Thorpe, Romero Make Kernels Debuts

As the Cedar Rapids Kernels wrap up the final stretch of the first half of their 2014 Midwest League season, the parent Minnesota Twins sent them some needed starting pitching help in the form of two teenage pitching prospects.

Australian 18-year old lefty Lewis Thorpe and right-hander Fernando Romero, a 19-year old out of the Dominican Republic joined the Kernels from extended spring training last week and both were immediately inserted in to the starting rotation by manager Jake Mauer and pitching coach Ivan Arteaga.

Lewis Thorpe

Lewis Thorpe

Thorpe was the 6th ranked prospect in the Twins organization by MLB.com during the offseason and #7 on Baseball America’s list of Twins top prospects.

Romero was also among the organization’s top 15 prospects by both organizations coming in to the year.

Romero was the first of the pair to debut, getting a start on Thursday on the road in Appleton WI against the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers. The righty went five full innings, giving up a pair of earned runs on seven hits and one walk. He struck out six Rattler batters. The Kernels lost the game 7-4 but Romero got a no-decision, leaving the game with the score tied at 2-2.

Thorpe had less luck in his first start with the Kernels, picking up a loss in Kane County on Saturday as the Kernels fell to the Cougars, 5-2. All five runs were charged to Thorpe and all were earned. He gave up six hits, walked three and struck out just one batter in 4.2 innings.

It makes for an ugly stat line for Thorpe, but that’s more than a little misleading.

One very close pitch at the knees being called ball four instead of strike three was the difference between escaping the fifth inning relatively unscathed and getting the hook. He left the game with two runs across and bases loaded in the home half of the fifth inning, but all three baserunners came around to score after he departed.

Afterward, Arteaga agreed that Thorpe looked much better than his stat line would indicate.

“He got through two outs in the fifth inning, but just ran out of gas, unfortunately,” said Arteaga. “I think he deserved better. His line doesn’t say what he actually looked like. One thing is his line, but another thing is what he actually did and how he looked.

“He had poise. Obviously he needs a little work with the breaking ball but his fastball (command) isn’t going to be a problem. He throws the ball well. Being the first time and all, I think that I’m very pleased with what I saw.”

Arteaga was also happy with his first look at Romero since spring training in March.

Fernando Romero

Fernando Romero

“He’s got one of those arms that make you go, ‘wow,’ Arteaga said, adding that Romero throws, “94 to 99 (mph). He was able to throw a hard slider and a couple of them were sharp, especially against right-handed hitters. Coming over for the first time, I thought he looked really good.”

Arteaga, whose rotation has struggled at times through much of the season, was heartened by his first look at the new additions.

“It’s very encouraging, to have those two guys join the rotation – very encouraging for everybody because they showed that they will compete. They will throw it over and they’re going to be just fine, as advertised.

“I saw Romero and Thorpe during spring training. It was just basically a matter of time before they were going to join us and the time has come. They’re here and they’re doing really well.”

Pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and pitcher Ethan Mildren

Pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and pitcher Ethan Mildren

Thorpe and Romero will form one-third of the Kernels’ six-man rotation going forward, joining four pitchers selected by the Twins in the 2013 First Year Player Draft: Kohl Stewart (1st round), Ryan Eades (2nd round), Aaron Slegers (5th round) and Ethan Mildren (12th round).

The Kernels, who sat in seventh place in the eight-team Western Division of the MWL coming out of the weekend, will get a chance to start over with a clean slate as the league divides their season in to two halves with the second half starting on Thursday, June 19, after next week’s MWL All-Star Game. – JC

Interview with Twins GM Terry Ryan – Part 2

Minnesota Twins General Manager Terry Ryan had surgery for squamous cell carcinoma in February and has undergone radiation treatment as well. In the meantime, Assistant General Manager Rob Antony has filled in as the interim GM for the Twins, though Ryan has been in regular contact with Antony and others in the Twins front office.

During the past Cedar Rapids Kernels homestand, Ryan was in town observing the Twins’ young Class A prospects and sat down Sunday for an interview that covered a range of topics.

In Part 1, we covered his return to work, his view of the current state of the Twins at the big league level and his thoughts concerning the upcoming MLB First Year Player Draft.

Today, Ryan shares some thoughts and observations concerning the Cedar Rapids Kernels, the Twins’ Class A affiliate in the Midwest League.

Like their parent club, the Kernels have hovered near the .500 mark most of the season. That’s been no small achievement given the number of injuries that manager Jake Mauer’s club has sustained. They currently have seven players on the Disabled List and have others who have been on the DL and come back already.

Terry Ryan

Terry Ryan

Ryan acknowledged that it’s a very different club than local fans saw a year ago when top prospects like Byron Buxton, Jorge Polanco, Adam Brett Walker and Travis Harrison were wearing Kernels colors.

“We had a very talented club here last year, you’d like to think we could supply this affiliate with that kind of talent every year, but it’s not going to happen. We’ve got a different looking club this year.

“We’ve got some pitching here. Don’t have the thump. Don’t have the type of line up we had last year, which was a very dangerous line up. We don’t have that type of size. We had monstrous guys here so yeah it’s different.

“But every year is going to be different no matter what you try to do or accomplish at a minor league affiliate. You’re looking for players, you’re trying to develop players. This is a little different lot.

“So you adjust. Jake and Tommy (Watkins, the hitting coach) and Ivan (Arteaga, the pitching coach) are going about their business. It’s a little bigger challenge this year because you don’t have a Buxton here, you don’t have a Walker. You don’t have a Polanco.

“But that comes with the territory. When you’re running a Class A club, you’re going to have different personnel every year. You’ll have a few repeats, but for the most part it’s a different club and a different atmosphere and different results.”

Asked for his observations on specific players, Ryan was reluctant to go in to much detail, given that he had seen just four Kernels games at the time of the interview.

“It’s a little dangerous when you start naming names.

“I haven’t seen Stewart (Kohl Stewart, the Twins first round draft pick a year ago), of course. He’s pitching today. But he’s the most recognizable name on this roster for a lot of reasons. He’s talented and he’s a big draft. I’ll be interested to see how he does today.

“He had a tough outing his last go, I understand, I didn’t see it. He went two or three innings and they had to go get him. I doubt very much that he’s experienced that in his life but this is the ideal spot (to experience that). Alright, let’s see how he handles this. We’ll see if he bounces back today and gets back to his normal self. If he doesn’t then I would be a little concerned. But if he does, which I would expect, it’s just a matter of growth.

For the record, Stewart did indeed bounce back under the watchful eyes of the GM. Stewart threw six innings Sunday, giving up just one earned run, in the Kernels’ win over Burlington.

“He’s an athlete, he’s confident,” continued Ryan. “He’s got the skills that you’re looking for. There’s a reason the guy was picked fourth in the (draft). He was picked up there because he’s got strength, he’s got a body, he’s got mechanics, he’s got stuff, he’s got competitiveness.

“He’s got the kind of mechanics and arm action that would be conducive to pounding strikes, which is good.”

Kernels fans are getting the opportunity to see a native Cedar Rapidian in action with the Kernels this season.

Chad Christensen, the Twins’ 25th round pick a year ago out of the University of Nebraska, played high school ball at Cedar Rapids Washington. He came north with the club out of spring training and is hitting .290 while playing all over the field for the injury-plagued Kernels.

“One of the things that I think we were impressed with when he came out of Nebraska was his ability to have some versatility for a club,” Ryan said of Christensen. “He’s got strength and he’s got speed. He’s got strength in his bat. He can play a number of spots, including centerfield, which is pretty good.

