AFL Interviews: Max Kepler and Taylor Rogers

The Salt River Rafters made the trip across to the west side of the Phoenix area to Surprise, Arizona, on Wednesday to take on the Surprise Saguaros and, prior to the game, Twins prospects Max Kepler and Tyler Rogers took the time to answer a few questions.

Kepler takes a .289/.385/.422 slash line in to Thursday night’s game in Salt River, which is respectable for any hitter in the Arizona Fall League, but is perhaps even more impressive for a 21-year-old with no experience above the Class A level.

Max Kepler

Max Kepler

He’s happy with his performance, so far.

“I think I’m playing consistent ball,” Kepler said. “I’m playing solid outfield defense. Yeah, doing everything I can right now.”

Players in this league have been playing ball since minor league spring training started at the beginning of March, and Kepler confirmed that the wear and tear on the body starts to catch up with them this time of year.

“Yeah, it has (been a long year),” Kepler admitted, but he quickly added, “It’s been an awesome year, though.”

This is Kepler’s second year in the Arizona Fall League and he said he’s definitely seeing a difference in his game this time around.

“I’m more confident. I feel more confident against the pitchers,” Kepler reflected. “Last year, coming out of low-A ball, I just felt like all these big names were throwing at me and I was just a little guy in the big ocean. (They were) big dudes. Now I just feel like I can handle it.”

Kepler has been part of two minor league championship teams in his past three years of minor league ball, winning titles with Elizabethton in 2012 and in Fort Myers this past season.

Max Kepler diving back in to first base on an attempted pick off

Max Kepler diving back in to first base on an attempted pick off

In between those championship seasons, Kepler spent 2013 split between rehabbing an elbow injury during the first half of the season and spending the second half of the year with the Cedar Rapids Kernels.

He had some good moments with Cedar Rapids, including an opposite field home run in his first home game as a Kernel, that stands out in Kepler’s memory (“I remember that short porch really helped me out that first game”), but his thoughts on that season are admittedly mixed.

“The fans are unbelievable (in Cedar Rapids),” Kepler said. But at the same time, recalling his efforts to overcome the injury, he added, “It was rough, but I’m glad I got to stick with that good group of guys and I hope we can move up together because we’ve got chemistry on that team.”

That “good group of guys” that Kepler played with in Cedar Rapids formed the core of this year’s Florida State League championship team. That team was managed by Doug Mientkiewicz, the former Twins first baseman who has been prominently mentioned as a finalist for the Twins’ managerial job this fall.

The speculation has been that, should Mientkiewicz not get the Twins job, he may move up to manage the Class AA team that will be playing their first season in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

“That would be awesome,” said Kepler, of the possibility of playing a second year for Mientkiewicz.

Kepler also provided some insight in to what it’s like to play for Mientkiewicz.

“He’s wild,” Kepler said, while laughing. “I’d say he’s a little unorthodox, but it sure worked for us. We kind of went through a lot of ups and downs this year, but when we won, we won a bunch. And then when we lost one game, Doug would get on us, and I mean hard. But when he did, he fixed it and it worked for us. But, yeah, he sure was tough on us when we weren’t doing well and weren’t focused, but the rest of the year, he was a fun guy to be around. He was just like one of us. Yeah, I loved him.”

Once the AFL season wraps up, Kepler will take a little time off then begin getting ready for 2015.

“The offseasons are getting shorter and shorter,” he said. “But I’ll do as much as I can with my three months of workout.

“I’ll travel the states for a little, go to Texas for Thanksgiving,” Kepler said of his immediate plans after AFL finishes. “I’ll be going home (to Germany) for Christmas and the holidays.”

While Kepler has been playing several days each week in Arizona, pitcher Taylor Rogers has been not much more than a spectator during the games.

Rogers, a 23-year-old lefty who pitched at Class AA New Britain in 2014, was injured in the third inning of his first AFL game when a batted ball was lined off his shoulder.

