Kernels in a Dogfight for MWL Postseason Spot

In mid-June, after a brutal first half to their Midwest League season, the Cedar Rapids Kernels limped in to the MWL’s All-Star break with a 31-39 record, not only 14 games behind Western Division leader Kane County, but also 7.5 games behind the Burlington Bees.

The latter is important because, in the world of Class A minor league baseball, seasons are split in to two halves, with the first and second place teams in each division, each half-season, earning berths in the postseason playoff series.

Kane County and Burlington snatched the MWL West spots in the first half, leaving Cedar Rapids, Quad Cities, Clinton, Beloit, Peoria and Wisconsin to slug it out in the second half for two more spots, with each team starting with fresh 0-0 records on June 19.

With Peoria, Wisconsin and Quad Cities all assembling winning records in the first half, it was logical to assume that those three teams would contend for the Western Division’s two second-half playoff spots – and they have been doing just that.

Entering Wednesday, Peoria and Quad Cities were tied for second place in the Division’s second-half standings, trailing Kane County by just one game, and Wisconsin is two games back.

Clinton and Beloit have repeated their first-half fortunes, each at least 11 games under .500 and filling the final two spots in the standings, as they did in the first half.

And then there’s the Cedar Rapids Kernels.

Rather stealthily, manager Jake Mauer’s Kernels have turned around what, as recently as three weeks ago, looked likely to become a lost season.

There weren't a lot of reasons for Kernels manager Jake Mauer and pitching coach Ivan Arteaga to smile in the season's first half, but that's changing.

There weren’t a lot of reasons for Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and manager Jake Mauer to smile in the season’s first half, but that’s changing.

The Kernels lost four of their first five series to begin the second-half schedule and had compiled just a 6-11 second-half record through July 6.

They haven’t lost a series since.

Cedar Rapids has taken six consecutive series, against six different clubs, while putting together a 15-5 record in that time and launching themselves in to a second place tie with Peoria and Quad Cities, just one game behind Division leader Kane County in the MWL’s Western Division standings.

Since the Cougars and the Burlington Bees locked in their postseason spots in the first half, it doesn’t matter where they finish in the second-half standings so, from a practical standpoint, Cedar Rapids was tied entering Wednesday, with Quad Cities and Clinton, for the top available playoff spot, with Wisconsin trailing that group by one game.

The Kernels will face those three rivals 12 times in August and nine of those games will be on Perfect Game Field at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids, where the Kernels have accumulated an 11-5 home record in the season’s second half.

How have the Kernels propelled themselves in to a four-team dogfight for playoff spots entering the final month of the regular season? And can they keep it up?

The answer to the first question is pretty clear when you look at the numbers and there is no way to know the answer to the second.

In the first three series of their current six series winning streak, Cedar Rapids essentially bludgeoned the opposition. In those ten games, they scored 6.7 runs per game. It’s a good thing, too, because their pitching was allowing 4.2 runs per game.

The offense stepped up in those series, but since then, things have taken a pretty dramatic turn.

In the nine games covering the last three series of this stretch, the results have come from pitching. While Kernels hitters were averaging just 3.9 runs per game, themselves, the pitching was giving up only two runs per game.

Michael Quesada

Michael Quesada

Digging deeper, it’s tough to find much in the offensive statistics that indicate a significant turnaround.

About half the club’s current position players hit a bit better in July than they had been hitting and about half had fallen off a notch, perhaps.

Catcher/DH Michael Quesada appears to have found his stroke and is hitting .270 in July, with a pair of home runs, after a dreadful June in which he managed just .150 with no extra-base hits.

Fellow catcher (turned primary right fielder) Alex Swim is hitting .364 in July after posting a .267 mark in June.

Alex Swim

Alex Swim

But a number of their teammates, including Mitch Garver and Chad Christensen, who have been among the team’s offensive leaders all season, have seen some of their numbers fade slightly in July, too, so it’s hard to credit this turnaround strictly to the offense.

Perhaps the most important contribution the offense has made has been its consistency.

Before Tuesday’s game with the Burlington Bees, Mauer emphasized the importance of that consistency.

“Knock on wood, we’ve had a steady core group,” Mauer said. “Obviously, (Jason) Kanzler was (promoted), but we’ve had that set core group for about four weeks.

