Twins Need A Memorable Offseason

Been a while.

I’m not sure why I couldn’t bring myself to write over the past couple of months. Certainly, it wasn’t for a lack of Twins-related stuff to hash over, right? Since my last post, the Twins and Kernels BOTH qualified for their respective leagues’ postseasons. Not bad, right?

Byron Buxton launched this home run in spring training and went on to lead the Twins to a postseason appearance.

Neither of them lasted as long as we would have liked, with the Kernels winning their first round series over Kane County, but dropping two games out of three to Quad Cities in the Midwest League’s Western Division championship series and the Twins falling to the Evil Empire in the American League Wild Card game, but still, they capped off successful seasons.

Now we’re into baseball’s offseason. You remember the offseason? I know, if you’re a Twins fan, it’s understandable if you have no idea what that is. After all, the Twins haven’t historically done much but go into hibernation from November until pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training in February.

Already, this offseason, though, the Twins front office has: let go of Fort Myers Miracle manager (and fan-favorite former Twins first baseman) Doug Mientkiewicz, announced a three year extension for manager Paul Molitor, released their major league pitching coach and minor league pitching coordinator and hired John Manuel, the editor of Baseball America, into their pro scouting organization.

Of interest to Kernels fans (at least it should be), the Twins also promoted farm director Brad Steil to the director of professional scouting and hired a new director of minor league operations, Jeremy Zoll, out of the Dodgers organization.

That may not sound like a lot to some people, but for the Twins, that’s a lot of decisions coming down the pipeline before the World Series even gets started!

It seemed to me, though, that it was the Mientkiewicz news that got the biggest reaction out of Twinsville. He had been, after all, reported to have been a candidate for the Twins’ managerial job before Molitor was eventually given the gig. And it’s pretty hard, I think, to find a player that spent any time on one of his teams in Fort Myers or Chattanooga who didn’t speak highly of him.

But, from everything I’ve heard from former players and media, Dougie Baseball was a bit of a dinosaur, when it comes to his approach to managing a baseball team. He also had a history of, arguably, stretching pitch counts for some of his young pitchers.

If any of that is true, then his chances of ever landing a coaching spot (much less the manager’s seat) at the MLB level in a Twins organization run by Thad Levine and Derek Falvey were virtually nil. He’s better off looking for a better philosophical fit. His problem is going to be trying to find a front office that still values his way of thinking above more modern analytical approaches.

Modern analytics are no longer just theory. In fact, they are no longer just being applied to the Major League levels. Minor league managers and coaches, all the way down through the lower levels, are being provided the tools necessary to record and mine advanced data on their own players, as well as their opponents’. And this Twins front office is not going to accept any coach or manager who doesn’t embrace and utilize those tools.

From where I sat in Cedar Rapids this summer, manager Tommy Watkins and his coaches (Brian Dinkelman and JP Martinez) did embrace this new world. They and their players spent more time with video, they applied the data at their fingertips related to everything from lineup construction to defensive shifts and were very careful not to overwork the young arms they were responsible for developing.

And they did all that while also winning baseball games!

I have no first-hand knowledge of whether other managing/coaching staff members in the organization were as on board as the Kernels’ staff with those obvious changes from past practices, but if any of them dragged their feet, they really can’t be too surprised if the front office decides to find replacements who would be more enthusiastic about implementing their bosses’ philosophies.

Apparently, Molitor demonstrated well enough that he was capable of implementing the front office’s system to warrant being kept around.

Then again, we all know that Molitor is a favorite not only with a significant segment of the fan base but, more importantly, with owner Jim Pohlad.

Pohlad made retaining his manager for at least a year a prerequisite for anyone applying to replace former General Manager Terry Ryan, so his feelings about Molitor are obvious.

Reports indicated that Pohlad did not order his front office to offer an extension to the manager after this past season, but that, if they decided they wanted to go another way, he wanted to be involved in a conversation before any announcement was made. That conversation was never necessary, of course, but one can imagine how it might have gone if the brass had decided they wanted to move in another direction.

Pohlad: Let me get this straight. Molitor led our team to the most dramatic turnaround, record-wise, in our history. He did this after you guys gave up on the season and got rid of his closer and the starting pitcher you traded FOR just a week earlier. Now, you want to fire him? Why?

“Falvine”: We just want our own guy in that position.

