Ever since the Minnesota Twins used the first overall pick of the 2017 amateur draft to select California high school shortstop Royce Lewis, fans or the Kernels and/or Twins in Cedar Rapids have been wondering if and when we’d get a first-hand look at the athletic 18-year-old.
On Saturday, when the Twins and Kernels announced that Lewis was being promoted from the Gulf Coast League Twins up to Cedar Rapids, skipping the normal interim stop at Elizabethton, we got our answer.
Manager Tommy Watkins had Lewis’ name in the leadoff spot on his lineup card Saturday night and again Sunday afternoon, as his team finished up a four-game series with Midwest League Western Division second-half leading Quad Cities.
Neither the Kernels nor their highly heralded new arrival disappointed the locals.
In his Kernels debut on Saturday, Lewis singled in each of his first four at-bats, finishing the night 4 for 5 with an RBI and a pair of runs scored. He accounted for four of his team’s 11 hits as they topped the River Bandits 9-1.
On Sunday, Lewis led off the bottom of the first with another single, then came around to score when number two hitter Aaron Whitefield launched a home run.
The Kernels sent seven batters to the plate in the first, scoring three runs, then did almost nothing at the plate for the next seven innings. They trailed QC 6-3 heading to the home half of the ninth.
The Kernels still haven’t made an out in their half of that inning of Sunday’s game.
Jimmy Kerrigan led off with a single and Lewin Diaz followed with one of his own. Caleb Hamilton worked a walk and Shane Carrier made it a 6-4 game with a single.
Trey Cabbage came back from an 0-2 count to work a walk that plated Diaz to make it 6-5.
Joe Cronin shot the first pitch he saw up the middle, scoring Hamilton and pinch runner Christian Cavaness and setting off a celebration as Cronin’s teammates mobbed him in the infield.
The arrival of Lewis and the inspired efforts the his new teammates could prove to be just what the Kernels need as they prepare for the postseason. The club’s pitching has generally been good enough to win games lately, with particularly effective work coming from the bullpen, but the offense has often struggled to score runs.
With Lewis and Whitefield at the top of the order, Shane Carrier riding a hot streak, Lewin Diaz continuing to 100+ mph rockets off his bat and, hopefully, Travis Blankenhorn back soon from the Disabled List, a playoff run is not at all out of the question.
It’s something to look forward to watching.
In the mean time, a few pictures from the Sunday and, no, they aren’t ALL of Royce Lewis!
It took until the final day of the first half of the Midwest League season, but the Cedar Rapids Kernels claimed a playoff berth on Sunday with a 16-3 rout of the Clinton Lumber Kings.
With the win, Cedar Rapids locked up second place in the MWL West Division standings. Division champions and runners-up in both the first and second halves of the league’s season qualify for the post-season.
This will be the fifth consecutive post-season appearance for the Kernels, a record for a Cedar Rapids professional franchise that has a history well over 100 years old.
Also of significance, the Kernels have now qualified for the post-season in each of the five years that the club has been the Class A affiliate of the Minnesota Twins.
Manager Tommy Watkins’ team had to rally their way into the playoff spot after entering Saturday night’s game in third place.
The key play of that weekend rally came in the eighth inning Saturday night.
Travis Blankenhorn reached on an error and moved to second on a ground ball. That’s when things got interesting.
Blankenhorn tagged at second base and advanced to third on a line drive to right field, barely beating the throw to avoid committing a prime baseball sin of making the third out of an inning at the third sack.
It turned out to be a risk well worth taking.
Two walks later, Brandon Lopez stepped to the plate and, on a 1-2 count, with the Clinton third baseman playing well off the line, giving Blankenhorn opportunities to get a walking lead off the bag, this happened:
Watkins had noticed that Clinton sidearm pitcher Jack Anderson’s delivery was very deliberate and, combined with the large lead Blankenhorn was able to get, presented an opportunity to make something good happen.
Blankenhorn executed the straight steal perfectly and an inning later, the Kernels had the win that kept their playoff hopes alive.
Less than an hour later, Quad Cities fell to Beloit in extra innings and the Kernels were left needing a win on Sunday or a QC loss to nail down their playoff spot.
