Jake Mauer has Kernels Focused on Postseason

Cedar Rapids Kernels manager Jake Mauer has been in a unique situation for the past couple of months, since his Kernels nailed down a Midwest League postseason berth by finishing second in the MWL’s Western Division during the first half of the season.

Travis Harrison and Manager Jake Mauer

Travis Harrison and Manager Jake Mauer

Only in minor league baseball is a manager occasionally faced with the challenge of keeping his roster focused on winning games even after locking up a spot in the postseason with 70 games remaining on the regular season schedule.

Recently, Mauer talked about that challenge as well as the steps he and his coaching staff are taking to prepare for the Midwest League playoffs that begin for the Kernels on September 4.

“We’re a lot different team than we were at the beginning of the year,” Mauer pointed out. “Obviously, (Byron) Buxton and (Dalton) Hicks and (JD) Williams were a big part and they’ve moved up, along with some of our pitchers, (Steven) Gruver and (Tyler) Jones and (Tyler) Duffey. That’s kind of what happens and how the nature of the beast is.

“But you’re getting a chance to see (Max) Kepler a little more and you’re getting to see (Joel) Licon on an everyday basis. (Jonathan) Murphy’s another guy that came up and has been helping us. (Mike) Gonzales is kind of on the comeback trail a little bit here, but a guy with a little bit of experience. So we’ve been fortunate. When we’ve lost some guys, we’ve been able to get some pretty good guys to replace them.”

If you compare the final standings in the first half of the MWL season with the current standings, you’ll see what can happen as team rosters change over significantly.

The Beloit Snappers slipped past the Kernels in the final few days of the first half to claim first place in the league’s Western Division, but the Snappers now sit several games under .500 in the second half. Yet, the Snappers have fared far better than the Fort Wayne Tincaps, who won the Eastern Division in the first half. The Tincaps have been struggling to escape the cellar of their Division during the season’s second half.

While Mauer’s Kernels have had significant roster turnover, as well (only nine of the Opening Day Kernels remain on the current 25-man roster), Cedar Rapids has managed to continue competing at a high level. They have held or shared first place in the West for all but four days since the All-Star break reset.

Mauer believes much of the reason can be found on the pitcher’s mound.

“Really, our pitching has been the key this second half. The pitching has been way better. Guys are throwing the ball over the plate,” said the manager.

Mauer pointed out that, while his team lost several effective pitchers to promotion, the replacements have stepped right in and done the job.

“Adding a (Madison) Boer and a (Brian) Gilbert to the back end of the pen, that’s two pretty reliable guys. (Alex) Muren has been pretty steady the whole year,” said Mauer, adding, “Our starters are doing a pretty good job. (Tim) Atherton has done a wonderful job starting. (Josue) Montanez has been a lot better.”

Of course, talking about pitching brings up another topic rather unique to the world of a minor league coaching staff.

A number of the Kernels’ most reliable starting pitchers this season are putting more innings on their young arms than they ever have before. This is particularly true of guys who spent last season as relief pitchers or pitched in some combination of high school/college and short-season leagues. Pitchers such as Mason Melotakis, Brett Lee and Jose Berrios who have been cornerstones of the rotation much of the season are seeing their innings limited down the stretch.

That has required Mauer and pitching coach Gary Lucas to find other guys to plug in to the starting rotation and part of the Kernels’ continued success can be attributed to how those pitchers have performed.

Jose Berrios

Jose Berrios

“They’ve been real good,” said Mauer. “Atherton has been excellent, throwing more strikes and still striking guys out like he has been. Berrios has gotten better, Brett Lee’s been great. He had a little scare there with that elbow thing (Lee spent a week on the Disabled List after being struck on the elbow by a batted ball), but he seems to be OK. We’re going to have to keep an eye on him a little bit. I don’t think you’ll see a complete game until, hopefully, the fourth.”

Was that Mauer tipping his hand concerning his plans for the starting pitching assignment in the first playoff game on September 4?

Mauer would only admit that they’re starting to think about who will be starting those postseason games.

“Some of the things we have to start thinking about,” Mauer conceded, “Who are we going to use in the playoffs? Who’s going to be our starters? I think the young man we got, Sulbaran, is going to help us.” Miguel Sulbaran was obtained from the Dodgers organization in a trade recently.

“(Tim) Shibuya’s going to help us,” continued Mauer. “(Brandon) Bixler has done a nice job. Gilbert has been pretty dominant, thus far. Hopefully we can keep that going.”

