Predicting the Future

The Kane County Cougars have enjoyed successful teams and playoff runs in both of their last two seasons, and if all goes according to plan, 2016 should be no different.

2014 saw the Cougars win the Midwest League Championship in a sweep as a Cubs affiliate; that team went 91-49 in the regular season, adding another seven wins in the playoffs (and, just for the record, zero losses). 2015 brought some inherent uncertainty with an affiliate change to the Diamondbacks, but any doubts were assuaged when the team set a record for wins in a half-season with 48 and easily made the postseason.

And now, it’s time to look ahead. And to do that, we look… west?

The Hillsboro Hops, located in Oregon, are the short-season affiliate of the Diamondbacks. The Hops, like the Cougars, have made the playoffs two years running. In fact, not only have the Hops won four straight half-season division titles, they also won the Northwest League Championship both years.

That’s great for the Hops. It’s also great for the Cougars. Thanks to the gradual progression of minor league players through a team’s farm system, the 2016 Cougs should be comprised largely of members of one or both of those championship-winning Hillsboro teams. While the roster won’t be set until early April, here are some of those players who could be gracing the field at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark this summer.

Alex Young. A 2015 draftee, Young didn’t spend a huge amount of time with the Hops, but the time he did was well-spent: the #5 Diamondbacks prospect registered a 1.50 ERA (earned run average) in the six games in which he pitched. While he was used out of the bullpen for the Hops, he’s expected to be tried out as a starter for his first full season in the pros.

Taylor Clarke. Taylor Clarke had a pretty good year in Oregon, if your definition of “pretty good” is “utterly dominant.” Clarke did not give up a single run, earned or unearned, in his debut season. He threw 21 innings for the Hops as part of that lights-out bullpen that helped them to the championship (for those of you having trouble working out the math, that’s an ERA of 0.00). While it’s prooobably unrealistic to expect a feat repeat in 2016 as Clarke also moves to the starting rotation, we can still expect good things from the young right-hander.

Cody Reed. Cody Reed is 19 years old, everyone. He is 19 years old and about to enter his third season in professional baseball. Reed is another pitcher – sensing a trend? – and he already is a full-time starter. Reed made his debut for the Hops with four no-hit innings, which is in character, as he threw five no-hitters as a senior in high school en route to becoming the Alabama Gatorade Player of the Year. If the lefty ends up in Kane County in 2016, which would be no surprise, expect to see lots of strikes.

Hillsboro Hops vs Spokane Indians

HILLSBORO, OR – JULY 11: The Hillsboro Hops vs Spokane Indians at Ron Tonkin Field in Hillsboro, OR. Cody Reed throws a pitch. (Craig Mitchelldyer/Hillsboro Hops)

Brody Greer. Guess what position Brody Greer plays? If your guess was “pitcher,” congratulations, you have learned that it takes a lot of good pitching for a team to be successful. Greer supplied his own fair share of good pitching, ending up with a 0.83 ERA (that’s good) in 32.2 innings of work for the Hops. Greer, who only gave up one earned run in his last 10 appearances, proved that you don’t need to be drafted to produce; he signed with the Diamondbacks as an undrafted free agent.

Carlos Hernandez. Hernandez, a pitcher, was very impressive as a starter for the Hops. In fact, he was so impressive that not only was he named to the Northwest League All-Star Team, at the end of the season he was also crowned the Northwest League Pitcher of the Year. It’s hard to argue with the numbers. With a 2.32 ERA and 93 strikeouts in just 85.1 innings pitched, Hernandez proved pretty definitively that he belongs on the roster.

Zach Nehrir. Although Nehrir was sidelined for a portion of the 2015 season with a left hand injury, the Northwest League All-Star still managed to produce for the Hops. The center fielder – that’s right, the first non-pitcher on this list – hit .297 with an impressive .363 OBP (on-base percentage), in addition to blasting 15 doubles in just 40 games. Nehrir made a quick impression by opening the season with consecutive four-hit games. If he can keep up that production (ok, maybe not four hits every game), he should find no trouble in the Midwest League.

Trevor Mitsui. Mitsui, who split time between first base and the designated hitter, hit well enough to turn some heads in 2015. The 6’5”, 225-pound lefty set Hops franchise records for home runs in a season (10), runs batted in (42), and extra-base hits (24). Half of those home runs came in the span of just five games in August. If Mitsui does end up in Kane County in 2016, all those seated in the outfield decks better pay attention when he comes up to bat.

So, there you have it – seven members of a championship-winning team who could end up on the Cougars for the upcoming season. Only time will tell for sure, but things are looking good for another strong Kane County performance in 2016.



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2015 Season Recap – Cougars Major League Alumni Report

*NOTE* This is the fifth of a multi-part series that recaps the 2015 season of Cougars baseball with news on former and current Cougars players throughout Minor League and Major League Baseball. This fifth part provides updates on many of our alumni who spent all or a portion of the 2015 season at the Major League level.  

Part One – Cougars 2015 Season Recap 
Part Two – 2015 Season Recap on Cubs Minor Leaguers who played at Kane County in 2013-14
Part Three – 2015 Season Recap on Athletics/Royals Minor Leaguers who played at Kane County
Part Four – 2015 Season Recap on Cougars Minor League Alumni (Other MLB Affiliates)

With the Major League Baseball season officially over, Cougars alumni were once again highlighted throughout not only the regular season, but the postseason as well. For 25 years now, Cougars fans have been treated to the best in Major League affiliated Minor League Baseball in Geneva, and then seeing countless Cougars players move up the ladder and one day realize their big league dreams. Making the Major Leagues, whether it’s for 10 seasons, just one season – or even one at-bat or inning pitched – is an incredible accomplishment. Cougars fans should take a lot of pride in the distinguished list of alumni who have advanced to the Major Leagues. I know that we do as an organization.

Through the end of the 2015 season, the list of Cougars Major League alumni now stands at 137 players. That list got a nice bump in 2015 as a total of nine players made their big league debut this season. Not since the 1998 season, when 15 Cougars made their MLB debuts, had more Cougars gotten their first taste of Major League Baseball.

