RC today continues our series of minor league season recaps with a look at the Idaho Falls Chukars. Playing in the Pioneer League, the Chukars qualified for the postseason and advanced to the league championship series, where they fell just short of the title. With a roster full of collegiate draftees, the Chukars featured several outstanding prospects, many of whom had great professional debuts.
Saying the Idaho Falls Chukars were a streaky team in 2006 would be something of an understatement. While compiling a 40-36 overall record en route to a playoff berth, the Chukars were among the streakiest teams in short season ball. In fact, over half of the Chukars' games were played while in the midst of a winning or losing streak of three or more games, and it was not uncommon for the club to immediately follow a winning streak with a losing streak of equal proportion.
The Chukars were a team defined by speed and plate discipline. Although they hit just 36 home runs on the season (last in the Pioneer League), they led the league in both stolen bases (four players finished in the league's top 10 in stolen bases) and walks, and finished second in the league in OBP (.362) and BA (.273). The pitching staff – which was composed primarily of 2006 collegiate draftees – had some struggles while compiling a staff ERA of 4.62 (third-worst in the league), but it was the stingiest staff in the league at handing out free passes. In fact, the Chukars dished out 20 percent fewer walks than any other team, and they easily had the highest K:BB ratio in the league.
All told, the Chukars were just good enough, and they slid into the Pioneer League playoffs by virtue of a wild card berth. Opposing Idaho Falls in the first round of the playoffs were the Orem Owlz, the league's most dominant team, against whom the Chukars were just 5-13 during the regular season. The best-of-three series had the look of a mismatch, but the Chukars stunned the Owlz with a two-game sweep behind solid pitching and timely hitting. The win sent the Owlz home and matched the Chukars up against the Missoula Osprey for the league championship.
Unfortunately, the Chukars committed four errors and surrendered four unearned runs while being shut out on three hits in Game 1. Facing elimination in Game 2, Idaho Falls couldn't rebound from a rough start by Blake Wood, and they fell to the Osprey, 7-2. It was a disappointing end to an otherwise solid season.
Earlier this month, the Chukars and Royals announced that they have agreed to extend their affiliation for two more seasons, bringing the Royals back for their fourth season in the Pioneer League in 2007. In September, the Royals added a third rookie ball affiliate in Burlington, NC, so there were some questions about how the Royals would utilize the Idaho Falls affiliate. However, since the talent in the Pioneer League is typically equivalent with short season Class A leagues, the Chukars will remain the Royals' most advanced rookie ball affiliate, and they will likely continue receiving the most advanced collegiate draftees.
Top Prospect Performances:
Marc Maddox: Maddox was named by the Royals as the Chukar's Player of the Year, and deservedly so after he hit .336/.428/.504 in his professional debut. Though he only hit three home runs, Maddox led the Chukars in extra base hits, thanks to a team-leading 22 doubles to go along with four triples. Maddox hit 18 home runs this spring for the Southern Miss Golden Eagles, and the Royals are hopeful that he'll develop more power as he matures. Maddox, the Royals' 9th round pick in the 2006 draft, played most of his games at second base, although he also saw time at both first base and third base.
Maddox was the Chukars' Player of the Year.
Kurt Mertins: On August 7, a 2-for-4 game raised Mertins' batting average to .390, and he appeared to be a lock for the Pioneer League batting title. However, a mid-August slump torpedoed those aspirations, and his batting average dropped to a season-low .333 on August 29. A late hot streak pushed Mertins' final line up to .342/.397/.431, and he led the club with 26 stolen bases while only being caught four times.
Mertins doesn't have much power, but he has no problem putting the bat on the ball.
A second baseman, Mertins was selected by the Royals in the 13th round of the 2006 draft out of the College of the Desert. He hit only one home run for the Chukars, and he doesn't have much projectable power, but Mertins' debut probably couldn't have been much better.
Joe Dickerson: Dickerson followed up his impressive 2005 debut with a quality sophomore season for the Chukars. In 242 at bats, Dickerson hit .281/.338/.450 with seven home runs, 14 doubles, and three triples. Though his final numbers were respectable, they could have been much better. Dickerson entered August hitting .339/.378/.568 after an MVP-caliber first half, but he suffered through a terrible month of August, hitting just .208/.286/.333 in 96 at bats. Dickerson worked hard on developing power to the opposite field, and he's become one of the better outfield prospects in the Royals' minor league system.
Dickerson is also an excellent defensive outfielder.
