Rediculously Premature Enthusiasm for Kernels’ 2018

It’s too early for this.

It’s too early to be looking at which of the hundreds of minor leaguers currently a part of the Minnesota Twins organization might take the field at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids this summer.

Tommy Watkins is moving up to AA Chattanooga to manage in 2018, but Royce Lewis could be back in Cedar Rapids to start the new season (Photo: SD Buhr)

It’s definitely too early to get excited about the possibility of seeing the most promising group of prospects in Cedar Rapids since, perhaps, the class of 2013 (which included Buxton, Kepler, Polanco, Berrios and more) in the first year of the Kernels/Twins affiliation era.

Still, since it’s been minus-10 degrees or so all day and I’ve had nothing else to do but watch a bunch of bowl games I generally don’t care about at all, I’m going to share my excitement here anyway.

Even as the 2017 was winding down, I found myself taking mental inventory of which members of the playoff-bound Kernels might be starting 2018 in Cedar Rapids, as well. Then I started looking at the talent that was on the field for Elizabethton’s Appalachian League champion club and projecting a few that were likely to get their first exposure to full-season minor league ball with the Kernels in 2018

All of that informal mental note-making left me feeling pretty optimistic that the Twins would send a pretty competitive group to Cedar Rapids this spring.

The Kernels have qualified for the Midwest League postseason in each of the five seasons that Cedar Rapids has been affiliated with the Twins and it was fine to feel pretty good about that streak continuing in 2018.

But then it happened.

A box arrived in the mail over this past weekend and inside was the 2018 Minnesota Twins Prospect Handbook.(Click here to get your copy.)

I should have just glanced through it to make sure my name was spelled correctly everywhere I was given a photo credit, then set it aside for a few weeks until we were at least getting closer to the date when pitchers and catchers report for spring training in Florida (which is the date I unofficially consider the baseball season to begin each year).

But knowing how much work the authors – Seth Stohs, Cody Christie and Tom Froemming – put into writing the Handbook and how packed with great content about every Twins minor league affiliate and literally every minor league player currently under contract to the Twins, well, just giving the book a glance through was something I couldn’t limit myself to.

So I started reading. The authors have some great articles in there, reflecting not only their knowledge of the Twins organization, but their writing skills, as well. I probably should have just read those feature articles and, perhaps, about their selections for Twins Minor League Hitter, Starting Pitcher and Relief Pitcher of the Year Awards. (All three are Kernels alums, by the way.)

But that wasn’t enough. Not when we’re in the middle of a several-day stretch of sub-zero temperatures.

I give myself some credit, though. I didn’t read EVERY one of the player features in their entirety. It’s far too early in the year to do that.

No, I only read the features of those players that the authors suggested have some chance of playing ball for the Kernels in 2018.

I think there were about 60 of them. That may seem like a lot, given teams are limited to a 25-man roster, but it’s really only a little bit more than the 50 or so that you might typically see come through any MWL roster in any given season.

Still, not all of them will wear Kernels uniforms this season. They mentioned 28, I think, that have played for the Kernels already that may return. That would be unusual. Some of those will start the season with a promotion to Ft. Myers, some could be injured or traded during spring training and some, unfortunately, could be released by the Twins before the season starts. That’s just the harsh reality of professional baseball.

But many of the players who WILL be coming to Cedar Rapids, either to start the season or as replacements during the course of the summer, have some very impressive backgrounds and credentials.

The Kernels could feature not one, but two first-round draft choices.

Shortstop Royce Lewis, who was the first overall pick of the 2017 MLB amateur draft, spent most of the last month of the 2017 season with the Kernels and likely will start the 2018 season in Cedar Rapids as well. He could well be joined by the Twins’ 2016 first round pick, outfielder Alex Kirilloff, who had been expected to spend time with the Kernels last year, but missed the entire 2017 season following elbow surgery.

Of course, both Lewis and Kirilloff got big signing bonuses as top draft picks, but they aren’t likely to be the only million+ dollar bonus babies to put on Kernels uniforms in 2018.

