It’s that time of the year when the Cubs short-season A team, the Eugene Emeralds, take the field to defend their Northwest League title. Yes, the “Bad News Ems” had the worst overall record in the Northwest League last year, but they snuck into the playoffs as the second-place team in the second half (Hillsboro had won both halves so the team that finished second in the second half qualified) and then they ripped through the playoffs, winning all five games and winning their second title in three years—after not having won an undisputed NWL title since 1975. (They were declared co-champions in 1980 after wildfires cancelled the title series.)
The Emeralds play their first game on Friday night when they host Hillsboro.
As I wrote earlier, the Ems are the short-season A team of the Cubs minor league system. That’s the lowest level where fans actually pay to watch the games. Rookie ball in Arizona is one level below Eugene as well as the Dominican Summer League, which is populated by Latin American signings, mostly of players 18 and under.
The Emeralds play in the Northwest League, which has teams in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and British Columbia.
The Ems (as they are often called) play in PK Park, which is the home of the University of Oregon Ducks baseball team during the school year.
Who’s running the show?
The new Emeralds manager is Lance Rymel, a former 28th-round pick of the Cubs in 2012. He played three years as a catcher in the Cubs minor league system, most of them in the Northwest League with Boise, the Cubs’ short-season affiliate at the time. Among Rymel’s teammates with Boise were Kris Bryant, David Bote, Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras.
The Cubs consider the 29-year-old Rymel to be a rising star as a coach in the Cubs system after managing the past two years in the Dominican Summer League. This is his first year managing in Eugene. He says his goal is to win another Northwest League title and finish over .500 this year. They could only manage one of those goals last year.
Armando Gabino returns for his third season as the Ems pitching coach and fifth season as a pitching coach in the Cubs organization. Gabino pitched in the majors for the Twins in 2009 and the Orioles in 2010.
Carlos Rojas returns as the assistant coach. Michael Carter is the hitting coach.
Who are the players?
Let’s start with who aren’t the players. The 2019 Cubs draftees aren’t here yet. Many of them haven’t even signed yet. But when they do sign, many of the college players will report to Eugene. When second-round pick Chase Strumpf signs and is ready to play, he’ll report to Eugene after a couple of games in Mesa. If the Cubs decide to let first-round pick Ryan Jensen pitch this year (and they’ve told Jensen that he’s already thrown a lot of innings at Fresno State), then he’ll report to Eugene.
The first of the 2019 draftees could start appearing in Eugene as early as next week. So many of the names I’m listing here aren’t going to be around very long. So what I’m going to do is list the names of all the players and then say a little something about the ones I actually have something to say about. Hopefully, they’ll stick around a while.
There’s already been at least one roster change from the time the roster was announced earlier this week and today and the season hasn’t started yet. So take this list as tentative.
Of the 33 players on the Opening Day roster, 15 of them played for Eugene last season.
Here are the Opening Day pitchers. Some of them will be back in Mesa in a few weeks when the new draftees arrive. Others will return to Arizona after reaching innings limits. Still others will get released, of course. But we don’t like to talk about that.
Maikel Aguiar RHP
Alfredo Colorado RHP
Jeremiah Estrada RHP
Kohl Franklin RHP
Fauris Guerrero RHP
Riley McCauley RHP
Ivan Medina RHP
Zach Mort RHP
Eduarniel Nunez RHP
Yunior Perez RHP
Casey Ryan RHP
Niels Stone RHP
Jesus Tejada RHP
Carlos Vega RHP
Blake Whitney RHP
Chris Allen LHP
Raidel Orta LHP
Ruben Reyes LHP
Didier Vargas LHP
The most interesting name here is Estrada, who the Cubs took out of high school in the sixth round in 2017 and signed for a overslot $1 million bonus. Since then, he’s battled elbow problems. He didn’t pitch at all last year and only six innings in 2017. He’s still only 20, however. He had a promising fastball/changeup combo in high school.
Franklin was the Cubs’ sixth-round pick out of high school last season and signed for a $540,000 bonus. Franklin’s most promising pitch is his curve. He’s a big guy at 6’4” and he’s also the nephew of former Mariners and Cardinals pitcher Ryan Franklin. Honestly, he looks and pitches a lot like his uncle. He pitched briefly in Mesa last summer.
Mort was the Cubs eighth-round pick last year and pitched for Eugene last summer. He pitched 13 games in relief for South Bend earlier this year and was solid with a 3.86 ERA. He’ll try to build on that success in Eugene.
