Kernels Media Night Highlights

The tarp covering the infield in Cedar Rapids was wet from a mix of rain and snow flurries over the past couple of days, but fortunately the only “work” that this year’s Cedar Rapids Kernels had to do on Tuesday was do a meet and greet with fans on the concourse and, for a select few, survive a brief media inquisition.

L to R: pitching coach Cibney Bello, manager Toby Gardenhire, hitting coach Brian Dinkelman, pitching coach Justin Willard (Photo: SD Buhr)

As has almost become a tradition in Cedar Rapids, the weather for “Meet the Kernels Night” at the ballpark was cold and damp. The forecast for their Opening Day in Davenport on Thursday is for a mix of rain and snow with a high during the day around 50 degrees.

The good news is that it’s supposed to be sunny in Cedar Rapids for the home opener on Saturday. The less-good news is that the high temperature that day is projected to be 37 degrees.

Welcome to Midwest League baseball in April.

But let’s worry about the weather later. For now, how about some snippets from the Kernels’ introductory press conference?

To start things off, manager Toby Gardenhire and coaches Brian Dinkelman, Cibney Bello and Justin Willard fielded questions from local media.

One of those questions pertained to the evident shift in philosophies being ingrained by the Twins front office with regard to greater collection and use of analytical data at all levels of the organization.

“We have definitely dug into the analytical part of baseball now,” said Dinkelman.. “We’re definitely taking the next step trying to keep up with the game of baseball. Any information we can receive is good information. We try to just filter out what’s good and what’s bad and provide it to the players as necessary.”

Gardenhire concurred with his hitting coach.

“I would say we’re definitely diving into the more analytical way of doing things. the less old-school way of doing things, than we ever have before, with the new front office. They hired a lot of new people this year and a lot of those people are analytical-type people.

“What happens with the analytical side of it is you get a whole bunch of information. All of these things that Dink was just saying, they give you a lot of information and how you deal with that information is going to be different with every organization. We have all that information now, so we’re on the cutting edge.”

A lot has justifiably been made of the fact that the Kernels will have not just one first round draft choice, but a pair of them, in their everyday lineup. Royce Lewis was the first overall selection of 2017’s draft class and Alex Kirilloff was the Twins’ first round selection the year before.

Dinkelman was asked about his impressions of the highly touted pair during spring training.

“Royce got stronger since last year. One of the first things that I thought of when he came back hitting BP is that the ball is coming off his bat harder than it was last year. Alex, it was the first time I got to really look at him in spring training, but he looks good. He’s a hitter first. He plays defense well. So it will be exciting to have both those guys on the team.”

One thing that’s new within the Twins minor league system this year is that two pitching coaches have been assigned to minor league affiliates. In Cedar Rapids, Bello and Willard will fill those roles.

“Two sets of eyes are always better than one,” Willard explained. “And the theory is that the manager is usually a hitting guy and then you’ve got the hitting coach. You’ve got half the team that’s pitchers, why not have another set of eyes on those guys? I’m excited to work with Cibney, for sure.”

While the lineup in Cedar Rapids is going to be full of high draft picks and highly regarded international prospects, Bello expressed confidence that his pitching staff would hold up their end of things, as well, despite perhaps being less heralded than their position-player team mates.

“We have a few guys that are maybe not mentioned a lot, but it’s going to be fun to see them pitching in the games,” Bello said. “They’re not afraid. They have good stuff, too. Maybe they were not drafted as a higher pick, but we’re going to be fine. We’re going to battle. We’re going to compete and we’re going to make people have fun.”

Next up, it was catcher Ben Rortvedt and pitcher Blayne Enlow at the table. Rortvedt is returning to Cedar Rapids for the second season while Enlow will be seeing his first “full season” in professional ball and is scheduled to pitch the home opener on Saturday.

Catcher Ben Rortvedt and pitcher Blayne Enlow (Photo: SD Buhr)

After pitching only for the Gulf Coast League Twins after being drafted in the third round last June, Enlow didn’t enter spring training with any assurance that he’d be skipping the higher rookie league level in Elizabethton to open the year with the Kernels. Of course, that also means opening the season in temperatures that are likely to be well below anything he dealt with while playing high school ball in his native Louisiana.

“I think spring went really good,” Enlow said, “but still it’s like you’re unsure where you’re going to go. When they finally told us, of course I was excited. And then they’re like, ‘it’s cold.’ I was like, ‘it can’t be that bad.’ Yeah, it is. Yeah, it is. But you’ve just got to get through it. It’s just a new challenge. Just got to try to keep on pitching, keep on filling up with strikes, get people out and just win games.”

Rortvedt will be largely splitting the Kernels catching duties with David Banuelos. Ben Rodriguez, who has been a catcher by trade in previous seasons, is being converted to first base, though he likely will continue to get a few opportunities behind the plate.

“I think me and David are going to split time pretty much the whole way this season,” Rortvedt explained, while also mentioning that Rodriguez has been a successful catcher and will be filling the role of the team’s third catcher. “(Banuelos) was very good back there in college at Long Beach State. So, yeah, I’ve been looking forward to it, just learning from each other and talking baseball, talking catching. So yeah it’ll be fun.”

Rortvedt also spoke glowingly of some of the changes in the Twins’ minor league operation.

“There’s a lot of new management with the Twins. We’ve got a new farm director and a lot of new people. There’s a lot of younger faces now and a lot of people are very approachable, which I really enjoy. We’ve got a new catching rover, which we never had in the past, which is just amazing for the catchers, working one-on-one with us.”

Shortstop Royce Lewis and outfielder Alex Kirilloff (Photo: SD Buhr)

Finally, the Minnesota Twins’ first-round draft picks from 2016 and 2017, Alex Kirilloff and Royce Lewis, took their turns addressing media questions.