Clearly, one ingredient a manager needs to keep his team competitive in both halves of a Class A season is talented replacements for the players promoted. But these are still young ballplayers, many just a year out of college or even high school, and a 140-game season can be a grind.

A couple of weeks ago, the Kernels went through a stretch where they lost six of eight games in series with Burlington and the Quad Cities. The club’s pitching, hitting and defense all seemed to collapse at the same time. Is it hard to keep a team focused when a postseason spot is locked up halfway through the year and some players are still wondering if/when they’ll be getting promoted?

The answer to that question is, “It shouldn’t be,” according to Mauer. “Every time you go out there, you should want to win the game. There’s a difference between wanting to win the game and doing things to help you win the game. In that stretch, Burlington and Quad Cities, they took it to us pretty good, but again we gave them a lot of opportunities, extending innings (with errors). That’s not going to do it.

“So you try to refocus. It shouldn’t have anything to do with whether you’re in (the postseason) or not, whether you’re playing for something or not. It should just have to do with you understanding what it takes to play every day and being a professional player.”

“When you get in the game, it’s time to (think about) we’ve got to win this game today,” continued Mauer. “We’ve got to win this inning, win this pitch. You can break it down as far as even pitch to pitch. If you do that, if you win every pitch, then you’re going to win just about every inning and you’re going to win a lot of your games and you’re going to get noticed and that’s how you get promoted. A lot of it is controlling what you can control.”

“There’s some guys in there (the clubhouse) that probably should be in Fort Myers,” Mauer acknowledged, “but they’re backlogged or whatever and they’re still here. Maybe they’re a little (ticked) and maybe they should be, but you’ve got to keep putting numbers up. You’ve got to keep doing your job and you’ve got to keep showing up every day.”

“It’s hard to tell,” what the specific problem was during that early August swoon, according to Mauer. “We just weren’t playing very good and it all just kept going downhill. It just kind of gets going that way and you’re going to go through phases throughout the year where you’re not going to be playing good and others where you’re going to be playing pretty good. What you try to do is you try to keep the focus be the same, whether you’re high or whether you’re low, it shouldn’t matter. Whether you’ve won eight in a row or lost eight in a row, your focus should be the same and that’s what you’re trying to teach.”

It’s not just the postseason success that the players are playing for, of course, and the manager acknowledged that fact, as well. The players and the Twins organization are already looking toward 2014.

“A lot of them are playing for a spot in Fort Myers next year and a lot of them are playing for a spot anywhere. That’s a reality,” said Mauer. “Those boys that are in (Elizabethton) and any guys that come in from (this year’s) draft generally are newer. They get a little more opportunity than some guys that have been around, where we’ve got a decent feeling of what they can and can’t do. We’re going to give these other guys some of those at-bats.

“You’re really playing for a job, whether it’s here (in Cedar Rapids), whether it’s in Fort Myers or wherever it might be. You’ve got to make an impact in these last two weeks.”

Mauer conceded that he’ll be managing the team a little differently headed in to the final couple of weeks of the regular season.

“I know we’re going to play some teams that are in the playoff chase, but we’ve got to get a little healthier for Wednesday, the fourth (of September – the first Kernels postseason game),” predicted Mauer. “The next week at Peoria and Quad Cities, we’ll probably rotate quite a few guys. When Peoria comes back here Sunday (August 25), we’ll try to get us cranked up again to where we’re getting ready and trying to get sharp again for the playoffs.

“I don’t like to sit my guys right before the playoffs. I’d like to do it this next week and then we can button some things up and hopefully, they’ve got enough rest and here we go.”

Evidence of the change has already become evident. For instance, Tyler Grimes, one of the Kernels’ catchers and a converted middle infielder had done nothing but catch and DH all season, until Friday night.

When Murphy left the game for precautionary reasons after being hit in the head by a pitch, second baseman Licon moved in to the outfield and Grimes entered the game as the new second baseman. The next night, Grimes started at second base, as well.

Tyler Grimes

Tyler Grimes

“(Grimes) is going to play some middle (infield) through these last two weeks here. He’s been an infielder his whole life, so he can still go out there. We’ll try to give some of our middle guys a little bit of a (rest),” said Mauer. “You’ll probably see guys like (Adam) Walker get another day off here. Kepler, (Niko) Goodrum, (Jorge) Polanco, guys like that, that have been playing a lot are going to get some rest. (Travis) Harrison is another one, too. Try to freshen them up and try to walk that delicate line between becoming stale and becoming fresh – sit guys for a maybe a day, maybe two days at the most, and get them back out there if you can.”

