Episode 52 of the Twins baseball podcast, Talk To Contact (@TalkToContact), is now available for download via iTunes or by clicking here.
Eric spends most of this episode belittling Ryan Doumit and then trying to convince me that Doumit should play more often than I think is reasonable. We talk about Twins prospect Tyler Jones and wonder aloud what the roles will be for players like Doumit, Josh Willingham, Trevor Plouffe and Chris Parmelee. Summer is officially over and pumpkin beers have arrived across America. Tune in to find out about Paul’s favorite pumpkin beer and a bunch of Twins talk.
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.
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 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.
It’s the top of the seventh inning and his team is leading by two runs. There are two outs, but the bases are loaded with opposing base runners.
It’s the kind of situation the best relief pitchers almost seem to relish coming in to face.
Lefty Steve Gruver and right-hander Tyler Jones have been among the most reliable bullpen arms in the Midwest League this season and have presented a formidable lefty-righty combination out of the Kernels bullpen.
Gruver was one of eight Kernels named to the Midwest League All-Star Game in June and on Friday night it was Gruver who entered the game with two outs and the bases loaded, determined to protect that two-run Kernels lead.
Gruver would like to forget the moments that followed, as Tyrone Taylor launched a grand slam home run off a pitch that found its way too close to the middle of the plate and put the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers up by an 8-6 score.
Gruver finished the final 2 1/3 innings of the game for Cedar Rapids and the Kernels scored once in the eighth inning, but it wasn’t enough, as they lost to Wisconsin 8-7.
The next day, on Saturday afternoon, before the Kernels took on the Lumber Kings in Clinton, Gruver, who was drafted by the Twins out of the University of Tennessee in the seventh round of the 2011 First Year Player Draft, talked about the life of a professional relief pitcher.
Jim Crikket: Steve, this is your second year in the Midwest League and you spent time in Beloit last year both as a part of their starting rotation and pitching out of the bullpen, correct?
Steve Gruver: Most of the year, I started and then toward the end of the year, actually right around this time, I went to the bullpen.
JC: Was that primarily to limit the number of innings on your arm? I know they had a few guys that pitched in both roles last year.
Gruver: There were a few, but mainly for me, my velocity started dropping a little bit and I had a few bad outings in a row. So I was just trying to get back in to not thinking and just trying to throw hard and get my velocity back up a little.
JC: Coming in to this year, did the Twins tell you that this is your role, working out of the bullpen, or did they tell you to be prepared for anything again?
Gruver: It was kind of be prepared for anything. They don’t really let you know too much. They want you to be prepared for anything. They want you to be able to be versatile and come out in any role so I’ve kind of kept it open and like there was a chance to do anything really.
JC: Do you have a particular preference, now that you’ve done both? Is there one role you prefer over the other?
Gruver: I enjoy both. I’m not too picky, as long as I’m pitching. I try to treat every inning as just one inning at a time, whether I’m trying to go six or seven that day or just one. I try and look at it the same, whether I’m starting or relieving.
JC: The preparation between games has to be a little different, though, right?
Gruver: There’s differences in the preparation between the two and I try and keep that the limit of the differences. But there are definitely differences there.
Starting, you have four or five days in between each start, so it’s a little bit more logistical, I guess, in how you prepare. You have a little bit more of a plan going through each day, on what you do each day in your bullpens in between when you pitch.
When you’re in the pen, you kind of have to let it fly. You never know. You could pitch two, three days in a row sometimes. So you don’t have those days in between to throw pens and work out as much. You kind of have to have somewhat of a loose routine when you’re coming out of the pen, compared to a starter routine, which would be very strict and kind of a more day-to-day basis.
JC: As a starter, your pitching coach can work with you in between starts, maybe work on a new grip for one of your pitches. How do you go about making those sorts of adjustments as a reliever when you don’t know whether you’re going to have to pitch that night or not?
Gruver: You have to limit your pitches. You have to really be diligent in what you do and every pitch has to matter when you’re in a relief role.
When you’re trying to get that extra work in, you have to use every pitch. I may only throw 10 pitches in my bullpen when I go out, but I try and make sure every pitch counts and I have a plan for each pitch so that every time I throw, I’m getting something out of it.
JC: What about the mental approach to relieving, as opposed to starting? Out of the bullpen, you have to be prepared to go in either to start an inning or with guys on base.
