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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
The people who pay attention to such things during professional baseball’s offseason were pretty much in agreement in their expectations for this team coming out of spring training in Fort Myers.
The starting pitching should be quite improved, perhaps the best it has been in a few years. The bullpen should once again be sound. But when the topic turned to the offense, one question was nearly universal, “Where will the runs come from?”
Now, roughly two weeks in to the 2014 season, there have been a couple of surprises. First, the supposed much improved rotation was a little slow getting out of the gate, but now we’re seeing results that look much closer to what we had hoped we would see from some of the starting pitchers.
But the offense is not what was expected. Instead of struggling to score runs consistently, we’re seeing an offense that sits at or near the top of several offensive statistics. Granted, the season is still young, but the rate at which the team is scoring runs is certainly encouraging.
All of which begs the question, “Who are these guys?”
Coincidental or not, that question could be answered in either of two ways and both would be accurate.
We could certainly be talking about the Minnesota Twins, who came through the past weekend’s series sweep of their American League Central Division rival Kansas City Royals averaging 5.6 runs per game, good for a third place tie in all of Major League Baseball. All three of their starting pitchers in the Royals series chalked up quality starts (at least six innings, giving up three runs or less).
But we could equally be describing the Twins’ Class A Midwest League affiliate, the Cedar Rapids Kernels.
The Kernels are expected to have one of the top rotations in minor league baseball this season, staffed with several of the organization’s top prospects, including the Twins’ first and second round draft picks a year ago, Kohl Stewart and Ryan Eades, among others.
The Kernels’ pitching certainly has been showing glimpses of their talent and arguably have done a better job of living up to their pre-season expectations than their counterparts with the parent Twins.
Through Tuesday’s games, relievers Brandon Bixler, Josue Montanez, Brandon Peterson and Hudson Boyd have each averaged at least a strikeout per inning pitched and have given up just four earned runs combined, between the four of them.
After struggling a little bit during the season’s chilly opening series at home, the rotation started to find their groove during last week’s eastern road trip, as well. Aaron Slegers has just a 1-0 record to show for his efforts, but he’s racked up 14 strikeouts in just 16 innings of work, while walking only a single batter.
Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga indicated Monday night that he was pleased with the work his starting pitching corps did during their recent 5-1 road trip.
“This early in the season, you hope they give a good effort every night, which they did,” Arteaga said of his rotation arms. “They pretty much took us where we wanted them to take us.”
Arteaga added, “We have a pitch limit, everybody knows that. It’s a team effort. The relievers are giving us a chance every night, we can’t ask for more than that. The bullpen’s doing a great job.”
That swing out east last week also seemed to wake up some of the Kernels’ bats, a fact not lost on hitting coach Tommy Watkins who, while praising catcher Mitch Garver for an outstanding road trip, also saw progress from others.
“It was different guys every night,” said Watkins. “The hitters did a good job having quality at-bats. The main thing is they had a pretty decent approach and they stuck to it.”
That approach is showing up in the offensive statistics.
After Tuesday’s game, the Kernels were second in the MWL in runs scored (60) and at the top of the league in both slugging percentage (.442) and OPS (.777).
Cedar Rapids hitters have notched 11 home runs, tying them for the MWL lead with Lake County and Wisconsin. They also rank fourth in the league in doubles (23) and sit atop the MWL list in triples (8).
The power surge wasn’t something that Kernels manager Jake Mauer expected to see at this point.
“That (the home runs) has been a surprise,” Mauer said Monday night. “We know Garver and (Bryan) Haar have some pop, without a doubt, but I’d say the frequency that they’ve hit them, to this point, has been surprising. But they’ve also had some pretty good at-bats with runners in scoring position and we’ve been able to keep that carousel moving. We were a little concerned early that we’d only be able to score one run (at a time), but we’ve found a way to score multiple runs and that’s encouraging.”
Garver, the Twins’ 9th round draft pick a year ago, has accounted for nine of the team’s extra-base hits. He has three doubles, a triple and is leading the MWL in home runs with five. The combination has lifted his slugging percentage to a league leading .825 and his OPS to 1.254, good enough for second highest in the league.