(NOTE: Polanco was placed on the 7-day Disabled list on Sunday, retroactive to Friday, August 16.)

There will be a few other, more subtle, changes that most fans won’t likely notice, as well, according to Mauer. “We probably won’t hit for as long or take infield as much, things like that. We’ll pick our spots with that. We’ll rest.”

The Kernels’ skipper was asked whether he thought there was an advantage entering the postseason, either to teams that qualified with their success in the first half of the season or with a playoff run at the end of the second half.

Mauer likened it to the NFL. “Those wildcard teams show up in the Super Bowl because you’re playing for your life every week. And that’s the intensity that you should have, even if you’re (already) in.”

Still, it’s nice to have the luxury of resting your players and setting up your pitching rotation the way you want it to start the postseason while the teams who have yet to qualify, as the manager puts it, “have to go pedal to the metal.”

“Each team is going to be different,” Mauer said. “You just try to feel the best you can. Gauge how you’re feeling health wise. Who’s doing what and who can help you. But you want to try and make sure you go in to September as ready as you can.”

At the end of the day, Mauer feels his group is going to be ready when the postseason begins.

“Yeah, we’re excited,” Mauer concluded, concerning his team’s chances in the playoffs. “We’ve got a good group and these kids have worked hard and the new additions have been doing a nice job. We’re happy with how we’re progressing and we’ll see how these last two weeks end up. Hopefully, we’re playing better two weeks from now, you don’t want to peak too soon. We want to be playing our best baseball in September.”

“Twins Weekend” in Cedar Rapids

Celebrating the affiliation agreement with the Minnesota Twins has been pretty much an “all season long” thing for the Cedar Rapids Kernels and their fans, but this weekend was the official Twins Weekend event in Cedar Rapids.

Guests of honor have included all-time Twins great Tony Oliva, Twins organist Sue Nelson and mascot TC Bear. All three made appearances at the Kernels’ game with visiting Peoria on Friday night.

Oliva signed autographs for a long line of fans before the game, Nelson treated fans to her talents on an electric organ during the game and TC teamed with Kernels mascot Mr. Shucks to entertain fans throughout the game.

On Saturday morning, all three joined several Kernels players and coaches, along with over 100 fans, for a breakfast event benefiting the Cedar Rapids Convention & Visitors Bureau.

As a fan who grew up in Minnesota in the 1960s watching Oliva play ball for the Twins at Metropolitan Stadium, I have to say it was a really big deal to me to have an opportunity to interview Oliva along with other local media Friday evening during the Kernels game.

It was even a bigger deal to find myself alone with Oliva in the pressbox for several minutes a short while after the formal media intervew and having the opportunity to just watch a ballgame and talk about a number of the young Twins prospects with Oliva.

On Saturday morning, during his remarks at the breakfast and in a “Q & A” session, Oliva shared a number of observations and anecdotes with the crowd.

If you’re interested in reading some of Oliva’s comments to the media from Friday night, click here to read my story for Metro Sports Report, which include Oliva’s thoughts on the current Major Leaguers from his native Cuba. Cedar Rapids Gazette reporter Jeff Johnson also has a story focusing on Oliva’s comments concerning PED usage in baseball.

Here are a few photos I took from the weekend’s events.

OlivaAutograph

Tony Oliva patiently signed autographs for about an hour before the game

Twins organist Sue Nelson

Twins organist Sue Nelson

TC Bear entertained fans and posed for pictures

TC Bear entertained fans and posed for pictures

OlivaMedia

Tony Oliva met with local media on Friday during the Kernels game

Kernels pitcher and Twins prospect Brett Lee answers a question during the breakfast event Saturday morning

Kernels pitcher and Twins prospect Brett Lee answers a question during the breakfast event Saturday morning as Niko Goodrum, Adam Brett Walker, Kernels broadcaster Morgan Hawk, Tony Oliva, Jake Mauer and Tommy Watkins look on.

