From Kernel to Twin: Jorge Polanco

A little over a year ago, I sat in the Cedar Rapids Kernels dugout before a Sunday game and did an interview with then-Kernels infielder Jorge Polanco – the same Jorge Polanco that just spent the past weekend wearing number 11 for the Minnesota Twins.

I’d been told that, of the Kernels’ Latin American players, Polanco was one of those most familiar with the English language. Since the only familiarization I have with a foreign language comes from the two years of high school French class that I nearly flunked out of over 40 years ago, it seemed like a good idea to interview a player who knew my language better than I knew his.

Jorge Polanco as a Cedar Rapids Kernel

Jorge Polanco as a Cedar Rapids Kernel

Polanco was very accommodating. I approached him after the team worked out that day and asked if he had some time to talk. He said he did, but asked if we could do it after the brief chapel service players have on Sundays. After chapel, we met and sat in the dugout for the interview.

The interview didn’t go particularly well and, unfortunately, I didn’t feel I had enough material to turn it in to something I could post at the time.

I had only been covering the Kernels for a couple of months at that time and, frankly, my interviewing skills weren’t very strong. I’m not sure I’d say they’re particularly strong now, either, but I’m better at it than I was that Sunday afternoon with Polanco.

I asked him what he felt the biggest difference was between his experience at Elizabethton (TN) with the Twins’ short-season rookie level team the year before and his season in Cedar Rapids.

“More fans,” Polanco responded. “A lot of fans.”

Neither of us knew then, of course, that just over a year later, he’d be playing ball in front of a crowd ten times larger than what he was seeing in the Cedar Rapids stands.

Jorge Polanco

Jorge Polanco

We talked some about his home town, San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic. A “good town to live there,” according to Polanco, and about his favorite Major League player.

“Robinson Cano,” Polanco replied immediately. “I like the way he plays. I would like to be like him. He’s a good person.”

I also found out during the conversation that the then-19 year old spent his time away from the ballpark in much the same way other 19 year olds spend their idle time.

“I like to watch TV and play Playstation3 video games,” he said.

Then he added, “I like to play pool.”

Asked if he was any good at it, he smiled and simply said, “Yes.”

Unfortunately, he added that he had not yet found a place to play pool in Cedar Rapids. I imagine that probably didn’t change much during the summer, since it might be difficult for a 19 year old to get in to most public establishments with pool tables around here.

Toward the end of our conversation, we talked about the adjustments that he and other Latino players have to make to play ball in a place like Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

The food, he said, was probably one of the most difficult adjustments, but we also talked about the language barrier.

Polanco clearly was working hard on learning English and wanted to get better.

“I like it because all the people here – most all the people – speak English, so I try to do it.”

That’s when I made one of those off the cuff comments that I may come to regret.

I went back to the audio recording of the interview this weekend, with the hope that perhaps my memory of what I said next was not quite accurate.

I told Polanco I was starting to try to learn some Spanish. I should have left it at that.

But no, I continued with, “When you’re in Target Field with the Twins in a couple of years, I’m going to come to a Twins game and we’ll talk in your language. Is that a deal?”

He smiled and said, “Yes, alright.”

Last week, just about 13 months after my conversation with Polanco, he was called up to the Twins, who found themselves in need of a versatile infielder after a series of injuries to their infield corps. Fortunately, those games were all in Anaheim, California, and Arlington, Texas, and not in Target Field.

I’m using that technicality as an excuse to conclude I still have some time before making good on my poorly thought out promise to Polanco.

(I’ve learned my lesson, by the way. I’m NOT going to promise any of this year’s crop of Kernels players from “down under” that I’ll learn to speak Australian before they wear a Twins uniform.)

It turned out to be just four games in The Show for Polanco, including one start on Sunday against the Rangers, before infielders Eduardo Nunez and Trevor Plouffe came off the Disabled List on Monday and Polanco was sent back to the Fort Myers Miracle.

I don’t think anyone would have been surprised if Polanco had shown some jitters during his time with the Twins, but from all accounts, he looked like he belonged there.

He had two hits (a double and a triple) in five at-bats, he scored two runs and drove in three more. He turned three double plays and, yes, he had a mental lapse on defense in a rundown situation. He’s not the first Twins player to have a mental lapse in the field this season.

He also handled himself well with the media, as is clear from a video clip the St. Paul Pioneer-Press’ Mike Berardino posted over the weekend (click here to view) after Polanco recorded his first Major League hit.

Over the first season and a half of the affiliation between the Twins and Kernels, we’ve seen several players that have legitimate Major League potential and Polanco was no doubt one of those guys.

Fans in Cedar Rapids couldn’t be happier for Polanco, as the first Kernels player since the new affiliation agreement to reach the Big Leagues. Still, it’s unlikely that anyone thought he’d get even this kind of “cup of coffee” with the Twins this soon.

But as one of this year’s Kernels told me recently, “Baseball is a goofy game.”

Indeed it is.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think it’s time for my next Spanish lesson. It seems I may need to accelerate my learning curve a bit. – JC

Spanish

Episode 89 – The Roster Crunch and Jorge Polanco

You can download the new Talk to Contact (@TalkToContact) episode via iTunes or by clicking here, and if you want to add the show to your non-iTunes podcast player, this is the RSS Feed.