Pohlad, after a long pause to consider whether he would rather keep Molitor or these two new guys he still hasn’t learned to tell apart: OK. You lived up to your end of the deal. You kept Paul for one year. But gentlemen, you’d better be right or a year from now, your choice for a manager will be back on the street… and he’ll have company.

No, they weren’t going to let Molitor go. The only question in my mind was whether, after a year of spreadsheets and exit velocities, he felt comfortable continuing to manage in the new baseball world.

It’s not like he needed the gig, right? But I suspect that the promise of what this team could become over the next three years was enough to make him want to be around for that ride and I think he has some genuine affinity for and with this group of players which refused to roll over even after their front office gave up on them.

Now Falvine can focus on getting some pitching.

If there’s one thing that watching the teams that are still alive in the postseason drives home to you, it’s the difference between the quality of the pitching staffs, in particular the starting rotations, between these teams and the Twins.

I will say that the Twins’ rotation has improved. Whenever Santana, Berrios and even Gibson took the mound to start a game in August and September, I felt like the Twins had a chance to win.

But teams like the Astros, Indians, Dodgers, Cubs and even the Yankees don’t just feel they have a chance to win when their top three (and sometimes more) starters are on the mound, they EXPECT to win those games.

That is a huge difference and the task of the Twins’ front office is to make that kind of thing happen in Minnesota and do it fast.

Jorge Polanco has the shortstop job now. But Nick Gordon is on his way. Could one of them bring a top starting pitcher in a trade?

The window for winning with this current group of position players is now opening and those windows only last so long.

The Twins can’t afford to wait two or three or four years to develop a postseason-worth rotation. It has to happen sooner than that and it has to start in the next two months.

It has been a while since I felt inclined to support potentially trading top prospects for immediate help at the big league level, but I’m there now.

If it takes a couple of the organization’s top position player prospects to get legitimate starting pitching help (and not just #3 or #4 level arms), then get it done. Face it, there’s not a lot of room in this lineup right now for the guys coming up anyway and those guys might be better served to go somewhere that they aren’t blocked by guys like Buxton, Sano, Kepler and maybe even Polanco.

And the Twins can’t wait around to get pitching. Yes, let’s find out how good the top starting pitching prospects can be, but don’t let that stop you from getting pitchers that you can honestly EXPECT to win behind, not just have a chance to do so.

This should be the most interesting Twins offseason in the past couple of decades. If it’s not, then Levine and Falvey aren’t doing their jobs.

Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc

Manager Tommy Watkins and Royce Lewis (photo by SD Buhr)

Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc.

What, you didn’t take Latin in school? That’s no excuse for not knowing the English translation of that phrase. After all, it played a pivotal role in an episode of the Aaron Sorkin political drama, “The West Wing,” only a couple of decades ago.

Fine, since most of you still probably have no clue, I’ll provide the translation. Loosely, it means, “After this, therefore because of this.”

The phrase refers to the generally inaccurate fallacy that just because a particular event occurred just prior to another event, the first event must have caused the second. Of course, that’s not always true. In fact, it seldom is.

So why am I telling you all of this here on a baseball blog?

Because I want to talk to you about Royce Lewis and the Cedar Rapids Kernels.

The Kernels qualified for the Midwest League Playoffs by finishing second in the league’s Western Division standings during the first half of the season, which concluded in mid-June.

Lewin Diaz (photo by SD Buhr)

About that time, the parent Minnesota Twins started promoting many of the players that played key roles in the first half.

Tom Hackimer, Andrew Vasquez, Jermaine Palacios, Jaylin Davis, Mitchell Kranson, Brandon Lopez, Sean Poppen and Alex Robinson all earned promotions between the end of May and early July.

While Cedar Rapids still had a pretty talented core of position players and several effective pitchers, the promotions took a toll and the results on the field reflected that toll.

The Kernels went 4-5 during second half games played in June and 13-15 in July games.

They followed that up by winning just four of their first ten August games, averaging just three runs per game in those contests. They scored two or fewer runs in eight of those ten games, getting shutout in three of them.

That left the Kernels with a 21-26 second-half record as they prepared to host Quad Cities for the third game in a four game home series on August 12.

On that morning, the Twins announced that 2017’s first-overall draft pick, Royce Lewis, was being promoted to Cedar Rapids from Elizabethton. Lewis made his Kernels debut that evening.

Since then, the Kernels have won 13 games and lost just five, as they prepare to head into the final few regular season games and get ready to host Kane County in game one of the first round of the playoffs on September 6.

