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

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

Talk to Contact Episode 44: Minor Leauge Caps

Episode 44 of the Twins baseball podcast,  Talk To Contact (@TalkToContact), is now available for download via iTunes or by clicking here.

This week Cody and Eric get down on a bunch of Twins news from the past week+, including a mediocre Kyle Gibson, roster transactions, a surging Aaron Hicks and a slumping EVERYONE else.

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Down on the Pond is about the Twins’ recent #1 draft pick Kohl Stewart.  After that Cody and Eric talk beer, baseball, and the news.

76 minutes of unmitigated baseball talk.

 

You can follow Cody on Twitter (@NoDakTwinsFan) or read his writing at NoDakTwinsFan.  You can follow Paul on Twitter (@BaseballPirate) or read his writing at  Puckett’s Pond.  And of course, you can find me on Twitter (@ERolfPleiss) and read my writing at Knuckleballs!

- ERolfPleiss