While Lewis is likely to see a mid-season promotion if his play develops as we’d expect it to, the Twins have another millionaire shortstop ready to step into his shoes – and position – with the Kernels. Wander Javier got $4 million to sign as an International Free Agent in 2015.

A couple of teenaged pitchers could eventually find their ways to Cedar Rapids, though are perhaps less likely to start the season there. The Twins’ 2017 second and third round draft picks, Blayne Enlow and Landon Leach, each got bonuses in excess of a million dollars to sign with the Twins, rather than play college ball.

While he didn’t get it from the Twins, catcher David Banuelos also got a million dollars to sign with the Mariners as their 2017 third round pick. He was acquired by the Twins in December.

If Banuelos is assigned to Cedar Rapids, the Kernels could potentially have quite an impressive 1-2 punch behind the plate, since it would not be surprising to see Ben Rortvedt (who signed for $900,000 as the Twins’ 2nd round pick in 2016) also return to start the season.

In addition to Rortvedt, seven additional likely (or at least potential) 2018 Kernels pulled down signing bonuses of between $400,000 and $900,000, Those include some pretty heralded prospects such as outfielder Akil Baddoo and infielder Jose Miranda, both of which were “Compensation B” round (between 2nd and 3rd rounds) selections by the Twins in 2016.

Twins 2nd round draft pick in 2016 Ben Rortvedt could well begin 2018 behind the plate for Cedar Rapids. (Photo: SD Buhr)

Of course, signing bonuses aren’t what matter the most once these guys get on the field. No matter what you got paid, what matters is what you do between the lines when you get a chance. Still, when you’re looking at young players with limited professional experience to base judgements on, bonus money and draft position are simple means of projecting the level of talent any particular roster might consist of.

In addition to those already listed, the 2018 Kernels roster could include, at some point:

  • Two 4th round picks (pitcher Charlie Barnes – 2017, and third baseman/outfielder Trey Cabbage – 2015, both of whom spent time with the Kernels in 2017) and a 5th rounder (third baseman Andrew Bechtold).
  • Six-figure International Free Agent signees like pitcher Jose Martinez ($340K in 2013) and catcher Robert Molina ($300K in 2013)
  • Nine additional players drafted by the Twins in the top 10 rounds of drafts between 2014 and 2017,

That is a lot of potential. And it doesn’t even include Edwar Colina, who was the Appalachian League Pitcher of the Year last season.

Are you beginning to see why I’m getting excited for the season to start already? I mean, if you’re Toby Gardenhire, the recently announced new manager for the Kernels, you have to feel pretty good about the talent level that you’re going to have to work with in your first year as a manager in professional baseball, don’t you?

Of course, the fun thing is that, even with all of these “prospects” on their way to Cedar Rapids, we know that there will be several guys not found on anyone’s “prospect lists” that will grab hold of their opportunity to play baseball for a few dollars and show everyone they can play the game every bit as well as the guys getting all the attention… and money.

It happens every season and it will happen this year, too.

Cedar Rapids hasn’t won a Midwest League title since Bengie Molina caught 45 games for the 1994 Kernels. No, that’s not as long as the drought the Twins have endured since their 1991 World Series championship, but it’s long enough.

So pardon me if I get spend a few of these cold January days daring to get excited about Kernels baseball in 2018.

If that’s wrong, just blame Seth, Cody and Tom. That’s what I usually do.

-Steve

Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc

Manager Tommy Watkins and Royce Lewis (photo by SD Buhr)

Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc.

What, you didn’t take Latin in school? That’s no excuse for not knowing the English translation of that phrase. After all, it played a pivotal role in an episode of the Aaron Sorkin political drama, “The West Wing,” only a couple of decades ago.

Fine, since most of you still probably have no clue, I’ll provide the translation. Loosely, it means, “After this, therefore because of this.”

The phrase refers to the generally inaccurate fallacy that just because a particular event occurred just prior to another event, the first event must have caused the second. Of course, that’s not always true. In fact, it seldom is.

So why am I telling you all of this here on a baseball blog?

