Kernels: “Lot of Guys Doing Some Really Good Things”

The Cedar Rapids Kernels hit the frozen ground running this season, jumping off to a 6-0 record before finally suffering their first loss of the year on Friday night against Clinton.

Bryan Sammons delivers a pitch Friday, April 13, against Clinton (Photo: SD Buhr)

Don’t say the start surprised their manager, Toby Gardenhire, though. With a lineup as full of highly regarded prospects as this Kernels roster is, he’s not going to be too surprised with short term success.

“I don’t know if I’d call it surprised,” Gardenhire said on Friday before that night’s frigid game. “We’ve got a lot of guys that are doing some really good things right now. Any time you can run off a stretch like we’ve done here, it means there are a lot of people doing their job and doing a really good job of it.

“That’s the nice thing about our lineup,” he continued. “We have a whole bunch of guys that are really exciting. Whether they’re going to do it on a given night, that’s the question, but we’ve had a lot of guys step up and do some pretty impressive things, so it’s been fun.”

Still, even if the early success isn’t surprising, this is not exactly how the Cedar Rapids Kernels’ season was supposed to start out.

You simply don’t expect four of your first 11 games (including three of your first five home dates) to be postponed due to cold and snow.

Cold or not, you can’t argue with success.

Cedar Rapids opened the 2018 campaign April 5 with a 2-0 shutout of the Quad Cities River Bandits in Davenport, then had the next night’s game postponed.

They topped Quad Cities again, 4-3, in Cedar Rapids’ home opener on April 7. Then had another postponement the next day.

They did get an entire four-game series played in Peoria during the middle of the week and it’s a good thing they did, too! The Kernels swept all four games from the Chiefs.

They won the first game of the series 3-1, which means they had outscored their opponents 9-4 through the first three games they played. It wasn’t exactly a demonstration of the kind of offensive fire power that fans were expecting to see from a lineup that included two first round draft choices and often saw “slot picks” (players drafted in the first 10 rounds of the amateur draft) at all nine spots in the batting order.

That all changed as the weather crawled up to more normal levels over the final three games of the series in Peoria. The Kernels scored 8, 12 and 9 runs, respectively, in those games while posting their perfect 6-0 record through Thursday.

In three of those four games against the Chiefs, Cedar Rapids had to mount comebacks after falling behind Peoria. That fact wasn’t lost on their manager, either.

“That’s our lineup,” the manager said. “You don’t expect that, but I would say, at this point, right now, we don’t really ever feel like we’re out of it with the group of guys that we’ve got going.

“Now that changes, it fluctuates throughout the season. There’s days when you’re going to be down and think, ‘uh oh, we’re never going to come back in this one,’ but with the way the guys are playing right now and swinging, their confidence level is very high right now and that helps out a ton, too. With these guys’ confidence level right now, being down doesn’t scare them.”

Alex Kirilloff, the first round pick of the Twins in 2016, had a two-home run game in the series and 2017 first overall pick Royce Lewis notched his first home run of the season during the Peoria series, as well.

Kernels manager Toby Gardenhire (Photo: SD Buhr)

For our purposes, we’ll just try to pretend Friday night’s 2-0 loss to Clinton didn’t happen. I’m sure the Kernels hitters would like to, anyway, after managing just a pair of singles and one walk against the Lumberkings on a frigid night in Cedar Rapids. (Games 2 and 3 of the scheduled weekend series were postponed due to cold and snow).

That one forgettable game aside, it’s been a pretty impressive opening act for this group of Minnesota Twins prospects.

On a team with a pair of first round picks, it might come as a surprise that outfielder Mark Contreras has led the team’s offense, so far. The Twins’ 9th round pick out of UC-Riverside is off to a hot start in the five games he’s played, with a .444 batting average and a 1.029 OPS. And that’s after an 0-3 night against Clinton on Friday.

Catcher (and 2016 2nd round pick) Ben Rortvedt also went 0-3 against the Lumberkings, but Rortvedt is still hitting .400 and has a healthy .979 OPS.

Obviously, this early in the season, these are all small sample sizes and it would be unwise to put much (or any, really) stock in stat lines that accumulate over just a handful of games, most of which took place in very unpleasant weather conditions.