In total, 36 Cougars alumni appeared in at least one Major League game in 2015. Ironically enough, this figure was the same as the number of our 2014 alumni who appeared in the big leagues.

The Kansas City Royals, our Major League affiliate in 2011 and 2012, not only returned to the World Series this season, they brought home the world championship after coming up just short in 2014. It was the Royals’ first World Series championship since 1985 and several former Cougars were either part of the postseason roster or at least suited up for the Royals at one point or another this season.

Pitcher Yordano Ventura (’11) was a little up-and-down during the 2015 season. The flame-throwing right-hander came off an eye-opening 2014 season so the expectations were naturally, a little high going into 2015. Ventura went 13-8 with a 4.08 ERA in 28 starts and struggled in the postseason, taking the Game 3 loss against the New York Mets.

Ventura, however, is still very young. The 24-year old, after making his big league debut in late 2012, now has more than 60 career starts and has pitched in 10 postseason games, too. Ventura is a competitor and more than once has drawn the ire of opposing teams for his actions on the field. But his development since making his Cougars debut in May of 2011 has really been impressive. I still think back to his first start here, a May game with temperatures hovering in the 40’s. Ventura, a lanky 145-pound pitcher at the time, was huddled inside the clubhouse before the game, buried underneath a large coat. He’s really come a long way in four years’ time.

There were quite a few alumni who played with the Royals this season, but their on-field time was fairly limited. Infielder Cheslor Cuthbert (’11), one of our Cougars big league debuts this season, batted .217 in 19 games. Infielder Orlando Calixte (’11-’12), Dusty Coleman (’09) and pitcher Scott Alexander (’12) combined to appear in a total of 10 games this season while all making their big league debuts with Kansas City.

Some of the biggest names in Major League Baseball are familiar ones to Cougars fans. Excellent careers continue for quite a few players, starting with Seattle outfielder Nelson Cruz (’03). A huge off-season signing by Seattle, Cruz set a career high with 44 home runs, which trailed only Baltimore’s Chris Davis for the major league lead. His .302 batting average was his highest since 2010 and Cruz was named a Major League All-Star for the  fourth time in his career.

'03 Cougar Nelson Cruz was one of Major League Baseball's biggest hitters in 2015. Cruz was a mid-season All-Star for the fifth time in his career.

’03 Cougar Nelson Cruz was one of Major League Baseball’s biggest hitters in 2015. Cruz was a mid-season All-Star for the fourth time in his career.

Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera (’01) endured a lower body injury which resulted in the fewest games played (119) since his rookie season in 2003. Still, Cabrera batted .338 which was the best in the Major Leagues – and hit his 400th career home run in 2015 while being named a Major League All-Star for the 10th time in 12 years. He should reach 1,500 RBI in 2016 (only 52 players have ever reached that number) and should also advance into the top 100 in all-time big league hits. His prodigious offensive numbers just continue to grow.

Los Angeles Dodgers infielder Adrian Gonzalez (’01), a teammate of Cabrera’s from the 2001 Cougars Midwest League championship team, continues to display his all-around skill that has made him one of the game’s biggest stars. Gonzelez earned his fifth career All-Star nod and his 28 home runs were the highest output since 2010 with San Diego. Gonzalez now has more than 1,000 RBI for his career and while most postseason awards have not been announced yet, keep in mind that Gonzalez is a four-time Gold Glove winner and a two-time Silver Slugger award winner. Without question, he’s one of the best players to have ever come through Kane County.

Several pitching alumni had solid seasons in 2015 as well. It always seems as if Huston Street (’04) never seems to get the most headlines year in and year out, but he deserves them. Street was 5th in the Major Leagues with 40 saves in 2015 for the Los Angles Angels. Street’s  315 career saves now put him 20th on the all-time list. A season similar to this past year’s could have Street knocking on the door of baseball’s top 10 saves list by the end of 2016. Street is just 32 years old too, and it will be interesting to see how long his career plays out as he carves his name alongside some of the best closers in baseball history.

San Francisco closer Santiago Casilla (’03-’04) saved a career-best 38 games for the Giants and with 3 World Series rings in his 12-year big league career, it’s been a good run so far for the right-hander in his big league tenure.

A.J. Burnett (’98) capped his 17-year big league career by going 9-7 with a 3.18 ERA in 26 starts. Burnett was a first-time Major League All-Star in 2015, putting the exclamation point on a wonderful career that included more than 2,500 strikeouts and 164 career wins. Burnett, now retired, was officially the final Cougars player from the 90’s decade to actively play in the big leagues.

Easily one of the biggest storylines not just here in Chicago but nationwide, was the emergence of Kyle Schwarber (’14). Schwarber made his much-anticipated big league debut in June as interleague play opened up. Schwarber was the first Cougar to debut within one year of playing at Kane County since the aforementioned Huston Street. From mid-July on, Schwarber was a mainstay in the Cubs’ lineup and batted .246 with 16 home runs. His postseason numbers as the Cubs advanced to the NLCS were phenomenal. Schwarber batted .333 with 5 home runs, including some round-trippers that will be talked about well into next year and beyond. His mammoth home run in the NLDS against St. Louis  landed on a right-field sign above the video board and was encased soon after.

Schwarber will enter 2016 as one of the most talked-about Cubs as the team advanced to the NLCS this past fall for the first time since 2003. A young team with much promise, Schwarber will likely be counted on in the outfield while also catching. His bat speaks for itself and despite only playing at Kane County for 23 games in 2014, fans can claim him as one of Kane County’s own who shot through the Cubs’ minor league system like a comet to reach the big leagues.

'14 Cougar Kyle Schwarber was one of the most talked-about Cougars alumni during the 2015 season, particularly during the Cubs' playoff run to the NLCS.

’14 Cougar Kyle Schwarber was one of the most talked-about Cougars alumni during the 2015 season, particularly during the Cubs’ playoff run to the NLCS.

Schwarber wasn’t the only ’14 Cougar to make an impressive MLB debut in 2015. Pitcher Zack Godley went 5-1 with a 3.19 ERA for the D-backs in 2015.  He was the first pitcher in the Modern Era (since 1900) to throw at least six scoreless innings with seven or more strikeouts and no walks in his first career game.

