Who Will Lead Kernels in 2014?

I’ve never been someone that pays an enormous amount of attention to the MLB First-Year Player Draft. Most years, I would glance at a few writers focusing on who the Twins might draft in the first round, but the draft itself just held little interest for me.

I suppose, like many people, it just seemed to me that it was going to be several years before I would ever see any of the young players drafted in a given year put on a Twins uniform, so there was little point in spending much of my time on the draft.

Byron Buxton

Byron Buxton

I’m coming around, though, and, yes, it has a lot to do with the Twins now being affiliated with my local minor league team, the Cedar Rapids Kernels.

During their last several years as an Angels affiliate, it just seemed to me that the parent organization seldom sent many of their top prospects to Cedar Rapids right away (if at all). That may be unfair, I don’t know. I honestly never looked up whether my perception of things was backed up by facts.

But I do know this: Players drafted by the Twins in the 2012 First-Year Draft have played critical roles in putting the Kernels atop the Midwest League Western Division Standings with less than two weeks before the end of the first half of the season.

How critical? I”m glad you asked.

Infielder Joel Licon, who joined the team from extended spring training just this week, and pitcher Christian Powell, who is expected to join the Kernels Wednesday from extended spring training, are the ninth and tenth players drafted last summer to suit up for the Kernels this season. While Kernels fans haven’t had a chance to get to know Licon and Powell yet, the other eight members of the 2012 draft class have made significant impacts. Consider:

Byron Buxton (1st round)): .333/.435/.545 (.980) 11 2Bs, 5 3Bs, 7 HRs
Adam Brett Walker (3rd): .270/.321/.530 (.851) 12 2Bs, 5 3Bs, 10 HRs
Dalton Hicks (17th): .299/.376/.485 (.861) 17 2Bs, 7 HRs

I’m not sure where the Kernels would be without those bats this season, but they’d have been a lot less fun to watch. But if that’s impressive, check out these pitchers:

Jose Berrios (Supp 1st round): 4-2, 39 IP, 2.54 ERA, 44 Ks, 1.28 WHIP
Mason Melotakis (2nd): 5-2, 51.1 IP, 3.68 ERA, 42 Ks, 1.52 WHIP
Tyler Duffey (5th): 3-2, 58.1 IP, 2.78 ERA, 47 Ks, 0.94 WHIP
Taylor Rogers (11th): 0-1, 10 IP, 7.20 ERA, 10 Ks, 1.80 WHIP
Alex Muren (12th): 3-0, 15.2 IP, 2.87 ERA,  10 Ks, 1.21 WHIP

Clearly, anyone who might want a sneak peek at who is likely to be playing big roles for the 2014 Cedar Rapids Kernels should pay close attention to who the Twins pick with the 4th overall pick in the first round of the draft on Thursday and any college age players drafted in the following 15 rounds or so.

Jose Berrios

Jose Berrios

Of the ten players listed above, only first round picks Buxton and Berrios were selected following their senior seasons of high school baseball. The others all had at least some amount of college experience prior to being selected and signed by the Twins.

The Twins’ brass have their work cut out for them to replace that kind of productivity with the Kernels from the draft class of 2012.

Of course, most players drafted this week won’t wear a Kernels uniform next year. More will likely arrive in Cedar Rapids the following year during the 2015 campaign.

Eleven of this year’s Kernels were selected by the Twins in the 2011 draft. That list includes third baseman Travis Harrison, catcher Tyler Grimes and eight pitchers who have toed the rubber at some point during the season as a member of the Kernels pitching staff.

With the addition of Powell, 21 of the 33 players who will have worn a Kernels uniform this season were drafted by the Twins in the past two years and several more could still arrive in Cedar Rapids this summer as promotions and injuries create roster openings.

Of course, Kernels fans may not have to wait until 2014 to get a look at some of this year’s draft talent. Under the terms of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, players with college eligibility remaining must be signed by July 15. That’s much earlier than under the agreement in place before last year, which makes protracted contract negotiations almost impossible.