Lewis was asked how he felt he was different now than what he was as a player at the end of last season in Cedar Rapids.

“To start, I’ve already gained 15-20 pounds, so that’s a big step in my power,” he answered. “And just the mental side of it, more relaxed and kind of know how to play the game of baseball a bit more. Knowing the surroundings in Cedar Rapids around here just makes me feel calm and relaxed.”

Kirilloff talked about the challenges he had to face as he sat out all of the 2017 season after elbow surgery.

“Definitely never the news you want to hear,” he conceded. “I got it around spring training (last year) where my arm wasn’t feeling the way it should and the best option was to get surgery, so to get that news was tough.

“For me, there’s two ways you can look at it. You can harp on it and get down on yourself or you can take it as a challenge and try to make yourself better from it. I tried to do that. I got a lot stronger. Tried to pick up on things that maybe I wouldn’t have if I was playing throughout the year. I think you’ve just got to try to make the best of it and come back better.”

Both players acknowledged that the roster they’re a part of to start the season in Cedar Rapids includes an exceptional number of highly regarded hitting prospects, while also noting that the group can’t just show up and expect to be successful on the field.

“Yeah, it’s like we’re the Yankees on paper. That’s what I’d say, for sure,” said Lewis. “I mean, they’ve got the Bronx bombers, you’ve got a lot of home run hitters in this lineup.

“A couple of people were joking back in spring training, there’s a lot of money you’ve got involved with this team. Which is kind of funny, but it’s kind of true. But as for being prospects, we’re just going to have fun and we’re a good young team. I’m excited and we’re going to work as hard as we can to win all those games.”

“There’s a lot of exciting players with the group and good people, as well,” Kirilloff concurred. “I’m happy to be a part of the group. It’s one thing to look at the paper and be impressed by it, but we’ve still got to go out and do our job and play hard every day.”

Weather permitting, the Kernels will open their season Thursday evening in Davenport against the Quad Cities River Bandits (Astros affiliate).

The home opener is scheduled for Saturday in Cedar Rapids.

Twins Minor Leaguers: Spring Training Photos

(Photo: SD Buhr)

The big leaguers at Twins’ spring training had the day off on Thursday, but the minor leaguers were hard at work on the back fields this morning. It gave me an excuse to bring out the camera as I watched past, present and future Cedar Rapids Kernels get in their workouts.

 

Kernels hitting coach Brian Dinkelman chats with Royce Lewis, Also pictured: Christian Broussard. (Photo: SD Buhr)
Trey Cabbage (45) and Alex Kirilloff (27) await their turns in the batting cage. (Photo: SD Buhr)
Infielders Royce Lewis (8), Wander Javier (19 with ball), Carson Crites (33) and Jose Miranda (24)
Kohl Stewart (Photo: SD Buhr)

 

Kernels Hot Stove/Twins Caravan in CR

Wednesday night, the Cedar Rapids Kernels and their Major League partner, the Minnesota Twins, combined to put on a terrific program for eastern Iowa baseball fans as the Twins once again included a stop in Cedar Rapids for their annual Winter Caravan in conjunction with the Kernels’ annual Hot Stove Banquet.

Kris Atteberry (far left) tosses questions to Winter Caravan panelists (seated L to R) Brian Dinkelman, Toby Gardenhire, Jeremy Zoll, Zack Granite and Mitch Garver. (photo: SD Buhr)

The Eastbank Venue & Lounge, along the banks of the Cedar River in downtown Cedar Rapids, was a new venue for the event and was a great choice (despite the predominantly purplish lighting, which resulted in a heavy blue hue in virtually every photograph I took at the event, with or without a flash).

There was no shortage of both familiar and less familiar faces among the Winter Caravan panel the Twins sent to town for the evening.

The program was emceed by Twins radio broadcaster Kris Atteberry, who distributed questions to the panel.

Two new faces shared the stage with three that were more familiar to local fans.

Twins farm director Jeremy Zoll (photo: SD Buhr)

New Kernels manager Toby Gardenhire (son of Ron Gardenhire, the longtime manager of the Twins who will be taking the reins in the Detroit Tigers dugout this season) was in attendance, as was his new boss, Jeremy Zoll. The 27-year-old Zoll enters his first season as the Twins’ Director of Minor League Operations.

Atteberry may have had the best line of the night, telling the crowd that his first question for Zoll was going to be the same question the bartender had asked Zoll, “Can I see your ID?”

Kernels hitting coach Brian Dinkelman, who returns to the Kernels again in 2018, was joined by two other familiar faces: former Kernels Mitch Garver and Zack Granite. Both players have now made their big league debuts, finishing the 2017 season with the Twins, and will be going to spring training intent on earning spots on the Twins’ opening day roster.

The featured guests were made available to the media for interviews for a few minutes before the event kicked off and I had the opportunity to speak to Garver and Granite about the paths their careers had taken since their days with the Kernels.

Garver played in 120 games for the 2014 version of the Kernels and hit for a .298 average. His career has steadily progressed each year since.

Granite’s time in Cedar Rapids was cut short by injury in 2014, but he returned in 2015 and immediately hit so well that he earned a quick promotion to Class A Advanced Fort Myers.

Wanting to make the most of what time I had with each player, I asked them both the same question to kick off the interviews.

If you could go back in time, knowing what you know now, and give the Cedar Rapids Kernels version of yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?

“I would say relax,” answered Garver.

“Because when I was at this level, I put a lot of pressure on myself to succeed. Being a senior sign, kind of having that rope get a little bit shorter as my age goes up. It’s like, man, I need to get promoted. I need to prove well at every level. I need to do this and that and I need to do it quickly. And I think that kind of took a toll on me.

