Jim Crikket in Fort Myers: Improvising

I know most of the people reading this are in the Minnesota/Iowa region and have been dealing with late March snowfalls, so I don’t want to whine too much, but with that said, I did NOT fly all the way to Fort Myers, Florida, to get rained on all day! And what’s worse, it certainly appears that Monday wasn’t the last day this week we’ll be getting wet down here.

Hammond Stadium, Ft. Myers

Hammond Stadium, Ft. Myers

The good news is that I wasn’t planning on attending the Twins/Rays game Monday afternoon, so the fact that it got rained out didn’t affect my plans at all. The bad news is that I WAS planning on driving up to Port Charlotte to watch the current Kernels and Miracle groups play games against their Rays counterparts and those games got rained out, as well. Fortunately, I made plans to drop in on the Twins’ complex about 9:00 am Monday morning to see if anyone was putting in an early workout. It was fortunate because, when I got there, Kernels coach Tommy Watkins let me know they had already canceled that afternoon’s minor league games and the Kernels and Miracle were going to face off head-to-head for a couple of hours in the morning before the rain was expected to get serious. Brett Lee was on the mound for the Kernels and Jose Berrios was his counterpart for the Miracle. On an adjacent field, the AAA and AA groups were also facing one another. There was a steady light rain falling through much of the time the players were on the field but it was fun to watch some of last year’s Kernels, as well as many of the players expected to head north to Cedar Rapids when camp breaks on March 31. Watching Jorge Polanco and Adam Brett Walker rip back to back doubles brought back memories of last season early on. Later, I got perhaps a sneak preview in to the Kernels upcoming season when the centerfielder for the Kernels group, Jason Kanzler, throw a perfect bullet to third base to cut down Polanco, who was attempting to go from first base around to third on a base hit. Weather permitting, I’m hoping to see the Twins take on the Orioles on Tuesday and then drive up the road to the Red Sox facility on Wednesday afternoon to watch the Kernels take on their Red Sox Class A counterparts. Thursday and Friday will be “play it by ear” days, depending on how wet the next two days are.

Twins visiting the Phillies at their Bright House Field home in Clearwater

Twins visiting the Phillies at their Bright House Field home in Clearwater

The trip hasn’t been a total washout. I flew down from Iowa to St. Petersburg on Saturday night (only about four hours later than originally planned) and stayed overnight there so I could watch the Twins take on the Phillies on Sunday in Clearwater before making the drive down I-75 to Fort Myers. The Twins lost, scoring only one run in the process. It’s probably my imagination, but it seems to me they score one run just about every game. That should be no problem, however, since the Twins pitching staff will probably hurl shutouts at least half the time anyway, right? But the weather Sunday was beautiful, I remembered to use sunscreen on every exposed area (except my arms, apparently) and the beer was cold, so I really didn’t care much about the outcome. There wasn’t a snowflake in sight and that’s about all I needed to be happy that day. If it rains for the next four days, I may be a bit less philosophical about the weather thing, however. JC UPDATE: Still haven’t got the video uploaded but I did manage to get some pictures added:

Something you don't see happen often: A Twins pitcher hitting. Or, in this case, Phil Hughes attempting to put down a bunt.

Something you don’t see happen often: A Twins pitcher hitting. Or, in this case, Phil Hughes attempting to put down a bunt.

Manager Jake Mauer (in helmet) amongst some of the 2014 Kernels during spring training

Manager Jake Mauer (in helmet) amongst some of the 2014 Kernels during spring training

Under construction: The new Twins Baseball Academy on their Fort Myers campus

Under construction: The new Twins Baseball Academy on their Fort Myers campus

 

JC’s Top 15 Twins Prospects – 2014

If it’s November, it must be “Top Prospect List” season.

Last year, I waited until the end of December to publish my personal “Twins Top 15 Prospects” list, which allowed me to include pitchers Alex Meyer and Trevor May after they were acquired by Twins General Manager Terry Ryan in off-season trades. Waiting also allowed me to get a look at a number of lists published by “experts” far smarter than I am.

All things considered, I should probably wait until closer to year end to put my list out there again. But I’m not going to do that.

If there are deals made that bring in new prospects or send away players on this list, so be it. I feel like writing and throwing a Top Prospects list out here seems to be a better use of my time than trying to come up with an off-season blueprint. And, honestly, it’s a lot easier to rank some prospects than try to figure out how to fix all the problems Terry Ryan’s facing with rebuilding the Twins’ roster.

A year ago, I came down on the side of ranking Byron Buxton as the Twins’ number 1 prospect over Miguel Sano.

I had the good fortune of getting to watch Buxton play almost every home game he suited up for with Cedar Rapids before his promotion to Fort Myers, as well as a number of his road games with the Kernels. I believe he was better than any other ballplayer I’ve seen in a Cedar Rapids uniform and that includes Mike Trout.

So, naturally, I’ll have to rank him ahead of Sano in the number 1 spot again this year, right?

Well… yes and no.

What I wrote last year still holds true for me today. Buxton’s potential to play an extraordinary centerfield defensively makes him a better prospect to me than Sano. Centerfield is just about the most critical position on the field (especially on Target Field) and Buxton is simply an amazing outfielder. In fact, the only position in baseball more important than centerfield is probably that of starting pitcher.