As a result, some of the players selected in this week’s draft may have an opportunity to be assigned to Cedar Rapids before the end of this season. Last year, the Twins sent a handful of pitchers from their 2012 draft class to their Midwest League affiliate, the Beloit Snappers, to help the Snappers during their playoff run.

The first and second rounds of the 2013 MLB Amateur Draft will be broadcast on the MLB Network and streamed live on MLB.com Thursday evening, beginning at 6:00 CT. Rounds 3-10 will be streamed on MLB.com beginning Friday afternoon and rounds 11-40 will be streamed on MLB.com beginning Saturday afternoon. – JC

Mason Melotakis Serves as Kernels Stopper

Through May 21, the Cedar Rapids Kernels had built up an impressive 30-13 record and held a five game lead over their closest competition in the Western Division of the Midwest League.

They then left town for a quick three-game road trip to Beloit after taking three out of four games from Kane County. They had no clue at that time that they not only would get swept by the second place Snappers on that trip, but would also return home and drop all three games of a series against the last place Burlington Bees.

But that’s exactly what happened to the Kernels as almost every part of their game seemed to fall apart at the same time over the past week.

The defense not only started committing more errors than usual, but those errors seemed to come at precisely the worst possible time.

The timely hitting that had almost become a trademark of the team through the first six weeks of the season disappeared as they hit safely just 13 times in 54 opportunities with runners in scoring position during their losing streak and scored just three runs in four of the six games.

Perhaps most concerning, the Kernels’ starting pitching rotation averaged less than five innings of work per game over the six losses. The rotation arms gave up a whopping 45 hits and 33 runs (28 of them earned) in 29 2/3 innings during that stretch of games.

Kernels pitching coach Gary Lucas was asked what had gone wrong with the team’s starting pitching.

“I don’t know. These teams that begin with the letter B, Beloit and Burlington, took it to us,” conceded Lucas, after Tuesday night’s 9-4 win over Clinton.

“I can’t explain it. It’s been a little bit of everything here. It’s a bump in the road that all teams have, good and bad. Burlington’s turning some things around, Beloit’s turning some things around. We’ve got to overcome a losing streak and get back to our winning ways and hopefully this starts that process.”

Tuesday’s starting pitcher, Mason Melotakis, gave his team seven strong innings of work. That’s the first game a Kernels starting pitcher has worked seven innings since Tyler Duffey went 7 2/3 innings in a May 18 extra-inning win over Kane County.

Mason Melotakis

Mason Melotakis

Melotakis and Duffey are two of the Twins organization’s “conversion projects” this summer. Both were relief pitchers in college, but the Twins want to see if they are capable of playing a starting pitching role in the professional ranks.

To be successful, both pitchers will need to refine their secondary pitches – their breaking balls and change ups – rather than just rely on their ability to throw fastballs in excess of 90 miles per hour.

Melotakis feels the key for him is not letting hitters dig in against him. “I like to work in and out and make the hitters uncomfortable. I try to keep them uncomfortable and off balance in the box.”

Lucas feels that Melotakis is making progress in that area. “He is always going to attack with his fastball and he’s learning how to use it on both sides of the plate. The change up and the breaking ball are still a work in progress.”

“I think the fact that he’s using them over longer stretches, being a starter now and not a reliever, he’s got to do different things with those pitches,” Lucas added.

“He probably didn’t use a change up much as a reliever. In fact, I know when he was with us last year he didn’t. I think just staying on top of these kids and just developing touch/feel with their pitches. It’s a little inconsistent right now, but hopefully with innings, it’ll come. He (Melotakis) shows flashes of really being a consistent competitor with that fastball on both sides of the plate.”

In addition to developing other pitches, Duffey and Melotakis will also have to throw a lot more innings over the course of a season than they have in the past.

The Kernels are utilizing a six-man rotation that they hope will allow their starting pitchers to get through an entire season of rotation work without putting excessive wear and tear on their arms. It’s also hoped that doing so will make the conversion process easier for pitchers like Duffey and Melotakis.

But with the Kernels starting pitching struggling of late, could it be that some of these pitchers are tiring a bit as the team nears the half-way point of their season?

“It’s a good point. We should watch that to see at some point how they react and how their strength and how their stamina and their endurance (hold up).” Lucas said.