“I did have a really good learning process while I was (in Cedar Rapids), but if I could have just told myself, ‘just trust the process, you’re going to get there. Believe in yourself.’ It would have gone a lot smoother.”

But would he have been concerned that might have caused his younger self to relax too much?

“No, I don’t think so. I’ve always been pedal to the metal. I want to do the best I can at everything I do.

“So if I’d have known all that back then, I’d have had the same thought process, going about my work and improving, but I could have gotten (to the Major Leagues) with a little more sleep maybe.”

Zack Granite and Mitch Garver (photo: SD Buhr)

And what would today’s Zack Granite tell his younger self to do?

“Probably to grow up,” he said.

“I was probably a little immature, took too many at-bats too seriously.

“It’s a long season. I kind of didn’t really know that yet. I’d never played a full season (of professional baseball) yet. There’s so many at-bats in a season and if you get out or make a mistake, it’s on to the next one. That’s how you’ve got to be.

“I feel like that’s the only way to be successful, to clear your mind. Every at-bat is different and don’t take one at-bat into the next. I did that when I was younger. I’ve kind of grown out of that and that’s helped me along the way.”

Was that a tough adjustment for Granite to make, after years where you get so many fewer opportunities to bat in a season?

“It took some time for me to get used to that. Even when I was at Elizabethton, it’s a short season. I never really played a full season until I got to here.

“My first season (in Cedar Rapids) I got hurt, so I didn’t play too much. Then I came back and did pretty well and went to Fort Myers. But even in that short time I was here, I was kind of taking at-bats into the next one.

“I think if I would have done that at an earlier age, took every at-bat separately, I think I would have been more successful.”

The Twins and Kernels will enter their sixth season as affiliates this spring. Seeing young players like Mitch Garver and Zack Granite realize the big league dream they were working so hard to achieve when they were busing around the Midwest League, then come back to town as Major Leaguers, has been one of the best aspects of the Kernels/Twins relationship.

-Steve

P.S. Once again, apologies for the “blue-tinted” photos. I suppose I could have spent a bunch of time editing the color out, but frankly, I just didn’t feel like devoting the time necessary to do that. So let’s just pretend I did it all on purpose, as an homage to the Vikings’ playoff run.  🙂

Twins Need A Memorable Offseason

Been a while.

I’m not sure why I couldn’t bring myself to write over the past couple of months. Certainly, it wasn’t for a lack of Twins-related stuff to hash over, right? Since my last post, the Twins and Kernels BOTH qualified for their respective leagues’ postseasons. Not bad, right?

Byron Buxton launched this home run in spring training and went on to lead the Twins to a postseason appearance.

Neither of them lasted as long as we would have liked, with the Kernels winning their first round series over Kane County, but dropping two games out of three to Quad Cities in the Midwest League’s Western Division championship series and the Twins falling to the Evil Empire in the American League Wild Card game, but still, they capped off successful seasons.

Now we’re into baseball’s offseason. You remember the offseason? I know, if you’re a Twins fan, it’s understandable if you have no idea what that is. After all, the Twins haven’t historically done much but go into hibernation from November until pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training in February.

Already, this offseason, though, the Twins front office has: let go of Fort Myers Miracle manager (and fan-favorite former Twins first baseman) Doug Mientkiewicz, announced a three year extension for manager Paul Molitor, released their major league pitching coach and minor league pitching coordinator and hired John Manuel, the editor of Baseball America, into their pro scouting organization.

Of interest to Kernels fans (at least it should be), the Twins also promoted farm director Brad Steil to the director of professional scouting and hired a new director of minor league operations, Jeremy Zoll, out of the Dodgers organization.

That may not sound like a lot to some people, but for the Twins, that’s a lot of decisions coming down the pipeline before the World Series even gets started!

It seemed to me, though, that it was the Mientkiewicz news that got the biggest reaction out of Twinsville. He had been, after all, reported to have been a candidate for the Twins’ managerial job before Molitor was eventually given the gig. And it’s pretty hard, I think, to find a player that spent any time on one of his teams in Fort Myers or Chattanooga who didn’t speak highly of him.

But, from everything I’ve heard from former players and media, Dougie Baseball was a bit of a dinosaur, when it comes to his approach to managing a baseball team. He also had a history of, arguably, stretching pitch counts for some of his young pitchers.

If any of that is true, then his chances of ever landing a coaching spot (much less the manager’s seat) at the MLB level in a Twins organization run by Thad Levine and Derek Falvey were virtually nil. He’s better off looking for a better philosophical fit. His problem is going to be trying to find a front office that still values his way of thinking above more modern analytical approaches.

Modern analytics are no longer just theory. In fact, they are no longer just being applied to the Major League levels. Minor league managers and coaches, all the way down through the lower levels, are being provided the tools necessary to record and mine advanced data on their own players, as well as their opponents’. And this Twins front office is not going to accept any coach or manager who doesn’t embrace and utilize those tools.

From where I sat in Cedar Rapids this summer, manager Tommy Watkins and his coaches (Brian Dinkelman and JP Martinez) did embrace this new world. They and their players spent more time with video, they applied the data at their fingertips related to everything from lineup construction to defensive shifts and were very careful not to overwork the young arms they were responsible for developing.

And they did all that while also winning baseball games!

I have no first-hand knowledge of whether other managing/coaching staff members in the organization were as on board as the Kernels’ staff with those obvious changes from past practices, but if any of them dragged their feet, they really can’t be too surprised if the front office decides to find replacements who would be more enthusiastic about implementing their bosses’ philosophies.

Apparently, Molitor demonstrated well enough that he was capable of implementing the front office’s system to warrant being kept around.

