Episode 54 of the Twins baseball podcast, Talk To Contact (@TalkToContact), is now available for download via iTunes or by clicking here.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The following article was originally posted late last week at MetroSportsReport.com and is re-posted here with permission.
With local temperatures finally working their way into the 40’s last week in Cedar Rapids, local baseball fans could allow their minds to wander to even warmer days ahead when the Cedar Rapids Kernels open their season April 4 against Beloit.
It’s still a bit chilly for baseball at Veterans Memorial Stadium, but the minor leaguers in the parent Minnesota Twins organization are hard at work in the warm sunshine at the Twins’ spring training site in Fort Myers, Fla.
While there’s plenty of speculation about which young Twins prospects may fill out the Kernels roster, it’s still too early to know with certainty who those players will be.
As Kernels Manager Jake Mauer pointed out this week, “It depends on who they keep in Minnesota at a number of positions. Once those decisions are made, the rest takes shape off of that. There’s kind of a trickle down effect.”
While the Major League camp has been humming for about a month, the minor leaguers began official workouts less than two weeks ago and have played only a handful of games. In fact, Mauer himself hasn’t necessarily been working with all the players tentatively earmarked for the Kernels.
With the Major League spring training roster still roughly twice the size it will be during the season, the Twins shift their coaching staffs up a level until more cuts are made by the big league club. As a result, Mauer has spent much of his time working with players likely to spend their season with the Fort Myers Miracle in the Florida State League.
Still, Mauer has had opportunities to work with a number of players widely expected to wear Kernels uniforms this season and he’s well aware that many of those players are among the Twins’ highest rated young prospects. That can certainly lead to some lofty expectations, both for the team and for those players individually.
Mauer’s take on the high expectations is what you might expect from the club’s manager. “It’s the old cliché, you’re not as good as people say and you’re not as bad as people say.
“It’s nice to get recognition, but you’ve got to go out on the field and play. ‘Prospect’ is just a tag,” he remarked.
With the voice of someone who’s seen these things play out first hand, he added, “I played with a lot of guys who were top prospects who never made it. It doesn’t affect how you play. You still have to put in the work.”
Mauer believes the players he’s working with are doing just that. He specifically mentioned outfield prospect Max Kepler, the German native who signed with the Twins in 2009 as a 16-year-old.
“Max looks pretty good,” he said. “I saw him down here as a 16-year-old and he has really physically developed.”
Byron Buxton, the Twins’ top draft choice in last June’s amateur draft, also has impressed Mauer. “Buxton looks pretty good. He’s really working hard,” the skipper reported.
Another prospect many Twins fans are anxious to see in action for the Kernels is third baseman Travis Harrison. Harrison’s reputation is one of great offensive potential, with some question concerning his ability to continue playing third base as he progresses up the organizational ladder.
But Mauer likes what he’s seeing so far, pointing out that Harrison is focusing on improving the defensive aspect of his game this spring.
“He came in with a very good attitude,” said Mauer. “He wants to be good on defense and he’s working pretty hard on it.
“He’s not a finished product, without a doubt … We may see some errors, but I think he’ll be OK.”
One top prospect that Mauer hasn’t had an opportunity to see much of thus far is Jose Berrios. Berrios reported with the Major League pitchers and catchers in mid-February to help him prepare to play for his native Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic.
His team survived the first two rounds of the WBC, so Berrios has yet to work out with his minor league teammates in Fort Myers.
While Berrios has been expected to open the season in the Kernels’ starting rotation, there’s some speculation that his participation in the WBC could change those plans. Berrios has been used sparingly out of the bullpen for Puerto Rico, so as long as the team remains in that tournament Berrios won’t be getting his innings stretched out the way a starting pitcher normally would during spring training.
Could that affect the organization’s plans for Berrios to start the season?
“It could,” Mauer admitted. “Obviously he’s not starting (for Puerto Rico). But he’s getting exposed to some intense situations.”
Mauer doesn’t think it would take Berrios long to get ready for the season, noting he pitched in winter leagues during the offseason. Once the WBC is over, Mauer added, “he will come here in shape and just need a tuneup. He came in to camp before the WBC in pretty good shape.”