But Lucas isn’t ready to buy in to the theory already.

“Both Melotakis and Duffey, the key guys that used to be relievers and now are starters, they’ve got durability on their side. They’re strong. They’re hard workers. So I think they’ll be fine over the long haul. And they’re on a six man rotation so they usually get an extra day. We’re hoping that pays dividends as we move along.”

The Kernels added Hein Robb, a lefty from South Africa who just turned 21 on May 12, to their rotation this week. Robb replaced Matt Tomshaw, who was promoted to the Fort Myers Miracle.

Lucas indicated Robb would be inserted in to the rotation after Duffey, who is scheduled to pitch for the Kernels Wednesday night. That would mean Robb should make his Midwest League debut against Clinton on Thursday in Cedar Rapids.

Q & A with Kernels 3B Travis Harrison

I conducted the  following interview on behalf of MetroSportsReport.com and it is reprinted here with permission. All photos are original and property of myself and Knuckleballs – SD Buhr


One of the top ranked high school power hitters at the time, Travis Harrison was drafted by the Twins with a supplemental first round pick (the 50th overall pick) in 2011. He signed a $1.05 million bonus to join the Twins organization and bypassed a scholarship offer to play baseball for USC. There’s never been much doubt about Harrison’s ability to hit a baseball. The question in many minds is what his ultimate defensive position will be. Right now, the Twins are working with Harrison to develop his skills at third base for the Cedar Rapids Kernels.


Travis Harrison

Travis Harrison

Harrison is one of the top third base prospects in the Twins minor league organization, along with super-prospect Miguel Sano, who is currently playing for high Class A Fort Myers.


This past Friday night, Harrison gave his Kernels team a dramatic win with a 12th inning walk-off single to beat the Kane County Cougars. It was the second consecutive walk-off victory for the Kernels, coming just one night after Byron Buxton’s walk-off grand slam home run to beat the Burlington Bees.


It was Harrison’s second walk-off single recently. The first came when he hit what appeared to be a grand slam home run to beat the Lansing Lugnuts. However, his team mates mobbed him as he rounded second base and two of the runners ahead of him were ruled by the umpires to have abandoned their attempts to advance, leaving Harrison with a very long game winning single, rather than a home run.


On Saturday afternoon, the day after his most recent game winning hit, Harrison sat down for an interview with Metro Sports Report.


Metro Sports Report: You’re still learning to play third base. You had kind of a rough start to the season with something like five errors in the first 10 games. You seem to be looking a lot more comfortable out there lately. Are you feeling better out there?


Travis Harrison and Manager Jake Mauer

Travis Harrison and Manager Jake Mauer

Travis Harrison: Yeah, I’ve been feeling good. Jake (Manager Jake Mauer) has been helping a ton and he’s also made me learn that I might have a couple of errors, but they’re errors being aggressive. They (official scorers) are giving me errors on tough plays, but I want to be a big league third baseman, so that’s fine.


But I’m not worried about the errors, I’m worried about making plays for the pitcher, making plays for the team. Just like any other infielder, if they give you an error and you’re doing the best you can do, you can’t control that.


MSR: You’ve made a lot of pretty nice plays out there as well. You probably feel better about those than you necessarily feel bad about the errors?


Harrison: Yeah, I mean you always want to make the routine plays first, that’s your number one goal, so you focus on that. You give 100 per cent effort and you’re going to make highlight plays every once in a while and those are good for the team. But first of all, you want to make the routine plays. Those are most important.


MSR: The Twins have, for years, had a little trouble finding a third baseman to stick at the big league level. Is that something that gives you some motivation? The flip side of that is there are a couple of guys in the organization above you that look like they could have the potential to stick as well. Do you pay attention to what everyone else in the organization at your position is doing or do you just go out and worry about playing your game?


Harrison: I just go out and play. I want to be the starting third baseman for the Twins for a long time. I mean that’s the goal. I know I can do it. I just have to keep putting in the hard work and I’ll get there.


Following the other people? No. I know the other guys because of spring training. I know Miguel (Sano), we worked out together. Miguel’s a great player. I’m just going to work my ass off and whatever happens is going to happen.


