When baseball gods get angry

Everyone who has ever played the game knows you simply do not anger the baseball gods.

The baseball gods are a vengeful lot. Any kind of slight, whether real or perceived, can cause them to rain down bad karma on players, coaches, teams and even, apparently, entire organizations.

Someone in the Minnesota Twins organization must have really ticked off those baseball gods back during spring training, because the Twins have had one calamity after another since March. That’s when arguably the top power-hitting prospect in the game, Miguel Sano, was lost for the season with a torn ulnar collateral ligament (UCL), requiring Tommy John surgery.

A couple of weeks later, the consensus top minor league prospect in baseball, Byron Buxton, injured his wrist in the outfield on one of the back fields of the Twins’ training complex in Fort Myers FL. In fact, the baseball gods must really have it in for Buxton because just days after he was activated by Fort Myers, they zapped his wrist again, sending him back to the DL.

The Twins have had so many injuries at the Major League level that they’ve routinely been sending out career infielders like Eduardo Escobar to play in the outfield over the past week. The Twins currently have four players on a Disabled List of one kind or another. Others, including $23 million a year man Joe Mauer, have missed stretches of games with injuries despite avoiding a trip to the DL.

However, the wrath of the baseball gods has perhaps been visited hardest upon the Twins’ Class A Midwest League affiliate, the Cedar Rapids Kernels.

Randy Rosario

Randy Rosario – on the DL

Cedar Rapids’ uniforms don’t have players names sewn on the back of their jerseys above the number. That’s probably a good thing this season, because the club may have needed to retain a seamstress full time just to keep up with the roster changes already during 2014.

Roster turnover is not unusual in the minor leagues, of course. Players are promoted, demoted and even released at various points during the season, making it not at all unusual to see close to 50 different players take the field in a Kernels uniform at some point during the summer. A year ago, 49 different players (including Twins pitcher Mike Pelfrey on an injury rehabilitation assignment) put in time with the Kernels.

But this year’s Cedar Rapids club is getting an unwelcome jump on the roster musical chairs game.

Jeremias Pineda

Jeremias Pineda – on the DL

On Tuesday, less than six weeks in to the new season, pitcher Jared Wilson became the 34th player to wear a Kernels uniform this year.

Before the end of the first game of the Kernels’ doubleheader Tuesday night, shortstop Engelb Vielma had been pulled from the game after coming up lame as he left the batters box in the second inning and center fielder Jason Kanzler had been injured on a collision in the outfield.

(UPDATE: After the 2nd game, Kernels manager Jake Mauer confirmed Vielma injured his hamstring and Kanzler likely has a concussion. Mauer said he expects both players to be placed on the Disabled List and hopes to have replacements up from extended spring training in time for Wednesday night’s doubleheader.)

Of the 25 players who arrived in Cedar Rapids from spring training to start the current campaign, pitcher Brandon Peterson has earned a promotion to Class high-A Fort Myers, pitcher Miguel Sulbaran has been traded, pitcher Christian Powell has been released and seven original 2014 Kernels have spent some time on the club’s Disabled List. If Vielma’s name is added to that list, he would be the eighth.

Centerfielder Zack Granite was hitting .313 for the Kernels just four games in to the season when the baseball gods struck him down with a rotator cuff strain.

Zack Larson

Zack Larson – on the DL

About ten days later, catcher Michael Quesada fell to a right wrist contusion.

Less than a week after Quesada was felled, outfielder Jeremias Pineda broke his wrist and pitcher Randy Rosario hit the Disabled List with a left flexor mass strain.

The game’s mystic guardians finally looked in other directions for almost two weeks before returning their attention to the Kernels with a vengeance and sidelining infielders Tanner Vavra (right ankle sprain) and Logan Wade (dislocated left shoulder), as well as outfielder Zack Larson (right hamstring strain) all during the first ten days of May.

That’s an average of better than one player a week that manager Jake Mauer and his coaching staff have had to replace due to injury.