Tony Oliva speaking to fans at the Breakfast event Saturday

Tony Oliva speaking to fans at the Breakfast event Saturday

Kernels outfielder and Twins prospect Adam Brett Walker answers fan questions during Saturday's breakfast

Kernels outfielder and Twins prospect Adam Brett Walker answers fan questions during Saturday’s breakfast

From left to right: Mike Gonzales, Dallas Gallant, Morgan Hawk (standing), Niko Goodrum, Brett Lee, Adam Brett Walker, Tony Oliva, Jake Mauer and Tommy Watkins

From left to right: Mike Gonzales, Dallas Gallant, Morgan Hawk (standing), Niko Goodrum, Brett Lee, Adam Brett Walker, Tony Oliva, Jake Mauer and Tommy Watkins

Kernels Post-Buxton Era Begins: Welcome Max Kepler

It may surprise some Twins and Kernels fans to learn that, even with the promotion of fan-favorite Byron Buxton on Sunday, the Kernels still have an outfielder in their line up that was ranked among the Top 10 prospects of the parent Minnesota Twins coming in to the season.

The reason for the surprise is that few fans have seen that prospect on the ball field yet this year.

Max Kepler was promoted to Cedar Rapids last week and arrived just in time to join the team for their trip to Appleton, Wisconsin to face the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers. He had five hits in the four-game series and three of those hits were doubles.

Max Kepler

Max Kepler

I ranked Kepler #9 on my list of top Twins prospects back on December 31, which was directly in between the #8 ranking he was given by mlb.com and the #10 ranking by Baseball America before the season started. He was expected to open the 2013 season as a member of the Kernels’ outfield, but an elbow injury suffered during spring training resulted in Kepler being held back in extended spring training.

Kepler is a native of Berlin, Germany, and was given an $800,000 signing bonus by the Twins in 2009, the same off-season that the Twins signed Miguel Sano. That was the highest bonus ever given to a European player by a Major League organization. Kepler was just 16 years old at the time of his signing and moved to the United States shortly after signing with the Twins. He finished high school at the Fort Myers high school that adjoins the Twins’ spring training facility.

He has played for the Twins’ short season rookie league teams the past three years and was expected to begin his first full season of minor league ball with the Kernels in April.

I was covering the Kernels and Timber Rattlers series for Metro Sports Report over the weekend and I had an opportunity to interview Twins General Manager Terry Ryan before the Kernels game on Sunday. He shared some of his thoughts on Kepler.

“Yeah, he’s had a bad elbow and it’s been frustrating for all of us because we can’t figure out what the problem is. Now he’s playing and he’s playing the outfield. He can play left, center and right. He can play first. He’s got a lot of life in his bat. We’ll wait for him to get up to par here, because he’s way behind everybody. But I think you’re going to like what you see in Kepler as the summer progresses.”

You can read my entire interview with the Twins GM by clicking here.

Kernels Manager Jake Mauer concurred with his boss. Mauer told me over the weekend, “Kepler’s going to help us. He’s going to be a pretty good hitter.”

But just who is this young German outfielder?

I had the opportunity to sit down with Kepler before Sunday’s game in Wisconsin to ask some questions that may give fans some insight in to that question.

Jim Crikket: You were expected to open this season with the Kernels. Can you tell us what happened and what you’ve been doing the past couple of months?

Max Kepler: I’ve been rehabbing. I’ve been set back three times and it was due to an elbow strain that happened during spring training. I made a throw to home and it just didn’t feel good in my elbow and I was taken out of the game right then and there.

I got an MRI and got the results and it was said to be an elbow strain. We worked on it, but I’ve been set back a couple of times and that’s why I’ve been out for so long, which is unfortunate. But now I’m back!

JC: It had to be tough staying back in Florida while the guys you were training with and playing with in during spring training in March were going north to Cedar Rapids.

Kepler: You know, it happens.

Yeah, this is the same team we had back in E’town (Elizabethton, the Twins rookie league team that won the Appalachian League championship last season), so I missed leaving with them, but I’m glad to be back with them now.

Max Kepler and Caleb Brewer sign some autographs

Max Kepler and Caleb Brewer sign some autographs

JC: I have to ask, you were growing up as a kid in Germany – why baseball? It’s not exactly the German national sport, right?

Kepler: That’s true. I went to an international school and my mom’s from Texas, so she kind of got me in to baseball.

I was doing like four to five sports at the time and it came down to soccer and baseball and I had to make a decision between either one. I just chose to go with baseball. I wanted to go to the States, go abroad.