MSR: You look around the Midwest League and you would be leading a lot of teams in a lot of offensive statistical categories. Here, you’re one part, though one very important part, of an awfully good day-to-day lineup.


Harrison: It’s fun to be a part of. We’re all off to good starts. We’re all hitting the ball pretty well and we’re all pulling for each other. No one’s concerned with who has the most RBIs or anything. We’re all just trying to do a job. I gotta say though, Walker (Adam Brett Walker) is stealing a lot of my RBIs, isn’t he? Every time I get up there, there’s no one on base! (laughing)


It’s fun. Walker’s obviously off to a good start, Buck (Byron Buxton) is off to a good start. Everyone in the lineup really is. And so we’re all just having fun, doing the best we can.


Stats don’t really tell you anything in baseball. Nothing really.


Travis Harrison

Travis Harrison

MSR: There’s a whole sabermetric community that doesn’t want to hear you say that!


Harrison: Right (laughing). It’s true though, ya know. For example, they saw Niko (Goodrum) had an error last night. Niko had the best game he’s had all year at shortstop last night! It’s stuff like that. So, they get on you about numbers things, things like that. It’s just not the story, so we don’t worry about that kind of stuff.


MSR: You’ve had, at least that I’ve seen, two walk-off singles. This one was a little different than the last time.


Harrison: This one was a real single (laughing).


Yeah, those are fun. The only non-fun part about it is getting drenched with ice in the shower. Buck had to go through it the night before and they got me last night, but yeah it’s exciting. Just goes back to pulling for each other. Just trying to get it done. We’re not a bunch of selfish guys, we’re just trying to win for the team.


MSR: You might be responsible for one lesson that the entire team has learned. After Buxton’s grand slam the other night, everybody came to home plate and waited for him instead of chasing him around second base. So there’s a lesson learned. I don’t know if you’re responsible for teaching it to them, but somebody did, right?


Harrison: (laughing) Right, that was good. With Buck’s, we were down by three so they didn’t have a choice.


MSR: You’re not going to tell me those guys ran around chasing you because they knew it didn’t matter if your run counted or not. You don’t really believe anybody was thinking like that.


Harrison: No, we were all just super excited. They weren’t trying to steal anything away from me. I was excited, I was jumping up and down. It didn’t matter. When they told me it was a single after the game, I wasn’t really worried about it.


MSR: Tell me a little about yourself in high school. Were you a mulit-sport guy or did you pretty much stick to baseball?


Harrison: No, I stuck to baseball. I played with APD Academy all through high school. It’s a big baseball academy out in southern California. I started at a really young age and I stuck with that.


I played basketball in middle school. Never played football, even though I went to a big football school. I stayed away from that. It was all baseball. I tried to focus on that. I’ve always played golf. Golf’s fun. I enjoy that.


MSR: That was going to be the next question. Away from the ballpark, what sort of things do you enjoy doing?


Harrison: I love playing golf. I’m a big golfer. I love playing the guitar. I like things that kind of take me away from playing baseball and things that I can just relax and just focus on that. I’m not a big video game guy. I’ve always gotta do something. So when I’m out on the golf course, I feel like I’m not even thinking about baseball. I’m just away from it. Like, sometimes if I’m going through a slump, I go out and play a round of golf in the morning just to reset.


MSR: The coaches don’t mind that? This is old school, but there was a time when coaches discouraged players from golfing because they didn’t want it screwing up the player’s swing.


Harrison: Everyone tells me that. I think of it as two totally different sports. I’ve been swinging a baseball bat since I was three or four years old, so I’m not going to forget how to do that. I don’t even think about that. They’re both hand-eye coordination.


I think if it gets in your head, that’s when you might get screwed up. Once you get to know the golf swing, there’s actually a lot of similar things that go on between a golf swing and a baseball swing. Obviously, the ball’s down but it’s never really bothered me, it’s always relaxed me and it’s got me focused again.


MSR: I read somewhere that the Twins wanted you to show more power this year, rather than spraying the ball to all fields. That seems contrary to the Twins past hitting philosophy, in my mind. Is that what they wanted to see you do more of this year?


