Last week, Twins Director of Minor League Operations Brad Steil was in Cedar Rapids watching the Kernels play six games. In an interview with MetroSportsReport.com’s Jim Ecker, Steil said, “I think off of this team, you could easily see six to eight of those guys eventually make it to the big leagues.”
As I look at the Kernels’ current roster, I think that number could be as high as ten, with a few more high-ceiling players rehabbing in Extended Spring Training. Obviously there is a lot of attrition because Low Class A and the big leagues, so it’s unlikely that ten of these players will actually get to the big leagues. However, it feels I need to remind people that Cedar Rapids, and all of these future Twins, plays their home games just four hours from the Twins Cities.
I made that trek for their Opening Weekend, so I was able to watch four practices and three ball games. It was cool (temperature-wise, and just to be there), but I came away from there with several take-aways. I know I’ll be going back in late June on the Territory Train, and I would love to get down there a third time sometime this summer to see what changes or improvements have been made since early April. Tickets are very reasonable and the Kernels’ staff does so much to make the experience a lot of fun for the fans.
Below are my thoughts on ten prospects currently on the Kernels roster:
Byron Buxton (my #2 Twins preseason prospect) – As I’ve said often since seeing Buxton in person five weeks ago, if someone wants to say Buxton is the #1 Twins prospect (yes, ahead of Miguel Sano), I have no problem with that. His speed is absolutely game-changing. He has very good power. He has tremendous patience at the plate. He has walked 24 times in 126 plate appearances. He can steal bases. He plays great defense. He has an incredible arm. He’s just 19 years old.
Jose (JO) Berrios (#8) – Berrios is still just 18 years old until the end of the month. He was not in Cedar Rapids when I was there at the start of the season because of his participation in the World Baseball Classic. The Twins wanted to stretch him out to start before sending him up. He’s now made three starts for the Kernels and is 3-0 with a 2.55 ERA. In 17.2 innings, he has two walks and 21 strikeouts. His fastball sits 92-94 and touches 96 already. He has a plus-breaking ball, and he is developing a potentially-plus change up. He will move up the rankings when they are done next.
Travis Harrison (#14) – He was the Twins first supplemental first round pick in 2011 out of high school in California. Last year, he hit about .300 in Elizabethton, but didn’t show a lot of power. In watching him work, and specifically watching him take batting practice, you could just see the power potential that he has. It’s starting to show as he already has nine doubles and five home runs on the season. That doesn’t include his recent walk-off grand slam that was called a single because of the celebration. His defense at third base remains a work-in-progress, but he works very hard at it. This is another guy who will move up the rankings.
Adam Walker (#16) – I wasn’t sure what to expect from Walker when I got to Cedar Rapids. I had always heard that he had as much power as anyone in the organization, including Miguel Sano. And then I saw him take batting practice, and I would absolutely agree with the assessment. Now, in the three games I saw, he played in two of them and did very little. But, watching him practice, it was clear that it was just a matter of time. Things have certainly clicked for Walker. He now is hitting .303 with seven doubles, two triples and seven home runs. He has driven in 32 runs. He is a big man and very strong. However, he is a very good athlete and has taken well to right field. He’s just 21 despite already having played three years of college ball. Yes, he will be moving up this list as well.
Jorge Polanco (#19) – Polanco was signed as a very little, 16-year-old the same year that the Twins signed Sano. He was to be a great shortstop, and he struggled with the bat in two seasons in the GCL. Last year, he hit for a good batting average in Elizabethton, but with little power. I’m always now a little leery of E-Town stats. Polanco is still just 19-years-old and now he’s hitting .345/.387/.504 (.892) with nine doubles, three triples and a home run. He was the team’s #2 hitting on Opening Night, and he’s hit #3 every game he has played since. He’s playing primarily second base, but he’ll continue to get time at shortstop. He is very smooth defensively, but his offensive, frankly, surprised me. Despite not walking a lot, he does seem to have a good grasp of the strike zone. As you would expect, Polanco will also be moving, quite a bit, up this list.
Mason Melotakis (#22) – Melotakis was a Twins 2nd round pick last year out of college. The 21 year old left-hander throws pretty hard. When I saw him in Cedar Rapids, he was sitting 90-93 with the fastball and throwing three pitches. Pitching out of the bullpen in 2012, he was hitting as high as 97 on the radar gun. As he’s transitioning to the rotation from the bullpen, it’s necessary to last more than an inning or two, so it’s normal to see the velocity come down a little bit, at least temporarily. He’s pitched in just 23.2 innings over his first five starts. He’s walked 12 and struck out 21. I’m definitely supportive of keeping him in the starting rotation for awhile because I do think he has the three-pitch mix to be successful with it.