The Kernels would need to earn a win off of a MWL All-Star pitcher to avoid needing to rely on another QC loss. Lefty Danny Garcia will represent the Lumber Kings in Tuesday night’s MWL All-Star game, but he couldn’t record a single out in the first inning against the Kernels.
Cedar Rapids came out swinging on Sunday and hung a nine-spot on Clinton in the first inning on their way to their 16-3 triumph.
On a side note, Clinton manager Pat Shine has been relieved of his duties as manager of the Lumber Kings by their parent club, the Mariners.
The Kernels earned post-season spots the previous four years under manager Jake Mauer (who continued his personal run of managing playoff teams when his Chattanooga Lookouts club won their division’s Southern League first half title) and Watkins was pleased after the game Sunday to have his club continue that legacy.
“I had big shoes to fill with Jake Mauer leaving,” Watkins said.
The manager was also effusive in his praise for his players on Sunday. “It’s a great group of guys and just for them to come out and play like that in the first inning, it set the tone .I think a lot of it started with the game (Saturday) night.”
The Kernels are off for the MWL All-Star break until Thursday when the open the second half of the season at Quad Cities.
The half-way point is also when parent clubs traditionally make a number of roster moves, so the team that takes the field in the second half could be quite different than the club that earned the playoff spot,
Position players like Jermaine Palacios, Jaylin Davis and others could be deemed ready for promotion, as could a number of the pitchers on the staff.
The Cedar Rapids Kernels jumped to an early 6-1 lead in their home opener against the Beloit Snappers on Saturday evening, but by the end of the night, only the bean counters in Cedar Rapids could call the night a success.
Thanks to a large walk-up, certainly helped by 76 degree temperatures, the Kernels set a franchise record for attendance at a home opener, but the Snappers played spoiler by rallying three runs in the visitors’ half of the ninth inning to top the Kernels 7-6.
Kernels starter Sean Poppen worked seven solid innings, surrendering three runs (only two of the earned run variety), while striking out seven Snappers without a walk.
The offense was led by DH Travis Blankenhorn who doubled and added a three-run home run.
Shane Carrier also homered while Jaylin Davis and Caleb Hamilton added triples.
Davis may have contributed the defensive play of the game, gunning down Beloit’s Nate Mondou at the plate,
In fact, let’s start our photo set with a series of shots showing catcher Ben Rortvedt’s tag of Mondou.
(All photos by SD Buhr)
All of that in the first inning before the Kernels even came to the plate!
Now, let’s back up to pregame activities.
Now let’s look through the Kernels’ staring lineup.
Yes, it has been a while since I posted anything, so I’ll be surprised if anyone still remembers we have this blog, but I’m back home after a couple of weeks in Florida and it’s almost time for the baseball season to begin. So, let’s fire up the blog again and see whether we, as Twins fans, have enough this season to even be worth talking about.
We are not off to a great start.
First of all, the new Twins front office did virtually nothing in their first offseason on the job to improve the team. I was asked during a brief radio interview on KMRY in Cedar Rapids this week what I felt about the Twins’ fortunes in 2017 after spending time at their spring training site in March. I’ll say the same thing here that I said in response during that interview.
The Twins did nothing to improve their team in the offseason, so any improvement will have to come from further development of their existing young roster, guys like Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, et al.
The good news is that there is every reason to believe that Buck, Max and friends like Miguel Sano, Jorge Polanco and Eddie Rosario should indeed mature and see their games improve.
The bad news is that none of those guys can pitch. (Well, Buxton probably COULD, but it ain’t happening.)
This morning, many of the final roster moves were announced and we found out that the Twins will start the season with 13 pitchers and without the player that perhaps had the best spring training of anyone in camp, Byung ho Park, who was sent down and will apparently start his season in Rochester.
That leaves the Twins with just three bench bats and none of them are guys you would want to see come to the plate even as a pinch hitter.
The bottom line, it seems to me, is that the new front office is scared to death of their pitching staff. I understand that because I think most of us have been afraid of this pitching staff for a long time. But they had all offseason to address their obvious pitching needs and did virtually nothing to improve it.
So, to tell us they sent Park down because they felt they ended up needing more pitchers is really an indictment on their poor work in obtaining pitching during the offseason. Fans should not let them off the hook easily if this all blows up.
