The Northwest League is the first taste of professional baseball for nearly all of the Padres’ high draft prospects. Occasionally, a player will start off in Fort Wayne or Lake Elsinore out of an organizational need, but Eugene is where the college stars learn just how much different the professional game is from college.
This past season, Russ Eisenstein called the games for the Eugene Emeralds before taking a job with the Idaho State University Bengals three weeks before the season ended. To fill in for the rest of the year, Bryan Beban, the Emeralds assistant general manager, took over the broadcasting duties for the final part of the season.
Bryan has been with the Ems off an on since 1982 and in his current capacity as the assistant general manager since 1999 along with his father, Bob Beban, the president/general manager, have been providing one of the better fan experiences in the game for minor league baseball with all of the games played in beautiful Civic Stadium, a place that has been around since 1938.
Although you didn’t have the type of year that you wanted, once again the Emeralds were a very successful franchise finishing second in the league in attendance. What was the best thing that happened to the Ems on the field this year?
Bryan Beban: The amount of talented prospects that we had, Mat Latos, Kellen Kulbacki to name a few and being able to see these guys at the beginning their careers was good. Also having Mitch Canham, a former Oregon State Beaver, here was great. Mitch was really a great guy. At every home game he stayed around the dugout until the last person got their autograph. Some games he must have stayed over a half hour. Having Greg Riddoch back was huge. He was our manager in ’75-’76 and ’78-’81 so to get him back again was really special. Not only did our players learn from him but our coaching staff as well. I think (hitting coach) Jose Flores, in particular, is really going to benefit from being with him next year in Arizona when he takes over as manager for the Rookie League team.
You have to start with pitching with the Emeralds this year and the first person that comes to mind is Mat Latos. First, give us a brief description of him as a person and a pitcher. He’s regarded as bit of a free spirit?
Bryan Beban: Personally, Mat is a jokester, the biggest prankster on the whole team. He has a very open personality, played a lot of practical jokes on guys. A really wonderful person, he’s very loose in the clubhouse. On the mound he struggled at the beginning trying to figure out how to pitch professionally. Canham said in an interview with Madfriars.com that his ball moved more than anyone else in than anyone else he’s ever seen. We were fortunate to have him for the year.
He improved throughout the season, what was the biggest reason behind that?
Bryan Beban: There is really no way to know, but it may have been in August; we lost
31 of our last 40 games so maybe the pressure was off. He just started to relax and had some high strikeout, low walk games. He was also facing some teams that weren’t as strong, and he had some great success against Everett where he had something like 10 strikeouts in five innings against maybe two walks in a very hitter friendly park
There have been some rumors that the Padres may see him more as a reliever than a starter. Have you heard anything about that?
Bryan Beban: Not a thing. Guys that come in here nine times out of ten play the same position that they did in college. After the season they might experiment, like the Padres did by moving Matt Antonelli to second from third or Greg Sain from catcher to third a couple of years ago; but when we get them the time is really too short to really mess with them. The only real downside to Mat was that when things started going bad for him he had trouble mentally getting back in the game. For example, he might pitch five innings and throw very well but if he gave up two runs he was down. To me, he just has to begin to realize he’s pitching to some much better players than he has in the past.
Tell us a little about Jeremy Hefner. He seems like a steal in the 5th round?
Bryan Beban: He’s awesome. He started off great, when the team started going down in August would lose 2-1 on an unearned run. He had to be the unluckiest pitcher on our staff. He would get no run support the team’s offense had trouble scoring for him
Cory Luebke was with Eugene for a short time but seemed pretty impressive making it all the way to Lake Elsinore this year. What made him successful?
Bryan Beban: A tall lefty with control is a recipe for greatness. You can make a parallel with guys at this level. I read an interview on your site, we had five guys who went up to Triple-A, and, as Riddoch told me, guys at this level don’t field as well as players at higher levels. So, as Luebke went higher, his style of pitching was more of an advantage to him.
John Hussey and Jeremy McBryde both have big arms but struggled some this year. What do they need to do to improve?
Bryan Beban: With Hussey it was not being on the same page with the pitching coach. He really missed having Razor teach him the ropes [his pitching coach in the Arizona League]. He really struggled in Fort Wayne, and he went back down to extended and got straightened out, but when he came back up here he ran into trouble again. He was in the top five in the league in losses and walks. When Razor came back he started pitching better but by that time was just pitching an inning of middle relief.
