The Eugene Emeralds host the Vancouver Canadians tonight in their season opener. The Emeralds are the defending Northwest League champions, having won their first outright league title since 1975 last September. The won a league-record 15 games in a row last August on their way to the title.
Who? The Emeralds are the higher of the two “short-season” Cubs minor league teams based in the U.S. The other one is the rookie league team that plays at Sloan Park in Arizona. On the baseball ladder, they are one step below South Bend.
Who is in charge? Manager Jesus Feliciano returns to Eugene after leading the team to the title last year. He was a popular skipper and the team even wore this “Jesus is my homeboy” T-Shirts with his picture on them. Gary Van Tol was his assistant manager last year and he returns to Eugene again this year.
The pitching coach is David Rosario, who was the pitching coach at South Bend last year. Rosario has been coaching in the Cubs system for nine seasons now.
The hitting coach is someone you are familiar with. Former Cubs infielder Chris Valaika starts his coaching career as the new Ems hitting coach.
Who is pitching? Let’s talk about who is not pitching first, because I know the questions are going to be about them. Jose Albertos, a top-ten Cubs prospect who pitched just one game in Arizona last summer, is not on the roster. Albertos got a late start to Spring Training because of injuries and really only started throwing a month ago. I would expect the 18-year-old Mexican right-hander to start the season in Arizona. Assuming he stays healthy, Albertos should see Eugene sometime this summer.
Also not here because they haven’t signed yet are first-round picks Brendon Little and Alex Lange. I would expect Little to pitch for Eugene once he gets signed and into the system. Lange will be a tougher call because of his workload. If Lange pitches this season, I expect it will be in Eugene. But the Cubs may shut him down after the College World Series, much like they did with Thomas Hatch last year.
The roster and rotation are going to change once the draftees enter the system, but the Emeralds are going to start the year with three Mexican pitchers in their six-man starting rotation. Nineteen-year-old Tijuana native Javier Assad gets the Opening Night nod. Assad went 2-2 with a 2.87 ERA and 42 strikeouts over 37.2 innings. Jesus Camargo, a 21-year Mexican righty who missed all of last season, will start game two. Camargo was solid in 2015 in rookie ball, throwing 46.1 innings and striking out 57 and walking only 12.
One other Mexican pitcher, right-hander Alonso Garcia, will be the sixth man in the six-man rotation. Garcia, 19, is making his US debut after pitching in the Dominican Summer League the past two years.
Right-hander Bailey Clark is the third starter and he was the Cubs fifth-round pick out of Duke last summer and got a lot of buzz with a fastball that sat mid-90s and a sharp slider. He only made four starts last year, two in Arizona and two for Eugene, before the Cubs shut him down with a hernia injury and so could he attend fall semester classes at Duke. This year, Clark will get a chance to show what he can do. Baseball America ranked Clark as the Cubs 28th-best prospect this past winter.
Enrique De Los Rios was a reliever for Eugene last year and he had some control issues, but he’ll hold down the fourth starter position to start the year. Six-foot-five Matt Swarmer was solid out of the pen for South Bend earlier this season, but he’s been sent down to Eugene to see if he can be stretched out as a starter.
There is going to be a whole lot of Spanish spoken in the bullpen at PK Park this summer, as most of the current bullpen consists of foreign players either returning from last season or making their US debut after pitching in the Dominican Summer League last year. Right-hander Manuel Rodriguez, 20, joins the Cubs system after pitching the past three years for Yucatan in the Mexican League.
Who are the infielders?
The biggest name here, and in fact the biggest name on the club, is shortstop Aramis Ademan. Ademan was the 12th-best international free agent according to BA in 2015 and the Cubs signed him for $2 million. The 18-year-old Ademan considered to be an exceptional defender and while his left-handed bat may not be quite as advanced, scouts think he could be a solid major league hitter one day. Ademan spent last summer in the Dominican and was expected to start this year in rookie ball, but he impressed the Cubs enough with his skills and maturity that they’re letting him see what he can do in Eugene. Plus, he’s got an awfully good first name for a Cubs infielder.
Third baseman Joe Martarano is perhaps better known for being a linebacker for the Boise State Broncos, but he’s a full-time baseball player now for the first time in his career. Martarano hit .315 in 54 at-bats in Mesa in 2015. He didn’t play last summer as he decided to focus on football. He has yet to hit a professional home run, but I expect that will change quickly because he’s a big guy who is built . . .well, he’s built like a linebacker.
Shortstop Rafael Narea is considered a good defensive infielder, but he also showed some nice on-base and base stealing skills in the Dominican last summer The Venezuelan is still only 19. His fellow Venezuelan Jhonny Bethencourt and Dominican Edgar Rondon round out the infield. Both played in Arizona last summer.
Who are the outfielders? The big name in the outfield is left-handed Kwang-Min Kwon, whom the Cubs signed out of South Korea in 2015 for $1 million, the biggest bonus given to an Asian player that year. Kwon has only played nine games so far in the minor leagues, but the big right-fielder is considered to have good power potential.
Center fielder Connor Myers started this season in Myrtle Beach and he displayed exceptional defensive skills while he was there. Unfortunately, he only hit .150 with no home runs. Chris Valaika has a lot of work to do here. Myers did play ten games in Eugene last year.
Zach Davis was a 32nd-round pick out of Texas Tech last summer, but he only got into 10 games (four in Eugene) last year. Venezuelan right fielder Jose Gonzalez played 13 games with Eugene last year and hit .211. He even got to fill-in with Iowa last August for nine games.
Who are the catchers? The Cubs gave a $1 million bonus to Panamanian catcher Miguel Amaya in 2016. The 18-year-old will make his US debut in Eugene after playing in the DSL last summer. Amaya’s bat shows some promise, but he really shines on defense. Amaya shows the kind of receiving skills and baseball intelligence that is completely unexpected in someone so young.
Gustavo Polanco is a 20-year-old Venezuelan catcher who hit .322 in 177 at-bats in the Arizona League last summer.
Tyler Payne was a member of last summer’s championship team in Eugene, but he struggled to start the season in South Bend, hitting just .155. So he’ll get another chance in Eugene.
Who is the green guy? That’s Sasquatch. He’s a big Ems fan.