Rogers1

Taylor Rogers

Since then, he’s been sitting.

Taylor said Wednesday that he’s hoping that’s about to change.

Rogers said that he is, “finally getting back to square one almost – back to where I can toss a little bit. Hopefully I can get a few more innings in here before the season ends.

“It’s something I want to do. You sign the contract to play here so I want to finish this thing out and see what I can do. We’ll probably going to see how these bullpens go.”

Rogers, along with Kepler, Byron Buxton and Jake Reed, is a Cedar Rapids Kernels alum.

Though, unlike the others, Rogers’ time in Cedar Rapids barely was long enough to register on his minor league stats line. He struggled a bit during his three games for the Kernels in a very cold April of 2013 before being promoted to Fort Myers, where he had a very good season for the Miracle.

“Yeah, you know what, funny what warm weather can do for you,” Rogers said, with a smile, then added, “No, it was fun those 14 days or so. It was nice to get out of the cold, but I’m sure if I would have stayed in Cedar Rapids, it would have been a fun year.”

The weather in Cedar Rapids may have been chilly, but Rogers recalls the warm greeting he and his team mates got upon arrival.

“I thought it was really cool how that was the first year of the Twins being there (as an affiliate). What I remember was the fans really welcoming us. That was just really nice to see. Something like that you don’t see very often. They were excited to have us there and we felt very welcomed.”

Arizona Fall League Videos

I’m in Arizona this week catching a few Arizona Fall League games. This afternoon, I shot a couple of videos of Twins prospects Eddie Rosario and Max Kepler.

First, we have Eddie Rosario beating out a swinging bunt, followed by an RBI double.

Ignore the umpire calling Rosario out at second base. The call was overturned on appeal to video.

Here’s Max Kepler beating the Desert Dogs pitcher to 1B to reach on an E3. Kepler had a stand up triple later in the game but I was not shooting video at the time. There’s a picture after the video of his triple swing anyway.

Max Kepler triples for Salt River on October 28, 2014

Max Kepler triples for Salt River on October 28, 2014

Couple of other things.

Salt River won the game 14-2, yet the game was completed in less than three hours. We may not like to admit it, but the speed-of-play rules may be working.

– 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 54: The Offseason Primer

Episode 54 of the Twins baseball podcast, Talk To Contact (@TalkToContact), is now available for download via iTunes or by clicking here.

Glendale Desert Dogs

Glendale Desert Dogs

This week we keep things relatively brief (only 50 minutes of audio gold) and check in on Ron Gardenhire, the 40-man roster, and the Arizona Fall League. We talk a little bit about May and Meyer pitching FAST, and Buxton, Rosario and Kepler making their AFL debuts.

We spend some time discussing Wisconsin beer and Ginger Whiskey before we do a quick dive through the MLB postseason.

Thanks for listening!

 

You can follow Cody on Twitter (@NoDakTwinsFan) or read his writing at NoDakTwinsFan, and you can find Paul on Twitter (@BaseballPirate) and read his writing at PuckettsPond.com!

If you enjoy our podcast, please take a couple extra minutes and rate and review us on iTunes(ratings and reviews have magical iTunes powers).

Several Kernels Shooting for Two Rings in Two Years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adam Brett Walker lines a HR vs Clinton on September 2

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

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

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

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

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

- JC

Kernels roster changes but results don’t

With just 40 games remaining in their regular season schedule, now seems like a good time to step back and take a look at the state of the Cedar Rapids Kernels.

It’s almost laughable to even question whether or not the affiliation switch from the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim to the Minnesota Twins has been good for Cedar Rapids. Of course it has, by pretty much every measurement.

The Kernels have already qualified for the Midwest League postseason by virtue of their second place finish in the first half of the season and fan interest is up.

Attendance is up some, but even more telling, the fans who show up for games are enthusiastically engaged in what’s happening on the field. That has not always been the case at Veterans Memorial Stadium the past few years.