Bullpen arms Max Cordy, Patrick McGuff, Logan Lombana (photo by SD Buhr)

In the first ten games of August, the Kernels averaged just three runs per game. Since August 12, they’ve averaged over five per game.

In those first ten games this month, Kernels pitching and defense were combining to surrender 4.8 runs per game. Since then, they’ve been giving up just over three.

So the Kernels’ have clearly turned things around since Royce Lewis donned jersey number 30 for Cedar Rapids, but could he really be THE reason his team appears primed for the playoffs?

Lewis has hit .339 since taking over the leadoff spot in the order on August 12 and he’s made several impressive plays at shortstop, as well, so he’s clearly ONE reason for the Kernels’ recent success.

But to assume he’s the only reason would be inaccurate – and more than a little insulting to several of his teammates who have also dialed things up a few notches down the stretch, not to mention manager Tommy Watkins and his coaches.

In fact, as well as Lewis has played, Lewin Diaz has arguably outperformed the newbie during the same stretch of games. Diaz, who has been strong all season, has hit .351 with an OPS north of .900 since Lewis’ arrival.

Shane Carrier (photo by SD Buhr)

Travis Blankenhorn struggled at the plate in July, but he’s popped a .947 OPS in August. He’s hit .319 since August 12 and has hit five home runs in that same stretch.

Shane Carrier was on the Kernels’ roster out of spring training, but struggled and was ultimately sent back to extended spring training. Since rejoining Cedar Rapids a week before Lewis’ arrival, he’s hit .280, clubbed five home runs and racked up an .885 OPS.

Shane Kennedy joined the Kernels on August 22 and has been getting on base at a .452 clip while putting up a .910 OPS.

Jimmy Kerrigan has been about a .270 hitter with the Kernels, but he’s hit .312 since August 12.

Trey Cabbage and Ben Rortvedt each sport batting averages around .225. But since August 12, they’ve each been hitting about 45 points higher at .270 or so.

The Kernels’ rotation has been in a state of near-constant flux this month and has been hit particularly hard by promotions.

Eduardo Del Rosario (photo by SD Buhr)

Still, virtually every arm that manager Tommy Watkins and pitching coach J.P. Martinez have sent to the mound to start a game has at least given the team five solid innings before turning things over to what has been a consistently effective bullpen.

Reliever Hector Lujan hasn’t allowed an earned run in any of his eight appearances beginning August 8.

Eduardo Del Rosario, who pitched well enough as a starter for the Kernels to earn a late-July promotion to Fort Myers, returned to Cedar Rapids August 15 as a bullpen arm and hasn’t allowed an earned run in any of his five outings since.

Maybe it’s all a coincidence.

Maybe, as they approached the final three weeks of a long season, these guys were all poised to ratchet their games up a notch or two as they headed toward the postseason.

All we can say for certain is that Royce Lewis showed up on August 12 with his smile and his infectious energy… and he stroked base hits in each of his first four plate appearances that night.

And since then, this has been a very different Kernels team on the field than what we were seeing up to that point during the season’s second half.

Ben Rortvedt and Logan Lombana (Photo by SD Buhr)

This team is clearly having fun and they are definitely winning a lot of baseball games.

The first two rounds of the Midwest League playoffs are best two of three games, so advancing through those rounds is pretty much a crapshoot, but three weeks ago, not many people watching the Kernels on a regular basis would have given this team much of a chance to get through the initial round of the postseason.

Whatever the reasons, that has changed. This is a team that now looks like a legitimate postseason contender and likely everyone in that clubhouse deserves a share of the credit.

Kernels Rolling with Royce

Ever since the Minnesota Twins used the first overall pick of the 2017 amateur draft to select California high school shortstop Royce Lewis, fans or the Kernels and/or Twins in Cedar Rapids have been wondering if and when we’d get a first-hand look at the athletic 18-year-old.

On Saturday, when the Twins and Kernels announced that Lewis was being promoted from the Gulf Coast League Twins up to Cedar Rapids, skipping the normal interim stop at Elizabethton, we got our answer.

Manager Tommy Watkins had Lewis’ name in the leadoff spot on his lineup card Saturday night and again Sunday afternoon, as his team finished up a four-game series with Midwest League Western Division second-half leading Quad Cities.

Neither the Kernels nor their highly heralded new arrival disappointed the locals.

In his Kernels debut on Saturday, Lewis singled in each of his first four at-bats, finishing the night 4 for 5 with an RBI and a pair of runs scored. He accounted for four of his team’s 11 hits as they topped the River Bandits 9-1.