Then again, we all know that Molitor is a favorite not only with a significant segment of the fan base but, more importantly, with owner Jim Pohlad.

Pohlad made retaining his manager for at least a year a prerequisite for anyone applying to replace former General Manager Terry Ryan, so his feelings about Molitor are obvious.

Reports indicated that Pohlad did not order his front office to offer an extension to the manager after this past season, but that, if they decided they wanted to go another way, he wanted to be involved in a conversation before any announcement was made. That conversation was never necessary, of course, but one can imagine how it might have gone if the brass had decided they wanted to move in another direction.

Pohlad: Let me get this straight. Molitor led our team to the most dramatic turnaround, record-wise, in our history. He did this after you guys gave up on the season and got rid of his closer and the starting pitcher you traded FOR just a week earlier. Now, you want to fire him? Why?

“Falvine”: We just want our own guy in that position.

Pohlad, after a long pause to consider whether he would rather keep Molitor or these two new guys he still hasn’t learned to tell apart: OK. You lived up to your end of the deal. You kept Paul for one year. But gentlemen, you’d better be right or a year from now, your choice for a manager will be back on the street… and he’ll have company.

No, they weren’t going to let Molitor go. The only question in my mind was whether, after a year of spreadsheets and exit velocities, he felt comfortable continuing to manage in the new baseball world.

It’s not like he needed the gig, right? But I suspect that the promise of what this team could become over the next three years was enough to make him want to be around for that ride and I think he has some genuine affinity for and with this group of players which refused to roll over even after their front office gave up on them.

Now Falvine can focus on getting some pitching.

If there’s one thing that watching the teams that are still alive in the postseason drives home to you, it’s the difference between the quality of the pitching staffs, in particular the starting rotations, between these teams and the Twins.

I will say that the Twins’ rotation has improved. Whenever Santana, Berrios and even Gibson took the mound to start a game in August and September, I felt like the Twins had a chance to win.

But teams like the Astros, Indians, Dodgers, Cubs and even the Yankees don’t just feel they have a chance to win when their top three (and sometimes more) starters are on the mound, they EXPECT to win those games.

That is a huge difference and the task of the Twins’ front office is to make that kind of thing happen in Minnesota and do it fast.

Jorge Polanco has the shortstop job now. But Nick Gordon is on his way. Could one of them bring a top starting pitcher in a trade?

The window for winning with this current group of position players is now opening and those windows only last so long.

The Twins can’t afford to wait two or three or four years to develop a postseason-worth rotation. It has to happen sooner than that and it has to start in the next two months.

It has been a while since I felt inclined to support potentially trading top prospects for immediate help at the big league level, but I’m there now.

If it takes a couple of the organization’s top position player prospects to get legitimate starting pitching help (and not just #3 or #4 level arms), then get it done. Face it, there’s not a lot of room in this lineup right now for the guys coming up anyway and those guys might be better served to go somewhere that they aren’t blocked by guys like Buxton, Sano, Kepler and maybe even Polanco.

And the Twins can’t wait around to get pitching. Yes, let’s find out how good the top starting pitching prospects can be, but don’t let that stop you from getting pitchers that you can honestly EXPECT to win behind, not just have a chance to do so.

This should be the most interesting Twins offseason in the past couple of decades. If it’s not, then Levine and Falvey aren’t doing their jobs.

Kernels Hitting a Stride

Heading into their four-game series with Midwest League Western Division leaders Kane County on Thursday, the Cedar Rapids Kernels were one game under .500, trailed the Cougars by two games in the standings and were tied for second place in their division.

After trouncing Kane County 11-2 in the series finale on Sunday to earn a split of the four-game series, Cedar Rapids was one game over .500 (at 9-8), trail the Cougars by two games in the standings and are tied for second place in their division.

That sounds more mediocre than it was, in reality.

Kane County, the MWL affiliate of the Diamondbacks, have some game and the rest of the division will be challenged to keep up with the Cougars if they continue playing at early-season levels, so getting that split was hard work.

Still, it could have been better.

The Kernels had a 3-2 lead heading to the ninth inning on Thursday, but gave up three runs to the Cougars in the ninth and fell 5-3. On Saturday, The teams were tied 3-3 headed to the final stanza, where Kane County scored the winning run.

In fact, in five of their eight losses this season, Cedar Rapids has surrendered the winning run in their opponent’s final inning at the plate.

All those close losses don’t have manager Tommy Watkins concerned, however.

“The good thing is, after all those games, we responded afterwards,” Watkins said on Saturday. “We’ve lost a couple of games in the ninth inning, but it happens. We’ve got a young team. We’re going to take some bumps and bruises, but I think things have been pretty good to start the season.”

In fact, Watkins said his team has pretty much performed at expected levels.

“I didn’t have any concerns with either side of the ball. Pitching or hitting. Like I said at the beginning of the season, this is a fun team to watch up and down the lineup – pitching, defense, offense, running the bases. We’ve got some guys that can steal some bases. I really enjoy having these guys here.”

One player that’s certainly been as much fun to watch as any position player in the league has been Jermaine Palacios.

“Palacios has been swinging a hot bat and giving us a real boost at the leadoff spot,” Watkins said, of his shortstop. “He’s being aggressive to balls in a zone.”

Indeed he is.

The 20-year-old native of Venezuela is hitting .406 through Sunday and he hasn’t been just slapping the ball, either. Palacios has three doubles, two triples and added his first home run of the season in Sunday’s win over the Cougars.

He’s leading the MWL in batting average and his 1.012 OPS is ninth best in the league, but not good enough to lead his own team.

That honor goes to Mitchell Kranson. His six doubles, one triple and two dingers have propelled him to a 1.045 OPS.

