Kernels & Jake Mauer Focus on “Task at Hand”

With less than 40 games left in their 2017 campaign, the Cedar Rapids Kernels need a strong finish to clinch a Midwest League playoff spot, something they’ve accomplished every season since affiliating with the Minnesota Twins in 2013.

Kernels manager Jake Mauer and Manuel Guzman (SD Buhr)
Kernels manager Jake Mauer and infielder Manuel Guzman (Photo: SD Buhr)

The Peoria Chiefs and Clinton Lumberkings finished one and two in the Division’s first half standings, automatically qualifying them for the postseason. Their Division rivals with the two best records in the second half will join the Chiefs and Lumberkings in the playoffs.

If the season ended today (Monday), Clinton would have the best second half record in the West, while Cedar Rapids and Quad Cities (currently second and third in the Division) would fill out the Western half of the postseason bracket. However, Burlington and Wisconsin sit one game or less behind Quad Cities, so the race is likely to be tight over the final weeks of the season.

Jake Mauer has been at the helm of the Kernels from the beginning of the club’s affiliation with the Twins. His 292-226 record with the Kernels makes him Cedar Rapids’ winningest manager in the modern era (1949-present) and places him third all-time. He’ll catch up to Ollie Marquardt in the second spot with his next win, but Mauer’s going to have to stick around a very, very long time to top Belden Hill’s 831 wins.

While winning takes a back seat to player development in modern minor league baseball, the local fans definitely like to follow a winner and Mauer has given the locals plenty of success, beginning with a squad that was loaded with top prospects in the inaugural season of the Twins/Kernels relationship. That team made winning look easy – at least a lot easier than it has looked in the two-and-a-half seasons since.

2016 has, perhaps, been the most challenging of Mauer’s four years of wearing number 12 for the Kernels. This year’s group is short on players you would find among “top prospect” lists published by the likes of Baseball America, MLB.com or any other group in the business of tracking minor leaguers’ paths to the big leagues.

Nonetheless, in an interview late last week, Mauer was unwilling to say that the lack of blue chippers on his team makes this season his most challenging.

“Each year is different,” Mauer said. “If you have a lot of high-end (prospects), you’re expected to win and if you don’t have a lot of high-end guys, you’ve got to find ways to win. It’s all part of development, it’s all part of the process.

“The second year (2014), I thought we had a lot of challenges, they were comparing the ’13 team to the ’14 team and that wasn’t fair to that ’14 team.”

Winning is obviously a lot easier when you’ve got a lot of those high draft choices and big money international free agents. Several of them, including first round draft choice Byron Buxton and six-figure bonus international signee Max Kepler (both now playing the outfield for the Twins) spent much of their 2013 seasons in Cedar Rapids uniforms.

“You get blessed with years like ’13 where you have seven of them, eight of them. They’re all panning out at different speeds,” reflected Mauer. “You know, some of the clubs I had at Fort Myers I don’t think we had one. So it just depends on what you have.”

When you’ve got a team of projected stars, a manager in Mauer’s position will generally stick with a pretty consistent lineup. “Obviously, guys that are higher end guys as a player,” he said, “you’ve got to find out what they can and can’t do, that’s the nature of the beast.”

Not so this season.

“I wonder how many different lineups we’ve used,” Mauer pondered. “It’s probably been fifty or sixty of them, would be my guess.

“Clubs like this, some of these guys that aren’t necessarily Baseball America guys get an opportunity to kind of put themselves on the map. As you can see, there’s no way to get buried on our bench here. Everybody plays.

“Pitching’s a little bit different,” he conceded. “They earn (consistent playing time) a little bit more. They’re all going to get an opportunity, it’s just a matter of what they’re going to do with it.

“It’s all getting these guys to understand themselves, first, in order for us to do anything – in order for them to have any impact down the road. This is the league where we start to shake out the guys that aren’t as mentally tough as others. Find out who can play every day, find out who can do what it takes. So, they’re going to get tested, they’re going to get innings, they’re going to get at-bats, get all that stuff. Then we’ll kind of look back in September at how everything unfolded.”

(L-R) Cedar Rapids Kernels pitching coach JP Martinez, manager Jake Mauer and hitting coach Brian Dinkelman (behind screen) )Photo: SD Buhr)
(L-R) Cedar Rapids Kernels pitching coach JP Martinez, manager Jake Mauer and hitting coach Brian Dinkelman (behind screen) (Photo: SD Buhr)

Throughout most of the first half of the season, it looked like the Kernels would easily clinch an early playoff spot by finishing in one of the top two spots in the Western Division’s first-half race, but they faltered badly during the final couple of weeks before the midpoint and ended up in third place.

“You hate to say it,” Mauer commented on his squad’s late first half implosion, “but we scored the same amount of runs, but we lost two guys in the back end of the bullpen and lost probably the best starter in the league.

