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  1. https://twitter.com/TFTwins/status/1162222346414878721?s=20 It’s an interesting sequence. As color commentator Roy Smalley noted, there is no way Twins manager Rocco Baldelli gave Cave the green light on that pitch. It looks like first base coach Tommy Watkins said something to Cave when he reached first base, and Cave immediately seems to gesture towards the pitcher that he is sorry, and made a mistake. The Rangers pitcher (to his credit, I suppose?) threw the pitch at rib level at Kepler, but it was a 93 mph fastball. Hopefully this act of vengeance puts an end to any ill-will regarding Cave’s brain cramp. (And I hope Cave bought Kepler a big steak, possibly to soak on top of the bruise.) I’d sure love to hear what everyone thinks of the unwritten rule, and the apparent retaliation. Would your opinion be any different if a Twins pitcher was the retaliating pitcher?
  2. Cedar Rapids topped Clinton on Friday night, then saw their Saturday tilt against the Lumber Kings suspended due to rain. The next day, they swept the suspended game and the regularly scheduled contest against the Clinton. When Burlington fell to Peoria on that final day of the first half, the Kernels had qualified for the postseason. 2019 is the seventh consecutive season that the Kernels will participate in the MWL playoffs. That’s every season since the Kernels and Twins affiliation began with the 2013 season. It took a major comeback from a very slow start to the season for Cedar Rapids to even be within shouting distance of a playoff spot by mid-June. “We were scuffling a little bit, not playing our best baseball,” recalled manager Brian Dinkelman, this week. “A lot of new players in their first year of pro ball, so getting their feet wet. It was still cold. “Then guys started playing better, it warmed up a little bit. Guys got comfortable. Hitters started swinging the bat a lot better there, the middle of May, finally. They helped out our pitching staff a little bit. Yeah, the last few weeks we made a run. The boys competed well there at the very end. I think they had a sense that they were getting closer, they had a chance to possibly make a playoff spot, so that helped drive them.” The Kernels started the second half of the season a little sluggish, dropping six of the ten games played through the rest of June. But once July rolled in, the Kernels started rolling, as well. They won eight straight games to start the month before suffering a three-game series sweep to Great Lakes. The Kernels’ pitching has been solid to very good all season long and the hitting has started to show signs of coming alive this month. Of course, this being minor league baseball, as soon as a player starts showing he can be consistently successful at this level, he’s getting a ticket to the next level up in the organizational ladder. Four of the Kernels’ top hitters on the season, measured by OPS, have been promoted out of of Cedar Rapids. Only first catcher/first baseman Chris Williams (.836) and baseman Gabe Snyder (.789) remain of the seven position players that put up better than a .650 OPS in a Kernels uniform this season (minimum 10 games with Cedar Rapids). “It’s my fourth year here (in Cedar Rapids) and every year it’s the same,” said Dinkelman. “The guys who do well in the first half usually stick around for all of the first half, then right after the All-Star break, head down to Fort Myers and join the Miracle. That’s the way the game is and it’s good for the players who do well here to move on to the next level and challenge themselves a little bit more and get closer to the big leagues.” Josh Winder put together a string of seven consecutive quality starts. Andrew Cabezas followed up a strong June with a complete game one-hit shutout in his first start of July. Luis Rijo, Tyler Palm, Kai-Wei Teng and Austin Schulfer have all put up quality starts in each of their two July starts. Out of the bullpen, Moises Gomez has had three one-inning scoreless outings, while striking out seven batters. In addition to Snyder’s .341 BA and .962 OPS in July and Williams’ .897 July OPS (despite just a .211 BA for the month), Gilberto Celestino has contributed a .297 BA and .840 OPS during the month. Mauer Inducted into Hall of Fame No, not that Mauer and, no, not that HOF. Though that day may certainly come. On Wednesday night, former Kernels manager Jake Mauer was inducted, along with three others, into the Cedar Rapids Baseball Hall of Fame. Mauer managed the Kernels for four seasons, beginning with 2013, the inaugural season of the Twins/Kernels affiliation. He led Cedar Rapids to four consecutive postseason berths, including a trip to the MWL Championship series in 2015. Interviewed during the game that night and after the on-field ceremony, his comments were absolutely Mauer-esque. “It’s pretty cool coming into here, seeing the lights,” he said, concerning his family’s arrival back in Cedar Rapids for the first time since the end of the 2016 season. “The kids remembered it right away. It’s pretty neat.” Mauer, now working in the family’s Twin Cities auto dealerships and coaching his kids’ softball and baseball teams, seems content with his decision to leave the grind of minor league professional baseball. “I miss the guys. I miss being around, being around the boys, competing and games and that stuff,” he admitted,. “But there was so much more that I was missing back home with those kids growing up that now I get to be a part of.” Baseball is still in the blood, though. Asked if he’d consider an opportunity, if offered, to return to pro ball, he certainly didn’t rule it out. “I would say if the situation was right, I would. For sure, yeah. The travel, that’d be tough. Tough to do bus rides and all that, but if the situation was right and made sense professionally and with the kids and the wife, too, I would definitely get back in.” Watkins Returns On his staff for several of those seasons was Tommy Watkins, who now coaches first base for the Twins. Watkins, in Cedar Rapids over the MLB All-Star break, was in attendance the night Mauer was honored at the ballpark. As the Twins’ first base/outfield coach, Watkins has had a first-hand view of the incredible start to a Twins’ 2019 season that has them sitting atop the American League Central Division race by several games over the Cleveland Indians. Did he see this kind of success on the horizon when he was working with the team in spring training? “I tell you what, when you leave spring training, I think you always think you have a chance to compete for something and leaving spring training, I felt like we had a good chance to play for something,” Watkins said. “The group of guys that we have are amazing. Everybody. They’re all talented. At each position, they all can hit. I think we’ve got like ten guys with double-digit homers right now. That’s crazy. So, it’s been fun to watch.” Of course, spring training is still just spring training and you hesitate to put too much stock in what happens down in Florida during February and March. “You do,” Watkins concurred. “And you just saw in spring training, I guess we didn’t have the whole lineup playing together every day, but every day you had somebody in the lineup that can hurt you with the long ball. You would hope it would carry over (to the regular season).”
  3. New Twins manager Rocco Baldelli has talked since he was hired that he felt that hiring his coaching staff would be his first big decision. On Friday, they announced most of his staff. Previously, they had announced that hitting coach James Rowson and assistant hitting coach Rudy Hernandez would return to their roles. When Derek Shelton finished runner-up to Chris Woodward for the Rangers job, it was clear that he would return as the bench coach. On Thursday, Dan Hayes from The Athletic broke the news that the Twins were hiring long-time college pitching coach (most recently at the University of Arkansas), Wes Johnson for that role with the Twins, his first job in professional baseball. https://twitter.com/SethTweets/status/1063188348582408193 Later Thursday afternoon, Derek Wetmore broke the news that Jeremy Hefner would be added to the coaching staff as well. He had been an advanced scout for the Twins in 2018. Friday the Twins announced that he will be the assistant pitching coach. On Friday, the Twins announced that Tony Diaz will be their third base coach. He has spent the last 20 years managing and coaching in the Colorado Rockies organization. Most recently, he was the first base coach in the big leagues.The Dominican Republic native authored a book called Practical English for Latin Players. Tommy Watkins will be their first base coach. Watkins was the Twins 38th round pick in the 1998 draft out of high school in Ft. Myers. He slowly worked his way up the organizational ladder, and in 2007, he played nine games in the big leagues. In fact, he was hitting .357 (through nine games) and had become the starting third baseman. Unfortunately, he was injured and missed the rest of the year. He spent another year in the organization before retiring as a player and becoming a coach. He was the hitting coach in Beloit and then also when the Twins moved their Midwest League affiliate to Cedar Rapids. He moved up to Chattanooga for a year as their hitting coach, but then became the manager back in Cedar Rapids. In 2018, he was the Lookouts manager, and on Saturday, he will lead the Salt River Rafters into the Arizona Fall League championship game. Watkins has worked very closely with the core of young Twins players through their minor league careers. Watkins said that he was "stunned" when he found out the news yesterday and is excited for the opportunity. In an interview with Ft. Myers News Press writer David Dorsey, he said, "I’m excited for the opportunity, I can tell you that. It’s what we all work for. We can’t all play in the big leagues, and we can’t play forever. The next best thing would be to coach in the big leagues." The Twins also announced that they will be hiring one more coach. Baldelli talked about putting together a collection of talented coaches who can teach. He talked about the importance of diversity. Hernandez is the oldest coach at 50. Derek Shelton is 48. Rowson is 42 while Johnson and Diaz are both 41. Tommy Watkins is 38, and Jeremy Hefner is just 32 years old. Is it possible that the staff is too inexperienced, or is this group of coaches with a vast array of experiences, strong people skills and willingness to be open-minded exactly what they need right now?
  4. Sure, he played for the Twins in the big leagues for a little while, but as a player, Tommy Watkins never had the opportunity to play in the Arizona Fall League. However, the 38-year-old former infielder turned minor league hitting coach turned minor league manager learned in late July that he will lead the Salt River Rafters through their Fall League schedule. It’s an opportunity that Watkins is looking forward to. “The opportunity to manage in the Fall League means a lot to me. The responsibility to coach our prospects, as well as prospects from other teams, is an honor. I am humbled that the Twins trust me with this role, and I plan to work tirelessly to exceed the expectations of the Twins, my fellow coaches and my players. Like the players in the Fall League, the managers and coaches are also trying to work on their crafts and learn from others. “For coaches and players, the Fall League is the perfect setting to grow and learn while turning heads and having some fun in the process. Personally, I am looking forward to being reunited with some of my former players, developing all the players on our team and learning from the other coaches on my staff.” Watkins will be tasked with managing an entire team, but for the Twins Daily audience, you’ll primarily want to know which Twins prospects he will be managing. The Twins announced in late August that they are sending eight players to the Arizona Fall League. They are sending hitters Brent Rooker, Luke Raley, Travis Blankenhorn and Jaylin Davis. Four Twins minor league pitchers will also be pitching in the Fall League. They include RHP Griffin Jax, Adam Bray, Hector Lujan, and LHP Devin Smeltzer. Soon after Watkins learned he would be the manager, he was able to inform some of his Chattanooga Lookouts players that they would be joining him. Brent Rooker noted, “I got the to the park early one day in Chattanooga and Tommy had just found out that he would be managing and I got an invite. He called me into his office and gave me the news.” For the players in Ft. Myers with the Miracle, they were told by Twins minor league director Jeremy Zoll. Hector Lujan said, “I learned about the Fall League through our farm director Jeremy Zoll. Waking up to a text from him saying if there was a spot for me if I’d like to participate in the Fall League. It was a pretty exciting start to the day! ” When the initial rosters were announced, hard-throwing lefty reliever Alex Robinson was on the list. He had been placed on the Disabled List by the Miracle in late August with some shoulder issues. In his place, right-handed pitcher Adam Bray, the Minnesotan who came to the Twins in a March trade from the Dodgers. Bray didn’t hesitate, “I was invited by our farm director. He asked me if I would be interested, and I immediately said ‘Yes’!” Bray understands that it is an honor to get the chance to play in the AFL. “I am very excited and honored to be chosen to play and represent the Minnesota Twins in the AFL! I have heard that you are playing against very good competition and that it’s a big honor to get selected for this.” While the Fall League isn’t just about top prospects, it is a strong gathering of talent from around baseball. For instance, players from countries that have a Winter League are not able to participate without getting a waiver from their Winter League team. However, there are exceptions. Several years ago, the Twins got approval from Eddie Rosario’s team in Puerto Rico and he played in the AFL. Players are excited about the opportunity to play in the Arizona environment. Another former Dodgers prospect, who came to the Twins on July 31st with Luke Raley in exchange for Brian Dozier, is Devin Smeltzer. He noted, “I’ve heard it’s an awesome experience on and off the field. Best of the best competition. Really looking forward to it.” Travis Blankenhorn said, “I’m thrilled the Twins are giving me the opportunity to represent the organization in the Fall League. I’ve heard some things about the AFL, and they were all good, so I am looking forward to heading out there.” Due to some first-hand stories, Jaylin Davis is excited to be in the Fall League too. “I’m really excited about getting the opportunity to get to play in the AFL. I played with some guys this season that went last year. So I got a chance to pick their brain a little and ask them about their experiences.” Lujan is looking forward to participating in the AFL for several reasons. “My thoughts for the Fall League are that I think it’s a great opportunity to get new experiences and to be able to compete with other players from different organizations. I think it’s a challenge in a good, but I believe it should be a great learning experience for myself and my fellow teammates that are participating as well. I’ve heard nothing but good things about the Fall League.” And knowing his AFL manager and having played for him before doesn’t hurt either. “I heard that it’s a very fun atmosphere and knowing that Tommy Watkins is going to be our manager makes it very exciting too since he was my manager last year in Cedar Rapids. It should overall be a great time.” Rooker’s thoughts pretty well sum up what the entire group thinks. “It’s a very exciting opportunity. Obviously there’s a ton of talent in the league so it will be a lot of fun getting to compete against some really good competition. Everyone I’ve talked to says it’s one of the most fun baseball experiences they’ve ever had. I’m really looking forward to it.” But it is more than just a fun experience. It is an opportunity to showcase their skills, not only for the Twins but for the other 29 MLB clubs who will have coaches, scouts and front-office types at the games. 40-man roster decisions can be made on some players based on seeing something. Some players are sent to the AFL to work on specific things. Travis Blankenhorn is choosing to keep things simple for himself. “I am looking forward to playing and just going out there and giving it my all.” Adam Bray’s looking forward to testing himself. “There are always things to work on. I think facing good competition and being challenged in this league is going to be what I am looking forward to!” Same thing for Jaylin Davis, “I think the biggest thing for me is going out there and getting to compete against some really good guys.” Hector Lujan, the Twins 2017 Harmon Killebrew Award winner for the Cedar Rapids Kernels, is looking to work on a new pitch, but also continue to by a positive influence in the community. “The Twins have discussed things to work on, and I also have things in mind that I want to work on. I would like to work on my splitter to get more comfortable throwing it, and continue to keep developing consistency on my pitches, and just to continue to keep doing what I can to develop myself as a pitcher. Hopefully I can reach out to the community and kids around the neighborhoods we will be playing. Just over all really excited for this!” Devin Smeltzer was drafted as a starter and was a full-time starter in his first full season of pro baseball last year. He began the 2018 season as a starter as well, but when the calendar turned to July, the Dodgers moved him to the bullpen. All ten of his appearances with the Lookouts this year came out of the bullpen as well. So, it may not be surprising to hear what he wants to work on and work through. “For me it’s just to get more experience out of the bullpen, see some high competition, and enjoy the experience.” Brent Rooker started 46 games at first base in Chattanooga in 2018. He also made 44 starts out in left field. He’ll obviously continue to work on his offense, but he will also get more opportunities to work on his defense too. “I think the plan is for me to play outfield while I’m there. So it’ll be a great opportunity for me to just continue to get more reps and experience in left field. Doing that, along with getting the at-bats against some of the best arms in the minor leagues, should put me in a good place developmentally going into next season.” The Arizona Fall League’s final regular season game will be Thursday, November 15th. The championship game will be on Saturday, November 17th. Rooker may have an opportunity to represent the Twins in the Bowman Hitting Challenge on Saturday, October 13th. He also is a likely participant in the November 3rd Fall Stars Game. However, if the Rafters make it to the championship game, Rooker will not be able to participate. But he’s got a good reason. He’s getting married. He said he will just have to “leave Arizona about five days early.” The AFL season starts next Tuesday. Steve Lien will again be providing weekly updates throughout the AFL season, so be sure to check back often to see how this group is performing.