Logan Wade

Logan Wade – on the DL

So far, the nine players added to the Kernels’ roster as replacements from extended spring training have managed to avoid the DL, though Kanzler would break that string if he lands on the DL following his injury Tuesday. One replacement, Jonatan Hinojosa, was with the team only long enough to play in one game before finding himself suspended by Major League Baseball for having tested positive for a PED.

Michael Quesada

Michael Quesada – back from the DL

Twins farm director Brad Steil must cringe every time his phone rings and he sees Jake Mauer’s name on the caller ID.

Perhaps remarkably, Mauer has patched together line ups that have managed to win more games than they’ve lost. In fact, with five weeks left in the Midwest League’s first-half race, the Kernels are right in the thick of the race for second place in the league’s Western Division and the automatic postseason spot that would come with it.

The Kernels struggled through a tough six-game road trip during which they won just two of six games and they play just seven of their next 17 games at home, but both Quesada and Vavra have returned from their injuries.

Even Quesada’s return, however, poses a peculiar challenge for his manager. The Kernels’ current active roster includes 13 pitchers and 12 position players, four of which are catchers. Of course, at this level, it’s not unusual for catchers to play some first base. Which is good, because the Kernels’ regular first baseman of late, Chad Christensen, is likely going to be needed in the outfield.

The arrival of JD Williams from extended spring training, where he’d been recovering from his own spring training injury (a broken thumb) has certainly provided a spark at the top of the Cedar Rapids batting order.

Tanner Vavra

Tanner Vavra – back from the DL

After Monday night’s doubleheader against Peoria was washed out, the Kernels were scheduled to play back-to-back doubleheaders against the Chiefs Tuesday and Wednesday.

Going in to Tuesday night’s games, Peoria sat in second place in the MWL West, just a half game ahead of Cedar Rapids. There were four more teams, however, bunched tightly together behind the Kernels and all of them have their eyes on the second Western Division postseason spot.

- JC

(All photos: JC/Knuckleballs)

Kernels Videos: Polanco, Hicks, Grimes

I spent Wednesday evening watching a doubleheader between the Cedar Rapids Kernels and the Burlington Bees (the Angels MWL affiliate). The two clubs split the two games with the Kernels winning the first game 6-5 and the Bees taking the nightcap 6-4.

In the first game, the Kernels came from behind and scored four runs in the third inning to take the lead. They fell behind again, but tied the game back up in the fifth inning with a Jorge Polanco triple, followed by a Dalton Hicks double. Here, if you will pardon the shaky video photography, are Polanco’s triple and Hicks’ RBI double.

Two of the newest members of the Kernels combined to contribute the ultimate game winning run as new catcher Michael Quesada beat out an infield single and pinch runner Jeremias Pineda stole second, advanced to third on a fielder’s choice and scored on a wild pitch. Josue Montanez, who just returned to the Cedar Rapids from Extended Spring Training, pitched the final two innings to earn the win for the Kernels.

In the second game, Kernels fans had very little to get excited about. However, Tyler Grimes did give fans an opportunity to cheer with this two-run home run, driving in Travis Harrison ahead of him.

The Bees and Kernels finish up their four-game series Thursday night and host the Kane County Cougars (the Cubs MWL affiliate) for four games Friday through Monday.

Prospects and Projects – Projecting the 2013 Kernels, Part 4

We’ve worked our way around the horn in the first three Parts of this series, covering the catchers, corner infielders and middle infielders that could possibly put on a Kernels uniform in Cedar Rapids this summer. In Part 4 of our series, we’ll check out a number of outfielders that could take the field for Cedar Rapids at some point during 2013.

(Image: Kernels.com)

(Image: Kernels.com)

Obviously, we can’t know this early exactly who will come north to Iowa out of Spring Training to start the season, but regardless of which of these prospects starts the season in Cedar Rapids, the Kernels outfield should be flat-out loaded! A number of the organization’s top prospects played at Elizabethton in 2012 and most of them should find their way to Cedar Rapids either to start the season or by some time midway through the summer.