Gruver: I enjoy that. I enjoy having that excitement, especially when you come in with guys on base. It’s a do or die situation and it kind of gets you focused, it gets you excited and it kind of gets your heart rate up a little bit.
Starting is different. Starting, you have to be a little bit more under control. You’re starting the game and you know that you’re the one the team is counting on to get through the long innings.
There are different approaches to it, but both are exciting in their own way.
JC: Which leads us to last (Friday) night. Bases loaded, you come in and second pitch didn’t go where you wanted it to go. At least it didn’t end up where you wanted it to end up.
Gruver: No, it didn’t. The pitch didn’t go where I wanted it to go, either.
I made a bad pitch and he got the best of me on that one.
As a relief pitcher, that’s got to just disappear from your mind, because tonight they may call on you again in the same situation and you can’t go in there thinking about what happened last time.
Even closer to the situation, I had to go two more innings afterward. I had to get out of that situation and tell myself we can still come back. I have to be able to put that behind me and keep going through the game, just in case we score.
We were only down two and still had a chance to come back. If that was still on my mind, I could have given up two or three more runs the next innings and really blown it.
You have to have a very short memory in those situations.
JC: You said you enjoy that aspect of being a relief pitcher, of always being ready. Is that part of it, too, knowing there’s a little bit of a mental challenge to have that short memory?
Gruver: Yeah, that’s definitely something that’s tough for a lot of guys, but it is exciting. When you can push through that, you feel good even in a bad situation like that. You feel good coming out of it, knowing that you got through it.
You really tell yourself it’s not the end of the world. So next time, you might come in a little bit more relaxed and get out of that situation.
JC: There are some who believe that it takes greater mental fortitude to be a late-inning reliever, as opposed to a middle reliever. Do you look at it that way or does it really not matter when you go in to a game?
Gruver: I try not to make it matter. I try and take every inning as the same. Really, you can break it down in to one pitch at a time, even less than an inning. I’m trying to throw that one pitch, whether you’re up five or down five, you’re trying to make that one pitch at a time.
If you’re coming in during the fourth inning, you tend to be either up a lot or down a lot, so there is a little bit less pressure sometimes. You can come in and try to pound the zone a little more, knowing that even if you give up one or two that you’re still going to be in the game or you’re not inherently affecting the game, where coming in in the eighth or ninth, a lot of times the game’s on the line.
But, overall, you try and look at it the same way.
JC: There’s a perception that it may take a guy less time to reach the Big Leagues as a relief pitcher than as a starting pitcher, particularly for a lefty. Does that influence your preference as far as your role or do you even think about that kind of thing?
Gruver: It’s not my decision. I do what they tell me and I’m happy to be in whatever role, as long as I’m still playing. And If I’m moving up, it doesn’t really matter to me what role I’m in.
JC: Tell me a bit about how you’re finding the Cedar Rapids experience this year. Is there anything in particular about playing in Cedar Rapids that stands out to you?
Gruver: I really enjoy the fans. They get behind us a lot. The games are always exciting in that way. It’s always loud and the fans get in to it. When we’re playing well, the fans let us know. It’s fun to hear a loud crowd. When you’re on the field and something good happens, the fans get in to it just as much as you do.
JC: Off the field, do you have hobbies or other interests? What do you enjoy doing when you’re not at the ballpark?
Gruver: I enjoy some movies. I enjoy being outside a lot. Anything I can. Playing other sports, but I really can’t do that in the season. In the season, in the time I’m not at the field, I enjoy some movies.
I enjoy reading a lot, especially with all the road trips we have and all the time on buses, I’m really getting in to some books. I enjoy that a lot.
JC: Do you have a favorite movie?
Gruver: One of my favorites is “Shawshank Redemption.” It’s a classic favorite.
Speaking of redemption…
On Monday night in Clinton, In Gruver’s first appearance since Friday’s tough loss, Gruver entered the game in the fifth inning with the Kernels trailing Clinton 3-1.
He threw three shutout innings, giving up just two hits and one walk, while striking out three Lumber Kings hitters, while his team mates came back to take a lead and earning Gruver his fifth win of the season.
Minnesota Twins super-prospect Byron Buxton led the Cedar Rapids Kernels through a pretty amazing first half of their Midwest League season. They led the league’s West Division almost from wire to wire.