Twins GM Terry Ryan chats with members of the Cedar Rapids grounds crew

Twins GM Terry Ryan chats with members of the Cedar Rapids grounds crew

“When he showed up last year after signing, he made a good impression and then in spring training. He’s got the type of make-up that you want to have him on your club. I’m sure Jake was pleased when he did come here and I think he’s even more pleased with what he sees in the results.

“He’s just been a good player on this team, home town or not. That’s a little bit more pressure for a kid to come in here and play in front of your home town. He’s handled it quite well. In fact, he might be the most consistent guy we’ve had on this club. Not that I’ve been around much, but I read those things, the reports and that stuff.”

Ryan is aware that the Kernels have had more than their fair share of injuries, but doesn’t feel they should be keeping the team from performing well on the field.

“It’s no excuse. We’ve got other players.

“(Jason) Kanzler came in because of an injury to Zack Granite. So here comes Kanzler and he’s been quite good here. There are other people that we can go get and hopefully fill in for an injury.

“Now, we’re starting to get healthy. A bunch of these guys are going to get healthy here soon.

“Getting back on the diamond is important for a 21 year old, because they can’t afford to spend a lot of time on the Disabled List. You just can’t do anything with them. There’s no development time, they’re getting bypassed, stuff like that. They’ll get healthy and we’ll get them back here.

“We’ve got some kids with ability but so far it’s been a slow go for them. I’m not so sure the weather was too conducive to what they were trying to do. The thing is, you’re going to have to learn to do that. We play in Cedar Rapids, we play in New Britain (CT), we play in Rochester (NY) and we play in Minnesota. Minnesota is not too much different than Cedar Rapids.”

About a year ago, Twins top prospect Byron Buxton and others were promoted from the Kernels up to Class high-A Fort Myers shortly after the mid-June Midwest League All-Star break. Ryan’s visit shouldn’t be interpreted as a precursor to similar promotions, however.

“When I come in here, I don’t worry about that stuff. That’s Brad Steil (Twins minor league director) and that would be Jake and the minor league coordinators.

“If someone is dominating, as you know, we’ll move them. I don’t know if we’ve got any of that going on here. I don’t think we’re in that position quite yet.

“Although if somebody starts dominating this league in the next month or so and they put up numbers and you say, ‘what more do they have to do?’ That’s about the time you start saying ‘let’s move him up.’”

Ryan was asked for an update on the condition Buxton, who has missed almost the whole season so far with a wrist injury.

“We had him see a specialist with that wrist about two weeks ago and there was no alarm. He re-aggravated that thing and we’re taking our time. It’s getting better. I read that yesterday in a medical report. He’s still not ready to take the field.

“He’s not going to lose a whole year. Unfortunately, April and May are shot, but he certainly played pretty good in March (during spring training). With him going through Major League camp, it was a good experience. He handled himself pretty well. He handled himself with some class. He understood, he listened, was very coachable.

“We’ll get him back up there. We’ll salvage the year, I don’t think there’s any question that we’ll be able to do some things to get him at-bats.”

Kohl Stewart Reflects on His First Year as a Professional

The 2014 MLB First Year Amateur Player Draft is right around the corner and hundreds of high school and college ballplayers are counting the hours before the Houston Astros go on the clock with the first pick of the draft on Thursday, June 5.

One year ago, Kohl Stewart was an 18 year-old pitcher anxiously awaiting the draft. Today, Stewart, who was selected by the Minnesota Twins with the fourth overall pick of the first round, is a couple of months in to his first full year of professional baseball.

Kohl Stewart

Kohl Stewart

Stewart sat recently and reflected on the draft a year ago and his progress as a starting pitcher this season with the Cedar Rapids Kernels, the Twins’ Class A affiliate in the Midwest League.

“I think that this time last year, we had just lost in the state finals in baseball,” recalled Stewart. “Then I was graduating from school and the draft was coming up. I was spending hours with my agent talking about what I wanted to do. There were a million different scenarios playing over in my head. I remember thinking, ‘if this happens, if this guy goes here and if this guy goes here.’”

Those “scenarios” Stewart speaks of went beyond those of most of his peers. While all of the high school ballplayers likely to be selected near the top of the draft have the option of postponing their professional careers in favor of playing college baseball, Stewart had an additional option. He had a scholarship offer from Texas A&M football coach Kevin Sumlin to play quarterback for the Aggies.

Stewart and his agent certainly knew he’d be selected early on draft night. But that doesn’t mean he had made up his mind weeks before the draft that he’d be signing with whatever team chose him.

As draft day neared, however, things seemed to come more in to focus.

“I expected to go to A&M,” acknowledged Stewart. “A couple of days before the draft, I think, my agent I guess had kind of talked to some people and he kind of had an idea of what was going to happen and I even talked to Coach Sumlin a couple of days before it happened and he gave me his blessing. He wanted me to do what was best for me and that was another dynamic that I had to deal with, too. I kind of felt like I was letting him down. Having guys like that… he’s a really good coach for a reason. He had gone through that before. He definitely made the situation easier on me.”

Even having pretty much come to grips with the likelihood that he’d be signing a professional baseball contract rather than pursuing a major college football career didn’t make waiting any less stressful for Stewart.

“You kind of have that situation made up in your mind, but everything’s still got to happen. You’ve still got to sit there and the decision’s still got to be made,” said Stewart.

The anxiety of the wait didn’t mean Stewart and those closest to him didn’t enjoy the moment, however.

“I definitely enjoyed it. It was definitely a fun time for my family,” recalled Stewart. “I have a lot of friends that are really good baseball players that are playing in college right now. I got to experience what a lot of guys that I grew up playing ball with will probably be going through the same thing in a couple of years and to kind of share it with them was really special.

“But it was definitely really stressful. I would go to bed knowing I was going to have to make a really big choice and that was kind of hard. Every day it got closer to the draft, it was very apparent that I was going to have a very good opportunity with the Twins and I didn’t want to pass it up.”

Players do a lot of different things to relax on draft day. Some go hunting or fishing. Some play golf to take their minds off the draft and hope it passes the time more quickly.

Stewart4

Kohl Stewart

Stewart enjoys hunting and fishing in the offseason and also really enjoys golfing. But on draft day, he chose to pass the hours leading up to the draft with friends and family.

“I remember waking up. I slept in late,” Stewart recollected, smiling a bit. “I told myself I don’t want to get up and have to worry about it all day long. I wanted to sleep in as long as I could. I think that lasted until about 6:30 that morning.”

After breakfast, Stewart spent time with one of his Select Team coaches (“He was blowing it up, having a good time with it, kind of looking forward to the night”) and with an older brother. “We went to a place called Mel’s Diner. It’s a small little burger place. I went there, had a good meal with him. I remember he went and bought a bunch of champagne and put it in a cooler. Then we went back to my house and a bunch of people showed up and we turned on the TV.

“It was good. It was definitely a day I’ll never forget.”

Now, a year later, coming out of Memorial Day Weekend, Stewart has a 1-2 record and a 2.93 ERA as a member of the Kernels rotation. Stewart struggled in a loss to Beloit on Monday, but had given up just three earned runs in his previous five starts combined.

Nearly two months in to his first full season of pro ball, Stewart talked about what he has found to be the toughest things to adjust to in professional baseball life.

One, the adjustment to going to the ballpark every day either to play or work out between starts, is commonly mentioned by first-year pro ballplayers.

