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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kernels manager Toby Gardenhire (Photo: SD Buhr)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kernels pitcher Derek Molina (Photo: SD Buhr)

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

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

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

It’s an encouraging start.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kernels Media Night Highlights

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

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

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

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

Welcome to Midwest League baseball in April.

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

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

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

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

Gardenhire concurred with his hitting coach.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The home opener is scheduled for Saturday in Cedar Rapids.

Kernels Class of 2018 “Should Be Pretty Entertaining”

It seems like just yesterday, doesn’t it?

Byron Buxton as a Cedar Rapids Kernel in 2013 (Photo: SD Buhr)

The Minnesota Twins and Cedar Rapids Kernels were entering the very first year of their brand new affiliation agreement in the spring of 2013 and there was plenty to be excited about with the baseball talent the Twins were planning to send through Cedar Rapids that season.

Three of that year’s Kernels had been handed signing bonuses of over $1 million and 11 more from their opening day roster that season had received six-figure bonuses. In short, it was as loaded as any Cedar Rapids roster had been in several years.

Optimism was high and not only for the Kernels. That Cedar Rapids class of 2013 represented, to many, the future of the Minnesota Twins franchise – a franchise that had fallen on tough times after nearly a decade of postseason participation.

As with any roster of Class A ballplayers, you don’t have to look too hard to find players that, despite being early round draft picks or well-regarded international free agents, would ultimately fall short of their goals of having successful Major League careers.

But you also don’t have to look far down that 2013 roster to find names that have since become part of the core group of players that led the Twins to a wild card berth in 2017, with even greater expectations for the next several seasons.

Byron Buxton and Jorge Polanco were on that opening day roster in Cedar Rapids in 2013, as were pitchers Tyler Duffey and Taylor Rogers. Then there were two more mid-season additions to the Kernels that are also now playing major roles in Minnesota, Max Kepler and Jose Berrios.

But that was five years ago.

Several additional Cedar Rapids alumni are poised to contribute to whatever success the Twins have in the near future, as well, but that class of 2013 will long be remembered by Kernels fans.

But is it possible that the class of 2018 could end up being even better? It’s certainly not impossible.

The class of 2013 had Buxton, the Twins’ 2012 first round pick in the amateur draft (second selection overall), but  the 2018 Kernels roster will include a pair of first rounders.

Shortstop Royce Lewis, the first overall selection in 2017, will start the season in Cedar Rapids after suiting up for the Kernels for the final month of the 2017 season. He will be joined by the Twins’ first round pick in 2016, as well. Outfielder Alex Kirilloff missed last season after elbow surgery, but will wear a Kernels uniform on Opening Day this year.

Royce Lewis with the play at shortstop (Photo: SD Buhr)
Alex Kirilloff (Photo: SD Buhr)

That’s not bad for a start, but when you look over the Kernels’ roster, It’s easy to find plenty of other players who were highly touted draft picks and international signings.

That group includes two Compensation round picks, outfielder Akil Baddoo and infielder Jose Miranda, and a second rounder, catcher Ben Rortvedt (who spent 2017 in Cedar Rapids).

Kernels manager Toby Gardenhire and Akil Baddoo (Photo: SD Buhr)
Jose Miranda (Photo: SD Buhr)
Ben Rortvedt (Photo: SD Buhr)

Right handed pitcher Blayne Enlow was selected by the Twins in the third round of 2017’s draft and will open 2018 in Cedar Rapids’ rotation.

Blayne Enlow (Photo: SD Buhr)

Trey Cabbage, who is slated to be part of the Kernels’ outfield, but could also play the corner infield spots, is also returning to Cedar Rapids, where he finished the 2017 season. Cabbage was the Twins’ fourth round pick in 2015.

Trey Cabbage

The Kernels will have 2017 fifth round pick Andrew Bechtold at third base and David Banuelos, who was Seattle’s fifth round pick in 2017, will share time with Rortvedt behind the plate. Banuelos was obtained by the Twins from the Mariners over the off-season in return for a million dollars worth if international bonus cap space.

Andrew Bechtold
David Banuelos

Lewis, Rortvedt and Cabbage aren’t the only Kernels alums who are returning to open the 2018 campaign.

Randy Dobnak, Bryan Sammons and Tyler Watson are all slated to open the season in Cedar Rapids’ starting rotation after seeing time with the Kernels last year.

Randy Dobnak (Photo: SD Buhr)
Bryan Sammons (Photo: Seth Stohs)
Tyler Watson (Photo: SD Buhr)

Logan Lombana and Ryan Mason return to the Kernels’ bullpen after playing key relief rolls for Cedar Rapids in 2017.

