A Kernels Day in Photos

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

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

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

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

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

3B Bryan Haar and SP Ethan Mildren
3B Bryan Haar and SP Ethan Mildren
Manager Jake Mauer coaching 3B in the first inning. That's something he would not be doing by the 9th inning, however.
Manager Jake Mauer coaching 3B in the first inning. That’s something he would not be doing by the end of the game, however. Mauer was ejected in the 7th inning following a heated discussion with the umpires over a balk call.
Leadoff hitter JD Williams
Leadoff hitter JD Williams
Tanner Vavra pulling in to 2B with a double
Tanner Vavra pulling in to 2B with a double
Tanner Vavra chats with manager Jake Mauer. Vavra would ultimately be stranded at 3B.
Tanner Vavra chats with manager Jake Mauer. Vavra would ultimately be stranded at 3B.
Chad Christensen
Chad Christensen
Ivory Thomas
Ivory Thomas
Mitch Garver
Mitch Garver
Joel Licon
Joel Licon
Bryan Haar
Bryan Haar
Bo Altobelli
Bo Altobelli
Michael Quesada
Michael Quesada
Ethan Mildren
Ethan Mildren
Tommy Watkins took over 3B coaching duties following Mauer's ejection.
Tommy Watkins took over 3B coaching duties following Mauer’s ejection. Two runs scored in the 9th inning with Watkins and his bubble gum in charge.
Tommy Watkins gets a close-up look as Chad Christensen tags up and scores on a sac fly for the Kernels' final run.
Tommy Watkins gets a close-up look as Chad Christensen tags up and scores on a sac fly for the Kernels’ final run.


Meet the Kernels’ Catchers

The Cedar Rapids Kernels opened their 2014 season with a split of their four-game series with the Clinton Lumber Kings. The weather over the weekend was tolerable, with highs in the mid 50s to around 60 degrees, but Thursday’s Opening Night was far from delightful, with temperatures in the 30s and occasional rain. On Friday, the weather forced the season’s first postponement.

On Monday, the team boarded their bus for their first road trip. They’ll play six games in Michigan before returning Monday, April 13.

Before they left town with their team mates, the Kernels’ three-man catching corps sat down for an interview.

Kernels catching corps, from left to right: Bo Altobelli, Michael Quesada and Mitch Garver
Kernels catching corps, from left to right: Bo Altobelli, Michael Quesada and Mitch Garver

Bo Altobelli, Michael Quesada and Mitch Garver have several things in common. They are similar in age and each played some college baseball before starting their professional careers with the Twins.

In addition, each of the three hails from areas of the country that you would assume allows baseball to be played in more moderate weather than what welcomed them to Cedar Rapids last week. Altobelli’s from Texas, Quesada went to school in California and Garver in New Mexico.

They were asked over the weekend if they had any prior experience playing ball in conditions comparable to what they faced in their first week of Midwest League play this season.

Bo Altobelli: It’s a little different, especially coming from Florida up here, so that’s the major change. But it does get cold in Texas. We have played games in sleet and snow before, so I’m a little bit used to it. Of course, you prefer the Florida weather, which hopefully will come here soon.

Michael Quesada: Being from California, this is as cold as I’ve had to play in, but it’s a learning experience. You go up and down the (organizational) ladder, there’s cold places.

Minnesota, for example. You’re not going to complain when you’re up there, are you? You might as well get used to it now.

We’re not the only ones who are cold, everyone else is cold, too. So it’s something you’ve got to work through it and experiment with ways to stay warm.

Mitch Garver: It’’s very similar (in New Mexico). We get a lot of wind. We don’t get a lot of moisture. There’s no snow and sleet and rain, but when it does rain, there’s always going to be wind to accompany it. So the cold is familiar, but you can never really get used to it.  You’re always going to be playing in cold, so the first few months of the season, there’s an adjustment.

A year ago, Garver was finishing up his college career at New Mexico. He was asked what differences he’s noticed as he enters his first year of full season professional baseball.

