MetroSportsReport.com in Cedar Rapids is reporting this afternoon that officials of the Minnesota Twins and Cedar Rapids Kernels met on Tuesday afternoon and appear to be on the verge of announcing a four year extension to their existing affiliation agreement.
Jim Ecker of MSR reports that, “neither side would publicly confirm an
agreement had been reached, but one board member said a ‘positive’ announcement could be made Wednesday.
“It appears both sides have agreed to a four-year extension of their original four-year deal, which would push the arrangement through the 2020 season,” according to the report.
The Twins and Kernels are finishing the second of their original four-year player development contract and the four year extension would be added to the end of that original term.
Such an extension would presumably put to rest any conjecture, public or private, concerning the Twins moving their Midwest League affiliation to a team in the St. Paul, Minnesota, area for at least the next six years.
In mid-June, after a brutal first half to their Midwest League season, the Cedar Rapids Kernels limped in to the MWL’s All-Star break with a 31-39 record, not only 14 games behind Western Division leader Kane County, but also 7.5 games behind the Burlington Bees.
The latter is important because, in the world of Class A minor league baseball, seasons are split in to two halves, with the first and second place teams in each division, each half-season, earning berths in the postseason playoff series.
Kane County and Burlington snatched the MWL West spots in the first half, leaving Cedar Rapids, Quad Cities, Clinton, Beloit, Peoria and Wisconsin to slug it out in the second half for two more spots, with each team starting with fresh 0-0 records on June 19.
With Peoria, Wisconsin and Quad Cities all assembling winning records in the first half, it was logical to assume that those three teams would contend for the Western Division’s two second-half playoff spots – and they have been doing just that.
Entering Wednesday, Peoria and Quad Cities were tied for second place in the Division’s second-half standings, trailing Kane County by just one game, and Wisconsin is two games back.
Clinton and Beloit have repeated their first-half fortunes, each at least 11 games under .500 and filling the final two spots in the standings, as they did in the first half.
And then there’s the Cedar Rapids Kernels.
Rather stealthily, manager Jake Mauer’s Kernels have turned around what, as recently as three weeks ago, looked likely to become a lost season.
The Kernels lost four of their first five series to begin the second-half schedule and had compiled just a 6-11 second-half record through July 6.
They haven’t lost a series since.
Cedar Rapids has taken six consecutive series, against six different clubs, while putting together a 15-5 record in that time and launching themselves in to a second place tie with Peoria and Quad Cities, just one game behind Division leader Kane County in the MWL’s Western Division standings.
Since the Cougars and the Burlington Bees locked in their postseason spots in the first half, it doesn’t matter where they finish in the second-half standings so, from a practical standpoint, Cedar Rapids was tied entering Wednesday, with Quad Cities and Clinton, for the top available playoff spot, with Wisconsin trailing that group by one game.
The Kernels will face those three rivals 12 times in August and nine of those games will be on Perfect Game Field at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids, where the Kernels have accumulated an 11-5 home record in the season’s second half.
How have the Kernels propelled themselves in to a four-team dogfight for playoff spots entering the final month of the regular season? And can they keep it up?
The answer to the first question is pretty clear when you look at the numbers and there is no way to know the answer to the second.
In the first three series of their current six series winning streak, Cedar Rapids essentially bludgeoned the opposition. In those ten games, they scored 6.7 runs per game. It’s a good thing, too, because their pitching was allowing 4.2 runs per game.
The offense stepped up in those series, but since then, things have taken a pretty dramatic turn.
In the nine games covering the last three series of this stretch, the results have come from pitching. While Kernels hitters were averaging just 3.9 runs per game, themselves, the pitching was giving up only two runs per game.
Digging deeper, it’s tough to find much in the offensive statistics that indicate a significant turnaround.
About half the club’s current position players hit a bit better in July than they had been hitting and about half had fallen off a notch, perhaps.
Catcher/DH Michael Quesada appears to have found his stroke and is hitting .270 in July, with a pair of home runs, after a dreadful June in which he managed just .150 with no extra-base hits.
Fellow catcher (turned primary right fielder) Alex Swim is hitting .364 in July after posting a .267 mark in June.
But a number of their teammates, including Mitch Garver and Chad Christensen, who have been among the team’s offensive leaders all season, have seen some of their numbers fade slightly in July, too, so it’s hard to credit this turnaround strictly to the offense.
Perhaps the most important contribution the offense has made has been its consistency.
Before Tuesday’s game with the Burlington Bees, Mauer emphasized the importance of that consistency.
“Knock on wood, we’ve had a steady core group,” Mauer said. “Obviously, (Jason) Kanzler was (promoted), but we’ve had that set core group for about four weeks.
“Position player wise, we haven’t really changed much. It’s pretty much the same group of guys other than Swim and Wade playing a bigger part. Christensen, Garver, Haar, 3-4-5, have been that way since about May.”
The pitching side of the ledger tells a slightly different story, however.
As the Kernels’ manager observed, “The starting pitching’s been good, bullpen’s been outstanding.”
Of the ten pitchers currently on the Kernels roster who made appearances in June and July for Cedar Rapids, nine dropped his ERA in July, as compared to June.