Now that I have that rant out of the way, let me just pass on some observations I had down in Fort Myers.
As always, I spent a fair amount of time on the minor league side of the complex watching past and future Cedar Rapids Kernels work out.
My sense, as I shared Tuesday on the MN Sports Weekly podcast, as well as the KMRY interview, is that the Kernels will have a better offensive lineup this season than they had a year ago and it appears that at least half of the team’s pitching rotation that finished the 2016 season will be returning to start 2017.
Lewin Diaz and Shane Carrier should add pop to the middle of the order and, for now anyway, it appears that Travis Blankenhorn and Jaylin Davis will return to start the new season in CR. That group could produce some runs if other guys can get on base with regularity.
It doesn’t look like slugger Amourys Minier will break camp with the Kernels at this point, but he should help out when he arrives later in the season, as could other bats such as Trey Cabbage and Wander Javier.
Jermaine Palacios will return and be among a large group of middle infielders worthy of getting opportunities in Cedar Rapids during the season.
Let’s wrap up with a few pictures from my time in Fort Myers.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
Granted, it probably wasn’t anywhere near the “worst of times” for Stuart Turner and Mitch Garver, but the excitement of learning they had been drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the June, 2013 Amateur Draft had to have been at least slightly dampened with the realization that the Twins had drafted both of them.
Going into that draft, the Twins knew they needed catching. They didn’t yet know just how desperately they needed catching.
The Twins had allowed their organization to become thin at a critical (if not THE most critical) defensive position. And it was understandable, to a degree. After all, they had the reigning American League Most Valuable Player behind the plate. Catcher Joe Mauer was not only good for a .300 batting average and .400 on-base percentage every season, but he had only just turned 30 years old a few weeks earlier.
What the Twins’ brass didn’t know – and couldn’t know – as they gathered in their offices for the June 2013 Amateur Player Draft, was that Mauer would never get behind the plate to catch another big league game after the 2013 season, due to persistent concussion problems.
Still, to their credit, they identified the catching position as one that warranted some focus in the 2013 draft.
And focus they did.
The Twins used three of their top 10 picks in 2013 on catchers and added another in the 22nd round.
After selecting pitchers Kohl Stewart and Ryan Eades in rounds one and two, Minnesota picked Ole Miss catcher Stuart Turner in the third round. He was the 2013 Johnny Bench award winner, presented to the top NCAA Division I catcher.
In the sixth round, the Twins grabbed a high school catcher, Brian Navarreto.
New Mexico Lobo catcher Mitch Garver was selected by the Twins in the ninth round. Garver was one of three finalists for the Johnny Bench award that Turner won. In fact, it was the second year that Garver was a Bench Award finalist.
The Twins added Alex Swim out of Elon (NC) University in the 22nd round, to complete the 2013 catching class.
Adding that many catchers to the organization at one time required a bit of roster manipulation on the part of the Twins farm director Brad Steil and his group. You obviously can’t just start the entire group at the same level and still get everyone enough work behind the plate to develop them.
Navarreto, being a few years younger than the others, was easy to plug into the rookie league programs.
Fair or not, as a lower round pick, there would be less emphasis on getting Swim adequate opportunities to show what he could do behind the plate.
By the end of the 2013 season, of course, the Twins pretty much knew Mauer’s career as a catcher was effectively over and suddenly the club and its fans became much more interested in the catchers coming up through the farm system, particularly in Turner and Garver.
The Twins don’t make a habit of starting many of their young players at the Advanced Class A level in Ft. Myers, but it was important that both Turner and Garver get as much time working with pitchers from behind the plate as possible. That could only be accomplished by splitting the two catchers up in their first full season of professional ball. To accomplish that, Turner was assigned to Ft. Myers, while Garver spent 2014 at Class A Cedar Rapids.
A year later, Turner and Garver remained one level apart as Turner was promoted to AA Chattanooga and Garver moved up to Ft. Myers.
In fact, the first time the two became teammates wasn’t even technically with a Twins affiliate.
The Twins sent both catchers to the Arizona Fall League in October, 2015. Both caught 11 games and DH’d in one for AFL champion Scottsdale. Garver hit .317 for the Scorpions, while Turner hit just .171.
