Tonight the Cubs’ Northwest League affiliate, the Eugene Emeralds, takes the field against the Vancouver Canadians for their season opener.
Who are the Emeralds?
The Emeralds are the Cubs short-season A team, the fifth-rung on the minor league ladder. This is the lowest level of the minors outside of the team complexes in Arizona and the Dominican Republic. It’s the lowest level where the team actually plays in front of fans who buy tickets.
The Emeralds play in PK Park in Eugene, right next door to Autzen Stadium, the home of the University of Oregon Ducks football team. PK Park is the home of the Oregon baseball team during the school year and is pretty state-of-the-art with all the Nike money that the Oregon athletic department receives. Since the Ducks aren’t using it over the summer, they’re glad to let the Emeralds use it from mid-June to Labor Day.
The Emeralds are often called the “Ems” for short. They will also be known as the “Los Monarchas de Eugene” for certain games as part of the “Copa de la Diversión” program, which is a minors-wide marketing effort aimed at attracting Hispanic fans. Those Monarchas hats look pretty sweet. I may have to order one.
Before we get to who is on the Opening Night roster, it should be noted that some of these players are going to be replaced by 2018 draft picks in short order. Currently there aren’t any of this year’s draft picks on the roster as they are still finishing up the paperwork and other assorted things the Cubs want done before they get sent out to Eugene. Some will get a cup of coffee in the Arizona League before coming here, but I fully expect that first-round pick Nico Hoerner will come here as soon as his paperwork goes through.
A few of the players replaced by this year’s draft picks will get promoted to South Bend. More will get sent back down to Mesa. Some will go on the disabled list, naturally. A few will be outright released.
The current team is very, very international heavy. Of the 27 players on the Opening Night roster, only nine of them were drafted, along with one other player signed out of independent ball. And two of those nine draftees are from Puerto Rico, giving the team an even stronger Caribbean flavor.
Who is in charge?
Some fresh faces in the Ems coaching staff as last year’s manager Jesus Feliciano is now the hitting coach in Double-A Tennessee and the assistant manager, Gary Van Tol, departed to be the head coach at Boise State. Steve Lerud is the new Ems manager and it’s his first time managing at any level. Lerud was a third-round pick of the Pirates in 2003 and he had a long minor-league career, playing 13 seasons in the minors before finally hanging it up after the 2016 season. Lerud did play nine games in the majors with the Phillies in 2012 and 2013 and had two hits.
The new pitching coach is Armando Gabino, who new to Eugene but is in his fourth season coaching in the Cubs organization. Last year he coached many of these same players with the Arizona League rookie ball team in Mesa. Gabino played seven games in the majors, two with the Twins in 2009 and five with the Orioles in 2010.
One hitting coach is Osmin Melendez, who is in his sixth season in the Cubs organization and was working with Gabino in Mesa last year. Prior to joining the Cubs, he managed the Pirates team in the Venezuelan Summer League. The other hitting coach is Jacob Rogers and he should be very familiar to long-time readers of the Minor League Wrap. Rogers played in the Cubs system from 2012 to 2015, reaching as high as Double-A Tennessee. He spent 2016 in the independent Frontier League and he got a shot as a pitcher in the Rangers organization last year. (It didn’t work out.) But he’s back with the Cubs organization as a coach.
Who is pitching?
The big name here was the big name last year, Jose Albertos. Albertos was very successful with the Ems last season, going 2-1 with a 2.86 ERA in eight starts. That earned him a promotion to South Bend this season where disaster struck. As I outlined yesterday, he simply couldn’t throw strikes in the Midwest League. He’s back in Eugene and hoping he’ll find the strike zone and pitch as well as he did last season. The Mexican right-hander is still only 19, so there’s no need to rush him through the system.