The tenth, reliever Dallas Gallant, couldn’t cut his. He had a 0.00 ERA in his three June appearances and has exactly the same 0.00 ERA through eight trips to the mound in July.
Fellow bullpen arm Jake Reed also has a perfect 0.00 ERA in his six appearances in July after posting a 4.50 mark in June.
Chris Mazza hasn’t been that perfect in relief. His July ERA is 0.69. It was 2.25 in June.
Jared Wilson has slashed his ERA from 4.60 in June to 1.84 in July.
Hudson Boyd did the same. He had a 10.00 in June and a 1.13 in July. (Boyd, however, was suspended on Tuesday for an unspecified period of time for violating team rules.)
The sharpest drop, however, has to be Nick Burdi, the Twins’ second round draft pick in June of this year. How can you beat a drop from infinity to 2.25?
Burdi made one infamous appearance upon joining the Kernels at the end of June in which he walked all four batters he faced and all four came around to score. In July, he has allowed just a pair of earned runs. He has also struck out 16 batters in his eight July innings, while walking just three.
The rotation arms are getting in to the act, as well.
Aaron Slegers, who leads the Kernels with 113.1 innings pitched this season, struggled in June to a 7.97 ERA in four starts. It sits at 1.96 through six starts in July.
18 year old Lewis Thorpe posted a 6.50 ERA in his four June starts, but he’s cut that to 3.51 in his six starts this month.
Kohl Stewart, Minnesota’s top draft pick in 2013, had an ERA of 2.16 in June. That’s pretty good. In fact, it was better than Stewart posted in April or May. But he’s bettered that in July, posting at 1.32.
Stewart, unfortunately, finds himself on the 7-day Disabled List at the moment, with a sore shoulder.
His replacement in the rotation is Stephen Gonsalves, freshly arrived from the Twins’ Appalachian League affiliate in Elizabethton.
Gonsalves has made just one appearance for the Kernels since arriving, but the lefty threw six shutout innings against Dayton on Sunday.
Chih-Wei Hu, the 20 year old from Taiwan, wasn’t with the Kernels in June, but he’s posted a 1.50 ERA in four July starts for Cedar Rapids.
Earned Run Average is not the only important pitching statistic. Arguably, it’s not even the most important, especially among relief pitchers.
But when your entire pitching staff is slashing their ERA from one month to the next, that’s a sign that good things are happening for your team.
The Kernels have put themselves in to contention for postseason play, but they’re going to need to overcome some challenges over the final month to earn one of those final MWL playoff spots.
They may need Stewart to come back from his DL stint healthy and effective.
They lost their center fielder, Jason Kanzler, who was contributing with his bat and his glove, to promotion this week. He has been replaced by Max Murphy, who was tearing up the Appy League to the tune of a .371 batting average and nine home runs.
Murphy, however, got off to an inauspicious start, going 0-4 with three strikeouts and a walk in his Kernels debut on Tuesday.
The Twins’ high-A affiliate in Fort Myers is already postseason-bound, having clinched a spot in the first half of their Florida State League season. There’s certainly no assurance the Twins won’t tab more Kernels for promotion to aide the Miracle’s own playoff preparations. In fact, with the way some of the players in Cedar Rapids are performing this month, you can probably count on it.
However, right at this moment, the Kernels are in serious contention for the postseason and that’s not something many fans would have envisioned just three weeks ago.
The Cedar Rapids Kernels dropped an ugly 5-2 game to the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers back on July 9 and Kernels manager Jake Mauer clearly was not a happy man afterward.
His line up had left eight runners stranded in scoring position on the night and played some shoddy defense in a loss on a night when Kernels pitching combined to strike out 13 opposing hitters.
“We’re going to have some changes,” Mauer promised that night, in a post-game interview.
Catcher Alex Swim went 1 for 4 as the team’s designated hitter in that loss and he has not DH’d since.
Then again, he hasn’t done much catching, either.
The next night, July 10, again against the Timber Rattlers, Swim was inserted as the Kernels’ right fielder.
Maybe Mauer was just trying to give some of his regular outfield crew a wake-up call or maybe he knew something nobody else did, but Swim gunned down Rattler baserunner Omar Garcia at home in that game and he has been the starting right fielder for the Kernels on every line up card Mauer has filled out since.
He’s put on the catcher’s gear for a game in that stretch only twice. Once to finish a rain shortened game in which he had started as the catcher (he played right field in the full game following the completion of the postponed contest) and he made one appearance at catcher late in a game after starting catcher Michael Quesada was removed for a pinch runner.
Swim was already riding a six game hitting streak pieced together starting June 30 as he rotated between catching, DHing and taking his turn riding the pine as part of what was, for a time, a four-man catching rotation that included Mitch Garver and Bo Altobelli, along with Quesada and Swim.
After being inserted in to the every day line up, Swim swatted hits in another eight consecutive games, making him the proud owner of a 14-game streak, the longest by a Kernels hitter this season, before the streak was snapped on July 21.
On the season, Swim is batting .341 in the 26 games he’s suited up with the Kernels.