Other solid ’15 storylines involving Cougars alumni include the following:

Pitcher Trevor Cahill (’07) made 11 appearances with the Cubs late in the regular season, posting a 2.12 ERA. Cahill had had a rocky 2014 and early 2015 season before a change of scenery to the Cubs seemingly did the trick. The right-hander, working exclusively out of the bullpen, had success in a new role after spending much of his career as a starting pitcher.

Joe Blanton (’03), similar to Cahill, endured a career crossroads as Blanton was on the verge of retirement after a 2-14 season in 2013, and never pitched in a big league game in 2014. Blanton was part of the Royals’ spring training squad in March 2015 and after beginning the season at Triple-A Omaha, returned to the majors by May and never looked back. The righty was a spot starter but worked more out of relief for the Royals and then Pittsburgh following a mid-season trade to the Pirates. With Pittsburgh, Blanton went 5-0 with a 1.57 ERA in 21 bullpen appearances.

Blanton, an ’08 World Series champion with the Phillies, is still one of our more recognized MLB alumni, having enjoyed an 11-year big league career.

Pitcher Bo Schultz (’10) continues to be such an easy guy to root for. The right-hander, who pitched collegiately at Northwestern made his big league debut in 2014 with Arizona and between 2010 and 2013, bounced around several organizations including independent league baseball.

In 2015, Schultz made 31 relief appearances for the Blue Jays, which advanced to the ALCS for the first time since 1993.

'10 Cougar Bo Schultz was part of a playoff team in Toronto.

’10 Cougar Bo Schultz was part of a playoff team in Toronto.

Other Cougars to record Major League time in 2015 include:

Michael Choice (’10), TEX. The ’10 Cougar appeared in one game with the Rangers.

Andre Ethier (’03), LAD. Ethier, the longest-tenured Cougar to remain with the same team, batted .294 with 14 home runs and 53 RBI for the Dodgers. Ethier has been in the Dodgers white and blue since his big league debut in 2006.

Tyler Ladendorf (’09), OAK. Ladendorf batted .235 in nine games with the A’s.

Cliff Pennington (’05), TOR and AZ. Pennington split his 2015 season between the D-backs and Blue Jays. Pennington even pitched in a postseason game for the Blue Jays, becoming the first full-time position player to ever pitch in a postseason game.

Gregorio Petit (’05), NYY. Batted .167 in 20 games.

Anthony Recker (’06), NYM. Batted .125 in 32 games.

Max Stassi (’10), HOU. Batted .400 in 11 games.

Jemile Weeks (’08), BOS. Batted .333 in 3 games.

Josh Wilson (’01), DET. Batted .316 in 21 games.

Andrew Bailey (’07), NYY. The former American League Rookie of the Year made 10 relief appearances for the Yankees after returning to big league action for the first time since 2013 due to injuries.

Ronald Belisario (’02), TB. Made 6 relief appearances.

Aaron Brooks (’12), KC and OAK. Made 13 appearances.

Sean Doolittle (’07), OAK. Made 12 relief appearances after missing most of the season because of injury.

Ian Krol (’10), DET. Made 33 relief appearances for the Tigers.

Sugar Ray Marimon (’11), ATL. Made 16 relief appearances for the Braves.

Vin Mazzaro (’06), MIA. Made 10 relief appearances for the Marlins.

Andrew McKirahan (’13), ATL. Made 27 relief appearances for the Braves in his rookie season.

Tyson Ross (’08), SD. Ross was a 10-game winner for the second straight season with the Padres, making 33 starts.

Dan Straily (’10), HOU. Appeared in four games for the Astros.

Ryan Webb (’05), CLE. Made 40 relief appearances for the Indians, his sixth straight season of 40+ appearances.

As always, thanks for reading and for your support of Cougars baseball!

-Shawn Touney

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2015 Season Recap – Cougars Minor League Alumni (Other MLB affiliates)

*NOTE* This is the fourth of a multi-part series that recaps the 2015 season of Cougars baseball with news on former and current Cougars players throughout Minor League and Major League Baseball. This fourth part provides updates on many of our alumni who aren’t currently with a Major League farm system that was previously affiliated with the Cougars. 

Part One – Cougars 2015 Season Recap 
Part Two – 2015 Season Recap on Cubs Minor Leaguers who played at Kane County in 2013-14
Part Three – 2015 Season Recap on Athletics/Royals Minor Leaguers who played at Kane County

So far, we’ve covered this year’s Cougars team, which was our first season as a Major League affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Subsequent blog posts have highlighted former Cougars who are currently in the minor leagues, but are associated with our previous big league affiliations – Cubs (2013-14), Kansas City Royals (2011-12) and Oakland Athletics (2003-2010).

Players bounce around the big leagues and it’s no exception in the minor leagues as former Cougars have latched on with other Major League teams’ farm systems. We’ll take a look at some of these players who are still active.

One of the most fascinating stories continues to be former Cougar Jeremy Barfield (’09), who was an All-Star outfielder with us. Barfield advanced as high as Triple-A Sacramento in 2013, but his offensive numbers began to wane a bit. He made the decision to transition from outfield to pitcher entering the 2014 season and had modest success at Class-A Advanced Stockton in 2014.

A free agent following last season, Barfield’s journey continued – and only got stranger. His 2015 campaign, with a return back to the outfield from pitcher’s mound, included stops in the Mexican League, multiple independent league teams and eventually, a minor league deal with the Colorado Rockies. He eventually returned to the Triple-A level this summer, batting .267 in 42 games at Albuquerque.

Barfield is an easy guy to pull for. In addition to his determination in attempting to reach the major leagues, he’s a great follow on Twitter – @barfonthefield. Yes, that is the actual twitter handle. We really enjoyed having him here in 2009.

'09 Cougar Jeremy Barfield had a 2015 season he won't forget, advancing as high as Triple-A.

’09 Cougar Jeremy Barfield had a 2015 season he won’t forget, advancing as high as Triple-A.

A teammate of Barfield’s in 2009, pitcher Shawn Haviland spent the ’15 season between the White Sox and Red Sox Triple-A affiliates and appeared in 25 games.

