*NOTE* This is the fifth 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 fifth part chronicles the Cougars alumni – a total of 35 players – who spent all or a portion of the 2013 season in the Major Leagues.
There’s no other place in Chicagoland that can boast of having such a large group of former players at the game’s highest level – the Major Leagues. That includes this past season as numerous former Cougars were in the big leagues in 2013.
By the numbers, I count a total of 35 Cougars alumni who played in at least one Major League game in 2013. A total of 16 alums were position players and 19 were pitchers. Four of those 35 players made their big league debut in 2013, and two of those players (Ryan Dempster and Andrew Bailey) are first-time World Series champs with the Boston Red Sox. We’ll go into some details later on, but some of these players saw their stock rise dramatically with strong performances while others will be looking to bounce back from various disappointments.
Looking Good: Twenty-three years into the existence of the Kane County Cougars, the numbers don’t lie: Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera (’01 Cougar) is the biggest and brightest alumnus who once called Kane County home. Cabrera led his team into the post-season again this year while batting .348 with 44 home runs and 137 RBI. Cabrera dealt with a severe groin injury towards the end of the season that limited him to 148 games – his lowest total since his ’03 rookie season with Florida. Yet Cabrera still put up numbers certainly worthy of MVP consideration when the award is announced later this month. Cabrera was named a Major League All-Star in July for the 8th time in his career. He will be 30 years old on Opening Day 2014 and already has 365 home runs and 1,260 RBI, as well as a career batting average of .321. He was named MVP last year and won the American League Triple Crown. Simply put, no other Cougars player has displayed the talent Cabrera has over his 11-year big league career.
As a Cougar – Cabrera batted .268 with 7 home runs and 66 RBI in 110 games during the 2001 championship season. He was named a Midwest League mid-season and post-season All-Star.
For six of has past seven seasons, Dodgers infielder Adrian Gonzalez (’01 Cougar) has collected 100 or more RBI (the one year he didn’t was in 2009 when he finished with 99). Gonzalez is a lifetime .294 hitter and led Los Angeles to their first division title since 2009. Gonzalez has long been regarded as a fine defensive player, with 3 Gold Gloves to his name. Gonzalez was named a finalist for a Gold Glove this season as well.
Three Gold Gloves, a Silver Slugger Award, and four All-Star Game appearances. Is there a more well-rounded Cougars alumni currently playing in the big leagues?
As a Cougar – Gonzalez, the 1st pick of the 2000 draft, batted .312 with 17 home runs and 103 RBI during the 2001 championship season. He was named a Midwest League mid-season and post-season All-Star.
Pittsburgh pitcher A.J. Burnett (’98 Cougar) will be 37 years old next spring when pitchers and catchers report for spring training, but the right-hander shows no visible signs of slowing down. Burnett started at least 30 games for the 6th straight season as a big leaguer. He also won 10 or more games for the 9th straight season and 11th season in his big league career. Burnett has always been known for his velocity and his 209 strikeouts in 2013 was the highest total for him since fanning 231 in 2008. His lifetime numbers include a 147-132 record, 3.99 ERA and 2,180 strikeouts.
As a Cougar – Burnett holds the single-season strikeout record by a former Cougar with 186, set in 1998.
San Francisco pitcher Santiago Casilla (’03-’04) has two World Series rings as a member of the Giants. In 2013, Casilla pitched in 57 games, posting a 2.16 ERA as a late-innings specialist. In fact, Casilla has appeared in more than 200 games over the past four seasons with the Giants.
As a Cougar – Casilla, who went by the name of Jairo Garcia at the time, pitched in 39 games between the 2003 and 2004 seasons at Kane County. He actually made his debut in 2004 at the big league level with Oakland.
Arizona pitcher Trevor Cahill (’07 Cougar) would have likely reached the 10-win plateau for the fifth time in his five-year career, if it weren’t for an injury which sidelined him for a month and a half. Once he was returned to the active roster, Cahill closed the season on a good note and finished 8-10 with a 3.99 ERA in 25 starts.
As a Cougar – Cahill, as a 19-year old in ’07, was 11-4 with a 2.73 ERA in 19 starts.
San Diego pitcher Huston Street (’04 Cougar) recorded 33 saves in 2013, his highest total since 35 saves with Colorado in 2009. Street has been with 3 teams over his big league career (Oakland, Colorado, San Diego) and in his 9-year big league career, he has recorded 234 saves, good for 36th all-time in big league annals.
As a Cougar – Street pitched in 9 games with the Cougars, going 0-1 with a 1.69 ERA. Street was later promoted to Double-A Midland and was named 2005 American League Rookie of the Year after going 5-1 with 23 saves for Oakland that season.