It certainly didn’t hurt that one of the Twins’ top prospects, Byron Buxton, got off to such an incredible start this spring. He drew fan and media interest from well beyond the local community.

But even after the inevitable promotion of Buxton to the Twins’ Class high-A affiliate at Fort Myers in June, the Kernels have continued to win games. That may come as a surprise to those so blinded by Buxton’s aura that they didn’t notice the Kernels roster included a number of other very talented players.

Jonathan Murphy

Jonathan Murphy

Of course, Buxton isn’t the only Kernels player the Twins have rewarded with a bump up in playing  level. The Kernels have seen about a dozen players, in total, promoted to Fort Myers already this season.

The Twins, as an organization, have a reputation for being conservative with their promotions. They historically have preferred to see most players spend at least an entire season, if not more, at most minor league levels.

No doubt, Kernels officials were hoping that trend would continue. In past seasons, the Angels seemingly couldn’t wait to promote players as soon as they demonstrated any level of productivity in a Kernels uniform.

Among position players, Buxton was the only key offensive contributor to be lost to promotion until J.D. Williams and Dalton Hicks were bumped up to Fort Myers about a week ago.

It’s not easy to replace players found in the top 10 of most Midwest League offensive statistical categories like Williams (on-base percentage, OPS), Hicks (home runs, RBI, slugging pct., OPS) and Buxton (almost everything), but players brought in to Cedar Rapids by the Twins to replace the departing hitters have done well.

Max Kepler

Max Kepler

Max Kepler joined the Kernels once he completed rehabilitating his injured elbow in Fort Myers. He arrived four days before Buxton was promoted and he has hit for a .263 average. Thirteen of his 31 hits have been for extra bases.

Jonathan Murphy is hitting .333 in the 17 games he’s played since his arrival at the beginning of July and Joel Licon has performed well in a utility infielder role since he joined the team in early June.

It’s too early to know for certain how well Mike Gonzales will fill in for the departed Hicks, but the big first baseman has four hits in his first eight at-bats as a Kernel. Gonzales hit .289 and stroked 15 home runs for the Beloit Snappers in 2011. He missed much of his 2012 season in Fort Myers and after starting this season again with the Miracle, a wrist injury has sidelined him for the past several weeks.

On the pitching front, the Kernels lost Taylor Rogers before most fans even got to know him. He made three unimpressive starts for the Kernels before being moved on to Fort Myers. Jose Berrios, a supplemental first round draft pick in the 2012 First Year Player Draft and one of the top pitching prospects in the Twins organization, essentially took Rogers’ spot in the Kernels rotation.

The subsequent promotion of Tyler Duffey in early June left a much more significant hole at the top of the Kernels’ rotation. Duffey carried a 2.78 ERA and a 0.943 WHIP through nine starts when he left Cedar Rapids.

Josue Montanez initially worked from the Kernels bullpen after his promotion to Cedar Rapids in June, but has shown some potential since joining the rotation about a month ago.

Perhaps even more critically, the Kernels have seen four important members of their bullpen earn promotions. Matt Tomshaw and Manuel Soliman had contributed a total of 59 innings of work over a combined 30 appearances before they were promoted. Last week, the Twins elevated Steve Gruver and Tyler Jones, who had combined to provide a formidable left-right relief combination late in games.

Reliever Alex Muren has been relatively effective since arriving from extended spring training in early May, and the early returns from more recent additions Madison Boer, Dallas Gallant and Tim Shibuya are encouraging.

But the bottom line in baseball is all about wins and losses.

The Kernels were 44-28, for a .611 winning percentage, with Buxton on the roster. Since his promotion four games in to the second half schedule, the Kernels are 17-9 (.654) and they are leading the MWL West Division by three games over first half champion Beloit.

It’s certainly too soon to know what effect losing the four players promoted a week ago will have on the team’s fortunes. However, the Kernels have won five of the first six games played (all on the road) since Hicks, Williams, Jones and Gruver got their well-deserved promotions.

