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Cedar Rapids Kernels are ready for Opening Day!

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Happy Minor League Opening Day! This is a great day for me. Opening Day with the Twins was tremendous, but when minor league opening day hits, we as Twins fans suddenly have as many as five games and box scores to follow!

Last September, the Minnesota Twins made the business decision to leave Beloit and enter into a player development agreement with the Cedar Rapids Kernels. Itís fair to say that both sides are excited about this relationship. Tonight, the Kernels will open their 2013 season, ironically, against the Beloit Snappers, now an affiliate of the Oakland Aís organization.

Gary Keppel, Kernels Team President and Board of Directors member told a group of media before their Meet the Kernels night at Perfect Game Park, ďWe are truly, truly excited to have the Twins here. We had a great affiliation for 20 years with the Angels, but we are looking forward to a long, long relationship with the Twins. I think itís going to be great for our fans that as the players develop and get toward the big leagues that theyíll be able to take a four hour trip up there to go up and see those players. Theyíll be in the same time zone so they can catch more games on TV. But, from a selfish standpoint, weíre very, very excited that those folks are going to be coming down.Ē

Yesterday, I hopped in my car in Eagan, Minnesota, at about 12:20 p.m. I headed south on I-35. Shortly after Mason City, Iowa, I exited and took highway 18 East/27 South and took that until Cedar Falls, Iowa, where I connected with highway 380 and headed south. At 4:45, I arrived in Cedar Rapids, the home of the Twins new Midwest League affiliate. With a quick stop to grab something to eat, and one stop to add some gas, I still arrived at the ballpark in just under four-and-a-half hours.

Itís not a very long drive from the Twin Cities, and this summer, it will be worth your time to take a trip or two to see the Kernels. They have a group of very talented players on this springís roster, and more will be coming when the likes of 2012 first round picks J.O. Berrios and Luke Bard, as well as fellow Top 10 Twins prospect Max Kepler come to town.

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Byron Buxton, the 2nd overall selection in the 2012 MLB draft will be starting the season as the teamís primary centerfielder and leadoff hitter. Since being drafted, he has drawn comparisons to the likes of BJ Upton, Andrew McCutchen and Adam Jones. One long-time baseball person in Cedar Rapids, having seen him for the first time last night, observed that he looks so much like a young Willie Mays, facially, body type and his style and arm from centerfield. High praise, but he still has some work to do before heíll be ready for the big leagues.

Former Twins infielder and current Kernels hitting coach Tommy Watkins said of Buxton, ďI got a chance to see him in instructional league last year. He has amazing ability. I mean, heís got all the tools, and heís a great guy to go along with it. I think youíll be very happy with how he plays the game.Ē

Kernels manager Jake Mauer said, ďHe is, tool-wise, what you expect a #2 pick to be. One thing thatís really struck me is the person that he is, and how he goes about his business. Thatís very exciting. We had a meeting with all of our guys individually today. We go over objectives throughout the season, what we expect, roles and all that. When it came to Byron, we just want him to be himself and just to go out and play. Obviously there are some expectations and things like that, but once youíre between the lines, youíre the only man out there. All that other stuff doesnít really matter.Ē

I asked where he would hit, thinking he could be a leadoff hitter who steals a ton of bases, or a Number 3 hitter because of his power potential and all-around game. Mauer added, ďheís going to lead off for us to start here. Heís a young man that will be similar to Aaron Hicks and weíve had this conversation with him throughout the minor leagues. He can lead off. He can hit third. Obviously Aaron is up there in the big leagues now getting an education onÖ thatís a tough draw, Justin Verlander right out of the shoot, thatís introduction to big league pitching thereÖ Byronís going to lead off and probably be our primary centerfield. Youíll see him out there quite a bit. Tools-wise, itís kind of cultivating all of them. Heís going to learn some things, tendencies. Heís got a chance to steal a lot of bases. And then again, heís got a chance to be a middle of the lineup type hitter, and thatís kind of rare. You donít find a guy with that tool set and the things that he can do. But the biggest thing for him is to get through the season. Itís going to be a long year. Itís the first time heíll get to play in over 140 games weíre going to play. So, itís him getting prepared, not only physically, but also mentally. Thatís something weíre looking forward to see how all these boys react to that.Ē

When Buxton himself was asked what he was going to be working on the most, he hesitated for a couple of seconds. Teammate Travis Harrison jumped in saying, ďHeís pretty good at a lot of things!Ē

Harrison is another very exciting prospect in the Twins system. He was the teamís first supplemental first round pick in 2011 out of high school in California. He gave up a scholarship to USC to sign with the Twins. He hit for average last year in Elizabethton, but did struggle early in that short-season with the glove at third base. Itís an area he knows he needs to improve upon.