  5. Following the season, it was announced that Brad Steil had been promoted to the Director of Pro Scouting. He had been the Twins Minor League Director since 2013 when Jim Rantz retired. Jeremy Zoll is a 27-year-old who was an assistant in the Dodgers player development group the last couple of years. He has been quite busy since joining the Twins as Director of Minor League Operations. ------------------------------------ This is one article that will appear in the 2018 Minnesota Twins Prospect Handbook which is in its final stages of editing and review. It will likely be available in a week, maybe less. You can find much more information on this vital handbook for Twins fans. ------------------------------------ Likewise, in the minor leagues, some have stayed and several have gone. There will be many new faces in the system. Here is a rundown of the 2018 Twins minor league managers, coaches and coordinators: 2018 COACHING STAFFS Rochester Red Wings Manager: Joel Skinner Hitting Coach: Chad Allen Pitching Coach: Stu Cliburn Bullpen Coach: Mike McCarthy The Twins announced that Mike Quade was no longer the Red Wings manager and that he was taking a roving outfield instructor job in the organization. They have replaced him with Joel Skinner. The former nine-year big league catcher has been managing in the minor league system of several organizations since the mid-90s. He even managed part of a season for Cleveland in 2002. Former Twins outfielder Chad Allen returns as the Red Wings hitting coach (fourth year), and Stu Cliburn returns as pitching coach (many, many years). Bullpen coach is a new position, one that they have not had in the organization. Mike McCarthy pitched in the Red Sox organization from 2011 through 2016, reaching AAA that final year. Chattanooga Lookouts Manager: Tommy Watkins Hitting Coach: Javier Valentin Pitching Coach: Ivan Arteaga Jake Mauer managed in the Twins system for ten years. He was one of the best, most trusted leaders in the organization. In 2017, he led the Lookouts to the best record in minor league baseball and a share of the hurricane-shortened Southern League title. He should have been on the big league coaching staff by now. He was offered a roving instructor job. Instead, he has decided to spend more time with his family, which is also commendable and something he always prioritized. Tommy Watkins will take over as the Lookouts manager. In 2017, he led the Cedar Rapids Kernels to the Midwest League playoffs in his first year as a manager. He was the Lookouts hitting coach in 2016 after being the Kernels hitting coach for three years. This is his eighth season as a coach in the Twins system after spending a dozen seasons as a player in the Twins organization. Javier Valentin returns for his second season as the Lookouts hitting coach. It’s his fourth year as a coach in the organization. Ivan Arteaga is back for his third year in AA. He’s been in the Twins organization since 2001 when he was the pitching coordinator of the Venezuelan League Twins. Fort Myers Miracle Manager: Ramon Borrego Hitting Coach: Steve Singleton Pitching Coach: Henry Bonilla Doug Mientkiewicz was let go by the organization after another winning season at the helm. The former Twins player has found a job as the manager for the Tigers AAA team in Toledo. He will be replaced by Ramon Borrego who has been the GCL Twins manager for the past seven seasons. Steve Singleton will be the hitting coach. It’s his second season with the Miracle and third in the Twins organization as a coach. Henry Bonilla will be back for his third season as the Miracle pitching coach. It will be his seventh season as a coach in the organization. Cedar Rapids Kernels Manager: Toby Gardenhire Hitting Coach: Brian Dinkelman Pitching Coach: Cibney Bello, Justin Willard With Tommy Watkins moving up to Chattanooga, Toby Gardenhire gets his first managerial job in professional baseball. The son of former Twins skipper Ron Gardenhire played in the Twins minor leagues. After playing, he became the coach at UW-Stout. Before the 2016 season, he joined the Twins organization as a coach in the GCL. When Red Wings manager Mike Quade was in an auto accident in Ft. Myers in spring training and a shoulder injury meant he couldn't coach third base, Gardenhire spent the first half with the Red Wings before returning to the GCL. Gardenhire will be joined on the Kernels coaching staff by two guys who have been there the last two seasons. Brian Dinkelman enters his fourth overall year as a coach in the system. Cibney Bello played in the Mariners system. He then was a pitching coach in their system for four years. He worked with the Twins GCL pitchers the last two years. Justin Willard enters his first year as a Twins coach. He was previously at Radford University. Elizabethton Twins Manager: Ray Smith Hitting Coach: Jeff Reed Pitching Coach: Luis Ramirez Coach: Takashi Miyoshi If you want consistency, look no further than Elizabethton. Manager Ray Smith begins his 25th season as the E-Twins manager. This will be the former Twins catcher’s 32nd season managing or coaching the E-Twins. Another former Twins catcher and long-time big leaguer Jeff Reed returns for his 17th season as the E-Twins hitting coach. Luis Ramirez is back for his fourth season as the team’s pitching coach. He has coached in the Twins organization since 2006 when he became the Twins pitching coordinator in Venezuela. Takashi Miyoshi is new to the organization. He had played in several independent leagues as well as in Japan. In the last decade, he has been a coach on a variety of teams and leagues. GCL Twins: Manager: Dan Ramsay Hitting Coach: Luis Rodriguez Hitting Coach: Matt Borgschulte Pitching Coach: Virgil Vasquez The Twins hired Dan Ramsay to take Borrego's place as the GCL Twins manager. He was the head coach at Division III Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington for nine years. He became the coach immediately following his own graduation from the school. In his summers, he was the director of the Nike Baseball Camp. Virgil Vasquez returns for his fourth season as a pitching coach in the GCL. He had pitched for the Twins Double-A and Triple-A affiliates for a couple of seasons beforehand. Luis Rodriguez played in the Twins system from 1998 through 2007, including 206 games with the big league club in 2005-2007, He spent 2008 and 2009 with the Padres. He spent time with the Mariners in 2011. Borgschulte has been a scout and worked with the Cardinals in recent years. 2018 COORDINATORS Minor League Field Coordinator: Edgar Varela Varela was the Assistant Hitting Coordinator in the Pittsburgh Pirates system after managing in their rookie leagues the previous three seasons. He played at Long Beach State and was drafted by the White Sox in 2002. He became a coach in the Pirates system in 2008. Senior Pitching Adviser: Bob McClure McClure pitched in the big leagues for 19 seasons and pitched mostly in relief. He was a teammate of Paul Molitor from 1977 to 1986. He has been a long-time pitching coach including time in the big leagues with the Royals, Red Sox and with the Phillies the last four years. His job will be to work with new Twins pitching coach Garvin Alston and minor league pitching coordinator Paul Maki to make sure that the message is the same between player development stages and the big leagues. Minor League Pitching Coordinator: Paul Maki After the 2017 season, the Twins let long-time employee Eric Rasmussen go. In December, he was replaced by Paul Maki. He was hired after being the pitching coach at Duke the last two seasons. Before that, he coached at Columbia. Minor League Pitching Coordinator: JP Martinez After spending the last two years as the pitching coach for the Cedar Rapids Kernels, he becomes an assistant to Paul Maki. He will travel to all of the affiliates and work at spring training. Minor League Hitting Coordinator: Rick Eckstein Eckstein is the brother of former big league shortstop David Eckstein. He was named the Twins minor league hitting coordinator in July of 2016. He has coached at every level of baseball from college to the minor leagues to the big leagues. Minor League Catching Coordinator: Tanner Swanson The Twins hired Swanson in October of 2017 to be the minor league catching coordinator. He had just been named an assistant coach at Santa Clara a few months earlier. He worked a volunteer assistant coach at the University of Washington where he spent a lot of time working with the catchers. He is also the founder of D1Catching.com. Minor League Infield and Baserunning Coordinator: Sam Perlozzo Perlozzo remains with the Twins organization. The one-time Orioles manager joined the Twins organization in this role after Paul Molitor became the Twins manager. Perlozzo is busy working with infielders in spring training, and he travels to each of the affiliates throughout the season to keep working with players and managers. Minor League Roving Outfielder Instructor: Mike Quade Quade has been a baseball lifer. He had been the Red Wings manager the past two years. In 2010 and 2011, he was the manager of the Cubs. He has been reassigned for 2018 and will be moving around the Twins minor leagues throughout the season working with outfielders. Senior Advisor to Player Development: Joel Lepel Lepel has held a number of roles in his 26 years in the Twins organization including the minor league field coordinator, scouting and more. He takes on an advisory role. There has been a lot of change, and there may continue to be in the coming months and years. But we look to put a lot of attention on player development, and this is the new group in charge of it. What are your thoughts on these assignments?
