*NOTE* This is the first of a multi-part series that recaps the 2015 season of Cougars baseball while also providing updates on former and current Kane County Cougars players throughout Minor League and Major League Baseball. This first part chronicles the 2015 Cougars team, which put together one of the best regular seasons in franchise history.
Hi Cougars fans,
Happy start of the off-season! As I write this, the 2015 Cougars season is officially over as the team was eliminated in the first round of the Midwest League Playoffs by the Peoria Chiefs. One of the most successful regular seasons in our 25-year franchise history quickly transitioned into a bitter exit from the postseason. Within 24 hours of the loss, players and field staff were hundreds of miles away from Fifth Third Bank Ballpark at their respective homes, and the off-season was upon us, just like that.
I think it’s safe to say that Cougars fans have really been treated to some great baseball over the last 2 years. You look at the 2014 season and are still reminded of historically, the absolute best team in Minor League Baseball last year (MiLB-leading 91 regular season wins). That team won BOTH halves of the Midwest League’s West Division and steamrolled through the MWL Playoffs, going a perfect 7-0 while winning the second league championship in franchise history.
Then, this season. With the bar set quite high from 2014, and in the first year of an affiliation agreement with the Arizona Diamondbacks, the team shook off a sub-.500 month of April before finishing the first half with a respectable 36-32 mark.
At the midway point, a half-dozen Cougars were selected to participate in the Midwest League All-Star Game, which was held on June 23 in Peoria. Outfielder Colin Bray was named a starter and was joined in the game by infielders Marty Herum and Cody Regis along with pitchers Ethan Elias, Cody Geyer and Markus Solbach.
The second half record was a thing of beauty, though as the team went 48-22 (overall record of 84-54). Those 48 second half wins were a franchise record for most wins in one half of a season, surpassing both halves from the ’14 championship team and breaking the old record, which was 47 wins set by the 2001 champion Cougars squad. The team’s 84 wins were the third-highest win total by a Cougars team over its 25-year history behind 2014 (91 wins) and 2001 (88 wins). The team won the Western Division second half title, featured a pair of pitchers with 10+ wins, a closer with a Minor League best (and Cougars franchise record) 33 saves in Zac Curtis, and a Midwest League batting champion in Ildemaro Vargas.
Unfortunately, those records and accolades mean nothing come playoff time, and the Cougars were quickly swept out of the postseason by dropping two games to Peoria. Just like that, the title defense was over.
The premature playoff finish shouldn’t detract too much from what was an excellent season on the field. So, between the 2014 and 2015 seasons, the Cougars have gone 175-99 in the regular season – that’s a .639 winning percentage. We’ve had it good, Cougars fans.
Starting with team accomplishments, it’s important to recognize that this year’s squad will go down statistically as the best hitting team in franchise history in terms of batting average. The .275 team mark beats the ’01 squad (a team that included future big leaguers such as Miguel Cabrera, Josh Willingham and Adrian Gonzalez) which previously held the record with a .271 average. Ironically enough, this year’s team hit a franchise-low 48 home runs, eclipsing the ’98 squad by one homer for fewest round trippers in a single season.
Four of the top 10 hitters in the league were Cougars. Vargas’ .321 average gave him the league’s batting championship. He became the second Cougar to win the batting crown in franchise history, joining Jason Stokes (.341 in 2002). Victor Reyes (.311), Colin Bray (.308) and Marty Herum (.303) were also in the top 10.
For the first time since 2012, four Cougars players (Herum, Reyes, Cody Regis, Bray) recorded 50 or more RBI. Herum’s 79 RBI was the highest output by a Cougar since Jeff Baisley, who drove in 110 runs in his MVP season of 2006.
Herum etched his name in the Cougars’ record books by finishing with the fifth-most hits in single-season franchise history (155) with Bray finishing eighth (151).
Overall, it was a smart team offensively with experience and consistency in the lineup. Many of the above players spent the entire season at Kane County or close to the entire season. It was a team that had the fewest strikeouts (885) in the 25-year history of the Cougars. It’s important to credit Cougars hitting coach Vince Harrison as well as manager Mark Grudzielanek, who had more than 2,000 hits in his big league career. Players on this year’s team had two great resources with them for the entire year in Mark and Vince.
Led by pitching coach Doug Bochtler, the Cougars’ team ERA of 3.10 was second-best in the league behind Quad Cities and second-best in franchise history behind the 2014 team ERA of 2.85.
