Few Silver Linings for Kernels

June has not been kind to the Cedar Rapids Kernels.

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

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

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

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

Mitch Garver

Mitch Garver

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

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

Chad Christensen

Chad Christensen

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kohl Stewart

Kohl Stewart

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

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

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

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

Todd Van Steensel

Todd Van Steensel

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

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

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

Alex Muren

Alex Muren

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- JC

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.

 

Getting to Know the Kernels’ Bryan Haar

The Cedar Rapids Kernels sported a 9-7 record as they departed for Peoria Monday for the first of seven road games before returning to Veterans Memorial Stadium on Monday, April 28. They enter the week just two games behind Kane County in the Midwest League’s Western Division standings.

One reason for the success they’ve had thus far has been a power surge in the heart of their batting order.

The Kernels lead the MWL in slugging percentage entering this week’s games largely due to power generated by catcher Mitch Garver and infielder Bryan Haar. Garver leads the league in home runs, with five, and Haar is right on his heals with four round-trippers.

Over the weekend, Haar shared his perspectives on the start to the season that he and his team mates have had, as well as some thoughts about his own experiences moving from college ball, through two levels of Rookie level professional baseball and on to his first month with the Class A level Kernels.

Though Garver and Haar have provided much of the power early on for Cedar Rapids, Haar insists that their offensive success has been a team effort.

“When our team got hot and went on a little winning streak, I think we were all hitting pretty well so that helps,” said Haar. “Hitting is contagious. So I think we all contributed to the good start.”

While the Kernels have kept their record above .500, they haven’t exactly had it easy thus far.

Bryan Haar

Bryan Haar

Haar and many of his team mates have spent their lives playing ball in far warmer climates. Several of the Kernels’ games have been played with temperatures in the 30s and 40s, so they were glad to see things warm up a bit over the past weekend.

“Anything above 50 right now is good for us,” Haar said with a smile on Saturday. “If it’s not 35 and raining, we’re happy.”

You won’t yet find Haar’s name on many of the organizational “top prospect” lists published during the offseason, but the 24 year-old from San Diego is showing power that’s been largely missing to this point in his professional career.

Haar was drafted by the Twins in the 34th round of the 2012 MLB June Amateur Draft, following his senior year at the University of San Diego.

He hit only one home run in 44 games with the Gulf Coast League Twins in 2012 after signing with the Twins and went deep just six times in 60 games with the Twins’ short-season Appalachian League affiliate in Elizabethton last season.

Haar said it took some time for him to adjust from college pitchers, who generally threw a mix of pitches, to lower levels of professional ball, where he faced a lot of strong young arms who were looking to impress.

“In GCL that first summer, it was just fastballs all day,” recalled Haar. “I actually struggled a little bit because I forgot how to hit a fastball. It was new to me. They were blowing it by me.”

He had to continue working on being able to catch up with the heat a year ago in Elizabethton.

“In E’town, it was rookie ball, so there were a lot of 18 year old pitchers out of high school that maybe thought they threw 95 and really threw 91-92, trying to throw fastballs by me. I got more fastballs then. Jeff Reed (hitting coach at Elizabethton) is a great hitting coach, so he helped me out a lot.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean the pitching he faced in college was superior to what he saw his first two years in the pros, though.

“I’d say not better, but more command of their sliders,” Haar explained. “In E’town it was sliders in the dirt, sliders in the dirt. They never flipped one over for a strike. In college, it was slider for a strike, slider for a strike, now you’re down 0-2. But now (in the MWL), it’s more college guys so I’ve got to readjust to college pitching, I guess.”

Bryan Haar

Bryan Haar

Haar knows he’s largely been feasting on fastballs this season and said he already sees pitchers making adjustments.

“The first game of a series, usually I get some fastballs to hit. If I hit them well, then the next two or three games I get sliders and change-ups and curveballs. Just making that adjustment has been a little harder than I would have thought, but I’ve got to hit the fastball when I get it.”

Kernels hitting coach Tommy Watkins has been working with Haar to keep a step ahead of the adjustments the pitchers are making.

“They’re throwing me off-speed a lot, so I’ve got to start adjusting my swing a little bit towards that,” Haar said. “Tommy and I have been working on that the past couple of days. Not really trying to strike out less, but just put more balls in play hard.

“I’ve hit two home runs off sliders, but I think they were the only hits I’ve had off sliders. We were working on that (Saturday), just kind of letting the ball get a little deeper, seeing it deeper.”

At 24, Haar is a bit older than the average MWL position player, but he’s not feeling any extra anxiety about trying to advance quicker up the Twins organizational ladder because of that.

“I don’t really worry about that. I’m just having a good time in Low-A with my friends,” he said. ”I got drafted in 2012 and pretty much all the guys here were drafted in the 2012 draft, so it’s nice to move up with them, in a sense. I’m just letting my play speak for itself and doing what I can here.”

That includes being versatile in the field. Haar has played both corner infield positions for the Kernels already and that’s fine with him. Haar said he’d play anywhere, “as long as I’m in the lineup.”

Haar played some football and basketball in high school and said his interests include, “pretty much every sport with a ball.” But as a Southern Californian, his interests outside of baseball go beyond what local fans might consider the norm.

“I’m from San Diego, so I surf whenever I can. Usually in September I take some time off from baseball and I go surf. But when I get back in to workouts, I don’t have much time for that.”

There’s obviously neither time nor opportunity for surfing during the season, so Haar is looking for other things to do with his limited down time.

“I do enjoy fishing, so since we’re in Iowa, I’d like to get out and fish a little bit, but it’s tough. Getting back from a long road trip, you want to sleep in, and then you’re at the field.”

Of course, there’s always the standard fallback option for ballplayers: video games.

Haar and team mates Garver and Zach Larson, who live in close proximity to one another this season, “have a little FIFA battle on the X-Box. We’re on that quite a bit.”

Who Are These Guys?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hudson Boyd

Hudson Boyd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That approach is showing up in the offensive statistics.

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

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

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

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

Mitch Garver

Mitch Garver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- JC

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.