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.
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.
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).
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!