And that’s why my number 1 ranked prospect this year is…

  1. Alex Meyer (RHP) – Meyer had a good first year in the Twins organization after coming over from the Nationals in the trade for Denard Span a year ago, but he has appeared to really step up his game in the Arizona Fall League. His fastball is touching 100 mph and averaging between 97 and 98 on the gun. He’s missing bats. He’s dominating some good hitters. He has the potential to be not only a top of the rotation starting pitcher within the next couple of years for the Twins, but to be a legitimate ace. He looks to be to the pitching staff what Buxton could be to the batting order, but he’s a level higher in the organization and thus, arguably, closer to actually realizing that potential than Buxton is.
  2. Byron Buxton

    Byron Buxton

    Byron Buxton (CF) – Buxton is the real deal, folks. There’s nothing he can’t do on a baseball field. In fact, I honestly believe if you wanted to make him a pitcher, he could give the Twins one heck of a 1-2 rotation punch, with Meyer, for years to come. But he’s just too dang good at everything else to consider that option. When he learns to read pitchers a little better on the bases, he will be almost impossible to keep out of scoring position. That’s good news for guys looking to drive in a lot of runs, like, for example…

  3. Miguel Sano (3B) – The best news of 2013 for Twins fans regarding Sano might have been the reviews of his improvements defensively at the hot corner. Let’s face it, a guy who hits like Sano is going to be in the heart of your batting order. But if he can also play a passable third base, that frees a GM and manager up to put other talented hitters who aren’t strong defensively in the corner outfield spots, at first base and/or at designated hitter. Think about this: if Sano sticks at 3B and Mauer can remain behind the plate most of the time, in a year or two, the Twins three best hitters may be their catcher, centerfielder and third baseman. And there’s no shortage of above average hitting prospects in the pipeline to fill the corner OF, 1B and DH spots.
  4. Eddie Rosario (2B/OF) – Speaking of getting outstanding offensive production out of traditionally unexpected positions, if Rosario remains a second baseman, that’s yet another potentially productive bat from a middle infielder. Of course, with Brian Dozier having a solid year at 2B for the Twins, there’s talk of either moving Rosario back to the outfield or possibly even dangling him as trade bait for much-needed pitching help.
  5. Kohl Stewart (RHP) – As has often been said, it’s risky to rank a prospect this high who hasn’t even played his first year of full-season professional ball. Then again, that didn’t seem to keep any of us from ranking Buxton at or near the top of our prospect lists a year ago and he hasn’t made us regret the faith we placed in him. I tend to think that most first round draft picks warrant a high ranking if they show the expected promise in their first taste of short-season ball. If Stewart dominates Class A hitters in 2014, he’ll be a top 3 prospect next year.
  6. Jose Berrios

    Jose Berrios

    Jose Berrios (RHP) – It was cool to be able to watch Berrios strike out Robinson Cano in the WBC tournament last spring, but part of me wonders what his season might have been like if he hadn’t spent that time in the bullpen of Team Puerto Rico. He had some very impressive starts for Cedar Rapids, but he also had some clunkers. He certainly appeared to tire toward the end of the season. However, I also felt he showed more maturity on the mound as the summer went on.

  7. Josmil Pinto (C) – Pinto has one thing that none of the other guys on this list have and that’s a Major League resume. In fact, none of the other players on this list have even played AAA ball yet. Pinto produced at AA, AAA and in the Big Leagues during his September call-up and he plays a critical defensive position. He’s not a finished product behind the dish, by any means, but the season he had in 2013 has to make him a Top 10 prospect for the Twins. He’s the guy that makes us feel a bit better about the potential move to first base by Joe Mauer.
  8. Jorge Polanco (INF) – While I’m not sure Polanco has the tools to be a starting shortstop at the Major League level, his bat has shown two consecutive years of consistent productivity. He hits the ball hard and if he can turn some of those line drives in to something with a bit more loft, he will hit more home runs. I think his long term position is second base and, that said, if the Twins don’t deal Dozier and don’t move Rosario to the outfield, Polanco could be a guy the Twins start getting some calls about.
  9. Max Kepler gets a secondary lead off first base

    Max Kepler gets a secondary lead off first base

    Max Kepler (OF/1B) – I’ll admit that Kepler’s continued top-10 ranking is, for me, more reflective of his athleticism than of his on-field performance and that makes me uncomfortable. He killed right handed pitching but struggled against lefties. His defense in the outfield was inconsistent and I just don’t think his throwing elbow was ever 100% in Cedar Rapids. That’s a concern, as well. I thought he did a nice job at first base for a guy who hadn’t played there a ton and with all of the outfield prospects the Twins have, 1B could be Kepler’s ultimate position if he stays in the Twins organization. He hasn’t been on fire in his Arizona Fall League work, but it sounds like he hasn’t been completely overmatched, either, and that’s encouraging.

  10. Adam Brett Walker lines a home run vs Clinton on September 2

    Adam Brett Walker lines a home run vs Clinton on September 2

    Adam Brett Walker (OF) – Honestly, in my mind, the Twins have a definite “Top 9” prospects and then seven guys that are all pretty equal that fill out a Top “16” list. I’m giving Walker the nod in to the Top 10 because I saw the way Tony Oliva’s eyes lit up watching him play. When Oliva made an appearance in Cedar Rapids this summer, I found myself in the pressbox alone with him for an inning or so. He wanted to talk about Walker. I told him I thought Walker needed to learn to take that outside pitch to the opposite field and Oliva’s response was something along the lines of, “Noooo, why?! Let him pull the ball!” And you could just see in his eyes and his smile that he really liked Walker as a hitter. With that kind of endorsement, how could I not include Walker in the Top 10?

