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.

 

Getting to Know the Kernels’ Bryan Haar

The Cedar Rapids Kernels sported a 9-7 record as they departed for Peoria Monday for the first of seven road games before returning to Veterans Memorial Stadium on Monday, April 28. They enter the week just two games behind Kane County in the Midwest League’s Western Division standings.

One reason for the success they’ve had thus far has been a power surge in the heart of their batting order.

The Kernels lead the MWL in slugging percentage entering this week’s games largely due to power generated by catcher Mitch Garver and infielder Bryan Haar. Garver leads the league in home runs, with five, and Haar is right on his heals with four round-trippers.

Over the weekend, Haar shared his perspectives on the start to the season that he and his team mates have had, as well as some thoughts about his own experiences moving from college ball, through two levels of Rookie level professional baseball and on to his first month with the Class A level Kernels.

Though Garver and Haar have provided much of the power early on for Cedar Rapids, Haar insists that their offensive success has been a team effort.

“When our team got hot and went on a little winning streak, I think we were all hitting pretty well so that helps,” said Haar. “Hitting is contagious. So I think we all contributed to the good start.”

While the Kernels have kept their record above .500, they haven’t exactly had it easy thus far.

Bryan Haar

Bryan Haar

Haar and many of his team mates have spent their lives playing ball in far warmer climates. Several of the Kernels’ games have been played with temperatures in the 30s and 40s, so they were glad to see things warm up a bit over the past weekend.

“Anything above 50 right now is good for us,” Haar said with a smile on Saturday. “If it’s not 35 and raining, we’re happy.”

You won’t yet find Haar’s name on many of the organizational “top prospect” lists published during the offseason, but the 24 year-old from San Diego is showing power that’s been largely missing to this point in his professional career.

Haar was drafted by the Twins in the 34th round of the 2012 MLB June Amateur Draft, following his senior year at the University of San Diego.

He hit only one home run in 44 games with the Gulf Coast League Twins in 2012 after signing with the Twins and went deep just six times in 60 games with the Twins’ short-season Appalachian League affiliate in Elizabethton last season.

Haar said it took some time for him to adjust from college pitchers, who generally threw a mix of pitches, to lower levels of professional ball, where he faced a lot of strong young arms who were looking to impress.

“In GCL that first summer, it was just fastballs all day,” recalled Haar. “I actually struggled a little bit because I forgot how to hit a fastball. It was new to me. They were blowing it by me.”

He had to continue working on being able to catch up with the heat a year ago in Elizabethton.

“In E’town, it was rookie ball, so there were a lot of 18 year old pitchers out of high school that maybe thought they threw 95 and really threw 91-92, trying to throw fastballs by me. I got more fastballs then. Jeff Reed (hitting coach at Elizabethton) is a great hitting coach, so he helped me out a lot.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean the pitching he faced in college was superior to what he saw his first two years in the pros, though.

“I’d say not better, but more command of their sliders,” Haar explained. “In E’town it was sliders in the dirt, sliders in the dirt. They never flipped one over for a strike. In college, it was slider for a strike, slider for a strike, now you’re down 0-2. But now (in the MWL), it’s more college guys so I’ve got to readjust to college pitching, I guess.”

Bryan Haar

Bryan Haar

Haar knows he’s largely been feasting on fastballs this season and said he already sees pitchers making adjustments.

“The first game of a series, usually I get some fastballs to hit. If I hit them well, then the next two or three games I get sliders and change-ups and curveballs. Just making that adjustment has been a little harder than I would have thought, but I’ve got to hit the fastball when I get it.”

Kernels hitting coach Tommy Watkins has been working with Haar to keep a step ahead of the adjustments the pitchers are making.

“They’re throwing me off-speed a lot, so I’ve got to start adjusting my swing a little bit towards that,” Haar said. “Tommy and I have been working on that the past couple of days. Not really trying to strike out less, but just put more balls in play hard.

“I’ve hit two home runs off sliders, but I think they were the only hits I’ve had off sliders. We were working on that (Saturday), just kind of letting the ball get a little deeper, seeing it deeper.”

At 24, Haar is a bit older than the average MWL position player, but he’s not feeling any extra anxiety about trying to advance quicker up the Twins organizational ladder because of that.