Soccer’s real big in Germany so I would have spent the rest of my life in Germany if I’d stuck to soccer. So, yeah, I went with baseball.

JC: You said you played four or five sports, what were the others that you were playing when you were younger?

Kepler: I played soccer, baseball, I had a scholarship in tennis, I swam, played basketball and some minor little sports on the side.

JC: For a lot of the international guys, the down side to playing minor league baseball is that the family doesn’t get to watch them play a whole lot. Does your family find a way to follow you or get to see you play at all?

Kepler: Yeah, you know the time zone is a lot different there so they’re up until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning just getting to see the first half of the game. But they love doing it and they’ll be down pretty soon, a couple weeks.

JC: I saw you in your first spring training with the Twins three years ago and I saw this skinny looking guy on one of the back fields. That’s not you anymore and the difference showed up a bit in your power numbers last year.

Kepler: Yep. I gained some weight (laughing). It happens.

I put on some weight and learned to pull the ball better in those couple of years and it paid off!

JC: Do you have a particular hitting philosophy? Do you see yourself as a power hitter or are you just concerned about driving the ball and if it goes over the fence, fine?

Kepler: I used to strictly see myself as a contact hitter. I came to the Twins as a contact hitter, just going (opposite field) all the time.

Now, basically, it’s just a start to a new season, first couple games, just see the ball right now and hit it. But when I’m in a groove, I like it to go far, the ball to go deep.

JC: Off the field, in your down time, what sort of things do you like to do when you’re not playing baseball?

Kepler: I like staying active. Last year, in E’town, we used to go out on lakes, go fishing. E’town didn’t have much to offer, but we found stuff to do.

JC: What about during the offseason?

Kepler: I love working out. Just getting back with friends and family. Spending a good time with family.

JC: Do you go back to Germany in the offseason?

Kepler: Yes, that’s very valuable to me. I only get like a month because they (the Twins) usually send you somewhere to play winter ball. I spend most of that time with family.

Kepler will make his home debut at 12:05 Tuesday afternoon when the Kernels open their first home series of the second half of the season against the Burlington Bees.

- JC

Kernels Opening Series a Success

The Cedar Rapids Kernels won three of four games over the Beloit Snappers in their first series of the 2013 season and there was no shortage of drama in the process.

The Kernels won their season opener 8-6, then recovered from a 2-1 ninth inning deficit to claim a walk-off 3-2 win in game 2 of the series. The Snappers managed to hold their 2-1 lead to completion in claiming the third game of the series. In the finale, three Kernels pitchers combined to throw a no-hitter at the visiting Snappers.

Outfielder Byron Buxton gave the locals a good look at what all the fuss is about as he hit .563 for the series, including plenty of power.

The game stories are widely available on the web, but this morning, I thought I’d share a few (OK, much more than a few) of the pictures I took over the course of the past week, since the Kernels arrived in Cedar Rapids.

Kernels coaches meet the media" Tommy Watkins (hitting coach), Jake Mauer (manager), Gary Lucas (pitching coach)

Kernels coaches meet the media: Tommy Watkins (hitting coach), Jake Mauer (manager), Gary Lucas (pitching coach)

The Kernels are introduced to local fans on Meet the Kernels night

The Kernels are introduced to local fans on Meet the Kernels night

Kernels players enjoying the introductions

Kernels players enjoying the introductions

Hudson Boyd

Hudson Boyd

Byron Buxton

Byron Buxton

Tyler Grimes

Tyler Grimes

Travis Harrison

Travis Harrison

Romy Jimenez

Romy Jimenez

Jorge Polanco

Jorge Polanco

Byron Buxton

Byron Buxton

Byron Buxton

Byron Buxton

Tyler Duffey

Tyler Duffey

Tyler Duffey

Tyler Duffey

Niko Goodrum

Niko Goodrum

Travis Harrison

Travis Harrison

Manager Jake Mauer and 3B Travis Harrison working together pregame

Manager Jake Mauer and 3B Travis Harrison working together pregame

Dalton Hicks

Dalton Hicks

Dalton Hicks

Dalton Hicks

Kernels pitchers getting in pregame bullpen sessions

Kernels pitchers getting in pregame bullpen sessions

Pitching coach Gary Lucas works with Josue Montanez

Pitching coach Gary Lucas works with Josue Montanez

Manager Jake Mauer and Dalton Hicks

Manager Jake Mauer and Dalton Hicks

Josmil Pimentel

Candido Pimentel

Candido Pimentel

Candido Pimentel

Jorge Polanco

Jorge Polanco

Jorge Polanco

Jorge Polanco

Jorge Polanco

Jairo Rodriguez

Jairo Rodriguez

Jairo Rodriguez

Jairo Rodriguez

Adam Walker

Adam Walker

Adam Walker

Adam Walker

JD WIlliams (diving away from a near HBP)

JD WIlliams (diving away from a near HBP)

JCD Williams

JD Williams

Kernels Celebrate a No-Hitter

Kernels Celebrate a No-Hitter

Kernels sign postgame autographs

Kernels sign postgame autographs

h

See ya next week!

