*NOTE* This is the fourth 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 fourth part chronicles some of the players who spent a portion of the 2013 season in the minor leagues, but not with the Cougars’ current big league affiliate (Cubs) or some of their more recent affiliations (Kansas City, Oakland).
This past season, there were many former Cougars whose names might be familiar to fans, although they are not currently playing for a big league farm system that has been partnered with the Cougars over the years. Similar to the big leagues, a minor leaguer can find a new home – and new opportunity – through a trade or a free agent signing. That said, some of these players’ names may be more obscure than some of the other players I’ve mentioned in this series. But they’re still chasing the dream of one day reaching the major leagues, and they once played right here in Geneva.
In The Show (or bouncing around between The Show and Triple-A): Of the four former Cougars who made major league debuts this season, two of the four broke in with teams who were never affiliated with the Cougars. On June 5, pitcher Ian Krol (’10) made his big league debut with Washington. Krol, a Midwest League All-Star with us in 2010, was an A’s prospect at the time but was traded to Washington last spring before the season began. Krol opened at Double-A Harrisburg and made 21 appearances, turning in a remarkable 0.69 ERA before receiving a well-deserved promotion to the Nationals and skipping the Triple-A level. Krol made 32 appearances out of the Nationals’ bullpen, going 2-1 with a 3.95 ERA.
Krol’s 2010 Cougars batterymate, catcher Max Stassi, got his big league call later in the summer. Similar to Krol, Stassi was an A’s prospect who was part of a deal sending the talented catcher from Oakland’s system to Houston. Stassi opened the ’13 season at Double-A Corpus Christi and despite missing the first month of the season due to an injury, Stassi batted .277 with 17 home runs and 60 RBI. Stassi was promoted on August 20 and made his debut against Texas that night, singling twice in his first big league game.
An unfortunate injury to Stassi took place the following night when he was hit in the face by a pitch, sustaining a concussion. It took a month of rest and rehab, but Stassi re-joined the Astros towards the end of the season.
For both players, a change of scenery accelerated their professional path in reaching the big stage. Now they’re hoping to stay there full-time, beginning next spring.
Outfielder Corey Brown (’08), who made his big league debut in late 2011 with Washington, has bounced between Washington and Triple-A Syracuse the last couple of years. Brown has only played in 36 games over three seasons with the Nationals, spending a bulk of those seasons at Syracuse.
One of the most popular Cougars of all-time, pitcher Dontrelle Willis (’02), has not pitched in a major league game since 2011. That hasn’t stopped him from attempting to regain the magic of his early seasons in the bigs. Willis made 5 appearances at Triple-A Salt Lake (Los Angeles Angels affiliate) this season. Well-known to baseball fans, Willis debuted with the Marlins in 2003 and helped lead them to a World Series title that fall.
Another fairly well-known Cougar who made a big league debut years ago is pitcher Nate Robertson (’00). Robertson pitched in 45 games with Triple-A Round Rock (Texas affiliate) this past season. Robertson made his first major league appearance more than 11 years ago with Florida.
Josh Wilson (’01) played in 30 games with Arizona at the big league level, while also playing in 59 games at Triple-A Reno.
Catcher Anthony Recker (’06) played in 50 games with the New York Mets last season. Recker was the starting catcher on the ’06 Western Division Championship squad. He, like the others, developed in the A’s system as Recker made his big league debut with Oakland in 2011.
Another ’06 Cougar, infielder Justin Sellers, spent a majority of last season at Triple-A Albuquerque while also playing in 27 games with the Los Angeles Dodgers, batting just .188. Sellers debuted with the Dodgers in 2011.
Pitcher Sam Demel (’07) debuted with Arizona in 2010 and is now in the Yankees’ farm system. Last season, Demel was 1-1 with a 1.72 ERA in 35 games at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
Another pitcher, Jeff Gray (’06) has been a journeyman reliever who has pitched with five different major league clubs. In 2013, Gray was 2-1 with a 3.27 ERA at Triple-A Charlotte, a White Sox affiliate.
Henry Rodriguez (’07), who was traded by Washington to the Cubs in a deal that sent ’13 Cougar Ian Dickson to the Nationals, split time between the Cubs and Triple-A Iowa. Rodriguez made his big league debut with Oakland in 2009.
You could group in a couple of other players who are in that Triple-A/Major League area and were actually minor league teammates last season: outfielder Travis Buck (’05), who played in 35 games with Triple-A Tucson (San Diego) and infielder Gregorio Petit (’05), who also played with Tucson, batting .292 with 4 home runs and 61 RBI. Buck debuted with Oakland in 2007 and Petit followed suit for the A’s in 2008.
Finally, pitcher Mickey Storey (’09) spent time with Toronto and their Triple-A affiliate in Buffalo this past season. Storey debuted in the bigs in 2012 with Houston.
Worth Watching: OF Javier Herrera (’05), OF Jermaine Mitchell (’07), P Justin Friend (’08), P Kyle Smith (’12)
None of these four players has gotten the call to the big leagues quite yet, but they’re close.
Without question, Javier Herrera was the “Where Did He Come From?” story of 2013 involving off-the-radar Cougars. Quick back story on Herrera. The youngster was a Cougar in 2005 and regarded as one of the top prospects in the system shortly after being signed by the A’s in 2003.