  6. Recently, Clark Beeker answered some questions about his first full season, his offseason and much more. Be sure to leave your questions or comments below. Seth Stohs (SS): It’s been a few weeks now since the season ended. Have you had a chance to reflect on your season? Did you accomplish goals you may have set before the season? Clark Beeker (CB): Looking back on my first full season in professional baseball, I was pleased with the way it went. Cedar Rapids and Fort Myers were both great places to play and having both teams in the playoffs was indicative of the talent of the players and coaching staffs. Going into the season, it wasn’t a definite that I would be one of the starters in the Cedar Rapids’ rotation so making that happen was a nice first step. As the season goes on, you make adjustments based on what in your arsenal is successful, how the hitters respond to certain pitches/sequences, and the overall daily life of being a minor league baseball player. Being open to making adjustments and learning along the way definitely helped my progression up until the culmination of the season. SS: How did you hold up, physically or emotionally, through your first full season of pro ball? CB: I felt that my body held up pretty well – I really didn’t experience any fatigue until the last couple of weeks of the season. Half the battle for playing in your first full season is being able to stay off the DL and handle the rigors of bus rides and weeks without an off day. Taking care of my body, eating right (most of the time), and getting plenty of sleep were keys for me that I focused on throughout the season. SS: You made the Twins Daily Minor League All-Star team as the right-handed starting pitcher. As you look at your stat line, what are you most excited about? CB: I see that the checks I wrote to the voters cleared – so that was a smooth transaction. Being recognized was definitely an honor considering how many strong performances there were throughout the entire organization. My biggest takeaway from the season, numbers wise, was the amount of innings I was able to throw. By averaging roughly 6.25 innings per start, I was able to keep hitters off the bases and pitch deep into games. Although pitching late into games isn’t always indicative of success, you’re not going to keep pitching into the 7th, 8th, 9th innings if you’re not pitching well and giving your team a chance to win. I typically wasn’t pleased with my outing unless I went seven innings or more. SS: To what do you attribute your success throughout the 2017 season at Cedar Rapids? CB: I think the biggest thing for me was having a plan for how I wanted to attack each hitter, every single start. It may not have been the right plan, but based on scouting reports (which video intern Sam Berk did a great job of analyzing and compiling), my pitches, and various sequences, I had a purpose with every pitch. I got away from this in Fort Myers and coupled with better/more advanced hitters, I didn’t pitch as well as I would have liked. SS: When things were going really well, such as during your 30+ inning scoreless streak, what was working well for you? CB: Being able to pitch at home in Cedar Rapids for all 4 games…haha. But all in all, I made a conscious effort to start throwing my changeup more from the first inning on. The first three months of the season, I wouldn’t start incorporating the changeup until the second time through the lineup. I started throwing it more, especially in disadvantage counts (1-0, 2-1) and was able to find some success. The combination of the changeup, limiting walks, some great plays by the defense, and obviously a little bit of luck along the way enabled me to pitch effectively. SS: What was the atmosphere like in Cedar Rapids as the team earned a playoff berth and then did well in the playoffs? CB: To preface this, Cedar Rapids has a phenomenal fan base. The support we had night in and night out definitely gave our team an advantage, especially as the season reached the second half of a long season. In one of our home playoff games, we had about 1800 fans and they were as loud and into the game as any of the 3000-4000 attendances we had throughout the season. SS: Have you been able to get away from baseball so far this offseason with any fun activities? Anything exciting for the rest of the offseason? CB: I haven’t done anything too exciting – it was nice to relax at home for the first few weeks. I have a couple weekend trips planned to visit some former teammates and friends so it will be nice to catch up with friends that you haven’t seen since the previous offseason. SS: When do you start your workouts in preparation for 2017? When do you, as a starting pitcher, pick up a ball and start throwing? CB: I’ve begun the strength training phase after I let my body recover for almost a month. I’ve tried to focus on staying flexible and getting stronger in all aspects of my body to ensure that I’m ready for spring training. I’ll start throwing in December and gradually work my way back to a long toss phase that will prepare me for bullpens in February. I hate feeling rushed, so I’ll give myself a little extra time to slowly build up my arm strength. SS: Have you had a chance to catch up with your old teammates and coaches at Davidson to touch base on their Regional and Super Regional experience in June? CB: I’ve been able to catch up with them a decent amount this offseason – I’m helping out in the athletic fundraising office at Davidson to support the baseball program’s fundraising efforts. Their run was so unlikely in the grand scheme of things, but so deserving for how hard the players work and what Coach Cooke has endured to reach this point. The best thing about looking back at the Super Regional run is seeing the outpouring of support from current players, former teammates, and the community for something that was a first for the Davidson baseball program. SS: What area of your game do you feel you took the furthest strides with in 2017? CB: I thought that my ability to pitch inside with the fastball was the biggest thing for me during the season. We would go entire games where the catcher (usually my roommate Ben Rortvedt) would exclusively call inside fastballs and abandon the fastball away. Being able to pitch inside prevented hitters from extending their hands on pitches over the plate and set up my offspeed pitches to be more effective. SS: What are the areas of your game that you would like to spend time this offseason working to improve? CB: For me, just to improve on my full body strength and arm strength which would hopefully translate to an uptick in velocity. As a pitcher, I definitely don’t scare hitters when they see my fastball velocity on the scouting report, so being able to find a comfort zone where I’m pitching at my maximum velocity every pitch is something I am working to improve. SS: Talk about Tommy Watkins and the coaching staff in Cedar Rapids and how they helped you individually and helped the team succeed. CB: Tommy (Watkins), JP (Martinez), and Dink (Brian Dinkelman) were all great to be around everyday, which is tough to do when you have a 140-game season crammed into five months. Tommy did a great job of keep things loose and challenging us to bring great energy each day at the ballpark. As a pitching coach, JP was able to find an approach that worked best for each guy and helped me create a plan for how I could have success each start. He constantly worked with me to fine tune my delivery and challenged me to not become complacent as the season moved along. SS: What was it like seeing former big leaguers like LaTroy Hawkins, Torii Hunters or other roving instructors come through Cedar Rapids. Any good conversations with any of them?. CB: It was great to hear from not only former big leaguers, but guys who have played longer than most baseball players ever envision. LaTroy talked about focusing on the details and not overlooking the importance of holding runners on base, fielding your position, etc. Even when Sam Perlozzo was around, I would try to pick up bits of information that the hitter deems important – baseball is more mental than a lot of people realize. SS: Rank the top 3-5 TV shows you’ve binge watched… CB: Prison Break, Seinfeld, Breaking Bad, Entourage, The Office (in that order) A big Thank You to Clark Beeker for taking the time to respond to our questions. Please feel free to ask questions and comment below.
  7. Rortvedt grew up and played his high school ball at Verona Area High School in Verona, Wisconsin. It is a small city about ten miles south and west of Madison. He began this season with the Cedar Rapids Kernels, and their season-opening series was in Beloit, a 60-mile drive for his friends and family. The weather in April in the Midwest League can be unpredictable. While there can be some really nice days, there are seemingly always a handful of games where the temperatures approach freezing by the end. Being from Wisconsin might seem to be an advantage for Rortvedt, but that’s not necessarily the case. Rortvedt said, “Ft. Myers gets you accustomed to warm weather. Even being from up here, cold is cold. I’m just from here, so I learned how to tolerate it. But everyone is cold. You just have to put it behind you.” Rortvedt had split his time between Verona and Ft. Myers during the winter. He noted, “I went back and forth. Since all my friends were in school, I was kind of by myself. I went back home for a while to visit my family. I went down to Florida twice and work out. I got into some warm weathers with some of the players.” When he was back in Wisconsin, he stayed busy, working out and working on his catching with friends in the baseball industry. He spent quite a bit of time in Milwaukee. “I went up to Milwaukee and worked out with one of my friends who plays for the Dodgers. I was was with someone else who is in the same circle as me.” That friend was Gavin Lux, the Los Angeles Dodgers first-round draft pick in 2016, 20th overall, from Kenosha, WI. That’s right, two prep players from Wisconsin schools were selected very early in the draft. “People are starting to realize (baseball is pretty good in Wisconsin). Colleges and scouts are working their way up there since the showcase circuit has expanded more. It’s not always that people have been bad from Wisconsin, it’s just that they’re seen more now.” And that’s how Rortvedt was seen. He played for the high school team, but he was part of the national showcase circuit as well. “I played for a pretty good travel team. After people saw me play pretty well with the travel team, I got invited to showcases and similar events. I went along with it. Playing on the good travel team that I did opened other doors.” And that’s what it’s all about, according to Rortvedt, “Visibility. People don’t just go to a Wisconsin high school game. We get like 25 people at every game, and it’s mostly just parents. You have to get out and be at the right place at the right time.” It’s been a tough start for Rortvedt offensively. Following an 0-2 on May 15, Rortvedt was hitting just .108. In his last four starts, he has gone 6-15 (.400) to raise his average to .151. As you would expect from a guy one year removed from high school, he hasn’t struggled like this at the plate in his life. “I’ve never struggled like I have before. I’m just to keep my confidence where it is. I’m just trying to make adjustments every day. My confidence is getting better at the plate. I’m not missing baseballs. I’m not striking out. I’m just hitting balls into the ground, hitting them at people. They’ll find holes eventually, and I’m just going to stick with the process right now.” As I noted, he’s had multi-hit games in three of his past four starts. Maybe it’s the start of the turnaround. He will hit in time. For right now, he is doing his part by being a tremendous player behind the plate. In-person observations showed me that he has a very strong arm. He sets up well and gets rid of the ball quickly. But despite his youth (he won’t turn 20 until the end of September), he has really good leadership skills. He works very well with the Kernels pitchers, guys three or four years older than he is. Rortvedt calls it ongoing learning. “I’ve been learning a lot. Right now, being younger, learning how to call the game and that aspect. Working for the pitchers and making them feel comfortable. And trying to keep the running game in check as much as I can back there for them. If they’re doing well, I take that in stride. We’re doing well.” Last year after the draft, Rortvedt began in the GCL, but spent the final month in Elizabethton. That’s where he worked with most of the guys that he is now catching with the Kernels. “I got to learn them from a different standpoint and learn their stuff. Even though I saw them in spring training, I kind of knew how they were from last year.” Defense is a strength of his game, and he takes pride in it. He’s been behind the plate for a long time, “since eighth grade.” He’s worked hard to improve behind the plate, but it’s also been a lot of work. And now as a pro, he’s able to work with more people. “I just started learning from people. Some who was also around the program I was in was Marcus Hanel. He is the Brewers bullpen catcher. This offseason, I caught a little bit with AJ Ellis, who was with the Dodgers and now is with the Marlins.” He continued, discussing his offseason workouts. “”That’s why I went to Milwaukee. We would catch probably five days a week and work on our craft.” When he was back home, he worked just as hard. “If I wasn’t catching with them, my dad and I had a pitching machine and throwing. We did everything on our own probably four to five days a week, receiving, blocking balls in the dirt, that kind of stuff. You don’t always need a coach. You can be your own coach and try to get better every day.” His parents have been a huge influence on him. “I’ve had a bunch of really good coaches. I have to give all the credit to my parents for allowing me to do what I have and taking me everywhere.” He also highlighted his summer coach, RJ Fergus, and his high school coach, Brad Durazo “who was really helpful.” He also noticed that there was so many people that helped him get to this point that he figured he’d better not attempt to mention them all by name. And now, Rortvedt is getting coaching from the Kernels pitching staff. Tommy Watkins is his manager. His hitting coach is Brian Dinkelman. While he is a hitter, he also spends a ton of time working and communicating with pitching coach JP Martinez. He said, “(The coaching staff is) very approachable, which is always awesome. I almost talk to JP more than he talks to his pitchers. We always feed off each other. He always says that you can call me the quarterback and he’s the offensive coach. I’m pretty much his mind on the field. I try to stick to his plan, and if it’s not working, we’ll talk about it. I just go out there and try to perform.” Like all catchers in the Twins system, Rortvedt calls the game for and with the pitchers. He says that is part of his and the pitchers’ development. If there are disagreements, the coaches will speak with the catchers between innings. Manager Tommy Watkins has a high level of confidence in Rortvedt. He knows there is work to be done, but he keeps putting his name in the lineup most games because he believes in his defense now, and what his offense can be in time. He fully understands just how young Rortvedt is relative to the league. “I don’t think it’s a big deal. Ben is young. He’s got some learning to do. We’ve all got some learning to do. You can tell he’s young at times, but he does a good job for his age. Dink and I tell him that if we were in this league at 19, we’d have no shot. So, what he’s done is pretty good. So we try to just keep explaining to him not to get down on himself and it’s a process. You’ve got to work the process. Older guys have been through it a bit more. Think about it, Ben was in high school a year ago.” Overall, Rortvedt is enjoying the pro baseball life, and he’s glad to be with the Kernels. “Full season ball. Road trips. It’s a lot more of what you expect from pro ball instead of in Florida, waking up early. You get to sleep in, and play at night in front of some fans, which is cool.” He also happens to think that this Cedar Rapids team has a chance to do a lot of winning this season, and so far, they are leading their division in the first half. How good can his team be? “Really good. We have pitchers who can throw strikes. Our bullpen, when they’re on, they’re unhittable. They’re nasty. And the hitters, when they’re hitting, we can all rake. When all the pieces of the puzzle come together, I don’t think anybody’s going to beat us.” And probably to no one’s surprise, Rortvedt’s goals for the remainder of the 2017 season are more team than individual in nature. “No matter how I’m doing, just win games. Help the team win games. Just add some value to the team, offensively and defensively. Just be a team player.” Rortvedt certainly displays the tools behind the plate to become a plus defender. While the offense has started out slowly, he’s got an approach and the strength to be a productive hitter as well. There is good reason why he was found quite high on many Twins prospect rankings before the season. It will be fun to watch him continue to develop the rest of 2017 and for the next few years.