Andrew Triggs (’12) was lights-out in the bullpen at Double-A Bowie, a Baltimore Orioles affiliate. Triggs posted a sparkling 1.03 ERA in 43 appearances out of the bullpen.

Outfielder Corey Brown (’08) is four years removed from making his big league debut in 2011 with Washington and Brown is still at it, mainly from the Triple-A level. He’s appeared in a total of 39 games over parts of four seasons in the bigs. This past season, Brown was stationed at Triple-A Durham (Tampa Bay Rays) where he batted .243 with 19 home runs and 60 RBI. Brown has more than 150 home runs in his minor league career.

Outfielder Michael Choice (’10), who briefly appeared with us in the 2010 postseason, played in just one big league game this past season with Texas. He spent most of the season at Triple-A, splitting time between Round Rock and then the Columbus Clippers, the Cleveland Indians’ Triple-A affiliate. With the Clippers, Choice batted just .204 in 14 games.

One player to keep tabs on is infielder Marco Hernandez (’13), who batted .271 in 46 games at Triple-A Pawtucket (Boston Red Sox) after being promoted from Double-A earlier in the season.

Infielder Dean Espy (’12) batted .206 in 79 games at Double-A New Britain (Colorado Rockies). Outfielder Brian Fletcher (’11) batted .234 in 75 games at Double-A Birmingham (Chicago White Sox). Catcher Juan Graterol (’12) advanced as high as Triple-A with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (New York Yankees), appearing in 20 games. Graterol was teammates with infielder Gregorio Petit (’05), who also appeared in 20 games with the Yankees at the big league level.

Outfielder Trevor Gretzky (’13) played in 78 games with Class-A Burlington (Los Angeles Angels) in the Midwest League.

Outfielder Javier Herrera (’05) played in 34 games at Double-A Richmond (San Francisco). Catcher Chadd Krist (’13) advanced as high as Double-A Jacksonville in the Miami Marlins farm system.

Remember Justin Sellers? The ’06 Cougar made his big league debut in 2011 and split his season between Triple-A teams Charlotte (Chicago White Sox) and Indianapolis (Pittsburgh).

Jemile Weeks (’08), another former Cougar who first reached the big leagues in 2011, did appear in 3 games with Boston but spent much of the season at Triple-A Pawtucket, batting .204 in 70 games. A teammate of Weeks’ in 2008, pitcher Carlos Hernandez alternated between Double-A New Britain and Triple-A Albuquerque.

A fan favorite from 2013, Rock Shoulders spent most of his ’15 season at Class-A  Hickory (Texas Rangers), where he batted .169 in 46 games.

'13 Cougar Rock Shoulders is part of the Texas Rangers organization.

’13 Cougar Rock Shoulders is part of the Texas Rangers organization.

There are several pitchers from our two-year run as a Cubs affiliate who are now with different teams. Justin Amlung (’13-’14) advanced as high as Class-A Advanced Potomac (Washington), Jose Arias (’13-’14) pitched in 7 games at Class-A Greensboro (Miami) while Tyler Bremer (’14) made stops at Triple-A New Orleans, Double-A Jacksonville and Class-A Advanced Jupiter in the Marlins farm system. Most of Bremer’s 2015 season was at Jupiter, where he posted a 1.84 ERA in 32 appearances. Lendy Castillo (’13) spent a majority of his ’15 season at Double-A Frisco (Texas), going 2-2 in 19 relief appearances. Castillo, if you remember, was part of the ’13 Cougars and actually reached the major leagues in 2012 with the Cubs. Ian Dickson (’13) went 3-3 with a 3.60 ERA at A-Advanced Potomac (Washington).

Pitcher Denny Bautista (’01) is still plugging away. After making his big league debut in 2004 with Baltimore, Bautista only pitched in a handful of games between A-Advanced Salem and Class-A Greenville in the Red Sox farm system.

Pitcher Jared Burton (’03) split his season between Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and Round Rock.

Going south of the border, pitcher Anthony Capra (’09) made 9 starts at Acereros del Norte in the Mexican League.  Also in the Mexican League, pitcher Jose Pina (’10) made 43 appearances wtih Rojos del Aguila de Veracruz and infielder Alex Valdez (’07) batted .256 with 14 home runs and 60 RBI at Delfines de Ciudad del Carmen.

Jake Kuebler (’11) advanced as high as Class-A Advanced St. Lucie (New York Mets), going 4-1 with a 2.39 ERA. You might remember Kuebler as a position player in his Cougars days.

Workhorse Tim Melville (’12) made 27 starts at Triple-A Toledo (Detroit), going 7-10 with a 4.63 ERA.

With the baseball season officially over, our next blog post will recap how our Major League Cougars alumni did in 2015. As is the case every year, the success many of our alumni have at the big league level is really impressive, and 2015 was no exception. Thanks for reading!

-Shawn Touney

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2015 Season Recap – Cougars Minor League Alumni (Kansas City Royals and Oakland Athletics)

*NOTE* This is the third of a multi-part series that recaps the 2015 season of Cougars baseball while also providing updates on former and current Cougars players throughout Minor League and Major League Baseball. This third part provides updates on many of our alumni who are playing in the Kansas City Royals farm system. The Royals were our Major League affiliate in 2011 and 2012. We’ll also briefly cover some of the players who are still in the Oakland Athletics farm system. The A’s were our big league affiliate from 2003-2010.

Part One – Cougars 2015 Season Recap 
Part Two – 2015 Season Recap on Cubs Minor Leaguers who played at Kane County in 2013-14

Our two-year run with the Kansas City Royals in 2011 and 2012 was a good one. The Cougars made the postseason in 2011 under manager Vance Wilson (now manager at Double-A Northwest Arkansas) and between 2013 and 2015, a half-dozen home-grown Cougars during our Royals tenure have gone on to reach the big league level with the Royals. The Royals have turned the ship around and are now one of the top teams in Major League Baseball, currently playing in the American League Championship Series.

There are still some players in the Kansas City farm system who will be familiar to Cougars fans. We’ll start with Kyle Zimmer (’12), who simply hasn’t received any favors in terms of avoiding injuries and setbacks since playing at Kane County. In 2014, he missed time with several injuries that postponed his season debut until August 17.

