Kernels in a Dogfight for MWL Postseason Spot

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.

There weren't a lot of reasons for Kernels manager Jake Mauer and pitching coach Ivan Arteaga to smile in the season's first half, but that's changing.

There weren’t a lot of reasons for Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and manager Jake Mauer to smile in the season’s first half, but that’s changing.

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.

Michael Quesada

Michael Quesada

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.

Alex Swim

Alex Swim

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.”

Indeed.

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.

Aaron Slegers

Aaron Slegers

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.

Chih-Wei Hu

Chih-Wei Hu

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.

Episode 85: Astatine, Jim Callis and the Most Important Coach in Baseball

Half of Twins Territory still thinks we’re morons, but “This is Talk to Contact.” You can download the new Talk to Contact (@TalkToContact) episode via iTunes or click here you can download the new episode, and if you want to add the show to your podcast player, this is the RSS Feed.

This week’s episode is highlighted by a lengthy interview with Jim Callis (@JimCallisMLB, MLBpipeline.com) who talks about the draft and a whole mess of Twins topics. The Baseball Pirate makes his return from defending the homeland and the whole gang is back together for the first time in a long time. The show starts out with a rousing discussion of which coach is the most important coach in baseball, and whether or not any of the players on the 25-man roster could be more important than the most important coach. Interesting things are happening.

Brian Dozier continues to impress, the Twins pitchers continue to distress (except for Punxsutawney Phil Hughes), and Eduardo Escobar continues to mash extra-base hits like it’s his job (because it is). Is Eddie Escobar playing over his head? Probably some, but could this also be the natural maturation of a player who’s been in the big leagues since his age-22 season?

Eddie Rosario makes his return from his drug suspension, Ben Revere hits a real life, honest to god, over the wall home run and Carlos Gomez says “It’s sexy batting clean-up!” All this and more on this week’s episode of Talk to Contact.

 

You can follow Cody on Twitter (@NoDakTwinsFan) or read his writing at NoDakTwinsFan, you can find Paul on Twitter (@BaseballPirate) and you can find Mr. Jay Corn on Twitter (@Jay__Corn)!

If you enjoy our podcast, please take a couple extra minutes and rate and review our show on iTunes.   iTunes ratings and reviews are the main way to get us kicked off of iTunes, again.

Memorial Day is for Remembering

I sat down to write a Memorial Day post that captures the meaning of this Holiday and quickly determined I couldn’t do better than Babs did a year ago. So, rather than pale by comparison, I’ll simply re-post her contribution. Enjoy your holidays, but pause at some point today to remember. – JC

We’ll come back to baseball later today, of course, but I want to encourage all of our readers to take a moment’s pause today. For all those who have served in our nation’s military, we thank you.  For all those families who have sacrificed, we thank you.

But in the true recognition of Memorial Day and it’s history, we remember those who fell in the service of this country and we honor their memory. This is not Veterans Day -although I esteem them highly and am very glad to have them with us. This is Memorial Day – the time to remember those who never came home paying a cost none of us have ever paid.

There is no way to pay the debt owed for the privileges I enjoy.  I can only recognize the depth of loss.

We encourage all our readers to enjoy their Memorial Day in whatever manner they choose but to take a moment during the day to remember those we’ve lost. We use this quote a lot but considering Memorial Day was born out of the Civil War, it seems appropriate.

… The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion … 

Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address

Sunday Morning Comic Relief

The weather in Minnesota this weekend is EXACTLY why we say that summer begins on Memorial Day weekend. I means that anyone who CAN is spending this day outside somewhere.. I just hope that everyone remembers what tomorrow is about..  and maybe watch some baseball too.

schulz2a

What to do with Kurt Suzuki?

Kurt Suzuki is out producing the expectations of even the most optimistic Twins fan.  He’s 30 years old and coming in to 2014 had a career line of .253/.309/.375, and even that is rosy considering what he’s done the past two seasons, .234/.282/.332 (for reference, Talk to Contact favorite, Drew “Boat Anchor” Butera, is hitting .231/.300/.385 in 2014).  So the Twins bought low on a guy and brought him in with the hopes that he could help out Josmil Pinto, and because Suzuki is seen as a good “clubhouse guy.”

Minnesota Twins catcher Kurt  Suzuki (8) hits a two-run single against the Chicago White Sox in the third inning of an opening day baseball game at U.S Cellular Field in Chicago on March 31, 2014. (Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports)

Minnesota Twins catcher Kurt Suzuki (8) hits a two-run single against the Chicago White Sox in the third inning of an opening day baseball game at U.S Cellular Field in Chicago on March 31, 2014. (Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports)

Through his first 34 games of the year, Suzuki is hitting .332/.388/.430.  He has an OBP north of .380 against both left and right handed pitchers. The Twins like what he’s doing with the bat so much they have stuck him in the lineup four times as the starting designated hitter.

Maybe just a hot start, right?  He’s actually been better in May than he was in March and April.  He started hot, and now he is getting hotter. Over his entire career, Suzuki has played better in the first month of the year than any other month, exactly what you might expect from a catcher that the Oakland Athletics ran out as their everyday catcher at least 117 times for five straight years (he caught his fewest games since his rookie season last year, 93).

