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

Are You Ready For Some Baseball?

Yes, it has been a while since I posted anything, so I’ll be surprised if anyone still remembers we have this blog, but I’m back home after a couple of weeks in Florida and it’s almost time for the baseball season to begin. So, let’s fire up the blog again and see whether we, as Twins fans, have enough this season to even be worth talking about.

We are not off to a great start.

First of all, the new Twins front office did virtually nothing in their first offseason on the job to improve the team. I was asked during a brief radio interview on KMRY in Cedar Rapids this week what I felt about the Twins’ fortunes in 2017 after spending time at their spring training site in March. I’ll say the same thing here that I said in response during that interview.

The Twins did nothing to improve their team in the offseason, so any improvement will have to come from further development of their existing young roster, guys like Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, et al.

The good news is that there is every reason to believe that Buck, Max and friends like Miguel Sano, Jorge Polanco and Eddie Rosario should indeed mature and see their games improve.

The bad news is that none of those guys can pitch. (Well, Buxton probably COULD, but it ain’t happening.)

This morning, many of the final roster moves were announced and we found out that the Twins will start the season with 13 pitchers and without the player that perhaps had the best spring training of anyone in camp, Byung ho Park, who was sent down and will apparently start his season in Rochester.

That leaves the Twins with just three bench bats and none of them are guys you would want to see come to the plate even as a pinch hitter.

The bottom line, it seems to me, is that the new front office is scared to death of their pitching staff. I understand that because I think most of us have been afraid of this pitching staff for a long time. But they had all offseason to address their obvious pitching needs and did virtually nothing to improve it.

So, to tell us they sent Park down because they felt they ended up needing more pitchers is really an indictment on their poor work in obtaining pitching during the offseason. Fans should not let them off the hook easily if this all blows up.

Now that I have that rant out of the way, let me just pass on some observations I had down in Fort Myers.

As always, I spent a fair amount of time on the minor league side of the complex watching past and future Cedar Rapids Kernels work out.

My sense, as I shared Tuesday on the MN Sports Weekly podcast, as well as the KMRY interview, is that the Kernels will have a better offensive lineup this season than they had a year ago and it appears that at least half of the team’s pitching rotation that finished the 2016 season will be returning to start 2017.

Lewin Diaz and Shane Carrier should add pop to the middle of the order and, for now anyway, it appears that Travis Blankenhorn and Jaylin Davis will return to start the new season in CR. That group could produce some runs if other guys can get on base with regularity.

It doesn’t look like slugger Amourys Minier will break camp with the Kernels at this point, but he should help out when he arrives later in the season, as could other bats such as Trey Cabbage and Wander Javier.

Jermaine Palacios will return and be among a large group of middle infielders worthy of getting opportunities in Cedar Rapids during the season.

Let’s wrap up with a few pictures from my time in Fort Myers.

Fort Myers Beach – yes there is something other than baseball to do on a mid 80s March day in Florida.
IF Aaron Whitefield and C Ben Rortvedt
Tyler Beardsley should be returning to Cedar Rapids
Ariel Montesino makes a bare handed play as Wander Javier looks on.
Byron Buxton goes deep in the first inning against the Orioles.
Jorge Polanco gets congratulated after a grand slam home run.