Ever since the Yakima Bears became an Arizona Diamondbacks affiliate in 2001, the team has struggled. The Bears have finished eight of their nine seasons with a losing record, the lone exception coming with a .592 winning percentage in 2003. While Bears fans may be used to this culture of losing at this point, 2009 was especially bad. Their .368 winning percentage is he second worst mark the team has endured as a D-backs affiliate, with only their .303 mark in 2002 being worse.
While the Bears have an unfortunate tradition of losing, they also have a history of cultivating standout seasons from a few of their prospects. Last year, Collin Cowgill led the Northwest League in home runs despite only playing 20 games here before receiving a promotion. Patrick McAnaney had a 0.55 ERA in limited action and Jordan Meaker had a 1.47 ERA as the club's primary closer.
In 2007, starter Josh Collmenter and reliever Billy Spottiswood led the pitching staff with six wins and 10 saves respectively. As good as those two were, there were two even bigger stars on offense. Shortstop Mark Hallberg rode a 17-game hitting streak to a .313 batting average, plus slugged .464 and stole 12 bases in 13 attempts. But even he could not match teammate Clayton Conner's remarkable .351 batting average and .626 slugging as a third baseman.
Promotions and Additions
In 2009, Conner once again found himself a member of the Yakima Bears after injuries derailed him in 2008. He would lead the 2009 club in home runs and RBI despite earning a promotion back up to South Bend in early August.
"It was a frustrating time, to miss a full season," Conner told FutureBacks in September. "This year's been going fine. Everything has been healthy."
Other than Conner, the Bears didn't lose a whole lot of talent during the course of the season. Pitcher Brad Wilson and catcher Tyson Van Winkle each spent a week with South Bend before returning to the Bears, but that was about the extent of it.
Although not much talent leaked out, there wasn't a big influx of help, either. The Missoula Osprey were in postseason contention all year, so their stars were staying put. Jake Hale did make his way west to Yakima, but the 6-foot-7 pitcher still has some mechanical things to discover before he becomes an impact performer. Matt Helm, the D-backs' 7th-round draft selection, was a late sign, but wasn't able to make a huge impact either, as he battled injury for most of his senior season prior to getting drafted. He did manage to hit .291 and bang out a homer in the final game of the season, though.
FutureBacks.com Position Player of the Year
Okay, so there was one impact player that the Bears lost due to a promotion, but they somewhat surprisingly did not lose him until the final week of the season. Ryan Wheeler, the obvious choice for the team's Position Player of the Year, was probably the best hitter in the Northwest League before helping the South Bend Silver Hawks into the postseason come September.
Wheeler led the Northwest League with a .461 OBP and .999 OPS. He was second with a .363 batting average and .538 slugging. He was also among the league leaders in runs, hits, doubles, and walks. He fanned just 28 times in 234 at-bats and also showed that he could run for a big guy by swiping seven bases and tripling three times.
Wheeler continued to hit well in the eight regular season and three postseason games he played with South Bend. His superlative performance this season will likely land him a spot on Hi-A Visalia's opening day roster.
"I've had some success, but I'm not satisfied," Wheeler said.
FutureBacks.com Pitcher of the Year
Only one Bears pitcher notched more than three wins or struck out as many as 50 batters. Dan Taylor, a 21st-round pick out of Central Michigan University, went 5-1 with a 3.53 ERA. He also fanned 79 batters, the third-highest total in the Northwest League.
Taylor's accomplishments are even more impressive when you consider that he began the season struggling in the bullpen with a 9.22 ERA through eight games. After an inspired organizational decision to move him back into the starter's role he held throughout his four college years, Taylor went 4-0 with 61 strikeouts, 14 walks, a 1.98 ERA, and a .202 batting average against.
Although just a 21st-round pick, Taylor led the Mid-American Conference in innings pitched and strikeouts this season with CMU. Part of the reason he fell so far in the draft was that he was a senior. Another was the 16 homers and 106 hits he allowed in 87.1 innings prior to being drafted this year.
"You just take your chance when you get it," Taylor said shortly after the June draft. "I definitely think I can play."
Other Notable Performances
Shortstop Brent Greer hit three homers on July 5th to help him earn Northwest League Player of the Week honors. He finished second on he team in hits (82), batting average (.300), homers (7), and total bases (119). Brian Budrow led the team with six saves and had the lowest ERA of any Bears pitcher who tossed more than one inning. It was 2.38 in 34 innings, thanks in large part to the fact that he did not allow a home run all year.
Given how well the Diamondbacks have drafted in recent years, it's hard to believe how little success the Yakima Bears have enjoyed as a team. Nevertheless, Bears fans can at least be proud to have seen such impressive individual performances. Carlos Gonzalez, Mark Reynolds, Conor Jackson, Ross Ohlendorf, and Esmerling Vasquez comprise some of the biggest stars to pass through Yakima on their way to the big leagues. Ryan Wheeler, Clayton Conner, Brent Greer, Brian Budrow, and Dan Taylor might be the next generation of Yakima alumni to impact the major leagues.
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