“I think that’s kind of a cliché that everybody says, ‘you’re not used to playing every day,’ and you hear that so much, but it’s true,” said Stewart. “I think that most of us guys that haven’t played a full year are still kind of getting used to this kind of animal of 140 games in a season.

“I think definitely that’s been the hardest thing for me. And then being away from my home. There’s some days I’ve just wanted to pick up my stuff and go home. I think every kid goes through that.

“I mean, I haven’t had a freshman year of college yet, so I didn’t get to experience that kind of homesick feeling first. But I’m learning. I’m learning how to be a professional, to come every day and figure out that I’ve got a job to do.”

The other challenging adjustment is probably a bit more unique to a pitcher in Stewart’s rather unique situation as a multi-sport star in high school.

“Going in to the season, I hadn’t thrown a lot of innings,” explained Stewart. “I threw in high school seasons but football kind of kept me from (throwing after the season).

“I think I underestimated the amount of throwing that I’m going to be doing. But I think that everybody probably goes through that, even coming out of college. I think the two bullpens between every start (a byproduct of the Kernels’ six-man rotation). Ive never been used to that. Or throwing a bullpen the second day after you pitch, that was a new animal for me.

Stewart3

Kohl Stewart

“I think that going in to a couple of starts, I felt like my arm was dead. I think that my arm was learning how to adjust to that feeling and I think that now my arm is starting to build on it. I think that now my arm is getting stronger and I’m kind of building back up to that strength that I was at.

“I think that those two things were probably the toughest for me, but I think that as time goes on, I’m getting more used to it every day, so I think I’m doing alright.”

As a result of Stewart’s limited work in high school, he and the Twins clearly had a plan for Stewart to follow heading in to the season. Not only pitch count limits and innings limits, which are commonplace for teenage pitching prospects, but also plans that focus on learning his craft.

Stewart explained the plan and assessed his progress so far.

“I’ve definitely had some good starts and I’ve had some bad starts. I think going in to the season, they hammered some things in to my head that they want me to get done, such as fast-ball command. They want me to pound the zone. They want me to be efficient. They want me to pitch. They don’t want me throwing a lot of pitches. There’s a pitch count on me for a reason. They want me to be able to go as deep as I can in to games without running my pitch count up.

“One thing that they really want me to do is fast ball command. They don’t want me to get behind in counts and then have to work from behind. So, I think that focusing on that stuff with Ivan (Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga) and our catchers, I think that’s really helped me a lot.

“So I think that getting these innings in and learning to get the change-up over. I hadn’t thrown very many change-ups and my change-up now is something that I go to a lot against lefties. And really, just getting ground balls and keeping the ball out of the air. I think I lived up in the zone in high school because I could. I used to just throw the ball as hard as I could and that’s not really pitching. I’ve had to learn to command the zone and not feel like I have to overpower everybody.

“Going in to the season, I’m trying to build on every start, but I think that the approach that I have right now that Ivan and Jake (manager Jake Mauer) and I have gone over, I think that the plan we have going in to every start is pretty good. I think that I like where things are headed, but I think that I have a lot of work to do.”

College football season doesn’t start for a couple of months, but Texas A&M and every other major program recently wrapped up their spring practices. Did that give Stewart an itch to get on the practice field and throw the football around?

“I didn’t have time for it,” replied the pitcher. “I was so busy figuring out what I was doing and stuff, just trying to get better.”

Not that football is forever banished from his mind, of course.

“Whenever I watch them on TV, I always get that itch,” admitted Stewart, “but I think everybody kind of enjoys watching those things on TV. I think when I go to the games, I feel like I’m there kind of part of the team. There’s always going to be a part of me that’s there. There’s always going to be that closeness that I have with those guys that are in that class.

“But they know that I’m doing what I love and I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else.”

**********

The Kernels return home to Cedar Rapids after Tuesday’s matinee series finale in Beloit. They’ll be home for six games (three vs Wisconsin and three vs Burlington). Friday night, May 30, is another special jersey promotion. It’s “Star Wars” night with white/black “storm trooper” themed jerseys that will be auctioned off via silent auction with proceeds going to a charity. The first 1,000 fans through the gates Friday also get a free Star Wars t-shirt.

Kernels Star Wars Jersey

Kernels Star Wars Jersey

 
Star Wars t-shirt giveaway

Star Wars t-shirt giveaway

 

 

 

 

 

- JC

(All photos: JC/Knuckleballs; jersey/t-shirt images: Kernels.com)

A Kernels Day in Photos

I’m traveling for work the first half of this week, so I won’t really have an opportunity to write a regular weekly update on the Cedar Rapids Kernels. Perhaps it’s just as well, though, because the Twins’ Midwest League affiliate did not have a real good week.

The Kernels dropped from the second spot in the MWL Western Division standings all the way to the cellar, as they endured an eight-game losing streak.

That losing streak ended Sunday in Burlington, however. Cedar Rapids topped the Bees 7-6. As a bonus, the win lifted the Kernels out of the MWL West basement.

Since I don’t have anything exciting to write about this week, I thought the least I could do is provide a few pictures of the game on Sunday. I had hoped to take more, but it turns out there are very few spots where you can take pictures at the Burlington ballpark that aren’t behind netting.

Some of the photos are a bit blurry. I hoped they just looked blurry on Sunday because I was having a few beers at the game, but no, they’re still a little blurry.

3B Bryan Haar and SP Ethan Mildren

3B Bryan Haar and SP Ethan Mildren

Manager Jake Mauer coaching 3B in the first inning. That's something he would not be doing by the 9th inning, however.

Manager Jake Mauer coaching 3B in the first inning. That’s something he would not be doing by the end of the game, however. Mauer was ejected in the 7th inning following a heated discussion with the umpires over a balk call.

Leadoff hitter JD Williams

Leadoff hitter JD Williams

Tanner Vavra pulling in to 2B with a double

Tanner Vavra pulling in to 2B with a double

Tanner Vavra chats with manager Jake Mauer. Vavra would ultimately be stranded at 3B.

Tanner Vavra chats with manager Jake Mauer. Vavra would ultimately be stranded at 3B.

Chad Christensen

Chad Christensen

Ivory Thomas

Ivory Thomas

Mitch Garver

Mitch Garver

Joel Licon

Joel Licon

Bryan Haar

Bryan Haar

Bo Altobelli

Bo Altobelli

Michael Quesada

Michael Quesada

Ethan Mildren

Ethan Mildren

Tommy Watkins took over 3B coaching duties following Mauer's ejection.

Tommy Watkins took over 3B coaching duties following Mauer’s ejection. Two runs scored in the 9th inning with Watkins and his bubble gum in charge.

Tommy Watkins gets a close-up look as Chad Christensen tags up and scores on a sac fly for the Kernels' final run.

Tommy Watkins gets a close-up look as Chad Christensen tags up and scores on a sac fly for the Kernels’ final run.

 

When baseball gods get angry

Everyone who has ever played the game knows you simply do not anger the baseball gods.

The baseball gods are a vengeful lot. Any kind of slight, whether real or perceived, can cause them to rain down bad karma on players, coaches, teams and even, apparently, entire organizations.

Someone in the Minnesota Twins organization must have really ticked off those baseball gods back during spring training, because the Twins have had one calamity after another since March. That’s when arguably the top power-hitting prospect in the game, Miguel Sano, was lost for the season with a torn ulnar collateral ligament (UCL), requiring Tommy John surgery.