By and large, the pitching staff has been solid, as well. There have been a couple of games where, as one Kernels pitcher told me, “none of us could miss a barrel.” But those instances have been rare.

Cedar Rapids continues their current homestand with a three game series against the Burlington Bees (Angels) before traveling to Peoria (Cardinals) for four games with the Chiefs beginning Thursday.

I’ll wrap up with a couple dozen pictures from the games on Saturday and Sunday at Veterans Memorial Stadium, as well as the traditional Sunday post-game autograph session.

(All photos by SD Buhr)

Kernels manager Tommy Watkins hitting infield practice
Hitting coach Brian Dinkelman tossing batting practice
Domenick Carlini warms up under the watchful eyes of Kernels pitching coach JP Martinez
Lewin Diaz (48) and Ariel Montesino (21)
Domenick Carlini
Andrew Vasquez
Mitchell Kranson playing first base on Saturday
Mitchell Kranson took his turn behind the plate on Sunday
Aaron Whitefield coming in low, and safely, to 3B
Andrew Vasquez, Max Cordy and Colton Davis (L to R)
Ben Rortvedt
Ariel Montesino (21) takes a toss from Jermaine Palacios (4) to turn a double play on Sunday
Aaron Whitefield
Lewin Diaz signing an autograph on Sunday.
Jermaine Palacios got this ball out of the park on Sunday.
Clark Beeker
Shane Carrier
Christian Cavaness signing an autograph after Sunday’s game.
Lewin Diaz
Hector Lujan
Clark Beeker with a pick-off move to first baseman Lewin Diaz
Jermaine Palacios
Mitchell Kranson beats a throw into 3B
Brandon Lopez
Jaylin Davis scoring as Kane County catcher can’t handle a throw from the outfield.
Caleb Hamilton launching a home run on Sunday
Christian Caveness
Travis Blankenhorn (7) and Aaron Whitefield signing autographs.
Jaylin Davis

Kernels Expect a Fun Season

There were differing opinions concerning who won the dance contest held in the Kernels’ clubhouse prior to “Meet the Kernels Night” in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, but the players and coaches who were brought in to talk to the media were in agreement on one thing. They all expect the 2017 Kernels season to be fun.

Kernels players meeting fans on “Meet the Kernels Night” in Cedar Rapids. (photo: SD Buhr)

In fact, almost all of the players and coaches who endured media interrogation before moving on to the stadium concourse to meet the fans who showed up for the event used the word “fun” in at least one of their responses to media questions.

That shouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone who has spent time with the Kernels’ new manager, Tommy Watkins. If you see Watkins at a ballpark without a smile on his face, snap a picture quick. It would be a rarity.

Early during the media session, Watkins was asked what sort of mood he likes to see in his team’s clubhouse.

“Probably like a somber mood,” Watkins deadpanned.

“No, a lot of energy,” he continued, after the laughter in the room faded. “We just had fun down in the clubhouse before we came up, so it was a lot of fun. Get the guys moving around a little bit. Everybody danced a little. I think we like to bring a lot of energy and like to have fun. Play the game the right way.”

His coaches, Brian Dinkelman and J.P. Martinez, claimed Tommy won the dance contest and Tommy claimed the two coaches had been the winners. Later, pitcher Sean Poppen would claim that he’d been the true winner.

Whether or not there was an actual winner of that contest, there was no question that Watkins, his coaches and his players all are looking forward to having a fun season – and winning some baseball games along the way.

“I’m excited about all of these guys,” Watkins said of the players making up the first roster of his minor league managing career.

“They were fun to watch in spring training. Good group of guys, they all got along well. Up and down the lineup I think you’ll see a lot of energy, you’ll see a lot of guys play the game hard. I think they’ll be fun to watch this year. Same thing from the pitching side. We’ve got guys who can throw it over. We’ve got guys that throw hard, got some off-speed stuff. From both sides of the ball, these guys will be fun to watch.”

Hitting coach Brian Dinkelman, Manager Tommy Watkins and Pitching coach JP Martinez (photo: SD Buhr)

While last year’s opening day roster was composed largely of returning players from the 2015 Kernels roster, only eight of this year’s group wore a Cedar Rapids jersey at some point last year. Most of the group, including many of the returning players, played together at Elizabethton in the Appalachian League, during a season that did not see the sort of success on the field that E-town fans have come to expect.

Pitching coach J.P. Martinez said he things this group is hungry for success, as a result.

“I think in Cedar Rapids, in particular, we’ve set the bar pretty high,” Martinez said, recounting the success the Kernels have had, including making the playoffs in each of the four seasons since the inception of the affiliation agreement with the Twins.

“I think (these players) are eager to prove that they belong at this level, maybe partly because they didn’t really have the success they wanted last year, but they’re a really, really talented group. A really close-knit group and so we’re hoping that we can kind of steer them in the right direction. They are the future of the franchise.”

Brian Dinkelman, the hitting coach, also thinks there’s a lot of potential in this group of Kernels.

“Yeah, we’ve got some guys that can definitely swing the bat,” he said of the hitters he’ll be working with. “We’ve got a lot of young guys. We’ve got (Lewin) Diaz and (Jermaine) Palacios and (Ben) Rortvedt – guys that are still in their teens. But we’ve got some guys who can swing the bat and do some damage, so looking forward to the season. A lot of guys to work with. Hope we can develop them and move on to the next level.

Ben Rortvedt, Sean Poppen and Travis Blankenhorn (photo: SD Buhr)

One of the guys the hitting coach mentioned, Rortvedt, is among the players who will be getting their first taste of full-season professional experience this season in Cedar Rapids.

