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