Surprises...Down on the Farm.

Matt Ryerson-US PRESSWIRE

All four full season teams begin play on Thursday. The exciting news is that the Twins have a new affiliation in the Midwest League, the Cedar Rapids Kernels. The Kernels play in ten year old 5,500 seat Veterans Memorial Stadium where a new half million dollar scoreboard was installed earlier this spring.

Last year the Rochester Red Wings recovered from back-to-back ninety loss seasons to play .500 ball while the Rock Cats finished third, a game out of the playoffs. Of the four teams, only Beloit made the playoffs off the big bats of Miguel Sano, Eddie Rosario and others combined with excellent starting pitching. Will more than one team make the playoffs this season? Will the Twins organization be able to boast a league champion five months from now? Their fates will be decided on the field beginning with their first pitches tomorrow.

The rosters of the four full-season teams are now set for opening day. A review of the rosters reveals many surprises, some positive and others disappointing. The operating plan at Rochester has changed from several years ago when their roster was filled with home grown talent. To be able to compete with others in the International League, this year’s team is stocked with veteran AAA players with a few top prospects mixed in.

The Red Wings appear to have a solid pitching staff, with twenty-two pitchers currently on their roster. Ten (Bryan Augenstein, Nick Blackburn, Kyle Davies, Sam Deduno, Deolis Guerra, Rich Harden, Lester Oliveros, Rafael Perez, Dan Sattler and Esmerling Vasquez) are on the disabled list with most rehabbing in Fort Myers. Their opening day starter will be P. J. Walters, who looked very good in limited innings with the Twins this spring. The rest of the starting rotation will include top prospect Kyle Gibson, lefty Pedro Hernandez, Shairon Martis and Virgil Vasquez, who is an International League veteran. With Scott Diamond scheduled to come off the disabled list by mid-April, the rotation could be bolstered with either Liam Hendriks or Cole DeVries. Sam Deduno should also return from the disabled list by the end of April. The bullpen will again be anchored by Anthony Slama with Bruce Pugh and Andrew Albers moving up from New Britain.

The Red Wings have four members of the Twins 40-man roster on their squad, catchers Drew Butera and Chris Herrmann along with outfielders Oswaldo Arcia and Joe Benson. The rest of the lineup will all be minor league veterans including Chris Colabello, who drove in 98 runs for New Britain last year, and Mark Soboleweski, who was a minor league Rule 5 pickup after hitting twenty home runs in AA/AAA. Deibinson Romero is also on their inactive roster, however, he has not reported due to some of his personal documentation being lost in a flood which has delayed his VISA.

After missing the playoffs by one game in each of the last two seasons, the New Britain Rock Cats are poised to compete this year with what may be the organization’s best starting rotation. In somewhat of a surprise, Alex Meyer will begin his Twins career with the Rock Cats where he will be joined by fellow winter pickup, Trevor May. Will this tandem be the newest version of the M & M boys? The rest of the starting staff will include two lefties drafted in the first six rounds of the 2010 draft, Logan Darnell and Pat Dean. B. J. Hermsen was scheduled to be one of their five starters, however, he will begin the season on the disabled list while in Fort Myers where he will be joined by Matt Hauser, Aaron Thompson, Dakota Watts and Alex Wimmers. If Wimmers can maintain the same schedule as Kyle Gibson last year, he should be available to pitch in New Britain by late June. Will that coincide with Meyer moving up to Rochester or beyond?

The rest of the pitching staff includes three others moving up from the Miracle, A. J. Achter, Nelvin Fuentes and Michael Tonkin, who was very impressive in spring training. Former Rock Cat, Bobby Lanigan, will return from Rochester.