Still, that 6-1 record is looking pretty good, so far.

As encouraging as the way his young lineup is playing under challenging conditions, Gardenhire is just as happy with what he’s seeing from his pitching corps.

“Our starting pitching has been good,” Gardehire observed. “They’ve been able to get us into the fourth or fifth inning just about every game.”

That may not seem like much and, later in the season when temperatures warm up and arms are healthy and loose, the bar will be set at a much different level. But this is April and many of these games have had game time temperatures around 40 degrees. Maybe lower.

“In the beginning of the season,” the manager explained, “(getting 4-5 innings) is all you’re hoping for. Get us 75 to 80 pitches and get us into the fifth. Past the fifth is great. And they’ve been doing that just about every game and keeping it close while they do it.”

Bryan Sammons, the only Kernels starting pitcher to take the mound for two starts so far, has a 0.96 ERA in those two starts, spanning 9 1/3 innings, and a WHIP of just 1.07.

But four or five innings is only half the game and the Kernels have been holding opponents in check after that, as well, as Gardenhire pointed out about his relief arms.

“Our bullpen has been great. They’ve just done a really good job. Guys are starting to get comfortable. This early in the season, you expect a lot more of the yips and guys being pretty nervous going out there. And we haven’t had a ton of that. We’ve had some guys go out there and be a little bit nervous, but for the most part, guys have stepped up and done really well.”

Kernels pitcher Derek Molina (Photo: SD Buhr)

Three members of the bullpen, Jared Finkel, Calvin Faucher and Derek Molina, have yet to surrender an earned run. Finkel has made three appearances and Faucher a pair of them. Molina threw two scoreless innings of relief Friday night after joining the team as a replacement for Ryan Mason, who had been so effective in his three appearances that he earned a promotion to Class High-A Fort Myers.

All told, ten of the fourteen pitchers who have made at least one appearance for the Kernels so far have early-season ERAs of 2.25 or lower.

Of course, it’s early and nobody will claim ERA means everything (or even much) when it comes to judging a pitcher’s effectiveness, but up and down the stat list, several Kernels are striking out a batter or more per inning and walking less than half of the number of batters they are striking out.

It’s an encouraging start.

The Kernels have a scheduled off day on Monday, following the two unscheduled days off on the weekend. Then they head to Beloit for a three-game series against the Snappers, where temperatures are projected to run anywhere from a low of 25 to a high of 45 over those three days. Oh, and there’s a fair chance of snow on Wednesday. Of course there is.

All of these postponements are going to wreak havoc on an already hectic schedule for the Kernels in May, too.

They start out the month of May with series against Eastern Division clubs and will go on the road to Dayton and then Bowling Green. Their only scheduled day off in the entire month is Sunday, May 13. But since that’s the day after their series finale in Bowling Green the night of the 12th, how do you think that day is going to be spent?

If you guessed a very long bus ride throughout the night and into the morning, you’d be correct.

Then from May 14 through June 3, the Kernels will play 24 games in 21 days.

Their make up game with Quad Cities will be on May 16. This will be a “split double header,” with the first game being the regularly scheduled noon game and the nightcap starting at 6:35. Both games will be 7-inning games, just as traditional double header games are in the Midwest League.

Memorial Day weekend could be the real gauntlet for the ballclub, though.

That’s the next time that Clinton is scheduled to return to Cedar Rapids and both of this weekend’s games will be made up as part of traditional double headers over the Holiday weekend. One on Saturday, May 26, starting at 5:05, and the other on Sunday, May 27, beginning at 2:05.

I know it’s probably not going to be necessary, but I’m thinking I’m going to loosen up the throwing arm earlier that week. You just have to figure Gardenhire and his pitching coaches are going to be looking around for anyone who can throw the ball 60 feet by the time that Sunday evening rolls around.

That’s next month’s concern, of course, so we’ll worry about that when the time comes.

The next home series in Cedar Rapids kicks off this coming Friday night, April 20, and it’s a special one.

Royce Lewis is the first “number one overall” draft pick to suit up for the club and the Kernels are celebrating with a “Royce Lewis Bobblehead” promotion.