But on Sunday, June 16, the Kernels gave up a late lead to the Peoria Chiefs and sealed their fate as the Division Runner-Up.
That was the last day that Buxton wore his Kernels home whites on Perfect Game Field at Veterans Memorial Stadium.
After returning from the MWL All-Star Game, Buxton boarded the team bus for the trip to Wisconsin. There, the team swept a four-game series with the Timber Rattlers and did so under the watchful eye of Twins General Manager Terry Ryan.
On that same bus, during the trip home to Cedar Rapids, Kernels Manager Jake Mauer got a phone call from the Twins front office and then told Byron Buxton he was being promoted to the Fort Myers Miracle.
You could understand if the Kernels, without the statistical leader of their offense, had needed to take a step back and regroup. Nobody would have been surprised if they had lost a few games as they searched for a new leadoff hitter and a new center fielder. After all, you can’t just replace a guy who many consider perhaps the top minor league prospect in baseball.
What the Kernels have done instead, however, is continue winning.
Since Buxton’s promotion, the Kernels have swept a four-game series with the Burlington Bees and a three-game series over the Peoria Chiefs. Heading in to Tuesday night’s game at Beloit, the Kernels are 11-0 in the second half of their MWL season.
Yes, it has been an eventful couple of weeks since that gut-wrenching meltdown during the final series of the season’s first half.
It certainly didn’t hurt that the Kernels finally welcomed outfielder Max Kepler to the roster to start the second half of the season.
Kepler, another of the Twins’ top prospects, had been slated to open the season with the Kernels but an elbow strain in March kept him in Fort Myers for extended spring training.
Kepler has only four singles in his 44 at-bats since joining the team. Then again, he also has five doubles, a triple and three home runs. That’s good enough for a .659 slugging percentage over an admittedly limited sample size.
The German native has also helped fill Buxton’s shoes defensively. He’s not likely to make the jaw-dropping defensive plays that Buxton seemed to make almost every other game in the outfield, but Kepler has the speed to cover plenty of outfield grass.
Niko Goodrum and JD Williams have both spent time filling Buxton’s shoes at the top of the Kernels’ batting order. Goodrum’s sporting a second-half on-base percentage (OBP) of .362, which isn’t bad, but check out Williams’ second half slash line: .462 BA/ .517 OBP/ .731 SLG/ 1.248 OPS.
Goodrum’s primary middle infield partner, Jorge Polanco, has hit .375 and put up an OPS of .969 since the All-Star break.
Dalton Hicks hasn’t homered yet in the second half, but he’s hitting .306 with five doubles.
Travis Harrison has a pair of home runs and six doubles since his All-Star Game appearance. He’s hitting .371 and has a 1.214 OPS.
Adam Brett Walker has a pair of home runs, as well, to go with his .303 batting average.
The second half success hasn’t been limited to the hitters, either.
The next earned run that Tyler Jones or Steve Gruver give up will be the first an opponent has put up against the two bullpen arms. In fact, opponents have a grand total of one hit off the two pitchers, combined, since the All-Star break.
Jose Berrios has made just one start since the break, but he went seven innings in that start and struck out nine hitters without a single walk, while giving up just five hits.
Brett Lee has struck out 12 over the 13 innings that have comprised his two starts this half.
Christian Powell is sporting a 2-0 record and a 0.69 ERA over the 13 innings he’s thrown during his first two starts of the second half.
The plan was for Pelfrey to work five innings or throw 75 pitches, whichever came first.
But after throwing just 54 pitches through five innings, Pelfrey went back to the mound for the sixth.
“We got there in the fourth and the fifth and they said, ‘hey you’re done.’ I said, ‘hey I want to go back out for one more.’ I was just starting to get the command of my fastball back, which is very important to have to succeed, obviously, at the Big League level.”
As Pelfrey freely admitted in an interview before the game, his season didn’t get off to the kind of start he and the Twins hoped it would. But, as Kernels pitching coach Gary Lucas said after the game, “It was fun to watch him. Man, what a pro. What a good pro he is,” said Lucas. “To see how he handled himself and how he interacted with the guys on the bench. Pretty cool.”
It was a pretty cool night for the Kernels organization and their fans, as well.