  11. Lewis Thorpe (LHP) – Not only has Thorpe not had a year of full-season professional ball yet, he hasn’t even made it out of the Gulf Coast League. But a 17 year old lefty who can throw 95 mph and drop a pretty good hammer, as well, is impossible to ignore. The Aussie struck out 64 hitters in just 44 GCL innings in 2013. I know they say you have to ignore GCL stats, but I can’t ignore that one.
  12. Trevor May (RHP) – May, who came over from the Phillies organization a year ago in the Ben Revere trade, missed some time in 2013 and again during the Arizona Fall League. The Twins probably still aren’t sure if he’ll end up in the rotation or bullpen, so he needs a healthy 2014 season to really impress.
  13. Travis Harrison

    Travis Harrison

    Travis Harrison (3B/OF) – I’m wondering if the organization might move Harrison back to his natural corner OF position now that they seem confident Sano can stick as a third baseman. Harrison can hit a baseball very hard. Whether he moves up or down this list by next year will depend somewhat on whether the Twins find a defensive position he can potentially play at the MLB level.

  14. Stephen Gonsalves (LHP) – Ordinarily, you wouldn’t see a 4th round pick from the prior year in your Top 15 list, but Gonsalves was reportedly on track to be a 1st round pick before a disciplinary issue arose during his senior year of HS, allowing the Twins to get a potential steal. If he can add some bulk to his 6’ 5” frame and a couple of ticks on his fastball, he could become very good very quickly.
  15. Miguel Sulbaran (LHP) – Sulbaran largely is flying under the radar among the Twins prospects. Maybe it’s his 5’ 10” stature. Maybe it’s that he only spent a few weeks in the organization after coming over from the Dodgers. Maybe it’s that he was obtained for Drew Butera. Sulbaran may not be tall, but he’s got a pitcher’s lower body and he uses it to get good drive off the mound. He struck out over eight batters per nine innings in 2013 and he has something a lot of other pitchers at his level don’t: an out pitch. His change-up is the real thing.

That final spot was a tough one to decide on as shortstop Danny Santana arguably should be on this list somewhere. In the end, I decided he just made too many errors to project as a defense-first shortstop and didn’t get on base often enough to project as a top of the order hitter. This is going to be a make or break year for Santana, I think.

So that’s my list. I’d like to see a few more guys that are closer to being “Major League-ready,” but I just don’t see a ton of high ceiling guys in the high-minors of the Twins organization right now and high ceilings are what I tend to look for in my rankings.

– JC

Sickels’ “Twins Top 20″ Features Past/Future Kernels

The 2013 season was, by almost all measures, a successful maiden season for the affiliation between the Cedar Rapids Kernels and their new Major League parent, the Minnesota Twins. Now, fall is bringing out the first of what will be many published organizational “top prospect” lists, signaling that it’s not too early to begin looking at what kind of talent the Twins will be sending to Cedar Rapids in 2014.

John Sickels publishes The Baseball Prospect Book yearly and is one of the more respected minor league experts in the business. This week, he released his list of the Twins’ Top Twenty Prospects at his minorleagueball.com website.

A peek at that list not only confirms for Kernels fans that they had the opportunity to watch a number of future Major Leaguers on Perfect Game Field this year, but also gives a clue as to what Cedar Rapids fans can expect to see next summer.

Sickels wrote that the “Twins system is among the elite in the game,” and a number of recent Kernels are among the reasons for that high praise. He also believes that, “there are some lively arms of promise at the lower levels,” in the Twins organization, which should tip off Kernels fans to what they can expect to see in 2014.

Sickels uses a grading system (A, B, C, etc.) to rank the prospect status of minor leaguers and he is not an easy grader. As he writes, “Grade C+ is actually good praise, and some C+ prospects (especially at lower levels) turn out very well indeed.” Of the hundreds of minor league players in the Twins organization, 24 attained that C+ grade, or better, from Sickels this fall. That may not sound like many, but it’s actually a high number for one organization.

Byron Buxton, who patrolled centerfield for the Kernels during the first half of the 2013 campaign, was one of two Twins prospects (along with Class AA slugger Miguel Sano) to attain Grade A prospect status from Sickels. Wrote Sickels, “Few organizations can boast a pair of potential superstar Grade A talents like Buxton and Sano, and the Twins have good depth beyond them…”

Byron Buxton

Byron Buxton

Buxton ranks as the number one prospect in the organization, on Sickels’ list, but five other Kernels alumni also rank in his Top Twenty.

Right handed pitcher Jose Berrios gets a B grade from Sickels and ranks sixth among Twins prospects. Both infielder Jorge Polanco (B) and outfielder/first baseman Max Kepler (B) make the organizational Top Ten, coming in at numbers nine and ten, respectively, in Sickels’ rankings.

Third baseman Travis Harrison earns a B-/C+ from Sickels and the number 11 ranking, while outfielder Adam Brett Walker’s C+/B- grade placed him at number 13.

Four additional Kernels, infielder Niko Goodrum and pitchers Mason Melotakis, Taylor Rogers and Miguel Sulbaran pulled C+ grades from Sickels and fell just outside the Top Twenty. In essence, this means ten members of the 2013 Kernels are among Sickels’ Top 24 Twins Prospects going in to the offseason.

Travis Harrison and Niko Goodrum

Travis Harrison and Niko Goodrum

As for the future, grading recently signed or drafted ballplayers that haven’t yet competed in a full season of professional baseball is a tricky business, but Sickels placed five such Twins prospects among his organizational Top Twenty. All five are pitchers.

Kohl Stewart, a right hander who was the Twins top draft pick in last summer, leads that list with a B+ grade from Sickels and his number three ranking in the organization. Sickels’ wrote that Stewart, “was the best high school pitcher in the draft and showed good command of plus stuff in his pro debut.”

Lefty Lewis Thorpe, an Australian 17-year-old, reportedly grew an inch and added something close to 50 pounds and several miles per hour to his fastball this past summer. Sickels grades him at a B- and places him seventh among Twins’ prospects. Thorpe pitched in the Gulf Coast League (the lowest US rookie league team among Twins affiliates) in 2013 making it highly unlikely that he starts 2014 in Cedar Rapids and may not arrive until the following summer.

