Five Kernels at the MWL All-Star Game

The Midwest League’s Eastern Division All-Stars took two hours and forty-four minutes to top their Western Division counterparts 5-0 in Peoria Tuesday night, but any Cedar Rapids fans who made the trip hoping to watch the Kernels’ representatives had to be careful with the timing of any trips to the concession stand.

Pitchers Felix Jorge, Jared Wilson, Trevor Hildenberg and Cam Booser spent less than a combined 15 minutes on the mound while throwing a total of two and one-third innings for the West.

Jorge needed just ten pitches to retire all three hitters he faced in a perfect 3rd inning, striking out one.

Wilson started the 8th inning and was just as efficient, using just seven pitches to get through his assigned two outs, including a strikeout.

Kernels MWL All-Stars Jared Wilson, Cam Booser, Trevor Hildenberger, Trey Vavra and Felix Jorge (Photo: SD Buhr)

Kernels MWL All-Stars Jared Wilson, Cam Booser, Trevor Hildenberger, Trey Vavra and Felix Jorge (Photo: SD Buhr)

Hildenberger relieved Wilson and used just four pitches to finish the inning with a strikeout of his own.

Booser was assigned the first out of the 9th inning, entering with the West trailing 2-0. He walked one and gave up a pair of hits before getting an out on a bouncer back to him on the mound.

The four Kernels pitchers threw just 34 pitches between them, but All-Star games aren’t all about playing time.

Hildenberg and Jorge agreed afterward that the experience was well worth the trip.

“It was fun,” Hildenberger said, between bites of his postgame meal. “Getting to meet players you play against, talking to them about how their seasons are going. And to pitch in an All-Star game is an honor.”

Jorge, who’s role as a starting pitcher with the Kernels, calls for him to prepare to throw six or seven innings at a time, said he didn’t change his approach for the rare one-inning relief appearance.

“I was just trying to do the same,” he said.

West hitters managed just three hits off Eastern Division pitching on the night and perhaps could have used the bat of injured Kernels first baseman Trey Vavra, who made the trip to Peoria after being elected to start the game before going on the Kernels’ Disabled List with an ankle injury.

Kernels All-Stars work the pregame autograph ropeline at the 2015 MWL All-Star Game L-R: Jorge, Booser, Hildenberger, Wilson, Vavra. (Photo: SD Buhr)

Kernels All-Stars work the pregame autograph ropeline at the 2015 MWL All-Star Game L-R: Jorge, Booser, Hildenberger, Wilson, Vavra. (Photo: SD Buhr)

Vavra was happy to get the opportunity to participate in the All-Star festivities, but there was no chance he’d be able to play in the game.

“I’m glad that the Twins gave me the opportunity to come here and hang out with everybody,” Vavra said before the game. “It’s great that they allowed me to do that.

“My rehab’s come a long ways. I’m not going to be able to play in the game tonight. It’s unfortunate, but it’s kind of how it worked out.”

Despite the progress with his rehabilitation, Vavra isn’t sure yet when he’ll be back in the Kernels’ lineup. He’s also not certain whether he’ll complete his rehab in Cedar Rapids or whether he’ll make a trip to the Twins’ facility in Fort Myers.

“It’s kind of up to (the Twins) at this point. We’ve been doing some rehab for a long time. I’m progressing. I wouldn’t anticipate anything in the next week, but maybe the week after that.

“I might go down there (to Fort Myers). I’ve heard both. Going down there to get some extended batting practice, but I’ve also heard that I’m staying up here and doing all that stuff up here, so I’ll just keep my head down and keep working.”

With the All-Star break now in the rear-view mirror, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Twins didn’t make some roster adjustments and that could include promoting any of the four pitchers the Kernels sent to Peoria for the All-Star Game.

Vavra, as well, played well enough while he was healthy to warrant consideration for a promotion, but it’s likely the organization would want to see him get more time in with the Kernels when he’s ready to resume his season.

Hildenberger, however, indicated that they haven’t heard anything yet from the Twins about any possible promotions.