“We weren’t necessarily blowing the doors off of anybody in the first half. It takes you a while to figure out who can step up and take those roles.”

Mauer is starting to see some guys stepping up.

Last week, the Kernels went on one a six-game road trip over into the MWL Eastern Division territory and came away with a perfect 6-0 record against Lake County and Fort Wayne.

“We swung the bats really well,” he said of their Eastern sweep. “We rode (Luis) Arraez, (Zander) Wiel and (Jaylin) Davis, really. Other guys chipped in here and there, but those guys had a monster week. You’re scoring 6, 7, 8 runs a night, it gives you a pretty good chance to win.

“(Wiel) can carry a team, which he did the last week. Jaylin Davis is probably in the same boat, he can carry a team. Arraez has been pretty consistent, but we kind of go where those three guys go. When the three of them are having a pretty good week, we’ve got a pretty good chance. If they’re not, it will be more difficult for us.”

Finding pitchers to fill the holes left following promotions has been more challenging for Mauer and pitching coach J.P. Martinez. “Pitching is still kind of up in the air who we’ve got,” the manager said.

“It’s so different,” Mauer said, of the Kernels’ bullpen situation. “We’re not as pitching-deep as we were last year. If we had a lead going into the fifth inning, we pretty much knew we were going to win last year. That’s not the case this year. You’ve got some guys that need to step up and take control. I’d say (Anthony) McIver has, to a point. We’ve got to find out about (Tom) Hackimer. But we still have several guys you don’t quite know what you’re going to get in given situations. We’ve got to find out.”

Mauer’s clearly also looking for some improvement among his starting rotation.

“(Cody) Stashak’s probably our number one (starting pitcher). (Lachlan) Wells has been good. Those two guys have been pretty good. If we can just get some of these (other) guys to take that next step, it would make the process better.”

Kernels pitcher Lachlan Wells strikes out Reds first round draft choice (2nd overall) Nick Senzel. (Photo SD Buhr)
Kernels pitcher Lachlan Wells strikes out Reds first round draft choice (2nd overall) Nick Senzel July 25. Catching is Rainis Silva. (Photo SD Buhr)

The season’s second half is shaping up to be at least a four-team dogfight with the Kernels, Burlington Bees, Wisconsin Timber Rattlers and Quad Cities River Bandits playing leapfrog with one another in the standings on virtually a daily basis as they jockey for one of the coveted second-half playoff spots.

“That’s our division,” said Mauer. “There really isn’t a team that’s head and shoulders above anybody. Anybody can beat anybody on a given night and I think you’re going to see that kind of as we go through. Things change, obviously, as these draftee guys (from the 2016 draft) starting to come and some of these first full season guys that tend to hit a wall a little bit.”

Mauer’s working with a pair of coaches, in his fourth season with the Kernels, that he hasn’t been teamed with before. Martinez and hitting coach Brian Dinkelman are in their first seasons by Mauer’s side after coaching with the Twins’ Gulf Coast League team, where games are played on back fields at the organization’s spring training complex in front of few, if any, fans.

But the manager says things are going, “good,” on that count.

“(Martinez and Dinkelman) have been real good. Their first ‘real baseball’ compared to that ‘complex ball’ that’s a lot different. They’ve done a good job. For them, their first year, this is unusual to have so many different guys coming through.”

Forty-nine players have already worn a Kernels jersey in 2016. It’s not unusual for fewer players than that to suit up for Cedar Rapids in an entire season.

“What’s nice is that these guys know most of the kids that have come up,” Mauer added. “They’ve had them, they know what makes them tick, the things to do with them, what they need to work on.”

High roster turnover, few top prospects, new assistant coaches. Those things, on their own, might make a manager’s job challenging, but last week the Twins added a little something extra to the load that Mauer and his staff have to carry. Long-time General Manager Terry Ryan was fired by the Twins ownership.

“It’s unfortunate,” Mauer said of Ryan’s dismissal. “Obviously, he’s a great baseball man. He’s all I’ve ever known as a GM, other than Bill Smith, but Terry wasn’t far away (during Smith’s tenure as GM). I think it came as a shock, the timing of it, to everybody. He’s done so much for us and for our organization and whoever comes in after him is going to have big shoes to fill.”

As a result, Mauer and his coaches now are essentially lame ducks, uncertain whether the new GM will choose to retain them going forward. How’s that for adding a little anxiety to the manager’s life?

But, as Mauer observed, the anxiety goes well beyond just he and his coaches.

“It could be for scouts, all the way down to the athletic training guys and strength guys. You don’t know what’s going to happen, we don’t know who is the next guy, if they have somebody in mind, if they don’t. So, we’ll see. I’m sure they’ve got a game plan up there for what they’re going to do.