“I don’t really worry about that. I’m just having a good time in Low-A with my friends,” he said. ”I got drafted in 2012 and pretty much all the guys here were drafted in the 2012 draft, so it’s nice to move up with them, in a sense. I’m just letting my play speak for itself and doing what I can here.”

That includes being versatile in the field. Haar has played both corner infield positions for the Kernels already and that’s fine with him. Haar said he’d play anywhere, “as long as I’m in the lineup.”

Haar played some football and basketball in high school and said his interests include, “pretty much every sport with a ball.” But as a Southern Californian, his interests outside of baseball go beyond what local fans might consider the norm.

“I’m from San Diego, so I surf whenever I can. Usually in September I take some time off from baseball and I go surf. But when I get back in to workouts, I don’t have much time for that.”

There’s obviously neither time nor opportunity for surfing during the season, so Haar is looking for other things to do with his limited down time.

“I do enjoy fishing, so since we’re in Iowa, I’d like to get out and fish a little bit, but it’s tough. Getting back from a long road trip, you want to sleep in, and then you’re at the field.”

Of course, there’s always the standard fallback option for ballplayers: video games.

Haar and team mates Garver and Zach Larson, who live in close proximity to one another this season, “have a little FIFA battle on the X-Box. We’re on that quite a bit.”

Prospects and Projects – Projecting the 2013 Kernels, Part 2

In preparation for the first season of the new affiliation between the Twins and my hometown Cedar Rapids Kernels, I’ve embarked on a series of “get to know them” posts. The intention is to give my fellow Kernels fans a little bit of information about the Twins prospects we may be seeing in Kernels uniforms over the course of the summer, understanding full well that it’s impossible to know exactly who will fill the Kernels’ roster  several months before Opening Day.

(Image: Kernels.com)

(Image: Kernels.com)

In Part 1 of the series, I looked at the catchers that are likely to spend time in Cedar Rapids, as well as a few that could find their way here if things fall their way. In this post, we’ll look at corner infielders.

A year ago, the Twins’ Class A team in Beloit had a couple of their biggest power-hitting prospects covering the corner infield positions in Miguel Sano and Kennys Vargas. The Kernels won’t have the organization’s top prospect playing third base for them in 2012, as Beloit did, but there are certainly some similarities between the Snappers’ corner infielders and those that are likely to be manning those positions in Cedar Rapids this summer.

Rory Rhodes – Age 21 – Bats R/Throws R

2012: Beloit (Class A – MWL) and Elizabethton (Rookie – Appy)

G PA BA OPS K BB 2B 3B HR
70 291 .236 .697 75 27 11 2 8

Rory Rhodes

 

As Twins fans well know, and as Kernels fans are likely to discover, the Twins have historically had quite a pipeline of players coming up through their system out of Australia. Rory Rhodes is yet another member of the fraternity from “down under.”

While still just 21 years old entering the season, 2012 was the fourth year the Brisbane native played in the Twins minor league organization. Rory started the year with Beloit and struggled offensively, hitting less than .200 in his 26 games with the Snappers. (I did personally see him hit a HR in Cedar Rapids against the Kernels that went about as far as I’ve seen one hit to LF in recent years, however.) He fared better once back with E’town, but still struck out more than he and the Twins would like.

Rhodes started his career with the Twins as a third baseman, but was moved across the diamond after a rotator cuff injury a couple of years ago. He did play several games in the outfield in 2012, however. At 6′ 7″ and 200+ pounds, it won’t be hard for Kernels fans to spot the Aussie, wherever he may be positioned on the field.

Travis Harrison – Age 20 – Bats R/Throws R

2012: Elizabethton (Rookie – Appy)

G PA BA OPS K BB 2B 3B HR
60 253 .301 .845 51 24 12 4 5

The Twins used the supplemental first round draft pick they acquired by letting Orlando Hudson walk away as a free agent to draft Harrison with the 50th overall pick of the 2011 amateur draft. He held out until just before the 2011 signing deadline when he signed for just over $1 million, but the late signing meant he didn’t get any games in with any Twins affiliate in 2011.

Travis spent 2012 with Elizabethton, where he put up plenty of offense with 21 extra-base hits, including five home runs. However, Harrison also committed 24 errors at third base in 143 chances covering 59 games at the position. By comparison, Sano committed 42 errors in 361 chances at the position for Beloit. In other words, for the second consecutive season, the Twins will apparently be looking at their Class A affiliate to determine if one of their most promising offensive prospects can learn to play a passable third base. Regardless of his defensive skills, however, Harrison is likely to be the Kernels infielder with the most promise. He appears to be a consensus “top 15″ prospect in the Twins organization among those who publish such ratings and had even been listed among the top 10 Twins prospects prior to the Denard Span and Ben Revere trades that brough a couple of highly regarded starting pitching prospects in to the Twins organization.