Felix Jorge (number 17), Stephen Gonsalves (19) and Ryan Eades (20) slip in to Sickels’ Top Twenty, as well, all with C+ grades.

Jorge is a righthander from the Dominican Republic who had a very good year for Elizabethton in 2013, striking out 72 hitters in just 61 innings covering his 12 starts.

Gonsalves, a lefty and the Twins’ fourth round pick last June, only threw 28 innings combined during time with both Twins rookie league teams in 2013 but was a strike out machine and posted a 0.95 Earned Run Average.

Eades, another righthander, was the Twins’ second round pick in 2013 out of LSU. He accumulated just 15 2/3 innings of work for Elizabethton this summer but will be 22 years old by opening day in 2014, making it possible the Twins would try to accelerate his movement through the organization.

It could be years before Cedar Rapids fans see another collection of hitters in Kernels uniforms the likes of the group that the Twins sent through town in 2013. Buxton could well be wearing a Minnesota Twins uniform and calling Target Field in Minneapolis his home by the end of the coming season. By 2016, several of his Kernels teammates could join him with the Twins.

While Kernels hitters in 2014 are not likely to measure up to what fans saw this year, a pitching staff that could include Stewart, Jorge, Gonsalves, Eades and, possibly by the end of the season Thorpe as well, has the potential to be among the best in the Midwest League.

– JC

Several Kernels Shooting for Two Rings in Two Years

In baseball’s postseason, “every single pitch is so important; every at-bat, no matter what inning.”

That was Cedar Rapids Kernels third baseman Travis Harrison talking after Monday’s regular season finale about the playoffs, which start for the Kernels Wednesday night in Davenport against the Quad Cities River Bandits.

Harrison knows what he’s talking about, too. He was a member of the rookie level Elizabethton Twins team that won the Appalachian League a year ago.

Travis Harrison and Niko Goodrum are going for back to back championships

Travis Harrison and Niko Goodrum are going for back to back championships

Elizabethton won two “best-of-three games” series to claim the league title last year, but Harrison and his teammates will need to do that much this year just to earn a berth in the Midwest League Championship Series as the representative of the league’s Western Division.

If they can best the River Bandits in the first best-of-three series, they’ll take on the survivor of a similar series between Clinton and Beloit in another best-of-three challenge. The Championship Series between the Eastern and Western Division representatives is a best-of-five games series that will decide who wears the Midwest League crown for 2013.

Cedar Rapids has not worn that crown since 1994 and has not qualified for the league Championship Series since 1997.

The Kernels finished the 2013 season with an 88-50 record overall. They secured a playoff spot with a second place finish in the first half of their season with a 40-28 record and then improved to a 48-22 record to finish first in the Western Division in the second half of the season.

Their 88 wins equals the most wins for a Cedar Rapids team since joining the Midwest League in 1962. To provide context, if applied to a Major League team’s 162 schedule, the Kernels’ winning percentage would have them on pace to win 103 games.

This playoff thing may be relatively new to Kernels fans, who haven’t seen their team play in the postseason since 2010, but almost half the Kernels’ current roster were with the Appalachian League Champions in Elizabethton a year ago.

In addition to Harrison, infielders Niko Goodrum and Jorge Polanco, outfielders Max Kepler and Adam Brett Walker, catcher Bo Altobelli and pitchers Brett Lee, Jose Berrios, and Hudson Boyd all saw playoff action with Elizabethton. Mason Melotakis, Dallas Gallant and Michael Quesada were also members of that Championship team during the course of the 2012 season.

Melotakis made two postseason appearances with the Beloit Snappers’ Midwest League playoff team at the end of 2012.

A number of other players that spent time with the Kernels this season, including Byron Buxton and Dalton Hicks, were also members of the champions from “E’town”. Hicks hit a walk-off grand slam home run in the 12th inning of the deciding game of the championship series.

Walker believes the postseason experience he and his teammates are getting is part of their development. “Going out there and having a series where everything’s on the line. I think it’s pretty important. It’s an exciting feeling to be able to get that experience.”

With a smile, Walker added, “I know if you get in the big leagues it’s going to be a little bit different.”

Adam Brett Walker lines a home run vs Clinton on September 2

Adam Brett Walker lines a HR vs Clinton on September 2

It has been a long season for the Kernels players, especially those such as Harrison and Walker, who have both been a part of the Kernels since Opening Day, 138 games ago.

That doesn’t matter, according to Harrison. “The playoffs are totally different. You just have to grind it out. If you’re sore, it just goes away. You’ve got so much adrenaline, you’re just ready to go. It’s a good time.”

Quesada believes the Kernels are ready. “We’ve got all the confidence in the world, especially after last year. We’ve got the pitching, got the hitting. It’s all ready to come together at one time.”

Walker remembers that championship feeling and is ready for more. “We know what it feels like. It’s a really great feeling to be able to go out there and win a championship.”

Harrison perhaps summed up the feelings best. “First two years, two rings. That would be pretty cool.”

- JC

Ghost of Twins Past Haunts the Twins’ Future

Scott Baker, Kane County Cougar

Scott Baker, Kane County Cougar

Almost exactly six years ago, I sat several rows up from home plate as Scott Baker took a perfect game in to the ninth inning against the Kansas City Royals. While he didn’t complete his date with immortality, it was the closest I’ve ever come to seeing a Major League no-hitter in person.

On Wednesday night, I watched Baker continue to try to work his way back to the Big Leagues with the Chicago Cubs with a rehabilitation start for the Kane County Cougars against the future Twins suiting up for the Cedar Rapids Kernels.