“But, if you’re confident in what you’re doing and you do a good job, you can’t control that,” Mauer concluded. “This is just like we tell the players, if they look at what’s going on ahead of them or who’s doing what behind them, they can’t control that. Same with us, (we can’t) worry about who’s coming in and fret about it, and not do the task at hand. We’ve got to do the task at hand first of all and see what shakes out.”

The “task at hand” for the manager and his charges is to finish the final six weeks of the season strong. How does Mauer see the remainder of the season shaping up?

“We’ll see. I wish I could answer that, honestly. I have no idea. We look like a million bucks for three or four days, then we have a tough time for three or four days. It’s just kind of how it is. We talk extensively about, we need leaders to step up and to lead and to be our guys so you kind of know what you’re going to get day in and day out.

“They’ll keep playing hard and they’ll keep competing and we’ll just see how it ends up.”

Twins Moving in the Right – and Wrong – Direction?

The Minnesota Twins’ top brass set off shockwaves across Twinsville on Monday, announcing that General Manager Terry Ryan had been relieved of his duties.

There’s not much point to discussing why Ryan lost his job. This quote says it all. “The reason for this change, I think it’s safe to say, the last couple years we have not won enough games. That’s what it comes down to. It’s nothing more, nothing less than that.”

If you don’t recall reading that quote yesterday, it’s because you have to go back much further than that – 22 months further. It’s what Ryan told the media when he announced Ron Gardenhire was being let go as the club’s manager.

What’s good for the goose, etc.

Terry Ryan is a class individual who knows a lot about baseball. I can say that from first-hand experience, having spoken with him several times, both in formal interviews and informally. I enjoyed every minute I had with him.

But the Twins rosters he has assembled have not been winning for far too long and, as Gardenhire conceded at the time of his firing, “I’m gone, I’m outta here because we didn’t win. That’s what it gets down to in baseball. That’s what it should get down to.”

And he was right. In major professional sports, it’s about winning and the Twins haven’t done enough of that for some time.

So there’s not much point in debating whether Ryan deserved to be let go. Instead, let’s focus on what comes next.

If you were one of the significant (and growing) number of Twins fans who wanted to see someone else be given the keys to Ryan’s office, you got to spend an hour or so smiling on Monday. But if you heard or read the quotes coming out of the mouths of the people who will be making the decision concerning who will be getting that office next, your smile didn’t last long.

I’m sure there could be worse ways for an ownership group and team president to handle the dismissal of their GM than what the Pohlads and Dave St. Peter did on Monday, but it’s kind of hard to imagine how it could have been worse.

To begin with, the bungling of this situation didn’t start on Monday; it started last month when, according to Jim Pohlad, he notified Ryan that he would not be retained after the end of the current season.

Reports indicate that Ryan and Pohlad had differences over how to improve the team. Ryan had made several public comments indicating he planned to be very active on the trade market. If Pohlad did not support that approach, it would be one indication he deserves his reputation for not possessing a terribly astute baseball mind.

But to essentially give his top baseball executive four months’ notice of his intent to fire him also would indicate Pohlad doesn’t have the greatest business mind, either. How, exactly, was that supposed to work?

At best, Ryan would have limited motivation to take actions necessary to improve the club and probably would have limited authority to make deals without ownership approval. At worst, word would leak out around MLB that he was a lame duck GM, totally undermining his negotiating position with his peers.

So, bungle number 1 was telling Ryan he was going to be fired four months in advance.

Bungle number 2 came right on the heels of number 1, though, when Pohlad left it to Ryan to determine how to handle the timing and announcement.

Really? In what kind of business does that make sense?

It’s one thing to cut back some middle management staff, ask them to stick around through a transition, and leave it to them whether to tell people it was “early retirement.” It’s quite another thing to do that for the guy who is essentially running every aspect of your baseball organization short of hiring the beer vendors.

The result is that Ryan waited until just two weeks before the non-waiver trade deadline before telling Pohlad it was time to make the announcement, leaving his assistant (and interim GM) Rob Antony in a very difficult position.

Bungle number 3 is actually more like number 3a through 3(something way down the alphabet from b). Almost every word spoken by Pohlad and St. Peter on Monday reflected an organization totally unprepared for what comes next.

It was made clear that Paul Molitor will be manage the Twins in 2017 and any GM candidate who didn’t like that need not apply. How many potential candidates will that rule out, unnecessarily?

But, hey, Pohlad has been preparing for this search by familiarizing himself with how other MLB clubs are structured – by looking through their Media Guides.

Not to worry, though, because the Twins “may” utilize a professional search firm to recruit qualified candidates. They may. Of course that also means that they “may not.”

How can these people not at least have some clue as to how their peers around the league are organizing their front offices? No matter. Now would be a really good time to look into that. Maybe one of those search firms could help.

Pohlad also indicated that St. Peter will play a major role in the GM-hiring process and that the new GM will report to the Twins president.