While the Kernels have done bobblehead promotions honoring past players with some level of frequency, this is the first time they’ve honored a current Kernels player in that manner.

Only the first 1.000 fans through the gates will get a bobblehead, though, so if you want one, you probably should plan to get in line early.

Royce Lewis poses with his bobblehead (Photo lifted from Kernels Twitter feed, but if you don’t tell them, I won’t tell them, ok?)

Kernels Media Night Highlights

The tarp covering the infield in Cedar Rapids was wet from a mix of rain and snow flurries over the past couple of days, but fortunately the only “work” that this year’s Cedar Rapids Kernels had to do on Tuesday was do a meet and greet with fans on the concourse and, for a select few, survive a brief media inquisition.

L to R: pitching coach Cibney Bello, manager Toby Gardenhire, hitting coach Brian Dinkelman, pitching coach Justin Willard (Photo: SD Buhr)

As has almost become a tradition in Cedar Rapids, the weather for “Meet the Kernels Night” at the ballpark was cold and damp. The forecast for their Opening Day in Davenport on Thursday is for a mix of rain and snow with a high during the day around 50 degrees.

The good news is that it’s supposed to be sunny in Cedar Rapids for the home opener on Saturday. The less-good news is that the high temperature that day is projected to be 37 degrees.

Welcome to Midwest League baseball in April.

But let’s worry about the weather later. For now, how about some snippets from the Kernels’ introductory press conference?

To start things off, manager Toby Gardenhire and coaches Brian Dinkelman, Cibney Bello and Justin Willard fielded questions from local media.

One of those questions pertained to the evident shift in philosophies being ingrained by the Twins front office with regard to greater collection and use of analytical data at all levels of the organization.

“We have definitely dug into the analytical part of baseball now,” said Dinkelman.. “We’re definitely taking the next step trying to keep up with the game of baseball. Any information we can receive is good information. We try to just filter out what’s good and what’s bad and provide it to the players as necessary.”

Gardenhire concurred with his hitting coach.

“I would say we’re definitely diving into the more analytical way of doing things. the less old-school way of doing things, than we ever have before, with the new front office. They hired a lot of new people this year and a lot of those people are analytical-type people.

“What happens with the analytical side of it is you get a whole bunch of information. All of these things that Dink was just saying, they give you a lot of information and how you deal with that information is going to be different with every organization. We have all that information now, so we’re on the cutting edge.”

A lot has justifiably been made of the fact that the Kernels will have not just one first round draft choice, but a pair of them, in their everyday lineup. Royce Lewis was the first overall selection of 2017’s draft class and Alex Kirilloff was the Twins’ first round selection the year before.

Dinkelman was asked about his impressions of the highly touted pair during spring training.

“Royce got stronger since last year. One of the first things that I thought of when he came back hitting BP is that the ball is coming off his bat harder than it was last year. Alex, it was the first time I got to really look at him in spring training, but he looks good. He’s a hitter first. He plays defense well. So it will be exciting to have both those guys on the team.”

One thing that’s new within the Twins minor league system this year is that two pitching coaches have been assigned to minor league affiliates. In Cedar Rapids, Bello and Willard will fill those roles.

“Two sets of eyes are always better than one,” Willard explained. “And the theory is that the manager is usually a hitting guy and then you’ve got the hitting coach. You’ve got half the team that’s pitchers, why not have another set of eyes on those guys? I’m excited to work with Cibney, for sure.”

While the lineup in Cedar Rapids is going to be full of high draft picks and highly regarded international prospects, Bello expressed confidence that his pitching staff would hold up their end of things, as well, despite perhaps being less heralded than their position-player team mates.

“We have a few guys that are maybe not mentioned a lot, but it’s going to be fun to see them pitching in the games,” Bello said. “They’re not afraid. They have good stuff, too. Maybe they were not drafted as a higher pick, but we’re going to be fine. We’re going to battle. We’re going to compete and we’re going to make people have fun.”