Because I want to talk to you about Royce Lewis and the Cedar Rapids Kernels.

The Kernels qualified for the Midwest League Playoffs by finishing second in the league’s Western Division standings during the first half of the season, which concluded in mid-June.

Lewin Diaz (photo by SD Buhr)

About that time, the parent Minnesota Twins started promoting many of the players that played key roles in the first half.

Tom Hackimer, Andrew Vasquez, Jermaine Palacios, Jaylin Davis, Mitchell Kranson, Brandon Lopez, Sean Poppen and Alex Robinson all earned promotions between the end of May and early July.

While Cedar Rapids still had a pretty talented core of position players and several effective pitchers, the promotions took a toll and the results on the field reflected that toll.

The Kernels went 4-5 during second half games played in June and 13-15 in July games.

They followed that up by winning just four of their first ten August games, averaging just three runs per game in those contests. They scored two or fewer runs in eight of those ten games, getting shutout in three of them.

That left the Kernels with a 21-26 second-half record as they prepared to host Quad Cities for the third game in a four game home series on August 12.

On that morning, the Twins announced that 2017’s first-overall draft pick, Royce Lewis, was being promoted to Cedar Rapids from Elizabethton. Lewis made his Kernels debut that evening.

Since then, the Kernels have won 13 games and lost just five, as they prepare to head into the final few regular season games and get ready to host Kane County in game one of the first round of the playoffs on September 6.

Bullpen arms Max Cordy, Patrick McGuff, Logan Lombana (photo by SD Buhr)

In the first ten games of August, the Kernels averaged just three runs per game. Since August 12, they’ve averaged over five per game.

In those first ten games this month, Kernels pitching and defense were combining to surrender 4.8 runs per game. Since then, they’ve been giving up just over three.

So the Kernels’ have clearly turned things around since Royce Lewis donned jersey number 30 for Cedar Rapids, but could he really be THE reason his team appears primed for the playoffs?

Lewis has hit .339 since taking over the leadoff spot in the order on August 12 and he’s made several impressive plays at shortstop, as well, so he’s clearly ONE reason for the Kernels’ recent success.

But to assume he’s the only reason would be inaccurate – and more than a little insulting to several of his teammates who have also dialed things up a few notches down the stretch, not to mention manager Tommy Watkins and his coaches.

In fact, as well as Lewis has played, Lewin Diaz has arguably outperformed the newbie during the same stretch of games. Diaz, who has been strong all season, has hit .351 with an OPS north of .900 since Lewis’ arrival.

Shane Carrier (photo by SD Buhr)

Travis Blankenhorn struggled at the plate in July, but he’s popped a .947 OPS in August. He’s hit .319 since August 12 and has hit five home runs in that same stretch.

Shane Carrier was on the Kernels’ roster out of spring training, but struggled and was ultimately sent back to extended spring training. Since rejoining Cedar Rapids a week before Lewis’ arrival, he’s hit .280, clubbed five home runs and racked up an .885 OPS.

Shane Kennedy joined the Kernels on August 22 and has been getting on base at a .452 clip while putting up a .910 OPS.

Jimmy Kerrigan has been about a .270 hitter with the Kernels, but he’s hit .312 since August 12.

Trey Cabbage and Ben Rortvedt each sport batting averages around .225. But since August 12, they’ve each been hitting about 45 points higher at .270 or so.

The Kernels’ rotation has been in a state of near-constant flux this month and has been hit particularly hard by promotions.

Eduardo Del Rosario (photo by SD Buhr)

Still, virtually every arm that manager Tommy Watkins and pitching coach J.P. Martinez have sent to the mound to start a game has at least given the team five solid innings before turning things over to what has been a consistently effective bullpen.

Reliever Hector Lujan hasn’t allowed an earned run in any of his eight appearances beginning August 8.

Eduardo Del Rosario, who pitched well enough as a starter for the Kernels to earn a late-July promotion to Fort Myers, returned to Cedar Rapids August 15 as a bullpen arm and hasn’t allowed an earned run in any of his five outings since.

Maybe it’s all a coincidence.

