When the subject is a minor league baseball team, that can sometimes be a thorny question.
By most traditional measurements, you’d have to twist yourself into a few knots to come up with a way to describe the first six weeks of the Cedar Rapids Kernels’ 2019 campaign as a success.As the Kernels begin a four-game commuter series against the Clinton Lumberkings on Thursday night, they’re pretty well entrenched deep into the lower half of the Midwest League’s eight-team Western Division standings with a 17-22 record. They sit in seventh place, eight games behind Division-leading Quad Cities and six games behind second place Burlington, which is important because the top two finishers in each division during the league’s first half will qualify for the postseason.
The Kernels have won just three of the season’s first 13 series and none since they won back-to-back series against Beloit and Wisconsin in mid-April.
Their .219 team batting average and .654 OPS place them 14th in each of those offensive categories among the 16 teams in the MWL.
There isn’t much in those numbers that shouts “success,” with just over four weeks remaining in the season’s first-half race and, to be sure, Kernels fans and the local front office would love to start seeing more productivity on the field and, frankly, more wins.
But when you’re talking about the Class-A minor league level, success is as much, if not more, about developing young ballplayers and preparing them for the challenges awaiting them at the next rung on the professional baseball organizational ladder.
And that’s one area where manager Brian Dinkelman and his coaching staff can take justifiable pride in their squad’s success this year.
“You like to keep guys here as long as possible to try to win games,” Dinkelman said earlier this week, “but once they’re developed and feel like they’re ready for the next level, then that’s the thing for them to get up to the next level and get them closer to the big leagues.”
Already this year, five of the players who came north out of spring training as part of the Kernels’ Opening Day roster have been promoted.
Shortstop Joe Cronin is now playing Class Double-A ball with the Pensacola Blue Wahoos, while outfielder Trey Cabbage, relief pitcher Joe Record and starting pitcher Jordan Balazovic are all playing key roles with Class High-A Fort Myers.
The most recent promotion was catcher David Banuelos, who got his plane ticket to Fort Myers earlier this week after doing excellent work behind the plate for the Kernels and showing some power with seven extra-base hits on his stat line. Banuelos had one hit in four at-bats in his first game with the Miracle.
Cronin is still trying to find his groove at the plate in Pensacola after putting up a 1.106 OPS for Cedar Rapids, but all three of the other players the Kernels have sent to the Miracle in Fort Myers have immediately become among their new team’s statistical leaders.
In Cedar Rapids, Cabbage was hitting .313 with an OPS of 1.029 and six home runs (which is still good enough to tie him for fourth place in the Midwest League, a full two weeks after his departure from the Kernels) when he was promoted. In his nine games with the Miracle, he’s hit .344 with an OPS of .964. He’s yet to go yard for the Miracle, but he’s knocked four doubles and a triple.
“I was happy for Trey,” Dinkelman said. “He’d been (in Cedar Rapids) a couple of years and he got off to a great start for us, was hitting the ball well. We knew it was time for him to move on up there and see what he can do at the next level.”
Joe Record didn’t allow even one earned run during his seven appearances out of the Kernels’ bullpen, while notching five saves as the club’s closer and striking out almost two batters per inning pitched. While he can’t boast the same perfect 0.00 ERA in Fort Myers, he’s kept his WHIP down to just 0.95, while continuing to strike out just under one batter per inning.
And then there’s Jordan Balazovic.
The 6’ 4” 20-year-old pitched well in his four pre-promotion starts for Cedar Rapids, notching a 2.18 ERA, a 0.92 WHIP, holding hitters to a .195 batting average and striking out 33 batters in his 20 2/3 innings.
All he did in his Miracle debut was throw seven perfect innings. His second outing only lasted five innings and he gave up a pair of earned runs, but he also struck out 12 batters.
Those performances impressed his former manager.
If he keeps having performances like he had his first two outings, he may not be (in Fort Myers) long,” a smiling Dinkelman said of Balazovic. “Ten strikeouts and 12 strikeouts, something like that. It’s good to see those guys go up there and play well.”
And it’s unlikely the flow of talent through the Cedar Rapids-to-Fort Myers pipeline is going to stop any time soon.
Their record may not show it, but there are still several individual success stories being written in Cedar Rapids.
First baseman Gabe Snyder wasn’t on the Kernels’ Opening Day roster this year, but he arrived just a week into the season and he’s hit .319 with a dozen extra-base hits, including three home runs.
The Cedar Rapids rotation misses Balazovic, obviously, but other members of that group have continued to keep the Kernels in games through the first several innings, anyway.
“I feel like our starting pitching is giving us a chance,” Dinkelman said. “Now they’re going five or six innings a game, keeping us in the ballgame, giving our offense a chance to put some runs on the board. Starting pitching in baseball is the key. If you can get a starter to go out there and give you six, seven strong innings, keep your team in the game, give you a chance to win, that’s all you can ask for.”
Dinkelman is getting that kind of result from several of his starting pitchers.
Cole Sands has a 2.59 ERA through six starts, striking out 36 batters in 31 1/3 innings. He has yet to surrender a home run this season.
Josh Winder has a 2.97 ERA, also through six starts. He’s notched a 1.05 WHIP while striking out 32 batters in 36 1/3 innings.
Andrew Cabezas’ 1-3 record belies his actual performance. His 1.10 WHIP and 30 strikeouts through 32 2/3 innings are among the team’s leaders. His most recent performance, in a start on Wednesday against division-leading Quad Cities, was his best of the year. In seven shutout innings, he surrendered just one hit and issued no walks while striking out nine.
Blayne Enlow is the lone top-10 rated organizational prospect in the Kernels roster and, while he’s had a couple of tough outings among his six starts, he’s also shown glimpses of the talent that scouts have been impressed with. In his most recent start on May 9, he struck out six over six innings of work, without surrendering an earned run. (He is scheduled to start Thursday night’s game in Clinton.)
It won’t be easy for the Kernels to catch up to the division leaders in time to lock up a postseason berth during the season’s first half, but that’s the beauty of the minor league split-season format. They get to start over on June 20. The locals are hoping that uber-prospect Wander Javier will prove himself healthy enough to provide some spark to the Kernels’ lineup well before that date. So far, however, the young shortstop has not been able to stay on the field long enough for the Twins to feel comfortable sending him to Cedar Rapids.
In the end, regardless of what we see in the standings, we can be certain there will be plenty of individual success stories coming through Cedar Rapids during the summer.
- Gabe Snyder leads all qualifying hitters in the MWL in OPS (.957), is tied for 4th in BA (.319), 2nd in SLG (.542), 5th in OBP (.414)
- Yeltsin Encarnacion had a 7-game hitting streak snapped on Wednesday.
- Derek Molina has not surrendered an earned run since April 15. In his last 8 appearances, totaling 10 IP, while not giving up an earned run, he has struck out 14 and walked 3.
- Zach Neff has surrendered just 1 earned run in his last 5 appearances out of the bullpen covering 8 2/3 innings, striking out 14 while walking just 1 in that stretch.
Want to read more about the Kernels? Click on these links for stories from The Gazette’s Kernels beat reporter, Jeff Johnson.
- Kernels coach and former Twins infielder Luis Rodriguez is thinking about Venezuela.
- RHP Cole Sands was impressive in earning his first professional win.
- RHP Andrew Cabezas keep hitters off balance with a variety of windups. (This article from JJ includes an imbedded video of one of Cabezas’ most interesting windups this season.)
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