D. J. Hicks – Age 22 – Bats L/Throws R

2012: Elizabethton (Rookie – Appy)

G PA BA OPS K BB 2B 3B HR
31 136 .270 .817 37 19 7 0 4

Hicks, who was drafted in the 17th round in 2012 out of the University of Central Florida, signed with the Twins in time to get half a season in with Elizabethton. Hicks split his time between 1B and DH with E’town, but apparently held his own on defense, committing just two errors in his 20 games at first base. He will need to make better contact, however, as he had six more strikeouts (37) than he had hits (31) on the season.

If the Kernels happen to host their traditional “get to know the Kernels” event two days before the April 4 season opener and Hicks is a member of their roster, the event could double as a birthday bash for the big first baseman, who will turn 23 years old on April 2.

It’s challenging to identify other corner infielders in the organization that could find their way to Cedar Rapids in 2013. It seems that, in all likelihood, the three guys listed above will get the lion’s share of innings at 1B, 3B and DH, with the odd outfielder or middle infielder taking a turn at 1B or 3B when manager Jake Mauer needs someone to fill in at one of the corners.

However, injuries and promotions often mean players get opportunities to move up that they might not otherwise get. With that in mind, let’s at least take a look at some guys that could be called on… and called up… if necessary.

Aderlin Mejia was signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2010 and played his first year of professional baseball in the Dominican Summer League. He’s spent the past two seasons with the GCL Twins (though he did get a a few opportunities to move across the Fort Myers complex and suit up for the high-A Fort Myers Miracle in 2012). Aderlin hit well in 2012, with a .313 batting average and a .767 OPS. Perhaps most encouraging is that he struck out just 15 times in over 200 plate appearances. Mejia should perhaps be considered more likely to fill a middle infielder role, given that he played only 21 games at 3B last year and 27 in the middle infield, but if the Kernels need a 3B due to promotions or injuries, Mejia looks as likely to be a call-up option as anyone.

Bryan Haar and Joel Licon almost look like identical bookends as potential first and third basemen, respectively.

Haar was drafted by the Twins in the 34th round of the 2012 draft out of the University of San Diego. Licon was chosen nine rounds earlier than Haar out of Orance Coast College. Both signed in time to get a fair number of games in with the GCL Twins, where both put up identical .250 batting averages. Both struggled to make contact, with Haar racking up two fewer Ks than he had hits and Licon striking out two more times than he hit safely.

Haar is strictly a first baseman and is already 23 years old, while Licon turned 22 in December and moved around a bit, playing 10 games in the outfield, 12 games in the middle infield and 22 games at 3B (in addition to 7 games at DH). While both are almost certainly going to be held back in extended spring training and start their years with one of the short-season rookie league teams, it’s possible either could be called on in Cedar Rapids if injuries and/or promotions leave the Kernels in need of a corner infielder later in the year.

Finally, one of the more intriguing young (emphasis on young) corner infield prospects in the Twins organization is Javier Pimentel. Pimentel was signed, for over half a million dollars in bonus money, as a shortstop out of the Dominican Republic in 2010. After splitting 2011 between the Dominican Summer League and the Twins GCL team, Javier spent all of 2012 in the GCL at age 18, splitting his time mostly at 1B and 3B. His stat line was, to be frank, really bad. He didn’t hit. He didn’t walk. He struck out a lot. But if you assume the scouts who liked him enough to recommend that kind of bonus saw something in him that projects in to a Big League ballplayer, maybe we just need to be patient until he grows in to his frame and figures the game out. Then again, Javier was signed the same week in 2010 that the Twins signed Tsuyoshi Nishioka, so maybe their scouts just had one very bad week that year. It’s all but impossible for Pimentel to see Cedar Rapids this season, but for now, let’s just remember the name.

While the Twins do have a history of drafting college age corner infielders, it’s pretty unlikely that they would send a brand new draftee to Class A the same summer he’s drafted, so we shouldn’t look for much corner infield help from the 2013 draft at least until the 2014 season.

Next: Part 3 – Middle 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).