“Position player wise, we haven’t really changed much. It’s pretty much the same group of guys other than Swim and Wade playing a bigger part. Christensen, Garver, Haar, 3-4-5, have been that way since about May.”

The pitching side of the ledger tells a slightly different story, however.

As the Kernels’ manager observed, “The starting pitching’s been good, bullpen’s been outstanding.”

Indeed.

Of the ten pitchers currently on the Kernels roster who made appearances in June and July for Cedar Rapids, nine dropped his ERA in July, as compared to June.

The tenth, reliever Dallas Gallant, couldn’t cut his. He had a 0.00 ERA in his three June appearances and has exactly the same 0.00 ERA through eight trips to the mound in July.

Fellow bullpen arm Jake Reed also has a perfect 0.00 ERA in his six appearances in July after posting a 4.50 mark in June.

Chris Mazza hasn’t been that perfect in relief. His July ERA is 0.69. It was 2.25 in June.

Jared Wilson has slashed his ERA from 4.60 in June to 1.84 in July.

Hudson Boyd did the same. He had a 10.00 in June and a 1.13 in July. (Boyd, however, was suspended on Tuesday for an unspecified period of time for violating team rules.)

The sharpest drop, however, has to be Nick Burdi, the Twins’ second round draft pick in June of this year. How can you beat a drop from infinity to 2.25?

Burdi made one infamous appearance upon joining the Kernels at the end of June in which he walked all four batters he faced and all four came around to score. In July, he has allowed just a pair of earned runs. He has also struck out 16 batters in his eight July innings, while walking just three.

The rotation arms are getting in to the act, as well.

Aaron Slegers, who leads the Kernels with 113.1 innings pitched this season, struggled in June to a 7.97 ERA in four starts. It sits at 1.96 through six starts in July.

Aaron Slegers

Aaron Slegers

18 year old Lewis Thorpe posted a 6.50 ERA in his four June starts, but he’s cut that to 3.51 in his six starts this month.

Kohl Stewart, Minnesota’s top draft pick in 2013, had an ERA of 2.16 in June. That’s pretty good. In fact, it was better than Stewart posted in April or May. But he’s bettered that in July, posting at 1.32.

Stewart, unfortunately, finds himself on the 7-day Disabled List at the moment, with a sore shoulder.

His replacement in the rotation is Stephen Gonsalves, freshly arrived from the Twins’ Appalachian League affiliate in Elizabethton.

Gonsalves has made just one appearance for the Kernels since arriving, but the lefty threw six shutout innings against Dayton on Sunday.

Chih-Wei Hu, the 20 year old from Taiwan, wasn’t with the Kernels in June, but he’s posted a 1.50 ERA in four July starts for Cedar Rapids.

Chih-Wei Hu

Chih-Wei Hu

Earned Run Average is not the only important pitching statistic. Arguably, it’s not even the most important, especially among relief pitchers.

But when your entire pitching staff is slashing their ERA from one month to the next, that’s a sign that good things are happening for your team.

The Kernels have put themselves in to contention for postseason play, but they’re going to need to overcome some challenges over the final month to earn one of those final MWL playoff spots.

They may need Stewart to come back from his DL stint healthy and effective.

They lost their center fielder, Jason Kanzler, who was contributing with his bat and his glove, to promotion this week. He has been replaced by Max Murphy, who was tearing up the Appy League to the tune of a .371 batting average and nine home runs.

Murphy, however, got off to an inauspicious start, going 0-4 with three strikeouts and a walk in his Kernels debut on Tuesday.

The Twins’ high-A affiliate in Fort Myers is already postseason-bound, having clinched a spot in the first half of their Florida State League season. There’s certainly no assurance the Twins won’t tab more Kernels for promotion to aide the Miracle’s own playoff preparations. In fact, with the way some of the players in Cedar Rapids are performing this month, you can probably count on it.

However, right at this moment, the Kernels are in serious contention for the postseason and that’s not something many fans would have envisioned just three weeks ago.

Few Silver Linings for Kernels

June has not been kind to the Cedar Rapids Kernels.

As a team, they’ve lost a dozen games this month and won just six. The first half of the season mercifully drew to a close a week ago, but the Kernels started off their second half season by dropping three of four road games to the Midwest League’s Western Division champions, the Kane County Cougars.