Maybe, as they approached the final three weeks of a long season, these guys were all poised to ratchet their games up a notch or two as they headed toward the postseason.

All we can say for certain is that Royce Lewis showed up on August 12 with his smile and his infectious energy… and he stroked base hits in each of his first four plate appearances that night.

And since then, this has been a very different Kernels team on the field than what we were seeing up to that point during the season’s second half.

Ben Rortvedt and Logan Lombana (Photo by SD Buhr)

This team is clearly having fun and they are definitely winning a lot of baseball games.

The first two rounds of the Midwest League playoffs are best two of three games, so advancing through those rounds is pretty much a crapshoot, but three weeks ago, not many people watching the Kernels on a regular basis would have given this team much of a chance to get through the initial round of the postseason.

Whatever the reasons, that has changed. This is a team that now looks like a legitimate postseason contender and likely everyone in that clubhouse deserves a share of the credit.

Kernels Rolling with Royce

Ever since the Minnesota Twins used the first overall pick of the 2017 amateur draft to select California high school shortstop Royce Lewis, fans or the Kernels and/or Twins in Cedar Rapids have been wondering if and when we’d get a first-hand look at the athletic 18-year-old.

On Saturday, when the Twins and Kernels announced that Lewis was being promoted from the Gulf Coast League Twins up to Cedar Rapids, skipping the normal interim stop at Elizabethton, we got our answer.

Manager Tommy Watkins had Lewis’ name in the leadoff spot on his lineup card Saturday night and again Sunday afternoon, as his team finished up a four-game series with Midwest League Western Division second-half leading Quad Cities.

Neither the Kernels nor their highly heralded new arrival disappointed the locals.

In his Kernels debut on Saturday, Lewis singled in each of his first four at-bats, finishing the night 4 for 5 with an RBI and a pair of runs scored. He accounted for four of his team’s 11 hits as they topped the River Bandits 9-1.

On Sunday, Lewis led off the bottom of the first with another single, then came around to score when number two hitter Aaron Whitefield launched a home run.

The Kernels sent seven batters to the plate in the first, scoring three runs, then did almost nothing at the plate for the next seven innings. They trailed QC 6-3 heading to the home half of the ninth.

The Kernels still haven’t made an out in their half of that inning of Sunday’s game.

Jimmy Kerrigan led off with a single and Lewin Diaz followed with one of his own. Caleb Hamilton worked a walk and Shane Carrier made it a 6-4 game with a single.

Trey Cabbage came back from an 0-2 count to work a walk that plated Diaz to make it 6-5.

Joe Cronin shot the first pitch he saw up the middle, scoring Hamilton and pinch runner Christian Cavaness and setting off a celebration as Cronin’s teammates mobbed him in the infield.

The arrival of Lewis and the inspired efforts the his new teammates could prove to be just what the Kernels need as they prepare for the postseason. The club’s pitching has generally been good enough to win games lately, with particularly effective work coming from the bullpen, but the offense has often struggled to score runs.

With Lewis and Whitefield at the top of the order, Shane Carrier riding a hot streak, Lewin Diaz continuing to 100+ mph rockets off his bat and, hopefully, Travis Blankenhorn back soon from the Disabled List, a playoff run is not at all out of the question.

It’s something to look forward to watching.

In the mean time, a few pictures from the Sunday and, no, they aren’t ALL of Royce Lewis!

Royce Lewis with a pregame bro-hug for Mr. Shucks
Royce Lewis
Manager Tommy Watkins congratulates Aaron Whitefield on his home run
Royce Lewis and Aaron Whitefield
Aaron Whitefield
Jordan Gore
Charlie Barnes
Joe Cronin
Charlie Barnes tags out a Quad Cities batter after a comebacker
Evan Sanders
Christian Cavaness scores the winning run
Kernels mobbing Joe Cronin after his walkoff single
Fans lineup for Royce Lewis’ autograph during the traditional Sunday autograph session
Royce Lewis signing autographs
Kernels autograph signings
Trey Cabbage signing autographs
Manager Tommy Watkins signing autographs