A couple of weeks later, the consensus top minor league prospect in baseball, Byron Buxton, injured his wrist in the outfield on one of the back fields of the Twins’ training complex in Fort Myers FL. In fact, the baseball gods must really have it in for Buxton because just days after he was activated by Fort Myers, they zapped his wrist again, sending him back to the DL.

The Twins have had so many injuries at the Major League level that they’ve routinely been sending out career infielders like Eduardo Escobar to play in the outfield over the past week. The Twins currently have four players on a Disabled List of one kind or another. Others, including $23 million a year man Joe Mauer, have missed stretches of games with injuries despite avoiding a trip to the DL.

However, the wrath of the baseball gods has perhaps been visited hardest upon the Twins’ Class A Midwest League affiliate, the Cedar Rapids Kernels.

Randy Rosario

Randy Rosario – on the DL

Cedar Rapids’ uniforms don’t have players names sewn on the back of their jerseys above the number. That’s probably a good thing this season, because the club may have needed to retain a seamstress full time just to keep up with the roster changes already during 2014.

Roster turnover is not unusual in the minor leagues, of course. Players are promoted, demoted and even released at various points during the season, making it not at all unusual to see close to 50 different players take the field in a Kernels uniform at some point during the summer. A year ago, 49 different players (including Twins pitcher Mike Pelfrey on an injury rehabilitation assignment) put in time with the Kernels.

But this year’s Cedar Rapids club is getting an unwelcome jump on the roster musical chairs game.

Jeremias Pineda

Jeremias Pineda – on the DL

On Tuesday, less than six weeks in to the new season, pitcher Jared Wilson became the 34th player to wear a Kernels uniform this year.

Before the end of the first game of the Kernels’ doubleheader Tuesday night, shortstop Engelb Vielma had been pulled from the game after coming up lame as he left the batters box in the second inning and center fielder Jason Kanzler had been injured on a collision in the outfield.

(UPDATE: After the 2nd game, Kernels manager Jake Mauer confirmed Vielma injured his hamstring and Kanzler likely has a concussion. Mauer said he expects both players to be placed on the Disabled List and hopes to have replacements up from extended spring training in time for Wednesday night’s doubleheader.)

Of the 25 players who arrived in Cedar Rapids from spring training to start the current campaign, pitcher Brandon Peterson has earned a promotion to Class high-A Fort Myers, pitcher Miguel Sulbaran has been traded, pitcher Christian Powell has been released and seven original 2014 Kernels have spent some time on the club’s Disabled List. If Vielma’s name is added to that list, he would be the eighth.

Centerfielder Zack Granite was hitting .313 for the Kernels just four games in to the season when the baseball gods struck him down with a rotator cuff strain.

Zack Larson

Zack Larson – on the DL

About ten days later, catcher Michael Quesada fell to a right wrist contusion.

Less than a week after Quesada was felled, outfielder Jeremias Pineda broke his wrist and pitcher Randy Rosario hit the Disabled List with a left flexor mass strain.

The game’s mystic guardians finally looked in other directions for almost two weeks before returning their attention to the Kernels with a vengeance and sidelining infielders Tanner Vavra (right ankle sprain) and Logan Wade (dislocated left shoulder), as well as outfielder Zack Larson (right hamstring strain) all during the first ten days of May.

That’s an average of better than one player a week that manager Jake Mauer and his coaching staff have had to replace due to injury.

Logan Wade

Logan Wade – on the DL

So far, the nine players added to the Kernels’ roster as replacements from extended spring training have managed to avoid the DL, though Kanzler would break that string if he lands on the DL following his injury Tuesday. One replacement, Jonatan Hinojosa, was with the team only long enough to play in one game before finding himself suspended by Major League Baseball for having tested positive for a PED.

Michael Quesada

Michael Quesada – back from the DL

Twins farm director Brad Steil must cringe every time his phone rings and he sees Jake Mauer’s name on the caller ID.

Perhaps remarkably, Mauer has patched together line ups that have managed to win more games than they’ve lost. In fact, with five weeks left in the Midwest League’s first-half race, the Kernels are right in the thick of the race for second place in the league’s Western Division and the automatic postseason spot that would come with it.

The Kernels struggled through a tough six-game road trip during which they won just two of six games and they play just seven of their next 17 games at home, but both Quesada and Vavra have returned from their injuries.

Even Quesada’s return, however, poses a peculiar challenge for his manager. The Kernels’ current active roster includes 13 pitchers and 12 position players, four of which are catchers. Of course, at this level, it’s not unusual for catchers to play some first base. Which is good, because the Kernels’ regular first baseman of late, Chad Christensen, is likely going to be needed in the outfield.

The arrival of JD Williams from extended spring training, where he’d been recovering from his own spring training injury (a broken thumb) has certainly provided a spark at the top of the Cedar Rapids batting order.

Tanner Vavra

Tanner Vavra – back from the DL

After Monday night’s doubleheader against Peoria was washed out, the Kernels were scheduled to play back-to-back doubleheaders against the Chiefs Tuesday and Wednesday.

Going in to Tuesday night’s games, Peoria sat in second place in the MWL West, just a half game ahead of Cedar Rapids. There were four more teams, however, bunched tightly together behind the Kernels and all of them have their eyes on the second Western Division postseason spot.

- JC

(All photos: JC/Knuckleballs)

‘ZONING’ With Kernels Pitching Coach Ivan Arteaga

Ivan Arteaga is in his first year serving as the Cedar Rapids Kernels pitching coach, but he’s far from being a rookie when it comes to working with young pitchers in the Twins organization.

After bouncing around the minor leagues for much of the 1990s with the Expos,  Rockies and Mets organizations, the Venezuela native began coaching young pitchers for the Twins organization in 2001 and he’s been helping to develop the organization’s young arms ever since.

Arteaga spent several years as the pitching coordinator for the Twins’ Venezuelan Academy and coached at both Rookie League levels before serving as the pitching coach for the Class high-A Fort Myers Miracle a year ago. This season, he and Gary Lucas (the 2013 Kernels pitching coach) traded assignments, bringing Arteaga to Cedar Rapids.

Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and manager Jake Mauer share a light moment while watching a pair of Kernels pitchers work out. (Photo: JC/Knuckleballsblog.com)

Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and manager Jake Mauer share a light moment while watching a pair of Kernels pitchers work out. (Photo: JC/Knuckleballsblog.com)

Several hours before game time, you can find Arteaga, often sporting a shirt with the word “ZONING” across the back, working with his pitchers in the Kernels bullpen down the right field line at Veterans Memorial Stadium.

Recently, he agreed to sit down and talk about his work with the Kernels and the Twins organization.

First things first. What’s with the ZONING shirt?

“We’re trying to implement, as an organization, visualization, focus, concentration – actually throwing the ball to one spot without thinking how to throw the ball,” Arteaga answered.

The secret to doing that, according to the coach, is visualization.

“First, you know what you throw in certain situations and you know where you want to throw it, right? That should be how we pitch. Knowing your strengths and your weaknesses and how to apply that to the hitters’ tendencies.

Ivan Arteaga

Ivan Arteaga

“So zoning is basically, we’ve been working for the last couple of years on having the pitchers visualize the pitch before they throw it. OK I have an 0-0 count, I want to throw a breaking ball, I don’t want to throw it down in the dirt, I want to throw it for a strike. So I’ll visualize the pitch how I want to throw it.”

Arteaga was quick to point out, however, that it’s not a cookie-cutter approach to teaching pitching.