Silver linings are a little difficult to come by for a team that most people expected to be led by their pitching when the season opened, only to find themselves with the 15th ranked team ERA (4.83) in the 16-team Midwest League.

There are a handful of bright spots as the Kernels begin the race for a postseason spot that would come with finishing as one of the top two teams in the MWL Western Division among the six teams that have not already qualified for postseason play.

The brightest of those bright spots might be catcher Mitch Garver. So far in June, Garver is batting .364, has an on-base percentage of .500 and an OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) of 1.045.

Mitch Garver

Mitch Garver

According to TwinsDaily.com’s Seth Stohs, heading in to this week’s series in Peoria, Garver is among the Twins minor league organizational leaders in batting average (2nd), on-base percentage (1st), slugging percentage (3rd), OPS (2nd) and home runs (tied for 4th with teammate Bryan Haar).

Cedar Rapids native Chad Christensen has also shown he can handle Class A work. He is hitting .323 in June and has a .963 OPS. He’s had eight extra-base hits in the month, including four home runs.

Chad Christensen

Chad Christensen

Christensen’s .299 batting average ties him for fourth among all Twins minor leaguers.

But Garver and Christensen can’t win games by themselves. Most of the rest of the Kernels’ batting order have seen their hitting numbers drop considerably in June.

The Kernels could get some offensive help as some of the hitters that have been idled by injuries begin to return.

That process has begun already as outfielder J.D. Williams was activated from the Disabled List on Tuesday.

Zach Larson, Logan Wade and Jeremias Pineda remain on the club’s DL for now. Larson, in particular, could provide an offensive boost if he can get healthy and return to a level of productivity he demonstrated in April when he hit .307 for the Kernels.

Unless you’re a fan who worships gaudy strikeout numbers for pitchers, there has been nothing to complain about in starting pitcher Kohl Stewart’s performance thus far.

Kohl Stewart

Kohl Stewart

Stewart’s 2.44 ERA on the season would be good enough for fourth best in the league if he had enough innings to qualify (he’s one inning short, which should be more than met in his next scheduled start on Wednesday).

Stewart has continued to lead the rotation with a 1.13 ERA in three June starts, with batters putting up just a .236 batting average against him this month.

To find anything else resembling “bright” among the Cedar Rapids pitching corps, it’s necessary to turn to the bullpen, which has had its own share of ups and downs through the first half of the season.

Todd Van Steensel perhaps represents the best of the “ups” for the bullpen corps recently.

Todd Van Steensel

Todd Van Steensel

Van Steensel has put up a 1.67 ERA since joining the Kernels at the end of April. He has struck out 35 batters in 27 innings of work and opponents are hitting just .179 off the right hander.

Alex Muren has been among the team’s most consistent bullpen arms, assembling a 3.43 ERA on the year and a similar 3.48 ERA so far in June.

This month, hitters are batting just .171 against Muren. He’s thrown 10.1 innings in five June appearances. All four runs surrendered this month came in one forgettable appearance on June 15.

Alex Muren

Alex Muren

Brandon Bixler had two good months in April and May, but has been less consistent in June. He has a 3.13 ERA on the year and hitters have just a .201 batting average against him. He’s struck out 39 batters in 40.1 innings.

Jared Wilson’s year has been similar to Bixler’s. Since joining the Kernels in mid May, Wilson has put up a 2.49 ERA and a .197 BAA (batting average against), while striking out over one batter per inning pitched. He’s been somewhat inconsistent in June, with three outings where he was almost unhittable and three others where he gave up almost an earned run per inning.

The Kernels bullpen could be in for a boost, however.

On Tuesday, the Twins announced that they had signed Nick Burdi, their second round pick in the 2014 draft, and that Burdi will be joining Cedar Rapids on Friday.

Burdi, the closer for a University of Louisville squad that qualified for the College World Series, reportedly throws in the 96-98 mph range and is capable of regularly topping 100 mph with his fastball.

Expectations for the Kernels coming in to the season were modest, but a seventh place finish in the MWL Western Division first-half standings was a disappointment.

Garver and Christensen will need some of their teammates to step up their games and the Kernels rotation will need to start contributing more than three or four innings of solid pitching on a regular basis if the team expects to contend for a postseason berth in the second half of the year.

