Kernels in a Dogfight for MWL Postseason Spot

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then there’s the Cedar Rapids Kernels.

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

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

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

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

They haven’t lost a series since.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Quesada

Michael Quesada

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

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

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

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

Alex Swim

Alex Swim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aaron Slegers

Aaron Slegers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chih-Wei Hu

Chih-Wei Hu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Kernels Day in Photos

I’m traveling for work the first half of this week, so I won’t really have an opportunity to write a regular weekly update on the Cedar Rapids Kernels. Perhaps it’s just as well, though, because the Twins’ Midwest League affiliate did not have a real good week.

The Kernels dropped from the second spot in the MWL Western Division standings all the way to the cellar, as they endured an eight-game losing streak.

That losing streak ended Sunday in Burlington, however. Cedar Rapids topped the Bees 7-6. As a bonus, the win lifted the Kernels out of the MWL West basement.

Since I don’t have anything exciting to write about this week, I thought the least I could do is provide a few pictures of the game on Sunday. I had hoped to take more, but it turns out there are very few spots where you can take pictures at the Burlington ballpark that aren’t behind netting.

Some of the photos are a bit blurry. I hoped they just looked blurry on Sunday because I was having a few beers at the game, but no, they’re still a little blurry.

3B Bryan Haar and SP Ethan Mildren

3B Bryan Haar and SP Ethan Mildren

Manager Jake Mauer coaching 3B in the first inning. That's something he would not be doing by the 9th inning, however.

Manager Jake Mauer coaching 3B in the first inning. That’s something he would not be doing by the end of the game, however. Mauer was ejected in the 7th inning following a heated discussion with the umpires over a balk call.

Leadoff hitter JD Williams

Leadoff hitter JD Williams

Tanner Vavra pulling in to 2B with a double

Tanner Vavra pulling in to 2B with a double

Tanner Vavra chats with manager Jake Mauer. Vavra would ultimately be stranded at 3B.

Tanner Vavra chats with manager Jake Mauer. Vavra would ultimately be stranded at 3B.

Chad Christensen

Chad Christensen

Ivory Thomas

Ivory Thomas

Mitch Garver

Mitch Garver

Joel Licon

Joel Licon

Bryan Haar

Bryan Haar

Bo Altobelli

Bo Altobelli

Michael Quesada

Michael Quesada

Ethan Mildren

Ethan Mildren

Tommy Watkins took over 3B coaching duties following Mauer's ejection.

Tommy Watkins took over 3B coaching duties following Mauer’s ejection. Two runs scored in the 9th inning with Watkins and his bubble gum in charge.

Tommy Watkins gets a close-up look as Chad Christensen tags up and scores on a sac fly for the Kernels' final run.

Tommy Watkins gets a close-up look as Chad Christensen tags up and scores on a sac fly for the Kernels’ final run.

 

When baseball gods get angry

Everyone who has ever played the game knows you simply do not anger the baseball gods.

The baseball gods are a vengeful lot. Any kind of slight, whether real or perceived, can cause them to rain down bad karma on players, coaches, teams and even, apparently, entire organizations.

Someone in the Minnesota Twins organization must have really ticked off those baseball gods back during spring training, because the Twins have had one calamity after another since March. That’s when arguably the top power-hitting prospect in the game, Miguel Sano, was lost for the season with a torn ulnar collateral ligament (UCL), requiring Tommy John surgery.

A couple of weeks later, the consensus top minor league prospect in baseball, Byron Buxton, injured his wrist in the outfield on one of the back fields of the Twins’ training complex in Fort Myers FL. In fact, the baseball gods must really have it in for Buxton because just days after he was activated by Fort Myers, they zapped his wrist again, sending him back to the DL.

The Twins have had so many injuries at the Major League level that they’ve routinely been sending out career infielders like Eduardo Escobar to play in the outfield over the past week. The Twins currently have four players on a Disabled List of one kind or another. Others, including $23 million a year man Joe Mauer, have missed stretches of games with injuries despite avoiding a trip to the DL.

However, the wrath of the baseball gods has perhaps been visited hardest upon the Twins’ Class A Midwest League affiliate, the Cedar Rapids Kernels.

Randy Rosario

Randy Rosario – on the DL

Cedar Rapids’ uniforms don’t have players names sewn on the back of their jerseys above the number. That’s probably a good thing this season, because the club may have needed to retain a seamstress full time just to keep up with the roster changes already during 2014.

