NWL preview: Emeralds armed for repeat

Cubs affiliate hoping to build on history; Hops to host All-Star fun

Last season the Eugene Emeralds captured their first outright Northwest League title since 1975. (Jared Ravich/MiLB.com)

By Billy Gates / Special to MiLB.com | June 15, 2017 12:50 PM ET

Anything is possible with lights-out pitching, and the Eugene Emeralds rode a bunch of power arms in 2016 when they captured their first Northwest League outright title since 1975.

The Ems ran off 54 wins, led the league with a 3.24 ERA and dealt an eye-popping nine shutouts to win both halves of the South Division, and a 2-1 championship series over Everett capped a historic year for the club. 

The Ems had been to the league championship series seven times since the 1975 title, and even split the 1980 title with the Bellingham Mariners, but the way Eugene threw the ball last year was something special.

"Everyone is asking how good we are going to be this year," Eugene general manager Allan Benavides told the Eugene Register-Guard. "There's a lot of anticipation about having a competitive team, more so than in the past. It's exciting to have that element, to have expectations. It's something we're not used to, but we want to keep doing it."

Eugene manager Jesus Feliciano is back for his second year, and after his club set the league record with 15 consecutive wins on its way to the title, it's still fresh in his mind.

"Feels like it was yesterday," Feliciano said. "The 15-game winning streak, that was pretty awesome. That was not an easy thing to do, but the way the players handled themselves, that is the best thing I got from them."

Bailey Clark, a 6-foot-4 right-hander ranked as the Cubs' No. 27 prospect, highlights the righty-heavy Emeralds staff. Of 17 rostered hurlers, two are southpaws.

Clark's fastball is consistently clocked between 92-96 mph and can get up to 99 mph on occasion. The 2016 fifth-round pick complements his heater with a slider around 83-86 mph, plus a changeup.

Everett, the league's best offensive team last year with a .761 OPS and 437 runs, will look to repeat as North Division champions with No. 6 prospect Brayan Hernandez and No. 20 prospect Greifer Andrade leading the way. 

A rangy center fielder with line-drive capabilities to all fields, Hernandez could be headed toward five-tool player distinction if his power increases. There's more detailing Hernandez below, and scouts feel he could blossom into a tremendous player.

Andrade has played all over the field during his time in the Minors and is listed as an outfielder. The 20-year-old Venezuelan hit .341 in the rookie Arizona League last season.

All-Star power: The Hillsboro Hops, who lost to the Emeralds in last year's South Division playoff series, have won the NWL two of the past three seasons and will get a chance to show off Ron Tonkin Field to the rest of baseball.

The Hops will host the Northwest-Pioneer All-Star Game on August 1, but to president and general manager KL Wombacher, it's more than just the game. It will be a baseball experience unlike any park around has seen.

"This is becoming a bigger and bigger event than we could have anticipated," Wombacher said. "We want this to be a Major League-type event, and it's going to be the most fun three days we've ever had."

Wombacher and his staff have put together three days of fun at the ballpark for fans, including a fan fest July 30 and a concert/brewfest July 31. A home run derby will precede the leagues' midsummer classic, which the NWL claimed with an 11-5 win in Ogden, Utah, last year.

The Hops return two all-stars from last year, catcher Luke Lowery and pitcher Anfernee Benitez.

Blackout baseball: A total solar eclipse that spanned across the country hasn't been seen since 1918, so the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes are going to make sure fans remember August 21, 2017.

An entire four-game series with Hillsboro will be Eclipsefest at Volcanoes Stadium, celebrating the upcoming solar eclipse. NASA forecasters say the Salem-Keizer area will be completely in the path of totality, which means a full eclipse will happen.

Fireworks for Friday and Saturday's evening games, a brewfest for all four games and a breakfast before Monday's 9:35 a.m. start highlight what will happen before things go dark.

The idea behind the morning game is to be the first professional baseball game in history to stop during the nearly three minutes of darkness.

It's better than a rain delay, for sure.

The new guys: Half the league will have first-year managers in the dugouts. Jolbert Cabrera -- an eight-year MLB utilityman with the Cleveland Indians, Los Angeles Dodgers, Seattle Mariners and Cincinnati Reds -- takes over at Salem-Keizer. Cabrera also helped coach the Colombian National Team in the 2017 World Baseball Classic and played a combined 22 years of professional baseball, including international play.

Shawn Roof, previously a coach for Class A Kane County, moves to the field manager spot in Hillsboro, while Scott Little transitions from hitting coach to manager at Boise.

Matt Hagan will take over the Spokane club for longtime manager Tom Hulett. 

Young guns: Many promising prospects are set to see the field to start the 2017 NWL season. Among notable prospects that could see extended time with their current clubs, Hernandez sticks out.

The 19-year-old Venezuelan stole 21 bases for the Mariners' Dominican and Arizona league teams last year and hit .285.

Brayden Bouchey, a 6-foot-6 21-year-old right-hander, will pitch for his hometown Vancouver Canadians this season. After tossing 26 innings in Rookie ball last year as a 33rd-round Draft pick of the Blue Jays in 2016, Bouchey's homecoming will surely be a highlight for the Canadians early on.

Last year's NWL wins leader, 21-year-old Benitez looks to anchor a Hillsboro pitching staff that will also feature, at least for now, 2015 NWL pitcher of the year Carlos Hernandez. Hernandez has been rehabbing an elbow injury and will get at least a couple starts.

Hillsboro will also have Arizona's No. 2 prospect, infielder Domingo Leyba, for at least the opening series in Everett. Leyba is on an injury rehab assignment with the Hops after he suffered a small tear in the anterior capsule of his right shoulder in April. Acquired from Detroit in the three-team trade that sent Didi Gregorius to the New York Yankees, the 21-year-old switch-hitting middle infielder spent time in Class AA last year.

Billy Gates is a contributor to MiLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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