Only two position players are moving up from Fort Myers, shortstop Danny Santana and outfielder Daniel Ortiz. Danny Lehmann and Evan Bigley were likely disappointed when they learned they both were returning after spending the last part of 2012 in Rochester. Catcher Josmil Pinto, who is a member of the Twins 40-man roster, will be joined by veteran minor league signees Reynaldo Rodriguez, Harold Garcia, Eric Farris, Jason Christian, and Antoan Richardson. Also joining the Rock Cats is first baseman/outfielder Curt Smith, who was signed during this year’s WBC where he was a member of the Dutch team. The Rock Cats excellent pitching staff will be aided by Pinto, Lehmann and Santana, who are considered amongst the best defensive players at their positions in the organization.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in the entire organization is that D. J. Baxendale will begin his first full season with the organization as a starter in Fort Myers. After pitching only eleven innings of relief last August in Beloit, most of us expected Baxendale to begin this season as a starter in Cedar Rapids. The other four starters for the Miracle will be Madison Boer, Tom Stuifbergen, Matt Summers and Jason Wheeler, who will move up from low A ball after leading the Midwest League with fourteen wins (14-6). Also moving up from Beloit are relievers Corey Williams and Cole Johnson. The man with the nearly 100 mph fastball, Zach Jones, will also begin his first full season in Fort Myers following his selection by the Twins in the fourth round of last year’s draft. Adrian Salcedo will also be back with the Miracle after missing almost all of the 2012 season.

The Miracle’ pitching staff will be supported by what may be the most exciting young lineup in the organization. Infielders Andy Leer, Michael Gonzales and Levi Michael all return, although Michael will begin his season on the disabled list. They will be joined by three of the best hitting prospects in the organization, Miguel Sano, Eddie Rosario and Kennys Vargas. Also moving up from Beloit are middle infielders A. J. Pettersen and Steven Wickens. Returning outfielders Jhonathan Goncalves and Lance Ray will be joined by former Gopher Mike Kvasnicka, who was recently obtained from the Houston organization in a trade. One disappointed member of the Miracle has to be Angel Morales, who will begin his fourth season in Fort Myers. Perhaps this is the year Morales will find what made him so special several years ago at Elizabethton and Beloit.

The Cedar Rapids Kernels’ pitching staff will include three of the exciting arms drafted high in 2012, Tyler Duffy, Taylor Rogers and Mason Melotakis, who will be a starter. Following nearly a year on the disabled list, Manuel Soliman will return to low A ball to get his career back on track. Two of the best starters in the Midwest League the last half of the season, David Hurlbut and Matt Tomshaw, will pick up where they left off, albeit in a different city. Three exciting arms, Hudson Boyd, Brett Lee and Chris Mazza, will make the move up from Elizabethton for opening day. Tim Shibuya and Dallas Gallant are also on the roster, however, will begin their seasons on the disabled list.

Even though the Kernels’ pitching staff will be strong, the exciting aspect of this team will be their position players. Cedar Rapids baseball fans are waiting to see Byron Buxton, who will be the highest drafted player ever to play for the Kernels. He will be joined in the outfield by fellow Appalachian League champs’ Romy Jimenez (Trinidad) and Adam Walker. Nate Roberts is also on their roster, however, he is again on the disabled list and most expect him to begin his season elsewhere when he is ready to play. The Kernels’ infield will be led by five members of last year’s Elizabethton championship team, top prospects Jorge Polanco and Travis Harrison along with D. J. Hicks, Niko Goodrum and former centerfielder, Candido Pimentel.

Players noticeably absent from these rosters include Max Kepler, Luke Bard and Jose Berrios. It has been reported that Bard and Berrios are back in Fort Meyers ‘stretching out their arms.’ Kepler is also in Fort Myers dealing with a sore elbow which isn’t considered to be serious. I wouldn’t be surprised if all three appear in Cedar Rapids after any chance of playing in near freezing conditions ends. It is a bit of a surprise to me that Josh Burris, J. T. Chargois and Angel Mata are also absent from the Kernels roster. I also thought that at least one of the exciting arms from the Gulf Coast League Twins staff from last summer would make the jump to Cedar Rapids. None have which means the Elizabethton Twins will have a special pitching staff when they begin play in June. With a winter of talk and much anticipation behind us, it is time to ‘play ball.’

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