JaDamion (J.D.) Williams – Age 22 – Bats: Both/Throws: Right

2012: Beloit (Class A – MWL)

G PA BA OPS K BB 2B 3B HR
97 407 .234 .651 115 39 16 2 6
JD Williams

JD Williams

Williams was drafted out of his Tampa FL high school by the Twins in the 10th round of the 2010 amateur draft. JD signed in time to get 37 games in with the GCL Twins in 2010, but struggled at the plate. He had considerably more success in his sophomore year of professional baseball, hitting .324 for Elizabethton in 2011. His productivity dipped some in his first year of full-season ball at Beloit in 2012, but he did finally show some of the speed the Twins expected him to have on the basepaths. He stole 23 bases in 32 attempts during the season at Beloit, but just think of how many he could have stolen if he hadn’t struck out 115 times.

Williams spent considerable time in all three outfield positions during 2012, including 23 games in centerfield. He also threw out seven runners on the bases.

At the end of the 2012 season, I would have almost guaranteed JD would open 2013 with the Kernels and I think he could probably use some extra time at the Class A level. But with the Twins trading Denard Span and Ben Revere, the bottleneck of outfielders in the organization could open up enough to allow him to open the year at high-A Fort Myers, along with most of the rest of his fellow Snappers team mates from last season.

Max Kepler – Age 19 – Bats: L/Throws: L

2012: Elizabethton (Rookie – Appy)

G PA BA OPS K BB 2B 3B HR
59 269 .297 .925 33 27 16 5 10
Max Kepler

Max Kepler

In 2009, the Twins gave the 6’4″ German the largest signing bonus paid to a European baseball player, at the time. He moved to Fort Myers and finished school at the high school that neighbors the Twins training facility in that city. In three seasons of rookie league ball, Kepler has steadily progressed, showing the kind of athletic prowess one might expect from the son of European ballet dancers.

The 6’4″ outfielder will just turn 20 before this season and has grown in to his body since arriving in the US. In 2012, his second season at Elizabethton, he made real progress in almost every aspect of his game, adding 35 points to his batting average and a whopping 211 points to his OPS, most of that a result of showing significantly more power. After hitting just one home run in his first two years of professional ball, combined, Kepler jacked 10 of them in 2012.

But Max isn’t just big, he’s got speed as well (he stole seven bases without being caught stealing even once) and a strong arm. He played 67 games in centerfield for Elizabethton last year and 23 games in a corner outfield spot, mostly left field.

Kepler was appearing in most offseason “top 10″ lists of Twins prospects before the Span and Revere trades added a couple of highly rated minor league pitchers to the organization, but he easily remains a consensus top 15 Twins prospect heading in to 2013. Even after those trades, I’ve ranked Kepler 9th on my list.

Romy Jimenez – Age 21 – Bats R/Throws R

2012: Elizabethton (Rookie – Appy)

G PA BA OPS K BB 2B 3B HR
35 139 .347 1.108 25 19 12 1 8

Jiminez was signed in 2009 out of the Dominican Republic and started his professional career with two very good seasons in the Dominican Summer League. An injury limited him to just eight games with the GCL Twins in 2011, but he came back very strong in 2012.

Romy won’t turn 22 until several weeks in to what should be his first experience on a full-season roster in Cedar Rapids. He has certainly shown the ability to hit and hit with power, but I’m curious about the fact that he didn’t steal a single base in 2012 (and only attempted one) at Elizabethton, although he stole 24 bases in 34 attempts in his two Dominican seasons.

Like Kepler, the 6’2″ Jimenez saw time in all three outfield spots during 2012, though most of his time was spent in left field.

Adam Walker – Age 21 – Bats: R/Throws: R

2012: Elizabethton (Rookie – Appy)

G PA BA OPS K BB 2B 3B HR
58 254 .250 .805 76 19 7 4 14

The 6’4″, 225 pound, Walker was drafted by the Twins in the 3rd round of the 2012 amateur draft and after signing quickly, he was assigned to Elizabethton in time to get 58 games in. His batting average in his first professional season won’t raise eyebrows and his .310 on-base percentage could stand to improve. He certatainly needs to cut that strikeout rate down considerably. But look at those extra-base hits! Seven doubles, four triples and 14 home runs in just 58 games. That would project to 20 doubles, seven triples and close to 40 home runs over a 162 game Major League schedule.