Then, this past season, Zimmer experienced shoulder discomfort that went back to the previous fall. Zimmer continued to feel soreness in his shoulder in early May, suspending his season until late May when he opened the year at Class-A Lexington. Zimmer eventually moved up to Double-A Northwest Arkansas, where he went 2-5 with a 2.81 ERA in 15 appearances (7 of which were starts).

If he can stay healthy, Zimmer (drafted 5th overall in 2012) is the Royals’ most talented pitching prospect. And as well as the Royals have been over the last couple of seasons, Zimmer must be clamoring to get back on track and have uninterrupted progress as he moves up the chain.

'12 Cougar and former 1st round pick Kyle Zimmer is due for an injury-free year in 2016. He remains one of the Royals' top pitching prospects.

’12 Cougar and former 1st round pick Kyle Zimmer is due for an injury-free year in 2016. He remains one of the Royals’ top pitching prospects.

At Triple-A Omaha, players such as Cheslor Cuthbert (’11) and Orlando Calixte (’11-’12) were lineup regulars. Both made their MLB debuts this season with the Royals.

Teammate Dusty Coleman (’09), who was a Cougar during our A’s affiliation, was signed by the Royals and made the most of his opportunity in 2015, batting .275 in 73 games with Omaha while making his big league debut on July 3 with Kansas City.

But perhaps the biggest breakout among our alumni at Triple-A Omaha was Brett Eibner (’11), who batted .303 with 19 home runs and 81 RBI. Eibner cut down on his strikeouts and posted his best batting average as a professional. Eibner, similar to Zimmer, is a high-round pick that the Royals don’t want to give up on yet, by any means.

Omaha pitchers included Andy Ferguson (’12), who went 7-3 with a 3.21 ERA in 14 starts.

At Double-A Northwest Arkansas, Lane Adams (’11-’12) batted .298 in 97 games. Adams made his Major League debut with the Royals in September 2014. Jorge Bonifacio (’12) batted .240 with 17 home runs and 64 RBI. On the pitching side, Malcom Culver (’12) made 43 relief appearances and Brooks Pounders (’12) made 8 starts and posted a 2.19 ERA.

'12 Cougar Jorge Bonifacio flashed the most power in his six-year pro career in 2015.

’12 Cougar Jorge Bonifacio flashed the most power in his six-year pro career in 2015.

At Class-A Advanced Wilmington, Jack Lopez (’12) batted .238 in 116 games while Robinson Yambati (’12) made 31 relief appearances. Wilmington was managed by Buck Buchanan (’12 Cougars manager).

Despite being five years removed from our affiliation with the Oakland Athletics, there are some remnants of alumni who are still in the A’s system. Pitcher Ryan Doolittle (’10), younger brother of former Cougar and current A’s pitcher Sean Doolittle (’07), made 40 appearances in relief at Double-A Midland. while Jonathan Joseph (’10) went 7-4 with a 4.04 ERA in 32 games. Anthony Aliotti (’10) opened the season at Triple-A Nashville, batting .258 in 88 games before being sent down to Midland for the final part of the season. And Tyler Ladendorf (’09) spent part of the season at Nashville after making his big league debut with the A’s in April.

At Short-A Vermont, the team was managed by Aaron Nieckula, who was Cougars skipper in 2006-2008 before returning in 2010. Nuke’s hitting coach was former Cougar Tommy Everidge (’05). And at Triple-A Nashville, Steve Scarsone (’09 Cougars manager) led the Sounds in Nashville’s first season as an A’s affiliate. Nashville’s field staff included former pitching coach Don Schulze (’07-’08) and former Cougars manager Webster Garrison (’03) as hitting coach.

-Shawn Touney

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2015 Season Recap – Cougars Minor League Alumni (Chicago Cubs)

*NOTE* This is the second of a multi-part series that recaps the 2015 season of Cougars baseball with news on former and current Cougars players throughout Minor League and Major League Baseball. This second part provides updates on many of our alumni who are playing in the Chicago Cubs farm system. The Cubs were our Major League affiliate in 2013 and 2014. 

Cougars fans,

If you’ve been to Fifth Third Bank Ballpark over the last few years, chances are that you’ve noticed a large wall on the concourse directly behind the press box. On that wall is a sign displaying the names of what is now 137 players who played at Kane County and reached the Major Leagues. To be on the board, all you need is one appearance at the big league level – and you’re officially ‘in’. It’s a great list that continues to grow each year. And in 2015, while 9 new players made the board, there are many more players who are advancing their way up the ladder in the minor leagues, hoping to reach baseball’s biggest stage. This blog post will give you an update on how many of our Cougars alumni did in 2015 across the Minor League Baseball landscape.

To make things a little easier, I’ll begin with our two-year run with the Cubs in 2013-14 for this blog post. There are still many alums from our time with the Kansas City Royals (2011-2012). And believe it or not, there are still a couple of ex-Cougars still working their way through the Oakland Athletics system – our big league affiliate from 2003-2010. And of course, minor leaguers come and go – and some of them latch on with a team that is affiliated with a big league club that never held direct ties with Kane County. I’ll get to those in subsequent blog posts as part of this series.

Since it’s the most recent former affiliation, we’ll start with the Cubs. Our two-year run with the Cubs resulted in many present-day alumni who are in the Cubs’ farm system.

With the incredible success the Cubs have enjoyed this year, there’s only been one Cougars alum who has made his big league debut on the north side this year – that would be Kyle Schwarber (’14 Cougar). And what a debut it’s been. In 69 regular season games, Schwarber clubbed 16 home runs while driving in 43 runs. As I write this, the Cubs are gearing up for Game 1 of the NLDS against St. Louis and the Cubs (including Schwarber) are the talk of the town. Schwarber’s mammoth home run against Pittsburgh in this week’s Wild Card game was one of the most talked-about moments of the Cubs season to this point.

'14 Cougar Kyle Schwarber has been one of the most popular Cougars to make his big league debut in recent memory. Schwarber began the season at Double-A before joining the Cubs in June.