– JC

Interview with Twins GM Terry Ryan – Part 2

Minnesota Twins General Manager Terry Ryan had surgery for squamous cell carcinoma in February and has undergone radiation treatment as well. In the meantime, Assistant General Manager Rob Antony has filled in as the interim GM for the Twins, though Ryan has been in regular contact with Antony and others in the Twins front office.

During the past Cedar Rapids Kernels homestand, Ryan was in town observing the Twins’ young Class A prospects and sat down Sunday for an interview that covered a range of topics.

In Part 1, we covered his return to work, his view of the current state of the Twins at the big league level and his thoughts concerning the upcoming MLB First Year Player Draft.

Today, Ryan shares some thoughts and observations concerning the Cedar Rapids Kernels, the Twins’ Class A affiliate in the Midwest League.

Like their parent club, the Kernels have hovered near the .500 mark most of the season. That’s been no small achievement given the number of injuries that manager Jake Mauer’s club has sustained. They currently have seven players on the Disabled List and have others who have been on the DL and come back already.

Terry Ryan

Terry Ryan

Ryan acknowledged that it’s a very different club than local fans saw a year ago when top prospects like Byron Buxton, Jorge Polanco, Adam Brett Walker and Travis Harrison were wearing Kernels colors.

“We had a very talented club here last year, you’d like to think we could supply this affiliate with that kind of talent every year, but it’s not going to happen. We’ve got a different looking club this year.

“We’ve got some pitching here. Don’t have the thump. Don’t have the type of line up we had last year, which was a very dangerous line up. We don’t have that type of size. We had monstrous guys here so yeah it’s different.

“But every year is going to be different no matter what you try to do or accomplish at a minor league affiliate. You’re looking for players, you’re trying to develop players. This is a little different lot.

“So you adjust. Jake and Tommy (Watkins, the hitting coach) and Ivan (Arteaga, the pitching coach) are going about their business. It’s a little bigger challenge this year because you don’t have a Buxton here, you don’t have a Walker. You don’t have a Polanco.

“But that comes with the territory. When you’re running a Class A club, you’re going to have different personnel every year. You’ll have a few repeats, but for the most part it’s a different club and a different atmosphere and different results.”

Asked for his observations on specific players, Ryan was reluctant to go in to much detail, given that he had seen just four Kernels games at the time of the interview.

“It’s a little dangerous when you start naming names.

“I haven’t seen Stewart (Kohl Stewart, the Twins first round draft pick a year ago), of course. He’s pitching today. But he’s the most recognizable name on this roster for a lot of reasons. He’s talented and he’s a big draft. I’ll be interested to see how he does today.

“He had a tough outing his last go, I understand, I didn’t see it. He went two or three innings and they had to go get him. I doubt very much that he’s experienced that in his life but this is the ideal spot (to experience that). Alright, let’s see how he handles this. We’ll see if he bounces back today and gets back to his normal self. If he doesn’t then I would be a little concerned. But if he does, which I would expect, it’s just a matter of growth.

For the record, Stewart did indeed bounce back under the watchful eyes of the GM. Stewart threw six innings Sunday, giving up just one earned run, in the Kernels’ win over Burlington.

“He’s an athlete, he’s confident,” continued Ryan. “He’s got the skills that you’re looking for. There’s a reason the guy was picked fourth in the (draft). He was picked up there because he’s got strength, he’s got a body, he’s got mechanics, he’s got stuff, he’s got competitiveness.

“He’s got the kind of mechanics and arm action that would be conducive to pounding strikes, which is good.”

Kernels fans are getting the opportunity to see a native Cedar Rapidian in action with the Kernels this season.

Chad Christensen, the Twins’ 25th round pick a year ago out of the University of Nebraska, played high school ball at Cedar Rapids Washington. He came north with the club out of spring training and is hitting .290 while playing all over the field for the injury-plagued Kernels.

“One of the things that I think we were impressed with when he came out of Nebraska was his ability to have some versatility for a club,” Ryan said of Christensen. “He’s got strength and he’s got speed. He’s got strength in his bat. He can play a number of spots, including centerfield, which is pretty good.

Twins GM Terry Ryan chats with members of the Cedar Rapids grounds crew

Twins GM Terry Ryan chats with members of the Cedar Rapids grounds crew

“When he showed up last year after signing, he made a good impression and then in spring training. He’s got the type of make-up that you want to have him on your club. I’m sure Jake was pleased when he did come here and I think he’s even more pleased with what he sees in the results.