Next up, it was catcher Ben Rortvedt and pitcher Blayne Enlow at the table. Rortvedt is returning to Cedar Rapids for the second season while Enlow will be seeing his first “full season” in professional ball and is scheduled to pitch the home opener on Saturday.

Catcher Ben Rortvedt and pitcher Blayne Enlow (Photo: SD Buhr)

After pitching only for the Gulf Coast League Twins after being drafted in the third round last June, Enlow didn’t enter spring training with any assurance that he’d be skipping the higher rookie league level in Elizabethton to open the year with the Kernels. Of course, that also means opening the season in temperatures that are likely to be well below anything he dealt with while playing high school ball in his native Louisiana.

“I think spring went really good,” Enlow said, “but still it’s like you’re unsure where you’re going to go. When they finally told us, of course I was excited. And then they’re like, ‘it’s cold.’ I was like, ‘it can’t be that bad.’ Yeah, it is. Yeah, it is. But you’ve just got to get through it. It’s just a new challenge. Just got to try to keep on pitching, keep on filling up with strikes, get people out and just win games.”

Rortvedt will be largely splitting the Kernels catching duties with David Banuelos. Ben Rodriguez, who has been a catcher by trade in previous seasons, is being converted to first base, though he likely will continue to get a few opportunities behind the plate.

“I think me and David are going to split time pretty much the whole way this season,” Rortvedt explained, while also mentioning that Rodriguez has been a successful catcher and will be filling the role of the team’s third catcher. “(Banuelos) was very good back there in college at Long Beach State. So, yeah, I’ve been looking forward to it, just learning from each other and talking baseball, talking catching. So yeah it’ll be fun.”

Rortvedt also spoke glowingly of some of the changes in the Twins’ minor league operation.

“There’s a lot of new management with the Twins. We’ve got a new farm director and a lot of new people. There’s a lot of younger faces now and a lot of people are very approachable, which I really enjoy. We’ve got a new catching rover, which we never had in the past, which is just amazing for the catchers, working one-on-one with us.”

Shortstop Royce Lewis and outfielder Alex Kirilloff (Photo: SD Buhr)

Finally, the Minnesota Twins’ first-round draft picks from 2016 and 2017, Alex Kirilloff and Royce Lewis, took their turns addressing media questions.

Lewis was asked how he felt he was different now than what he was as a player at the end of last season in Cedar Rapids.

“To start, I’ve already gained 15-20 pounds, so that’s a big step in my power,” he answered. “And just the mental side of it, more relaxed and kind of know how to play the game of baseball a bit more. Knowing the surroundings in Cedar Rapids around here just makes me feel calm and relaxed.”

Kirilloff talked about the challenges he had to face as he sat out all of the 2017 season after elbow surgery.

“Definitely never the news you want to hear,” he conceded. “I got it around spring training (last year) where my arm wasn’t feeling the way it should and the best option was to get surgery, so to get that news was tough.

“For me, there’s two ways you can look at it. You can harp on it and get down on yourself or you can take it as a challenge and try to make yourself better from it. I tried to do that. I got a lot stronger. Tried to pick up on things that maybe I wouldn’t have if I was playing throughout the year. I think you’ve just got to try to make the best of it and come back better.”

Both players acknowledged that the roster they’re a part of to start the season in Cedar Rapids includes an exceptional number of highly regarded hitting prospects, while also noting that the group can’t just show up and expect to be successful on the field.

“Yeah, it’s like we’re the Yankees on paper. That’s what I’d say, for sure,” said Lewis. “I mean, they’ve got the Bronx bombers, you’ve got a lot of home run hitters in this lineup.

“A couple of people were joking back in spring training, there’s a lot of money you’ve got involved with this team. Which is kind of funny, but it’s kind of true. But as for being prospects, we’re just going to have fun and we’re a good young team. I’m excited and we’re going to work as hard as we can to win all those games.”

“There’s a lot of exciting players with the group and good people, as well,” Kirilloff concurred. “I’m happy to be a part of the group. It’s one thing to look at the paper and be impressed by it, but we’ve still got to go out and do our job and play hard every day.”

Weather permitting, the Kernels will open their season Thursday evening in Davenport against the Quad Cities River Bandits (Astros affiliate).