Harrison: I think so. I mean they want me to hit the ball hard and hit the ball out of the park and hit doubles and that kind of thing. I don’t go up there thinking, “try to hit a home run.” I think, “try to hit a hard line drive.”


I know home runs are going to come. Home runs are about selecting a pitch you can drive out of the yard instead of taking one you can hit to right field for a single. And I’m learning that, slowly. I’ve hit some home runs this year and I’ve hit a lot of doubles and so that’s going well.


MSR: I think you’ve got the same number of home runs this year that you had all of last year.


Harrison: Yeah, I should have more! (laughing)


MSR: At least one!


Harrison: (smiling) So yeah, it’s going good.


Post-script: Harrison hit a home run in Sunday’s game and another in Monday’s game.  On Tuesday, the Kernels had a Charity Golf Outing. I can’t say I know for sure, but I’m guessing Harrison participated. – JC

Kernels Video: Goodrum and Buxton

Monday was supposed to be a noon start for the Kernels, but the storms that rolled through Cedar Rapids did a little number on the ballpark. They lost electricity for quite some time and there was some damage to signage and one of the picnic areas in left field. The infield tarp didn’t exactly end the night in the same position it started it, either.

Nonetheless, the Kernels’ staff worked their butts off and the final game of the team’s series with the Kane County Cougars got started about 1:30. Personally, that worked out great for me, since I couldn’t shake myself loose from the office until after 1:00, but there were several busloads of youngsters from schools that only got to see a couple of innings of baseball before having to get back on their buses.

The Kernels ended up winning the game 8-7 and claiming three out of four games in the series against the Cubs’ MWL affiliate.

Byron Buxton and Travis Harrison each hit their seventh home run of the season this afternoon. I have no video of either home run. (Sorry guys, but I can’t capture every at-bat on video. I have to put my camera down to drink a beer every once in a while, after all.)

But I did catch a couple of things I thought you all might enjoy seeing.

First… here’s a video of Niko Goodrum’s bases clearing triple in the sixth inning.

Goodrum is just one Kernels player with serious wheels.

As I said, I didn’t get a video of Travis Harrison’s home run, which exited the entire ballpark and landed on 8th Avenue. Byron Buxton has hit a few out on to the same street, but his home run today merely cleared the LCF wall (borrrrrrring) and I didn’t get a video of that, either.

But Buck doesn’t just score on home runs.

Here’s a series of videos that I think demonstrates how capable the Kernels are of manufacturing runs. It happens to involve Buxton, but honestly, it could just as easily feature any number of Kernels hitters.

Buxton leads off the fifth inning with a chopper up the middle. It was ruled an error on the shortstop and I understand that… but it’s highly unlikely that Buxton gets thrown out at 1B even if the guy fields the ball cleanly. Every infielder in the league knows that they have to play every infield ground ball perfectly to throw out at least half of the Kernels hitters.


Buxton takes a modest lead off of 1B, but that doesn’t stop the Cougars from throwing over to keep him close. Nor does it keep Buxton from stealing 2B. The catcher, again knowing he has to hurry, doesn’t come up with the pitch cleanly and can’t even make a throw.


Candido Pimentel expertly hits behind Buxton and moves him to 3B.


With one out, Niko Goodrum makes contact and drives Buxton in with a ground ball.


It’s not as flashy as a home run, but it’s an example of how Buxton and his team mates have used their speed to intimidate and ultimately beat their opponents through the first several weeks of the season.


Kernels Video: Harrison Walkoff Single Beats Cougars

For the second consecutive night, the Cedar Rapids Kernels won a game in dramatic fashion when third baseman Travis Harrison hit a walkoff single down the left field line in the bottom of the 12th inning to beat the Cubs affiliate in the Midwest League, the Kane County Cougars.

The video below captures Harrison’s apparent attempt to hit manager Jake Mauer with a foul ball just before driving in the winning run. Failing to do so, he settled for a single down the left field line to score Jorge Polanco with the game winning run. Polanco had walked to start the inning and advanced to second base via a sacrifice bunt by cleanup hitter Dalton Hicks.