According to Kernels General Manager Doug Nelson, a typical Monday crowd at this point in the season is about 1,500 fans. The Kernels drew 2,246 to see Pelfrey pitch, with a sizable portion of that total coming from “walk up” ticket sales. That extra 746 fans may not seem like a lot to those accustomed to seeing Major League attendance totals, but that’s several thousand dollars of extra revenue that the Kernels wouldn’t have had if the Twins hadn’t sent Pelfrey to Cedar Rapids for his rehab start.
Nelson indicated before the game that the topic of rehabilitation assignments had come up last September when the Twins and Kernels were discussing a possible affiliation agreement. While the Twins made no specific promises, they did tell the Kernels that they were comfortable with the facility in Cedar Rapids from a player-safety standpoint and that rehab assignments here would be simply a matter of schedules and timing working out.
With Pelfrey’s appearance, the Twins have now equaled the total number of rehab assignments that the prior Kernels affiliate, the Angels, sent to Cedar Rapids during the entire 20-year relationship between that organization and the Kernels. Angels pitcher Ken Hill joined the Kernels for a rehab stint in 1998.
The Kernels ballboy and the home plate umpire might have had the toughest challenge getting through Pelfrey’s appearance.
Pelfrey brought a supply of Major League baseballs with him to use in Cedar Rapids, which meant every half inning, the ballboy and plate umpire had to completely switch out the umpire’s supply of baseballs to allow Pelfrey to use Major League balls and the Peoria pitchers to use the Midwest League versions they are familiar with.
By winning their tenth straight game this past Sunday, the Kernels earned a free dinner from the team’s Board of Directors. By tradition, the Board treats the team to dinner at the Ox Yoke in the Amana Colonies whenever they reel off 10 straight wins. No date has been set yet, but it’s something the Kernels players are looking forward to.
That’s especially true of Kepler, the German native. The restaurant specializes in traditional German food, something Kepler said he hasn’t had in awhile.
While the team will have to wait for an evening they can fit a trip to the Amana Colonies in to their busy schedule to collect on that meal, they tasted the benefits of Pelfrey’s appearance immediately after the game.
According to Nelson, Pelfrey treated his temporary Kernels teammates to prime rib for their postgame meal in the clubhouse.
I don’t know who to see about this, but the Twins and Kernels should NOT be allowed to have off-days on the same day! That’s what happened yesterday. So, without anything really “new” to write about either team, I’m posting the following article on the Kernels’ hot start. Under an agreement with MetroSportsReport.com, my alter ego, SD Buhr, writes a weekly “Kernels Update” for TwinsDaily.com. The following is a slightly updated version of what was posted yesterday on both sites and is republished here with permission of MSR. – JC
By SD Buhr
There is no shortage of great story lines through the first three weeks of the Cedar Rapids Kernels’ inaugural season as the Minnesota Twins Class A affiliate in the Midwest League.
To begin with, the Kernels (12-5) sit atop the MWL Western Division standings, with a one-game lead over the Quad City River Bandits (Astros). Cedar Rapids has had success both at home (5-2) and on the road (7-3).
The biggest story of the first three weeks of the MWL season has undoubtedly been the weather. The Kernels have played only 17 games at this point and that’s more than seven of the other 15 MWL teams have played. Yesterday (Wednesday, April 24) was supposed to be the first scheduled off-day of the Kernels’ season. With all of the weather-related postponements and cancellations, it was instead the seventh day Kernels players will have not played baseball since Opening Day.
Understandably, the early attention on the field has been focused on center fielder Byron Buxton, the Twins’ #1 draft pick a year ago. Buxton got off to an amazing start with the bat, but it was inevitable that he would cool off. He has just three hits in his last 15 At-Bats over the Kernels most recent four games. That’s dropped his Batting Average all the way down to… .404. He’s reached base at a .514 rate and has two doubles, two triples and two home runs to assemble a 1.128 On-Base Plus Slugging percentage (OPS). He also has seven stolen bases. If this is the worst “slump” Buxton has to go through, he’s going to have a fun season.
But Buxton isn’t the only Kernels hitter putting up impressive numbers.
First baseman Dalton Hicks has put together a pretty good start of his own, as well. His .310 Batting Average is backed up by seven doubles and a team-leading three home runs.
