Kernels roster changes but results don’t

With just 40 games remaining in their regular season schedule, now seems like a good time to step back and take a look at the state of the Cedar Rapids Kernels.

It’s almost laughable to even question whether or not the affiliation switch from the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim to the Minnesota Twins has been good for Cedar Rapids. Of course it has, by pretty much every measurement.

The Kernels have already qualified for the Midwest League postseason by virtue of their second place finish in the first half of the season and fan interest is up.

Attendance is up some, but even more telling, the fans who show up for games are enthusiastically engaged in what’s happening on the field. That has not always been the case at Veterans Memorial Stadium the past few years.

It certainly didn’t hurt that one of the Twins’ top prospects, Byron Buxton, got off to such an incredible start this spring. He drew fan and media interest from well beyond the local community.

But even after the inevitable promotion of Buxton to the Twins’ Class high-A affiliate at Fort Myers in June, the Kernels have continued to win games. That may come as a surprise to those so blinded by Buxton’s aura that they didn’t notice the Kernels roster included a number of other very talented players.

Jonathan Murphy

Jonathan Murphy

Of course, Buxton isn’t the only Kernels player the Twins have rewarded with a bump up in playing  level. The Kernels have seen about a dozen players, in total, promoted to Fort Myers already this season.

The Twins, as an organization, have a reputation for being conservative with their promotions. They historically have preferred to see most players spend at least an entire season, if not more, at most minor league levels.

No doubt, Kernels officials were hoping that trend would continue. In past seasons, the Angels seemingly couldn’t wait to promote players as soon as they demonstrated any level of productivity in a Kernels uniform.

Among position players, Buxton was the only key offensive contributor to be lost to promotion until J.D. Williams and Dalton Hicks were bumped up to Fort Myers about a week ago.

It’s not easy to replace players found in the top 10 of most Midwest League offensive statistical categories like Williams (on-base percentage, OPS), Hicks (home runs, RBI, slugging pct., OPS) and Buxton (almost everything), but players brought in to Cedar Rapids by the Twins to replace the departing hitters have done well.

Max Kepler

Max Kepler

Max Kepler joined the Kernels once he completed rehabilitating his injured elbow in Fort Myers. He arrived four days before Buxton was promoted and he has hit for a .263 average. Thirteen of his 31 hits have been for extra bases.

Jonathan Murphy is hitting .333 in the 17 games he’s played since his arrival at the beginning of July and Joel Licon has performed well in a utility infielder role since he joined the team in early June.

It’s too early to know for certain how well Mike Gonzales will fill in for the departed Hicks, but the big first baseman has four hits in his first eight at-bats as a Kernel. Gonzales hit .289 and stroked 15 home runs for the Beloit Snappers in 2011. He missed much of his 2012 season in Fort Myers and after starting this season again with the Miracle, a wrist injury has sidelined him for the past several weeks.

On the pitching front, the Kernels lost Taylor Rogers before most fans even got to know him. He made three unimpressive starts for the Kernels before being moved on to Fort Myers. Jose Berrios, a supplemental first round draft pick in the 2012 First Year Player Draft and one of the top pitching prospects in the Twins organization, essentially took Rogers’ spot in the Kernels rotation.

The subsequent promotion of Tyler Duffey in early June left a much more significant hole at the top of the Kernels’ rotation. Duffey carried a 2.78 ERA and a 0.943 WHIP through nine starts when he left Cedar Rapids.

Josue Montanez initially worked from the Kernels bullpen after his promotion to Cedar Rapids in June, but has shown some potential since joining the rotation about a month ago.

Perhaps even more critically, the Kernels have seen four important members of their bullpen earn promotions. Matt Tomshaw and Manuel Soliman had contributed a total of 59 innings of work over a combined 30 appearances before they were promoted. Last week, the Twins elevated Steve Gruver and Tyler Jones, who had combined to provide a formidable left-right relief combination late in games.

Reliever Alex Muren has been relatively effective since arriving from extended spring training in early May, and the early returns from more recent additions Madison Boer, Dallas Gallant and Tim Shibuya are encouraging.

But the bottom line in baseball is all about wins and losses.

The Kernels were 44-28, for a .611 winning percentage, with Buxton on the roster. Since his promotion four games in to the second half schedule, the Kernels are 17-9 (.654) and they are leading the MWL West Division by three games over first half champion Beloit.

It’s certainly too soon to know what effect losing the four players promoted a week ago will have on the team’s fortunes. However, the Kernels have won five of the first six games played (all on the road) since Hicks, Williams, Jones and Gruver got their well-deserved promotions.