Sigh.

To my mind, the man at the top of the organizational ladder needs to be a Chief Executive Officer (or whatever alternative, more baseball-like, title you want to give to the CEO-type) who understand both the baseball AND business sides of running a big league organization. That is not Dave St. Peter, so St. Peter should be reporting to the new hire, not the other way around.

The CEO level might not be necessary if anyone in the ownership group had some level of baseball savvy, but that is not the case with the Twins. It’s time for the Pohlads to not only admit that (which they’ve essentially done already), but to also structure their business accordingly.

Once the CEO is hired, that CEO should get to hire a GM. And, oh, by the way, that GM should get to hire the manager of her/his choice, too.

I like Molitor and I don’t disagree that, had Ryan been retained, he should have been given another year to manage the team. But if you handcuff your new GM before you even get any applicants for the opening, you aren’t likely to even get the best candidates to come in for an interview.

These issues don’t have to be resolved immediately. A thorough (and professionally organized) recruitment of qualified candidates should take place. Ideally, this would all take place toward the end of the season, but bungles 1, 2 and 3 have already set the wheels in motion.

Mistakes have already been made, but there’s still time to do the rest of this thing right and get a competent, forward-thinking executive to run the baseball operations.

Unfortunately, early indications don’t give me much hope that will happen.

-JC

MWL All-Star Game Photos

Since it was so late when I got home after last night’s Midwest League All-Star Game, I was too tired to get all of the photos included in my ASG post that I would have liked to. (Sure, the margarita or 5 that I had at the game MIGHT have had something to do with my drowsiness, but there’s no hard evidence of that, so I’m going with ‘I was just tired.’)

Anyway, I decided to post several more pictures from the ASG festivities over the past couple of days in Cedar Rapids.

Now, here’s the thing: I discovered, after taking the first couple of pictures with my camera Tuesday night, that my carmera’s battery was nearly kaput (that’s a technical photojournalist term, I think), so for many of the pictures I wanted, I had to use my phone’s camera.

Now, here’s the other thing: Because I used an app on my phone to provide yardage estimates when I was golfing earlier in the day, my phone’s battery was pretty much kaput, too. Fortunately, the Kernels have one of those charging stations where I was able to pump a little extra charge into the phone midway through the game (and where I had a nice chat with a Lumberkings fan who found himself in the same predicament.)

In the end, photos were taken and here are a few of them:

Upon arriving at the free Fanfest on Monday afternoon and pulling out my camera, I was almost immediately attacked by a cougar. He was either anxious to have his picture taken or very angry that I was taking it. I quickly snapped this shot and moved away before I could find out which was the case.
Upon arriving at the free Fanfest on Monday afternoon and pulling out my camera, I was almost immediately attacked by a cougar. He was either anxious to have his picture taken or very angry that I was taking it. I quickly snapped this shot and moved away before I could find out which was the case.
A young fan takes his cuts at one of the games during Fanfest
A young fan takes his cuts at one of the games during Fanfest
The thing about royalty is, they always seem to think they're above the rest of us somehow. The Clinton Lumber Kings mascot is, apparently, no exception.
The thing about royalty is, they always seem to think they’re above the rest of us somehow. The Clinton Lumber Kings mascot is, apparently, no exception.
More than half of the Midwest League's team mascots made the trip to Cedar Rapids. My daughter commented afterwards, "It was like Mr Shucks had a party and got to invite all his friends." I should probably add that my daughter is 26 years old. However, she is an elementary school teacher, which, I believe, adds to her appreciation for all things mascot-ish.
More than half of the Midwest League’s team mascots made the trip to Cedar Rapids. This gathering is just a few of those mascots on Monday. My daughter commented after the game Monday night, “It was like Mr Shucks had a party and got to invite all his friends.” I should probably add that my daughter is 26 years old. However, she is an elementary school teacher, which, I believe, adds to her appreciation for all things mascot-ish.
You think it's easy being a sports columnist? Just TRY to get a decent interview out of a mascot.
You think it’s easy being a sports columnist? Just TRY to get a decent interview out of a mascot like the Gazette’s Mike Hlas appears to be attempting to get from the Burlington Bees’ mascot on Monday.
Before Tuesday's game, Players were available for autographs on the concourse.
Before Tuesday’s game, Players were available for autographs on the concourse.
Kernels All-Stars Luis Arraez, LaMonte Wade and AJ Murray at the autograph table before the ASG on Tuesday
Kernels All-Stars Luis Arraez, LaMonte Wade and AJ Murray at the autograph table before the ASG on Tuesday
On Monday evening, the Kernels hosted players, team officials, various VIPs and guests of all of the above at a social event at Cedar Ridge Vineyard & Distillery. I got my first look at the ASG card set at displays there.
On Monday evening, the Kernels hosted players, team officials, various VIPs and guests of all of the above at a social event at Cedar Ridge Vineyard & Distillery. I got my first look at the ASG card set at displays there.
I'm not sure this chocolate fountain at the Monday social event was on the sanctioned diet list for players, but then I didn't witness a single player eating the chocolate. That's my story & I'm sticking with it.
I’m not sure this chocolate fountain at the Monday social event was on the sanctioned diet list for players, but then I didn’t witness a single player eating the chocolate. That’s my story & I’m sticking with it.
Kernels catcher AJ Murray got his cuts in during the HR Derby before the game on Tuesday. He didn't win, but we don't hold grudges for things like that in CR.
Kernels catcher AJ Murray got his cuts in during the HR Derby before the game on Tuesday. He didn’t win, but we don’t hold grudges for things like that in CR. BTW, that’s my view from my season ticket seats this year, from which I’m always willing to help the umpires out with fair/foul calls down the LF line.
Bowling Green's Brett Sullivan was the winner of the HR Derby
Bowling Green’s Brett Sullivan was the winner of the HR Derby
The starting lineups for the ASG.
The starting lineups for the ASG.
As the manager of the Western Division Champions from a year ago, Kernels manager Jake Mauer was at the helm for the Western Division All-Stars
As the manager of the Western Division Champions from a year ago, Kernels manager Jake Mauer was at the helm for the Western Division All-Stars. Considering the MWL generally uses just 2 umpires for their games, seeing 6 of them out there just looked weird.
Kernels pitcher Sam Clay worked a perfect first inning for the West squad.
Kernels pitcher Sam Clay worked a perfect first inning for the West squad.
Kernels 2Bled off the bottom of the 1st inning for the West stars with this single down the left field line.
Kernels 2Bled off the bottom of the 1st inning for the West stars with this single down the left field line.
Luis Arraez had a pair of hits for the West squad. Here he's fist-bumped by Kernels coach Brian Dinkelman.
Luis Arraez had a pair of hits for the West squad. Here he’s fist-bumped by Kernels coach Brian Dinkelman.
LaMonte Wade had one hit in two at bats and was hit by a pitch. This single drove in a pair of runs for the West.
LaMonte Wade had one hit in two at bats and was hit by a pitch. This single drove in a pair of runs for the West.
AJ Murray might not have won the HR Derby, but he went deep when it mattered. Here he strokes a 2-run home run for the West stars in the 7th inning.
AJ Murray might not have won the HR Derby, but he went deep when it mattered. Here he strokes a 2-run home run for the West stars in the 7th inning.
It wasn't a sellout crowd, but the 4,500+ who showed up sure made it look close to being full and the weather was just about perfect.
It wasn’t a sellout crowd, but the 4,500+ who showed up sure made it look close to being full and the weather was just about perfect.
If you've been to the Kernels' ballpark in prior years, you may recall the "stars" on the concourse floor honoring many of the CR baseball club alumni from John McGraw to Mike Trout. The stars are no longer on the floor, but have now been placed along the fencing along the concourse, such as this star for Chili Davis, who was with the Cedar Rapids Giants during my first season of watching minor league ball in CR, 1978.
If you’ve been to the Kernels’ ballpark in prior years, you may recall the “stars” on the concourse floor honoring many of the CR baseball club alumni from John McGraw to Mike Trout. The stars are no longer on the floor, but have now been placed along the fencing along the concourse, such as this star for Chili Davis, who was with the Cedar Rapids Giants during my first season of watching minor league ball in CR, 1978.
I confess that I did not just remain in my seat throughout the game. In addition to an occasional trip to the concourse for a margarita refill, I also found the sweet corn stand. This stuff might be just about the best thing about summer in Iowa that's not related to baseball, so I couldn't pass up the chance to combine them at the same time.
I confess that I did not just remain in my seat throughout the game. In addition to an occasional trip to the concourse for a margarita refill, I also found the sweet corn stand. This stuff might be just about the best thing about summer in Iowa that’s not related to baseball, so I couldn’t pass up the chance to combine them at the same time.
Eloy JImenez, of the South Bend Cubs, was presented with the Top Star Award for the game. (Yes, I mistakenly identified him as Francisco Meija in a Tweet at the time. That's what happens when you have multiple players wearing the same jersey number. My bad.)
Eloy JImenez, of the South Bend Cubs, was presented with the Top Star Award for the game. (Yes, I mistakenly identified him as Francisco Meija in a Tweet at the time. That’s what happens when you have multiple players wearing the same jersey number. My bad.)
No, it's not the greatest picture in the world, but the postgame fireworks were outstanding. Here, AJ Murray and Sam Clay take them in along with Kernels staff members gathered in the home dugout.
No, it’s not the greatest picture in the world, but the postgame fireworks were outstanding. Here, AJ Murray and Sam Clay take them in along with Kernels staff members gathered in the home dugout.