Roster turnover is not unusual in the minor leagues, of course. Players are promoted, demoted and even released at various points during the season, making it not at all unusual to see close to 50 different players take the field in a Kernels uniform at some point during the summer. A year ago, 49 different players (including Twins pitcher Mike Pelfrey on an injury rehabilitation assignment) put in time with the Kernels.

But this year’s Cedar Rapids club is getting an unwelcome jump on the roster musical chairs game.

Jeremias Pineda

Jeremias Pineda – on the DL

On Tuesday, less than six weeks in to the new season, pitcher Jared Wilson became the 34th player to wear a Kernels uniform this year.

Before the end of the first game of the Kernels’ doubleheader Tuesday night, shortstop Engelb Vielma had been pulled from the game after coming up lame as he left the batters box in the second inning and center fielder Jason Kanzler had been injured on a collision in the outfield.

(UPDATE: After the 2nd game, Kernels manager Jake Mauer confirmed Vielma injured his hamstring and Kanzler likely has a concussion. Mauer said he expects both players to be placed on the Disabled List and hopes to have replacements up from extended spring training in time for Wednesday night’s doubleheader.)

Of the 25 players who arrived in Cedar Rapids from spring training to start the current campaign, pitcher Brandon Peterson has earned a promotion to Class high-A Fort Myers, pitcher Miguel Sulbaran has been traded, pitcher Christian Powell has been released and seven original 2014 Kernels have spent some time on the club’s Disabled List. If Vielma’s name is added to that list, he would be the eighth.

Centerfielder Zack Granite was hitting .313 for the Kernels just four games in to the season when the baseball gods struck him down with a rotator cuff strain.

Zack Larson

Zack Larson – on the DL

About ten days later, catcher Michael Quesada fell to a right wrist contusion.

Less than a week after Quesada was felled, outfielder Jeremias Pineda broke his wrist and pitcher Randy Rosario hit the Disabled List with a left flexor mass strain.

The game’s mystic guardians finally looked in other directions for almost two weeks before returning their attention to the Kernels with a vengeance and sidelining infielders Tanner Vavra (right ankle sprain) and Logan Wade (dislocated left shoulder), as well as outfielder Zack Larson (right hamstring strain) all during the first ten days of May.

That’s an average of better than one player a week that manager Jake Mauer and his coaching staff have had to replace due to injury.

Logan Wade

Logan Wade – on the DL

So far, the nine players added to the Kernels’ roster as replacements from extended spring training have managed to avoid the DL, though Kanzler would break that string if he lands on the DL following his injury Tuesday. One replacement, Jonatan Hinojosa, was with the team only long enough to play in one game before finding himself suspended by Major League Baseball for having tested positive for a PED.

Michael Quesada

Michael Quesada – back from the DL

Twins farm director Brad Steil must cringe every time his phone rings and he sees Jake Mauer’s name on the caller ID.

Perhaps remarkably, Mauer has patched together line ups that have managed to win more games than they’ve lost. In fact, with five weeks left in the Midwest League’s first-half race, the Kernels are right in the thick of the race for second place in the league’s Western Division and the automatic postseason spot that would come with it.

The Kernels struggled through a tough six-game road trip during which they won just two of six games and they play just seven of their next 17 games at home, but both Quesada and Vavra have returned from their injuries.

Even Quesada’s return, however, poses a peculiar challenge for his manager. The Kernels’ current active roster includes 13 pitchers and 12 position players, four of which are catchers. Of course, at this level, it’s not unusual for catchers to play some first base. Which is good, because the Kernels’ regular first baseman of late, Chad Christensen, is likely going to be needed in the outfield.

The arrival of JD Williams from extended spring training, where he’d been recovering from his own spring training injury (a broken thumb) has certainly provided a spark at the top of the Cedar Rapids batting order.

Tanner Vavra

Tanner Vavra – back from the DL

After Monday night’s doubleheader against Peoria was washed out, the Kernels were scheduled to play back-to-back doubleheaders against the Chiefs Tuesday and Wednesday.

Going in to Tuesday night’s games, Peoria sat in second place in the MWL West, just a half game ahead of Cedar Rapids. There were four more teams, however, bunched tightly together behind the Kernels and all of them have their eyes on the second Western Division postseason spot.

