*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.
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.
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.
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.
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.