The next week or so will go a long way in determining who will be wearing a Kernels uniform on Opening Day.
“We’ll probably start to see our roster take shape with about 10 days left. There are a few pitchers who are a little tender, so that could affect which pitchers start with us,” said Mauer.
That is a list of 23 players, I would feel comfortable considering these the 23 best Twins prospects in the Twins system. Of these 23 players, six appear more frequently on lists, and higher up on lists, than any of the others: Oswaldo Arcia, Byron Buxton, Kyle Gibson, Aaron Hicks, Alex Meyer, and Miguel Sano. No real surprise there, these are the six players that both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus included in their recent Top 100 (101 for BP) lists. Paul and I talked about those players at some length in the recent episode of Talk to Contact, and compared where each of those two sites had the players listed. If you have a copy of Seth Stoh’s Minnesota Twins Prospect Handbook 2013 you can find several additional prospect lists in there. Again, the same six names generally top those prospect lists in some order, with Buxton and Sano at the top, and the other four usually clumped together.
The other names on the list, I think, then are much more interesting, as they are less likely to have drool all over them from prospect hungry Twins fans looking toward the not-to-distant future when the Twins might not be terrible again. Of the 17 other players included on FantasyRundown.com’s list, the most recognizable names are probably Trevor May, Eddie Rosario, J.O. Berios, and Max Kepler. Those four players will usually round out the Top 10 lists for most Twins prospects, and in fact, in the Top 15 Twins Prospect list that Fangraphs released yesterday, three of those four appeared in their top 10. Trevor May was the one on the outside (12), and in his place in the top 10 was middle infielder Jorge Polanco, who is not even listed above, and has yet to play full-season baseball for the Twins. Eventually the list over at BP will be updated and the Fangraphs rankings will be included and not only will Jorge Polanco be added, but Travis Harrison, a promising third basemen who also has yet to play full-season ball will be on the list as well.
Get to know some of the names on this list, they’ll be a big part of the Twins future, and when you get tired of watching the Twins lose in 2013, you can follow these players through the Minor Leagues.
*The following prospect lists were used in compiling the list of Twins prospects listed above:
Baseball America – Long-term Rankings
SeedlingstoStars.com – Long-term Rankings
Scout.com – Long-term Rankings
TopProspectAlert.com – Long-term Rankings
BaseballProspectus.com – Long-term Rankings
FanGraphs.com – Long-term Rankings
ScoutingBook.com – Long-term Rankings updated as of 02/06/13
ProjectProspect.com – Long-term Rankings
BaseballInstinct.com – Long-term Rankings
ESPN.com’s Keith Law – Long-term Rankings
Prospect361.com – Long-term Rankings
TheBaseballHaven.MLBlogs.com – Long-term Rankings
BullpenBanter.com – Long-term Rankings
MLB.com – Long-term Rankings
DeepLeagues.com – Long-term Rankings
ThroughtheFenceBaseball.com – Long-term Rankings
TheDynastyGuru.com – Top 150 Dynasty Lge Fantasy Prospects
Prospect361.com – Top 100 Longterm Fantasy Prospects
CBSSports.com – Top 100 Longterm Fantasy Prospects
We’ve worked our way around the horn in the first three Parts of this series, covering the catchers, corner infielders and middle infielders that could possibly put on a Kernels uniform in Cedar Rapids this summer. In Part 4 of our series, we’ll check out a number of outfielders that could take the field for Cedar Rapids at some point during 2013.
Obviously, we can’t know this early exactly who will come north to Iowa out of Spring Training to start the season, but regardless of which of these prospects starts the season in Cedar Rapids, the Kernels outfield should be flat-out loaded! A number of the organization’s top prospects played at Elizabethton in 2012 and most of them should find their way to Cedar Rapids either to start the season or by some time midway through the summer.