See ya next week!

If you didn’t see your favorite Kernels in these pictures, not to worry… we’ll be posting a lot more pictures over the course of the season.

- JC

Mauer: Possible Kernels “Really Working Hard”

The following article was originally posted late last week at MetroSportsReport.com and is re-posted here with permission.

With local temperatures finally working their way into the 40′s last week in Cedar Rapids, local baseball fans could allow their minds to wander to even warmer days ahead when the Cedar Rapids Kernels open their season April 4 against Beloit.

It’s still a bit chilly for baseball at Veterans Memorial Stadium, but the minor leaguers in the parent Minnesota Twins organization are hard at work in the warm sunshine at the Twins’ spring training site in Fort Myers, Fla.

While there’s plenty of speculation about which young Twins prospects may fill out the Kernels roster, it’s still too early to know with certainty who those players will be.

 BeresfordMauerST11As Kernels Manager Jake Mauer pointed out this week, “It depends on who they keep in Minnesota at a number of positions. Once those decisions are made, the rest takes shape off of that. There’s kind of a trickle down effect.”

While the Major League camp has been humming for about a month, the minor leaguers began official workouts less than two weeks ago and have played only a handful of games. In fact, Mauer himself hasn’t necessarily been working with all the players tentatively earmarked for the Kernels.

With the Major League spring training roster still roughly twice the size it will be during the season, the Twins shift their coaching staffs up a level until more cuts are made by the big league club. As a result, Mauer has spent much of his time working with players likely to spend their season with the Fort Myers Miracle in the Florida State League.

Still, Mauer has had opportunities to work with a number of players widely expected to wear Kernels uniforms this season and he’s well aware that many of those players are among the Twins’ highest rated young prospects. That can certainly lead to some lofty expectations, both for the team and for those players individually.

Mauer’s take on the high expectations is what you might expect from the club’s manager. “It’s the old cliché, you’re not as good as people say and you’re not as bad as people say.

“It’s nice to get recognition, but you’ve got to go out on the field and play. ‘Prospect’ is just a tag,” he remarked.

With the voice of someone who’s seen these things play out first hand, he added, “I played with a lot of guys who were top prospects who never made it. It doesn’t affect how you play. You still have to put in the work.”

JakeMauer2011aMauer believes the players he’s working with are doing just that. He specifically mentioned outfield prospect Max Kepler, the German native who signed with the Twins in 2009 as a 16-year-old.

“Max looks pretty good,” he said. “I saw him down here as a 16-year-old and he has really physically developed.”

Byron Buxton, the Twins’ top draft choice in last June’s amateur draft, also has impressed Mauer. “Buxton looks pretty good. He’s really working hard,” the skipper reported.

Another prospect many Twins fans are anxious to see in action for the Kernels is third baseman Travis Harrison. Harrison’s reputation is one of great offensive potential, with some question concerning his ability to continue playing third base as he progresses up the organizational ladder.

But Mauer likes what he’s seeing so far, pointing out that Harrison is focusing on improving the defensive aspect of his game this spring.

“He came in with a very good attitude,” said Mauer. “He wants to be good on defense and he’s working pretty hard on it.

“He’s not a finished product, without a doubt … We may see some errors, but I think he’ll be OK.”

One top prospect that Mauer hasn’t had an opportunity to see much of thus far is Jose Berrios. Berrios reported with the Major League pitchers and catchers in mid-February to help him prepare to play for his native Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic.

His team survived the first two rounds of the WBC, so Berrios has yet to work out with his minor league teammates in Fort Myers.

While Berrios has been expected to open the season in the Kernels’ starting rotation, there’s some speculation that his participation in the WBC could change those plans. Berrios has been used sparingly out of the bullpen for Puerto Rico, so as long as the team remains in that tournament Berrios won’t be getting his innings stretched out the way a starting pitcher normally would during spring training.