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This week we spend time talking about the series of roster moves and player swaps that lead to Jorge Polanco being called up from High-A Fort Myers to the Big League club. We talk about Byron Buxton‘s rehab, Kendrys Morales finally hitting a home run for the Twins, and the Twins’ struggles on the road. We go Down on the pond and talk about Pat Kelly (Cody and Jay interviewed Pat but the audio did not come through clearly, so we have a write up on that interview coming soon) and what he’s been doing since he was drafted in the 12th round of the 2014 draft.

We talk beer, baseball, and we take some questions for the listeners.

Thanks for sticking around!

 

You can follow Cody on Twitter (@NoDakTwinsFan) or read his writing at NoDakTwinsFan, you can find Paul on Twitter (@BaseballPirate) and you can find Mr. Jay Corn on Twitter (@Jay__Corn)!
If you enjoy our podcast, please take a couple extra minutes and rate and review our show on iTunes.   iTunes ratings and reviews tell us how to get to Sesame Street.

 

JC’s Top 15 Twins Prospects – 2014

If it’s November, it must be “Top Prospect List” season.

Last year, I waited until the end of December to publish my personal “Twins Top 15 Prospects” list, which allowed me to include pitchers Alex Meyer and Trevor May after they were acquired by Twins General Manager Terry Ryan in off-season trades. Waiting also allowed me to get a look at a number of lists published by “experts” far smarter than I am.

All things considered, I should probably wait until closer to year end to put my list out there again. But I’m not going to do that.

If there are deals made that bring in new prospects or send away players on this list, so be it. I feel like writing and throwing a Top Prospects list out here seems to be a better use of my time than trying to come up with an off-season blueprint. And, honestly, it’s a lot easier to rank some prospects than try to figure out how to fix all the problems Terry Ryan’s facing with rebuilding the Twins’ roster.

A year ago, I came down on the side of ranking Byron Buxton as the Twins’ number 1 prospect over Miguel Sano.

I had the good fortune of getting to watch Buxton play almost every home game he suited up for with Cedar Rapids before his promotion to Fort Myers, as well as a number of his road games with the Kernels. I believe he was better than any other ballplayer I’ve seen in a Cedar Rapids uniform and that includes Mike Trout.

So, naturally, I’ll have to rank him ahead of Sano in the number 1 spot again this year, right?

Well… yes and no.

What I wrote last year still holds true for me today. Buxton’s potential to play an extraordinary centerfield defensively makes him a better prospect to me than Sano. Centerfield is just about the most critical position on the field (especially on Target Field) and Buxton is simply an amazing outfielder. In fact, the only position in baseball more important than centerfield is probably that of starting pitcher.

And that’s why my number 1 ranked prospect this year is…

  1. Alex Meyer (RHP) – Meyer had a good first year in the Twins organization after coming over from the Nationals in the trade for Denard Span a year ago, but he has appeared to really step up his game in the Arizona Fall League. His fastball is touching 100 mph and averaging between 97 and 98 on the gun. He’s missing bats. He’s dominating some good hitters. He has the potential to be not only a top of the rotation starting pitcher within the next couple of years for the Twins, but to be a legitimate ace. He looks to be to the pitching staff what Buxton could be to the batting order, but he’s a level higher in the organization and thus, arguably, closer to actually realizing that potential than Buxton is.
  2. Byron Buxton

    Byron Buxton

    Byron Buxton (CF) – Buxton is the real deal, folks. There’s nothing he can’t do on a baseball field. In fact, I honestly believe if you wanted to make him a pitcher, he could give the Twins one heck of a 1-2 rotation punch, with Meyer, for years to come. But he’s just too dang good at everything else to consider that option. When he learns to read pitchers a little better on the bases, he will be almost impossible to keep out of scoring position. That’s good news for guys looking to drive in a lot of runs, like, for example…

  3. Miguel Sano (3B) – The best news of 2013 for Twins fans regarding Sano might have been the reviews of his improvements defensively at the hot corner. Let’s face it, a guy who hits like Sano is going to be in the heart of your batting order. But if he can also play a passable third base, that frees a GM and manager up to put other talented hitters who aren’t strong defensively in the corner outfield spots, at first base and/or at designated hitter. Think about this: if Sano sticks at 3B and Mauer can remain behind the plate most of the time, in a year or two, the Twins three best hitters may be their catcher, centerfielder and third baseman. And there’s no shortage of above average hitting prospects in the pipeline to fill the corner OF, 1B and DH spots.
  4. Eddie Rosario (2B/OF) – Speaking of getting outstanding offensive production out of traditionally unexpected positions, if Rosario remains a second baseman, that’s yet another potentially productive bat from a middle infielder. Of course, with Brian Dozier having a solid year at 2B for the Twins, there’s talk of either moving Rosario back to the outfield or possibly even dangling him as trade bait for much-needed pitching help.
  5. Kohl Stewart (RHP) – As has often been said, it’s risky to rank a prospect this high who hasn’t even played his first year of full-season professional ball. Then again, that didn’t seem to keep any of us from ranking Buxton at or near the top of our prospect lists a year ago and he hasn’t made us regret the faith we placed in him. I tend to think that most first round draft picks warrant a high ranking if they show the expected promise in their first taste of short-season ball. If Stewart dominates Class A hitters in 2014, he’ll be a top 3 prospect next year.
  6. Jose Berrios

    Jose Berrios

    Jose Berrios (RHP) – It was cool to be able to watch Berrios strike out Robinson Cano in the WBC tournament last spring, but part of me wonders what his season might have been like if he hadn’t spent that time in the bullpen of Team Puerto Rico. He had some very impressive starts for Cedar Rapids, but he also had some clunkers. He certainly appeared to tire toward the end of the season. However, I also felt he showed more maturity on the mound as the summer went on.