In an interview late last week, Swim said he played some outfield during his junior and senior years at Elon University in North Carolina, “just to get a little break from behind the plate.”
Coming in to the season, though, he wasn’t expecting to see this much time on the outfield grass.
“During (extended spring training), they asked me if I had an outfielder’s glove and I did. They said, ‘get a few reps out there just in case,’” Swim recalled.
Acknowledging that he’s been out there every game lately, he added with a smile, “maybe (the Twins organization) gave me a position change and didn’t tell me, I don’t know.”
He’s not complaining.
“I’ll play anywhere,” he said. “I love throwing the ball and showing off the arm a little bit.”
That’s a healthy approach to have for a player in Swim’s position with the Twins organization.
Swim, Garver and the current catcher for the Class high-A Fort Myers Miracle, Stuart Turner, were all college catchers selected by the Twins in the same draft class a year ago. Turner was the Twins’ third round pick, Garver was picked in the 10th round and Swim in the 22nd.
The Twins also selected a high school catcher, Brian Navarreto, in the sixth round. Navarreto is currently with the Twins’ Elizabethton short-season rookie level affiliate.
As if that weren’t enough, the Twins drafted six more catchers in the 2014 draft, though none were higher than the 19th round and not all were inked by the Twins before the signing deadline on July 18.
Still, Swim recognizes that he’s up against some tough competition as he tries to work his way up the organizational ladder, not only from other recent draftees, but from players with more professional experience, such as his Cedar Rapids teammate Quesada.
“Obviously, I know who’s there,” Swim conceded. “But I think everyone is good in their own way. If you’re meant to keep going and playing, you’re going to get there.
“I try to make it where I can play different positions to help me out. If you need a right fielder, I’ll play right field. If you need a first baseman, I’ll do that. Whatever they need.”
In baseball, hitters can run hot and cold, but in his first month as a Kernel, Swim has definitely been hot with the bat.
“I feel pretty comfortable in the box and the ball does look a little bigger right now,” he admitted.
Fellow Kernels catcher Garver hit three home runs in one game on Monday, but Swim doesn’t expect to be putting on that kind of power display any time soon.
“Generally, with my swing, I’m not going to hit the ball out of the park or drive a bunch of balls in to gaps, so I just try to really stay up the middle and just stay short and sweet to the ball and just try to get on base.”
Swim worked out with the Class A group during most of spring training, but when the time came to head north to start the season, he was left behind in extended spring training.
That sort of thing can be disappointing to a player, of course, but Swim pointed out that there were some benefits, too, for a guy from Greensboro, North Carolina.
“It’s not that big of a deal when you’re playing in 85 degree weather in the spring down in Florida, so that was the good part,” he recalled with a bit of a laugh. “I was texting a few of the guys and they were saying it was 30 degrees and they had four layers on. I was, like, I’m in a pair of shorts and sandals right now.”
Swim had the opportunity to turn professional after his junior year of college when the St. Louis Cardinals made him there 36th round selection in the 2012 draft, but he opted to pass at the time.
“Right around draft time my junior year, mom was sick, was in the hospital,” Swim explained. “I really didn’t know how that was going to affect her as far as what was going to happen. I didn’t want to push it by leaving at that time, so I decided to forgo the draft, stay at home, work a little bit, try to help out around the house and get things situated.
“Honestly, I don’t have any regrets. I would do it the same way every time. She’s doing well right now. She’s getting healthy. She’s staying at home and listening to the games (over the internet).”
Away from the ballpark, Swim escapes the daily grind of the game with a good book.
“I like biographies and stuff like that,” he explained. “That kind of gets me away from the game and not thinking about anything really about baseball.”
The merry-go-round that is a minor league team’s roster continued to spin over the weekend in Cedar Rapids as the Kernels saw two pitchers promoted to high-A Fort Myers, one infielder put on the 7-Day Disabled list and two new pitchers arrive from Elizabethton.
The new pitchers, right handed starting pitcher Chih-Wei Hu and righty bullpen arm Jake Reed, were in uniform for Tuesday night’s series opener with the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, won by the Kernels, 15-5.
The two will replace starter Ethan Mildren and co-closer Todd Van Steensel on the Kernels’ pitching staff.
Mildren has been dominant through his most recent pair of starts, throwing seven shutout innings against Clinton on June 29 and duplicating that feat on Independence Day against Beloit. He allowed just seven hits and three walks over that 14-inning stretch.
Van Steensel had not been charged with allowing a run, earned or otherwise, in his last seven appearances for Cedar Rapids. Overall, he put up a 1.30 ERA covering 34.2 innings of work in 23 appearances in a Kernels uniform.
If early impressions mean anything, Reed will be a capable replacement for Van Steensel in the Kernels bullpen.
The 21-year old righty, drafted in the 5th round out of the University of Oregon last month, threw nothing but shutout innings for the E-Twins in his first six innings of work this season. He struck out eight batters and held opponents to a .053 batting average.against him.
That scoreless streak, however, came to an end in Reed’s first appearance in a Cedar Rapids uniform on Tuesday night. Reed gave up one unearned run in an inning of work on Tuesday night when the first batter he faced reached on a two-base error and came around to score on a subsequent single.