“Wonderful. A bit of an upgrade with the stadium from Elizabethton and the Florida GCL,” the Wisconsin native responded, when asked for his initial impressions.”I played here growing up a couple of times and it was fantastic. I mean, it wasn’t full bleachers, but I’ve seen pictures of you guys filling up the stadium, so I’m really excited.

“I played with a bunch of the guys last year and we’ve bonded pretty well, so it’s going to be a fun season.”

There’s that word, “fun” again, along with another common theme of the day, team chemistry.

Pitcher Sean Poppen and infielder/DH Travis Blankenhorn expressed similar expectations.

“(Tommy) is great. I think he’s really going to develop team chemistry and that’s pretty important,” Poppen said, of his manager.

“We had Tommy in instructs (fall instructional league) and spring training,” Blankenhorn added. “He just keeps the game fun. It’s fun to play for him. He keeps it fun for all of us. It makes baseball a lot better when you’re having fun.”

“Absolutely,” Rortvedt agreed. “I didn’t know Tommy going into instructs and he came in already cracking jokes at me, so he’s definitely going to keep us loose in the dugout.”

Fun and chemistry are important, but Poppen doesn’t think that’s all Watkins brings to his team.

“He’s a good coach. I’ve had some experiences with him that were very helpful and I feel like he’s going to help me – and help the team – get better.”

“I think we have a good team this year,” Blankenhorn concluded. “I think we have a bunch of pitchers that are going to throw strikes and go out there and put some zeros on the board. I think we have some good sticks in our lineup that are going to put the ball in play and puts some runs up and hopefully we can win some games.”

Having fun and winning games. Sounds like a pretty good combination.

Kernels Hot Stove/Twins Caravan Reception

The Minnesota Twins once again included Cedar Rapids, the home of their Class A affiliate Kernels, in their Twins Winter Caravan tour and last night’s event was entertaining and about as enjoyable as any such event put on by a 100+ loss big league organization could be.

Kris Atteberry emcees the panel of Trevor May, Byron Buxton, Tommy Watkins, Thad Levine and Brian Dinkelman

The venue was one of several new aspects of this year’s Kernels Hot Stove event, the primary fundraiser for the organization’s charitable foundation.

Rather than using a large hotel ballroom to hold a sit-down dinner, the Kernels hosted a reception at the New Bo City Market, a showplace for a variety of local food merchants. All food, beer and wine available at the event was provided by New Bo vendors, giving the event a distinctively local flavor.

Broadcaster Kris Atteberry did a terrific job as the emcee for the Twins Caravan portion of the program, doling out opportunities to address the gathering to five members of the Twins organization gathered on stage. They included a pair of Twins players, pitcher Trevor May and outfielder Byron Buxton, newly announced Kernels manager Tommy Watkins, new Twins General Manager Thad Levine and Brian Dinkelman, who served as the Kernels hitting coach in 2016 and, while no official announcement has been made as yet, is presumed to be serving in that capacity this summer, as well.

In addition to responding to Atteberry’s prepared questions from the podium and answering questions from the crowd, the Caravan participants also were available for media interviews.

Here are a few highlights from one-on-one interviews, as well as the public portion of the program.

Early in January, the Twins and Kernels announced that Watkins, who served as the Kernels hitting coach, under former manager Jake Mauer, from 2013 through 2015 and in the same capacity for Class AA Chattanooga last season, will get his first opportunity as a minor league manager in 2017 when he takes the Kernels’ reins.

Watkins said that he and farm director Brad Steil had discussed the possibility of Watkins getting a managing opportunity for the past couple of years, but no such position had opened up until last year’s Fort Myers Miracle manager Jeff Smith got promoted to a coaching position with the Twins this offseason. Still, Watkins said, “I didn’t know if I would get it or not.”

Trevor May and Tommy Watkins react to Byron Buxton explaining how he “noodled” a catfish

Once the assignment was officially offered, Watkins was very happy to accept. “It was just like the news I got when I was going to the big leagues. I was happy, I was nervous, I was scared, I didn’t want to go. So it was a lot of things. I cried, I laughed, I called my family and told them. It was exciting news.”

Asked by Atteberry to tell the gathering what went into the front office’s decision to offer the job to Watkins, Levine led off with tongue firmly planted in cheek. “I’ve got to be honest with you, I have no idea how this came to pass. This is news to me. I’ll try to adjust on the fly.”

Levine then turned serious – and very complimentary toward the new Kernels manager.

“I think that one thing you guys always hear about is that we’re trying to develop players, there’s a development track. But I think the other thing that we’re trying to develop concurrently is staff members. Guys who have a chance, on the scouting side, to influence decision making and, on the coaching side, a chance to be Major League coaches.

“One of the things that I heard when I first joined the Minnesota Twins was about the man to my right, Tommy, and I think the universal feeling was that he had a chance to be a really good hitting coach, but he had the chance to be special as a manager. So when the opportunity presented itself to give him an opportunity to pursue his career as a manager, I think everybody in the organization really endorsed him because we felt as if that’s where he’s going to be a difference maker.

“We think he’s going to have a chance to be a Major League coach down the road. We think in the short term, he has a chance to really influence our minor league players, and as a manager we think his impact could be even greater than it was as a hitting coach.

“He’s a special man. He’s very charismatic. He knows the game of baseball. He’s still trying to learn every single day. Each time I’ve been around him, I feel as if I’ve gotten to know him a little bit better. This guy’s a very dynamic man. He’s going to be a leader in our organization for a long time to come and he’s just scratching the surface of his potential.”

TC Bear made the trip to Cedar Rapids with the rest of the Twins Caravan crew

Watkins said before the event that he’s looking forward to his return to the Kernels. “It feels good. I had a bunch of different emotions but I’m excited. It feels like I’ve been gone for a lot longer than just a year, but it’s good to be back. I enjoyed my time here and I’m looking forward to it.”

