Stewart, Harrison Quieting Critics?

There’s nothing like having a really bad product at the Major League level to focus fans’ attention on prospects in an organization’s minor league system and that’s exactly what has happened in Twinsville over the past several years.

Many Twins fans that have turned their primary attention to the club’s prospects have, for the past couple of years, been somewhat underwhelmed by the stat lines of pitcher Kohl Stewart and outfielder Travis Harrison, to the point where I mentioned in my offseason “top prospects” article that both players were approaching career crossroads.

The criticisms of Stewart were almost entirely centered on his low strikeout rates and Harrison wasn’t living up to some peoples’ expectations offensively, especially with regard to power numbers.

I wrapped up my article in February with the following:

Both of these young players undoubtedly know they’ve reached the point where they need to show everyone just why the Twins scouts liked them enough to use very high draft picks on them as they were coming out of high school. They’re both hard workers.

Don’t be surprised if, a year from now, we are all talking about how they both had breakout seasons and wondering how the Twins are going to find big league spots for them in the near future.

Well, we aren’t anywhere close to a year down the road, as the minor league season is just under 25% complete, but it’s worth checking in on the early returns for both players, each of which is, for the first time in their respective careers, repeating a level of minor league ball; Stewart at advanced-A Fort Myers and Harrison at AA Chattanooga.

Travis Harrison
Travis Harrison (Photo: Steve Buhr)

Harrison still hasn’t shown pronounced home run power, though he does have two home runs for the Lookouts. That would project to eight for the season, which would be his highest total since smacking 15 for Class A Cedar Rapids in 2013, but still might be considered lower than some would have expected. Still, he is just 23 years old, so there’s plenty of time to see more power develop and home runs are just about the only thing he’s not hitting this season.

Harrison is hitting .297 in 29 games for Chattanooga, which is 57 points higher than his .240 average in 2015 and he’s slugging almost 50 points higher, as well. He’s also in the midst of an impressive stretch of offensive production, hitting .405 in his last ten games, during which he’s had six multi-hit games. He’s still striking out more than you’d like to see, but on balance, you’d have to be encouraged by his 2016 season to-date.

In 2015, Stewart threw by far more innings (129.1) than he had ever thrown since he passed on a scholarship to play quarterback for Texas A&M to sign with the Twins as their 2014 first round draft choice, but he continued to strike out barely one batter for every couple of innings he toed the mound.

Kohl Stewart (Photo: Steve Buhr)
Kohl Stewart (Photo: Steve Buhr)

He’s on pace to throw about 140 innings in 2016 (and could be more if he’s promoted to AA, where the Twins are less inclined to utilize a 6-man starting rotation than they are at the Class A levels). More importantly (to many, anyway) Stewart is also on pace to strike out over 130 batters, which would nearly double his K total from a season ago.

Stewart has managed to pick up his strikeout rate without suffering in other areas. He’s carrying a 2.08 ERA through his first six starts and has given up just one home run on the year.

As with Harrison, we tend to forget just how young Stewart is because we’ve been watching and talking about him for years, but he’ll still be just 21 years old when the minor league seasons wrap up in September. Even if he doesn’t maintain his early strikeout rate (which is certainly possible, especially if he’s eventually promoted to AA this summer), he has demonstrated that he’s capable of sitting batters down.   For a 21-year-old, that’s enough to satisfy me for now.

It’s certainly premature to project certain big league stardom for either Harrison or Stewart, but I predicted we would see breakout seasons from both in 2016 and I certainly like the way they’ve started out.

The Prospects of Top Prospects

I haven’t published a “Twins Top 15 Prospects List” this offseason, yet. There are plenty of other writers who do and many of them probably have better insight into who the top names should be than I do.

This should be the last year that Byron Buxton's name shows up on any "Top Prospect" list.
This should be the last year that Byron Buxton’s name shows up on any “Top Prospect” list.

I didn’t really make a conscious decision not to do a list this year. I just didn’t get around to it, until now.

So I’m going to provide my list today, but I’m not going to focus a lot on the players individually. Instead, I’m just going to share some thoughts on the Twins’ organizational depth, as a whole, and a few players that I’m anxious to follow in 2016, for a variety of reasons.

So, here’s my list, with the levels each player played at last season, as well as their ranking, in parens, from my personal rankings a year ago.

1. Byron Buxton OF – AA, AAA, MLB (2)
2. Jose Berrios SP – AA, AAA (4)
3. Max Kepler OF/1B – High A, AA, MLB (11)
4. Byung Ho Park 1B/DH – Korea (NR – late 2015 FA sign)
5. Tyler Jay SP/RP – High A (NR – 2015 draft)
6. Stephen Gonsalves SP – Low A, High A (12)
7. Nick Gordon SS – Low A (9)
8. Jorge Polanco 2B/SS – AA, AAA, MLB (6)
9. Engelb Vielma – SS High A (NR)
10. Taylor Rogers SP – AAA (NR)
11. Lewis Thorpe – SP Injured (NR)
12. Nick Burdi – RP High A, AA (10)
13. Jake Reed – RP High A, AA (NR)
14. Kohl Stewart – SP High A (8)
15. J.T. Chargois – RP High A. AA (NR)

As always, there are a few players that, in retrospect, I can’t believe there wasn’t room for on this list. For example, the Twins have three catching prospects that I’m certain would easily find themselves on the Top 15 list of a number of other organizations. Stewart Turner, Mitch Garver and Brian Navarreto all have legitimate shots to become MLB starting catchers. How many other teams have three catchers you can say that about that are rising up through the ranks in consecutive levels?