“Everybody’s doing it for the most part, (but) everybody has his own way of doing it. Getting in to the process of thinking about pitching, and throwing the ball; not thinking about the process of ‘how do I throw the ball? My mechanics are off, or this or that.’ You throw the way you throw and it’s kind of hard for us to change that.”

It’s not that pitchers don’t need to work on mechanics, of course, but those thoughts are ideally confined to the bullpen workout sessions. Pitchers can’t afford to be thinking about that kind of thing on the mound during games.

“You shouldn’t and if you’re doing that, then something’s wrong,” confirmed Arteaga.

While he’s an advocate for the Zoning philosophy, Arteaga doesn’t believe that simply subscribing to the approach will assure a young pitcher’s success.

“I don’t think that success will be dictated by the Zoning or by how you run or by how you lift or if you sleep enough or how heavy you are or how skinny you are,” said the coach.

“Success is a combination of all those factors, plus talent. Success is how you put together the whole package. Mental toughness and talent all together and you apply that in to the game.”

Arteaga has been entrusted this season with a number of the Twins organization’s top pitching prospects. Some were high draft choices, others highly coveted international signings, but the coach sees similarities in what each of the pitchers on his staff must overcome.

“Facing adversity,” Arteaga said. “Because that’s the main thing. The game is full of adversity. I’ve seen guys with a lot of talent, but they cannot get people out. And I’ve seen guys with lesser talent that are just great, because they’re mentally tough and they know how to apply their talent to the game and to the hitters’ tendencies.

“So, to say that the guys that are pitching well are doing the Zoning and the guys that are not are not doing it, I don’t think that would be very smart on my part. I think that everybody’s doing it, it’s just that this is a level where everybody’s so young and so inexperienced. There’s a lot of things they’re working on at the same time. Holding runners. Getting in a routine. Playing every day. Some of these guys just worked on Saturdays or Fridays. Now they come to the ballpark every day.”

While subscribing to the Zoning philosophy, in itself, won’t assure success, Arteaga believes there is one thing that a pitcher must develop.

“As a pitching coach, if I have to pinpoint to one thing that is going to make these guys succeed throughout the year, it’s mental toughness. Mental toughness is part of the Zoning. Mental toughness is part of who you are as a pitcher when adversity strikes. Adversity could be having a cold, you’re sick. Maybe homesick. That’s adversity. It’s just the way it is.”

It’s hard sometimes to imagine that such things can enter in to the mind of a professional ballplayer when he’s on the mound during a game but, said Arteaga, “It’ll be there. But how do you set your priorities straight, being able to put all that aside and go and perform?”

One thing you hear a lot about with pitchers spending their first year or two as professionals is that organizations try to limit the number of different pitches they work on in a given season. A pitcher who threw a variety of pitches in high school or college sometimes seems to focus on just a fastball and one variety of off-speed pitch early in his professional career.

Do the Twins or Arteaga take that approach with the Kernels’ pitchers?

There’s no one answer to that question, according to the coach. “Always depends on the player, always.”

Arteaga also doesn’t believe there’s a single right approach.

“If I tell you that there’s a philosophy out there that is successful, everybody would be doing it,” Arteaga said with a laugh.

“So everybody’s different and as a coach you have to fluctuate, not only man to man, player to player, but day by day. There are some days that will be cold, some days will be rainy. You have to learn to adjust to that and as a coach you have to let the guys pitch and learn.

“There are some days that the change up might not be there or the breaking balls won’t be there or they’re very good in the bullpen, but not so good on the mound. Or you see that they’ve had a bad week, headaches or something. And the day of the game, everything goes away and they have a great game.

“So this is baseball. There’s nothing set in stone. There’s nothing for you to do every day and you’re going to be successful. There’s no guidelines for that.”

Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and pitcher Aaron Slegers (photo: JC/Knuckleballsblog.com)

Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and pitcher Aaron Slegers (photo: JC/Knuckleballsblog.com)

For Arteaga, that means treating every player as an individual.

“As a coach, I’ve got to adjust to every single one of them and understand what they do and how they do it and how they can be successful by doing that.

“Now, yeah, we want to establish the fastball in and out, throw the ball down. We want them to have at least ten per cent change ups every day they throw, the starters, and about 15 per cent the sliders or curve. That’s what we do.

“It’s a very simple philosophy. Attack the hitters. Be athletic around the mound. Pitch inside. Throw the ball down and attack. Attack.”

Treating each player as an individual must be a challenge, given the widely varying backgrounds that pitchers at the Class A level have. Some were still pitching for their high schools a year ago, some were in college and some have been working their way up through a couple of years of short-season rookie leagues within the Twins organization.

Arteaga believes it’s important for him to demonstrate consistency in his approach, even as he works with players individually.

“Number one, I am the coach so I try to be the same every day, regardless of the score or regardless of what happened. I won’t panic. I won’t get too high or too low. If they see that in me, they understand that I am under control. I’m fine with what they’re doing.

“Now, if I pay enough attention, they will tell me what they need. Once I pay attention, and I get to know them and they get to know me, we establish a relationship. Then I can treat everybody in a different way.

“For the most part, yes, you have a standard. That’s who I am. I’m not going to be different to you than I’m going to be to them. That’s who I am.”

The individual approach enters during individual instruction, according to Arteaga.

“Now, how do I teach you? How do I approach the teaching part of it? That is different. You have different needs as a lefty than as a righty. Different needs as a starter than as a reliever. Different needs as a long reliever than as a closer. So, yes, I have to adjust to each and every one of them.”

Since Arteaga was working at the next level up in the organization, with the Miracle in Fort Myers, a year ago, he hadn’t had an opportunity to work much with this year’s crop of Kernels pitchers prior to spring training this year. That means they’ve had just a couple of months to get to know each other. Has that been enough time to establish those individual relationships?

“Yes, it’s all about paying attention. It’s all about spending the time with them. When you’re on the road, this is your family. You’re spending 14 hours on a bus ride in this class. You get to know them a little bit.

“I believe that they know me well. They know how I’m going to act and react and what I like and not only me, as a coach, but what the Twins want. I’m basically an extension of what the Twins philosophy is. Twins first, then yes, as a person, you put out your knowledge and experience and what you are and you try to teach them the way you teach.”

The speculation in the media and among others who follow the Twins minor leagues has been that the Twins had Arteaga and Lucas swap coaching assignments this season because the Twins knew they’d have a number of significant Latin American prospects on the Kernels’ staff and they may find  it helpful from a communication standpoint to have a Spanish-speaking pitching coach.

Arteaga isn’t certain that was really a significant factor, however.

“I don’t know if that’s the case,” observed Arteaga, concerning such speculation. “I guess that it’s got something to do with it. Obviously, the communication factor is important.

“Yeah, I think that helps, but at the same time, I think I have one half (of the pitching staff) that were born in the United States. They’re college guys, some of them are very good prospects. So I have to be able to teach baseball.

“Personally, I think that I can communicate with anyone. I’ve worked on my English for a long time and keep working on it. I prepare myself all the time to be able to communicate in both languages. Not only in baseball terms, but in life. Understand the culture, understand how Americans go about their everyday lives. I’ve spent half of my life learning that, because I was here, playing and coaching.”

Speaking of top prospects, his Kernels staff has a lot of them. Does he feel any additional pressure to make sure all of the high-priced pitching talent with the Kernels this summer progresses the way the Twins want?

“I feel motivation. I have a plan every day and I do my best every day so they can get better. I’m not pitching anymore, so I don’t have stress or sense of urgency because I do everything that I can every day to teach these guys how the game is, the game that we want them to pitch, the Minnesota Twins. So I have my own plan that I have learned over the last 14 years with the Twins.

