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SD Buhr/Jim Crikket

Kernels First Impressions

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With Tuesday night's rainout in Wisconsin, the Kernels have five games under their belts. It's far too soon to draw any firm conclusions about this year's club, but those games were enough to make some first impressions. First of all, they've put up a 4-1 record, so that's a pretty good first impression, in itself.

With the obvious “small sample size” warning label appropriately affixed, here are just a few more things that have stood out to me over the first five games of the season:


1) Byron Buxton can play baseball.

In an attempt to temper the extremely high expectations placed on Buxton somewhat, fans have been reminded that this is the Georgia native’s first exposure to full-season professional baseball, as well as his first time playing ball in chilly Midwest April temperatures, so we shouldn’t be surprised if it takes Buxton a while to become acclimated to Midwest League play.

So far, I think he's acclimating well.



Byron Buxton (Photo: Knuckleballsblog.com)

Through the first five games of the season, Buxton is hitting an even .500, with a Midwest League-leading OPS of 1.515. His .950 slugging percentage was more than 100 points higher than anyone else in the MWL going in to Tuesday's games. He's hit two home runs, a triple and a double among his ten hits overall.


The question that's already being posed almost daily is, "how long will Buxton stay in Cedar Rapids?” The Kernels management would obviously like to see him stick around all season and one of the selling points the Twins brass made to Cedar Rapids during their affiliation dance last fall was that they don't rush their prospects through their system. They cited Miguel Sano spending all of 2012 in Beloit as an example.

But Sano had issues to work through last year, specifically on defense. Buxton doesn't have those issues. If he keeps hitting for average and power during the first half of the season, I won't be surprised to see him move up to Fort Myers some time near mid-season.


2)
The six-man rotation.


The Twins are trying to find out whether some of the power-arms they have drafted the past couple of years can be converted from bullpen roles to starting pitchers and manager Jake Mauer's six-man rotation allows them to look at more starting pitching candidates. In addition, it helps them limit the number of innings the pitchers put on their arms over the course of the season and, in particular, during the cooler days and nights of April in the Midwest.


Mauer asked for and received a 13th pitcher from the Twins as a replacement for Drew Leachman, who went on the 7-day Disabled List with a bum shoulder. Of course, that could leave the Kernels manager a little short on position players on the bench, especially considering that the team carries three catchers. But Mauer pointed out Sunday that Tyler Grimes, who’s in his first season behind the plate, would be available to play the infield in an emergency.

As for their performance through five games, the Kernels' pitching has been impressive.


How impressive? Consider this: a week ago, the writing staff at MiLB.com published their picks for the top offensive line ups in each affiliated minor league in the country. Their pick for the top line up in the Midwest League was the Beloit Snappers, the team the Kernels hosted in their opening four-game series of the season.


MiLB.com specifically mentioned Snappers Matt Olson, Renato Nunez, Bruce Maxwell and Aaron Shipman as demonstrating the ”remarkable depth” of the Snappers offense and concluding, “This potent collection of youth and talent give Beloit the lineup with the most upside top-to-bottom in the league.”


Kernels pitchers held that foursome to a .183 batting average with 23 strike outs in that series.


Overall, through five games, the Kernels staff was leading the MWL in team ERA (1.80) and WHIP (1.022), while striking out 50 hitters in 45 innings of work.


All 13 pitchers have made at least one appearance in the first five games and seven of them... Tyler Duffey, Tyler Jones, Taylor Rogers, Steven Gruver, Matt Tomshaw, Brett Lee and Tim Atherton... survived those games with perfect 0.00 ERAs.


Obviously, the pitching can't keep that level of performance up forever, but so far both the rotation and the bullpen have been outstanding.


3)
Byron Buxton's not the only position player off to a good start.


While Buxton gets most of the attention among the Kernels' position players, there were other impressive performances over the first five games.


Dalton Hicks has started the season hitting .389 and getting on base at an even .500 clip. Add in his .722 slugging percentage and you get an impressive 1.222 OPS to start the season. Among his seven hits, he's belted out three doubles and a home run.

J.D. Williams has also gotten off to a fast start, putting together a slash line of .385/.526/.462 for a .988 OPS. He's shown good plate discipline out of the #9 spot in the order, accumulating five walks against just a pair of strikeouts.


In total, going in to Tuesday night, Cedar Rapids led the league in slugging (.450) and OPS (.797). Kernels hitters struck out 30 times in the first five games, the fewest in the league.


There's at least one more Kernels player that I think warrants a mention.


Coming in to the season, the perception of third baseman Travis Harrison was that he was another infield "project," along the lines of Miguel Sano a year ago. I'm no expert on all of the ins and outs of playing third base, but I saw Sano in an early-season series a year ago and I've now seen Harrison play three games at the position. For my money, Harrison is well ahead of where Sano was defensively a year ago. Harrison not only wants to get better, he wants to be good at the position, and he's putting in the work to make that happen.


4)
The no-hitter.


I’d never seen a no-hitter at the professional level before Sunday. The closest I’d come was being present at the Metrodome a few years back when the Royals' Mike Sweeney broke up Twins pitcher Scott Baker’s perfect game in the ninth inning.Thanks to Tyler Duffey and friends, I can check “see a no-hitter” off my Bucket List.



Tyler Duffey (Photo: Knuckleballsblog.com)

Duffey was remarkable through his seven innings of perfect work. Between he and his catcher, Jairo Rodriguez, they had the Snappers off balance through most of those innings.


That said, he got some pretty impressive defensive help behind him, as well. Just off the top of my head, I can recall outstanding plays by Harrison at third base, Williams in left field, Niko Goodrum at shortstop and Hicks at first base. I’m sure there were others, as well.

It was tough for Mauer and pitching coach Gary Lucas to pull Duffey from a perfect game, but it’s April and this is Iowa and there’s no way they, or the Twins brass, would allow Duffey to go much beyond his allotted 75 pitch limit… nor should they.


You can’t fault Josue Montanez, who arrived in Cedar Rapids the night before as the replacement for Leachman, if he was a bit nervous coming in to relieve Duffey in the eighth inning. He walked three and coughed up the shutout on a sacrifice fly, but he kept the no-hitter intact. Tim Atherton walked one hitter in the ninth inning, but struck out the other three batters he faced to put a pretty emphatic exclamation point on the no-hitter.


SD Buhr covers the Kernels for MetroSportsReport.com in Cedar Rapids. His alter-ego, "Jim Crikket," is a co-founder of Knuckleballsblog.com.

Updated 04-10-2013 at 07:58 AM by SD Buhr

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