ďI want all parts to see improvement. Everyone knows I need to get better at defense. I know that. Thatís what Iíve been working really hard in the offseason trying to get better at. But then again, I can always be a better hitter as well, so, if you were to say a strength, Iíd say hitting, but hopefully by the end of the season, itíll be both.Ē

Watkins also spoke well of what heís seen from the 20-year-old. ďI think Travis has made some tremendous strides. The good thing about it, he wants to get better. I think you just take it slow. One day at a time. Itís a process. Itís every day getting ground balls, getting games under your belt. But heís doing a good job, and he wants to get better. I think thatís the main thing.Ē

Mauer added, ďHe was an outfielder in high school, so he is fairly new to him as far as playing in the infield. Tommy hit the nail on the head, he wants to get better and thatís part of the battle. He believes that he can play third. We believe that he can play third. Just from the beginning of spring to where he is now, heís made some pretty good strides and we just expect him to keep continuing to get better. If he wants to, which he does, I think youíll see a big difference from April to August in him defensively.Ē

And that is what the purpose of the Midwest League. The lower levels of the minor leagues are often designed to allow players to get instruction, get into games, and get better. A year ago, I saw the Beloit Snappers play two games in early June and saw some struggles from the likes of Miguel Sano and Eddie Rosario defensively. When I returned in early August, I saw both of them had improved greatly.

This is a talented roster. I talked briefly with shortstop Niko Goodrum, who said he is up to 200 pounds after being drafted at maybe 170 pounds. He looks ready to play. Last yearís Appalachian League MVP, Candido Pimentel will play a lot of second base this year. Jorge Polanco will play both middle infield positions. Dalton Hicks and one of the unsung players from last yearís Beloit Snappers run, Drew Leachman will get time at first base. Tyler Grimes has made the transition to catcher and reports are quite positive on how well that has gone. The starting pitchers in this rotation will be Taylor Rogers, Hudson Boyd, Mason Melotakis, Tyler Duffey, David Hurlbut and Brett Lee. The bullpen includes arms like Tim Atherton, Steve Gruver, Tyler Jones, Chris Mazza, Manuel Soliman and Matt Tomshaw.

Following the press conferences, Kernels players were on the stadiumís concourse, meet and greeting fans and host parents. I talked to several players who were so impressed with the Kernels and with the Cedar Rapids community. Host parents volunteer to have the players stay with them. Players donít have to pay them a dollar. Given the fact that most of the players on the Kernels roster will make just $1,500 per month during the season, that is an important factor. The Kernels will provide pre and post game food to the players.

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Tommy Watkins showed me around the clubhouse. It is very impressive. The manager has an office. The coaches have their own room. There is a room set up for when instructors like pitching coordinator Eric Rasmussen, or roving instructor Paul Molitor come to town. Adjacent to the playerís clubhouse is a very impressive weight room with free weights and machines. There are two batting cages under the bleachers as well. In a word, the stadium and the atmosphere at Perfect Game Field and of the Kernels management is staff is ďprofessional.Ē

One new thing at Perfect Game Field in 2013 is their new LED scoreboard. It measures 30 feet tall by 48 feet wide. Itís huge, and itís very clear. It was built by Daktronics who has built scoreboards for many Major League stadiums. Itís one of the largest scoreboards in the Midwest League, and they tout it as the biggest TV in Iowa. In fact, when the Kernels season opening game is complete tonight, they will show the NIT championship game between Iowa and Baylor on the scoreboard.

Keppel talked more about the affiliation with the Twins.

ďYouíll see from Brad Steil, Bill Smith and Terry Ryan that itís a high-quality organization. That they have the same values we do in terms of community service, developing players within the organization and having them develop within the framework of what they want to do.Ē

Keppel also informed media that ďthe Twins have developed a Harmon Killebrew Community Service Award that they are going to give to one player at each of their affiliates. Itís just a testimony to how much they think of community service and how much they want to develop players off the field as well as on the field.Ē

It was a lot of fun to be at Meet the Kernels night. Following the playerís time on the concourse greeting fans, they held a short practice on the field, under the lights. They stretched and threw. They took a solid round of infield, and then they took a full round of batting practice. Tyler Grimes launches home runs. Adam Walker hit a ball out of the ballpark in left field. Byron Buxton hit after him and hit some long home runs, but after Walker left the ballpark, Buxton hit one even further. The temps dropped throughout the evening, from probably 46 degrees to the upper 30s. Temperatures at game time tonight are expected to possibly touch 60, so it wonít even be all that bad.

This will be a fun group to follow and watch develop, but it was great to see these young men truly enjoying playing baseball. If you have a chance, come down this weekend and see this group. Find a time during the summer and watch these guys, many of whom you may see playing in Target Field in a couple of years. You wonít be disappointed.

Pitching Matchups this weekend:
Thursday - 6:35 p.m. - LHP Taylor Rogers vs RHP Raul Alcantara
Friday - 6:35 p.m. - RHP Hudson Boyd vs RHP Michael Ynoa
Saturday - 2:05 p.m. - LHP Mason Melotakis vs LHP Seth Streich
Sunday - 2:05 p.m. - RHP Tyler Duffey vs RHP Vincent Voiro
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