- JC

(All photos: JC/Knuckleballs)

Meet the Kernels’ Catchers

The Cedar Rapids Kernels opened their 2014 season with a split of their four-game series with the Clinton Lumber Kings. The weather over the weekend was tolerable, with highs in the mid 50s to around 60 degrees, but Thursday’s Opening Night was far from delightful, with temperatures in the 30s and occasional rain. On Friday, the weather forced the season’s first postponement.

On Monday, the team boarded their bus for their first road trip. They’ll play six games in Michigan before returning Monday, April 13.

Before they left town with their team mates, the Kernels’ three-man catching corps sat down for an interview.

Kernels catching corps, from left to right: Bo Altobelli, Michael Quesada and Mitch Garver

Kernels catching corps, from left to right: Bo Altobelli, Michael Quesada and Mitch Garver

Bo Altobelli, Michael Quesada and Mitch Garver have several things in common. They are similar in age and each played some college baseball before starting their professional careers with the Twins.

In addition, each of the three hails from areas of the country that you would assume allows baseball to be played in more moderate weather than what welcomed them to Cedar Rapids last week. Altobelli’s from Texas, Quesada went to school in California and Garver in New Mexico.

They were asked over the weekend if they had any prior experience playing ball in conditions comparable to what they faced in their first week of Midwest League play this season.

Bo Altobelli: It’s a little different, especially coming from Florida up here, so that’s the major change. But it does get cold in Texas. We have played games in sleet and snow before, so I’m a little bit used to it. Of course, you prefer the Florida weather, which hopefully will come here soon.

Michael Quesada: Being from California, this is as cold as I’ve had to play in, but it’s a learning experience. You go up and down the (organizational) ladder, there’s cold places.

Minnesota, for example. You’re not going to complain when you’re up there, are you? You might as well get used to it now.

We’re not the only ones who are cold, everyone else is cold, too. So it’s something you’ve got to work through it and experiment with ways to stay warm.

Mitch Garver: It’’s very similar (in New Mexico). We get a lot of wind. We don’t get a lot of moisture. There’s no snow and sleet and rain, but when it does rain, there’s always going to be wind to accompany it. So the cold is familiar, but you can never really get used to it.  You’re always going to be playing in cold, so the first few months of the season, there’s an adjustment.

A year ago, Garver was finishing up his college career at New Mexico. He was asked what differences he’s noticed as he enters his first year of full season professional baseball.

Garver: It’s just different doing this every day. You have to learn how to maintain your body and how you prepare each day is based off how you feel. If you’re feeling a little down one day, you might have to do something a little bit extra to get going.

It’s different from college because really baseball is the only thing you have to worry about. You have to worry about keeping your body in shape, showing up to the field on time, doing what you’ve got to do to prepare.

Whereas in college, you had to take care of your social life, your emotional life, your school work and other factors that go in to it. It’s a more independent way of living and the competition obviously is better.

So does that mean you have no social life or anything like that when you’re playing professional baseball?

Garver: You’ve really got to balance things. In pro baseball, your social life is within the team. It’s kind of who you hang out with 24/7.

Both Quesada and Altobelli spent time in Cedar Rapids a season ago. They were asked whether they were adjusting their approaches this year as they return to open the season with the Kernels, but clearly hope to be getting considered for possible promotions to the next level.

Quesada: My adjustment is not worrying about it. I think I worried too much last year, putting pressure on myself with what to do. It’s a marathon, like Mitch said, it’s every day. I think I played pitch by pitch every day like it was my last pitch and I think you have to pace yourself a little bit.

That’s the adjustment I’m making this year is pacing myself throughout the year. I understand it’s 140-some odd games, plus spring training. I’m treating my body a little differently, adjusting that way.

That’s really the difference that I feel. After my first full season, I caught a lot last year and this year I’m trying to treat it as a marathon and not a sprint.

Altobelli: Similar to what they said, you can’t worry about it because the moment you think you’ve got it figured out, you’ll find out you’ve got no idea what’s going on as far as what they think you’re going to do and what you think yourself you’re going to do.

So you can’t think about it. You’ve just got to go out there and play. Play how you want to play and the rest will take care of itself.