A pair of Cougars pitchers (Ethan Elias and Nick Baker) won 10 or more games, which isn’t as routine of an occurrence as you would think it might be in the minor leagues. It was the first time a pair of Cougars pitchers won 10 or more games since 2007. Perhaps most impressively, the Cougars featured a closer that re-wrote the franchise history book as Zac Curtis recorded 33 saves, smashing the previous record of 27 held by Bryan Moore (’00 Cougar). The Cougars’ bullpen included some stable arms in Jency Solis (tops in the MWL with 21 holds) and Luis Ramirez (2nd in the MWL with 13 holds).
It was easy to notice the close-knit bond that manager Mark Grudzielanek had with pitching coach Doug Bochtler and hitting coach Vince Harrison. That group of three coaches had the most cohesiveness I’ve seen in any field staff here, with all respect to past years’ teams. It was a group that grew together and worked together. Immediately following a game, it was a routine occurrence to see the coaches, following the post-game handshake line, talking over a particular situation before they even left the field. Over the course of 140 games, it was cool to see that dynamic both on the field and in the clubhouse.
So, who are the top players from this year’s team to watch in 2016?
This isn’t an exhaustive list but I’m going to start with Victor Reyes. Reyes, who was acquired in April by the D-backs as part of a deal with Atlanta (involving a former Cougar in Trevor Cahill), is a 20-year old who can really take a lot of positives in his first season in the D-backs system at Class-A. In addition to batting .311, the soft-spoken Reyes only struck out 58 times in 424 at-bats. His 13 stolen bases were second-best on the team. Only listed at 170 pounds, Reyes could really develop into something over the next couple of years. Going into the 2015 season, Baseball America had ranked Reyes as the #22 prospect in the Braves farm system. He certainly deserves a spot on the D-backs Top 30 list going into 2016.
Colin Bray, similar to Reyes, was one of the most well-balanced players on the team. Bray hit for average, led the team with 27 stolen bases, and was a reliable outfielder, always patrolling centerfield for the team.
Taiwanese pitcher Wei-Chieh Huang joined the club in late May and went 7-3 with a 2.00 ERA. Huang pitched on one of the biggest stages of his young career in July, being invited to participate in the MLB All-Star Futures Game held in Cincinnati.
Starting pitcher Brad Keller broke spring training camp with the Cougars at age 19 (he turned 20 this past July) and had an excellent season at Kane County, posting a 2.60 ERA (third in the MWL) in 25 starts. And Keller more or less made the jump from Rookie-Advanced Missoula, where he pitched for most of last season. To consistently do what he did in 2015 at Kane County bears mentioning.
Zac Curtis, in his first two professional seasons, has now saved 47 of 51 games between Short-A Hillsboro in 2014 and Kane County in 2015. Curtis was named a Midwest League post-season All-Star.
Finally, infielder Dawel Lugo, despite playing in only 22 games with the Cougars, might be a name to keep close tabs on. Lugo was dealt during the season from Lansing (Toronto Blue Jays) to Kane County (Arizona Diamondbacks) as part of a deal involving a former Cougar in Cliff Pennington. Lugo batted .333 in 22 games with an on-base percentage of .372. Before become a Cougar, Lugo batted .335 in 53 games with Lansing. So, all in all, Lugo put the pieces together on a strong 2015 season at the Class-A level. Lugo is only 20 years old.
Several Cougars received well-deserved promotions to Class-A Advanced Visalia throughout the season, too. Those include Bud Jeter (3.12 ERA in 48 relief appearances) and Steve Hathaway (2.00 ERA in 29 relief appearances).
As is the case every year, one of the most enjoyable parts of my job (and of course, the fans enjoy it, too) is following the progression of players who move beyond Kane County as they continue their goal of reaching the Major Leagues. Nothing is promised, and Class-A is still several rungs on the ladder from the big leagues. A successful season at Class guarantees nothing in terms of success at the next level up. But there’s a nice list of players who played a vital role in helping put together one of the best seasons in the 25-year franchise history of the Cougars. And to think, both Missoula (Rookie-Advanced) and Hillsboro (Short-A), the two rungs on the ladder just below us, both won their league championships. Smart money says many of those players are part of our 2016 Opening Day roster as we begin our 2nd season of affiliation with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
As always, thanks for reading! Our next blog post will recap the ’15 Minor League Baseball season involving many of our alumni. We have quite a few familiar faces who were spread throughout Minor League Baseball.