CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – The much anticipated call finally arrived in late July, the one that informed emerging Minnesota Twins left-handed pitching prospect Stephen Gonsalves that he was being promoted from Rookie-level Elizabethton to Low A Cedar Rapids.
And just like that, the 20-year-old found himself right in the middle of an honest to goodness pennant race – or something along those lines. Perhaps “playoff push” would be a better choice of works.
The Cedar Rapids Kernels play in the Midwest League where the season is divided into first and second halves. After a sub-par first half, the Kernels are in firm control of securing a playoff berth based on what has been, through the first three weeks of August, a stellar second half.
And Gonsalves has arguably been among the most stellar of all the Kernels. A pitcher for the West Team at the 2012 Perfect Game All-American Classic in his hometown of San Diego, the 6-foot-5, 190-pound southpaw went 2-2 with a 1.57 ERA in his first five starts with Cedar Rapids, giving up four earned runs on 17 hits with 21 strikeouts and four walks in 23 innings pitched.
In his most recent start Aug. 15, he threw seven shutout innings at the Peoria Chiefs, allowing three hits while striking out five with no walks. In short, Gonsalves became acclimated to the MWL in very short order while also nestling comfortably into the fabric of the Kernels’ clubhouse.
“This is basically the same team that was in E-town (Elizabethton) last year so I know all the guys,” he told Perfect Game during a conversation Aug. 18 at the Kernels’ Perfect Game Field. “It was good coming up here and meeting them here and now making a playoff run with them; it’s a lot of fun.
“These guys have great mojo going for them and it’s an awesome feeling just going right into a playoff run with all these great guys here.”
That Gonsalves has become an impact pitcher at the Low A-level so quickly hasn’t surprised anyone within the Twins organization. Kernels’ pitching coach Ivan Arteaga first saw Gonsalves pitch during spring training and immediately liked what he saw – what’s not like in an athletic, 6-foot-5, 190-pound left-hander with clean arm action, after all – but didn’t know when he would arrive in Cedar Rapids.
“He’s a competitor and that is good to see in a young kid like that,” Arteaga said Aug. 18. “Where ever he’s played he’s got that imprint that he’s a competitor. Obviously, we saw that he had the talent, he has a good arm and he competes, so he’s got a good package. What he brings to the table is the fire and the savvy; he knows how to pitch and he knows how to slow the ball down a little bit.”
What was most surprising was that the Twins were able to find Gonsalves there for the taking with the 110th pick overall in the fourth round of the MLB First-Year Player Draft.
Regarded by many within baseball’s scouting community as a first-round talent, Gonsalves saw his draft stock drop after receiving an eight-game suspension during his senior season at San Diego’s Cathedral Catholic High School for trying to cover for a couple of teammates involved in a minor indiscretion that he himself was not involved with.
Gonsalves, who had signed with the University of San Diego, agreed to a $700,000 signing bonus from the Twins – well above his slot projection of $468,200 – and was ready to begin his professional career.
In his first pro season in 2013, Gonsalves split time between the Twins’ Rookie-level clubs in Fort Myers (Fla.) in the Gulf Coast League and Elizabethton (Tenn.) in the Appalachian League. He was nothing short of lights-out, pitching 28 1/3 innings in eight appearances (five starts) and finishing 2-1 with a 0.95 ERA. He allowed only three earned runs on 18 hits while striking out 39 and walking 11.
The biggest challenge Gonsalves has faced in his first two years in professional ball is the same one every 18-year-old kid faces when he moves from high school to the minor leagues, which basically means just finding his way.
A lot of his Cedar Rapids Kernels’ teammates gained valuable experience playing in college before turning pro, and Gonsalves said they been very generous with their advice and introduction to some of the intricacies involved with playing baseball for a living.
“Every day you learn something new,” he said. “I talk with my catcher (Mitch) Garver all the time … and he’s one of the top hitters in this league and that’s the kind of guy you want to pick their brain as far as what the hitters are looking for.”