Garver and Haar also lead the Kernels with 10 RBI each.
As Watkins pointed out, however, the offensive contributions haven’t been limited to just a couple of guys.
Outfielder Zach Larson’s six doubles have him tied for the MWL lead in that category and, while seeing action in just seven of the Kernels’ 12 games, through Tuesday, infielder Tanner Vavra has made the most of his opportunities to get to the plate and leads the club with a .360 batting average, just a single point above Haar’s .359.
After Monday’s come-from-behind win over South Bend, Mauer summarized his team’s efforts thus far. “The pitching has been really good, really good. The defense, for the most part, has been pretty good. We’ve gotten some big hits. We’re proud of the boys. They really don’t give up.”
Mauer credits the work the hitters have been doing with their hitting coach for their offensive progress early in the year.
“I think that’s what Tommy Watkins has been doing with these guys, just learning how to trust their hands and try see the ball a little bit. He’s got a pretty good plan that I think the boys are starting to buy in to. Overall, the quality of the at-bats has been much better,” Mauer said on Monday.
The season is young and less than 10% of the Kernels’ regular season games are behind them, but if early hitting trends can be maintained and their pitching turns out to be as improved as it was expected to be, this Cedar Rapids club could turn out to be quite competitive.
Of course, you could perhaps say something similar about the Minnesota Twins.
The Cedar Rapids Kernels opened their 2014 season with a split of their four-game series with the Clinton Lumber Kings. The weather over the weekend was tolerable, with highs in the mid 50s to around 60 degrees, but Thursday’s Opening Night was far from delightful, with temperatures in the 30s and occasional rain. On Friday, the weather forced the season’s first postponement.
On Monday, the team boarded their bus for their first road trip. They’ll play six games in Michigan before returning Monday, April 13.
Before they left town with their team mates, the Kernels’ three-man catching corps sat down for an interview.
Bo Altobelli, Michael Quesada and Mitch Garver have several things in common. They are similar in age and each played some college baseball before starting their professional careers with the Twins.
In addition, each of the three hails from areas of the country that you would assume allows baseball to be played in more moderate weather than what welcomed them to Cedar Rapids last week. Altobelli’s from Texas, Quesada went to school in California and Garver in New Mexico.
They were asked over the weekend if they had any prior experience playing ball in conditions comparable to what they faced in their first week of Midwest League play this season.
Bo Altobelli: It’s a little different, especially coming from Florida up here, so that’s the major change. But it does get cold in Texas. We have played games in sleet and snow before, so I’m a little bit used to it. Of course, you prefer the Florida weather, which hopefully will come here soon.
Michael Quesada: Being from California, this is as cold as I’ve had to play in, but it’s a learning experience. You go up and down the (organizational) ladder, there’s cold places.
Minnesota, for example. You’re not going to complain when you’re up there, are you? You might as well get used to it now.
We’re not the only ones who are cold, everyone else is cold, too. So it’s something you’ve got to work through it and experiment with ways to stay warm.
Mitch Garver: It’’s very similar (in New Mexico). We get a lot of wind. We don’t get a lot of moisture. There’s no snow and sleet and rain, but when it does rain, there’s always going to be wind to accompany it. So the cold is familiar, but you can never really get used to it. You’re always going to be playing in cold, so the first few months of the season, there’s an adjustment.
A year ago, Garver was finishing up his college career at New Mexico. He was asked what differences he’s noticed as he enters his first year of full season professional baseball.
Garver: It’s just different doing this every day. You have to learn how to maintain your body and how you prepare each day is based off how you feel. If you’re feeling a little down one day, you might have to do something a little bit extra to get going.
It’s different from college because really baseball is the only thing you have to worry about. You have to worry about keeping your body in shape, showing up to the field on time, doing what you’ve got to do to prepare.
Whereas in college, you had to take care of your social life, your emotional life, your school work and other factors that go in to it. It’s a more independent way of living and the competition obviously is better.
So does that mean you have no social life or anything like that when you’re playing professional baseball?