McBryde started out great but ran out of gas. He wasn’t as effective as the beginning of the season, but then again towards August it seems like the whole team was looking at finish line.
Both Denis and I like Colt Haynes, the Ems closer. What do you see in his future?
Bryan Beban: Colt was awesome he had a great year for us. He was one of two or three pitchers that could be counted on to really shut down the other team. He had that deceptive delivery that the other team’s batters seemingly couldn’t pick up.
On offense, Kellen Kulbacki really came on at the end of the season. How would you compare him to Chad Huffman who had a big year for Eugene last year?
Bryan Beban: Huffman is better-rounded player; he has a better arm and is a better base runner. Kellen thought really accelerated in August, he had one of the best months that I have ever seen. He won the Padres’ organization Player of the Month and was the NWL Player of the Month. Half of his home runs and a big number of his RBIs were in August. I was really happy for him because leading up to that he was a big disappointment. I think he had some trouble with the wooden bat and of all of our first rounders he had the hardest time. To answer the question, Huffman had a better season but Kulbacki had one of the best months that I ever saw.
Mitch Canham is getting quite a bit of attention in the post-season prospect rankings. Some even believe he is the best catcher in the system right now? How would you rank his defense and offense?
Bryan Beban: His offense is good, just a shade under .300. He’s not a real home run hitter, much more of a gap hitter and someone that will get on base. I don’t know if his defense is a real issue, and I’ve heard rumors that he could be moved to the infield. Defensively, I think he’s fine. Pitchers love throwing to him, and he was the most advanced of all of our catchers. He’s very bright, and I could see him ending up as a coach once his career is done.
Luis Durango led the NWL in hitting but many have some doubts about his game mainly on defense. Can he play centerfield and how would you describe him at the plate?
Bryan Beban: He needs to work on his fielding. He would get tremendous jumps on balls but sometimes they were incorrect reads and then would have to dive for the ball. There were a lot of games our errors in the field killed us. He made seven errors for an outfielder, which is quite a bit. At the plate, he’s everything you could ask for. Teams would have their players half way in on him to try to take away the bunt, and he could still get it down, he is that fast. Or he would slap it over their heads, and on a couple of occasions I saw him turn them into doubles. He also has some sneaky power; he led the league in triples and had a couple of sneaky home runs.
What did you think of Yefri Carvajal?
Bryan Beban: He was great at first, cooled off a bit and then came back at the end of the year. To me, there is a much bigger difference between the Arizona and Northwest League than the Northwest to Midwest League. To me, the only difference is the Midwest League has a longer season. Yefri is a very nice player, but he could also make the routine look adventurous out in the field. He’s a huge physical specimen, and he can really hit.
Danny Payne put up a very good on-base percentage numbers, but not much power or average. Do you think he is a breakout candidate like Matt Antonelli last year to put up better numbers in ‘08?
Bryan Beban: Payne played very well for us. He had a consecutive game OBP streak that started to wear down on him a bit. When he came here he had reached base either 77 or 78 consecutive games and he got it up to 94 before it ended. I think when the streak ended it kind got him down a bit and affected the rest of his season. As you can imagine, he had the ability to get on base and I think sometimes took too many pitches. Defensively he has good range; he can get to about any ball, but doesn’t have a great arm.
Finally can you tell us a little about third baseman Justin Baum who seems to be flying under the radar?
Bryan Beban: He’s a very underrated player. Justin has a rocket arm, good extra-base hits in his bat. He did everything that the manager asked and improved as the season went on.
Who was your Player and Pitcher of the Year?
Bryan Beban: Luis Durango – if we don’t have him we don’t even win 30 games. For pitcher, I would have to go with Colt Hynes, he was a guy that could come in and get it done. His strikeout/base-on-balls ratio was off the charts.
Who was the Top Prospect for Player and Pitcher?
Bryan Beban: Kublacki, but there were some others. Carvajal is a great guy, but he’s still pretty far off but Kulbaki could make it in about three years. For pitchers, in terms of a prospect, has to be Latos. Luebke being tall and left-handed may make the majors quicker, but once Latos gets his mental side down, he will rocket through the system. He just needs to realize that he’s not playing against high school guys and not get as down on himself and I think he will really take off.