I don’t typically put many relief pitchers on my list, but the crew of outstanding young bullpen arms that has risen to the Major League threshold has forced me to include Burdi, Reed and Chargois. Even Jay and Rogers could end up pen arms, but their rankings are based on projections as starters, especially with regard to Jay. In fact, however, as I’ll explain below, this list doesn’t even include every young relief arm that has a legitimate chance to establish himself as a big leaguer this season.

This is all one way of saying that I think that all of the concern out there about the Twins not acquiring relief pitching on the free agent or trade market is going to turn out to be much ado about nothing. These guys are the real deal.

The case of Adam Brett Walker probably deserves an entire post of its own. He’s another guy that would easily be in the Top 15 of many, if not most, teams. He probably should be in this one, too, and certainly would be if there weren’t so many outstanding relief pitchers that are literally on the big league club’s doorstep. The strikeouts are a huge red flag, but I’m a Walker fan. I believe he will be a Major League ballplayer one day and probably a good one.

Generally, you probably won’t notice a lot of difference between my top 15 and anyone else’s, but there’s one name on the list that I think I’m higher on than most and that’s shortstop Engelb Vielma, who spent his 2015 entirely with the Fort Myers Miracle in the High A Florida State League.

A lot of conversations about the Twins’ shortstop position go something like this: “It’s great that Eduardo Escobar has established himself as a legitimate starting shortstop so he can hold down the position until Nick Gordon is ready.”

Occasionally, someone will point out that Jorge Polanco is ready to hit big league pitching right now and might be ready to claim the shortstop position soon. Others opine that Polanco will never have the arm to be a full time MLB shortstop.

Nick Gordon sits atop a deep list of middle infield prospects in the Twins organization.
Nick Gordon sits atop a deep list of middle infield prospects in the Twins organization.

Most shortstop discussions will go on for a long time before anyone brings up Vielma (if his name comes up at all). That’s understandable. He wasn’t a first round draft pick like Gordon or a $750,000 international free agent signing like Polanco. At 5′ 11″ and MAYBE 150 pounds (if he weighs in immediately after a good meal), you could be forgiven for mistaking Vielma for his team’s batboy – until you see him virtually inhale any ground ball hit remotely close to him and throw rockets to first base.

If baseball was an offense/defense platoon game, like football is, there’s a good chance Engelb Vielma would already be the Twins’ shortstop. He’s that good in the field. The question has always been, “will he hit?”

Well, guess what? He hit .268 in Cedar Rapids in 2014 and followed that up with a .270 clip in Fort Myers. Both Polanco and Gordon are projected to hit a bit better and both will generate more power, but if you ask me who is most likely to eventually succeed Escobar as the Twins’ starting shortstop, I’ll put my money on Vielma. If Gordon continues to progress, as well, Vielma will make a terrific utility infielder (or a valuable trade chip).

Much has been written about how deep the Twins’ minor league organization remains, despite the graduations of players like Miguel Sano and Eddie Rosario in 2015 and the likely graduations of Buxton, Berrios and, perhaps, others in 2016. Indeed, half (or more) of my Top 15 this year could spend significant time with the Twins this season.

General Manager Terry Ryan made reference to the excitement of finally seeing some of these prospects graduate into being productive Twins during a Q&A session with fans during Twinsfest this past weekend. He was quick to add that he was aware that fans are tired of hearing about prospects.

One couldn’t help but notice the quiet, yet pronounced, nod in agreement from the man sitting to Ryan’s left on the stage – owner Jim Pohlad.

Pohlad has patiently watched his GM trade away fan favorites (and, according the owner, many of his own personal favorite players) and trusted that his patience will be rewarded as the club’s best prospects begin to arrive. This may be the year that his patience is rewarded.

In fact, it may be the first of many rewarding seasons, because the “graduating class” this season won’t necessarily be limited to the names on anyone’s top prospect list.

Alex Meyer’s name has fallen off this list, but he will almost certainly finally make his MLB debut, either in the Twins rotation or (more likely) in the bullpen.

Another bullpen option not listed is lefty Mason Melotakis. When we last saw him, he was throwing his mid-90s fastball past AA hitters in 2014. He had Tommy John surgery in October of that year and the Twins were so impressed with his recovery that they felt the need to add him to their 40-man roster this offseason, rather than risk losing him to another team in the Rule 5 draft. If he’s as good in March as the reports about him were in November, he could compete with the higher ranked relievers to be the first among the group to debut with the Twins.

Finally, there are two players I want to focus some special attention on, because the Twins’ front office certainly will be focusing on them as the new season gets underway.