On Sunday, Lewis led off the bottom of the first with another single, then came around to score when number two hitter Aaron Whitefield launched a home run.

The Kernels sent seven batters to the plate in the first, scoring three runs, then did almost nothing at the plate for the next seven innings. They trailed QC 6-3 heading to the home half of the ninth.

The Kernels still haven’t made an out in their half of that inning of Sunday’s game.

Jimmy Kerrigan led off with a single and Lewin Diaz followed with one of his own. Caleb Hamilton worked a walk and Shane Carrier made it a 6-4 game with a single.

Trey Cabbage came back from an 0-2 count to work a walk that plated Diaz to make it 6-5.

Joe Cronin shot the first pitch he saw up the middle, scoring Hamilton and pinch runner Christian Cavaness and setting off a celebration as Cronin’s teammates mobbed him in the infield.

The arrival of Lewis and the inspired efforts the his new teammates could prove to be just what the Kernels need as they prepare for the postseason. The club’s pitching has generally been good enough to win games lately, with particularly effective work coming from the bullpen, but the offense has often struggled to score runs.

With Lewis and Whitefield at the top of the order, Shane Carrier riding a hot streak, Lewin Diaz continuing to 100+ mph rockets off his bat and, hopefully, Travis Blankenhorn back soon from the Disabled List, a playoff run is not at all out of the question.

It’s something to look forward to watching.

In the mean time, a few pictures from the Sunday and, no, they aren’t ALL of Royce Lewis!

Royce Lewis with a pregame bro-hug for Mr. Shucks
Royce Lewis
Manager Tommy Watkins congratulates Aaron Whitefield on his home run
Royce Lewis and Aaron Whitefield
Aaron Whitefield
Logan Gore
Charlie Barnes
Joe Cronin
Charlie Barnes tags out a Quad Cities batter after a comebacker
Evan Sanders
Christian Cavaness scores the winning run
Kernels mobbing Joe Cronin after his walkoff single
Fans lineup for Royce Lewis’ autograph during the traditional Sunday autograph session
Royce Lewis signing autographs
Kernels autograph signings
Trey Cabbage signing autographs
Manager Tommy Watkins signing autographs

 

Kernels Are Playoff Bound!

It took until the final day of the first half of the Midwest League season, but the Cedar Rapids Kernels claimed a playoff berth on Sunday with a 16-3 rout of the Clinton Lumber Kings.

With the win, Cedar Rapids locked up second place in the MWL West Division standings. Division champions and runners-up in both the first and second halves of the league’s season qualify for the post-season.

Travis Blankenhorn launches a home run in the first inning of the Kernels’ 16-3 win on Sunday. (Photo: SD Buhr)

This will be the fifth consecutive post-season appearance for the Kernels, a record for a Cedar Rapids professional franchise that has a history well over 100 years old.

Also of significance, the Kernels have now qualified for the post-season in each of the five years that the club has been the Class A affiliate of the Minnesota Twins.

Manager Tommy Watkins’ team had to rally their way into the playoff spot after entering Saturday night’s game in third place.

The key play of that weekend rally came in the eighth inning Saturday night.

Travis Blankenhorn reached on an error and moved to second on a ground ball. That’s when things got interesting.

Blankenhorn  tagged at second base and advanced to third on a line drive to right field, barely beating the throw to avoid committing a prime baseball sin of making the third out of an inning at the third sack.

It turned out to be a risk well worth taking.

Two walks later, Brandon Lopez stepped to the plate and, on a 1-2 count, with the Clinton third baseman playing well off the line, giving Blankenhorn opportunities to get a walking lead off the bag, this happened:


Watkins had noticed that Clinton sidearm pitcher Jack Anderson’s delivery was very deliberate and, combined with the large lead Blankenhorn was able to get, presented an opportunity to make something good happen.

Blankenhorn executed the straight steal perfectly and an inning later, the Kernels had the win that kept their playoff hopes alive.

Less than an hour later, Quad Cities fell to Beloit in extra innings and the Kernels were left needing a win on Sunday or a QC loss to nail down their playoff spot.

Max Cordy got the spot start for the Kernels on Sunday and delivered 3 2/3 innings of 1-run ball, striking out 4. (Photo: SD Buhr)

The Kernels would need to earn a win off of a MWL All-Star pitcher to avoid needing to rely on another QC loss. Lefty Danny Garcia will represent the Lumber Kings in Tuesday night’s MWL All-Star game, but he couldn’t record a single out in the first inning against the Kernels.