Garver: It’s just different doing this every day. You have to learn how to maintain your body and how you prepare each day is based off how you feel. If you’re feeling a little down one day, you might have to do something a little bit extra to get going.

It’s different from college because really baseball is the only thing you have to worry about. You have to worry about keeping your body in shape, showing up to the field on time, doing what you’ve got to do to prepare.

Whereas in college, you had to take care of your social life, your emotional life, your school work and other factors that go in to it. It’s a more independent way of living and the competition obviously is better.

So does that mean you have no social life or anything like that when you’re playing professional baseball?

Garver: You’ve really got to balance things. In pro baseball, your social life is within the team. It’s kind of who you hang out with 24/7.

Both Quesada and Altobelli spent time in Cedar Rapids a season ago. They were asked whether they were adjusting their approaches this year as they return to open the season with the Kernels, but clearly hope to be getting considered for possible promotions to the next level.

Quesada: My adjustment is not worrying about it. I think I worried too much last year, putting pressure on myself with what to do. It’s a marathon, like Mitch said, it’s every day. I think I played pitch by pitch every day like it was my last pitch and I think you have to pace yourself a little bit.

That’s the adjustment I’m making this year is pacing myself throughout the year. I understand it’s 140-some odd games, plus spring training. I’m treating my body a little differently, adjusting that way.

That’s really the difference that I feel. After my first full season, I caught a lot last year and this year I’m trying to treat it as a marathon and not a sprint.

Altobelli: Similar to what they said, you can’t worry about it because the moment you think you’ve got it figured out, you’ll find out you’ve got no idea what’s going on as far as what they think you’re going to do and what you think yourself you’re going to do.

So you can’t think about it. You’ve just got to go out there and play. Play how you want to play and the rest will take care of itself.

If the team wins, everyone’s going to be happy and, more likely, people will move up if you win. So just focus on winning and the rest will take care of itself.

The Kernels roster includes 13 pitchers, leaving room for just 12 position players. Three of those spots are held by these catchers. That means Kernels manager Jake Mauer has to ration out innings behind the plate among the three backstops. They were asked how it works out, splitting time among the three of them.

Altobelli: Every year of pro ball, we’ve had three catchers where I’m at, so it’s nothing new to me. But being here, we know Jake’s going to help us out the best that he can, DHing us, maybe getting time at first base, who knows.

You’ve got to try and stay focused, take some extra BP if you need it. At least we’re catching bullpens if we’re not playing, so the ball’s still coming at us. So we’re still getting that feel down. It’s definitely difficult, but Jake does a good job of getting us in there and trying to keep us in a routine so credit to him for keeping us up to date with what’s going on.

Quesada: All of that’s out of our control. It’s up to Jake and the organization. It’s not anything we have any power over. All we can do is go out and play the best we can. If they’re going to play us more, then they do. Jake, as Bo said, does a really good job of finding ways to get us in there somehow. He’s not going to shortchange us.

Garver, on the other hand, was catching almost every game during his college season a year ago.

Garver: Yeah, that’s right. It’s a long season. It’s longer than most people might think. It’s my first full season, so I guess I probably don’t have a feel for it like these guys do, but 140 games is a long time and if you’re really only using one or two catchers, it’s going to break down toward the end of the year.

I think having three guys is going to be helpful. You can stay fresh. You can get some days off, get some at-bats at some different positions where you don’t normally play. It teaches you how to be a good baseball player. If you’re only playing one position, you’re not going to be as baseball savvy as you are if you can play multiple positions. They like to see how you can do at different positions and I think that’s a cool thing.

Kernels Roster Taking Shape

There was no rain in Fort Myers on Wednesday. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it was pretty breezy and high temperatures for the day barely, if at all, reached 70 degrees.

I know that sounds good to a lot of people, but I had to wear long sleeves much of the day at the ballpark and was a bit chilly eating dinner outdoors tonight!