  7. Josmil Pinto (C) – Pinto has one thing that none of the other guys on this list have and that’s a Major League resume. In fact, none of the other players on this list have even played AAA ball yet. Pinto produced at AA, AAA and in the Big Leagues during his September call-up and he plays a critical defensive position. He’s not a finished product behind the dish, by any means, but the season he had in 2013 has to make him a Top 10 prospect for the Twins. He’s the guy that makes us feel a bit better about the potential move to first base by Joe Mauer.
  8. Jorge Polanco (INF) – While I’m not sure Polanco has the tools to be a starting shortstop at the Major League level, his bat has shown two consecutive years of consistent productivity. He hits the ball hard and if he can turn some of those line drives in to something with a bit more loft, he will hit more home runs. I think his long term position is second base and, that said, if the Twins don’t deal Dozier and don’t move Rosario to the outfield, Polanco could be a guy the Twins start getting some calls about.
  9. Max Kepler gets a secondary lead off first base

    Max Kepler gets a secondary lead off first base

    Max Kepler (OF/1B) – I’ll admit that Kepler’s continued top-10 ranking is, for me, more reflective of his athleticism than of his on-field performance and that makes me uncomfortable. He killed right handed pitching but struggled against lefties. His defense in the outfield was inconsistent and I just don’t think his throwing elbow was ever 100% in Cedar Rapids. That’s a concern, as well. I thought he did a nice job at first base for a guy who hadn’t played there a ton and with all of the outfield prospects the Twins have, 1B could be Kepler’s ultimate position if he stays in the Twins organization. He hasn’t been on fire in his Arizona Fall League work, but it sounds like he hasn’t been completely overmatched, either, and that’s encouraging.

  10. Adam Brett Walker lines a home run vs Clinton on September 2

    Adam Brett Walker lines a home run vs Clinton on September 2

    Adam Brett Walker (OF) – Honestly, in my mind, the Twins have a definite “Top 9” prospects and then seven guys that are all pretty equal that fill out a Top “16” list. I’m giving Walker the nod in to the Top 10 because I saw the way Tony Oliva’s eyes lit up watching him play. When Oliva made an appearance in Cedar Rapids this summer, I found myself in the pressbox alone with him for an inning or so. He wanted to talk about Walker. I told him I thought Walker needed to learn to take that outside pitch to the opposite field and Oliva’s response was something along the lines of, “Noooo, why?! Let him pull the ball!” And you could just see in his eyes and his smile that he really liked Walker as a hitter. With that kind of endorsement, how could I not include Walker in the Top 10?

  11. Lewis Thorpe (LHP) – Not only has Thorpe not had a year of full-season professional ball yet, he hasn’t even made it out of the Gulf Coast League. But a 17 year old lefty who can throw 95 mph and drop a pretty good hammer, as well, is impossible to ignore. The Aussie struck out 64 hitters in just 44 GCL innings in 2013. I know they say you have to ignore GCL stats, but I can’t ignore that one.
  12. Trevor May (RHP) – May, who came over from the Phillies organization a year ago in the Ben Revere trade, missed some time in 2013 and again during the Arizona Fall League. The Twins probably still aren’t sure if he’ll end up in the rotation or bullpen, so he needs a healthy 2014 season to really impress.
  13. Travis Harrison

    Travis Harrison

    Travis Harrison (3B/OF) – I’m wondering if the organization might move Harrison back to his natural corner OF position now that they seem confident Sano can stick as a third baseman. Harrison can hit a baseball very hard. Whether he moves up or down this list by next year will depend somewhat on whether the Twins find a defensive position he can potentially play at the MLB level.

  14. Stephen Gonsalves (LHP) – Ordinarily, you wouldn’t see a 4th round pick from the prior year in your Top 15 list, but Gonsalves was reportedly on track to be a 1st round pick before a disciplinary issue arose during his senior year of HS, allowing the Twins to get a potential steal. If he can add some bulk to his 6’ 5” frame and a couple of ticks on his fastball, he could become very good very quickly.
  15. Miguel Sulbaran (LHP) – Sulbaran largely is flying under the radar among the Twins prospects. Maybe it’s his 5’ 10” stature. Maybe it’s that he only spent a few weeks in the organization after coming over from the Dodgers. Maybe it’s that he was obtained for Drew Butera. Sulbaran may not be tall, but he’s got a pitcher’s lower body and he uses it to get good drive off the mound. He struck out over eight batters per nine innings in 2013 and he has something a lot of other pitchers at his level don’t: an out pitch. His change-up is the real thing.

That final spot was a tough one to decide on as shortstop Danny Santana arguably should be on this list somewhere. In the end, I decided he just made too many errors to project as a defense-first shortstop and didn’t get on base often enough to project as a top of the order hitter. This is going to be a make or break year for Santana, I think.

So that’s my list. I’d like to see a few more guys that are closer to being “Major League-ready,” but I just don’t see a ton of high ceiling guys in the high-minors of the Twins organization right now and high ceilings are what I tend to look for in my rankings.

– 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

Several Kernels Shooting for Two Rings in Two Years

In baseball’s postseason, “every single pitch is so important; every at-bat, no matter what inning.”

That was Cedar Rapids Kernels third baseman Travis Harrison talking after Monday’s regular season finale about the playoffs, which start for the Kernels Wednesday night in Davenport against the Quad Cities River Bandits.