The home opener is scheduled for Saturday in Cedar Rapids.

Kernels Hot Stove/Twins Caravan in CR

Wednesday night, the Cedar Rapids Kernels and their Major League partner, the Minnesota Twins, combined to put on a terrific program for eastern Iowa baseball fans as the Twins once again included a stop in Cedar Rapids for their annual Winter Caravan in conjunction with the Kernels’ annual Hot Stove Banquet.

Kris Atteberry (far left) tosses questions to Winter Caravan panelists (seated L to R) Brian Dinkelman, Toby Gardenhire, Jeremy Zoll, Zack Granite and Mitch Garver. (photo: SD Buhr)

The Eastbank Venue & Lounge, along the banks of the Cedar River in downtown Cedar Rapids, was a new venue for the event and was a great choice (despite the predominantly purplish lighting, which resulted in a heavy blue hue in virtually every photograph I took at the event, with or without a flash).

There was no shortage of both familiar and less familiar faces among the Winter Caravan panel the Twins sent to town for the evening.

The program was emceed by Twins radio broadcaster Kris Atteberry, who distributed questions to the panel.

Two new faces shared the stage with three that were more familiar to local fans.

Twins farm director Jeremy Zoll (photo: SD Buhr)

New Kernels manager Toby Gardenhire (son of Ron Gardenhire, the longtime manager of the Twins who will be taking the reins in the Detroit Tigers dugout this season) was in attendance, as was his new boss, Jeremy Zoll. The 27-year-old Zoll enters his first season as the Twins’ Director of Minor League Operations.

Atteberry may have had the best line of the night, telling the crowd that his first question for Zoll was going to be the same question the bartender had asked Zoll, “Can I see your ID?”

Kernels hitting coach Brian Dinkelman, who returns to the Kernels again in 2018, was joined by two other familiar faces: former Kernels Mitch Garver and Zack Granite. Both players have now made their big league debuts, finishing the 2017 season with the Twins, and will be going to spring training intent on earning spots on the Twins’ opening day roster.

The featured guests were made available to the media for interviews for a few minutes before the event kicked off and I had the opportunity to speak to Garver and Granite about the paths their careers had taken since their days with the Kernels.

Garver played in 120 games for the 2014 version of the Kernels and hit for a .298 average. His career has steadily progressed each year since.

Granite’s time in Cedar Rapids was cut short by injury in 2014, but he returned in 2015 and immediately hit so well that he earned a quick promotion to Class A Advanced Fort Myers.

Wanting to make the most of what time I had with each player, I asked them both the same question to kick off the interviews.

If you could go back in time, knowing what you know now, and give the Cedar Rapids Kernels version of yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?

“I would say relax,” answered Garver.

“Because when I was at this level, I put a lot of pressure on myself to succeed. Being a senior sign, kind of having that rope get a little bit shorter as my age goes up. It’s like, man, I need to get promoted. I need to prove well at every level. I need to do this and that and I need to do it quickly. And I think that kind of took a toll on me.

“I did have a really good learning process while I was (in Cedar Rapids), but if I could have just told myself, ‘just trust the process, you’re going to get there. Believe in yourself.’ It would have gone a lot smoother.”

But would he have been concerned that might have caused his younger self to relax too much?

“No, I don’t think so. I’ve always been pedal to the metal. I want to do the best I can at everything I do.

“So if I’d have known all that back then, I’d have had the same thought process, going about my work and improving, but I could have gotten (to the Major Leagues) with a little more sleep maybe.”

Zack Granite and Mitch Garver (photo: SD Buhr)

And what would today’s Zack Granite tell his younger self to do?

“Probably to grow up,” he said.

“I was probably a little immature, took too many at-bats too seriously.

“It’s a long season. I kind of didn’t really know that yet. I’d never played a full season (of professional baseball) yet. There’s so many at-bats in a season and if you get out or make a mistake, it’s on to the next one. That’s how you’ve got to be.

“I feel like that’s the only way to be successful, to clear your mind. Every at-bat is different and don’t take one at-bat into the next. I did that when I was younger. I’ve kind of grown out of that and that’s helped me along the way.”