JaDamion (J.D.) Williams – Age 22 – Bats: Both/Throws: Right
2012: Beloit (Class A – MWL)
Williams was drafted out of his Tampa FL high school by the Twins in the 10th round of the 2010 amateur draft. JD signed in time to get 37 games in with the GCL Twins in 2010, but struggled at the plate. He had considerably more success in his sophomore year of professional baseball, hitting .324 for Elizabethton in 2011. His productivity dipped some in his first year of full-season ball at Beloit in 2012, but he did finally show some of the speed the Twins expected him to have on the basepaths. He stole 23 bases in 32 attempts during the season at Beloit, but just think of how many he could have stolen if he hadn’t struck out 115 times.
Williams spent considerable time in all three outfield positions during 2012, including 23 games in centerfield. He also threw out seven runners on the bases.
At the end of the 2012 season, I would have almost guaranteed JD would open 2013 with the Kernels and I think he could probably use some extra time at the Class A level. But with the Twins trading Denard Span and Ben Revere, the bottleneck of outfielders in the organization could open up enough to allow him to open the year at high-A Fort Myers, along with most of the rest of his fellow Snappers team mates from last season.
Max Kepler – Age 19 – Bats: L/Throws: L
2012: Elizabethton (Rookie – Appy)
In 2009, the Twins gave the 6’4″ German the largest signing bonus paid to a European baseball player, at the time. He moved to Fort Myers and finished school at the high school that neighbors the Twins training facility in that city. In three seasons of rookie league ball, Kepler has steadily progressed, showing the kind of athletic prowess one might expect from the son of European ballet dancers.
The 6’4″ outfielder will just turn 20 before this season and has grown in to his body since arriving in the US. In 2012, his second season at Elizabethton, he made real progress in almost every aspect of his game, adding 35 points to his batting average and a whopping 211 points to his OPS, most of that a result of showing significantly more power. After hitting just one home run in his first two years of professional ball, combined, Kepler jacked 10 of them in 2012.
But Max isn’t just big, he’s got speed as well (he stole seven bases without being caught stealing even once) and a strong arm. He played 67 games in centerfield for Elizabethton last year and 23 games in a corner outfield spot, mostly left field.
Kepler was appearing in most offseason “top 10” lists of Twins prospects before the Span and Revere trades added a couple of highly rated minor league pitchers to the organization, but he easily remains a consensus top 15 Twins prospect heading in to 2013. Even after those trades, I’ve ranked Kepler 9th on my list.
Romy Jimenez – Age 21 – Bats R/Throws R
2012: Elizabethton (Rookie – Appy)
Jiminez was signed in 2009 out of the Dominican Republic and started his professional career with two very good seasons in the Dominican Summer League. An injury limited him to just eight games with the GCL Twins in 2011, but he came back very strong in 2012.
Romy won’t turn 22 until several weeks in to what should be his first experience on a full-season roster in Cedar Rapids. He has certainly shown the ability to hit and hit with power, but I’m curious about the fact that he didn’t steal a single base in 2012 (and only attempted one) at Elizabethton, although he stole 24 bases in 34 attempts in his two Dominican seasons.
Like Kepler, the 6’2″ Jimenez saw time in all three outfield spots during 2012, though most of his time was spent in left field.
Adam Walker – Age 21 – Bats: R/Throws: R
2012: Elizabethton (Rookie – Appy)
The 6’4″, 225 pound, Walker was drafted by the Twins in the 3rd round of the 2012 amateur draft and after signing quickly, he was assigned to Elizabethton in time to get 58 games in. His batting average in his first professional season won’t raise eyebrows and his .310 on-base percentage could stand to improve. He certatainly needs to cut that strikeout rate down considerably. But look at those extra-base hits! Seven doubles, four triples and 14 home runs in just 58 games. That would project to 20 doubles, seven triples and close to 40 home runs over a 162 game Major League schedule.
Walker exclusively played right field for E’town and he made a few errors out there, but he also threw out half a dozen baserunners. He also stole four bases on the season, without being caught stealing even once.
The Twins obviously saw a potential power hitter in Walker when they drafted him out of Jacksonville University and he gave them no reason to question that in his first professional experience. If he can slash those Ks in Cedar Rapids, while maintaining anything even close to his 2012 power numbers, Adam could climb up the organizational ladder quickly.