That set up a 2016 season where Garver and Turner would both begin the year at Chattanooga.
While the two had been effectively competing with one another for some kind of mythical “Twins top catching prospect” designation since that 2013 draft day, this was the first time Garver and Turner were set up to go side-by-side into a regular season at the same professional level.
That dynamic continued into the second week of August, when the Twins had a spot for a catcher open up at their AAA affiliate in Rochester and the call went out to Chattanooga for someone to finish out the season with the Red Wings.
Since Turner was about to finish his second Class AA season with the Lookouts and Garver was still in his first tour through the Southern League, you might have thought that Turner would get the promotion – but you would have been wrong.
With Garver hitting a respectable .257 (.753 OPS) at the time, while Turner was hovering around .210 (and an OPS around .650), it was Garver that was packing for Rochester.
But it wasn’t just his bat that appeared to have pushed Garver ahead of Turner on the Twins’ organizational depth chart. He threw out 52% of runners attempting to steal on him (23 of 44 attempts) in Chattanooga. Turner threw out 19 of 48 attempted base stealers for a 40% clip.
Admittedly, using “caught stealing” statistics as a measure for a catcher’s work behind the plate is iffy, at best. For one thing, runners steal bases off of pitchers as much as (if not more than) off catchers. However, in this case, that factor is largely mitigated since the two were catching members of the same Chattanooga pitching staff.
After the season, the Twins again sent Garver to get additional work in the Arizona Fall League, where he hit .229 and put up a .756 OPS, fueled by four home runs and four doubles in 70 at-bats for the AFL runner-up Surprise Saguaros.
Whether Garver will eventually hit and, perhaps more importantly, catch well enough to work his way into the Minnesota Twins lineup on a regular basis certainly remains an unknown. However, we do know the Twins like him enough that, as the AFL season wrapped up, they added him to their 40-man roster.
Meanwhile, Turner was not added to that roster, exposing him to Major League Baseball’s Rule 5 draft.
On Thursday, the Cincinnati Reds selected Turner from the Twins in said draft.
Ironically, while it’s clear that the Twins now value Garver’s big league potential over that of Turner, it’s Turner that very well could get to the big leagues ahead of Garver.
As a Rule 5 pick, the Reds will need to keep Turner on their big league club in 2017 or return him to the Twins (or offer the Twins some sort of additional compensation in return for being allowed to keep him at a minor league level).
At the same time, Garver will open spring training in the big league camp but has no guarantee in his pocket assuring him a spot with the Twins on Opening Day.
On draft day in June of 2013, Turner and Garver had to be wondering what the chances were that the two of them would somehow both work their way into a Minnesota Twins uniform. It seemed likely that, some day, the Twins were going to need to make a choice between them.
That day came and the Twins chose to cast their lot with Garver.
Fortunately for Turner, he’s getting a pretty good consolation prize, courtesy of the Cincinnati Reds.
I spent my final afternoon in the Phoenix area watching baseball this afternoon as Surprise (with 7 Twins prospects and pitching coach Ivan Arteaga) traveled to Mesa.
I thought a good way to put a wrap on this trip would be a post that includes several photos of each Twins participant along with some basic perceptions of what I saw from that player in admittedly limited action in the games I watched.
Let’s do this in reverse alphabetical order, shall we?
That means we start with lefty reliever Randy Rosario, a 22-year old from the Dominican Republic. I saw Randy twice, pitching two innings in each game. He gave up a couple hits, a walk and a run in the first outing on Monday, but struck out three in two hitless innings on Friday. Only one stadium in the AFL circuit shows pitch speed on the scoreboard (or “talent meter”, I’m told the pitchers call it), so I have no idea what kind of velocity Randy (or anyone else) had, but his fastball certainly was good enough to make some guys look silly with his off-speed stuff.
Next up would be another southpaw bullpen arm, Mason Melotakis. When I last saw Melo in action in a Kernels uniform in 2013, the Twins were trying to see if he could be converted to a starting pitcher. A couple of years (and one TJ surgery) later, he’s mowing batters down as a reliever. Melotakis was almost untouchable in his two 1-inning appearances this week, striking out 3 in a couple of 1-2-3 innings. He has given up just one hit in 10 innings. He has a 11/1 strikeout/walk ratio.