Was that a tough adjustment for Granite to make, after years where you get so many fewer opportunities to bat in a season?

“It took some time for me to get used to that. Even when I was at Elizabethton, it’s a short season. I never really played a full season until I got to here.

“My first season (in Cedar Rapids) I got hurt, so I didn’t play too much. Then I came back and did pretty well and went to Fort Myers. But even in that short time I was here, I was kind of taking at-bats into the next one.

“I think if I would have done that at an earlier age, took every at-bat separately, I think I would have been more successful.”

The Twins and Kernels will enter their sixth season as affiliates this spring. Seeing young players like Mitch Garver and Zack Granite realize the big league dream they were working so hard to achieve when they were busing around the Midwest League, then come back to town as Major Leaguers, has been one of the best aspects of the Kernels/Twins relationship.

-Steve

P.S. Once again, apologies for the “blue-tinted” photos. I suppose I could have spent a bunch of time editing the color out, but frankly, I just didn’t feel like devoting the time necessary to do that. So let’s just pretend I did it all on purpose, as an homage to the Vikings’ playoff run.  🙂

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

Minnesota Twins Debut: Who is Pedro Florimon?

Pedro Florimon, called up to replace the recently demoted Brian Dozier, has played 18 2/3 innings at shortstop in the Major Leagues, appearing in 4 games (two starts) in 2011 for the Baltimore Orioles.  In just 10 career plate appearances he has one hit (a double), one walk, and six strikeouts.

Florimon was signed by the Baltimore Orioles in 2004 out of La Romana, Dominican Republic as a 17 year-old international free agent.  He toiled in the low minors until 2010 until he had his first extended experience at AA Bowie in the Eastern League.  A year later, at the end of 2011 Florimon was hitting .267/.344/.396 (his best offensive year outside of 2006 when he split time between the Rookie League and Low-A) and the Orioles called him up and he made his Major League debut on September 10, going 0-3.  After just 5 more plate appearances the Orioles decided they had seen enough of Florimon to know he was not going to be part of their long term plans and waived him following the conclusion of the 2011 season (Manny Machado was moving quickly through their MiLB system and was ready to take Florimon’s place in AA in 2012).

Pedro Florimon, Twins Media Day (February 26, 2012 – Source: Elsa/Getty Images North America)

Meanwhile, the Minnesota Twins had little very few promising shortstops in the upper minors.  The AAA-affiliate Rochester Red Wings had 8 different players split time at shortstop, with Toby Gardenhire (Ron Gardenhire’s son) leading the way with 46 games at short.  The 2011 AA New Britain Rock Cats split their shortstop duties almost equally between the player Florimon just replaces, Brian Dozier, and Chris Cates.  Dozier hit the ball well enough to ultimately get a look from the Twins in 2012, but Cates played his way out of the Twins system, hitting just .205/258/.245 in his age 26 season, his second full season in AA.  With all of this in mind, the newly re-appointed Twins GM, Terry Ryan, plucked Pedro Florimon off of waivers in early December, just before his 25th birthday.

Florimon failed to impress in Spring Training (.148/.233/.185) and was assigned to AA when the Twins broke camp and headed north.   Florimon built on his successful 2011 MiLB campaign and hit .283/.347/.372 through the first month of the season.  When Brian Dozier (who was having a hot start of his own) was called up to join the Twins, Florimon was called upon to fill his spot in Rochester to get his first chance in Triple-A.  Despite being a switch hitter, Flormon still has sizable platoon splits against LHP and RHP.  He hit fairly well when he initially joined the Red Wings, but he’s fallen off slightly in the second half and is hitting just .232/.273/.293 after the All-Star break.  Despite being a pretty solid defender, Florimon is not a great base stealer, as he’s stolen just 6 bases in Rochester and been thrown out 7 times.

Both the New Britain Rock Cats and the Rochester Red Wings used Florimon exclusively as a shortstop, and I suspect he’ll be used to spell the aging Jamey Carroll.  When September rolls around and the Twins make their September call ups it will be interesting to see what happens to Florimon’s playing time, especially if the Twins bring back Brian Dozier after three weeks in the Minors.

ERolfPleiss