That’s four potential outfielders and, if Candido Pimentel, who we covered with the middle infielders, starts the season in Cedar Rapds, that would give Kernels manager Jake Mauer a full contingent of players to move in and out of his outfield.
But wait! We haven’t even mentioned the outfielder who managed to garner Baseball America’s “top prospect” award in BOTH the Gulf Coast League and the Appalachian League in 2012. Of course, that would be…
Byron Buxton – Age 19 – Bats: R/Throws: R
2012: Fort Myers (Rookie – GCL) and Elizabethton (Rookie – Appy)
The only benefit to having the second worst record in Major League Baseball in 2011 was that it earned the Twins the right to the second overall draft pick in the 2012 amateur draft. The Twins used that pick to select Buxton out of his Georgia high school and less than a year later, he’s generally considered either the 1st or 2nd ranked prospect in the Twins organization (he tops my list).
Buxton played 27 games with the GCL Twins before moving up to Elizabethton to finish the season. While his .216 batting average win the GCL wasn’t flashy, he actually had more extra-base hits (11, including 4 HRs) than singles (8). Think about that for a moment. His Appy stats were much more “normal” looking, but he still had eight XBHs among his 22 hits overall at that level.
There is probably little doubt that Buxton could compete at the Class A level, but given his age (he’ll be 19 all season long) and the outfield talent that got more experience in Elizabethton a year ago, Byron will quite likely stick around extended spring training to start the season and may play a few weeks in E’town again. I’ll be surprised, however, if he isn’t in Cedar Rapids for most of the second half of the MWL season and if JD Williams does open the year at high-A Fort Myers, Buxton could come to Cedar Rapids in April, too.
Whenever you do get to see him play in Cedar Rapids, Kernels fans, pay attention. Once he reaches Minnesota, Buxton could be the Twins center fielder for many years to come.
There are a couple more outfielders that at least warrant a mention, since you never know when injuries and promotions will result in players getting promoted from one of the rookie league teams. If that happens, look for Kelvin Ortiz, Jeremias Pineda or Dereck Rodriguez to find themselves in Kernels uniforms.
Ortiz, a 21-year-old Dominican has played two seasons in the Dominican Summer League and two seasons with the GCL Twins while compiling just a .221 batting average and perhaps even less impressive stats, otherwise.
Pineda, also from the Dominican Republic, is 22 and came over to the Twins from the Red Sox organization in the Danny Valencia trade last summer. The move didn’t exactly agree with him, however, as he hit just .237 while putting up a .640 OPS with the GCL Twins after putting up .421 BA and .981 OPS numbers for the GCL Red Sox before the trade.
Rodriguez, 20, was drafted by the Twins in the 6th round of the 2011 amateur draft. He struggled considerably with the GCL Twins after signing in 2011, but improved a great deal last year while repeating that level. He hit .263 with a .783 OPS with a bit of power.
Kernels fans should enjoy watching their outfielders this season. Some of them have much better than average chances of playing Major League Baseball in the future.
Over the past couple of months, a number of smart, informed people who spend a lot of time analyzing young baseball players have been publishing their lists of top Twins prospects. Since I’m not nearly as smart or informed about these players as others are, I’ve held off on publishing my own rankings.
But I’m going to put my rankings out there today, for two reasons. First, I’ve now had time to read and consider the opinions of a lot of those smarter, more informed people and use the research and analysis they’ve done to help solidify my own opinions. Second, and perhaps more importantly, we’re still getting through a holiday season when many people are not bothering to go online and read blogs like ours, so if I write something really stupid, it’s less likely than usual to be noticed.
So without further delay, here’s my list of top Twins prospects heading in to the new year:
Byron Buxton (OF) – It’s risky to elevate a player this high when he has yet to complete his first year of “full season” professional baseball, but the Twins first round pick from 2012 (and 2nd overall pick) was named top prospect of both rookie leagues, Gulf Coast and Appy, last year by Baseball America and that’s pretty hard to ignore. He doesn’t have the power of Miguel Sano, the consensus top Twins prospect for the past couple of years, but his potential as a centerfielder gives him an edge over Sano, who’s still a work in progress defensively. While Buxton could stay behind for extended spring training, I’m not sure he really has anything left to prove in Rookie leagues. He should spend most of the year in Cedar Rapids (A).
