CEDAR RAPIDS — The dignitaries started filing into the Eastbank Venue and Lounge in downtown Cedar Rapids about 5:30-ish late Wednesday afternoon.
If you’re a Minnesota Twins fan, you recognized catcher Mitch Garver and outfielder Zack Granite. Cedar Rapids Kernels hitting coach Brian Dinkelman certainly was a familiar face, as he lives here in the offseason and has been around for a couple of seasons.
New manager Toby Gardenhire resembles his dad, Ron, the skipper of the Detroit Tigers. Then there was this shorter guy with dark-rimmed glasses who looked to be about 18 or 19 years old, take away the facial stubble.
That was the new Director of Minor League Operations for the Twins. Jeremy Zoll is all of 27 years old, the youngest farm director in the game.
“Someone mentioned that, but I can’t confirm it, for sure,” said Zoll, part of the annual Cedar Rapids Kernels Hot Stove Banquet/Twins Winter Caravan. “I’ve talked to a lot of people who are trying to take one step at a time and learn as much as they can at each step and talk about ultimate goals and stuff. I think each step I took along the way was a little bit of an unexpected path. You look at people who have progressed in their careers, and there is not one clear way of doing it. It certainly has been exciting, and I’ve enjoyed my first number of years in pro ball. I am really thankful for where I am at right now.”
Zoll played at Division III Haverford College (think Ivy League-level education) and was Coordinator of Advance Scouting for the Los Angeles Angels in 2014. He joined the Los Angeles Dodgers the following year, spending 2015 as Senior Manager of Player Development, then 2016 and 2017 as Assistant Director of Player Development.
You are seeing more and more major league organizations embrace “smart guys,” and certainly the Twins are one. General Manager Thad Levine was a Haverford grad.
Neither he nor Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey played pro ball. Zoll didn’t, either.
Not that it matters, because it doesn’t. Prior farm director Brad Steil was promoted to director of pro scouting for the Twins.
“We’re excited about the farm system,” Zoll said. “It’s probably not getting the love in some of the public circles as it should, with guys like Royce Lewis and Wander Javier and Nick Gordon among others. We’re really excited about the middle-infield, athletic players we have in the system. We’ve got a couple of arms to supplement. We’re feeling good about it. It’s pretty deep, and it’s not just one level. We feel like we’re pretty widespread, from the bottom of our system all the way to the Double-A, Triple-A level.”
Gordon is a former No. 1 draft pick and Kernel who spent the 2017 season in Double-A. Javier was signed out of the Dominican Republic for high dollars and also is a shortstop, slated to play in Cedar Rapids at some point this coming season.
Lewis was the first-overall draft pick this past June and ended 2017 with the Kernels. Zoll was asked whether he envisioned the 18-year-old as a Kernel when the Midwest League season begins in April.
“There are several guys, including Royce, that we are looking to have some more in-depth conversations with, with part of our executive leadership group,” he said. “He’s an unbelievable talent, and we just need to find a way to what we think will maximize his talent. No decision has been made, yet. Not sure if spring training will dictate that. We’re going to work through some of those tougher discussions in the next few weeks. Certainly if we can find situations to take pressure off some guys, we will look to do that as well.”
The early profile of the 2018 Kernels looks promising from a prospect standpoint. Baseball America recently rated its top 10 Twins prospects, and half of those are expected to spend time in Cedar Rapids in 2018 (Lewis, Javier, outfielder Alex Kirilloff and pitchers Brusdal Graterol and Blayne Enlow).
Kirilloff was Minnesota’s top draft pick in 2016, but missed the 2017 season after incurring Tommy John elbow surgery.
“We’re really excited,” Zoll said. “Some decisions still need to be made in the next few weeks and spring training, as far as placement of some guys. But like you said, a lot of talent in the lower levels in the GCL and E-town, some guys that will end up in Cedar Rapids, maybe start the year here as well. It’s a balancing act, but we certainly see Cedar Rapids having a good amount of talent throughout the year.”
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