Garver: You’ve really got to balance things. In pro baseball, your social life is within the team. It’s kind of who you hang out with 24/7.
Both Quesada and Altobelli spent time in Cedar Rapids a season ago. They were asked whether they were adjusting their approaches this year as they return to open the season with the Kernels, but clearly hope to be getting considered for possible promotions to the next level.
Quesada: My adjustment is not worrying about it. I think I worried too much last year, putting pressure on myself with what to do. It’s a marathon, like Mitch said, it’s every day. I think I played pitch by pitch every day like it was my last pitch and I think you have to pace yourself a little bit.
That’s the adjustment I’m making this year is pacing myself throughout the year. I understand it’s 140-some odd games, plus spring training. I’m treating my body a little differently, adjusting that way.
That’s really the difference that I feel. After my first full season, I caught a lot last year and this year I’m trying to treat it as a marathon and not a sprint.
Altobelli: Similar to what they said, you can’t worry about it because the moment you think you’ve got it figured out, you’ll find out you’ve got no idea what’s going on as far as what they think you’re going to do and what you think yourself you’re going to do.
So you can’t think about it. You’ve just got to go out there and play. Play how you want to play and the rest will take care of itself.
If the team wins, everyone’s going to be happy and, more likely, people will move up if you win. So just focus on winning and the rest will take care of itself.
The Kernels roster includes 13 pitchers, leaving room for just 12 position players. Three of those spots are held by these catchers. That means Kernels manager Jake Mauer has to ration out innings behind the plate among the three backstops. They were asked how it works out, splitting time among the three of them.
Altobelli: Every year of pro ball, we’ve had three catchers where I’m at, so it’s nothing new to me. But being here, we know Jake’s going to help us out the best that he can, DHing us, maybe getting time at first base, who knows.
You’ve got to try and stay focused, take some extra BP if you need it. At least we’re catching bullpens if we’re not playing, so the ball’s still coming at us. So we’re still getting that feel down. It’s definitely difficult, but Jake does a good job of getting us in there and trying to keep us in a routine so credit to him for keeping us up to date with what’s going on.
Quesada: All of that’s out of our control. It’s up to Jake and the organization. It’s not anything we have any power over. All we can do is go out and play the best we can. If they’re going to play us more, then they do. Jake, as Bo said, does a really good job of finding ways to get us in there somehow. He’s not going to shortchange us.
Garver, on the other hand, was catching almost every game during his college season a year ago.
Garver: Yeah, that’s right. It’s a long season. It’s longer than most people might think. It’s my first full season, so I guess I probably don’t have a feel for it like these guys do, but 140 games is a long time and if you’re really only using one or two catchers, it’s going to break down toward the end of the year.
I think having three guys is going to be helpful. You can stay fresh. You can get some days off, get some at-bats at some different positions where you don’t normally play. It teaches you how to be a good baseball player. If you’re only playing one position, you’re not going to be as baseball savvy as you are if you can play multiple positions. They like to see how you can do at different positions and I think that’s a cool thing.
It was “Meet the Kernels Night” at Veterans Mermorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids Tuesday night, giving local fans and media a first look at the 2014 version of the Twins’ Class A Midwest League affiliate and giving the Kernels players their first look at chilly Iowa April temperatures.
After the media portion of the event, players and coaches mingled with fans on the concourse to chat and sign autographs. Then, they shed their parkas for a brief workout.
The cold temperatures meant a pretty small turnout from the public and that’s unfortunate, but understandable. The more unfortunate fact is that the weather forecast for Opening Night on Thursday (and Friday, for that matter) makes the proposition of actually getting baseball played a little dicey.
A year ago, it seemed like the weather was forcing doubleheaders every week for the first couple of months across the Midwest League and I wouldn’t be surprised if we start the season with a twin-bill (or two) over the weekend, as well.
Manager Jake Mauer, along with hitting coach Tommy Watkins and pitching coach Ivan Arteaga met with media for a few minutes, as did four members of the new Kernels roster: Kohl Stewart, Aaron Slegers, Mitch Garver and Chad Christensen. They all arrived in the media room wearing their newly-issued Cedar Rapids Kernels parkas.
