The Kane County Cougars have enjoyed successful teams and playoff runs in both of their last two seasons, and if all goes according to plan, 2016 should be no different.
2014 saw the Cougars win the Midwest League Championship in a sweep as a Cubs affiliate; that team went 91-49 in the regular season, adding another seven wins in the playoffs (and, just for the record, zero losses). 2015 brought some inherent uncertainty with an affiliate change to the Diamondbacks, but any doubts were assuaged when the team set a record for wins in a half-season with 48 and easily made the postseason.
And now, it’s time to look ahead. And to do that, we look… west?
The Hillsboro Hops, located in Oregon, are the short-season affiliate of the Diamondbacks. The Hops, like the Cougars, have made the playoffs two years running. In fact, not only have the Hops won four straight half-season division titles, they also won the Northwest League Championship both years.
That’s great for the Hops. It’s also great for the Cougars. Thanks to the gradual progression of minor league players through a team’s farm system, the 2016 Cougs should be comprised largely of members of one or both of those championship-winning Hillsboro teams. While the roster won’t be set until early April, here are some of those players who could be gracing the field at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark this summer.
Alex Young. A 2015 draftee, Young didn’t spend a huge amount of time with the Hops, but the time he did was well-spent: the #5 Diamondbacks prospect registered a 1.50 ERA (earned run average) in the six games in which he pitched. While he was used out of the bullpen for the Hops, he’s expected to be tried out as a starter for his first full season in the pros.
Taylor Clarke. Taylor Clarke had a pretty good year in Oregon, if your definition of “pretty good” is “utterly dominant.” Clarke did not give up a single run, earned or unearned, in his debut season. He threw 21 innings for the Hops as part of that lights-out bullpen that helped them to the championship (for those of you having trouble working out the math, that’s an ERA of 0.00). While it’s prooobably unrealistic to expect a feat repeat in 2016 as Clarke also moves to the starting rotation, we can still expect good things from the young right-hander.
Cody Reed. Cody Reed is 19 years old, everyone. He is 19 years old and about to enter his third season in professional baseball. Reed is another pitcher – sensing a trend? – and he already is a full-time starter. Reed made his debut for the Hops with four no-hit innings, which is in character, as he threw five no-hitters as a senior in high school en route to becoming the Alabama Gatorade Player of the Year. If the lefty ends up in Kane County in 2016, which would be no surprise, expect to see lots of strikes.
Brody Greer. Guess what position Brody Greer plays? If your guess was “pitcher,” congratulations, you have learned that it takes a lot of good pitching for a team to be successful. Greer supplied his own fair share of good pitching, ending up with a 0.83 ERA (that’s good) in 32.2 innings of work for the Hops. Greer, who only gave up one earned run in his last 10 appearances, proved that you don’t need to be drafted to produce; he signed with the Diamondbacks as an undrafted free agent.
Carlos Hernandez. Hernandez, a pitcher, was very impressive as a starter for the Hops. In fact, he was so impressive that not only was he named to the Northwest League All-Star Team, at the end of the season he was also crowned the Northwest League Pitcher of the Year. It’s hard to argue with the numbers. With a 2.32 ERA and 93 strikeouts in just 85.1 innings pitched, Hernandez proved pretty definitively that he belongs on the roster.
Zach Nehrir. Although Nehrir was sidelined for a portion of the 2015 season with a left hand injury, the Northwest League All-Star still managed to produce for the Hops. The center fielder – that’s right, the first non-pitcher on this list – hit .297 with an impressive .363 OBP (on-base percentage), in addition to blasting 15 doubles in just 40 games. Nehrir made a quick impression by opening the season with consecutive four-hit games. If he can keep up that production (ok, maybe not four hits every game), he should find no trouble in the Midwest League.
Trevor Mitsui. Mitsui, who split time between first base and the designated hitter, hit well enough to turn some heads in 2015. The 6’5”, 225-pound lefty set Hops franchise records for home runs in a season (10), runs batted in (42), and extra-base hits (24). Half of those home runs came in the span of just five games in August. If Mitsui does end up in Kane County in 2016, all those seated in the outfield decks better pay attention when he comes up to bat.
So, there you have it – seven members of a championship-winning team who could end up on the Cougars for the upcoming season. Only time will tell for sure, but things are looking good for another strong Kane County performance in 2016.