I was glad to hear the Twins were sending shortstop Nick Gordon to Arizona, not necessarily because I thought he was near being ready for the big leagues, but because I was anxious to see how he would fare against better pitching than he’s likely seen thus far in his career. If his AFL performance is any indication, he could really move up quickly. Gordon was 4-11 in three games this week (though he went hitless in the “Fall Stars Game” Saturday night) and had a double and a triple. He’s hitting .344 for the fall with an .875 OPS. He’s been successful in 3 of 4 stolen base attempts.
I only got to see one start from Stephen Gonsalves and it wasn’t what he, or anyone, was hoping for. Gonsalves has been dealing with a back/shoulder strain that caused him to miss most of the AFL season. He threw 2 innings in his return last Friday and managed to get just two outs in his start on Wednesday. His velocity was obviously way down and he struggled with control, leading to being charged with 4 runs on 3 hits and 3 walks. The Twins don’t give me a vote on these things, but I’d shut him down and just let him rest that tired arm. He should only have one more start scheduled in the AFL season anyway.
Catcher Mitch Garver is completing his second stint in the AFL after playing here last fall, as well. Garver was just 3-13 in games I saw this week, with one double, but he was hitting a lot of pitches right on the screws. I’d love to know what the exit velocity was on the balls he hit, especially in the first two games I watched. Seven of Mitch’s 14 hits this fall have been for extra bases, four of which have left the park on the fly. Today (Friday), he also threw out three of four runners trying to steal second base on him.
If the Twins sent outfielder Tanner English to Arizona to find out if his success at AAA in the five games he spent with Rochester this year was a mirage, they’re getting their answer. No, English isn’t batting over .300, but he’s making good contact. I saw him strike out just once in 11 plate appearances this week and, technically, he DID bat .300 (3-10 exactly) in the games I saw. English also covers a lot of ground in the outfield and I saw a couple instances where he cut off a ball in a gap to hold the hitter at first base, rather than give up a double.
Righthanded reliever John Curtiss started the 2016 season with the Cedar Rapids Kernels, so I’m guessing not many would have predicted he’d be finishing the year in the Arizona Fall League. But Curtiss tore through Midwest League hitters and got a quick promotion. The 6′ 4″ 23-year-old has shrugged off a tough first appearance in the AFL to have an excellent fall. He has struck out 16 while walking just 3 in 10 2/3 innings. In the two single-inning appearances I saw this week, he gave up just one hit, walked none and struck out two (both in today’s appearance).
I also enjoyed getting a chance to catch up with Ivan Arteaga, who served as the Kernels’ pitching coach in 2014 and is filling that capacity with Surprise this fall. I’ve always enjoyed talking pitching, baseball and life, in general, with Ivan and this week was no exception,.
This was my first trip to the AFL where all members of the Twins’ contingent had come through Cedar Rapids with the Kernels and I got a chance to at least say a quick ‘hi” to all of them. It’s just really enjoyable to see the way the players have matured as ballplayers now that they are so close to realizing their dream of playing Major League baseball.
(All photos are the property of S D Buhr and may not be used without permission. That said, permission is REALLY easy to get. Just ask.)
Yeah, I really should have looked at the Surprise Saguaros’ schedule before I reserved my hotel for this trip. After Saturday night’s Fall Stars Game and Monday afternoon’s Surprise game, the Saguaros (for whom all of the Minnesota Twins AFP prospects play this fall) have no more home games while I’m in town.
The game today was the first of four games that Surprise is playing in some other distant part of the Phoenix area. Just means I’ll be doing a lot of driving between now and Friday. Live & learn, I suppose.
The Saguaros dropped a 10-7 decision to the Mesa Solar Sox this afternoon (Tuesday). It was interesting, in that Mesa scored four runs in each of the first two innings and when the score stood 8-5 after three and a half innings, this was looking like it had the makings of a four-hour game.
In the end, it wrapped up in two hours and forty-six minutes. It is not a coincidence that they use the pitch clock in this league. It really does keep the game moving.
It also didn’t hurt that the only two Twins prospects to take the field for Surprise, relief pitchers Mason Melotakis and John Curtiss, each worked a clean 1-2-3 inning when their turns came to toe the rubber.