The careers of pitcher Kohl Stewart and outfielder Travis Harrison could be approaching crossroads.

Stewart was the Twins’ first round pick (5th overall) in 2013 and Harrison was a compensation round pick (50th overall) in 2011. Both were high schoolers, so you wouldn’t say that the fact that they aren’t being mentioned as potential big leaguers in 2016 is necessarily a big red flag, but both players have spent time higher on “top prospect” lists than where you will find them this year.

Stewart has more breathing room than Harrison simply because he was chosen 46 spots higher (and paid about $3.5 million more in bonus money) than Harrison and is two years younger than the outfielder.

Still, in an era where the strikeout is king, Stewart has not missed bats at the rate that scouts (and fans) would like to see. He struck out fewer than five batters per nine innings for the Miracle in 2015. As has often been pointed out, Stewart didn’t focus on baseball until after graduating from high school. Before that, he spent as much time, if not more, honing his quarterbacking skills as he did his pitching mechanics.

Stewart’s 129 1/3 innings of work in 2015 was far and away the most time he has ever spent on a pitcher’s mound in one year. At just 21 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to begin to wow the organization with his stuff and move closer to realizing his enormous potential. But it might be a good idea to begin doing that in 2016 because another year of, “what’s wrong with Stewart?” talk among fans – and scouts – might not be a positive thing for his career.

Similarly, it’s hard to believe that Harrison is still just 23 years old, because it feels like we’ve been discussing him forever.

After signing late in 2011, Harrison debuted with Elizabethton in 2012 and has made progress one step at a time ever since. He played full seasons in Cedar Rapids (2013), Fort Myers (2014) and Chattanooga (2015), always against competition that was at least a year or two older than he was.

So, if he has made steady progress up the organizational ladder and is still relatively young, why should we consider Harrison’s career to be approaching a crossroads? It’s not a matter of him showing signs of failure. Like Stewart, it comes down to the player not yet having met certain expectations.

Harrison launched 15 home runs for Cedar Rapids in 2013 (16, if you count one walk-off “single” that left the park but wasn’t credited as a home run because one of the runners on base abandoned his trip around the bases to join the team’s celebration on the field) and it appeared that the Twins had found themselves a future power hitter. However, his home run totals have dropped to three and five round-trippers in the two seasons since leaving Cedar Rapids.

He’s very strong and has been among his team’s leaders in doubles virtually every season, so it’s quite possible that those doubles will begin finding the extra few feet of distance to clear the fences. If so, Harrison could quickly enter any conversation about the Twins’ “outfield of the future.” But the clock is ticking, because he’ll be a minor league free agent after 2017 and because, let’s face it, there are already a few pretty good young outfielders in the process of arriving at Target Field ahead of him.

Both of these young players undoubtedly know they’ve reached the point where they need to show everyone just why the Twins scouts liked them enough to use very high draft picks on them as they were coming out of high school. They’re both hard workers.

Don’t be surprised if, a year from now, we are all talking about how they both had breakout seasons and wondering how the Twins are going to find big league spots for them in the near future.

-JC

JC’s Top 15 Twins Prospects: 2014-15

Ho Ho Ho. Tis the season for being merry and jolly and all that stuff.

It’s also the season for publishing “top prospect” lists. Actually, it’s a bit late in the season for doing this, but I just haven’t felt like doing a lot of writing lately. So sue me.

Miguel Sano
Miguel Sano

This is the fourth year that I’ve put out my own list. I’m not really sure WHY I do it. It’s not like we really need yet another such list and the other people who tout their lists know their stuff better than I do (in many cases, anyway). So let’s just say I do this for fun.

As I was preparing this list, I went back and looked at the lists I’ve put together previously. I did a Top 10 before the 2012 season and Top 15 lists before 2013 and 2014.

It’s interesting (to me anyway) that this is the third consecutive season that I’ve had the same three prospects ranked 1 through 3 in some order or another. They have swapped spots a bit between them, but Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton and Alex Meyer have been in my top 3 spots for three straight years.

It’s more than a little exciting to realize that all three have the potential to make their Major League debuts in 2015.

Without further ado, here’s the list:

  1. Miguel Sano – 3B – Why? I’m more optimistic that he won’t be a liability defensively than I have been previously, but more importantly, I believe his injury is highly unlikely to preclude him from reaching his ceiling.
  2. Byron Buxton – CF – Why? I have some (not a lot, but some) concern that his wrist injuries could become chronic wrist issues that certainly could affect his ceiling as an outfielder and as a hitter. It’s not a huge concern, for me, but it’s enough that I gave the top spot to Sano, who I have no such concerns about.
  3. Alex Meyer – SP – A lot of people are dropping Meyer and moving Berrios up ahead of him based on a year when Meyer didn’t break through as hoped and had some injury issues, while Berrios had a breakout year. I still think Meyer’s ceiling is a notch above Berrios’.
  4. Jose Berrios – SP – But, yeah, Berrios DID have a really good year. He’s a workout fiend and clearly is intent on getting the most out of his opportunity to pitch professionally, despite not being the prototypically tall athlete that is in vogue around the league.
  5. Eddie Rosario – OF – It was nearly a lost year for Rosario after his suspension and only getting half a season in during the summer, but he reclaimed his value with a strong Arizona Fall League. I’m probably a litte higher on him than most people.
  6. Jorge Polanco – MIF – Yes, his cup of coffee with the Twins was more a matter of convenience, since he was on the 40-man roster, than reflective of his current abilities, but he did have a very strong season.
  7. Trevor May – SP – His ceiling might be as a #3 starter, but he’ll seriously contend for a Twins rotation spot in spring training this season. That, in itself, warrants a spot in the top 10 prospects.
  8. Kohl Stewart – SP – Unlike May, Stewart is at least a couple of years away from even being considered for a spot with the Twins, but even though his strikeout rate in 2014 was lower than hoped for, he remains a top of the rotation prospect.
  9. Nick Gordon – SS – The 2014 first round pick had a very good short-season at Elizabethton. If he shows even more in a full season this year, he’ll move up this list quickly.
  10. Nick Burdi – RP – The 2014 2nd round pick has legitimate 100 mph potential and an unfair slider. Should pitch for the Twins at some point in 2015.
  11. Max Kepler – OF – We are seeing more flashes of promise on the potential that’s been talked about for years. He needs a breakout season in 2015.
  12. Stephen Gonsalves – SP – The lefty showed real talent against Midwest League hitters after joining Cedar Rapids and was very young for the level.
  13. Chih-Wei Hu – SP – I’m probably the only one you will find ranking Hu in the top 15, but he showed me more command  – of more pitches – and more mound maturity – than any other starting pitcher in Cedar Rapids in 2014, and that’s saying something.
  14. Travis Harrison – OF – Harrison is dropping out of the top 15 on some lists, seemingly due to his lack of home runs in 2014. I understand that, but I felt Harrison’s biggest need going in to last year was to cut his strikeouts down and develop more as a hitter who can deliver to all fields with some authority. He did both. The home runs will come, he didn’t get “weaker.”
  15. Stuart Turner – C – I have to say, it is very difficult to pick a #15 for this list. I’m going with Turner primarily because he skipped low-A and went to the Miracle and, after a slow start at the plate, he hit better later and reports are he was as good as advertised as a receiver.

It is almost impossible for me to believe that I’ve created a Top 15 Twins Prospects list that does not include Lewis Thorpe, Jake Reed, Mitch Garver, Adam Brett Walker and Taylor Rogers.

I want to see Thorpe recover from his elbow issue without requiring surgery before I give him a spot in the top 15 which he otherwise deserves and I want to see Walker be successful against pitchers at least one level higher, given his issues with the strikeouts.

With Reed, Garver and Rogers, though, it was simply a case of running out of room. If they stay healthy, I expect every one of those guys to play Major League baseball (hopefully for the Twins). If you have an organization where those guys are not among your top 15 prospects, you’ve got a damn good pipeline going.

The Twins have a damn good pipeline going.

JC

Kernels in a Dogfight for MWL Postseason Spot

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then there’s the Cedar Rapids Kernels.

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

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

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

They haven’t lost a series since.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Quesada
Michael Quesada

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

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

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

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

Alex Swim
Alex Swim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aaron Slegers
Aaron Slegers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chih-Wei Hu
Chih-Wei Hu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Few Silver Linings for Kernels

June has not been kind to the Cedar Rapids Kernels.

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

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

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

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

Mitch Garver
Mitch Garver

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

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

Chad Christensen
Chad Christensen

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kohl Stewart
Kohl Stewart

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

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

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

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

Todd Van Steensel
Todd Van Steensel

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

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

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

Alex Muren
Alex Muren

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– JC

Thorpe, Romero Make Kernels Debuts

As the Cedar Rapids Kernels wrap up the final stretch of the first half of their 2014 Midwest League season, the parent Minnesota Twins sent them some needed starting pitching help in the form of two teenage pitching prospects.

Australian 18-year old lefty Lewis Thorpe and right-hander Fernando Romero, a 19-year old out of the Dominican Republic joined the Kernels from extended spring training last week and both were immediately inserted in to the starting rotation by manager Jake Mauer and pitching coach Ivan Arteaga.

Lewis Thorpe
Lewis Thorpe

Thorpe was the 6th ranked prospect in the Twins organization by MLB.com during the offseason and #7 on Baseball America’s list of Twins top prospects.

Romero was also among the organization’s top 15 prospects by both organizations coming in to the year.

Romero was the first of the pair to debut, getting a start on Thursday on the road in Appleton WI against the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers. The righty went five full innings, giving up a pair of earned runs on seven hits and one walk. He struck out six Rattler batters. The Kernels lost the game 7-4 but Romero got a no-decision, leaving the game with the score tied at 2-2.

Thorpe had less luck in his first start with the Kernels, picking up a loss in Kane County on Saturday as the Kernels fell to the Cougars, 5-2. All five runs were charged to Thorpe and all were earned. He gave up six hits, walked three and struck out just one batter in 4.2 innings.

It makes for an ugly stat line for Thorpe, but that’s more than a little misleading.