(All photos: SD Buhr)

After the game, the players and their guests gathered at the Newbo City Market for a postgame party that was open to the public, as well (for a nominal charge, of course). I didn’t make that event (one party per week is pretty much my maximum these days), but I’m sure it was a great time.

Again, you just don’t appreciate, sometimes, how much work goes into putting on an event like this. I’ve had an opportunity this summer to get a small glimpse at all the preparations the Kernels staff have made, from the flowers/landscaping done outside the stadium to all of the meticulous field preparation, event planning and concession work, as well. I’m clearly biased, but I thought the staff put on a terrific event.

Now we move on to the second half of the MWL schedule, with all teams starting over with a 0-0 record and the Kernels needing to finish among the top two teams in the Western Division (among those who haven’t already qualified for the postseason) to reach the playoffs for their 4th consecutive season.

MWL All-Star Game Events

The Cedar Rapids Kernels and the city of Cedar Rapids hosted this year’s Midwest League All-Star Game festivities and all four Kernels players on the Western Division roster played big roles before the festivities concluded.

The Eastern Division stars notched a come-from-behind 11-10 victory in what could only be described as an entertaining ballgame.

Kernels pitcher Sam Clay got the start for the West stars and notched a 1-2-3 inning in the first inning, completing it with a strikeout.

Cedar Rapids’ second baseman Luis Arraez led off the bottom of the second with a single and team mate LaMonte Wade reached on a hit-by-pitch to start the home half of the first. Both players came around to score, giving the West the first two runs of the game.

Kernels catcher AJ Murray, who participated in the pregame Home Run Derby, entered the game about halfway through the contest and went to the opposite field for a two-run blast that put his team up 10-7 in the bottom of the seventh inning.

That’s probably all you need to know about the game itself, but I’ll add a number of pictures from the festivities on Monday and Tuesday.

A lot of work goes into putting on one of these events and big time kudos go out to the entire Kernels staff (augmented with staff from the Northwoods League’s Waterloo Bucks front office) for putting on a first class show.

More than half of the Midwest League's team mascots made the trip to Cedar Rapids. My daughter commented afterwards, "It was like Mr Shucks had a party and got to invite all his friends."
More than half of the Midwest League’s team mascots made the trip to Cedar Rapids. My daughter commented afterwards, “It was like Mr Shucks had a party and got to invite all his friends.”
Kernels All-Stars Luis Arraez, LaMonte Wade and AJ Murray at the autograph table before the ASG on Tuesday
Kernels All-Stars Luis Arraez, LaMonte Wade and AJ Murray at the autograph table before the ASG on Tuesday
As the manager of the Western Division Champions from a year ago, Kernels manager Jake Mauer was at the helm for the Western Division All-Stars
As the manager of the Western Division Champions from a year ago, Kernels manager Jake Mauer was at the helm for the Western Division All-Stars
Kernels pitcher Sam Clay worked a perfect first inning for the West squad.
Kernels pitcher Sam Clay worked a perfect first inning for the West squad.
Luis Arraez had a pair of hits for the West squad. Here he's fist-bumped by Kernels coach Brian Dinkelman.
Luis Arraez had a pair of hits for the West squad. Here he’s fist-bumped by Kernels coach Brian Dinkelman.
LaMonte Wade had one hit in two at bats and was hit by a pitch.
LaMonte Wade had one hit in two at bats and was hit by a pitch.
AJ Murray strokes a 2-run home run for the West stars in the 7th inning.
AJ Murray strokes a 2-run home run for the West stars in the 7th inning.

 

AJ Murray (left) and Sam Clay (11) take in the postgame fireworks with the rest of the crowd.
AJ Murray (left) and Sam Clay (11) take in the postgame fireworks with the rest of the crowd.

(all photos: SD Buhr)

Three Kernels Named All-Stars

The Midwest League All-Star Game is drawing near and this week three Cedar Rapids Kernels were named to the team, assuring that Kernels fans will have some familiar faces to cheer for when Cedar Rapids hosts the annual event on Tuesday, June 21.

Luis Arraez
Luis Arraez

Kernels starting pitcher Sam Clay, second baseman Luis Arraez and outfielder LaMonte May were all named as MWL All-Stars. Arraez and Wade were selected as starters for the West All-Stars by the league’s managers and Clay was named as a reserve.

Clay, a lefty starter from Buford, Georgia, by way of Georgia Tech, has put together a 4-2 record in the season’s first half to go with a 2.43 ERA over 10 starts.

19-year-old Arraez was signed by the Twins as an International Free Agent out of San Filipe, Venezuela. He has posted a .315 batting average, including 11 doubles, a triple and a pair of home runs. He’s also walked 17 times, fueling his .380 on-base percentage.