Walker exclusively played right field for E’town and he made a few errors out there, but he also threw out half a dozen baserunners. He also stole four bases on the season, without being caught stealing even once.

The Twins obviously saw a potential power hitter in Walker when they drafted him out of Jacksonville University and he gave them no reason to question that in his first professional experience. If he can slash those Ks in Cedar Rapids, while maintaining anything even close to his 2012 power numbers, Adam could climb up the organizational ladder quickly.

That’s four potential outfielders and, if Candido Pimentel, who we covered with the middle infielders, starts the season in Cedar Rapds, that would give Kernels manager Jake Mauer a full contingent of players to move in and out of his outfield.

But wait! We haven’t even mentioned the outfielder who managed to garner Baseball America’s “top prospect” award in BOTH the Gulf Coast League and the Appalachian League in 2012. Of course, that would be…

Byron Buxton – Age 19 – Bats: R/Throws: R

2012: Fort Myers (Rookie – GCL) and Elizabethton (Rookie – Appy)

G PA BA OPS K BB 2B 3B HR
48 189 .248 .792 41 19 10 4 5

The only benefit to having the second worst record in Major League Baseball in 2011 was that it earned the Twins the right to the second overall draft pick in the 2012 amateur draft. The Twins used that pick to select Buxton out of his Georgia high school and less than a year later, he’s generally considered either the 1st or 2nd ranked prospect in the Twins organization (he tops my list).

Buxton played 27 games with the GCL Twins before moving up to Elizabethton to finish the season. While his .216 batting average win the GCL wasn’t flashy, he actually had more extra-base hits (11, including 4 HRs) than singles (8). Think about that for a moment. His Appy stats were much more “normal” looking, but he still had eight XBHs among his 22 hits overall at that level.

There is probably little doubt that Buxton could compete at the Class A level, but given his age (he’ll be 19 all season long) and the outfield talent that got more experience in Elizabethton a year ago, Byron will quite likely stick around extended spring training to start the season and may play a few weeks in E’town again. I’ll be surprised, however, if he isn’t in Cedar Rapids for most of the second half of the MWL season and if JD Williams does open the year at high-A Fort Myers, Buxton could come to Cedar Rapids in April, too.

Whenever you do get to see him play in Cedar Rapids, Kernels fans, pay attention. Once he reaches Minnesota, Buxton could be the Twins center fielder for many years to come.

There are a couple more outfielders that at least warrant a mention, since you never know when injuries and promotions will result in players getting promoted from one of the rookie league teams. If that happens, look for Kelvin Ortiz, Jeremias Pineda or Dereck Rodriguez to find themselves in Kernels uniforms.

Ortiz, a 21-year-old Dominican has played two seasons in the Dominican Summer League and two seasons with the GCL Twins while compiling just a .221 batting average and perhaps even less impressive stats, otherwise.

Pineda, also from the Dominican Republic, is 22 and came over to the Twins from the Red Sox organization in the Danny Valencia trade last summer. The move didn’t exactly agree with him, however, as he hit just .237 while putting up a .640 OPS with the GCL Twins after putting up .421 BA and .981 OPS numbers for the GCL Red Sox before the trade.

Rodriguez, 20, was drafted by the Twins in the 6th round of the 2011 amateur draft. He struggled considerably with the GCL Twins after signing in 2011, but improved a great deal last year while repeating that level.  He hit .263 with a .783 OPS with a bit of power.

Kernels fans should enjoy watching their outfielders this season. Some of them have much better than average chances of playing Major League Baseball in the future.

Next: Starting Pitchers

- JC

P.S. Seth Stohs’ 2013 Minnesota Twins Prospect Handbook is now available for order! If you want to know more about the prospects we’ve profiled in this series, Seth and his fellow writers annually provide statistics and write-ups on pretty much every Twins prospect at all levels of the organization. You can order your copy of the Handbook by clicking here.