If the team wins, everyone’s going to be happy and, more likely, people will move up if you win. So just focus on winning and the rest will take care of itself.

The Kernels roster includes 13 pitchers, leaving room for just 12 position players. Three of those spots are held by these catchers. That means Kernels manager Jake Mauer has to ration out innings behind the plate among the three backstops. They were asked how it works out, splitting time among the three of them.

Altobelli: Every year of pro ball, we’ve had three catchers where I’m at, so it’s nothing new to me. But being here, we know Jake’s going to help us out the best that he can, DHing us, maybe getting time at first base, who knows.

You’ve got to try and stay focused, take some extra BP if you need it. At least we’re catching bullpens if we’re not playing, so the ball’s still coming at us. So we’re still getting that feel down. It’s definitely difficult, but Jake does a good job of getting us in there and trying to keep us in a routine so credit to him for keeping us up to date with what’s going on.

Quesada: All of that’s out of our control. It’s up to Jake and the organization. It’s not anything we have any power over. All we can do is go out and play the best we can. If they’re going to play us more, then they do. Jake, as Bo said, does a really good job of finding ways to get us in there somehow. He’s not going to shortchange us.

Garver, on the other hand, was catching almost every game during his college season a year ago.

Garver: Yeah, that’s right. It’s a long season. It’s longer than most people might think. It’s my first full season, so I guess I probably don’t have a feel for it like these guys do, but 140 games is a long time and if you’re really only using one or two catchers, it’s going to break down toward the end of the year.

I think having three guys is going to be helpful. You can stay fresh. You can get some days off, get some at-bats at some different positions where you don’t normally play. It teaches you how to be a good baseball player. If you’re only playing one position, you’re not going to be as baseball savvy as you are if you can play multiple positions. They like to see how you can do at different positions and I think that’s a cool thing.

Kernels Roster Could Include Familiar Faces

The final week of spring training is a big week for the new batch of Kernels getting ready to head north to Cedar Rapids.

On Thursday, four days before the Kernels will break camp in Fort Myers and head north, the roster for the Kernels still included 29 names. That’s four more than the 25 players that will make up the club’s Opening Day roster.

That means at least four of the current group being managed by Jake Mauer on the back fields of the Lee County Sports Complex will be staying behind for Extended Spring Training in Fort Myers.

On top of that, each of the other levels in the Twins organization, from the Major League club through each of the three minor league levels above the Kernels, all also were a few players over their Opening Day limits. As players at higher levels get “sent down,” they can bump other players down to the next lower level, as well.

After Thursday’s game with the Red Sox’ Class A affiliate, I spoke briefly with a pair of potential Kernels who, while similar in age, demonstrate two different perspectives as they prepare to open the 2014 season.

Catcher Michael Quesada was drafted as a 20-year-old by the Twins in the 24th round of the 2010 Amateur Player Draft out of Sierra College in Rocklin, California. He played only three games in 2010 after signing with the Twins and has spent the past three years moving step-by-step up the organizational ladder.

Michael Quesada

Michael Quesada

Quesada spent most of the 2013 season with the Kernels, getting in to 62 games while sharing catching duties with a number of other backstops that passed through the Kernels roster during the year. He didn’t set the world on fire with the bat, but improved his game-calling behind the plate and showed off a strong arm.

A week ago, Quesada was getting an opportunity to work with the Twins’ Class AA group,. But as catchers on the Major League side of the camp were sent down, setting off the natural chain reaction at the minor league levels, Quesada was likewise destined to drop a rung.

However, instead of dropping one rung, to the Class high-A Miracle, Quesada was returned to the same Kernels roster he was part of last season and where it appears he’s likely to open the season alongside other returning players, such as infielder Joel Licon and pitcher Hudson Boyd, among others.

If the drop bothers Quesada, he doesn’t let it show. Rather, he talks of appreciating the opportunity to see how things are done at a higher level in the organization, while looking forward to starting another season with the Kernels.

“Yeah, it was a good experience just to see more mature players, how they handle themselves,” said Quesada. “I’m just coming back (to Cedar Rapids), looking to play as much as possible and get (at-bats). I had a great time in Cedar Rapids last year, so I’m real excited to come back. It’s going to be a good time.”