Herrera got a brief taste of Triple-A baseball in Sacramento in 2005 but was mainly a full-time Cougars player that season, hitting 13 home runs while driving in 62 runs. He spent the 2007 and 2008 seasons nestled in the Class-A Advanced and Double-A levels within the A’s system. Unfortunate injuries complicated Herrera’s progression, though, and he soon found himself released by the A’s organization.
Out of professional baseball, Herrera latched on with an independent league baseball team in 2010. Still without a minor league offer, Herrera toiled in indy ball through 2012, playing within the state of Illinois with the Rockford and Southern Illinois clubs.
Herrera finally found good news this past season as the Giants signed him to a minor league contract. And what do you know, Herrera put through his best professional season of his now decade-long career. The 28-year old outfielder batted .296 with 16 home runs and 74 RBI, spending the full season at Double-A Richmond. Herrera was named an Eastern League All-Star and took home MVP honors following the game that night.
In baseball circles, Herrera’s story is a pretty impressive – and unusual – career path. Just 28 years old, Herrera has the chance to open the 2014 season at Triple-A and with the breakout season he enjoyed in 2013, a potential big league debut is not out of the question. It would be quite the finish to an impressive story that saw Herrera go through the peaks and valleys of professional baseball.
Outfielder Jermaine Mitchell was a Midwest League All-Star as a Cougar in 2007. Mitchell made it as far as Triple-A Sacramento, but was looking for a new home following the 2012 season. Mitchell linked up with the Phillies and played in 63 games at Triple-A Lehigh Valley before being released. Mitchell was then signed by Minnesota to a minor league free agent deal, and was assigned to Triple-A Rochester. Mitchell played in 106 games between both clubs last season, hitting 7 home runs and driving in 29.
Mitchell was actually a teammate of Justin Friend for part of last season as Friend, a Cougar from 2008 pitched in 46 games at Triple-A Lehigh Valley. The right-hander was an A’s farmhand through 2010 but has been in the Phillies’ system since. Last season, Friend was 5-4 with a 3.79 ERA.
Memories of Kyle Smith’s time at Kane County don’t go as far back as Herrera, Mitchell or Friend. Smith, a ’12 Cougar was involved in a mid-season deal that sent him from the Kansas City Royals farm system to Houston’s. Entering last season, Smith (pictured below) was ranked as the 12th best prospect in the Royals’ farm system by Baseball America. In 2012, Smith went 4-3 with a 2.94 ERA at Kane County. Smith made 19 starts at Class-A Advanced Wilmington last season, going 5-4 with a 2.85 ERA. Following the trade, Smith was assigned to Houston’s High-A affiliate in Lancaster, where he made 5 starts.
Notables: P Bo Schultz (’10), C John Suomi (’03), P Claudio Vargas (’99), IF Josh Horton (’07)
We haven’t seen a sidewinder quite like Bo Schultz since he arrived at Kane County in 2010. Schultz attended nearby Northwestern and contributed greatly to the Cougars that season out of the bullpen. Schultz was 6-1 with a 2.87 ERA in 41 games, and had a sidearm/underhand throwing motion that you rarely see in baseball these days. After his journey in the A’s organization concluded in 2011, Schultz pitched in the independent leagues for a while before Arizona took a flyer on him. Schultz has made the most of his second chance in affiliated baseball. In 2013, Schultz split time between Double-A Mobile and Triple-A Reno in the D’Backs organization. He’s currently in the prestigious and prospect-laden Arizona Fall League, which tells me that he’s valued highly in Arizona’s farm system.
Josh Horton, similar to Schultz, hit a crossroads in the A’s farm system. He was a 2nd round pick by the A’s the summer of 2007. Horton reached as high as Triple-A Sacramento. He spent most of ’13 with Double-A Bowie, a Baltimore Orioles farm team. A middle infielder, Horton hit above .300 in 71 games with Bowie last season.
Who’s the only former Cougar to make his big league debut with the defunct Montreal Expos? That would be pitcher Claudio Vargas (’99), who is attempting to get back to the major leagues for the first time since 2010. Now 35 years old, Vargas spent 2013 at Triple-A Buffalo, a Toronto Blue Jays farm team.
Finally, who out there remembers John Suomi? The Cougar from 2003 is still in the minor leagues, but has yet to reach the majors. As best I can tell, he’s the longest-standing Cougar by season played at Kane County who is still out there in the minor leagues, attempting to reach The Show for the first time. Suomi, now 33 years old, split the ’13 season between Double-A Reading and Triple-A Lehigh Valley in the Phillies’ system. A total of 9 Cougars from the ’03 squad have made the big leagues including Joe Blanton, Andre Ethier, Nelson Cruz, Santiago Casilla and Jared Burton. I would venture to say that if Suomi did get a big league call-up, it would be something to celebrate in a big way.
Be sure to check out the other parts of this series that focused on former Cougars in the A’s, Royals and Cubs farm systems. When the World Series concludes, I’ll wrap up the blog series with a 2013 recap of the Cougars who spent their entire 2013 season at the Major League level.
Thanks as always for reading and enjoy the Fall Classic, which begins on Wednesday!