Cedar Rapids came out swinging on Sunday and hung a nine-spot on Clinton in the first inning on their way to their 16-3 triumph.

On a side note, Clinton manager Pat Shine has been relieved of his duties as manager of the Lumber Kings by their parent club, the Mariners.

The Kernels earned post-season spots the previous four years under manager Jake Mauer (who continued his personal run of managing playoff teams when his Chattanooga Lookouts club won their division’s Southern League first half title) and Watkins was pleased after the game Sunday to have his club continue that legacy.

“I had big shoes to fill with Jake Mauer leaving,” Watkins said.

The manager was also effusive in his praise for his players on Sunday. “It’s a great group of guys and just for them to come out and play like that in the first inning, it set the tone .I think a lot of it started with the game (Saturday) night.”

The Kernels are off for the MWL All-Star break until Thursday when the open the second half of the season at Quad Cities.

The half-way point is also when parent clubs traditionally make a number of roster moves, so the team that takes the field in the second half could be quite different than the club that earned the playoff spot,

Position players like Jermaine Palacios, Jaylin Davis and others could be deemed ready for promotion, as could a number of the pitchers on the staff.

Kernels Hitting a Stride

Heading into their four-game series with Midwest League Western Division leaders Kane County on Thursday, the Cedar Rapids Kernels were one game under .500, trailed the Cougars by two games in the standings and were tied for second place in their division.

After trouncing Kane County 11-2 in the series finale on Sunday to earn a split of the four-game series, Cedar Rapids was one game over .500 (at 9-8), trail the Cougars by two games in the standings and are tied for second place in their division.

That sounds more mediocre than it was, in reality.

Kane County, the MWL affiliate of the Diamondbacks, have some game and the rest of the division will be challenged to keep up with the Cougars if they continue playing at early-season levels, so getting that split was hard work.

Still, it could have been better.

The Kernels had a 3-2 lead heading to the ninth inning on Thursday, but gave up three runs to the Cougars in the ninth and fell 5-3. On Saturday, The teams were tied 3-3 headed to the final stanza, where Kane County scored the winning run.

In fact, in five of their eight losses this season, Cedar Rapids has surrendered the winning run in their opponent’s final inning at the plate.

All those close losses don’t have manager Tommy Watkins concerned, however.

“The good thing is, after all those games, we responded afterwards,” Watkins said on Saturday. “We’ve lost a couple of games in the ninth inning, but it happens. We’ve got a young team. We’re going to take some bumps and bruises, but I think things have been pretty good to start the season.”

In fact, Watkins said his team has pretty much performed at expected levels.

“I didn’t have any concerns with either side of the ball. Pitching or hitting. Like I said at the beginning of the season, this is a fun team to watch up and down the lineup – pitching, defense, offense, running the bases. We’ve got some guys that can steal some bases. I really enjoy having these guys here.”

One player that’s certainly been as much fun to watch as any position player in the league has been Jermaine Palacios.

“Palacios has been swinging a hot bat and giving us a real boost at the leadoff spot,” Watkins said, of his shortstop. “He’s being aggressive to balls in a zone.”

Indeed he is.

The 20-year-old native of Venezuela is hitting .406 through Sunday and he hasn’t been just slapping the ball, either. Palacios has three doubles, two triples and added his first home run of the season in Sunday’s win over the Cougars.

He’s leading the MWL in batting average and his 1.012 OPS is ninth best in the league, but not good enough to lead his own team.

That honor goes to Mitchell Kranson. His six doubles, one triple and two dingers have propelled him to a 1.045 OPS.

By and large, the pitching staff has been solid, as well. There have been a couple of games where, as one Kernels pitcher told me, “none of us could miss a barrel.” But those instances have been rare.

Cedar Rapids continues their current homestand with a three game series against the Burlington Bees (Angels) before traveling to Peoria (Cardinals) for four games with the Chiefs beginning Thursday.

I’ll wrap up with a couple dozen pictures from the games on Saturday and Sunday at Veterans Memorial Stadium, as well as the traditional Sunday post-game autograph session.