On Wednesday, the Twins and Kernels announced that pitcher Brandon Bixler has been activated from the Disabled List and lefty starting pitcher Luke Westphal has joined the Kernels’ active roster from Fort Myers. Bixler made 41 appearances for the Kernels in 2014, notching a 2.68 ERA out of the Cedar Rapids bullpen. Westphal has put up a 3.82 ERA in five starts and 11 relief appearances for the Miracle this season.

The Kernels will begin the second half of the season on Thursday night against Quad Cities. The River Bandits were the champions of the league’s Western Division in the first half of the season.

P.S. This is where you watch the game from when you’re late with your request for media credentials for the MWL All-Star Game. On the other hand, the weather was terrific and I would have missed this ballpark sunset if I’d been in the pressbox!

PeoriaDozerPark

 

Kernels Pitching is Hot Out of the Gate

It may not be what casual baseball fans want to see, but in most cases and at most levels of professional baseball, the teams with the best pitching win the most games. Sometimes, it really is that simple.

(L-R) Zack Larson, Stephen Gonsalves, Zach Granite and CK Irby sign autographs on the field after a Kernels game on April 26

(L-R) Zack Larson, Stephen Gonsalves, Zach Granite and CK Irby sign autographs on the field after a Kernels game on April 26

It arguably has been exactly that simple for the Cedar Rapids Kernels over the course of the first three weeks of their season.

The Kernels are 11-7 on the year and sitting in a second place tie behind the Quad Cities River Bandits in the Midwest League’s Western Division standings. They open their first series with the Bandits on Tuesday in Davenport.

Cedar Rapids’ offense has been, at best, a bit streaky. They sit at or near the middle of the MWL pack in most hitting categories, though they have managed to score the fourth-most runs in the league.

But, through the weekend’s games, Kernels pitchers lead the MWL in team ERA (2.27), strikeouts (187) and WHIP (1.09).

When you see team numbers like those, obviously it’s not just one or two guys carrying the load.

The Kernels are consistently getting quality work out of their starting rotation and their bullpen has been locking things down in the late innings.

Manager Jake Mauer and pitching coach Henry Bonilla have primarily used six pitchers in their rotation, so far. Stephen Gonsalves, Mat Batts, Felix Jorge, Michael Cederoth, John Curtiss and Jared Wilson have accounted for all but two of Cedar Rapids’ starts this year.

Zack Tillery has one spot start and Twins pitcher Ricky Nolasco started Sunday’s game on a rehabilitation assignment.

Michael Theofanopoulos

Michael Theofanopoulos

Gonsalves, Batts and Jorge each have ERAs at 1.50 or better, with Gonsalves leading the team at 0.90.

The success of Gonsalves and Batts is impressive, but not entirely unexpected. The two pitchers combined to make 13 starts for the Kernels last season and both were being counted on from the season’s onset to make strong contributions again in 2015.

Jorge’s success was far from a sure thing, however, at least in the minds of fans who only saw his work on the mound for Cedar Rapids early last year. In 2014, he put up a 2-5 record in 12 appearances (including eight starts) and amassed a 9.00 ERA before being sent back to Extended Spring Training by the Twins.

Jorge turned his year around with a solid season at rookie-level Elizabethton, but nobody was quite certain what to expect from the 21-year-old righthander during his second shot in the Midwest League.

“This was the Jorge we thought we were getting last year,” Mauer said recently. “It’s a lot of things. Here it was freezing cold, he probably didn’t get comfortable right away.

“He’s got a different look to him (this year). He’s way more confident. He’s worked really hard with Henry as far as his timing, when his hands break. he seems to be way more in rhythm than he was last year. If you can be way more in rhythm, you’re going to throw a lot more strikes.”

Bonilla, who was also Jorge’s pitching coach in Elizabethton last year, is happy to see the improved version of the pitcher this season.

“It’s good to see him get some good games under him early, especially with the cold,” Bonilla said over the weekend, of Jorge. “I think the cold kind of had him a little bit last year. But he’s kind of taken responsibility for that and he’s gone forward.

“Ultimately, at the end of the year, you can hopefully start seeing his (velocity) get back to where it was when he was a young kid and his delivery get down in the zone a little bit. His breaking balls are coming along pretty good.”