Nothing says “play ball” like new team parkas and portable gas heaters in the dugout!
The field staff and players that met with the media had some interesting things to say and I’ll try to write a follow up story with quotes later this week, but for now you just get a little sense of flavor of the evening from a few pictures.
The final week of spring training is a big week for the new batch of Kernels getting ready to head north to Cedar Rapids.
On Thursday, four days before the Kernels will break camp in Fort Myers and head north, the roster for the Kernels still included 29 names. That’s four more than the 25 players that will make up the club’s Opening Day roster.
That means at least four of the current group being managed by Jake Mauer on the back fields of the Lee County Sports Complex will be staying behind for Extended Spring Training in Fort Myers.
On top of that, each of the other levels in the Twins organization, from the Major League club through each of the three minor league levels above the Kernels, all also were a few players over their Opening Day limits. As players at higher levels get “sent down,” they can bump other players down to the next lower level, as well.
After Thursday’s game with the Red Sox’ Class A affiliate, I spoke briefly with a pair of potential Kernels who, while similar in age, demonstrate two different perspectives as they prepare to open the 2014 season.
Catcher Michael Quesada was drafted as a 20-year-old by the Twins in the 24th round of the 2010 Amateur Player Draft out of Sierra College in Rocklin, California. He played only three games in 2010 after signing with the Twins and has spent the past three years moving step-by-step up the organizational ladder.
Quesada spent most of the 2013 season with the Kernels, getting in to 62 games while sharing catching duties with a number of other backstops that passed through the Kernels roster during the year. He didn’t set the world on fire with the bat, but improved his game-calling behind the plate and showed off a strong arm.
A week ago, Quesada was getting an opportunity to work with the Twins’ Class AA group,. But as catchers on the Major League side of the camp were sent down, setting off the natural chain reaction at the minor league levels, Quesada was likewise destined to drop a rung.
However, instead of dropping one rung, to the Class high-A Miracle, Quesada was returned to the same Kernels roster he was part of last season and where it appears he’s likely to open the season alongside other returning players, such as infielder Joel Licon and pitcher Hudson Boyd, among others.
If the drop bothers Quesada, he doesn’t let it show. Rather, he talks of appreciating the opportunity to see how things are done at a higher level in the organization, while looking forward to starting another season with the Kernels.
“Yeah, it was a good experience just to see more mature players, how they handle themselves,” said Quesada. “I’m just coming back (to Cedar Rapids), looking to play as much as possible and get (at-bats). I had a great time in Cedar Rapids last year, so I’m real excited to come back. It’s going to be a good time.”
Despite being less than a year younger than Quesada, infielder/outfielder Chad Christensen has just started his professional career. Christensen was drafted by the Twins in the 25th round of last year’s Amateur Draft and played just 47 games for the Twins’ lowest rookie level team in the Gulf Coast League following the end of his senior season at the University of Nebraska.
Typically, a player like Christensen would be targeted to spend the next couple of months in Extended Spring Training before joining the Twins’ Appalachian League squad in Elizabethton, Tennessee. Then, depending upon performance, he could work his way up to the Kernels later in the summer.
But Christensen, who attended Washington High School in Cedar Rapids, is still a part of the Kernels group just four days before camp breaks and is squarely in the mix for one of the final spots on the Opening Day roster with the Kernels. That would mean spending 2014 playing before friends and family in his hometown.
Kernels manager Jake Mauer has said he’d like to have the flexibility that a player like Christensen brings to the table. Mauer indicated he’d have no qualms about playing Christensen at either corner outfield position, either corner infield position, or even at shortstop on occasion.
Nonetheless, Christensen is well aware that his roster spot with the Kernels is precarious and he’s still got work to do over the final few days of spring training in order to nail down that spot.
“I’m still trying to do what I can to make this team so that’s kind of where I’m at,” Christensen said on Thursday. “(Playing in Cedar Rapids) would be real exciting, I grew up there and everything. It would be a lot of fun to come home.”
Some athletes have been known to struggle with playing at the professional level in their hometown, but Christensen doesn’t believe he’ll feel an extra pressure from playing in Cedar Rapids, if and when that opportunity arises.
