The defending Northwest League champs kicked off their new season on Thursday. As you would expect there are few returning players, but a number of intriguing youngsters will be getting their first crack stateside in the Pacific Northwest, skipping the rookie level Arizona League. I wasn't sure if I was going to have time to put this together, and I haven't seen these players anywhere near as often as John (and in some cases I haven't seen them at all), but hopefully this will provide a nice primer. Their roster will of course be constantly in flux as players are called up to South Bend and 2017 college draftees ascend from Arizona after the signings begin.
The star attraction is 18 year old Panama native Miguel Amaya. Signed for $1.25M back in 2015 he has quickly emerged as one of the Cubs prized young prospects. After holding his own in the DSL last season (.245/.344/.317) the Cubs are jumping the young man over the Arizona Rookie League and right into the starting role in Eugene. Lauded for his confidence, coachability and quick learning, he possesses the necessary tools to stick behind the plate and is seen as the type of future leader that teams look for in a catcher.
Defense will always be the most important aspect in a catcher's development but Amaya is showing that he can swing the bat as well. Still physically developing, there is likely modest power to come, but in the meantime he uses a compact, line drive swing from the right side to make frequent contact and has emerging plate discipline (8.7% walk rate last year and 10% this year in EXST). He closed out extended spring training with the most impressive slash line of all the prosepcts there (.375/.447/.613). According to Arizona Phil he led the team in HR, RBI, RUNS, AVG, OBP, and SLG, and only struck out twice in 94 Plate Appearances.
Supporting Amaya will be veteran receiver Tyler Payne and another youngster Gustavo Polanco. Payne returns to Eugene after struggling mightily with bat in South Bend to begin the year (.155/.235/.211). He was a frequent contributor in the Emeralds lineup last season on their way to the championship. A strong arm and raw power are the standout traits for Polanco. But he has spent more time at 1B in his career so far then behind the dish. When he is back there however he can control the running game but there are questions about the rest of his defensive work. At the plate he is a very aggressive hitter that rarely walks or strikes out. The approach served him well last season in the AZL (.322/.351/.390) but he will likely need to become more patient to succeed at higher levels.
Slick fielding, left hand hitting shortstops may be more prevalent throughout baseball right now than at any time I can remember, but that hasn't decreased their value. Aramis Ademan is the best hope in what has quickly become a Cubs system devoid of SS talent. A big signing out of the Dominican Republic in the same 2015 class as Miguel Amaya, Ademan possesses soft hands and enough range due to good reads and quick footwork. Combined with an above average arm and the package is good enough to project him to stay at SS long term. Like Amaya at catcher, defense will always come first at SS, but Ademan can hit as well. Also like Amaya he may not be an impact, middle of the order bat but he has an intelligent approach, advanced feel for the barrel and strong wrists. There won't be much home run power but he will take his walks and spray line drives.
Joining Ademan as a double play partner will be another teenager skipping the AZL, Rafael Narea. Another good athlete, but with a bit more speed, Narea is a threat on the basepaths. He is also capable of playing SS and will likely be the main backup for Ademan, but to get him on the field full time he will be moved around to 2B and 3B. Another guy with a short, quick stroke and good plate discipline he has posted great contact rates and high walk rates in both the DSL and EXST.
Former Boise State football player Joe Martarano has given up his final year of eligibility after suffering leg injuries last season allowing him to focus exclusively on baseball for the first time. A big man (6'4" 235) with plus power, Martarano is slated to be the Eugene cleanup hitter. He will likely rotate between 1B/DH/LF. The 22 year old has just 69 professional ABs so far, but put up great numbers in EXST this year (.324/.448/.500).
Jhonny Bethencourt and Edgar Rondon will round out the infield and likely rotate at 3B with Narea in the mix as well. Both guys are better suited to 2B and are more known for their defense, but they will grind it out at the plate and give honest ABs. Inexperience could be an issue at times but overall the Eugene infield defense should prove above average or better.
The Eugene outfield is filled with speedsters that should make spectacular plays a routine occurance. They also have an intriguing (though so far a somewhat disappointing) power hitting corner OF prospect.
The most familiar name to fans would probably be speedy CF Connor Myers. He has struggled with his bat (.196/.256/.288) but certainly not his glove since being drafted out of Old Dominion in 2016. Highlight reel plays in the outfield are his specialty and he has filled in at the upper levels when needed due to injury this season. Another guy with plus speed, Zach Davis, will join him in running down plays in the alley. Davis is learning to switch hit, and at least in EXST, the results have not been what you would hope. But it is still early in his career. His speed and defense will allow him time and perhaps the bat will come around one day.