  8. Aaron Whitefield may want to read The Road Less Traveled. Why? His path to prospect status is a bit different than any other's. Than most. Maybe different than any. As you know from our original Get To Know ‘Em interview, Whitefield grew up playing softball, not baseball. Whitefield said, “My dad grew up playing softball. So did my mom. So I grew up on a softball field. Everyone says that I was pretty much born on a softball field. So baseball was never really the future for me.” Consider this, he did not play baseball until he was 17 years old. Instead, he grew up playing several sports. None of them was baseball. He said, “I played a lot of other sports like track, touch football, rugby, AFL, so I did every other sport but baseball.” He wasn’t just playing fast-pitch softball. He was thriving, playing for Australia in international competitions. “I didn’t play softball until juniors, when I was 13 or 14, and then I went to softball with my family and fell in love with it. We went to the World Series in Argentina.” When he came home, he was noticed by a baseball scout. “Somehow a scout from Cincinnati said ‘Hey, would you mind having a tryout with us?’ I was like, ‘Why not? I’ve got nothing to lose.’ We threw a baseball around. I was horrible. I couldn’t do what he said. (He told me to) go do a year of baseball and we’ll come back and look at you.” There aren’t necessarily a lot of people from his area of Australia in pro ball. Whitefield mentioned his friend Connor MacDonald, a first baseman in the Astros system. “It was a pretty big thing (when MacDonald signed) because no one in my area really signed for baseball. I was looking into it. My dad was like, ‘Why don’t you give it a go? You’ve got nothing to lose.’ So I played a year. I was a shortstop then, and I got a Gold Glove at our national event. Got looked at by scouts.” Unfortunately, he had a shoulder injury and had to sit out a year. “When I returned, my agent put me in a tournament. He told me ‘No one will see you. Just get your rhythm back.’ Twins scout Howie (Norsetter) came to the tournament. He offered me and I took advantage. I haven’t looked back since. I was 17. At that time I was still playing both (softball and baseball). When the Twins signed me is when I stopped playing softball completely.” What did he know about the Twins before signing? Did he know any of the players? How about the Australians in the Twins organization? “Didn’t know Jimmy Beresford. Didn’t know Logan Wade until I started playing here. He lives maybe 20 to 30 miles from me, and I didn’t meet him until I came here.” He continued, “I met Wellsy (Lachlan Wells) at our Australian academy after that tournament. That’s in Gold Coast in Queensland, where I’m from. I met him there. So I knew him. But the older guys like Beresford or even guys that played like (Luke) Hughesy, I didn’t know any of them. Until I made my first All Star game (in the ABL) and started making the Australian teams, that’s how I started meeting the older guys. All the younger generation that I played with at home, they all know those guys. I had to look on the web and research.” While he didn’t know the names or those players, he now credits them for helping him improve his game, physically and mentally. He’s played with some with Brisbane in the ABL and now in the WBC as well. “My coaches and the older guys back home helped, especially mentally. Hitting is a lot of a mental game as well as physical. You’re going to have bad days. You’re going to have really bad days and you’ll have good days. I was never used to playing every day. I was used to just playing weekends and I’d have the whole week to just just think about it and recover.” His manager with the Brisbane Bandits has been former big league catcher Dave Nilsson. Nilsson is incredibly interesting because in 1999, as a 29 year old, he became the first Australian to make an All-Star team. The catcher ended the season hitting .309/.400/.554 (.954) with 21 homers. He could have signed for big money. Instead, he chose not to sign. He wanted to focus his attention on playing for Team Australia in the 2000 Olympics. He didn’t play again in the big leagues. Of Nilsson, Whitefield said, “He’s awesome to talk with and easy to talk to. It’s fun (playing with the Bandits), the guys like Dave Nilsson.” The Bandits have won the last two Claxton Shields. “The year before was my first, so I got to meet all the guys. Now, they’re like brothers.” Fellow WBC participant and former Twins infielder James Beresford is a guy that Whitefield really admires. “The road he took, ten to eleven years, over 1,000 minor league games, but he stuck with it. He set his goal to make the big leagues and he made it. For us younger players, if you put the work in and you stick with it, good things can happen.” ----------------------------------------------------------- Here is a quick look at his schedule over the last two years. And we’re going to do it in bullet point view, just to try to keep it straight. It’s been a whirlwind tour for the 20-year-old. Signed with the Twins in May of 2015. Played in six games for the GCL Twins in late August 2015 Played for Brisbane Bandits in the Australian Baseball League (ABL). Extended spring training 2016. Gulf Coast League Twins 2016. Played for Australia in the World Cup tournament. Played all season for the ABL champion Brisbane Bandits. Played for Australia in the World Baseball Classic in Japan. Spring Training 2017. Cedar Rapids Kernels. According to Whitefield, “I think I had about six to seven days from the end of the ABL season to the WBC. So that was kind of my break for the offseason.” The Australian World Baseball Classic roster was not necessarily something that he was expecting. The Australian team is usually comprised of older players who have reached higher levels of the minor leagues. However, it was clear that it meant a lot to him when he found out he had made the team. “It was always in question. There are a lot of older guys on the team that are still playing and playing in the ABL. I just tried to set myself up as well as I could during the ABL, trying to put up some good numbers, made the All-Star team back home in Australia. I had a really good season. Toward the end of the season I thought I really can’t do much better. Found out, I think it was the last week of the season which was about February. Then during the playoffs, I found out then and I was pretty excited to get the experience to play.” Just in case you missed it, Whitefield hit great for Brisbane in the ABL this season. He hit .338/.379/.490 (.869) with 12 doubles and four home runs. He also stole 20 bases in 23 attempts. Whitefield was excited to make the WBC roster along with fellow Twins minor leaguers Todd Van Steensel, Lachlan Wells and several former Twins and Twins minor leaguers. Before going to Japan, the Australian team played some games in Korea. “We had a warm-up tournament in Korea. We played a few teams, which was unreal. I’d never been to Korea before, and how much they love baseball is crazy. Their stadiums are huge and they’re all indoor facilities.” Then it was off to Japan for a few tune up games before starting the WBC. He noted that they played a couple of games in Osaka before going to Tokyo for the WBC. As far as what he learned from the WBC experience, it was more about learning the game from some veterans. “Probably more the mental game, it helped me with. Talking to the older guys like Luke Hughes, Trent Oeltjen, Ryan Rowland-Smith. People like that who have been through the whole system and made it to the big leagues. That kind of helped me out a lot.” -------------------------------------------------------------------- Immediately following the elimination of Australia from the WBC, Whitefield hopped on a plane and made the multi-time zone trek from Japan to Ft. Myers where he jumped right into spring training. He took advantage of the long plane flight to start thinking about his 2017 season and set some goals. “I wanted to make a full-season team and make that jump and show them that I can make that jump and I’m ready to go. Spring training is just getting the feel back. I kind of shut down a little bit. A bit of off time mentally. And then turning it back on and telling the body to go and do it again.” But the jump from the GCL to the Midwest League isn’t an easy one. According to Kernels manager Tommy Watkins, “I would say it’s a big jump from the GCL to here.” But Whitefield impressed the coaches and others this spring and earned a spot on the Kernels Opening Day roster. As of today, Whitefield is hitting .281/.324/.477 (.800) with six doubles, two triples and five home runs for Cedar Rapids. But the first thing people talk about with Whitefield is his defense. Last year, he played all over the diamond for the GCL Twins. He started 26 games at first base, 18 games in center field, eight games in right field, seven games at third base and three games in left field. Whitefield noted, “Last year, I played mostly in the infield because if I wasn’t at first base, I’d play third base, and if I wasn’t at third base, I’d play occasional outfield.” But it’s actually something that Whitefield enjoyed and sees value in. “I’d like to be noticed as a utility guy. If someone goes down, I can fill in. It’s a good thing. Now I’ve practiced in the outfield in the ABL and kind of got my feet in there. Left field still isn’t my favorite position out of them all, but center field, I like to take control and to be able to control the other guys. It’s a lot more room to run around.” Whitefield has played 38 games so far this year for the Kernels, and his manager has played him in center field in all 38 of them. Watkins said, “He’s been doing a good job for us. Defensively, hands down, I’d put him out there with the best. He can go get it.” At 6-4 and 200 pounds, Whitefield can really run. He’s very fast. He’s still learning in the field, but he does have a strong arm too. With his size, he is a tremendous athlete, and he’s got the tools to be an all-around player. Watkins agreed. “He’s got tools. We changed a couple of things at the plate with him and the quality of his at bats went up. He started hitting the ball with more power, driving the ball more. He’s a great talent. He’s fun to watch.” Last year, Whitefield was the lone representative from the GCL Twins on the Gulf Coast League’s postseason All-Star team. He hit .298/.370/.366 (.737) with seven doubles and two home runs in 51 games. He also stole 31 bases. There were a lot of challenges in jumping from softball in Australia to professional baseball in the United States. “It took me a little bit to get started because I wasn’t playing every day at the start of the season (in the GCL). Once I started performing, I was in the starting lineup every game. I got my feet wet, but then I would have a bad day and had to get over that mentally. So last year has really helped me get to where I am now. To be able to mentally be where I’m at now, especially thanks to those older guys.” Steve Singleton is a former Twins prospect who joined the organization in 2016 as a GCL hitting coach where he worked a lot with Whitefield. Singleton was promoted this year and is the hitting coach for the Ft. Myers Miracle. Whitefield gives Singleton a lot of credit. “Big shout out to Sing for helping me out. I still had a softball swing coming from there. He helped give me the confidence to say I can drive the ball and not just slap the ball and run it out. I worked with him last year and my numbers show the work that we put in.” What kind of player is Whitefield, and what kind of player can be become? That’s all to be determined. Even Whitefield can’t answer that question with any real certainty. “(The power is) Still coming. My heart size is there, but I haven’t put on the pounds yet to be noticed as a power guy. I’ve still got it in there, but I want to be noticed as a guy who can do everything. Like, he’s fast, he’s just using his speed. As well as offense, my defense is a big thing I take pride in.” So what are Whitefield’s goals for the remainder of this season? “Cutting down the strikeouts is a big thing this year. Put the ball in play. I’ve got the speed. I can beat it out and not just be an easy out. Also, my goal for the year is ten home runs and 60 steals. I want to be able to do both. Stolen base is slightly less at the start of the year than where I want it to be, but I’ve been driving the ball a bit better than what I thought I would as well.” In the GCL, Whitefield struck out 22% of his plate appearances. His strikeout rate with the Kernels is just 23% so far. He’s halfway to his home run goal already, but he’s got a long ways to go on the stolen bases. 60 may be tough, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him get to 35 or 40. While Whitefield does have a long ways to go to reach his big league dreams, it is important to remember a few things. First and foremost, he has only been playing baseball since he was 17. That’s less than four years. He’s got the size. He’s got the athleticism, and he’s already putting up numbers in the Midwest League against older pitchers. There’s no question that he fits in with the likes of Lewis Thorpe and Lachlan Wells as prospects to watch in the Twins system.