Another interesting name is left-hander Brailyn Marquez, who is joining Eugene for the first time this year. Marquez got $600k to sign with the Cubs out of the Dominican Republic in 2015, the last year the Cubs were able to “break the bank” on international signings before MLB cracked down on the practice. Ignore Marquez’s ERA in Mesa last year (5.52) and pay attention to the 52 strikeouts and 12 walks in 44 innings. He’s a big guy with an excellent fastball and his secondary pitches need a lot of work. But he’s also only 19 years old and that’s normal for that age.
Left-hander Faustino Carrera is another Mexican player who was signed in 2015 under the “Mexican loophole” where only the money that goes to the player counts against the international bonus pool and not the money going to the player’s Mexican team, which can be as high as 75% of the bonus. Carrera is a little left-hander who is pretty much all projection in the last report I’ve seen. Despite his size, he’s proven to be a durable starter in his two previous seasons, He’s also still only 19. He’s not going to blow batters away, but his career 2.19 ERA between the Dominican League in 2016 and the Arizona League last year shows he can get outs.
The Cubs drafted right-hander Stephen Ridings in the eighth round in 2016 out of Division III Haverford, but he was immediately shut down when he was diagnosed with a torn UCL and underwent Tommy John surgery. He suffered from control problems in his first year back in 2017, but that’s not uncommon. He’s a big guy (listed at 6’8”) and the Cubs are hoping he get back to his college velocity, where he was clocked as high as 93 mph.
Left-handed Venezuelan Eugenio Palma struck out 44 batters and walked just 6 in 41.1 innings in Arizona last season. He’s not big (5’11”) and I don’t have a report on him although I watched some YouTube video on him and you can too. He’s put up good numbers at every level he’s pitched, although he’s already 21.
Right-handed reliever Jeffrey Passantino is short and round, listed at 5’9” and 225 pounds. That’s probably why he lasted until the 40th (and final) round of the draft last year. But in his limited time in the minors, he’s pitched well, including in three games in South Bend earlier this season. He’s struck out 22 batters and walked just 4 in his minor league career. He’s also the favorite minor leaguer of Yahoo! Sports national baseball correspondent Jeff Passan, for obvious reasons. (No, they’re not related. They just have similar names.)
Three more pitchers on the Ems return to the team from 2017. Right-hander Jake Steffens was 1-1 with a 1.54 ERA and two saves last year. He struck out 22 and walked just 7 in 23.1 innings with the Ems.
Right-hander Luis Aquino went 2-4 with a 1.99 ERA and 8 saves in 22 games with the Ems in 2017. He struck out an impressive 49 batters in 31⅔ innings. What’s not so impressive about Aquino is that he turns 25 at the end of this month, so to say he’s old for his level is an understatement.
Casey Ryan was 1-1 with a 8.50 ERA with the Ems last year. He’s also 24, so he’s going to have to produce quickly to stay with the team.
Right-handers Sean Berry, Mitch Stophel, Yan De La Cruz, Dalton Geekie, Eury Ramos and left-hander Eugenio Palma round out the staff. Geekie was a 2015 pick of the Braves who pitched in the independent Frontier League last season. His name is also Dalton Geekie, which should count for something.
Who is catching?
Instead of me telling you about Gustavo Polanco, why don’t I just quote Ems broadcaster Pat Zajac instead?
Gustavo Polanco returns to @EugeneEmeralds in 2018. Dude is built like a semi-truck. Flashed good pop last year with 17 XBH (led the team).— Patrick Zajac (@OtherPatZajac) June 13, 2018
I'd expect that to be much higher this season with more experience under his belt.
The Venezuelan hit .281/.315/.373 with Eugene last summer. PK Park is a tough place to hit for power, but I agree with the guy who doesn’t host Wheel of Fortune, Polanco should grow into some power this year.
The other catcher is left-handed hitting Jonathan Soto, who hit .284/.350/.383 in the Dominican Summer League last year. However, if he’s actually at his listed height and weight (5’9”, 143 lbs.), I can’t see him staying behind the plate. I hope he’s actually at least bulked up a bit since that listed weight.
Who are the infielders?