On Tuesday, the first member of the Twins’ draft class of 2013 was promoted to Cedar Rapids when seventh round pick Brian Gilbert was added to the Kernels’ roster.

Roster turnover is just a fact of life in minor league baseball. When the local team starts out winning a lot of games, it’s probably because a lot of players are performing very well and players that perform very well deserve promotions to the next level in the organization.

One way to measure the strength of an organization is to look at how a minor league team performs after a number of their best players are promoted. If the new players perform well and the team continues winning, that’s a very good sign.

So far, that’s what we’re seeing in Cedar Rapids. That bodes well, this season, for the Kernels and for the Twins in the long run.

Prospects and Prospects: Projecting the 2013 Kernels, Part 5

It’s no secret that the Minnesota Twins have issues these days with regard to their starting pitching rotation, but is there any hope for the future? The Twins acquired a couple of legitimate starting pitching prospects in trades this offseason, which bodes well for New Britain’s 2013 rotation, but what about here in Cedar Rapids?

(Image: Kernels.com)

(Image: Kernels.com)

After checking out the position players likely to spend time with the 2013 Kernels in Parts 1 through 4 of this series, in Part 5 we’ll take a look at a number of pitchers that Kernels fans are likely to see in the team’s starting rotation during 2013.

One of the challenges in projecting starting pitching vs. bullpen pitching is that, at this level, organizations tend to ask many of their pitchers to spend time in both roles. Nobody really knows for sure which pitchers have a Big League future as a starter and which will eventually find a role in the bullpen. In addition, the Twins will want to limit the number of innings many of their pitching prospects put on their arms during each minor league season. One way to accomplish that is to have even those pitchers clearly earmarked for rotation roles spend a chunk of each minor league season in the pen.

For our purposes, we’ll try to identify a number of pitchers that the Twins clearly are looking at developing as starting pitchers and then, in Part 6, we’ll include those that appear most likely to have futures working in relief.

David Hurlbut – Age 23 – Throws Left

2012: Beloit (Class A – MWL)

G GS ERA IP WHIP K H/9 K/9 BB/9
25 15 2.76 111.0 1.171 85 8.5 6.9 2.0

The Twins liked Hurlbut so much, they drafted him twice! Originally picked by the Twins as a junior college pitcher in the 35th round of the 2009 draft, Hurlbut chose to go to Cal State – Fullerton rather than sign with the Twins at that time. In 2011, the Twins used their 28th round pick to choose Hurlbut again and the lefty threw 66 innings in Elizabethton after signing that summer.

David Hurlbut

David Hurlbut

Hurlbut is one example of where the Twins have drafted a college relief pitcher and given him an opportunity to start. He pitched a full season at Beloit in 2012, racking up 111 innings in 25 games, 15 of them as a starter. He doesn’t have overpowering velocity, but his numbers at Beloit improved considerably over his Appy League season. His ERA dropped to 2.76 and his WHIP to 1.171, largely due to allowing almost three fewer hits per nine innings, compared to his Rookie level season.

So after a respectable year at Beloit, why wouldn’t the Twins promote David to Fort Myers in 2013? That’s a fair question and they may well do exactly that. This is simply one of those situations where it looks to me like the rotation in Fort Myers may be pretty crowded to start the year and Hurlbut may be the odd man out for a while. Of course, he could also start out in the Fort Myers bullpen. Even if he does start in CR, he certainly should be one of the first pitchers moved up when pitching spots open up for with the Miracle.

Tyler Jones – Age 23 – Throws Right

2012: Beloit (Class A – MWL)

G GS ERA IP WHIP K H/9 K/9 BB/9
18 16 4.67 86.2 1.442 102 9.3 10.6 3.6

Jones was drafted by the Twins in the 11th round of the 2011 draft out of LSU in time to get just four appearances in for Elizabethton that summer. It’s probably just as well he didn’t get more work in because his seven innings there did not go well at all. He spent the entire season in 2012 at Beloit, where things went much better, but there’s still much room for improvement.

One thing Tyler continues to do is rack up a good number of strikeouts. That’s the good news. Unfortunately, he also gave up better than a hit per inning of work and it wouldn’t hurt for him to figure out how to cut his walks a little, too. Jones throws two different fastballs and can touch the mid-90s, but reports are that his other pitches need to improve.