Kurt Suzuki is doing all of this on a one-year, $2.75 million dollar contract.  the Twins bought low and now they are in a great position to turn Suzuki into some surplus value via trade.  Or, because he is only 30 years old, the Twins might consider signing him to a modest contract extension, just as they did with Ryan Doumit.*

*Ryan Doumit hit .275/.320/.461 in 2012 in his first year (age 31 season) with the Twins.  The Twins extended him for two additional years with an extra $7 million dollars in late June 2012, making his total deal with the Twins three years/$10 million.  With Doumit, the Twins were basically getting output from Doumit in line with his career numbers, so there was a little less risk, but in two of the three seasons prior to coming to Minnesota, Doumit either hit poorly or was injured (or both), so they were able to sign (what looks like now) such a team friendly deal.  The Twins ultimately flipped Doumit to Atlanta** following a poor 2013 season which saw Doumit struggle at the plate and with concussion issues.  He’s hitting .200/.217/.222 for the Braves.  

**The Twins received LHP Sean Gilmartin in return for Doumit, a former first round draft pick (2011), who is currently performing well at AA New Britain (3-2, 3.63 ERA 39.2 IP, 12 BB, 37K) and if the Twins raid the AAA roster for pitching prospects Trevor May and Alex Meyer this summer, Gilmartin should be one of the logical selections to move up to AAA, where he pitched for parts of 2012 and 2013 in the Braves Org.  

I would guess that the Twins do not expect Kurt Suzuki to continue avoiding outs in almost 40% of his plate appearances, but ZiPS projects the 30 year old catcher to produce as a MLB regular the rest of the way.  Combined with with he’s already done in 2014, he’ll end up with a nice 2014 line.  If Suzuki keeps up his current pace into the All-Star break, or even just keeps his line to something like .300/.350/.400, which would represent some fairly significant regression over the next month plus, there will be a handful of teams calling Terry Ryan/Rob Antony looking to acquire the veteran catcher for a post season run.  Because the Twins have Josmil Pinto (even with his raw defensive skills), and because they are not in a win-now situation, the Twins could feel relatively comfortable flipping Suzuki.

In a trade scenario, the Twins would probably hope to fetch an intriguing Minor League player, as well as some MLB outfield depth, maybe a fourth outfielder capabale of playing center field and aleviating some of the Twins’ current outfield issues (especially if Sam Fuld experiences setbacks returning from the concussion disabled list).  Of course, what the Twins ultimately receive for Suzuki will depend on who their trading partner is, and where the Twins think they can add the most value.

If the Twins look to extend Suzuki, I think that something similar to the Ryan Doumit deal is realistic, but with a slightly higher annual value.  I would not be surprised if he received two additional years for $10 million dollars, bringing his total package in Minnesota to three years and just under $13 million.  He’s younger than Doumit, and he is a much more complete player, providing value on both sides of the ball.

If I am the Twins, I would attempt to extend Suzuki.  The extension would not keep the Twins from trading Suzuki in a year or two, and if Josmil Pinto cannot live up to the hype from his 2013 call up when he hit .342/.398/.566, then the Twins have some hope of a bridge to the arrival of their next young catcher (who might be 2013 third-rounder Stuart Turner).  If the Twins can make the extension team friendly then there is not a lot of risk in a deal like that, but if Suzuki and his agent (MVP Sports Group) are looking for a larger deal coming off of a big 2014, then the Twins should feel comfortable walking away.

What would you do?

Talk to Contact – ongoing situation…

Soo…. yeah, I never expected a Knuckleballer to make national baseball news but I REALLY never expected it to be such an odd situation much less involve several other friends and colleagues.

Reported this afternoon by :

When we woke up yesterday morning we lived in a world where any baseball fans who so loved their team that it inspired them to tell everyone about that love could do so in the form of a podcast on iTunes. When we woke up this morning multiple baseball podcasts had been removed from iTunes, at the request of Major League Baseball and/or Major League Baseball Advanced Media on intellectual property grounds.

Multiple podcasts, including Twins podcast “Gleeman and the Geek” (hosted by HardballTalk’s own Aaron Gleeman), another Twins podcast “Talk to Contact,” Pirates podcast “Pirates Prospects,” Mets podcast “Mets Musings,” Cubs podcast “Bleacher Nation,” Yankees podcast “It’s About the Yankees, Stupid,” Rangers Podcast “Rangers Podcast in Arlington” and several others were removed from iTunes…

See the rest of the report at Hardball Talk.

Talk to Contact’s response:

MLB asks iTunes to Remove Baseball Podcasts, iTunes Complies (Updated)

UPDATE: If you’re curious about how to continue to listen, David Temple at FanGraphs has the scoop - http://www.fangraphs.com/not/advice-listening-to-baseball-podcasts-after-562014/

Major League Baseball, we’ve been told, has decided that there are too many people talking about baseball on the internet and sent a request to iTunes to have many baseball related podcasts removed.  We’re one of the many podcasts affected.  So far, based on what he’s been able to find so far, John Bonnes has found that in addition to Twins podcasts, the Cubs, Orioles and Mets.

While this seems like a minor issue, MLB might just be getting started.  Obviously if they make the move to remove all team specific podcasts from iTunes there will be additional pressure on them to reverse course, but they might just start asking the big name hosting sites to remove team specific blogs as well. 

Get in contact with Major League Baseball and let them know how you feel.  We’ll be doing the same.

For now, you can continue to find our podacst right here at TalkToContact.com, and we’ll be available on Stitcher Radio.  For our Android users, there should not be any change right now.  But maybe MLB will go after us there as well. 

Stay tuned, and there is more to come on Episode 82 about how we plan to handle this going forward.

Sunday Morning Comic Relief

For all of you readers who AREN’T in the Twins TV viewing area, there are some great commercials again this year!

(if I could find the radio ones, you would REALLY have some entertainment!)