  9. As a player, Tommy Watkins was always viewed by many as a potential coach. While a player, Watkins’ focus was always on playing the game. However, somewhere in the deeper reaches of his mind, he knew what he wanted to do following his playing career. Yes he wanted to coach, but he also wanted more. “(I wanted to) coach, but I always wanted to manage.” So when he was offered the Kernels manager job, he quickly accepted. He believes that it was the right time. “I think this year was a good time for me to start. I don’t think I was anywhere near ready my first year as a coach, or my fourth or fifth. It’s getting to know the guys, and learning the ropes, and how to do things I think helped me for now.” To this point, Watkins has led his team to an impressive start. The Kernels enter play on Tuesday with a 20-15 record through their first 35 games. As he is prone to do, Watkins pushes the credit elsewhere. “Great group of guys. I think they all get along great together. I think they play hard. I think that’s one thing that I saw coming out of spring training, that these guys get along and I think they’re going to get after it every day. I think our record can be attributed to the effort they put in every day.” But there have been some moments of nervousness and trepidation. While he has been in and around the game of baseball and seen it from a variety of roles, the role of manager is different. “I think the biggest adjustment is just trying to be organized and get things planned every day, lineup. Trying to keep everybody in line.” Watkins admitted he was especially nervous the first game of the season. “I was panicking a little bit. I grabbed the lineup cards and things like that. I sent Jake (Mauer) and Doug (Mientkiewicz) a group text and asked, ‘What do I do with the lineup? Do I put first name? Last name?’ They both answered, and Doug said, ‘Hey, relax, you’ll be fine.” But Watkins has also been supported by the organization. They have people in place who can help him out. The weekend I was there, minor league pitching coordinator Eric Rasmussen was there. So was new Special Assistant for Baseball Operations LaTroy Hawkins. Twins Minor League Director Brad Steil was there. “I think a lot of people have been a big help. (Minor League Infield and Baserunning Coordinator) Sam Perlozzo’s been a big help, been in town. A couple of nights ago, there were some things going on and I was like, ‘Sam, you’ve got to stand next to me.’ He said ‘Yeah I should have been over there to bounce some things off of me, but he said when I’m here, these are your guys. I’m just here to watch’.” Sam Perlozzo standing alongside Watkins Perlozzo has been a baseball lifer. He’s coached in various levels in the Mets, Reds, Mariners, Phillies and Orioles organizations. He’s coached in the big leagues and for parts of three seasons he was the manager of the Baltimore Orioles. Having a resource like that available, in person or on the phone, can be very valuable. Watkins worked as the hitting coach for Jake Mauer in Cedar Rapids for several seasons. Last year, he worked with Doug Mientkiewicz in Chattanooga. He said that he has learned so much from each of them. “Both of those guys, they let their staffs work. Jake and Doug were both good about it, the hitters were mine, and the pitchers were the pitching coach’s. They both put their input in and helped out whenever they want or need to.” Watkins subscribes to that philosophy as well. Hitting coach Brian Dinkelman and Pitching coach JP Martinez are both back for their second seasons with the Kernels and third seasons as coaches in the organization. “The same thing goes here. I let Dink (Kernels second-year hitting coach Brian Dinkelman) and JP (Kernels second-year pitching coach JP Martinez) do their jobs. They’re real good at what they do. If I ever have anything to say, I run it across with them. They do a good job, so I try to let them work. Watkins coaching third base. For those that have seen Tommy Watkins working on the baseball field, whether as a player or as a coach or manager, it is clear that he truly loves the game. It shows. He has a lot of fun. He was nicknamed The Mayor when he played in Rochester. He was very popular during his years in New Britain. Wherever he’s been, he’s garnered fans and become popular with teammates. Back in 2003, the Ft. Myers Miracle even honored the hometown kid with a bobble butt promotion. No, really, a bobble butt. (See here) Watkins makes the long season for players fun. Two weekends ago, the team had some very early work on the field. They were doing bunting drills. The first group was some of the players less likely to bunt, and that went fairly quickly. The second group was more the speed guys who could use the bunt to benefit their games. Sam Perlozzo led the discussion, but Watkins and Dinkelman were very involved as well. Cones were set up down the third base line, indicating the ideal location for a bunt. Another set of cones formed a line from home plate to the edge of the grass/dirt in front of where a second baseman would play and starting past the pitcher’s mound. There were two teams and they had some scoring system based on how many they got within the designated goals. They were working, and they were being instructed, but they were doing it while having fun and being competitive. In fact, Watkins joined a group with Jermaine Palacios, Aaron Whitefield and Travis Blankenhorn, and they beat Brian Dinkelman’s group which included Christian Cavaness, Ariel Montesino and Brandon Lopez in what appeared to be a back-and-forth contest. Watkins coaching and participating in a bunting drill. It’s a long 140 game season with long bus rides, and Watkins continues to have fun with his job, even with the new role. “I don’t think my personality changes. I still try to be myself. We still have fun, but at the same time, when someone needs to be corrected, or you have to drop the hammer, you can’t be afraid to do it. I think I’ve done a pretty decent job of that. If I see something, I let them know. I try not to let anything slip.” As the Twins celebrate Hope Week this week in the Twin Cities, it’s a good reminder that Tommy Watkins does a ton of work in and around Ft. Myers throughout the offseason. Not only does he work out with rehabbing players or other minor leaguers in Ft. Myers in the offseason, but he takes groups to area hospitals and runs several camps for kids. It’s a great opportunity for the players to start giving back. It’s something that Watkins believes strongly in. This spring, he told me that they were making four to five hospital visits, at least, each week. But Watkins provides hope and lessons to all of the players he comes in contact with. Not only does he coach them up and work to instill the fundamentals of the game, but if they take the time to look up Watkins’ career, it should teach them about perseverance, believing in yourself and striving toward your goals. Watkins understands what the players are going through. He lived the life that they are living, and he reached that goal that each and every one of his players is striving for. He played in nine games in the major leagues, The Show. In fact, if not for an injury, he had kind of taken over as the Twins starting third baseman due to his .357 batting average. (Note, Brian Dinkelman also holds a career average of over .300 (.301, to be exact) in his 23 games with the Twins) Watkins signed as a late-round pick. He spent two seasons in the Gulf Coast League. He spent a year in Elizabethton. He spent a year in the Midwest League (Quad Cities). He spent two seasons with the Miracle. He spent 2004, 2005 and part of 2006 in New Britain before moving up to Rochester. A year later, mid-August 2007, Watkins got that surprise call. He was headed to the big leagues. He spent 2008 and 2009 in Rochester before hanging up the cleats. In 2010, he began his new career as a Twins hitting coach. And as was the case as a player, Watkins now has a goal of someday getting back to the major leagues as a coach, maybe even a manager. For now, he’s enjoying his role in the organization and working hard with his 2017 Cedar Rapids Kernels. “It’s been a lot of fun. It’s been a lot of new things. Just trying to get used to being in the role. It’s been a lot of fun though.” ------------------------------------------------------------------- Throughout the course of this season, the Cedar Rapids Kernels will have a camera crew following them at times. They are creating a documentary of their season. At least each month, there will be a new installment and some shorter videos as well. It should be a fun series to follow (so follow the Kernels on twitter to be updated). Here is the most recent installment. The crew mic'd up Tommy Watkins for a game against Lake County to find out what the manager talked about throughout the game. This is fun. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N0yK5DNMIyE&feature=youtu.be
  10. I like to encourage fans of the Twins and minor league baseball to make the trek down to Cedar Rapids. From St. Paul, it takes about four hours to get here. Cedar Rapids has such a rich baseball history going back well over 100 years. You’ll want to spend some time in their ballpark gift shop which also holds the Cedar Rapids Baseball Hall of Fame. The ballpark is beautiful. They do a great job with fan interaction and giveaways. This morning, I spent about 18 minutes walking around the stadium and talking about Cedar Rapids. Take a few minutes to watch and listen to this Twitter Live/Periscope video from earlier today. https://twitter.com/twinsdaily/status/860878846035337216 KERNELS NOTES If you’re a prospect hound, it’s fun to see players before they become big leaguers. Think back to that 2013 Cedar Rapids team, the first year of its affiliate with the Minnesota Twins organization. Players from that team who are now members of the Minnesota Twins include Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, Tyler Duffey, Taylor Rogers, Jorge Polanco. Which players from this year’s Kernels roster will be future Minnesota Twins? Who knows? But it is likely at least two of them will, and maybe seven or eight of them. It’s fun to watch and see them at this level and try to project for yourself. On Thursday night, Tyler Wells started for the Kernels. At 6-7 and 255 pounds, he can be an intimidating guy on the mound. He throws a good fastball in the 91-94 mph range, and he’s got pretty good command of it. He also has a good slider and a mid-70s slow curve ball. He began the inning with five straight strikeouts. He gave up a couple of runs in the third inning, but two scored on a broken bat bloop double that Christian Cavaness dove and missed. I think he’s one to watch. On Friday night, Sean Poppen was on the mound. He got hit pretty hard in the first inning, but he settled in and held Ft. Wayne to four runs (three earned) over 6.1 innings. I asked him after the game what adjustments he made. He said, “I like to stick with the fastball, but they came out swinging. I wasn’t locating the ball where I should. The next innings, I started working a little more offspeed just to throw them off balance.” Poppen is a control guy, but he also hits 92-93 with his fastball. He is a Harvard guy and obviously smart in a classroom but also on the diamond. “You can’t really judge yourself on wins. You can do your job to get late in the game and get out with a lead, but after that you just have trust in your relievers, and most of the time they pull through. Most of the time we’ve been getting run support and sometimes it doesn’t happen. Today we got plenty of run support.” Tonight we’ll see lefty Domenick Carlini start for the Kernels, and it’ll be right-hander Clark Beeker for Sunday afternoon’s game. Andrew Vasquez came on in the sixth inning on Thursday. He is impressive .He’s a big man (6-6, 240), and he throws hard. He has good pop and hides the ball well and has a good slider. To my untrained eye, he looks like a guy who has a chance to keep moving up and being a good reliever. Tom Hackimer posted a 0.58 WHIP in April yet somehow he has already blown three saves. I wouldn't worry about that as he has some really good stuff, and that side-winding delivery will be able to throw off a lot of hitters. The Kernels have three catchers and yet it seems to really work out well. Ben Rortvedt is the 19-year-old high draft pick, so you know he’s going to play. While he hasn’t hit much yet, you can see he’s got a swing that over time will develop well. But behind the plate, he is really impressive. I like to watch catchers, and he just seems to have all the tools. While he’s still got room to grow and will continue to get better, he has the makings of a real fine defender. Let’s start with the arm. He has great throw and catch mechanics, and he threw some absolute ropes to second base to nab would-be base-stealers on Thursday night. As impressive, he really seems to relish the role of leader of the staff. After each inning, he walks in with his pitcher, and I saw them continuing to talk in the dugout. I wouldn’t worry about the offense, though I think that will come. Rortvedt is legit behind the plate. Mitchell Kranson caught on Friday night. He’s a hitter first. That’s not to say he’s not a good catcher. I thought he did real well behind the plate. He too communicated well and blocked a few balls in the dirt. His arm isn’t Rortvedt like, but he has a strong and generally accurate arm. But he can hit. While he hasn’t had a lot of hits in these two games, it’s clear that he has a great approach. He knows the strike zone, but he is incredibly aggressive when he gets a strike. He looks like he wants to damage the baseball, and he’s got good power. In college, Kranson played all over. One year he did catch over 40 games for Cal-Berkeley. Another year, he played mostly third base. He’s listed at 5-10, but he played a solid first base one year for the Bears. He even got time in the outfield. This past offseason, Kranson worked hard. He lost 25 pounds without losing any muscle through workouts and dietary changes. This spring he’s only caught four or five games. He’s played some first and some third, and he’s in the lineup almost every game because of his ability to hit. Caleb Hamilton is another catcher on the roster. He was drafted by the Twins out of Oregon State just last year. He had never caught until last fall at the instructional league. He talked a lot about how much he’s grown to enjoy the position. But he also has played around the diamond. On Friday night, he was at third base. He made a great diving play to his backhand side, near the third base line, Got up and threw a pea across the diamond for the out. He’s played some in the outfield (starting in left field tonight) and first base as well. In college, he played a lot in the middle infield. I tweeted that I talked to Lake County starting pitchers Juan Hillman and Brady Aiken on Thursday night