I never saw Baker get above 86 mph on the scoreboard, so even giving him an extra tick or two due to the Cedar Rapids scoreboard’s reputation for being slightly slower than the speed guns of the scouts who perch directly behind home plate most nights, the former Twins pitcher never hit any higher than 88 mph and he didn’t mix in more than a couple of off-speed pitches each inning.

But on this night, that was good enough to handcuff the Kernels as only a fifth inning infield single by Adam Brett Walker kept Baker from completing five perfect innings. Jorge Polanco and Travis Harrison each reached the warning track off of Baker in their first plate appearances of the night, but that was the closest anyone came to doing any damage to the former Twins star.

Jose Berrios

Jose Berrios

Jose Berrios, the 19-year-old that Twins fans hope will be one of the anchors of a future Twins rotation, fared far worse.

Berrios has been tabbed as the starting pitcher in the first game of the Kernels’ postseason next Wednesday, but tonight he struggled with his control. Berrios walked three hitters and gave up five hits, including two home runs, as the Kernels fell 9-1 to Baker’s Kane County Cougars.

Kernels Video: Joel Licon’s Walk-off Single Tops Quad Cities

Heading in to Sunday afternoon’s game with the Quad Cities River Bandits, the Cedar Rapids Kernels held a slim 1/2 game lead over QC for the top spot in the Midwest League’s Western Division for the second half of the season.

Each team scored once in the first inning and the Bandits scored in the top of the ninth to take a 2-1 lead. Jorge Polanco singled with one out in the Kernels’ ninth and Adam Brett Walker followed with a single to CF. The Bandits’  center fielder let the ball get by him for a two-base error, allowing Polanco to score the tying run  and Walker to reach third base.

After a strike out, Joel Licon came to the plate with Walker on third base and the game tied 2-2. Which led to this:

Was it fair or was it foul? I’ll refrain from opining, but I will say this much: IF it was foul, it certainly wasn’t the first call this particular plate umpire blew in the game.

Kernels Manager Jake Mauer was ejected for pointing out a previous mistake by the same umpire, which is perhaps why it’s  hitting coach and acting manager Tommy Watkins (8) congratulating Licon (2) in front of the dugout.

– JC

“Twins Weekend” in Cedar Rapids

Celebrating the affiliation agreement with the Minnesota Twins has been pretty much an “all season long” thing for the Cedar Rapids Kernels and their fans, but this weekend was the official Twins Weekend event in Cedar Rapids.

Guests of honor have included all-time Twins great Tony Oliva, Twins organist Sue Nelson and mascot TC Bear. All three made appearances at the Kernels’ game with visiting Peoria on Friday night.

Oliva signed autographs for a long line of fans before the game, Nelson treated fans to her talents on an electric organ during the game and TC teamed with Kernels mascot Mr. Shucks to entertain fans throughout the game.

On Saturday morning, all three joined several Kernels players and coaches, along with over 100 fans, for a breakfast event benefiting the Cedar Rapids Convention & Visitors Bureau.

As a fan who grew up in Minnesota in the 1960s watching Oliva play ball for the Twins at Metropolitan Stadium, I have to say it was a really big deal to me to have an opportunity to interview Oliva along with other local media Friday evening during the Kernels game.

It was even a bigger deal to find myself alone with Oliva in the pressbox for several minutes a short while after the formal media intervew and having the opportunity to just watch a ballgame and talk about a number of the young Twins prospects with Oliva.

On Saturday morning, during his remarks at the breakfast and in a “Q & A” session, Oliva shared a number of observations and anecdotes with the crowd.

If you’re interested in reading some of Oliva’s comments to the media from Friday night, click here to read my story for Metro Sports Report, which include Oliva’s thoughts on the current Major Leaguers from his native Cuba. Cedar Rapids Gazette reporter Jeff Johnson also has a story focusing on Oliva’s comments concerning PED usage in baseball.

Here are a few photos I took from the weekend’s events.

OlivaAutograph

Tony Oliva patiently signed autographs for about an hour before the game

Twins organist Sue Nelson

Twins organist Sue Nelson

TC Bear entertained fans and posed for pictures

TC Bear entertained fans and posed for pictures

OlivaMedia

Tony Oliva met with local media on Friday during the Kernels game

Kernels pitcher and Twins prospect Brett Lee answers a question during the breakfast event Saturday morning

Kernels pitcher and Twins prospect Brett Lee answers a question during the breakfast event Saturday morning as Niko Goodrum, Adam Brett Walker, Kernels broadcaster Morgan Hawk, Tony Oliva, Jake Mauer and Tommy Watkins look on.

Tony Oliva speaking to fans at the Breakfast event Saturday

Tony Oliva speaking to fans at the Breakfast event Saturday

Kernels outfielder and Twins prospect Adam Brett Walker answers fan questions during Saturday's breakfast

Kernels outfielder and Twins prospect Adam Brett Walker answers fan questions during Saturday’s breakfast

From left to right: Mike Gonzales, Dallas Gallant, Morgan Hawk (standing), Niko Goodrum, Brett Lee, Adam Brett Walker, Tony Oliva, Jake Mauer and Tommy Watkins

From left to right: Mike Gonzales, Dallas Gallant, Morgan Hawk (standing), Niko Goodrum, Brett Lee, Adam Brett Walker, Tony Oliva, Jake Mauer and Tommy Watkins

Kernels: Life After Buck and a Mike Pelfrey Appearance

Minnesota Twins super-prospect Byron Buxton led the Cedar Rapids Kernels through a pretty amazing first half of their Midwest League season. They led the league’s West Division almost from wire to wire.

