2016 could not have gone any better for the Eugene Emeralds. Manager Jesus Feliciano led the club to their first Northwest League title in over 30 years. In addition, the Emeralds broadcasted their home games on MiLB.TV which allowed for Cubs fans all over the country to watch.
The Emeralds were led by a devastating starting pitching rotation anchored by Dylan Cease, Manuel Rondon, Bailey Clark, Pedro Silverio, and Bryan Hudson. They used team speed and timely hitting along with good defense en route to an amazing 54-22 record.
Video: Eugene Emeralds win Northwest League
When it comes to the 2017 Emeralds, today's preview is actually a preview of a possible preview in June. Once spring training camp breaks the first week of April, extended spring training begins. Over the course of those next 10 weeks, the roster for the Emeralds will begin to take shape. This year, it should be a mixture of players from last year's Mesa team, last year's Dominican summer league teams, and position players and relievers from the 2017 MLB draft. The roster is usually pretty fluid because of pitching limits for draft picks who already played a full season of college or high school baseball.
Who Can Emeralds' Fans Expect to See in 2017?
The two names that come to the forefront the most at are pitcher Jose Albertos and shortstop Isaac Paredes. Both are 18 years old and were signed out of Mexico as international free agents.
Albertos only pitched for innings in 2016 but throws mid to upper 90s heat and commands his fastball at will. He was shut down for most of the season after straining his forearm in his only start in Rookie League for Mesa. However, the buzz and hype on Albertos is quite large and quite real. He entered most Cubs prospect lists as a top 10 prospect.
As for Isaac Paredes, the young shortstop is well-built and a hitting machine. He hit over .300 in rookie ball at 17-years-old and he got a little glimpse filling in at South Bend for a couple weeks at the end of 2016. He should be in Eugene to start the year where he will play shortstop and maybe see a little third-base.
Both Paredes and Albertos should advance quickly this year. They may only be in Eugene for the first half.
Depending on who the Cubs draft, I think we're going to see a decidedly Latin feel to the Emeralds starting rotation. Javier Assad was the ace of the Mesa staff last year. He comes with a low 90s fastball and is still working on his secondaries. 2016 draftee Matt Swarmer looks to have added some weight this spring and is an interesting pitcher who is very, very raw when it comes to professional skills but seems to be picking up things at a very fast rate.
Two pitchers who also missed all, or most, of 2016 include Jesus Camargo and 2016 draftee Stephen Ridings. In 2015, Camargo was the top starter for the Mesa team and last year Ridings missed all season after being drafted. Camargo has good control while Ridings throws in the mid-90s and has some issues he needs to work out when it comes to where the ball goes.
In addition to Paredes, Second baseman Delvin Zinn is one of the best athletes in the Cubs' system. The Cubs originally drafted Zinn in 2015 but he chose to go to Mississippi State. He never did play for the Bulldogs instead going to junior college. The Cubs redrafted Zinn last year and he saw a little time in Mesa in the Arizona Rookie League. In just a short tenure at Mesa, his skills improved dramatically. This showed how open he was to coaching. I expect him to be one of the most exciting players to watch for the Emeralds this summer as he has great speed and the 19-year-old should improve hitting over the course of the 74-game season
Catcher Michael Cruz brings some left-handed power to a position the Cubs normally don't draft high. The 2016 draftee spent most of his time last year working on his defensive skills in Mesa. I think this year we will see his bat play more in short season ball. As a result, he may not be in Eugene long.
Another key hitter will be catcher Gustavo Polanco. The converted first baseman has a definite hit tool as he led Mesa in hitting in 2016. He has a short compact swing that has yet to translate into home runs. Outfielder Luis Ayala should provide a calming effect at the top of the order as a pure hitter and a player who can get on base and set the table for the lineup.
More than likely the Cubs will take prep bats with their first two picks in the 2017 draft. As a result, expect only college players to show up and to begin to play immediately in Eugene after being drafted. In fact, I expect the Cubs to have a lot of draft picks in the bullpen.
Depending on how they do in extended spring training, Emeralds' fans might be getting some of the top 2015 international free agents. Shortstop Aramis Ademan and catcher Miguel Amaya are defensively ready to play short season ball. Extended spring will test whether their bats are. 18-year old pitchers Brailyn Marquez and Faustino Carrera are two other left-handed pitchers who could crack the rotation at Eugene with a solid spring.
There's a lot to like here on the Eugene roster, but they will need some time to develop. Right now, the pitching may be a little bit of ahead of the hitting, but there will be a lot of 18 to 20-year-old kids who will be learning the art of professional baseball.
The actual Eugene roster will be listed somewhere between the 15th and 17th of June. This will be just in time for the season to begin.
I really like Marquez to be the breakout pitcher of the year. At 6'6", Marquez seemed to have a natural feel for pitching last year in the Dominican Summer League. As for hitters, I think Delvin Zinn hits the mark for his natural athletic ability that will help him transition at the plate and in the field.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.