Niko Goodrum (#27) – I moved Goodrum down the list a little too far last year. He repeated at Elizabethton and his batting average went down. However, and much more important, he improved his patience and walk total, and he increased his power numbers as well. Goodrum has a very nice swing from both sides of the plate. He has good speed. He is long and lanky, but he is proud that he’s up to 200 pounds and plans to stay there. He could add more power production. Defensively, he does a very solid job at shortstop. He’s not flashy, but he makes most of the plays. He recently turned 21. He’s still quite raw, but he has a chance to be a very solid ballplayer!
Hudson Boyd (#29) – It isn’t as obvious, statistically, that Boyd is a potential big leaguer. To see it, you have to look at things beyond the stat line. Right now, in 23.2 innings, he has a 5.48 ERA, 24 hits allowed, 14 walks and just 17 strikeouts. The second Twins supplemental first-round pick in 2011, from high school in Florida, Boyd has some good stuff. He has a low-90s fastball that will hit 95 when things warm up. He shows a good curveball, and he occasionally has a very good changeup. The problem has been consistency with mechanics, release point, control and some confidence. Boyd lost 45 pounds in the offseason, showing that he is willing to work to improve.
Tyler Duffey (NR) has been one of the better pitchers in the organization through the first five weeks. He threw seven perfect innings in his first start of the year and has been pretty good since. He was a reliever in college, at Rice, but he’s made the move to the rotation look simple. He’s got three good pitches which leads one to think that he could stick as a starter as he moves up.
Dalton (DJ) Hicks – Hicks was the 17th round pick a year ago out of Central Florida. The first baseman became known last year when his walk-off grand slam gave the Elizabethton Twins the Appalachian League championship. He’s been the everyday first baseman and clean-up hitter and hit well. He has a lot of power. He’s got nine doubles and four home runs this season. An overly-positive comp for him as a hitter is someone like Adam Dunn. He’ll walk. He’ll strikeout. He’ll hit for a lot of power… if he develops.
There are ten guys who may have a chance to get to the big leagues if they develop nicely. I didn’t include Tyler Jones, a hard-throwing reliever. He was just put on the Disabled List with an elbow injury. JD Williams is a tremendous athlete with great speed, a great eye at the plate and good defense. Middle infielder Candido Pimentel was the Appalachian League MVP in 2012. He’s got great speed. Josh Burris and his killer curveball just recently arrived in Cedar Rapids as well. Lefty Brett Lee has a very live arm. Right now he’s in the 6-man rotation, but he could be a devastating lefty-reliever.
And, consider that Max Kepler (#10) will hopefully be arriving in Cedar Rapids soon after missing the early season with an elbow injury. Luke Bard (#20) is also rehabbing an injury in Florida, but he will likely get a chance to start with the Kernels at some point this summer. Hopefully JT Chargois will be able to pitch in 2013 for the Kernels.
It’s also possible that the three members of the Kernels’ coaching staff will be Twins coaches at some point in their careers. Manager Jake Mauer does a terrific job of teaching and organizing these young men. He knows baseball, and knows the game well. Tommy Watkins is a great illustration for the players to show perseverance and not to give up on anything until your jersey is ripped from you. He also known hitting and defense. He relates so well to the player. Like Watkins, Gary Lucas is a former big leaguer. He’s been coaching in the Midwest League for about a decade. It’s clear how much he enjoys teaching young pitchers and pushing them to think through their pitches and the situations on the mound.
Check out the Kernels schedule and see if it works to book a trip there for a weekend. Like I said, it’s just a four hour drive. I talked to several people the weekend I was there who drove down for the game and then drove back afterwards. Some spent a night and went to two games.
It’s a great trip. Minor League ball is always entertaining. But for Twins fans, it’s an opportunity to see some future Twins two or three years early. It’ll be fun to be able to say you saw Byron Buxton or JO Berrios before they became big league stars. I remember my first trip to games in Beloit three years ago. Brian Dozier, Aaron Hicks and Mike Trout were all on the field. It’s fun to do your own scouting reports on the players.
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