It’s possible that Jones could open the season in Fort Myers, but I doubt it. It would be tough to say he demonstrated the ability to consistently get outs in the MWL last year and the Twins should have no shortage of rotation options at the high-A level that are more advanced than Jones at this point. If he does start the season in CR, however, don’t expect him to stick around all summer. He’s got the talent to move up quickly if he can cut down on the baserunners he allows.

Taylor Rogers – Age 22 – Throws Left

2012: Elizabethton (Rookie – Appy) and Beloit (Class A – MWL)

G GS ERA IP WHIP K H/9 K/9 BB/9
15 10 2.27 63.1 1.105 74 7.5 10.5 2.4
Taylor Rogers

Taylor Rogers

Rogers was picked up by the Twins in the 11th round of 2012’s amateur draft out of the University of Kentucky and pitched his way through two levels in his first partial year of professional baseball. Rogers dominated hitters in six starts (covering 30 innings) at Elizabethton, striking out 11.7 hitters per nine innings. He continued to pitch well for Beloit, though, as you’d expect, hitters had more success against him at the higher level. Still, he continued to strike out more than a hitter per inning with Beloit.

Rogers isn’t overpowering with his fastball, but he’s obviously doing something right. The jury is probably still out on whether he’ll end up as a starter or reliever, but as long as his secondary pitches continue to be effective, you have to imagine the Twins will continue giving him opportunities to prove he belongs in future rotations.

Tim Shibuya – Age 23 – Throws Right

2012: Beloit (Class A – MWL)

G GS ERA IP WHIP K H/9 K/9 BB/9
17 15 5.59 74.0 1.392 56 10.7 6.8 1.8
Tim Shibuya

Tim Shibuya

Shibuya will be starting his third season in the Twins organization after being drafted in the 23rd round of the 2011 draft out of the University of California, San Diego. He has dealt with some injuries in both of his professional seasons, so it will be interesting to see if he can stay healthy all summer and, if so, what kind of numbers he can put up.

Shibuya seemed to run a little hot and cold in 2012. He had some very good outings, but too many that weren’t so good. In the end, over 74 innings of work, he racked up a pretty ugly 5.59 ERA and gave up 10.7 hits per nine innings. He had much better numbers in 2011 at Elizabethton, so he’s demonstrated some talent, but at 23, he’ll need to step up his game a bit in 2013. Staying healthy all season would be a good start.

Hudson Boyd – Age 20 – Throws Right

2012: Elizabethton (Rookie – Appy)

G GS ERA IP WHIP K H/9 K/9 BB/9
13 13 2.95 58.0 1.483 36 9.8 5.6 3.6

Boyd was a Supplemental 1st round pick (55th overall) by the Twins in the 2011 draft out of his Fort Myers FL high school, but didn’t sign with the Twins until just before the deadline that summer. As a result, 2012 was his first year of professional baseball. Rather than starting his career in his hometown with the GCL Twins, the big rightie went to Elizabethton after extended spring training.

Hudson didn’t exactly set the league on fire last summer and part of me thinks it wouldn’t be a terrible idea for the Twins to hold him back a bit and promote him to Cedar Rapids later. For a guy who reportedly has a high-90s fastball, he certainly didn’t miss all that many bats in E’town. His K/9 rate needs to be higher and he should not be giving up more than a hit per inning. Still, he didn’t give up all that many runs, so he’s doing something right.

The Twins historically push their top pitching prospects up the organizational ladder faster than they do their hitters. That being the case, I suspect we’ll see Hudson with the Kernels to start the season. Since he threw just 58 innings in 2012, he’s one of the guys we could see spend time both as a starter and in the bullpen during the course of the season. In fact, it’s quite possible he’ll project as a closer as he moves higher up the ladder.

Even after his mediocre first season, he’s still ranked among the Twins top 25 prospects on most such lists. That and his velocity should make him a fun pitcher for Kernels fans to watch.

Jose (J.O.) Berrios – Age 18 – Throws Right

2012: Fort Myers (Rookie – GCL) and Elizabethton (Rookie – Appy)

G GS ERA IP WHIP K H/9 K/9 BB/9
11 4 1.17 30.2 0.620 49 4.4 14.41.2 1.2

Berrios’ name appears very high on a number of Twins Top Prospects lists, as you’d expect for a pitcher drafted with a Supplemental 1st round pick in 2012 (32nd overall). JO was drafted out of his high school in Puerto Rico and spent most of the summer with the GCL Twins. He did, however, earn a promotion to Elizabethton toward the end of the year, where he got three starts in to help E’town finish off their championship season.