Shortstop Christopher Morel is the one to watch here. Morel was in that big 2015 international signing class, signing for $800k out of the Dominican Republic. He didn’t make his professional debut until 2017, however, because he walked through a closed glass door and cut his arm so badly that it required surgery. But as a 17-year-old in the Dominican League, he showed some terrific skills at the plate. He only hit .220, but he walked 35 times (as opposed to just 37 strikeouts) in 268 plate appearances. He also hit seven home runs and stole 23 bases. Skipping Arizona, Eugene will be a test for him. If he continues to show that kind of plate discipline and power-speed combination, he could become a top prospect. I don’t know how he was defensively in the DSL last year, but his scouting report on signing said he should be able to stick at shortstop.
Another shortstop is Luis Vazquez, a 14th-round draft pick last year out of Puerto Rico. Vazquez did not hit much in Arizona (.184/.229/.223), but in an online chat at Baseball America, Bill Mitchell said that Vazquez “has great hands and an accurate arm, and makes good contact at the plate.”
Assuming Hoerner joins those two soon, it’s going to be really crowded at shortstop in Eugene.
Third baseman Ramsey Romano hit well in Arizona last summer after being drafted in the 31st round out of Long Beach State. (Yep, he’s a Dirtbag.) That earned him an August promotion to Eugene where he did not hit well. He’ll try again this year.
Second baseman Luis Diaz is also skipping Arizona after hitting .273/.374/.466 in the Dominican Summer League last year. Diaz only turned 19 in April.
First baseman Rafael Mejia spent the past two seasons in Arizona and while he didn’t hit much, he’s 20 and it’s probably time to see if he can do better in Eugene. Third baseman Cam Belago was a 30th-round draft pick last year. He hit .286/.385/.449 in Arizona last year and he got three games in with South Bend this season, going 0 for 10. He just turned 23 this week.
Who are the outfielders?
There will be a lot of attention paid to the Ems outfielders this summer. Nelson Velazquez was the Cubs’ fifth-round pick last summer and was ranked as the Cubs tenth-best prospect according to Baseball America this past winter. The Cubs started him out in South Bend this spring and it didn’t go so well. In Arizona last summer, 15 of Velazquez’s 26 hits went for extra bases and eight of them were home runs. In 29 games in South Bend, he hit .190 and one of his 20 hits was a double. South Bend was a bit too much of a challenge, but he should do better in Eugene. If he lives up to his potential, he’s a power-hitting corner outfielder.
The same can be said about Jonathan Sierra, whom Baseball America ranked as the Cubs’ 29th-best prospect coming into the year. The Cubs gave Sierra a whopping $2.5 million bonus in 2015 and they think his big left-handed power stroke and strong arm could turn him into a prototypical right fielder. The only problem so far is that while he’s shown that power in batting practice, he’s yet to really tap into it in games. Sierra only hit two home runs between the Dominican Summer League in 2016 and the Arizona League last year. However, Sierra is still only 19 years old and some scouts think he’s still growing.
Also from that 2015 international signing class is Korean outfielder Kwang-Min Kwon, whose $1 million bonus that year was the highest given out to an Asian prospect. Kwon is left-handed, has good size (6’2”, 210) and runs well. He’s also a corner outfielder, so he’ll be fighting with Sierra and Velazquez for playing time. Kwon struggled to hit in Eugene last summer, which got him sent back to Arizona where he failed to hit much there as well. But he’s only 20 years old and he’ll give Eugene another shot this summer.
Most of the time, the Ems center fielder will be the switch-hitting Venezuelan Fernando Kelli. Kelli was the MVP of the Dominican Summer League last year, hitting .320/.437/.443 with three home runs and 58 (!!!) steals in 67 games. Obviously from those numbers, he’s a potential leadoff hitter. He’s also still only 19. Kelli wasn’t much on the radar before last season (he signed for $60k in 2016) but he’s on it now. He’s a pure center fielder who should have no problem sticking there.
Ruben Reyes rounds out the outfield.
Who is the green guy?
That’s Sasquatch. He’s a big Ems fan. Why wouldn’t he be?