“So to have guys, regardless of how much talent they have, to be able to coach them every day, that’s my motivation. If not, I wouldn’t be here. That’s what moves me every day, to have the motivation to teach somebody and to actually help them with the game and with life.”

Certainly, a coach like Arteaga must get a sense of satisfaction from seeing his pitchers succeed, though.

“You do,” Arteaga confirmed. Yet it isn’t just seeing pitchers advance through the ranks that gives him satisfaction.

“I think I get most satisfied when we make eye contact, regardless of the situation, that’s the best communication you can have with a human being.”

“I can talk to you all day,” Arteaga continued, “but when you’re pitching and I’m coaching and you pitch a good inning or a bad inning or a bad at-bat or something, and you walk in to the dugout or I go to the mound and there’s eye contact, you should know what is what and how I feel. That’s the relationship thing you create with the player, regardless of whether he’s going to be here for one day or ten days or 25 years. Because you care.”

Ivan Arteaga having a between-innings chat with Aaron Slegers (photo: JC/Knuckleballs)

Ivan Arteaga having a between-innings chat with Aaron Slegers (photo: JC/Knuckleballs)

Arteaga understands that’s not an aspect of the game that many outsiders can appreciate.

“People don’t see that. Fans don’t see that. Journalists don’t see that. TV cameras don’t see that. TV cameras will look at emotions and what is exciting for everybody. But as a coach when, for whatever reason, your team gave up 14 runs that night, then you make eye contact and you’re able to assure those guys, ‘you know what, it’s okay, it’s going to be fine, we’ll work on it.’”

The night before Arteaga sat for the interview, two Kernels pitchers had been victimized for a combined 12 runs. Can he communicate that kind of assurance to those guys after that kind of night?

“Of course, because that’s baseball, It’s every day,” assured Arteaga.

“Because what if I overreact last night and I tell them that they’re not good enough? Maybe because I don’t feel well. That’s me, but it’s not about me. It’s about them. So what if I overreact and I tell them they’re not good? The next thing you know, I’ve lost all that the staff had for me because I overreacted. So maybe apologizing might not be enough after that.

“So, I’m with them every pitch. Yeah, we lost a game, fine. Then today is a different day and make no mistake, these guys are going to work today to get better so they can pitch well tomorrow. It’s a 142 game season.”

Through the first week or so of May, Arteaga’s work with the Kernels is beginning to pay off. Two Kernels starters (Aaron Slegers and Kohl Stewart) are among the top 10 Midwest League pitchers in WHIP, two (Slegers and Ryan Eades) are in the top 10 in strikeouts and two more among the top 10 in saves (Hudson Boyd and the recently promoted Brandon Peterson). Nine Kernels pitchers have ERAs of 3.00 or below.

Aaron Slegers: Standing Tall for the Kernels

The Cedar Rapids Kernels brought a highly heralded group of pitchers north out of spring training. The opening day pitching staff was littered with highly rated prospects obtained with high draft picks and big-money international free agency signings.

Even among top prospects, however, you’re never sure what kind of start you’ll get in a Midwest League season. Some of these pitchers are still teenagers. Some are a long way away from home for the first time. Some have seldom, if ever, pitched in front of a sizable crowd. Some have never experienced the kind of bone-chilling spring weather that is commonplace in Cedar Rapids and other MWL locations.

Any of those factors can cause a pitcher to get off to a slow start, but if you can find a guy who’s already spent a few years away from home, matured as a pitcher, pitched in high-pressure situations and is no stranger to cold weather, he just might have a chance to impress early.

But where could you possibly find such a pitcher? Maybe a guy whose spent the last three years away from home at college, pitching in front of big crowds in big games, regularly played in cold weather, during his college years.

Meet Kernels starting pitcher Aaron Slegers.

Aaron Slegers

Aaron Slegers (photo: JC/Knuckleballs)

The 21 year-old Slegers, who was selected by the Minnesota Twins in the fifth round of the 2013 Major League June Amateur Draft out of the University of Indiana, is 3-0 for the Kernels and carries a 2.52 ERA after six starts. He’s struck out 33 batters in 35.2 innings, while walking just six.

Slegers threw seven shutout innings on Saturday night against the Peoria Chiefs and sat down for an interview the following morning.

Slegers is mature and converses his way through an interview easily, despite the fact that he must know, by now, that the first question every interviewer is going to start with will be about his height. At 6′ 10”, it’s impossible to overlook the obvious.

Aaron Slegers

Aaron Slegers (photo: JC/Knuckleballs)

As he told a group of Kernels boosters at the club’s welcome dinner the day before the season started, he’s not even the tallest member of his family.

“My dad’s seven feet tall,” he said on Sunday, just as he told the gathering a month ago.

So there was never much doubt that the pitcher would be long in the frame.

“Yeah, there’s a funny story about that,” offered Slegers. “In the Big Ten Tournament at Target Field, my mom was interviewed by the Big Ten Network and the sideline reporter asked her, ‘when did you know Aaron was going to be so tall?’ She thought to herself, ‘I guess when I married a seven foot guy.’ I don’t think she said that to the reporter, though.”

Too bad. It’s the kind of line reporters love.

He also has an older sister, in New York City. “She’s about six foot, 6’ 1”. She played volleyball in college,” said Slegers.

Height can be an advantage for a pitcher, but it can also come with certain challenges, including additional levels of stress and strain on important joints.

Slegers fought through a number of injuries in college, but he doesn’t feel they were related to his height.

“The injuries were kind of freak, they weren’t really related to growing or anything,” Slegers explained. “I took a line drive my freshman year in an intrasquad the first week of the season. The first pitch I threw to our starting shortstop that year was a fastball right down the middle and he hit it right back at me off my throwing wrist. That broke my wrist and I was out for the year on a medical redshirt.

“The next year, was a little more my fault, but I showed up a minute late for the bus that was leaving the hotel for the field and the punishment for that was running the entire batting practice. Because of that, I got shinsplints in my right shin. It hurt to walk and, again, out for the year after seven innings my sophomore year.

“It was a tough little stretch there when I was in Indiana the first couple of years. It was a tough go on the injuries.”

Things got better before he left Bloomington, however.Slegers and his Indiana teammates made it all the way to the College World Series in Omaha last year. Slegers threw a complete game in his final appearance as a Hoosier, but lost to Oregon State 1-0.

Despite the way it ended, the trip made all of the early challenges at Indiana worthwhile.

“A hundred percent, exactly right,” Slegers agreed, smiling. “The College World Series makes everything OK.”

The sight of a 6′ 10” pitcher on the mound brings to mind memories of Randy Johnson, the certain future Hall of Fame pitcher who’s fastball periodically clocked in excess of 100 miles per hour.

But that’s not Slegers’ style. His fastball regularly sits in the low 90s, which is good, but not considered overpowering.

The big righthander isn’t concerned about his velocity, however.

“Velocity’s always nice, but that’s sort of something that comes secondary,” explained Slegers.

The primary thing, according to Slegers, is getting the preparation work done and preparing to compete.

Aaron Slegers having a between-innings conversation with pitching coach Ivan Arteaga

Aaron Slegers having a between-innings conversation with pitching coach Ivan Arteaga (photo: JC/Knuckleballs)

“Working in the bullpen, working on your mechanics, long-toss. When you go out and compete, you’re doing exactly that. Going out and competing, trying to repeat (the delivery) and throw strikes and throw all your pitches for strikes. Velocity’s just sort of one of those things that happens.”