(All photos by SD Buhr)

Kernels manager Tommy Watkins hitting infield practice
Hitting coach Brian Dinkelman tossing batting practice
Domenick Carlini warms up under the watchful eyes of Kernels pitching coach JP Martinez
Lewin Diaz (48) and Ariel Montesino (21)
Domenick Carlini
Andrew Vasquez
Mitchell Kranson playing first base on Saturday
Mitchell Kranson took his turn behind the plate on Sunday
Aaron Whitefield coming in low, and safely, to 3B
Andrew Vasquez, Max Cordy and Colton Davis (L to R)
Ben Rortvedt
Ariel Montesino (21) takes a toss from Jermaine Palacios (4) to turn a double play on Sunday
Aaron Whitefield
Lewin Diaz signing an autograph on Sunday.
Jermaine Palacios got this ball out of the park on Sunday.
Clark Beeker
Shane Carrier
Christian Cavaness signing an autograph after Sunday’s game.
Lewin Diaz
Hector Lujan
Clark Beeker with a pick-off move to first baseman Lewin Diaz
Jermaine Palacios
Mitchell Kranson beats a throw into 3B
Brandon Lopez
Jaylin Davis scoring as Kane County catcher can’t handle a throw from the outfield.
Caleb Hamilton launching a home run on Sunday
Christian Caveness
Travis Blankenhorn (7) and Aaron Whitefield signing autographs.
Jaylin Davis

The First (and Last?) Knuckleballs Podcast

For some time now, my son Ryan and I have been tossing around the idea of doing a podcast.

The two of us (and occasionally along with other family members and friends of the family) get together rather regularly at our favorite watering hole, Bushwood Sports Bar & Grill in Cedar Rapids.

As difficult as it may be to believe, when Ryan and I get together for a beer (or to golf or to go to a ballgame), our conversations become heavily (though not exclusively) sports related.

Anyway, Thursday over happy hour, Ryan and I had a beer or two at Bushwood after he got off work and we turned the mics on for a little over half an hour.

In retrospect, recording at happy hour in a bar may have been a questionable decision and I have to own that decision, myself. Ryan had doubts.

There’s a fair amount of background noise (no, we aren’t using fancy mixing equipment that allows us to dial that stuff down), but, hey, just pretend you were with us at the bar, ok?

If you’d like to listen to us discuss the respective starts of the Twins and Orioles (Ryan’s favorite MLB team) and a bit about the Kernels and the upcoming June draft, feel free to click here and give it a listen.

The big mystery, now, is whether this is something we will ever try to do again.

-Steve

When Can Twins Fans Say It Out Loud?

We’ve all been thinking it. We’ve tried to rationalize, in our minds and even in our public statements.

But privately, every one of us in Twinsville has been thinking it.

Yes, the season is still young, with only 12 games in the book and 150 still ahead.

Yes, the Twins, as a whole, have been surprisingly competitive, thanks to better than expected pitching being backed up by defense that’s superior to pretty much anything we’ve seen in Twins uniforms during the Target Field era.

Still, nobody who has watched this team can claim that the Twins engine is hitting on all cylinders.

So let’s just put it out there.

What the hell is wrong with Byron Buxton and Joe Mauer? And when is someone going to do something about it?

Byron Buxton launched this home run in spring training – and has barely made contact with his bat since. (Photo: SD Buhr)

The Twins’ Opening Day lineup had Buxton in the number three spot and Mauer batting cleanup. Obviously, manager Paul Molitor and the other decision makers were expecting some pretty decent productivity at the plate out of both guys.

To say that hasn’t happened would be an understatement of near-epic proportions.

Through Sunday’s game, Buxton is hitting just .093 and Mauer’s batting average is not much more impressive.

Mauer’s .190 BA is bad enough, but his .434 OPS has to be embarrassing for a guy that should be justifiably proud of a .391 career on-base percentage, alone.

I’ll grant that both guys have made contributions to the Twins’ surprisingly strong start, but those contributions have come almost exclusively with their gloves.

Buxton has made multiple highlight-reel catches in centerfield and Mauer has been impressive at first base.

If there’s been a weakness in the Twins’ defense, so far, it has been on the left side of their infield where Miguel Sano and Jorge Polanco have been a little erratic at times and Mauer has looked awfully good to me at picking their throws out of the dirt at first base.

Still, with the Twins sitting at 7-5 through their first dozen games of the season, we can’t help but ask ourselves just how good this team could be looking if Buxton and Mauer were just performing at a level we might grudgingly call “okay” at the plate.

I’m not going to suggest that Molitor should go off the deep end and bench either of these players after just two weeks. That would be an overreaction. After all, Buxton has had just 46 plate appearances and Mauer only 45.