Harrison knows what he’s talking about, too. He was a member of the rookie level Elizabethton Twins team that won the Appalachian League a year ago.

Travis Harrison and Niko Goodrum are going for back to back championships

Travis Harrison and Niko Goodrum are going for back to back championships

Elizabethton won two “best-of-three games” series to claim the league title last year, but Harrison and his teammates will need to do that much this year just to earn a berth in the Midwest League Championship Series as the representative of the league’s Western Division.

If they can best the River Bandits in the first best-of-three series, they’ll take on the survivor of a similar series between Clinton and Beloit in another best-of-three challenge. The Championship Series between the Eastern and Western Division representatives is a best-of-five games series that will decide who wears the Midwest League crown for 2013.

Cedar Rapids has not worn that crown since 1994 and has not qualified for the league Championship Series since 1997.

The Kernels finished the 2013 season with an 88-50 record overall. They secured a playoff spot with a second place finish in the first half of their season with a 40-28 record and then improved to a 48-22 record to finish first in the Western Division in the second half of the season.

Their 88 wins equals the most wins for a Cedar Rapids team since joining the Midwest League in 1962. To provide context, if applied to a Major League team’s 162 schedule, the Kernels’ winning percentage would have them on pace to win 103 games.

This playoff thing may be relatively new to Kernels fans, who haven’t seen their team play in the postseason since 2010, but almost half the Kernels’ current roster were with the Appalachian League Champions in Elizabethton a year ago.

In addition to Harrison, infielders Niko Goodrum and Jorge Polanco, outfielders Max Kepler and Adam Brett Walker, catcher Bo Altobelli and pitchers Brett Lee, Jose Berrios, and Hudson Boyd all saw playoff action with Elizabethton. Mason Melotakis, Dallas Gallant and Michael Quesada were also members of that Championship team during the course of the 2012 season.

Melotakis made two postseason appearances with the Beloit Snappers’ Midwest League playoff team at the end of 2012.

A number of other players that spent time with the Kernels this season, including Byron Buxton and Dalton Hicks, were also members of the champions from “E’town”. Hicks hit a walk-off grand slam home run in the 12th inning of the deciding game of the championship series.

Walker believes the postseason experience he and his teammates are getting is part of their development. “Going out there and having a series where everything’s on the line. I think it’s pretty important. It’s an exciting feeling to be able to get that experience.”

With a smile, Walker added, “I know if you get in the big leagues it’s going to be a little bit different.”

Adam Brett Walker lines a home run vs Clinton on September 2

Adam Brett Walker lines a HR vs Clinton on September 2

It has been a long season for the Kernels players, especially those such as Harrison and Walker, who have both been a part of the Kernels since Opening Day, 138 games ago.

That doesn’t matter, according to Harrison. “The playoffs are totally different. You just have to grind it out. If you’re sore, it just goes away. You’ve got so much adrenaline, you’re just ready to go. It’s a good time.”

Quesada believes the Kernels are ready. “We’ve got all the confidence in the world, especially after last year. We’ve got the pitching, got the hitting. It’s all ready to come together at one time.”

Walker remembers that championship feeling and is ready for more. “We know what it feels like. It’s a really great feeling to be able to go out there and win a championship.”

Harrison perhaps summed up the feelings best. “First two years, two rings. That would be pretty cool.”

- JC

Kernels: Life After Buck and a Mike Pelfrey Appearance

Minnesota Twins super-prospect Byron Buxton led the Cedar Rapids Kernels through a pretty amazing first half of their Midwest League season. They led the league’s West Division almost from wire to wire.

Almost.

But on Sunday, June 16, the Kernels gave up a late lead to the Peoria Chiefs and sealed their fate as the Division Runner-Up.

That was the last day that Buxton wore his Kernels home whites on Perfect Game Field at Veterans Memorial Stadium.

After returning from the MWL All-Star Game, Buxton boarded the team bus for the trip to Wisconsin. There, the team swept a four-game series with the Timber Rattlers and did so under the watchful eye of Twins General Manager Terry Ryan.

On that same bus, during the trip home to Cedar Rapids, Kernels Manager Jake Mauer got a phone call from the Twins front office and then told Byron Buxton he was being promoted to the Fort Myers Miracle.

You could understand if the Kernels, without the statistical leader of their offense, had needed to take a step back and regroup. Nobody would have been surprised if they had lost a few games as they searched for a new leadoff hitter and a new center fielder. After all, you can’t just replace a guy who many consider perhaps the top minor league prospect in baseball.

What the Kernels have done instead, however, is continue winning.

Since Buxton’s promotion, the Kernels have swept a four-game series with the Burlington Bees and a three-game series over the Peoria Chiefs. Heading in to Tuesday night’s game at Beloit, the Kernels are 11-0 in the second half of their MWL season.

Yes, it has been an eventful couple of weeks since that gut-wrenching meltdown during the final series of the season’s first half.

Max Kepler gets a secondary lead off first base

Max Kepler gets a secondary lead off first base

It certainly didn’t hurt that the Kernels finally welcomed outfielder Max Kepler to the roster to start the second half of the season.

Kepler, another of the Twins’ top prospects, had been slated to open the season with the Kernels but an elbow strain in March kept him in Fort Myers for extended spring training.

Kepler has only four singles in his 44 at-bats since joining the team. Then again, he also has five doubles, a triple and three home runs. That’s good enough for a .659 slugging percentage over an admittedly limited sample size.