LaMonte Wade
LaMonte Wade

Wade is a former Maryland Terrapin from Baltimore who has consistently hit above .300 all year and currently sits at .318. He also has six doubles, three triples and four home runs, which have contributed to his .891 OPS. He has also put up a 38/22 walk/K ratio, assembling a .438 OBP.

You might have thought that, with the Kernels holding a thin lead atop the Western Division standings, more of their players would have earned All-Star roster spots, but the recent promotions of starting pitcher Randy LeBlanc and closer Nick Anderson likely reduced the number of players the local club put on the team.

(LeBlanc, by the way, was named by the league as its MWL Player of the Month for the month of May, during which the righthander notched a 0.24 ERA and a 4-0 record over five starts before being promoted to Ft. Myers.)

Sam Clay
Sam Clay

In addition, players named to the All-Star squad two weeks before the game is played often turn out to not be available to play, due to injury or promotion, by the time the game is played. It’s not uncommon for players from the host team to be named as replacements for such players, so the Kernels could still see additional local favorites named to the West squad.

Regardless of whether additional Kernels players are ultimately named to the team, there will be no shortage of Cedar Rapids uniforms on the field and in the home team dugout as manager Jake Mauer and coaches Brian Dinkelman & JP Martinez will be coaching the West squad.

There I Go, Turn the Page

Paul Molitor
Paul Molitor (Photo: SD Buhr)

Here I am
On the road again
There I am
Up on the stage
Here I go
Playin’ star(s) again
There I go
Turn the page

It has got to be lonely being Paul Molitor these days. About the only thing separating him from the tortured Bob Seger that penned “Turn the Page” back in 1972 is that he isn’t subjected to riding a bus somewhere east of Omaha with locals at truck stops making snide remarks about his long hair.

I’m not sure what he envisioned his life would be like as the manager of the Minnesota Twins when he signed on for the gig after Ron Gardenhire was let go following the 2014 season, but I’d bet every cent I have that he wasn’t expecting this. After all, his Twins are on pace to finish with one of the worst records in Major League Baseball history. Not Twins history, not franchise history, not American League history, but in all of MLB history.

This is taking place after a season, in 2015, that many people thought saw the Twins, under Molitor in his first season as a manager at any level, take a significant step forward in terms of competitiveness.

Sure, everyone knew there were candidates for regression on the club’s roster and nobody knew what to expect of their imported Korean designated hitter, but there were also players that we felt had reasonable chances to improve their performance levels over what we saw in 2015. Even the most pessimistic among us could not have reasonably expected this to happen.

But it has happened. The Twins are 15-37 as they return home to face the Tampa Bay Rays, themselves sitting at the bottom of the American League East standings at the moment.

There has been plenty written in the Twins community about what’s gone wrong and what should be done about it. Some of the suggestions have been reasonable, many have not.

You can’t trade players for whom there is no market and you can’t really flat out release most of them, either.

Most teams won’t fire their manager and/or their general manager during the first two months of the season, especially when that manager is only in his second season at the helm and the general manager has been around forever and is credited with rebuilding a farm system that is acknowledged to be among the best in the game.

Typically, you give the guys you left spring training with a couple of months to come around before you go about making significant changes. Your options are limited in April and May, anyway, because few teams are going to be interested in adding noteworthy pieces to their rosters that early, even if you are ready to turn the page sooner than that.

But we’re into June now and while most teams still won’t be prepared to make many deals at least until later in the month, it’s time to start initiating those discussions.

It is also time to start looking at what you want your roster to look like on Opening Day 2017. If there’s a silver lining to a miserable start like this, it’s that you don’t have to wait until spring training next March to start evaluating your options. You don’t even have to wait until the traditional “September call up” portion of the season. You’ve got a full four months to look at what you’ve got before you have to make decisions about which positions you will need to fill from outside your organization during the offseason.

The Twins are likely to lose over 100 games this season. It could be more. It could be a few less, but not a lot less.

It’s time to turn the page.

Listen, I like Trevor Plouffe. He has, in my view, turned himself into a more-than-adequate third baseman after nearly playing himself out of baseball at shortstop. He also hits enough that there’s nothing wrong with him being a regular in a Major League lineup.

I like Brian Dozier even more. He came to Cedar Rapids in January, 2013, with the first Twins Caravan after the Twins announced they would be affiliating with the local Kernels Class A team and did a great job on the dais. With the personality he showed that night, it came as no surprise to me that he eventually became a fan favorite in the Twin Cities. Like Plouffe, he turned out not to be the answer for the Twins at shortstop, but he transitioned to second base where he has done an excellent job.

When Joe Nathan departed, many of us were nervous about whether the Twins would find someone capable of holding down the closer role out of the bullpen. Enter Glen Perkins and the problem was solved.

Joe Mauer’s situation would command a full article itself, but his contract and no-trade rights make it a waste of time to even discuss his future with the team for the next couple of seasons.