By the end of the season, Joe Mauer is going to be hitting .260. He’ll show limited power, but will have his share of doubles. It’s what Joe Mauer does. It’s not ideal, especially for a first baseman, but with ByungHo Park on the shelf with a bad hamstring at the moment, it’s not likely that the Twins would consider a change at first base any time soon (though we might want to make note that Ben Paulsen has three home runs and is sporting a 1.051 OPS in Rochester already).

As for Buxton, we have to keep in mind that, not withstanding their early record, the Twins are still in a rebuilding process and Byron Buxton is still very likely to be a major cog in the machine that we all hope will eventually bring postseason baseball back to Target Field.

Joe Mauer (Photo: SD Buhr)

That being the case, you do whatever you think is necessary to get him straightened out at the plate, no matter how long it takes.

I don’t think sending him to AAA would do much good and sitting him on the bench won’t improve his plate appearances. The only chance he has of learning to hit big league pitching, at this point, is to keep facing big league pitching.

And here’s something else worth keeping in mind: Perhaps the best thing that could happen in terms of accelerating the Twins’ return to September significance would be to see pitchers such as Ervin Santana and Hector Santiago put up stats strong enough to induce bidding wars among teams in need of pitching at midseason.

There is no doubt that having Buxton in centerfield makes the stat lines of every pitcher that takes the mound look better. You could possibly make the same argument for Mauer at first base, for that matter.

So Mauer and Buxton aren’t going anywhere and they’re going to be penciled into the lineup by Molitor almost every day. We can resign ourselves to that and hope their bats wake up.

Still, nobody can be blamed for openly wondering how many more games this Twins team, as currently constructed, could be winning if Buxton and Mauer were carrying their own weight… or at least hitting their weight.

Kernels Home Opener in Photos

The Cedar Rapids Kernels jumped to an early 6-1 lead in their home opener against the Beloit Snappers on Saturday evening, but by the end of the night, only the bean counters in Cedar Rapids could call the night a success.

Thanks to a large walk-up, certainly helped by 76 degree temperatures, the Kernels set a franchise record for attendance at a home opener, but the Snappers played spoiler by rallying three runs in the visitors’ half of the ninth inning to top the Kernels 7-6.

Kernels starter Sean Poppen worked seven solid innings, surrendering three runs (only two of the earned run variety), while striking out seven Snappers without a walk.

The offense was led by DH Travis Blankenhorn who doubled and added a three-run home run.

Shane Carrier also homered while Jaylin Davis and Caleb Hamilton added triples.

Davis may have contributed the defensive play of the game, gunning down Beloit’s Nate Mondou at the plate,

In fact, let’s start our photo set with a series of shots showing catcher Ben Rortvedt’s tag of Mondou.

(All photos by SD Buhr)

All of that in the first inning before the Kernels even came to the plate!

Now, let’s back up to pregame activities.

Volunteers with the American flag prior to the game.
Kernels manager Tommy Watkins meets with the umpires and Snappers manager.
A record Home Opener crowd of 3,508 watches leadoff hitter Aaron Whitefield step into the batters box.
Starting pitcher Sean Poppen

Now let’s look through the Kernels’ staring lineup.

CF Aaron Whitefield
SS Ariel Montesino
DH Travis Blankenhorn
1B Lewin Diaz
RF Jaylin Davis
C Ben Rortvedt
LF Shane Carrier (watching his 2nd inning home run sail toward the wall)
Caleb Hamilton
2B Brandon Lopez

 

Kernels Expect a Fun Season

There were differing opinions concerning who won the dance contest held in the Kernels’ clubhouse prior to “Meet the Kernels Night” in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, but the players and coaches who were brought in to talk to the media were in agreement on one thing. They all expect the 2017 Kernels season to be fun.

Kernels players meeting fans on “Meet the Kernels Night” in Cedar Rapids. (photo: SD Buhr)

In fact, almost all of the players and coaches who endured media interrogation before moving on to the stadium concourse to meet the fans who showed up for the event used the word “fun” in at least one of their responses to media questions.

That shouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone who has spent time with the Kernels’ new manager, Tommy Watkins. If you see Watkins at a ballpark without a smile on his face, snap a picture quick. It would be a rarity.

Early during the media session, Watkins was asked what sort of mood he likes to see in his team’s clubhouse.

“Probably like a somber mood,” Watkins deadpanned.