Despite being less than a year younger than Quesada, infielder/outfielder Chad Christensen has just started his professional career. Christensen was drafted by the Twins in the 25th round of last year’s Amateur Draft and played just 47 games for the Twins’ lowest rookie level team in the Gulf Coast League following the end of his senior season at the University of Nebraska.

Typically, a player like Christensen would be targeted to spend the next couple of months in Extended Spring Training before joining the Twins’ Appalachian League squad in Elizabethton, Tennessee. Then, depending upon performance, he could work his way up to the Kernels later in the summer.

But Christensen, who attended Washington High School in Cedar Rapids, is still a part of the Kernels group just four days before camp breaks and is squarely in the mix for one of the final spots on the Opening Day roster with the Kernels. That would mean spending 2014 playing before friends and family in his hometown.

Kernels manager Jake Mauer has said he’d like to have the flexibility that a player like Christensen brings to the table. Mauer indicated he’d have no qualms about playing Christensen at either corner outfield position, either corner infield position, or even at shortstop on occasion.

Nonetheless, Christensen is well aware that his roster spot with the Kernels is precarious and he’s still got work to do over the final few days of spring training in order to nail down that spot.

“I’m still trying to do what I can to make this team so that’s kind of where I’m at,” Christensen said on Thursday. “(Playing in Cedar Rapids) would be real exciting, I grew up there and everything. It would be a lot of fun to come home.”

Some athletes have been known to struggle with playing at the professional level in their hometown, but Christensen doesn’t believe he’ll feel an extra pressure from playing in Cedar Rapids, if and when that opportunity arises.

“No, I’m not so concerned about that,” he said. “Just trying to keep focused on the field and separate the baseball from the friends and family. I’ll be excited about it.”

A year ago, the Kernels were at or near the top of the Midwest League in almost every offensive category. But the hitters that made up the heart of the batting order a year ago have all moved up at least one level entering the new season and Quesada allowed that this year’s Kernels will take a different approach to win games.

“We’re not really trying to match (the 2013 Kernels hitters),” acknowledged Quesada. “We’re just trying to put more runs up on the board (than the opponent) that day. Maybe it’s two, maybe it’s one. But no, we don’t have the offense of last year, but our pitching is going to win us ballgames.”

The Kernels pitching corps is expected to include a number of the Twins organization’s top young arms during the course of the 2014 season and Quesada is clearly impressed with the pitchers he’s been working with.

“The pitching staff is going to be less experienced, but with way better stuff. They’re going to have live arms, young guys that are learning how to pitch. It’s our job, myself and (fellow catchers) Mitch Garver, Bo Altobelli and (pitching coach) Ivan Arteaga to teach them. They’re definitely good throwers right now, but they have a big opportunity to turn in to some serious pitchers. I’m really excited to work with them.”

Quesada’s work this spring extends beyond the field, as a number of those young pitchers are from Latin America, which can present a communication challenge for a catcher.

“I’m working with Ivan right now to get my Spanish a little better to where I can go out to the mound and talk to them, so they’re comfortable. I’m trying to make their lives as easy as possible because it’s going to be a fun pitching staff to work with.”

Thursday was likely my final look at the Kernels in spring training. I’m planning to go to the Twins/Red Sox game on Friday afternoon and, alas, my flight home from not-so-sunny-but-warmer-than-home Florida is early Saturday morning.

- JC

Kernels Roster Taking Shape

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chad Christensen

Chad Christensen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- JC

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 Videos: Polanco, Hicks, Grimes

I spent Wednesday evening watching a doubleheader between the Cedar Rapids Kernels and the Burlington Bees (the Angels MWL affiliate). The two clubs split the two games with the Kernels winning the first game 6-5 and the Bees taking the nightcap 6-4.

In the first game, the Kernels came from behind and scored four runs in the third inning to take the lead. They fell behind again, but tied the game back up in the fifth inning with a Jorge Polanco triple, followed by a Dalton Hicks double. Here, if you will pardon the shaky video photography, are Polanco’s triple and Hicks’ RBI double.

Two of the newest members of the Kernels combined to contribute the ultimate game winning run as new catcher Michael Quesada beat out an infield single and pinch runner Jeremias Pineda stole second, advanced to third on a fielder’s choice and scored on a wild pitch. Josue Montanez, who just returned to the Cedar Rapids from Extended Spring Training, pitched the final two innings to earn the win for the Kernels.