These players, along with a few others perhaps, have had good rides as members of the Twins and they have earned every bit of fan loyalty they get. But the hard truth is that few, if any, of them are going to be part of the next run of winning seasons at Target Field.

Already this season, injuries have created opportunities to look at some young players. In most cases, those opportunities were wasted as players like Jorge Polanco and Max Kepler rode the pine during their time filling in for banged up regulars.

Byron Buxton (Photo: SD Buhr)
Byron Buxton (Photo: SD Buhr)

Maybe “playin’ stars again” was defensible early in the season when you were still trying to make something of your season, but no longer. It’s time to turn the page.

As Ted over at Off the Baggy pointed out this week, with Kepler being promoted again (this time to fill in for the injured Miguel Sano), it’s time to plug Kepler and the also-recently-recalled Byron Buxton into the lineup and let them run.

Sano’s hamstring will eventually heal and he’ll return. I find myself agreeing with Howard Sinker of the Star-Tribune who tweeted earlier this week, “Friends, I was less skeptical on it than most of you, but it’s time for the Sano-in-right field thing to end. Make something work, #MNTwins.”

I really had no issue with putting Sano in the outfield. He’s athletic enough that he should be able to play a passable right field and he has improved out there. But I’ve pulled a hamstring before and I know that, once you do that, it’s pretty easy to do it again. I don’t think putting him back out there when he comes back makes a lot of sense when it’s pretty obvious that it is not going to be his position long-term (and by long-term, we are probably now including 2017).

The Twins need to decide where they envision Sano fitting in. Wherever that is, whether it’s third base, first base or simply as their full-time designated hitter, I would just plug him in there when he gets back and move on to the next decision.

Bouncing Buxton, Kepler and Polanco up and down between Minneapolis and Rochester should end. Buxton is your center fielder, Kepler is in a corner and Polanco is in the middle of your infield somewhere.

I’ve seen others opine that Byung Ho Park should be sent down to Rochester, perhaps to make room for Sano when he comes back. I disagree, unless the Twins are prematurely giving up on him. He will hit AAA pitching, just as he hit Korean pro ball pitching. He needs to learn to hit MLB pitching and if the Twins plan on keeping him, he should stay in the Twins’ lineup until he proves that he can (or can’t).

I don’t know if Oswaldo Arcia will be in the Twins outfield for the next few years, but I know Danny Santana and Eduardo Nunez won’t, so Arcia should get more time out there with Buxton and Kepler (unless the Twins decide someone like Adam Bret Walker should get a long look).

The same situation exists behind the plate. Kurt Suzuki’s time with the Twins is nearing an end. I don’t know who will take over, but now is the time for the Twins to get extended looks at their internal candidates.

You could make similar cases for an overhaul of the pitching staff, but I’d be more patient with promoting the young pitchers, unless you get good offers for some of your existing staff members. I just see less urgency there.

Finally, there’s the Molitor question and that is tethered to the Terry Ryan question. Will either, or both, be back in 2017 and beyond?

Molitor will be entering the final year of his existing contract in 2017. Typically, no manager likes being a “lame duck” manager. He wants an extension in place before the start of the final year of his deal or he risks losing his clubhouse as players begin to tune his message out as they assume he won’t be around long.

Say what you will about the infamous Jim Pohlad patience with his front office, but I think Ryan would have a tough time convincing even Pohlad that Molitor should be rewarded for his work in 2016 with an extension.

Of course, that assumes that Ryan will even be around to make that pitch to Pohlad.

It’s almost impossible for me to envision Pohlad announcing publicly that he has dismissed Terry Ryan. It is not difficult at all, however, for me to envision an announcement that Terry Ryan has decided that, as the person responsible for assembling the roster, he is ultimately responsible for the results and that he is holding himself accountable and stepping down as GM of the Twins.

That public announcement would be identical, by the way, regardless of whether the decision truly is Ryan’s or whether Pohlad makes the decision that it’s time for a change. If you’re looking for public executions, you’re going to be disappointed.

If Ryan is contemplating that this may be his last season in the GM chair, he’s not likely to make a managerial change during the season. If he’s planning on being around a while longer, then yes, he could (and should) be considering whether there’s someone besides Molitor in the organization that he  now believes would be a better fit to manage the new group of young players coming up.

If indeed Ryan is replaced as the General Manager, it would be much more likely that Molitor also would be replaced following the end of this season. The new GM would want, and should get, his own man to run the team he assembles.

Whether these changes in management are made or not should depend solely on whether ownership envisions the current leadership being the right people to guide the team through the next era of competitiveness.

Regardless, it is time to begin turning the page. Some of the changes can wait as things play out over the rest of this season and the subsequent offseason, but seeing names like Buxton, Kepler and Polanco consistently in the Twins’ lineup should start now.