Berrios only started in half of his 14 appearances during the season, however, and as a result he only pitched a total of 30.2 innings. The 18-year-old struck out an amazing 14.4 hitters per nine innings (exceeding 14/9 at both levels) and barely walked more than one batter per nine innings. It’s hard to imagine the Twins pushing him too aggressively this season, so nobody will be surprised if he stays behind in extended spring training and perhaps even heads back to Elizabethton when they start their season in June. At the same time, if he pitches anything like he did last year, there’s little doubt he’ll be wearing a Kernels uniform before the end of the season.

Berrios is a legitimate top-of-the-rotation prospect… something the Twins have very few of in their organization. He won’t turn 19 until May, so the Twins won’t risk overworking the young man’s arm, but I also don’t see them hesitating to promote him to the next level as soon as he shows he can dominate hitters where he’s at. Enjoy him when you get to watch him, Kernels fans. He’s got a chance to be very special.

Angel Mata – Age 20 – Throws Right

2012: Elizabethton (Rookie – Appy)

G GS ERA IP WHIP K H/9 K/9 BB/9
13 13 3.38 53.1 1.219 55 5.2 9.3 5.7

After signing with the Twins as a teenager out of his native Venezuela, Mata spent 2010 in the Dominican Summer League and 2011 with the GCL Twins. At Elizabethton in 2012, he gave up slightly fewer hits per nine innings than he had been previously and even increased his strikeout rate by a full 2 Ks per 9. On the other hand, his walk rate also rose and, at 5.7 per nine innings, that’s a potential concern.

At just 20 years old, however, Mata has time to work on his control and the Twins organization can certainly use all the pitchers capable of missing bats that it can get. Mata has been almost exclusively used as a starting pitcher, thus far, but assuming he opens the season in Cedar Rapids, 2013 will be his first year of “full season” baseball. It will be interesting to see if the Twins limit his innings somewhat by having him spend at least part of the year working out of the bullpen.

That’s just seven names and we all know there will be more starting pitchers toeing the rubber for the Kernels in 2013. Some of the others will be covered in Part 6 when we look at guys that profile primarily as relievers. In addition, the following two pitchers are likely to get looks in Cedar Rapids this season, perhaps even to start the year.

Ricardo Arevalo was signed out of Venezuela in 2009. In three Rookie level seasons, he’s continued to rack up a lot of strikeouts (9.2 K/9 in 2012), but has also given up too many walks. Ricardo will be 22 years old by Opening Day and will probably need to show the organization some progress in the control department this year in Cedar Rapids.

I’m not sure how much of the US Hein Robb has seen during his three summers in Rookie level ball for the Twins organization, but the South Africa native has certainly seen a lot of the world. He played for South Africa’s entry in the World Baseball Classic as a 16-year-old and has continued to be active in international competition. The Twins signed the lefty in 2008 and he put up a 3.73 ERA for Elizabethton in 2012, starting eight games out of 13 appearances and striking out a respectable 8.3 hitters per nine innings.

Quite a list, isn’t it? There’s definitely pitching talent at this level in the Twins organization and we’ll see a lot of it this summer.

Next: We wrap up this series with a look at those pitchers most likely to spend most of their time pitching in relief for the Kernels in 2013.

– JC

P.S. Seth Stohs’ 2013 Minnesota Twins Prospect Handbook is now available for order! If you want to know more about the prospects we’ve profiled in this series, Seth and his fellow writers annually provide statistics and write-ups on pretty much every Twins prospect at all levels of the organization. You can order your copy of the Handbook by clicking here.

Another Snappers Shutout

I have no idea exactly why Twins GM Terry Ryan is in Cedar Rapids watching his organization’s Class A affiliate this weekend, but if he’s here to evaluate the Beloit Snappers’ pitching, he has to like what he’s seen in the first two games!

Pitcher Tim Shibuya and 3B Miguel Sano

The Snappers’ hitters provided plenty of support in Friday night’s 7-0 shutout, but Tim Shibuya wasn’t as fortunate on Saturday night. Like David Hurlbut the night before, Shibuya gave up just one hit before giving way to his bullpen. But Shibuya left after his six innings of work with the Snappers clinging to just a 1-0 lead as Kernels starting pitcher Austin Wood was having a pretty fair night on the mound, as well.

In the end, that one run was enough for the Snappers to come away with a 1-0 win.

The only run of the game was put on the board when Tyler Grimes worked a one-out walk in the third inning and came around to score on JD Williams’ RBI double down the left field line. Steve Liddle had a solid night at the plate with three singles, but nobody else had more than one hit.