Reed recorded his first strikeout as a Kernel to finish the eighth inning.
The man with the biggest shoes to fill with the Kernels, perhaps, will be Hu.
Cedar Rapids has struggled to find consistency from their rotation and Mildren was just beginning to provide much needed leadership in that area.
Hu will get Mildren’s spot in the rotation and should get his first start for the Kernels on Thursday against the Rattlers, in front of the home crowd.
Like Reed, Hu was off to a strong start for Elizabethton.
The Taichung, Taiwan, native had time to make just three starts for the E-Twins before being promoted. He was 1-0 with a 1.69 ERA. He threw six shutout innings of two-hit baseball in his last start, striking out nine batters in the process.
After watching Hu throw a bullpen session on Tuesday, Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga pronounced the 20-year old Hu, “ready to go.”
“His fastball moves a lot and his slider’s got good rotation,” Arteaga added. “He really competes, according to the reports we got.”
The Kernels played Tuesday a man short on their roster as shortstop Engelb Vielma has been placed on the 7-day DL with concussion symptoms and no corresponding roster move was immediately announced.
Manager Jake Mauer indicated to media after the game that infielder Logan Wade would be re-activated from the DL on Wednesday to replace Vielma. – JC
A little over a year ago, I sat in the Cedar Rapids Kernels dugout before a Sunday game and did an interview with then-Kernels infielder Jorge Polanco – the same Jorge Polanco that just spent the past weekend wearing number 11 for the Minnesota Twins.
I’d been told that, of the Kernels’ Latin American players, Polanco was one of those most familiar with the English language. Since the only familiarization I have with a foreign language comes from the two years of high school French class that I nearly flunked out of over 40 years ago, it seemed like a good idea to interview a player who knew my language better than I knew his.
Polanco was very accommodating. I approached him after the team worked out that day and asked if he had some time to talk. He said he did, but asked if we could do it after the brief chapel service players have on Sundays. After chapel, we met and sat in the dugout for the interview.
The interview didn’t go particularly well and, unfortunately, I didn’t feel I had enough material to turn it in to something I could post at the time.
I had only been covering the Kernels for a couple of months at that time and, frankly, my interviewing skills weren’t very strong. I’m not sure I’d say they’re particularly strong now, either, but I’m better at it than I was that Sunday afternoon with Polanco.
I asked him what he felt the biggest difference was between his experience at Elizabethton (TN) with the Twins’ short-season rookie level team the year before and his season in Cedar Rapids.
“More fans,” Polanco responded. “A lot of fans.”
Neither of us knew then, of course, that just over a year later, he’d be playing ball in front of a crowd ten times larger than what he was seeing in the Cedar Rapids stands.
We talked some about his home town, San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic. A “good town to live there,” according to Polanco, and about his favorite Major League player.
“Robinson Cano,” Polanco replied immediately. “I like the way he plays. I would like to be like him. He’s a good person.”
I also found out during the conversation that the then-19 year old spent his time away from the ballpark in much the same way other 19 year olds spend their idle time.
“I like to watch TV and play Playstation3 video games,” he said.
Then he added, “I like to play pool.”
Asked if he was any good at it, he smiled and simply said, “Yes.”
Unfortunately, he added that he had not yet found a place to play pool in Cedar Rapids. I imagine that probably didn’t change much during the summer, since it might be difficult for a 19 year old to get in to most public establishments with pool tables around here.
Toward the end of our conversation, we talked about the adjustments that he and other Latino players have to make to play ball in a place like Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
The food, he said, was probably one of the most difficult adjustments, but we also talked about the language barrier.
Polanco clearly was working hard on learning English and wanted to get better.
“I like it because all the people here – most all the people – speak English, so I try to do it.”
That’s when I made one of those off the cuff comments that I may come to regret.
I went back to the audio recording of the interview this weekend, with the hope that perhaps my memory of what I said next was not quite accurate.
I told Polanco I was starting to try to learn some Spanish. I should have left it at that.
But no, I continued with, “When you’re in Target Field with the Twins in a couple of years, I’m going to come to a Twins game and we’ll talk in your language. Is that a deal?”
He smiled and said, “Yes, alright.”
Last week, just about 13 months after my conversation with Polanco, he was called up to the Twins, who found themselves in need of a versatile infielder after a series of injuries to their infield corps. Fortunately, those games were all in Anaheim, California, and Arlington, Texas, and not in Target Field.
I’m using that technicality as an excuse to conclude I still have some time before making good on my poorly thought out promise to Polanco.
(I’ve learned my lesson, by the way. I’m NOT going to promise any of this year’s crop of Kernels players from “down under” that I’ll learn to speak Australian before they wear a Twins uniform.)
It turned out to be just four games in The Show for Polanco, including one start on Sunday against the Rangers, before infielders Eduardo Nunez and Trevor Plouffe came off the Disabled List on Monday and Polanco was sent back to the Fort Myers Miracle.
I don’t think anyone would have been surprised if Polanco had shown some jitters during his time with the Twins, but from all accounts, he looked like he belonged there.