Logan Lombana (Photo: SD Buhr)
Ryan Mason (Photo: SD Buhr)

Infielder Jordan Gore and ouitfielder Shane Carrier also returning to Cedar Rapids to open the season.

Jordan Gore (Photo:SD Buhr)
Shane Carrier (Photo: SD Buhr)

Other players slated to suit up for the Kernels for the first time to start the season include pitchers Nick Brown, Edwar Colina, Calvin Faucher, Jared Finkel, Kevin Marnon, Jose Martinez and Jovani Moran.

They’ll be joined by first-time Kernels position players Ben Rodriguez (1B) and Mark Contreras (OF).

New Cedar Rapids manager Toby Gardenhire is optimistic about his Kernels and knows he’s being entrusted with a number of the Twins’ most prized young prospects.

“It should be a lot of fun. We’ve got a really good group of kids,” Gardenhire said as spring training was winding down. “They’ve been playing really hard and they’re ready to get (to Cedar Rapids), I know that.

“We’re definitely young, but there’s a lot of guys that have a lot of ability – a lot of talent, that the Twins think very highly of. It makes them fun to watch. I’ve been watching them all spring and we’ve got some exciting guys, so it should be pretty entertaining.”

Today’s Twins fans are hoping that Buxton, Kepler, Berrios and other Kernels alumni of the past five years will lead the parent club through a period of postseason success. Five years from now, will the Cedar Rapids class of 2018 be preparing to step in and join – or perhaps take over for – their predecessors?

Only time will tell.

But Kernels fans in Cedar Rapids will soon be getting a good opportunity to see just how good this next wave of young Twins prospects can look.

Happy Opening Day 2018!

It’s finally here. REAL baseball that counts in the standings is finally happening today!

Weather permitting, at 3:05 today (2:05 for those of you NOT sunning yourselves in Florida, of course), the Minnesota Twins and Baltimore Orioles will get the 2018 party started at Camden Yards in Baltimore.

I have to admit, I’ve gone back and forth in my mind this month concerning just how good this year’s Twins could be.

One day, I look at all the excellent work the front office has done with adding critical pieces, especially in the pitching area, and can’t help but be optimistic that the Twins will return to the postseason come October.

The next day, I look at just how good Cleveland’s rotation is and wonder whether the Twins have any chance at all.

Then I realize that Minnesota will get to play about a gazillion games against the Tigers, Royals and White Sox and my optimism returns… at least until I also realize that Cleveland also plays those three teams as many times as the Twins will.

And what if the White Sox young “can’t miss” prospects accelerate that organization’s own development curve?

But then again, if Cleveland has any bad luck at all, the Twins should be right on their heels this season, ready to pounce at the opportunity to steal an AL Central Division title.

See what I mean? My head just spins when I think about this stuff.

Thankfully, all of the “what if” crap can finally be replaced by watching the season all play out on the field.

Let’s get this show on the road!

One More Ft. Myers Minor League Photos Post

It’s hard to believe I’ve been in Ft. Myers for almost a month, but come Friday, I’ll be packed up and headed back to Cedar Rapids. In a matter of days, the Cedar Rapids Kernels will be introducing the Opening Day roster and a short time later, they’ll be suiting up to begin their Midwest League season under new manager Toby Gardenhire.

But for now, here are another few (actually, more than a few) final pictures from the back fields in Ft. Myers. I’ve never had anyone tell me I’ve posted too many pictures in a post here, but this may be the post that puts the limit to the test.

I’m hearing that the Twins have released a number of minor leaguers over the past couple of days, but I have not heard or seen a complete list, so it’s quite possible that some of these guys have gotten some bad news since I took these photos. That’s the unfortunate part of the business of baseball.