The German native has also helped fill Buxton’s shoes defensively. He’s not likely to make the jaw-dropping defensive plays that Buxton seemed to make almost every other game in the outfield, but Kepler has the speed to cover plenty of outfield grass.

JD Williams

JD Williams

Niko Goodrum and JD Williams have both spent time filling Buxton’s shoes at the top of the Kernels’ batting order. Goodrum’s sporting a second-half on-base percentage (OBP) of .362, which isn’t bad, but check out Williams’ second half slash line: .462 BA/ .517 OBP/ .731 SLG/ 1.248 OPS.

Goodrum’s primary middle infield partner, Jorge Polanco, has hit .375 and put up an OPS of .969 since the All-Star break.

Dalton Hicks hasn’t homered yet in the second half, but he’s hitting .306 with five doubles.

Travis Harrison leads off third base

Travis Harrison leads off third base

Travis Harrison has a pair of home runs and six doubles since his All-Star Game appearance. He’s hitting .371 and has a 1.214 OPS.

Adam Brett Walker has a pair of home runs, as well, to go with his .303 batting average.

The second half success hasn’t been limited to the hitters, either.

The next earned run that Tyler Jones or Steve Gruver give up will be the first an opponent has put up against the two bullpen arms. In fact, opponents have a grand total of one hit off the two pitchers, combined, since the All-Star break.

Jose Berrios has made just one start since the break, but he went seven innings in that start and struck out nine hitters without a single walk, while giving up just five hits.

Brett Lee has struck out 12 over the 13 innings that have comprised his two starts this half.

Christian Powell is sporting a 2-0 record and a 0.69 ERA over the 13 innings he’s thrown during his first two starts of the second half.

And just in case the Kernels players needed a reminder of what it is they’re putting in all this work for, they got a visit this week from Twins starting pitcher Mike Pelfrey, who drove down from the Twin Cities with his family to make a rehab start for the Kernels on Monday night.

Mike Pelfrey warms up in the bullpen before his rehab start in CR

Mike Pelfrey warms up in the bullpen before his rehab start in CR

The plan was for Pelfrey to work five innings or throw 75 pitches, whichever came first.

But after throwing just 54 pitches through five innings, Pelfrey went back to the mound for the sixth.

“We got there in the fourth and the fifth and they said, ‘hey you’re done.’ I said, ‘hey I want to go back out for one more.’ I was just starting to get the command of my fastball back, which is very important to have to succeed, obviously, at the Big League level.”

As Pelfrey freely admitted in an interview before the game, his season didn’t get off to the kind of start he and the Twins hoped it would. But, as Kernels pitching coach Gary Lucas said after the game, “It was fun to watch him. Man, what a pro. What a good pro he is,” said Lucas. “To see how he handled himself and how he interacted with the guys on the bench. Pretty cool.”

It was a pretty cool night for the Kernels organization and their fans, as well.

Mike Pelfrey addresses the CR media (including a scruffy looking blogger in a faded ballcap)

Mike Pelfrey addresses the CR media (including a scruffy looking blogger in a faded ballcap)

According to Kernels General Manager Doug Nelson, a typical Monday crowd at this point in the season is about 1,500 fans. The Kernels drew 2,246 to see Pelfrey pitch, with a sizable portion of that total coming from “walk up” ticket sales. That extra 746 fans may not seem like a lot to those accustomed to seeing Major League attendance totals, but that’s several thousand dollars of extra revenue that the Kernels wouldn’t have had if the Twins hadn’t sent Pelfrey to Cedar Rapids for his rehab start.

Nelson indicated before the game that the topic of rehabilitation assignments had come up last September when the Twins and Kernels were discussing a possible affiliation agreement. While the Twins made no specific promises, they did tell the Kernels that they were comfortable with the facility in Cedar Rapids from a player-safety standpoint and that rehab assignments here would be simply a matter of schedules and timing working out.

With Pelfrey’s appearance, the Twins have now equaled the total number of rehab assignments that the prior Kernels affiliate, the Angels, sent to Cedar Rapids during the entire 20-year relationship between that organization and the Kernels. Angels pitcher Ken Hill joined the Kernels for a rehab stint in 1998.

The Kernels ballboy and the home plate umpire might have had the toughest challenge getting through Pelfrey’s appearance.

Plate umpire and Kernels ballboy switch out MLB balls for MWL balls between innings

Plate umpire and Kernels ballboy switch out MLB balls for MWL balls between innings

Pelfrey brought a supply of Major League baseballs with him to use in Cedar Rapids, which meant every half inning, the ballboy and plate umpire had to completely switch out the umpire’s supply of baseballs to allow Pelfrey to use Major League balls and the Peoria pitchers to use the Midwest League versions they are familiar with.

By winning their tenth straight game this past Sunday, the Kernels earned a free dinner from the team’s Board of Directors. By tradition, the Board treats the team to dinner at the Ox Yoke in the Amana Colonies whenever they reel off 10 straight wins. No date has been set yet, but it’s something the Kernels players are looking forward to.

That’s especially true of Kepler, the German native. The restaurant specializes in traditional German food, something Kepler said he hasn’t had in awhile.

While the team will have to wait for an evening they can fit a trip to the Amana Colonies in to their busy schedule to collect on that meal, they tasted the benefits of Pelfrey’s appearance immediately after the game.

According to Nelson, Pelfrey treated his temporary Kernels teammates to prime rib for their postgame meal in the clubhouse.

