The Cubs’ Short-Season Low-A affiliate Eugene Emeralds dominated the Northwest League from start to finish in 2016, and it was their pitching that led the way.
The Cubs have aggressively targeted pitching in recent years both internationally and after the first round in the draft, and representatives of those efforts were part of the Eugene staff. In 2016 the Emeralds’ pitchers led the Short-Season Low-A Northwest League in ERA (3.24), allowed runs per game (4.03), hits per nine innings (7.5), and saves (30), despite being one of the two youngest staffs (on average) on the hill. That gave their league-youngest offense, and a fairly potent offense at that, plenty of margin for error, as the Emeralds compiled a .711 win percentage; second place came in at just .592.
While the pitching, justifiably, is going to get the spotlight, I don’t think we can ignore the role played by Eugene’s defense. The Emeralds were very successful at keeping runs from scoring, but that success is not always indicated in some of the usual pitching stats. We knew there were some gifted gloves in Eugene; it is possible there were more than we thought. As was the case in Chicago, defense might just have been a very big part of the Emeralds’ championship puzzle.
More on the defense in a bit. Let’s start by taking a look at some of the pitching prospects that provided so much frustration for opposing lineups.
A lot of high quality pitching prospects made at least a short appearance in Eugene this summer, but many of them did not stay long. That said, reading through the pitching contributors for the Emeralds is a pretty good guide to which pitchers to watch over the next few seasons on the farm.
And the list starts with Dylan Cease, who solidified his claim as one of the Cubs’ best pitching prospects with his 12 starts in Eugene. The 13.3 K/9 were a nice sign, as was the fact that he pitched 44.2 innings on a surgically repaired elbow. Cease’s place at the top of the pitching prospect charts is challenged, though, by Oscar De La Cruz. This big righty made only a pair of his 2016 starts in Eugene, but in those two starts he allowed just two walks, one earned run (on a home run), and struck out 14.
Other notable Eugene pitchers include lefty Jose Paulino (6 starts, 35 IP, 9.51 K/9, 0.51 ERA), right-hander Erling Moreno (6 starts, 30 IP, 6.60 K/9, 0.90 ERA), teenage lefty Bryan Hudson (13 starts, 58.2 IP, 6.29 K/9, 5.06 ERA), 2016 draftee Bailey Clark (2 starts, 6.2 IP, 12.15 K/9, 2.70 ERA), and fellow 2016 draftee Dakota Mekkes (9 games, 17 IP, 11.12 K/9, 2.12 ERA). To name a few.
Interestingly, despite leading the league in ERA and strikeouts (680), Eugene was only in the middle of the pack in home runs allowed (fourth, with 34) and next to last in walks allowed (316). Piling up the strikeouts certainly helped prevent the excess in walks from turning into an excess in runs, but it is a little unusual for a team to do an excellent job keeping runners from the crossing the plate while also ranking among the league leaders in allowing free runners.
And that is where a good defense can really help a team out.
Unfortunately, there are not many… or any… good stats by which to meaningfully measure the defense of a Short-Season Low-A ballclub. We know that Eugene led the league in put outs (2061), was second in assists (849), and third from last in errors (97), but all that really tells us that the they had a lot of chances to make outs and that they were usually successful in those chances. That’s a good starting place, but it doesn’t get us very far.
We are going to have to wait for more video and more defensive metrics to come into play as these players move into the higher levels of the minors to say anything for certain, but from the games I did watch there are a couple players in particular that need to be called out for future scrutiny.
D.J. Wilson played the vast majority of the games in center fielder, and he is showing signs of being a very good defensive center fielder indeed. I would not yet put him in the same tier as Albert Almora (who remains the best defensive outfielder I’ve watched in the minors), but Wilson has a chance to one day join that tier. For a 19-year-old, his jump and his routes are perfectly fine, but he also has the speed to out run some of his own mistakes and to give himself a play on balls other outfielders would only watch.
On the infield, it seemed like first baseman Chris Pieters was good for at least one or two very good plays per game. As you might expect at this low level, the throws he received from his middle infielders were not always on target, but Pieters did a nice job turning bad throws into outs and preventing horrible throws from turning into multiple bases. Surprisingly for for a 6’3″ first baseman, Pieters also stole 20 bases last season. That speed also allowed him to play 28 games in left field.
And finally, keep an eye on switch-hitting middle infielder Yeiler Peguero. Splitting his time between second and short, Peguero certainly did his part to keep Pieters on his toes with less than perfect tosses to first, but for an 18-year-old, he played pretty well at both middle infield positions. I think I liked him a little better at second than short, but we’ll get a better feel for where he could wind up permanently as he moves up the ladder. We should see plenty of him at both positions with South Bend.
In all honesty, though, I’m looking forward to getting a closer look at the defense of nearly this entire roster. I suspect that, on average, this team might be better in the field than we’d normally expect from a Short-Season Low-A team. Whether that is a credit to their talent, their coaching, or to a little of both, remains to be seen.
The infield also provided a sizable percentage of the Emerald’s offense. Ranked by runs scored, for example, the only non-infielders to make the top six were Wilson and toolsy corner outfielder Kevonte Mitchell. Joining Pieters and Peguero in completing the list are utility man Trent Giambrone and third baseman Wladimir Galindo. Giambrone (.292/.404/.433 in 51 games) put up some nice numbers after the Cubs drafted him in the 25th round, good enough that if he can repeat that performance in the full season leagues in 2017 he could move quickly.
But the big story at the plate for the Emeralds was the 19-year-old Galindo (.243/.337/.462, 9 home runs). His strikeout rate is much too high for his level (28.7%), but he walked at a higher rate than in the past (11.7%) and posted the best ISO of his career. He will need to cut back on the strikeouts if his power is going to continue to be useful, but there is no mistaking that power. Among the Cubs’ corner infield prospects in the low minors, there is none better. His bat will be tested in the Midwest League, and I look forward to seeing how he responds.
To South Bend
Most or all of the offense should spend at least part of 2017 in South Bend, and much of the pitching staff will join them. As was the case in 2016, though, I look for the pitching situation to remain very fluid. Older college draftees the Cubs will likely accelerate up the system as soon as they have proven themselves in the Midwest League, and in turn they will be replaced by pitchers emerging from extended spring training and the 2017 draft. I would not be surprised to see some of the younger flamethrowers, such as Cease, spend a little time in the bullpen as well as the rotation (or in intentionally-shortened piggy-back outings) as a means of limiting their innings while the arm builds up strength.
Regardless, this group of players has an excellent chance of winning another championship as members of the South Bend Cubs. And since South Bend has one of the best video feeds in the minors, Cubs fans everywhere will be able to get a good look at a fairly exciting bunch of players.