One very close pitch at the knees being called ball four instead of strike three was the difference between escaping the fifth inning relatively unscathed and getting the hook. He left the game with two runs across and bases loaded in the home half of the fifth inning, but all three baserunners came around to score after he departed.

Afterward, Arteaga agreed that Thorpe looked much better than his stat line would indicate.

“He got through two outs in the fifth inning, but just ran out of gas, unfortunately,” said Arteaga. “I think he deserved better. His line doesn’t say what he actually looked like. One thing is his line, but another thing is what he actually did and how he looked.

“He had poise. Obviously he needs a little work with the breaking ball but his fastball (command) isn’t going to be a problem. He throws the ball well. Being the first time and all, I think that I’m very pleased with what I saw.”

Arteaga was also happy with his first look at Romero since spring training in March.

Fernando Romero
Fernando Romero

“He’s got one of those arms that make you go, ‘wow,’ Arteaga said, adding that Romero throws, “94 to 99 (mph). He was able to throw a hard slider and a couple of them were sharp, especially against right-handed hitters. Coming over for the first time, I thought he looked really good.”

Arteaga, whose rotation has struggled at times through much of the season, was heartened by his first look at the new additions.

“It’s very encouraging, to have those two guys join the rotation – very encouraging for everybody because they showed that they will compete. They will throw it over and they’re going to be just fine, as advertised.

“I saw Romero and Thorpe during spring training. It was just basically a matter of time before they were going to join us and the time has come. They’re here and they’re doing really well.”

Pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and pitcher Ethan Mildren
Pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and pitcher Ethan Mildren

Thorpe and Romero will form one-third of the Kernels’ six-man rotation going forward, joining four pitchers selected by the Twins in the 2013 First Year Player Draft: Kohl Stewart (1st round), Ryan Eades (2nd round), Aaron Slegers (5th round) and Ethan Mildren (12th round).

The Kernels, who sat in seventh place in the eight-team Western Division of the MWL coming out of the weekend, will get a chance to start over with a clean slate as the league divides their season in to two halves with the second half starting on Thursday, June 19, after next week’s MWL All-Star Game. – JC

Interview with Twins GM Terry Ryan – Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

Terry Ryan
Terry Ryan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kohl Stewart Reflects on His First Year as a Professional

The 2014 MLB First Year Amateur Player Draft is right around the corner and hundreds of high school and college ballplayers are counting the hours before the Houston Astros go on the clock with the first pick of the draft on Thursday, June 5.

One year ago, Kohl Stewart was an 18 year-old pitcher anxiously awaiting the draft. Today, Stewart, who was selected by the Minnesota Twins with the fourth overall pick of the first round, is a couple of months in to his first full year of professional baseball.

Kohl Stewart
Kohl Stewart

Stewart sat recently and reflected on the draft a year ago and his progress as a starting pitcher this season with the Cedar Rapids Kernels, the Twins’ Class A affiliate in the Midwest League.

“I think that this time last year, we had just lost in the state finals in baseball,” recalled Stewart. “Then I was graduating from school and the draft was coming up. I was spending hours with my agent talking about what I wanted to do. There were a million different scenarios playing over in my head. I remember thinking, ‘if this happens, if this guy goes here and if this guy goes here.’”

Those “scenarios” Stewart speaks of went beyond those of most of his peers. While all of the high school ballplayers likely to be selected near the top of the draft have the option of postponing their professional careers in favor of playing college baseball, Stewart had an additional option. He had a scholarship offer from Texas A&M football coach Kevin Sumlin to play quarterback for the Aggies.

Stewart and his agent certainly knew he’d be selected early on draft night. But that doesn’t mean he had made up his mind weeks before the draft that he’d be signing with whatever team chose him.

As draft day neared, however, things seemed to come more in to focus.

“I expected to go to A&M,” acknowledged Stewart. “A couple of days before the draft, I think, my agent I guess had kind of talked to some people and he kind of had an idea of what was going to happen and I even talked to Coach Sumlin a couple of days before it happened and he gave me his blessing. He wanted me to do what was best for me and that was another dynamic that I had to deal with, too. I kind of felt like I was letting him down. Having guys like that… he’s a really good coach for a reason. He had gone through that before. He definitely made the situation easier on me.”

Even having pretty much come to grips with the likelihood that he’d be signing a professional baseball contract rather than pursuing a major college football career didn’t make waiting any less stressful for Stewart.

“You kind of have that situation made up in your mind, but everything’s still got to happen. You’ve still got to sit there and the decision’s still got to be made,” said Stewart.

The anxiety of the wait didn’t mean Stewart and those closest to him didn’t enjoy the moment, however.

“I definitely enjoyed it. It was definitely a fun time for my family,” recalled Stewart. “I have a lot of friends that are really good baseball players that are playing in college right now. I got to experience what a lot of guys that I grew up playing ball with will probably be going through the same thing in a couple of years and to kind of share it with them was really special.

“But it was definitely really stressful. I would go to bed knowing I was going to have to make a really big choice and that was kind of hard. Every day it got closer to the draft, it was very apparent that I was going to have a very good opportunity with the Twins and I didn’t want to pass it up.”