Tomorrow afternoon, it’s over to Scottsdale. With any luck, some of the Twins’ position players will be back in the lineup and maybe I’ll even get to see Stephen Gonsalves get a start against Tim Tebow and the Scorpions.
As always (or almost always, anyway), here are a few pictures of Twins in action today.
All photos by S D Buhr and may not be used without permission.
For the third year, I’ve made the trip top the Phoenix area to watch a little November baseball in the Arizona Fall League and, while I have no pearls of wisdom to pass along, I thought the least I could do is share a few photos during the week.
The AFL consists of six teams that each use one of the Phoenix area MLB spring training sites and each big league team sends six or seven minor league prospects to participate. Representing the Twins this fall are pitchers Stephen Gonsalves, Randy Rosario, Mason Melotakis and John Curtiss, as well as shortstop Nick Gordon, outfielder Tanner English and catcher Mitch Garver.
As a bonus, for the first time, every Twins representative in the AFL is also a Cedar Rapids Kernels alum.
In addition, Ivan Arteaga is serving as the Surprise pitching coach this fall. Arteaga was the Kernels’ pitching coach in 2014.
After landing a bit late at the Mesa airport on Saturday, I missed the first half-inning of the AFL’s “Fall Stars” game on Saturday night, but it wasn’t a huge deal since Nick Gordon was the only representative in the game from the Twins organization.
After the league’s day off on Sunday, I got my first look at the Surprise Saguaros on Monday afternoon.
Garver, Gordon and English were all in the Surprise lineup on Monday and reliever Randy Rosario worked a pair of solid innings on the mound.
Now, here’s the photographic evidence of my attendance at the game!
All photos are the property of S D Buhr. Use without permission is prohibited.
Every year, a number of Cedar Rapids Kernels players and coaches spend one of their off-days sweating on a golf course with a bunch of people willing to shell out a couple dollars (actually a bit more) for the pleasure of sharing their company as they knock a little white ball about 6,000 yards around a local golf course to benefit the organization’s childrens’ reading program.
Today was such a day.
I was fortunate enough to get to be part of a fivesome that included Kernels relief pitcher Max Cordy.
Cordy is a 23-year-old righthander drafted by the Twins out of UC-Davis a year ago, made just three appearances at E’Town this year before being promoted to Cedar Rapids. He has a 2.00 in eight appearances for Cedar Rapids and is striking out about one batter per inning since arriving in Cedar Rapids.
Our group didn’t come close to winning anything in the 5-man best-shot competition, but that didn’t stop us from having a good time, despite enduring some heat (and even more humidity) as we made our way around Hunter’s Ridge Golf Course.
Kernels infielder Sean Miller was playing with the group ahead of us on the course and, despite our best efforts, we couldn’t even hit a decent shot into Miller’s group to make them nervous.
The golf outing is just one of several ways Twins minor leaguers participate in community relations activities in the Cedar Rapids area during the season.
I’d like to tell you everything Max and I talked about during our 4+ hours together, but what’s said on the golf course stays on the golf course. Plus, I might have had a beer or two during the round, so I probably wouldn’t relate anything we talked about accurately anyway.
With less than 40 games left in their 2017 campaign, the Cedar Rapids Kernels need a strong finish to clinch a Midwest League playoff spot, something they’ve accomplished every season since affiliating with the Minnesota Twins in 2013.
The Peoria Chiefs and Clinton Lumberkings finished one and two in the Division’s first half standings, automatically qualifying them for the postseason. Their Division rivals with the two best records in the second half will join the Chiefs and Lumberkings in the playoffs.
If the season ended today (Monday), Clinton would have the best second half record in the West, while Cedar Rapids and Quad Cities (currently second and third in the Division) would fill out the Western half of the postseason bracket. However, Burlington and Wisconsin sit one game or less behind Quad Cities, so the race is likely to be tight over the final weeks of the season.
Jake Mauer has been at the helm of the Kernels from the beginning of the club’s affiliation with the Twins. His 292-226 record with the Kernels makes him Cedar Rapids’ winningest manager in the modern era (1949-present) and places him third all-time. He’ll catch up to Ollie Marquardt in the second spot with his next win, but Mauer’s going to have to stick around a very, very long time to top Belden Hill’s 831 wins.
