: The guys from warm climates, whether its Florida, California, Texas or the Dominican or Puerto Rico, you throw them up here in April and it’s not only a culture shock, but the weather is something they really never had to play in those type of conditions.

So that’s a process. We see a lot of guys that haven’t had that experience start a little bit slower, just adapting to the weather itself.

I jokingly pointed out that Byron Buxton is a southern guy that didn’t seem to take long to adjust.

Molitor: He’s just a rare individual with a skill set that’s off the charts.

I saw him last year in instructional ball for a little bit and you could see the rawness of a high school kid, but somehow this winter I think he put a lot of time in to conditioning and preparation. He was much more advanced this spring than I expected him to be and he’s been able to carry it undoubtedly in to the first 9-10 weeks of the season.

You know, he’s got things to work on I’m sure. I’m looking forward to seeing him now compared to even two months ago. Over the next five days. I’ll be watching particularly how he handles himself on the basepaths.

On a professional grading scale of 2-8, he’s an 8 runner and I haven’t for the past three decades seen many players that can compete with him in terms of just raw speed. Now how he can translate that in to base stealing is going to be the key.

Obviously, this year he’s had over 30 attempts. He’s been caught some, but he’s been fairly successful for a young guy and probably in some ways, in this league, he’s been outrunning the ball.

There’s two parts of base stealing: The mechanical, finding the best way to get your body to accelerate from a standstill position; and then there’s the mental side of understanding how they’re trying to slow you down and picking good pitches, good counts, reading pitchers pick-off moves, all those type of things.

A lot of times, when you get caught is when you should learn the most. Whether you didn’t get a good jump or you ran on a pitch out or you didn’t anticipate the guy going home or you were tentative. There’s a lot of ways to learn to get better. So it’s a process. The more you do it, the better you get at it.

We’re glad to see he’s out running. At least not having fear in athat area to this point.

Paul Molitor hitting ground balls to Kernels 3B Travis Harrison

Paul Molitor hitting ground balls to Kernels 3B Travis Harrison

I asked Molitor for his thoughts on Kernels third baseman Travis Harrison, who is still somewhat learning the position.

Molitor: Ive been around him some, mostly spring traning and instructional ball. I’m sure there’s some adaption for him going on.

He has relatively good hands. I think his footwork is something that needs to be improved. Being so close in proximity to home plate, you don’t have a lot of time to react to get your body in position to catch the ball. The better he can get control of his feet and be in the right spot, his hands are going to be OK.

Throwing, he’s had some issues at times with consistency. He’s a little bit mechanical, but I think he’s learning that if he doesn’t try to guide the ball and throws it, he’s better off.

So those are areas where we expect young kids to make errors and just like the baserunning, when you make mistakes, you figure out why and hopefully you can make adjustments.

I asked for Molitor’s thoughts concerning the defensive progress at third base of Harrison, as compared to Miguel Sano (this was a couple of days prior to Sano’s promotion to AA).

Molitor: I think that’s a fair question.

We’re all hoping that Sano, who’s a little farther along in the organization and in growth, in terms of getting close to the Major Leagues. Not unexpectedly, he made a ton of errors last year, his first year of being a third baseman in a full season and it was a plethora of mistakes.

It was misreading balls, it was rushing balls, it was throwing balls he shouldn’t have thrown. Trying to force an out when it wasn’t there.

But having seen him twice already this year, he’s made maybe a dozen errors so far and a lot of them are similar things.

But he’s been very diligent and asking for extra work and trying to correct mistakes.

I’m hoping his future is as a third baseman.

Travis, it’s a little bit early to see how it pans out. A lot of times, you can play three or four years in the minor leagues and then you get to the Big Leagues and there’s no room in that position and all of a sudden you’ve got to maybe transition. So you kind of hope that you get these guys a little bit more well-rounded. As far as their strength position, you want to try to see them develop that the most.

After the game on Monday, a Kernels win that was broadcast back to the Twin Cities on Fox Sports North, I asked Molitor about his impressions after having spent five days with the Kernels in Cedar Rapids.

Molitor: Well it was good to see them bounce back after three tough losses.

I feel like we got some things accomplished with some of the infielders defensively.

It was good to see (Candido) Pimentel back out there today. He had a better day. He still had one play where he got a little anxious about turning his back to the runner and he didn’t keep his eye on the ball and that’s kind of one of the things he’s got to work on is just catching the ball and understanding the speed of the baserunners on the play.

And then with baserunning, we had some guys out working on their jumps today and they’ve been aggressive trying to steal, so I’m pleased with that.

But yeah, I had a lot of fun seeing these guys and kind of seeing where they’re at at this point in the season and hopefully I’ll get a chance to get back and see them again.

Since Molitor had indicated he would be working with Byron Buxton on his base stealing, I asked if we should blame him for Buxton being picked off first base during Monday’s game (yes, I was kidding).

Molitor: You can blame me for that if you want. The (pitcher) did a nice job of holding the ball. I think he kind of built a little tension. The longer the guy holds it, you really have to concentrate on staying relaxed and he might have given him a little bit of a balk move, but that’s, again, learning time.

A hitter can help your baserunner out when he’s holding the ball. Call a time out, things like that. But that’s how you learn.

I asked for Molitor’s impression of Jorge Polanco, specifically whether he thinks Polanco can stick at shortstop.

Molitor: You know, I’ve seen him a fair amount and his arm’s probably competent at short but I still think he probably profiles a little better at second base in the long run.

Working on his footwork a little bit. He can get a little false step on his breaks to the ball and it seems like balls you think he might have a chance to get he comes up a little bit short. So we’ll try to improve his range a little bit and give him a chance.

At 19, it’s certainly too early to close the book on any one position.

Offensively, he’s just getting a little bit stronger and he’s got nice loose hands at the plate and being a switch hitter is generally to his advantage.

But I keep trying to keep them versatile in the middle of the field and hopefully one of the positions will pan out. But I have a feeling probably second base in the long run.

Since we had discussed third baseman Travis Harrison earlier, I asked if he had any final impressions of Harrison.

Molitor: He’s got a great attitude about work ethic and he wants to get better.

I think the main thing for him is going to continue to work on his footwork so his range is competent to stay over there, too. But his throwing’s improved. He’s a lot more accurate. I think he’s comfortable over there.

He’s still feeling for positioning a little bit. Sometimes I catch him maybe not quite in the right spot. There’s a reason you are where you are on every pitch and I think he’s learning that and trying to take some pride in it.

It was a pleasure to talk a little baseball with Paul Molitor and I appreciate him taking the time to answer questions. I think the thought he put in to his comments clearly demonstrates just how seriously he takes his work with the Twins’ young players and how much he enjoys doing what he’s doing. – JC