Players do a lot of different things to relax on draft day. Some go hunting or fishing. Some play golf to take their minds off the draft and hope it passes the time more quickly.

Stewart4
Kohl Stewart

Stewart enjoys hunting and fishing in the offseason and also really enjoys golfing. But on draft day, he chose to pass the hours leading up to the draft with friends and family.

“I remember waking up. I slept in late,” Stewart recollected, smiling a bit. “I told myself I don’t want to get up and have to worry about it all day long. I wanted to sleep in as long as I could. I think that lasted until about 6:30 that morning.”

After breakfast, Stewart spent time with one of his Select Team coaches (“He was blowing it up, having a good time with it, kind of looking forward to the night”) and with an older brother. “We went to a place called Mel’s Diner. It’s a small little burger place. I went there, had a good meal with him. I remember he went and bought a bunch of champagne and put it in a cooler. Then we went back to my house and a bunch of people showed up and we turned on the TV.

“It was good. It was definitely a day I’ll never forget.”

Now, a year later, coming out of Memorial Day Weekend, Stewart has a 1-2 record and a 2.93 ERA as a member of the Kernels rotation. Stewart struggled in a loss to Beloit on Monday, but had given up just three earned runs in his previous five starts combined.

Nearly two months in to his first full season of pro ball, Stewart talked about what he has found to be the toughest things to adjust to in professional baseball life.

One, the adjustment to going to the ballpark every day either to play or work out between starts, is commonly mentioned by first-year pro ballplayers.

“I think that’s kind of a cliché that everybody says, ‘you’re not used to playing every day,’ and you hear that so much, but it’s true,” said Stewart. “I think that most of us guys that haven’t played a full year are still kind of getting used to this kind of animal of 140 games in a season.

“I think definitely that’s been the hardest thing for me. And then being away from my home. There’s some days I’ve just wanted to pick up my stuff and go home. I think every kid goes through that.

“I mean, I haven’t had a freshman year of college yet, so I didn’t get to experience that kind of homesick feeling first. But I’m learning. I’m learning how to be a professional, to come every day and figure out that I’ve got a job to do.”

The other challenging adjustment is probably a bit more unique to a pitcher in Stewart’s rather unique situation as a multi-sport star in high school.

“Going in to the season, I hadn’t thrown a lot of innings,” explained Stewart. “I threw in high school seasons but football kind of kept me from (throwing after the season).

“I think I underestimated the amount of throwing that I’m going to be doing. But I think that everybody probably goes through that, even coming out of college. I think the two bullpens between every start (a byproduct of the Kernels’ six-man rotation). Ive never been used to that. Or throwing a bullpen the second day after you pitch, that was a new animal for me.

Stewart3
Kohl Stewart

“I think that going in to a couple of starts, I felt like my arm was dead. I think that my arm was learning how to adjust to that feeling and I think that now my arm is starting to build on it. I think that now my arm is getting stronger and I’m kind of building back up to that strength that I was at.

“I think that those two things were probably the toughest for me, but I think that as time goes on, I’m getting more used to it every day, so I think I’m doing alright.”

As a result of Stewart’s limited work in high school, he and the Twins clearly had a plan for Stewart to follow heading in to the season. Not only pitch count limits and innings limits, which are commonplace for teenage pitching prospects, but also plans that focus on learning his craft.

Stewart explained the plan and assessed his progress so far.

“I’ve definitely had some good starts and I’ve had some bad starts. I think going in to the season, they hammered some things in to my head that they want me to get done, such as fast-ball command. They want me to pound the zone. They want me to be efficient. They want me to pitch. They don’t want me throwing a lot of pitches. There’s a pitch count on me for a reason. They want me to be able to go as deep as I can in to games without running my pitch count up.

“One thing that they really want me to do is fast ball command. They don’t want me to get behind in counts and then have to work from behind. So, I think that focusing on that stuff with Ivan (Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga) and our catchers, I think that’s really helped me a lot.

“So I think that getting these innings in and learning to get the change-up over. I hadn’t thrown very many change-ups and my change-up now is something that I go to a lot against lefties. And really, just getting ground balls and keeping the ball out of the air. I think I lived up in the zone in high school because I could. I used to just throw the ball as hard as I could and that’s not really pitching. I’ve had to learn to command the zone and not feel like I have to overpower everybody.

“Going in to the season, I’m trying to build on every start, but I think that the approach that I have right now that Ivan and Jake (manager Jake Mauer) and I have gone over, I think that the plan we have going in to every start is pretty good. I think that I like where things are headed, but I think that I have a lot of work to do.”

College football season doesn’t start for a couple of months, but Texas A&M and every other major program recently wrapped up their spring practices. Did that give Stewart an itch to get on the practice field and throw the football around?

“I didn’t have time for it,” replied the pitcher. “I was so busy figuring out what I was doing and stuff, just trying to get better.”

Not that football is forever banished from his mind, of course.

“Whenever I watch them on TV, I always get that itch,” admitted Stewart, “but I think everybody kind of enjoys watching those things on TV. I think when I go to the games, I feel like I’m there kind of part of the team. There’s always going to be a part of me that’s there. There’s always going to be that closeness that I have with those guys that are in that class.

