Minor League Sports

The best players in 20 years covering the Cedar Rapids Kernels

Mike Trout dives back to first base a Cedar Rapids Kernels game against the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers at Miller Park on Friday, May 7, 2010, in Milwaukee, Wis. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Mike Trout dives back to first base a Cedar Rapids Kernels game against the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers at Miller Park on Friday, May 7, 2010, in Milwaukee, Wis. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — I’ve watched Cedar Rapids’ professional baseball team for over four decades.

I remember going to games at the old Veterans Memorial Stadium with my dad, mom and sisters in the 1970s. Dad would make popcorn on the stove and put it into paper grocery bags that we’d carry into the ballpark.

Doubt you could get away with that these days.

My earliest memories are of the Cedar Rapids Astros, who were here in 1973 and 1974. The Cedar Rapids Giants followed them, and I can remember being a big fan of Bob Brenly, the former big league player and manager who is a television broadcaster for the Arizona Diamondbacks now.

I was nervous as heck when I got my first opportunity as a younger reporter at The Gazette to cover a Cedar Rapids Kernels game in 1998. I was proud as heck when I was able to take over the Kernels beat full time the following season.

Do the math there, and this is the 20th season of Kernels coverage for me. That’s a ton of games, a ton of time spent at the ballpark.

And I’ve loved virtually every minute of it!

I’ve met so many good people over the years through professional baseball, and that includes those who work and did work in the Kernels front office. Not trying to suck up there, honest.

There is never a shortage of material to write about. I have always felt that every player, manager or coach has a story to tell, and it’s up to me to find out what is that story.

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So, anyway, with this sort of a “milestone” season, I decided to take a look back and pick my own personal top 10 memories and my 20-year Kernels All-Star Team. It’s one guy per position, with three outfielders, two starting pitchers, two relievers and a manager.

How did I decide who to pick? Mostly what they accomplished in their careers.

Some were easy selections. Mike Trout in the outfield ... hello.

Some were not easy. For better or worse, this is what I came up with.

Would love your feedback.

First base

Mark Trumbo (2006, 2007): An 18th-round pick of the parent Los Angeles Angels in 2004, Trumbo played the entire 2006 and 2007 seasons here, combining for 27 home runs. He is on the disabled list for the Baltimore Orioles, but when he returns from it, it’ll be his ninth big league season. He is also just five games shy of 1,000 in his major league career. The two-time MLB all-star had a career-high 47 homers in 2016 for the Orioles and has 201 in his big league career with the Orioles, Angels, Seattle Mariners and Arizona Diamondbacks. Not too shabby.

 

Others considered: Casey Kotchman (2001).

Second base

Howie Kendrick (2004): Is in his 13th season in the major leagues as an infielder with the Washington Nationals. Going into Thursday, sported a .291 career batting average in 1,445 big league games. Played in the 2011 All-Star Game. Was a 10th-round draft pick of the Angels in 2010 out of St. John’s River Community College in Florida. Won the Midwest League batting title in his only season as a Kernel, despite playing in just 74 games because of injury. Didn’t have the needed amount of at-bats to actually qualify, but his .367 average was good enough to win it when you added the ABs he needed and gave him an 0-fer in them. That rule has been changed, by the way.

 

Others considered: Jean Segura (2010), Alexi Amarista (2009), Alexi Casilla (2004, 2005).

Shortstop

Erick Aybar (2003): He was “Hoover” to Alberto Callaspo’s “Oreck” in the middle infield for the 2003 Kernels. Or maybe it was the other way around. Either way, those guys could both pick it defensively and were a stellar SS-2B combo. Aybar won a Gold Glove in 2011 and was a 2014 All-Star. He hit .271 in 1,454 MLB games for the Angels, Braves, Tigers and Padres from 2006 to 2017. You can say this about the Angels’ time as the Kernels’ parent team. They produced a lot of good middle infielders.

Others considered: Andrew Romine (2008), Jorge Polanco (2013), Royce Lewis (2017, 2018) as first first-overall draft pick to play in C.R.

