Thorpe, Romero Make Kernels Debuts

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

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

Lewis Thorpe

Lewis Thorpe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fernando Romero

Fernando Romero

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

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

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

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

Pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and pitcher Ethan Mildren

Pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and pitcher Ethan Mildren

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

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

Aaron Slegers: Standing Tall for the Kernels

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

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

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

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

Meet Kernels starting pitcher Aaron Slegers.

Aaron Slegers

Aaron Slegers (photo: JC/Knuckleballs)

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

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

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

Aaron Slegers

Aaron Slegers (photo: JC/Knuckleballs)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- JC

Who Are These Guys?

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.

Hudson Boyd

Hudson Boyd

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.”

Mitch Garver

Mitch Garver

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.

- JC