Asked by Atteberry to set the line on how many times Watkins will be ejected by umpires in 2017, Brian Dinkelman didn’t hesitate before saying. “I set it at 3 1/2.”

Buxton said he’s been feeling good since his hot finish to last season in September. “I’ve been hitting since late November, working on a few things and getting some stuff kinked out, but other than that, I feel great.

“I’m just focusing a little bit more on hitting, being a little bit more consistent, using my legs, staying down through the ball, keeping my head down. Just small things to help me out in the long run.”

He said he didn’t think there was any major change in his game that led to his strong finish to the 2016 season.

“Just stop thinking. Just run out there and play baseball. Have fun, going out there and have fun with teammates. We competed, September was different for everybody, not just including me. We went out there with a different mindset to finish the season strong and carry that over into spring training and this season.”

Looking back at his time in Cedar Rapids as a teenager barely out of high school, he said the dream of playing big league ball has turned out to be everything he hoped for, “and more.”

“Not many people are able to make it up there to the bigs, so I’m very blessed and thankful to get up there. Just being able to play beside Trevor when he’s up there pitching, not many people can say you’ve been in a big league uniform and you’ve been behind a pitcher like him that gives it his all and you’re right there giving it your all and trying to compete for a World Series ring.”

For his part, May also indicated he’s feeling good after having  some trouble staying healthy in 2016.

“I’m feeling good,” said May. “I had some patterns I needed to break. In the past, I’ve always thought four months was enough to heal from everything in the offseason. But I’ve come to the realization that breaking down a muscle and building it back up again to where you want it to work just takes time.”

He said even little things such as posture, while standing or sitting, have been items he’s focused on this offseason, with an emphasis on workouts that increase his flexibility, like Pilates and yoga, rather than weight training.

“I was doing a bunch of stuff that was just exacerbating the problem 24 hours a day. Changing all those things has been a lot of work, but I’m excited to just keep doing what I’m doing into the season.

“I threw a bullpen today. If I threw a bullpen when my back was tight back there, I would definitely feel some stiffness right now after I threw and I don’t feel stiff at all, so I’m just taking that as a really good sign.”

May wasn’t just trying new things in regard to his offseason workout regimen. While he did some DJing again this year, as he has in the past, he also expanded his horizons.

“I actually have a new hobby,” he explained. “I broadcast video games, which has been really fun. It’s like having your own radio show in which you talk and play video games. I really enjoy it. I’m going to try to do it once a month on an offday during the season. I’m going to host tournaments of games I play for viewers.”

Asked to evaluate the state of the Twins’ farm system, now that many of their previous top prospects have broken into the big leagues, new GM Levine said that the Twins front office doesn’t necessarily look at the organization strictly in terms of players that have exhausted their eligibility for Rookie of the Year awards and those that have not.

“I think we look at the farm system as an extension to the Major Leagues, so any guy in the Major Leagues who has two or fewer years of service is part of that next wave, that core,” he said. “So I think when you include those players with your minor league players, you can really see the waves of players coming.

“There’s a wave in the big leagues right now, there’s a wave right behind them, there’s a wave that will be playing at Cedar Rapids this year. I think we’re excited about the depth throughout our system, inclusive of the Major Leagues and I think if you include that young group in the Major Leagues all the way down, you could see that the future is very bright.

“For a team that has the payroll that we will have, you’re looking at having as many young players who can impact the game as possible and I think you’ve got to look at the guys who have matriculated to the big leagues when you’re factoring that.”

The subject of the relatively public flirtation with trading second baseman Brian Dozier came up both in the interview setting and during the public Question & Answer session.

Levine indicated that, while it certainly appears that Dozier will be opening the season with the Twins, he wouldn’t say the door was completely closed on the possibility of moving Dozier, or any other player for that matter.

“I don’t know that we would talk specifically about any one trade negotiation, but I think the way Derek (Falvey) and I are going to operate is that we’re not closing doors at any juncture. At that point, you are not doing your job to the fullest. Any time you close off opportunities to improve the team, I think you’re doing the franchise a disservice.”

Buxton and May did the autograph thing after the Twins Caravan program

During the public session, Levine was asked specifically what he expected Dozier’s future was with the Twins.

“I think we think his future is going to be glorious with the franchise,” he responded. “He’s been the consummate professional throughout this process. We always approached this from the mindset of, the best the Minnesota Twins could be would be with Brian Dozier. If someone wants to blow our socks off, we’ll consider talking about him. But for that fact, we see him as part of this franchise moving forward.”

Atteberry asked Levine to address the “stats vs scouting” issue that comes up in almost any conversation about thenew front office management. Again, the new GM mixed humor into his more thoughtful response.

“When the movie Moneyball came out, everybody who was below a certain age – at that time, I would say 35, now I would say 45, just conveniently (Levine celebrated his 45th birthday in November) – you were viewed to be more of a formulaic-based decision making group vs if you were older, you were more of a scouts guy. And I think it’s a bit of a misconception.

“Derek and I are both guys who are going to have analytics and scouting and player development factor into every decision that we make. We’re not going to focus singularly on any sort of formula to spit out a decision we’re going to make.

“The other big misconception I think about that movie is that anybody working in a front office looks at all like Brad Pitt. We really don’t. Honestly.

“So the movie did some disservices across the board, but I do think analytics plays a role in decision making, but that’s all it is. It’s a piece of the pie. It’s not something that is going to drive us to make any singular decision. It will be something we weigh in, we factor in, but it’s not going to drive our decision making.”

Also during the public session, Atteberry challenged Levine to demonstrate how much he knew about the two players he was sharing a stage with. Atteberry presented a few bits of trivia and asked Levine to guess which player, May or Buxton, the fact pertained to.