Almost.

But on Sunday, June 16, the Kernels gave up a late lead to the Peoria Chiefs and sealed their fate as the Division Runner-Up.

That was the last day that Buxton wore his Kernels home whites on Perfect Game Field at Veterans Memorial Stadium.

After returning from the MWL All-Star Game, Buxton boarded the team bus for the trip to Wisconsin. There, the team swept a four-game series with the Timber Rattlers and did so under the watchful eye of Twins General Manager Terry Ryan.

On that same bus, during the trip home to Cedar Rapids, Kernels Manager Jake Mauer got a phone call from the Twins front office and then told Byron Buxton he was being promoted to the Fort Myers Miracle.

You could understand if the Kernels, without the statistical leader of their offense, had needed to take a step back and regroup. Nobody would have been surprised if they had lost a few games as they searched for a new leadoff hitter and a new center fielder. After all, you can’t just replace a guy who many consider perhaps the top minor league prospect in baseball.

What the Kernels have done instead, however, is continue winning.

Since Buxton’s promotion, the Kernels have swept a four-game series with the Burlington Bees and a three-game series over the Peoria Chiefs. Heading in to Tuesday night’s game at Beloit, the Kernels are 11-0 in the second half of their MWL season.

Yes, it has been an eventful couple of weeks since that gut-wrenching meltdown during the final series of the season’s first half.

Max Kepler gets a secondary lead off first base

Max Kepler gets a secondary lead off first base

It certainly didn’t hurt that the Kernels finally welcomed outfielder Max Kepler to the roster to start the second half of the season.

Kepler, another of the Twins’ top prospects, had been slated to open the season with the Kernels but an elbow strain in March kept him in Fort Myers for extended spring training.

Kepler has only four singles in his 44 at-bats since joining the team. Then again, he also has five doubles, a triple and three home runs. That’s good enough for a .659 slugging percentage over an admittedly limited sample size.

The German native has also helped fill Buxton’s shoes defensively. He’s not likely to make the jaw-dropping defensive plays that Buxton seemed to make almost every other game in the outfield, but Kepler has the speed to cover plenty of outfield grass.

JD Williams

JD Williams

Niko Goodrum and JD Williams have both spent time filling Buxton’s shoes at the top of the Kernels’ batting order. Goodrum’s sporting a second-half on-base percentage (OBP) of .362, which isn’t bad, but check out Williams’ second half slash line: .462 BA/ .517 OBP/ .731 SLG/ 1.248 OPS.

Goodrum’s primary middle infield partner, Jorge Polanco, has hit .375 and put up an OPS of .969 since the All-Star break.

Dalton Hicks hasn’t homered yet in the second half, but he’s hitting .306 with five doubles.

Travis Harrison leads off third base

Travis Harrison leads off third base

Travis Harrison has a pair of home runs and six doubles since his All-Star Game appearance. He’s hitting .371 and has a 1.214 OPS.

Adam Brett Walker has a pair of home runs, as well, to go with his .303 batting average.

The second half success hasn’t been limited to the hitters, either.

The next earned run that Tyler Jones or Steve Gruver give up will be the first an opponent has put up against the two bullpen arms. In fact, opponents have a grand total of one hit off the two pitchers, combined, since the All-Star break.

Jose Berrios has made just one start since the break, but he went seven innings in that start and struck out nine hitters without a single walk, while giving up just five hits.

Brett Lee has struck out 12 over the 13 innings that have comprised his two starts this half.

Christian Powell is sporting a 2-0 record and a 0.69 ERA over the 13 innings he’s thrown during his first two starts of the second half.

And just in case the Kernels players needed a reminder of what it is they’re putting in all this work for, they got a visit this week from Twins starting pitcher Mike Pelfrey, who drove down from the Twin Cities with his family to make a rehab start for the Kernels on Monday night.

Mike Pelfrey warms up in the bullpen before his rehab start in CR

Mike Pelfrey warms up in the bullpen before his rehab start in CR

The plan was for Pelfrey to work five innings or throw 75 pitches, whichever came first.

But after throwing just 54 pitches through five innings, Pelfrey went back to the mound for the sixth.

“We got there in the fourth and the fifth and they said, ‘hey you’re done.’ I said, ‘hey I want to go back out for one more.’ I was just starting to get the command of my fastball back, which is very important to have to succeed, obviously, at the Big League level.”

As Pelfrey freely admitted in an interview before the game, his season didn’t get off to the kind of start he and the Twins hoped it would. But, as Kernels pitching coach Gary Lucas said after the game, “It was fun to watch him. Man, what a pro. What a good pro he is,” said Lucas. “To see how he handled himself and how he interacted with the guys on the bench. Pretty cool.”

It was a pretty cool night for the Kernels organization and their fans, as well.

Mike Pelfrey addresses the CR media (including a scruffy looking blogger in a faded ballcap)

Mike Pelfrey addresses the CR media (including a scruffy looking blogger in a faded ballcap)

According to Kernels General Manager Doug Nelson, a typical Monday crowd at this point in the season is about 1,500 fans. The Kernels drew 2,246 to see Pelfrey pitch, with a sizable portion of that total coming from “walk up” ticket sales. That extra 746 fans may not seem like a lot to those accustomed to seeing Major League attendance totals, but that’s several thousand dollars of extra revenue that the Kernels wouldn’t have had if the Twins hadn’t sent Pelfrey to Cedar Rapids for his rehab start.

Nelson indicated before the game that the topic of rehabilitation assignments had come up last September when the Twins and Kernels were discussing a possible affiliation agreement. While the Twins made no specific promises, they did tell the Kernels that they were comfortable with the facility in Cedar Rapids from a player-safety standpoint and that rehab assignments here would be simply a matter of schedules and timing working out.