 

Third base

Alberto Callaspo (2003): Quite honestly, there weren’t many good candidates here. Callaspo played some 3B in the big leagues, so he’s the pick. Hit .327 with 38 doubles for the ‘03 Kernels and made his major league debut three years later for Arizona. Crafted a .265 career average in 10 seasons, playing just over 1,000 MLB games for Arizona, Kansas City, the Los Angeles Angels, Oakland, Atlanta and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

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Others considered: Sean Rodriguez (2003, 2004), Kaleb Cowart (2012).

Catcher

Mike Napoli (2001, 2002): He and Jeff Mathis were the catchers on the ‘02 Kernels, but Mathis was the much better prospect. Napoli was an All-Star in 2012 and won a World Series with Boston in 2013. He smashed 267 career home runs in 12 big-league seasons, including a career-high 34 in 2016 for Cleveland. Drove in 101 runs that season. For a 17th-round draft pick out of a Florida high school, Nap had a heck of a career.

 

Others considered: Jeff Mathis (2002), Alex Dvorsky (2003) just for the local boy angle.

Outfield

Mike Trout (2009, 2010): This is what I tell people when they ask me about Mike Trout here. You didn’t have to know a thing about baseball, but when you watched him jog onto the field, you knew he was the best player. He just had that aura about him, cockiness, but not in a bad way. Trout is a two-time American League MVP, a two-time All-Star Game MVP, a six-time All-Star, and he’s only 26 years old

Byron Buxton (2013): It was only natural to compare Buxton to Trout because of the similar impacts they made here in just a half-season of play. There is no greater joy as a baseball fan than watching Buck run down a ball in the gap and catch it with a full-out dive. Or see him hit a ball in the gap and watching him run for a triple. Buxton hit .253 with 29 stolen bases last season, won a Gold Glove and was named Wilson’s Overall Defensive Player of the Year

 

Randal Grichuk (2010, 2011): The third pick was tough. In another year or two, it could be Max Kepler of the Minnesota Twins. But Grichuk gets the nod. He was the Angels’ other first-round draft pick in 2009, with Trout. Had 22 home runs last season with the St. Louis Cardinals and 24 the season before that. Now with Toronto.

Others considered: Peter Bourjos (2007), Max Kepler (2013), Chad Christensen (2014) as another hometown boy plays at home.

Starting pitchers

John Lackey (1999): I remember interviewing Lackey once after a game. He was only in Cedar Rapids for a month before being promoted to high-Class A. The right-hander was a MLB All-Star in 2007 for the Angels and won the league ERA title that year. He was part of three World Series championship teams. And he loved beer and fried chicken!

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Ervin Santana (2002): Santana is one of those guys who hits both of C.R.’s major league partners over the past 20 years, pitching for the Angels and Twins. He was known as Johan Santana when he was here in 2002 but changed his first name shortly after it being discovered he was slightly older than originally though. Right-hander is a two-time All-Star who has won 149 games and allowed fewer hits than innings pitched in his 13-year big league career.

Others considered: Garrett Richards (2010), Nick Adenhart (2006), Tyler Chatwood (2009), Patrick Corbin (2010), Jose Berrios (2013).

Relief pitchers

Bobby Jenks (2001): There were a handful of guys considered here, so I went with new school sabermetrics to decide these two were most deserving. They posted the highest WARs (Wins Above Replacement). Jenks was an immature kid when he played in C.R., and that’s all I’ll say about that. But he ended up with 173 saves in seven major league seasons, was a two-time all-star and closer for the 2005 Chicago White Sox team that won the World Series

 

Darren O’Day (2006): You may not even know who O’Day is, but he’s been in the big leagues for 11 years and has a 2.51 career ERA in 563 games, and was an All-Star in 2015 with the Baltimore Orioles. His submarine style has helped him carve out a very lengthy career.

Others considered: Kevin Jepsen (2003), Joel Peralta (2002), Trevor Hildenberger (2015).

Manager

Jake Mauer (2013-2016): This one was easy. Mauer led the Kernels to the playoffs in all four of his seasons, including to a deciding Game 5 of the Midwest League Championship Series in 2015. He led Double-A Chattanooga to the Southern League title last season, then decided he wanted to take some time off from baseball in order to stay home and be with his wife and three young children. A very good baseball guy and person.

 

Others considered: Todd Claus (2002, 2003).

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

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Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.