Kernels Video: Buxton Walkoff Grand Slam

This is becoming almost commonplace.

Thursday night, Twins prospect Byron Buxton came to the plate with one out in the bottom of the ninth inning, the bases loaded, and his Kernels team trailing the Burlington Bees 6-3.

Again, pardon the photography. I had to take this video from the second row of the Kernels pressbox, behind the Mediacom “MC22″ broadcasters who were televising the game. The bonus, I guess, is that you can hear their call of what happens next.

Please note, unlike when Travis Harrison launched a walkoff grand slam a couple of weeks ago, the Kernels bench did not chase Buxton around the basepaths, but waited for him to reach home plate before mobbing him. It’s nice to know that particular lesson has been learned!

After the game, Buxton got the traditional shaving cream to the face during a television interview.

You might expect that a superstar-in-the-making like Buxton would rush straight from the TV interview to the clubhouse to join his team mates in their celebration. But not Buxton. He signed autographs and posed for pictures with fans for several minutes before making his way up the tunnel to the clubhouse.

Byron Buxton

Byron Buxton

Byron Buxton

Byron Buxton

Kernels Videos: Polanco, Hicks, Grimes

I spent Wednesday evening watching a doubleheader between the Cedar Rapids Kernels and the Burlington Bees (the Angels MWL affiliate). The two clubs split the two games with the Kernels winning the first game 6-5 and the Bees taking the nightcap 6-4.

In the first game, the Kernels came from behind and scored four runs in the third inning to take the lead. They fell behind again, but tied the game back up in the fifth inning with a Jorge Polanco triple, followed by a Dalton Hicks double. Here, if you will pardon the shaky video photography, are Polanco’s triple and Hicks’ RBI double.

Two of the newest members of the Kernels combined to contribute the ultimate game winning run as new catcher Michael Quesada beat out an infield single and pinch runner Jeremias Pineda stole second, advanced to third on a fielder’s choice and scored on a wild pitch. Josue Montanez, who just returned to the Cedar Rapids from Extended Spring Training, pitched the final two innings to earn the win for the Kernels.

In the second game, Kernels fans had very little to get excited about. However, Tyler Grimes did give fans an opportunity to cheer with this two-run home run, driving in Travis Harrison ahead of him.

The Bees and Kernels finish up their four-game series Thursday night and host the Kane County Cougars (the Cubs MWL affiliate) for four games Friday through Monday.

Clash of Top Two Picks May Have to Wait

Wednesday, May 8, was supposed to be a big night for fans that follow the top minor league prospects in professional baseball. Quad Cities shortstop Carlos Correa, selected with the No. 1 pick overall by the Astros in last June’s amateur draft, was set to go head-to-head against Kernels’ center fielder Byron Buxton, chosen as the No. 2 pick overall in the same draft by the Twins.

Byron Buxton

Byron Buxton

According to MiLB.com, it was the first time two position players of high school age were drafted in the first two spots in over 20 years. As a result, it is almost inevitable that Correa and Buxton will be compared closely to one another throughout their careers.

But thanks to a pitch that hit Correa in the hand a week ago and put him on the River Bandits Disabled List, their first match up on the same field will have to wait. The question is, for how long?

Correa was placed on the Bandits’ 7-day Disabled List on Friday, May 3, which would make him eligible to be reactivated for this Friday’s series finale with the Kernels. However, there’s been no indication from the team that they intend to do so.

After this series, the Kernels and River Bandits are scheduled to face one another next on June 5 in Cedar Rapids. Then again, if Buxton continues to perform at current levels, there is legitimate reason to question whether he will still be wearing a Kernels uniform at that point.

Carlos Correa (Photo: ESPN.go.com)

Carlos Correa (Photo: ESPN.go.com)

If Correa and Buxton don’t face one another this season, it’s unlikely they’ll match up again in a regular season game until they wear Big League uniforms for the Astros and Twins. The two organizations have no high-A, AA or AAA affiliates playing in the same league.