The questions were: Which player DJ’d at his own wedding? Which one of them has the highest vertical jump and is the fastest runner in his family (and which is not)? Which has successfully noodled a catfish? And which one has a mother that kept a mountain lion as a pet for four years?

The answers: May (obviously), Buxton is NOT the fastest runner or best jumper in his family (he said his dad jumps higher, his brother is faster and he has a 13-year old sister that may eventually pass them all), but Buxton did noodle a catfish. It was May’s mother who kept a mountain lion as a pet.

And Levine nailed every answer correctly.

Two members of the “Knuckleballs” table took home door prizes. A May & Buxton signed jersey and a Twins stocking cap

The final question from the audience asked Watkins and Buxton to relate the funniest thing that happened to them during their time with the Kernels.

Suffice to say that you won’t find Buxton playing baseball with ping pong balls in the clubhouse again any time soon and Watkins’ days of shaving his head are over.

Talk to Contact – Episode 58: Brandon Warne and Infield Free Agents

Episode 58 of the Twins baseball podcast, Talk To Contact (@TalkToContact), is now available for download via iTunes or by clicking here.

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Cody is back with Paul and Eric this week to talk Twins baseball. The off-season is in full swing with qualifying offers out to free agents, the world series parade over and the 2013 no longer visible in the rear-view mirror. We discuss which, if any, infield free agents make sense for the Twins before  we are joined by special guest, ESPN 1500 Minnesota Twins beat writer Brandon Warne (@Brandon_Warne) to discuss what he thinks the Twins need to do this off-season, what it means to write under the ESPN banner and his experiences following the team this past season. This week we take a look at Twins minor league prospect and 2nd round 2013 draft pick Ryan Eades.

Thanks for listening!

You can follow Cody on Twitter (@NoDakTwinsFan) or read his writing at NoDakTwinsFan, and you can find Paul on Twitter (@BaseballPirate) and read his writing at PuckettsPond.com!

If you enjoy our podcast, please take a couple extra minutes and rate and review us on iTunes. Ratings and reviews have magical iTunes powers, which helps Terry Ryan sign top tier pitching talent in Free Agency.

-ERolf

Spring Training: Photos of the Twins Busting the Bucs

There are plenty of accounts elsewhere about the Twins’ win over the Pirates in Bradenton Thursday, so I’m not about to give yet another one. Suffice to say the Twins looked really good for the first five innings and then coasted to an 11-6 win.

At least Chris Parmelee isn't chewing tobacco at 1B

I was in the first row down the right field line for this game, in a position where I was glad every throw from third base to first baseman Chris Parmelee was on target, because anything that would have gotten by him would have been dangerously close to my nose. But neither overthrow nor line drive foul ball threatened my health and well being today.

Few of the Twins regulars made the trip up to Bradenton. We probably might as well start thinking of Parmelee as a regular, of course. In addition, Danny Valencia DH’d, Luke Hughes manned 3B and Ben Revere patroled CF. Otherwise, this was largely a team bound for Rochester or New Britain and looking to leave an impression on manager Ron Gardenhire and the other coaches. Some of them, most notably a couple guys named Brian, did just that.

Brian Dozier looked good at SS, but he impressed more with his HR

Dinkelman and Dozier both homered for the Twins, backing up Matt Maloney, who looked plenty good again while getting stretched out to three innings after largely pitching an inning at a time so far this spring.

Ben Revere showed his speed, of course, and prospect Angel Morales, who was called up for a spot start in RF, not only showed off his speed but also the cannon attached to his right shoulder.

Former Twin Garrett Jones signed some autographs before the game

All in all, just a very enjoyable day at the ballpark watching some young players show their stuff.

Friday, I’m going to catch a few innings of the Orioles vs Tigers game in Sarasota before heading south to Ft. Myers.

– JC

 

If Twins prospect Angel Morales felt like he was being observed by more than just his manager, maybe he had good reason to feel that way

 

Reinforcements: Hendriks, Dinkelman, Waldrop

Media reports have Liam Hendriks joining the Twins in time to start Tuesday’s game and he’ll be joined on his trip to the “Show” by Brian Dinkelman and Kyle Waldrop.

Liam Hendriks

The interesting thing is that apparently none of the three players are currently on the Twins’ 40-man roster. There is one opening on that roster currently, so that means a couple of guys are going to have go.

There are a couple of players I certainly wouldn’t shed tears over if they were sent packing for good, but waiving players is only one way to clear room for the new arrivals. Players placed on the 60-day Disabled List are exempted from the 40-man roster.

Denard Span has returned to Minnesota from his home in Florida and is reportedly working out at Target Field. All the same, given the state of the Twins’ season (in the crapper), it might make sense to just shut Denard down for the season and tell him to focus on coming back ready to go in Spring Training 2012. That would open up one spot on the roster for one of the new arrivals.

As for the other… how about this for an idea. Given that Joe Mauer missed several weeks with “general soreness”, can’t we pretty much assume he’ll miss at least the remaining three weeks of the season with his current bout with “general congestion”, too? If so, let’s just throw him on the 60day DL, too and send him home to Ft. Myers. Maybe by Spring Training, he’ll be over his cold (and hopefully will have found his manhood, as well).

While we’re at it, why not just shut Justin Morneau down, too? Is there really any point in having him continue to try to fight his way back on to the field this month?

Brian Dinkelman

Seriously… there is simply no reason to have any of these guys on the field at this point. The next three weeks are about seeing the young players and letting guys like Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel try to finish out their seasons strong enough to make them Type A free agents so the Twins can get an extra draft pick if they decide to play elsewhere next year.

In any event, congratulations to Liam, Brian and Kyle… make the most of your opportunities, gentlemen!

– JC