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Arizona Diamondbacks Minor-league Review: Kane County Cougars

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After a hugely successful rookie season as a D-backs affiliate, the sophomore slump hit the Cougars hard.

@KCCougars, via Twitter

In 2015, the Kane County Cougars were part of the Diamondbacks’ farm system for the first year, and produced a highly successful season under manager Mark Grudzielanek. They went 84-54 and although they lost in the first playoff round, were second in the 16-team Midwest League for attendance, pulling in over 408,000 fans. Attendance was only slightly down (still pulling in just over 400K), but the 2016 incarnation was nowhere near as successful, finishing sixth in the league’s Western division, with a final record of 65-75, this time under Mike Benjamin, Grudzielanek having become part of Arizona’s Player Development staff, as Assistant Coordinator.

The problem for the Cougars was not their pitching, which actually had the best ERA in the league, at 3.07. It was their hitting and defense which were highly problematic. Kane County scored only 3.39 runs per game, also the lowest in the league, and hemorrhaged unearned runs, allowing 98 of those on a total of 164 errors, more than any other team. The batters had a K:BB ratio of 3.37, helping limit them to an on-base percentage of .301, with an OPS of .635, that ranked last in the division. This came despite an average hitters’ age of 21.7, a couple of tenths above league average.

2015’s MVP for the Cougars, Colin Bray spent most of this year at Visalia, and struggled with the K’s there, fanning 127 times for a strikeout rate of 28%. However, his power did increase, going from just three home-runs to a round dozen. The pitcher honors that season went to a name you might recognize, for Zac Curtis appeared for the Diamondbacks in 21 games this season, making the jump all the way from Visalia to the major-leagues. Though the resulting 6.75 ERA and K:BB of 10:13 were unimpressive, and he will likely begin 2017 back on the farm.

Despite the Cougars 2016 struggles, there were still some decent individual performances to note, on both sides of the dugout, so let’s see who stood out for the Cougars.

Hitting (min 200 PA)

  • Hits: Trevor Mitsui. 129
  • 2B: Mitsui, 27
  • 3B: Fernery Ozuna, 5
  • HR: Ozuna, 7
  • RBI: Mitsui, 59
  • SB: Ozuna, 17
  • BB: Luis Alejandro Basabe, 29
  • SO: Mitsui, 102
  • BA: Mitsui, 291
  • OBP: Joey Armstrong, .382
  • SLG: Ozuna, .415
  • OPS: Armstrong, .781

In defense of the Cougars, they did see a lot of roster churn too, using 32 players, and with only three (Mitsui, Ozuna and Raymel Flores) playing even 80 times. Despite a couple of stints with Visalia, Armstrong scraped over the limit to take the OPS crown, getting 208 PA; among those with more than that, the best figure belonged to Fernery Ozuna’s .717 over 339 PA. He gets extra credit for his relatively young age, compared to the league. He was 20 for the entire season, and the third-baseman improved markedly on the .512 OPS he put up in 35 games for Kane County in 2015. Ozuna missed the start of the year after having Tommy John surgery, so did not play until the last day of May, but appears fully recovered and received good comments on his post-surgery throwing strength from manager Benjamin.

Interesting to see Basabe lead the team in walks, despite only 192 PA, for a walk-rate of 15.1%, not bad for a 19-year-old. He’s one of the guys we got from Boston in the Brad Ziegler trade, with urban legend saying Dave Stewart got the wrong Luis Basabe; his twin brother (middle name Alexander) is still with the Red Sox. Our one didn’t hit much here, batting .217, but the walks helped get his OBP up to a solid .339. We should also mention Mitsui, who was the closest thing to an ever-present the team had, playing 115 times. He got a late-season call-up to Visalia, and hit .318 there; he’ll likely be with the Rawhide again in 2017.

Pitching (min. 30 IP)

  • Wins: Justin Donatella and Carlos Hernandez, 7
  • Losses: Hernandez, 11
  • ERA: Cody Reed, 1.82
  • Sv: Cameron Gann, 9
  • K: Hernandez, 122
  • BB: Hernandez, 69
  • WHIP: Keegan Long, 0.847
  • K/9: Reed, 12.5
  • BB/9: Reed, 0.7
  • K/BB: Reed, 18.33

Cody Reed proved virtually unstoppable for the Cougars. At the end of May, he had a 1.58 ERA and a K:BB of 60:5 in 45.2 innings. He was then promoted to Visalia, and hit a significant road-bump, going 0-5 with an ERA over six the rest of the way. Baseball America called it, saying of Reed in June, "the minors are filled with pitchers who dominated low Class A with a great changeup but found that such an approach doesn’t work nearly as well at higher levels of competition." But Reed only turned 20 in June, so we’ll see if he can develop an arsenal that does not rely so much on that apparently excellent changeup, perhaps adding a few more mph on his fastball.

The Cougars also used 32 pitchers, including 16 starters, with Carlos Hernandez the core of the rotation. His mediocre 7-11 record conceals a very good 2.55 ERA, and he struck out close to a batter per inning (122 in 123.1 IP). The main knock is the 69 walks; no-one else on the staff even reached 30. Keegan Long was the best of the regular bullpen, putting up a 1.87 ERA in his 43 appearances, and took over as closer after Cameron Gann’s 1.48 ERA got him promoted. But a special tip of the hat to Emilio Vargas, who turned in perhaps the best single-game performance by a D-backs prospect in 2016. On August 20th, he fanned seventeen batters, and took a one-hitter into the ninth inning. Not bad for a player who had only turned 20 eight days earlier.