Could that affect the organization’s plans for Berrios to start the season?

“It could,” Mauer admitted. “Obviously he’s not starting (for Puerto Rico). But he’s getting exposed to some intense situations.”

Mauer doesn’t think it would take Berrios long to get ready for the season, noting he pitched in winter leagues during the offseason. Once the WBC is over, Mauer added, “he will come here in shape and just need a tuneup. He came in to camp before the WBC in pretty good shape.”

The next week or so will go a long way in determining who will be wearing a Kernels uniform on Opening Day.

“We’ll probably start to see our roster take shape with about 10 days left. There are a few pitchers who are a little tender, so that could affect which pitchers start with us,” said Mauer.

- S.D. Buhr, MetroSportsReport.com

Kernels Hot Stove & Twins Caravan!

What a great night for baseball fans in Eastern Iowa!

In celebration of the new affiliation agreement between the Twins and the Cedar Rapids Kernels, the organizations combined to put on a terrific event Thursday night.

Every winter, the Kernels put on a Hot Stove banquet with proceeds going to their own charitable foundation. The event combines dinner, a silent auction and induction of the new Cedar Rapids Baseball Hall of Fame members. Tonight’s event, however, also included a local stop by the Twins Caravan.

The combination brought out a record crowed for the Hot Stove event. The banquet sold out and standing room only tickets were sold at a discount to give even more Twins fans an opportunity to attend the Caravan.

Media members (including this humble blogger) were invited to come in starting at 4:30 to interview some of the participants. I had a chance to visit a bit with Twins pitching prospect, BJ Hermsen. He will be heading to the Twin Cities next week where he’ll receive his Twins Minor League Pitcher of the Year award and then attend TwinsFest. Not long after, he’ll be on the road to Fort Myers for his first Major League Spring Training.

I asked whether Hermsen has any sense of where he’ll start the 2013 season (he doesn’t) and talked a bit about the offseason training work he’s been doing. He was asked by another person if he was going to be speaking during the Caravan portion of the program and he indicated he didn’t think so (he was wrong… emcee Dick Bremer had a number of questions for Hermsen during the program).

Ron Gardenhire and Terry Steinbach also were made available for interviews with the media, as was new Kernels manager Jake Mauer. Naturally, the local media had questions for Gardy that alluded to the new Cedar Rapids affiliation and he was appropriately complimentary in his responses.

Gardenhire did bring up the fact that his managerial debut was with Kenosha in the Midwest League in 1988 and that his team had their “butts beaten” by Cedar Rapids in the playoffs to end that season.

The Hall of Fame induction was sandwiched between dinner and the formal part of the Caravan program. The CR Hall inducted former players Trevor Hoffman and Casey Kotchman, along with longtime Kernels groundskeeper Jim Curran and Pat Harmon, one of the people credited with bringing minor league ball back to Cedar Rapids in the 1940s. But the highlight, for me, of the ceremony was the induction of former Cedar Rapids manager Alex Monchak.

Alex Monchak

Alex Monchak

I’m sure most of you have no idea who Monchak is, but this man epitomizes the career baseball man. He had a cup of coffee with the Phillies, but his career was interrupted by World War II. While he never returned to the Big Leagues as a player, that didn’t stop him from spending the rest of his life teaching others to play the game the right way.

He was inducted in to the CR HoF specifically for managing the 1958 Cedar Rapids Braves to the Three-I League championship, but after leaving our little town, he spent about a decade as a scout and almost 20 years as a coach on manager Chuck Tanner’s staffs with the White Sox, A’s, Pirates and Braves. In fact, he was a coach on the Pirates’ Championship team that also included pitcher Bert Blyleven.

Hoffman and Kotchman had other commitments that kept them from attending the event, but Monchak, who will be 96 years old in March, was in attendance to accept his award and address the crowd.

Dick Bremer did a professional job of emceeing the Caravan program. It’s no small task, I’m sure, to do that job in a way that comes across as fresh to every crowd, despite the fact that they’ve been essentially going through the process multiple times per day for about a week. Bremer did sports for the local CBS affiliate in Cedar Rapids before moving on to Minnesota, so he was able to blend in some anecdotes from his days here.

Everyone on the dais did a good job of fielding the questions Bremer has no-doubt asked them several times over the past week, as well as a number from the crowd. Obviously, Gardy got the lion’s share of the questions from fans and he handled them with his typical combination of optimism and humor.