“He’s just been a good player on this team, home town or not. That’s a little bit more pressure for a kid to come in here and play in front of your home town. He’s handled it quite well. In fact, he might be the most consistent guy we’ve had on this club. Not that I’ve been around much, but I read those things, the reports and that stuff.”

Ryan is aware that the Kernels have had more than their fair share of injuries, but doesn’t feel they should be keeping the team from performing well on the field.

“It’s no excuse. We’ve got other players.

“(Jason) Kanzler came in because of an injury to Zack Granite. So here comes Kanzler and he’s been quite good here. There are other people that we can go get and hopefully fill in for an injury.

“Now, we’re starting to get healthy. A bunch of these guys are going to get healthy here soon.

“Getting back on the diamond is important for a 21 year old, because they can’t afford to spend a lot of time on the Disabled List. You just can’t do anything with them. There’s no development time, they’re getting bypassed, stuff like that. They’ll get healthy and we’ll get them back here.

“We’ve got some kids with ability but so far it’s been a slow go for them. I’m not so sure the weather was too conducive to what they were trying to do. The thing is, you’re going to have to learn to do that. We play in Cedar Rapids, we play in New Britain (CT), we play in Rochester (NY) and we play in Minnesota. Minnesota is not too much different than Cedar Rapids.”

About a year ago, Twins top prospect Byron Buxton and others were promoted from the Kernels up to Class high-A Fort Myers shortly after the mid-June Midwest League All-Star break. Ryan’s visit shouldn’t be interpreted as a precursor to similar promotions, however.

“When I come in here, I don’t worry about that stuff. That’s Brad Steil (Twins minor league director) and that would be Jake and the minor league coordinators.

“If someone is dominating, as you know, we’ll move them. I don’t know if we’ve got any of that going on here. I don’t think we’re in that position quite yet.

“Although if somebody starts dominating this league in the next month or so and they put up numbers and you say, ‘what more do they have to do?’ That’s about the time you start saying ‘let’s move him up.’”

Ryan was asked for an update on the condition Buxton, who has missed almost the whole season so far with a wrist injury.

“We had him see a specialist with that wrist about two weeks ago and there was no alarm. He re-aggravated that thing and we’re taking our time. It’s getting better. I read that yesterday in a medical report. He’s still not ready to take the field.

“He’s not going to lose a whole year. Unfortunately, April and May are shot, but he certainly played pretty good in March (during spring training). With him going through Major League camp, it was a good experience. He handled himself pretty well. He handled himself with some class. He understood, he listened, was very coachable.

“We’ll get him back up there. We’ll salvage the year, I don’t think there’s any question that we’ll be able to do some things to get him at-bats.”

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.

 

Kernels Roster Could Include Familiar Faces

The final week of spring training is a big week for the new batch of Kernels getting ready to head north to Cedar Rapids.

On Thursday, four days before the Kernels will break camp in Fort Myers and head north, the roster for the Kernels still included 29 names. That’s four more than the 25 players that will make up the club’s Opening Day roster.

That means at least four of the current group being managed by Jake Mauer on the back fields of the Lee County Sports Complex will be staying behind for Extended Spring Training in Fort Myers.

On top of that, each of the other levels in the Twins organization, from the Major League club through each of the three minor league levels above the Kernels, all also were a few players over their Opening Day limits. As players at higher levels get “sent down,” they can bump other players down to the next lower level, as well.

After Thursday’s game with the Red Sox’ Class A affiliate, I spoke briefly with a pair of potential Kernels who, while similar in age, demonstrate two different perspectives as they prepare to open the 2014 season.

Catcher Michael Quesada was drafted as a 20-year-old by the Twins in the 24th round of the 2010 Amateur Player Draft out of Sierra College in Rocklin, California. He played only three games in 2010 after signing with the Twins and has spent the past three years moving step-by-step up the organizational ladder.

Michael Quesada

Michael Quesada

Quesada spent most of the 2013 season with the Kernels, getting in to 62 games while sharing catching duties with a number of other backstops that passed through the Kernels roster during the year. He didn’t set the world on fire with the bat, but improved his game-calling behind the plate and showed off a strong arm.