With Pelfrey’s appearance, the Twins have now equaled the total number of rehab assignments that the prior Kernels affiliate, the Angels, sent to Cedar Rapids during the entire 20-year relationship between that organization and the Kernels. Angels pitcher Ken Hill joined the Kernels for a rehab stint in 1998.

The Kernels ballboy and the home plate umpire might have had the toughest challenge getting through Pelfrey’s appearance.

Plate umpire and Kernels ballboy switch out MLB balls for MWL balls between innings

Plate umpire and Kernels ballboy switch out MLB balls for MWL balls between innings

Pelfrey brought a supply of Major League baseballs with him to use in Cedar Rapids, which meant every half inning, the ballboy and plate umpire had to completely switch out the umpire’s supply of baseballs to allow Pelfrey to use Major League balls and the Peoria pitchers to use the Midwest League versions they are familiar with.

By winning their tenth straight game this past Sunday, the Kernels earned a free dinner from the team’s Board of Directors. By tradition, the Board treats the team to dinner at the Ox Yoke in the Amana Colonies whenever they reel off 10 straight wins. No date has been set yet, but it’s something the Kernels players are looking forward to.

That’s especially true of Kepler, the German native. The restaurant specializes in traditional German food, something Kepler said he hasn’t had in awhile.

While the team will have to wait for an evening they can fit a trip to the Amana Colonies in to their busy schedule to collect on that meal, they tasted the benefits of Pelfrey’s appearance immediately after the game.

According to Nelson, Pelfrey treated his temporary Kernels teammates to prime rib for their postgame meal in the clubhouse.

– JC

Kernels: Hot Starts in Cold Weather

I don’t know who to see about this, but the Twins and Kernels should NOT be allowed to have off-days on the same day! That’s what happened yesterday. So, without anything really “new” to write about either team, I’m posting the following article on the Kernels’ hot start. Under an agreement with MetroSportsReport.com, my alter ego, SD Buhr, writes a weekly “Kernels Update” for TwinsDaily.com. The following is a slightly updated version of what was posted yesterday on both sites and is republished here with permission of MSR. – JC

By SD Buhr

There is no shortage of great story lines through the first three weeks of the Cedar Rapids Kernels’ inaugural season as the Minnesota Twins Class A affiliate in the Midwest League.

To begin with, the Kernels (12-5) sit atop the MWL Western Division standings, with a one-game lead over the Quad City River Bandits (Astros). Cedar Rapids has had success both at home (5-2) and on the road (7-3).

The biggest story of the first three weeks of the MWL season has undoubtedly been the weather. The Kernels have played only 17 games at this point and that’s more than seven of the other 15 MWL teams have played. Yesterday (Wednesday, April 24) was supposed to be the first scheduled off-day of the Kernels’ season. With all of the weather-related postponements and cancellations, it was instead the seventh day Kernels players will have not played baseball since Opening Day.

Byron Buxton

Byron Buxton

Understandably, the early attention on the field has been focused on center fielder Byron Buxton, the Twins’ #1 draft pick a year ago. Buxton got off to an amazing start with the bat, but it was inevitable that he would cool off. He has just three hits in his last 15 At-Bats over the Kernels most recent four games. That’s dropped his Batting Average all the way down to… .404. He’s reached base at a .514 rate and has two doubles, two triples and two home runs to assemble a 1.128 On-Base Plus Slugging percentage (OPS). He also has seven stolen bases. If this is the worst “slump” Buxton has to go through, he’s going to have a fun season.

But Buxton isn’t the only Kernels hitter putting up impressive numbers.

First baseman Dalton Hicks has put together a pretty good start of his own, as well. His .310 Batting Average is backed up by seven doubles and a team-leading three home runs.

Drew Leachman went hitless in five At-Bats on on Opening Night and spent the next couple of weeks on the Disabled List after banging up his shoulder in that first game. Leachman has nine hits in 21 At-Bats for a .429 average since being reactivated, with a double, a triple and four RBI in five games. (Leachman received some congratulatory tweets from teammates late Tuesday night and early Wednesday indicating he may have gotten called up to Fort Myers. As of Wednesday afternoon, a source with the Kernels indicated they had not received any official word from the Twins on the move.)

In addition to Buxton, Hicks and Leachman, there are five additional Kernels hitting at .270 or better:

Niko Goodrum is hitting at a .288 clip with five doubles and a .383 On-Base Percentage (OBP).

Jorge Polanco has four doubles and a home run, along with 11 RBI, to go with his .281 Batting Average.

Adam Walker also has a .281 average and 11 RBI to go with his two doubles, one triple and two home runs.

Travis Harrison shares the team lead in doubles with Hicks at seven and has a pair of home runs, as well. He’s hitting .271 on the season.

J. D. Williams is hitting .270, but he’s parlayed three doubles and a pair of home runs, along with 11 walks, in to a .429 OBP and an OPS of .942. That’s some pretty good work, especially coming from the guy who’s held down the #9 spot in the batting order most of the young season.

Perhaps the biggest Kernels news this week was the debut of Jose Berrios, one of the top starting pitching prospects in the Twins organization. Berrios threw five innings on Monday night against the Burlington Bees. He struck out five Bees hitters, but also gave up seven hits and walked a pair.

Jose Berrios

Jose Berrios

If Berrios, who will still be just 18 years old for another month, was a bit over-excited for his first start, it would be understandable. He had trouble getting his fastball down in the strike zone the first couple of innings, but finished strong enough to be credited with the Win in the Kernels’ 8-4 win over Burlington.