Of course, there are causes for concern from Twins fans after the past two seasons, but this event was all about generating interest and enthusiasm among the fan bases of the Twins and Kernels, as well as celebrating the upcoming inaugural season of this relationship. Based on the attendance and enthusiastic support from the crowd, it was an overwhelming success at doing just that.

I’ll wrap up this post with a few pictures from the evening. – JC

The CR Marriott Ballroom set up and ready for a big crowd

The CR Marriott Ballroom set up and ready for a big crowd

Ron Gardenhire with what passes as the media hoard in Cedar Rapids (including a voice recorder held by a local blogger who shall remain nameless)

Ron Gardenhire with what passes as the media hoard in Cedar Rapids (including a voice recorder held by a local blogger who shall remain nameless)

New Twins bench coach Terry Steinbach

New Twins bench coach Terry Steinbach prepares for a TV interview

Kernels Manager Jake Mauer has a chat with Gardy before the event gets started

Kernels Manager Jake Mauer has a chat with Gardy before the event gets started

The Twins Caravan dias in Cedar Rapids was shared by (from L to R): Twins Director of Minor League Operations Brad Steil, Manager Ron Gardenhire, Infielder Brian Dozier, Broadcaster Dick Bremer, Bench Coach Terry Steinbach, Kernels Manager Jake Mauer, Minor League Pitcher of the Year B.J. Hermsen

The Twins Caravan dais in Cedar Rapids was shared by (from L to R): Manager Ron Gardenhire, Twins Director of Minor League Operations Brad Steil, Infielder Brian Dozier, Broadcaster Dick Bremer, Bench Coach Terry Steinbach, Kernels Manager Jake Mauer, Minor League Pitcher of the Year B.J. Hermsen

The autograph line: TC Bear, Jake Mauer, Ron Gardenhire, Brian Dozier, Terry Steinbach, N.J. Hermsen

The autograph line: TC Bear, Jake Mauer, Ron Gardenhire, Brian Dozier, Terry Steinbach, B.J. Hermsen

Kernels’ 2013 Coaching Staff Announced

The Cedar Rapids Kernels and their new parent organization, the Minnesota Twins, have announced the Kernels’ 2013 coaching staff.

New Kernels Manager Jake Mauer and Twins prospect James Beresford share a smile during a minor league Spring Training game in 2011.

The Kernels will be managed by Jake Mauer, brother of Twins catcher Joe Mauer. Jake will be entering his sixth season as a minor league manager for the Twins. He played minor league ball in the Twins organization and has, for the past three seasons, been managing their “high A” team in Fort Myers FL.

Pitching coach Gary Lucas and hitting coach Tommy Watkins will be joining Mauer in Cedar Rapids. Both Lucas and Watkins have held the same positions for the Twins’ Midwest League affiliate in Beloit for the past several years.

The coaches will be joined by trainer Ryan Hedwall. Hedwall was previously the trainer at the Twins Appalachian League affiliate in Elizabethton TN and was named Appalachian and Minor League Athletic Trainer of the year for 2012.

Click here for the link to the story at Kernels.com.

- JC

Revisiting Not-so-old Friends

I’m about to hit the road for Sarasota for tonight’s Twins game against the Orioles, but I wanted to try to drop a quick post this afternoon because it will likely be late tonight or early tomorrow morning (at the earliest) before I get around to posting anything about that game.

I spent a little time today back at the minor league complex and had the opportunity to watch a few players that I’ve had the pleasure of seeing during recent seasons with the Beloit Snappers, when they’ve visited Cedar Rapids to face the Kernels. I didn’t have time to watch the whole game, but I was there long enough to see former Snappers James Beresford and Angel Morales get hits in the bottom of the first inning and eventually come around to score. In addition to Beresford and Morales, I recognized at least one other former Snapper on the field, Deibinson Romero. Romero was playing first base, though I seem to recall him being a third baseman when he was with Beloit a couple of years ago.

Of course, this wouldn’t be a Knuckleballs Spring Training report without a few pictures.

James Beresford gets a lead off of second base

Angel Morales coils at the plate

Deibinson Romero ready at first base

Morales at first base following a base hit

Coach Jake Mauer and Beresford share a smile at 3B in the first inning

With that, I’m headed up to Sarasota for the evening!

- JC