because they both have connection with a couple of top Twins prospects (those stories coming this week). There was another connection. The primary catcher for Lake County was Logan Ice. He was the catcher at Oregon State for three years and the roommate of Caleb Hamilton. Travis Blankenhorn was hit by a pitch on Thursday night, a slider that seemed to just keep coming in on him. He went down. It hit him in the knee, but he was able to stay in the game. On Friday, he had the marks to show it, a huge black and blue bruise. On Friday, he was back in the lineup, though as the team’s DH. On Saturday, he returns to third base. He’s been slumping since early-season success, but on Saturday, he crushed the ball a few times, lining out to right once and having a ball caught at the wall. Lewin Diaz is a big man. He’s not swift, that’s for sure, but he is a very young developing player with a ton of potential. He’s listed at 6-3 and 254 pounds, and that would seem to be accurate. At first base, it’s a work-in-progress, though he does put in the work. He’s a pretty good athlete for his size too. Offensively, he has struggled to connect with some good fastballs, but in the two games, I think he’s got three doubles and a triple. Yes, a triple. I think he’s got a world of offensive potential. Brandon Lopez is a pretty solid all-around player. Drafted last year out of Miami, he has a real professional approach at the plate. He knows the strike zone and does a nice job. He also isn’t afraid to take a real big swing and has some pop. He played shortstop at Miami, but he’s played mostly at second base for the Kernels. That’s because Jermaine Palacios is back. After what had to be a frustrating 2016 season, he is off to a great start this year. He was the Twins Daily Hitter of the Month. Of course I got here on Thursday and his 15-game hitting streak came to an end. But he has stung the ball, and on Friday night, he had a bases-clearing double off the base of the wall in left center field. Defensively, he has looked real solid too. He just looks much more confident this year, or at least right now. I chatted for quite some time yesterday with Aaron Whitefield. It’s still amazing to me that he didn’t play any baseball until he was 17. Before then, it was just fast-pitch softball (and some other sports like soccer and Australian Rules Football). He is a great athlete, at 6-4 and 200 pounds. He can run and he’s got a lot of power. I’ll write up a story on him this week as well. Impressive young man, and he won’t turn 21 until September. As I’m typing this, it’s now 4 ½ hours before the game. The relievers are set up in two groups. JP Martinez is hitting ground balls for pitcher fielding practice to one group on the main field with minor league pitching coordinator Eric Rasmussen observing. Down the right field line, LaTroy Hawkins is working with another group of pitchers (looks like the starters maybe) on pick-off plays at second base. LaTroy Hawkins has been here since Wednesday, and today will be his last day before he heads back to Minneapolis for a while, but he will be back. The players seem to really enjoy it. I was told by one player that Hawkins had a session with the pitchers and catchers and just had the players feel free to ask him questions about anything. What an opportunity for these kids. Brian Dinkelman is back for his second season as the Kernels hitting coach. I learned last night that when he got the job last year, he and his family moved to Cedar Rapids, so he’s hear all year around. He is originally from a suburb just outside of St. Louis, so he was very excited last night watching the Blues hold on to a late lead and win their Stanley Cup series. Tommy Watkins is in his first year as manager, and he has this team playing very well right now. While there aren’t a lot of high-end prospects on this roster, they have a good team, and all reports are that Watkins is doing a terrific job. I’ll have a chance to go one-on-one with him later today to see how he’s enjoying this experience. Again, if you ever have a chance to get down to Cedar Rapids, try to do it. It’s definitely worth it. INJURY UPDATES I got some reports today on several Twins minor leaguers who are currently on the disabled list. Here’s the quick report: Stephen Gonsalves threw three innings on Thursday. He’s still getting stretched out and is expected to miss three more weeks. That is the same timeline projection for Tyler Jay. Jake Reed is starting a throwing program now and will likely be out about another month. Byungho Park is playing in extended spring training games now. Working his way back from thoracic outlet syndrome surgery, Alex Muren is still working his way back to where he was pre-injury, but he’s getting close. Lewis Thorpe is also continuing to work. He’s healthy but working to get back to where he was. Others who are currently playing in EST and could be back soon, pending roster developments or other moves include outfielder Ryan Strausborger, infielders TJ White and Brian Olson, catcher AJ Murray, and pitchers Cam Booser, Michael Cederoth and Zack Tillery. Henry Centeno is rehabbing his elbow. Yohan Pino is still getting stretched out. Nick Greenwood is supposed to throw an inning down in Ft. Myers today. Well, this is probably enough ready material for a Saturday afternoon. I’m going to go watch some more infielder/pitcher practice and some batting practice. Again be sure to follow me on Twitter, as well as the Twins Daily Twitter account. And “Like” Twins Daily on Facebook.
  11. 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 (Athletics) 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. (It appears I've exceeded Twins Daily's limit on photos below, so if you want to see them all, you may just need to pay Knuckleballsblog.com a visit.) http://knuckleballsblog.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Dinkelman2017a900-600x400.jpg Hitting coach Brian Dinkelman tossing batting practice http://knuckleballsblog.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/CarliniMartinez900-600x400.jpg Domenick Carlini warms up under the watchful eyes of Kernels pitching coach JP Martinez http://knuckleballsblog.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/DiazMonetsino2017b900-600x400.jpg Lewin Diaz (48) and Ariel Montesino (21) http://knuckleballsblog.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Carlini2017a900-600x400.jpg Domenick Carlini http://knuckleballsblog.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Vasquez2017a900-600x399.jpg Andrew Vasquez http://knuckleballsblog.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/KIranson1B2017900-600x400.jpg Mitchell Kranson playing first base on Saturday http://knuckleballsblog.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Kranson2017a900-371x600.jpg Mitchell Kranson took his turn behind the plate on Sunday http://knuckleballsblog.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Whitefield2017e900-600x400.jpg Aaron Whitefield coming in low, and safely, to 3B http://knuckleballsblog.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/VasquezCordyCDavis900-600x399.jpg Andrew Vasquez, Max Cordy and Colton Davis (L to R) http://knuckleballsblog.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/rORTVEDT2017A900-600x400.jpg Ben Rortvedt http://knuckleballsblog.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/PalaciosMontesino900-600x401.jpg Ariel Montesino (21) takes a toss from Jermaine Palacios (4) to turn a double play on Sunday http://knuckleballsblog.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Whitefield2017d900-600x399.jpg Aaron Whitefield http://knuckleballsblog.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/DiazAuto900-600x400.jpg Lewin Diaz signing an autograph on Sunday. http://knuckleballsblog.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Palacios2017HRa900-600x399.jpg Jermaine Palacios got this ball out of the park on Sunday. http://knuckleballsblog.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Beeker2017c900-600x401.jpg Clark Beeker http://knuckleballsblog.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Carrier2017b900-1-600x400.jpg Shane Carrier http://knuckleballsblog.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/CavenessAuto900-600x399.jpg Christian Cavaness signing an autograph after Sunday's game. http://knuckleballsblog.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Diaz2017a900-435x600.jpg Lewin Diaz http://knuckleballsblog.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Lujan2017b900-600x398.jpg Hector Lujan http://knuckleballsb...900-600x400.jpg Clark Beeker with a pick-off move to first baseman Lewin Diaz http://knuckleballsb...900-600x399.jpg Jermaine Palacios http://knuckleballsb...900-600x399.jpg Mitchell Kranson beats a throw into 3B http://knuckleballsb...0-1-600x400.jpg Brandon Lopez http://knuckleballsb...900-600x401.jpg Jaylin Davis scoring as Kane County catcher can't handle a throw from the outfield. http://knuckleballsb...900-600x400.jpg Caleb Hamilton launching a home run on Sunday http://knuckleballsb...900-600x399.jpg Christian Caveness http://knuckleballsb...900-600x401.jpg Travis Blankenhorn (7) and Aaron Whitefield signing autographs. http://knuckleballsb...0-1-600x400.jpg Jaylin Davis
  12. 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. http://knuckleballsblog.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/KernlesFans2017-600x400.jpg 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. (Article originally posted at Knuckleballsblog.com.) 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." 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. http://knuckleballsblog.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/2017-Kernels-players-600x400.jpg 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.
  13. Below you will find a smorgasbord of topics regarding the Twins minor leagues. Although it is not known for sure, the assumption is that the Twins will make their first big league roster cuts on Monday. On Sunday, the Twins will play a split doubleheader so they’ll need all the players they can get. Expect the first cut to involve a lot of players. 40-man roster guys who aren’t going to compete for a big league job will likely be in that first group. Also starting pitchers who aren’t really competing for an Opening Day roster spot should also be sent down. They need to start building up their pitch count to be ready to throw 80-90 pitches in a game by Opening Day. So, who is in minor league camp will certainly change several times. Dereck Rodriguez is on the Puerto Rico WBC roster, but you may have seen pictures of him in Ft. Myers. He is an alternate on the Puerto Rico team, and so he is staying in Ft. Myers to continue to work and prepare himself for the season. If Puerto Rico advances to the second round (pretty likely, I would think) Rodriguez could join them then. Tommy Watkins saw me at the end of practice on Friday. I congratulated him on getting an opportunity to manage. He is very excited for the opportunity. He’s been working with minor league players the last couple of months. He said that almost 100 players reported before minor league report day. Again, the academy is creating an opportunity for players to put in work before they even have to. Watkins also said that they were doing community events three to four times a week. They visited hospitals and schools and conducted a couple of camps. Trey Cabbage injured his foot in minor league camp. He called it a “stupid freak accident.” He hopes to get back on the field within a couple of weeks. Trevor Hildenberger threw a bullpen today. He said it went well and his elbow is “all good” and he’s going “full bore.” Speaking of guys returning, Lewis Thorpe was back on the mound, and he is ‘full-go’ to do all spring training activities. He was a Top 10 Twins prospect before he missed two seasons with, first, Tommy John surgery and then a season-long illness. He could certainly get back to that status by the end of the year. It will be an interesting season for him. Will he start in extended spring training to avoid Cedar Rapids in April? Could he just start with the Miracle? It’ll be interesting to see his innings limit, but he’s essentially where Fernando Romero was a year ago at this time so that’s probably a good barometer. https://twitter.com/twinsdaily/status/840590775616450560 I met Nelson Molina last May in Cedar Rapids. The infielder had spent a month with the Kernels and was off to a good start. He ended the year hitting .300/.374/.381 (.755) and was named to the Twins Daily Minor League All-Star team as a third baseman. As I mentioned in the Twins Minor League Primer earlier this week, Molina was coming back from injury. He had a broken hamate bone. At the end of practice, Molina came over to me and we discussed the injury. It was in his right hand. He was playing in his first game in the Puerto Rico Winter League and he flew out to left field in an at-bat and felt pain in his hand. His doctor told him that the bone was already broken and he didn’t even know it. He said he is almost thankful that it happened in the winter so that he could have surgery right away. Had he not played in Puerto Rico, he would have come to spring training and it would have broken early in spring training. Instead of just now having surgery, he is 100% and ready for the season. Like so many, Molina was up late on Friday night watching Team Puerto Rico beat Venezuela in the WBC. At the Twins Academy, the WBC has become must-watch TV. https://twitter.com/HackAttackimer/status/840713479468269568 And the most important thing I’ve learned through one-plus days of minor league camp… The Twins got rid of their old rule that minor leaguers could not have beards. Young adults can be treated like adults. They can be individuals. Next up, maybe baseball will let minor leaguers get paid a fair wage. One thing at a time, right? The last three days, the minor leaguers have been working in four work groups.On Sunday, they will work out in the morning and then at noon there will be intrasquad games. Rochester will take on Chattanooga on one field, and Fort Myers will challenge Cedar Rapids on the other field. The same thing will happen on Monday, though the “GCL Twins” will take on Bethel University again this year. Bethel, as you recall, is coached by former Gopher and former Twins player Brian Raabe. Tuesday will be more afternoon intrasquad games. Starting Wednesday, the teams will start playing against other teams. It will be AAA vs AAA, and AA vs AA and so on. They will play teams of the Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox, and Tampa Bay Rays. On those days, two teams will travel and two teams will play on the back fields. We’ll be back with more throughout the next week. Again, feel free to use the comments section below to ask questions about this article or things you would like me to dig into on the back fields.