Miguel Sano (3B) – Dropping Sano a spot from last year is simply a reflection of Buxton’s arrival rather than any red flags with regard to Sano. I saw Sano play several games in 2012 and saw nothing that would keep me from continuing to believe that he should someday claim a spot in the heart of the Twins batting order. We all know he can hit, but until I watched him several times, it didn’t really sink in to me just how well he runs the bases, as well. Midwest League pitchers seemed to pitch around him at times (for good reason), so it will be interesting to see how he fares against better pitching in Fort Myers (A+).
Alex Meyer (P) – Acquired from the Nationals in return for Denard Span, Meyer immediately became the Twins’ best hope for a top of the rotation starting pitcher within the next couple of seasons. It has become evident that having a true ace… a pitcher who can miss bats consistently… gives a team a much better chance to compete for championships and Meyer has the potential to give the Twins such a weapon for the first time since Johan Santana was dealt to the Mets. It’s not going to happen right away, though, as Meyer didn’t exactly overwhelm hitters in the handful of starts he got at high-A last year. The Twins have invited him to open Spring Training in the Major League camp, but that almost certainly is simply to give the staff an initial look at the new guy. He may open the season at New Britain (AA), but I won’t be surprised if the Twins will keep him in Fort Myers (A+) to start the season with the hope that he’ll earn a quick promotion.
Oswaldo Arcia (OF) – Arcia has been projected to be a future corner outfielder for the Twins, as he’s shown power and the ability to hit line drives in to the gaps, while demonstrating solid corner outfield skills with his legs, glove and arm. Arcia split time in 2012 between Fort Myers (high A) and New Britain (AA) and actually hit better at the higher level, where he put up a .328/.398/.557 split. Arcia really hadn’t been projected to arrive in Minnesota until at least 2014, but with the departures of Span and Ben Revere, the question now is whether Arcia’s path to The Show will be accelerated. I assume he’ll start the season in Rochester, but if he plays well there, look for him to be promoted to Minnesota if/when there are injuries or the Twins start trading away veterans like Justin Morneau or Ryan Doumit toward mid-season. To my mind, Arcia is the “position player” prospect most likely to make the earliest significant offensive impact on the Twins Major League roster.
Aaron Hicks (OF) – Hicks was the Twins first round draft pick in 2008 as a high school player and his progression through the minor leagues has not been without some challenges. After a solid rookie league year after signing with the Twins, he spent the following two seasons at Class A Beloit, partially due to injury and partially due to unsatisfactory performance. In 2011, he had another lackluster season at Fort Myers (high A), leading his name to be dropped from many “top prospect” lists. In 2012, however, he put up a solid .286/.384/.460 split at AA New Britain and that was good enough, apparently, to restore the organization’s confidence in Hicks to the point where GM Terry Ryan felt comfortable trading away Span and Revere. I think it would be best for Hicks to spend some time at AAA this season, but it sounds like he’ll be given the opportunity to win the Twins CF job in Spring Training.
Kyle Gibson (P) – Another first round (2009) pick of the Twins, Gibson’s career has been one full of promise… and injuries that seem intent on quashing that promise. A college injury resulted in his dropping to the Twins with the 22nd pick and after zipping through high-A, AA and AAA during the 2010 season, Gibson’s career was derailed by Tommy John surgery midway through his 2011 AAA season. He threw just over 28 innings across three minor league levels toward the end of 2012, with encouraging results and performed relatively well in the Arizona Fall League. There’s little doubt that he’ll get an opportunity to pitch for the Twins in 2013, but the Twins intend to limit his innings somewhat, so it may be 2014 before we see what Gibson can really do at the Major League level. It’s not unreasonable to expect him to be a mid-rotation starting pitcher for years to come. I’d like to see him open in Rochester (AAA), but won’t be surprised or disappointed to see him with the Twins to start the season.