He had two hits (a double and a triple) in five at-bats, he scored two runs and drove in three more. He turned three double plays and, yes, he had a mental lapse on defense in a rundown situation. He’s not the first Twins player to have a mental lapse in the field this season.
He also handled himself well with the media, as is clear from a video clip the St. Paul Pioneer-Press’ Mike Berardino posted over the weekend (click here to view) after Polanco recorded his first Major League hit.
Over the first season and a half of the affiliation between the Twins and Kernels, we’ve seen several players that have legitimate Major League potential and Polanco was no doubt one of those guys.
Fans in Cedar Rapids couldn’t be happier for Polanco, as the first Kernels player since the new affiliation agreement to reach the Big Leagues. Still, it’s unlikely that anyone thought he’d get even this kind of “cup of coffee” with the Twins this soon.
But as one of this year’s Kernels told me recently, “Baseball is a goofy game.”
Indeed it is.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think it’s time for my next Spanish lesson. It seems I may need to accelerate my learning curve a bit. – JC
June has not been kind to the Cedar Rapids Kernels.
As a team, they’ve lost a dozen games this month and won just six. The first half of the season mercifully drew to a close a week ago, but the Kernels started off their second half season by dropping three of four road games to the Midwest League’s Western Division champions, the Kane County Cougars.
Silver linings are a little difficult to come by for a team that most people expected to be led by their pitching when the season opened, only to find themselves with the 15th ranked team ERA (4.83) in the 16-team Midwest League.
There are a handful of bright spots as the Kernels begin the race for a postseason spot that would come with finishing as one of the top two teams in the MWL Western Division among the six teams that have not already qualified for postseason play.
The brightest of those bright spots might be catcher Mitch Garver. So far in June, Garver is batting .364, has an on-base percentage of .500 and an OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) of 1.045.
According to TwinsDaily.com’s Seth Stohs, heading in to this week’s series in Peoria, Garver is among the Twins minor league organizational leaders in batting average (2nd), on-base percentage (1st), slugging percentage (3rd), OPS (2nd) and home runs (tied for 4th with teammate Bryan Haar).
Cedar Rapids native Chad Christensen has also shown he can handle Class A work. He is hitting .323 in June and has a .963 OPS. He’s had eight extra-base hits in the month, including four home runs.
Christensen’s .299 batting average ties him for fourth among all Twins minor leaguers.
But Garver and Christensen can’t win games by themselves. Most of the rest of the Kernels’ batting order have seen their hitting numbers drop considerably in June.
The Kernels could get some offensive help as some of the hitters that have been idled by injuries begin to return.
That process has begun already as outfielder J.D. Williams was activated from the Disabled List on Tuesday.
Zach Larson, Logan Wade and Jeremias Pineda remain on the club’s DL for now. Larson, in particular, could provide an offensive boost if he can get healthy and return to a level of productivity he demonstrated in April when he hit .307 for the Kernels.
Unless you’re a fan who worships gaudy strikeout numbers for pitchers, there has been nothing to complain about in starting pitcher Kohl Stewart’s performance thus far.
Stewart’s 2.44 ERA on the season would be good enough for fourth best in the league if he had enough innings to qualify (he’s one inning short, which should be more than met in his next scheduled start on Wednesday).
Stewart has continued to lead the rotation with a 1.13 ERA in three June starts, with batters putting up just a .236 batting average against him this month.
To find anything else resembling “bright” among the Cedar Rapids pitching corps, it’s necessary to turn to the bullpen, which has had its own share of ups and downs through the first half of the season.
Todd Van Steensel perhaps represents the best of the “ups” for the bullpen corps recently.
Van Steensel has put up a 1.67 ERA since joining the Kernels at the end of April. He has struck out 35 batters in 27 innings of work and opponents are hitting just .179 off the right hander.
Alex Muren has been among the team’s most consistent bullpen arms, assembling a 3.43 ERA on the year and a similar 3.48 ERA so far in June.
This month, hitters are batting just .171 against Muren. He’s thrown 10.1 innings in five June appearances. All four runs surrendered this month came in one forgettable appearance on June 15.
Brandon Bixler had two good months in April and May, but has been less consistent in June. He has a 3.13 ERA on the year and hitters have just a .201 batting average against him. He’s struck out 39 batters in 40.1 innings.
Jared Wilson’s year has been similar to Bixler’s. Since joining the Kernels in mid May, Wilson has put up a 2.49 ERA and a .197 BAA (batting average against), while striking out over one batter per inning pitched. He’s been somewhat inconsistent in June, with three outings where he was almost unhittable and three others where he gave up almost an earned run per inning.
The Kernels bullpen could be in for a boost, however.
On Tuesday, the Twins announced that they had signed Nick Burdi, their second round pick in the 2014 draft, and that Burdi will be joining Cedar Rapids on Friday.
Burdi, the closer for a University of Louisville squad that qualified for the College World Series, reportedly throws in the 96-98 mph range and is capable of regularly topping 100 mph with his fastball.
Expectations for the Kernels coming in to the season were modest, but a seventh place finish in the MWL Western Division first-half standings was a disappointment.