Travis Blankenhorn (Photo: SD Buhr)
Shane Carrier (Photo: SD Buhr)
Jermaine Curtis (Photo: SD Buhr)
Zack Jones (Photo: SD Buhr)
Levi Michael (Photo: SD Buhr)
Sean Miller (Photo: SD Buhr)
Max Murphy (Photo: SD Buhr)
Brian Navarreto (Photo: SD Buhr)
Williams Ramirez (Photo: SD Buhr)
James Ramsey (Photo: SD Buhr)
Leonardo Reginatto (Photo: SD Buhr)
Brent Rooker gets some instruction at first base from Justin Morneau (Photo: SD Buhr)
Wynston Sawyer (Photo: SD Buhr)
Cody Stashak (Photo: SD Buhr)
Ryan Walker (Photo: SD Buhr)
Tommy Watkins (Photo: SD Buhr)
Jaylin Davis (Photo: SD Buhr)
Tanner English (Photo: SD Buhr)
Stephen Gonsalves with Sean Miller at SS behind him (Photo: SD Buhr)
Caleb Hamilton (Photo: SD Buhr)
Brandon Lopez (Photo: SD Buhr)
Alex Perez (Photo: SD Buhr)
Fernando Romero (Photo: SD Buhr)
Brent Rooker (Photo: SD Buhr)
Ryan Walker (Photo: SD Buhr)
Max Cordy (Photo: SD Buhr)
Colton Davis (Photo: SD Buhr)
Eddie Del Rosario (Photo: SD Buhr)
Taylor Grzelakowski (Photo: SD Buhr)
Blair Lakso (Photo: SD Buhr)
Royce Lewis with the play at shortstop (Photo: SD Buhr)
Jose Miranda (Photo: SD Buhr)
Ariel Monetesino with a safe slide into second base (Photo: SD Buhr)
Ben Rodriguez (Photo: SD Buhr)
Ben Rortvedt (Photo: SD Buhr)
Carson Crites (Photo: SD Buhr)
TJ Dixon (Photo: SD Buhr)
Calvin Faucher (Photo: SD Buhr)
Jordan Gore (Photo:SD Buhr)
Kolton Kendrick (Photo: SD Buhr)
Royce Lewis (Photo: SD Buhr)
Jose Martinez (Photo: SD Buhr)
One of these guys is Seth Stohs of TwinsDaily and the other is Twins IF prospect Jose Miranda. I’ll leave it to you to figure out which is which. (Photo: SD Buhr)
Ariel Montesino (Photo: SD Buhr)
Alex Robles (Photo: SD Buhr)
Yunior Severino (Photo: SD Buhr)
Tyler Wells (Photo: SD Buhr)
Kernels manager Toby Gardenhire and Akil Baddoo (Photo: SD Buhr)
Andrew Bechtold (Photo: SD Buhr)
Trey Cabbage (I really want to know what he’s seeing in that helmet, don’t you?) (Photo: SD Buhr)
Andrew Cosgrove (Photo: SD Buhr)
Joe Cronin (Photo: SD Buhr)
Blayne Enlow (Photo: SD Buhr)
Moises Gomez (Photo: SD Buhr)
Alex Kirilloff (Photo: SD Buhr)
Emmanueal Morel (Photo: SD Buhr)
Jacob Pearson (Photo: SD Buhr)
Robby Rinn (Photo: SD Buhr)
Kadany Salva (Photo: SD Buhr)
Yunior Severino (Photo: SD Buhr)
Carlos Suniaga (Photo: SD Buhr)
Lewis Thorpe (Photo: SD Buhr)
Colton Waltner (Photo: SD Buhr)
Tyler Watson (Photo: SD Buhr)

 

Will Congress Screw Minor League Players Today?

If you believe that maintaining the status quo in minor league baseball is important, you aren’t going to like this article.

However, if you believe that some things – like simple human decency in the area of fair pay – are more important than whether or not the current minor league model is continued, I suspect you’ll be joining me in raising your voice in objection to what Major League Baseball (along with their weak sister organization, Minor League Baseball) are conspiring with members of the U.S. Congress to do as early as today.

The Washington Post is reporting that MLB lobbyists and a handful of Congressmen plan to attach an amendment to the $1.3 trillion spending bill that must become law this week in order to avoid another government shutdown. That amendment would specifically hand baseball an exemption to federal labor laws for their treatment of minor league ballplayers.

Congressmen in MLB/MiLB’s pockets introduced a separate bill to grant this exemption a couple of years ago, but it has gone nowhere. So, now, it’s apparently time to slip the provisions into a bill that has nothing whatsoever to do with anything related to baseball.

It’s what’s commonly called a “Christmas Tree Ornament” amendment that gets attached to a big “tree,” in this case the critical spending bill. And guess who’s getting the big present? Yes, 30 multi-billionaires who simply don’t want to share even a fraction of the enormous revenues that fans are giving them with the very poorest of their players.

And the amendment’s supporters aren’t even being up front with their intention to hang this ornament on the spending bill tree.

According to the Post report, the amendment has not been included in any of the drafts of the bill distributed thus far. The intent, clearly, was to hang this particular ornament on the tree at the last minute, when nobody was looking closely enough to even notice it.