“No, I’m not so concerned about that,” he said. “Just trying to keep focused on the field and separate the baseball from the friends and family. I’ll be excited about it.”
A year ago, the Kernels were at or near the top of the Midwest League in almost every offensive category. But the hitters that made up the heart of the batting order a year ago have all moved up at least one level entering the new season and Quesada allowed that this year’s Kernels will take a different approach to win games.
“We’re not really trying to match (the 2013 Kernels hitters),” acknowledged Quesada. “We’re just trying to put more runs up on the board (than the opponent) that day. Maybe it’s two, maybe it’s one. But no, we don’t have the offense of last year, but our pitching is going to win us ballgames.”
The Kernels pitching corps is expected to include a number of the Twins organization’s top young arms during the course of the 2014 season and Quesada is clearly impressed with the pitchers he’s been working with.
“The pitching staff is going to be less experienced, but with way better stuff. They’re going to have live arms, young guys that are learning how to pitch. It’s our job, myself and (fellow catchers) Mitch Garver, Bo Altobelli and (pitching coach) Ivan Arteaga to teach them. They’re definitely good throwers right now, but they have a big opportunity to turn in to some serious pitchers. I’m really excited to work with them.”
Quesada’s work this spring extends beyond the field, as a number of those young pitchers are from Latin America, which can present a communication challenge for a catcher.
“I’m working with Ivan right now to get my Spanish a little better to where I can go out to the mound and talk to them, so they’re comfortable. I’m trying to make their lives as easy as possible because it’s going to be a fun pitching staff to work with.”
Thursday was likely my final look at the Kernels in spring training. I’m planning to go to the Twins/Red Sox game on Friday afternoon and, alas, my flight home from not-so-sunny-but-warmer-than-home Florida is early Saturday morning.
There was no rain in Fort Myers on Wednesday. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it was pretty breezy and high temperatures for the day barely, if at all, reached 70 degrees.
I know that sounds good to a lot of people, but I had to wear long sleeves much of the day at the ballpark and was a bit chilly eating dinner outdoors tonight!
But I toughed it out, because I know my readers expect me to do whatever it takes to get the story.
Today, that story comes from the minor league side of the Twins organization. Rather than watch the Twins and Pirates at Hammond Stadium, I fought the Daniels Parkway traffic toward the Red Sox complex to watch the Twins’ Class A groups take on their Sox counterparts.
After the game, Kernels manager Jake Mauer shared some thoughts about the way his club is shaping up as they enter the final few days of camp. Mauer indicated that just a handful of roster spots are still unresolved.
One player still “on the bubble” with the Kernels as final decisions are being made is Chad Christensen, who prepped at Cedar Rapids Washington High School before playing ball for the University of Nebraska. Christensen was drafted by the Twins last June and played last summer for the Twins’ Gulf Coast League rookie level affiliate in Fort Myers.
It sounds like the Kernels’ manager would like to bring Christiansen to Cedar Rapids next week.
“Chad’s been working real hard and he’s somebody that gives us some flexibility. He’s played both (corner) outfield positions and both corner infield positions and I wouldn’t be afraid to put him at shortstop once in a while,” said Mauer. “We’ve got about six or seven guys we’ve got to make decisions on and he’s in that mix, but there’s no doubt that he’s somebody we’d like to take north with us.”
Mauer knows his squad of Kernels is going to have to take a different approach than last year’s team, now that last year’s power hitters have moved up the organizational ladder.
“We’re going to have to be real good at the small things right away,” the manager acknowledged. “We’re going to have to run the bases well. We’re going to have to be able to execute the small game, hit and runs, getting bunts down, doing things like that. Try to create runs that way.”
According to Mauer, there should be five or six familiar faces for Kernels fans to welcome back to Cedar Rapids.
Among the likely returnees are catchers Michael Quesada and Bo Altobelli. Said Mauer, “We plan on taking both those guys north, along with (Mitchell) Garver. We’re probably going to take three (catchers) to start, at least.”