On Tuesday, the first member of the Twins’ draft class of 2013 was promoted to Cedar Rapids when seventh round pick Brian Gilbert was added to the Kernels’ roster.

Roster turnover is just a fact of life in minor league baseball. When the local team starts out winning a lot of games, it’s probably because a lot of players are performing very well and players that perform very well deserve promotions to the next level in the organization.

One way to measure the strength of an organization is to look at how a minor league team performs after a number of their best players are promoted. If the new players perform well and the team continues winning, that’s a very good sign.

So far, that’s what we’re seeing in Cedar Rapids. That bodes well, this season, for the Kernels and for the Twins in the long run.

Kernels: Life After Buck and a Mike Pelfrey Appearance

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

Almost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Max Kepler gets a secondary lead off first base

Max Kepler gets a secondary lead off first base

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

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

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

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

JD Williams

JD Williams

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

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

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

Travis Harrison leads off third base

Travis Harrison leads off third base

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– JC

Kernels Post-Buxton Era Begins: Welcome Max Kepler

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

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

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

Max Kepler

Max Kepler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But just who is this young German outfielder?

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

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

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

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

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

Kepler: You know, it happens.

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

Max Kepler and Caleb Brewer sign some autographs

Max Kepler and Caleb Brewer sign some autographs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JC: What about during the offseason?

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

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

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

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

– JC

Mauer: Kernels Roster Almost Set

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

With a week remaining before the Cedar Rapids Kernels take the field for the first time in 2013, a few roster spots are yet to be finalized during the final days of the team’s spring training in Fort Myers, Fla.

“We’re getting close,” Kernels Manager Jake Mauer said Wednesday. “There are probably three or four decisions left to make. A couple of pitchers and a couple of position players.

“Our position players are in good shape. It looks like we should have good team speed,” Mauer said.

Mauer indicated that Byron Buxton, the Twins’ first-round draft pick in last June’s amateur draft (and second pick overall), will be the club’s center fielder. He will be joined in the outfield by two other highly rated Twins prospects, Adam Walker and Romy Jimenez.

Max Kepler, another top prospect, is likely to remain in Fort Myers for a while. “He has some arm issues to work through” before he will join the Kernels, Mauer explained. “There’s still some competition for the fourth outfield spot, but competition always is a good thing,” Mauer said.

Buxton started in center field for the parent Minnesota Twins on Wednesday in a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. He led off with a single off Pirates starter A.J. Burnett. Buxton added a walk, two stolen bases and three runs scored for the Twins.

The Kernels’ starting pitching rotation is up in the air. “(Hudson) Boyd should be there, but (Jose) Berrios and (Luke) Bard will probably stay in Fort Myers for one or two weeks,” Mauer said.

Both pitchers, according to their manager, need to stretch out their arms a little more. Berrios pitched for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic, but was used in relief and had not been throwing multiple innings until he arrived back in Fort Myers less than two weeks ago.

“We’re still trying to get to know some of our pitchers,” Mauer said. “Some of them have never played in cold weather, so we’ll want to monitor their innings. The important thing is to stay healthy through that first month.”

While many core players from last season’s Appalachian League champions in Elizabethton will be on the Kernels’ Opening Day roster, Mauer confirmed they’ll be joined by several members of last summer’s Beloit Snappers.

Tyler Grimes

Tyler Grimes

Among those players returning for another Midwest League season will be Tyler Grimes. Grimes was an infielder for the Snappers in 2012 but spent the fall learning how to be a catcher. That transition is going well, according to Mauer.

“He throws well and is very athletic. He’s working really hard at learning the details of catching, calling pitches and controlling the running game,” said Mauer. “We plan to use him four or five games a week.”

Players still competing for final roster spots have just three or four more games to impress the decision makers before breaking camp and traveling to Cedar Rapids on Tuesday.

The Kernels are scheduled to open the season on Thursday, April 4, against Beloit at Veterans Memorial Stadium at 6:35 p.m.

- S.D. Buhr, MetroSportsReport.com