But I toughed it out, because I know my readers expect me to do whatever it takes to get the story.

Today, that story comes from the minor league side of the Twins organization. Rather than watch the Twins and Pirates at Hammond Stadium, I fought the Daniels Parkway traffic toward the Red Sox complex to watch the Twins’ Class A groups take on their Sox counterparts.

After the game, Kernels manager Jake Mauer shared some thoughts about the way his club is shaping up as they enter the final few days of camp. Mauer indicated that just a handful of roster spots are still unresolved.

One player still “on the bubble” with the Kernels as final decisions are being made is Chad Christensen, who prepped at Cedar Rapids Washington High School before playing ball for the University of Nebraska. Christensen was drafted by the Twins last June and played last summer for the Twins’ Gulf Coast League rookie level affiliate in Fort Myers.

Chad Christensen
Chad Christensen

It sounds like the Kernels’ manager would like to bring Christiansen to Cedar Rapids next week.

“Chad’s been working real hard and he’s somebody that gives us some flexibility. He’s played both (corner) outfield positions and both corner infield positions and I wouldn’t be afraid to put him at shortstop once in a while,” said Mauer. “We’ve got about six or seven guys we’ve got to make decisions on and he’s in that mix, but there’s no doubt that he’s somebody we’d like to take north with us.”

Mauer knows his squad of Kernels is going to have to take a different approach than last year’s team, now that last year’s power hitters have moved up the organizational ladder.

“We’re going to have to be real good at the small things right away,” the manager acknowledged. “We’re going to have to run the bases well. We’re going to have to be able to execute the small game, hit and runs, getting bunts down, doing things like that. Try to create runs that way.”

According to Mauer, there should be five or six familiar faces for Kernels fans to welcome back to Cedar Rapids.

Among the likely returnees are catchers Michael Quesada and Bo Altobelli.  Said Mauer, “We plan on taking both those guys north, along with (Mitchell) Garver. We’re probably going to take three (catchers) to start, at least.”

That means flexibility will be key among other position players because, according to the skipper, he expects the final roster to contain just 12 position players, allowing 13 roster spots for the pitching staff that will once again utilize a six-man starting rotation.

It’s that pitching staff that many in the Twins organization, as well as their fans, are anxious to see.

“I think we’ll be starter-heavy. We should have some quality arms, starting-wise,” said Mauer. “We’ve got a lot of young, quality arms. It just depends on how many we decide to bring up with us.”

In particular, there are a number of pitchers that will push their fastballs consistently in to the middle-to-upper 90s on the speed gun, including young Dominican pitchers Yorman Landa, who was hitting 96  mph in Wednesday’s game, and Randy Rosario. In addition, the Twins’ first round pick in 2013 (and second pick overall) Kohl Stewart is a hard throwing 19 year old who is still on the Kernels roster as camp is drawing to a close.

As Kernels fans know, however, the team’s success is not solely determined by the players that start the season with the club. Between injuries and promotions, it’s equally important to have talented players at the lower levels of the organization preparing to join the Kernels as the season develops.

According to Mauer, there’s plenty of potential mid-season help available, as well. “You know we’ve got some young boys down there, too, (Lewis) Thorpe and (Stephen) Gonsalves. Kids that have some pretty good arms that we’ll probably see at some point throughout the year.”

The Kernels will break camp on Monday. There will be a “Meet the Kernels” event open to the public at no charge on April 1 at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids and Opening Day  is Thursday, April 3, when the Kernels host the Clinton Lumber Kings.

– 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

Prospects and Projects – Projecting the 2013 Kernels. Part 1

Since we’ve officially turned the calendar to 2013, it means Spring Training gets underway in just a few weeks and before you know it, we’ll be getting ready for Opening Day!