Stock Went Up: Let’s start with Pittsburgh pitcher Vin Mazzaro (’06 Cougar). Mazzaro debuted with Oakland in 2009 as a 22-year old pitcher and immediately turned heads. Less than 2 years later, Mazzaro was part of a deal sending him to Kansas City. A couple of years ago, I remember reading about a rather forgettable appearance in 2011 with the Royals that included the following numbers for him: 14 runs (all earned) and 11 hits in just 2.1 innings of work. That might have been the low point in Mazzaro’s career. Mazzaro was dealt to Pittsburgh following the 2012 season and had a breakthrough year in 2013 as the Pirates advanced to the post-season for the first time since 1992, when Mazzaro was just 5 years old. Moved exclusively to the bullpen, Mazzaro flourished. In 57 games, he was 8-2 with a 2.81 ERA.
San Diego pitcher Tyson Ross (’08 Cougar) had a resurgence of sorts after being dealt last November to the Padres from Oakland. Despite a 3-8 record, Ross posted a 3.17 ERA in 35 games, 16 of which were starts. Ross was a rotation regular from late July through the end of the regular season.
Oakland pitcher Dan Straily (’10 Cougar) was the other Cougars alum to win at least 10 games in 2013 (the aforementioned A.J. Burnett was the other) and started a game in the post-season for the Athletics as well. Straily started 27 games and struck out 124 batters. He made his big league debut in 2012.
Another Oakland pitcher, Sean Doolittle (’07 Cougar) enjoyed a strong sophomore season in the big leagues just as Straily did. Doolittle appeared in 70 games out of the A’s bullpen, posting a 3.13 ERA.
Trying to rebound: A couple of familiar names to Cougars fans had their shares of struggles in 2013. Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Josh Beckett (’00 Cougar) saw his season end prematurely after what was described as a tingling/numbing situation in his arm. It ultimately led to Thoracic Outlet Syndrome surgery. No, I had never heard about the condition either until this past season. Since breaking into the big leagues in 2001, Beckett had never gone a full season without at least one win until this past season.
Los Angeles Angels pitcher Joe Blanton (’03 Cougar) had a season he’d like to remove from the memory bank. Blanton endured a 14-loss season, a career-worst along with a 6.04 ERA. A World Series hero with the Phillies in 2008, Blanton has won 85 career big league games.
Minnesota outfielder Josh Willingham (’01 Cougar), after winning his first career Silver Slugger Award in 2012, struggled mightily for the Twins in 2013. Willingham batted just .208 in 111 games.
Texas outfielder Nelson Cruz (’03 Cougar) was given a 50-game suspension during the big league season. At the time, Cruz was batting .266 with 27 home runs and 76 RBI for the Rangers.
Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Andre Ethier (’03 Cougar) saw his offensive production dip just a bit from past seasons. In 2013, Ethier batted .272 with 12 home runs and 52 RBI. In 2009, Ethier batted .272 as well, but with 31 home runs and 106 RBI.
Let’s Go Back To The ’90’s: Milwaukee’s Alex Gonzalez (’96 Cougar), San Diego’s Mark Kotsay (’96 Cougar), Pittsburgh’s A.J. Burnett (’98 Cougar), Boston pitcher Ryan Dempster (’96 Cougar) are the four remaining Cougars alums from the 1990’s who appeared in the big leagues this past season. Entering the 2014 season, that number may be cut in half as Kotsay announced his retirement before the ’13 season ended, and Gonzalez only played in 41 games, batting just .177.
Mark Kotsay – made MLB debut with Florida on 7/11/97 (29th former Cougar to reach majors)
Ryan Dempster – made MLB debut with Florida on 5/23/98 (39th former Cougar to reach majors)
Alex Gonzalez – made MLB debut with Florida on 8/25/98 (42nd former Cougar to reach majors)
A.J. Burnett – made MLB debut with Florida on 8/17/99 (50th former Cougar to reach majors)
The Padres gave Kotsay a very classy send-off following the season finale in September:
Notables: Boston pitcher Andrew Bailey (’07 Cougar) pitched in 30 games after his second season with the Red Sox was cut short due to injury. Bailey was 3-1 with a 3.77 ERA. You might remember Bailey as the American League Rookie of the Year in 2009 with Oakland…Miami pitcher Ryan Webb (’05 Cougar) set a career high with 66 appearances this past season…Minnesota pitcher Jared Burton (’03 Cougar) did the same with 71 appearances as did Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Ronald Belisario (’02 Cougar) with 77 appearances… Boston pitcher Ryan Dempster (’96 Cougar) won his first World Series in his 16-year big league career.