Eddie Rosario (2B/OF) – Since being drafted in 2010 out of his Puerto Rican high school, Rosario has put together 2 and a half seasons of solid work, hitting about .300 and tallying an even .900 OPS. Those would be pretty encouraging numbers for a centerfielder, which is what Rosario was drafted to play. But in 2012, the Twins asked Rosario to learn to play 2B in Beloit (A) and while his defense in the infield is still a work in progress, if he can successfully develop Major League level skills at 2B, his abilities with the bat could mean the difference between a “solid” CF and an “All-Star” 2B. This makes Rosario one of the most interesting players to watch as he takes his talent to Fort Myers (A+) this season.
Jose (J.O.) Berrios (P) – Until Alex Meyer was acquired from the Nationals, Berrios was arguably the Twins’ best hope for a future top of the rotation pitcher. That probably says as much about the overall dearth of top pitching in the Twins organization as it does about Berrios, but nonetheless Berrios made a very impressive debut after being a supplemental first round pick by the Twins this past June. Berrios threw only 30.2 innings for the Twins two rookie league teams, starting four of the 11 games in which he made appearances. He struck out 49 batters in those innings, however, while walking only four and pitching to a WHIP of only 0.620. It will be interesting to see how quickly the Twins push the 18-year-old Berrios through the system. We may get an indication of their intent by watching to see if they send Berrios to Cedar Rapids (A) in April or keep him in Florida for extended spring training.
Max Kepler (OF) – Kepler was signed as a teenager out of Germany and given the highest signing bonus ever for a European ballplayer the same offseason the Twins signed Miguel Sano. Kepler was not as developed as a ballplayer as Sano, however, and as a result, Kepler was spending his second short season at Elizabethton (rookie) in 2012, while Sano was playing his first year of full season ball in Beloit (A). In 2012, Kepler finally showed some of the promise the Twins saw in him before signing him, hitting just a couple clicks below .300, putting up a .925 OPS and hitting 10 home runs in 59 games. He reportedly has the skills to play some CF, but with the other CF prospects the Twins have in the pipeline, he’s probably more likely to fill a corner OF spot. Kepler will turn 20 years old a few weeks before he likely opens 2013 in the Cedar Rapids (A) outfield.
Trevor May (P) – The 10th spot is probably not the right ranking for May, who was part of the return the Twins got for sending Ben Revere to the Phillies. In all likelihood, May should be ranked a few spots higher or several spots lower, depending on which version of this 23 year old pitcher shows up. If he’s the fireballing hurler who struck out between 12 and 13 hitters per nine innings at some stops of his minor league career and caused him to be a consensus “Top 100 overall prospect” at one time, he would project to join Alex Meyer at the top of a future Twins rotation. But if he’s the pitcher who walked almost five hitters per nine innings and posted a 1.450 WHIP for Reading (AA) in 2012, he would join the ranks of several other arms in the Twins organization that project to potentially fill back of the rotation spots in Minnesota down the line some time. I would think he would open the season at Rochester (AAA), but wouldn’t be shocked or even disappointed if the Twins let him open in New Britain (AA).
It’s a good sign for the Twins and the relative depth of their organization that a number of my picks for spots 11 through 15 this year have been ranked, by me and/or others, as top 10 Twins prospects previously. Each of these players have the potential to make significant contributions to the Twins sooner or later. Trying to distinguish these five guys from one another in a way to rank them 11-15, though, is just too much for my limited knowledge to do, so I’ll just list them alphabetically, along with where I would expect them to open the 2013 season.
Joe Benson (OF) – Rochester (AAA)
Travis Harrison (3B) – Cedar Rapids (A)
B. J. Hermsen (P) Rochester (AAA)
Chris Herrmann (C) – Rochester (AAA)
Randy Rosario (P) – Elizabethton (Rookie)
There’s a lot of baseball talent on this list and a number of other Twins prospects have a lot of potential, as well. It should be a fun year to follow all of the Twins’ minor league affiliates in 2013.