“But they know that I’m doing what I love and I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else.”

**********

The Kernels return home to Cedar Rapids after Tuesday’s matinee series finale in Beloit. They’ll be home for six games (three vs Wisconsin and three vs Burlington). Friday night, May 30, is another special jersey promotion. It’s “Star Wars” night with white/black “storm trooper” themed jerseys that will be auctioned off via silent auction with proceeds going to a charity. The first 1,000 fans through the gates Friday also get a free Star Wars t-shirt.

Kernels Star Wars Jersey
Kernels Star Wars Jersey
 
Star Wars t-shirt giveaway
Star Wars t-shirt giveaway

 

 

 

 

 

– JC

(All photos: JC/Knuckleballs; jersey/t-shirt images: Kernels.com)

Who Are These Guys?

The people who pay attention to such things during professional baseball’s offseason were pretty much in agreement in their expectations for this team coming out of spring training in Fort Myers.

The starting pitching should be quite improved, perhaps the best it has been in a few years. The bullpen should once again be sound. But when the topic turned to the offense, one question was nearly universal, “Where will the runs come from?”

Now, roughly two weeks in to the 2014 season, there have been a couple of surprises. First, the supposed much improved rotation was a little slow getting out of the gate, but now we’re seeing results that look much closer to what we had hoped we would see from some of the starting pitchers.

But the offense is not what was expected. Instead of struggling to score runs consistently, we’re seeing an offense that sits at or near the top of several offensive statistics. Granted, the season is still young, but the rate at which the team is scoring runs is certainly encouraging.

All of which begs the question, “Who are these guys?”

Coincidental or not, that question could be answered in either of two ways and both would be accurate.

We could certainly be talking about the Minnesota Twins, who came through the past weekend’s series sweep of their American League Central Division rival Kansas City Royals averaging 5.6 runs per game, good for a third place tie in all of Major League Baseball. All three of their starting pitchers in the Royals series chalked up quality starts (at least six innings, giving up three runs or less).

But we could equally be describing the Twins’ Class A Midwest League affiliate, the Cedar Rapids Kernels.

The Kernels are expected to have one of the top rotations in minor league baseball this season, staffed with several of the organization’s top prospects, including the Twins’ first and second round draft picks a year ago, Kohl Stewart and Ryan Eades, among others.

The Kernels’ pitching certainly has been showing glimpses of their talent and arguably have done a better job of living up to their pre-season expectations than their counterparts with the parent Twins.

Hudson Boyd
Hudson Boyd

Through Tuesday’s games, relievers Brandon Bixler, Josue Montanez, Brandon Peterson and Hudson Boyd have each averaged at least a strikeout per inning pitched and have given up just four earned runs combined, between the four of them.

After struggling a little bit during the season’s chilly opening series at home, the rotation started to find their groove during last week’s eastern road trip, as well. Aaron Slegers has just a 1-0 record to show for his efforts, but he’s racked up 14 strikeouts in just 16 innings of work, while walking only a single batter.

Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga indicated Monday night that he was pleased with the work his starting pitching corps did during their recent 5-1 road trip.

“This early in the season, you hope they give a good effort every night, which they did,” Arteaga said of his rotation arms. “They pretty much took us where we wanted them to take us.”

Arteaga added, “We have a pitch limit, everybody knows that. It’s a team effort. The relievers are giving us a chance every night, we can’t ask for more than that. The bullpen’s doing a great job.”

That swing out east last week also seemed to wake up some of the Kernels’ bats, a fact not lost on hitting coach Tommy Watkins who, while praising catcher Mitch Garver for an outstanding road trip, also saw progress from others.

“It was different guys every night,” said Watkins. “The hitters did a good job having quality at-bats. The main thing is they had a pretty decent approach and they stuck to it.”

That approach is showing up in the offensive statistics.

After Tuesday’s game, the Kernels were second in the MWL in runs scored (60) and at the top of the league in both slugging percentage (.442) and OPS (.777).

Cedar Rapids hitters have notched 11 home runs, tying them for the MWL lead with Lake County and Wisconsin. They also rank fourth in the league in doubles (23) and sit atop the MWL list in triples (8).

The power surge wasn’t something that Kernels manager Jake Mauer expected to see at this point.

“That (the home runs) has been a surprise,” Mauer said Monday night. “We know Garver and (Bryan) Haar have some pop, without a doubt, but I’d say the frequency that they’ve hit them, to this point, has been surprising. But they’ve also had some pretty good at-bats with runners in scoring position and we’ve been able to keep that carousel moving. We were a little concerned early that we’d only be able to score one run (at a time), but we’ve found a way to score multiple runs and that’s encouraging.”

Mitch Garver
Mitch Garver

Garver, the Twins’ 9th round draft pick a year ago, has accounted for nine of the team’s extra-base hits. He has three doubles, a triple and is leading the MWL in home runs with five. The combination has lifted his slugging percentage to a league leading .825 and his OPS to 1.254, good enough for second highest in the league.