That means flexibility will be key among other position players because, according to the skipper, he expects the final roster to contain just 12 position players, allowing 13 roster spots for the pitching staff that will once again utilize a six-man starting rotation.
It’s that pitching staff that many in the Twins organization, as well as their fans, are anxious to see.
“I think we’ll be starter-heavy. We should have some quality arms, starting-wise,” said Mauer. “We’ve got a lot of young, quality arms. It just depends on how many we decide to bring up with us.”
In particular, there are a number of pitchers that will push their fastballs consistently in to the middle-to-upper 90s on the speed gun, including young Dominican pitchers Yorman Landa, who was hitting 96 mph in Wednesday’s game, and Randy Rosario. In addition, the Twins’ first round pick in 2013 (and second pick overall) Kohl Stewart is a hard throwing 19 year old who is still on the Kernels roster as camp is drawing to a close.
As Kernels fans know, however, the team’s success is not solely determined by the players that start the season with the club. Between injuries and promotions, it’s equally important to have talented players at the lower levels of the organization preparing to join the Kernels as the season develops.
According to Mauer, there’s plenty of potential mid-season help available, as well. “You know we’ve got some young boys down there, too, (Lewis) Thorpe and (Stephen) Gonsalves. Kids that have some pretty good arms that we’ll probably see at some point throughout the year.”
The Kernels will break camp on Monday. There will be a “Meet the Kernels” event open to the public at no charge on April 1 at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids and Opening Day is Thursday, April 3, when the Kernels host the Clinton Lumber Kings.
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I haven’t written much lately. Honestly, I haven’t even read much lately. Not about baseball, anyway. There just isn’t much going on that I’m particularly interested in. Sure, spring training has started, but they haven’t even started playing spring training games, yet, so there just isn’t much going on to capture my interest.
I’m pretty sure I’ll get more interested when the Grapefruit League games get underway. I guarantee I’ll be more than casually interested a month from now when I’ll be actually on site at the Twins’ training complex in Fort Myers.
However, for the past couple of weeks, it’s been really hard for anything baseball-related to capture my interest; difficult, but not impossible.
The story that broke a couple of weeks ago about three former minor league ballplayers filing suit against MLB, the office of the Commissioner, Commissioner Bug Selig and the three MLB organizations that owned their rights interests me.
There were several stories written about the filing, but if you didn’t happen to see any of them, this article from BleacherReport was one of the more thorough articles and former ballplayer (and author) Dirk Hayhurst had a pretty blunt take on the topic, as well.
I know it’s hard for some of us to even fathom how guys who have the talent to play a game we love at a professional level… who have the opportunity to live a dream that so many of us can only imagine getting to live… could possibly not only complain about their working conditions, but even have the gall to file a lawsuit over those conditions.
It’s a cliché you hear often. “I loved baseball so much, I’d have played for free.” Given that so many fans feel that way, it’s pretty tough for us to empathize with these players who dare to clog our court system with a lawsuit that seemingly has little chance of success.
But saying you would have played the game for free and actually doing it for nearly exactly that amount of compensation are two very different things.
The attention fans play to their favorite team’s minor league organization seems to grow every season. Even so, the percentage of baseball fans who give minor leaguers even a casual thought during the summer is pretty small.
Those that do follow the minor leagues focus most of their attention on the early round draft picks and the big money international free agent signings. Those players get signing bonuses in the millions of dollars, so it would be pretty easy for us to just assume that most minor league ballplayers are pretty comfortable financially.
But we would be wrong.
Yes, if you’re among the first 50 or so players selected in the annual first year player draft, you’re likely to pocket a signing bonus upwards of a million dollars. But that’s not even the full first two rounds of a draft that goes on for a total of 40 rounds.
It’s pretty safe to say that most minor league ballplayers are not concerned about who is watching over their investment portfolios. Their “portfolio” can be stashed in to the trunk or back seat of a car they hope will keep running for another year.
Last year, the first year minor league player salary was $1,150 a month and that’s only for the handful of months during the year that they’re actually playing minor league baseball. That’s also before taxes, before food and housing costs. A player reaching AAA might double that salary. Whoopee, huh?