Drew Leachman went hitless in five At-Bats on on Opening Night and spent the next couple of weeks on the Disabled List after banging up his shoulder in that first game. Leachman has nine hits in 21 At-Bats for a .429 average since being reactivated, with a double, a triple and four RBI in five games. (Leachman received some congratulatory tweets from teammates late Tuesday night and early Wednesday indicating he may have gotten called up to Fort Myers. As of Wednesday afternoon, a source with the Kernels indicated they had not received any official word from the Twins on the move.)
In addition to Buxton, Hicks and Leachman, there are five additional Kernels hitting at .270 or better:
Niko Goodrum is hitting at a .288 clip with five doubles and a .383 On-Base Percentage (OBP).
Jorge Polanco has four doubles and a home run, along with 11 RBI, to go with his .281 Batting Average.
Adam Walker also has a .281 average and 11 RBI to go with his two doubles, one triple and two home runs.
Travis Harrison shares the team lead in doubles with Hicks at seven and has a pair of home runs, as well. He’s hitting .271 on the season.
J. D. Williams is hitting .270, but he’s parlayed three doubles and a pair of home runs, along with 11 walks, in to a .429 OBP and an OPS of .942. That’s some pretty good work, especially coming from the guy who’s held down the #9 spot in the batting order most of the young season.
Perhaps the biggest Kernels news this week was the debut of Jose Berrios, one of the top starting pitching prospects in the Twins organization. Berrios threw five innings on Monday night against the Burlington Bees. He struck out five Bees hitters, but also gave up seven hits and walked a pair.
If Berrios, who will still be just 18 years old for another month, was a bit over-excited for his first start, it would be understandable. He had trouble getting his fastball down in the strike zone the first couple of innings, but finished strong enough to be credited with the Win in the Kernels’ 8-4 win over Burlington.
Berrios’ fastball reportedly hit 96 mph early in the game, but one scout’s radar gun consistently recorded it at 91-93 mph during his last two innings of work. However, it’s possible that his breaking ball was more impressive. It had a late, sharp, break that buckled more than one set of Bees’ knees.
In the end, Berrios may turn out to be the biggest pitching story this season for the Kernels, but a number of his fellow pitchers are setting a pretty high standard for him to meet.
Tyler Duffey hasn’t been able to repeat the seven-perfect-innings performance of his first start of the season, but he’s continued to pitch well. Through 19.2 innings of work covering three starts, he’s put up a 2.29 ERA, striking out 17 while walking only three hitters. He’s also put up a 0.661 WHIP (Walks + Hits per Inning Pitched).
Mason Melotakis has put up a 2.84 ERA in his three starts, racking up 11 strikeouts in just 12. 2 innings of work and Hudson Boyd, while struggling with control at times, has also managed to miss bats. Boyd has struck out a dozen hitters in 14 innings during his three starts.
David Hurlbut appears to be the pitcher bumped from the rotation to the bullpen to make room for Berrios (though that could change with the promotion of Taylor Rogers to Fort Myers this week). Hurlbut has put up a 3.00 ERA and a 0.933 WHIP in 15 innings of work during four appearances (two of them starts).
The weather situation has left Brett Lee, who started the season penciled in as the Kernels sixth starting pitcher in a six-man rotation, with just one start in the first three weeks of the season. He’s made two other appearances in relief roles. Regardless of how he’s entered the game, however, Lee has kept his opponents from scoring. He’s sporting a perfect 0.00 ERA over eight innings of work, while striking out seven hitters without surrendering a walk.
Steven Gruver has posted a 0.64 ERA in his four appearances, three of which came out of the bullpen, while the other came as an emergency starter. That start was necessitated by weather forcing the Kernels to play seven games in a period of just four days. Gruver has struck out 16 hitters and walked just two in 14 innings.
Gruver, along with Tyler Jones, Tim Atherton, Manuel Soliman and Chris Mazza, have anchored a very effective Kernels bullpen. Gruver, Jones, Atherton and Mazza have all struck out more than a hitter per inning of work.
Manager Jake Mauer’s group of Kernels are off to a very good start, made even more impressive by the conditions in which they’ve had to play and the effect the weather has had on their schedule. It should be really interesting to see how things come together when the weather turns warm and the fans start to fill up the ballpark.
The Kernels open up a six game homestand tonight with a 6:35 game against the Dodgers’ MWL affiliate, the Great Lakes Loons.
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?
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)
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.
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.