’14 Cougar Kyle Schwarber has been one of the most popular Cougars to make his big league debut in recent memory. Schwarber began the season at Double-A before joining the Cubs in June.

There was a handful of alums who at least got a brief taste of Triple-A Iowa this season, although their time there was more of a limited-time ‘fill-in’ role with an overwhelming majority of their ’15 season being spent at lower levels in the Cubs’ system. Those include Cael Brockmeyer (’14), Kevin Brown (’14), Tyler Ihrig (’14) and Michael Wagner (’14).

The one mainstay for the I-Cubs this season was reliever Armando Rivero (’13). A right-handed pitcher from Cuba, Rivero was a big international signing by the Cubs and spent a small part of the ’13 campaign at Kane County. This season, Rivero made 48 appearances out of the bullpen, going 2-2 with a 3.16 ERA in 57 innings of work.

Rivero also pitched in 23 games with the I-Cubs in 2013, going 3-0 with a 2.97 ERA.

I was hoping that at some point this season, Rivero would get the call to join the Cubs’ bullpen, particularly towards the end of the regular season. Rivero, at 27 years old, has the maturity and numbers at Triple-A to warrant a call-up and could be in the mix at the big league level in 2016.

Also at Iowa, Jeffrey Antigua (’13) went 1-1 with a 2.61 ERA in 10 appearances (6 starts) although he spent more of the season at Double-A Tennessee than in Des Moines.

In 2015, Cougars fans easily saw a majority of the ’13 and ’14 players either at Double-A Tennessee or Class-A Advanced Myrtle Beach.

Any update on our alumni at Tennessee has to start with Willson Contreras (’13). My guess is that when our 2013 Opening Day roster was announced, the ‘experts’ could have rattled off 4, 5 or even 6 players who were considered bigger prospects than Contreras was at the time. His ’13 season with the Cougars was a pretty good one – Contreras played in 86 games (mainly at catcher) and batted .248 with 11 home runs and 46 RBI. His 2014 season at Class-A Advanced Daytona was very similar, numbers-wise.

And then 2015 happened.

As a member of the Smokies, Contreras broke out and never looked back. He batted .333 with 8 home runs and 75 RBI in 126 games. Contreras was Tennessee’s #1 catcher while also DH’ing from time to time. He was named Cubs’ Minor League Player of the Year just recently and was the Southern League batting champion.

By all accounts, Contreras had the best breakout season among ANY of our alumni in Minor League Baseball. His name is now on the radar as a Cubs prospect and with his success at Double-A, it’s even more impressive as the transition from Class-A to Double-A is often the one met with the most challenges in terms of player advancement and successfully making adjustments.

'13 Cougar Willson Contreras was named Cubs Minor League Player of the Year after a breakout season at Double-A Tennessee.

’13 Cougar Willson Contreras (pictured with a young fan) was named Cubs Minor League Player of the Year after a breakout season at Double-A Tennessee.

Contreras was one of many members of the ’13 Cougars to be stationed in east Tennessee for the 2015 season. Cubs 2012 1st round draft pick Albert Almora (’13) batted .272 with 6 home runs and 46 RBI in 106 games. Almora, one of the most-liked Cougars in franchise history and a fan favorite, played in 106 games in his first full season at Double-A. Remember that Almora is still only 21 years old.

Jeimer Candelario (’13-’14) was promoted from Class-A Advanced Myrtle Beach to Tennessee in late July and in a healthy sample size of 46 games at Double-A, Candelario batted .291 with 5 home runs and 25 RBI. Candelario is a young guy, too. He’ll only be 22 years old on Opening Day next season.

Outfielder Jake Hannemann (’14), similar to Candelario, began the season at Myrtle Beach but received a promotion to Tennessee. Hannemann, in fact, spent a majority of the season with the Smokies and in 112 games, batted .233 with 6 home runs, 41 RBI and 17 stolen bases. Hannemann, between balancing football and a Mormon mission, essentially abandoned baseball for nearly 2 years before going full-time as a pro upon being signed by the Cubs. There’s still plenty of time for the athletic outfielder to develop and move upwards in the Cubs system.

Another everyday outfielder for the Smokies was Bijan Rademacher (’13), a former Midwest League All-Star who batted .261 with 4 home runs and 47 RBI in 113 games.

Dan Vogelbach (’13) was able to avoid any sort of major injury for the first four seasons of his career, but 2015 was a tough one. Vogelbach battled a strained oblique that sidelined him for a significant part of the summer. In 76 games, Vogelbach batted .272 with 7 home runs and 39 RBI with an OBP of .403.

On the mound at Double-A Tennessee, Pierce Johnson (’13-’14) put together an excellent season, going 6-2 with a 2.08 ERA in 16 starts. Johnson, similar to Vogelbach, battled the injury bug after suffering a strained lat muscle in spring training. His first start of the season did not come until June 11.

Combine Johnson’s numbers at Tennessee this year with his 2014 stats there (2.55 ERA in 17 starts), and he’s a worthy candidate to open the 2016 season at Triple-A Iowa.

Felix Pena (’13) was another key cog in Tennessee’s rotation. In 23 starts, the right-hander was a workhorse, posting a 3.75 ERA in 129.2 innings of work.

Starling Peralta (’13) had his best professional season in 2015, making 39 appearances out of the Smokies ‘pen with a 1.99 ERA.

Class-A Advanced Myrtle Beach won the Carolina League championship, the second championship in a row for many of the players who were with us in 2014 during our Midwest League championship season.

Much of the attention towards our alumni at Myrtle Beach starts with the Pelicans pitching. If you remember from 2014, the Cougars broke a franchise record for team ERA with 5 or even 6 starting pitchers at one time, being nearly unhittable throughout that historic season.

Generally speaking, those pitchers all had solid seasons in their first year at the Class-A Advanced level are making nice strides in their development.