Brett Bigler: No player better epitomized his team than Bigler. Just like the Chukars, Bigler had no power to speak of, but he got by with an impressive mix of speed and plate discipline. Drafted in the 7th round out of UC Riverside, Bigler had a reputation in college as a good on-base guy, and he didn't disappoint in his professional debut. In 210 at bats, Bigler hit .276/.392/.300 with five doubles and no home runs, and he stole 20 bases while only being caught twice.
Between the regular season and the postseason, Bigler hit .293 this year
Bigler got off to a rough start and was hitting just .236 at the season's halfway point, and August didn't start off much better for him. On August 19, an 0-for-2 dropped his batting average to a season-low .214. However, Bigler went 2-for-4 on August 25, and something clicked for him. He hit safely in 11 of the Chukars' final 12 games, going 22-for-44 (.500), and in September alone, Bigler hit .522/.645/.565. His strong finish salvaged his season numbers, and it carried over to the playoffs, where Bigler went 8-for-15 (.533) in four games.
Rowdy Hardy: Hardy signed with the Royals as a fifth-year senior prior to the June draft, and he went on to become the undisputed ace of the Idaho Falls staff. The tall, slender lefty went 5-3 while compiling a staff-leading 2.80 ERA in 80.1 IP. Hardy's fastball tops out in the mid-80s, but he relies on a deceptive sidearm delivery and an assortment of off-speed pitches to get by.
Hardy has freakish control, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio was 10-to-1 this year.
Hardy's control in his professional debut was outstanding – he walked only five batters all season – and his WHIP of 1.05 was the best on the staff among starting pitchers. For his efforts, the Royals named him Idaho Falls' Pitcher of the Year.
Jason Godin: Godin threw a lot of innings in the spring for Old Dominion University, and the Royals kept him out of action for most of the Pioneer League season to rest a tired arm. However, when he was on the mound, he showed perhaps the best stuff on the Idaho Falls staff, which is why the Royals took him in the 5th round of the 2006 draft. Godin appeared in just six games for the Chukars, compiling a 2.49 ERA in 21.2 IP while striking out 18 and walking eight.
Godin led the Colonial Athletic Association in strikeouts this past spring.
Harold Mozingo: Mozingo had a stellar season for Virginia Commonwealth University, and the Royals selected him with their sixth round pick in the June draft. He had some difficulty adjusting to his first season of professional ball, and in 15 games, Mozingo compiled a 5-3 record with a 6.17 ERA. In 54.0 IP, Mozingo allowed 64 hits and 21 walks while striking out 46.
Mozingo is still one of RC's favorite prospects, despite a rough season.
Bryan Casey: A 20th round draft-and-follow selection out of Arizona Western College in the 2005 draft, Bryan Casey signed a $235,000 bonus with the Royals in May and was assigned to Idaho Falls. Although his numbers – 0-6 with a 6.04 ERA in 24 games – were sub par, Casey is a big kid with a live arm that propels mid-90s fastballs with ease. He struggled with his command, but he had the best arm on the staff, and he could be a very interesting prospect to watch as he moves forward.
Casey looks like a bulldog out on the mound.
The Chukars got some outstanding pitching from a pair of relievers who were drafted out of college in the 2006 draft. Sidearmed reliever Daniel Best – who played with Maddox at Southern Mississippi and was the Royals' 14th round selection in June – was 5-3 with a 2.92 ERA in 37.0 IP. Aaron Hartsock, who was taken with the 23rd round pick out of California Baptist University, was perhaps the Chukars' best reliever. In 46.1 IP, Hartsock held opponents to a .202 batting average while striking out 43 and compiling an ERA of 2.91.
Hartsock's excellent season went largely under the radar, but RC was impressed with his curveball and poise.
A pair of young outfielders had solid seasons for the Chukars. O.D. Gonzalez, a draft-and-follow from the 2004 draft, hit .282/.381/.403 with five home runs and 10 doubles in 238 at bats. Gonzalez shows an interesting combination of power and speed, and he stole 25 bases for the Chukars while being caught seven times. Alvi Morel, a young Dominican player coming off a good debut in the Arizona League last year, was the Chukars' primary leadoff hitter. Morel hit .303/.371/.386 in 176 at bats, and he stole 19 bases while being caught just three times.
Morel's combination of speed and on-base ability made him an excellent leadoff hitter for the Chukars.
Chris McConnell got off to a horrible start in Burlington, and he was sent back to Idaho Falls in mid-July. In 183 at bats for the Chukars, McConnell hit .262/.320/.415 with four home runs, and even though it was an improvement over his numbers in Burlington, it was a far cry from the .331/.403/.516 line he put up in the Pioneer League in 2005. Next year will be a pivotal season for McConnell, and hopefully he can rebound to reclaim his status as an excellent prospect.
Don't close the book on Chris McConnell just yet.