*NOTE* This is the second of a multi-part series by Cougars PR Director Shawn Touney that provides updates on former and current Kane County Cougars players in Minor League and Major League Baseball. This second part chronicles some of the players who were part of the Cougars’ affiliation and are either currently with the Kansas City Royals or their farm system. The Cougars and Royals were partnered in 2011 and 2012.
This certainly appears to be an exciting time to be a fan of the Kansas City Royals and their farm system. The Royals’ Short-A (Idaho Falls) and Triple-A (Omaha) affiliates recently won league championships, with Omaha winning the Triple-A championship as well. The Royals are nearly 30 years removed from their last postseason appearance but, up until the final week of the regular season, were in the midst of a frenzied race for an American League wild card spot. Despite coming up short this season, there’s some homegrown talent – many of whom were Cougars either in 2011 or 2012 – that could signal a turnaround in the city of fountains.
In The Show: Former Cougars pitcher Yordano Ventura (’11 Cougar) just recently made his MLB debut with Kansas City. The flame-throwing right-hander was in the Cougars’ rotation from mid-May of 2011 until the end of that season. At the time, Ventura was listed at 148 pounds, but was known to have velocity on his fastball that is seldom seen. Following his Cougars tenure, Ventura steadily advanced through the Royals’ system. You could say that his breakout season was in 2012 when Ventura started for the World Team in the SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game. Ventura, whom the Royals signed for a bargain price of $28,000 as a 17-year old, has put some more muscle on that 148-pound frame we saw back in 2011. With the experience he’s gained at the Triple-A level this past season, along with his new spot on the big league club, Ventura could be a fixture in the Royals’ plans for years to come.
OF Lane Adams, OF Jorge Bonifacio, IF Orlando Calixte, IF Cheslor Cuthbert, OF Brett Eibner, OF Brian Fletcher, P Jason Adam, P Greg Billo, P Bryan Brickhouse, P Andrew Triggs, P Kyle Zimmer
You could make a case for more than these 12 players being ones to watch as next season unfolds, but I’ll stick with these dozen former Cougars who are currently in the Royals’ pipeline.
Both Lane Adams (’11-’12) and Brian Fletcher (’11) tasted a Pacific Coast League championship, as well as a Triple-A championship, with Omaha. Adams opened the season at Class-A Advanced Wilmington, was promoted to Double-A Northwest Arkansas in July, and was placed on Omaha’s postseason roster. Adams wasn’t just a bystander in the Omaha dugout either, as he played in seven games while driving in four runs. Fletcher had a larger sample size at Triple-A this season, playing in 26 games and batting .250 after receiving a mid-season promotion from Northwest Arkansas. Son of former big leaguer Scott Fletcher, Brian was the Cougars’ 2011 Player of the Year and batted .328 as a Cougar.
Jorge Bonifacio (’12), whose older brother Emilio was dealt to the Royals earlier this season, suffered a hamate bone injury in his hand which sidelined him for nearly 2 months of the season. However, post-injury, Bonifacio resumed his success at Class-A Advanced Wilmington and was promoted to Double-A in late July, batting .301 in 25 games for Northwest Arkansas. The talented outfielder is likely to open 2014 at Double-A but the sky’s the limit for the Cougars 2012 Player of the Year, who just turned 20 years old in June.
A pair of infielders, Orlando Calixte (’11-’12) and Cheslor Cuthbert (’11) were key cogs in the Cougars’ postseason squad in 2011. Calixte had a nice season at Double-A Northwest Arkansas, batting .250 with 8 home runs and 36 RBI. He was used primarily as a shortstop but spent time at 3B and 2B, too. Cuthbert was promoted mid-season to Double-A from Class-A Advanced Wilmington but struggled as his average hovered in the low .200’s.
Brett Eibner (’11) was a 2nd round pick by the Royals in 2010. Through three full professional seasons, Eibner has shown power potential and solid defensive play in the outfield. However, he’s also shown a tendency to strike out an awful lot. He spent the 2013 season at Double-A and while the power numbers were there (19 home runs), so were the strikeouts (149 in 441 AB’s). Next season is a critical one in Eibner’s development and the Royals’ plans for him.
The same could be said of pitcher Jason Adam (’11), whose 2013 season was spent exclusively at Double-A. Adam had a terrible start to the season as his ERA ballooned as high as 12.84 through his first 5 starts of the season. Adam was a rotation regular throughout the season, starting 26 games. In 7 of those 26 starts. Adam gave up more than 5 earned runs. Similar to Eibner, Adam was a high round draft pick by the Royals (5th round in 2010).
Pitcher Kyle Zimmer (’12) is one of 8 first round picks to wear a Cougars uniform in our 23-year history. That said, he’ll receive the most amount of attention as Zimmer continues his progression through the Royals’ system. Zimmer opened the season at Class-A Advanced Wilmington and made 18 starts, posting a 4.82 ERA but throwing impressively enough towards the end of his time at Wilmington to earn a promotion to Double-A Northwest Arkansas by mid-July. Zimmer dazzled in 4 starts, allowing just 4 runs in 18.2 innings. Following his start on August 14, the Royals made the decision to shut him down for the remainder of the season as he had reached a sufficient number of innings according to the Royals.
Is there a chance that Zimmer, a collegiate pitcher who has turned heads in his two professional seasons, lands with the Royals at some point in 2014? I would definitely make a case for that being a strong possibility.
Pitcher Andrew Triggs (’12) followed a similar path as Zimmer this season. Triggs made 39 relief appearances at Class-A Advanced Wilmington and was a force out of their bullpen. The right-hander closed this season with 4 appearances at Double-A Northwest Arkansas and was impressive as well.
Pitchers Greg Billo (’11) and Bryan Brickhouse (’12) both had good, yet partial, seasons at Class-A Lexington. Billo has come back nicely from an arm injury that essentially wiped away his 2012 season. Unfortunately for Brickhouse, his ’13 season ended prematurely with an arm injury and subsequent Tommy John surgery after 8 starts at Lexington.
I’m intrigued by: a possible MLB debut in 2014 by Kyle Zimmer and the continued development by Chicagoland native Greg Billo. Zimmer could join former Cougars Josh Beckett (’00) and Joe Blanton (’03) as former Cougars pitchers and first round draft picks to make their MLB debuts. Barring anything unfortunate injury-wise, Zimmer seems ticketed for the big leagues as early as next season, possibly joining another former Cougar (Ventura) in the Royals’ pitching rotation.
Billo, the Cougars’ 2011 Pitcher of the Year, bounced back in 2013 from Tommy John surgery on his pitching arm. Billo was a Midwest League All-Star with us in 2011 and attended Sandburg HS in the south suburbs. He posted a 1.35 ERA in 8 starts with Lexington but is now at the point in his professional career that he’ll need to show some sustained success at higher levels.
Also in the mix: OF Tim Ferguson (’12), IF Angel Franco (’11), IF Jack Lopez (’12), IF Danny Mateo (’12), IF Justin Trapp (’12), P Angel Baez (’12), P Aaron Brooks (’12), P Brooks Pounders (’12), P Leonel Santiago (’11), P Crawford Simmons (’11), P Robinson Yambati (’12), P Santiago Garrido (’12), P Malcom Culver (’12), P Scott Alexander (’12).
Familiar names as managers: ’11 Cougars manager Vance Wilson wrapped up his second season at the helm of Class-A Advanced Wilmington, while ’12 Cougars manager Brian “Buck” Buchanan skippered Class-A Lexington this past season.