Let me pose this question, for any of you who may still think there’s nothing wrong with 20 year old ballplayers working for far less than minimum wage. If giving MLB this exemption is the right thing to do, why hide it this way, even from other members of Congress?

Players at lower levels (such as with the Class A Cedar Rapids Kernels) are making maybe $1,200 per month. That’s GROSS pay, by the way.

The players that will be sent to Cedar Rapids at the beginning of April aren’t getting paid that while they’re down in Ft. Myers for spring training, either. They get paid only for time spent on an active minor league roster. In the minor leagues, that’s five months… at most. Many players play in “short season” leagues that run only three months during the summer.

Just for reference, I made better money working for a fast food burger chain… in 1976.

MLB has obviously been threatening the minor league organization, along with those who own and operate affiliated minor league teams, with all manner of catastrophic consequences (up to and including contraction of teams/classes within the minor league system, no doubt) should MLB end up required to pay their minor leaguers anything remotely close to a livable wage.

You see, despite the millions of dollars MLB’s billionaires have paid their lobbyists, 30 wealth old white guys only can carry so much clout with Congress. But when you threaten the hundreds of minor league teams in Congressional districts across the country and get the front offices and fans of those teams involved with personal lobbying to save their local teams, now you’ve got yourself some effective lobbying. Lobbying that MLB didn’t even have to pay for, just use a little not-so-subtle coercion.

Don’t think this is what’s going on? Listen to this quote within the Post story from Pat O’Conner, the head of MiLB.

“We’re in 42 states, 160 cities. We’ve got over $3 billion of infrastructure, much of which is still being paid off by the clubs and the communities where they exist,” he said. “This is about constituents, this is about jobs at home, and this is about quality of life at home.”

So, obviously, the concern is for the, “quality of life at home,” for the local fans, rather than the quality of life for players, many of whom are from poor Latin American countries and most of whom did not receive anything close to the large signing bonuses that get all the media attention when they sign contracts with a MLB team.

The minimum wage in the big leagues is approaching $600,000. For the roughly price of one minimum wage big leaguer on each team, MLB could afford to pay an extra $1,200 per month to 100 of their minor league players (that’s four rosters worth of players). For under a million of their precious dollars per year, MLB owners could effectively make this issue go away.

The Twins reportedly will have an Opening Day big league payroll of $130,000,000 (and they are only in the middle of the pack among their MLB peers in payroll). Think about that for just a moment.

It’s not a coincidence that minor league pay is determined by negotiations with the MLB players’ union – a union that minor leaguers are not actually members of.

In effect, the billionaire owners are putting the screws to minor league operators and fans (not to mention the players) in order to save themselves from having to spend a small fraction of 1% of their annual revenues on additional minor league pay.

The contract between MLB and MiLB that sets the terms for how affiliates operate together is due to expire in 2020 and MLB isn’t going to renew it until this matter is resolved. They are obviously using the contract as leverage to get the minor league organizations to lobby Congress on their behalf.

It’s coercion, plain and simple, and it’s shameful.

Yet, because Congress is Congress, don’t be surprised if it’s also effective.

More Photos from Spring Training’s Back Fields

I spent a few days, earlier this week, hanging out on the minor league fields at the Twins’ spring training site in Ft. Myers and built up the photo library a little. I thought I would share a few of the pictures I’ve taken here. Admittedly, I’ve spent most of my time near the Class A level games/workouts, but there are a few AA/AAA shots mixed in, as well.

(All photos by SD Buhr)

Kevin Marnon
Sandy Lugo
Alex Kirilloff
Andrew Cosgrove
Trey Cabbage
Christian Broussard
Clark Beeker (P) and Wander Javier (SS)
Matt Albanese
Todd Van Steensel
Ben Rortvedt
Bailey Ober
Derek Molina
Ryan Mason
Stephen Gonsalves
Blayne Enlow
Randy Dobnak
Nick Brown
Charlie Barnes
David Banuelos
Riley Widell
Kai Wei-Tai Teng
Tanner Kiest
Andro Cutura
Melvin Acosta
Andy Wilkins (1B) and Ariel Montesino (runner)
TJ White
Tyler Wells
Rainis Silva
Ben Rodriguez
Sean Poppen
Ariel Montesino
Jose Miranda
Royce Lewis
Randy LeBlanc
Zack Jones
Wander Javier
Taylor Grzelakowski
Edwar Colina
Andrew Bechtold
Vadim Balan and Ben Rodriguez
Vadim Balan
Akil Baddoo

Twins Minor Leaguers: Spring Training Photos

(Photo: SD Buhr)

The big leaguers at Twins’ spring training had the day off on Thursday, but the minor leaguers were hard at work on the back fields this morning. It gave me an excuse to bring out the camera as I watched past, present and future Cedar Rapids Kernels get in their workouts.