Arteaga, in his first season as the Kernels’ pitching coach, spent most of the 1990s pitching in the minor leagues with the Expos, Rockies and Mets organizations. He has been a pitching coach in the Twins system since 2001 and earned a reputation for being able to help young pitchers advance their careers.
It is Arteaga’s belief that Gonsalves will become even more of a highly prized prospect as his breaking ball improves. “We’re pretty much aware of where he is and who is in his career but we want him to get better every day, and he’s got the personality for that,” Arteaga said.
“I’m throwing a lot more off-speed; in high school I was just able to throw a fastball,” Gonsalves said. “Now I’m running into college guys and they can hit whatever you throw at them, so you’ve got to mix it up. I’ve got a fastball, changeup, curveball right now and they’re working on a slider with me.
“On 2-0 pitches, you just can’t throw a fastball down the middle anymore. It’s a big difference here and you do learn a whole lot of different things.”
Gonsalves established himself as one of the top left-handers in the national high school class of 2013 by competing in 15 PG events between 2010 and 2012. They included appearances at the 2012 PG All-American Classic and 2012 PG National Showcase along with three visits to the PG Sunshine West Showcase (2010, 2011 and 2012), and two stops at the PG Underclass National Games (2010, 2011).
There were also two trips to Jupiter, Fla., to pitch at the PG WWBA World Championship with the Ohio Warhawks (2010, 2011) and numerous tournament appearances over three years with the elite San Diego Show.
“Going to that first (showcase) when I was a freshman, that really got me on the map right away,” he said. “That and playing with the San Diego Show – I did all those tournaments with the Show and all the tournaments we did were with Perfect Game. I had people writing up scouting reports on me every day since my freshman year, so it was pretty incredible.”
Along the way, both at PG events and during the high school season, Gonsalves was surrounded by some of most polished high school prospects of the past three or four years.
He played with first-round picks Ian Clarkin (Yankees, 2013), Brady Aiken (Astros, 2014) and Alex Jackson (Mariners, 2014) and second-rounder Gosuke Katoh (Yankees, 2013) with the San Diego Show. He can count among his current Cedar Rapids Kernels teammates right-hander Kohl Stewart, a first round pick of the Twins in 2013, who was also his teammate on the West squad at the 2012 PG All-American Classic (as was Clarkin).
Gonsalves pitched one inning at the Classic – played at the Padres’ Petco Park – flashed a fastball that topped 92 mph and gave up a single to East catcher Brian Navarreto. He also got to pinch-run and stole a base on Navarreto, something the two continue to talk about. Navarreto is also a Twins farmhand and playing in Elizabethton.
“That was the greatest experience of my life, just walking in there and sitting in the Padres’ clubhouse,” Gonsalves said of playing in the PG All-American Classic. “I had grown up watching them play on that field – I had season tickets five years, six years of my life – and it was a completely different experience there. I loved it so much.”
He admitted to be a little disappointed when he was assigned to Elizabethton coming out of spring training, thinking he might start this season in Cedar Rapids. He is quick to add, however, that he has complete trust in the Twins’ organization and is comfortable that the people in charge will always have his best interests in mind.
“I’m really excited about what the Twins have me doing,” Gonsalves said. “I’m moving up through the program with all these great guys, and it is a lot of fun. We have great coaches – I love the staff here – and they’re really friendly and helpful guys all the way through.”
It’s that mature that continues to impress the coaches working with Gonsalves throughout the organization.
“The fact that he was able to come over here from Elizabethton and being able to get here not only compete but being able to adjust to the league and to the hitters, and to understand how to do things and understand how to approach the game, I think that says a lot about him as a human being more so than as a player,” Arteaga said.
“He’s a very smart kid and I’m very happy to have him here. I speak on behalf of the Twins organization saying that we’re very happy to have him and we think that we have a very good guy on this team, on and off the field, and that’s always good.”