So you won’t see Slegers turning around to check his pitch speed on the Kernels’ video board after every pitch.

“That’s something they’re trying to steer us away from,” Slegers agreed, smiling.

Slegers saw a lot of success in college, but he realizes he’s working at a new level now and that requires work to improve, even if he’s not focused on adding velocity to his fastball right now.

“I’m throwing my slider and change up more since I got in pro ball; trying to keep the hitters off balance. You can’t just keep pumping in fastballs over and over. They’re pretty good at learning those pitches. I’m kind of moving the baseball more than in college.”

One thing Slegers hasn’t had to do is adjust to pitching in cold Midwestern weather. His time pitching in the Big Ten assured he’d be prepared for that aspect of his first full season of professional ball.

“Oh yeah, oh yeah,” said a smiling Slegers. “We would go down south the whole month of February, but when we’d come up to school, if it was above 35, we were out on the field practicing and trying to hit BP So, yeah, I’m more than accustomed to it. And those late March home games will toughen you up in a hurry, in terms of the weather.”

Being accustomed to cold weather doesn’t mean he spends any more time in it than he has to, however.

Slegers may have gone to school in Indiana, but he and his family live in Arizona and that’s where he spends his offseason.

Slegers stays active both in the offseason and, to the degree possible, during off days during the season.

“I like to fish and golf, primarily,” Slegers said, concerning his off-the-field interests. “I like to golf as much as possible. In terms of exercising, I like cycling, road biking. That always takes up my time when I want a good cardio workout. It’s kind of unusual for a guy my size to ride a road bike, but mostly golf and fishing are my relaxing offday hobbies.”

- JC

Episode 81: Brian Dozier is Good at Baseball

Do you know who Kenny Wilson is? How about Brandon Waring? After this episode, you will.  You can download the new Talk to Contact (@TalkToContact) episode via iTunes or by clicking here.

Brian Dozier

With three off days in the last week, it’s been a bit of a slow week for the Twins. Alex Meyer learned to throw a nasty change up and Eduardo Escobar seems to have taken over the SS duties from Pedro Florimon. No one in the starting rotation is very good at throwing baseballs lately.

With so many off days instead of finding a hitter and pitcher of the week, we recap the first month of the season to look for a hitter and pitcher of the month.
And a big thanks to the guys from Twins and Losses for joining us to talk a little bit of baseball. You can follow them on the twitter too (@twinsandlosses).
Enjoy the show.

You can follow Cody on Twitter (@NoDakTwinsFan) or read his writing at NoDakTwinsFan, you can find Paul on Twitter (@BaseballPirate) and read his writing at PuckettsPond.com, 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 us on iTunes. Ratings and reviews are the reason we get out of bed in the morning.

Meeting the Kernels: Tanner Vavra and Zack Larson

Heading in to the 2014 season, everyone pretty much had expectations in check with regard to the Cedar Rapids Kernels. The team’s fortunes would likely turn on the performance of a staff of young, highly heralded pitching prospects. The offense, meanwhile, could very well struggle to score enough runs to keep the Minnesota Twins’ Midwest League affiliate competitive.

As they near the end of the first month of the season, however, the Kernels are two games above .500 with a 13-11 record and the hitting is at least as responsible for that success as the pitching staff is.

Infielder Tanner Vavra and outfielder Zack Larson are just two of the Cedar Rapids players making major contributions with their bats. Before Tuesday night’s game with Kane County, Vavra and Larson talked about their season thus far.

Zack Larson and Tanner Vavra

Zack Larson and Tanner Vavra

Vavra, the son of Twins coach Joe Vavra, spent a few days recently at the very top of the Midwest League’s leader board in batting average and still leads his team with a .344 average. He’s also reaching base at a .391 rate and carries an .829 OPS through Tuesday’s games.

While most fans may not have expected that kind of production out of Vavra, neither he nor his manager seem terribly surprised, either.

“He’s a guy that really obviously has been around the game his whole life, with his dad being a professional baseball guy,” said Jake Mauer of his second baseman. “He’s got a lot of baseball instincts. He knows himself as a player. He knows what he needs to do and he plays to his strengths. He’s a guy that puts together good at-bats. He makes the routine plays. He’s definitely earned his playing time.”

“I’m just trying to put good swings on (the ball) and help the team win,” said Vavra of his hot start to the season. “I’m just trying to stay with the same approach and kind of just get my pitch and get on base for guys like Larson here to drive me in.”

Meanwhile, Larson’s also got a pretty impressive early-season slash line, as well with a .307 batting average, a .351 on-base percentage and an .806 OPS. That’s not a bad start for a 20 year-old in his first year with a full-season affiliate.

“He’s really come on for a younger guy and made some adjustments.” his manager said of Larson. “He was having a little hard time with offspeed pitches, but that’s not the case any more. He’s doing a nice job out in right field. He’s going to hit in the middle of our order and he’s getting even better in the outfield and that’s pretty encouraging to see.”

Larson’s just as humble as Vavra when asked about his contributions, too.

“Like Tanner, I’m just trying to put good swings on it,” said Larson. “That’s my main focus, put a good swing on the ball and hopefully good things happen.”

Both hitters have been particularly productive at the plate with team mates on the bases. In fact, both Vavra and Larson are hitting at a .400 clip with runners on base.

Neither man claims they do anything special in those situations, though.

“I don’t like to get out, so I try to take the same approach with runners on or runners not.” said Vavra, laughing.

Added Larson, “Just barrel it up and put a good swing on it. I try to do that every at-bat; stay focused.”

The two team mates may be making similar contributions to their team’s cause this season, but they come at their tasks from very different backgrounds.

Zack Larson

Zack Larson

Larson was drafted by the Twins in the 20th round of the 2012 First Year Player Draft out of his Bradenton, Florida high school.

A 24 year-old from Wisconsin, Vavra played college ball at Valparaiso University before being drafted by the Twins in the 30th round of last June’s draft.

A year ago, top Twins prospects Jorge Polanco and Adam Brett Walker were manning the positions that Vavra and Larson are holding down this season. Both guys just smile when asked about trying to live up to the offensive legacy of last year’s Kernels.

“I think we all knew it was going to be tough to follow in the footsteps of the team from last year and we were never trying to do that,” said Vavra. “We’re never trying to live up to what they did last year, because, let’s face it, that’s pretty special what everybody got to see with the number 1 prospect in all of baseball playing (in Cedar Rapids).”

“With that being said, our goal is still the same,” Vavra added, “to get to the playoffs and put good seasons together individually and have a great team season. Hopefully take it one step farther and get that ring.”

And maybe do enough to get a promotion to the next level in the organization?

“Everyone wants that,” acknowledged Larson, “but you can’t control that. You can only control what you do. Can’t worry about that.”

Larson shares the Midwest League lead with 10 doubles already this season, just one shy of his total two-baggers during his 55 games a year ago at both rookie league levels combined. Then again, he had five home runs last season and has just one as a Kernel.

But don’t expect Larson to feel disappointed with his results so far.

“I’m not disappointed at all,” Larson explained. “I’m not worried about hitting home runs. I’m just worried about helping the team win and putting good swings on the ball and if I hit a home run, it’s cool. Whatever I can do to help the team.”

“He’s young.” chimed in Vavra, about his team mate. “He’s still got a lot of manpower to come his way. This is his first full season. You never know, he might catch hot in July once the weather warms up and you’re going to see big things out of him.”

