Minor League Sports

1st-rounders Royce Lewis, Alex Kirilloff seek big seasons for Cedar Rapids Kernels

Cedar Rapids Kernels Royce Lewis talks to Kenadi Kniffen, 7, and her brother Nile, 4, after Lewis signed their baseball cards of him during the Meet the Kernels event at Veterans Memorial Stadium in southwest Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Tuesday, April 3, 2018. The Kernels home opener is Saturday, April 7 against the Quad Cities River Bandits. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Cedar Rapids Kernels Royce Lewis talks to Kenadi Kniffen, 7, and her brother Nile, 4, after Lewis signed their baseball cards of him during the Meet the Kernels event at Veterans Memorial Stadium in southwest Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Tuesday, April 3, 2018. The Kernels home opener is Saturday, April 7 against the Quad Cities River Bandits. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Royce Lewis’ first offseason as a professional baseball player was one of adjustments.

He secured his driver’s license for the first time, using part of the $6.725 million bonus he received as the first pick of last June’s Major League Draft to buy his first car. It wasn’t some tricked out SUV or anything, but a Toyota Camry, a vehicle true to his humble nature.

Then there was one more thing the 18-year-old Cedar Rapids Kernels shortstop had to get used to that honestly took awhile.

“You get to spend time with your family without doing homework,” he said. “That was different for me. I was home all the time and didn’t have to do any homework. I just had to workout and make sure I’ve got my game on point, my swing on point. Everything went well, and I felt I did the best of my ability to keep in shape. I feel I’m in the best shape of my life right now.”

The opening-day roster for the Kernels appears to be in fine shape thanks to the presence of guys like Lewis and outfielder Alex Kirilloff. They are the first pair of first-round picks on the same roster here since 2011.

You probably don’t remember Chevy Clarke and Kaleb Cowart. Clarke isn’t even playing pro ball anymore, and Cowart continues to languish in the minor leagues, unable to establish himself as a big-league player.

The year before that, the Kernels also had first-rounders in outfielder Randal Grichuk and some guy named Mike Trout. If Lewis and Kirilloff can play closer to that latter pair than the former pair, it should be a fun summer at the ballpark.

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Cedar Rapids opens the Midwest League season Thursday night at Quad Cities. The River Bandits come to town Saturday for the 5:05 p.m. home opener.

“It’s like we’re the Yankees on paper,” Lewis said, with a smile. “A couple of people were joking back in spring training that there is a lot of money involved with this team. It was kind of funny, but it’s kind of true. As far as being prospects, we’re just going to have fun. We’re a good young team, and I’m excited. I know we’re going to work as hard as we can to win games.”

Shortstop Lewis is Minnesota’s top prospect, a high school kid from Southern California who hit a home run in his first pro at-bat last year for the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League Twins. He got a promotion to Cedar Rapids in August and picked up four hits in his first game.

There was thought he’d jump to high-A Fort Myers to begin 2018, but the Twins assigned him back here. Part of the reason was to expose him to playing baseball in cold weather.

“Royce has gotten stronger since last year,” said Kernels hitting coach Brian Dinkelman. “One of the first things I saw in (batting practice) when he came back (for spring training) was how the ball was coming off his bat harder than last year. I don’t know if it was one of those things where he was fatigued at the end of last year and was able to get a little rest. I’m not sure. But you look at spring training, and he hit the ball well.”

“I’ve gained 15, 20 pounds. That’s a big step for my power,” Lewis said. “Just the mental side of it, too. I’m more relaxed. I kind of know how to play the game of baseball a little bit more. Knowing the surroundings here in Cedar Rapids makes me feel calm and relaxed.”

Kirilloff, 20, was Minnesota’s first-round pick in 2016, a home-schooled kid who played for a high school team in the Pittsburgh area. The 15th-overall selection signed for $2.8 million and was named the Rookie-level Appalachian League MVP after hitting .306 in 55 games for Elizabethton.

His left, throwing elbow gave him trouble late in the 2016 season, with he and the Twins deciding to try and rehab the injury. That didn’t work, and Kirilloff underwent Tommy John surgery last spring, missing the entire 2017 season.

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“For me, there were two ways you could look at it,” he said. “You can harp on it, get down on yourself, think about the whole (missed) year. Or you could take it as a challenge and try to make yourself better from it. I tried to do that. Get stronger, pick up on things watching baseball that maybe I wouldn’t have playing every day. You’ve just got to try and make the best of it and come back better.”

Kiriloff is known as a pure hitter with the potential to hit 15 to 20 home runs as he progresses and matures. Like Lewis, he has added 20 pounds or so of muscle since last playing a game.

“Taking that much time off, a year and a half, it’s hard to pick up where you left off,” Kirilloff said. “For me, it’s a new, clean slate. I’m going to take this as a brand new year. Adjustments have to be made. It’s a little different than just going into the next season. It’s certainly going to be a challenge.”

It’s a challenge these two first-rounders are excited about undertaking. They’re pulling for each other.

“I hope he hits a home run every at-bat,” Lewis said.

“I’m rooting for him as a teammate,” Kirilloff said. “I hope he’s saying the same for me. We’re cheering each other on. Just going out there and playing our hardest.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8259; jeff.johnson@thegazette.com

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