(Image: Kernels.com)
(Image: Kernels.com)

With this being the first year of the new Class A affiliation between the Twins and my hometown Cedar Rapids Kernels, I’m looking forward to the opportunity to bring more Kernels-centric writing to Knuckleballs and I figure there’s no time like the present to get started.

Over the coming days (or perhaps weeks), I’m going to try to introduce most, if not all, of the players that we may expect to see wearing Kernels uniforms this summer. Granted, there’s no way of knowing with any certainty who we’ll actually find on the Kernels’ roster to open the season, but we can certainly make some educated guesses… and if I run out of those, I’ll just pull a few wild names out of thin air and talk about those players, too!

The Opening Day roster will be limited to 25 players, but we’ll have no such limits here! It took almost no time at all for me to throw together a list of about 35 players in the Twins organization that look to me like reasonable bets to spend some time in Cedar Rapids this summer. Some will start the year in extended spring training and perhaps spend time with one of the Twins’ rookie league teams before, hopefully, getting promoted to Cedar Rapids. Others may open the season a rung higher on the organizational ladder with the High-A Fort Myers Miracle and miss out on being a Kernel altogether. But I’m relatively confident that most of the players we include in this series will wear a Kernels uniform at some point during the upcoming season.

For the benefit of those Kernels fans who are less familiar with the Twins organization, we should probably explain that the Twins have two “rookie level” short-season teams below the Class A Kernels. The lowest level is the Fort Myers team in the Gulf Coast League and the next level up is Elizabethton TN in the Appalachian League. Those Kernels who earn a promotion out of Cedar Rapids will find themselves with the Fort Myers Miracle in the “high-A” Florida State League.

Let’s kick off this series by looking at a group of catchers that Kernels fans might want to get to know. To my mind, the most likely catching options for Cedar Rapids to start the season would come from the trio of Jhonatan Arias, Tyler Grimes and Jairo Rodriguez. Here’s just a bit about them:

Jairo Rodriguez – Age 24 – Bats R/Throws R

2012: Beloit (Class A – MWL)

64 243 .265 .678 40 18 12  0 2
Jairo Rodriguez
Jairo Rodriguez

Outside of just six games at DH, Jairo made the rest of his starts behind the plate in 2012. He threw out 24 of 66 runners attempting to steal for a very respectable 36% throw-out rate.

Rodriguez was signed by the Twins out of Venezuela and spent his first three seasons in summer leagues in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. He spent 2010 and 2011 playing in US rookie leagues and the full 2012 season at Beloit. At 24 years old, Rodriguez would be older than most players in the Midwest League, so even if Rodriguez starts the year in Cedar Rapids, I could see the Twins pushing him up to Fort Myers at the first opportunity, assuming he performs at acceptable levels.

Tyler Grimes – Age 22 – Bats R/Throws R

2012: Beloit (Class A – MWL)

105 381 .202 .653 99 43 17 3 7
Tyler Grimes
Tyler Grimes

Grimes made 77 appearances at shortstop and 18 at second base (plus 1 at 3B and 7 as DH) in 2012.

Grimes was drafted by the Twins in the 5th round of the 2011 amateur draft out of Wichita State. He has not hit the ball real well in roughly a season and a half at Beloit, though at least he has shown a little power.

After the 2012 season, he spent time at the the Fall Instructional League learning the catcher position. Grimes could open the season with the Kernels, repeating Class A, or potentially be held back in extended spring training to work more on his catching skills with the Twins instructional staff in Fort Myers before starting his season. It will be very interesting to see how the catching experiment works out for Tyler.

Jhonatan Arias – Age 23 – Bats R/Throws R

2012: Elizabethton (Rookie – Appy League)

30 113 .301 .728 15 7 6 0 1

Jhonatan got in just 27 games behind the dish in 2012, but he threw out 11 of 30 attempted base stealers for a 37% rate. Of the three catchers I see as most likely to spend significant time in Cedar Rapids, he appears to have the most promising offensive skills.