Shibuya managed only one strikeout in his six innings of work, but also only walked one hitter. Oddly, he hit as many batters (2) as he allowed hits and walks, combined. Clint Dempster relieved Shibuya to start the 7th inning and put together a couple of strong innings, striking out three Kernels in those innings. He came out for the 9th inning, as well, but couldn’t nail down the save.

After a Miguel Sano error was erased by a double play, Dempster gave up back-to-back base hits, putting runners at the corners. Corey Williams came on at that point and claimed the save by inducing a game ending groundout to second baseman Nate Roberts.

Over 5,000 fans at Perfect Game Field in Cedar Rapids

It was Autism Awareness Night at the ballpark in Cedar Rapids and the Kernels wore special jerseys for the occasion, which were auctioned off during the game. Yes, I claimed one for myself, taking it off the back of Kernels relief pitcher Stephen Tromblee, who was good enough to autograph the jersey after the game.

The game was a virtual sellout, with an announced attendance of 5,277 fans. Thanks to a fireworks show after the game (not to mention one heck of a pitchers’ duel), a significant percentage of the crowd stuck around for the whole game.

The Snappers and Kernels wrap up their series with an afternoon game on Sunday, starting at 2:05.

Let’s wrap up with a few more pictures from tonight’s game.

– JC

CF Jhon Gonclaves and Kernels catcher Abel Baker

C Matt Koch and Kernels 1B Frazier Hall

1B Drew Leachman

Pitcher Tim Shibuya

RF JD Williams following his RBI double, held on by Kernels SS Eric Stamets

My Autism Awareness Night jersey

 

Guest Post – Beloit Snappers Game Review

The following entry comes from one of our faithful Knuckleballs readers and regular GameChat participant Lecroy24fan.  Lecroy24fan chronicles his recent visit to the Twins Low Single-A Affiliate, the Beloit Snappers. Enjoy.

 

I was heading to  Elkhorn, WI this past weekend to visit my girlfriend, and we decided to head a half-hour down the road to Beloit on Saturday night to catch the Snappers game. Pohlman Field was really easy to find. When we arrived, it was posted that the game was moved up to 6:45 PM because of weather moving in. We walked up to the ticket booth and got Section C, Row 3, seats 1-2 for nine dollars apiece. Turns out the first Row was removed at some point, so we were to the right of home plate, second row. The section was covered by a net, so no foul balls could be had. I got to meet Chrissy Scaffidi, Director of Media and Community Relations, as well as PA Announcer extraordinaire

The game itself was a bad night for the Snappers, who were playing the Oakland A’s affiliate, the Burlington Bees. An 11-3 loss started ugly in the first and really got worse by the inning. SP Jason Wheeler just didn’t have it. He struggled through 5 innings, giving up seven runs, four of them earned. Tim Shibuya and Bart Carter also looked like they had nothing. Clint Dempster pitched the ninth and I felt like he was very dominant. Other than 2B Adam Bryant, who was 3 for 4 with a double and a triple, the bats were pretty quiet most of the night.  

Defensively, there were five errors. C Jario Rodriguez made a low throw trying to catch a runner stealing in the first, with the runner moving to third after the ball rolled into CF. JD Williams dropped a routine fly in RF and SS AJ Pettersen had a bad throw to first.

The player I was there to see was 3B Miguel Sano. He made two errors, giving him 24 on the season. The first one was on a routine grounder he never got his glove down and it went right under and into LF. His second error was on a throw that was about two feet over 1B Steven Liddle‘s head. I saw quite a few things about Sano that concern me. Every throw he makes is very high. Every grounder he stutter steps, which makes turning double plays impossible. He’s looks like he’s using an outfielders glove, which is causing him to have major issues getting the ball out of his glove. That could be leading to the stutter steps he takes. I don’t understand why these issues haven’t been fixed by now.

After the game, there was a fireworks show, which happened as planned. The rain started towards the end of the fireworks, so we headed for the exit. I would recommend Pohlman Field to anybody looking to catch a minor league game.

Thanks for sending in the post, Lecroy24fan!  During his post Lecroy24fan mentioned that he had the opportunity to meet Chrissy Scaffidi who, among the other things she does for the Snappers, recently started a blog detailing her adventures in the Minor Leagues.  Definitely an interesting read for anyone interested in some behind-the-scenes action in the Midwest League. If you have a guest post idea of your own feel free to email one of us Knuckleballers or reach out to us in one of our GameChats and we will be more than happy to give you an audience.

-ERolfPleiss