  14. Broadcaster Kris Atteberry did a terrific job as the emcee for the Twins Caravan portion of the program, doling out opportunities to address the gathering to five members of the Twins organization gathered on stage. They included a pair of Twins players, pitcher Trevor May and outfielder Byron Buxton, newly announced Kernels manager Tommy Watkins, new Twins General Manager Thad Levine and Brian Dinkelman, who served as the Kernels hitting coach in 2016 and, while no official announcement has been made as yet, is presumed to be serving in that capacity this summer, as well. In addition to responding to Atteberry's prepared questions from the podium and answering questions from the crowd, the Caravan participants also were available for media interviews. Here are a few highlights from one-on-one interviews, as well as the public portion of the program. Early in January, the Twins and Kernels announced that Watkins, who served as the Kernels hitting coach, under former manager Jake Mauer, from 2013 through 2015 and in the same capacity for Class AA Chattanooga last season, will get his first opportunity as a minor league manager in 2017 when he takes the Kernels' reins. Watkins said that he and farm director Brad Steil had discussed the possibility of Watkins getting a managing opportunity for the past couple of years, but no such position had opened up until last year's Fort Myers Miracle manager Jeff Smith got promoted to a coaching position with the Twins this offseason. Still, Watkins said, "I didn't know if I would get it or not." http://knuckleballsblog.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/DSC_0865-2-600x400.jpg Trevor May and Tommy Watkins react to Byron Buxton explaining how he "noodled" a catfish Once the assignment was officially offered, Watkins was very happy to accept. "It was just like the news I got when I was going to the big leagues. I was happy, I was nervous, I was scared, I didn't want to go. So it was a lot of things. I cried, I laughed, I called my family and told them. It was exciting news." Asked by Atteberry to tell the gathering what went into the front office's decision to offer the job to Watkins, Levine led off with tongue firmly planted in cheek. "I've got to be honest with you, I have no idea how this came to pass. This is news to me. I'll try to adjust on the fly." Levine then turned serious - and very complimentary toward the new Kernels manager. "I think that one thing you guys always hear about is that we're trying to develop players, there's a development track. But I think the other thing that we're trying to develop concurrently is staff members. Guys who have a chance, on the scouting side, to influence decision-making and, on the coaching side, a chance to be major league coaches. "One of the things that I heard when I first joined the Minnesota Twins was about the man to my right, Tommy, and I think the universal feeling was that he had a chance to be a really good hitting coach, but he had the chance to be special as a manager. So when the opportunity presented itself to give him an opportunity to pursue his career as a manager, I think everybody in the organization really endorsed him because we felt as if that's where he's going to be a difference maker. "We think he's going to have a chance to be a major league coach down the road. We think in the short term, he has a chance to really influence our minor league players, and as a manager we think his impact could be even greater than it was as a hitting coach. "He's a special man. He's very charismatic. He knows the game of baseball. He's still trying to learn every single day. Each time I've been around him, I feel as if I've gotten to know him a little bit better. This guy's a very dynamic man. He's going to be a leader in our organization for a long time to come and he's just scratching the surface of his potential." http://knuckleballsblog.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/DSC_0838-2-400x600.jpg TC Bear made the trip to Cedar Rapids with the rest of the Twins Caravan crew Watkins said before the event that he's looking forward to his return to the Kernels. "It feels good. I had a bunch of different emotions but I'm excited. It feels like I've been gone for a lot longer than just a year, but it's good to be back. I enjoyed my time here and I'm looking forward to it." Asked by Atteberry to set the line on how many times Watkins will be ejected by umpires in 2017, Brian Dinkelman didn't hesitate before saying. "I set it at 3 1/2." Buxton said he's been feeling good since his hot finish to last season in September. "I've been hitting since late November, working on a few things and getting some stuff kinked out, but other than that, I feel great. "I'm just focusing a little bit more on hitting, being a little bit more consistent, using my legs, staying down through the ball, keeping my head down. Just small things to help me out in the long run." He said he didn't think there was any major change in his game that led to his strong finish to the 2016 season. "Just stop thinking. Just run out there and play baseball. Have fun, going out there and have fun with teammates. We competed, September was different for everybody, not just including me. We went out there with a different mindset to finish the season strong and carry that over into spring training and this season." Looking back at his time in Cedar Rapids as a teenager barely out of high school, he said the dream of playing big league ball has turned out to be everything he hoped for, "and more." "Not many people are able to make it up there to the bigs, so I'm very blessed and thankful to get up there. Just being able to play beside Trevor when he's up there pitching, not many people can say you've been in a big league uniform and you've been behind a pitcher like him that gives it his all and you're right there giving it your all and trying to compete for a World Series ring." For his part, May also indicated he's feeling good after having some trouble staying healthy in 2016. "I'm feeling good," said May. "I had some patterns I needed to break. In the past, I've always thought four months was enough to heal from everything in the offseason. But I've come to the realization that breaking down a muscle and building it back up again to where you want it to work just takes time." He said even little things such as posture, while standing or sitting, have been items he's focused on this offseason, with an emphasis on workouts that increase his flexibility, like Pilates and yoga, rather than weight training. "I was doing a bunch of stuff that was just exacerbating the problem 24 hours a day. Changing all those things has been a lot of work, but I'm excited to just keep doing what I'm doing into the season. "I threw a bullpen today. If I threw a bullpen when my back was tight back there, I would definitely feel some stiffness right now after I threw and I don't feel stiff at all, so I'm just taking that as a really good sign." May wasn't just trying new things in regard to his offseason workout regimen. While he did some DJing again this year, as he has in the past, he also expanded his horizons. "I actually have a new hobby," he explained. "I broadcast video games, which has been really fun. It's like having your own radio show in which you talk and play video games. I really enjoy it. I'm going to try to do it once a month on an offday during the season. I'm going to host tournaments of games I play for viewers." Asked to evaluate the state of the Twins' farm system, now that many of their previous top prospects have broken into the big leagues, new GM Levine said that the Twins front office doesn't necessarily look at the organization strictly in terms of players that have exhausted their eligibility for Rookie of the Year awards and those that have not. "I think we look at the farm system as an extension to the major leagues, so any guy in the major leagues who has two or fewer years of service is part of that next wave, that core," he said. "So I think when you include those players with your minor league players, you can really see the waves of players coming. "There's a wave in the big leagues right now, there's a wave right behind them, there's a wave that will be playing at Cedar Rapids this year. I think we're excited about the depth throughout our system, inclusive of the major leagues and I think if you include that young group in the major leagues all the way down, you could see that the future is very bright. "For a team that has the payroll that we will have, you're looking at having as many young players who can impact the game as possible and I think you've got to look at the guys who have matriculated to the big leagues when you're factoring that." The subject of the relatively public flirtation with trading second baseman Brian Dozier came up both in the interview setting and during the public Question & Answer session. Levine indicated that, while it certainly appears that Dozier will be opening the season with the Twins, he wouldn't say the door was completely closed on the possibility of moving Dozier, or any other player for that matter. "I don't know that we would talk specifically about any one trade negotiation, but I think the way Derek (Falvey) and I are going to operate is that we're not closing doors at any juncture. At that point, you are not doing your job to the fullest. Any time you close off opportunities to improve the team, I think you're doing the franchise a disservice." http://knuckleballsblog.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/DSC_0869-2-600x400.jpg Buxton and May did the autograph thing after the Twins Caravan program During the public session, Levine was asked specifically what he expected Dozier's future was with the Twins. "I think we think his future is going to be glorious with the franchise," he responded. "He's been the consummate professional throughout this process. We always approached this from the mindset of, the best the Minnesota Twins could be would be with Brian Dozier. If someone wants to blow our socks off, we'll consider talking about him. But for that fact, we see him as part of this franchise moving forward." Atteberry asked Levine to address the "stats vs scouting" issue that comes up in almost any conversation about the new front office management. Again, the new GM mixed humor into his more thoughtful response. "When the movie Moneyball came out, everybody who was below a certain age - at that time, I would say 35, now I would say 45, just conveniently (Levine celebrated his 45th birthday in November) - you were viewed to be more of a formulaic-based decision making group vs if you were older, you were more of a scouts guy. And I think it's a bit of a misconception. "Derek and I are both guys who are going to have analytics and scouting and player development factor into every decision that we make. We're not going to focus singularly on any sort of formula to spit out a decision we're going to make. "The other big misconception I think about that movie is that anybody working in a front office looks at all like Brad Pitt. We really don't. Honestly. "So the movie did some disservices across the board, but I do think analytics plays a role in decision-making, but that's all it is. It's a piece of the pie. It's not something that is going to drive us to make any singular decision. It will be something we weigh in, we factor in, but it's not going to drive our decision-making." Also during the public session, Atteberry challenged Levine to demonstrate how much he knew about the two players he was sharing a stage with. Atteberry presented a few bits of trivia and asked Levine to guess which player, May or Buxton, the fact pertained to. The questions were: Which player DJ'd at his own wedding? Which one of them has the highest vertical jump and is the fastest runner in his family (and which is not)? Which has successfully noodled a catfish? And which one has a mother that kept a mountain lion as a pet for four years? The answers: May (obviously), Buxton is NOT the fastest runner or best jumper in his family (he said his dad jumps higher, his brother is faster and he has a 13-year old sister who may eventually pass them all), but Buxton did noodle a catfish. It was May's mother who kept a mountain lion as a pet. And Levine nailed every answer correctly. http://knuckleballsblog.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/DSC_0867-2-600x400.jpg Two members of the "Knuckleballs" table took home door prizes. A May & Buxton signed jersey and a Twins stocking cap The final question from the audience asked Watkins and Buxton to relate the funniest thing that happened to them during their time with the Kernels. Suffice to say that you won't find Buxton playing baseball with ping pong balls in the clubhouse again any time soon and Watkins' days of shaving his head are over. (This article was originally posted at Knuckleballsblog.com)
  15. He began the 2014 season as the leadoff hitter for the Cedar Rapids Kernels. Unfortunately, he was hurt just a handful of games into the season. When he came back later in the year, he was hurt again. Because he played in just 21 total games for the Kernels in 2014, he returned there to start the 2015 season. At that time, Granite said, “I had a really tough season (in 2014), so I took a good month off and cleared my head. I was in my own head just from not playing. I was thinking too much about it.” Granite ended up being the Twins choice for Minor League Hitter of the Month of April (finished a close 2nd here at Twins Daily) and was quickly promoted to the Miracle where he spent the rest of the season. In 105 games in Ft. Myers, Granite hit .249/.328/.304 (.632) with ten doubles, four triples and a home run. So when he came to spring training this year, he figured he would be back with the Miracle to start the season. Instead, he began the season in Chattanooga. “Honestly, I was expecting to start in Ft. Myers again. I didn’t do as well as I wanted to in Ft. Myers, but I came into spring training ready to compete, and I feel like I did enough to earn the promotion.” Shannon Wilkerson, who was a key instigator for the Lookouts offense and defense late in 2015, began this season on the disabled list with a strained quad. Maybe that was part of the reason that Granite made the jump to Chattanooga. As we sit now, in the beginning of August, that really doesn’t matter because Granite took the opportunity and ran with it. As of this morning, Granite is hitting .295/.352/.380 (.732) with 12 doubles, five triples and four home runs. He also has 38 stolen bases which is one behind Jacksonville’s Yefri Perez for the Southern League lead. He has been caught just nine times. In the newest Baseball America, Perez was named by coaches to have the best speed in the Southern League, but it was Granite who was voted as the league’s best base runner in their annual Best Tools issue. When on base, Granite has been given the green light “unless the score is out of hand”. I asked him what factors went into his decision on whether to take off when he is on base. “Time is probably the biggest factor. If the pitcher is very quick to the plate with a slide step, it is very tough to get a good jump and steal. The defense and catcher are always paying attention to me, so it is tough to fool one of them with a delayed steal. Also stealing in the right count sometimes is beneficial because the hitters behind me get a lot of fastballs away which gives the catcher a better chance of throwing me out.” However, Granite says he is encouraged by his coaches and the organization to attempt to steal bases. “100% they want me to take chances. They want me to learn from my mistakes, and I have become a smarter base runner from it. Sam Perlozzo has helped me a lot in what to think and do on the bases in certain situations. It is great to have a base-running coordinator who has the experience and knowledge that he has.” Base