How rare would an early meeting of No. 1 and No. 2 picks from the same draft be? Only three times have the top two picks in the draft made their full-season debuts in the same league in the same season. It hasn’t happened in the Midwest League since the No. 1 pick in the 1983 draft, Tim Belcher*, opened the following season with the Madison Muskies and No. 2 pick Kurt Stillwell was in a Cedar Rapids Reds uniform.

It’s not difficult to understand, then, why many fans have looked forward to seeing Correa and Buxton on the same field this season.

Though we may not see Buxton and Correa share a ball field this week, we can take a look at how their first years of full-season professional baseball have compared so far.

There’s no doubt that Buxton is off to the better start. While there is already considerable speculation concerning how soon the Kernels’ center fielder might be promoted to the next level in the Twins’ minor league organization, there has been little, if any, such speculation where Correa is concerned.

Byron Buxton

Byron Buxton

Five weeks in to the season, Buxton has played in all but one of the Kernels’ 29 games and has the second highest batting average in the Midwest League at .373. Correa was having some trouble staying on the field for the River Bandits even before his current stint on the Disabled List. He has already missed 11 of Quad Cities’ 29 games and is hitting just .221 on the year.

Buxton leads the MWL with a .488 on-base percentage and also leads the league with a .647 slugging percentage. Combined, that puts his OPS (on-base plus slugging) at a league-high 1.135. Of Buxton’s 38 hits, 15 (or almost 40 per cent) have been for extra bases. He has seven doubles, three triples and five home runs. Buxton has walked more times (24) than he has struck out (21) and has stolen 13 bases in 17 attempts.

Correa has reached base at a .384 clip and is slugging just .397, for a .781 OPS. He has three doubles and three home runs. Correa has drawn just 15 walks while striking out 23 times. He has one stolen base and has been caught stealing once.

Five very early weeks in the professional careers of these two prospects mean very little, of course, in terms of predicting their ultimate success or failure as Major League ballplayers. If both men stay with their current organizations long term, fans should eventually have plenty of opportunities for side by side comparisons at the Major League level, now that Correa’s Astros are in the American League.

Regardless of whether Correa is activated in time to face Buxton and the Kernels this week, fans in Cedar Rapids should get their first opportunity to see the No. 1 pick in last year’s draft on June 5 when the River Bandits make their first appearance of the season at Veterans Memorial Stadium.

Whether Byron Buxton will still be around to greet him remains to be seen.

- JC

*As long time Twins fans know, Tim Belcher had been selected No. 1 by Minnesota in the 1983 draft and did not sign. He then was drafted No. 1 by the Yankees in the subsequent January 1984 Secondary Draft and ended up with the Athletics organization as a Free Agent Compensation selection a month later.

Q&A With Kernels’ JD Williams

Cedar Rapids Kernels outfielder JaDamion (J.D.) Williams is in his fourth season with the Minnesota Twins organization. He was drafted by the Twins in the 10th round of the 2010 amateur draft.

JD WIlliams with some pregame stretching

JD WIlliams with some pregame stretching

After a very productive 2011 season at Rookie League level Elizabethton, where he hit .324, Williams hit only .237 for the Beloit Snappers a year ago and accumulated an on-base percentage of .311.

In his second year in the Midwest League, Williams is off to a much better start for the Kernels.

Hitting out of the ninth spot in Manager Jake Mauer’s batting order, Williams spent most of the first three weeks of the season with a batting average approaching .300. While he’s dropped to .250 through Tuesday’s game, he’s sporting an impressive .446 on-base percentage. He’s also hit four doubles and three home runs, leading to a  slugging percentage sufficient to put his OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) up to .946. Those numbers may not be sustainable, but they reflect a new approach to hitting this season.

Williams sat down for an interview over the weekend to discuss his first few weeks in Cedar Rapids and his role, thus far, with the Kernels.

Knuckleballs: This is your second season in the Midwest League. Is there anything specifically different about how you feel going in to this year as opposed to starting last year in Beloit?

J.D. Williams: Just the fact that I’ve had a year here in this league and I’ve learned a lot more. I’m more of a mature player, mature of a hitter and fielder. Learning from different guys. Our hitting coach Tommy Watkins, this is my second year working with him. Guys such as (Twins minor league hitting coordinator) Bill Springman, those guys just teaching me not necessarily the athletic side of the game but baseball mentality. Just learning to be a baseball player, not just running around.