Paul Blackburn (’14), our Opening Night starter in 2014, went 7-5 with a 3.11 ERA in 18 starts. Jonathan Martinez (’14), who was picked up during last season by the Cubs in a mid-season trade, was 9-2 with a 2.56 ERA in 21 starts. Tyler Skulina (’13-’14) posted a 3.11 ERA in 15 starts. Daury Torrez (’13-’14) won 10 or more games for the second straight season, going 10-6 with a 3.75 ERA. Jen-Ho Tseng (’14) made 22 starts and posted a 3.55 ERA. Finally, Duane Underwood made 14 starts with a 2.58 ERA. Underwood missed all of July and most of August with elbow trouble. The only starter of note from the ’14 Cougars who isn’t listed is Juan Paniagua (’13-’14), who was phased to the bullpen and  appeared in 20 games with the Pelicans in a relief role.

Myrtle Beach’s bullpen was steady as well, reminding Cougars fans even more of the dominant ’14 championship squad. David Garner (2.37 ERA in 16 appearances), Chicagoland native Michael Heesch (2.24 ERA in 33 appearances), Tyler Ihrig (2.86 ERA in 14 appearances), James Pugliese (2.62 ERA in 30 appearances) and Jasvir Rakkar (2.96 ERA in 38 appearances) were all reliable options for manager Mark Johnson (’13-’14 Cougars manager).

It’s also interesting to note that ex-Cougar Fernando Cruz (’11), a former Royals farmhand, has transitioned from a catcher/infielder to pitching and was signed by the Cubs nearly a year ago. Cruz split the ’15 season among three levels: Triple-A Iowa, Double-A Tennessee and A-Advanced Myrtle Beach. His best numbers were with the Pelicans.

Offensively, ’14 Cougars such as Victor Caratini (.257, 4 HR, 53 RBI), Ben Carhart (.255, 7 HR, 25 RBI), Daniel Lockhart (.223, 2 HR , 34 RBI), Trey Martin (.239, 2 HR, 31 RBI), Carlos Penalver (.197, 2 HR, 42 RBI) and Jacob Rogers (.249, 12 HR, 69 RBI) were regulars in the Pelicans lineup this season. Rogers was a late-season call-up to Tennessee, where he batted .247 in 23 games. He’s a sentimental pick and easy guy to root for as Rogers was drafted in the 40th round by the Cubs in 2012. He was one of the undisputed leaders from last season’s championship Cougars squad.

And if I’m thinking this through straight, Ben Carhart now owns 3 championship rings – ’13 with Daytona, ’14 with Kane County and now ’15 with Myrtle Beach. Look out, Phil Jackson.

Outfielder Mark Zagunis (’14) made the transition to outfield from catcher and had a very solid season, batting .271 with 8 home runs and 54 RBI.

But who was the most impressive hitter this season for Myrtle Beach? I’m going with Chesny Young (’14) who similar to Willson Contreras, is an under-the-radar prospect who did nothing but help improve his stock going into 2016. Young actually began the season at Class-A South Bend and batted .315 in 28 games. Following a promotion in May to Myrtle Beach, Young batted .321 in 102 games to win the Carolina League batting title.

A 14th round pick by the Cubs last summer, Young batted .324 in 27 games with the Cougars and as a two-year professional, has a career mark of .321 in 174 games. Young can flat-out hit. We saw it briefly last year and he displayed it over the course of 130 games this season.

A majority of the players from last season's Cougars championship squad spent the 2015 season at Class-A Advanced Myrtle Beach, winning the Carolina League title.

A majority of the players from last season’s Cougars championship squad spent the 2015 season at Class-A Advanced Myrtle Beach, winning the Carolina League title.

Finally, Class-A South Bend had several former Cougars repeat the Class-A level for at least part of the season, if not the entire ’15 campaign. Cael Brockmeyer (’14) was named a Midwest League mid-season All-Star before being promoted. Gioskar Amaya (’13) batted .260 with 4 home runs and 43 RBI while making the transition to catcher from infielder. Jeffrey Baez (’14) batted .284 with 9 home runs and 34 RBI. Yasiel Balaguert (’14) batted .271 with 7 home runs and 40 RBI and David Bote (’13-’14) batted .251 with 6 home runs and 41 RBI.

South Bend pitchers included Dillon Maples (’13), Michael Wagner (’14) and Corbin Hoffner (’14) out of the bullpen.

As always, thanks for reading and whatever your baseball loyalty might be, continue enjoying the MLB postseason! It’s a great time of the year for baseball.

-Shawn Touney

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2015 Season Recap – Kane County Cougars

*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. Feel free to click on the links below for updated blog posts recapping the 2015 season.

Part II – 2015 Season Recap: Cougars Minor League Alumni (Chicago Cubs)
Part III – 2015 Season Recap: Cougars Minor League Alumni (Kansas City Royals, Oakland Athletics)

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.

Cougars infielder Ildemaro Vargas led the Midwest League with a .321 batting average, the 4th-best mark in Cougars franchise history.

Cougars infielder Ildemaro Vargas led the Midwest League with a .321 batting average, the fourth-best single-season mark in Cougars franchise history.

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.

Under the guidance of hitting coach Vince Harrison, the Cougars broke the franchise record for highest batting average in a single season.

Under the guidance of hitting coach Vince Harrison, the Cougars broke the franchise record for highest batting average in a single season.

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.

-Shawn Touney

Team photo

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Minor League Midseason Report

Cougars fans,

We’ve officially reached the halfway point on our 25th anniversary season! It’s been great to see some familiar faces at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark over the last 2+ months. Take a deep breath and gear up for a busy month of July here at the park as we look forward to a great second half of the season.

With the first half in the books, the Cougars concluded play on Father’s Day with an exciting walk-off win against Peoria. Kane County’s 36-32 record was 3rd best in the Midwest League’s Western Division – the team ended up 4 games behind Cedar Rapids for the divisional wild card spot. Quad Cities (maybe this season’s 2014 Cougars so far?) completely ran away from the pack and led the 16-team circuit with 45 wins. The Cougars won their final 9 games at home and have some momentum going into the 2nd half.

Take away last season’s Cougars team which won 45 first half games, and this season’s first half record was the club’s best since 2009 when the Cougars won 41 first half games. For some first halves of the season, a 36-32 record would have been enough to secure a playoff berth, so the Cougars will have some work to do. It all starts on Thursday when a clean slate opens the second half of the season and 6 teams (not including Quad Cities or Cedar Rapids) try to grab a second half postseason spot.