Arias was signed out of the Dominican Republic and spent 2007 and 2008 playing in the Dominican Summer League. In 2009 he played for the Gulf Coast League Twins and in 2010 he moved up to Elizabethton. In 2011, he split time between E’town and Beloit, but struggled at the plate in his time with the Snappers. During the 2011 Fall Instructional League, Arias reportedly was tried out on the pitching mound, but he spent 2012 in Elizabethton back behind the plate.

If I had to bet, I’d expect the majority of the Kernels’ catching duties in 2013 will be shared by some combination of these three players, but there are a few younger catchers who spent time with one or both of the short-season teams in 2012 and could end up in Cedar Rapids at some point this season.

If the Twins do decide to bring in younger catchers, look to see Bo Altobelli, Kelly Cross and/or Bryan Santy.

Altobelli, who turns 22 in February, was drafted in the 21st round last June out of Texas Tech and signed with the Twins in time to get 18 games in behind the plate in Elizabethton. He hit just .230 and threw out just one of the 15 baserunners who attempted to steal against him.

Cross will turn 21 during Spring Training. He was drafted in the 26th round out of his Texas high school in 2010. He signed his contract just before the signing deadline and caught three games for the GCL Twins that summer. He also spent most of the past two seasons with the same GCL team. He caught just eight games for Elizabethton last season. He hasn’t seemed to figure out what to do with a bat in his hands, yet, hitting just .167 in his GCL and Appy games combined during 2012, but he did throw out an impressive 47% of attempted base stealers (15 of 32).

Santy played just 19 games for the GCL Twins in 2012 after the 22 year old was drafted in the 30th round out of the University of Washington. He not only threw out seven of the 16 runners who attempted to steal off him, but he also hit .296 and got on base at a .418 clip. Those are offensive numbers you won’t see in many other young Twins catching prospects. Of course, Santy was older than most of the pitchers he was likely facing in the GCL, which has me wondering whether the Twins might consider pushing him up a couple of levels over the course of 2013. If so, we might see him in CR.

Finally, there are two other catching prospects that I would consider long-shots to see in a Kernels uniform this season.

The Twins drafted Jorge Fernandez in the 7th round of the amateur draft last year, but Fernandez was drafted out of the International Baseball Academy in Puerto Rico and will just turn 19 in March. He caught 30 games for the GCL Twins last year with moderate success. I suspect he’ll spend all of 2013 in rookie leagues at either Fort Myers or Elizabethton, but I suppose there’s an outside chance he could find his way to Cedar Rapids late in the year.

One other catcher, Michael Quesada, contributed a bit at Elizabethton in 2012. Quesada was a low round draft pick in 2010 but as he was signed out of junior college, he’s older than Cross. Like some others on this list, Quesada has struggled a bit at the plate, but has had some success throwing out runners. Quesada, however, was suspended in August after failing a drug test, so he will start the season completing the remainder of a 50-game suspension. Unfortunately, since he was on the Elizabethton roster when he tested positive, the suspension doesn’t pick back up again until E’town’s short-season schedule resumes in June, so it will be August before he can suit up for any affiliate.

In my view, the Twins could stand to upgrade their catching at the low-minors level and I would not be disappointed to see them draft a college catcher or two in the top 10-15 rounds of the June amateur draft. With the accelerated signing period, I suppose that could result in Cedar Rapids seeing such a 2013 draftee behind the plate before the end of the season, but it’s not very likely.

Next up: Part 2: Corner infielders.

– JC

P.S. If you’d like to learn more about these and other potential Kernels, not to mention pretty much any other prospect in the Twins minor league organization, keep a watch out for Seth Stohs’ 2013 Minnesota Twins Prospect Handbook. Seth and his fellow writers annually provide statistics and write-ups on pretty much every Twins prospect at all levels of the organization. We’ll share the announcement when the 2013 Handbook becomes available, or you could just follow Seth at @SethTweets on Twitter or check in with him at TwinsDaily.com (which you really should be doing anyway).