Riley McCauley, a 14th-round pick in 2018 out of Michigan State, and Ivan Medina (international free agent, Venezuela) were both key members of the Emeralds bullpen during the postseason. Medina had two saves in the playoffs and McCauley had one. McCauley pitched briefly for South Bend this season has struck out 32 batters in 26⅓ professional innings.
Yunior Perez is another big right-hander from the Dominican Republic. He’s struck out more than a batter an inning the past two seasons in Mesa.
Casey Ryan is an 18th-round pick from 2017 out of Hawaii. This is his third season pitching out of the Ems bullpen. He got his first career save last year.
Carlos Vega was the Cubs’ 21st-round pick out of Southeast Missouri State last season. He made six relief appearances for Eugene last summer, posted an ERA of 3.48 and got his first professional save against Boise.
Who will be catching them?
Knight was the Ems starting catcher in the playoffs last year and he hit .313/.389/.438 in those five games. That’s much better than the .159/.367/.250 he hit in 18 regular season games with Eugene. Everyone on the team was better in the playoffs, however.
Soto also played for Eugene last year, although he was with the Cubs1 AZL team in Mesa come playoff time.
Zardon was a 17th-round pick by the Phillies in 2016. After two seasons in that organization, he played for Joliet in the independent Frontier League last season. The Cubs signed him in April.
And the infielders?
All eyes are going to be on Reivaj Garcia, who at 17 is most probably going to be the youngest player in the league. He was the youngest player in the entire US-based minor leagues last summer. Garcia is a switch-hitting shortstop from Mexico who hit .302/.362/.355 in Mesa last summer. As you can tell from that line, he’s a guy who is going to hit for a high average and he doesn’t strike out much, especially for someone who was 16 last year. He’s not a big guy (5’11”) and observers don’t expect him to develop much power. Most everyone thinks his glove is good enough to stick at shortstop. Even though he’s not super fast, he’s got a quick first step. Baseball America ranked Garcia as the #23 prospect in the Cubs system this past winter.
(That’s “Javier” spelled backwards, in case you didn’t figure it out.)
Vazquez was the Cubs’ 14th-round pick out of high school in Puerto Rico in 2017 and he’s returning to Eugene after struggling there last summer. Even though he’s still only 19, the Cubs gave him the assignment of filling in for injured players at Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa earlier this season. That’s a job that the Cubs normally give to older and more experienced minor leaguers, so they must trust his maturity. He predictably struggled to hit at both places, but he wasn’t completely overmatched. He also became only the second 19-year-old (after Carlos Zambrano, of all people) to hit a home run for the Iowa Cubs. Vazquez should split time at the middle infield positions with Garcia.
Third baseman Slaughter returns to Eugene after playing 41 games there last summer and hitting .233/.287/.356. He was the Cubs’ 18th-round draft pick out of LSU last summer.
Second baseman Diaz and first baseman Mejia were on the Ems last season, although neither was around for the Ems postseason. Perlaza only played two regular season games for Eugene last year, but he was around for the postseason. (He also played in the AZL Cubs 1 playoffs as well.) He got into one game. He pinch-ran for Knight in the bottom of the ninth of game three of the Championship Series. He scored the title-winning run on a walk-off balk.
Who are the outfielders?
The left-handed hitting Americaan is the top prospect here. Baseball America ranked him as the Cubs’ 16th-best prospect in their pre-season rankings. They call him a four-tool player, lacking only in power but a potential leadoff hitter who can play a solid centerfield. The Cubs took Americaan in the 35th round of the draft last year from Chipola College in Florida, perhaps the top junior college baseball program in the country. He was drafted by the Rangers and the Diamondbacks before he finally signed with the Cubs last year. Americaan is a native of Curacao. He played eight games for South Bend earlier this year.
Kelli is repeating Eugene, but the Venezuelan native is still only 20, so repeating a level isn’t really that bad a thing at that age. Kelli is all about one thing—speed—and he tied for the NWL-lead with 28 steals last season. He does need to learn to get on base more to take advantage of that speed. He’s a fun player to watch.
Cuevas has played in Mesa the last two seasons and at age 20, it’s time for the right-handed hitting right fielder to spread his wings in Eugene. Hurd was the Cubs’ 25th-round pick out of Seattle University last summer. He struggled to hit in Mesa, so Eugene will really be a challenge for him.
The Reds drafted Vicens out of high school in the 35th round. He didn’t sign and ended up playing baseball at Maine. The Cubs signed him as an undrafted free agent.
Who is the big green guy?
That’s Bigfoot. He’s a big Ems fan.