running is certainly a strength in Granite’s game, but it certainly isn’t the only skill he has. “I would have to say base running and defense (are my strongest skills at this stage). I want to get better in every aspect of the game, but those are definitely the best two attributes of my game. Obviously, I have to work on hitting and my arm needs to get a little stronger. Those are two things I will work on a lot in the offseason.” Hitting is something that he has worked on a lot as he has moved up the organizational ladder, and he is seeing the results in 2016. What makes his 2016 so impressive is that he’s made the improvements as he has moved up, as he has seen better pitching. “Pitchers definitely get smarter and more control as the levels go up. Also, I see more of a mix of pitches like breaking balls and changeups.” Granite fully understands his role at the top of the order, as the leadoff hitter for the Lookouts. He tries to keep it simple while at the same time being a pest. “I try to keep things as simple as possible. My plan is to go up (to the plate), get a good pitch to hit, and hit it hard. I have a pretty good eye and don’t chase many pitches which works in my favor. I’m just trying to get on base any way possible because that’s when the fun begins. I know how annoying I can be for the other team just being on first base, and if I can get into scoring position for the middle of the order, I’m doing my job.” He continued, “I would have to say I’m a pest. I don’t strike out a lot and lay off some tough pitches. I try to be the toughest out I can be and try to grind through at-bats like a typical leadoff hitter.” Granite has hit four home runs this season. He had one home run in his pro career before this season. He hit zero home runs in his three seasons at Seton Hall. Listed at 6-1 and 170 pounds Granite is never going to be confused with a power hitter and does a great job of staying within himself and doing the things needed to get on base at the top of the order. But he has made some adjustments with the help of Chattanooga manager Doug Mientkiewicz and hitting coach Tommy Watkins. “A big thing they have taught me is how to drive the ball. Defenses would play me shallow, expecting me to slap the ball the other way, but they have taught me to be more of a ‘dangerous’ hitter and taught me how to drive the ball over their heads. It has really opened up the field for me which has helped me become a better and more diverse hitter.” Granite says that he enjoys facing starting pitchers, but it was interesting to find out which type of pitcher he typically has the most success against. Granite, a left-handed hitter, said, “I enjoy the challenge of facing lefties. Throughout my career, I’ve had more success against lefties than righties, and it’s pretty funny how many times teams will bring in a lefty to face me.” I was intrigued so I went to the numbers and checked out Granite’s splits. In 2016, Granite is hitting .291/.349/.390 (.739) against right-handers, and he’s hitting .308/.360/.341 against lefties. So this year, it’s a pretty even split. He’s hitting for a higher average and slightly higher on-base percentage against southpaws while some of his new-found power has come primarily against right-handers. So let’s look back in his previous seasons. In 2015 the splits were more telling. He hit just .248/.322/.312 (.634) against right-handers while hitting .314/.421/.373 (.794) against lefties. In his injury-plagued 2014 season (101 total PA), he posted a .588 OPS against right-handers and an .833 OPS against lefties. In Elizabethton in 2013, he posted a .601 OPS against right-handers and a 1.224 OPS against lefties. He’s got a month left in the Chattanooga season. His Chattanooga Lookouts are still in the playoff chase, but there are a lot of goals that start creeping into a player’s mind as the season winds down. The Arizona Fall League? “It would mean a lot to me to represent the Twins in the Arizona Fall League. I’ve talked to a couple of guys that played there, and they absolutely loved it. I know a lot of prospects play in that league, so that would be a nice achievement in my career.” The 40-Man roster? “That is something that I have no control over, so I try not to think about it. Obviously it would be amazing if that happened, but all I can do is play. As long as I get to wear a uniform, I’m happy.” Zach Granite has grown tremendously since signing with the Twins. The first time I saw him, he was about to play in his first full-season, with the Kernels in 2014. He has come a long way as a player. He has grown as a player. “Mentally and my aggressiveness have definitely grown the most. In Cedar Rapids and Ft. Myers, I would seem to get myself in bad counts and take a lot when I was ahead in the counts. Now I feel like I am aggressive when I see a pitch I want no matter what the count is. Mentally, it comes with experience of playing. I am a lot smarter and think more situational than I ever have. I have to give a lot of credit to my coaches who have helped me grow as a player.” So then the ultimate question for a player is what would it mean for you to get called into your manager’s office and find out that you’re heading to the big leagues. You see, many subscribe to the theory that once you experience success in AA, you’re just a phone call and an opportunity away. “That is something I’ve dreamed about since I was a kid. It would mean the world to me.” In 2014 in Cedar Rapids, I had the opportunity to do a short video with Granite. It was a lot of fun. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sOay46VnS7g
  16. After playing a night game on Friday night, Kernels hitting coach Tommy Watkins and several Kernels players were back at the ballpark by 8:30 the next morning to conduct a Youth Baseball Camp for well over a hundred boys and girls. http://knuckleballsblog.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/WilsonTheofanopoulos2-600x400.jpg Jared Wilson and Michael Theofanopoulos working in the bullpen with young pitchers There was a signup sheet in the Kernels' clubhouse with nine lines on it for volunteers to sign up to work the camp. Every line was filled and a couple of additional players wrote their names in between the lines, giving Watkins a group of 11 ballplayers pitching in for the two-hour long camp, topped off with an autograph session. http://knuckleballsblog.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/SchmitLeBlanc2.jpg Blake Schmit and Randy LeBlanc teaching campers proper fielding position Wandering around the field, it was really hard to tell who was having more fun, the kids or the players. Suffice to say there were a lot of smiles among the young players and the not-as-young.players. With kids as young as five years old, there was a bit of a "herding kittens" aspect to some of the groups, but each of the six stations that the campers rotated among worked on specific aspects of the game of baseball. http://knuckleballsblog.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Tillery1-600x400.jpg Zach Tillery with instructions for campers on proper grip and form In the indoor batting cage, pitcher Cameron Booser and first baseman/ outfielder Trey Vavra gave kids a chance to hit in the cage. Out on the field, Catcher Brett Doe and pitcher John Curtiss worked with kids on coming off the mound to field bunts and throw toward first base. Down in the Kernels' bullpen, Michael Theofanopoulos and Jared Wilson were working with pitching fundamentals. Out in right field, pitcher Zach Tillery was giving lessons on proper throwing technique. In center field, infielder T.J. White and pitcher Trevor Hildenberger were teaching kids how to go back on fly balls hit over their heads. And over in left field, pitcher Randy LeBlanc and infielder Blake Schmit were teaching technique for fielding ground balls and making a throw. While the kids were learning the game from Kernels players, some of the Kernels staff gave parents an opportunity to take a tour of the stadium, from the suite and pressbox level down through the clubhouse and batting cage level. Many of those parents took the time afterward to thank Kernels staff and players for giving their kids this opportunity. Kernels General Manager Scott Wilson was also appreciative of the time put in by Watkins and the players. http://knuckleballsblog.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/WhiteHildenberger2-600x400.jpg TJ White and Trevor Hildenberger working with a group of outfielders "You've got to think about, these guys played last night and get out of bed and be here by 8:30 to do this camp," WIlson pointed out. "Then they're probably going to go in the locker room, take a nap on the couch and then at 2:00 get back up and report for baseball and then do their jobs." The Kernels have a long tradition of community outreach and the camps are just one example. They also sponsor a summer reading program that involves Kernels players going out in to the elementary schools to read to kids and encourage them to read on their own over the summer. http://knuckleballsblog.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/BooserVavra-600x450.jpg Cam Booser and Trey Vavra talking baseball with campers in the indoor batting cage The Youth Camp has long been a popular program "I would say we've probably been doing this camp for about ten or twelve years," Wilson said. "It's gone through a lot of changes. We used to do a two-day camp that was four hours at a time - much more kind of intense. But with 137 participants that we had today, that's hard to try to keep focus and attention spans. http://knuckleballsblog.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/DoeCurtiss-600x400.jpg Brett Doe and John Curtiss getting organized with some campers on the mound "The way that Tommy runs it now, I love it, because everybody rotates to little different things." Nobody is going to become a big league ballplayer just by attending the Kernel's two-hour camp, of course. But that's not really the point. The Kernels want to provide an enjoyable and affordable opportunity for some of the youngest fans in the local area to share a field with real professional ballplayers. Each camper also gets a Kernels cap and a voucher for a free ticket to a Kernels game, in addition to getting autographs from the players once the camp wraps up at the end of the morning. http://knuckleballsblog.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Watkins-2.jpg Kernels hitting coach Tommy Watkins was directing things at the camp but pitched in with the workout stations, too "Although you might think that they're not getting a lot of individual instruction, it's an affordable $15 camp," Wilson pointed out. "You're getting a ball cap, you're getting a ticket and they get to spend some time with some guys and see the drills that they do on a daily basis. As Wilson went on to explain, it's very possible that some of the young ballplayers have already had a chance to meet a few of these players. http://knuckleballsblog.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/KernelsAuotgraphs-600x400.jpg Kernels players signing autographs after the camp wrapped up "All of these (players) have been involved, too, in our schools program for us. These kids probably saw them at the reading program and now they get to shake their hand, get an autograph and play catch in their world with them, even if it's just throwing the ball to them one time."
  17. Age: 21 (DOB: 12/18/1993) 2014 Stats (Fort Myers/New Britain): .234/.307/.395 (.702) with 4-2B, 2-3B, 4-HR ETA: Late 2015 2014 Ranking: 1 What’s To Like Buxton has more tools than HGTV -- is one shecky way to describe his potential. He has plus speed, plus defense, plus hit tool, plus makeup and so on. "He'll wow you in the batter's box. He'll wow you in the outfield. He can run. He can fly. He has the arm. He's got the tools," was the review Miracle hitting coach Tommy Watkins gave reporters when Buxton hit the Florida State League in 2013. "He's an exciting player. He does everything whether it is stepping in the box and hitting doubles and triples or taking doubles away from guys." Still, the road to the majors is littered with players who have had tools but failed to apply themselves. In a 2014 profile of Buxton, the Star Tribune highlighted the young player’s offseason workout routine which involved a daily morning run at 5:30 followed by hours of personal training and batting practice -- all before lunch. Certainly lack of a work ethic is not going to hinder Buxton’s potential. Buxton earned an invitation to major league camp and will have the opportunity to work with veteran Torii Hunter, hoping to glean some valuable insight that may also help lead to a fruitful career. There are some who believe Buxton has an even brighter future than the five-time All-Star. "I played with Torii at 19-, 20-years-old and this kid has all the tools, if not more, than Torii had," Miracle manager Doug Meintkiewicz, a teammate of Hunter’s, told reporters after watching Buxton play. What’s Left To Work On Proving he can stay on the field, for one thing. As far as the injuries go however, Buxton said that he’s fully recovered and the collision in the outfield has not made him gun-shy in the least. “My health is good,” Buxton said on the Twins Hot Stove Show. “I wouldn’t change the way I play the game. I’m gonna play it hard and try to take away as many base hits that I can and try to help my pitcher out.” Of all of his tools, his hitting needs the most work. While it is very much above average, it is not quite at the plus-plus grade that his defense and speed receive. Since being added to the system the Twins staff has made some changes to his swing mechanics, hoping to get him to be a bit more balanced at the point of contact rather than drifting forward. While heading for the Arizona Fall League ,Buxton told the Twins Hot Stove Show that he wanted to work on going the other way more and improving his pitch selection, which may or may not have been a directive of the front office. “He will have to have to make some adjustments as he moves up the ladder in pro ball,” said scout Therron Brockish at Baseball America in November 2013. “There have been a lot of swings-and-misses in the Arizona Fall League, with the quality of pitching being a little better than what’s he’s probably seen up to this point. Sometimes he loads late, causing him to be late in trying to catch up to a good fastball. I would also like to see him use a little more of the whole field, but he’s still a young hitter with tremendous upside.” He could use a reductionn of his strikeout rate, but it isn't necessarily the swinging strikeouts that cause questions. Th percentage of plate appearances in which he was caught looking doubled from 2013 to 2014. Similarly, in his second tour of the Florida State League Buxton’s walk rate dropped from 13% to 8%. Destined to start his career at the top of the order, the Twins need Buxton to get on base and utilize his elite speed. SUMMARY Believe it or not, Buxton is not far off. According to Twins general manager Terry Ryan, he has a very real chance of making it to Minnesota in 2015. That said, Buxton’s lack of playing time in 2014 hurts his chances of making it to the Twins early in the year. Buxton will most likely start the year reunited with his Miracle manager Mientkiewicz in Chattanooga. If he proves himself capable, he will be on the move quickly. While the second-halves of the seasons lately have's not given Twins fans much reason to visit Target Field, Buxton's presence would surely pique some interest. TD Top Prospect #10: Nick Burdi TD Top Prospect #9: Trevor May TD Top Prospect #8: Eddie Rosario TD Top Prospect #7: Jorge Polanco TD Top Prospect #6: Nick Gordon TD Top Prospect #5: Alex Meyer TD Top Prospect #4: Kohl Stewart TD Top Prospect #3: Jose Berrios TD Top Prospect #2: Miguel Sano TD Top Prospect #1: Byron Buxton
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