Garver and Christensen will need some of their teammates to step up their games and the Kernels rotation will need to start contributing more than three or four innings of solid pitching on a regular basis if the team expects to contend for a postseason berth in the second half of the year.
In September of 2012, the Minnesota Twins announced a four-year affiliation agreement with the Cedar Rapids Kernels, with the Twins’ then-Senior Director of Minor Leagues Jim Rantz telling the media, “We are confident that this relationship will grow into one of the strongest affiliations in minor league baseball.”
Less than two years later, the Twins organization appears to be flirting with another minor league ownership group with an eye toward moving their Class A Midwest League affiliation to nearby St. Paul, Minnesota, and potentially leaving the Kernels to shop for another new Major League affiliate when their current Player Development Contract expires following the 2016 season.
According to a story Tuesday in the Business Journal, Minnesota Twins President Dave St. Peter and Derek Sharrer, the General Manager the St. Paul Saints, an independent minor league team, expressed mutual interest in a future affiliation agreement between the two teams.
Their comments were made at the Business Journal’s Business of Sports Power Breakfast Tuesday morning.
“Long-term, there are aspects that make a lot of sense,” St. Peter is quoted as telling the group. “Short-term, it’s more challenging. We have a tremendous partnership with Cedar Rapids and the Kernels. It’s been a home run for the Twins. It’s been strategic for the Twins relative to marketing in the state of Iowa.
“I think it’s something that will require some additional discussions and I’m guessing that dialogue will take place.”
The Twins President did point out that the potential arrangement comes with challenges.
“It’s a bus league, and when you’re in St. Paul and there are teams east of Cleveland, that’s a tough bus trip for your players,” St. Peter said. “Things like that need to be addressed long-term.”
The Saints are in the process of building a new 7.000 seat stadium in St. Paul that’s being built to meet or exceed standards required by baseball for Class AA and lower affiliated teams. The stadium is scheduled to open in 2015.
The Saints are owned by a group that recently agreed to sell the Twins’ Class high-A affiliate in Fort Myers, Florida.
“Our organization has a tremendous amount of respect for Derek and his team,” St. Peter said of the Twins’ relationship with the Saints organization. “We’ve worked very closely with the Saints’ ownership … for 20 years.”
As the Twins President alluded to, there are a number of obstacles that the Twins and Saints would need to overcome before placing an affiliate in St. Paul.
The most likely arrangement would be for the Twins to place their Class A Midwest League affiliate in St. Paul. There are no high-A or AA leagues located in the Midwest and the new Saints stadium is not being built up to AAA standards.
However, putting a Midwest League team in St. Paul would not be a simple matter, either.
For the Twins and Saints to make the plan work, they would need to either seek to have the Midwest League expand by two teams (to keep the number of league teams at an even number for scheduling purposes) or acquire an existing MWL team and move it to St. Paul.
Every Major League team already has a full season Class A affiliate, which would seem to make expansion unlikely.
Acquiring a team and moving it would only be somewhat easier.
Under the current Professional Baseball Agreement between the Major and Minor League governing bodies, every current affiliated minor league team is guaranteed an affiliation. Baseball can’t just tell an existing affiliated team that they’re being kicked out of affiliated minor league baseball.
The Saints ownership would likely need to acquire an existing Midwest League team and relocate it to St. Paul, rather than looking to acquire a team currently competing in another Class A league.
While it would not be totally unheard of for a team to move from one minor league to another, the same scheduling issues that affect expansion would also require any movement between leagues to result in each affected league retaining an even number of teams.
With the eastward migration of Midwest League teams over the past two decades, virtually every club in the Eastern Division of the league is playing in relatively new ballparks and before generally larger crowds than is the case among their Western Division brethren. This would make it much more likely that a current Western Division club would be targeted.
With relatively new or recently renovated ballparks in Appleton WI, Kane County IL, Peoria IL and Iowa clubs in the Quad Cities and Cedar Rapids, it would be unlikely that the teams in those communities would go on the sale block.
That leaves Beloit WI, Clinton IA and Burlington IA, three teams with, perhaps, the most difficult stadium situations left among potential MWL targets.
However, all three of those teams are, like the Kernels, long-time MWL members. More importantly, also like the Kernels, all three clubs are community owned. Prying ownership away from those communities would likely be no easy task.
Finally, even if an existing ownership group were made an offer they can’t refuse, the team would need approval of the other members of the MWL to relocate. That hurdle might not be so easy to overcome, either.
St. Paul is well outside the current MWL footprint. Cedar Rapids is the closest current league city and it’s a good 250 miles from the Twin Cities. Every other MWL community, except Appleton (270 miles) is at least 300 miles from St. Paul.
South Bend IN, at 495 miles, would be the only MWL Eastern Division location less than 500 miles away.
That’s an important consideration for the league, too, because under the terms of the Professional Baseball Agreement rules, players must be given an off day any time they are bused 500 miles or more. Having a team that far outside the league’s current footprint could present a nightmare for MWL schedule-makers.
It also would increase travel costs, not only for the team that relocates, but for every other team in the league that would have to send teams to St. Paul on road trips. Those travel costs are primarily the responsibility of the local team, not their Big League affiliate.