“No, a lot of energy,” he continued, after the laughter in the room faded. “We just had fun down in the clubhouse before we came up, so it was a lot of fun. Get the guys moving around a little bit. Everybody danced a little. I think we like to bring a lot of energy and like to have fun. Play the game the right way.”

His coaches, Brian Dinkelman and J.P. Martinez, claimed Tommy won the dance contest and Tommy claimed the two coaches had been the winners. Later, pitcher Sean Poppen would claim that he’d been the true winner.

Whether or not there was an actual winner of that contest, there was no question that Watkins, his coaches and his players all are looking forward to having a fun season – and winning some baseball games along the way.

“I’m excited about all of these guys,” Watkins said of the players making up the first roster of his minor league managing career.

“They were fun to watch in spring training. Good group of guys, they all got along well. Up and down the lineup I think you’ll see a lot of energy, you’ll see a lot of guys play the game hard. I think they’ll be fun to watch this year. Same thing from the pitching side. We’ve got guys who can throw it over. We’ve got guys that throw hard, got some off-speed stuff. From both sides of the ball, these guys will be fun to watch.”

Hitting coach Brian Dinkelman, Manager Tommy Watkins and Pitching coach JP Martinez (photo: SD Buhr)

While last year’s opening day roster was composed largely of returning players from the 2015 Kernels roster, only eight of this year’s group wore a Cedar Rapids jersey at some point last year. Most of the group, including many of the returning players, played together at Elizabethton in the Appalachian League, during a season that did not see the sort of success on the field that E-town fans have come to expect.

Pitching coach J.P. Martinez said he things this group is hungry for success, as a result.

“I think in Cedar Rapids, in particular, we’ve set the bar pretty high,” Martinez said, recounting the success the Kernels have had, including making the playoffs in each of the four seasons since the inception of the affiliation agreement with the Twins.

“I think (these players) are eager to prove that they belong at this level, maybe partly because they didn’t really have the success they wanted last year, but they’re a really, really talented group. A really close-knit group and so we’re hoping that we can kind of steer them in the right direction. They are the future of the franchise.”

Brian Dinkelman, the hitting coach, also thinks there’s a lot of potential in this group of Kernels.

“Yeah, we’ve got some guys that can definitely swing the bat,” he said of the hitters he’ll be working with. “We’ve got a lot of young guys. We’ve got (Lewin) Diaz and (Jermaine) Palacios and (Ben) Rortvedt – guys that are still in their teens. But we’ve got some guys who can swing the bat and do some damage, so looking forward to the season. A lot of guys to work with. Hope we can develop them and move on to the next level.

Ben Rortvedt, Sean Poppen and Travis Blankenhorn (photo: SD Buhr)

One of the guys the hitting coach mentioned, Rortvedt, is among the players who will be getting their first taste of full-season professional experience this season in Cedar Rapids.

“Wonderful. A bit of an upgrade with the stadium from Elizabethton and the Florida GCL,” the Wisconsin native responded, when asked for his initial impressions.”I played here growing up a couple of times and it was fantastic. I mean, it wasn’t full bleachers, but I’ve seen pictures of you guys filling up the stadium, so I’m really excited.

“I played with a bunch of the guys last year and we’ve bonded pretty well, so it’s going to be a fun season.”

There’s that word, “fun” again, along with another common theme of the day, team chemistry.

Pitcher Sean Poppen and infielder/DH Travis Blankenhorn expressed similar expectations.

“(Tommy) is great. I think he’s really going to develop team chemistry and that’s pretty important,” Poppen said, of his manager.

“We had Tommy in instructs (fall instructional league) and spring training,” Blankenhorn added. “He just keeps the game fun. It’s fun to play for him. He keeps it fun for all of us. It makes baseball a lot better when you’re having fun.”

“Absolutely,” Rortvedt agreed. “I didn’t know Tommy going into instructs and he came in already cracking jokes at me, so he’s definitely going to keep us loose in the dugout.”

Fun and chemistry are important, but Poppen doesn’t think that’s all Watkins brings to his team.

“He’s a good coach. I’ve had some experiences with him that were very helpful and I feel like he’s going to help me – and help the team – get better.”

“I think we have a good team this year,” Blankenhorn concluded. “I think we have a bunch of pitchers that are going to throw strikes and go out there and put some zeros on the board. I think we have some good sticks in our lineup that are going to put the ball in play and puts some runs up and hopefully we can win some games.”

Having fun and winning games. Sounds like a pretty good combination.