– JC

Talking Minor Leaguers With Paul Molitor

Hall of Famer Paul Molitor was in Cedar Rapids over the course of most of the past homestand in his capacity with the Twins organization.

Molitor was gracious enough to answer some questions last Thursday, the first day of his stay in Cedar Rapids, as well as a few follow-up questions Monday afternoon after the final game of the Kernels’ homestand.

I used several excerpts from the Thursday interview in an article posted at MetroSportsReport.com last week, but there was so much good material that I couldn’t fit in to that article. So, I’m sharing all of Molitor’s comments here.

First off, I asked Molitor to describe his formal role these days with the Twins organization.

Molitor: Titles are overrated a little bit. Technically, part of the player development team. I’m the Minor League Coordinator for Baserunning and Infield Play. It’s an opportunity for me to travel around the system and help try to teach, along with the staff on each club and I do focus on those two areas but invariably get involved with some of the hitting aspects.

Our hitting coordinator for minor leagues does an incredible job, considering you have to try to put a hit plan together for about 200 guys.

One of the things I enjoy, in addition to the teaching is that a lot of these guys are transitioning from wherever their roots have brought them from and it’s a process of evolving from sometimes teenagers in to men and so there’s mentoring involved, too. Just how to help these guys develop an understanding of the professional life style. We try to do what we can to try to help them progress in those areas, too.

Paul Molitor (4) observing Kernels C Jhonatan Arias (23) take batting practice

Paul Molitor (4) observing Kernels C Jhonatan Arias (23) take batting practice

I mentioned that a lot is made about players having to transition to using wood bats and asked Molitor if he thought that was toughest thing about transitioning to the professional game for young players.

Molitor: Some of the collegiate kids have had a chance to play in wood bat leagues in the summer time.

A lot of times it’s a big transition just from maybe never having left home, particularly maybe never left your country and you have to try to claw your way in to professional ball and learn a system that particular organization teaches.

We don’t try to overwhelm them. We let them play a little bit in the beginning til we kind of get a feel for who they are and what they do, what they do well and what we need to improve on. But the transition can be tough, depending on the guy’s experience.

The college guys are usually better at understanding how to carry themselves and how to go about their business day to day.

Another change is that very few of these kids have played in seasons where there’s 140 games so it’s understanding how to maintain and prepare yourself to withstand the rigors of a professional season.

I asked if playing baseball in the upper midwest in April was difficult for players entering their first season of “full season” professional baseball.

Molitor: The guys from warm climates, whether its Florida, California, Texas or the Dominican or Puerto Rico, you throw them up here in April and it’s not only a culture shock, but the weather is something they really never had to play in those type of conditions.

So that’s a process. We see a lot of guys that haven’t had that experience start a little bit slower, just adapting to the weather itself.

I jokingly pointed out that Byron Buxton is a southern guy that didn’t seem to take long to adjust.

Molitor: He’s just a rare individual with a skill set that’s off the charts.

I saw him last year in instructional ball for a little bit and you could see the rawness of a high school kid, but somehow this winter I think he put a lot of time in to conditioning and preparation. He was much more advanced this spring than I expected him to be and he’s been able to carry it undoubtedly in to the first 9-10 weeks of the season.

You know, he’s got things to work on I’m sure. I’m looking forward to seeing him now compared to even two months ago. Over the next five days. I’ll be watching particularly how he handles himself on the basepaths.

On a professional grading scale of 2-8, he’s an 8 runner and I haven’t for the past three decades seen many players that can compete with him in terms of just raw speed. Now how he can translate that in to base stealing is going to be the key.

Obviously, this year he’s had over 30 attempts. He’s been caught some, but he’s been fairly successful for a young guy and probably in some ways, in this league, he’s been outrunning the ball.

There’s two parts of base stealing: The mechanical, finding the best way to get your body to accelerate from a standstill position; and then there’s the mental side of understanding how they’re trying to slow you down and picking good pitches, good counts, reading pitchers pick-off moves, all those type of things.

A lot of times, when you get caught is when you should learn the most. Whether you didn’t get a good jump or you ran on a pitch out or you didn’t anticipate the guy going home or you were tentative. There’s a lot of ways to learn to get better. So it’s a process. The more you do it, the better you get at it.

We’re glad to see he’s out running. At least not having fear in athat area to this point.

Paul Molitor hitting ground balls to Kernels 3B Travis Harrison

Paul Molitor hitting ground balls to Kernels 3B Travis Harrison

I asked Molitor for his thoughts on Kernels third baseman Travis Harrison, who is still somewhat learning the position.

Molitor: Ive been around him some, mostly spring traning and instructional ball. I’m sure there’s some adaption for him going on.

He has relatively good hands. I think his footwork is something that needs to be improved. Being so close in proximity to home plate, you don’t have a lot of time to react to get your body in position to catch the ball. The better he can get control of his feet and be in the right spot, his hands are going to be OK.

Throwing, he’s had some issues at times with consistency. He’s a little bit mechanical, but I think he’s learning that if he doesn’t try to guide the ball and throws it, he’s better off.

So those are areas where we expect young kids to make errors and just like the baserunning, when you make mistakes, you figure out why and hopefully you can make adjustments.

I asked for Molitor’s thoughts concerning the defensive progress at third base of Harrison, as compared to Miguel Sano (this was a couple of days prior to Sano’s promotion to AA).

Molitor: I think that’s a fair question.