St. Peter is certainly correct in cautioning Twin Cities fans that putting an affiliate in St. Paul would be difficult to arrange, but if the Twins were to decide to make such a move a priority, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that they could throw enough weight around to get what they want. It remains to be seen whether the Twins and Saints are truly interested enough in a marriage to overcome the obstacles.
The agreement between the Kernels and Twins will have young Twins prospects calling Cedar Rapids their summer home for two more years after the current season.
Nevertheless, it’s no doubt disappointing to Twins fans in Eastern Iowa to learn that at least one Twins executive may no longer be interested in seeing the relationship between the Twins and Kernels, “grow into one of the strongest affiliations in minor league baseball.”
Kernels General Manager Doug Nelson, reached Tuesday afternoon while in Comstock Park MI for the Midwest League All-Star game, was asked for his reaction to St. Peter’s statements to the Business Journal.
“The Kernels view our affiliation with the Twins as a long term partnership,” stated Nelson via email.
It is less clear whether the Twins continue to share that view.
Go ahead and underestimate Cedar Rapids Kernels outfielder Jason Kanzler. He’s used to it. Having to show people they’re wrong about him is nothing new.
”I think I’ve done that my whole life, pretty much,” Kanzler said. “I was never really at the top on anyone’s priority list. I wasn’t recruited out of high school. I tried to walk on at Northeastern University and I was cut after two weeks.
“Then I went to Buffalo as kind of a recruited walk-on and I didn’t play. I guess my red-shirt freshman year, I got 10 at-bats.Then I platooned a little in left and right my sophomore year.”
That’s not exactly the kind of start to a college baseball career that you’d expect for a guy with hopes of playing ball professionally.
Things turned around for Kanzler his next two seasons at the University of Buffalo, however.
“I started in center field my junior and senior year and won two gold gloves so I kind of shoved it up in everyone’s faces.”
If you think it sounds like Kanzler has a little chip on his shoulder over people underestimating him, you would be correct.
Kanzler spent spring training with the Class A group, but got the word the last week of camp that he would not be heading north to Cedar Rapids with the others.
Asked how he felt about being one of the final cuts to the Kernels’ roster as spring training drew to a close in March, he quickly corrected the questioner and didn’t hesitate to say exactly how he felt about it.
”I was the last guy,” he said. And he said it without a trace of a smile.
“I was angry, I was really angry,” he admitted. “The coaches down in extended (spring training) told me to cool it and I’ll get my chance eventually.”
You get the sense from Kanzler that “cooling it” isn’t something that comes very natural to him on a baseball field. In fact, in the game the evening after giving the interview, Kanzler was ejected for arguing a called third strike late in the game.
In any event, he didn’t have to cool it for very long this spring before he was given a plane ticket for Cedar Rapids. Four games in to the season, Kernels center fielder Zack Granite was injured and Kanzler got the call.
Granite rejoined the Kernels last week, but it wasn’t Kanzler’s roster spot he took. Instead, Ivory Thomas was given his unconditional release by the Twins to make room for Granite and Kanzler in the same outfield.
At the Midwest League’s All-Star break, the halfway point of the Kernels’ season, Kanzler is hitting .293 with an .813 OPS. He has five doubles, five triples and one night after his ejection he hit his seventh home run of the year. He has also stolen 10 bases.
Kanzler was utilized as a top-of-the order hitter when he first arrived in Cedar Rapids, but the power he’s demonstrated has resulted in a move toward the middle of the lineup.
How could power go unnoticed?
“I’m not a ‘guy’ really. Just an ‘extended guy’,” Kanzler explained. “I was hurt for 14 days during spring training with a hamstring, so I really only got to play like ten spring training games.”
The pop in his bat may have surprised others, but not Kanzler. “I knew I had it. I think it makes me even more mad that no one else really knew,” he said.
Kanzler has let his play convince others he’s more than just a defensive specialist and slap hitter.
“I guess I could show it off in BP a little bit,” he said, “but they kind of figured I was just a speed guy with good defense and once you get pigeon-holed, it’s hard to kind of climb your way out.”
Kernels hitting coach Tommy Watkins knows Kanzler has a bit of a chip on his shoulder and that the player uses it to his advantage.
“I think that’s one thing that motivated him, being the last guy left off the team,” Watkins said. “From talking to him since he’s been here and in spring training, I think he’s been a guy that people have always told him he couldn’t do it, so he set himself out to prove everybody wrong.
“If you tell him he can’t do it, he’s going to work 10 times harder to prove you wrong.”
Asked about his goals for this season before the year started and whether they have changed at all with his performance in Cedar Rapids, Kanzler was thoughtful with his responses.
“I think my goals are just to play my game,” he responded initially. “I think if I play my game, everything will kind of work itself out. I guess my main goal is to play excellent defense and kind of be a spark plug. I kind of like to do a little bit of everything. So whether it’s hit a home run or steal a base or make a diving catch, I just like to play the game hard.”
Watkins thinks Kanzler’s on the right track with that goal.