Just to be clear, it’s not the local minor league organization that pays the players, it’s the parent MLB organization that is responsible for minor league payrolls. In fact, some minor league clubs (including the Twins’ Class A affiliate in Cedar Rapids) arrange host families for players to live with to eliminate the cost of housing during their time with the local ballclub. But not every player across the country has that option.
The players probably should splurge on some insurance, too, because they pretty much have no protection if they happen to incur an injury that precludes them from working. Good thing their work doesn’t often result in that kind of injury, right?
Obviously, they need to get other jobs during the offseason. Of course, for some of them, there is no offseason. Their teams want them playing winter baseball somewhere. They want them to show up for offseason workouts, “fanfests” and other events. At the very least, they have to work out daily to make sure they’re ready to compete for a roster spot in spring training (which, by the way, they don’t get paid for, either).
It takes a pretty understanding employer to hire a guy that has that many demands on his time and will just be leaving in a few months, anyway. But I’m sure there are plenty of those jobs available.
“But wait,” you say. “Don’t those professional baseball players have a union?”
Yes and no. For minor leaguers, it’s mostly no and they’d be better off if it was totally no.
There is a union; the Major League Baseball Players Association. However, the MLBPA’s sole use for minor leaguers appears to be to screw them over any time they can do so as a part of trade-offs to get something better for Major League players.
See, the MLBPA limits its membership to Major League ballplayers. But, for reasons that nobody has ever been able to explain to me in any way that makes sense, the MLBPA is allowed, as part of the collective bargaining process, to negotiate the compensation and working conditions of minor league players, as well.
Isn’t that convenient?
So, if the MLBPA can get a little bit more for the millionaires it represents by allowing teams to implement lower bonus allowances for new draft picks or control their minor leaguers an extra year before they are entitled to free agency, no problem.
Even the drug testing program is uneven, at best. For example, once you’re on a Big League roster, you can test positive for pot regularly and chances are nobody will ever know, because there are no real consequences. If you’re a minor leaguer when you test positive twice, however, plan on sitting out a couple of months’ worth of games… without even that meager minor league paycheck to buy those Pringles chips you have to live on.
But if conditions are so bad, why have minor leaguers never unionized?
The obvious reason is that minor league players all dream of being Major League players and doing anything to antagonize the people who decide which players will and won’t become big leaguers is probably not a wise career move. And if players with U.S. high school and college educations fear challenging baseball’s power, how likely is it that even younger men (boys, really) from impoverished regions of Latin America will do so?
No, since even the Major League players that endured the same conditions on their way to the big leagues have long ago decided they have no interest in making life the least bit easier for the younger players coming up behind them to challenge for their jobs, there’s almost no chance of minor leaguers ever benefiting from collective bargaining. The best they can hope for is for the courts to determine that they should at least not keep getting screwed over by someone else’s collective bargaining.
I’m not a labor lawyer (or a lawyer of any kind, for that matter), so I won’t opine about the chances of success for the plaintiff ballplayers in the suit they’ve filed in a Northern California court.
They claim teams are violating federal and state employment laws. I would imagine that players often work more than 50 hours a week and they are not paid overtime. At many minor league levels, the players are arguably being paid less than minimum wage on an hourly basis.
Logically, I think most of us know that these players are being exploited unfairly. We know the system is wrong. But the people who would benefit from righting that wrong have no power to change things and the people who do have that power benefit the most from keeping the status quo. And unless MLB concludes it is in their own financial best interests to make changes, changes may not happen for a very long time, if ever.
Things could be worse for these young men, though.
What if remarkable athletes like these players got paid nothing at all? What if they weren’t even allowed to accept help from host families and other fans? What if they weren’t allowed to work other jobs to make ends meet?
Those are silly questions, of course. If all of those things were true, these players wouldn’t be working under the rules of minor league professional baseball.
They’d be working under the rules of the NCAA.
Of course, given the rediculous NCAA restrictions college ballplayers lived under, maybe it’s understandable if they think getting $5-6,000 a year to play minor league baseball is a good deal.
It doesn’t make it right, though.