We’re all hoping that Sano, who’s a little farther along in the organization and in growth, in terms of getting close to the Major Leagues. Not unexpectedly, he made a ton of errors last year, his first year of being a third baseman in a full season and it was a plethora of mistakes.

It was misreading balls, it was rushing balls, it was throwing balls he shouldn’t have thrown. Trying to force an out when it wasn’t there.

But having seen him twice already this year, he’s made maybe a dozen errors so far and a lot of them are similar things.

But he’s been very diligent and asking for extra work and trying to correct mistakes.

I’m hoping his future is as a third baseman.

Travis, it’s a little bit early to see how it pans out. A lot of times, you can play three or four years in the minor leagues and then you get to the Big Leagues and there’s no room in that position and all of a sudden you’ve got to maybe transition. So you kind of hope that you get these guys a little bit more well-rounded. As far as their strength position, you want to try to see them develop that the most.

After the game on Monday, a Kernels win that was broadcast back to the Twin Cities on Fox Sports North, I asked Molitor about his impressions after having spent five days with the Kernels in Cedar Rapids.

Molitor: Well it was good to see them bounce back after three tough losses.

I feel like we got some things accomplished with some of the infielders defensively.

It was good to see (Candido) Pimentel back out there today. He had a better day. He still had one play where he got a little anxious about turning his back to the runner and he didn’t keep his eye on the ball and that’s kind of one of the things he’s got to work on is just catching the ball and understanding the speed of the baserunners on the play.

And then with baserunning, we had some guys out working on their jumps today and they’ve been aggressive trying to steal, so I’m pleased with that.

But yeah, I had a lot of fun seeing these guys and kind of seeing where they’re at at this point in the season and hopefully I’ll get a chance to get back and see them again.

Since Molitor had indicated he would be working with Byron Buxton on his base stealing, I asked if we should blame him for Buxton being picked off first base during Monday’s game (yes, I was kidding).

Molitor: You can blame me for that if you want. The (pitcher) did a nice job of holding the ball. I think he kind of built a little tension. The longer the guy holds it, you really have to concentrate on staying relaxed and he might have given him a little bit of a balk move, but that’s, again, learning time.

A hitter can help your baserunner out when he’s holding the ball. Call a time out, things like that. But that’s how you learn.

I asked for Molitor’s impression of Jorge Polanco, specifically whether he thinks Polanco can stick at shortstop.

Molitor: You know, I’ve seen him a fair amount and his arm’s probably competent at short but I still think he probably profiles a little better at second base in the long run.

Working on his footwork a little bit. He can get a little false step on his breaks to the ball and it seems like balls you think he might have a chance to get he comes up a little bit short. So we’ll try to improve his range a little bit and give him a chance.

At 19, it’s certainly too early to close the book on any one position.

Offensively, he’s just getting a little bit stronger and he’s got nice loose hands at the plate and being a switch hitter is generally to his advantage.

But I keep trying to keep them versatile in the middle of the field and hopefully one of the positions will pan out. But I have a feeling probably second base in the long run.

Since we had discussed third baseman Travis Harrison earlier, I asked if he had any final impressions of Harrison.

Molitor: He’s got a great attitude about work ethic and he wants to get better.

I think the main thing for him is going to continue to work on his footwork so his range is competent to stay over there, too. But his throwing’s improved. He’s a lot more accurate. I think he’s comfortable over there.

He’s still feeling for positioning a little bit. Sometimes I catch him maybe not quite in the right spot. There’s a reason you are where you are on every pitch and I think he’s learning that and trying to take some pride in it.

It was a pleasure to talk a little baseball with Paul Molitor and I appreciate him taking the time to answer questions. I think the thought he put in to his comments clearly demonstrates just how seriously he takes his work with the Twins’ young players and how much he enjoys doing what he’s doing. – JC

Kernels Video: Harrison Walkoff Single Beats Cougars

For the second consecutive night, the Cedar Rapids Kernels won a game in dramatic fashion when third baseman Travis Harrison hit a walkoff single down the left field line in the bottom of the 12th inning to beat the Cubs affiliate in the Midwest League, the Kane County Cougars.

The video below captures Harrison’s apparent attempt to hit manager Jake Mauer with a foul ball just before driving in the winning run. Failing to do so, he settled for a single down the left field line to score Jorge Polanco with the game winning run. Polanco had walked to start the inning and advanced to second base via a sacrifice bunt by cleanup hitter Dalton Hicks.
 

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.

Kernels: Hot Starts in Cold Weather

I don’t know who to see about this, but the Twins and Kernels should NOT be allowed to have off-days on the same day! That’s what happened yesterday. So, without anything really “new” to write about either team, I’m posting the following article on the Kernels’ hot start. Under an agreement with MetroSportsReport.com, my alter ego, SD Buhr, writes a weekly “Kernels Update” for TwinsDaily.com. The following is a slightly updated version of what was posted yesterday on both sites and is republished here with permission of MSR. – JC

By SD Buhr

There is no shortage of great story lines through the first three weeks of the Cedar Rapids Kernels’ inaugural season as the Minnesota Twins Class A affiliate in the Midwest League.

To begin with, the Kernels (12-5) sit atop the MWL Western Division standings, with a one-game lead over the Quad City River Bandits (Astros). Cedar Rapids has had success both at home (5-2) and on the road (7-3).