“I think for him just to work on his overall game,” Watkins said. “He’s a guy that has tremendous tools, all of them. He can hit, hit with power, he can run, he can throw. He’s got all the tools, it’s just fine-tuning all of them and have them show in the game.”
Of course, Kanzler has longer term goals, too. “My goal is to get to the Big Leagues, but that’s more like a dream than a goal right now. Still a few too many steps away to be a goal yet.”
A native of upstate New York, Kanzler added another potential goal before he reaches the Big Leagues, “Fill up the Red Wings’ stadium.”
“Maybe my (short term) goal would be to make a post-season all-star team and help the Kernels win the second half and get in the playoffs and win the playoffs.
“I like that. I like to win.”
Kanzler and his team mates aren’t accustomed to looking at the standings and seeing their team near the bottom. They don’t like it much.
“Yeah, I think especially because we have, I think, a lot more talent than a lot of the teams that are above us. We have so many games where we can’t put everything together. One or two things go right instead of all three.”
As intense as Kanzler can be on the field, he’s capable of relaxing and enjoying his time away from the ballpark.
Recently, that included a trip to a local music store with team mate and Cedar Rapids native Chad Christensen.
“He (Christensen) bought a guitar and I bought a ukulele,” Kanzler related. “So I’ve been practicing my ukulele a little bit. Ryan Walker has a banjo and it’s amazing, It’s an instrument I’d like to learn.”
How’s that ukulele coming and does it sound good with Christensen’s guitar?
“No we haven’t tried that. The guitar is too loud and they don’t collaborate well I don’t think.
“Chad’s been learning mostly country songs and I’ve been learning video game songs, like Mario and Zelda. That’s my kind of thing. Just fun little stuff.”
You get the feeling that all it would take for Kanzler to become the best ukulele player ever would be for someone to tell him he can’t do it.
As the Cedar Rapids Kernels wrap up the final stretch of the first half of their 2014 Midwest League season, the parent Minnesota Twins sent them some needed starting pitching help in the form of two teenage pitching prospects.
Australian 18-year old lefty Lewis Thorpe and right-hander Fernando Romero, a 19-year old out of the Dominican Republic joined the Kernels from extended spring training last week and both were immediately inserted in to the starting rotation by manager Jake Mauer and pitching coach Ivan Arteaga.
Thorpe was the 6th ranked prospect in the Twins organization by MLB.com during the offseason and #7 on Baseball America’s list of Twins top prospects.
Romero was also among the organization’s top 15 prospects by both organizations coming in to the year.
Romero was the first of the pair to debut, getting a start on Thursday on the road in Appleton WI against the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers. The righty went five full innings, giving up a pair of earned runs on seven hits and one walk. He struck out six Rattler batters. The Kernels lost the game 7-4 but Romero got a no-decision, leaving the game with the score tied at 2-2.
Thorpe had less luck in his first start with the Kernels, picking up a loss in Kane County on Saturday as the Kernels fell to the Cougars, 5-2. All five runs were charged to Thorpe and all were earned. He gave up six hits, walked three and struck out just one batter in 4.2 innings.
It makes for an ugly stat line for Thorpe, but that’s more than a little misleading.
One very close pitch at the knees being called ball four instead of strike three was the difference between escaping the fifth inning relatively unscathed and getting the hook. He left the game with two runs across and bases loaded in the home half of the fifth inning, but all three baserunners came around to score after he departed.
Afterward, Arteaga agreed that Thorpe looked much better than his stat line would indicate.
“He got through two outs in the fifth inning, but just ran out of gas, unfortunately,” said Arteaga. “I think he deserved better. His line doesn’t say what he actually looked like. One thing is his line, but another thing is what he actually did and how he looked.
“He had poise. Obviously he needs a little work with the breaking ball but his fastball (command) isn’t going to be a problem. He throws the ball well. Being the first time and all, I think that I’m very pleased with what I saw.”
Arteaga was also happy with his first look at Romero since spring training in March.
“He’s got one of those arms that make you go, ‘wow,’ Arteaga said, adding that Romero throws, “94 to 99 (mph). He was able to throw a hard slider and a couple of them were sharp, especially against right-handed hitters. Coming over for the first time, I thought he looked really good.”
Arteaga, whose rotation has struggled at times through much of the season, was heartened by his first look at the new additions.
“It’s very encouraging, to have those two guys join the rotation – very encouraging for everybody because they showed that they will compete. They will throw it over and they’re going to be just fine, as advertised.
“I saw Romero and Thorpe during spring training. It was just basically a matter of time before they were going to join us and the time has come. They’re here and they’re doing really well.”
Thorpe and Romero will form one-third of the Kernels’ six-man rotation going forward, joining four pitchers selected by the Twins in the 2013 First Year Player Draft: Kohl Stewart (1st round), Ryan Eades (2nd round), Aaron Slegers (5th round) and Ethan Mildren (12th round).
The Kernels, who sat in seventh place in the eight-team Western Division of the MWL coming out of the weekend, will get a chance to start over with a clean slate as the league divides their season in to two halves with the second half starting on Thursday, June 19, after next week’s MWL All-Star Game. – JC