Tonight the Boise Hawks start their season in Eugene, Oregon against the Emeralds, who are a Padres farm club. The Hawks are the Cubs' Short-Season A farm team. Normally the Hawks have a lot of players from the most recent draft who are making their professional debut, but since the Cubs have signed exactly one player from last week's draft so far (ninth-round pick Charcer Burks), the Hawks will start the season primarily with players from last year's draft and Latin American signings. Most spent the previous season in the Arizona League at the Cubs' Mesa headquarters, although some did see some time in Boise last year. As a general rule of thumb, most players in the Northwest League are college players in their first year of pro ball or high school or community college players who have a year or more of rookie ball behind them. The age of most players is between 19 and 22.
Boise is where the dream begins. For most of these players, it's the first time they'll be playing professionally in front of crowds, riding buses, staying with host families and all the general stuff that goes along with being a minor leaguer. For some of them, it's the first time they have to take care of themselves, such as going grocery shopping, doing their own laundry and making sure they get themselves up out of bed and to the ballpark on time. Sounds simple, but a few prospects have had their career derailed by such things.
For some players, of course, the dream dies here too.
Although there aren't any 2013 Cubs draftees on the opening day roster, I'd expect to see many of them soon. So these players will be under pressure to perform or risk getting sent back down to Mesa or worse, released.
The Hawks are managed by Gary Van Tol, who is getting his first professional managerial job after spending the last five years as an unpaid volunteer coach for the Hawks. He does have previous coaching experience in college at Gonzaga and Portland. But the coach that most of you are interested in is former Cubs first baseman Bill Buckner, who has been the hitting coach the past two seasons. The pitching coach is David Rosario.
The two biggest prospects on the Hawks are a pair of starting pitchers from the 2012 draft, first round supplemental Paul Blackburn and second rounder Duane Underwood. Both are projectable right-handed high school players who are raw and can throw hard. (Underwood more so on both those things than Blackburn.)
The opening night starter is James Pugliese, a 18th-round pick in 2011 who is returning to Boise for a second season. He's another interesting project with a solid fastball and a promising curve. His ERA last season in Boise looks bad, 5.37, but he showed a good command of the strike zone with a K/BB rate of 2.32. He was mostly victimized by the long ball.
Trey Lang was a sixth-round pick last season who excelled in rookie ball last year. Carlos Martinez-Pumarino is a 6'4" Cuban right-hander.
Matt Iannazzo started the season in Kane County, but he figures to get a lot more opportunities to pitch in Boise, because he's the only left-hander on the 13 man pitching staff.
Also returning to Boise from last season are Tyler Bremer and Michael Hamman. Jasvir Rakkar, Ethan Elias and Corbin Hoffner are making their Boise debuts. Loiger Padron and Orbany Rodriguez are also making their Boise debut. Padron is a Venezuelan who pitched well in Arizona last year.
But while Underwood and Blackburn may be the top prospects, a pair of outfielders is going to get the most attention because of their fathers: Shawon Dunston Jr. and Trevor Gretzky. Dunston started last year in Boise and struggled, but did much better after a demotion to Arizona. Gretzky hit over .300 with a good OBP in Arizona, but didn't show any power. However, he was coming off an injury and he's a big left-hander and projects to develop some power.
Joining them in the outfield are Yasiel Balaguert, who played for Peoria last season and Kevin Encarnacion, who is making his US debut after spending the past three seasons for the Cubs team in the Dominican League. Obviously he did well there or they never would have jumped him to Boise.
One other Hawk has a famous father, and that's second baseman Daniel Lockhart, who is the son of former Braves infielder (and current Cubs scout) Keith Lockhart. Venezuelan shortstop Carlos Penalver is another guy to watch. He just turned 19 less than a month ago.
The other three infielder all have experience in full-season ball. Third baseman Jacob Rogers had a cup of coffee with Peoria last season and did well, but with Jeimer Candelario in Kane County, there was no room for him there so he's starting in Boise. Utility guy David Bote has filled in with both the Cougars and D-Cubs this season. The Cubs sent cash to the Padres to get first baseman Jose Dore this off-season. He missed all but nine games last year with an injury, but he did play 50 games for Fort Wayne in the Midwest League in 2011.
The three catchers are Justin Marra, Lancy Rymel and Rony Rodriguez. Rymel is back for a second season in Boise--he did get one emergency appearance in Tennessee earlier this season and did well--1 for 3 with a walk and an RBI. Marra played two games for Boise last year, but hit really well in Arizona. I've got nothing on Rony Rodriguez except that he played for the University of Miami. He looks like an UDFA.