Bonilla thinks Jorge was primarily throwing an 88-89 mph fastball a year ago, which is not what the Twins were expecting when they gave the then-17-year-old Domincan a $250,000 signing bonus in early 2011.

“That’s not really what he is. I think he’s kind of getting back to it. We’re doing some stuff mechanically. Hopefully, by the end of the season, we’re talking more plan and location, instead of delivery, with him.”

Of course, the downside for Kernels fans to having pitchers get off to hot starts is that the fans may not get many more opportunities to watch those players in Cedar Rapids. They are all just a phone call away from a promotion to the class high-A Fort Myers Miracle.

Batts, at 23 years old, might be a guy the Twins want to push up a level as soon as he appears ready and, between the end of last season and his start to the current campaign, the Twins could be getting close to wanting to see what he can do against more mature hitters.

It may be likely that the parent club would want to see Jorge demonstrate more extended success in the Midwest League, given his false start at this level a year ago.

Gonsalves doesn’t turn 21 until July, but his manager feels the Twins’ fourth round pick in 2013 has already shown just about enough to move up a level.

“He’s getting close,” Mauer said recently, when asked if he thought Gonsalves might be ready for a promotion. “I’d like to see a little more shape on his breaking ball, but he’s dominated the teams that he’s thrown against. If he gets a breaking ball, he’s going to be really dangerous. Really, really dangerous.”

Gonsalves’ velocity on his fastball has ticked upward this season but his manager doesn’t think he’s topped out yet.

“I think it’s going to even get better. As he keeps maturing, I think he’s going to be a 94-95 (mph) guy. I really do. When he gets his ‘man-muscles,’ as they say. I think he’s really going to bring it.

“He’s thrown some better this year. Some breaking balls have had some shape, compared to last year. He gets bigger and stronger, that ball will have even more shape. He’s got a good change up. But I think he’s going to run it up there pretty good.”

The bullpen could be ripe for plucking by the Miracle, as well, if the need arises.

It’s a bullpen that even their manager had expressed some nervousness about at the onset of the season.

“We didn’t know who was going to step up,” Mauer recalled over the weekend, ”and they’ve been outstanding. Really, really good.”

The nine pitchers who have made relief appearances for the Kernels have put up a combined 1.92 ERA out of the pen.

Relievers Cameron Booser (1.13), Trevor Hildenberger (1.00) and Michael Theofanopoulos (1.74) are each sporting sub-2.00 ERAs for the Kernels.

Zack Tillery

Zack Tillery

This crew has brought some heat in April.

The only full-time reliever who hasn’t averaged a strikeout per inning is newcomer Miles Nordgren, who has made just two appearances since joining the Kernels as the replacement for Curtiss, who went on the disabled list with a concussion. And, while Nordgren hasn’t been a strikeout machine in those two appearances, he also hasn’t given up a run.

In that regard, he joins Tillery and Wilson, neither of which have surrendered an earned run in their relief appearances.

Bonilla is glad to see his staff get off to a good start, before the hitters start to catch up to them.

“They’re taking advantage of the cold and that’s a good thing,” the pitching coach explained, “because once it gets warm, the bats get hot, too. Those guys want to swing the lumber. It’s good numbers-wise. It’s a confidence boost a little bit.”

But Bonilla believes the hot start for his pitching corps is important for reasons that go beyond the obvious results on the field. He believes that early success also aids individual development.

“There’s some things each guy is working on – his own individual plan and the goals we have for him,” he explained. “It’s good to get off to a fast start because it builds confidence in the season and they’re more open to do things that maybe they werent – that they’re reluctant to do when they’re struggling.

“When you’re struggling, you want to get back to what you’re comfortable with. So we can maybe add a few things like maybe sink the ball a little bit more to certain guys – working on breaking balls. They’re a lot more open, when you’re having success, to do things. When you’re struggling, you’re just grinding away.”

If the Kernels can keep most of this pitching staff intact and the bats in the lineup can heat up as the weather warms up, Cedar Rapids could be a serious Midwest League contender in 2015.

– JC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Byron Buxton

Byron Buxton

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

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

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

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

Travis Harrison and Niko Goodrum

Travis Harrison and Niko Goodrum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– JC