Knuckleballs: Was it disappointing to find out you were going to be coming back to the Midwest League or was that something you were pretty much prepared for happening this year?

JDW: I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, but like they say, as long as you got a jersey on, somebody likes you. I didn’t do what I wanted to do here (in the Midwest League) last year, so it doesn’t bother me that I’m back here. I’m playing a lot better this year, so it is what it is.

Williams1Knuckleballs: Did the Twins give you anything specific to work on? Did they say, “this is what we really want you to work on going in to the season. That’s what you’re going to have to do to advance.”?

JDW: Basically, they wanted me to cut down on my strikeouts; put the ball in play a lot more because I can run but you cant steal first base, like they say. I think I’m doing a lot better at that this year. I’m walking a lot more, not just going up there swinging at every pitch I see, opposed to like I was doing last year.


JD Williams waits his turn for batting practice as Byron Buxton gets his swings

Knuckleballs: They probably don’t exactly encourage you to run a lot with Byron Buxton coming up behind you, though.

JDW: (Laughs) He talks to me a lot. He tells me he’s going to give me a few pitches to run. We’ve got our little sign for when I’m gonna run and whatnot. So we work on that a lot, try to get each other a couple of bases.

Knuckleballs: Growing up, did you have a favorite player, someone you wanted to be like?

JDW: Growing up I liked to watch Brandon Phillips. That was back when I was an infielder and I’m an outfielder now. Of course, I like Denard Span and those guys. Michael Bourne, Juan Pierre, those guys that can run, get on base, steal a couple of bases. I want to be just like those guys.

Knuckleballs: Is there anything about coming to Cedar Rapids that you’ve found different than what you expected it to be?

JDW: Yeah, I love the atmosphere here, the stadium, the people. It’s a lot bigger than Beloit, obviously. Just a lot louder atmosphere. It’s fun playing here. Much more fun team this year, the guys, everything is different this year.

Knuckleballs: You’re making a statement at the bottom of the order. There’s a cliché about the number nine guy being a second leadoff hitter, but that’s not just a cliché with the way you’re getting on base.

JDW: That’s what Jake told me at the beginning of the season. He told me I was probably going to bat ninth and I told him that didn’t bother me at all. If Buxton’s doing a great job at the top of the order, I’ll score a bunch of runs batting in front of Buxton so I’m not gonna argue with that at all. Basically, like I said, we’re just having fun, man. I enjoy hitting in the nine hole in front of those guys.

Knuckleballs: Is there anything that Twins fans and Kernels fans don’t know about you that you’d like the fans to know about you?

JDW: I’m not sure what they know about me yet (laughs), probably not a lot, yet. I’m going to try to change that in the future though, you know? Let these guys know who I am. Not many people know who I am.

Williams and his Kernels team mates are off to a very good start, leading the Midwest League’s Western Division by three games over Quad Cities and riding a nine game winning streak, through Tuesday. If they keep it up, Kernels fans will be getting to know him much better.

Crazy Ending Results in Kernels Grand Slam “Single”

The Cedar Rapids Kernels beat the Great Lakes Loons Saturday night in dramatic, extra-inning fashion.

Adam Brett Walker hit a game-tying three-run home run with two out in the bottom of the ninth inning to send the game in to extra innings.

In the bottom of the 11th inning, the Kernels loaded the bases and Manager Jake Mauer sent Travis Harrison to the plate to pinch hit. If you’ll pardon the quality of the video from my phone, I’ll share what happened next:

Niko Goodrum, the runner on third base, trotted in to score the winning run, but did you notice the two runners immediate ahead of Harrison? Dalton Hicks and Adam Brett Walker appear to peel off their paths after rounding third base and run toward the infield to join the celebration. Eventually, it appears they may have returned to the baseline and found their ways to home plate ahead of Harrison.

In the end, however, the umpires ruled that while Goodrum scored the winning run, Harrison and the other two runners abandoned their efforts to advance. The result is that Harrison was credited with a walk-off RBI single and the Kernels won 8-7.

- JC