Unlike some, though, I was freely effusive with my high expectations. I told more than one person that I felt the 2018 roster had the potential to be every bit as good as, if not better than, the Kernels’ class of 2013 that included Byron Buxton, Jorge Polanco, Max Kepler and a number of other very talented position players.
With Cedar Rapids sitting in fifth place in the Midwest League’s Western Division last week, one of the people who had heard me express my early season optimism approached me during what was turning out to be a lopsided loss to Quad Cities and, in so many words, asked me, “What happened?”
It’s a fair question and I think I may have even surprised myself with my answer. I said I still believe what I said at the outset about this roster is true. There’s a lot of talent on the Cedar Rapids roster.
Like their big-league parent club, the Kernels have been treading water at or near the .500 mark. On the surface, that would seem inconsistent with having something I would have referred to (and did refer to) as a “loaded roster” to start the season.
Having two first round picks should be enough to keep just about any Class A roster at or above the .500 mark and that’s pretty much what Lewis and Kirilloff have done. After Wednesday’s win over Kane County, the Kernels’ record stands at 21 wins and 20 losses, good enough for fourth place in their Division, a game and a half behind Clinton, Peoria and Quad Cities, who are in a virtual three-way tie for the Division lead with about a month left in the season’s first half.
Under MWL rules, the top two teams in each division at the end of the first half of the season automatically qualify for the postseason, so the Kernels have just over four weeks to pass at least two of the teams ahead of them in the standings to clinch one of those automatic playoff spots.
http://knuckleballsblog.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Kirilloff0506d-400x600.jpg Alex Kirilloff (Photo by SD Buhr)
With Kirilloff and Lewis both hitting above .300, it wouldn’t be at all surprising to hear that one or both is being promoted to the Ft. Myers Miracle at any time. If and when those promotions occur, the Kernels’ chances of qualifying for the postseason would obviously take a serious hit.
The two first-rounders have accounted for a disproportionate amount of Cedar Rapids’ offense. If you remove their hits and at-bats from the club’s totals, the Kernels would have a .231 team batting average, which would be just two points above the Great Lakes Loons, who currently rank 16th among the 16 MWL members in team batting average.
Seven of the 12 current position players on the roster have batting averages below .234 and seven have an OPS below .700. Two players are hitting below .200 and have an OPS below .500.
So why would I remain bullish about the 2018 Kernels?
One of the by-products of having a roster of position players that have gotten off to a slow start is that not too many of them are going to be promoted to the next level any time soon. Outside of Kirilloff and Lewis, it’s hard to identify anyone among the current position players that one could honestly say has earned himself a shot at the next level.
And most of these guys are still very young.
Lewis is still 18 for a couple more weeks and Kirilloff is just 20, but they aren’t the only hitters still unable to legally buy a beer around here.
Catcher Ben Rortvedt and outfielder Jean Carlos Arias are each just 20 years old while infielder Jose Miranda and outfielder Akil Baddoo (recently placed on the disabled list) are just 19. Newly arrived outfielder Jacob Pearson is also still 19, though just until his June 1 birthday.
Trey Cabbage, David Banuelos and Shane Carrier come in right at 21 years old.
Among the club’s position players, only Andrew Bechtold (22), Ben Rodriguez (23) and Jordan Gore (23) would likely be considered above the average age for this league.
And here’s the thing about MiLB leagues that split their seasons into two halves – often the teams that finish the season the strongest are those that have young talent that start slow enough that they don’t get promoted, leading to less than average turnover in their ranks. Those players often develop into a competitive unit by the end of the summer.
The Twins have a lot of bonus money tied up in this unit of position players and it would seem unlikely that they would release or demote a 19 or 20 year old ballplayer that they’ve invested heavily in just because he’s gotten off to a slow start in Cedar Rapids.
A year ago, the Twins sent 23 different position players to Cedar Rapids during the course of the season. Thus far, among the team’s hitters, only the 12 current position players plus Akil Baddoo and previously promoted outfielder Mark Contreras have suited up for Cedar Rapids.
It’s not difficult for me to envision a scenario where, even should Lewis and Kirilloff get their promotions, the rest of the current group of position players is largely left intact to develop together through most of the rest of the season.
Jordan Gore (Photo by SD Buhr)
Yes, it would have been a bonus to have Wander Javier in line to replace a promoted Lewis, but his season-ending labrum surgery means that won’t be happening. (Javier will still just be 20 years old when he likely makes his Kernels debut in 2019.)
Players that demonstrate they’re ready for new challenges get promoted. That’s what minor league ball is all about. Fans in Cedar Rapids have had a rare opportunity to watch two of the most promising young prospects in the Twins’ system play for the Kernels this spring and those players have certainly not disappointed. The result is that one or both could be promoted to the next level at any time.
While the rest of the everyday lineup have not been as productive with the bat as Royce Lewis and Alex Kirilloff so far, several of them have been picking up the offensive pace.
Jordan Gore has hit .371 in his last 10 games, Jean Carlos Arias his hit .324 over his most recent 10, Jose Miranda has hit .294 over the same stretch, while Akil Baddoo, Ben Rortvedt and Trey Cabbage have each hit .250 or better in their last 10 games for Cedar Rapids.
The “new guy,” Jacob Pearson, even had a pair of hits in his first game as a Kernel on Wednesday.
Minor league baseball is what it is, and that means players will come and go. But this group of Kernels hitters is not just a two-man unit. The lineup has offensive talent up and down the batting order and I think we’ll continue to see plenty of runs scored by the home team at Veterans Memorial Stadium this summer.