A week ago, Quesada was getting an opportunity to work with the Twins’ Class AA group,. But as catchers on the Major League side of the camp were sent down, setting off the natural chain reaction at the minor league levels, Quesada was likewise destined to drop a rung.

However, instead of dropping one rung, to the Class high-A Miracle, Quesada was returned to the same Kernels roster he was part of last season and where it appears he’s likely to open the season alongside other returning players, such as infielder Joel Licon and pitcher Hudson Boyd, among others.

If the drop bothers Quesada, he doesn’t let it show. Rather, he talks of appreciating the opportunity to see how things are done at a higher level in the organization, while looking forward to starting another season with the Kernels.

“Yeah, it was a good experience just to see more mature players, how they handle themselves,” said Quesada. “I’m just coming back (to Cedar Rapids), looking to play as much as possible and get (at-bats). I had a great time in Cedar Rapids last year, so I’m real excited to come back. It’s going to be a good time.”

Despite being less than a year younger than Quesada, infielder/outfielder Chad Christensen has just started his professional career. Christensen was drafted by the Twins in the 25th round of last year’s Amateur Draft and played just 47 games for the Twins’ lowest rookie level team in the Gulf Coast League following the end of his senior season at the University of Nebraska.

Typically, a player like Christensen would be targeted to spend the next couple of months in Extended Spring Training before joining the Twins’ Appalachian League squad in Elizabethton, Tennessee. Then, depending upon performance, he could work his way up to the Kernels later in the summer.

But Christensen, who attended Washington High School in Cedar Rapids, is still a part of the Kernels group just four days before camp breaks and is squarely in the mix for one of the final spots on the Opening Day roster with the Kernels. That would mean spending 2014 playing before friends and family in his hometown.

Kernels manager Jake Mauer has said he’d like to have the flexibility that a player like Christensen brings to the table. Mauer indicated he’d have no qualms about playing Christensen at either corner outfield position, either corner infield position, or even at shortstop on occasion.

Nonetheless, Christensen is well aware that his roster spot with the Kernels is precarious and he’s still got work to do over the final few days of spring training in order to nail down that spot.

“I’m still trying to do what I can to make this team so that’s kind of where I’m at,” Christensen said on Thursday. “(Playing in Cedar Rapids) would be real exciting, I grew up there and everything. It would be a lot of fun to come home.”

Some athletes have been known to struggle with playing at the professional level in their hometown, but Christensen doesn’t believe he’ll feel an extra pressure from playing in Cedar Rapids, if and when that opportunity arises.

“No, I’m not so concerned about that,” he said. “Just trying to keep focused on the field and separate the baseball from the friends and family. I’ll be excited about it.”

A year ago, the Kernels were at or near the top of the Midwest League in almost every offensive category. But the hitters that made up the heart of the batting order a year ago have all moved up at least one level entering the new season and Quesada allowed that this year’s Kernels will take a different approach to win games.

“We’re not really trying to match (the 2013 Kernels hitters),” acknowledged Quesada. “We’re just trying to put more runs up on the board (than the opponent) that day. Maybe it’s two, maybe it’s one. But no, we don’t have the offense of last year, but our pitching is going to win us ballgames.”

The Kernels pitching corps is expected to include a number of the Twins organization’s top young arms during the course of the 2014 season and Quesada is clearly impressed with the pitchers he’s been working with.

“The pitching staff is going to be less experienced, but with way better stuff. They’re going to have live arms, young guys that are learning how to pitch. It’s our job, myself and (fellow catchers) Mitch Garver, Bo Altobelli and (pitching coach) Ivan Arteaga to teach them. They’re definitely good throwers right now, but they have a big opportunity to turn in to some serious pitchers. I’m really excited to work with them.”

Quesada’s work this spring extends beyond the field, as a number of those young pitchers are from Latin America, which can present a communication challenge for a catcher.

“I’m working with Ivan right now to get my Spanish a little better to where I can go out to the mound and talk to them, so they’re comfortable. I’m trying to make their lives as easy as possible because it’s going to be a fun pitching staff to work with.”

Thursday was likely my final look at the Kernels in spring training. I’m planning to go to the Twins/Red Sox game on Friday afternoon and, alas, my flight home from not-so-sunny-but-warmer-than-home Florida is early Saturday morning.

– JC

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