In the second game, Kernels fans had very little to get excited about. However, Tyler Grimes did give fans an opportunity to cheer with this two-run home run, driving in Travis Harrison ahead of him.

The Bees and Kernels finish up their four-game series Thursday night and host the Kane County Cougars (the Cubs MWL affiliate) for four games Friday through Monday.

Prospects and Projects – Projecting the 2013 Kernels. Part 1

Since we’ve officially turned the calendar to 2013, it means Spring Training gets underway in just a few weeks and before you know it, we’ll be getting ready for Opening Day!

(Image: Kernels.com)

(Image: Kernels.com)

With this being the first year of the new Class A affiliation between the Twins and my hometown Cedar Rapids Kernels, I’m looking forward to the opportunity to bring more Kernels-centric writing to Knuckleballs and I figure there’s no time like the present to get started.

Over the coming days (or perhaps weeks), I’m going to try to introduce most, if not all, of the players that we may expect to see wearing Kernels uniforms this summer. Granted, there’s no way of knowing with any certainty who we’ll actually find on the Kernels’ roster to open the season, but we can certainly make some educated guesses… and if I run out of those, I’ll just pull a few wild names out of thin air and talk about those players, too!

The Opening Day roster will be limited to 25 players, but we’ll have no such limits here! It took almost no time at all for me to throw together a list of about 35 players in the Twins organization that look to me like reasonable bets to spend some time in Cedar Rapids this summer. Some will start the year in extended spring training and perhaps spend time with one of the Twins’ rookie league teams before, hopefully, getting promoted to Cedar Rapids. Others may open the season a rung higher on the organizational ladder with the High-A Fort Myers Miracle and miss out on being a Kernel altogether. But I’m relatively confident that most of the players we include in this series will wear a Kernels uniform at some point during the upcoming season.

For the benefit of those Kernels fans who are less familiar with the Twins organization, we should probably explain that the Twins have two “rookie level” short-season teams below the Class A Kernels. The lowest level is the Fort Myers team in the Gulf Coast League and the next level up is Elizabethton TN in the Appalachian League. Those Kernels who earn a promotion out of Cedar Rapids will find themselves with the Fort Myers Miracle in the “high-A” Florida State League.

Let’s kick off this series by looking at a group of catchers that Kernels fans might want to get to know. To my mind, the most likely catching options for Cedar Rapids to start the season would come from the trio of Jhonatan Arias, Tyler Grimes and Jairo Rodriguez. Here’s just a bit about them:

Jairo Rodriguez - Age 24 – Bats R/Throws R

2012: Beloit (Class A – MWL)

G PA BA OPS K BB 2B 3B HR
64 243 .265 .678 40 18 12  0 2
Jairo Rodriguez

Jairo Rodriguez

Outside of just six games at DH, Jairo made the rest of his starts behind the plate in 2012. He threw out 24 of 66 runners attempting to steal for a very respectable 36% throw-out rate.

Rodriguez was signed by the Twins out of Venezuela and spent his first three seasons in summer leagues in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. He spent 2010 and 2011 playing in US rookie leagues and the full 2012 season at Beloit. At 24 years old, Rodriguez would be older than most players in the Midwest League, so even if Rodriguez starts the year in Cedar Rapids, I could see the Twins pushing him up to Fort Myers at the first opportunity, assuming he performs at acceptable levels.

Tyler Grimes – Age 22 – Bats R/Throws R

2012: Beloit (Class A – MWL)

G PA BA OPS K BB 2B 3B HR
105 381 .202 .653 99 43 17 3 7
Tyler Grimes

Tyler Grimes

Grimes made 77 appearances at shortstop and 18 at second base (plus 1 at 3B and 7 as DH) in 2012.

Grimes was drafted by the Twins in the 5th round of the 2011 amateur draft out of Wichita State. He has not hit the ball real well in roughly a season and a half at Beloit, though at least he has shown a little power.

After the 2012 season, he spent time at the the Fall Instructional League learning the catcher position. Grimes could open the season with the Kernels, repeating Class A, or potentially be held back in extended spring training to work more on his catching skills with the Twins instructional staff in Fort Myers before starting his season. It will be very interesting to see how the catching experiment works out for Tyler.