The biggest story of the first three weeks of the MWL season has undoubtedly been the weather. The Kernels have played only 17 games at this point and that’s more than seven of the other 15 MWL teams have played. Yesterday (Wednesday, April 24) was supposed to be the first scheduled off-day of the Kernels’ season. With all of the weather-related postponements and cancellations, it was instead the seventh day Kernels players will have not played baseball since Opening Day.

Byron Buxton

Byron Buxton

Understandably, the early attention on the field has been focused on center fielder Byron Buxton, the Twins’ #1 draft pick a year ago. Buxton got off to an amazing start with the bat, but it was inevitable that he would cool off. He has just three hits in his last 15 At-Bats over the Kernels most recent four games. That’s dropped his Batting Average all the way down to… .404. He’s reached base at a .514 rate and has two doubles, two triples and two home runs to assemble a 1.128 On-Base Plus Slugging percentage (OPS). He also has seven stolen bases. If this is the worst “slump” Buxton has to go through, he’s going to have a fun season.

But Buxton isn’t the only Kernels hitter putting up impressive numbers.

First baseman Dalton Hicks has put together a pretty good start of his own, as well. His .310 Batting Average is backed up by seven doubles and a team-leading three home runs.

Drew Leachman went hitless in five At-Bats on on Opening Night and spent the next couple of weeks on the Disabled List after banging up his shoulder in that first game. Leachman has nine hits in 21 At-Bats for a .429 average since being reactivated, with a double, a triple and four RBI in five games. (Leachman received some congratulatory tweets from teammates late Tuesday night and early Wednesday indicating he may have gotten called up to Fort Myers. As of Wednesday afternoon, a source with the Kernels indicated they had not received any official word from the Twins on the move.)

In addition to Buxton, Hicks and Leachman, there are five additional Kernels hitting at .270 or better:

Niko Goodrum is hitting at a .288 clip with five doubles and a .383 On-Base Percentage (OBP).

Jorge Polanco has four doubles and a home run, along with 11 RBI, to go with his .281 Batting Average.

Adam Walker also has a .281 average and 11 RBI to go with his two doubles, one triple and two home runs.

Travis Harrison shares the team lead in doubles with Hicks at seven and has a pair of home runs, as well. He’s hitting .271 on the season.

J. D. Williams is hitting .270, but he’s parlayed three doubles and a pair of home runs, along with 11 walks, in to a .429 OBP and an OPS of .942. That’s some pretty good work, especially coming from the guy who’s held down the #9 spot in the batting order most of the young season.

Perhaps the biggest Kernels news this week was the debut of Jose Berrios, one of the top starting pitching prospects in the Twins organization. Berrios threw five innings on Monday night against the Burlington Bees. He struck out five Bees hitters, but also gave up seven hits and walked a pair.

Jose Berrios

Jose Berrios

If Berrios, who will still be just 18 years old for another month, was a bit over-excited for his first start, it would be understandable. He had trouble getting his fastball down in the strike zone the first couple of innings, but finished strong enough to be credited with the Win in the Kernels’ 8-4 win over Burlington.

Berrios’ fastball reportedly hit 96 mph early in the game, but one scout’s radar gun consistently recorded it at 91-93 mph during his last two innings of work. However, it’s possible that his breaking ball was more impressive. It had a late, sharp, break that buckled more than one set of Bees’ knees.

In the end, Berrios may turn out to be the biggest pitching story this season for the Kernels, but a number of his fellow pitchers are setting a pretty high standard for him to meet.

Tyler Duffey hasn’t been able to repeat the seven-perfect-innings performance of his first start of the season, but he’s continued to pitch well. Through 19.2 innings of work covering three starts, he’s put up a 2.29 ERA, striking out 17 while walking only three hitters. He’s also put up a 0.661 WHIP (Walks + Hits per Inning Pitched).

Mason Melotakis has put up a 2.84 ERA in his three starts, racking up 11 strikeouts in just 12. 2 innings of work and Hudson Boyd, while struggling with control at times, has also managed to miss bats. Boyd has struck out a dozen hitters in 14 innings during his three starts.

David Hurlbut appears to be the pitcher bumped from the rotation to the bullpen to make room for Berrios (though that could change with the promotion of Taylor Rogers to Fort Myers this week). Hurlbut has put up a 3.00 ERA and a 0.933 WHIP in 15 innings of work during four appearances (two of them starts).

The weather situation has left Brett Lee, who started the season penciled in as the Kernels sixth starting pitcher in a six-man rotation, with just one start in the first three weeks of the season. He’s made two other appearances in relief roles. Regardless of how he’s entered the game, however, Lee has kept his opponents from scoring. He’s sporting a perfect 0.00 ERA over eight innings of work, while striking out seven hitters without surrendering a walk.

Steven Gruver has posted a 0.64 ERA in his four appearances, three of which came out of the bullpen, while the other came as an emergency starter. That start was necessitated by weather forcing the Kernels to play seven games in a period of just four days. Gruver has struck out 16 hitters and walked just two in 14 innings.

Gruver, along with Tyler Jones, Tim Atherton, Manuel Soliman and Chris Mazza, have anchored a very effective Kernels bullpen. Gruver, Jones, Atherton and Mazza have all struck out more than a hitter per inning of work.

Manager Jake Mauer’s group of Kernels are off to a very good start, made even more impressive by the conditions in which they’ve had to play and the effect the weather has had on their schedule. It should be really interesting to see how things come together when the weather turns warm and the fans start to fill up the ballpark.

The Kernels open up a six game homestand tonight with a 6:35 game against the Dodgers’ MWL affiliate, the Great Lakes Loons.