Success can be fickle and fleeting in the minors. The nature of the minor leagues is that it is an affiliate’s job is to develop players and send them up the system, ideally to the majors. Players that make a team can often destroy it when they are promoted. Be it pitchers or hitters, the void left may at first seem unfillable. That has not been true this year at Myrtle Beach, South Bend, and, in today’s case, Eugene.
The Eugene Emeralds cruised to a first half title in the Northwest League with a 28-10 record. Along the way, the team lost the services of their top hitter, their home run leader, three starting pitchers, and their closer. It is quite remarkable that they were able to sustain some semblance of excellence in the first half and build upon it in the second half. There were bumps along the way, but manager Jesus Feliciano has his players heading in the right direction. The Ems are currently in first place in the second half with a 10-5 record.
When the season began, SS Andruw Monasterio and 3B Matt Rose helped to power the team. The Emeralds got out to an early lead in the South Division and cruised to a title that also included the top-flight pitching of Jose Paulino, Manny Rondon, and Jesus Castillo. Later, Oscar de la Cruz stopped by for a couple of starts. Jared Cheek was outstanding as the closer and, from first appearances, there was nothing that could stop this team. Even a forearm strain to Dylan Cease and control problems for Bryan Hudson could not slow them down.
Then the promotions came. Monasterio and Rose headed to South Bend in the first wave. Outfielder Connor Myers, who only played ten games, albeit brilliantly, went in the second wave. Paulino, de la Cruz, and Cheek went in the third wave. To make matters worse, Jesus Castillo was traded to the Angels.
Luckily, the Ems got through the first two rounds of promotions with great play from OF Robert Garcia, who had moved into the leadoff spot. Chris Pieters anchored the lineup at 1B in place of Rose. Yeiler Peguero moved over to SS from 2B and began a hitting surge in late July after the All-Star Break. Wladimir Galindo showed he has the power to hit in the middle of the lineup after Pieters, but the 3B still needs to improve his approach. Top prospect Darryl Wilson struggled in the leadoff role but still was able to draw his walks in the first part of the year. He was moved to the #9 spot and has taken off the last two weeks, showing that he can hit for average and power. As a result, the lineup is deeper and more balanced from 1 to 9.
The losses of Paulino and de la Cruz were to be expected. The duo was just too good for this level. Manny Rondon has kept up his great season with a 1.27 ERA and Michael Knighton has had an excellent season in the pen. M.T. Minacci and Mark Malave stepped up their bullpen roles as well. And Cease returned, though it’s taken a few starts for him to put it back together. Hudson has pitched much better, especially last Monday when he went 5 IP with 5 K’s. He still had 3 walks, but that’s much better than 5, 6, or 7 from some of his starts in July.
To fill the void left by the promotions, recent draft picks have been making their way to Oregon. Trent Giambrone was the first to arrive and the second baseman flashed a plus glove from day one. He has shown his versatility by playing some first base,and his bat has been improving as of late. After a 4-for-4 night on Wednesday, he is up to .277. SS Zack Short has shown a solid, compact swing with some lift and seems to get better every week. In addition, he’s pretty slick in the field.
As for pitching, Bailey Clark is now starting in short stints and has some excellent stuff that just needs some more command. He was very good in his last start, going 4 innings while allowing a single run and striking out four. Dakota Mekkes, Chad Hockin, and Duncan Robinson are improving out of the pen and draftee Jed Carter recently made his debut.
Lefty Marc Huberman has been very good from the get-go in a relief role, but it is fellow lefty Wyatt Short from Ole Miss who has been lights out in taking over the closer role. He has yet to give up a run in his tenure as an Emerald. I like the fact that the Cubs got two excellent lefty relievers out of this draft.
To help fill the starting pitching hole, Erling Moreno was promoted from Mesa and has pitched 10 innings with 10 K’s and has yet to allow a run in his two starts. The 19-year-old was part of the vaunted 2013 IFA class that included Eloy Jimenez, Gleyber Torres, Jen-ho Tseng, and Wladimir Galindo, but has spent the better part of two years recovering from TJS.
In recent years, the Cubs have promoted certain elite prospects late in the season to get a taste of a winning culture in the playoffs. Right now, all three levels of the Cubs Class-A affiliates look to be in the postseason. That’s good news for the Ems, as they will be a team that players will be coming to.
It does not look like the Cubs rookie league team in Arizona will make the playoffs, so expect to see a few players make their way from Mesa to experience winning in Eugene. A few names you might see are pitchers Michael Rucker, Javier Assad, and Eugenio Palma as well as C/1B Gustavo Polanco, who has an average in the .340’s. Recent draftee Michael Cruz and 17-year-old hitting phenom Isaac Paredes could come up and do some work at DH as well.
It is shaping up to be a great Fall in the great Northwest!