Kernels tee it up for real Thursday night

Strong pitching, but this is not last year's team

Published: April 2 2014 | 4:08 pm - Updated: 7 April 2014 | 3:06 pm in

CEDAR RAPIDS - First of all, forget last year.

You might never see a collection of offensive talent the likes the Cedar Rapids Kernels had in 2013. It began with minor league player of the year Byron Buxton and continued up and down the lineup.

These are not those Kernels. That's not saying it won't be a successful summer at the old ballyard or anything, but 88 wins is going to be awfully tough to duplicate.

If the Men of Corn get anywhere close, it'll probably be because of pitching. There are some real good arms on this team.

"I'd say absolutely," said Kernels Manager Jake Mauer, whose team opens the Midwest League season Thursday night at home against Clinton (6:35 p.m. first pitch, on KCRG-9.2). "Last year, with the boys that we had that could hit the ball over the fence, you could score eight, nine runs real quick. Things like that. We're probably not going to have that luxury this season.

"I'd say our starting rotation, there are more power arms than we had in the past. There are a couple of boys in there that can run it up there pretty good. We're going to rely on them. Our starting pitching is going to be pretty deep."

The biggest name of the bunch is 19-year-old right-hander Kohl Stewart, the fourth-overall pick in last year's MLB draft. Baseball America ranks the Texan the Twins' No. 4 minor-league prospect.

He'll start Sunday against Clinton. Former Indiana Hoosier Aaron Slegers - all 6-foot-10 of him - gets the nod on opening night.

Lefty Randy Rosario starts Friday night, followed by Ryan Eades, Stewart, Miguel Sulbaran and Felix Jorge. Rosario and Jorge, both from the Dominican Republic, also are ranked among the top 25 prospects in the Twins organization.

There are more touted arms in extended spring training that should see Cedar Rapids at some point this season, including 18-year-old Australian lefty Lewis Thorpe and 19-year-old righty Stephen Gonsalves.

"We have a lot of good (pitching) talent," Stewart said. "I think we've kind of been feeding off each other a little bit. I think those guys (Thorpe and Gonsalves) will probably be here by the end of the year. I mean, we've got Slegers, Eades, Rosario, the list goes on. There are a lot of guys in the lower levels with the Twins right now that will probably be in the big leagues someday together. That's exciting. We're going to feed off each other and make each other better."

Lineup wise, Mauer said his club has guys who can play multiple positions. Everyday givens include 19-year-old Venezuelan Engelb Vielma, who has work to do with the bat but who can really pick it at shortstop.

Bryan Haar will get a lot of time at first base after tying for the Rookie-level Appalachian League in extra-base hits last season. Other infielders are returnee Joel Licon, Logan Wade, Tanner Vavra and Cedar Rapids' own Chad Christensen.

The Cedar Rapids Washington grad and former Nebraska Cornhusker will play a utility role.

"Chad is really going to help us," Mauer said. "One, with his versatility. He can play multiple positions, wouldn't be afraid to put him anywhere in the infield and the corner outfield. He's a guy that obviously has some experience playing at Nebraska. He's going to give us quality at-bats, compete at the plate."

Catchers include returnees Michael Quesada and Bo Altobelli, as well as Mitch Garver, a ninth-round draft pick from the University of New Mexico last June. Mauer said he expects speedy Zach Granite to be the most days center fielder, with Zack Larson and returnee Jeremias Pineda also in the mix.

"We're excited to be back, there's no doubt about it," Mauer said. "Four long weeks down in spring training. We started with about 40 guys we were thinking about bringing up here, and now it's whittled down to 25. We're pretty excited about the guys who came up here with us.

"We're an older team, but we're probably not as experienced as last year. We're going to be more interchangeable, I'd say. More versatile than last year ... It's kind of the old cliché. Who's hitting is going to play the most. Not going to lie to you. We're here to develop, but I hate to lose, too."


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