Tanner Vavra

Tanner Vavra

Vavra’s complete story can’t be told without mentioning that he’s blind in his right eye, the result of a fishing accident at age three and a subsequent injury suffered playing football several years later.

His ability to play baseball at a professional level with that limitation inevitably comes up during interviews. That could give a player a bit of a chip on his shoulder, but Vavra said questions about his eyesight don’t bother him much anymore.

“It’s kind of came and gone. That used to be the biggest concern.” said Vavra. “People doubted me.”

“It irritated me for a while and it’s still a little chip,” Vavra continued, “but I’m just trying trying to get rid of the whole, ‘You’re here because of your dad,’ type deal.”

“I haven’t gotten anything like that from the players, they’ve all been great. I haven’t heard that once. It’s from bloggers and those people that somehow send a letter to your house and tell you that you don’t belong. That’s my chip right now. The eye thing is always going to be there, but that’s my new chip.”

While it’s understandable that Vavra would be sensitive to suggestions that he hasn’t earned his place in pro ball, having a father in the game has its benefits.

“This offseason, I got to work with him for 5-6 months. That’s incredible. Going from usually working with him for three or four weeks over Christmas break to five months. It was definitely helpful.”

While Vavra was spending his offseason working out indoors in Wisconsin with his dad, Larson was wintering in a much warmer climate.

“Down in Bradenton, I give lessons at an indoor batting facility and my hitting coach is also there,” said Larson, of his offseason. “I hit with him and work out, try to get in the best shape I can before the season starts. Every day, hitting cage, doing something with baseball.”

Larson arguably seemed to have an edge on non-baseball related activities.

“I go to the beach. Beach is a big thing in Florida,” said Larson. “Just hang out with my friends. I don’t see them that often. They’re in college when I’m back at home.”

Vavra, on the other hand, “did a lot of hunting and fishing. Different fishing though, dropping a line through the ice.”

The look on Larson’s face, hearing that, gave the impression he wasn’t inclined to trade offseasons with his team mate.

- JC

Getting to Know the Kernels’ Bryan Haar

The Cedar Rapids Kernels sported a 9-7 record as they departed for Peoria Monday for the first of seven road games before returning to Veterans Memorial Stadium on Monday, April 28. They enter the week just two games behind Kane County in the Midwest League’s Western Division standings.

One reason for the success they’ve had thus far has been a power surge in the heart of their batting order.

The Kernels lead the MWL in slugging percentage entering this week’s games largely due to power generated by catcher Mitch Garver and infielder Bryan Haar. Garver leads the league in home runs, with five, and Haar is right on his heals with four round-trippers.

Over the weekend, Haar shared his perspectives on the start to the season that he and his team mates have had, as well as some thoughts about his own experiences moving from college ball, through two levels of Rookie level professional baseball and on to his first month with the Class A level Kernels.

Though Garver and Haar have provided much of the power early on for Cedar Rapids, Haar insists that their offensive success has been a team effort.

“When our team got hot and went on a little winning streak, I think we were all hitting pretty well so that helps,” said Haar. “Hitting is contagious. So I think we all contributed to the good start.”

While the Kernels have kept their record above .500, they haven’t exactly had it easy thus far.

Bryan Haar

Bryan Haar

Haar and many of his team mates have spent their lives playing ball in far warmer climates. Several of the Kernels’ games have been played with temperatures in the 30s and 40s, so they were glad to see things warm up a bit over the past weekend.

“Anything above 50 right now is good for us,” Haar said with a smile on Saturday. “If it’s not 35 and raining, we’re happy.”

You won’t yet find Haar’s name on many of the organizational “top prospect” lists published during the offseason, but the 24 year-old from San Diego is showing power that’s been largely missing to this point in his professional career.

Haar was drafted by the Twins in the 34th round of the 2012 MLB June Amateur Draft, following his senior year at the University of San Diego.

He hit only one home run in 44 games with the Gulf Coast League Twins in 2012 after signing with the Twins and went deep just six times in 60 games with the Twins’ short-season Appalachian League affiliate in Elizabethton last season.

Haar said it took some time for him to adjust from college pitchers, who generally threw a mix of pitches, to lower levels of professional ball, where he faced a lot of strong young arms who were looking to impress.

“In GCL that first summer, it was just fastballs all day,” recalled Haar. “I actually struggled a little bit because I forgot how to hit a fastball. It was new to me. They were blowing it by me.”

He had to continue working on being able to catch up with the heat a year ago in Elizabethton.

“In E’town, it was rookie ball, so there were a lot of 18 year old pitchers out of high school that maybe thought they threw 95 and really threw 91-92, trying to throw fastballs by me. I got more fastballs then. Jeff Reed (hitting coach at Elizabethton) is a great hitting coach, so he helped me out a lot.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean the pitching he faced in college was superior to what he saw his first two years in the pros, though.

“I’d say not better, but more command of their sliders,” Haar explained. “In E’town it was sliders in the dirt, sliders in the dirt. They never flipped one over for a strike. In college, it was slider for a strike, slider for a strike, now you’re down 0-2. But now (in the MWL), it’s more college guys so I’ve got to readjust to college pitching, I guess.”

Bryan Haar

Bryan Haar

Haar knows he’s largely been feasting on fastballs this season and said he already sees pitchers making adjustments.

“The first game of a series, usually I get some fastballs to hit. If I hit them well, then the next two or three games I get sliders and change-ups and curveballs. Just making that adjustment has been a little harder than I would have thought, but I’ve got to hit the fastball when I get it.”

Kernels hitting coach Tommy Watkins has been working with Haar to keep a step ahead of the adjustments the pitchers are making.

“They’re throwing me off-speed a lot, so I’ve got to start adjusting my swing a little bit towards that,” Haar said. “Tommy and I have been working on that the past couple of days. Not really trying to strike out less, but just put more balls in play hard.

“I’ve hit two home runs off sliders, but I think they were the only hits I’ve had off sliders. We were working on that (Saturday), just kind of letting the ball get a little deeper, seeing it deeper.”

At 24, Haar is a bit older than the average MWL position player, but he’s not feeling any extra anxiety about trying to advance quicker up the Twins organizational ladder because of that.

“I don’t really worry about that. I’m just having a good time in Low-A with my friends,” he said. ”I got drafted in 2012 and pretty much all the guys here were drafted in the 2012 draft, so it’s nice to move up with them, in a sense. I’m just letting my play speak for itself and doing what I can here.”

That includes being versatile in the field. Haar has played both corner infield positions for the Kernels already and that’s fine with him. Haar said he’d play anywhere, “as long as I’m in the lineup.”

Haar played some football and basketball in high school and said his interests include, “pretty much every sport with a ball.” But as a Southern Californian, his interests outside of baseball go beyond what local fans might consider the norm.

“I’m from San Diego, so I surf whenever I can. Usually in September I take some time off from baseball and I go surf. But when I get back in to workouts, I don’t have much time for that.”

There’s obviously neither time nor opportunity for surfing during the season, so Haar is looking for other things to do with his limited down time.

“I do enjoy fishing, so since we’re in Iowa, I’d like to get out and fish a little bit, but it’s tough. Getting back from a long road trip, you want to sleep in, and then you’re at the field.”

Of course, there’s always the standard fallback option for ballplayers: video games.

Haar and team mates Garver and Zach Larson, who live in close proximity to one another this season, “have a little FIFA battle on the X-Box. We’re on that quite a bit.”