In the corners will be former big IFA signing Kwang-Min Kwon and another athletic defense-first player Jose Gonzalez. It has been a very slow progression for the South Korean native Kwon but he started to show some significant improvement as the spring progressed. The team immediately began reworking his swing after he came over to the states and he has seen very little game action (just 33 PAs last year). When he has seen the field, in AZL or EXST he has really struggled to make contact and there are concerns regarding his bat speed. He does have plus raw power though, so if he can learn to harness his swing there is still upside to dream on. Still just 19 years old, I was a bit surprised they started him in Eugene. I expected him to get a regular role in Arizona to try and build some confidence with him. The very lean and athletic Gonzalez has never hit much and may be in danger of being supplanted once the recent college draftees begin filtering up from Arizona after signing. In the meantime he should provide above average defense and a strong arm at any OF spot they plug him.
Starting pitching was the strength of the club last season and it appears like it could be again. While the staff may lack a future impact prospect like Dylan Cease, there are a number of good arms with their arrows pointing up in their development.
At just 19 years old opening night starter Javier Assad already possesses a mature frame and good command of his above average fastball (92-95) and mid 70s curve and low 80s circle change. His delivery is clean and easily repeatable and has the look of a future workhorse. He does need work on refining his command and tightening his secondary offerings. If he does he should add to already impressive strikeout and ground ball rates.
He'll be followed in the rotation by change-up specialist Jesus Camargo (21). Another signing out of Mexico like Assad, Camargo was among the most effective starters in Arizona last year. His change-up can already be considered above average to plus and his command is also advanced for his age. What he doesn't have right now is trust in his fastball. He typically sits high 80s to low 90s but relies on his change and an average curveball, often pitching backwards. As he moves up the ladder he will need to rely more heavily on his fastball if he hopes to remain a starter.
Bailey Clark has prototype size (6'4" 220) and a big fastball (touching upper 90s) with a slider that flashes plus as well. It is a classic late inning reliever repertoire, and given his max effort delivery and uneven control it is likely his future role, but given his size and a developing third pitch in his changeup Clark is going to be given the opportunity as a starter. Clark had early round hype out of Duke at various points in his career but inconsistency plagued him in his draft year and the Cubs were able to snag him as an upside play in the 5th last year. He was lights out in limited action last season between Arizona and Eugene (11.2, 11 H, 2 ER, 0 BB, 13 K).
Tall and lanky, the 6'5" 175 pound Matt Swarmer is an intelligent pitcher and if he could ever fill out there is some upside that he may be able to improve on his average fastball. He also works with a good slider and enjoyed some success already with South Bend as a reliever this season (11 G, 37 IP, 38 H, 16 ER, 6 BB, 39 K) and will now be getting stretched out in Eugene.
Another pitcher getting a return trip to Eugene this season is Enrique De Los Rios. He worked as a reliever for the club last season but struggled mightily with his control (25 BB in 25.2 IP). He did manage to strike out a batter per inning though. The slender righty is beginning to fill out and has touched mid 90s as a reliever in the past with a solid curve so I am curious to see how his velocity holds up in the rotation this season.
One last Mexican signing Hector Alonso Garcia is expected to round out the primary rotation in the early going. I have always seen him referred to as Hector Garcia but his Emeralds player page lists him as Alonso Garcia so that may be his preference. Just 19, he relies on a big breaking curve and solid change-up. His fastball was usually in the high 80s last year, touching the low 90s, but as he physically as the undersized right hander matures he is expected to hold the higher velocity.
I am not going to do a deep dive into the relief pitchers for the Emeralds. There are some familiar faces like cutter specialist John Michael Knighton, and position player convert Mark Malave (92-94, plus curve) who return for a second go around this year. Converted catcher Holden Cammack uses deception and an above average splitter to induce ground balls. Andri Rondon is very strong, with a mid 90s fastball and hard slider. You wouldn't expect mid 90s velocity from 6'0" lefty Andin Diaz but that is exactly what you get. Lefty Yapson Gomez is even smaller at 5'10" but he brings it at 92-94 himself and mixes in a big breaker. He is already 23 so he needs to accelerate his progress but John has spoken of him as a potential deep sleeper in the past. Manuel Rodriguez (I'll give you one guess where he hails from) is another undersized reliever with a big arm. The 20 year old will pitch at 92-94 but is still developing his breaking ball.
Filed under: Minor League Previews