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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Heading in to the 2014 season, everyone pretty much had expectations in check with regard to the Cedar Rapids Kernels. The team’s fortunes would likely turn on the performance of a staff of young, highly heralded pitching prospects. The offense, meanwhile, could very well struggle to score enough runs to keep the Minnesota Twins’ Midwest League affiliate competitive.
As they near the end of the first month of the season, however, the Kernels are two games above .500 with a 13-11 record and the hitting is at least as responsible for that success as the pitching staff is.
Infielder Tanner Vavra and outfielder Zack Larson are just two of the Cedar Rapids players making major contributions with their bats. Before Tuesday night’s game with Kane County, Vavra and Larson talked about their season thus far.
Vavra, the son of Twins coach Joe Vavra, spent a few days recently at the very top of the Midwest League’s leader board in batting average and still leads his team with a .344 average. He’s also reaching base at a .391 rate and carries an .829 OPS through Tuesday’s games.
While most fans may not have expected that kind of production out of Vavra, neither he nor his manager seem terribly surprised, either.
“He’s a guy that really obviously has been around the game his whole life, with his dad being a professional baseball guy,” said Jake Mauer of his second baseman. “He’s got a lot of baseball instincts. He knows himself as a player. He knows what he needs to do and he plays to his strengths. He’s a guy that puts together good at-bats. He makes the routine plays. He’s definitely earned his playing time.”
“I’m just trying to put good swings on (the ball) and help the team win,” said Vavra of his hot start to the season. “I’m just trying to stay with the same approach and kind of just get my pitch and get on base for guys like Larson here to drive me in.”
Meanwhile, Larson’s also got a pretty impressive early-season slash line, as well with a .307 batting average, a .351 on-base percentage and an .806 OPS. That’s not a bad start for a 20 year-old in his first year with a full-season affiliate.
“He’s really come on for a younger guy and made some adjustments.” his manager said of Larson. “He was having a little hard time with offspeed pitches, but that’s not the case any more. He’s doing a nice job out in right field. He’s going to hit in the middle of our order and he’s getting even better in the outfield and that’s pretty encouraging to see.”
Larson’s just as humble as Vavra when asked about his contributions, too.
“Like Tanner, I’m just trying to put good swings on it,” said Larson. “That’s my main focus, put a good swing on the ball and hopefully good things happen.”
Both hitters have been particularly productive at the plate with team mates on the bases. In fact, both Vavra and Larson are hitting at a .400 clip with runners on base.
Neither man claims they do anything special in those situations, though.
“I don’t like to get out, so I try to take the same approach with runners on or runners not.” said Vavra, laughing.
Added Larson, “Just barrel it up and put a good swing on it. I try to do that every at-bat; stay focused.”
The two team mates may be making similar contributions to their team’s cause this season, but they come at their tasks from very different backgrounds.
Larson was drafted by the Twins in the 20th round of the 2012 First Year Player Draft out of his Bradenton, Florida high school.
A 24 year-old from Wisconsin, Vavra played college ball at Valparaiso University before being drafted by the Twins in the 30th round of last June’s draft.
A year ago, top Twins prospects Jorge Polanco and Adam Brett Walker were manning the positions that Vavra and Larson are holding down this season. Both guys just smile when asked about trying to live up to the offensive legacy of last year’s Kernels.
“I think we all knew it was going to be tough to follow in the footsteps of the team from last year and we were never trying to do that,” said Vavra. “We’re never trying to live up to what they did last year, because, let’s face it, that’s pretty special what everybody got to see with the number 1 prospect in all of baseball playing (in Cedar Rapids).”
“With that being said, our goal is still the same,” Vavra added, “to get to the playoffs and put good seasons together individually and have a great team season. Hopefully take it one step farther and get that ring.”
And maybe do enough to get a promotion to the next level in the organization?
“Everyone wants that,” acknowledged Larson, “but you can’t control that. You can only control what you do. Can’t worry about that.”
Larson shares the Midwest League lead with 10 doubles already this season, just one shy of his total two-baggers during his 55 games a year ago at both rookie league levels combined. Then again, he had five home runs last season and has just one as a Kernel.
But don’t expect Larson to feel disappointed with his results so far.
“I’m not disappointed at all,” Larson explained. “I’m not worried about hitting home runs. I’m just worried about helping the team win and putting good swings on the ball and if I hit a home run, it’s cool. Whatever I can do to help the team.”
“He’s young.” chimed in Vavra, about his team mate. “He’s still got a lot of manpower to come his way. This is his first full season. You never know, he might catch hot in July once the weather warms up and you’re going to see big things out of him.”
Vavra’s complete story can’t be told without mentioning that he’s blind in his right eye, the result of a fishing accident at age three and a subsequent injury suffered playing football several years later.
His ability to play baseball at a professional level with that limitation inevitably comes up during interviews. That could give a player a bit of a chip on his shoulder, but Vavra said questions about his eyesight don’t bother him much anymore.
“It’s kind of came and gone. That used to be the biggest concern.” said Vavra. “People doubted me.”
“It irritated me for a while and it’s still a little chip,” Vavra continued, “but I’m just trying trying to get rid of the whole, ‘You’re here because of your dad,’ type deal.”
“I haven’t gotten anything like that from the players, they’ve all been great. I haven’t heard that once. It’s from bloggers and those people that somehow send a letter to your house and tell you that you don’t belong. That’s my chip right now. The eye thing is always going to be there, but that’s my new chip.”
While it’s understandable that Vavra would be sensitive to suggestions that he hasn’t earned his place in pro ball, having a father in the game has its benefits.
“This offseason, I got to work with him for 5-6 months. That’s incredible. Going from usually working with him for three or four weeks over Christmas break to five months. It was definitely helpful.”
While Vavra was spending his offseason working out indoors in Wisconsin with his dad, Larson was wintering in a much warmer climate.
“Down in Bradenton, I give lessons at an indoor batting facility and my hitting coach is also there,” said Larson, of his offseason. “I hit with him and work out, try to get in the best shape I can before the season starts. Every day, hitting cage, doing something with baseball.”
Larson arguably seemed to have an edge on non-baseball related activities.
“I go to the beach. Beach is a big thing in Florida,” said Larson. “Just hang out with my friends. I don’t see them that often. They’re in college when I’m back at home.”
Vavra, on the other hand, “did a lot of hunting and fishing. Different fishing though, dropping a line through the ice.”
The look on Larson’s face, hearing that, gave the impression he wasn’t inclined to trade offseasons with his team mate.
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.
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.”
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.