Jhonatan Arias – Age 23 – Bats R/Throws R

2012: Elizabethton (Rookie – Appy League)

G PA BA OPS K BB 2B 3B HR
30 113 .301 .728 15 7 6 0 1

Jhonatan got in just 27 games behind the dish in 2012, but he threw out 11 of 30 attempted base stealers for a 37% rate. Of the three catchers I see as most likely to spend significant time in Cedar Rapids, he appears to have the most promising offensive skills.

Arias was signed out of the Dominican Republic and spent 2007 and 2008 playing in the Dominican Summer League. In 2009 he played for the Gulf Coast League Twins and in 2010 he moved up to Elizabethton. In 2011, he split time between E’town and Beloit, but struggled at the plate in his time with the Snappers. During the 2011 Fall Instructional League, Arias reportedly was tried out on the pitching mound, but he spent 2012 in Elizabethton back behind the plate.

If I had to bet, I’d expect the majority of the Kernels’ catching duties in 2013 will be shared by some combination of these three players, but there are a few younger catchers who spent time with one or both of the short-season teams in 2012 and could end up in Cedar Rapids at some point this season.

If the Twins do decide to bring in younger catchers, look to see Bo Altobelli, Kelly Cross and/or Bryan Santy.

Altobelli, who turns 22 in February, was drafted in the 21st round last June out of Texas Tech and signed with the Twins in time to get 18 games in behind the plate in Elizabethton. He hit just .230 and threw out just one of the 15 baserunners who attempted to steal against him.

Cross will turn 21 during Spring Training. He was drafted in the 26th round out of his Texas high school in 2010. He signed his contract just before the signing deadline and caught three games for the GCL Twins that summer. He also spent most of the past two seasons with the same GCL team. He caught just eight games for Elizabethton last season. He hasn’t seemed to figure out what to do with a bat in his hands, yet, hitting just .167 in his GCL and Appy games combined during 2012, but he did throw out an impressive 47% of attempted base stealers (15 of 32).

Santy played just 19 games for the GCL Twins in 2012 after the 22 year old was drafted in the 30th round out of the University of Washington. He not only threw out seven of the 16 runners who attempted to steal off him, but he also hit .296 and got on base at a .418 clip. Those are offensive numbers you won’t see in many other young Twins catching prospects. Of course, Santy was older than most of the pitchers he was likely facing in the GCL, which has me wondering whether the Twins might consider pushing him up a couple of levels over the course of 2013. If so, we might see him in CR.

Finally, there are two other catching prospects that I would consider long-shots to see in a Kernels uniform this season.

The Twins drafted Jorge Fernandez in the 7th round of the amateur draft last year, but Fernandez was drafted out of the International Baseball Academy in Puerto Rico and will just turn 19 in March. He caught 30 games for the GCL Twins last year with moderate success. I suspect he’ll spend all of 2013 in rookie leagues at either Fort Myers or Elizabethton, but I suppose there’s an outside chance he could find his way to Cedar Rapids late in the year.

One other catcher, Michael Quesada, contributed a bit at Elizabethton in 2012. Quesada was a low round draft pick in 2010 but as he was signed out of junior college, he’s older than Cross. Like some others on this list, Quesada has struggled a bit at the plate, but has had some success throwing out runners. Quesada, however, was suspended in August after failing a drug test, so he will start the season completing the remainder of a 50-game suspension. Unfortunately, since he was on the Elizabethton roster when he tested positive, the suspension doesn’t pick back up again until E’town’s short-season schedule resumes in June, so it will be August before he can suit up for any affiliate.

In my view, the Twins could stand to upgrade their catching at the low-minors level and I would not be disappointed to see them draft a college catcher or two in the top 10-15 rounds of the June amateur draft. With the accelerated signing period, I suppose that could result in Cedar Rapids seeing such a 2013 draftee behind the plate before the end of the season, but it’s not very likely.

Next up: Part 2: Corner infielders.

- JC

P.S. If you’d like to learn more about these and other potential Kernels, not to mention pretty much any other prospect in the Twins minor league organization, keep a watch out for Seth Stohs’ 2013 Minnesota Twins Prospect Handbook. Seth and his fellow writers annually provide statistics and write-ups on pretty much every Twins prospect at all levels of the organization. We’ll share the announcement when the 2013 Handbook becomes available, or you could just follow Seth at @SethTweets on Twitter or check in with him at TwinsDaily.com (which you really should be doing anyway).