 

Kernels hitting coach Brian Dinkelman chats with Royce Lewis, Also pictured: Christian Broussard. (Photo: SD Buhr)
Trey Cabbage (45) and Alex Kirilloff (27) await their turns in the batting cage. (Photo: SD Buhr)
Infielders Royce Lewis (8), Wander Javier (19 with ball), Carson Crites (33) and Jose Miranda (24)
Kohl Stewart (Photo: SD Buhr)

 

Kernels Hot Stove/Twins Caravan in CR

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twins farm director Jeremy Zoll (photo: SD Buhr)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I would say relax,” answered Garver.

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

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

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

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

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

Zack Granite and Mitch Garver (photo: SD Buhr)

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

“Probably to grow up,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Steve

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

Vikings Embark on Redemption Tour

It all begins today with the National Football League’s Wildcard games.

This is the year that the Minnesota Vikings exorcize their demons one week at a time.

I’m calling it right now. The Vikes are going to erase the memory of past failures every time they take the field in the postseason.

Think about it… what are arguably the biggest disappointments in Minnesota Viking history?

For my money, I’d list them this way

  1. Every Super Bowl loss. I don’t care if it was the first against the Chiefs or any of the other three against the Dolphins, Steelers and Raiders, they all sucked. Super Bowl Sunday was one dark blotch on the entire decade of the 70s.
  2. Gary Anderson’s missed field goal in the 1999 NFC Championship game against the Atlanta Falcons. I mean the guy NEVER missed. EVER. But that one time, he did. And the Vikings’ shot at a redeeming Super Bowl win died.
  3. Bountygate and Brett Favre’s ill-advised pass against the New Orleans Saints in the 2010 NFC Championship game that, once-again, ended what we all hoped would be a Super Bowl season.

This is the year the Vikings settle all family business.

Of course, it will require the Falcons and Saints to do their parts and win their Wildcard games this weekend. But once the Falcons eliminate the Rams and the Saints send the Panthers home, the Vikings’ Redemption Tour  can get underway.

First up, they get revenge for 2010 and end the Saints’ season. And if they just happen to beat up Drew Brees so badly that he retires from football, well, that would just be karma.

To set up the next exorcism, the Falcons will have to dump the Eagles, but honestly, does anyone really see Nick Foles leading his team to a playoff win against, well, anybody? I don’t.

That sets up a do-over of 1998’s gut-punch and this time the Vikings have a kicker that has already missed his first field goal of the season… and his second… and his third… and his fourth… and his fifth… and his sixth. Let’s face it, the last thing Kai Forbath will have to think about as he lines up to kick a potential winning field goal is, “this would be a bad time to miss my first field goal of the season.”

Just to be safe, of course, it would be best if the rest of the team spends the first 59 minutes of the game destroying the Falcons so we don’t have to wonder what Forbath is thinking when he sets up for a clutch field goal (or PAT attempt, for that matter).

That brings us to what we’ve all been looking forward to – the Vikings hosting the Super Bowl in their own home stadium.

Now, I know most of the prognosticators are saying they’ll face the New England Patriots in the Big Game. And that would be fun, I agree.

It would also be very cool to see the Buffalo Bills somehow weave their way through the AFC playoff minefield and set up a contest between the two franchises with easily the sorriest Super Bowl histories in the NFL.

After all, one fanbase would finally have something to really celebrate.

But no, the Vikings must face either the Kansas City Chiefs, who topped the Joe Kapp led Vikings (yes, Joe Kapp actually led a team to the Super Bowl… I still don’t understand how that happened, but it did) in the 1970  Super Bowl, or the Pittsburgh Steelers, who out-defensed the Vikings in 1975’s version.

Either the Chiefs or Steelers would serve as an appropriate representative from which the Vikings could garner vindication for all four past Super Bowl losses.

That path, extinguishing the flames of the Saints, Falcons and either the Chiefs or Steelers and leading to the franchise’s first Lombardi Trophy, all taking place in U.S. Bank Stadium, no doubt in front of Bud Grant, Fran Tarkenton and a host of past Vikings greats, would finally put to rest all of the ghosts that have haunted the Vikings over the past five decades.

Make it so.