While winning takes a back seat to player development in modern minor league baseball, the local fans definitely like to follow a winner and Mauer has given the locals plenty of success, beginning with a squad that was loaded with top prospects in the inaugural season of the Twins/Kernels relationship. That team made winning look easy – at least a lot easier than it has looked in the two-and-a-half seasons since.
2016 has, perhaps, been the most challenging of Mauer’s four years of wearing number 12 for the Kernels. This year’s group is short on players you would find among “top prospect” lists published by the likes of Baseball America, MLB.com or any other group in the business of tracking minor leaguers’ paths to the big leagues.
Nonetheless, in an interview late last week, Mauer was unwilling to say that the lack of blue chippers on his team makes this season his most challenging.
“Each year is different,” Mauer said. “If you have a lot of high-end (prospects), you’re expected to win and if you don’t have a lot of high-end guys, you’ve got to find ways to win. It’s all part of development, it’s all part of the process.
“The second year (2014), I thought we had a lot of challenges, they were comparing the ’13 team to the ’14 team and that wasn’t fair to that ’14 team.”
Winning is obviously a lot easier when you’ve got a lot of those high draft choices and big money international free agents. Several of them, including first round draft choice Byron Buxton and six-figure bonus international signee Max Kepler (both now playing the outfield for the Twins) spent much of their 2013 seasons in Cedar Rapids uniforms.
“You get blessed with years like ’13 where you have seven of them, eight of them. They’re all panning out at different speeds,” reflected Mauer. “You know, some of the clubs I had at Fort Myers I don’t think we had one. So it just depends on what you have.”
When you’ve got a team of projected stars, a manager in Mauer’s position will generally stick with a pretty consistent lineup. “Obviously, guys that are higher end guys as a player,” he said, “you’ve got to find out what they can and can’t do, that’s the nature of the beast.”
Not so this season.
“I wonder how many different lineups we’ve used,” Mauer pondered. “It’s probably been fifty or sixty of them, would be my guess.
“Clubs like this, some of these guys that aren’t necessarily Baseball America guys get an opportunity to kind of put themselves on the map. As you can see, there’s no way to get buried on our bench here. Everybody plays.
“Pitching’s a little bit different,” he conceded. “They earn (consistent playing time) a little bit more. They’re all going to get an opportunity, it’s just a matter of what they’re going to do with it.
“It’s all getting these guys to understand themselves, first, in order for us to do anything – in order for them to have any impact down the road. This is the league where we start to shake out the guys that aren’t as mentally tough as others. Find out who can play every day, find out who can do what it takes. So, they’re going to get tested, they’re going to get innings, they’re going to get at-bats, get all that stuff. Then we’ll kind of look back in September at how everything unfolded.”
Throughout most of the first half of the season, it looked like the Kernels would easily clinch an early playoff spot by finishing in one of the top two spots in the Western Division’s first-half race, but they faltered badly during the final couple of weeks before the midpoint and ended up in third place.
“You hate to say it,” Mauer commented on his squad’s late first half implosion, “but we scored the same amount of runs, but we lost two guys in the back end of the bullpen and lost probably the best starter in the league.
“We weren’t necessarily blowing the doors off of anybody in the first half. It takes you a while to figure out who can step up and take those roles.”
Mauer is starting to see some guys stepping up.
Last week, the Kernels went on one a six-game road trip over into the MWL Eastern Division territory and came away with a perfect 6-0 record against Lake County and Fort Wayne.
“We swung the bats really well,” he said of their Eastern sweep. “We rode (Luis) Arraez, (Zander) Wiel and (Jaylin) Davis, really. Other guys chipped in here and there, but those guys had a monster week. You’re scoring 6, 7, 8 runs a night, it gives you a pretty good chance to win.
“(Wiel) can carry a team, which he did the last week. Jaylin Davis is probably in the same boat, he can carry a team. Arraez has been pretty consistent, but we kind of go where those three guys go. When the three of them are having a pretty good week, we’ve got a pretty good chance. If they’re not, it will be more difficult for us.”
Finding pitchers to fill the holes left following promotions has been more challenging for Mauer and pitching coach J.P. Martinez. “Pitching is still kind of up in the air who we’ve got,” the manager said.