Garver and Haar also lead the Kernels with 10 RBI each.

As Watkins pointed out, however, the offensive contributions haven’t been limited to just a couple of guys.

Outfielder Zach Larson’s six doubles have him tied for the MWL lead in that category and, while seeing action in just seven of the Kernels’ 12 games, through Tuesday, infielder Tanner Vavra has made the most of his opportunities to get to the plate and leads the club with a .360 batting average, just a single point above Haar’s .359.

After Monday’s come-from-behind win over South Bend, Mauer summarized his team’s efforts thus far. “The pitching has been really good, really good. The defense, for the most part, has been pretty good. We’ve gotten some big hits. We’re proud of the boys. They really don’t give up.”

Mauer credits the work the hitters have been doing with their hitting coach for their offensive progress early in the year.

“I think that’s what Tommy Watkins has been doing with these guys, just learning how to trust their hands and try see the ball a little bit. He’s got a pretty good plan that I think the boys are starting to buy in to. Overall, the quality of the at-bats has been much better,” Mauer said on Monday.

The season is young and less than 10% of the Kernels’ regular season games are behind them, but if early hitting trends can be maintained and their pitching turns out to be as improved as it was expected to be, this Cedar Rapids club could turn out to be quite competitive.

Of course, you could perhaps say something similar about the Minnesota Twins.

– JC

Kernels Roster Taking Shape

There was no rain in Fort Myers on Wednesday. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it was pretty breezy and high temperatures for the day barely, if at all, reached 70 degrees.

I know that sounds good to a lot of people, but I had to wear long sleeves much of the day at the ballpark and was a bit chilly eating dinner outdoors tonight!

But I toughed it out, because I know my readers expect me to do whatever it takes to get the story.

Today, that story comes from the minor league side of the Twins organization. Rather than watch the Twins and Pirates at Hammond Stadium, I fought the Daniels Parkway traffic toward the Red Sox complex to watch the Twins’ Class A groups take on their Sox counterparts.

After the game, Kernels manager Jake Mauer shared some thoughts about the way his club is shaping up as they enter the final few days of camp. Mauer indicated that just a handful of roster spots are still unresolved.

One player still “on the bubble” with the Kernels as final decisions are being made is Chad Christensen, who prepped at Cedar Rapids Washington High School before playing ball for the University of Nebraska. Christensen was drafted by the Twins last June and played last summer for the Twins’ Gulf Coast League rookie level affiliate in Fort Myers.

Chad Christensen
Chad Christensen

It sounds like the Kernels’ manager would like to bring Christiansen to Cedar Rapids next week.

“Chad’s been working real hard and he’s somebody that gives us some flexibility. He’s played both (corner) outfield positions and both corner infield positions and I wouldn’t be afraid to put him at shortstop once in a while,” said Mauer. “We’ve got about six or seven guys we’ve got to make decisions on and he’s in that mix, but there’s no doubt that he’s somebody we’d like to take north with us.”

Mauer knows his squad of Kernels is going to have to take a different approach than last year’s team, now that last year’s power hitters have moved up the organizational ladder.

“We’re going to have to be real good at the small things right away,” the manager acknowledged. “We’re going to have to run the bases well. We’re going to have to be able to execute the small game, hit and runs, getting bunts down, doing things like that. Try to create runs that way.”

According to Mauer, there should be five or six familiar faces for Kernels fans to welcome back to Cedar Rapids.

Among the likely returnees are catchers Michael Quesada and Bo Altobelli.  Said Mauer, “We plan on taking both those guys north, along with (Mitchell) Garver. We’re probably going to take three (catchers) to start, at least.”

That means flexibility will be key among other position players because, according to the skipper, he expects the final roster to contain just 12 position players, allowing 13 roster spots for the pitching staff that will once again utilize a six-man starting rotation.

It’s that pitching staff that many in the Twins organization, as well as their fans, are anxious to see.

“I think we’ll be starter-heavy. We should have some quality arms, starting-wise,” said Mauer. “We’ve got a lot of young, quality arms. It just depends on how many we decide to bring up with us.”

In particular, there are a number of pitchers that will push their fastballs consistently in to the middle-to-upper 90s on the speed gun, including young Dominican pitchers Yorman Landa, who was hitting 96  mph in Wednesday’s game, and Randy Rosario. In addition, the Twins’ first round pick in 2013 (and second pick overall) Kohl Stewart is a hard throwing 19 year old who is still on the Kernels roster as camp is drawing to a close.

As Kernels fans know, however, the team’s success is not solely determined by the players that start the season with the club. Between injuries and promotions, it’s equally important to have talented players at the lower levels of the organization preparing to join the Kernels as the season develops.

According to Mauer, there’s plenty of potential mid-season help available, as well. “You know we’ve got some young boys down there, too, (Lewis) Thorpe and (Stephen) Gonsalves. Kids that have some pretty good arms that we’ll probably see at some point throughout the year.”

The Kernels will break camp on Monday. There will be a “Meet the Kernels” event open to the public at no charge on April 1 at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids and Opening Day  is Thursday, April 3, when the Kernels host the Clinton Lumber Kings.

– JC