Berrios’ fastball reportedly hit 96 mph early in the game, but one scout’s radar gun consistently recorded it at 91-93 mph during his last two innings of work. However, it’s possible that his breaking ball was more impressive. It had a late, sharp, break that buckled more than one set of Bees’ knees.

In the end, Berrios may turn out to be the biggest pitching story this season for the Kernels, but a number of his fellow pitchers are setting a pretty high standard for him to meet.

Tyler Duffey hasn’t been able to repeat the seven-perfect-innings performance of his first start of the season, but he’s continued to pitch well. Through 19.2 innings of work covering three starts, he’s put up a 2.29 ERA, striking out 17 while walking only three hitters. He’s also put up a 0.661 WHIP (Walks + Hits per Inning Pitched).

Mason Melotakis has put up a 2.84 ERA in his three starts, racking up 11 strikeouts in just 12. 2 innings of work and Hudson Boyd, while struggling with control at times, has also managed to miss bats. Boyd has struck out a dozen hitters in 14 innings during his three starts.

David Hurlbut appears to be the pitcher bumped from the rotation to the bullpen to make room for Berrios (though that could change with the promotion of Taylor Rogers to Fort Myers this week). Hurlbut has put up a 3.00 ERA and a 0.933 WHIP in 15 innings of work during four appearances (two of them starts).

The weather situation has left Brett Lee, who started the season penciled in as the Kernels sixth starting pitcher in a six-man rotation, with just one start in the first three weeks of the season. He’s made two other appearances in relief roles. Regardless of how he’s entered the game, however, Lee has kept his opponents from scoring. He’s sporting a perfect 0.00 ERA over eight innings of work, while striking out seven hitters without surrendering a walk.

Steven Gruver has posted a 0.64 ERA in his four appearances, three of which came out of the bullpen, while the other came as an emergency starter. That start was necessitated by weather forcing the Kernels to play seven games in a period of just four days. Gruver has struck out 16 hitters and walked just two in 14 innings.

Gruver, along with Tyler Jones, Tim Atherton, Manuel Soliman and Chris Mazza, have anchored a very effective Kernels bullpen. Gruver, Jones, Atherton and Mazza have all struck out more than a hitter per inning of work.

Manager Jake Mauer’s group of Kernels are off to a very good start, made even more impressive by the conditions in which they’ve had to play and the effect the weather has had on their schedule. It should be really interesting to see how things come together when the weather turns warm and the fans start to fill up the ballpark.

The Kernels open up a six game homestand tonight with a 6:35 game against the Dodgers’ MWL affiliate, the Great Lakes Loons.

Kernels Opening Series a Success

The Cedar Rapids Kernels won three of four games over the Beloit Snappers in their first series of the 2013 season and there was no shortage of drama in the process.

The Kernels won their season opener 8-6, then recovered from a 2-1 ninth inning deficit to claim a walk-off 3-2 win in game 2 of the series. The Snappers managed to hold their 2-1 lead to completion in claiming the third game of the series. In the finale, three Kernels pitchers combined to throw a no-hitter at the visiting Snappers.

Outfielder Byron Buxton gave the locals a good look at what all the fuss is about as he hit .563 for the series, including plenty of power.

The game stories are widely available on the web, but this morning, I thought I’d share a few (OK, much more than a few) of the pictures I took over the course of the past week, since the Kernels arrived in Cedar Rapids.

Kernels coaches meet the media" Tommy Watkins (hitting coach), Jake Mauer (manager), Gary Lucas (pitching coach)

Kernels coaches meet the media: Tommy Watkins (hitting coach), Jake Mauer (manager), Gary Lucas (pitching coach)

The Kernels are introduced to local fans on Meet the Kernels night

The Kernels are introduced to local fans on Meet the Kernels night

Kernels players enjoying the introductions

Kernels players enjoying the introductions

Hudson Boyd

Hudson Boyd

Byron Buxton

Byron Buxton

Tyler Grimes

Tyler Grimes

Travis Harrison

Travis Harrison

Romy Jimenez

Romy Jimenez

Jorge Polanco

Jorge Polanco

Byron Buxton

Byron Buxton

Byron Buxton

Byron Buxton

Tyler Duffey

Tyler Duffey

Tyler Duffey

Tyler Duffey

Niko Goodrum

Niko Goodrum

Travis Harrison

Travis Harrison

Manager Jake Mauer and 3B Travis Harrison working together pregame

Manager Jake Mauer and 3B Travis Harrison working together pregame

Dalton Hicks

Dalton Hicks

Dalton Hicks

Dalton Hicks

Kernels pitchers getting in pregame bullpen sessions

Kernels pitchers getting in pregame bullpen sessions

Pitching coach Gary Lucas works with Josue Montanez

Pitching coach Gary Lucas works with Josue Montanez

Manager Jake Mauer and Dalton Hicks

Manager Jake Mauer and Dalton Hicks

Josmil Pimentel

Candido Pimentel

Candido Pimentel

Candido Pimentel

Jorge Polanco

Jorge Polanco

Jorge Polanco

Jorge Polanco

Jorge Polanco

Jairo Rodriguez

Jairo Rodriguez

Jairo Rodriguez

Jairo Rodriguez

Adam Walker

Adam Walker

Adam Walker

Adam Walker

JD WIlliams (diving away from a near HBP)

JD WIlliams (diving away from a near HBP)

JCD Williams

JD Williams

Kernels Celebrate a No-Hitter

Kernels Celebrate a No-Hitter

Kernels sign postgame autographs

Kernels sign postgame autographs

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See ya next week!

See ya next week!

If you didn’t see your favorite Kernels in these pictures, not to worry… we’ll be posting a lot more pictures over the course of the season.

– JC