For 14 seasons, the Chicago Cubs’ Northwest League short-season class A affiliate was the Boise Hawks. In two of the first four years, the Hawks won the league championship and were in the playoffs four of its first six years. In the Theo Epstein era, the Boise Hawks made the playoffs every year from 2012 to 2014. I was a little stunned at the end of 2014 when the Cubs announced they would not be renewing their development contract with Boise. Instead the Cubs were moving west in the same league to Eugene, Oregon.
Jason McLeod, the Cubs Senior Vice President, Scouting and Player Development, said of the deal,
“We are looking forward to working with Allan Benavides and the entire Emeralds organization, and are eager to begin working with the local community. The Eugene ball club offers a first-class facility at the University of Oregon, one of the most impressive facilities in short-season baseball.”
Heading west with the team would be manager Gary Van Tol, which would give the organization some continuity. Eugene previously had been the short-season affiliate of the Cubs from 1999-2000. For Cubs management, the main draw to Eugene was the use of the development facilities the Emeralds share with the University of Oregon, in addition to playing at the Ducks’ home field, PK Park.
2015 first-round draft pick Ian Haap was clearly the early star of the team in June. After four homers in his first week in an Emerald uniform, teams began pitching around him. 11th round pick Matt Rose, who led the team in RBIs in the first half, soon began to help Happ out at the plate by providing some protection in the absence of top prospect Eloy Jimenez, who was out of the lineup for some minor injuries. The team struggled to find its identity as Justin Steele missed time and the lineup and the roster changed as 2015 draftees came and went. In fact, 53 players saw time with the Emeralds. As a result of the changes, Eugene wound up going 14-18 in the first half. Happ and Rose would go to South Bend as the team tried to find out who they were.
In addition, Civic Stadium, the team’s home for many years with the Phillies and the Reds, burned down. The moment proved to be a rallying point for the affiliate and the community as the team wore uniforms from older Emeralds’ teams to celebrate the stadium and its meaning to the community.
In the second half, things were totally different for Eugene. The Emeralds were in the hunt for a playoff spot through the final weekend. Injured pitcher Justin Steele returned. But the biggest surprise was the Cubs’ top breakout prospect in 2015, pitcher Oscar De La Cruz. De La Cruz struck out 73 batters in 73 innings with a 2.84 ERA. He is still harnessing what his arm can do and his body is reportedly still growing. His 6’4” listing is probably closer to 6’6” and his fastball sat 95/96 most of the second half.
In August, prospect Donnie Dewees also began to catch fire and Jimenez returned to show off some serious power. A couple of position players who came on strong in August were second baseman, PJ Higgins, a 2015 draftee who hit .316 in his short stint in Eugene, and SS Andrew Ely, who spent most of the first half at South Bend as a reserve second baseman. Outfielder Alex Batista struggled at times but had streaks where he showed that he could also hit for power. One player I liked in the month of July was second baseman Frandy Delarosa whose average went from .200 to almost .300. Frandy did have some issues in the field backing up plays and getting in routine positions for cut-off throws. Hopefully he is working on that in instructs as we speak as his batting skills are pretty good for an 18 year old kid.
A lot of college pitchers drafted by the Cubs in 2015 threw 2-3 inning starts and dazzled in doing so. The most impressive to me was Preston Morrison, who had a 0.82 ERA in 9 appearances as he struck out 30 in 22.1 innings. Kyle Twomey was equally impressive with his 2.35 ERA in 23 innings. Lastly, Casey Bloomquist produced a 0.76 whip in 19 innings to go along with a 2.29 ERA. All should be stretched out in 2016 at South Bend.
One of the strengths of the team this year was the bullpen. Relievers who had outstanding years at Eugene included Adbert Alzolay, Greyfer Eregua, Jae-Hoon Ha, Trey Masek, Pedro Araujo and Scott Effross. That’s a lot of arms going to South Bend, and some of them could start.
I think looking at the Eugene team in 2015, the Cubs management has to be very happy with the development of players at this level, especially in the pitching department. Most of the pitchers mentioned in this article will find their way to South Bend at the beginning of next year, where they will be allowed to pitch more than two or three innings. I, for one, can’t wait to see De La Cruz, Steele, Carson Sands, Preston Morrison, Twomey, and Bloomquist air it out every night next summer at South Bend.
Coming to Eugene next year will be several players that the Cubs drafted out of high school in 2015 along with several 18/19-year-old international free agents. Leading the way will be 3B Wladimir Galindo, outfielder Robert Garcia, 2B Carlos Sepulveda, outfielder Darryl Wilson, outfielder Chris Pieters, and young SS Andrew Monasterio. Those names will become a regular part of the daily box scores.
However, once again, it’s really going to be all about the pitching at Eugene in 2016. Leading the way will be Dylan Cease, who will have a lot of restrictions lifted after completing his rehab from Tommy John surgery. The 19-year-old Cease will be trying to improve his curveball and change. He has the fastball back, as he regularly threw it 95-100 in the Arizona Rookie League this summer, but Cease still needs to improve his command on all three pitches. This past week, Cease was named the #2 prospect in the Arizona Rookie League by Bill Mitchell of Baseball America.
In addition, 6’6″ righty Austin Willis and 6’8” 2015 3rd round pick lefty Bryan Hudson will be leading the charge from the mound with several international pitchers such as Jesus Camargo, Pedro Silverio, Miguel Rondon, Gabriel Lima, and Junior Marte. I really think the Cubs have to be happy with the way the pitching looks for next year.
When the Cubs signed a development deal with Eugene in 2014, it was set to expire at the end of the 2016 season. I think the Cubs need to see the continued development of hitters in that league and Eugene will be back with a four-year deal at the end of the 2016 season. As for season one, I don’t think there any complaints. The roster was quite unsettled, but that’s not the affiliate’s fault. In fact, it turned into a strength in August. The Cubs rotated 53 kids on the roster and Van Tol did a wonderful job with turning them into a good baseball team (24-20) in the second half of the year and just missed the playoffs.