“It’s so different,” Mauer said, of the Kernels’ bullpen situation. “We’re not as pitching-deep as we were last year. If we had a lead going into the fifth inning, we pretty much knew we were going to win last year. That’s not the case this year. You’ve got some guys that need to step up and take control. I’d say (Anthony) McIver has, to a point. We’ve got to find out about (Tom) Hackimer. But we still have several guys you don’t quite know what you’re going to get in given situations. We’ve got to find out.”
Mauer’s clearly also looking for some improvement among his starting rotation.
“(Cody) Stashak’s probably our number one (starting pitcher). (Lachlan) Wells has been good. Those two guys have been pretty good. If we can just get some of these (other) guys to take that next step, it would make the process better.”
The season’s second half is shaping up to be at least a four-team dogfight with the Kernels, Burlington Bees, Wisconsin Timber Rattlers and Quad Cities River Bandits playing leapfrog with one another in the standings on virtually a daily basis as they jockey for one of the coveted second-half playoff spots.
“That’s our division,” said Mauer. “There really isn’t a team that’s head and shoulders above anybody. Anybody can beat anybody on a given night and I think you’re going to see that kind of as we go through. Things change, obviously, as these draftee guys (from the 2016 draft) starting to come and some of these first full season guys that tend to hit a wall a little bit.”
Mauer’s working with a pair of coaches, in his fourth season with the Kernels, that he hasn’t been teamed with before. Martinez and hitting coach Brian Dinkelman are in their first seasons by Mauer’s side after coaching with the Twins’ Gulf Coast League team, where games are played on back fields at the organization’s spring training complex in front of few, if any, fans.
But the manager says things are going, “good,” on that count.
“(Martinez and Dinkelman) have been real good. Their first ‘real baseball’ compared to that ‘complex ball’ that’s a lot different. They’ve done a good job. For them, their first year, this is unusual to have so many different guys coming through.”
Forty-nine players have already worn a Kernels jersey in 2016. It’s not unusual for fewer players than that to suit up for Cedar Rapids in an entire season.
“What’s nice is that these guys know most of the kids that have come up,” Mauer added. “They’ve had them, they know what makes them tick, the things to do with them, what they need to work on.”
High roster turnover, few top prospects, new assistant coaches. Those things, on their own, might make a manager’s job challenging, but last week the Twins added a little something extra to the load that Mauer and his staff have to carry. Long-time General Manager Terry Ryan was fired by the Twins ownership.
“It’s unfortunate,” Mauer said of Ryan’s dismissal. “Obviously, he’s a great baseball man. He’s all I’ve ever known as a GM, other than Bill Smith, but Terry wasn’t far away (during Smith’s tenure as GM). I think it came as a shock, the timing of it, to everybody. He’s done so much for us and for our organization and whoever comes in after him is going to have big shoes to fill.”
As a result, Mauer and his coaches now are essentially lame ducks, uncertain whether the new GM will choose to retain them going forward. How’s that for adding a little anxiety to the manager’s life?
But, as Mauer observed, the anxiety goes well beyond just he and his coaches.
“It could be for scouts, all the way down to the athletic training guys and strength guys. You don’t know what’s going to happen, we don’t know who is the next guy, if they have somebody in mind, if they don’t. So, we’ll see. I’m sure they’ve got a game plan up there for what they’re going to do.
“But, if you’re confident in what you’re doing and you do a good job, you can’t control that,” Mauer concluded. “This is just like we tell the players, if they look at what’s going on ahead of them or who’s doing what behind them, they can’t control that. Same with us, (we can’t) worry about who’s coming in and fret about it, and not do the task at hand. We’ve got to do the task at hand first of all and see what shakes out.”
The “task at hand” for the manager and his charges is to finish the final six weeks of the season strong. How does Mauer see the remainder of the season shaping up?
“We’ll see. I wish I could answer that, honestly. I have no idea. We look like a million bucks for three or four days, then we have a tough time for three or four days. It’s just kind of how it is. We talk extensively about, we need leaders to step up and to lead and to be our guys so you kind of know what you’re going to get day in and day out.
“They’ll keep playing hard and they’ll keep competing and we’ll just see how it ends up.”