Despite some constant roster shuffling, the Cougars have been led offensively by Marty Herum (80 hits, good for 2nd in the MWL, .315 average is 8th in the MWL), Cody Regis (.309 average is 10th in the MWL) and Victor Reyes, who is batting .294 in 57 games. Colin Bray leads the team with 10 stolen bases and has been the Cougars’ everyday center fielder. Herum, Regis and Bray were named Midwest League All-Stars earlier this season.

On the mound, the Cougars have featured some impressive starting pitching in the form of Markus Solbach (6-2, 2.78 in 13 starts), Brad Keller (3-7, 2.80 ERA in 14 starts), Ethan Elias (6-3, 2.84 in 8 starts), and most recently, Wei-Chieh Huang (3-0, 0.85 ERA in 5 starts). Out of the bullpen, Zac Curtis‘ 13 saves lead the Midwest League and according to Cougars’ records, are the most saves in the first half of a season since Steve Sharpe’s 12 saves in the first half of the 2006 season. Reliever Cody Geyer holds a 1.23 ERA in 24 appearances. Solbach, Elias and Geyer were named Midwest League All-Stars earlier this season.

It’s funny how a season like 2014 – filled with broken records and a Midwest League championship trophy can make you a little jaded, but this is a pretty impressive group of players who really turned it on towards the last 2 weeks of the season. There will inevitably be roster changes to open the second half season and beyond, but there’s a core group of players here who could make this an exciting summer at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark.

All-Star reliever Cody Geyer has been lights out in his first full professional season.

All-Star reliever Cody Geyer has been lights out in his first full professional season.

Elsewhere around Minor League Baseball, the Myrtle Beach Pelicans (Cubs affiliate) recently clinched their first half division title. Led by ’13-’14 Cougars manager Mark Johnson, the Pelicans went 41-28 in the first half (including an impressive 24-11 road record) to carve out a playoff spot.

One of the main themes of last year’s Cougars squad was dominant starting pitching and this year’s Pelicans rotation (comprised of many ’14 Cougars) is no exception. Starter Duane Underwood (’14) went 6-2 with a 1.85 ERA and Jonathan Martinez (’14), part of a trade involving the Cubs last season, is 5-1 with a 2.95 ERA.

Who stands out the most offensively? I see Chesny Young (’14), one of the most underrated hitters for the Cougars late last season, batting .364 and Mark Zagunis (’14), another late-season Cougars hero, batting .320 as one of Johnson’s everyday outfielders. One of the Cougars cornerstones from last season’s championship team, Jacob Rogers, has 9 home runs and 42 RBI.

Double-A Tennessee (Cubs affiliate) has many Cougars alumni on their roster from the ’13-’14 seasons. Dan Vogelbach (’13) was up above .300 for much of the first half before reaching the midway point with a .285 average and 31 runs driven in. Albert Almora (’13) is batting .244 and you might remember Willson Contreras (’13), who was named a Southern League All-Star and is batting .332 with 5 home runs and 34 RBI.

Triple-A Iowa (Cubs affiliate) includes Armando Rivero (’13), who has a 3.38 ERA in 26 appearances. Iowa is now the (temporary) home of catcher Kyle Schwarber (’14), who recently capped off a head-turning MLB debut and short stint at the big league level for the Cubs.

'14 Cougar Kyle Schwarber made his MLB debut in a big way, batting .364 in 6 games with the Cubs this month.

’14 Cougar Kyle Schwarber made his MLB debut in a big way, batting .364 in 6 games with the Cubs this month.

Other Cougars alumni who bear mentioning…

Jeremy Barfield (’09) is at Double-A New Britain (Colorado Rockies). Barfield has resumed his career as a position player after spending time as a pitcher in 2014. In 7 games, Barfield is batting .364. What a 2015 for Barfield, who has been in the independent leagues, played in Mexico and is now back in Minor League Baseball.

One of Barfield’s teammates in 2009 when the Cougars were an Oakland A’s affiliate was Dusty Coleman, who is now in the Kansas City Royals farm system. In 33 games at Triple-A Omaha, Coleman is batting .284.

And one of Coleman’s current teammates is ’11 Cougar Cheslor Cuthbert. Cuthbert is batting .271 with 8 home runs and 32 RBI.

Will Scott Alexander (’12) be the next Cougar to make his Major League debut? The right-handed reliever has a 2.14 ERA in 20 appearances at Triple-A Omaha.

Keep an eye on another ’12 Cougar from our two-year affiliation with the Kansas City Royals. Pitcher Andrew Triggs (’12) has a 0.84 ERA in 12 relief appearances at Double-A Bowie (Baltimore affiliate).

'12 Cougar Andrew Triggs is now in the Baltimore system after playing at Kane County as a Royals minor leaguer.

’12 Cougar Andrew Triggs is now in the Baltimore system after playing at Kane County as a Royals minor leaguer.

Remember Denny Bautista from the 2001 Cougars championship squad? The 34-year old Bautista, who made his big league debut in 2004 and most recently pitched in the bigs in 2010, is attempting to get back there. Bautista has split this season between Class-A Greenville and High-A Salem in the Red Sox farm system.

Just one rung up the ladder from the Cougars in the Arizona Diamondbacks farm system, Zack Godley (’14) is 8-3 with a 2.27 ERA at High-A Visalia.

A total of 5 Cougars alumni have made their MLB debuts so far in 2015: ’14 Cougar Kyle Schwarber (Cubs), ’09 Cougar Tyler Ladendorf (Oakland), ’13 Cougar Andrew McKirahan (Atlanta), ’11 Cougar Sugar Ray Marimon (Atlanta) and ’11-’12 Cougar Orlando Calixte (Kansas City). Already this season, the Cougars’ 5 MLB debuts is the largest # of single-season big league call-ups since the 2011 season when five players (Jemile Weeks, Justin Sellers, Anthony Recker, Andrew Carignan and Corey Brown) debuted.

It’s always great to chart the progress of players who have called Kane County home as they continue their drive to reach the Major Leagues. We’ll have an update on our current big league alumni at the midway point of the Major League season next month!

-Shawn Touney

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